Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the sixties. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argues Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: “Either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism.” But, Cashell writes, the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art has had consequences: “In the pursuit of the ‘irrational,’ art has become negative, nasty, and nihilistic.”
Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression, and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan “It is forbidden to forbid!” than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right. Instead of interpreting it as part of other right-wing movements, conservative or libertarian, I would argue that the style being channelled by the Pepe meme–posting trolls and online transgressives belongs to a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of post-war America, and then to what film critics called 1990s “male rampage films” like American Psycho and Fight Club. In these, as in the rightist chan culture, interpretation and judgment are evaded through tricks and layers of metatextual self-awareness and irony.