Around this time last year, I found out what incels are. A friend told me about them over text, and I remember quite a bit of back and forth at the beginning as I struggled to work out why men who were pissed off about not having sex suddenly needed to have a special name. It didn’t seem like something to be received as new information — was the history of the world not in some sense a history of certain men becoming absolutely hopping mad and insane because either a particular woman or no woman at all would have sex with them? Didn’t it come up quite a lot in books? Feels like it was maybe in the Bible.
She told me that this was different — a new category altogether. It had to do with the internet, and with boys being too much on the computer in general. They go on those forums, she said, and they get a new identity where being a scary hateful virgin is your personality. I didn’t really understand what she was talking about, and I am pretty sure she didn’t either, but I read the article she sent me, which was about The Rise of The Incels, and then I read a whole lot of other articles that said some version of “incels are both the chief cause and the primary symptom of everything that is currently jamming up the works in this world” and then I became a person who knew that incels exist.
Shortly afterwards, it fell to me to tell someone else about incels, and I did so with confidence and flair. I said a whole lot of stuff about the well-known dangers of boys being too much on the computer, the well-known dangers of boys caring too much about Ghostbusters reboots and that, something something online radicalization, something something 4chan, something something saying the words “Pick Up Artist” while doing big airquotes. The person I was telling nodded comprehendingly. At bare minimum, the expression on their face said, “I recognize that when you do unnecessarily theatrical airquotes around the words ‘Pick Up Artist’, you are communicating to me your disdain and disbelief that the notion even exists, and I join you in this admirable sentiment. ” They did not ask any follow-up questions, which was good, because as I was animatedly holding forth it became clear to me that I had nothing useful to impart about what an incel is, not really, and that I certainly have no business telling anyone else what their existence means or says about Society.
It didn’t really matter though, because shortly after that, no one had to introduce anyone to the concept of incels for the first time. Among the people I would normally talk to about this kind of stuff, at least, it was assumed that we all just knew. It had kind of seeped its way into the discourse, became one of those reference points that people are obliged to tick off when they are writing or talking about Spiderman, or about how no one likes to go outside anymore, or about elections, or the Law and Justice party, or bullying, or the attention economy, or “millennial burnout,” or I don’t know, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Viktor Orban. Brexit. Anything. Someone says something on Twitter about how Leo Strauss/the Phantom of the Opera/Nietzsche/the Apostle Paul/Joseph the father of Jesus/Brett Kavanaugh/John Wilkes Booth/Thoreau/Frankenstein's monster/ Machiavelli/George Costanza/”whoever decided sex was a sin”/ Boris Yeltsin/Isaac Newton was the “original incel” and we all pretend like we know what that means or rather, we act like it means anything at all.
What does describing Machiavelli as an incel do other than indicate that you know what an incel is, vaguely, and you have read something somewhere about Machiavelli not being too keen on women?
It’s possible, obviously, that it’s just me who can’t make heads or tails of what anyone else is even saying. Wouldn’t be the first time, etc. In that case, now is the time for someone to come riding in and tell me what it means. When someone says that Isaac Newton was “the original incel,” what actually are they getting at? That Isaac Newton was a weird angry virgin who hated women? I have no idea if that is true or not, but even if it was, we’ve always had those! What happened to all that stuff about incels being a new and uniquely 21st century category of person? All that stuff about social atomization and the internet’s unique capacity to disseminate and codify a particularly florid and deranged strain of misogyny?
What does describing Machiavelli as an incel do other than indicate that you know what an incel is, vaguely, and you have read something somewhere about Machiavelli not being too keen on women? What is the purpose of connecting those two things, other than to drag historical figures and contexts and events kicking and screaming into the present day and insist that we are all best served by analyzing them through a lens that only accommodates things we have learned in the last two weeks or so? We didn’t invent into the idea that some men feel entitled to women’s bodies when we introduced the term incel into what passes for The Discourse, surely. SURELY. We have always known that, just like we were well aware of the concept of lying long, long before the term “gaslighting” became everybody’s favourite thing to say and think of all day long.
This goes well beyond insisting that Nick Carraway would have posted on Reddit or that Stalin was the original gaslighter. It is a whole style of talking now, where you just yank a whole lot of cultural touchstones together and present the end result as a substitute for analysis, like “Edward St. Aubyn is just Henry Green for men who read Tatler as an ironic gesture” or “Sally Rooney is just Joan Didion for women who can’t drive” or “The Joker movie is just The Birth of a Nation for men with sinewy arm muscles and no girlfriends.”
The Joker movie is just Black Panther for incels— Polyphemus (@AnimeWifeLover) August 29, 2019
Sometimes the end result is funny, and interesting, and it does function as a substitute for analysis, sort of, if you are in a hurry. Other times it is depressing, and for nerds — just this endless chain of references that goes nowhere, this horrible nest of easter eggs that has no effect other than to make you feel on top of things, and too proud of your faculty of recognition, which is one of the less impressive ones as orders of cognition go. “The Bible is just Harry Potter for rednecks” looks like something, if you stand far away enough and then move on to thinking about another subject immediately, but it doesn’t withstand a whole lot of pressure or scrutiny.
avengers is harry potter for dudes who make fun of harry potter— kelbin (@pissboymcgee) April 26, 2019
The obvious rejoinder here is that it’s not meant to withstand a whole lot of pressure or scrutiny, that it’s just a joke for when you want to laugh, but again — what does it mean. What “work” is Harry Potter doing here? What work is the Bible doing here? Does it mean, “When adult ‘rednecks’ want to read a book written for children, they don’t read Harry Potter like everyone else does, they read the Bible”? Does it mean “one book that certainly enjoys bestselling status among rednecks is the Bible”? Does it mean, “When it comes to an entertaining and lengthy parable about good and evil, rednecks swear by the Bible whereas for the rest of us, it is Harry Potter or bust”??? All these ideas are terrible.
“Fight club is just the matrix for incels.” “Big Thief is just Fleetwood Mac for sad bois.” “The Handmaids Tale is just Harry Potter for middle aged liberals.” “Otessa Moshfegh is just Mary Gaitskill for girls who talk too much about how they sometimes miss their periods due to being so waifish and slender.” “Bob Dylan is just Joni Mitchell for men who beat their wives.” “American Psycho is just the Joker movie for older white perverts.” “ABBA is just Fleetwood Mac for middle-aged suburban housewives whose drug of choice was cocaine instead of marijuana.” “Billie Eilish is just Avril Lavigne for girls who have too many cups in their bedroom.” This is fun to do, and definitely hilarious for people who love zingers, but it also sucks, and replaces the flash of real insight with the far cheaper thrill of recognizing things. It turns a constellation of possible meanings through which we might better know each other and ourselves into a vast Extended Universe.
Sometimes the end result is funny, and interesting, and it does function as a substitute for analysis, sort of, if you are in a hurry.
There are those who would say, with cause, that this “critique” cannot meaningfully be applied to anyone other than the very online, and that no one real relies on this as a shortcut to actually having to think anything through. That is probably still mostly accurate, but the tide is turning. A few weeks ago, Aleksandar Hemon wrote a piece responding to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2019 Literature Prize to Peter Handke, the Austrian novelist who has written a number of purportedly excellent books and who has also repeatedly suggested through implication that the Serbs were the real victims of the Bosnian war, that photos of the victims of Serb mortar attacks in Sarajevo were staged, and that the “reasons” for the Srebrenica massacre (he says “the supposed facts of the Srebrenica massacre”) are far more complicated than the demagogic press said they were in their bid to tarnish the reputation of the peace-loving Slobodan Milosevic, man of the soil.
Hemon, a Bosnian, knows better than most how destructive and dangerous these kinds of lies are, and what it means that the committee chose to look beyond them. His response was brilliantly lucid, and helped me to articulate a number of vague thoughts I’d had about the wrongness and badness of the committee’s decision. The piece’s headline, unfortunately, was a line taken from the essay itself: “The Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists.” What does this mean. What does it mean, what does it mean, what does it mean. That Peter Handke is one of the main genocide apologists? One of the ones from the 60s who was too zesty and unkind in his treatment of Joan Baez? That Peter Handke had a reborn Christian phase that the cooler dads don’t like to acknowledge? That the choice of Handke, like the choice of Bob Dylan, is indicative of the committee’s inability to identify what literature is and does or should do? It’s probably that last one, but even the world’s number one Aleksander Hemon fan (me) would be forced to concede that this is a poor showing. This is not a criticism of Aleksandar Hemon, or of the piece which, again, was brilliant. It’s more of a warning: if Hemon has succumbed, there’s no telling who is next.
Perhaps all this was inevitable. The dream of the internet was that each of us would be able to access the knowledge of all of human history, and the nightmare that resulted is that we are now expected to know so many more things than before, such that the only way to really get a grasp on any of it is to superficially connect them to other things you also barely understand. The most utopian vision of it held that it would be a place that would connect us to others, that it would help us see and understand the world more deeply. The version of the internet we have landed up with often feels less like a place where we can connect to others, and more like a place where we have to learn what TikTok is in order to understand the import of the sentence “Ted Bundy’s granddaughter outed her entire family on TikTok,” and then later on to connect that event to another idiotic and depressing situation by saying “this is exactly like when Ted Bundy’s granddaughter outed her entire family on TikTok,” and on and on like that, until the moment comes where we all lose our grip on reality completely.