May 4, 2020 § Leave a comment

I watched Alex Lee Moyer’s Tfw No Gf last night with the same embarrassed resignation that I’ve had with pretty much any writing on the “incel phenomenon”: that I’m reading a proxy autobiography and that the glib lack of reflection involved is painful for all concerned. That this goes doubly for those pieces that aim, with “tough love” or sympathy alike, to Expose the shared affective complex of the incel as Toxic Masculinity points to the real nature of the problem, that experience can now only count when made over into media spectacle, a talking point to migrate from Jezebel to Tucker Carlson and back. Sympathy, heavily flagged by selecting only the most absurd examples of incel-scare discourse to counterpoint the interviewees, betrays itself by externalising pain as content to be frothed over. The urge to treat proliferating life situations as a problem to be analysed, to the tune of cable news and podcast appearances, becomes precisely a way of doing nothing about them, because they can only be changed by those who make such lives inescapable and those who are unfortunately living them. The actual nature of the interviewees’ lives is as mundane, as difficult to make gripping visually, as it is all-consuming to them. The contradiction involved here, which only becomes clear through the kind of interaction with the outside world that might allow the incel to grasp an external perspective on themselves, is one I know is painful because I spent most of my teens and twenties inhabiting it to different degrees. I was never on 4Chan or the relevant Reddit boards, but I certainly thought that I’d never have intimate relationships or close friends and the notion of a worldview that explained all this as the result of a rigged system and perpetually reignited the emotions of ressentiment, self-abnegation and glutted horror would have been very attractive. Some of the sentiments in my (now-destroyed) teen diaries about women, sex or dating would result in quick cancellation if aired now. Even after I broke that run, the catastrophising assumptions that surround inceldom’s central issues – ‘ugliness’, lack of social standing and money, anxiety around contact with others, loneliness, emotional lethargy – would return with intermittent force during and after setbacks. There were long periods in my 20s where I did fact get up late and simply scroll through Twitter all day – this despite having, by the usual pre-crisis calculus, “a lot going for me”. Etc etc. By the end of the film the subjects have all in some sense passed beyond incelhood, through the most mechanical of self-help means – weightlifting, online dating, Patreon dollars – advocated by befuddled onlookers, the proponents of “go outside theory”. Why should we bother about what’s only a passing or self-sustained condition, certainly compared to the oppressions of the classes always invoked as deserving and uncomplaining subjects of real sympathy (the disabled, women, people of colour, LGBT youth)? In part because incelhood, particularly as an internet phenomenon, is a revealing double to the forces most concerned about it. It represents one logical endpoint – the least glamourised and the least reflexive – of what tends to be called “identity politics”. I don’t mean the general politics of racial or gender complaint that chud socialists get exercised about, nor the early 90s “identitarian” consumerism that Mark Fisher apparently considered the ideology of the Vampire Castle (not that you’d know it from the essay itself), but the simple problem that politics in advanced capitalist societies must deal with identities, the fact that cellularisation is how subjectivity is organised in the societies of control and people treat their social experience through stronger or weaker, frequently fluctuating, forms of identification. In the case of online incels, the banal and unpleasant knowledge of being unwanted – a fate that can befall anyone with the wrong luck or bad moves – becomes the basis for a fully evolved, circular worldview whose every avenue of escape is blocked off by its very critical reconstruction of the world it views. It offers, as I’ve written elsewhere, a language for the experience, if one that betrays the experience itself, and “a utopia of abstract individualism”, an imagined community that is defined by being anti-communitarian. The fact that the difference between incelhood and the retail ideologies of the Jia Tolentinos, Amanda Marcottes and Hadley Freemans of the world (who, I must stress, are not identical with the non-existent “Tumblr left” of Angela Nagle’s demonology) is one of content and degree rather than kind is simply an indication of how political imaginaries are secured in post-neoliberal societies. Their hatred of women, semi-autonomous from the actual fascism of the organised far-right, is ultimately uninteresting in itself; it needs to be seen, rather, in a constellation with its counterpart in the slow violence of liberal technocracy, which likewise articulates destruction through an anti-collective politics that realises abstract individualism through reified images of community. The best thing the film does is confirm, by inversion, Thom Andersen’s thesis early in Los Angeles Plays Itself: if, as that film’s narrator says, the backgrounds of fiction films can be appreciated for their documentary qualities, the backgrounds of this documentary can be appreciated for the way they illuminate the real and unadmitted conditions of the subjects’ lives, as would the tattered upholstery and slag heaps of a realist fiction film. Exurban cul-de-sacs, defunct fishing piers, strip malls, wrecking yards, light industry, clapboard subdivisions, retail parks whose only functioning businesses are 3 or 4 fast food franchises: the exteriors bespeak a world whose forms of meaning have, in the post-industrial moment, ceased to exist and proliferated outwards exponentially into new landscapes of nihilistic non-meaning. (This turn to the background, inherited in part from Romanticism, recurs in radical filmmaking, from Antonioni to Straub/Huillet and James Benning, as a defamiliarisation of the identities that occupy the foreground of narrative.) The impulse to look for solutions to the “incel problem” is understandable but can only be as effective as political education is in general in late capitalist societies, i.e. not very. There’s no One Weird Trick to solve a generalised crisis of social meaning, much less one proffered from a position of condescending disgust. What might help would be a state-directed creation of the economic conditions for more real autonomy (UBI, a green new deal with high-paying, secure jobs), to start to change the background. The only thing that would really help is the collective production of new, stronger, more flexible identities, a process for which the traditions of queer, feminist and black radicalism provide, in their affective richness, a template – a vast expansion throughout the left of the repertoire of “technologies of the self” beyond the narrow range of “self-care” that consumer society provides.

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