Rate Your Shelf
Posted by <Margo Bergamini> on 2021-04-05
I have always wanted to read, and took nervous stabs at writing every other year of my adolescence, but I read writing for kids, mostly deliberately forgettable fantasy. Later in my youth, I endeavored to actually read well to impress someone I had a crush on; they knew a bit about good literature because her ex-boyfriend was fairly well read and her parents were artists. But before social pressure pushed me to read for real, I spent years lurking on /lit/, 4chan’s literature board, learning how to pass myself off as literate.
My public school literature courses inflamed neither the authentic desire to read nor its image-obsessed shadow, and after spending time in two English undergrad programs I’ve learned that the people who become English teachers rarely love books and don’t bother passing themselves off as literate. This just confirmed what I already knew — my circumstances, my class and late century, had dispossessed me of the culture I needed. I stuck to /lit/ because the posters there felt cheated too. They knew enough about literature to know they were left behind — they were never taught, made, to read the Bible, The Iliad, The Aeneid, to read Latin and Greek — and much of the board culture was structured on the anxieties of autodidactism, naively or neurotically compiling “how to start with the greeks” reading lists and flowcharts that very few followed through with. It was often very funny to laugh at others and funnier still to make a fool of yourself. In a “rate your shelf” thread, someone might post an image of his shelf which would hold three copies of Infinite Jest, Ulysses, a book by Glenn Beck and two books by Julius Evola. Obviously, this person owned other books; this shelf is a caricature of an online education, and the real shame the poster hopes to expel through hyperbole is that he really reads a bunch of meme books and really owns a book by Glenn Beck. People often accused each other of breaking the spines of large or difficult books to make them appear read.
I stayed for the humor, but I joined because other literary forums repelled me. Reddit and Tumblr just read YA, and forums like Goodreads had mostly older audiences who I could tell were driven to read certain books by Oprah and New York newspapers. What these communities lacked, and what I wanted, even back in middle school before I really had any kind of political orientation, was a group whose love of literature possibly resisted but at the very least lamented a kind of cultural decline.
It’s unsurprising to see a less abject form of this behavior crop up in the millenial, dirtbag-left podcast universe, Matt Christman sweaty and screaming with the hosts of TrueAnon because he’s finally reading Ulysses, because he won’t let them take his soul. Brace Belden talking to Girl’s Talk host Ashley / Christlover2000 about wanting to quit his successful podcast to pursue his writing and become as inspired as Coleridge. Aimee Terese aghast at the mainstream left attempts to topple monuments of Confederate and Union generals alike, blaming it on their resentment of beauty and success. Now, equating one’s effort to read just one book with the fight for one’s soul is, if the desire to read is sincere, a debilitating exaggeration; if you just want to appear defiant on your podcast, that rhetoric makes for great entertainment. Similarly, dressing a complicated — and in retrospect, mostly inconsequential — battle of the culture war in the trappings of the fall of Rome makes for a great polemic and horrible analysis. It’s worth mentioning that a smaller podcast, Shit Platypus Says, also came out in defense of statues that summer, but their critique was based on the claim that leftists should embrace rather than reject flawed Enlightenment figures like the American founders, saying the left must take on the legacy of the bourgeois revolutions. Aimee’s critique doesn’t talk about the statues themselves; she doesn’t claim that the statues are beautiful and meaningful, and instead implies that toppling monuments is bad because the act itself is ugly and meaningless. The Platypus hosts were concerned with political actors' relationship to art and history, while Aimee was concerned with the aesthetics of a certain political action. It’s unfortunate that relationships to art like the latter are more common in today’s dissident leftist tendencies. When the posture of the auto-didact reinforces a radical stance — when you read a book to better wage culture war — the book matters less than the attempt to read it. What follows is an interesting evolution of /lit/’s culture — the failure to read and learn is still more interesting, but no longer because it’s cathartic. Instead, one’s failure to read is proof of their righteous dispossession. Solidarity in failure is more impressive than an individual triumph of the will.
There’s a reactionary corner of twitter best called, for lack of any real name, “fringe right twitter,” a mutation of frog twitter (itself an offshoot of the general "alt-right"). It’s a very diffuse grouping, but in general it seems like this group has developed the culture of /lit/ in a direction directly opposite the one the dirtbag left and the post-left took it in. Here, an individual’s successful enculturation is seen as a political triumph. Obviously no one believes that reading has any direct political effects, and in general this grouping of people dismisses voting, activism and organization. Cultivating one’s intellect is radical insofar as the powers-that-be dismiss art and reject the canon. Many of them believe — as all good avant-gardists do — that their intellectual, artistic, and spiritual growth disrupts a society which denied them an education and fed them propaganda and entertainments designed to make them malleable. Others hold to more classical beliefs in the necessity of an educated and spiritually independent populace that keeps power in check. These ideas are not radical, and it’s interesting to see them concentrated most consistently in reactionary circles after the degeneration of DIY and the academization of the avant-garde. What’s striking isn’t the fact that there are reactionary auto-didacts and artists — the avant-garde is historically rich with reactionaries. What surprises and saddens me is the absence of a leftist counterforce. I hope something like that can exist once again, but anyone hoping to renew this force should note the fringe-right’s general ambivalence towards seizing political power (which I’ll discuss below). Obviously, the left should want to do more than reproduce an online culture as marginal as its own just because it’s more intellectually ambitious. Rather, we should look to the fringe-right only to see how certain desires seek expression when they have no emancipatory political compliment.
When trying to understand this circle, it’s best to look to its most interesting, influential and contentious figure, the likes of Logo Daedalus. From what I can glean from stray tweets and podcast appearances, he’s in his mid twenties, born and raised in western Mass and attended NYU for undergrad (and mostly hated it). He works closely with Kantbot and is set to have a regular podcast through Kantbot’s Patreon. He’s self-published a novel and a book of poems. He tweets daily, extensively, and in a few tweets he can go from fairly topical political jokes, to Pynchonian investigations of Anglo-American intelligence agencies, to praise for Joanna Newsom and post-hardcore, and then top that off with some notes on his research of authorship in Victorian literature. This oscillation between “discourse” and esoteric, half-serious trolling to sincere spiritual advice is captivating. For one, it’s a clear refinement of the rocky middle course “the alt-right” struck between ironic scatalogical abjection and the veneration of the chaste and fatherly Jordan Peterson. But also, his posting style has plainly caught on. On 3/13/21, others’ posts about how Kamala’s weird feet pics signal occult initiation (semi-irony) follows a thread about the wisdom of Animorphs books (shitpost) follows a thread about why you should be baking bread (wholesome lifestyle) follows a post arguing with some woman about how to really avoid male violence (trolling) follows a post about how the crusades sparked the most fruitful era for Christian theology (research). Again, the mix of cultural critique, political entertainment, esoteric references and shitposts isn’t exactly new, but the invention of an online personality that can move through these affects as an unchanging, individual influencer certainly is.
Logo’s aesthetic and intellectual influence is clear. Traces of it show both in other influencers’ posting styles and in the books and topics they choose to research. If Logo’s influence on the politics of his peers is far more inscrutable, it’s only because he has cultivated a strict political ambivalence. In his appearances on What’s Left and Justin Murphy’s livestream, he characterizes himself as a political atheist, untethered to any political party or cause but keenly interested in all that happens. In tweets he’s called the pursuit for material power “satanic.” His larger research project tracks well with his institutional distrust — a lot of his research demonstrates how supposed alternatives like the DSA are still very much tied to and deliberately shaped by elites and intelligence agencies. But Logo has a preference for a few more immediate, less-sweeping political concerns, many of which his peers share. These would be calls for nationalized healthcare, something like a UBI, an end to imperial wars in the Middle East, nationalization of key industries, and aid for Rustbelt communities damaged by the flight of productive capital, just to name a few. Many leftists are on-board with these policies, and even if the softer social democrats might balk at a few, it would be for their apparent infeasibility, not for any fascistic subtext. And yet this circle is vehemently opposed to all recent American social democratic efforts (Bernie Sanders, DSA-types), perhaps more opposed to them than anything else.
This opposition shouldn’t be dismissed as pure contrarianism. Others might contend that this circle rejects the left for being socially progressive. This is true for some, but the only socially conservative view all dogmatically share is an aversion to trans people; they largely dislike wokeness for its corporate backing. In my experience, the literate side of this fringe is ideologically opposed to the Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) inspired fascists on Twitter because its members are not racist, nor are they supporters of Western imperialism. This being the case, all that stops them from critically supporting or even begrudgingly aligning themselves with social-democratic efforts in the US is a critique of these movements, their theoretical and institutional backings. If they support the same policies as the DSA and Bernie Sanders, and yet decline to support them, they withhold their support for fear of these movements' relationship to the DNC. They understand that due to the massive power imbalance in the DSA/DNC alliance, any goals of the DSA are means for DNC-supported ends. If we take that logic one step further, any nominally left candidate or leader who achieves anything did so because they were allowed to, because they consciously or otherwise dilute a proletarian politics.
Such outcomes are often expressed in memes and small fictions of the “I will not live in the pod / I will not eat bugs” variety, where progressive rhetoric and ideology reorganize reality purely for the good of those who own the media and earn money from financial speculation. Even in Logo’s novel, the backdrop is a world where a kind of UBI and socialized housing is tied to a social credit system. One earns points by holding a good job and refraining from questioning progressive dogma. One’s score determine their access to dating profiles, VR pornography, luxury housing, etc. In this world, and the pod-life dystopias like it, life is far more secure. People are without medical debt, and aren’t a few sick days away from poverty. But in these worlds, the worst excesses of capitalism have been ameliorated only to enhance capital’s grasp on everyday life. What’s lost even though the looming threat of poverty is shed is aspects of life the left should recognize as the very things we would fight for — self-determination, untrammeled access to culture, access to the commons unobstructed by one’s defiance to arbitrary social norms. What the disgruntled youth of /lit/, the sweating screaming Christmans of the podcast world and the striving fringe-rightists of twitter want is a basic human want — the want for culture — one simultaneously unlocked and stunted by the incomplete development of productive forces capitalism initiated.
As of yet, the burgeoning DSA-left has no answer to the dystopian vision above. Even left-voices critical of the DSA would respond to this vision with a myopic utilitarianism — something like, “But hey even still the lives of the workers have improved.” Which is unfortunate, because it’s imperative for the left to have a response to this bundle of critiques. One reason is purely strategic: members of this fringe will probably become a sort of theoretical vanguard for the coming Carlson / Hawley mutation of the republican party, one that doesn’t shy away from a critique of financial capital or calls for an expansion of healthcare and UBI. If we can anticipate and adapt to the critics of this growing tendency, we’ll be better prepared for the strange web of affinities and tensions sure to emerge as the populist left and right grow in tandem.
But it’s also important to recognize that the implicit promise post-academic thinkers like Logo figure — the promise that art and reason will be available to all, and that the profusion of these values into daily life will transform daily life — the promise of modernism, in other words, can only be fulfilled by an emancipatory political project. The left must make it clear, first to itself, that this promise is essential to its project. It’s difficult to do so now; we live in a punishing time, where the promise of security and comfort might seem sufficient. That’s certainly enough to draw some to the left. And much of the efforts of the left in the next decade or so might seem unambitious, perhaps more concerned with rebuilding the political power unions and centre-left parties had in the early 20th century, so this project can run the risk of seeming disinterested in culture and the liberation of human capacities. But many in post-industrial nations have recognized that their creative capacities have been partially set free by the expansion of productive forces, only to be instrumentalized in creative-class work, or diverted into the art of processing endless streams of information. And many will attest to the fact that these capacities were freer in the mid 20th century, when the historical avant-garde begat a popular modernism that changed the course of pop and folk cultures. Many are also aware that the educations they were promised are nothing like the ones they received. The left, if it is to return, must make it clear that it’s not just UBI we promise, we promise the expansion of human freedom and creative capacities. The left should recognize, if it’s to learn anything from the reactionary turn of counterculture in the early 2000’s, that it’s promise has always been to redeem the romantic and modernist promises the fringe right questions and mourns. In short and in all sincerity, the left has to hold to the prophetic hopes of the enlightenment because no one else will.