Understanding the ‘alt-right’ as an assemblage

In a recent article on Jezebel, the Eidolon editor Donna Zuckerberg discussed the rise of the notorious hate movement now known as the “alt-right”. On the issue of tackling online abuse, she argued that “[t]he only way to understand the alt-right is to [stop] thinking of it as a single monolithic entity and realize that it is a fragile coalition of hateful ideologies, of deplorable men using the internet to perform white masculinity by playacting as Nazis to feed on our fear”.

The spectre of the alt-right has been the focus of many left-leaning and progressive interventions throughout the past year. It is both everywhere and nowhere at once, permeating all aspects of western culture while also establishing no firm or actual political identity. Zuckerberg writes that one of the problems of the movement is that it can appear formless and “hard to pin down”. At the same time, however, she insists that “its lack of a coherent and stable ideology is also a tremendous weakness, fomenting internal friction within the community, and may lead to it splintering completely”. What does it mean to embody a contradiction of such tremendous scale that it can be both a source of strength as well as the cause of one’s undoing? More importantly, how can we place this paradox in the context of the very real consequences of its normativisation, including racist attacks, policy-making and public discourse?

H.R. Giger – Die Atomkinder
H.R. Giger – Die Atomkinder

In my thinking of this potential for “splintering entirely”, I first wanted to understand how the alt-right has established itself so effectively in the first place – of how it has not only succeeded in becoming a recognised online presence, but also how it has slowly come to be passed as culturally acceptable discourse both in the media and online.

Zuckerberg’s descriptive term “fragile coalition” of course offers us one starting point. It suggests, for example, that the relations between the many constituents of the “coalition” are not intrinsic ones, but are rather extrinsic – that they are based on nothing more but the relationships shared between the parts of the whole, and that these parts are themselves impermanent and contractual. In Difference and Repetition, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze offers a similar idea in his now widely-used term “assemblage”. Here is how he describes one such “assemblage”-oriented structure:

It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.[1]

The ideas contained in “assemblage” and “assemblage theory” have since been elaborated upon and in many ways expanded by both Deleuze and his cohort Félix Guattari. One of the main points I want to emphasise here, however, is this mention of “contagions” and “epidemics” in the co-functioning of the assemblage. Both of these terms, I argue, highlight the infinite replicability of the “fragile coalition”, but what they also do is emphasise how contingent this replicability actually is, becoming infinite only in the sense that it continues to spread from host to host.

For her part, Zuckerberg is right to emphasise the viral nature of the alt-right phenomenon when she opens her article discussing the role of a “remarkable” Facebook cover photo – “a still from the movie The Matrix, the iconic moment when Neo stops a wall of bullets – but [with] Keanu Reeves’ head […] photoshopped out and replaced with the head of Adolph Hitler”. She points out how this meme (a cultural artefact passed from one individual to another via imitation) captures the “combined ideology” of both neo-Nazis and the “Red Pill” community by combining the key aspects of their iconography – namely, the neo-Nazis’ adoration of Adolph Hitler and the Red Pillers’ reliance on metaphors from The Matrix franchise. What she also points out, however, is the fragility of this connection – the fact that “[a]t this moment in history, the so-called alt-right and the Red Pill groups substantially overlap. But that has not always been the case, and I doubt it will be for long”.

Much has been written on the memetic aspects of far-right culture online, including the ways it has used memes and “fake news” to garner public interest and captivate an audience. Far fewer commentators, however, emphasise how the structure of the “alt-right” is itself a memetic one, relying on images like these to sustain the apparent “natural” alliances between its many parts.

In their later elaborations of assemblage theory, Deleuze and Guattari establish two major components which make up the dual functioning of the assemblage. The first of these – the horizontal axis – consists of “bodies, actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another”.[2] This is what we mean when we discuss “heterogeneity”; it is the aggregate interaction of a variety of different things which can either influence or become influenced by the consistency of the whole. The second axis – the vertical one – concerns the outward role of the whole itself, determined by “expressive” elements which seek to introduce some degree of coherence and structuration.[3] As Manuel DeLanda explains, the vertical component “[stabilises] the identity of an assemblage […] by increasing its degree of internal homogeneity”.[4] Once again, however, this element can either influence or become influenced by the many parts it ascertains.

A popular image meme shared among various news outlets shortly after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in the United States was that of an anonymous celebratory post on the imageboard 4chan. In full, it read: “WE ACTUALLY FUCKING DID IT / WE MEMED A PRESIDENT INTO THE WHITE HOUSE / HOLY FUCK / POST YOUR FEEL WHEN / HILLARY IS DONE / HER CAMPAIGN IS IN FREE FALL / THEY ARE IN FULL DAMAGE CONTROLL [sic]”. There are several key details here relevant to our thinking with assemblages. First is how frequently the original poster uses various other memes to compose their message (e.g. “your feel when” […] X is done” […] “full damage control”). Second is how they communicate as though speaking to an established collective, including multiple instances of the pronoun “we”. And third is the attached image of a cartoon frog, positioned to the left of the post, gazing off to the side and grinning as though delivering the accompanying message.

wpim3

Anyone remotely familiar with the spread of the alt-right online is no doubt also familiar with the now ubiquitous image of Pepe – the frog character at first co-opted by users on 4chan and then established as an icon for far-right champions everywhere. Less well known is his first official incarnation in the online web comic Boy’s Club created by Matt Furie, someone who in recent months has come out to defend his original creation. The image of Pepe as depicted in the comic is that of a teenage monster living in a dorm along with various other anthropomorphic animals. The frog is of course male and its first popular depiction is taken from a panel in which Pepe discusses peeing with his pants down to his ankles, to which he remarks that it “feels good man”.

Pepe later received several revisions and redesigns from those who opted to share the panel online. For a while, the most popular was an inversion of the “feels good man” meme with a sad-faced frog, usually accompanying posts about failure or disappointment (“feels bad man”). Soon enough, he began to adopt many more personas, including a “smug-faced” Pepe the frog and a more suicidal Pepe with a gun to his head. It was only after recent years that he was first adopted as the face of alt-right posters everywhere, with Twitter users going so far as to include a frog emoji in their handles. In these incarnations, Pepe can be seen wearing Donald Trump wigs and campaign hats, as well as sometimes wielding handguns or screeching in anger.

Matt Furie – Alt-Right Election Nightmare
Matt Furie – Alt-Right Election Nightmare

Understanding why the image of Pepe caught on, I argue, is perhaps crucial to understanding how and why the alt-right assemblage managed to foment its brand identity, despite lacking any clear or explicit goals. Pepe as an avatar of the anonymous message board – of the ubiquitous face of a “troll” poster is exactly the icon needed to carry a broad spectrum of right-leaning individuals. On its surface, it expresses an obvious internal homogeneity; all who use Pepe as an avatar do so with the knowledge that they are read as Pepe – that they adopt a certain set of traits now characteristic of a middle-class male, probably white, and at an estranged junction in their life where they are neither adolescent nor entirely grown up (“feels good man”). At another level, however, Pepe is itself infinitely mutable and changeable. Its adaptation to any number of expressions, moods, outfits, and guises signals its capacity to become something more than the sum of its parts.

Alexander Weheliye, in Habeus Viscus, explains how this unique co-functioning of heterogeneity and identity means assemblages are “inherently productive, entering into polyvalent becomings to produce and give expression to previous nonexistent realities”.[5] At the same time, however, he emphasises how “these becomings […] ought not be cognized us unavoidably positive or liberating, particularly when set against putatively rigid structures such as race and colonialism, since assemblages transport potential territorializations as often if not more frequently than lines of flight”.[6] In other words, while assemblages may lack a substantial and essential connection between their many parts, they are nevertheless good at cultivating and giving rise to new possibilities because of the way these parts interact. These possibilities, as we see in the alt-right, are not always positive; they can in fact be politically stagnant and regressive. They gain traction because they are legitimised through memes, and they always find ways of adapting to new threats because they are made up of so many replaceable parts.

Pepe is just one example of a meme which constitutes the outward facing identity of the “alt-right”. Far more pressing, perhaps, are those ideological components which work to “territorialise” ideas and worldviews within alt-right discourses. President Donald Trump is a sure-fire example of this mechanism because he once again embodies all those traits that make something “productive” yet wholly unmovable. On the one hand, he is both instantly recognisable and always visible to all – his face is plastered on every newspaper and on every social media site – and on the other, he is always changing, elusive and infinitely adaptive in both his policy and politics. In a strange and paradoxical way, Trump’s entire electoral campaign gained traction not despite but because of the number of lies he told while getting away with it. The more outrageous his claims, the more his supporters lauded his strength and tenacity. Returning to the original 4chan post, we see this reversal exactly; the palpable excitement expressed almost entirely through memes is also a form of vertical integration. The sentiment is not one of righteous vindication or relief, but about an expressive claim of ownership to a possibility previously thought unimaginable.

When discussing assemblages, it is tempting to highlight how territorialising forces like Trump or Pepe the frog can be met in equal measure with “de-territorialising” resistance. As DeLanda notes, while territorialisation is the “process which increases the internal homogeneity of an assemblage”, de-territorialisation works by “either [destabilising] spatial boundaries or [increasing] internal heterogeneity”.[7] Here, he gives the example of organised religion: “In small organisations, like religious sects, the charisma of a leader may be enough to legitimise commands, but as soon as the number of members increases past a certain threshold, formal authority becomes necessary, justified by tradition, […] or by actual problem-solving performance”.[8] This is perhaps what Zuckerberg means when she insists that the alt-right may be conceived as “splintering entirely”. As explicated in another recent article by GQ, “what’s happening to the so-called ‘alt-right’ is the same phenomenon that has plagued countless social movements throughout history: A wildly diverse group of self-professed underdogs formed an uneasy alliance to promote a specific purpose, but now that they have accomplished that goal, they find themselves tied up in competing claims of authority”.

However, while an increasing degree of an internal heterogeneity may unsettle some collective movements, we cannot also ignore the potential for reintegration as well. Once again, as Zuckerberg cautions in her own article, the so-called “friends” of the “alt-right” have not long been friends, but rather integrated into the cause gradually. Take, for example the case of the pick-up artist champion “Roosh V”, who in February 2016 argued that “The Alt Right Is Worse Than Feminism In Attempting To Control Male Sexual Behavior”, before saying in August that “[w]hile we are not officially an alt right site, we share much overlap with them in the general alternative sphere”. This is an example of how normativisation can take hold in even the most extreme cases, as well as how the alt-right assemblage can function as a form of power that always guarantees itself. The special-interest hatred of feminism in pick-up artist and “meninist” circles might not share any intrinsic relation to the demands of white nationalism, but the potential for coalition between these two parties on an extrinsic level can nevertheless fabricate a unity that works to produce something new and unexpected.

Matt Furie – Alt-Right Election Nightmare
Matt Furie – Alt-Right Election Nightmare

How then, with this prospect of a productive and extrinsic relation between heterogeneous elements, can we begin to imagine a view of the “alt-right” as “splintering completely”? There is, of course, no easy answer. It would be remiss of me not to at least share the optimism of writers like Zuckerberg (after all, there are clear signs of internal fracturing), but it can also be a mistake to assume this far in advance the fate of a movement still growing in popularity and relevance. It is possible for example, that like a religious sect, the alt-right may begin establishing itself more firmly through forms of authority, discipline and punishment.

Countering the rise of the alt-right may be as simple as stating and re-stating the obvious consequences of their influence. But understanding the complexity of the many ways the movement continues to establish and re-establish itself is also crucial in forming an effective resistance when the collective continues to gain traction and new public acceptance. Soon enough, the crimes of the alt-right may be considered ordinary public discourse. If or when that time comes, we would do well to remember the lessons of how this all started – a cartoon frog, with his pants around his ankles, peeing because it feels good.

 


[1] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet. Dialogues II. (London: Continuum, 2002), 69.

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. (London: Continuum, 2004), 88.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Manuel DeLanda. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 13.

[5] Alexander Weheliye. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. (London: Duke University Press, 2014), 46.

[6] Ibid., 47

[7] Manuel DeLanda. A New Philosophy of Society., 13.

[8] Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016),31.

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