There’s an old comedy record called “How to Speak Hip” from the 1950s. Its enduring status as a cult novelty stems from being mentioned by Brian Wilson on bootleg tapes of Beach Boys recording sessions. On it, a too-cool-for-school beatnik indulges the anthropological curiosity of a hapless language instructor trying to decipher the impenetrable ethos of contemporary hipster lingo. They riff back and forth about the confusing and contradictory uses of terms like ‘cool,’ ‘hip,’ ‘dig it,’ etc. etc. This character of the counterculturalist, the beatnik, strikes us, at first glance, as little more than a collection of ironic and obfuscating slang terms and affected mannerisms. In the Post-War era, though, it has served as a generation spanning archetype of resistance and cultural criticism that has been returned to again and again by new waves of anti-establishment marauders who have made it their own.
“To be cool” isn’t just a saying, but a motto, or, perhaps, a maneuver around the back end of culture. It is an act of narrative terrorism equivalent to capturing the Mosul dam and then using it to blackmail the dependent population, who you can either deprive of water or completely drown, depending on your current mood.
Narrative is everything. And there is not one dominating narrative, but an endless multiplicity of competing ones, out of which, through resonance between some and dissonance between others, a phantom of consensus emerges. This consensus, in turn, is — as you can imagine — quite lucrative for those able to write themselves into the most clearly audible story line, the one most resonated and amplified and mutually enacted. It is not so much the role of the counterculturalist to criticize the positions of the powerful, point by point, but to delegitimize them as authors authorized to narratize themselves into the communal tale. The counterculturalist controls the flow of authenticity to the wasteland, and he who doesn’t drink, dies.
In order for his ploy to work, the counterculturalist must assume as his imperative a commitment not to political purity, but to aesthetic vitality. As the hipster explains to the anthropologist, being cool is about living in an unjust world, where your behavior — whether that amounts to your lifestyle choices in doing drugs, or your political affiliation with known and suspected communists — puts you at risk of getting the squares on your back. The squares may very well put you down and ship you off to the slammer. Being cool is living the resistance, being at odds with the rest of the world and occupying a microscopic niche as someone so surrounded by the system that, if they have no choice but to participate, will nevertheless live by a code of aesthetic honor capable of hollowing out a crevice or originality and authenticity.
The only problem, as soon became clear, was that this posturing was open to imitation and even capture by the forces of emulation and commodification. The major labels come knocking and before you know it you’re a sell out. To be cool is to deliberately situate yourself in a pocket of culture designed to distinguish yourself, and the act therefore necessities making yourself into, well, a dirtbag. Once you’ve done this you’re made, but as soon you trade your authenticity to consensus builders, and they begin to talk and act like you, you’ve allowed the aesthetic shop you started to be bought out. You’ll only look desperate or foolish if you start walking the freeway peddling counterfeit merchandise for a brand you regret having sold.
This brings us to Chapo Trap House. For decades the archetypal technology which the hipster represents has persisted, despite many of its individual components being switched out. Greased hair gave way to long hair. Jazz to folk rock. Punk to grunge. Throughout it all the left leaning political affiliations of the dirtbags have remained a consistent, if ultimately incidental element. Transformation, dirtbagification, to become a connoisseur of the outrageous, the offensive, the questionable. The operation is a delicate one, one of assembling not only the right references but the right attitudes towards them to work your way into that sweet spot of culture you want to occupy. The secret of counterculturalism resides in its establishment of a reliable methodology for curating a top-shelf collection of blasphemies.
Incorporation of left-leaning political sympathies and positions into the constellation of counterculturalism has, in this regard, been more an issue of taste in heresies than a matter of sincere ideological commitment. Always though, the imperative to be cool overrides all, and loyalties based on true belief become a liability when one must be endlessly vigilant in upgrading components as they become obsolete and coopted. It was during the Obama administration the durability of left-components in the counterculturalist machine was finally exhausted. Everyone had social justice in their collection cases, the true connoisseur was ready to move on to something more exotic.
The boys of the Dirtbag Left may be the last generation of left-leaning beatnik. For so many decades it was never necessary to append the further designation of ‘left,’ the two were synonymous. There was no need to clarify. Today, that’s no longer the case, since the alt-right has the concept of ‘dirtbagness’ covered and conquered. The Chapo fellows are suffering from nostalgia, a memory of the great cultural critics of old, who all wore their socialist sympathies on their sleeves, which, unfortunately, is something that compromises their credentials as true counterculturalists and gatekeepers of authenticity.
Whenever one of them throws around terms like ‘incel’ or ‘volcel,’ the Dirtbag Left tends to catch flak from alt-right Twitterers for appropriation, for drinking from the fountain of authenticity with tainted lips, but more than that has happened. A coup d’etat of narrative terrorism, a run around the camp of the traditional counterculturalists further upstream. By seizing the dam it’s the alt-right that now controls who lives and dies in the desert, who can believably and legitimately write themselves into the consensus narrative. This is, undoubtedly, what the Chapo team members always dreamed of most, of being dirtbags, of being 21st century beatniks. But someone beat them to it, and now they’re left to carry the alt-right’s memetic water to the masses — but not before they take a fee to dilute with the dregs of some fluoridated social-democratic left over from a 50-year-old music festival that long ago broke its promise to totally change the world.
The Dirtbag Left have become the cutting-edge of the ruling ideology; the spearhead of the establishment’s ongoing effort to mitigate the damage done by the counterculturalists. They become the primary organ of control, the filter through which alt-right ideas are presented to a wider, more polite audience in order to dissipate their radicalism. Indicative of this is the fact that the Chapo team feel free enough to append their own names to their “controversial” work. The denizens of #frogtwitter, on the other hand, intuitively understand the radicalism inherent to their act of self-positing. The dissenter is distinguished from the faux-dissenter by his genuine worry about being found out
As much as this is something to be celebrated by the perpetrators of this coup, they must always keep in mind the fate of the Dirtbag Left, that when one is inflexibly wedded to the political, one is easily outmaneuvered, and it may well be the case, that someday soon, the Left could become hip again, and it’ll be back to square one. Capturing the counterculture changes nothing, it is only by the diligent and careful application of it that anything can be changed. Not politics though. When political ends are selected for aesthetic means, the mismatch spells stagnation. Counterculture, as part of culture, can only change culture, nothing outside of that realm, and the truth of culture which is to be restored and regained is not a political truth, but an aesthetic one involving the ultimate truth value of the narratives which pervade our lived social reality. Politics are always downstream.