subculture to counterculture to culture

  1. Mainstream culture has problems — political, social, communicative.
  2. A subcultural space develops out of healthy, understandable frustrations with mainstream culture and those problems.
  3. As a subculture, that space’s practices and values become exaggerated and formalized, as the natural human desire to belong provokes people to embrace a subculture’s idiosyncrasies as a form of identification.
  4. Because the subcultural space is small, its interests niche, and its membership ensconced in other lives, none of this is a problem. It’s all perfectly healthy and normal.
  5. Since the mainstream culture’s problems that the subculture skewers are real, more and more people are attracted by the subculture. The abundant frustrations with the dominant culture become amplified as the critique is shared. “Membership,” as informal and nebulous as that might be, grows. The subculture is now a full-on counterculture.
  6. The counterculture gains even more new converts. As necessarily happens, popularization leads to a coarsening and further exaggeration of the aspects of the subculture that attracted people in the first place. The newest converts, driven by both insecurity over their recent adoption and the zeal of the converted, take everything to 11. Predictably the mainstream culture, now required to defend itself, identifies the counterculture with its worst members. Battle lines are drawn.
  7. Members of the original subculture become disenchanted with what they originally created. They fall out of it, gradually. They couldn’t stop what it’s become and, for understandable reasons, don’t much try.
  8. People who were not fans of the mainstream culture but never initially attracted to the counterculture now feel compelled to take up sides. In the discursive space there is almost no room for apathy or neutrality. Cultural trench warfare settles in to the point that the conflict itself becomes its own reason for being. The day-to-day cycles of mutually-inflicted abuse generate new tropes and vocabulary which then become integrated into these cultures. They too in time grown exhausted and stale. Bitterness intensifies. The subculture, now a culture, is almost unrecognizable.
  9. One side eventually wins, and the conflict stops, or else no one does, and it doesn’t.

So take Something Awful.

I know little about the Something Awful forums and I’m sure many people will chime in to correct me. But it seems to me that a certain type of disaffected, heavily ironized jokey engagement with the world developed there, led to tropes and vocabulary that became the shared touchstones of a small subculture, which in turn became popular, got exaggerated and distorted, and now are unavoidable, and thus exhausting. Something Awful spawned Weird Twitter, the presidential primary and elections of 2015–2016 caused Weird Twitter and Left Twitter to merge, today the default form of engagement in online left spaces is that weird, aggressive descendant of Something Awful style, and as online life drives membership increases in real-world left organizations, that style of engagement threatens to colonize those spaces as well.

I find it all unhealthy, for many reasons. One of which is that Corbyn-style sincerity is much healthier for left discourse than nth-degree irony.

Crucially, none of this implies blame for the people who used to frequent Something Awful. Nobody planned any of this. Jeb Lund wasn’t rubbing his hands together, laughing about how they would soon colonize broader internet culture. He and they were just having fun online. And it’s essential to say that these subcultures initially become popular because key voices within them are actually funny and talented and perceptive. If there’s no core of accurate critique of the dominant culture, if it’s not funny and smart and necessary, nobody will get attracted in the first place. And again, within those little discursive spaces, what’s the harm if there’s some communicative unhealthiness, a little too much jokiness, disaffection, and insincerity? It’s just a place where people were working out some shit, I’m guessing in the shadow of 9/11, “the death of irony,” and the insipid seriousness that had become the default tenor of The Way Things Were.

But now you can’t make a point online that differs from the Weird Left Twitter consensus without getting sent a dozen dril tweets. Adherence to the linguistic rules — how you signal and don’t, the way you make your arguments instead of what you’re arguing, the ways you show you are cool and not Mad Online — have overwhelmed anything resembling political substance. Not being owned seems to be the preeminent goal of a lot of people who, for reasons I can’t fathom, nonetheless are insistent on branding themselves as leftists. The basic idea of the dialectic, literally the central theoretical practice of the left for 150 years, has disappeared. It’s all exhausting and stupid and people are not nearly as clever as they think they are. They’re just regurgitating a set of tropes that someone much funnier and better read made up in entirely different discursive conditions 10 years ago. Yes, you know how to use Congratulations. That makes you a true leftist.

What people say to me — boy, they love to say it — is that none of this matters because it’s all online. (I am perpetually confused by people who spend a ton of time on social media, as I do, and yet constantly insist that nothing there matters. If so… why do you tweet so much?) But the narrative about the ongoing growth of Democratic Socialists of America suggests this is untrue. I am asked to simultaneously believe that the memes and jokes that DSA became well known for are driving unprecedented recruitment efforts but also that this recruiting tactic will do nothing to affect the constitution of the organization, and I can’t square that. A DSA chapter’s online presence constantly shitposting actually has a material impact on the messaging, recruitment, and organizing strategy of the group. I just think that’s true.

The organization seems to have an entirely different character than it did just a couple years ago. As someone who never had any love for the Harringtonite DSA, I’m happy about that, and the degree to which the organization’s rank and file have radicalized compared to then is great. I am excited by their growth and I’m eager to see where they go next. Am I also concerned that their recruiting and messaging seems so caught up in a particular narrowcasted social discourse? Yes. Are there longer-tenured members of the group that will tell you there are growing tensions within the group over differences in messaging and culture? Yes.

There are some other obvious candidates for filling the role that Something Awful once played. And just as with the Something Awful crowd, the blame won’t reside on the people who are actually creating these initial subcultures. Rather, the creation of a new set of social and linguistic practices associated with these subcultures will become something ugly and exaggerated and enforced by tribes of angry dudes. The initial creators will be naturally defensive and understandably unlikely to take a close look at what they’ve spawned, particularly if they begin to enjoy monetary success, never an easy thing for left-branded cultural spaces to navigate. Meanwhile, because these cultures are social first, political second, skepticism towards them will inevitably be personalized and pathologized by their fans, rather than taken in the political spirit in which they are intended. “Who are you subtweeting?” will be asked about any critique, no matter how constructive its aims, suggesting that all forms of engagement are ultimately about petty personal shit. People will get “dragged” or “dunked on” and no one will learn anything. You will be part of this culture or part of the enemy culture. You’re with us or you’re against us because it’s us against the world.

The internet is a machine which takes human creative endeavors that are authentic, novel, and interesting and replicates them until they are toxic, trite, and stale. Only dril himself alone stands incorruptible.