The term “incel” springs into mainstream media discourse with violence. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun” Alek Minassian posted to Facebook shortly before driving a van into a crowd in the North York City Centre district of Toronto. “All Hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” This statement about the attack is sufficient for the media to call it terrorism. Cue a legion of experts and pundits speaking on the horrific new threat posed by incel terrorists. Soon enough it’s a matter of international controversy, an issue that demands an urgent response. It’s a hate group, a conspiracy, a menace embedded in the very fabric of our societies, lurking right under our noses. “CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?” asks Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit.
Incel is short for “involuntary celibate,” an online subculture of people who are unable to find romantic or sexual partners despite wanting to. The community is generally resentful, misogynistic, and misanthropic, calling for violence against women and sexually successful men. They post on websites like 4chan and Reddit. They have a strange, intricate language they use to talk about their world. And they often express admiration for Elliot Rodger, the self-identified incel who went on a killing spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2014 and had uploaded a series of threatening YouTube videos and a 140-page manifesto, My Twisted World, to the internet beforehand.
The mainstream media is able to understand this much. But not much more. Incels are not organized. It’s nothing one can be a member of. It’s more than just being a virgin, or being a single guy having a long dry spell. It’s more than being an abusive internet troll. And it’s more than being resentful, misogynistic, or misanthropic.
One way to comprehend the incel is as a group identity that is not an essence or an organization in the colloquial sense. This makes ‘policing’ incels — searching them out, infiltrating their networks, tapping their phones and computers, convincing them to turn on their friends, and the other usual tactics — nearly impossible. Rounding up every incel and forcing them to hire sex workers or undergo a feminist training workshop would be useless.
We still struggle to understand groups, especially online subcultures. The way that journalists have tried to understand incels — for example, as an opportunity for economic thought experiments or as a menacing terrorist threat — is woefully inadequate. Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies shows the failure of traditional modes of inquiry for understanding social networks and their effects, especially with respect to the Trump campaign and the far-right spirit of 2016, indicating the dire need for methodological innovation. But while Nagle has won mainstream recognition and praise for her book, it has a number of flaws. Poorly sourced, it has several passages that appear to be lifted directly from Wikipedia. And ironically, Nagle seems to be seduced by the very alt-right, anti-feminist subculture that she is documenting. She is right to read their texts, but she takes many of her subject’s claims at face value — ultimately offering a flattering depiction of the fascist 4channer as a radical Dadaist dissident that cuts through the chains of the hegemonic orthodoxy of feminism and identity politics. To avoid simply giving these ideologies a mainstream platform, writers need to not only engage the texts, but to deconstruct them. This way, it’s possible to understand not only how the incel thinks, but also the social mechanisms that make the incel—and the incel’s breakdown — possible.
The core texts of the incel culture include the Elliot Rodger manifesto, the now-deleted r/incels subreddit, and other “manosphere” websites, such as Return of Kings. Many texts are dispersed across message boards or shrouded in the anonymity of websites like 4chan. They are the discussions on forums, they are memes, they are the vulgar, trolling Twitter replies to women journalists. Most texts are the fragments of the culture — far from enough to really comprehend incels in their entirety. They give us insights into some of the codes of the lingo, the terms and jokes they use. But, as with much of fringe internet culture, it can be difficult to tell if these messages are deployed ironically — fodder for the edgy jokes of people who certainly aren’t incels themselves. And even when indisputably sincere, how much can we really decipher from a single profane, misogynist tweet?
Incredibly, very little attention has been given to the Elliot Rodger manifesto itself. Clocking in at 140 pages in a single-spaced word document, My Twisted World is massive. He catalogues the minute details of his life — from his very early childhood until the time leading up to his killing spree — with obsessive precision. It is a treasure trove of evidence for a critical case study. Its importance for the subculture is that of a heroic foundation myth. It is the Aeneid for incels. To understand why Alek Minassian committed a killing spree in the name of “Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” it’s necessary to read My Twisted World. It must be read thoroughly, seriously, and critically. Such a reading could offer insight into how someone like Elliot Rodger came to be who he was — and how he broke down.
On May 23, 2014 Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California, near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, killing six people and injuring thirteen before he finally killed himself. Shortly before, Rodger, the privileged son of Hollywood producer Peter Rodger, had posted a series of threatening YouTube videos and sent his manifesto, My Twisted World, to news outlets. In the videos and manifesto, he described the story of his life from his early childhood, discussed his ongoing frustrations with women, lamented his virginity, and concluded that women deserved to be slaughtered because they never gave him the sex that he felt they owed him.
The manifesto is a horrific and extensive explication of the development of, as he calls it, a “fascist” sexualization of the world — a sexualization that both terrorizes him and drives him to terrorism. Rodger’s “twisted world” of sexual anxiety is one in which nearly all objects become endowed with and confined to an explicitly sexual meaning. All objects become a means to literal sexual gratification — a gratification that Rodger himself never experiences. He exhibits a series of neuroses related to this imprisonment and repression of sexuality. He is haunted by a sexuality that is ever-present in his world, yet always alienated from him. Ultimately, this leads him have delusions of a genocide against all women, and he fantasizes about a final solution in which all women sent to concentration camps and killed.
Rodger is very clear that he believes his ideas and beliefs are produced by his upbringing and environment. “This whole viewpoint and ideology of abolishing sex stems from being deprived of it all my life,” he writes. And the social mechanisms that produce his beliefs and desires also produce his breakdown, his “Day of Retribution.” In other words, they produce fascism.
There are seemingly endless points of access for multidisciplinary critical analysis. The tools of Marxist critical theory, psychoanalysis, gender and queer studies, and ethnic studies (just to suggest a few) would all be invaluable in building a more complete understanding of the text, and the subject of incels as a whole. Including these should be an objective of the methodological innovation needed to study this topic.
The narrative of My Twisted World is loosely organized into three different parts. The first stage describes his “blissful” early childhood before he became aware of sex. The second stage, consisting of most of his life and the text itself, describes his life once his environment and social interactions become organized and categorized according to his sexual anxieties. The third and final stage describes a fantastical world revolution in which women are exterminated and sexuality abolished, and he lays out his own plan for the massacre that he would later conduct.
In the first and shortest stage, the utopian “pre-sexual” period, Rodger has yet to realize the “torment,” “horror,” and “cruelties” of sexual dissatisfaction that he says later defines his existence. Here, he chronicles things like the birthday presents he receives, his playdates with other children (who he names but never describes in much detail), and the vacations his parents take him on. He notes the irony of how he was able to make female friends, blissfully unaware of how they would later cause him so much “darkness and misery.” He even takes a bath with a girl, noting that it is the only time in his life that he would ever see a girl naked. This period is one of idyllic, undifferentiated totality. “We all start out innocent, and we all start out together. Only through the experiences and circumstances of growing up do we drift apart, form allegiances, and face each other as enemies.”
Once Rodger becomes aware of the differentiation between boys and girls, the entirety of his environment and social interactions become oriented toward sex. To him, this event is a life-defining trauma. Before, he played with toys as objects with a sense of their own fullness of meaning. Now, all objects — such as a skateboard or his hair that he bleaches blonde — are mobilized toward his drive to be cool, to achieve the social acceptance he believes will grant him a “world of pleasure.”
Everything he interacts with is recruited into this task. And there is no shortage of things to recruit. He asks his parents for gifts, whether they are video games, new designer clothes and accessories, a fancy BMW, or first class tickets to exotic European vacations. If we are to believe his telling, much of his life consists of simply taking inventory of the items he possesses.
Every gift seemingly offers an opportunity to reinvent himself. “I arrived back in Santa Barbara with a renewed, carefully constructed sense of confidence, especially because of the new collection of designer clothes I bought over the break,” he writes. Once Rodger’s friends or the girls at school see him with his new thing, he thinks, he will finally have access to the prize he seeks. The more expensive, exclusive, or exotic the object, the greater its sexual exchange value.
This logic extends to the literal acquisition of people—and is often the product of his oedipal relationship with his Hollywood film director father. “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.” The father is both the ultimate giver of gifts and the ultimate possessor of women. But the father — aloof, distant, Jupiterian — is also vulnerable to the machinations of finance: “What a bitter coincidence, that right at the point when my life fell even deeper into agony, my father is cursed with this financial crisis.”
Sex is money. Acquiring coolness and sexiness is just a matter of buying things. Desire is produced in the form of commodities. But the more items Rodger acquires, the more frustrated he becomes by their failure to give him what he really wants. Nothing stays true to its promise. At every turn, he is betrayed. But instead of questioning the logic in the first place, the logic equating the accumulation of luxury goods with sexual fulfillment, the logic of desire as a lack of something, he concludes that his problem is simply that he doesn’t have enough money. Only with a virtually infinite amount of money, he thinks, will he be finally irresistible to women. From here, he becomes obsessed with the idea of winning the lottery, spending huge sums on Powerball tickets, convinced that it is his destiny to win. “I planned to go back to college once I had bolstered myself with all this wealth, and lord myself over all the other students there, finally fulfilling my dream of being the coolest and most popular kid at school. As I sat meditating in my room, I imagined the ecstasy I would feel as scores of beautiful girls look at me with admiration as I drive up to college in a Lamborghini.”
But sex is not only in the objects that Rodger picks up and uses. It is also embedded in the world around him, in the very geography of Southern California. Sex saturates the places he lives or visits — Santa Barbara, Malibu, Hollywood, Venice Beach. He goes to the beach, he goes to college, he goes on exotic vacations. As the son of director and producer Peter Rodger, he goes to red carpet movie premiers. He meets celebrities. Everywhere are beautiful women, beautiful women who glance at him once and look away, beautiful women who the other guys — the “cool” jocks he hates or even his own father — just seem to have. Sex is present in the beautiful Mediterranean climate of Southern California. Sex is present in the coolness of the “undeserving brutes” he envies. Sex is present in the beauty of the women he longs for. But what he imagines them doing later, “perhaps something heavenly,” the physical, literal, vulgar act of sexual intercourse itself always occurs behind closed doors.
Ultimately, Rodger’s totalizing metaphysics of sexual presence leads to an urgency, paranoia, and anxiety that terrorizes the erotic, rather than reveals it. Pleasure is imprisoned in the desire to get laid. No activity or object provides respite from the world pregnant with sexual meaning. The outward projection of sexual anxiety onto the world represses all real pleasure. Rodger coerces, charges, implants the world with simultaneously hopeful and hopeless romantic potentiality that haunts him in return. All reality becomes haunted by this phantom. And this phantom drives him to kill — and to die.
So ends the archetypal myth of the incel. It is not a matter of an essential identity. It is not a matter of being a member of an organization. It is not simply a matter of hate, of misogyny, of entitlement alone, although those are all in play. Nor is the incel something that can be reduced to a mental illness, although mental illness is often coexistent. The nature of the incel is difficult to describe because it is a product of something much more abstract. The problem with the incel is problematic to the very essence of how it desires.
From this text, there is absolutely no reason to believe that acquiring the elusive utopian sex that Rodger demands of the world would “cure” anything. This is why the question that many people raise — why don’t incels just hire sex workers? — cannot address the issue. It’s not just about literal sexual intercourse, it’s about sexuality in its deepest, most fundamental sense. It’s about Eros. The text shows us how woefully inadequate our understanding of incels — and thus our usual response — really is. Someone like Elliot Rodger is not an alien from outer space. He is not something foreign that we can condemn and denounce away. He is not some primitive barbarian on the peripheries of civilization. He is produced by the society around him.
How different is the logic of capital and sexual accumulation Elliot Rodger articulates from the proper values of our society? What makes it pathetic when Rodger wears Gucci sunglasses to get laid and perfectly normal when his father, or Harvey Weinstein, or Donald Trump do so? Why do we, ostensibly well-adjusted bourgeoisie, think it is so absurd that Rodger expects that these commodities entitle him to sex and affection when we exhibit and encourage the same behavior ourselves?
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?
Breakdown, celebrity, fascism. Britney Spears shaves her head and attacks a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Mel Gibson drives drunk and goes on an anti-Semitic rant to a cop. Lindsey Lohan drives drunk, shoplifts, does drugs, fights people, and converts to Islam. Elliot Rodger drives his BMW around Isla Vista, shooting people at random as part of his fantastical “Day of Retribution.” Donald Trump, furious that President Barack Obama mocks him at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, runs for president himself on a widely-ridiculed neo-fascist platform of hate and resentment — and wins. Did the alt-right pepes and other iconoclastic, “Dadaist” fellow travelers really take the idea of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan at face value? Or did they actually vote for the seductive idea of the breakdown, the idea of dying in a final blaze of glory that would exact delightful retribution on all the people they hated?
Why do incels go on killing sprees? Why did the masses vote for Trump? Our traditional modes of inquiry provide no satisfying answers. These incidents are not random psychic aberrations or alien anomalies. Whether we like to admit it or not, they are socially produced. And as long as we look at these breakdowns as unnatural and unfathomable, we will be dumbfounded as they occur time and time again.
Mike Crumplar is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter.