In Defense of The Edgelord
Posted by <PostPostPost> on 2022-10-15
“ In the German Ideology, Marx shows how the basis of the capitalist economic structure (surplus value, neatly defined by Godelier as ‘Profit . . . is unpaid work’ (Godelier, 1970)) is hidden from the consciousness of the agents of production. The failure to see through appearances to the real relations which underlie them does not occur as the direct result of some kind of masking operation consciously carried out by individuals, social groups or institutions. On the contrary, ideology by definition thrives beneath consciousness. It is here, at the level of ‘normal common sense’, that ideological frames of reference are most firmly sedimented and most effective, because it is here that their ideological nature is most effectively concealed. As Stuart Hall puts it: It is precisely its ‘spontaneous’ quality, its transparency, its ‘naturalness’, its refusal to be made to examine the premises on which it is founded, its resistance to change or to correction, its effect of instant recognition, and the closed circle in which it moves which makes common sense, at one and the same time, ‘spontaneous’, ideological and unconscious. You cannot learn, through common sense, how things are: you can only discover where they fit into the existing scheme of things. In this way, its very taken-for-grantedness is what establishes it as a medium in which its own premises and presuppositions are being rendered invisible by its apparent transparency.” (Hall, 1977)
This excerpt from Dick Hebdige’s Subculture offers insight into mechanisms of ideology and articulates the essay’s position on it quite clearly. Ideology is not what we believe in, it’s in how we believe. To further clarify; the leftist ideals I believe in are not ideology, ideology exists in how that choice was seemingly a given or obvious to my unconscious. This is what Stuart Hall describes in his “common sense” analysis of ideologies that are too insidiously and unconsciously opaque but masquerade as transparent, which sharply applies to certain ideologies prevalent in contemporary culture. Especially, the paradoxical ideology of being anti-ideology; which comprises beliefs that one is immune to pretense, too world-weary for romantic or theistic thinking, or armed with a rational value-system of a verifiably objective reality.
I see this most present in progressive left circles who, perhaps justifiably, have been having a frenzy of disorientation ever since the Trump presidency and the crowning of “post-truth” as Oxford’s word of the year in 2016. This has lead to angry fact-spouting, whether it’s Bernie Bro moralizations on Twitter or my sister-in-law trying to dissuade her grandmother from homophobia with Stanford research papers. In ideology space, these methods are likely to get contaminated with ego and only make opposition more stubborn and defiant. More often than not they can sense the moral high horse in tonality and thus completely disregard the content attached to it. This ultimately results in an ever-expanding gap in communication between different ideologies and further othering, among other symptoms.
"[T]he ego of modern man ... has taken on its form in the dialectical impasse of the belle âme who does not recognise his very own raison d’être in the disorder that he denounces in the world.”
- Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, 1977.
It is now helpful to look at this quote by Jacques Lacan, which references the Hegelian dialectic of the beautiful soul (belle âme). The beautiful soul fails to see its own evil, unconsciously projects it onto the world and sets out to “cure” it - an undertaking that is not that different from those of theological or religious fundamentalism. The subject that subscribes to this notion of presumably transparent anti-ideology has a lot in common with the beautiful soul when it comes to, to put it simply, “doing good” and “being right”.
Social media’s influence on society throughout the past decade has undeniably developed our fluency in branding, which makes an additional Lacanian lens to this analysis crucial. Our ideal versions of ourselves, our Objet petite a, our personal brands, are now receiving real-time feedback at an unprecedented frequency from our online existence, which qualifies as a new form of Big Other. Ideology flourishes as we curate our image and the image of our lives in the digital space. Every choice, every post, every like or comment we make online amounts to our brand image and eventually overflows to our physical world’s behaviors and interactions. This is not necessarily a pessimistic reading - on the contrary - it is indicative that as a society we are becoming more familiar with ideology, thus possibly more capable of understanding it. As Slavoj Zizek eloquently put it in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, “I am eating from the trash can all the time.”, referring to his participation in ideology.
In this landscape however, the fact-spouting ‘anti-ideology subject’ unfortunately becomes the most vulnerable to ideology. Ideology’s invisibility and cloak of common sense are only further fortified by the algorithmic echo chambers and the Big Other validation they provide. As we build our personal brands we are simultaneously building our audience, our perception of our audience, and their perception of us. We all strive to be seen as benevolent protagonists in our stories, and the anti-ideology/beautiful soul subject is no different, if not even more so. This social media-induced behavioral condition, known online as having Main Character Syndrome, intensifies the beautiful soul’s ideology of curing the world. Identifying and opposing antagonists to earn the right to be perceived as benevolent then appear as the most ‘rational’ progression.
Such subjects then build personal brands, online or offline, that boast “authenticity”, “integrity” and “morality”, coupled with “accuracy”, “correctness” and “truth”. Ironically, all of these keywords I’ve actually written before on meeting room whiteboards full of marketing executives, namely, my brand consultancy clients. Although it has been more notepad notes than whiteboards since remote work took over during the pandemic years. From my humble 6 year experience selling brand strategy, consistency in messaging is key to maintaining an authentic brand’s brand loyalty. And if their brand narrative is abstract and general enough, they could always keep evolving with a core message intact. If they stagnate and novel content becomes a problem, they could always detour a little bit, or rebrand, and pick up the communication inconsistencies later.
These brands maintain flexibility in ideology space because they never actually have to commit to their ideological values or take them too seriously. They engage their audiences in a make-believe fantasy that only needs to maintain consistency in rhetoric, not in material reality. Brands know ideology is all role-play, audiences are more prone to forget. We all participate in the ideology space of corporate brands knowingly. If I buy Nike shorts that were advertised as “Fearless”, I am fully aware I cannot sue Nike if I don’t feel fearless when I wear them.
For the individual subject level however, because brand values are tied to personhood, a lot more is at stake. Inconsistency or inaccuracy can easily be reframed into hypocrisy, and hypocrisy can bring down your perceived main character status from protagonist to antagonist at once. One’s personal integrity, academic or intellectual reputation and just plain intelligence are all on the line. Livelihoods can get affected. Hardly any corporate brand worries about these consequences, and in case of an emergency, PR teams take care of it. Cancel culture, an important tool for social justice, has ended careers of individuals - whether justifiably or not - but no corporation ever got cancelled, only few are rumored to have suffered mild financial setbacks from calls for cancellation. These pressures make it all the more difficult for the anti-ideology subject to entertain uncertainty or see outside their ideology. They believe in the roles they have to fill and they take them very seriously.
In this classic Devil Wears Prada scene, Andy (Anne Hathaway) smirks at Miranda’s conversation with her assistant about a fashion detail; insinuating that what they care about is superficial and that she knows better than to be deluded by fashion industry pretense. This is an interesting demonstration of the disillusioned anti-ideology subject; the beautiful soul’s ideology can be seen here exhibiting a cynical, ironic frame rather than didactic seriousness. Miranda (Meryl Streep), of course responds condescendingly with “Oh you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select… I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back, but what you don’t know is…” and proceeds to school her on the cultural influences and economic progressions that lead to her sweater’s design, then ends with “it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”
What we see in Andy’s character is not just the feeling of superiority or absolutism but also the tendency to conflate this notion of authenticity with the status quo, or what is ‘normal’, as the only correct mode of being. This further highlights how such an ideology could foster aversion to otherness or difference. Normcore, the notorious fashion trend that peaked in popularity between 2013 and 2014, authored by collective K-Hole, originated from the same benevolent desires to be “authentic”, “unpretentious” and “communal”. After infiltrating mainstream pop culture, the trend resulted in the proliferation of an aesthetic trend of sameness, blandness and monotony. Jerry Seinfeld became the Objet petite a of this new anti-ideology identity that’s all about being laidback and normal-looking. Normcore’s manifesto championed everything Andy’s smirk stood for. It emerged as a response to ‘hipsters’, a subculture that was characterized by alternative fashion, rebellion and even claims of authenticity too, but with a focus on uniqueness and individuality.
Normcore directed mass appeal back towards what is normal and ironically valorized the status quo; rejecting the hipster’s difference as pretense or “trying-too-hard”. Despite its ironic frame, it spoke to a need to return to the status quo, which brings to mind the traditional formula of horror film narrative arcs. It is one where a status-quo world is introduced, gets disturbed by a monster or an external threat, and is finally dealt with to restore the status quo. Zizek also touched on this idea in his analysis of Jaws in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: the people on the beach are a metaphor for ordinary Americans, who fixate all their problems on an external threat, in this case a monstrous great white shark, instead of dealing with the countless internal and systemic issues of the status quo. That way, their perception of reality becomes much simpler, and ideological camps of good and bad are easily laid out. Zizek says Nazi ideology worked the same way.
“Horror fiction tends to be reactionary. It's usually about to return to the status quo -- the monster is the outsider who must be banished from the sanctum. But over and over again, I've created monsters who come from the outside and who call out to somebody to join them in the sanctum.” - Clive Barker
I’m putting forward this quote by playwright and film director, Clive Barker, to introduce this essay’s monster and bearer of heresy: The Edgelord. Edgelord is a slang term that has a generally negative connotation in cultural discourse. It is used as a noun and a verb. The following are some available definitions in both traditional and slang dictionaries:
Someone who intentionally expresses opinions that are likely to shock or offend people, especially on the internet, as a way of making others notice or admire them.
Someone, especially posting on the internet, who uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person. Most Edgelords are teenagers trying to seem overly cool and/or over- casually apathetic.
The edge in edgelord comes from expressions like cutting edge or the idea of being edgy, applying a sense of boldness or unconventionality to such behavior; the lord half elevates such a person ironically with the rank of a deity or member of British nobility, with echoes of Voldemort, Sauron, and other dark-spirited, villainous characters who hold that title.
An edgelord is someone with harsh opinions that they express in distasteful, offensive language to seem both edgy and aloof. As a 21st-century provocateur, an edgelord is especially attracted to taboo and controversial topics, which best showcase their would-be nihilism.
The term combines edge and lord. Edge refers to edgy, used of online behavior that is deliberately pushing the boundaries of taste and decency. Lord, seen in other internet slang terms like shitlord and douchelord, is a mocking honorific.
To demonstrate further with examples: when Ye, formerly Kanye West, wore the MAGA cap and said “slavery was a choice” it was considered edgelording. His recent White Lives Matter t-shirt is no different. His “friend” Elon Musk, who is perhaps the most notorious edgelord right now, even went as far as changing his Twitter handle to ‘Lorde Edge’ back in 2021. Slavoj Zizek reviewing The Matrix: Resurrections without seeing it was an edgelord move. Another example is artist Jordan Wolfson, whom the New Yorker published an article on titled “Jordan Wolfson’s Edgelord Art” that discusses how his transgressive art that is rooted in spectacle and shock fairs against an art world that’s grown more sensitive in recent years. One could even argue that writing the first essay that’s exclusively about edgelording is in itself an act of edgelording.
While there seems to be a consensus that edgelords are ultimately harmless posers and jerks who hide their insecurities with edginess as a defense mechanism, or opportunists that adopt its tactics for fame, the term has been linked to cultures of white suprematism and terrorism since its origin. ‘Edgelord’ has a glaring association with 4chan and reddit incel subcultures; conservative white male demographics and alt-right fanatics. Typically they are anti-social individuals who feel misunderstood by society, enjoy making racist or misogynistic jokes and idolize film portrayals of violent mentally unstable white men like Travis Bickle, Patrick Bateman, Tyler Durden or The Joker. A familiar trope that is no stranger to profiles of right-wing extremists.
Alt-right radicalization can provide answers to the edgelord’s questioning and limit-testing. Parts of right-wing ideology that are rooted in insensitivity and offensiveness can really appear to a young edgelord as the edgier route, especially when the opposing liberalist or leftist views assume a sound parental voice that edgelords very much don’t identify with. This is when the edgelord ideology can transform into something very dangerous. However, I would like to argue that, the moment the subject is indoctrinated into fascist or extremist ideologies, vis-à-vis another variant of the beautiful soul ideology, they are no longer an edgelord. An edgelord only edgelords for a response from the other, be it attention or outrage, which makes it an inherently coexistent mode of being. That is quite contrary to a terrorist’s or fascist’s ideology, who wants to impose their ideological will on the world and put an end to what they see as evil, in the name of good. You cannot expect a reaction from a dead body. In that moment their tottering urge or impulse to provoke or cause controversy is replaced with a more stable idealized fundamentalist rhetoric, and a clear plan to be accomplished.
No true edgelord would be okay with being cast as the good guy - they are incompatible with the beautiful soul ideology simply because they already see themselves as the evil. Their nihilism keeps them uninterested in fixing the world. Moreover, they enjoy performing the role of the evil, rather than be trapped in it or internalizing it, which makes them more aware of role-play in ideological space. This divide is crucial because it highlights that if the edgelord ideology, in the sense of being a provocateur or an agitator that thrives on perpetual attention, reaction, and shock, is contaminated with an ideal self and a hero narrative, it completely collapses into a beautiful soul ideology, and ceases to identify with any preconceived notions of edgelording. They are no longer an edgelord if their ideology morphed into one with a tribal grand-narrative that’s not interested in provocation and boundary-pushing. This argument now clarifies how edgelording can maintain a position of ideological neutrality, a tactic or tool that can be completely separated and acquitted from its association with right-wing ideology.
If edgelording is all about provocation and transgression, then edgelords are as old as time. Was Marquis De Sade not ‘distasteful’? Didn’t Nietszche’s The Gay Science offend people? What about Freud’s questioning of child sexual abuse? These thinkers sure entertained edgelording and are now mostly revered for it. To further explore this idea, I’d like to shed light on one particular historical edgelord, Georges Bataille. Deemed the ‘prophet of transgression’, Bataille famously lived a marginalized life. He was rejected by two of the most prominent progressive movements in Europe during his time; Surrealism and Existentialism. Bataille’s work spanned ideas of eroticism, taboos and dark mysticism, among others. One of his concepts is the foreign body, which closely resembles the idea of the external threat introduced earlier through Zizek’s analysis of Jaws and normcore’s status quo. He provided a framework that describes how these foreign bodies are dealt with: Bataille posited that society either rejects or appropriates the foreign body. Despite their appearance as opposite processes, he maintains that result is the same, as the real value in transgressive work is its heterogeneity and contradiction, which is lost whether rejected (outright expelled) or appropriated (assimilated but neutralized from its radicalism). He argues that truly transgressive work must be read between the gestures of rejection and appropriation. Another important idea in his work was limit-experience: when the contradiction of divine ecstasy and extreme horror are experienced at once, a powerful realization that they are identical takes us to the limits of perception where the ability to comprehend experience breaks down. Such experiences are usually found in taboo eroticism or extreme violence.
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle couldn’t deal with his fantasies of Iris - Bataille, on the other hand, could have (hypothetically). Here we can begin to find the breaking point that can truly test an edgelord. A master edgelord is one that reached the limits of their deepest darkest fantasies, the evil within them, and made peace with them. To refer to Zizek’s film again, their analysis of Bickle’s total breakdown is that he was coming into terms with the collapse of what’s left of his own good. He externalized the evil he saw in himself, so he lashed out on the world. Zizek says fantasy covers up inconsistencies in our mind and helps us make sense of things. But when we can’t come to terms with contradictions, then violent intervention in the real is the last resort to cover the impotence of our cognitive mapping. A true edgelord explores Bataille’s limit-experience as practice for being in and expanding that space; constantly pushing and making peace with the edges of experience. This demonstrates further how irreconcilable edgelording is with fascist ideology, because edgelording is never a means to an end - it sees no end.
More exploration of the term can be found in contemporary culture. Dorian Electra is a singer/songwriter and performance artist known for their experimental style and themes that challenge heteronormativity. They released Edgelord in 2020, a song and music video that engages and critiques the phenomenon of online edgelords and incel subcultures. Electra wrote the song from the first-person perspective, putting themselves in their shoes. Rather than condescendingly parodying their subjects as an evil other with absolutely no redeeming qualities, Electra went with empathy in their critiques. Which, to many who wouldn’t lend empathy to such tropes, is already an edgelord move. “What in here is almost universally human and relatable? There’s a lot of self-hate, feeling like you don’t belong, feeling like you can’t be attractive to a partner, feeling like you don’t fit into the ideal of romance or dating”, says Electra in their interview with MTV.
The song’s reception revealed how Electra’s audience, who are not as correlated with the term as 4chan incels, could identify with some edgelord sensibilities. Thus opening more space for dialogue, for all those who feel different or ostracized regardless of ideological beliefs, even if it’s only in the YouTube comments section (which is actually a space ripe with ideology discourse). “I think it’s totally worth it putting stuff out there that has ambiguity to it because you might draw people in who think it’s one thing and they’re surprised by other elements.”, they concluded. Electra’s song also demonstrates how ‘edgelord’ as a term might be on its way out of reactionary politics lexicon.
Much like Normcore’s valorization of sameness and status quo emerged as a reaction to hipsterism, there are contemporary pop cultural sensibilities that are indicative of a potentially upcoming mainstream embrace of edginess as a positive thing, but it would be inaccurate to say that it seeped into edgelord as a term yet (apart from Electra’s song). Against the backdrop of today’s ruthless attention economy, more and more people are turning to controversy and provocation in order to be seen. Earlier this year, Balenciaga just outright used gimp suits for their SS23 runway show, which they held in the middle of Wall Street Stock Exchange. Julia Fox’s low-rise pants caused recent controversy that sparked online conversations about our society’s standards of shock and cancel culture. Madonna is being openly cringe on Tiktok. Christina Aguilera wore a strap-on on stage. Kim Kardashian & Kylie Jenner, among other celebrities declared their support for a movement led by edgy meme admins that demands changes to Instagram’s moderation system for being too conservative. The bounds of what’s ‘edgy’ in mainstream culture are frantically expanding and transgression is proving to be late capitalism’s new favorite commodity.
The cultural landscape is ready for an edgelord rebrand. Just like the meaning of ‘shitposting’ - which used to connote unintentionally bad posts - changed over time, so can ‘edgelord’ shed its regressive associations. Pepe the Frog too, originally an apolitical meme, was appropriated by alt-right movements and became a symbol of white supremacy up until 2019 when it showed up in Hong Kong protests as a symbol of resistance and hope. There’s nothing new in defending provocateurs and their benefit to society, but when it comes ideology space, subverting the meaning of a widely spread term can go a long way. The connotations around edgelord as a term has mostly been adulterated by reactionary politics since its inception. Leaving a repulsive residue that made it hard for the avant-garde to pick up, but this could also be exactly why it’s enticing to expropriate it. Especially now for contemporary culture, as priorly demonstrated. Rebranding the edgelord can present progressive politics, that are stuck in moralistic beautiful soul syndromes, with opportunities of much needed PR.
The edgelord can provide us with a unique ideological position. They are on the constant lookout for the edges of ideology, testing its bounds, opting into or opting out of it with a significant degree of freedom. When it comes to transgression, a true edgelord would critically assess the last drawn edges that haven’t been transgressed, so anything done before or reactionary racist jokes automatically lose their edge. They would look for new ways to keep transgression alive in society. Edgelords are also not bullies. They are not interested in picking on the defenseless, simply because it doesn’t take them further. They’re unhinged enough to take on consensus or hegemony alone, without the refuge of a tribe. Sometimes even foolish, but not afraid to risk cringe.
Edgelording is reducible to an impulse and expandable to a full-on ideology. It is most of the time something we grow out of, an ideological adolescence of sorts. Yet, it is precisely that that makes it capable of reaching beyond the ‘adult’ prefrontal cortex and into unconscious territory. The edgelord would rarely bring forward a fact to win an argument. They would always rather elicit an emotional response. They carry a good deal of vulnerability and self-consciousness, yet are not limited or deterred by the obligation to only influence positive change in the world.
Michelle Obama’s famous phrase “When they go low we go high” is a demonstration of beautiful soul ideology, to which Timothy Morton responds with “When they go low, we go lower”. Agree or disagree with the sentiment, here lies an opportunity for edgelord behavior. Instead of a scolding, which is precisely what edgelords want out of their taunts, we push the edge further - like what Dorian Electra did. The edgelord doesn’t care much for purity and doesn’t mind diving head first into hypocrisy in their quest for what’s edgier. They can become the antithesis to both the beautiful soul and normcore ideologies, only because they can pull out or change their mind at any time. Adopting edgelording as a way to combat other ideologies would completely defeat the purpose and again lock it in a beautiful soul conundrum. Committing to it as an ideology beyond role-play should not be endorsed or encouraged. The ironic use of “lord” in edgelord already serves as a constant reminder that they can’t themselves it too seriously.
Hegel’s answer to the beautiful soul dialectic was realizing that we are the evil. Well, the edgelord did the first step - they enjoy being evil, even, or especially, when it’s just LARPing.