Apocalypse Whatever

The making of a racist, sexist religion of nihilism on 4Chan

Among the white nationalists on 4chan’s “politically incorrect,” or /pol/ board and on “alt-right” Twitter — or anywhere you might run into a picture of Pepe the Frog — there is a cryptic but popular saying: “Praise Kek.” Kek is how World of Warcraft translates “lol” when it’s revealed to members of opposing alliances, but it is also, conveniently, a name for a serpent-headed Egyptian chaos god.

Among shitposters, these two identities have been conflated to make Kek a kind of ironicized divinity invoked to account for “meme magic” — when something espoused and affirmed in the digital realm also becomes true beyond it. Memes about Hillary Clinton being sick, for example, “came true” when she collapsed of pneumonia this past September 11. And Fidel Castro’s death — occurring on the capitalist holiday of Black Friday — has been making the Twitter rounds with the same “praise Kek” tag.

Most of the people posting about Kek don’t actually believe that Pepe the Frog is an avatar of an ancient Egyptian chaos god, or that the numerology of 4chan “gets” — when posts are assigned a fortuitous ID number — somehow predicted Donald Trump’s presidential victory. (Theodør K. Ferreøl goes into more detail about that claim here.) It’s a joke, of course — but also not a joke. As one self-identified active member of the alt-right told me, “I don’t believe in God. But I say ‘Praise Kek’ more than I’ve ever said anything about God.”

It doesn’t matter whether Kek is “really” a chaos god. He might as well be. Likewise, meme magic, to the extent that that it serves as a record of cultural engagement, is real too

If I’ve learned anything as a historian of religion, it’s that belief is flexible. The actual propositional content of doctrines has little to do with how religion works socially. Far more than the content of faith as such, what makes religion religion are the images and rhetoric loaded with atavistic and esoteric archetypes (chaos; order; Kek; frogs; a “God Emperor,” to use a common 4chan appellation for Donald Trump) that tend to propagate virally, independent of a centralized source, because they tie into the cultural zeitgeist or answer some cultural need. They allow for a collective affirmation of identity that puts self-creation in dialogue with metaphysical questions about the universe. Religion often functions in this sense as a kind of dictionary: a compendium of symbols and their meaning that also allows for shared communal discourse: a “language” of stories we tell one another about our selves and our world.

From this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether Kek is “really” a chaos god. Sociologically speaking, he might as well be. Likewise, meme magic, to the extent that that it serves as a record of cultural engagement, is real too. So too the “reality” of ubiquitous fake news sites, which, while being wildly inaccurate propositionally, nevertheless govern events — just look at the controversy over “Pizzagate” — to an extent that renders them functionally significant: narratives, no less than an account of the Fall or salvation, that govern who we are.

Given the ideological anarchy inherent in shitposting, it tends to defy analysis. Shitposters, who are bound by nothing, set a rhetorical trap for their enemies, who tend to be bound by having an actual point. Attempts to analyze what shitposters are doing, or what their posts really mean, does nothing to defuse them; instead it reinforces their project by amplifying their signal. Shitposting can’t be refuted; it can only be repeated.

In their apparent indifference to content and their commitment to aestheticized irony, shitposters resemble the disengaged ironists the 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard discussed in texts like The Concept of Irony and Either/Or. According to Kierkegaard, the ironist “poetically composes himself and his environment with the greatest possible poetic license” and lives “in this totally hypothetical and subjunctive way.” Every act is an act of self-creation: Stories that are told are not descriptive of “true” facts out there but rather ways in which the ironist can prove his power, his philosophical strength, his verbal dexterity. He says things just to be the sort of person who says them. The ironist maintains his power by taking no position, starting every argument anew. “There is something seductive about every beginning, because the subject is again free, and it is this pleasure the ironist longs for,” Kierkegaard writes in The Concept of Irony. “In such moments, actuality loses its validity for him; he is free, above it.” For that freedom, the ironist is willing to say anything, make any argument, undeterred by any fear of being called to account. That is, the ironist is the proto-troll.

Kierkegaard’s ironist came of age in the an era of increasing technological production, urbanization, secularization, and — ultimately — alienation. Shitposters have come of age in an era no less turbulent. They too live in a time of economic uncertainty and spiritual apathy in which foundational myths about the self and its role in the cosmos seem to have been rendered obsolete. To fill the void, the ironist and the shitposter both create a self-image characterized by the freedom to say and do anything, beholden to nothing and to nobody — a freedom that finds expression through transgression, saying things (racist, sexist, etc.) “nobody else” will say — except, of course, for the shitposters. This is how the stories the “alt-right” tells about itself take on a religious quality. They are predicated on a desire for a meaningful narrative of the world that allows for participation.

To the ironist, every act is an act of self-creation: Stories that are told are not descriptive of “true” facts but rather ways in which the ironist can prove his power. The ironist is the proto-troll

Here, too, the narrative of individuality and freedom is illusory. The “anarchy” of the alt-right depends on that dictionary of symbols — and thus a shared discourse. The shitposter can say whatever he wants, but the second he says “praise Kek,” he’s tempering his individuality with solidarity. He’s not a Lone Ranger but rather part of a group whose stated fascination with cowboy individualism is at odds with the intense collectivism of internet culture — a culture where likes, reposts, up-votes, hearts, and other expressions of communal acceptance take on outsize importance. There is something intensely collectivist about even the most outrageously social-contract-breaking denizens of the internet. Just look at the way Reddit closed ranks around its ur-troll violentacrez.

The alt-righter defines himself, as he does his god of chaos, against the limitations of civilization, the restrictions placed upon him by the social contract. Yet he is “civilized,” to the extent that his discourse is dialogue. Every time a meme is replicated or a symbol is reused, it only strengthens the socially determined bond of meaning. The constructed narrative of uniqueness and freedom that an alt-righter adopts in fact depends on the collective meanings ascribed by his group to his actions. To put it simply: Shitposting only matters insofar as it lets you feel in on the joke, and being in on the joke demands an in-group agreement of what the joke actually is. No one shitposts alone. But shitposting nonetheless imbues a powerful sense of individual significance.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz, in his account of religion, famously defines it as a

system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

In other words, religion isn’t simply or simplistically an order of existence (which is to say, a metaphysical grand narrative), nor is it just the “collective effervescence” or affirmation of group identity as an older sociologist of religion like Emile Durkheim might have it. Rather it’s the space in between: the symbols (and memes) that a group creates and reinforces through communal discourse, and the individual conception of self (one’s “story,” even) that comes from the role the self plays with respect to these those symbols. If Pepe is a god, it’s not just because the alt-right has a need for religion (although, insofar as any contemporary group cries out for a meaningful narrative of self, I would argue that they do). It’s also because gods are made of memes.

Doing things for the lulz — spreading joke-memes, reinforcing ideas and symbols within a community, promulgating them more widely — is, by Geertz’s definition, a supremely religious act.

That is not to say that white supremacy and white nationalism are not major parts of the alt-right movement; they are, and it absolutely is. To do something for the lulz and care nothing for the embodied consequences is the product and promulgation of a malignant structural racism. Only someone who has always had enough privilege to never have to reckon with the consequences of one’s words could participate in such a movement and keep up with the profound disengagement it demands. Kierkegaard’s ironist, in other words, has to be a straight white man.

But the average 4chan alt-righter does not see himself as a “real” racist, nor is racism necessarily what he would regard as his primary motivating factor. His racism is secondary to his understanding of himself as free, an Alamo-style resister (including against outside and/or nonwhite cultural forces), a masculine agent not subject to such feminized niceties as politeness and compassion. The way he sees it, he’s throwing rocks through the Overton window — regardless of what else gets smashed in the process.

The alt-righter doesn’t need a nation to be a white nationalist. When they praise Kek or joke about participation in the “meme wars of 2016,” they are taking part in a collective narrative that is no less powerful than, say, the primal patriotism of populist celebrity-statesman Gabriele D’Annunzio’s irredentist march to take the city of Fiume from Allied forces in 1919, or the no less heady Wagnerian nationalism of the German völkische Bewegung that helped spawn the Nazis. The alt-righter’s “nation” is a hero-narrative about how the freedom of the individual (masculine) self can be secured, in part by adopting the toxic rhetoric of overt white supremacy.

There’s a theory — the “lipstick effect” — that claims that spending on minor luxuries increases during economic downturns. Being able to tell stories about ourselves rates high on the modern list of necessities. We may be broke, but we can at least like what we see in the mirror. It speaks to the centrality of identity as a human need, to feel like we matter even in the apocalypse. Praising Kek, in such a world, is more than a shibboleth, or even a battle cry. It’s an affirmation of the self. If meme magic is real, it means the self is a little bit magic too.

To promulgate meme magic is to claim a deeper freedom in seeing the world as constructable rather than given, and the “real” world as an un-sacred space

To promulgate meme magic is to claim for oneself a higher code, a deeper freedom that derives from seeing the world as constructed, and constructable, rather than given. From this perspective, the “real” world — with its rules, its restrictions on what you can and cannot say, what you can and cannot do in public — is secular, in the sense that it lacks meaning. It is an un-sacred space, and thus nothing there can or should be treated with respect. In the world of Kek, affecting the world with racist lies and memes — all with an ironic smirk — returns the possibility of free, meaningful action to believers, and makes them heroes. The freedom to not really mean anything you say becomes the only way to have meaning in life. Irony is the greatest freedom of all.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin characterized Europe as a society whose “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” But he also warned that “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” As an example of this aestheticization, he cited the Italian futurist F.T. Marinetti, who wrote in a 1912 manifesto:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamed-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.

We could take this language and apply it, with some modifications, to the rhetorical world of the alt-right and the atavistic language surrounding Kek and meme magic. The cult of Kek fuses a pretense of freedom with the rhetoric of unbridled masculinity to try to make ironic disengagement seem sexy and heroic. It’s an aestheticization of a religious need: a mock-heroic packaging of the desire of white men to be men. Meme magic allows them to see themselves as exercising an intoxicatingly masculine vision of ironic freedom while doing that requires little in the way of courage, physical strength, or personal sacrifice.

This is, of course, where the alt-righters and the arditi of Gabriele D’Annunzio or even the Nazis, part ways. Their principles were appalling; they nonetheless died for them. The glorification of war and bloodshed, the aesthetics of flowering roses and explosive tanks, had a real effect (the “moods and motivations” of Geertz’s definition). That narrative of self demanded self-sacrificing.

The narrative of the alt-right, however, displaces the battlefield into the realm of the incorporeal (and so, the safe). A battle over the Overton window is not a bloody one. This uncomfortable truth sits at the heart of the contemporary ultra-ironist’s disengagement and disembodiment: the suspicion that “real” masculinity, like the Wagnerian heroism of the past, demands that you actually die when your avatar does. Without that risk, the performance of masculine heroism may never cease to feel like a performance.

The narrative of the Lone Ranger, conducted like a drone strike from behind a keyboard, thus becomes both cause and effect of the alt-right’s mythos. They participate in the “meme wars” in search of a narrative of self-determination that the incorporeality of their chosen battlefield will always deny them. But in the meantime, their mythologized war on conventionality inflicts concrete collateral damage. The battlefield of the meme wars may be largely incorporeal. But the Trump presidency is no less real.

Tara Isabella Burton has written on religion and culture for National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the American Interest, and more. She is finishing a doctorate in theology and literature as a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford.