CULTURAL CRITICISM AND YOUTUBE RANTS: THE DIALECTIC OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

by Eli Lambe

Part One of Two

Given the revelations in the Darren Osborne trial, and the general spread of Alt-Right, Far-Right and, bluntly, Nazi and White Supremacist discourse online, it is vitally important that we use the tools we have to understand how such ideological horrors are able to spread, what they look like, and what this spread says about the methods and platforms they use.

In Blog Theory, Joni Dean describes a phenomenon that she labels “Communicative Capitalism” whereby “Contemporary communications media capture their users in intensive and extensive networks of enjoyment, production and surveillance… Just as industrial capitalism relied on the exploitation of labour, so does communicative capitalism rely on the exploitation of communication”.

Dean goes further to assert: “Communicative Capitalism is that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many.” Within this new iteration of capitalist exploitation, YouTube and social media in general act as both income generators and discourse-muddiers, hosting extreme and divisive voices, algorithmically promoting them and trapping the audience in auto-play spirals.  Through the proliferation of online hate-groups and white supremacist, misogynist and queerphobic discourse, YouTube can not only make money from the ad revenue generated when the disaffected and disenfranchised seek answers, but also keep each group of disaffected and disenfranchised from forming meaningful solidarity.

In Black Pigeon Speaks – The Anatomy of the Worldview of an Alt-Right YouTuber, Zack Exley writes:

In truth, the hate-filled, conspiracy-obsessed right-wing movement was in plain
sight the whole time, playing itself out daily on talk radio. And now there’s a new
platform–YouTube, and other digital outlets. YouTube now has a large number of
right-wing channels that collectively have millions of viewers who are exposed to
theories too extreme even for talk radio.

In making this observation, Exley describes the phenomenon of right-wing extremist YouTube discourse as something which should be both unsurprising and alarming. It is absolutely nothing new, but the relative ease with which the discourse can spread, and the forms, structures and styles involved in the “political rant” video, allow for a level of dispersal and manipulation which should be greatly concerning, and it plays out along a couple of different lines.

One of the most regularly contested areas in online discourse is freedom of speech, or freedom of expression. The ongoing controversy and dialogue regarding freedom of speech, no platforming and the responsibilities of ICTs has broad-reaching implications, and is vulnerable to the same rhetorical and critical traps described by Adorno in “Cultural Criticism and Society”.

The apparent ease of communication and perceived democratization of culture in the online public space gives the impression that freedom of speech and the freedom to be heard has never been more absolute. However, as the internet has lowered some barriers to freedom of expression, it has created further tools for repression. The prevalence of hate-speech online, and the depersonalization and anonymity this type of communication amplifies epistemic (particularly testimonial) injustices against oppressed groups.

This is one of the manifestations in online discourse which correspond to the contradictions Adorno identifies in “Cultural Criticism and Society”, in which he argues that “While the mind has extricated itself from a theological-feudal tutelage, it has fallen increasingly under the sway of the status-quo.”  Dotson points out how these kinds of epistemic injustices are often most effective against individuals experiencing multiple intersecting oppressions, who are most vulnerable to the risks associated with online discourse and thus the least likely to feel safe and listened to in discussions online. So, in the space most readily perceivable as free, the freedom of speech of the repressed continues to be curtailed. Add to this the continual surveillance of the online, and its use in advertising and furthering consumption, as well as collecting data to make this targeting more efficient. Adorno’s analysis can go a long way towards describing and illuminating the styles of discourse that colour the contemporary political and social phenomenon, often characterised by an intense polarisation, growing extremism and shifting of the Overton window towards right-wing economic positions and social conservatism.

These popular videos are dedicated to humiliating the other, to revelling in that humiliation and asserting a superior level of either intellect or understanding.

Adorno observes: “Decisive is that the critics sovereign gesture suggests to his readers an autonomy he does not have, and arrogates for itself a position of leadership that is incompatible with his own principle of intellectual freedom.” In this, there is the recognition of one’s own lack of autonomy and resentment of someone who acts like they have autonomy. The critic Adorno describes, is positioning themselves as above humiliation, unreachable by it.

Within the titles of so many anti-feminist, racist videos are keywords like “destroyed” and “cringe”(see above image). These popular videos are dedicated to humiliating the other, to revelling in that humiliation and asserting a superior level of either intellect or understanding. There is a need to project the video creator and the audiences lack of freedom, autonomy and agency, as well as to demonstrate that this other can be broken down into component parts by the sheer intellect of the video maker. This is “the weakness, cleverly disguised as strength, of those who, in their dictatorial bearing, would have willingly excelled the less clever tyrants who were to succeed them” which the sadism of “the enemies of the critic” is attracted to in Adorno. The ritual humiliation of the other provides the fascist with an escape from the ongoing shame of being unable to live the expectations placed on them by the structures which they inhabit, and provides them with an outlet for their anger and frustration.

In Part 2, I look at how these modes of discourse work to prey on divisions between workers, and how work to prevent meaningful solidarity between oppressed groups.

Featured image – screengrab


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