Assemblage Theory Current Affairs digital rhetoric

An alternative to plumbing the depths of fascist souls

Many have noted their displeasure/anger with two recent NY Times pieces both by Richard Fauset: the first is a piece of reporting about a particular Nazi/white nationalist, Tony Hovater, and the second is what I think one would call a reflective op-ed follow up to that story. The displeasure/anger stems from the way in which the pieces normalize white supremacy. I won’t get into that here, though its fairly self-evident now that, even in the most generous reading, those pieces were ineffective since its hard to imagine their rhetorical aim was to create the conversation that has resulted. You can read the stories for yourself or read this satire of the whole business in Atlantic. I am interested though in the ostensible impulse behind these stories–to understand why seemingly “normal” Americans become white supremacists. Why do we have this impulse? Would it be a useful question to answer if one could answer it?

At one  point in the second piece, in which Fauset reflects on his frustration at not being able to answer the question of why Hovater became a Nazi, he writes the following:

I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?” To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods. Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader.

Maybe. But the smartass answer to the koan is “a matchstick.” The resulting insight is that the problem may be that you’re looking in the wrong direction when you try to look for someone’s “soul.” To put it in lawyerly terms, you’re assuming facts that are not in evidence. Toss out the soul hypothesis, and this project might become easier. And in tossing out the soul, I don’t mean just the religious notion but also the entire concept of an internally consistent psyche. This isn’t about someone’s soul. It’s about the operation of the social assemblages we populate.

Demographically, there are a lot of white guys like Hovater–married, blue collar, living in small-town America surrounded by farms, and driving to a nearby small city to enjoy Applebees, Wal-Mart, and the other roadside attractions of contemporary corporate culture. Of course one doesn’t have to be in that demo to feel dissatisfied with one’s life, to be angry or scared, to feel existential angst, or to become a hate- and rage-filled bastard. Maybe it isn’t so surprising that Jack and Diane end up building a Nazi website in the spare bedroom of their little pink house. None of this is really surprising. As some critics of Fauset’s article point out, all the article manages to point out is the banality of evil, and we already know about that. But think about it this way…

fascism is inseparable from a proliferation of molecular focuses in interaction, which skip from point to point, before beginning to resonate together in the National Socialist State. Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran’s fascism, fascism of the Left and fascism of the Right, fascism of the couple, family, school, and office: every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others, before resonating in a great, generalized central black hole. (A Thousand Plateaus, 208)

My sense of this is that we’re surrounded by, soaking in, microfascisms, banal evils. There’s not much point in asking how microfascism arises. The question is about resonance.

No one needs to be told that the internet, social media in particular, has operated as a tool for building virtual communities among ideological extremists, fascist or otherwise. Sharing news, rhetorical strategies, political tactics, and more immediately dangerous information as well as serving as a platform for logistics and organizing are obvious  uses of the web for political extremists. Also not surprising is that the web serves as a medium for attacking one’s enemies. However we also ought to be able to recognize the deterritorializing and decoding effects of digital communication. I’m not going to go through the Deleuzian chapter and verse here, but the result, which is fairly easy to observe, is the intensification/purification of an ideological line of flight that would be unlikely to arise (or at least would not so easily arise) in face-to-face, territorial communication.

One doesn’t need to be a fascist to experience this, btw. All you have to ask is whether or not you are a more ideologically extreme/pure version of yourself online than in other aspects of your life. Or you might ask if the online communities in which you participate demand more pure ideological expressions than you might otherwise give. I think in many cases, this does happen. Rather than such investigations serving as an excuse for fascism (society made me do it), the point is to stop trying to peer into the soul of the fascist as if his secrets can be found there. What we need to understand isn’t in the hearts of people like Hovater. It’s in the mechanisms that turn those microfascist tendencies into a political movement.

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