Criticism After Gaming: Notes on Pewdiepie, Cancel Culture and Reactionary Aesthetics

Is anyone else confused by the latest Pewdiepie drama? (Does anyone even care?) 

I have a long draft from 2018 on the topic of Pewdiepie lurking somewhere in the bowels of my WordPress account. I watch his videos a lot and I’ve talked about him a couple of times on the blog before — most extensively in the second part of my “All Roads Lead to Alienation” series

Controversies aside, I’ve long admired Felix Kjellberg’s transparency about his mental health issues and I find him to be an interesting weathervane for the shifting hot air of online subcultures. Any insights that might be drawn from this, however, are often lost to his unfortunate nature as a pretty stereotypical Scandinavian millennial who lacks any rigorous media training, coupled with a naive perception of his own whiteness that, from experience, seems to be pretty common amongst Northern Europeans. (Not that this excuses his worst outbursts but it seems to be a bigger issue than just him.) 

Beyond this, I think his strange position — as the world’s most popular YouTuber who is nonetheless seen as the figurehead for an otherwise marginal fanbase — says something interesting about our online spaces (although what exactly is being said is hardly clear from the outside). His relatable nature seems to come from the fact he is a product of early 21st century online cultures instead of being the kind of movement leader he is often heralded as being given the size of his audience. 

This is to suggest that, although he is regularly mentioned in the same breath as Infowars and Breitbart Media, it seems to me like he has more been influenced by a broader Silicon Valley neo-neoliberalism rather than spreading an ideology of his own. As far as I can tell, this is because he’s online, echoing a worldview that I do not share but one which is incredibly prevalent outside of mainstream discourses, and there are likewise many other cultural pies that suffer from the same issues in which he has his pewdie fingers. I feel like his latest controversy epitomises this.

After reaching a mind-boggling 100 million subscribers, Kjellberg made a video unboxing an award sent to him by YouTube, during which he committed to donate $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League as a (somewhat fleeting) gesture of goodwill following his previous controversies, during which he has been adopted as a meme by alt-right and white supremacist figures, as well as more personal accusations of anti-semitism. 

Soon after this video went up, there was apparently an enormous fan backlash and, in a follow-up video, Kjellberg decided to rescind his gesture, saying he would donate the money somewhere else.

I didn’t see any of this backlash personally. (That’s an alien part of Twitter and Reddit to me and the part I’m in is weird enough without heading over there.) All I saw were the videos themselves. But my girlfriend and I nonetheless spent much of this morning trying to figure out what was going on after even she became aware of there being some sort of controversy brewing when the story reached the front pages of a lot of national news websites (such as The Guardian and the BBC).

Knowing I watch his videos, she messaged me to see if I knew what the problem was — was the controversy that he was donating to the ADL in the first place, with their history of equating antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel and other dubious political stances? Or was it that he cowed to the pressure of his supposedly alt-right fans? 

What’s interesting to me is that it seems to be a mixture of both and I see this tension are being central to his online existence. It likewise seems to be a sticky situation that only he occupies.

This is part of the reason why I find myself following Pewdiepie’s content so closely. His high profile under the YouTube spotlight means he often appears caught in the middle of our contemporary culture wars. He’s not a part of LeftTube, nor is he explicitly a part of YouTube’s extremism problem. His personal politics certainly seem to lean to the right but he also seems to be at the mercy of both left- and right-wing cancel cultures, and the latter is a form of cancel culture that few in the media seem to fully understand the dynamics and concerns of. Controversies such as this make that explicitly clear, illuminating a broad cultural crisis that is seldom acknowledged.

First, perhaps we need a quick gaming culture recap… The current toxicity of gaming culture seems to be a result of the long shadow left by #GamerGate, the ultimate cultural backlash of the 2010s, and this has routinely been a topic that mainstream news outlets have dedicated summative essays to, trying to explain the controversy to non-gamers. It will never not be strange to me how a billion dollar industry can still be considered to be so politically niche.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever written about this on the blog here before but #GamerGate was something I fell foul of back in 2014 when it first exploded. On an old personal Twitter account, I made the mistake of criticising many of the women who were expressing pro-#GamerGate opinions on the hashtag by using the hashtag myself and throwing into the fray some sort of half-baked 140-character missive about the blatant false consciousness of these female #Gamergaters.

The tweet destroyed my mentions for a whole 48 hours, with the subsequent reactionary pile-on leading to a complete shutdown of my social media pages for another week afterwards as I let things blow over. Commenting of female false consciousness was perhaps, more broadly, not a good look, but it was #GamerGaters only who took issue with it, and being targeted caught me completely by surprise.

I didn’t have any sort of platform at that time. I’d simply waded into the hashtag without thinking and managed to successively piss off all the wrong people as the tweet got shared by hundreds across a combined network of thousands upon thousands. I remember at first reading all the responses whilst sat in my car under the Humber Bridge — a frequent hangout spot when I was living in Hull between 2014 and 2016 and with a very difficult situation at home. I counted the rapid-fire notifications with incredulity as I was hit with literally hundreds of replies a minute. The onslaught lasted for hours. It was terrifying and induced repetitive panic attacks for days. I had to completely unplug to get away from it. No phone or laptop. I almost threw the former straight into the River Humber. I went into complete digital isolation.

In hindsight, it was a telling experience. Here was a broadly reactionary cause that was emboldened by using the same pile-on tactics that the left have now become most infamous for and, after later experiencing it on the other side of the political divide, it is clear to me that this is a contemporaneous and generational issue rather than a fault in any singular political movement — a symptom of rampant neoliberalism with its risk-adverse politics of individualism. As such, it seems to be a dynamic that has defined all of politics over the last five or so years, despite its predominant association with the left. 

This is worth emphasising, I think, and paying closer attention to it. There is a sense that, in some corners of the internet, this latest Pewdiepie drama is a damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t scenario, straddling both sides of the political divide, as well as the divide between gamer culture and its outside.

That’s not to say Kjellberg’s “gamer” fanbase isn’t something of a pressure pot for certain types of politics — it evidently is — but that is precisely why it is interesting to me. The question is: why? And the answer, I think, is not because of online echo chambers and the rise of the an online right. It is symptomatic of a broader cultural — and even aesthetic — moment that should concern us all. 

Here is an industry where a broadly reactionary fanbase has the sort of clout that the left has with other mediums. And what is interesting is that this is compartmentalised as an alt-right issue by the wider media when, in fact, gaming seems to have just been mutated by a broader cultural industry at large. 

When Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds and the rest of the early ’00s blogosphere were in the midst of their hauntological moment, for instance, they were considering the ways in which old and established mediums were mutating due to the feedback loop of late capitalist cultural production. Reynolds’ book Retromania, in particular, explored the ouroboros of 21st century music cultures that were endlessly recycling themselves. However, whilst this is where much of the discussion remains, the same cannibalistic dynamics can be seen at play in cinema and visual art as well.

But gaming seems to have been overlooked throughout these discussions because, rather than suffering from slip into retromania, it instead came of age in that moment. This is to say that the gaming industry has internalised a broader cultural retromania to a far more insidious extent, making it the cybergothic industry par excellence today with its accelerative attitude towards technological innovation but with a largely reactionary view of its own broader cultural development.

I think a large part of this has to do with the gaming industry’s own attempts to critically legitimise itself through a development of its own modes of criticism — and this was the central focus of the #GamerGate controversy, lest we forget. This is important because criticism is — and always has been — political, but the gaming industry’s rushed attempts to give itself critical legitimacy have led to a general naivety about criticism’s role in their own culture. This, again, is due to the time in which gamers and their medium came of age — at a time when everyone was becoming a critic and criticism itself had supposedly been de-rigorised and democratised, for better and for worse.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this, video game criticism and journalism still have a long, long way to go in terms of their cultural standing and, like the industry itself, it finds itself speeding ahead as it tries to retroactively apply outdated critical standards to its own development in order to legitimise itself. (It is a critical forestalling that we’ve seen before — I have a whole other theory about this, for another time, exploring how photography went through a similar in-grown period of critical development which has only worsened its internal elitism today as an art form.)

To explain what I think the impact of this is, I want to foreshadow a future post I have in the works, returning to my current favourite literary critic Leslie Fiedler. 

I recently discovered the YouTube archive of the long-running political talk show, Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., on which Fiedler appeared in the 1970s. It’s a brilliant conversation that Buckley and Fiedler have, and at one point Fiedler even echoes a kind of proto-K-Punk perspective on popular modernism and the divide between high and low cultures, noting how the very emergence of this divide can be documented in tandem to the emergence of literary criticism as a whole.

Fiedler explains that it was in the middle of the eighteenth century that literary criticism first began to “assume its dominance”, at that time when

class had assumed social and economic power that was culturally insecure, and the new middle class, the new bourgeoisie, wanted people to write dictionaries to tell them how to spell words, etiquette books to tell them which fork to pick up, grammar books to tell them they weren’t supposed to say ain’t anymore, and critical books to tell them whether it was okay to read novels to begin with and, if so, which novels were more okay than others.

Those people were sent off to school to study the classics but then came back to talk to their masters about what they should read of current literature, especially to talk about the form that was invented at that moment in the middle of the eighteenth century — what has become the dominant literary form — the novel. And then, after a while, what happened was the people who were entrusted with writing guidebooks … began to get very high and mighty about what they were doing…

Critics were getting high on their own perceived authority but, at the same time, much of society was also ignoring their critical appraisals and indictments. Fiedler highlights, for instance, the persistent popularity of pornography, explaining how literary pornography has always been popular with all socioeconomic classes but always read privately and shamefully — the first (and still our biggest) guilty pleasure.

Later, moving forwards to the 20th century, Fiedler describes how the centrality of the university and pedagogic institutions more generally perpetuated the bourgeois elitism of criticism — an issue he, notably, also points out as prevalent in academic Marxism. He notes that

the determination of what was literature got turned into the question of what is taught in classes is literature — literature is what is taught in classes in literature — what is taught in classes in literature? Literature. It’s a perfectly circular definition which gets you no place.

What interests Fiedler about this is the extent to which this capture of criticism by the academy has made it easier to ignore so that quote-unquote “trash” that is critically maligned nonetheless persists and becomes a major cultural reference point for people. He continues:

If [Fiedler’s students] say to me as a critic: ‘Why do you think Dracula survived although it doesn’t come up to specifications in terms of its language and form and so forth?’ …

Certain books, which may be pretty low on instruction and don’t even ‘delight’ in the ordinary sense of the word… Some of those books may do something else to you, which is to say they may touch that essential archetypal mythological material which is in all of our minds and which is the one thing that keeps us together. This is a populist line I’m giving you…

Sometimes it seems that … all our conscious ideas separate us. You and I, if we discussed many things about politics for instance, might find we disagree but if we were to swap nightmare stories I bet we would discover that there are places where we live in the same region.

It is in this sense that horror and the gothic, in their ostensibly pulp modes, persist within our cultural imaginations despite their distance from contemporary critical trends. Horror movies occupy the same existence — critically trash but culturally central. Such is pop culture more broadly and such is gaming culture most explicitly today.

As a long-maligned medium that nonetheless attracts and is popular with millions, gaming culture has attempted to develop its critical thinking in reverse and, as a result, has dragged along much of the reactionary thought that defines criticism historically, albeit inverting it in apparently counter-intuitive ways. It has led to a kind of inverse elitism where academicism and capital-C criticism are blocked from having too much of an impact on the medium itself, and it is in this rock and a hard place that the main figureheads of gaming popularity like Pewdiepie find themselves, caught between a reactionary fanbase and an old-style critical media discourse. 

What needs to be considered in more detail is the way in which a reactionary culture — common to the “fanbases” of countless mediums — is conflated with a reactionary politics. This is more obvious to us now with the popular genres of yesteryear. I’m reminded, for instance, of Noel Gallagher’s recent trashing of Jeremy Corbyn and his nostalgia for Britpop’s tandem ascension with New Labour.

With gaming culture, the Venn diagram between reactionary culture and politics seems to reveal a considerable overlap, but the two are not mutually exclusive. We should pay closer attention to the ways in which seemingly innocuous aesthetic nostalgia is wrapped up with the rise in reactionary politics because there is a sense in which those critical institutions attempting to hold Pewdiepie to account are more responsible for the present situation than they are dare themselves to be aware of. The gap into which he falls is a more of a direct result of a persistent subcultural retromania than any alt-right movement grown in a vacuum.

This isn’t to shift responsibility but I think a more nuanced awareness of where these issues have arisen from will give us a far better chance of combatting their increased presence. Clambering around the surface of impotently spherical definitions of our cultural trends and warring cancel cultures is not going to get us anywhere.

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