The Knight’s Retreat

on coastal flirtations with flyover aesthetics

Of all the unwelcome surprises of aging, the ones that have hit me the hardest are not the aches and pains and other physical markers of lost youth, but more spiritual losses. They aren’t even really losses, but returns, ones in which a memory isn’t allowed to be just that, a keepsake in a cigar box, but has been living a double life, one that reveals the poverty of the one I was willing to grant it. A beloved child actor dies of a drug overdose in a seedy hotel. The most annoying person from graduate school pivots to politics and is now a Texas state representative. The esters of a scratch-and-sniff sticker return in the hand sanitizer at the gas station. The more arbitrary and incidental the thing, the keener its return somehow, coupled, as it is, with a confusion—or shame, even—to be so moved by something so seemingly trivial, something we didn’t know we were carrying all these years. We can come to feel haunted by these ridiculous crumbs.

Among these untimely ghosts, few rival the strange spectacle of watching as the fashion of my youth is colonized by the great, stupid machine of nostalgia capitalism and repackaged for today’s kids. Visit a college campus or get sucked into a TikTok wormhole, and you’ll be treated to a temporal uncanny of Y2K babygirls with spaghetti straps, tennis skirts, and lip gloss. Sk8er Bois with their baggy jeans and cargoes, and though lowrise is back, sagging has been mostly forgotten. Messy center parts abound, a referendum on the eighty-dollar sideparts of millennials, though plenty of attention is paid to getting the face-framing strands just right. These trends have always been profane, but for a time I was under the illusion they were my profanity, when of course they are generic, and not just to my generation. I can now imagine the amused horror my own adolescent discoveries would have registered with the children of the late ‘70s—their shags recycled into indie sleaze; their glitter revived in the predatory glam of Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love; getting punk’d by the sudden reemergence of trucker hats. It’s only a trend’s ubiquity at a time in life when we are most impressionable that makes it seem sacred, sinking deep as it does into our personal signifying regimes.

As horrified as I am by this reconfiguration, I’m also obsessed with it. I am not unique in this feeling—there is an entire cottage industry of reaction videos dedicated to performing this comingled affective response—but where others seem content to be captured by trend, its ubiquity and inexorability fills me with a dread that compels me to step back and confront it, analyze it, as if decoding its mechanisms could break this cycle, which isn’t simply a rotation of a wheel. When trend returns, it does so transformed by its passage: by the contexts of the day, errors and confabulations of cultural memory, as well as other drifts alongside more explicit, codified moves. I am writing from Echo Park, an epicenter of sorts, where I am treated to crop tops on as many men as women, assuming these are in fact their genders. On Sunset, there is a billboard for the new $uicideboy$ album, the triplet singrap of Bone Thugs ‘n’ Harmony exhumed and reanimated for the Soundcloud whiteboy to butcher. Today I have seen no fewer than a dozen young people wearing racing jackets, NASCAR specifically, and if I want to steal this look, I can walk to any of the vintage stores in the area and shell out a few hundred dollars, money the archetypal NASCAR fan of the coastal imagination doesn’t actually have.

The NASCAR jacket trend is a particularly bald version of what I have come to think of as a kind of knight’s retreat in the game of cultural performance. Don’t appropriate the trends of the youth you yourself would have experienced born two decades earlier, but a square or two away from your equivalent cultural milieu, or even better, one denied to you by historical tribal lines. In the mid-00s, smack dab in the middle of the Patriot Years, the beautiful and affluent youth of a coastal metropole wouldn’t be caught dead wearing red-blooded, red-state signifiers like NASCAR, Carhartt, Bass Pro Shop, Hooters, John Deere; high-vis orange over Realtree and Mossy Oak prints; the whole workwear thing. Why is Lana del Rey—the plastic simulacrum of a tragic Hollywood starlet engineered by an East Coast WASP elite—embracing her cellulite and putting in a swing shift at a Waffle House in rural Alabama? In its day and among this coastal demographic, these signifiers would have communicated a regressive worldview frequently ridiculed as ‘Merican. While these would-be patriots were looking to reassert American dominance in the wake of 9/11, liberals wanted to distance themselves from it, paving the way for trends like metrosexual and Eurosleaze that promoted what then parsed as worldly, form-fitting looks, a rejection of the diabetic body politic that plagued Walmart country. Let them supersize their Freedom Fries; we did a semester abroad in France.

But these terms have changed over the past two decades. Today, a certain kind of coastal youth views the neoliberalism it has inherited with rightful disgust, a feeling most conveniently and cathartically expressed in the smug dunking-on of the dirtbag left, but, after that position failed to convert its initial antagonism to material victories, its denial (“Bernie would’ve won”) has progressed to sour acceptance, inspiring an exodus that the media class has variously and ineffectually attempted to brand as post-woke, new right, downtown left, cryptoconservative, and, everyone’s favorite, Dimes Square. Reeling from defeat, but still savvy enough not to retreat across the aisle, the refugees of this movement have been flirting with this other through the pseudoironic embrace of its more dated signifiers. NASCAR jackets, boot cut jeans, bedazzled denim caps—they all carry residues and ghosts of an antithesis, but, having been dumped in donation bins and left to fade in the cultural memory, can be appropriated and reshaped to articulate a disgust for both sides, a desire for synthesis, to dismiss the dialectic entirely, or simply to exploit an imbalance in cultural capital for some quick clout. 1A patrician strain of thought I’ve encountered would interpret this gambit as a form of colonial appropriation, an upper class extracting the cultural resources of an underclass. It is—and the upper class will double-dip, selling this fashion back at a markup once they’re done with it—but a knight can move in many directions in service of many strategies. Consider the return of ripped jeans in the 2010s. Originally part of a broader ‘90s nostalgia, among young black and brown men especially there wasn’t a commensurate return to baggier cuts, but the rip was grafted onto the skinny and slim fits that had become a norm thanks to iconic looks of Lil B, Tyga, Wiz Khalifa, and other diminutive visionaries. The graft took, but went beyond split knees, the rips scattered throughout the fabric and in excess of what could be considered “authentic,” agitating certain sensibilities while flattering others. By the end of the decade, ripped jeans had been so successfully remapped from their original context in white grunge, they weren’t out of place in a we-made-it anthem like Dice Soho’s “Ripped Jeans”, where they were paired with G-wagons, Goyard slippers, and other formerly white totems. It’s appropriation, but a post-colonial one, an emergent (or just aspiring) elite adopting and transforming the signifiers of the hegemon. Of course this too is patrician, seeing desire as the product of power differentials rather than more horizontal distances and divides; as more endogenous, instinctive forces like libido that don’t care about the ethics of their fulfillment, just that they are fulfilled; or by some terms you and I don’t have access to, colonizers that we are.  It is an evasive move, this retreat, but offensive too, how it refuses to respect the distinction between historical categories by importing flyover aesthetics to the coasts. Here and now, these signifiers are no longer neocon but nücon, the post-left knight attempting to leap across the True Religion horseshoe and become God’s Favorite.1

This move isn’t limited to fashion, but plays out across media—really any place where games of cultural performance are played. You see it in the provocations of a podcast like Red Scare, which takes droll pleasure in performing a mean girl bitchiness that antagonizes the virtues of the girlboss, who would never call someone fag or retard or fat, at least not since she herself was a mean girl, an irony that powers but doesn’t completely explain Red Scare’s potency. Their performance is not mockery, but something more intimate that blurs the lines between self and other. It’s easy to see this as a power fantasy of the bullied becoming the bully—the immigrant overassimilating to the culture that would have excluded if not outright victimized them—but Red Scare is not a wannabe’s traumatized facsimile of a queen bee. The girls have made it their own by splicing it with a Coppola coquette more endemic to their own international backgrounds and art school education. The vocal fry isn’t valley girl so much as girl interrupted, the raspy languor augmented by anxiety meds and cigarettes. These along with iced coffee, Diet Coke (never Zero), and Adderall dissolved in bottled water, all make for a balanced eating disorder. On Wednesdays we wear satin nighties and ruffle socks. It’s like I have BPD or something. Yeah, Bomb Pussy Disorder! Not only do they get to indulge in the intoxicating glow of the thing once denied, but by appropriating it, they disfigure it. To then deploy this against its original author is the icing on a cake they get to eat and barf back up too.

It’s an ingenious aesthetic position, but aesthetics, semiotically rich as they may be, can only go so far, especially when the Red Scare girl also positions herself as a political actor, placing greater scrutiny on her ethos2 2Like content and form, theory and praxis, signifier and signified, etc.—aesthetics and ethos are false dichotomies that overlap and co-create one another, but just as their difference is a myth that tends to be overstated, so too is the corrective opposition. Usually the formers of these duals have supremacy on grounds of their knowability—explicit & implicit are another dual that might explain this. This comparative ease isn’t simply an illusion though; the difficulty of understanding and communicating the terms of the latters engenders active antagonism and suppression (e.g. the criticism “all style, no substance”) in cultural fields driven by economic capital more than other forms, which is to say the dominant forms (and subdominants looking to enter the dominant via its antithesis). This makes the separation of something like aesthetic and ethos, allegedly artificial, far more real in practice, even to the point of actualizing “illogical” formations like aesthetics-as-ethos. However, there is always an actual ethos lurking beneath the aesthetic, one often in conflict with the stated. , which follows a similar if shallower logic. If the girlboss stands for pantsuit feminism—liberal, sincere, proper, striving, tolerant, adult, masculine—the Red Scare girl is a “bohemian layabout,” childish and femme, insouciant but harsh, though this is meant to belie a clear moral vision. The podcast’s rise to infamy was fueled by a video of Dasha—extremely memeable in her sailor fuku and sipping an iced coffee—sneering at a big-haired InfoWars reporter who tried to ambush her at South by Southwest with dubious horror stories of Venezuela’s socialism. At some point, Dasha interrupts her with the perfectly cunty, “I just want people to have free healthcare, honey.” The natural assumption would be that this is their Soviet influence speaking, but the girls’ leftism—already polluted by a toxic trad meant to combat the girlboss’ corporate progressivism—has only drifted right with prevailing winds. In a seemingly ironic turn of fate, the Red Scare women are now cozy with Alex Jones, visiting his ranch to shoot guns3 3Like their use of slurs and other verboten, the nücon flirtation with guns is an obvious rejoinder against the safetyism of establishment liberalism, but it also taps into a deeper wells, wishfully recalling the militant leftism of the 1970s. There was a time when the left was capable, not just of action—direct action with material consequences as opposed to symbolic or rhetorical “action”—but of violence. When today’s left wields violence, it is usually in scraps and skirmishes with their marginalized antipodes on the right or self-defense against a hypertrophic militarized police state, neither of which are substantive or effective. Actual violence has become a dead language, which is why leftist actors are so stunned or outraged to have it enacted upon them. I’d venture that some are secretly thrilled too, this a kind of proof of legitimacy, one fizzing with the sugar high of transgression.  and post pictures of them shooting guns, which reveals their real ethos at work. Politics are not politics but another aesthetic accessory for their persona to wear, and, like any other accessory, it will go in and out of fashion, necessitating change. A persona like the Red Scare girl is a game piece, and if you want to win the game, you can’t occupy a static position, so when a status quo began to emerge around dirtbag leftism, the mean girls they are, they picked up their lunch trays and migrated to another table in the cafeteria.

It’s a cynical move, one in a series of them, but it’s effective, proof that the game isn’t just a game, but is borne of and ultimately taps into something deeper. The devotion and outrage and hand-wringing the Red Scare girls inspire—the sheer attention—are all reactions to how their performance activates desires repressed-slash-created within us by ontological boundaries. Try to expunge the mean girl or the ugly American within you and you will only create a perverse attraction to this false other. It’s why, despite my attempts to step back and cooly analyze the game, I keep getting sucked back into it. At various points over the last decade, a decade spent playing nice in the bourgeois bubbles of tech companies and graduate school, I have found myself coveting Pen and Pixel album art, flat brim Raiders caps, tramp stamps, Big Dogs t-shirts, Calvin pissing on the Chevy logo, the great scientist Yakub, and countless other signifiers on the other side racial, economic, gender, and other lines, experiencing a little deviant glee knowing these are supposed to be tasteless, as well as a quiet reprimand from a classic liberal superego that would rather pretend these lines don’t exist. Right now I happen to be wearing a t-shirt featuring an airbrushed portrait of the Pink Panther in aviators, snapback, and a hoodie showing off his gleaming diamond chain beneath the block text SWAGGER. My initial reactions to finding it at a thrift store—confusion, delight, disgust, burden, intrigue—have all curdled into a post-ironic sincerity as illegible as whatever the shirt originally intended to communicate. Were white people meant to see this as cool, a beloved classic updated to a contemporary cool? Were black people appropriating an image of a wholesome white America or has the Pink Panther always been secretly black-coded?, the thinkpiece questions. Whatever the t-shirt’s provenance, however confused its semiotics, I have grown genuinely fond of it and if it mocks mine or anyone else’s sensibilities, all the better.

I’d like to say I always land on such sage acceptance, but it’s more likely that I get caught up in the game. Finding that special piece is a thrill, but there is a ritualistic pleasure to the hunt too, and I have wasted untold hours cratedigging at Eco Thrift or excavating the darkest reaches of AliExpress in search of trash to treasure. I see your knight’s retreat and want to outflank it. If I collect enough of these exotic signifiers, combine them in strange enough ways, I’ll always be a few moves ahead. My Pimp Panther can mob up with green gangster Spongebob, black Bart Simpson, Chi-Town Stewie Griffin, hypebeast Goofy. DAMN BITCH YOU LIVE LIKE THIS? FINE DASTARD, ALERT THE AUTHORITIES / I SHALL FORNICATE WITH THEM. I will consume and produce the most abstruse memes conceivable, jokes so inside even their creator is left out. Then right when it seems like we can’t push things any further, I’ll pull back. I will wear a striped rugby with fraying black denim cutoffs, my prep and punk upbringings forever clashing, though in doing, maybe they reveal something kindred between scrum and pit, a shared love of fraternal violence. Discovering a latent structure like this is a joy, but it’s not really what motivates the chase, especially when these gems are rare. It is a compulsion, one with all too familiar origins in performance culture and its fear of mediocrity. I may not be the smartest or coolest or hottest or some other superlative, but at least I’m better than you. You with your socks and sandals, once signifier of the tacky tourist, waiting in line for your turmeric juice. Birkenstocks no less, thinking this complements your jam band tie-dye. Maybe you’re a true head, but the kids I grew up with who listened to Phish and the Dead were lax bros who called me a fag for listening to screamo. Today, they and their girlboss wives are singing their hearts out at so-called emo nights and wearing rainbow company logos every June. HEY LIBERAL, the patriotic skeleton waving the handgun threatens, I’M FEELING EXTRA SENSITIVE TODAY SO PLEASE RESPECT MY BOUNDARIES.

At some point in all the reappropriation and recombination, boundaries do dissolve, and not just in the definitions of and relations between things, but in our affective responses to them. It is not simply horror I feel or this academic fascination or gleeful play or its compulsive twin, but all of the above, a multiplicity that resembles the “twisted braid of affects and thoughts” of Kristeva’s abject, though they aren’t identical. Abjection arises when someone wishes but fails to expel a perceived monstrous, while I—postmodern subject that I am, all too aware of the self-defeat of expulsion—struggle to attract and integrate these desired others. Though a confusion arises, it is not the disgusted autism of ab- (“away”) -jection (Latin: iacto, “throw, cast, hurl”), but one of adjection, more schizophrenic in character, scattered and agitated. Instead of seeing others as such, we grant them a lush selfhood, one equivalent to ours, inviting them across the historical boundary of self and other, but there are limits to this beneficence. We can overload ourselves with this positivity, producing what Byung-Chul Han calls neuronic diseases—anxiety, ADHD, burnout—and while I’m no stranger to these, I think the problem isn’t only in the toxicity of an emergent schema, but in the dissonance between old and new, how it suspends us between the two. It’s rare that someone will learn to hear the beauty in this duality, and I have spun out more than a few times trying to sustain conflicting realities. Far more likely that the old is so deeply encoded within the matrices of self and culture, it recuperates the new. Others, recognizing this threat or simply despising the old order, will abandon it entirely for a radical peripherality, one with strong boundaries, not porous ones like mine.4 4This is part of why liberalism, with its vision of a unified human identity that transcends national and other local identities, is always genocidal in practice. There is no surviving in multipolarity alongside an empire; you must become the empire yourself or retreat to the anarchic hinterlands outside empire’s reach.  I thought I might have an advantage if I could play the game on my own terms, but all this does is distract from the fact that I am still playing the game, which has no winners, only different forms of surrender. Mine is this essay, which began as another clever move—an attempt to step outside the game, analyze it from above, corralling it in logos—but has become more a confession of my limits.

I recognize this dilemma in the recent flock towards Christianity, a major destination for the nücon migration. While surely many of these are retreating knights, following trends towards catchy neologisms like TradCath and Orthobro, and I’m sure I’ve got another couple thousand words on the subject in me, these wouldn’t be in good faith, not when I so empathize with a narrative I hear again and again from converts. They were once edgelords and accelerationists who wanted to follow lines of flight away from the Human Security System that enslaves us. They used whatever tools they could find—theory, psychedelics, magick, limit experiences, transgression—to better understand reality, maybe even transcend it, but all they managed to do was break it down in a slurry of relativism. Lost in this sauce, experiencing what James Ellis has called “ontological exhaustion,” they needed something objective to grab onto. Some of them even claim to have summoned literal demons and the only way to banish these was to appeal to faith, the more structured the better, hence the interest in specific denominations and specifically rigid ones. It’s also unsurprising that so many of these conversions are returns to the systems they were raised in. It’s the devil you know.

Since I began writing this essay, the nücon moment has exhausted itself too, its participants beginning to put down roots or scatter or negotiate among these and other trajectories. Red Scare is on autopilot as the girls work to springboard to more legitimate platforms, the layabout revealing the girlboss she always was. Lana is still taking shooting range selfies, but her cellulite is mostly gone, melted away by Ozempic, we speculate, primed by the larger pendulum swing from curves to cheekbones, a knight’s retreat in its own right, recalling the visible ribs and cum gutters of heroin chic. Many friends of mine, eternal adjuncts and corporate flunkies and other discontents, are moving upstate and inland to work at farms or escape to their doomer bunkers, the guns they shoot no longer props. I’m still here on the coast, trying to make sense of where I fit in to all of this. I watch as Y2K and McBling are phased out for Jersey devils with their Yankee fitted and BECs, their mob wives going anything but incognito in faux fur and big cat prints. Retarded has transformed from insult to virtue, our smooth brains now wet. GET IN LOSER WE’RE COINING NEOLOGISMS TO DEAL WITH THE INFINITE CONTEXT COLLAPSE OF OUR EVER UNSTABLE PRESENT.

Soon my early twenties will be ingested by the machine and spit out as a mutant for us to gawk at until we acclimate to its dissonances, learning eventually to enjoy them before they overcirculate into the cringe from whence they came. This time around, I hope to confront it with what Christians would call grace. I haven’t made a blind retreat to the ideologies I was raised on, but age is forcing me to become less adversarial, to seek compromise between the many lives I have lived or tried to, but not through an untenable maximalism. I will say no—not as the child spitting out what is force fed, or the teenager using newfound autonomy to lock horns with authority, or the young man questing away from oppressive tradition—but someone who has been forced to recognize his finitude, how it necessitates integration and balance. I will practice distance, neutrality, maybe even doses of kindness, but not at the cost of my intensities, my edges. I will watch the wheel continue to turn, curious and critical both, and when it passes me by, as it does for all of us, I will watch it go.

. . .

File Under

abjection & adjection, accelerationism, aesthetics, aging, context collapse, cultural capital, the dirtbag left, edgelording, evasion, fashion, McBling, monstrous hybridity, nostalgia capitalism, ontological dissonance, performance, Red Scare, retroproduction, schizoposting, signaling theory, traditionalism, trend, xenophilia, Y2K

Further Reading

  • Pierre Bourdieu. The Field of Cultural Production.
  • Deleuze + Guattari. “587 B.C.-A.D. 70: On Several Regimes of Signs” from A Thousand Plateaus.
  • Byung-Chul Han. The Burnout Society.
  • Julia Kristeva. “Approaching Abjection” from Powers of Horror.
  • Natasha Stagg. Sleeveless.
  • Suspended Reason. “Language Games: Work, Play, Simulacra.