A Dirtbag Affair

“follow him”—the poem Jenny Zhang published in Buzzfeed that kinda made it sound like she had been sexually harassed by “@PissPigGranddad” back in August 2017.

This poem describes the libidinal conflict between the so-called “dirtbag left” and the “left-liberal identitarians” as it could have been understood precisely at that point in time—the “ambient irony” of the discourse that has shifted ever so subtly (but unmistakably) since that particular period in the immediate aftermath of The Trump Election. It is about desiring-recognition among the hip crowd of extremely online people, the recognition of niche internet celebrities—not the real celebs, but those known among the urban coastal left-wing millennials, the people, the virtual people, who produce the ideas of this generation’s cutting edge cultural content, whatever that is and whatever that may be. The title: “follow him”—is that a command?—we know this is about a recognition mediated by followers, by fans, a relation not between two immediate individuals but between two brands passing each other like ships in the turbulent waters of public opinion.

Noteworthy about this poem is that it comes from a remarkably mainstream literary voice. To talk about this poem is not to try a critical exegesis of dril tweets or the Elliot Rodger manifesto, where one must explain beyond any doubt why the “outsider text” should be treated “as a form of literature.” Right at the top of Zhang’s personal website: “WINNER of the Pen/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction WINNER of L.A. Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction FINALIST for NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award FINALIST for Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize FINALIST for The Believer Book Award NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New Yorker • NPR • O: The Oprah Magazine • The Guardian • Esquire • New York • BuzzFeed • New York Magazine • Nylon”. Here we are dealing with capital-L Literature that is already recognized as such. This is what comes out of the Iowa Writers Workshop. This is the literature of the establishment, of the culture industry. Somehow this feels almost anachronistic to me, as if we (and by “we” I mean the people I presume will read this blog) have already wordlessly agreed that the contemporary literary avant-garde, or at least the stuff that is worthy of discussion, is occurring in the fragmented, marginal, liminal spaces of tweets, blogs, and shooter manifestos rather than the literary magazines, webmags, and so on. I think this tension animates this poem… but in the opposite direction.

“follow him” is about the relationship the speaker has with a dirtbag leftist: “I dated a white anarchist / who made me do all the dishes / while he crowdfunded his trip to Rojava”. This no doubt refers to Brace Belden, “an American leftist who volunteered to fight with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, in the Syrian Civil War. Belden is also widely known as his former Twitter handle, PissPigGranddad” (Courtesy of Wikipedia—both Belden and Zhang are immortalized with their own Wikipedia articles. Not the case for any of the individual “Chapo Trap House” hosts…). Excerpts from Belden’s tweets as “@PissPigGranddad” are included: “war changes u… / two weeks ago I was an idealist… / now all I desire is Wi-Fi good enough / for 30 seconds of Bang Bus”. The reader might even be led to think that the poem tells a nonfiction account of a relationship between the real people Zhang and Belden—these scenes, the literary come-up micro-celebs and the radical activist micro-celebs, seem so incestuous that it could be plausible, especially considering the emergence of a new genre of “call-out literature” that exposes the misdeeds of someone with a modicum of internet fame, a call for their followers to renounce their misguided following, a call for cancellation and exile—but the two have apparently never met.

So never mind that it is a fiction: in this poem we have the idea of the author (the speaker) and the idea of dirtbag leftist Brace Belden. “I know this type better than I know / myself* all the world’s tragedies / a stage to put his ideals into action*”. And so let’s leave Belden behind and simply call his shadow “The Dirtbag”—the Speaker knows the Dirtbag better than she knows herself. She doesn’t know herself, the Dirtbag prevents her from knowing herself. She only knows herself inasmuch as she is the object of the Dirtbag’s fleeting desires, which aren’t directed at her so much as the virtual world of his lofty revolutionary ideals, of video games, and of Twitter and Tumblr and Reddit. “now all I desire is Wi-Fi good enough / for 30 seconds of Bang Bus”. The Dirtbag is a composite of all the men she’s dated, an obscene cubist bricolage of a man, a fucker, a mediocre white man, whose dick-gun swagger obscures his inescapable white fragility, a fragility of which he is frustratingly unaware.

In the course of the poem, the Speaker dates the Dirtbag, he leaves for Syria where he enjoys the recognition of online celebrity, and he returns, ungrateful as ever, to her motherly dinner table.

in yr best light you were still

extremely wasteful: smeared yr secretions

everywhere & showed parts of you

nonconsensually: are you still

trying to get people to talk about you?

will you sleep over in this economy?

i will smash anything with you

long as i am correctly quoted:

“rn my life is v nicely 2/3 marxism-

leninism & the living struggle

& 1/3 reading my horoscope at 2am,

thinking about my love life”

there’s plenty that can’t be said

& yes yes I know visibility is a trap

yes yes I know everyone here

is vibrating through some truly ugly notes

yes yes ok yup I have never uttered a thought

to someone who hadn’t already thought it:

yes sure it is easiest to mock the sincere:

war is corny & revolution threatens

irony, still I want my soft sockets

touched & refuse to give birth

heartlessly: I won’t budge on wanting love:

human touch: not everything

has to be profitable

The first stanza of the poem the Speaker addresses the Dirtbag in the tone of the call-out post before turning into a defense of the Speaker’s tendency toward sincerity and softness. The Dirtbag is a grotesque exhibitionist: “in yr best light you were still / extremely wasteful: smeared yr secretions / everywhere & showed parts of you / nonconsensually: are you still / trying to get people to talk about you?” He is a pervert; in exposing himself he brings shame to the other. And in exposing himself he makes it so that he is talked about, he builds an audience. He exposes himself “nonconsensually” but the consent is retroactively constructed through the affirmation of the audience, of the fans, and through his ironic distance from his own exhibitionism. It is his irony that makes it difficult for the Speaker to speak of him: “there’s plenty that can’t be said / & yes yes I know visibility is a trap”. The Speaker by contrast embraces sincerity, softness, physical affection, even though it makes her vulnerable to mockery: “yes sure it is easiest to mock the sincere: / war is corny & revolution threatens / irony, still I want my soft sockets / touched & refuse to give birth / heartlessly: I won’t budge on wanting love: / human touch: not everything / has to be profitable”. War and revolution are identified with sincerity—wars are the works of the dead-serious; the urgent nakedness of desire in the revolutionary moment leaves no room for cynical ambiguity. You can mock the sincerity of war, but still I want the sincerity of love.

“open letter to my facebook friends

who voted for Jill Stein:

unfriend me now, I don’t care

if we’ve known each other for ten years!

delete me from your friend list!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

at this point my life is very nicely

2/3 wishing I were dead and 1/3

wishing I was never born

tbh your problems won’t go away

just bc you finally acknowledged yr own

longstanding depression:

the survivor mentality never worked

for me but then again I haven’t lived

thru much: “it happened to me:

I dated a white anarchist

who made me do all the dishes

while he crowdfunded his trip to Rojava”

Sincerity means your vote matters. The manic sincerity of the “open letter to my facebook friends” and the image of the impenetrable irony of the Dirtbag who “crowdfunded his trip to Rojava”. (The real Belden did not crowdfund his trip.) Both are mediated by the relationship to followers on different internet platforms, both are demands for recognition beyond the simple “like/favorite/heart”—either sever the relationship entirely or send me money! The Speaker’s frantic demand for the Jill Stein voters to unfriend her is connected to the now-no-longer-repressed trauma of her relationship with the Dirtbag, who obscenely courts the recognition of his online following as he enjoys fruits of the thankless domestic labor of the Speaker. The Dirtbag strives for a virtual point of sincerity, to represent to his followers the lofty ideals of the people’s struggle, even as his existence is characterized by the contradiction of those ideals with his thoughtlessly violent heteropatriarchal position in the romantic relationship.

sigh:: another white boy fight club:

all the world’s pain is not enough raw material

for them to feel something:

“it’s actually insanely good to hurt bad people”

what’s the difference between looking for a bar fight

& looking for someone to liberate

after reading about Democratic Confederalism?

I’m not sure but the first dood overdosed

after getting into the Whitney

the second guy got clean and found someone

to profile him:: sigh:: these bros

would sooner tape their own suicide

than fail to leave a legacy

no man has ever been remembered

for doing what their mothers did

for them: feeding the hungry

without credit: “war changes u…

two weeks ago I was an idealist…

now all I desire is Wi-FI good enough

for 30 seconds of Bang Bus”

Rojava—sigh, another white boy fight club. Just another outlet for these bros to feel something. The drive for death is the drive for recognition. But now there is another white boy fight club, and now there are two Dirtbags: a revolutionary and an artist, who overdosed after he got “into the Whitney”. The art world fight club and the revolutionary world fight club. Dead doods. Both sublimations of that white cis male fight urge. Both ways for these boys to leave legacies, both ways for them to avoid their mothers, their mothers that the Speaker speaks for. The thankless toil—no one will remember the women. No one remembers the devouring mother. All the Dirtbags desire are their virtual worlds, the legacies, the death in battle, the Gesamtkunstwerk, the Wi-Fi good enough for Bang Bus…

the socialist dream means Rolling Stone

will never write about the women

waiting at home: me and my friends can’t wait

to be a footnote* our whole lives condensed

into a line* it’s no wonder some lumpenproletariat

got so tired of browsing Tumblr

they joined the Kurdish militia*

there’s even an economy of Iraqi cabbies

who wait for white guys to land*

“I think I’m a famous leftist now”*

“did one of you make a wiki page for me”*

I know this type better than I know

myself* all the world’s tragedies

a stage to put his ideals into action*

all the pain in the universe raw material

for his Nihilist Pornography* Anarchist Puppet

Show* Camgirl Intifada* Neo Dadaist Vision of Hentai

Morphology* Tentacle Necronumen* Futanari Dentata***

“The socialist dream” is what obstructs the recognition of women in its demand for male heroes. The Speaker worries she will be only a footnote to the Dirtbag’s undeserved glory. The followers give the recognition. They make the wiki pages. The Speaker knows the Dirtbag better than she knows herself because she is subsumed into those followers, into the anonymous crowd, less than a footnote. The Dirtbag is lumpenproletariat, a drifter junkie, between two deaths, so he goes to Syria to die again, for good this time. The Speaker is Antigone, the woman between two deaths, “myself* all the world’s tragedies”, dying ignominiously and forgotten. The Speaker is indifferent to the façade of the socialist dream, or perhaps she is even hurt by it. She is not a socialist, because the socialist dream is the Dirtbag’s longing for heroic death, a longing that the market satisfies, Rolling Stone magazine, an economy of Iraqi cabbies, all actors on the world stage to put his ideals into action, all the pain in the universe the raw material for the socialist dream, all the horrific pornography that mocks the tender sincerity of the woman.

Fanservice: no matter what is happening

no matter who is mourning no matter where

the droughts may be no matter which island

is being slowly submerged underwater

no matter which union leader was assassinated

in broad daylight no matter which community

has come together to mourn the endless dead

he still manages to make it about himself

he’s into YPG women

who carry rifles by their butts

in his RPG past he killed a lot of strippers

he’s one of the rare few

who have come back

~virtually~

~*untouched*~

the innocent slain needs him alive

the army needs him alive

the unnamed dead need him alive

the Reddit users need him alive

everywhere he goes a Kurdish fighter

steps first

denying him the right

to fear anything

he came all the way to Syria

to care about something

for *once*

and still the wretched of the world

bend over backwards

to die before him

Fanservice. The Dirtbag is denied death because he is too valuable to his fans, and his fans are too valuable to the cause. The socialist dream. His RPG past is Grand Theft Auto, his virtual past and his virtual present, both shot through with violence against women, anonymous women, footnotes in history. Virtually untouched. The Dirtbag is too important to the Speaker, who hate-follows his Twitter. And Reddit needs him alive, Reddit, that hive of (cis, white, male) geeks. The Speaker wishes that the Dirtbag died—but then his death would make him immortal, so she is confused. White privilege, fearless white privilege immortalizes the Dirtbag as superhuman. He is a conquistador that plays the indigenous tribes against each other before proclaiming himself right hand of the king. But he is a superhuman idiot. He came to Syria to feel something for once, and now is denied even this. The Dirtbag would be incapable of sincerity even if he sincerely wanted it. His whiteness is beyond himself, and any action he takes is shot through with the irony of inauthenticity.

what’s it like to have so many people

invested in your existence?

those of us who knew him in NY & SF

are stuck archiving footage of him snorting

ketamine with neo Marxists who don’t like it

when you critique their anti-capitalist critique

of prostitution within the framework of

shameless anti-feminist-settler-colonialism—

I mean, okay… no one likes to hear that!

the real struggle as defined by an ex-junkie

beta male missing a core…

I thought literally everyone knew

fight club was really about brad pitt

desiring edward norton… like these two men

burned so much for each other

they had to keep making excuses to touch…

it’s absolutely true some white guys

would rather fight ISIS…

than be called a racist online!

anyone else nodding like yup yup yup yup?

anyone else vomited in daddy’s lap

and forgot to share it with their fans?

The Speaker is the librarian of the triumphs of the Dirtbag. She archives the footage of his drug use and she memorializes him in poetry. The Dirtbag and his dirtbag friends are sex-negative feminists. The Speaker, by contrast, stands defiantly for the sex workers in the margins, against the shameless anti-feminist-settler-colonialism of the Dirtbag, the shameless socialist dream. Shameless neo Marxists. But, she reflects on herself—no one wants to hear her critique of the critique. The Speaker watches the revolution going on outside from the balcony of her high-end brothel. The Dirtbag is sex-negative. Why? The Dirtbag is gay, he’s a repressed faggot. Mask off: Fight Club is gay. Can’t you see? That’s irony. Fight Club is beta males repressing the truth of how they are beta males. Ironic. Men fight because they want an excuse to touch each other, and because they need to sublimate the anger from being called racist online. Irony! That’s why the Dirtbag isn’t interested in the Speaker. Dirtbag Orpheus. Fanservice. Giving and receiving. Dead doods diddling. Sharing vomit with the fans. Perverts. A junkie nodding off. Anyone else nodding? The Speaker turns to her fans—yup yup yup yup. The Dirtbag has bad politics. Problematic. Perverse. Like and retweet.

you must really live for the state

of emergency: “we are here at home”:

I don’t think everything happens out there

on the streets: who u used to be vs

who u have become: carrying the banner

of any idea: reparations, restorative justice,

prison abolition: “I dwell in possibility”:

abandoning yr family to take up arms

somehow becomes beyond reproach:

so much is the opposite of glory;

that’s why the women in my family

tested the lowest for morality: 1973

was not good to us: cancer in your 12th house

means your “secret sorrow” is hot + buried

but what passes as flirtation online

doesn’t work analog: the same white guy

whose facebook posts I screenshot

lectures me on how my people really lived

under Mao: “did you actually fall

for that rightest propaganda?” I don’t know

exactly but I know I don’t wanna drive across town

to barter ingredients for your cruelty-free dinner

The ballad of the white Maoist and the diaspora girl. The Dirtbag lives for emergency, he lives to die, which is to not die. He is a Maoist because the wretched of the earth throw themselves to their deaths for his jouissance. The Dirtbag and his fans can’t let a diaspora girl play Marianne because they’re a bunch of racist faggots. Dwelling in possibility and leaving the girls at home. Beyond reproach, the Speaker is silenced by the cries of the fans, the rabble. Even if she wanted to—she can’t make her way across town to barter ingredients for the cruelty-free dinner because the fans are in the way, in the streets, carrying the banner for any idea, spewing vulgarities. The path between irony and sincerity is clogged. Where are their mothers? The Speaker is their mother. They can’t appreciate everything she’s done for them. All the thankless toil. They won’t let the Dirtbag die. They won’t let her smother him.

okay maybe I am consumed by rage

and inflict it on the people around me!

but I swear his beliefs are genuinely suspect

why is it always around dinner-time

that his interest in the no-work movement kicks in?

“you only work as much as is needed—no one

is coerced!” suddenly the new world order

flashed before my eyes—my people naturally

(free of coercion!) took up cooking, serving,

& cleaning without complaint and your people

took to feasting with a clean conscience—

“all of this given voluntarily!

each one takes according to need!

offers according to want!”

well life is rich and wanting to be someone

is very different from worrying abt the mothers

of the world who have given birth to men

who literally cannot feel—

even in death

even in fame

even when we beg them

to worry about something

other than how

they might die

having done nothing

worth noting

Dinnertime with the devouring mother. Maybe you are consumed with rage. But maybe his beliefs are suspect. A woman’s place is in the kitchen and a man’s place is in the streets. Between two deaths. Between two mommies. The Dirtbag is torn between his Jenny Zhang mommy and his Anna Khachiyan mommy (he has no father figure). Chose the wrong mommy—voted for Jill Stein. Boys never want mommy girlfriends, even if it seems like they do. They’ll gaslight you and cheat on you and run off to become the symbol of the revolution. All Dirtbags have mommy issues. They say it ironically but in doing so they lie—because they are being sincere, for once. White boy’s mommy never made him do anything, because she thought he was such a perfect little sweetie who could do no wrong—and that’s why he grew up to become the Dirtbag. Mommy is a jealous goddess, she deserves more followers. Follow her. Stupid white boy can’t even read a fucking book, just a fucking stoner. Shh! Don’t be mean. Do that in the subtweets. Even when he’s a bum he’s appropriating indigenous cultures. He has no tradition. Never had to face adversity in his life. Shh! If you confront him he’ll feel cornered. Don’t coerce him. Let him feast with a clean conscience. Eat some real food made by a woman of color. My little conquistador. If you don’t die before you get old, my little sweetums, I’ll kill you myself. He never learned how to feel. Even when he dies he’ll never learn how to feel. Shh… shh… it’s okay. Don’t cry. You are nothing. Mommy is here…

Blissful Beginnings: Elliot Rodger’s Sexual Awakening

“Viewed externally, Hamlet’s death may be seen to have been brought about accidentally… but in Hamlet’s soul, we understand that death has lurked from the beginning: the sandbank of finitude cannot suffice his sorrow and tenderness, such grief and nausea at all conditions of life… we feel he is a man whom inner disgust has almost consumed well before death comes upon him from outside.”

Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik

This is the story of how I, Elliot Rodger, came to be. This is the story of my entire life. It is a dark story of sadness, anger, and hatred. It is a story of a war against cruel injustice. In this magnificent story, I will disclose every single detail about my life, every single significant experience that I have pulled from my superior memory, as well as how those experiences have shaped my views of the world. This tragedy did not have to happen. I didn’t want things to turn out this way, but humanity forced my hand, and this story will explain why. My life didn’t start out dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…

Elliot Rodger, My Twisted World

What makes an incel? Is an incel born or made? Or a bit of both? To understand the incels as a whole we should start in medias res—with Elliot Rodger’s crime—working our way from the particular to the universal, from the single case to the community. But to understand Elliot Rodger, we start where his novelistic narrative starts, at the “blissful” beginning.

My Twisted World is not a manifesto, it is a bildungsroman. It is a novel that tells the story of one’s formative years or spiritual education, a coming-of-age story. It’s the story of how Elliot Rodger came to be an incel. Only at the very end, in the final pages where he lays out his plan to kill people, is there some semblance of a misogynist “political program”—and even then it is only a vague, fantastical outline. That it’s called a manifesto is only a reflection of the surface, the crime itself, the final act. The Unabomber’s Industrial Society and Its Consequences, another text adored by yet another overlapping internet community, is a manifesto: its object is a critique of the industrial revolution and technology, its aim is for a return to wild nature. My Twisted World does no such thing. Elliot Rodger is more interested in telling us how he became who he was.

The text is a bildungsroman with a tragic structure. What he learns—what makes him an incel, what constitutes his moral development—is also what kills him. It is his tragic flaw. And it is apparent from his early childhood.

Elliot Rodger describes his early life as “blissful” because it precedes his awareness of sex’s “cruel hierarchy.” His narrative starts from his earliest memories with incredible detail, but always foreshadows the misery to come. Childhood is a bucolic utopia where the things that he wants are readily available, offering themselves to him. His parents give him the presents he wants. They go on exotic vacations. Boys and girls are equal. Everyone plays together, and everything is fulfilling.

The young Elliot Rodger interacts with things in their immediacy. The world itself unfolds as a gift to him. He “acquires” things—the same term he uses in reference to girls. We aren’t at the absolute existential terror of sex yet—but it’s coming, he tells us.

Gradually, the harsh truth of growing up becomes apparent. In time, he starts to realize that some kids are “cooler” than others. They seem to have this thing about them that gets the attention and respect of others, but he can’t quite identify it. With his “superior memory” he remembers so many minute details about his early life, things that others would have surely long since forgotten. He remembers the cacti around the house when he went to Spain at age three. He remembers what kind of birthday cake he had at every birthday party and the names of everyone else who attended. Of his interactions with others, we hear names of children he plays with. But other than the ominous warning that particular children would later grow up to be “everything he hates,” we learn almost nothing more about them. They are just names. But the social reality behind the names, the truth of the other people, he never learned in the first place. Perhaps that truth contains the secret to being cool?

We read how he tries to make sense of this concept of “coolness.” Skaters are the cool kids, so he asks his parents to give him a skateboard. They do that, and so he has something do to with the other kids. The skateboard is the object through which he plays with the cool kids, the same cool kids he says would later cause him endless torment and suffering. The same goes for Pokémon cards and computer games at the local cyber café. And it works for a little while.

But objects do not retain their allure forever. Eventually he gets tired of skateboarding and Pokémon cards. The other kids get gaming computers of their own, so there’s no reason to go to “Planet Cyber” with him anymore. He abandons the fixations on the particular objects, but never acquires whatever it is he’s supposed to get next. Once he no longer possesses those objects that he shares in common with others, nobody has any reason to hang out with him at all.

But the impenetrable hierarchy of coolness in prepubescent children is just a prelude to the hierarchy that emerges with puberty. The hierarchy of sex that plays out in an oedipal drama.

He introduces his family ominously. His father is first mentioned with clinical, veterinary coldness. “My father, Peter Rodger, was only 26 when he impregnated my mother.” Peter is “of British descent, hailing from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes before they lost all of their fortune during the Great Depression. My father’s father, George Rodger, was a renowned photojournalist who had taken very famous photographs during the Second World War, though he failed to reacquire the family’s lost fortune.” Elliot is born deprived of his ancestral inheritance. His family possessed something, once upon a time, something that his ancestors enjoyed but is lost to him.

Both Elliot’s father and grandfather are photographers. The family profession is one of creating titillating images. Left unmentioned by Elliot is what specific “very famous photographs” George Rodger had taken in the Second World War—scenes of mass death at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. George Rodger swore off working as a war correspondent ever again after realizing that, in documenting the carnage of the camp, he had spent most of the time looking for graphically pleasing compositions of the piles of bodies lying among the trees and buildings. Nothing repressed stays repressed forever: the brutal reality of these images will reoccur in the violent fantasies at the end of Elliot Rodger’s text. Peter Rodger’s photography and filmmaking career took a different trajectory, bringing the family to Hollywood, where they would schmooze with the entertainment industry elite.

Elliot himself is “an accident.” His mother, “of Chinese descent” (but born in Malaysia), got sick while working as a nurse on one of his father’s film sets and the medication she took for her illness cancelled the effect of birth control pills—“their lovemaking during this period resulted in my life.”

Against the backdrop of a great aristocratic family’s epic decline he describes the whimsies of his infancy.  He was born in London but moved out to the countryside. A pastoral life in a red brick house in Sussex, with fields of grass. “The Old Rectory.” They vacation in France. His mother leaves her job as a nurse to care for him. His grandma moves in to help. He calls her “Ah Mah” and they take walks in the fields picking berries. “She would always warn me not to touch the stinging nettles that sometimes grew in our fields, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I got stung a few times.” He remembers his third birthday party and the helicopter cake and the tantrum he throws when he doesn’t get the first piece. They vacation in Malaysia to visit his mother’s family. They vacation in Spain. He goes to pre-school and gets lost during a field trip to a park. The pre-school is strict and makes him wear a uniform. He plays with George and David in the sandpit. He rides a toy tractor and runs through fields. They vacation in Greece. The hot Mediterranean climate is not like the England he’s used to. In Greece his father learns of his grandfather’s death. It is his 4th birthday and the first time he sees his father cry.

Soon they’re off to America. Father buys a new house in LA. It has a pool, which makes Elliot happy. But father passes up the opportunity to buy the “Old Rectory,” which they had only been renting. It’s a decision he would later regret, as “it would have been a fine investment”—one of many instances Elliot feels his father squanders his wealth or passes up financial opportunity. His father always appears as a provider, both financially and romantically, but it always appears to Elliot that there is never anything left over for him.

So the Rodger family moves to Los Angeles. We hear more names: of children, of schools, of parks, of toys. His memory is a cascade of mundane details. He gives us a map of his world: Topanga Valley, Calabasas, West Hills. On the other side of the mountains is Malibu, Santa Monica, the ocean. Valley View Drive. Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Dumetz Road. Ventura Boulevard. Frequent moves—both in residence and in school—make his attachment to the specific places fleeting. This sense of rootlessness only intensifies further when his parents get a divorce.

Elliot Rodger is, of course, not alone. People travel from all over the world to have their dreams broken here. Southern California: sun, warmth, dry Mediterranean air. A desert, essentially, buried under suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see, sustained by water stolen from the faraway Colorado River, all concealing the fundamental inhumanity of the terrain itself. A sprawl inhabited by people equally superficial and lost. An industry town and its industry is beauty. Equal parts paradise and hell. We could imagine Elliot Rodger inhabiting the uncanny fever dream of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Divorces are traumatic for children, and Elliot Rodger was no exception. The stability of the nuclear family is broken, and Elliot has his first lesson in the art of love:

After only a couple of months since my seventh birthday, a new and very important person would come into my life. After father picked us up from school one day and took us to his house, I saw a woman with dark hair and fair skin standing in the kitchen, and she introduced herself as Soumaya. She would become my stepmother. Father told me she would be living with us from now on. At first I thought she was just another friend who was temporarily staying with father, similar to what Uncle Dan was doing. My father having a girlfriend so shortly after divorcing my mother didn’t even occur to me. I couldn’t understand it. Soon enough, though, I realized that Soumaya was, in fact, his “girlfriend”, and they were together just like how my father and mother were together. It was the first time I learned the concept of a “girlfriend”, and it was hard to grasp. Before that, I always thought a man and a woman had to be married before living together in such a manner, and that it would take a long time for such a union to happen. Father finding a new girlfriend in such a short amount of time baffled me. I was completely taken aback.

Because of my father’s acquisition of a new girlfriend, my little mind got the impression that my father was a man that women found attractive, as he was able to find a new girlfriend in such a short period of time from divorcing my mother. I subconsciously held him in higher regard because of this. It is very interesting how this phenomenon works… that males who can easily find female mates garner more respect from their fellow men, even children. How ironic is it that my father, one of those men who could easily find a girlfriend, has a son who would struggle all his life to find a girlfriend.

Elliot’s father has what it takes to effortlessly “acquire” women. The term governs his relations to things and people.

To “acquire.” The Latinate word sticks out wherever it appears. It suggests a certain passivity—as opposed to the forceful “seize” or the simple Anglo-Saxon “get.” To acquire is to be given something, something formal enough to be legally-recognized property. Grandfather “failed to reacquire the family’s lost fortune.” Acquisition suggests a diplomatic manner that conceals the naked brutality of a conquest—acquisitions are the spoils of war, the agreements worked out between parties in the negotiations of a peace treaty. Applied to all objects and contexts, it reveals an awkward disjunction of meaning.

“I went to James’s house soon after I acquired my new hair color, and the look of surprise on his face when he saw me gave me a good laugh.”

“The only pets I’ve had previously were my turtle and iguana, who both died within a year of acquiring them.”

“The upside of moving to the apartment was that my mother acquired high speed internet.”

“James Ellis also acquired Xbox Live with Halo 2.”

“I acquired a very nice piece of armor for my character.”

Elliot’s use of the word expands to mean a more abstract object of desire, barely concealing an aggressive desperation under its stately aura as his romantic situation grows ever more dire:

“I had absolutely no idea or plan of how to acquire any sort of power.”

“I imagined buying a beautiful, opulent mansion with an extravagant view, and acquiring a collection of supercars which I would use specifically to attract beautiful girls into my life.”

“I had no talents, so it was impossible for me to become a professional actor, musician, or athlete; and those were usually the ways that young people acquired such money.”

Like the parapraxis in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, finding a new girl is for Peter Rodger a matter of “mergers and acquisitions”—for Elliot it is one of “murders and acquisitions.” Elliot’s resemblance to Ellis is uncanny. Both are rich, spoiled brats raised in the San Fernando Valley, both experienced “idyllic” California childhoods torn apart by divorce, both describe their cartoonishly materialistic enjoyment with an affectless nihilism. Both are writers. But whereas Ellis succeeds in sublimating his own “incel” tendencies into art that is recognized as such, Elliot is so concerned with the immediate payoff of writing a blockbuster “epic fantasy” novel for the literal, sole sake of getting rich and attracting women, that the genuine sublimation of his anxieties—realizing oneself in art—can never get off the ground.

Pondering the question of how his father “acquires” women is something that would take up his entire life. His mother could be discarded, and a new mother, one that he would quickly come to hate, acquired. Ex girl to the next girl.

Elliot’s father is Jupiterian. He is conspicuously absent but has total sovereignty from distant Olympus. Elliot writes of his father’s career taking off: “the only downside of this was my fathers’ absence from my life. In spite of this, I always looked up to him as a powerful and successful man.” Unlike Elliot, his father has an art form that does seemingly enable him to realize himself: he goes away to do his work for long periods of time, and when he is present, he oozes sexual power. His true form is manifest at a dinner party. With a wink and a lax nod between conversations with grown-ups, against the arid Mediterranean backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains, father, the giver-of-laws, allows Elliot a taste of the ecstasy of Bacchus.

“I celebrated my birthday again at father’s house on the night we returned to America. I was allowed to have my very first glass of beer for this celebration. I always thought of alcoholic drinks, such as beer and wine, as mysterious drinks that were forbidden to children like myself. Father would let me have only a small sip of wine from time to time. Having my first glass of beer felt like a big honor.”

Mother, by contrast, is tender and loving:

Despite father’s move to a much larger house and all the benefits that came with it, I still preferred my time at mother’s house, just because of her gentle and fun attitude and the energy of her household. My mother indulged in me more than my father and Soumaya ever did. She knew what I liked and what I didn’t like, and she would go out of her way to make my life pleasant and enjoyable.

Whereas father is the powerful white man Elliot wants to be, the man that has whatever it takes to get the adoration of women, Elliot is stuck with the “effeminate” Asian characteristics of his mother.

“This revelation about the world, and about myself, really decreased my self-esteem. On top of this was the feeling that I was different because I am of mixed race. I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with.”

Mother doesn’t have the secret to unlocking the secret world of sexual delight contained within objects—rather, she is the sexual object. His mother’s value is acknowledged in the men she dated: celebrities like George Lucas. But even with access to the glamor of Hollywood, his mother just doesn’t have the same effect:

Finally having something to brag about, I told everyone at school the next day that I went to the [Star Wars] premiere because my mother is friends with George Lucas. The problem was that most Eighth Graders thought of Star Wars as being a “nerdy” interest, and they didn’t really care. I was left frustrated and disappointed by their reaction.

Elliot perceives his mother as poor and is ashamed:

“My father cut off a portion of the child support he had been paying my mother, which forced my mother to move house. We moved to a small blue house on Glade Avenue in Canoga Park. I didn’t like Canoga Park at all. It was a very ugly and low-class area to the north or Woodland Hills, and I felt it demeaning that we would have to live there during mother’s week.”

“When I stayed back after school one day, my mother saw me with Connor when she came to pick me up. She has been concerned about me not making any new friends at Pinecrest, and I suppose she was relieved to see me with a “friend”. She invited Connor to come over to my house, which he accepted. I was a bit hesitant to invite anyone from Pinecrest to my mother’s house, because it was located in Canoga Park, a bad area, and most of the kids at Pinecrest were upper-middle class who would look down on me for living there. But I couldn’t back out of this once my mother invited Connor. He came over and all went well, we played a few video games for a couple of hours. But after that playdate, he would always rip on me for living in a “poor” house. He would also tell other kids at Pinecrest about it. This infuriated me to no end, and I would keep proclaiming that my father lives in a prestigious three-story house in the Woodland Hills Heights. I became vehemently obsessed with proving to Connor and everyone else that I wasn’t poor. I went so far as to bring pictures of my father’s house to school.”

Elliot Rodger is the human personification of the McMansion ideology—the mass-produced dwellings characterized by an oversized, disharmonious mix of architectural symbols to suggest wealth or taste. The McMansion of Woodland Hills views its spiritual brother, the slightly-more-modest suburban tract home of Canoga Park, with disgust. The McMansion’s size and gaudy assemblage of architectural styles barely conceals its awkward, uncomfortable interior. Elliot Rodger is a child of the McMansion, his psyche is mapped out by its tasteless contours. Its tensions and contradictions are endlessly reproduced in his perspective of the world: one could say he is a McMansion McManson. The McMansion wants to see itself as “old money,” but it has a “new money” susceptibility to boom-and-bust cycles. Elliot is even more contemptuous of his mother when she moves yet again:

“My mother decided to move to an apartment in Woodland Hills. I reacted indignantly. An apartment! I had never lived in an apartment before, and I always thought of apartments as being poor and low-class. I would be embarrassed to admit it to anyone.”

Much later in the text, when Elliot is in college:

I was glad that she moved to a better place, but I would have much rather she got married to a wealthy man and moved into his mansion. Even though she was no longer seeing Jack, she dated other men of high class. She had a special way of charming them. I continued to pester her to get married so that I can be part of an upper class family and enjoy all the benefits that would come with that, but she always refused, claiming that she never wants to get married due to her unpleasant experiences with my father. I told her that she should suffer through any negative aspects of marriage just for my sake, because it would completely save my life, but she still refused.

It is the men who possess the money that attracts women. Elliot’s mother is not as independently wealthy as his father, and thus she has little of value to offer him. Elliot himself is no more than the “accidental” leftover of their sexual intercourse, the heavenly sex that father experiences but he never will.

Elliot directs his racist self-loathing toward his mother because he contains the effeminate mark of her exoticism, the intolerable, excessive mark that prevents him from realizing his “true” white self, the wholesome masculinity that was promised to him, owed to him by his Anglo-aristocratic ancestry. Paradoxically, one could say that Elliot Rodger is a colonized subject: his indignant racism plays out the tension between the western-patriarchal master and the oriental-feminine subject. The empty, pathological enjoyment derived from his fixation on his own Asian ancestry conceals its own meaninglessness. In other words, when faced with the fact that it is not his “Asian-ness” that alienates him, but rather something simultaneously more simple and more inscrutable, the truth is too horrific and cruel for him to accept.

“As my frustration grew, so did my anger. I came across this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage. I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian. I never had that kind of attention from a white girl!”

It’s not that girls won’t talk to him because he’s half-Asian. He is just awkward. How much simpler things would be if all his troubles were the direct consequence of his mixed race!

The irony in Elliot’s intersectional contempt of his mother is that she is the one who facilitates social interaction by scheduling playdates with other children—these would be the only “dates” he’d ever know.

“I always had a pleasant experience during mother’s week. She always arranged playdates for me, because she knew I was too shy to initiate them myself.”

Playdates mediate Elliot’s childhood friendships. Most playdates are with his mother’s friends’ children. By contrast, playdates never occur under his father’s watch, where domestic sovereignty is handed over to the illegitimate judicial authority of his stepmother:

“I once had a playdate with Philip at father’s house, and when I yelled at my sister because she was annoying us, Soumaya punished me by sending me to my room for an hour, embarrassing me in front of Philip. After this incident, I never had a playdate at father’s house ever again.”

Mother facilitates playdates. Elliot’s skateboard offers the promise of replacing his mother as the gateway to social life, but the transformation is never fully completed. Although the skateboard gives him a ticket to interacting with the cool kids, he never fits in with them on his own. His “playdates” never evolve into the more adolescent “hanging out” with friends. Mother is always there in the background, buying him things, driving him to the skatepark, “indulging” his interest.

“On mother’s week, I spent more and more time practicing skateboarding, and I had lots of playdates with James where we would skateboard together.”

“I needed a skateboard for mother’s house too, and so my mother took me to Val Surf and bought me a gray Val Surf skateboard. I would use this skateboard much more than the red skateboard I had at father’s house, since I had all of my playdates during mother’s week, and mother would make more of an effort to indulge in my new interest, eventually taking me to skateparks every weekend.”

“For the first few weeks of summer, mother arranged playdates with various friends and acquaintances I made from Topanga Elementary, including Trevor Bourget, Matt Bordier, Charlie Converse, John Jo Glen, and Philip Bloeser. It was interesting to have Trevor and Matt over. I never thought I would have playdates with them. Matt was one of the coolest kids in the school; he was a skateboarder and a baseball player who seemed to garner respect from everyone. I envied him during Elementary School even when we were friends, and I would deeply envy and hate him later on in life, when I find out how much success he would have with girls.”

Elliot is very clear on the symbolic meaning of the skateboard. It is an object that promises some tangible social reward. The skateboard is coolness crystallized into a tangible object.

In the public imagination, the skateboard is associated with danger, carelessness, and laziness. Skaters themselves are a subculture that value creativity, risk, and freedom. It is not a sport run by adults. The authenticity of skateboarding is ensured not through the organization of a “little league” but through the spontaneous creativity and danger that makes it “cool.” This democratic social organization contributes to a relative lack of emphasis on competition. Being too competitive can even be a sign of inauthenticity as a skater. The genuine skater is a carefree slacker whose mastery of the dance is expressed in effortless cool.

Although skaters can practice skating in constructed spaces such as skateparks, real skate culture also occurs in “found spaces” in an urban or suburban environment. Skaters often seek out found spaces where skating is specifically prohibited—grinding on benches, jumping staircases, doing tricks over garbage cans—which contributes to the public perception of the skater as a “deviant.” Skating is distinctly Californian, originating in the late 1950s to mimic surfing on land. Skate culture is inextricably embedded in its surrounding environment, and Los Angeles is its epicenter. Skaters occupy an almost-mythic point of resistance against the formal suburban sprawl and alienation of Southern California.

“For the first week of Fifth Grade, I was at mother’s house. I considered myself to be very “cool” by now. I had gotten better at skateboarding, I had blonde hair, and I dressed like a skateboarder. I felt great anticipation for what the cool kids would think of me once they saw my transformation. To my disappointment, no one really cared. They were all in their own worlds. I don’t remember any kids showing recognition of my new “coolness.””…

 “Once again, I used skateboarding as a way to increase my standing, telling the skateboarder kids that I knew how to skateboard and that I could do some tricks. This got them to treat me more cordially. I even talked to Robert Morgan a few times, who I hated and yet subconsciously revered for being so popular. Whenever a so-called popular kid would say a word to me or give me a high five, I felt immense satisfaction.”

A skateboard can be acquired by a transaction mediated by mother, but the phantom coolness that lurks beneath it is not so simple. While the skateboard provides a semblance of coolness, it can never deliver on the promise of truly earning the respect of the cool kids. Elliot is always an impostor around the skaters because he is categorically incapable of internalizing the social structure of the subculture. His relationship to the culture is stuck to his motherNo matter how well one dresses the part, the cool skater kids don’t have “playdates.”

On multiple occasions he decides to abandon skateboarding for a while…

“I had been trying very hard to get better at skateboarding, but when I saw that there were boys a lot younger than me who could do more tricks, I realized that I sucked. I was never good at sports or any physical activity, and when I discovered skateboarding, I thought that finally here was a sport that I could excel in and even became a professional at. It crushed me a little inside to see that I was a failure at skateboarding after more than a year of practicing it. I could never master the kickflip or heelflip. All I could do was the ollie jump and ride down a few ramps. I saw eight-year-old boys at the skatepark who could do a kickflip with ease, and it made me so angry. Why did I fail at everything I tried? I asked myself. My dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder were over. I felt so defeated.

Because of this, my interest in skateboarding slowly faded away during this summer. James had recently told me that he was no longer interested in the sport, so I no longer had him to skateboard with anyway. I just decided to forget about it for the moment.”

…but his discouragement is initially only temporary. Elliot does not yet gives up on skateboarding because he continues to be reminded of how the skateboard seems to function successfully as a gateway to social acceptance for others. The skateboard comes to embody everything that Elliot lacks:

“Alfred was just getting good at skateboarding, and he was starting to become popular with the skateboarders. He once brought his skateboard to school and landed a kickflip, the move I was never able to master in the past. I was secretly jealous, even though I insisted to everyone that I was no longer interested in skateboarding.”

But by the time he is in high school he has finally disavowed skateboarding:

My life at Crespi got even worse. Alfred and Brice apparently told everyone how weird I was at Pinecrest, and people in my own grade started to tease me. They found out that I didn’t like being called a skateboarder, and it was true. Because I failed to become good at skateboarding, I developed a hatred for the sport, and whenever someone called me a skateboarder, it reminded me of my failure and I got very angry. The whole school started calling me it just to anger me, along with other insulting names. They teased me because I was scared of girls, calling me names like “faggot”. People also liked to steal my belongings and run away in an attempt to get me to chase after them. And I did chase after them in a furious rage, but I was so little and weak that they thought it was comical. I hated everyone at that school so much.

The sign of the “skater” has run its full course in the Elliot Rodger story, finally twisting back to a complete inversion of its original cool. In this new context, to be called a skater is to be called out on one’s fraud, to be outed as a poser. Having failed at the sport that values fitting in more than winning, the very mention of skating exposes the ever-widening chasm between Elliot and the unattainable object of his desire.

The skateboard no longer stands for coolness, and coolness no longer stands for itself. As Elliot becomes older and enters puberty he comes to the awareness that coolness is merely a placeholder for sexual appeal. Coolness is a precursor to sexiness—it reveals itself to be and to always have been meaningful not in and of itself, but in the service of sex. This is confusing and unsettling:

 “Even through watching movies and T.V. shows I got a glimpse of what was in store for a Middle Schooler. There was talk of girls, and how it would soon be “cool” to be popular with the girls.”

Introduction to sex is the dark closure to his idyllic youth. Sex is a looming menace…

“I heard stories of how boys are expected to start kissing girls in Middle School! Such things overwhelmed me. I tried to dismiss it as much as I could and enjoy my life in the present moment.” 

…but it can only be ignored for so long. A traumatic experience at Planet Cyber:

One time while I was alone at Planet Cyber, I saw an older teenager watching pornography. I saw in detail a video of a man having sex with a hot girl. The video showed him stick his penis inside a girl’s vagina. I didn’t know anything about sex at the time. I barely even knew what sex was. I was slowly starting to develop sexual feelings for hot girls, but I didn’t know what to do with them. To see this video really traumatized me. I had no idea what I was seeing… I couldn’t imagine human beings doing such things with each other. The sight was shocking, traumatizing, and arousing. All of these feelings mixed together took a great toll on me. I walked home and cried by myself for a bit. I felt too guilty about what I saw to talk to my parents about it. I was quite shaken for a few days.

This was among the very first glimpses I had of sex. Finding out about sex is one of the things that truly destroyed my entire life. Sex… the very word fills me with hate. Once I hit puberty, I would always want it, like any other boy. I would always hunger for it, I would always covet it, I would always fantasize about it. But I would never get it. Not getting any sex is what will shape the very foundation of my miserable youth. This was a very dark day.

Soon enough, I would inevitably find out about what sex was, whether I saw that foul video or not. Boys at my school started talking about it. Connor Hanrahan and his friend Jordan Carlton one day told me exactly what happens when a man and a woman have sex. Finding out about sex was just the beginning of my horrific downfall.

Sex sets the tragedy in motion. Sex disrupts the harmony of his youthful body. Sex introduces a conflict between his desire and what is possible, an impossible impasse. A gaping chasm separates the two, the chasm of the woman. Sex—the beginning of the horrific downfall! He will always want this, but it will never be there. The skateboard, Father with his new girlfriend, the hierarchy of coolness, all just innuendos that barely conceal the truth, the “shocking, traumatizing, and arousing” video in the Planet Cyber, now sprawled out in the open, naked, plain as day. The brutal, grotesque contortions of animal flesh—why would humans want this? And then the shameful question: Why does Elliot want this for himself?

There is, for now, one way out of the relentless onslaught of unwelcome sexual awareness, one that promises total control and customization of his own “body:”

“One day, I was looking up things on the internet about Warcraft 3. That is when I found out about a new, revolutionary Warcraft game coming out, called World of Warcraft. I didn’t think much of it at the time, ignorant of the effect it would have on me in my later life.”

I made a WoW account with my father, and then I created my first character, a night elf druid. It really blew my mind. My first experience with WoW was like stepping into another world of excitement and adventure. It was a video game world, but they made it so realistic that it was like living another life, a more exciting life. My life was getting more and more depressing at that point, and WoW would fill in the void. It felt refreshing and relieving. I was only able to play it for a few hours for my first session. It was all I would think about when I wasn’t able to play it.

To avoid the looming reality of sex, Elliot retreats into video games. WoW is “revolutionary;” it is a disembodied object of obsessive fixation, a virtual world he can entirely submerge himself in that affirms him, detached from his own awkward teen body and real-life social inelegance. Video games offer anyone a sense of power and immediate gratification that completely bypasses the difficulties inherent in real-life communication. WoW fills the void left by the skateboard. Video game culture welcomes someone like Elliot in a way that skate culture never could. Wow!

Elliot himself sees this new fixation as demarcating a major transition in his life—he writes the story of his own life as the succession of phases of object-fixation. The final paragraph of “Part 3: The Last Period of Contentment, Age 9–13” sums it up:

This was the point when my social life ended completely. I would never have a satisfying social life ever again. It was the beginning of a very lonely period of my life, in which my only social interactions would be online through video games, with the sole exception being my friendship with James. The ability to play video games with people online temporarily filled in the social void. I got caught up in it, and I was too young and naïve to realize the severity of how far I had fallen. I was too scared to accept it. This loss of a social life, coupled with the advent of puberty, caused me to die a little inside. It was too much for me to handle, and I stopped caring about my life and my future. I even stopped caring about what people thought of me. I hid myself away in the online World of Warcraft, a place where I felt comfortable and secure.

So goes Elliot Rodger’s sexual awakening. Sex—the unattainable, utopian, heavenly sort—then presents itself as something sinister, an evil tease lurking around every corner. For Elliot Rodger, every object in the world either reminds him of the thing that he lacks—or offers him the promise that the object could be the thing that finally makes him “cool.” Everything Rodger interacts with is recruited into the task of attaining this unattainable thing. And there is no shortage of things to recruit. He asks his parents for gifts, whether they are, as at this point in the narrative, video games, or later, new designer clothes and accessories, a fancy BMW, or first-class tickets to exotic European vacations. Every one seemingly offers the opportunity for Rodger to reinvent himself, to finally make him cool and desired by others. But they never fulfill their promise.

For Elliot Rodger, and for other incels, attempts to reach the unattainable object of desire take the form of extensive inventories. Incel forums are filled with analyses of the particular ways the incel subjects (the forum posters themselves) are deficient and how that means they will never be able to possess the thing. This is not only encoded in luxurious objects that can be bought, but in the body itself: bone structure, jawlines, height, shoulders, penis size, and so on. The incels fixate not only on their alienation from the world around them, but also on their alienation from their own bodies.

Celebrities, of course, apparently possess the elusive thing. They have both the wealth and the physical characteristics that deliver on the promise of fulfillment. They check off all the boxes in the inventory. On incel forums we see an endless kaleidoscopic k-hole of side-by-side comparisons of shrimpy incels with chiseled A-list superstars, all to drive home the nihilistic “blackpill” message: “this is what you aren’t.” Elliot Rodger would know—he was surrounded by celebrities. And increasingly, with Instagram and Twitter and everything else, the rest of us are too.

Could the difference be that he broke down? That he just snapped? That he was unable to navigate the codes and cues of dealing with women, couldn’t conceal his desires and expectations under the mask that well-mannered men can? Or did the logic that produced his desire also produce his breakdown?

This post is an excerpt from a broader work that is intended to cover the entirety of the Elliot Rodger text. Here, only the first parts of the manifesto are covered. To be continued…

Iran War Notes

Last night a U.S. airstrike killed General Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations. A literal political assassination of a state military target, the attack is an unprecedented escalation of hostilities against Iran.

In the aftermath of the event the U.S. mainstream media, the major newspapers and television networks, cover for the administration. Unsurprisingly, initial American coverage of the event differs radically from the European coverage. Whereas the European coverage tended to emphasize the scope of the American escalation of hostilities, the American coverage was emphasized the villainy of Suleimani and the strategic value of the strike. The objective of the American coverage is to inform the oblivious public that the killing of this man, of whom they were previously unaware, is as justified and momentous as the death of Osama bin Laden. Political assassination (previously seen as “beneath us”, banned by executive orders under Ford, Carter, Reagan) has now been entirely normalized, even encouraged.

In The New York Times: “General Suleimani was the architect of nearly every significant operation by Iranian intelligence and military forces over the past two decades, and his death was a staggering blow for Iran at a time of sweeping geopolitical conflict.” And according to CNBC: “America just took out the world’s no. 1 bad guy.” And so on…

The mainstream media propaganda/damage-control line offers a glimpse into the logic of the Trump administration—in spite of Trump’s infamous personal aversion to “detailed plans.” Two separate government explanations are offered—from the Pentagon: “It was meant to deter future Iranian aggression;” from Secretary of State Pompeo: “There was an imminent attack taking place we needed to stop.” Thus, out of the chaos of the administration itself comes the rationalizing speech in the press, giving the semblance of order retroactively. The advantage of having a press that is so intimately tied to the interests of the government is that by reading it closely—sometimes against itself, sometimes literally—you really do get a glimpse into the “truth” of the government’s motivation embedded within its misinformation, the way that “Kremlinologists” deciphered Pravda.

So what on earth were they thinking? Exactly this: the Americans are “committed to de-escalation,” they “don’t actually want war,” this airstrike is just a “red line,” just see how bad Suleimani really was—and now it’s up to Iran to “interpret” this.

In other words, the government really does think it can get away with this—it thinks it can avoid a war. And I think that it is actually true that the U.S. government doesn’t “want war.” But its relation to what it wants is what’s not so simple. What the government wants is for Iran to simply lay down its weapons and roll over to America’s demands across the region. But that is an impossible, hysterical demand, one that the Iranians could not agree to even if they had the most moderate and rapprochement-minded faction of their government calling the shots. And with that impossible, hysterical demand, and I dare say its enjoyment of this demand that takes form in the grotesque excess of the targeted assassination, it lurches itself toward exactly what it “doesn’t want”—war, economic instability, skyrocketing oil prices, general chaos.

And since this sign, this “surgical” strike, this assassination, is out in the open, articulated in the press, the “speech” of the unconscious of the U.S. government (which doesn’t really understand what it itself is doing, it acts contrary to its own desire) it’ll be on the Iranian Other if they “misinterpret” this sign—even though the sign itself is so aggressive that it alone would seem to demand a warlike response.

But even before the Iranian other has a chance to speak, to truly speak, beyond the immediate reflexive chest-thumping after the insult (which is, of course, translated in the American media so as to emphasize the exotic, fundamentalist terrorist-like vocabulary of “God,” “martyrs,” “revenge,” and so on…) the U.S. has already announced a dramatic increase in its troops deployed in the Middle East, already foreclosing the meaning of the sign before an interpretation is even possible.

They killed the guy without thinking it through and now all the rest is left to the necessity of fate.

No matter for the sign-generators and the smooth-talkers on our end, they’ll continue to interpret and re-interpret and produce the always-retroactive truth that emerges from the hysterical chaos of our leaders, whose rationality we take for given in international relations theory. Ostensibly opposed to him in principle—“Democracy Dies in Darkness”—the liberal media loves Trump because he gives them the only two things they actually care about (protecting bourgeois capitalist interests—as with tax cuts—and imperialist war) while letting them indulge in hysterical posturing about all the other “inessential” stuff. The Pete Buttigieg platitude: “It’s good that [xyz military action—hardly limited to this one] happened, but the way Trump did it, that was just too much.” This is collaboration and pure ideology. There is essentially no resistance contained in it at all. What it does instead is thanks Trump for absolving them of their responsibility in it, absolving them of their sin of collaboration. That unpalatable, unacceptable excess is precisely what redeems Trump by redeeming his loyal opposition. A perfect representation of the insanity of the center, the hollow center, the hollow center that is embodied in Trump as its ultimate statesman. And now, not just a statesman, but a war commander.

A Cure for the Incels: Preliminary Notes

I theorize about the incels, but how can one treat them? This is among the most frequently asked questions on the subject.

First, there can be no single, universal method because the practical approach needs to be based on each individual, rather than trying to fit the individual into a preconceived set of answers. There’s not really a single therapeutic method—even within the Lacanian psychoanalytic field the incel can be both a neurotic and a psychotic, which would entail very different approaches in the clinic. (The difference between a neurotic and a psychotic and its relevance in the clinical context is handled in more detail in Bruce Fink’s Against Understanding Part 1.) Not to mention the very different ways that cognitive-behavioral theorists, evolutionary psychologists, and so on, would frame their conception of the incel, and thus of their conception of a possible cure. I will not go in great detail on those because, to my knowledge, no one in those fields has provided insight into the incels with any real depth. In fact, the fragmented and inadequate science of the incels, the dismal science that affirms their hopelessness and the general cruelty of the world (as can be seen on the Incels Wiki) tends to come from insights gathered from these fields.

Second, many incels will grow out of being incel. For many, it really is only a phase—for these sorts it can be seen alongside other, often harmless, forms of “youthful alienation,” and it is especially in this light that we can speak of a “poetry” of the incels: perhaps such that an “incel period” in a poet’s life would be their tumultuous early work, from which they emerge with a serene, stoic new sobriety, or for another kind of poet it would be a morose and somber “blue period” that transforms into cubist experimentation.

And even though there are many that may never grow out of it, inceldom should not be thought of as only a terminal condition, as many mental illnesses have come to be understood. This is the trap that is set by attempts to reclaim mental illnesses as constitutive of positive “neurodivergent” identities, whereby the subject enjoys their symptom and in doing so gives up on any attempt to overcome the impasses in their desire, effectively giving up on, or suspending, their desire. This suspension of desire takes form in, for example, the “depressed” identity in vogue among today’s youth—the subject has depression and will have depression forever, all attempts to work through this must do so without abandoning that crutch, positively embracing this condition is seen as a positive act, or even a revolutionary political one. Embracing one’s own misery should not be seen as liberation.

But what does a “cure” even mean?

Is the goal of the cure to normalize the subject to their surroundings? For the incels to adapt themselves to the inescapable tyranny of bourgeois family life and gender roles, a tyranny that is nonetheless preferable to the anarchy of its absence? This is the “Freudian” position. But to some extent, wouldn’t this normalization, this adaptation of the incel-animal to conform to his social environment, mean a “doubling-down” on the mad logic of inceldom, which is none other than the “normal” logic of our patriarchal-bourgeois-capitalist-consumerist society without any polite or ironic distance from its unpleasant truth? That is, that the logic of inceldom is the logic of our society stripped of all its innuendo and doublethink, rendered completely literal and “autistic”? The Law of paternal authority, but autistic, and demanding nothing short of patriarchal omnipotence. For the incel to fit into normal society, in this sense, they would continue to be incels, but “ascended” (their term). They would be incels that fuck. They would not be cured, because their desire is not simply contained in fucking. If anything they would be worse off, because now they would have to face the insurmountable otherness of the woman in her naked immediacy, which before, in their loneliness, was mercifully distant.

The cure needs to have both some adherence to the structure of “the Law,” the “Name-of-the-Father,” while not forgetting about the subject who, despite being prey to the structures of the unconscious, manages to not give up on his desire. The cure must be truly “emancipatory.” The political implications of this should be obvious, but one should be careful not to reduce the incel and the incel cure to a particular political programme.

For Lacan, analysis does not have as its final aim a “recovery;” it should lead to a real point where the subject can lift himself back up and live again. Lacan’s own definition of the cure to “raise impotence to the impossible.” The analysis is to unblock a situation that is initially experienced by the analysand as an impotence, so that it leads to a real point where the subject, bogged down in the imaginary, can once again recover some of its powers of symbolization. (Here I have been paraphrasing Badiou in his conversation with Roudinesco.) The curative act remains intelligible from the point of view of the form, the point of view of the structures of the unconscious. The goal for the incel in analysis should therefore be to bring the subject to the real point where they are able to “remove the impasses in their desire.” Whatever that goes on to look like, it should mean a clear break from the emphasis on pure “normalization.”

For better or for worse, the role of the analyst is nothing like what it was in the time of either Freud or Lacan. This is especially true in the United States, where Freud, Lacan, and psychoanalysis have almost no legitimacy in the medical institutions of contemporary psychology. It will no doubt be necessary to think of the psychoanalytic cure outside the context of the psychoanalytic clinic, not least of all for economic reasons. It goes without saying that the incels will sooner watch the videos of Jordan Peterson (and even pay the subscription fees for his services) than pay hundreds of dollars a session to see the rare Lacanian analyst that is up-to-date enough to help them.

Note on the Femcels: Can a girl be an incel?

Can a woman be an incel? There is more at stake in the question than one might think. There are two immediate answers.

The answer of polite society is this: Of course women can be incel, there are countless women out there who are celibate in spite of their best efforts, and their experiences are no less valid than those of the more well-known male incels. Indeed, it is possible that because of the patriarchal society we live in, that femcels are even more alienated than the male incels, since they are denied a community in which to raise their undesirability up as a positive trait. Moreover, we uphold a fluid distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation and—although we would not consider “incel” to be a sexual orientation so much as a life condition or outlook—it would seem that defining inceldom to be exclusively male would necessarily be grounded in an archaic and problematic notion of gender as essentially identical with biological sex. So, this logic goes, whatever it means to be an incel, we should make sure that women can be included.

The answer of the incel subculture is this: Of course there are no femcels, those who claim to be femcels are essentially liars, since there will always be some man out there willing to fuck her, it is just a matter of her standards. Because of the “passive” role of the woman in courting, she actually possesses sex herself, her decision is the key to sex, and thus it is categorically impossible for her to be an “involuntary” celibate. According to the Incel Wiki: “It is generally accepted that involuntarily celibate women don’t exist with the exception of women that have medical issues like vaginismus, terminal illness, horrendous lesions all over her body or if she lives is in a sexless relationship caused by the man, or in a country with arranged marriages… Of course women can be sexless, but this is largely self-inflicted because men have a higher sex drive meaning there will always be men around willing to sexually satisfy any woman.”

The correct answer cuts through both immediate explanations, and requires a clarification of what it means to be “incel” in the first place. I argue that the essential characteristic of the incel, if one can be found in common against a backdrop of infinite exceptions, is in how the subject relates to an unattainable object of desire.

It would seem that the elusive object, the thing that the incels desire, is sex: the sexual Act, “getting it in,” the dirty, immediate reality of fucking. Popular wisdom holds that the incels “just need to get laid.” What makes an incel is not having sex, and if you have sex you can’t be an incel. Once one passes the trial of the sexual Act they become a man, and that is why the incels see themselves as something less than men.

The incel subculture cannot tolerate the idea of the femcel because, for the incel, sex (in the sense of fucking) is the impossible, sublime Thing, whose grotesque fullness is the cause of all their problems, whose residue can be seen everywhere they go, but always remains inaccessible, behind closed doors. The incel has no sex but sees it everywhere, all surfaces in the incel’s world ooze with its leftovers, as if the horrific act covers all objects with an uncanny layer of oily film. The incel has no choice. He is paralyzed by its abundance.

The sex that the incel imagines is impossible. It is pornography, which is why it is no surprise that pornography offers their only glimpse “behind the closed doors” to the inaccessible thing. It is the violent super-reality of the penetrative act itself, torn out of continuity with normal life. Thus, in porn, we rarely see the awkward moments, the mistakes, the bloopers, not to mention all the “erotic” signifiers of courting or seduction, these are completely outside the camera’s frame, the “poetry” of romance that occurs outside the penetrative act but is nonetheless an essential part of “sex” itself. In porn, we never really can understand why it is that the woman is supposed to actually desire the man she is fucking.

Femcel texts, by which I mean posts on forums or subreddits written by a “femcel” lamenting her life situation, tend to differ from incel narratives in a few key ways. The most fundamental, aside from the fact that the authors are (ostensibly) women, is the distinct emphasis away from the penetrative act as the site of an impossible, pathological object of desire. The femcel is more concerned with “recognition,” more concerned with how she is (un)desired, and what she wants is not something necessarily contained within the frame of the pornographic video. The femcel thinks more about the “Staceys” (the female “Chads,” the most desirable women) and the attention and affirmation that the Staceys get. When they think about boys they think about the ideal boyfriends, who is characterized not only by sexual potency but by a capability to truly “love” her.

For sure, the male incels also think about most of these things. They do not only talk about sex. Being an incel is not just about sex, but about recognition. This is true, but only the femcel actually understands this intuitively; the incel always returns to a pornographic/phallocentric relation to their desire. The femcels might have sex, but the sex they report is unfulfilling, they are fucked and abandoned. The penetrative sexual act is thus not some sublime triumph but a disappointing reminder of what they lack, a violent emptiness that leaves them worse off than they were before.

This is why the “femcels” (the female incels) are so intolerable for the “real” supposedly-male incels of incels.co and r/braincels. The femcels reveal the incoherence of the formal incel and the asymmetry inherent in sexual difference. For the male incels, the femcels are “faking it”—any woman no matter how ugly can get laid because there are always men with lower standards, it’s the femcel’s choice that she is celibate because she refuses to have sex with any male incel suitors, and so on. The male incel imagines the desired Thing as encapsulated in the sexual Act, in the biological penis, in the crude collision of genitals, whereas for the femcel the Thing is dispersed across and beyond the body, leaving the phallus behind. For the femcel, alienation occurs in the all-too-real experience of being used for cheap sex and dumped immediately after. For the male incel, that scenario is a distant, titillating fantasy.

In other words, the femcels are the symbolic phallus, as they signify what the male incels lack. First, in the sense femcels have access to the sexual Act, and second, in the sense even that is lacking. For this reason it could be said that the femcels, rather than the male incels, are the “true” incels, much like how those who most experience “penis envy” are in fact those with a penis.

So the pornographic discourse of the male incels is itself cope—cope with the fact that whatever it is that they want, which is unbearable to them, cannot be contained in the biological penis. Nor is it contained in other body parts. Cope is a science, the pop-phrenology of hunky Chads, in which the incels fixate on the measurements and ratios of the physical features of beautiful men in a doomed search for the ideal male form, the form of the mythic man who is never refused sex.

What this is all to say is that the incels are all too human: a community based around a shared lack of something. That lack is itself lacking. The incels have tried to master that lack in countless ways. The ways that they have tried to master that lack unfold in the form of texts on the internet. And in these texts they always say more than they mean to say.

The texts are the surplus of the incels’ compulsive enjoyment of their condition. Words on words on words, so many words, they seek to fill the void in the incels desire, but also shield the incels from the unbearable thing.

Postscript on Names and Exceptions to the “Universal Incel”

What the incels desire cannot be contained only in the collision of genitals, as if the genitals were completely detached from their respective bodies and elevated to sacred objects. There are, after all, “escortcels,” incels that have sex with prostitutes. And there are others indistinguishable from incels who do manage to trick unsuspecting women into sex from time to time, the “ascended incels,” who never truly lose their incel-ness. This is all to say, to truly define incels we must detach it from the arbitrary, material contingency of whether fucking occurs.

Every incel is an exception to the incel as a principle, the universal incel. The incels generally divide into two sub-groups: incels that are characterized by mental shortcomings and incels that are characterized by physical shortcomings. Both tend to think that they themselves are the “true” incels who have it the worse off, the former because they have such difficulty communicating with women despite perhaps “not looking that bad” and the latter because women are so supposedly shallow that they cannot see past their bodies to appreciate the “nice guys” they really are. The Incels Wiki lists many forms of incels (but not all, which is impossible), both empirically-observed and theoretical, which I will reproduce here: gymcel, mentalcel, autistcel, elbowcel, emcel, acnecel, americel, arabcel, baldcel, blackcel, bincel, christocel, currycel, cybercel, denialcel, escortcel, ethnicel, eyecel, femcel, haircel, lesbocel, NEETcel, muslimcel, nearcel, noncel, nosecel, nymphocel, oldcel, peniscel, permacel, persocel, poorcel, protocel, quasicel, framecel, queercel, rainbowcel, ricecel, semicel, skinnycel, smallcel, standardcel, stoicel, stuttercel, transcel, truecel, turkcel, uglycel, whitecel, workcel, wristcel, yellowcel.

Any word with “-cel” suffix means that the word becomes the characteristic that alienates the incel subject from the Thing—“the cause of the celibacy”—which can be done (and basically is) to any word in language. A philosopher could say that all could be considered instances of the absolute languagecel. (The Chad is said to be outside language, able to sidestep the whole issue of the relationship of the signifier with the signified, attracting the Stacey with his inarticulate grunts of pure immediate thought; whereas for the Incel—as for his treacherous twin brother, the Cuck—“language is to the wife as desire is to the husband”… always saying something else…)

It is tempting to conclude from this that “there is no fixed incel essence, only an infinite multitude of incels in their particularities.” But the “universal incel” should not be seen as the container of this multiplicity of identities, but rather as the site of contradiction within the idea of the incel itself, which the countless identities are failed attempts to grasp and overcome.

Some incels fuck, and some incels have more agency over their sexless condition than others. The term is a logical antagonism, an abstraction that is always left behind in the lived existence of these people in the world. Involuntary / Celibate. The incel is not necessarily “involuntary” nor “celibate” but the superposition of those notions—notions that are both lacks, the lack of choice and the lack of sex. So the incel isn’t necessarily celibate—but is non-non-celibate with respect to their choice in the matter, which isn’t necessarily involuntary, but rather non-non-involuntary.

What this dizzying word game means to indicate is that there is a void at the core of the incels’ formal essence that carries over into their lived reality as a double alienation.

The Two Meanings of Reaction

I pre-ordered Justin Murphy’s Based Deleuze book and have received an email with this excerpt, “The Two Meanings of Reaction.” I’ve written previously on the subject in my blog posts “The Sublime Justin of Ideology” and “Murphyist Micro-fascism”, although those critiques are intended to be somewhat whimsical, which I think one needs to be to properly engage Justin’s project and much of the contemporary internet’s “salon culture”. Make no mistake: Justin’s Deleuze project is entirely unserious and absurd. Anyone who turns to this for any legitimate understanding of the subject matter—either of Deleuze or of reactionary thought—is woefully mistaken.

But Based Deleuze is obviously not meant to be a serious, rigorous academic undertaking. Justin’s “line of flight to the outside” takes him from the precarious drudgery of the academic Cathedral to the equally precarious but perhaps slightly more romantic life of an internet content creator. This I respect in principle, “in theory” so to speak, but don’t think that excuses just how thoroughly unrigorous Based Deleuze is.

In short, Based Deleuze is an attempt to use Deleuze’s philosophy to retroactively justify various right-wing opinions, inclinations, and prejudices that Justin and his online audience happen to hold. Deleuze’s difficult prose is a tool to justify lazy thinking to an audience of lazy thinkers that just want something, anything, with which they can own The Left, and Justin can show you how with this one easy trick for the low price of $4.99!

Let’s turn to this excerpt:

The Two Meanings of Reaction

Discussing the ideological valence of great thinkers is difficult because they have little use for the crutches of ideology. The difficulty is particularly acute today, when ideological labels are used so loosely, and often with ulterior motives. I should therefore clarify, at the outset, what I mean by “reactionary” in the subtitle of this book.

The crux of Justin’s project. “Yes, you call me a reactionary, and yes you are probably correct. However, in accusing me of being a reactionary it is revealed that you are the true reactionary, and so on and so on…” Although I think it is good that he is at least trying to be clear on this, lest we inadvertently confuse Justin for being the true “original Occupy Leftist” he sometimes purports to be. Terms need to be defined before they can be picked apart.

In some sense, Deleuze was explicitly anti-reactionary. He was anti-reactionary in the sense that he was anti-reactive, in the spirit of Spinoza and Nietzsche. To be a reactionary, in this pejorative sense, means to be always responding to active, superior forces, instead of becoming an active force; to be captured by sad affects, to be resentful, and to think and act with these as one’s motive forces.

Fair enough so far. This summarizes Spinoza’s Ethics and Nietzsche’s post-moralism that follows Spinoza’s lead. “Beyond Good and Evil.” Good is a modal determination, instead of an eternal truth. “Good” is what something is called inasmuch as it facilitates these modes of infinite substance to persevere and thrive in their being; “Bad” is what something is called inasmuch as it acts upon these modes to break them down, to hinder their coherence. At the end of the day what these modes are is starstuff, ashes to ashes, mere finite instances of subjectivity in the endless ocean of nature unfolding upon itself.

This common sense understanding of reactionism partially maps onto the modern political-ideological sense of the word. The data show that conservatives are more reactive to disgusting stimuli, for instance. (Inbar et al. 2009) Experiments have shown that even just the presence of foul odors can make people slightly, but measurably, more conservative (Schnall et al 2008). Conservatives are more likely to see threats and reactively demand “law and order.” Edmund Burke watched the French Revolution with horror, and famously wrote about his reactions. Henceforth, we’ll refer to this aspect of reactionary or conservative politics as reactivism. I prefer reactivism to reactionism because it will remind us that left-wing progressive activism is much closer to this sense of “reactionary” than we are accustomed to thinking. Reactionary politics in this sense, reactivism, can be a failure mode of left-wing politics no less than right-wing politics.

In defining the vulgar conservative-reactionary that the Spinoza–Nietzsche–Deleuze line opposes, Justin swaps in the “left-wing progressive activism”. He must never stray too far from this objective. The progressives are the real reactionaries, this is the Justin Murphy brand, after all, and it is the labor of Deleuze to justify this determination at every opportunity. Justin is still superficially right—it is indeed possible for the left activist SJWs to display these sorts of reactionary tendencies, in the manner that Deleuze understands it. We are still at the level of believability, but we also are beginning to see the sleight of hand that will no doubt be driven home throughout the rest of his book.

Things get confusing because modern society also calls reactionary whatever transgresses left-wing or progressive norms. Nietzsche, for instance, is seen by many as a reactionary, even though one pillar of his whole life’s philosophy is a contempt for reactive tendencies. Since World War II, any sufficiently disagreeable and strong-willed individual eager to avoid reactivism — who wishes to constitute an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence — will generally be coded as reactionary. Even if their political beliefs are ideologically ambiguous or ambivalent. Strong and uncompromisingly active drives get coded as “reactionary” if the individual is not plausibly linked to the larger collective liberation struggle of some officially marginalized group. It is only in this sense of the term that we will find a “reactionary” component in the philosophy of Deleuze.

His particular critics and opponents, a small but perhaps vocal set of people, is conflated with “Modern Society”. His own obscure feud with online people over the definitions of terms, at however many degrees of “meta-“ removed from “Politics” itself, is reframed as a sweeping world-historical antagonism characteristic of “Modern Society” at large. But what does he even mean by modernity, other than as something that “calls reactionary whatever transgresses left-wing or progressive norms”?

We possibly get a better sense of what he means by modern society: “Since World War II…” Here he lets slip his intent to provide cover for the vulgar right-wing (distinctly American) prejudices. “Modernity” began after World War II, which was the apex of a golden age of noble and heroic deeds. Before and during World War II, the vulgar American rightist imaginary goes, people “were traditional.” Postwar prosperity and lifestyle-altering technological changes made America “modern”, which is to say that it made it lose its heroic, traditional origins, the things that were “based.” Modernity made America “cringe”.

So what has happened since World War II? Justin says it is that “… any sufficiently disagreeable and strong-willed individual eager to avoid reactivism — who wishes to constitute an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence — will generally be coded as reactionary.” This is none other than the vulgar rightist American “Boomer” worldview recast as his personal grievance. Justin’s Deleuze justifying this outlook is ideology at its purest; it comes in to justify retroactively what had already been determined. It is entirely non-falsifiable. For example, let’s say that the hippies constitute an effort (whether misguided or not is another question entirely) to attempt “an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence” against or outside the prevailing social norm. Either they will be recast as Justin’s reactionary heroes (“the hippies WERE reactionary all along!”) or they will be recast as Justin’s tormentors, the prevailing society that cannot tolerate any dissent (“the hippies WERE the Cathedral all along!”). But whatever the answer—which I don’t yet know because I haven’t read the rest of the book—it will tell us nothing that cannot already be deduced from what we know. There’s no synthetic reasoning in Justin’s entire project: it’s just obscurantist word games to reassure his racist followers of the validity of their feelings the whole way down.

This latter sense of “reaction” is a recurring, subterranean tendency that can arise from the Left as well as the Right. It is most likely to emerge from the Right, but in periods when “the Left” becomes especially, excessively decadent — the responsibility to transgress “The Left” occasionally falls to an otherwise proper leftist.

This is how we will understand Deleuze’s reactionary leftism.

Here his dance takes him back to the beginning, back to “both sides” platitudes. It separates him from what was implied in the previous paragraph. “Forget what you read before, this is what I mean, and I’m not saying much now, am I? That other paragraph was just for the paying subscribers…”

Based Deleuze will be released on September 20th.

Making Tarantino flicks after Weinstein: “Once upon a time…”

Spoilers throughout…

I had read on some film site that before Quentin Tarantino made his latest movie dealing with the Manson murders, he showed the script to his friend Roman Polanski so as to not be insensitive. It portrays Polanski’s likeness, the Manson family brutally murdered his pregnant wife, this became perceived as a defining moment in the “end of the 60s” in the public imagination, and so on. But Polanski was fine with the script, and it’s easy to see why.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is possibly the first true “post-#MeToo movie.” Ostensibly about the Manson murders, it twists it up in true Tarantino fashion, with the historical setting playing no more than a flexible, contingent context for his real, eternal subject: the meta-reflexive enjoyment of movies.

And so, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood postulates, “What if the Manson murders didn’t happen?”

The answer it gives it that we’d have a universe in which we wouldn’t have to worry about Roman Polanski drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. We could still have the innocence of the 60s, we could still “make them like they used to.” We could still have Steve McQueen pointing out to us starstruck fans the mythic heroes partying at the Playboy Mansion—see these gods that walk among us! Look how they dance so naively to “Son of a Lovin’ Man” by the Buchanan Brothers. (Polanski and Tate dance apart, in tune with the swinging spirit of the times, and no one is touching each other, nothing so subversive as the joint McQueen smokes.) We could enjoy the great works of art, the great works that give life all meaning, without having to deal with their unfortunate byproducts—that the free-love counterculture would actualize itself in the Manson Family, that all the cherished icons at the Playboy Mansion really are just as sleazy and evil, that the whole world is ruled by a cabal of billionaire pedophiles and showbiz is as complicit as the rest. We can enjoy Chinatown like we always wanted to, without worrying about what went down at Jack Nicholson’s house. We can enjoy the rest of Tarantino’s Weinstein-produced body of work.

nick mullen you could even...
Cum Town‘s Nick Mullen, who will be called up to the big leagues of the entertainment industry soon enough…

This is the grand arc of Tarantino’s career: trying to reclaim this enjoyment. There’s a nobility to it, I think, inasmuch as there could be said to be any “American patriots” left that aren’t Nazis. For the hyper-postmodern cyberpunk dystopian imaginary we now live in, the late 60s is a classical age, a renaissance that produced the best art and the best heroes, California mid-century modernism might as well be the Parthenon and spaghetti westerns might as well be Sophocles. But to call Tarantino’s nostalgia outright “fascist” and so on betrays sloppy imprecision. (And, superficially, the fascists now look to the 1980s, whereas the liberals look to the 1960s—what about the leftists?) Tarantino doesn’t, say, zealously cosign the genocide of the Native Americans, but you would never catch him agreeing to do away with “cowboys and indians” as a cultural signifier in the virtual world of cinema. He rightfully opposes the widespread murder of blacks by the police but embraces racism as cultural signifier from which we as “disinterested” observers derive aesthetic enjoyment (pervasive in his other movies, probably most notoriously in Django Unchained—but this latest entry is an exception in that it has no mention of the n-word at all…).

Anyway, there’s certainly something uncanny about Tarantino’s notoriously suspect politics—the foundational American settler violence is disavowed in a literal sense but embraced and deified in a virtual sense, we can accept the violence so long as we get our movies in the end… Perhaps what unsettles the woke critics the most about Tarantino is that his art project is actually intuitively understood by most Americans, despite however “avant-garde” the formal structure is—the studios give him rare final cut privilege only because his particular style resonates with audiences, they know he won’t really fuck it up, and even his worse entries, like The Hateful Eight, aren’t as embarrassing for the studio as, say, David Lynch’s Dune.

Tarantino’s movie is pure ideology in the sense that Mullen’s tweet is. They postulate the value of art as something that retroactively justifies all the fucked-up, oppressive relations that produced it. Political action is worthless, you won’t get the classless society, you won’t get the Hollywood without the structural sexist coercion—but at least you can get art, just make them like they used to make them. Give us the only possible “pure” thing, the thing that sets itself beyond the grime of the material world and in the ecstasy and innocence of the ideal. This is not an “innocent” position, but rather the complete opposite.

Behind the happy ending—the cultists break into actor Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) house on Cielo Drive where they are brutally/hilariously killed by stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his pitbull Brandy, and Dalton’s flamethrower after the bros get wasted on their “last night out;” neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) survives and invites Dalton into her house, the film ends as he walks up the driveway optimistic he’ll get some great parts in future Polanski movie, “Once upon a time…” comes up on the screen, credits roll—is a cynicism that is almost sublime in how egregious it is. Yes, Tarantino knows this is not what really happened, he leaves out all the nasty parts, not just the murders, but the shady underbelly of Hollywood itself, the rampant sexual abuse in an industry where beautiful women are as desirable as they are disposable, and so on. The movie deals with these in a purely virtual sense: it deals with them precisely in how it doesn’t deal with them—after all, it’s “Once upon a time…”

This winking dialectical switcheroo is the essence of what could be considered either infuriatingly stupid or genius about the film. There is so much to be said about the Manson case and what it means in the context of the 60s zeitgeist that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is necessarily a missed opportunity. But on the other hand, who is Tarantino to probe the psychedelic depths of man’s depravity? Tarantino is an artful director but never a “deep” one, and the truth of the Manson cult requires depth, a depth that has not been reached by anyone on the subject, other than perhaps Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (which preceded the murders by a couple months). Tarantino can deal with it on his level, the level of endless surfaces, on which Manson is repressed, a traumatic Real that can’t be approached directly but has to be circled, even and especially if history has to be rewritten.

The moral vindication of Hollywood occurs in a scene in which Cliff Booth, the stud stuntman and receptacle of all the macho mojo that Rick Dalton has lost, gives one of the Manson Family girls a ride back to Spahn Ranch. In the car ride, she offers him a blow job; he asks her how old she is, and when she can’t prove that she’s of the legal age, he refuses as a matter of principle. Who is fooled here? This I found to be particularly obscene, so obscene that it can’t be read as anything other than as an allusion to “all that other stuff” that got left out, the grotesque seediness of Hollywood that remains entirely virtual in Tarantino’s world, but is all too real… Tarantino wants us to imagine the “good,” “nostalgic” Hollywood (the Los Angeles of soapy pop Paul Revere & the Raiders rather than the Doors and whatnot) even though we are all aware that it is necessarily a lie. Roman Polanski did all that bad stuff, Harvey Weinstein did all that bad stuff, and Quentin Tarantino would be kidding us all were he to moralize about it. In other words, Cliff Booth actually accepts the blowjob from the girl, we all know this, but we don’t know that we know it, we cannot see this, it is too unbearable, the scene depicts the necessary fiction to protect our enjoyment, the enjoyment that Tarantino considers sacred.

In the car before the murders are to happen, we see the Manson Family members preparing themselves for the event. They tell themselves that they have been raised on violence in movies, and now it is time for them to kill the people who taught them to kill (the people who make movies). They are then dispatched in the most slapstick manner—they cannot escape the “cunning of reason” of the cinematic gaze, the cultists were the instruments of historical/artistic Necessity, mere tools employed in the realization of something they themselves despised, no matter how well-planned things are, somehow they will find a way to go wrong, and so on. How else can we read this other than as an endearingly cynical defense of Tarantino’s own work? (Recall an old interview with Tarantino with someone scolding him for making violent movies, asking something along the lines of “why do you make such violent movies?” to which he answers with childish indignation, “Because it’s so much fun, Jan!”).

The tension that builds throughout the film with the expectation of the Manson murders is suddenly dissolved with the cultists ill-fated last minute change of plans. In a footnote in Less than Nothing Zizek describes the passage from Lacan’s “dark” seminar X on anxiety to the “playful” seminar XI on the four concepts of psychoanalysis: “comparable to that of Shakespeare’s late plays, Mozart’s Magic Flute, and Wagner’s Parsifal, after the lowest point of despair (Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods), the mood changes, we enter a fairy-tale space where problems are magically resolved, where the tragic deadlock dissolves into bliss…” Is this not what happens when we see Booth’s pitbull ripping Manson Family member Tex Watson’s (Austin Butler) dick off and the subsequent reconciliation of all the problems in the movie that were never really problems in the first place?

That Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has the acclaimed critical reception it does in the wake of #MeToo shows what difference the movement made: Not much at all. The show must go on, “you can even fuck the kids in private… just… make movies that aren’t just marvel bullshit.” Even Jean-Luc Godard at his most politically woke gets recuperated into Tarantino’s endlessly self-reflecting images. But no matter, maybe we aren’t Brechtian revolutionaries after all, since even Brecht himself would’ve been #MeToo’d.

At its core, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is just a buddy comedy of the friendship Dalton and Booth have; Dalton goes to Europe to find his mojo and get his career back on track starring in spaghetti westerns, naturally bringing Booth along as his stuntman. Successful, Dalton comes back with a hot European wife, signalling the end of their close male friendship. But when they get back to LA, Dalton puts his wife to bed so he and Booth can spend one more night on the town, one more night for the boys, in spite of everything, the same promise of something like “Cum Town,” (the podcaster scene partying at the Playboy Mansion, Steve McQueen pointing out Chapo Trap House and others…) un-woke and post-woke like Tarantino, we see Dalton sitting in his pool drinking a margarita, headphones on, oblivious to the Manson Family intruders … what could he be listening to?