⠀Mephistopheles.--Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Tr. John Stuart Blackie)
⠀⠀⠀I am a part of that primordial Might,
⠀⠀⠀Which always wills the wrong, and always works
⠀⠀⠀You speak in riddles; the interpretation?
⠀⠀⠀I am the Spirit of Negation:
⠀⠀⠀And justly so; for all that is created
⠀⠀⠀Deserves to be annihilated.
⠀⠀⠀'Twere better, thus, that there were no creation.
⠀⠀⠀Thus everything that you call evil,
⠀⠀⠀Destruction, ruin, death, the devil,
⠀⠀⠀Is my pure element and sphere.
One of the most striking and “real” to me things about Jenny Hval's Girls Against God is the theorization of hatred as a provincial emotion. Not in the sense of the backwater racist, who doesn't really see themselves as particularly hateful, but the prickly negativity and anger you carry with yourself when you go anywhere else if you've grown up there. It's the clinging sense of ill-belonging, eternal cynicism you can't shake, because in a sense it was your security blanket, what allowed you to hold rejection at arm's length, and regard it as something chosen instead. The 90s southern Norway she describes is, quite literally, an ocean and a decade away from the south-central PA suburbs where I was a teen in the 00s, but feels unnervingly similar, the centrality of religion, conservatism, conformity, whiteness and straightness all holding hands in a tight maypole dance like one of those gruesome filmbro moneyshots in Midsommar.
The people who received that setting as some sort of darkly-appealing fantasy (“Obviously it's meant to be bad, but, ...haha!”) feel like they must come from a different planet than me. And, though I understand them maybe a little bit more, the general idea of a community that is, primarily, easy and harmonious in a more or less uniform way also feels alien. There's no sense of the way communities can push out, bully, hurt, alienate you and make you feel crazy in ways that inform your self-image and relationships for the rest of your life. “Community” as a sort of feel-good filler word representing warm harmony is the plasterboard front of the banal fact that it simply describes a nexus of relationships, without any particular determining force on the quality, health or value of such relationships. On an individual level often invisible in the zoomed-out view it can go as wrong or right as the moment the omelette is in the air.
This sort of bitterness and Mephistophelian negativity, this provincial hatred that Hval returns to again and again, marks you as an ill-fit even once you escape it. I only began to have a sense of my background as, like, hickish and uncultured once I entered higher education. If you always experience belonging it's easier to go on nodding; in my aesthetic opinions, though I leapt on the ability to absorb more art and literature and theory than I could have known existed from the one Borders in my hometown (RIP), I always felt provocative, ruthless, a troublemaker. Part of it was a bit of a front to pre-empt insecurity, sure, which is a textbook provincial move. But, in experiencing the outside, it's so much easier to in turn sympathize with and see the value in the excluded, the minor, the perverse. It's also so much easier to arrive at the big-deal Real Cultural Center Culture and say, underwhelmed, that this is bullshit.
The type of culture I've come to value is the type that is ill-served by Capitalism (of course) but also ill-served by the related idea of community and harmony at scale, the context where “it's not for everyone” becomes a remotely meaningful statement to make about anything at all. The main character of Girls Against God goes through a process of regarding her hatred and gloominess as a bit cringe, childish, something to put away to get along at the secular university in the capital, to become serious. But she wraps back around to seeing its value again when she rediscovers the sense of hope there is in every misanthropic rejection of conformity and compromise.
Of course I have to connect this to Max Haiven's observations in Revenge Capitalism. While capitalist destruction of ways of life, cultural value, the environment, everything, into the single-minded pathological reproduction of money is irrationally, madly vengeful in character, the coinciding neoliberal consensus on open markets being fundamentally rational, and the financial management of debt and enforcement of the law by the state frames this system as keeping irrational, individual vengeance in check. Haiven uses the depiction of revenge as irrational and absented outside of fantasy within capitalist cultures to theorize opportunities for collective vengeance, to bring people together and mobilize against systems that not only inflict enormous suffering, but also rob enormous amounts of potential joy from us continuously.
The first two theses he ends the book with are: “Revenge is the reckless determination that what you love has value in a world where it is rendered worthless,” and “When you live in someone else's utopia, all you have left is revenge.” In terms of art and culture we live in the utopia of winners at scale, the flat, the normal, the good, where the hailed and canonized get to dominate culture and become absurdly rich while the rest of us are, essentially, worthless. How can you not, as Hval repeats over and over, want to paint the whole picture black? Healing this alienation of living in the wrong world, in so many ways, will not come from incorporation into some idealized schematic hell where we all fit into the “normal,” but the vengeful assertion of so much outside of normal's grasp that it becomes utterly irrelevant, as impoverished of aesthetics and meaning as it always already was.
For the main character of Girls Against God, and myself, the Internet went from a sort of magic not quite portal, more potentiality, a place where the traces of some kind of culture away from voidland could leak imperfectly out, to a vaguely malefic panopticon that flattens and enforces the normal. Where do you find those strange connections-which-are-not-meant-to-be-made, the intermittent moments of community-for-those-who-fail-at-community that snap together like magic against God and the very laws of nature?
“In blasphemy there's a secret pact, a desire for a community that isn't rooted in the Christian, Southern spirit. Blasphemy protects us against the moral fables we grew up with; blasphemy renounces anything that requires our submission. It shows us a crack in this reality, through which we can pass into another, more open meeting place. Blasphemy has not forgotten where it came from; it maintains that defiance and energy. Blasphemy looks for new ways of saying we. And the band is a we, a community that happens without anyone asking. It's an unknown communal place, and impossible place. In a place like that, we can make art magic.”--Girls Against God by Jenny Hval
I do not want to stop scowling, I want to make a place for all of the people I can scowl with.