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.
There is a common misconception of psychoanalysis that claims that it reduces all psychological problems to one particular schema that inevitably returns “sexual repression” in some variation, like a magic 8-ball’s answer to everything. This is an response I’ve heard to my writing on fascism and “masculine anxiety,” ostensibly to refute that there is any connection between the two at all. I am not an analyst so I have no grounds or reason to defend the practice itself, but it is nonetheless worth addressing because my work is generally informed by Freud, Lacan, and others.
Usually this is intended to resist an “uncovering” of some obvious surface aspect in “manosphere” or other far-right phenomena. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a licensed psychoanalyst to see that a general group like “fitcels” bodybuilds to compensate for a perceived weakness, wish to make their flesh literal armor, that they’re terrified of women, and so on. In fact these sorts of points are more often than not openly admitted by their members. It should go without saying that this sort of truth—about a collective—is well outside the range of psychoanalysis. The truth of these observations are so mundane as to be banal.
It is the obviousness and banality of the truth that makes it unspeakable. And so the members of these online fandoms must mediate their relationship to it with an ironic distance. The leaders see themselves as characters, Roosh is a performance, BAP is a performance (undoubtedly they themselves know that most of their followers are idiots). Irony mediates everything these days because there is such an abundance of noise that the various channels need to be distinguished from each other. It feels almost impossible to have an unironic position on the internet.
The ironic position in these far-right/manosphere contexts means that, in short, since they talk about sex they can’t be sexually repressed in any sense. With the BAP fandom, the overt and excessive homoeroticism specifically defends them against the accusation that there is anything “gay” or “weak” about them, since they are supposedly aware of their fixation on male bodies, the “Dominated by Doug” text, and all the other artful parts of that whole hyper-erotic fascist mythos.
The misconception implies that since we now live in a permissive society—sex is promoted everywhere you look: at the cinema, at the theatre, at the Super Bowl, on TV and in newspapers, in songs and on beaches, in podcasts and Twitch streams, in our cars sitting in traffic, in schools, and even in churches—people are supposedly less anxious about problems linked to the sexual sphere. The taboos have fallen, they say, and people are no longer afraid of sex.
Lacan called the idea that sex is invading all aspects of life “an advertising phenomenon”—and we know it probably applies now even more than back then. And it’s clear that even in a so-called permissive society people never fail to find a way to be immiserate themselves over their sexuality. You can teach teenagers how to use condoms and practice safe sex and they’ll still turn into incel spree killers (although that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade us from doing so).
It is interesting how many of my critics (from the Right) who take issue with the connection between a new fascism and masculine anxiety seem to implicitly accept the unmistakably “boomer” ideologeme that removing the public taboo of sex will completely undercut all the “old” problems and anxieties. In other words, that free love will liberate us from the authoritarianism of the nuclear family. Many of these people talk openly about sex and engage in a kind of discourse that could be described as pornographic—always at least figuratively (Elliot Rodger), sometimes also literally (BAP). It doesn’t matter whether they come down as “pro-sex” or “anti-sex” at the end of it all, because either way they are compulsively, fearfully fixating on it.
Whatever the case, people (people-qua-“subject” and not people-qua-“multitude”) are going to continue to find ways to be alienated from their own bodies, no matter how advanced our collective social-engineering mechanisms become. People are going to find new ways to have anxiety, and they’re going to find new ways to talk about it.
But they will always talk about it. And that’s why we haven’t even come close to the limit of Freud.
The incel—the pathological incel—is mysteriously drawn to repeat the trauma of his own suffering. The incel is drawn back to the scene of what we will call The Thing. The Thing is the object of the incel’s desire. The Thing involves the physical act of sex and it involves what we would call “love”—but it cannot be reduced to either. The Thing is beyond signification, but it is Real. It is empty, but it is filled by the incel subject’s fantasy. The Thing is something that, if the incel were to have, would make him cease to be an incel. For the pathological incel, The Thing contains a traumatic reminder of his own misery. The Thing taunts the incel by showing him what he does not have, and it suggests (wrongly) that others have The Thing that he does not. The Thing is presented as good, but the idea of The Thing being accessed is experienced as suffering and evil. The excessive goodness of accessing The Thing in its immediacy is intolerable, impossible. The Thing is the object of the incel’s intense desire and it also brings him face-to-face with the horrific truth of himself. The Thing, in its deepest core, also promises to contain the most sinister riddle: the code to what exactly it is that women desire.
This description of “The Thing” as it relates to the incel’s pathology may seem abstract, obscure, or a needless indulgence in Lacanian terms, but to see its relevance we may look no further than Elliot Rodger’s “My Twisted World” manifesto. For Elliot Rodger, the archetypal incel, The Thing is heavenly. Whenever he is talking about the “heavenly” things, he is talking about The Thing. (Keep in mind what one must cross to reach “heaven.”) Here is the scene of The Thing:
After I left the campus I drove around downtown Santa Barbara to explore new areas. I went up and down State Street, the main common area of the city where everyone frequents. Countless restaurants and shops lined a magnificently designed street with wide walkways. It was absolutely beautiful… a true paradise, for those who were thriving there. I can only imagine how heavenly it would be to walk with a beautiful girlfriend down that street. My life would be complete if I get to do that. It would be the epitome of gratifying perfection. To have a beautiful blonde girl by my side, to feel her hand clasping my own as we walk everywhere together, to feel her love! That is what I want in life. Instead, I had to watch other men experience my idea of heaven while I rot in bitter loneliness.
For Elliot Rodger, fantasy surrounding The Thing is particularly symbolized by blonde girls, but the Thing itself isn’t simply the blonde girl, or simply sex-qua-fucking with this girl. To say that The Thing is “to feel her hand clasping my own as we walk everywhere together, to feel her love!” comes closer because it includes the desire of the other, but that does not encapsulate it adequately either. The Thing is situated in this scene, this street in downtown Santa Barbara, “the common area of the city where everyone frequents”. Rodger describes The Thing psychogeographically, as if it is embedded in the terrain, which comes in his account before the nameless, anonymous blonde. Dante’s Paradiso and his beach-blonde Beatrice. The Thing is tied to a place, signified by a place—and a public, social one at that. It is where one is recognized not just by a single other, a partner, but by all others, the Big Other of society. But the thing also isn’t simply the place in its inert, materialistic immediacy. It is the place as saturated with the fantasy, it is the place as it is with the presence of the blonde girl, the place as it is with all the people there, the place as it is with everyone belonging and playing their part: it is the Scene.
We must also pay close attention to the ending of this paragraph, which is a perfect representation of the horrific aspect of the Thing, the Terror, as it relates to its total experience. This Terror comes out of The Thing, as its consequence, an afterthought, a closing punctuation. The Terror follows The Thing like its shadow. It reveals itself as the hole, the emptiness that characterizes the real truth of The Thing. It comes after the Scene, like the ending of Jodorowsky’s “The Holy Mountain,” when the Alchemist, Jodorowsky, the author himself, reveals that the whole thing was a fiction all along, and smiles a geeked up smile with shroomywide pupils—he is seeing something that you aren’t, or rather he’s seeing the absence of The Thing you see, which is to say he sees nothing.
The excess of heavenly goodness in The Thing means that it becomes experienced as suffering and evil. It is simply intolerable, unacceptable. Approaching the goodness of The Thing is a violation of morality, an injustice:
Sex is by far the most evil concept in existence. The fact that life itself exists through sex just proves that life is flawed. The act of sex gives human beings a tremendous amount of pleasure. Pleasure they don’t deserve. No one deserves to experience so much pleasure, especially since some humans get to experience it while some are denied it. When a man has sex with a beautiful woman, he probably feels like he is in heaven. But the world is not supposed to be heaven. For some humans to actually be able to feel such heights of heavenly pleasure is selfish and hedonistic.
We know, of course, that Rodger is not simply talking about “sex,” but The Thing. And anyway, if The Thing is so evil—and not just evil but “the most evil concept in existence”—inducing such suffering and misery, self-evident proof of the fundamental flaw of life itself … why does he always return to it? Here is another scene in which the horrific reality of The Thing reveals itself to Rodger, exciting him so intensely that he acts out:
Another incident happened on the following day, near the same location. I went to the Starbucks at the Camino Real Marketplace by myself, like I usually did every morning. I ordered my coffee and sat down on one of their chairs to relax. A few moments later, when I looked up from my drink, I saw a young couple standing in line. The two of them were kissing passionately. The boy looked like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throes of passionate sexual attraction to each other, rubbing their bodies together and tongue kissing in front of everyone. I was absolutely livid with envious hatred. When they left the store I followed them to their car and splashed my coffee all over them. The boy yelled at me and I quickly ran away in fear. I was panicking as I got into my car and drove off, shaking with rage-fueled excitement. I drove all the way to the Vans at the Fairview Plaza and spent three hours in my car trying to contain my tumultuous emotions. I had never struck back at my enemies before, and I felt a small sense of spiteful gratification for doing so. I hated them so much. Even though I splashed them with my coffee, he was still the winner. He was going home to have passionate heavenly sex with his beautiful girlfriend, and I was going home to my lonely room to sleep alone in my lonely bed. I had never felt so miserable and mistreated in my life. I cursed the world for condemning me to such suffering.
Rodger experiences The Thing traumatically. His account is unambiguously unpleasant for him; it does not seem fun. And yet he comes here to order his coffee, like he does “every morning.” Presumably he always sees people like this, not just here and but the many other places where all the “beautiful blonde girls” congregate with their “obnoxious punk” boyfriends. He does not avoid this. Not only is he not a complete recluse but he instinctively seeks out places he can assume the tortured voyeuristic gaze. For some reason, he is compelled to always come back to The Scene of The Thing, to experience the trauma of The Thing over again, this hellish, humiliating, hours-long shock-experience that affects him both emotionally and physiologically—an instinctive compulsion that comes into contrast with the pleasure principle.
So far I have described the concept of The Thing in the Elliot Rodger case and tied it to the repetition compulsion. We also see this dynamic in play in a virtual, discursive space like the r/Braincels subreddit, as well as other “Manosphere” sites, particularly those with comment/message boards, in which the experience of The Thing is fragmented and distributed across a collective.
In incel/manosphere internet spaces (scenes) like r/Braincels, most posts have certain characteristics:
Anecdotes of women’s sexual activities that serves as a reminder of the unjust distribution of sexual pleasure in the world. Women are gushing with eroticism, it is flowing out of them constantly. Stories about women that are out there in the world, being sluts and having some sort of heavenly utopian fulfilled sexual life, a utopian life that is real but always absent to the incel subject, always behind closed doors, the pearly gates. Women are just out there, all of them sluts, getting their heavenly holes filled, and someone is enjoying it, but it sure ain’t you!
Anecdotes of women who cheat on or want to cheat on their weak “cuck” boyfriends or husbands. Women say one thing but mean another. They are liars and hypocrites, and no matter what they say (such as when they say they like guys with a “nice personality”), their small brains are programmed in such a way that their insatiable sexual appetites override their limited capacities of reason—they will cheat on you the first chance they get once they meet a stronger, taller, more attractive, “bad-boy” male. One recurring thing is links to posts from the “relationship advice” subreddit, which often includes stories of various “cuck” men in relationships with women who are cheating on their boyfriends or husbands.
Anecdotes of stronger, more attractive “Chad” men and how they are desired by women, and satisfy that desire. The Chad will always melt the walls that these “sluts” put up to keep the incels out. Whereas incels and cucks, who together are the majority of men, hopelessly throw themselves at the feet of women, the Chad enjoys women throwing themselves at him. One recurring type of post includes pictures of Tinder conversations between women and a (presumably fake) attractive/buff/male-model Chads—the Chad goes straight to the point and says he wants to fuck them, or otherwise treats them aggressively and disrespectfully, such as opening a Tinder conversation by saying he wants to rape them, and the women are shown to still be interested, flattered, confessing to deep-down rape fantasies, giving out their numbers, and so on, presumably leading to, of course, something heavenly.
Analysis of the particular ways in which the incel subjects, the forum posters themselves, are deficient, discussions and comparisons of all the qualities that they have that characterize their lack, and how that means they will never be able to possess The Thing. This entails a special attention to the eroticism of various body parts: bone structure, jawlines, height, shoulders, penis size, and so on. It also can include racial comparisons. For example, the black incel laments that he is not a “Tyrone” (the name for “black Chad”). However, the sometimes-charming intersectionality does not extend to women: the existence of “femcels” (female incels) is denied. This policing of the borderlands of the conceptual incel includes such things as a quasi-scientific analysis of why it is impossible for femcels to exist to support the claim that even the ugliest women still have men chase after them (and so, by calling themselves “femcels” these women are stealing an identity that they don’t deserve…).
Presentation of the horrific, unspeakable, “black-pilled” truth—the Terror. This is the real truth, the truth that evades being articulated in polite language. It is both heavenly and hellish. This is a terrible truth that you know, but you perhaps didn’t even know that you knew—what Rumsfeld would call an “unknown known.”
Is this supposed to turn us off from sex? To dissuade us from trying? To show us our hopelessness and inadequacy and turn us into ascetics so we live alone in the desert like the early church fathers? Or is the feeling that one gets from this scrolling-feed kaleidoscope of psychotic, deranged, and fragmented texts (looking beyond the usual political disagreement with the sexism and all), not a kind of strange arousal? In a sense, I get the impression that I almost wish the world was like this—oozing with desire out of every disgusting pore, needlessly and effortlessly cruel, the feeling Bataille must’ve gotten when he thought about his ex-wife fucking Lacan, just dangerously and preposterously horny. Who are these mythical people who are actually having this heavenly sex, this sex in which the participants are in total agreement with the fantasy of the other, and nothing is kept secret, in which all pleasure is brought to the conscious light of day and retains its naughty allure? I would like to meet them. This fantasy world is a space that, like the Scene of Elliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara, is completely saturated in erotic energy, even if that erotic energy is always accompanied by the terrible, traumatic, humiliating realization, the sadistic morality that comes after the feast, that The Thing is entirely inaccessible. Though the images themselves are not (usually) pornographic—and often the incels/manosphere discourse tends to be explicitly anti-porn—the texts sure are, at least in the way that romance novels targeted at old ladies are. When the “arousing” aspect of this experience is considered, the formation of a community/subculture that has its own rules, language, and hierarchy seems like a logical consequence of this collective-desiring-creature and less like a weird, freak aberration that somehow exists in the “post-patriarchal” society we like to think we live in. And so we can maybe come closer to making sense of why these people keep coming back, coming back to The Scene of The Thing, posting, posting and reading these infuriating reminders of their own impotence, grasping on to their own psychic condition, grasping as if it were the last thing in this “twisted” world they had to call their own.