Contemporary France is a prolific arena for post-fascist actors, parties, and movements. Self-proclaimed alternative news outlets and publishing houses serve as forums for information and mobilisation, through various strategies, to resist an alleged onslaught by the enemies of the nation and its people: multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, political corruption, and civilisational decay. In this article, I explore uncivility as a discursive logic within the French post-fascist media-ecology, focusing on the conspicuous use of irony and discursive displacement. More specifically, I discuss how sardonic irony as an uncivil discursive strategy is employed to navigate the legal boundaries of free speech and how discursive displacement, coupled with irony, is used as an affective identificatory technique in post-fascist discourse.
On the French-language web-based alternative news forum
In the multiplatform and transnational post-fascist media ecology that has emerged during the last decades (Albrecht et al., 2019; Ebner, 2019), ironic and sardonic modes of communication merge, mix, and appropriate everything from popular culture to historical events to form this ecology's emblematic backbone (Greene, 2019; Nagle, 2017). In France, this ecology is made up of self-proclaimed alternative news sites like
In this article, I provide a close reading of uncivility in the contemporary French post-fascist media ecology. All quotations from French-language sites have been translated by me. About human conduct, Spinoza aimed “to try, not to laugh at human actions neither to mourn about them or to detest them, but to understand them” (Klever, 1995: 44).
All quotations from French-language sites have been translated by me.
About human conduct, Spinoza aimed “to try, not to laugh at human actions neither to mourn about them or to detest them, but to understand them” (Klever, 1995: 44).
In the following section, I contextualise the French post-fascist media ecology by discussing its emergence and relation to French post-fascist history. I then present my take on uncivility as a discursive technique in the French post-fascist media ecology and party politics and subsequently discuss the function of sardonic irony and discursive displacement as an uncivil discursive practice. I conclude with a brief discussion of uncivility, irony, displacement, and political identification.
Post-fascism is a broad and ambiguous term. Here, post-fascism designates, as Enzo Traverso (2019: 14) puts it, “erratic, unstable, and often contradictory ideological content, in which antinomic political philosophies mix together”. While post-fascism is firmly rooted in its fascist predecessors of the twentieth century, it is located in the current era and is an ideological movement that has “not yet crystallised”. Post-fascist actors typically seek to distance themselves from the fascism of twentieth century Europe, unlike neo-fascists who seek to identify with it (Traverso, 2019). This does not mean that post-fascism lacks fascist ideological tropes, rather they are eclectically mixed with populist, radical nationalist, reactionary, and social democratic tropes (Griffin, 2016). Moreover, these actors’ political identification in the public arena typically demonstrates disdain towards historical fascism by appropriating and displacing social liberal lingua (Alduy & Wahnich, 2015; Brubaker, 2017; Nilsson, 2019). However, the exoteric political identification made for the public eye might differ, and often does, from a more esoteric private identification where the fascist roots are explicitly embraced (May & Feldman, 2019). As such, post-fascism is an umbrella category for a discursive field where actors, movements, and parties commonly classified as far-right, extreme-right, and radical belong (Moffit, 2016), and where emphasis is put on both its historical roots and its heterogeneous, fluctuating, transnational, and multiplatform nature.
The promise of the Internet as a digital agora for civil deliberative democracy (Flichy, 2008) has long since been overshadowed by a logic of capitalist self-fulfilment, new opportunities for mass-surveillance, digital warfare, and the opportunity for anti-democratic and populist nationalist forces (ranging from politicians, citizen journalists, agitators, sardonic humourists, and intellectuals) in a trans-local arena to exchange and spread ideas and strategies to level and develop a Gramscian-modelled counter-culture (Back, 2002; Bartlett et al., 2011; Nagle, 2017; Sassen, 2002) largely free of journalistic gatekeepers and censorship (Atton, 2006; Caiani & Parenti, 2016; Daniels, 2018; Titley, 2019; Watts, 2018). While these developments were conspicuously showcased to a global audience during the 2016 presidential campaign in the US (Boczkowski & Papacharissi, 2018), contemporary France has for decades been a prolific arena for post-fascist parties, movements, and alternative news media (Dézé, 2011; François & Cahuzac, 2013; Matuscak, 2007; Zúquete, 2019).
In France, the post-fascist party Rassemblement National (RN) Previously known as Front National. The Internet is a phenomenal tool for convincing more and more of the French people. With social media, we can short-circuit the traditional media. But to achieve this, it necessary that every activist seizes social media to convince. I see it every day: all of you, on Facebook, on Twitter, on forums. You bring life to the debate [translated].
Previously known as Front National.
The Internet is a phenomenal tool for convincing more and more of the French people. With social media, we can short-circuit the traditional media. But to achieve this, it necessary that every activist seizes social media to convince. I see it every day: all of you, on Facebook, on Twitter, on forums. You bring life to the debate [translated].
Besides encouraging active participation on social media by the party's grassroots, Le Pen (2016) emphasised that humoristic savviness was a great way to have an impact on politics: “You’re intelligent, you’re funny, you’re convincing. You’re not the image that the mainstream media depict […] I hope that thanks to the Internet you will be a democratic force to be reckoned with [translated]”. Le Pen's statement is indicative of not only RN's communication online, but how contemporary post-fascist actors in general make use of the Internet to convey their messages (Gal, 2019; Greene, 2019; Josey, 2010; Marwick & Lewis, 2015). In this, the emergence of post-fascist alternative news media is crucial. Alternative news media should here be understood as a mixture of independent media and citizen journalism. However, while in research literature these terms tend to be described from the viewpoint of alleged progressive and democratic social and political movements (e.g., Allan & Hintz, 2020; Bowman & Willis, 2003), in post-fascist independent media and citizen journalism, instead of working towards a liberal democratic horizon, they have their eyes fixed on an authoritarian – and, at best, a strong majoritarian and white – democratic order (e.g., Figenshou & Ihlebæk, 2019; Holton et al., 2013). They tend to represent themselves as the portrayers of the true and unfiltered order of things – as the voice of the people against alleged politically correct or lying mainstream media (Engesser et al., 2017).
During the last decade in France, a heterogeneous web of hundreds of self-proclaimed alternative news sites has emerged, ranging from anthropoemic nationalists dressed in republican and universal lingua and identitarian ethno-nationalists to white supremacists and race revolutionaries (Gimenez & Voirol, 2017). Some of the most prevalent sites are
This self-proclaimed re-information sphere has not emerged in a vacuum. It should be understood in relation to the French
The intertextual and interdiscursive overlapping between these French self-proclaimed alternative news sites and European (Ekman, 2014; Nilsson, 2020; Ricknell, 2019) and American (Greene, 2019; Harsin, 2017; Holt & Haller, 2018; Krämer, 2017) counterparts is striking. For example, the white-supremacist American
Uncivility has come to be used as a descriptive category of that which is diametrically opposed to civility, and most often in the form of the uncivil society versus the civil society. Whilst civil society is often thought of as a realm where free citizens meet to foster democratic ideals and values – where, in a deliberative agora, they reach consensus about the political ideas and social norms that should underpin society – uncivil society is seen as its counterpart (Bob, 2011). Carlo Ruzza (2009: 88), for example, suggests that “one needs to think of uncivil society as formed by a set of practices situated along a continuum of democratic acceptability” where the distinguishing line between the acceptable and unacceptable “[in] many cases […] is self-evident” and he asserts that while “extreme right organizations” are a part of civil society, “unlike the rest of civil society, they have an openly exclusionary agenda (in addition to a disruptive one)” (2009: 88). In this sense, “uncivil society reflects a concept of the self which is oppositional to those characteristics of the modern self which make liberal democracy possible” (Ruzza, 2009: 91). To put it bluntly, uncivil society is “bad civil society”, in the words of Chambers and Kopstein (2001). I believe that using uncivility as an analytical concept along the lines of Ruzza is problematic, since it conceals systemic power relations embedded in the supposed “civil”. Similarly, Chambers and Kopstein's approach is problematic, since ruling whether a certain practice, action, or statement is bad assumes that uncivility has an essential feature to it that, by necessity, leads to an authoritarian or totalitarian rendering of all political action that aims to change the hegemonic status quo into bad or illegitimate actions.
Instead, I approach uncivility as a subversive practice that is performed in relation to assumed normatively proscribed boundaries in a given arena; that is, the specific ways by which certain actors navigate and adapt statements and practices in relation to what is seen as acceptable, but to change and expand the boundaries of the acceptable: to hegemonise civility through uncivil practice (e.g., Tuters, 2019). Why is it uncivil? Because these actors strategise ways to undermine their opponents with disinformation, discrediting, and ambiguity that are outside the prescriptive norms of the civil in order to achieve political ends. These sorts of strategies are far from restricted to online communication. For example, during the French presidential campaign in 2017, Rassemblement National worked explicitly with this type of strategy to destabilise the political debate by planting seeds of doubt, distrust, and disbelief, not only in their opponents but also politics, the media, and the democratic system in general (Sénécat, 2018; e.g., Alduy & Wahnich, 2015). To rule out these strategies as being bad would be to decontextualise them and to fall into a theoretical and political normative impasse. Instead, I argue that the analytical focus needs to be emic, since what is considered civil is spatially and temporally contingent.
In the case of contemporary French post-fascist discourse in the self-proclaimed re-information sphere, at least two aspects need to be taken into account. First, the perceived hegemonic structure in relation to which these actors articulate statements is the “politically correct”, policed by an Orwellian “thought police” (Albertini & Doucet, 2016; Nilsson, 2019). The politically correct and the thought police should here be understood as imagined censorship, or as a wet blanket that glosses over or simply lies about the imagined reality of crime, race, and religion. This blanket dampens public debate and allows mainstream journalists and the assumed political elite – by sending in the watchdogs of the thought police (i.e., anti-racist organisations) – to silence political adversaries from telling inconvenient truths about the order of things. Leading figures from Rassemblement National have continuously decried the supposed antidemocratic and stigmatising effects of the politically correct (e.g., AFP, 2015; Galiero, 2016; Le Pen, 2014).
There are laws restraining free speech and political strategies to keep the “extreme” or “far-right” populists out of power (cordon sanitaire), and anti-racist organisations do call out actors from the sphere for being conspicuously racist, misogynist, and so on. However, to articulate this as part of a racialised conspiratorial scheme (Zia-Ebrahimi, 2018) – where the established media and assumed political elite, sometimes in cahoots with Muslims and Jews, are working to replace the white population of France and Europe – turns it into a phantasmagoric surface onto which are projected all the alleged ills of the current order of things (Nilsson, 2019).
Secondly, there are many strategies for navigating the politically correct online. Many of these strategies play on the vernacular, such as LARPing (live action role playing), trolling (spurring up emotional reactions), shit-posting (unrelated and misleading postings), doxing (using personal information to attack someone), and red-pilling (a reference to the 1999 movie [Online spaces are unruly, messy, and] tangled up with tissues upon tissues of quotations, multiplicities upon multiplicities of authors, and densely knotted meanings hinging not on who made what thing, or even the thing itself, but on what memetic motifs resonate with an unknown number of unseen audiences.
[Online spaces are unruly, messy, and] tangled up with tissues upon tissues of quotations, multiplicities upon multiplicities of authors, and densely knotted meanings hinging not on who made what thing, or even the thing itself, but on what memetic motifs resonate with an unknown number of unseen audiences.
While the specific language used to “decode” the politically correct varies within the sphere, a much-circulated dictionary from Polemia gives a general idea of the logic in play. For example, the dictionary explains how journalists and politicians supposedly use an Orwellian newspeak – “young man” instead of “criminal with immigrant background”, and “racist crime” when the victim is “of African or Muslim origin” – a misuse since the alleged real racist problem in France is against whites (Geoffroy, 2019).
The articulation by [Irony] would then be a mixture of the pragmatic (in semiotic terms) and the semantic, where the semantic space is a space “in between”, comprising both the spoken and the unspoken. Such a space, however, would always be affectively charged; it would never be without its evaluative “edge”.
[Irony] would then be a mixture of the pragmatic (in semiotic terms) and the semantic, where the semantic space is a space “in between”, comprising both the spoken and the unspoken. Such a space, however, would always be affectively charged; it would never be without its evaluative “edge”.
Irony, and in particular sardonic irony, taps perfectly into the inherent ambivalence of online communication. For some readers, the Orcish invasion thus might not even be ironic in the first place; for some it might seem outright racist; for some it might be corny; and for some ridiculous, not even worth taking seriously. Here, I am certainly not suggesting that the reader of this text should read the Orcish invasion as a humoristic and ironic articulation. However, drawing on the aforementioned guidelines of “We stand as gods made flesh, bearing the light of truth and power passed down by our sacred ancestors through our divine blood, our swords raised as the assembled hordes of Mordor, those oldest of blood enemies, gnash their teeth, prepared to rend our flesh from our bones and feast on us in the name of their ancient demon masters.” You and anyone reading that can say omg corny lol. But it just doesn’t matter to the primitive part of the brain. The part that gives you chills when William Wallace gives that speech in Braveheart (don’t even lie brah).
“We stand as gods made flesh, bearing the light of truth and power passed down by our sacred ancestors through our divine blood, our swords raised as the assembled hordes of Mordor, those oldest of blood enemies, gnash their teeth, prepared to rend our flesh from our bones and feast on us in the name of their ancient demon masters.” You and anyone reading that can say omg corny lol. But it just doesn’t matter to the primitive part of the brain. The part that gives you chills when William Wallace gives that speech in Braveheart (don’t even lie brah).
Without doubt, as Noam Gal states, “humor in these disembodied, fragmented, and context-collapsed arenas creates great potential for misinterpretation” (2019: 730) and, while the Orcish invasion's inferred meaning depends on who is reading, the sought-after effect is to target a specific discursive community and to strengthen it by creating and solidifying affective bonds (Greene, 2019; Hutcheon, 1992; e.g., Papacharissi, 2014) and to mobilise it in various ways (Pérez, 2017). As Gal puts it, “The ironic text thus produces a unique relationship between addressors and addressees. In order to become a proper addressee of a polysemic text (i.e., to get the joke), one must successfully take part in the meaning-making process” (2019: 732). The allusion to African migration as an Orcish invasion, and the symbolic associations it seeks to make with it, is arguably irony practised as an uncivil discursive strategy seeking to interpellate a reader's primordial emotions where hyperbolic racism is clothed in hyperbolic and sardonic irony.
Another example of irony as an uncivil discursive strategy is from
These future Nuremberg trials echo other post- and neo-fascist memes in Europe and the US (e.g., the Day of the Rope and Finnspång). In another editorial, Cyrano (2013) goes one step further and calls for execution: “12 bullets for the traitors. For the half-traitors, 6 bullets would be enough”. This and similar calls to violence are often followed by ironically ambiguous statements: “The sorts of statements that we repeat are only rhetorical, since there is no war being waged on French territory, because if that were the case, the media would surely have informed us!” (Cyrano, 2013).
The affirmative and emotional framing of the dream is immediately contradicted by referring to such statements as dreams portraying a fictional reality. It appears as a case of using hyperbolic irony as a strategy for deniability. The author of the text is well aware that calling for the assassination of the president of the republic is not only transgressing the boundaries of the imagined structures of the “politically correct”, it is punishable by law. However, since the journal's overarching mission is to prove that a war against France
From these two examples, I suggest that irony can be approached as an uncivil discursive technique which functions in a variety of ways that go well beyond the understanding of irony as simply subverting a literal reading. Irony as an uncivil discursive practice draws on the ambiguousness of online communication and can thus be understood as the following:
the possibility of saying the unsayable a strategy to convey both affirmative and dissociative identification through a play on the esoteric and exoteric a way, through affect, to interpellate different subject positions and mobilise a discursive community by creating a sense of exclusive inclusion and a call to arms a self-acclaimed revolutionary and heroic practice to navigate the boarders of an imagined politically correct censorship a strategy, through ambiguity, to preempt accusations of hate, racism, misogyny, and so on as a strategy to reify and expand the horizon and reach of the discursive field and to push the boundaries for what the imagined politically correct permits
the possibility of saying the unsayable
a strategy to convey both affirmative and dissociative identification through a play on the esoteric and exoteric
a way, through affect, to interpellate different subject positions and mobilise a discursive community by creating a sense of exclusive inclusion and a call to arms
a self-acclaimed revolutionary and heroic practice to navigate the boarders of an imagined politically correct censorship
a strategy, through ambiguity, to preempt accusations of hate, racism, misogyny, and so on
as a strategy to reify and expand the horizon and reach of the discursive field and to push the boundaries for what the imagined politically correct permits
A related aspect of irony is displacement, by which I mean the function whereby the classifying markers used by the imagined “politically correct” to define the type of actors I am analysing are projected back onto the “politically correct”, or rather, displaced and dislocated: extreme-right, fascist, racist. The most prevalent trope in this sense is “the new extreme right” which gained traction in the alleged re-information sphere after the publication of a book of that name,
Displacement here adds another dimension to the understanding of irony as a strategy of uncivility. If irony is a play on deliberative and dissociative ambiguity in terms of populist identification and a strategy to navigate and push the boundaries of the imagined politically correct, then displacement is affirmative in that it articulates a subjectivity that is the true defender of the people. In other words, the re-information sphere is where real representative democracy rules (i.e., where the white majority can be recognised as such); it is where freedom of expression is cherished (i.e., where the supposed truth about feminism, Muslims, Jews, etc., can be told); it is where racism is taken seriously (i.e., reversed racism is a leading trope in the victimisation of whiteness); and, finally, it is where the supposed Islamic threat is taken seriously (i.e., where the consequences of anthropoemic nationhood are strategised into its genocidal end-goal). Displacement appears to bring about a certain satisfaction or jouissance (Žižek, 2008) in destabilising the strategies of both the politically correct and the thought police to denounce the sphere for its hyperbolic uncivility. The appropriation of Islamophobia is indicative in this regard. Drawing on a construed Enlightenment tradition of critique against religion, Islamophobia is no longer seen as a derogatory term but, instead, something to be proud of: “Islamophobia is not a crime. It is legitimate” and “islamophobic and proud!” (Cyrano, 2013).
This type of appropriation of what are commonly seen as slurs, such as racism, fascism, and nationalism, was openly strategised during the annual congress of the Rassemblement National in 2018. Marine Le Pen invited a secret guest speaker: Steve Bannon – the American alt-right icon, the former executive chairman of the Breitbart News Network, and the former chief strategist of the Trump administration. Bannon's appearance was part of a European road show to promote his newly founded organisation, The Movement, whose aim is to reinvigorate a new populist radical nationalist movement in Europe, particularly targeting the European Parliamentary elections in 2019. To an applauding audience, Bannon called upon the French to be proud of who they really are, not to be discouraged by the “globalists” who try to smear them and their ideas: “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a
However, the (re)appropriation of identificatory categories like “racist” and “Islamophobic” in French and American uncivil populist and anthropoemic discourse suggests that the assumed threat from the politically correct and the thought police is diminishing. Being called racist or Islamophobic is no longer seen as bringing up a burdensome spectre of fascism and Nazism, but as being authentic, true to oneself and one's whiteness, and something to be proud of (e.g., Harsin, 2017). In self-acclaimed post-racial societies (Goldberg, 2015), there appears to be a shift in the play on exoteric and esoteric racist statements. As Greene (2019: 36) argues, if “frontstage” or public discourse have been seemingly attentive not to overstep the boundaries for the alleged civil rules of public debate, today “backstage” discourses, fuelled by conspicuous whiteness and racism, “are moving from backstage to frontstage, a transition facilitated by the alt-right's use of new media and ironic or satiric communicative styles”.
In this article, I have discussed the use of irony and displacement as uncivil discursive strategies in the contemporary French post-fascist media ecology, and in particular, the French self-acclaimed re-information sphere. I have argued that these two discursive strategies are used in tandem to performatively interpellate a sense of authentic truth and primordial affective register amongst their audiences. Irony and displacement can thus be seen as discursive strategies that, in a Gramscian meta-political fashion, seek to expand the horizon of the possible, as attempts to hegemonise culture and the contours of public debate by subverting the civil. Furthermore, in a populist logic, these strategies tend to performatively identify and mobilise political and social identity – such as the “people” – while simultaneously attacking the very institutions associated with the imagined politically correct.
I have, moreover, made a case for not using uncivility and civility as normative analytical categories, but focusing instead on their emic usage. This approach helps in revealing the changing, mimicking, and eclectic nature of post-fascist social and political communication, online and offline. In particular, it brings about a sensitivity in understanding the displacement of discourse (i.e., hegemonic struggles of meaning-making of central political categories such as democracy, liberty, and freedom), and also the logics in play when post-fascist actors deem that formerly taboo categories are publicly acceptable as positive identity markers (i.e., Islamophobic and racist). In this logic, these types of identifications are with the alleged true order of things as well as a political rebellion against the supposed politically corrects’ newspeak and limitations of free speech. This is arguably also key to understanding how contemporary post-fascist discourse, in France as elsewhere, slips into the realm of liberal-democratic discourse and presents itself as a viable alternative among all the others in the political market place. While this article has focused on discursive enunciators, more research is needed to get a fuller picture of how other forms of discursive strategies and genres beyond irony and displacement function in different types of spheres and arenas.