Florian Cramer & Angela Nagle: Subcultures and the Politics of Transgression

This year’s Transmedialle featured a very valuable discussion between Media Theorist, Florian Cramer and writer and author of Kill all Normies Angela Nagle. Though riveting it was very long with a great many digressions. So this is just scratching the surface extracting some of the things that interested me. There is plenty more to explore and take further.


Angela Nagle’s begans book, Kill all Normies covers the on-line culture wars of the last 8 years, that culminated in the emergence of the identitarian white nationalists widely known as the alt-right. Florian Cramer’ lecture , given in Rotterdam just after Trump’s election, Mapping the alt-right, traced in great detail the origins of the movement, as it took shape in the back alleys of the internet messaage boards and the complex ways in which these subcultural energies were oportunistically exploited by a generation of very far right white nationalists. In the lecture Cramer used his capability as media theorist to trace in detail the evolution and importance of memes (and by inference the significance of Rene Girard’s theory of Memetic desire) and the effective weaponisation of 4chan’s distinctive culture of cynical irony.

Nagle began by emphasising the bias of the Birmingham School (and the wider European left) in favour of Transgressive sub-cultures as an intrinsically progressive force. Both Cramer’s lecture and Nagle’s book call out the media theorists and digital anthropologists who allowed this bias in the field of cultural studies and media theory which are blamed for insufficient attention to the direction of travel of the so called alt right.

-The Centrality of Feminist Critique-

An important aspect of Nagle’s contribution was her emphasis on the absolute centrality of feminist critique to her insights. She credits Angela Mcrobbie Sarah Thornton’s longstanding critiques of the Birmingham school’s tendency of  to mistake certain kinds of aesthetic traits for something progressive politically. Nagle goes on to quote Sarah Thornton’s The Social logic of sub-cultural capital.. at length stating that it encapsulated the core argument of her book. (published in 1995)

“vague opposition is certainly how many members of youth sub-cultures characterise their own activity. However we can’t take youth discourses literally. They are not a transparent window on the world many cultural studies have made the mistake of doing this. They have been insufficiently critical of sub-cultural ideologies. Firstly because they were diverted by the task of puncturing and contesting dominant ideology and second because their biases have tended to agree with anti-mass society discourses of the youth discourses they study”“ while youth have celebrated underground the academics have venerated sub-cultures. While young people have denounced the commercial, scholars have criticised hegemony. While one has lamented selling out the other has theorised incorporation. In this way the Birmingham tradition has both over politicised youthful leisure and at the same time ignored the subtle relations at play within it” (Sarah Thornton)

Nagle staes is essentially the argument of her book that “there are quite reactionary and quite misanthropic and quite nasty elements that were there for a very long time in this on-line world and it came to full fruition in the form of the Alt.right..”

-A well Established Story –

Cramer brought up the fact that this was not new and that various examples of European avant-garde expressions from Laibach to Peter Soto’s magazine Pure. And emphasised how the shock value of the transgressive is a “double edge sword” and that this is a very old subject.  “There is a recurring naivete in seeing transgressions or sub-cultures as embracing just one political orientation…: He reminds us that Adorno and Hokheimer in the Dialectics of Enlightenment is at least in part an investigation into how progressive discourse turns into barbarism.

- A Complete Re-orientation of the Political Landscape-

Cramer goes on to explore the important wider picture when he points out that the there are two strategies running in parallel by the so called Altright (that has now morphed from a sub-culture into a fully fledged political movement). One is to take over counterculture, sub-culture and transgression from the left and the other strategy is to replace the traditional conservative right. He then asks Nagle whether she thinks it is this actually happening. He argues that under Trump and among others. Are we seeing the fire-walls that exist between traditional conservatism you  and new generation far-right extremism being more or less burnt down ? He asks do you would agree that this is a larger tendency that basically what is coming out of th network is currently what is replacing mainstream conservatism ?

 – Bigger picture and  Important Question-

Nagle agrees that this tendency will not only influence but actually replace the whole spirit and style of the establishment right. But she then to ask what is for me the most important question of the discussion: So the question for me on the sub-cultures question are we to conclude that subcultures itself is just a neutral thing and that it can take on any political form?

Implicit in this question is Nagle’s own answer to this question is that sub-cultures (at least in their more transgressive mode) are not neutral. In the book (though not stated so clearly in the discussion) her position is unequivocal; she argues that there is a nihilistic thread running through the heart of the modernist avant-garde that stretches from de Sade to the surrealists and the Situationists (whom she at least concedes “have a better world in their hearts”) en route to the 1960s and the culmination of the counter-culture in the Manson Murders which she argues is the “logical culmination of throwing off the shackles of conscience and consciousness, the grim flowering of the id’s voodoo energies”.

If I have got this right, it would have been great to know how far Florian goes with Nagle on this on this journey?    If the conversation had unfolded in a different way we might have looked at other contributing factors. For example the alt.right’s dominance of the message boards might have been mitigated somewhat if the US state had not been so successful in supressing the one on-line force with the capability of standing up to them: the left leaning activists od Anonymous, a number of whom as we know are enduring cruelly disproportionate prison sentences. Nagle herself points out that this suppression “created a vacuum on the image boards that the rightest side of culture was able to fill with their expert style of anti-PC shock humour and memes”. Nagle is right to warn us but sub-cultural participatory values and energies though not inevitably progressive remain vital to any ambitious political project or party. Though we must remain vigilant inevitable destination of transgressive sub-cultures is not the equivalent of the Manson Murders. The mistake was to leave the vacuum for the altright to fill. Their success is a demonstration of the importance of sub-cultures and “folk politics” and should not be taken as evidence that sub-cultures are intrinsically malign.

A questioner towards the end of the discussion asked if Cramer and Nagle could talk more about affect and affective politics.. more about the emergence of movements and how sub-cultural energies today mobilised. Which the questioner added is  “also a question of power that is able to legitimise these subcultural sentiments in ways that enable them to enter into the political mainstream.. I’d like you to address the strategies, sentiments within subcultural politics. It was a very good point but sadly it arose to close to the end.. Perhaps we can take up this challenge here?

  1. Sadly this important discussion is not posted prominently on the Transmedialle website even though a lot of other stuff is. Florian kindly sent me this link so. You can hear the extended discussion. I have made a preliminary transcription of the discussion and will post it soon. But only once I have liaised with the principles to see if they agree. https://voicerepublic.com/talks/better-think-twice-subcultures-alt-s-and-the-politics-of-transgression