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Joshua Citarella

Joshua Citarella, the internet theorist tracing the radicalisation of Gen Z

The New York artist and internet researcher shares his research on memes, conspiracy theories, and the launch of his joint platform, Channel

In 2016, the Trump presidency and Brexit signalled the rise of right-wing populism in the west, as politics became increasingly polarised. Online, teens responded by creating and exchanging political memes on platforms such as Instagram and Discord. They began to adopt increasingly radical ideologies. Previously fringe beliefs such as anarcho-primitivism and eco-fascism became popular genre identities to be tried on and taken off. And now, it seems like these online subcultures are having a real political impact offline, but there’s been no art to account for it.

“When you do not see the world reflected in art, you know something is deeply wrong, ” says Joshua Citarella. The New York artist and researcher is a formidable force in internet leftist discourse, having spent the past four years documenting zoomer politics on platforms like Instagram and Discord. His work focuses primarily on memetic subcultures – “online groups gathered around sharing funny political images” – and the effects this has on teens across the political spectrum. The results are documented in his 2021 books Politigram and the Post-Left and 20 Interviews, a selection of in-depth conversations with young meme posters.

Having quit his job in academia last year to pursue full-time content production, much of Citarella’s research is self-directed and crowdfunded. He runs a Patreon where members can access a syllabus of reading assignments, video lectures, podcasts, and films. These are then discussed on “Josh’s Super Secret Sleeper Cell” Discord server, where more than 1,000 users bounce between #left-watch, #lib-watch, and #right-watch, sharing their insights, memes, and the like. On Twitch, he talks through his research in the form of spiralling, hours-long streams that dissect everything from the Ideology Iceberg to the Religious Left to the week’s best conspiracy theories. His podcasts are equally encompassing, spanning talks with cyberfeminist scholar Helen Hester to live-streaming a trip to the Ronald Reagan museum with musician Dorian Electra. In short, the output is staggering.

Below, we catch up with Citarella on his research, radicalising the left, and conspiracy theories.

So, you originally published Politigram and the Post-Left back in 2018. I know you touched on this in the book’s introduction, but what made you want to republish?

Joshua Citarella: The way that the book got online is a bit of a funny story. I published what was essentially an artist’s book of my working images and anecdotes of me travelling for shows and what I was thinking about at the time. In the middle section of that book was this ethnography of memetic subcultures – and that was the real primary research. I didn’t think about ever making something for a mass audience. It was just a printed book, a little essay that I thought would be circulated among the art world.

There were two copies of the book available at a bookstore called Codex in the East Village. Somebody from Politigram saw my posts, went and bought the book, scanned it, and put it on Discord. I opened my notifications and just everything. After that, the cat’s out of the bag and I decided to release a PDF version of that section.

The (new edition) book is sold at cost. I make no profit off of it. It’s a way of distributing the archive, the ledger in physical form, that can't be taken off wherever I host the PDF and whatnot. I appreciate it that way. It’s a piece of weird internet folklore. And maybe that’s the best solution for it.

What was the community’s initial reaction to the essay?

Joshua Citarella: For all of the zany antics of these communities, they’ve actually responded, I think, overwhelmingly positively to my characterisation of them. I’ve tried to not hold punches where you need to be critical. But I think my characterisations of those communities are accurate.

Was there anything that surprised you in particular when researching these communities? 

Joshua Citarella: An enormous part of my life in the last few years has been talking to these people who are either in the book or in adjacent communities. Some people have gone through the depths of radicalisation, like anti-natalists who believe that humankind is a virus on the face of the earth and needs to be extinguished so that Gaia can flourish – really wacky stuff. And then, a year and a half later, they’re part of a local straightedge punk scene. And that whole life is left behind them, and seemingly had very little impact in the way that they think now. It was a genre identity that they try on and take off. And you can move between those extremes with seemingly no friction. 

Other people, their lives were completely reshaped, and they’re now founding members of organisations and participate in anti-fascist, libertarian, socialist mutual aid groups. They were literally fighting Nazis on the street a few weeks ago. 

“As the crisis at the centre of politics deepens, people move to the political extremes to find more and more severe solutions for it. When more people reach the conclusion that reform of the system is impossible, then revolution becomes necessary” – Joshua Citarella

So, essentially the impact of being in these meme spaces is different for different people.

Joshua Citarella: I think of the work now as more cataloguing the arc that people go through, such that you could be a Pepe shit poster in 2016, without any real sense of politics, then you could be a left communist.

I’ve been hearing a lot of rhetoric on how the left isn’t ready for the changing face of the right, and that the left is too atomised to come together as a united front. What do you think?

Joshua Citarella: I feel like, very often, some of these niche, balkanised groups end up inadvertently producing propaganda for the other side. And when you introduce radical or fringe ideas to a mass audience, people very often recoil. So there is an optical value to scalable messaging, which is where memes come in. We’re trying to compress very complicated ideas into something that can easily be transmitted across a mass audience. 

We’re at a certain period where it’s very clear that left parties are losing support to conservative parties among members of the working class. So it’s forcing a conversation of, are there portions of left-wing rhetoric that have been used in a fashion which is [unhelpful]. Some people who do not have, for example, $200,000 worth of education, are not sure or aware of why or how they made a microaggression in the workplace. And most of their experience interfacing with these politics are, ‘oh, this is another thing that could put my job at risk’. And those things are alienating to a mass audience. So, this is a difficult nut to crack – this issue of NGOs, the professional-managerial class, and, essentially, diluting left-wing progressive politics into a form of elitism, which is what’s really taking hold towards the end of neoliberalism.

You talk about ‘at-risk’ individuals, otherwise known as young people who are at risk of being radicalised. What makes someone ‘at-risk’?

Joshua Citarella: As the crisis at the centre of politics deepens, people move to the political extremes to find more and more severe solutions for it. When more people reach the conclusion that reform of the system is impossible, then revolution becomes necessary.

Part of the research that I have to present is that people spend a long time orbiting the fringe of politics, and they look at ideas on extremes of many different sides. There’s a necessary widening of the Overton window, which means there have to be people who are out on the frontlines of left-wing messaging, saying, ‘yeah, chemicals and water turning the frogs gay is not good, declining fertility rates in the western world are not good’. These are not esoteric conspiracy theories. These are literally material issues that the left should be involved in. 

Also, the current political climate is forcing the issue that memes and memetic propaganda is real, and serious politics has to engage with it. I think that’s commonly understood.

You mention conspiracies – why do you think we’re seeing an increase in people touting conspiracies in the mainstream? A recent example that comes to mind is the Travis Scott satanic ritual theories that went viral on TikTok. 

Joshua Citarella: I mean, the military just told us that UFOs are real. Things are contributing to that thesis. We’ve talked about how neoliberalism has [eroded the] support structures for most people’s lives in the western world. After 40 years of that, most people’s interaction with experts has been to their detriment, and they have rightfully learned to not trust them. People don’t trust American institutions because there are so many conflicts of interest. The more austerity that institutions are subjected to, the more vulnerable they become to capturing an elite interest. They are reliant on big donors who have certain agendas they want to carry out. In an environment where you distrust the media and institutions, expert narratives are discredited. Conspiracies seem to be very legitimate, because the role of media and institutions has been captured by elites that are interested in putting down dissenting narratives. People think, in some ways rightfully so, that this conspiratorial story seems more credible than the mainstream version. That’s the unfortunate situation. 

“The people don’t trust American institutions, because there’s so many conflicts of interest. The more austerity that institutions are subjected to, the more vulnerable they become to capturing an elite interest“ – Joshua Citarella

I want to touch on your platform Do Not Research, which you launched last year. This, together with your Patreon, Discord, podcasts, and Twitch streams, is a full 360-degree educational platform. How did it all come together?

Joshua Citarella: For all the time people spent talking about digital aesthetics and network culture, there was this absolute, unbelievable, unprecedented political explosion leading up to 2016 – the Trump presidency, Brexit, everything combined the rise of right-wing populism, occupy in the Arab Spring – turned into fake news and extremism and radicalisation. It was a total narrative shift.

In the art world, there was basically nothing written about this for two years. This is the most important aesthetic event in the development of networked culture, but no one can say shit about it, because all of their institutions have been captured by the same neoliberal interests that are benefiting off of trying to constrain the conversation. There was a void created, where the aesthetic experts could not talk about these subjects. So, artists start to publish certain things around 2018, my PDF [being] one of them.

And I think what we see is that the void opened up and Do Not Research has become a tremendous, explosively productive community that is very interested to talk about these topics with aesthetic expertise – and we’re producing at a volume that is greater and higher quality and more rapid than a lot of the other comparable art world publications. One of the reasons why we’re grinding so hard is because I think that this is the opportunity to form a new institution.

You just announced the launch of Channel, a collaborative platform with Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst’s Interdependence podcast and media platform New Models. What spurred this on?

Joshua Citarella: We are bundling together our RSS feeds, so that when you subscribe to the channel, you get all three podcasts. 

Based on the content in the book, I’m worried every day that I’m going to get nuked off of these platforms without warning. I know that my channel is not big enough to ever get anyone to look at it. So, in this process, I’ve really learned that it is actually very precarious to be on these Web 2.0 platforms. But I can’t go back to the institutions because the things that I say upset the institutions.

It started as a conversation about everyone being too atomised. We’re three aligned communities that are producing similar content, and should be collaborating. But, instead, we’re competing. So the idea was, could we take three $5 subscriptions and give people three podcasts for the price of two. That infrastructure doesn’t exist on any Web 2.0 platform, so we realised that we have to build a platform. And it snowballed from there. 

Find out more about Channel here