Meaning and Symbols in the Post-Modern Reality of Cyberspace
Ever since Hillary Clinton invoked the specter of a “hardline, right-wing nationalist… racist ideology… known as the alt-right” in a speech in Reno in 2016 on her way to defeat in the US election, the global Left has never ceased warning about a terrifying global resurgence of Nazism, as evidenced by Trump in particular, Brexit, nationalist conservative governments in Eastern Europe and Brazil, a London contemporary art gallery, various terrorist incidents (but not others) and the continued existence of transgressively non-leftist content on platforms like 4chan and Twitter.
To be sure, in noted contrast to the dramatically narrowing range of acceptable discourse and expression in academia, the media and art schools, in the badlands of cyberspace, one can still find very easily, in forums and message boards populated by anonymous users, outrageous assertions and abominable credos long since expelled from polite society: unabashed racism, sexism, antisemitism, etc.
On balance, not much of this is particularly shocking; not to anyone who has spent some time speaking to people from outside the global liberal metropoles, or unconnected to the king rat of the Left. But whether cynically, or helplessly, humiliated by Brexit and Trump’s 2016 victory, and marching to an intensifying corporate media drumbeat of violently unbalanced and extremist anti-fascist rhetoric, the last four years has consisted of a virtual crusade against this material and anybody even glancingly connected to it, on the basis of the assumption that hyperbolic statements on anonymous message boards must be treated as unambiguous declarations of extremist allegiance, and oblivious to the complexity of rhetorical posturing, pathos, and irony inherent in the logic of a medium that, for all its everyday ubiquity, still remains extremely poorly understood.
And a similar point could also be made with respect to the contemporary virtual culture of ‘Anti-fascist’ identity, and other forms of extreme left identification. To be sure, the virtual far left is now heavily promoted by the corporate media, mainstream politicians and big tech companies, as well as international foundations — whereas the virtual far-right is systematically repressed. Yet in another sense, these two polarities are not distinct but feed upon each other.
Whatever dimension of ‘Nazism’ (or ‘Communism’) exists on the internet, it has no self-evident political relationship to the mass movements which took power in Germany in the 1930s, or in Russia fifteen years earlier. As with any reenactment, what is being referred to in the first place are historical symbols, rather than historical events. Nor is it obvious that anybody deploying Nazi or Soviet symbols necessarily has much interest in or knowledge of the historical originals. The identification occurs instead after the end of history — if not yet after the orgy, which still continues to joylessly grind on, through identification with symbols and the shocking and transgressive values attached to them.
Hitler, of course, is today a secular version of the Devil; Che Guevara is a kind of Cherubic psycho; Lenin a version of Saint Paul. From this perspective, one can arguably identify a clearer link here to the Satanic panic which spread across the United States and to the wider world in the ’90s than to the political violence and destruction which produced the death camps, and Soviet mass murder across Russia and Ukraine. Hence the usefulness of the modifier ‘anime’ to acknowledge both the use of anime avatars by aspects of the online anonymous far-right and to recognize the crystal lake of distance separating the signifier of online Nazism from the historical referent.
As should be evident to everyone, there is no dangerous neo-Nazi mass movement active in any region of the world (with the partial exception, perhaps, of some parts of Ukraine). What may exist, are terror groups inspired by the iconography of some form of Nazism. But the connection between iconography and terror is not a simple matter. Narratives and symbols are not sigils, and don’t activate mass shooters like remote-controlled assassins. What drove Connor Betts, for instance, to commit a mass shooting at a Trump-supporting bar in Dayton in 2019 was not just the violent Antifascist propaganda, but the psychological condition which led him to addictively consume it in the first place. The spirit behind the ideology is paramount, and from the perspective of this spirit, the specific content of the symbols probably doesn’t matter all that much, as historically evidenced, for example, by the Reds and Browns who fought each in the streets of 1930’s Germany, whose many members rotated back and forth between the rival sides. What mattered was not the ideology, but the opportunity for violence.
A contemporary political dynamic of ‘radicalization’ driven purely by narratives or symbols, as opposed to a growing consciousness of the effects of real phenomena, also remains improbable. Behind Renaud Camus’ “great replacement” idea, for instance, are real demographic trends and their respective effects, such as the “battle of the eyes” described by Christophe Guilluy and now fought in the lobbies of French apartment buildings every day, whereas Christopher Caldwell puts it, “one person or the other—the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.” The idea that a mass shooting could be triggered by the theories of a writer (who has never called for violence) rather than a deranged reaction to the actual social situation is highly questionable.
Similarly, it is hard to believe a contemporary rise in consciousness of ‘white’ identity has no connection to the ascendancy of an ‘anti-racist’ movement vocally insisting that all white people are racist monopolizers of illegitimate white privilege, but is rather the ex nihilo creation of resentment-fueled white racists. Individuals who would otherwise have not identified themselves as white are pushed into accepting this identity by a hostile external gaze, now normalized within a legal and political environment in which anodyne statements “It’s Okay To Be White” or “All Lives Matter” are designated forms of hate speech and anyone repeating them are subjected to real persecution.
Echoing the creation of a “black” race from the identities of different African tribes by the seventeenth century Code Noir, if not also the crystallization of a new Jewish identity as a consequence of Nazi antisemitism in the thirties against a previously divided population (as Arendt eerily points out, the immediate reaction was one of disaffiliation as different groups of German Jews attempted to distance themselves from their Jewish identity, while for their part European Jews distanced themselves from their German cousins) a new white identity is now being formed through the increasing institutional promotion and enforcement of a mode of racialist thinking sanctioning discrimination, and, on the other hand, through the logic of its disavowal — creating cognitive dissonance, confusion, humiliation and guilt.
This situation generates both a feeling of impotence and one of inchoate hatred, with these feelings now channeled into fantasies of power and transgression on the safe space of the internet. This rebellion takes place on the level of the signifier, and follows similar gestures in the sixties with the RAF in Germany adopting the name of the enemy air power which had firebombed German cities, the use of swastikas in late seventies British punk by Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux and others, and the swirling Nazi iconography in the dissident counterculture in the last days of the USSR, where the anti-establishment underground appropriated Nazi signifiers to signify dissent.
Today, given the existence of a multitude of far-left extra-judicial secret police organizations, these images are genuinely dangerous, and on this basis offer a transgression frisson on a level that has nothing to do with Nazism exactly, except to the extent that Nazism means something rebellious today, and signifies rejection of a liberal establishment virtually. Naturally one can deplore this historical indifference to the brutality of the National Socialist regime. But condemnation is not understanding and solves nothing.
The willing imaginary embrace of pariah status corresponds to an existing feeling of alienation. What is primarily being expressed is the reality of a post-modern situation in which all symbols have been flattened and turned into the more or less empty signifiers of competitive identity, in strange and uncertain relationship to one another. In this nihilistic vortex, individuals cut loose from meaningful existential projects, now find themselves searching for identity and meaning in the shape of powerful symbols. The same dynamic is mirrored on the rival side of the political equation, offering the self-flattering and dramatic role of ‘fighting Nazis’. Hence one encounters a kind of co-production between Anime Nazis and Anime Nazi hunters, reenacting a conflict in virtual space which has no real relation to anything, yet which is nonetheless having real effects: namely an increasing atmosphere of stifling intellectual conformity, unreality, and paranoia.
Both the virtual far-right and far-left share the same desire to leverage Nazi signifiers to establish a connection to a ‘real’ history that now, after the End of History and its apotheosis, is a myth — if not a secular religion. For the Anime Nazis, drawn in general from the downwardly mobile lower-middle-class — the major losers of neoliberal globalization — the imagery of the Third Reich, combined with its transgressive status, appears to embody a virile and unapologetic white identity, despite the reality of German failure, in stark contrast with the humiliated contemporary version. For the Nazi hunters, the virtual Nazi presence supplies the fantasy of nobility in defending an increasingly corrupt and villainous contemporary political regime, in the form of surrogate revenge on the murderous Nazi regime, as experienced through movies, as well as a repetition of the disastrous Communist solution to the post-traditional question of secular Jewish identity.
Here as well the frequent recurrence of the oscillation between Jewish and white identity, whereby some social media account self-righteously proposes to lecture ‘fellow white people’ on their various transgressions at one moment, and in the next breath exonerate themselves from criticism on the grounds that they are themselves Jewish, a habit which enrages the Anime Nazis as indicating deception or hypocrisy, could be more charitably interpreted as testifying to a real crisis of identity, between these confused and overlapping categories of racial and so-called cultural identity, as well as an instinctive but indistinct recognition of the terrible power of the accelerating scapegoat mechanism, today centered on whites, and which some whites would wish to shift back onto the Jews — like Tiresias and Oedipus arguing in plague-struck Thebes at the beginning of Oedipus Rex.
Revenge, and specifically, imaginary revenge, is a motive on both sides of this complex and intersected structure. On the one hand, the post-modern implosion of meaning in general, and on the other, the phenomenon of a besieged, scapegoated identity seeking compensatory support from a transgressive identity tied-up in the limits of the current secular religiosity and therefore at the same time serving as the horizon of its principle of reality. This is not simply a social game, but a real block on contemporary political imagination. What is happening on social media represents a symptomatic expression of a shattered metaphysical faculty tied to an unstable, unraveling, post-war religiosity.
The tighter that the screw is screwed, the more the screw is also stripped. The extreme social consequences increasingly associated in our culture with the actions of anonymous low-status internet users reproducing politically transgressive speech are not because anybody seriously believes that anon message board users are truly close to political power, but due to an intuition of the degree to which events in general now are escaping from understanding and control. Cyberspace, fantastically imagined as a wild zone of speech, symbolizes and exemplifies a loss of power and simultaneously encourages a flailing desire to reassert control by means of superstitious rituals directed from and towards familiar symbols.
From the perspective of the professional-managerial Left, it is easier to punch a Nazi or scapegoat incels — these inhuman voodoo dolls of social action, than to seriously reflect on the structural causes of American (and European) economic and political decline, a thought that implicates the entire governing class, including everyone’s immediate superior. Nor is there even still language available for staging this kind of critique, as one confronts poverty of discourse for addressing them, thanks to the constraints and distortions which have increasingly come to define the acceptable limits of speech, and more deeply, to the historical collapse in the general levels of symbolic literacy whose causes now stretch back at least a century — if not even longer.
Until both these issues are decisively confronted, social and political reality will continue to degrade. Our problems cannot be solved by repression, but only with the reconstruction of the principles of historical, critical, political, and intellectual thought — beginning with a more realistic and less superstitious conception of the legacy of the twentieth century. So long as a general understanding of the scapegoat mechanism remains buried underneath the bodies of one of the greatest crimes in history, society runs a real risk of repeating a version of this crime.