Essay Series by:
Adam Lehrer,”Society Eroding, Giftzwerg Descending,” 2020.
PART I: TROLLS OF MODERNISM
There is a German word, “Giftzwerg,” that most directly translates as “poisonous dwarf.” This enigmatic mythological being generally resides deep beneath the ground — that is, far outside normative society — and is adept at creative crafts such as metallurgy (an implicitly artistic being, if one ruthlessly difficult to be around). The Giftzwerg thrives as an oppositional force. Characterized as loud, rude, and uncommonly spiteful, the Giftzwerg disrupts the typical ebbs and flows of “the discourse.” The Giftzwerg is a sophisticated brand of what we in Western internet culture call “a troll.”
Normally, we are conditioned to hate and fear these trolls that interrupt our conversations and puncture our ideologies with their incessant online bullying, their memes, and their disdainful senses of humor. But dear reader, consider the roll of the troll as filtered through the fantastical lens of Giftzwerg: the Gitftzwerg troll is an artist, and these beings have long held a vital cultural function throughout political, sociological, and art history. You see, the discourse that comes to define our culture’s values and prevalently held truths isn’t always universally correct. An alternate position is a valuable one in a society that is so consistently wrong. So when this Giftzwerg, this troll, slithers into our discourses, we greet him with scorn and disgust. But the troll, boisterously defiant, throws a grenade into the culture. The grenade, the contrarian thought, rips a whole into the fabric of the symbolic order. Oh, how we fight the truth! “How dare you! you small spiteful little troll! How dare you show us that we might be wrong!”
The discourse needs its trolls. It needs these evil, small, hateful, contrarian men and women to disrupt our safe spaces with oppositional, incendiary theories. Newton: for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The troll is the reaction. The reactionary? Not so much.
The Giftzwerg functions as an agent of chaos, an anarchic element that is vital to sorting truths from lies, and determining the value in misbegotten moral standards. We establish the taboos, the troll gleefully transgresses that taboo. We hate the troll, oh yes, we despise our culture’s Giftzwergs. But these beings elevate our subconscious repressions to the surface of our culture inevitably planting seeds that emerge as new discourses and new ideas. We are afraid, so deeply afraid, to challenge the prevailing ideas of our times, that we shrink. We shrink into cowardice. Shrink into clichéd theories and conceptions of culture and history. We conform, oh how we conform! The Giftzwerg laughs — with malicious glee — at our cowardice! We resist new ideas, but he forces us to consume and digest them.
The language of the Internet is a gothic language: “A language of the monstrous and the macabre,” writes author Laurence Scott in his book The Four-Dimensional: Ways of Being in the Digital World. With the Internet firmly established as the primary instrument for intellectual enrichment and human communication, it has also emerged as a contemporized iteration of the battleground of our most mythological and eternal ideological battles: chaos versus reason, conservation versus decadence, immorality versus morality. Our honored troll has its counterpart in another being aptly named after an iconic gothic fiend: the dreaded “grey vampire.” The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote, “The dominant modes of subjectivity at the end of history/web 2.0 are that of the troll and of the grey vampire, the two faces of The Last Man.”
How to understand this conflict between the troll and the grey vampire? While both modes of being share a couple key similarities, they also wield major distinctions. You see, where as the troll defines itself in opposition to the prevailing norms and ideological hegemonies of social life, the grey vampire feeds off of the opposition and reinforces those political and cultural norms. You have all dealt with grey vampires before. Have you ever gotten into an insufferable twitter debate with a MSNBC watching liberal shill absolutely positive that Trump is some kind of Russian operative despite the Russiagate story having been discredited almost two years ago? Of course you have. You ended up in a circular argument with a grey vampire; be grateful that the encounter didn’t leave you idealistically exsanguinated.
The troll/grey vampire opposition is at the crux of the conflict between the alt-right and “Tumblr Feminists” as outlined by Angela Nagle in her incendiary Kill All Normies text. “But after crying wolf throughout these years, calling everyone from saccharine pop stars to Justin Trudeau a ‘white supremacist’ and everyone who wasn’t “With Her” a sexist, the real wolf eventually arrived, in the form of the openly white nationalist alt-right who hid among an online army of ironic in-jokey trolls,” writes Nagle. While the alt-right took on the cultural roles of online trolls, the “Tumblr feminists” embodied the grey vampire in its most toxic iteration. Both ideologies, while wildly out of step with the modes of thinking and being of the wider populations, equally feast upon the attention economy. Attention is that which feeds these mythological beasts, but they are ravenous and insatiable. A multi-course feast worthy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover leaves their stomachs growling.
But while the-alt right became defined by a pure opposition — total transgression of cultural norms — the “Tumblr feminists” were propagating a more extreme version of an ideology that had already been dispersed throughout and co-opted by the corporate mainstream. The grey vampires as represented by “Tumblr feminists” here present as remarkably social beings: polite, kind, “understanding.” And yet, in their unearned moral certainty, they stop at nothing from enforcing bourgeois ideology and oppressive hegemonic norms. The cultural vampire, unlike the troll, is always sure that it is right. Whereas the trolls revel in their wrongness to express a singular alienation while seeking the “creation of an anarchic community out of the wreckage,” according to philosopher Nina Power, the cultural vampires attempt to coerce, shame, and “educate” their perceived ideological opponents into taking on the hegemonic cultural belief system (at the present, that system is “woke” neoliberalism).
I don’t mean to venerate alt-right trolls here, and clearly as a sub-culture it is prone to vicious displays of misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism and an almost sickening disregard for real human beings, but it is merely one kind of troll. The troll, unlike the grey vampire, does not claim moral authority or certitude. The troll seeks to push back against prevailing norms, right or wrong. As Mark Fisher says, “trolls are not limited to cyberspace. And of course, the elementary troll gesture is the disavowal of cyberspace itself.”
This, brothers and sisters, emphasizes the point that I am ultimately trying to make. An internet troll by definition is a rejection of the Internet, i.e. our prevailing cultural discourse machine, in and of itself. As Fisher points out, this is a historical stance. The Internet as cultural hegemony is a role that in the past has been filled by modernism, technology, science, technocracy. But the troll has always been there, exposing the hypocrisies within our culture and its institutions. The Gitzwerg: he who opposes, he who disobeys. What I am proposing is that the troll, when liberated from our narrow understanding of it as merely an online bully, is an art historical stance that has yielded some of our most radical cultural productions. In its bold defiance, the troll leaves room for an avant-garde elevation of idea and aesthetic that the grey vampire never could. This elevated troll is an artist, or a thinker, or a generator of the new. The poisonous dwarf is an agent of change. The troll is needed now more than ever.
What follows this essay is a series of imagined conversations with some of recent history’s — from modernism to liquid modernism — boldest, most liberated, and most radical Giftzwergs.
Adam Lehrer,”The Spectacle (Troll It),” 2020.
TROLLS FROM RENAISSANCE TO EARLY 20TH CENTURY MODERNISM
Rabelais the rebellious, how the French aristocracy despised you! What was it, like Francois, to be surrounded by such bone-headed vulgarians? You trolled the 16th Century French monastery from the inside. You exposed the absurdities and failures of quack physicians whom you worked alongside as a physician yourself. A monk. A doctor. And perhaps the world’s first great prose writer. A lacerating satirist of biting wit and profound cultural critique, hypocrisy was everywhere and you alone could see it. You alone could dissect it. You alone could expose it. You alone, Francois, could troll it.
The modernist 20th Century literary critic Mikhail Bahktin identified some of modernism’s most powerful modes of revolt in your work. The carnivalesque, Francois, you saw power in the strength of the crowd! THE DECADENCE OF THE CARNIVAL! The people were united in splendor and debauchery! Bound by their flouting of the authorities, by their excesses, their thirsts for life and freedom, Rabelais, you illustrated it beautifully!
Francois, I admire your ability to identify the strange and contradictory within your own epoch. I identify with it, actually. I live in liberal capitalism in the 21st Century, can you believe it? We are separated by centuries, and yet, we are one! Artists who can see! Artists who detect and resent flaws within our own societies. Artists who disdain the very times periods we were thrust into by no faults of our own! It’s not our faults!
Where I must live under the control of platform capitalism (sorry Francois, there’s just no way I can adequately explain to you the concept of cyberspace, should your ghost ever decide to haunt my dreams again, we can talk it out), you lived under the repressive dominion of the Church. But you flouted its authority, Francois! Your writing, so deliriously funny and brutally poignant that it was protected by a network of powerful patrons, punctured the projected image of the church that reverberated throughout society like the sun through the ozone. Guy Debord understood that the culture of the 20th Century was a spectacle, but your era was a spectacle too was it not? The church is nothing if not spectacular. Moreover, it’s vulgar. The sheer foppish pageantry of its rituals must have been enough to make you sick. Modernity, you anticipated it, you perhaps even created it. Modernity — a mode of transgression, an onslaught on normative values — is intertwined with trolls. Without trolls, no modernity. Without modernist intent, no trolls. You were one of the most mischievous trolls of all. Fearless, radical. Rebel Rabelais.
In the fourth book of your Gargantua anthology you tell the story of Master Villon. I love this story, it so illustrates your preternatural power to expose. To troll. Villon, your chosen protagonist, is like you, an artist with seismic ambition but still bound to the financing structures of the church. Such a drag! Villon wants to produce a play full of travesty and passion (much like your prose!) All he needs to complete his work of unparalleled creativity is a costume for one of the play’s primary characters, God Almighty. But a local sacristan responsible for financing Villon’s plays, insulted, rebukes Villon’s pleas for financing! Villon, bold and defiant as his creator, decides to take on the role of troll (of Giftzwerg even) by staging the play’s rehearsal just as the sacristan strolls by on his carriage. Villon stirs his cast into a decadent frenzy! The sacristan’s horse is startled, and drags that stingy sacristan across the lands! “Thus he was dragged about by the filly through the road, scratching his bare breech all the way.”
Villon was you, Francois. This story is the essence of your incisive trolling. "In his novel, and by means of his novel, Rabelais behaves exactly as did Villon....” wrote your most insightful critic Bahktin. “He uses the popular-festive system of images ... to inflict a severe punishment on his foe, the Gothic age." This is it, Francois! You were in awe of the capacity of the masses for chaos and decadence to undermine the rigidity of living through the repression of a Church dominated monarchy! The Renaissance was a time of artistic resurgence no doubt, but it could not contain your exuberance. It could not contain your genius. No, you ushered in modernism. You were its first troll, able to fracture the hegemony of the Church and the aristocracy that formed a disorienting labyrinth of power and dominance. Oh, if you only knew how many great historic trolls would later bask in your influence! Cervantes! Shakespeare! Joyce! Rejoice! Rejoice for all of them Francois! The giants of modernism. The grand trolls of literary history. They are your legacy! You are its progenitor.
Friedrich, you were right. God had died. He’s still dead. Dead as a fuckin doornail. But don’t worry, us 21st Century dullards have found plenty of things to replace him with: celebrity, outrage, and technology (a great artist of our time named Neil Gaiman made a book of illustrations and text entitled American Gods in which the gods of mysticism and folklore face off with the technological idols of the information age for a battle over the souls of mankind. It’s pretty good, I think you’d like it).
Friedrich, you would be shocked at how utterly controversial your thought remains to this very day. Since your death hundreds of years ago, thinkers and ideologues have attempted to co-opt and rebrand your philosophy to justify their political demands. “The Will to Power,” as you often refrained, was “beyond good and evil.” My god (dead as he is), the fortitude you possessed! The analytical prowess! You were as apolitical as a philosopher could be! You simply diagnosed the world as a fluid matrix of competing power centers. But it’s just such a potent phrase, “the will to power.” The political left embraced it, appropriating it into a Marxist theory of political change: “Seize the will to power, workers of the world! Rise up and take your rightful ownership over the means of production!” As an old fashioned communist myself, I’ve often considered how to liquidate your philosophy into my political theory of change, but alas, I believe that is to woefully miss the pint. Conversely, the 20th Century right wing also found your terminology, potent, Friedrich. The Nazis found your nomenclature very useful in justifying their creation of a white ethno-state (your sister didn’t help any, here, I truly hope you’ve had a chance to slag her off in the after life, she used you Friedrich, used you for power and clout, as we call it now).
But politics wasn’t really your domain, was it? No, you were merely an agitator! A troll! You were suspicious! Suspicious of the hierarchies and clichéd platitudes that had infected the theory of the 19th Century. Morality, you said, what does it even mean? How can such a complicated subject be derived solely from Judeo-Christian thought? Surely one could be moral and not be a Christian, and surely a Christian could be immoral?
What is so enduringly exciting about your philosophy, Friedrich, is that it is a Rorschach test. To read Nietzsche is to know thyself. Your theories are amorphous, applicable to any and all politics, all religions, all modes of thought! You lived in a world enduring rapid change. A new world needs new ideas, and you had ideas. So many ideas! How could theology continue to hold value over thought in a world in which god had died! In which god was pushed aside by machines! Industrialization demanded genealogical suspicion, a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” And you gave it to us, Friedrich. If only you had lived through the 20th Century to see what you’ve become! You are a god Friedrich! Immortalized by the thought and teachings of modernism’s greatest minds! Its greatest trolls! Foucault, Bataille, Adorno, Sartre, Cioran! Suspicious minds, brilliant minds!
I can’t even tell you how prophetic your analysis of slave morality has proven itself to be. Leftwing politics, which admittedly you were always suspicious of, has totally failed in galvanizing any kind of the broader class consciousness that your contemporary Karl Marx was hopeful could be attained as capitalism continued to immeserate its subjects. But class politics continues to fail, and today’s leftists are every bit as filthily capitalist as their right wing counterparts. The difference between the left and the right lies in a slave versus master morality, Friedrich.
Today’s right wingers are more than happy to protect a white, male oligarchic state. Instead, today’s left merely uses slave morality to secure “seats at the table” for people of more marginal identities in relation to race, gender, religion and orientation. They aren’t arguing for the abolition of the ruling class. No! They want to “diversify” the ruling class, weaponizing their cultural oppression to eviscerate their enemies all the way to the top. But I’m a socialist! I want the revolution to come from the abolition of the oligarchic state! And you know what they call me? These “leftists?” A “class reductionist!” And the craziest thing is that even with a diversified ruling class, people of all races and all genders are living in more poverty than at any point in human history! Slave morality has utterly neutralized the efforts towards real emancipation of working and poor people, mystifying the stakes of realpolitik! It’s a tragedy, Friedrich. A historically absurd tragedy.
A great French writer who lived a bit after you, named Camus, once wrote of you as “the only artist to have derived the extreme consequences of an aesthetics of the absurd.” I think he’s right, Friedrich, I really do. Industrialization ushered in an era of absurdism that has persisted to this day. A world of absurdity doesn’t always need philosophers. There are no easy answers living in absurdity, and philosophy just can’t always prove adequate. What an absurd world needs is humans who dare to think differently. Who dare to point at absurdities and say: “You fools, you are all absurd! Can you not see the absurdity of our ways of living and thinking?” Absurdity demands trolls. Absurdity demands ARTISTS! And your life gave birth to a new kind of thinker. The artist-philosopher, dissecting and contextualizing the absurdities of life and extracting great beauty from it. Your thought was beautiful, Friedrich, don’t let anyone take that away from you.
HP, master of the macabre, progenitor of the CTHULU, demi-god of the cosmic horror, people these days can’t even appreciate the artful disdain in your work without harping on about your racism and your anti-semitism. Just yesterday I read a record review about this heavy metal band (to know what heavy metal is, you would have to know what rock n’ roll is, so let’s just say metal is to us here in the 21st Century what Wagner was to you in the 19th Century) called Providence. Providence named themselves after your home city, HP, they love you! They love you as much as I love you. And this critic, Kim Kelly, she’s rather obnoxious, HP, she all but denounced the band for loving your work.
But how could we not love your work, HP? You defined a cosmic horror for the 20th Century! In your work, horror isn’t a genre, it’s a philosophy! A philosophy of the unknown, of the “world without us” as one of our own 21st Century philosophers Eugene Thacker would call it. All that magnetic brilliance, but your antisemitism and racism are attributes a touch too shocking for most of what passes as the American left in 2020. Well, I’m a jew HP, and I love you. Even if you hate me, I love you. I love you because no one could materialize a language of hate and fear and disorienting unknowability like you. You are the almighty giftzwerg! A small, toxic dwarf, disdainful and suspicious of all that modernist progress that was meant to usher mankind into utopia. You were right. We aren’t living in utopia. In fact, Earth circa 2020 is a hellscape, HP. While there are men who have hundreds of billions of dollars, most citizens of the world have barely enough money saved to simply weather the next week. And what do today’s “progressives” do about it HP? They attempt to silence any and all who pose an alternative view.
HP, you mean-spirited bastard, for all these contemporary scolds that try to write your work off all together, there are plenty of others who twist themselves into pretzels to justify their love of your work DESPITE your bigotries. Victor Lavalle, for instance, he’s probably one of our most respected contemporary authors of the weird fiction that you pioneered, wrote a novella entitled The Ballad of Black Tom in 2016. The story is framed as a “woke” remake of one of your more flagrantly racist stories The Horror at Red Hook. But that story predates the Cthulu Mythos, HP, it’s not even part of your seminal body of work, and yet Lavalle uses it to rationalize his love of your prose against his distaste of your bigotries. But this is wrong, I think. Your disdain for progress, your distrust of modernism, and your HATE is inextricably linked to your art. This isn’t a case where one can simply separate art from the artist, because your art was inherently negative, and your negative outlook on humanity must be folded into that understanding.
I’m reminded of what a late-20th Century French philosopher named Julia Kristeva would say about the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Céline worked contemporaneously with you but found himself widely celebrated by the intellectual avant-garde, whereas you scribbled away on the fringes, publishing in pulp and sci-fi magazines. Despite that gap in initial acclaim between the two of you, and his interest in a hyper-realist abjection against yours in the unknown and that which is beyond knowledge, I believe you both shared an intense nihilism and malicious dismissal of humankind. Kristeva believed that efforts to isolate Céline’s stomach-churning antisemitism was to misunderstand the impact of his art as it overlooks the rage against the symbolic, or the ferocious anger at society in its totality, that is given language by your contemporary Céline’s antisemitism: “Anti-Semitism would be a die-hard secularism sweeping away, “ writes Kristeva. “Along with its number one enemy, religion, all its secondary representatives: abstraction, reason, and adulterated power, considered emasculating.”
I think Kristeva was right, HP. I do think Céline’s bigotries were inseparable from his art. How could one read prose so transcendentally negative and not consider his actual petty hatreds to be at least partly fueling that prose? Would it not be dishonest? I am honest, HP. It’s a virtue that I use to differentiate myself from the reactionaries and dullards I’m surrounded by in the 21st Century. And I am honest enough to admit that I love your work, not in spite of your racially driven grievances, but perhaps partly because of them. I find racism abhorrent of course, and that’s the dilemma you imbue in me as a reader: to be mesmerized by you is to be repulsed by you. I must acknowledge that your bigotries were connected to a broader world view that casts a cloud of ominous doubt upon all that we happily interpret as reality.
The Cthulu Myths. The Great Old Ones. These massive tentacled beasts that populated your literary universe suffused my childhood nightmares with enigma and an inescapable sense of my own impotence and ineffectuality in this world. My egocentric adolescence would be replaced with the dreadfully adult realization that I am nothing but a speck of dust. My society? Dust. It’s all dust. It’s all meaningless. And the more we learned about our galaxy through the rapid scientific progress of modernism, the more we learned that we. Are. Nothing.
Your beasts, your “Great Old Ones,” are the manifestations of all that is unknown. The closer we got to understanding the universe, you suggested, is the closer we came to knowing that we are constitutionally incapable of understanding our universe. Our universe is unknowable, a terrifyingly vast and empty void, and we are but a miniscule component of it. I imagine you looking upon your fellow 20th Century men with dismissal and contempt. While they stood in awe at the technological momentum of industrialization, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Ford’s production line, you must have seen what the fall out of these would be, no? Did you know that these innovations would result in mass poverty, nuclear war and climate apocalypse? Maybe, maybe not. But you must have found these people to be fools considering what you came to believe would be science’s ultimate result: the realization that there is nothing. The universe is merely lawless chaos and and and all attempts to understand it are futile.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far,” you once wrote in The Call of Cthulu. “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
To understand your remarkable powers of cosmically pessimist philosophy, we must interpret your art as inseparable from your worldview. We must accept that your hatred was not limited to those who looked or worshipped differently than you, but that those narrower grievances were merely aspects of a broader dogma of rejection. To love you is to love your hate. Without this hate, we reduce your work to what Georges Bataille would have called merely a “literary power.” But you are beyond literature. You are beyond humanity, even! You are Giftzwerg, the mighty troll who looked at Earth and saw nothing, an artist who forced us to confront our futility! Bless you HP! An author who concealed a pessimist philosophy to rival Schopenhauer and Cioran within the pages of low-brow sci-fi magazines, creating generations of trolls to come. Lovecraft, the crypto-philosopher. Bless you.
Adam Lehrer,”Lovecraft v Modernism,” 2020.
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