A Goodbye to Irony

Graphic by Yuri Bong

Given the increasingly garish aesthetic of American politics, it’s no wonder that irony has subsumed schmaltz as the predominant tonal register among a certain subset of self-adulatory commentators. Make no mistake, the coterie of television personalities featured on MSNBC remain as qualified to star in saccharine (but diverse!) Hallmark movies as those on Fox are to star in an off-brand Starship Troopers sequel. However, among the growing portion of the American populace for whom politics exists exclusively online, the adoption of ironic detachment when discussing the machinations of American capitalism is fashionable, if not entirely uniform.
I am not the first to notice this; the development of the often-abrasive online community referred to in internet parlance as the “dirtbag left” has been dissected ad infinitum by both advocates and detractors. Synonymous with this trend is Chapo Trap House, an ostensibly comedic podcast whose popularity can be attributed to growing dissatisfaction with America’s economic status quo. For five years, the show’s absurdist comedy routines seemed like the only honest way to grapple with a political ecosystem poisoned by reality TV. 

There was, of course, Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, the popularity of which briefly gave the show and its hosts something like a purpose, albeit a short-lived one. On Apr. 9, 2020—the day after Bernie dropped out of the primary—Matt Christman, Chapo’s resident historian and canniest political analyst, posted the first of what he called “Cushvlogs.” With almost poignant self-awareness, Christman discussed his own parasitic relationship to the spectacle of American politics, rooted in a simultaneous critique of and participation in the perpetual culture war raging on the internet. 

Ten months and 144 videos later, Christman has outlined something like a cosmology of the American left, identifying spiritual undercurrents lingering in traditional Marxist orthodoxy. His influences range from Gnostic Christianity to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Even as the eccentric ramblings of an internet-addled millennial desperately attempting to assemble meaning for himself, these vlogs would be compelling. But they’re something greater: documentation of a dawning awareness of spiritual breakdown stemming from the alienating effects of capitalism and their unique acceleration by the internet.

Christman’s diagnosis (and perhaps the most compelling argument for his occasional brilliance) is best exemplified by his modification of one of Karl Marx’s more famous metaphors. Marx conceived of the French peasantry as potatoes in a sack: fully formed but socially isolated individuals whose material conditions were determined by the person with the power, the holder of the sack. Christman’s analog for the neoliberal subject is a pringle in a can; their material conditions remain determined by the container, but their isolation differs from that of the French peasantry in that it is not a product of geography, but of entirely artificial (and, in some cases, self-imposed) social phenomena which reproduce alienation, the internet chief among them. While not a particularly complex metaphor, Christman’s nearly encyclopedic awareness of postwar American history and his irreverent humor go a long way towards making it accessible to the context-starved masses.

The seriousness of this reckoning with the dangers of performing politics exclusively on a platform as frictionless and atomizing as Twitter was made most clear when, in an early June video discussing the wider implications of 2020’s summer uprisings, Christman breaks down crying. He tearfully explicates the necessity of sustained, real-world activism to prevent an even more aggressive crackdown on dissent. It is an unbridled, almost unprecedented display of emotion from one of the internet’s premier purveyors of ironic affect, made all the more poignant in hindsight by the brutal effectiveness of the post-Bush surveillance state in tracking and quashing organized protest. 

The key to Christman’s new tonal register, however, is not in his willingness to call for action, but in his unwillingness to disown it when it fails to effect any change in material conditions. In some of his more abstract sermons (aided, as they often are, by the offscreen presence of marijuana), Matt expresses a belief in a fully deterministic universe. His intention is not to express a sense of futility, but to castigate those for whom social alienation (in the Marxist sense) is an excuse to remove themselves from the project of organized American leftism. To his mind, predetermined as the state of the world may be, humanity does not experience it as such, and it is from a shared linear perception of time that man’s sense of obligation is derived. A movement may not change the world, but an effort, impelled by the uncertainty of the future, is always worthwhile. It is a simple insight, but a necessary one given the power of contemporary American political institutions to make us all want to blow our fucking brains out.

These institutions, and the epiphenomena that sprout up around them, are what Christman encourages his listeners to disengage from. He does this not because he has given up on politics, but because he recognizes that both electoralism and the petty argumentation bred by the internet are incidental to the real centers of power: capital, and the financial institutions which administer it. How, then, to combat an enemy which by its very nature requires socially atomized subjects? Christman’s solution is deceptively simple: log off, refuse to participate in the spectacle, and use the time to foster genuine relationships. This practice—participating in a fully formed social life—is what Christman sees as not only the necessary counterweight for the relentless individualism of late-stage capitalism, but a first step towards rebuilding the kind of class consciousness that bred America’s now-decimated labor movement.

It is a more optimistic, more fulfilling message than the left has received from a figure as popular as Christman in years. The spirituality of his listenership reflects a heretofore unacknowledged, religion-shaped vacuum among the disillusioned “dirtbag” left.   The subreddit which emerged from Matt’s musings, r/AcidMarxism, is full of nearly 6,000 people engaging in communal and artistic projects, many of whom are first-time seekers of more fully embodied life under an economic structure which encourages the exact opposite.

Christman’s newfound ability to articulate the spiritual deadness which characterized so much of his prior Internet activity, culminated in a Feb. 1 announcement: he would no longer be regularly streaming his own monologues. Instead, he plans to use the revelations—spiritual, political, and historical—which he had stumbled across on his post-Bernie journey, to write a book. After a life spent bumping into (and pissing off) the terminally isolated pringles of the Internet, one of the most astute (and broadly accessible) observers of America’s descent into neoliberal austerity is taking his own medicine and logging off, dedicating himself to the pursuit of something real, something actionable. It’s not a perfect message, and Christman does not claim that it is, but it’s a profoundly necessary rejection of and replacement for the relentless, irony-laden nihilism that has taken root in much of the American left. There’s a certain relief in hearing someone focus not on the fraying social ties of modernity, but on the possibility of new futures, new connections, in anticipation of whatever may come next.

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