The Durability of Ironic Extremism


Mideast and North Africa scholar Michael Degerald recently posted a piece on the phenomenon of “ISIS trap music.”

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Degerald describes this new genre, which blends the musical tropes of trap music with the visual and rhetorical tropes of IS/Daesh. “IS trap” songs have been appearing on Youtube and Soundcloud for years now, and no one seems completely sure who is putting them there, or just how serious they are about jihadism (or, for that matter, trap music).

Read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating dive into a weird cultural excrescence—to the extent that anything still counts as weird in 2017. It’s also (no kidding) a pretty good primer to trap music in general.

I make a brief appearance at the end of the piece, talking about the durability of ironic extremism:

Media scholar Brian Hughes pointed out to me that including jihadi themes and bomb sound effects through irony allows the perpetuation of the symbols of ISIS. While they may insult and joke about Daesh, the images nonetheless proliferate. He saw similar patterns in how Nazi themes maintained themselves on the edges of popular culture, often put forth in gest. He articulated clearly what I had been seeing in these media but struggled to put my finger on: “ISIS Trap” is the perpetuation of jihadi symbols through irony and sarcasm.

Or, put another way:

This is a point I want to write about in future blog posts. It’s a strange quality of the internet, how speech can retroactively take on radically different meaning to its initial intent. On one hand, our posts live on indefinitely, even after we die. On the other hand, readers consume those old statements in an environment of hyper-immediacy. A statement from 1994 is as immediate to the reader as one made last night. So an ironic post can become sincere if its author develops sincere feelings at any point after it was written. Irony is the warm, dark, wet place where extremist tropes can proliferate and evolve. Or maybe it’s better thought of as a memetic time bomb. A critical memetic mass can be built up under cover of irony and sarcasm, then ignited with just a few sparks of extremist sincerity. That’s a profound affordance for anyone playing the propaganda long game.


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