Since the run up to the 2016 US election, the issues of minority representation, intersectionality, and identity politics have become matter of mainstream concern on a widening range of media. As a result, the perceived split between a left most preoccupied by identity politics and a materialist, class-oriented left has been widely discussed alongside matters of Internet culture. An example of such discussion is the controversial book Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle, which dissects the phenomenon of the alt-right by comparing it to its left-wing counterpart, a “Tumblr-liberalism” characterised by the popularisation of victim culture and a call-out, no-platforming attitude towards its opponents. Along with this juxtaposition, Nagle notes how the impetus of the alt-right has been co-opted from early leftist counterculture, de facto hi-jacking avant-garde aesthetics and identity politics for its own gain.
Regardless of one’s agreement with Nagle, the relevance of identity labels within this debate is high. For example, the construction of the enemy “social justice warrior”, or SJW, framing leftist activism as overzealous and oppressive of free speech, has been one of the most strategic achievements of alt-right sympathisers. At the same time, “woke” – another label used by the left to describe someone who is aware of intersectionality, cultural appropriation, and generally social justice themes – has often been criticised and parodied for its trendy and reductive connotation.
It is in this cultural context that the #AltWoke project was born, from the efforts of a heterogenous collective called ANON that comprises theorists, activists, artists, and sex workers alike. Most notably, the collective published a complex manifesto that addresses the memetic difficulties of the left and argues for an accelerationist attitude towards the cultural warfare against the alt-right. The manifesto combines a taste for complex philosophical issues (around economic systems, automation, and AI) with a strong emphasis on the power of pop culture, especially African-American. Impetuous and at times contradictory – like all manifestos – the AltWoke text and ANON’s hashtags gesture towards a leftist problematisation of social networks that is both materialist and identity-focused. My discussion with ANON focused on the issues of social media, identity labels and aesthetics.
Nicola Bozzi: How did the AltWoke project start? Who are you generally, as much as you want to share?
Anon: I guess what catalyzed the project was the 2016 election. It grew out of frustration with the present political situation: we thought there were better ways and dialogues to be had. The left did not adapt in the way that the right did. The majority of our group met in school and I guess the ideas had been fermenting in conversations beginning as early as 2012, but it began to catalyze into something coherent and cohesive during the race to the election. The school we went to is very theory based, so we tried to leverage that stuff when Trump got elected.
Nicola Bozzi: Nick Srnicek writes about the left being reactive, and you are creating a label to react against the right. So is it like a defusing technique? Is this the role of contradiction and irony in your alt-woke frame?
Anon: The alt-right is a reaction to liberalism, capital and the local failures of those projects: the disenfranchised middle class, the working class… Richard Spencer and Paul Guthrie invented the term in 2007 and Nick Land – an intellectual often associated with the alt-right – released The Dark Enlightenment in 2012, after the first 4 years of the Obama administration. That was their Trump moment, they are reacting to that. A lot of us went to a very critical theory heavy university, and at the time also very activist based. We all felt uncomfortable with their approach to these ideas. There is something undeniably entertaining, exciting and libidinal, energetic about their aesthetics. It’s always very entertaining and interesting to observe. Now it’s no longer just something you watch.
Nicola Bozzi: Theory and aesthetics are both very important to you. How do you think they currently relate to each other?
Anon: We want to distance ourselves from what we call “big A accelerationism”, in favour of “little a accelerationism”, because we feel big A is always going to orbit around Nick Land. To Nick Land’s credit, what he’s always been good at doing, as Reza Negarestani said, is being able to surround himself with young people, because he understands where traditional thought kind of falls short. The closest thing to that energetic, libidinal, attractive thing that Marxism had was Slavoj Zizek, but he pales in comparison to Nick Land. The imagery is his skill, while the left is very dull. If you wanna go back to the 1800 and talk about Marx it probably sounds like sci-fi. It sounds strange now. I believe that most people who read Nick Land don’t even understand what they read.
Nicola Bozzi: I wanted to ask you about intersectionality. In the manifesto you write: “if you think intersectionality is a numbers game, then you are doing identity politics wrong”. What do you mean by that?
Anon: At the time it was written because we were seeing various strands of the left looking towards literal representation on TV and stuff, as political ends, and they thought: “This is it!”. Prior to the manifesto, all throughout New York there was this ad campaign by Calvin Klein, called #InMyCalvins. It had lots of young Internet celebrities – trans, people of colour, etc. It had statements like “I break binaries” next to this hashtag #InMyCalvins. This is meaningful for small kids or people who don’t have someone to look up to that looks like them, but it has to be deeper than that. You need to have people who are explicitly anti-capitalist, it’s not enough to have certain people there.
The reaction to Black Panther is another example. On one hand it started a lot of good dialogue – it is certainly a good segway into Afropessimism and so on – but at the same time there is an aspect of it that is placating the same corporate, largely white supremacist media that is still extracting capital from people. Alt-right people are also trying to claim Black Panther, in the sense of Africans having their own state and going there. White-nationalists support the movie because it promotes this technocratic authoritarian monarchy and the idea of separation. It seems the show Dear White People was more enraging to people in a way that was reasonable. Can’t say if it was better than Black Panther, but in terms of agitation it was more effective. It created more outrage and discourse, whereas with Black Panther everybody goes “Yeah!”.
Nicola Bozzi: Since you created the hashtags #AltWoke and #BlackPopMatters, do you think social media are the best battleground to inject this new terminology?
Anon: In terms of tagging there is this idea that the left can’t meme, which is mostly true. Another thing would be: can the right hashtag? The difference between a meme and a hashtag is that a meme will change from person to person to person. This simulacrum, this degraded, jarring image, the quality of the jpg will change overtime and become unrecognisable from its source. With the hashtag there is something more permanent to it. It has the communicability you have in taxonomy, something resonant, like #metoo for example. Another advantage is it’s trackable – how many people are in dialogue with it, how many people are engaging with it: you can establish some metrics. In a certain sense we critique this hashtag culture, but we embrace and recognise its memetic power. A hashtag is a grammatical meme. It’s able to communicate and link between different subjects. We needed something to critique… in a way it is a hashtag against hashtags. Because we hate social media.
Nicola Bozzi: But how are you an accelerationist if you hate social media? Isn’t social media the most accelerationist thing of all?
Anon: We actually disagree. Something like Tumblr… anything that is visual-based is good social media. Media like Twitter or Facebook are decelerationist because there are rules, but there are no rules on Snapchat as far as we know. Only if people are committing a crime, if you’re not snapchatting a murder you are fine. People who do sex work rely on Snapchat for income. Instagram and Tumblr as well. It is accelerationist in that you can promote things really quickly and there are few restrictions and limitations. Unlike Facebook, which is highly bureaucratic.
Nicola Bozzi: But then you get the most visibility. What do you think about Mastodon for example? Do you think it would serve the purpose?
Anon: Yes, we guess they have potential to be far more accelerationist than these bigger platforms. Facebook is accelerationist insofar as it locks you in this weird Pavlovian feedback, where once you’re on it becomes impossible to leave, your neurology is changed by that interaction. Facebook is very neo-reactionary. With Instagram you have accelerationism in a positive sense, because you are engaging with real space to contribute to that site. It can get to the point where social media becomes your work, and you’re the one person getting paid while we’re all doing labour on social media. Facebook is what we hate the most, because like globalism incubates innovation, Facebook incubates monotony. You see yourself reflected and you modify your behaviour. Twitter is terrible, but we have mixed feelings about it because it depends what kind of Twitter you are on.
Nicola Bozzi: Speaking of Twitter, what is the role of #BlackPopMatters, is it a kind of sub-hashtag to #AltWoke?
Anon: It’s taking Kodwo Eshun’s idea that black people are alienated subjects. There is a relationship between blackness and technology: cultural forms like hip-hop evolve alongside technology and the economy – for example, the movement started with an energy crisis. There were all these turntables, electronics equipment, machines lying around. Also house music and techno, in the Mid-West… you reach a point in which genres are very very technological. Hip-hop is expanding on a lot of these techniques that early Modernist artist and composers were experimenting with. Those artists are a frame of reference and were inspired by Western European forms of art like Fauvism, Ezra Pound, Picasso with Cubism. Now global culture is more or less black culture.
Nicola Bozzi: Trap music for example is so connected to the Internet and globalisation. How would you frame trap music within the AltWoke frame, if that makes sense?
Anon: If we had to pull two examples they would be Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and Chief Keef’s “I don’t like”. A hip-hop purist would say there is nothing in common between the two, but they are the same song insofar as they are both reactions to an economic crisis. At the time there was this idea of optimism. Grandmaster flash comes after 20 years of civil rights struggle, it’s a bleak song but there’s something hopeful about it. Chief Keef’s song is also a reaction to an economic crisis. They are both expressing the same affect: the pretense is gone, the moral aesthetic is absent. All hip-hop is an image of society without the pretenses. But more or less rappers are kind of expressing the fantasy of the American dream and capitalism and projecting it back to the listener. CEO’s love hip-hop, its capitalist materialist aspect.
Nicola Bozzi: With that hashtag, are you protesting against the commodification of certain elements of pop culture, or are you trying to refocus on the fact that it is still black?
Anon: Believe it or not Mike Will expresses this really well in this Red Bull Music Academy interview he did when he’s talking about Rae Sremmurd, after he got a lot of flack for helping and producing Miley Cyrus. He said that he saw a bigger picture in that. He says “I’ve never seen pop be this ratchet and ratchet be this pop”. We guess he wants elements of this culture to penetrate the status quo, he doesn’t want it to be this peripheral aesthetic anymore.
Also, for a long long time in gangsta rap – with Diddy’s Bad Boy vision and Southern hip-hop – there has been this fantastic element. Like Master P, you see the backdrop with a gold-plated tank smashed into this basketball court… this elaborate fantasy, very surreal. There is this visceral aspect that gangsta rap is more or less a racial genre, but it’s getting more and more fantastic.
Nicola Bozzi: So, in a way you are embracing this kind of global proliferation and you are optimistic about that deterritorialisation, but do you think it’s possible to also maintain specificity?
Anon: Playing the game things can become shifted, depending on who’s playing. In some way it depends on how they do it and where and what sectors of the market are involved. Because blackness has to maintain this insularity in order for whiteness to prey upon it, but whiteness conversely has expanded its definition overtime, rubbing somewhat against blackness in a weird way. And that probably causes an implosion, if that makes sense.
Overtime they claimed even more and more people in the category to maintain power. It’s like a suicidal endeavour, the category needs to give other categories so much in order to maintain power, so much that it cannibalises itself, it loses itself. Even cultural mixed-ish people claiming for an ethno-state, white supremacists always talking about Asian countries and anti-blackness, but they don’t realise how much they are opening their doors to different types of people.
An amorphous white nationalism. It’s not a category that had a lot of grounding to stand-on, the only thing to solidify it was anti-blackness.
Nicola Bozzi: What about gender?
Anon: We want to expand and integrate more gender analysis in the future, but that’s complicated. Race is not easier, but it makes it clearer to people when you have this stark contrast. It’s coming from similar poles. I guess what’s interesting about gender is it speaks to the atomization and the creation of the subject, which was the end result of the creation of the consumer class. Gender along with blackness also has a relationship with technology. Self subjectivity, more like a self-sovereign identity, is like exploring this virtual potentiality of your gender, of your subjectivity, beyond the material constraints of your body.
Nicola Bozzi: In the AltWoke Manifesto you mention figures that range from David Harvey to Holly Herndon. Have you thought about getting them involved?
Anon: That’s something to explore. Some of these people reached out to us, some of them have been hesitant, some of them have been supportive, like Holly Herndon. Via Twitter we communicate with a lot of people. What’s interesting is a woman named Katie Halper also started using the term, but she did it incorrectly and without knowing what the proper attribution was. She was using #altwoke as a way to demonise mainstream democrats. It led to a mention in the Financial Times, too. It’s like that unintentional vector… We feel like there is a certain longevity to a hashtag that a visual meme doesn’t have, it wants to be that game of telephone.
Nicola Bozzi: So basically she came up with the same word, but incidentally it was different from what you want it to be?
Anon: Correct. She has since stopped using it, but people are still using it in that sense too. But we see that as positive, because the way we use it now is so open-ended too, and the way they use it is not. They attach it to liberal democrats, but the hashtag is just arbitrarily placed. So are they describing liberal democrats as #AltWoke, or are they contributing to our critique of liberal democrats? When its open ended like that it helps our stated goals with respect to #AltWoke in the way that we use it. We would like other people to contribute to it outside of us.
Nicola Bozzi: Ultimately, do you want to maintain a level of control on what AltWoke is? How does your idea relate to collective names like Anonymous, for example?
Anon: Yes, definitely. Even within the collective, not all of us agree on the same things. It’s a leaderless group, but with LulzSec and Project Chanology… when it’s that dispersed and decentralised it is also open to infiltration by government and law enforcement. At some point you don’t know who you are talking to, you don’t know who that person is. Curatorial privilege is also for fear of that retaliation from law enforcement. Because if someone started talking about knocking down a tower, for example, we would be associated to it. These emergent draconian politicians, these fascist parties that are getting traction… With someone like Trump they would feel emboldened and would not hesitate to just open fire on demonstrators. It’s the first time we see so much injury on protesters, so that kind of traditional insurrectionary violence is not wise. You’re gonna get caught. Dispersed, decentralised activism too is risky, technically we face security issues. You don’t know who you are attracting. It is very easy to be infiltrated by oppositional forces. I guess we are learning a lot from corporate espionage, too. How do they operate and what are their strategies for surveillance? There’s a certain level of viable political force.