Who is Cancel Culture Discourse For?
My book about "Cancel Culture" discourse came out last November. In a talk in Frankfurt I got to reflect on developments since then.
[On Monday, I was asked to speak at an event at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. It was an event on discourse strategies and culture wars, and the other guest was the brilliant cultural and gender studies scholar Simon Strick, who has done impressive research on right-wing extremism, especially online. His book Rechte Gefühle is all about “digital fascism” and how what structures of affect it relies on. I very much recommend it. I wanted to share my own contribution to the discussion here, both because it allowed me to articulate some key themes of my book (which isn’t out in English yet), and because it allowed me to think through some implications of my book that have emerged since it was published in November of last year (and which will find their way into the English edition.]
My topic today is the discourse around cancel culture, which is also to say that my topic today isn’t the object “cancel culture”. This is because while what we talk about when we talk about cancel culture can be quite slippery, our ways of talking about cancel culture are not. Specifically, they (a) are pretty well established to the point of routine, (b) have a long and clearly documented history, (c) turn out to transfer far more easily from country to country and from discourse to discourse than the objects they putatively describe. The other thing they have in common: unlike attempts to “cancel” celebrities, they actually work – at least they work for certain audiences.
In my introductory remarks today, I want to characterize this discourse as follows: for those readers/writers/audiences for whom this discourse “works”, the fear of cancel culture is capable of dissolving certain democratic antinomies—temporarily and in a purely aesthetic way. It does this by time and again hovering between two poles that are actually incompatible, but due to the construction of its opposite — a “culture” so diffuse and internally contradictory that only few would affirmatively identify with it — it manages to lay claim to both poles at once.