Generation Geenstijl, or a Virtual Death Threat in Parliament

On: July 20, 2008
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


It’s already old news (that’s what I get for reading the Saturday paper on a Sunday) but I saw this article earlier: “Geenstijlgeneratie bedreigt erop los,” which I’ll embellish in translation as “Generation Geenstijl issues threats like there’s no tomorrow”. Geenstijl means ‘No Style’ and, of course, refers to one of the most popular blogs in the Netherlands.

Never far from one controversy or another, the shocklog has become something of a lightning rod for criticisms of Dutch youth – generally when they’re being charged with narcissism, lack of respect, or worse. This time, it’s been implicated in the growing number of threatening letters sent to Dutch politicians.

The gist of the article is this (part translated, part paraphrased):

A major source of the problem is the group of unrestrained high-school youth known as Generation Geenstijl, which is used to reacting strongly to anything that doesn’t sit well with them. Many of these kids, when confronted, don’t acknowledge the seriousness of their actions. Apparently, ‘making threats has become normal’.

In other words, flaming has arrived in parliament. The issue is familiar enough – youth are numbed to acts of violence through media, whether it’s film, TV or video games – but now there’s a twist. For years, new media scholars have been asking how real our virtual lives might become. Most famously, Julian Dibbell described a virtual rape in LambdaMOO (an early, text-based virtual world), the pain felt by the victims, and the questions the affair raised regarding the Real/Virtual divide. The notion of a virtual reality has since been largely dismissed, if only because our virtual worlds increasingly resemble the one we already inhabit (e.g. consumer culture being simulated in Second Life).* But here there’s a reversal – behavior acceptable online gets ‘simulated’ in real life: Real Virtuality.

Geenstijl, for those who don’t read Dutch but are interested, is really as peripheral as the term shocklog would imply and as notable as the ‘death threat’ article claims. It’s a mix of permanent adolescence – evident in the intentional misspellings that have become a trademark – with some fundamental proto-libertarian beliefs. The site’s response to a previous report on death threats being made by high-schoolers was typically anti-statist: it’s the Dutch education system’s fault (link). Geenstijl and its core supporters are sometimes characterized as (extreme) right-wing, and this is sometimes the case, but it also misses the point. More than anything else, No Style means Nothing’s Sacred. Serious about being unserious, passionate about being unimpressed, the only real commitment is to cultural destructivity – tearing down any form of cultural authority in sight (up to and including would-be heroes like Geert Wilders).

In relation to recent theories of Web culture, Geenstijl can be thought of as the most visible demonstration of the nihilist impulse (Lovink). Or – thinking of cultural precedents – as a throwback to reactionary punk subcultures (the ones that would wear swastikas just to see what happened). There’s a major difference though, and that’s something Alan Liu discusses in his book The Laws of Cool. Subcultures used to exist outside of the mainstream – in the way one would leave society to go ‘on the road’ (or just to a weekend rave). That is to say, subcultures were about enacting alternative realities outside of everyday experience. By contrast, Geenstijl is just another window opened on the office computer. Like a threat becoming virtual, not really meant, i.e. ‘normal’, the nihilism of Geenstijl is itself more or less diffused and defused in the larger media-cultural landscape.

In this light, two reactions to Geenstijl that made my head spin before now seem to make sense. On the one hand, the sporadic attempts by news media and politicians on the Left to engage Geenstijl in candid conversations (via their own blogs, obviously), making a point of treating the site and its members like ‘anyone else’. On the other, a good friend – an intelligent artist and dedicated social democrat – readily admitted he enjoys the site, pausing before adding: “It’s not like I take it seriously”.

*See Steven Shaviro’s article “Money for Nothing: Virtual Worlds and Virtual Economies” (pdf)

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