5 big problems with Kill All Normies

5 big problems with Kill All Normies

‘Kill All Normies’ (KAN) is a bestselling book, recently translated into Spanish, and is having a continuing influence on public discussion of topics from the alt-right to ‘incel’ misogynists to the purported failings of the left.

In a previous blog, we noted two instances of uncredited copy/pasting which misrepresented the source material. Subsequently a piece by Charles Davis in the Daily Beast has uncovered more examples of sloppy sourcing. The book’s publishers have dismissed these criticisms of the content of the book as "personal attacks", and in a statement insisted "in any case, these were innocent mistakes, unimportant to the overall analysis."

Needless to say, criticism of the contents of a published book is not a personal attack on the author of the book. Reading critically involves both evaluating the evidence for factual claims and political arguments, and noting omissions and silences which may complicate the narrative.

There are multiple occasions where Kill All Normies’ treatment of sources underpins its analysis - and where doing some basic research tends to undermine that analysis. This post details five examples. Part 1 looks at the category of ‘Tumblr-liberalism’, part 2 the moral panic around campus free speech, part 3 KAN’s analysis of ‘incels’, part 4 KAN’s ‘both sides’ framing, and part 5 PTSD and campus sexual violence. Some people have also commented that it’s no use criticising bad analysis if there’s nothing better on offer, so we have also quoted (with attribution) and linked to more useful analyses where applicable.

1. Defining "Tumblr-liberalism"

A central category of Kill All Normies is ‘Tumblr-liberalism’, which plays a key explanatory role in the book’s main argument that the rise of Trump and the alt-right is best understood "as a response to a response to a response" (KAN, pg 20) in a back and forth transgressive arms race between the aforementioned Tumblr liberals and the alt-right. In the introduction to KAN, Nagle writes: "Trumpian meme-makers ramped up their taboo-breaking anti-PC style in response to gender-bending Tumblr users." (KAN, pg 20)

The main example of these "gender-bending Tumblr users" is featured in Chapter 5 (KAN, pg 129), a list of genders purportedly "taken directly from Tumblr" spanning almost two pages in length. Only, as pointed out in a previous blog, it appears that either this list was taken from a clearly labeled "list of poorly-attested nonbinary identities" with insufficient sourcing or evidence that the listed genders were claimed by anyone, or it was sourced from a forum thread on the alt-right hub /pol/ where posters mocked the list. (As KAN contains no citations, these are the sources we could find for ourselves).

The appearance of the list on /pol/ might bolster KAN’s argument that the alt-right responds to ‘Tumblr liberals’, but Nagle says the list comes directly from Tumblr, not from /pol/. And in any case, that fascists target gender non-conforming people is a limited insight - the infamous Nazi book-burnings targeted LGBT research in particular.

Laughing along at the alt-right’s chosen scapegoats is not a meaningful analysis, it simply repeats their claims that they’re responding to ‘the other side’s’ excesses - a claim commonly made by protagonists in many conflicts that provides little insight into underlying causes.

A material analysis would need to ask why, for example, gender non-conformity becomes a recurrent target for revanchist white nationalism. How are gender and race even related? Angela Mitropoulos offers one such materialist account of the nexus of family, race and nation:

There is no racism that does not involve a politics of sex and which links both of these with notions of property ownership. Without a theory and politics of sexuality and desire, there is no plausibility to tenets concerning the reproduction of the purportedly heritable property of race.

Tithi Bhattacharya, editor of a recent volume on social reproduction theory, here summarises another approach to understanding how gender, race, and migration are related:

2. Campus panic

Content note: this section quotes transphobic bigotry and discusses a rape and attempted suicide.

A key part of right-wing culture war has been the creation of a moral panic around censorious students allegedly shutting down "debate". To this end in the UK, Spiked produces a ‘Free Speech Rankings’ list which cites things including workplace rules on not catcalling or verbally abusing colleagues or moving the works of Holocaust denier David Irving to a different part of a library as restrictions on free speech.1 The Daily Mail even asks whether students - picturing opponents of transphobia literally engaging in free speech - are "the new fascists?"

The right-wing pressure has been sufficient to cause the creation of a parliamentary inquiry, which heard evidence from Spiked associates, among others. The inquiry echoed many of Spiked’s talking points - which also reflect government policy. However the inquiry nonetheless also reported that claims of a crisis of campus free speech were "exaggerated" by media coverage and "clearly out of kilter with reality". Nagle writes (KAN, pg 79):

it is hard to think of a better term than Gramscian to describe what they [the alt-right] have strategically achieved, as a movement almost entirely based on influencing culture and shifting the Overton window through media and culture, not just formal politics.

But rather than analyse the creation of the free speech panic as an example of this "Gramscian" use of the media to set the political agenda, KAN joins in, simply asserting the existence of an "intersectional anti-free speech campus left" (KAN, pg 21). Yet the examples KAN provides are characterised by misrepresented sources and the massaging and omission of pertinent details.

Nagle writes on Germaine Greer (KAN, pg 143):

The petition was signed by over 2,000 people and Greer was transformed overnight from a leading veteran figure who worked for her entire life for the cause of women’s liberation to a forbidden and toxic TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), whose name was dragged through the dirt. As far as this new generation of campus feminists was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right. Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years, which was ‘not my issue’, she later told Newsnight. In response to the controversy, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor pandered to those attacking Greer, saying: ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’ and how it ‘work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people’.

This account casts Germaine Greer in a very positive light, a "leading veteran figure who worked for her entire life for the cause of women’s liberation" who wrote once something transphobic a long time ago but hadn’t commented on the issue "for over 15 years". Except, Greer has made multiple comments on trans women over the past 20 years, all of which are easy to find:

In Greer’s 24th October 2015 interview with Newsnight, she clearly states that trans women are "not women".

On 27th October, 2015, the BBC programme’s Victoria Derbyshire tweeted:

"Germaine Greer's statement to us abt trans women:'Just because you lop off your cock & then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a f****** woman'

Pink News quoted her as saying on the same programme:

I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that doesn’t turn me into a f***ing cocker spaniel.

The original claim from Claire Lehman, repeated (or perhaps invented independently, who can tell) by Nagle, that Greer had not written on trans issues for 15 years was also flatly false:

In 2009, in an article about sportswoman Caster Semenya, who has hyperandrogenism, Greer described trans women as delusional, and a ‘ghastly parody’.

So Nagle’s argument here appears to be not that Greer should have spoken despite being transphobic, but in fact that she wasn’t really that transphobic, hadn’t said anything about trans people for 15 years; if the campus left is so self-evidently anti-free speech, why does KAN need to deny the speech at the heart of this controversy?

As Charles Davis pointed out in the Daily Beast, KAN’s section on Jordan Peterson omits the threats to trans students on his campus prior to the initial media storm that brought him to fame, that he was sharing a platform with alt-right activist Lauren Southern at a rally where he was ‘drowned out’, and that his claims to risk imprisonment and persecution for misgendering people haven’t exactly been borne out by events (law professor Brenda Cossman described Peterson as "fundamentally mischaracterizing" the law at the time). Peterson’s recent statement that state tyranny might be a necessary response to casual sex also undermines Nagle’s implication that Peterson represents ‘brain drain from the left’. (KAN pg 146). In fact Peterson notoriously decorates his home with several hundred pieces of Soviet art and propaganda to daily reaffirm his anti-Communism, so it’s not clear where KAN gets the notion that he was driven from the left by being asked to respect his students’ pronouns (!).2

Pertinent omissions also characterise KAN’s account of the controversy involving Laura Kipnis at Northwestern University. The KAN account starts with Kipnis publishing an article, Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe, which students complained "would deter students from reporting sexual misconduct", and ends saying Kipnis "was eventually exonerated" (KAN, pg 147). What is omitted here is that Kipnis’ article was written after one of her colleagues, Peter Ludlow, was accused of raping a student. The university upheld complaints of sexual harassment of two students, but an investigator they hired found ‘insufficient evidence’ to pursue the complaint of sexual assault; Ludlow resigned during his termination hearing.

Then Kipnis wrote her article, which included disclosing confidential details of the complaints including a suicide attempt, and misrepresentations including describing the allegation (sex while the student was incapacitated by alcohol) as "fondling". The subsequent protests were not simply over Kipnis’ opinions in the abstract, but that the article was seen as a retaliation against the two complainants. One of Kipnis’ departmental colleagues writes:

So, here, roughly, is how this unfolded: Kipnis writes a piece in clear violation of the faculty handbook, riddled with falsehoods about students, even as she is discussing the worst thing that has ever happened to these people. And then, while there are two utterly nascent, open Title IX complaints, our university president writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal issuing a verdict: Kipnis’ piece is protected speech.

Kipnis expanded her article into a book, and the book is now subject to a lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy and defamation, and two related charges. One student’s full allegations can be read in the legal complaint, and a blog post discussing how they differ from Kipnis’ account is here.

Whatever Nagle’s respective sympathies for Kipnis and the students - see point 5 below - these omissions change the picture significantly. In fact without citations, it’s not clear whether the omissions are due to Nagle or were already absent from her source(s) and she just didn’t dig any further. But rather than students simply attempting to suppress opinions they didn’t like, a student had her confidential disclosure of sexual assault publicly challenged by a colleague of the accused, was unable to publicly respond without compounding the breach of confidentiality, and the official complaint process was subsequently pre-empted by the university president writing an op-ed in the national press.

Certainly any free speech argument here has to reckon with, not simply ignore, the clear potential for harm when a faculty member’s speech targets a student reporting rape and - according to Kipnis’ article - a subsequent suicide attempt. A free speech absolutist argument goes along the lines of allowing people to speak regardless of their views. Nagle’s arguments rest more on Tumblr liberals and campus activists being unable to deal with "expressions of pretty mainstream non-liberal opinion" (KAN, pg 142), and in order to substantiate this, she essentially has to gloss the actual views of a Greer or a Jordan Peterson, or at Northwestern to omit the substantive issue of sexual assault entirely.

Nagle writes that "these [not all discussed here] are just a few select cases in what felt like an endless stream of campus culture wars over these sexuality/gender/identity issues" (KAN, pg 148), but it only ‘feels’ this way through a sloppily researched - or deliberately skewed? - curation which omits, or in the case of Greer, outright denies, some of the central issues in the respective controversies. Even if KAN is simply aiming to retell some illustrative episodes, these omissions bolster the book’s claim of an "anti-free speech campus left" (KAN, pg 21) with scant engagement with what the controversies were actually about.

What does a complaint about an invited speaker in Cardiff have to do with the fallout of a sexual assault in Illinois? How are such scattered incidents parlayed into a transatlantic crisis of campus free speech? Any material analysis here would need to at least discuss the asymmetric nature of a culture war which pits well-funded professional pundits (such as Turning Point USA and their professorial watchlist, or the aforementioned Spiked and its UK university free speech rankings) against unpaid student activists - and often specific individual students protesting bigotry, harassment or assault.

The right’s successful creation of a moral panic around campus free speech may in fact be a good illustration of a "Gramscian strategy" (KAN, pg 98) of setting the political agenda through media and culture. But rather than critique this fabricated moral panic, KAN’s dubiously sourced analysis gives it a leftist laundering.

3. Validating "incels"

So called "involuntary celibates" have been in the news recently after the mass murder in Toronto by a man who praised fellow misogynist killer Elliott Rodger. Nagle’s book addresses ‘incels’ (including Rodger), but her analysis explicitly draws on white nationalist F Roger Devlin (KAN, pg 143):

On this last point, I think he’s [F Roger Devlin is] getting to the central issue driving this kind of reactionary sexual politics, perhaps even the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far right among young men. The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women. But this ever extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy. Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order. Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites.

As wikipedia would say, [CITATION NEEDED]. We e-mailed Angela Nagle asking what her sources were for this claim, but did not yet receive a response, however we’ll update this post if and when we do.

We found some evidence - not cited in KAN - that people born in the 1990s are more likely to have no sexual partners since age 18 than previous generations, although the effect is quite small and is more pronounced among women, not men (the study speculates economic conditions meaning young people are living with their parents longer may account for some of the observed change).3 But we couldn’t find anything suggesting a "steep sexual hierarchy" or a "decline of monogamy", nor that an "elite of men" is monopolising all the sex, or that there is a "large male population" that is involuntarily celibate. No citations are given nor sources other than Devlin named, so the analysis here appears to be pure conjecture - conjecture explicitly derived from the work of a member of the alt-right. Does Devlin himself have good sources? Not according to an account on the We Hunted The Mammoth blog, which tracks online misogyny:

Devlin is sometimes described as an "independent scholar," but even aside from its misogyny and racism "Sexual Utopia in Power" is anything but scholarly. There are only a relative handful of footnotes, which don’t come close to backing up Devlin’s numerous factual claims. Most of the footnotes refer to the writings not of scholars but of conservative and far-right journalists. One links to an article on the racist hate site VDare.com; another favorably cites this article by Henry Makow, an early Men’s Rights Activist turned conspiracy theorist who literally believes that feminists are in league with an evil Satanic-Illuminati cult that rules the world.

Devlin offers precisely zero evidence to back up his claims about hypergamy [Devlin: "the rejection of most males"] — aside from a couple of surveys, whose conclusions he rejects, and several quotes from literature, including that one from Oscar Wilde. The rest is, to use the formal term for it, assdata.

So a white nationalist made dubiously sourced claims, then KAN repeats its assertions as analysis without any further fact-checking or sourcing.

However, rather than a lack of sex explaining ‘incel’ misogyny, looking at their own forums and manifestos suggests it’s the other way around: misogyny leads a political mobilisation around sexual entitlement. Talia Lavin, writing in the Village Voice, makes this case with numerous quotes from primary ‘incel’ sources, and concludes:

Probably the most galling piece of all this is that incels, despite their endless protestations of injustice, are quite picky. In their interminable and inflamed imagination of the buffet of sexuality, they reject most of the dishes on offer. As one of them put it:

"Its [sic] like eating dirt to try to substitute the nutritional value of fruits vegetables and meat. Ugly women are the dirt and hot women are the good food. I will not subject myself to anything lower than what i [sic] deserve which is a hot female. All of you deserve a hot female. Just like all of you deserve good quality nutritional food."

Here ‘incels’ don’t sound "transgressive", they believe they are demanding something as normal as food that everyone is entitled to. KAN’s lack of sourcing for factual claims and a willingness to take alt-right sources at face value leads to a superficial analysis bordering on apology.

4. ‘Both sidesing’

Writing about the anti-fascist shutdown of Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, Nagle says "on this night the right was on the receiving end of violence, but on another, an anti-Milo protester was shot." (Chronologically, the Seattle shooting on 20 Jan 2017 preceded the Berkeley protest on 1 February 2017.) This ‘both sides’ framing is recurrent throughout KAN, as it reflects the central argument that the alt-right and ‘Tumblr liberals" are locked in a cycle of "a response to a response to a response" to one another. But while Nagle cites leftists rioting at Berkeley and being insensitive on Twitter, the alt-right is linked to over 100 killings and attempted murders, not just one shooting.

This willingness to frame things in terms of ‘both sides’ is most apparent in KAN’s discussion of gamergate, a crucial episode in the coalescence of various 4Channers, misogynists, and white nationalists into what became the alt-right. KAN’s highlighting of the importance of gamergate in uniting various strands of reactionaries is accurate, although it is also a point widely made elsewhere, e.g. in the Guardian in 2016, or on libcom in 2015).

Gamergate was ostensibly a campaign against games journalists giving good reviews in return for sex. In practice it was the targeted harassment of indie game developer (i.e. not a journalist) Zoë Quinn as well as other women in the games industry. KAN describes it as "possibly the biggest flame war in the history of the Internet so far, an overreaction on a grand scale" (KAN, pg 45), which began when a "dreadful game got positive reviews" (KAN, pg 44). Nagle hasn’t played the game (her view on games: "If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere" (KAN, pg 45), but assures readers that it "looked like a terrible game (...) a perfect parody of everything the gamergaters hated about SJWs (social justice warriors)" (KAN, pg 45).

KAN does mention (without citation) leaked chat logs which show gamergate participants clearly using ‘ethics in videogames journalism’ as a cover story for misogynist harassment. In fact, ‘actually, it’s about ethics’ became such an infamous alibi it became a meme in its own right.

Yet Nagle nonetheless concludes "at this point it would be impossible to reach the end of all the various accusations of lies and contestations of how the mass event unfolded" (KAN, pg 49). However when the chat logs clearly show gamergaters’ disinterest in journalistic ethics, and an investigation of one of the key allegedly corrupt journalists found he hadn’t even reviewed the game, then at least some of the key "accusations of lies" can be readily verified by basic research and sourcing.

As with ‘incels’, KAN thereby gives gamergaters’ own self-justifications too much credence, and this ‘both sides’ treatment in turn bolsters the book’s central argument of "a response to a response to a response". But if ‘actually it’s about ethics’ is dismissed as self-serving bullshit and gamergate recast as principally about mobilised misogyny, then the omissions of KAN’s account of an (over)reaction, however "unhinged", to "SJWs" become clear. Not least, gamergate’s (2014) misogyny has strong continuities with the "aggrieved entitlement" described in Michael Kimmel’s 2013 ‘Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era’. Kimmel writes4:

It is through a decidedly gendered and sexualised rhetoric of masculinity that this contradiction between loving America and hating its government, loving capitalism and hating its corporate iterations, is resolved. Racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, antifeminism - these discourses of hate provide an explanation for the feelings of entitlement thwarted, fixing the blame squarely on "others" whom the state must now serve at the expense of white men. The unifying theme is gender.

Kimmel conducted many hours of interviews with Men’s Rights Activists, neo-Nazis, and others - precisely the groups which later coalesced around gamergate. Kimmel’s book maps a gathering storm; KAN’s ‘both sides’ frame fixates on the unfortunate lightning rod. KAN mistakes the target for the cause, but if Quinn wasn’t the scapegoat, it would have been someone else (another woman, for sure).

KAN’s "overreaction" analysis of transgression on both sides (rubbish SJW game soliciting excessive misogynist criticism) fails to explain the widespread aggrieved entitlement on which gamergate so crucially drew. Readers are left with an account of "a spat over videogames" (KAN ), where two groups of transgressive oddballs had it out for inscrutable reasons. KAN is correct to highlight gamergate as a key moment in the coalescence of the alt-right, but offers little insight into the racialised and gendered politics of aggrieved entitlement which animates such ‘angry white men.’

Towards the end of the book the false equivalence ‘both sides’ frame slips when Nagle cites Stavvers, "an influential Twitter figure among what the alt-right call SJWs" as "a fairly typical example of precisely the sour-faced identitarians who undoubtedly drove so many young people to the right during these vicious culture wars." (Kan, pg 207). This goes beyond simply discussing escalation on both sides, but explicitly credits the excesses of ‘SJWs’ for driving people to the right.

5. Playing PTSD for laughs

KAN insinuates that rape victims have made up their PTSD and that requests to warn about potentially triggering content are unreasonable:

Trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder. They claimed to be ‘triggered’ by mention of anything distressing, a claim with no scientific basis and including everything from great works of classical literature to expressions of pretty mainstream non-liberal opinion, like the idea that there are only two genders.

Nagle specifically neglects to say what the cause of PTSD is claimed to be, giving the impression of silly hysterical women triggered by Shakespeare for no reason. For reference, the NHS lists numerous potential causes of PTSD in addition to military combat, including: "serious road accidents; violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery; prolonged sexual abuse, violence or severe neglect; witnessing violent deaths; being held hostage; terrorist attacks; natural disasters, such as severe floods, earthquakes or tsunamis." It should not need to be pointed out, but there has been significant scholarly research into rape and child sexual abuse as a cause of PTSD, and 'triggers' (unwanted recollection prompted by external stimulus) going back until at least the mid 1980s.5

According to 2014 research commissioned by the National Union of Students, two-thirds of students (68%) reported experiencing sexual harassment (including groping, flashing, or unwanted sexual comments), while around 1-in-14 (7%) reported experiencing serious sexual assaults. While only a subset of these people is likely to experience PTSD, with tens of thousands of students on any given campus the number of survivors of sexual assault are not insignificant. A 2013 write-up of an academic workshop on Teaching Rape Texts in Classical Literature states that 1-in-5 women experience rape or attempted rape, most by the age of 25. The existence of the workshop suggests this is a topic at least some educators take seriously, rather than an absurd imposition by over-sensitive students.

However in place of basic research and sourcing, KAN appeals to readers’ - common sense but false - assumptions that survivors of sexual assault are rare and PTSD is limited to combat veterans. Are there cases of trigger warnings being requested for non-PTSD ‘triggers’? KAN insinuates without substantiating. Hence rather than providing analysis of the culture wars KAN repeats one of the right’s staple tropes in those wars: the spectre of powerful, sensitive, censorious consumer-students. Sara Ahmed’s Against Students provides a sharp critique of these tropes within contemporary campus struggles around bigotry and sexual violence:

The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed as being about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that "difficult issues" can be discussed. (...) The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of the closing down of conversations.


Many of KAN’s key arguments are bolstered by accounts of events and ideas which appear to have been hastily googled, and sometimes simply copy and pasted, to support the book’s claims. Inconvenient details are omitted, and the subsequent analysis frequently succumbs to basic fact-checking and sourcing.

KAN’s sloppy sourcing is a symptom, and is marshalled in support of, a shallow analysis which frequently repeats reactionaries’ own accounts of themselves at face value, while presenting it as analysis. The central category of ‘Tumblr-liberalism’ is defined with reference to an uncited list of poorly-attested genders nobody appears to claim. The right’s moral panic over campus speech is repeated with dissonant details omitted. And KAN’s central argument that the growth of the alt-right is an (over-)reaction to ‘Tumblr liberals’ (who react to the alt-right) repeats their own self-rationalisation through a ‘both sides’ framing which substitutes the ‘normie’ commonsense of the Sensible Middle Ground for a serious analysis of the dynamics though which white nationalism, antifeminism, and hostility to trans and gender nonconforming people coalesced into a contemporary fascist movement.

Kill All Normies has been presented as a materialist study of the online culture wars, whereas as we’ve demonstrated, it often relies on the alt-right and centrist narratives of both right and left, failing to substantiate its premises by reference to social and historical forces. It has been so polarising, in part because it reinforces a false dichotomy of ‘identitarian’ esoteric concerns of marginalised groups (KAN, page 137), against what purports to be a universalist renewal of social democracy (KAN, page 84), (albeit implicitly) put forward as the solution to endless culture wars. Social democracy was never a genuinely universalist project, it always stopped at the boundaries of citizenship and border controls, and the use of ‘Tumblr liberals’, ‘spoonies’, ‘gender-benders’ and other scapegoats for the left’s failures, rather than a diagnosis of what’s wrong, show that lessons have not been learned. If we're serious about creating a working class movement that can radically transform the world, those are lessons we need to learn, standing in solidarity with struggles against oppression, rather than writing them off through misrepresentation and caricature.

Still from Pride, about Lesbians and Gays support the Miners

Lead image credit: wikimedia


Mike Harman
May 26 2018 07:10

Someone has posted a blog further investigating the Greer claim. The main finding beyond what's above is that Greer herself did not claim that trans women were 'not my issue' but that this was a misquote from the middle of a long sentence used to bolster claims that she's not transphobic: https://redstarovercalifornia.com/not-my-issue-nagle-and-greer/

Whether what could only be an intentional misquote was made it's way into KAN via copy and paste or independently deciding to massage the facts seems to be not the main problem.

Joseph Kay
Jun 1 2018 21:43

This one is less egregious, but it's another case of cribbing Wikipedia to bluff an absent depth of knowledge...

KAN (1) wrote:
‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,’ wrote French feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in 1949. By 1990, Judith Butler had taken this several steps further, or perhaps more literally, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, in which she argued that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender and sexuality were entirely culturally constructed through the repetition of styled and cultivated bodily acts, which created the appearance of an essential ontological ‘core’ gender.

This summary of Gender Trouble sounds like it was written by someone who's read the book. Note the subtitle of Gender Trouble includes 'the subversion of identity' - the book is a critique of basing politics on identity (particularly the category 'woman', but the argument is more general). Note also the argument pertains to bodily acts.

The following passage (see below) does not follow on, or sound like it was written by someone familiar with Butler's argument. So I googled it. Guess what?

Wikipedia wrote:
The crux of Butler's argument in Gender Trouble is that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality—the natural-seeming coherence, for example, of masculine gender and heterosexual desire in male bodies—is culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time. These stylized bodily acts, in their repetition, establish the appearance of an essential, ontological "core" gender.

This is taken from a May 2017 version of the Wikipedia page, i.e. before KAN was published. As you can see it's lightly re-written in KAN: chopping out a clause and adding "entirely" to 'culturally constructed', and replacing 'stylized' (with connotations of exaggerated conforming to a particular style) with 'styled'.

Wikipedia also describes some other important aspects of Butler's theory, a sentence or two later stressing "the performance of gender, sex, and sexuality, however, is not a voluntary choice for Butler", and discussing coercive/regulative forces which make this so.

So we have:

1. Butler as critquing any politics based on identity
2. Stressing gender as bodily acts
3. Which are not voluntarily chosen

Then the very next passage in KAN, following on from the KAN (1) quote above is:

KAN (2) wrote:
By the early 2010s, Tumblr had put Butler’s theory into practice and created an entire subcultural language, set of slogans and style to go with it. The most marked preoccupation of Tumblr’s cultural politics has been identity fluidity, typically but not exclusively around gender. It was the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas

So, we have a (1) politics based on (fluid) identity, (2) not bodily, but digital/online, and (3) freely chosen. How we get from one to the other isn't explained.

Maybe these two accounts can be reconciled, but it's not explained how in the book. Some Tumblr users do likely invoke Butler (and some presumably misread her notoriously dense prose). Butler does look forward to the breakdown of the 'heterosexual matrix' which makes only certain genders intelligible (in this short video she cites a street heckle questioning 'are you a man or a woman?' as an example of this unintelligability) - and perhaps online spaces do remove some of the coercive forces disciplining genders into the familiar binary pair. But it's not clear that online coining of new gender identities has much to do with the stylised repetition of bodily acts at the heart of Butler's theory, nor that basing politics on these (albeit more fluid) identities can be reconciled with Butler's explicit critique of basing politics on identity categories.

The reason i've gone into this a bit is that even if she'd more thoroughly paraphrased wikipedia and/or cited it, it seems absurd to be critiquing a book - Butler looms large in KAN as the inspiration for 'Tumblr-liberalism' - based on a Wikipedia summary. Someone joked on Twitter 'I'm convinced Angela Nagle has never read a book, including her own.' Quite.

Joseph Kay
Jun 2 2018 06:27

Fwiw I do think Butler can be criticised for overstating how much subverting the 'heterosexual matrix' is necessarily subversive in a political sense. I just don't think that argument is really made in KAN. More recent queer theory has developed this point, e.g. Jasbir Puar's Terrorist Assemblages (2007):

Puar, p. 30-31 wrote:
...from a neo-Marxist approach Nast marks the privileges of queer patriarchy through ‘‘market virility’’ and the paternal control of ‘‘the products of reproduction.’’ Folded into life and reproducing life, an aspirant class of wealthy white gay males who can simulate the biopolitical mandate to reproduce and regenerate may actually have it better than their hetero counterparts, perhaps even significantly so. (...)

These two examples from Nast and Eng suggest that the capitalist reproductive economy (in conjunction with technology: in vitro, sperm banks, cloning, sex selection, genetic testing) no longer exclusively demands heteronormativity as an absolute; its simulation may do.

I think what Puar's doing here is merging insights from queer theory and critical race theory - about normative sexuality and whiteness - with Marxist social reproduction theory. Like I say it's perfectly possible to criticise Butler, but doing so based on scanning a wiki page seems to indicate a lack of intellectual seriousness, a disinterest in the ideas mentioned beyond using them as a spectacle of erudition, glossing a fundamentally superficial polemic.