Image: Jon Rafman, You Are Standing in an Open Field (Pandemonium), 2020
Unfortunately, I have to report that downtown New York does indeed have a cohesive avant-garde. Here is an insular community, committed to the repulsion of the status quo, that has produced at least one new literary mode.
It’s unfortunate, though, for two reasons: first, because its vision of the future takes a strong reactionary bent; second, because it is, of course, the culture surrounding Dimes Square, and I'm reluctant to add to the reams of hacky Dimes Square clickbait. To date, the majority of writing surrounding the scene has fallen into two camps: uncritical encomium for new blood in the stagnant waters of Manhattan’s art world, or uncritical rejection of the scene tout court. Both approaches are lazy, both ultimately fodder for its continued influence.
But both are to some degree understandable. You might see the appeal of Forever Mag – a popular constant in the scene – to a post-Covid youth, with its in-person readings run more like parties (complete with brawls), an obsessively online aesthetic that cultivates a feeling of to-the-minute contemporaneity, and an ethos that rejects the literary professionalism rampant in American letters.
It’s equally easy to see why any member of the American clerisy would take one look at other work in the scene and – seeing short stories written at a sixth-grade level, rampant with reaction and psychologically stunted subjects and namedropped reject celebrities – consider the entire phenomenon unimportant. Consider “Grey Sweatpants Challenge,” featured in No Erotica #3, a presumably autofictional account about getting peer pressured into depravity and kratom by a Red Scare girl:
Alex dug into his duffel bag and took out a pair of gray sweatpants that said ‘THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS’ along the sides of each leg in an exaggerated gothic font... Dasha led me into the bedroom, teased me a bit until I was “excited,” then handed me the pants to change into…The ladies’ jaws dropped when they saw me in these sweatpants. Alex, too, seemed impressed, tenting his fingers and saying “Excellent. This is going to move merchandise,” before picking up his camera and pointing it at me.
But publishing mediocre writing (or worse) should hardly qualify this literary sphere for special prejudice. All literary scenes publish mediocrity, American or otherwise, contemporary or historical. For each of Mayakovsky’s inspired lines there was more flat and propagandistic verse, and ten others beside it from various imitators. What really distinguishes the Dimes Square scene is that its authors are increasingly comfortable around the word fascist.
To suggest that the majority of the puerile narcissists approximating Machiavelli are actual fascists, though, is to grant them a seriousness they crave but do not deserve. It's all just a big joke; it's all "meta-irony," which is ironic posturing about things you actually believe. They are small and curdled people trading on transgression for attention, with no serious political project. But they do provide cover for – and find themselves increasingly aligned with – serious protofascism.
Consider Curtis Yarvin, a frequent presence on the scene. Yarvin has spent a decade working on something very avant-garde (in this case, one part interesting and three parts risibly far-fetched), which is essentially a libertarian’s reconception of the internet combined with an operating system so complex as to preclude common use. It’s called Urbit, and it is directly involved in what I will very reluctantly call Dimes Square’s intellectual organ. He’s also been involved in a recent literary project, Passage Publishing, a publisher trafficking in fascist aesthetics and violent misogyny and which is affiliated with serious racists, weightlifting anticommunists, and visual art channeling Italian futurism – everyone’s favorite fascist avant-garde. One of their first publications was a book of Yarvin’s blogposts, written under the name Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonym he used to develop his brand of classical reaction, like calling for a grateful embrace of dictatorship, framing slavery as a “natural human relationship,” and saying things like “if you ask me to condemn Anders Breivik but adore Nelson Mandela, perhaps you have a mother you’d like to fuck.” He believes in biologically determined differences in intelligence between various “demographics” (nudge-nudge) which you’d have to be depressingly dumb to humor, or, conversely, delusionally racist enough to convince yourself of.
But he's not just antidemocratic and thoroughly racist, he is also serious, with long-term plans for cultivating reaction in America, many of which are shared by Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s largest VCs. Thiel has been in the media recently for vampirism and its relation to his partner who mysteriously died, but he also developed one of the world’s most dystopically advanced surveillance systems, Palantir. He also happens to be openly antidemocratic, writing for The Cato Institute that “[he] no longer believe[s] that freedom and democracy are compatible.” He is precisely the kind of industrialist “libertarian” that tires of government oversight and believes society would benefit from a strong, centralized “rationalist” autocrat. And in that spirit, he and Yarvin worked together on projects for Trump and his auxiliaries like J.D. Vance and Blake Masters.
There is enough morbid intrigue in Thiel and Yarvin to stagger Bolaño. For concision’s sake, I’ll focus on just two of Yarvin’s blog posts. The first appeared in the dissident right’s website The American Mind in 2020. In it, Yarvin began developing a long-term project for a reactionary ideological infection of society, using art as a virus. “Art is the domain of the deep right,” he says, before going on to claim that “the ultimate cause of the entire Russian Revolution – February and October – was Tolstoyan anglophilia, an aesthetic impulse.”  He calls Marx a misguided prophet and completely misses Chernyshevsky, because he doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about. And this almost-touchingly exaggerated faith in the power of art, combined with a liberatory ignorance, is another good distillation of avant-garde thinking. Consider again the useful analogue of Italian futurism, and its manifesto’s conception of poetic power: “Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.” I’ll let Yarvin reveal his planned prostrations:
All revolutions begin as a fundamentally aesthetic break…Behind this aesthetic must come an artistic movement…The easiest path to aesthetic dominance is mere truth. Above all, one feature makes any story ugly: lies…Most regimes are destroyed by their own accumulated mendacity, which renders them ugly…Where those institutions produce art, that art must contain and reinforce all these mendacities. The art itself becomes literally ugly—we have all seen it…The first step in inventing the 21st century is an aesthetic vision so strong, true and clear that it dominates and intimidates the stale old aesthetics of the 20th century…The world cannot be won by force. She must be seduced by greatness.
Here then is a self-conscious effort towards revolution through an aesthetic engine powered by refuting “lies.” And the author who embodies this greatness? Bronze Age Pervert.
Which is laughable, because BAP is a Yale nark named Costin Alamariu who presents like a 4chan /fit/ poster who realized that muscle density did nothing to relieve their sexual neglect. His twitter features softcore Nazi hentai, jokes about Epicureans eating their wives, and suggestions that the racial biases of AI are, you know, “The Truth.” These are just some of the milder ones, interspersed between theorizing about how a hardcore right could manipulate culture to take control of the US. A representative sample from BAP’s book, Bronze Age Mindset:
I was convinced to write this book by certain frogs who told me, Is it not a shame that hucksters are multiplying lies, and jizzing their filthy doctrines into receptive minds everywhere? Pervasive ideas – lame ones – are born by the thousands and haunt, like myriad cripplette midgets in halls of mirrors, they haunt the world, books, the internet … the whole world will turn to a Bulgarian rest stop lavatory … I was roused from my slumber by my frog friends and I declare to you, with great boldness, that I am here to save you from a great ugliness.
“Ugliness,” “lies,” cultural combat: all there. But what I’m interested is the way this right-wing internet style of “honesty” has disseminated through the NYC literary scene. In another blogpost, Yarvin builds a political allegory out of fantasy archetypes. In it, he conceives of himself as a “dark elf,” a member of the reactionary elite, who must “seduce the high elves … to become and remain influential in narrow circles; to accumulate … a secret prestige … ultimately, to create cells and networks which can invisibly advance dark-elf careers.” The way that a dark elf wins the culture war is, he writes, by “establishing cultural dominance, which means becoming fashionable.” He claims the “hobbit coup”, i.e. violent lower middle class reaction, “will go way better if you have a beefy fifth column within the elf ruling class – and a hidden cadre of dark elves who emerge to rule the future.” Now granted this all feels LARPy, but remember the seriousness of Yarvin’s relationship with Thiel and their shared long-term projects, and consider one final aesthetic treatise:
To make dissident ideas more fashionable, it is not necessary to ‘water them down.’ Just the opposite – it is necessary to make them more daring, more frightening and beautiful, more audacious and transgressive, more surprising and delightful. The strategy of the dark elf is to seduce the ruling high elves into losing faith in their own prestigious institutions … by painting a picture of an amazing and totally different future as a work of art. Fashionable transgression, not bombs or bullets or even laws, is offense in the culture war.
This is two years later, and the vague call for an aesthetic precursor to political movement has progressed into explicit self-conception as a forward guard. And the development he outlines decently matches the development of Dimes Square.
* * *
Here’s my brief genealogy: sometime around 2016 to 2020, the incipient Chinatown scene took on a pseudo-socialistic sheen where a combination of the bitterness of Bernie Sanders’s defeat and a hope for his potential reelection cohered into a politically justified antiliberalism, perhaps most prominently embodied by comedy/political podcasts in various states of seriousness descending from Chapo Trap House to Red Scare, maybe even to the ostensibly apolitical Cum Town. These podcasts antagonized Democrats for focusing on identity politics instead of more material, universal policies like Medicare for All. They were big on healthcare specifically, almost to the exclusion of other big-ticket items. I don’t know why. My vibe-based science tells me that is probably related to the aesthetics that drove alt-lit itself: busted people, mostly white, excluded from participation in the culture at-large because of unfashionable lower-middle-classdom, which includes addictions and neglected geographic locales. Anyway, one of the easiest ways to antagonize liberals was by saying words at the very edge of etiquette’s acceptability like “retarded,” with this functioning something like a wedge – i.e., if you care more about someone saying retarded than you do about getting everyone in the country health insurance then you are the problem. Of course, shortly after the pandemic started, Bernie Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, which left some in serious political despondency, and left others little justification for the transgression they now traded on, unless they entirely switched their politics. The failed semi-left was now passé.
Towards the end of 2020, this all began to overlap more and more with the NYC/online alt lit scene, a literary niche which ostensibly rejected liberal identity writing, but which trafficked almost entirely in autofiction. This meant most alt lit almost identically replicated the form of identity writing, but simply replaced its mainstream liberal subjects with characters roughly in the tradition of Denis Johnson. An individual libertarianism of the busted, if you will, and, like with anything, most of it sucked shit, and still does. Take alt lit it-boy Tao Lin, whose prose washes over the brain like an irregular refrigerator, devoid of meaning, intrigue, or intellect but a suitable replacement for those who fear silence. Of course, alt lit does have its accomplishments: working class perspectives are common, including real honesty regarding desperation and addiction, which necessitates a resistance to the narrower moralisms prevalent in American literary circles today. As mentioned, it also created a half-New York, half-online literary scene outside of liberal publishing’s mainstream, largely based around Giancarlo DiTrapano’s indie press/magazine Tyrant.
Now, combine this alt lit with the newly fashionable reactionaries, add in a culture frustrated with those aformentioned moralisms, and you arrive at someone like Honor Levy. Levy, who grew up in Los Angeles before hanging out with Tyrant types, is having a moment as a distinctively Gen Z writer. She attended Bennington until 2020, when she graduated straight into The New Yorker, who in 2020 published her short story, “Good Boys”, which displays a shockingly perfect distillation of the aesthetic that is about to develop: “When the boys say something, they mean it,” she writes. “That’s why we like them. We’re not dogs. That’s why they like us. That’s why we’re on the rooftop.”
In those lines are the “brutal honesty” of a reactionary bourgeoisie: a taste for the power in brutality and an acceptance of it if it means the subject is one of the accepted. But the story then discusses the brutality of men to women in an equally direct way: “Dogs want to be held after sex, to be petted, to be taken care of. Dogs make a big deal when you get them pregnant. Dogs don’t know how to just take care of it while you’re with your boys in Greece.” The result provides a veneer of feminist concern that makes it acceptable to liberalism, even the pious readers at The New Yorker. Levy followed up her New Yorker story with one in Tyrant called “Cancel Me” which used tired "experimental" forms to explain why the narrator is sick of cancel culture. Eventually, she says, “The other day the microcelebrity tweeted, ‘It’s called being an “edgelord” and it’s the most honorable thing you can do with your life.’ I would love it if she was right …” The narrator vacillates for a while but ultimately rejects the party of cancel culturettes she was supposed to attend, and hangs out in the rain, in the “gray area.” Fast forward a few years and you can now watch her gacked up talking about her budding libertarianism and how Urbit is “the best thing to ever happen to [her].”
It is this cultural strain, combined with a west coast Yarvinism, that developed into the scene’s truly new literary mode. It combines right-wing style “brutal honesty” with a linguistic intensity originating from 4chan greentexts and "schizoposters," a catchall term for poorly socialized online malcontents who are mostly reactionary, whether through actual weakness or for attention. This language is then filtered through the perspective of a young (often parentally neglected) femininity, and snapped off with a futurist sublimity, the terror and wonder of yet more modernity. The resultant collisions create a novel aesthetic charge.
There are a number of examples: Honor Levy in Heavy Traffic, Anika Levy (no relation) in Forever, and Tess Pollok, also in HT. But the standout is Madeline Cash, a founder of Forever Mag and author of the recent story collection Earth Angel, published by Clash Books. Earth Angel, like all schizoposts, traffics in bombast, but forms the absurdity of the current bourgeois wager – i.e. risking total ecosystem collapse for Equinox classes or whatever – into literary expression. In one of the book’s stories, “The Fortune Teller,” a young woman encounters a mystic. The mystic encourages her to look into a crystal ball and describe what she sees, which prompts a sort of diegetic wish fulfilment. In her vision, the girl is married to a handsome man with a beautiful daughter and a “healthy relationship to capitalism” that manifests essentially as haute bourgeois normalcy. Of course, while
[her] husband is a good man … it appears that once a month he binds [her] hand and foot and administers ritualistic punishments to [her] feet, abdomen, and inner thighs that consist of drizzling organic honey onto [her] skin and releasing malnourished fire ants which he otherwise keeps in a vial. [They] must attribute the subsequent welts to eczema and late-onset acne when friends and coworkers inquire. [Her] husband thinks the ritual will bring [them] good fortune. He’s not wrong so far.
The humor – besides the absurdist rendering of bourgeois misogyny – is that the honey is of course organic, and even the fire ants are malnourished. This is the 21st century: not new but dumb, in fun ways. Also, their daughter has inherited the “penchant for torture and executes the class hamster with a shiv she fastens out of popsicle sticks. The teacher sees the lack of remorse in her young eyes and wants to have her put away, sent to a facility for adolescent psychopaths run on government funding so my husband and I pull her out of school and leave town.” The laugh, maybe, being the fear of government funding.
The couple’s life quickly goes to shit – financial crimes, ecological cataclysm, societal collapse – but the husband keeps torturing the woman, and the woman keeps accepting it. “Starvation and manual labor does wonders for [her] figure,” Cash writes. “[She needs] no Peloton. [She looks] like Emrata.” And eventually, all this atrocity evens out into a nominally unpleasant but occasionally poetic background noise: “We do the crossword and watch as the disintegrating ozone ripples like heat on pavement. Like television static.”
Cash’s stories can be funny, inventive, linguistically exciting, and feel genuinely new. The brutality they trade on conjures depressingly convincing portraits of our ongoing modernity, realer than real. But the stories don't just deploy brutality, they often end up passively siding with it, resigned to preventable atrocities, making them palatable through a degree of victimhood. I am of course sympathetic to the characters, conditioned as they are by the vicious disinterest of capital and masculinists and bourgeois parents, and I think I still think it's beautiful to make anything aesthetically alive out of history's flotsam. But this is a reactionary aesthetic, and not simply through origin.
While brutality is at the heart of this mode's aesthetic power, resignation is at the heart of the brutality. Cash's stories see the world for what it is, but are only comfortable describing it so clearly because they have accepted it as inevitable. This sentiment not only precludes change, but spawns contempt for those who believe otherwise. Their resignation means they have no notion that those who struggle, however pathetically, against the harsh prescriptions of reality, can still feel genuine love for the other crushed and struggling beings around them. (Or they see it as a symptom of stupidity.) The idea that one could draw real meaning from the effort to further these lives is not just alien, it doesn't exist. As Humberto Maturana said, "I cannot see what I cannot see," and so to the resigned, all struggle appears without genuine motivation, as liberal kayfabe deserving of scorn. This is the quiet drive of Dimes Square's more publicly acceptable fact and is an essential element of the larger reactionary configuration.
Curtis Yarvin is neither socially fluent nor politically acceptable enough to attain the kind of reach he wants. He doesn't just accept reaction as natural, he loves it. He needs cultural co-signs for his chosen proselytes; trendy magazines that can trade on the transgressive edge of rape encomia and then sanitize it with an ivy-league contributor list.
The cultural orientation of the Dimes Square scene is actually quite plainspoken. A group of committed protofascists make angular forays into the aesthetic Overton window. Then a group of moderate sympathizers with opportunistic bents repackage it for a wider audience. The angular forays grab attention, the wider audience provides ideological support. Each benefits from both: the reach gets bigger, more people show up, the new influence entrenches, and the cycle repeats. This works.
Anyone Dimes-Square-adjacent has been calling the neighborhood dead for months (or longer), and if the number of Soho-types now seen at Le Dive is indicative, this is very true. Dimes is washed, and the distance between bohemians and bourgeois, so necessary to feel cool, has closed. But who eats at which kitschy restaurant does little to convince me of the end of the surrounding culture staked on right-wing reaction. It will, and has already, moved elsewhere.
Thinking of the avant-garde ahistorically leads to a confused reduction of the term that is not only incorrectly value-laden (nothing about "avant-garde" should inherently imply "good") but also usually connotes little more than "cool." These characteristics have nothing to do with the real core of the phenomenon, which actually sees itself as the vanguard in a war with bourgeois order, and actually conceives of reality as an art form that can be manipulated through aesthetic power to arrive at a specific vision for the future. It wants the culture to catch up. My guess is that it will.
J. Arthur Boyle writes fiction, and was a teaching fellow in Columbia University's MFA program. His work can be found at jarthurboyle.com.
Correction: an earlier version of this essay stated that “Grey Sweatpants Challenge” was first published in Heavy Traffic #2. It was actually originally published in No Erotica #3.
 Disclaimer: they published a story of mine a couple years ago.
 There is a lot to Yarvin’s various projects, many of which have been surprisingly influential. More of this can be found in excellent articles such as those by Corey Pein.
 A good follow-up is: “The vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women–two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians–have rendered the notions of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
 He follows this up with an alt-right pun, “art-right." Nowhere does his writing signal an excess of talent.
A term originating from 4chan typically denoting anonymous reactionary posters.
 This should not suggest that Yarvin is a mastermind of reality-shaping, but something closer to the maxim that even a blind squirrel can find a nut if equipped with limitless cash and decades to spend on pet projects.