Incelology: Incels, Castration, or how I learned to stop worrying and watch another episode of “Friends”

Joker stairs (2019)
Joker Stairs 2019

In 1993 a user known only to us as “Alana” started an internet blog dedicated to tracking her inability to have sex with partners. She started this project, known as the “involuntary celibacy project” in hopes of connecting with other individuals who had encountered the same dry spell she had incurred. The internet blog wasn’t especially huge and considering its time, wasn’t exactly cutting edge though it is fitting that it started on the Internet. The decline of the Soviet Union and the rapidly globalizing world made many projects, similar to the one started by Alana, a means of circulating deep-rooted issues and figuring out causations with others around the world. The circulation of emotional states is a key and affixed figure in the rapid expansion of different subjectivities throughout the global world, and thus the first invocation of “incel” harkened a new revolution in gender politics.

A lot of the dismay I have regarding “incels” is the lack of attention to the development of the incels. Less so its origin stories but more how culture has defined, shaped and even encouraged incel logics within the mainstream. Throughout this article, I want to explain a sort of psychoanalytic approach to understanding how Incels come to formulate their particular worldviews but more importantly, I would like to investigate the cultural logic of incels.

A small primer for the uninitiated (Lucky), Incel is shorthand for “involuntary celibate” and its modern connotation is often associated with (usually) young men who are angry at women for their inability to have sex with them. One other way people describe incels is their anti-feminist rhetoric and positions that place masculinity, the failures of feminism, and nihilism as its main focus.

Anti-feminist male-dominated groups have existed before and apart from the Incel phenomena. Incels, though, is a particular subculture that overlaps mostly with conversations not only surrounding gender discrimination, and gendering but desire. Incels are described as an online phenomenon, or specifically as a niche internet sub-culture. The cyberspatial element of Inceldom creates new contours of thought however it is important to understand that the transmission of incel ideology has certainly collapsed meat and cyberspace. Incel is increasingly popular in describing traditional misogyny, though the formations of this misogyny are worth looking deeper into.

Cultural Critic and theorist, Angela Nagle details how internet forums such as “The Red Pill” on Reddit and 4chan boards contributed to the creation of what is popularly known as the “Manosphere” or (mostly) internet subcultures dedicated to quite frankly, obscene misogyny and displacement of anger towards women and “cucked liberals”. Nagle “writes One of the dominant and consistent preoccupations running through the forum culture of the manosphere is the idea of beta and alpha males. They discuss how women prefer alpha males and either cynically use or completely ignore beta males, by which they mean low-ranking males in the stark and vicious social hierarchy through which they interpret all human interaction.” (Nagle 88, 2018). Many of the young men in these forums overlap with those in traditional right-wing spheres, as their discourse surrounding sexual aggression, betas, and “social Darwinist tinged approaches to coaxing women into sex” is tied with capital accumulation (get rich quick schemes) and conservative family values.

Despite the visage of coherency within these different manosphere groups, there is a bit of disagreement between their political ideologies as there would be in any political ideology, yet incels remain a sort of stable cultural entity that is associated with the image of violence and death. This is not to say that this isn’t completely warranted. Many young men within incel circles have either justified the use of violence towards those ascribed with femininity or have actively committed violence such as Elliot Rodger. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto denounces women for their lack of interest in a “nice guy” like him and labels women as inherently antagonistic towards men. Elliot Rodger then committed a slew of killings, mostly against men. A very tragic irony but regardless, I believe that a particularly disturbing feature of modern discourse surrounding the image of the “incel” is not that there is no social condemnation for a set of behaviors rooted in misogyny and expulsion of the other. More so, it is the lack of properly analyzing the formation of the incel. Traditional diagnoses of the issue have situated incels as uncomfortably isolated, deeply racist, and bait for alt-right conversions using popular stereotypes of women to misguide young men further into increasingly dangerous right-wing politics. I do not believe this is untrue though it only gives the appearance of structural critique without introducing the very “real” psychic attachments to incel behavior, ideology, and identity. For this, I believe a psycho-analytic framework is not only necessary but incredibly apt for understanding desire, incel subjectivity, and the disavowal of women’s gendered realities.

A core issue of the incel ideology and logic is that the arguments it makes in terms of unequal distribution of desire aren’t incorrect. In fact, I argue that incel arguments concerning declining mental health in men, imprisonment of men, and culture’s appreciation of simplified aesthetics over substance are very much on the right path. The core issue of incels is that they have the wrong target, which is “women”, and not something that causes their actual issues with self-esteem and cultural abandonment. Incels in fact are avowing their own symbolic castration and admission of failure in the symbolic order. Symbolic castration is a useful, if not a bit provocative, term used here to intensify the sort of interplay between cultural encodings of gender and its subsequent psychic attachment to incels. To break this down more, castration is the Lack we have. The lack is produced by the series of signs and symbols dominating our daily lives. The lack is the inability to produce a very limited number of ways to ask for our desire.

You go home. You have worked for 12 hours. You haven’t eaten and the dog can hear your stomach growling from across the room, alerting them in a soft whimper. You want to eat, but do not know what to eat. There is desire (desire to eat) but no formal sign, symbol, or signifier, that can adequately convey what you want. You decide to watch TV. “Wendy’s does sound good,” you say as a Wendy’s ad plays between an episode of “Friends.” You have for sure seen this episode before. This is how symbolic castration functions, though of course on a more general and cultural level/scale.

A fixed figure (Lacan naming it The Father) refuses the individual their desire, and thus while living in male-dominated societies circulated with male fantasies, the only language we have is that of the father, the one who denies our enjoyment from finally reaching our desire.

Poetics and metaphors aside, people who have been stripped from their ability to properly communicate their actual desires (and thus displace them with other things) is a profoundly human experience, but that is not to say that this castration is distributed equally, at the same scale, nor is an A-Priori good. The Master signifier, or the rule of the father, is limitless desiring which is specific to capitalist accumulation. Many of the young men (and beyond) who have experienced profound alienation under (rather presumptuous of you to think it is “late-stage”) capitalist industries that force ever-increasing consumption practices are rightly avowing their castration. Their problem is once again not the frustration, but the target. Incels incorrectly assume their problems stem from the figure of femininity, or that capital accumulation of pornified women (basic commodities at that point) is a way of rectifying their symbolic castration. Two issues arise from this understanding. In what Belgian-French philosopher Luce Irigaray calls a “phallogocentric” economy, where predominantly masculinist signifiers are the basis for exceptionalism and variety, it is difficult to come to a conclusion that “woman doesn’t want to fuck me. Woman bad.” Though this is where my personal sympathy has to be extended.

Mainstream media outlets like to focus on individuals such as Elliot Rodgers, the killer of several men in retribution for the “Women who wronged him” but since symbolic castration is a key part of human experience, I would say that incel logics permeates many areas of thought. The law of the Father, the system which gives us the language to describe and understand the world, displaces our internal desire, perhaps one of feeling connected to another human (not to be a Marxist about it), and gives us consumption instead. Commodities over the real. This language I’m alluding to is of course Capitalism (I suppose I was being a Marxist about it). A key part of capitalism is the castration of men into becoming unfiltered desiring-machines within increasingly alienated masses. The man who toiled in factories to provide living wages is not supposed to avow this castration. The man is supposed to say “Life is unfair.” It suggests that the desiring of the feminine object (a commodity) is consummate with fulfillment. Enjoyment. There is no better example of how the logic of incels infects many popular ideologies and masks misogyny. The hit show “Friends” appreciated and enjoyed by many white folks, has the main protagonist who could have single-handedly coined the word “friend zone.” A deeply misogynistic, aloof, and “beta male” of a man engages in several plotlines revolving around sex with different bohemian young attractive women in New York. Ross does not lack and is not castrated even though he clearly is. This is of course a fiction, but as we addressed above, Incels have a particular abhorrence for fiction and very much takes the fiction to be real.

A man’s man

The interesting part about this is that while there is an avowal of the men’s castration, there is a disavowal of the “female” castration. Women’s introduction to the phallogocentric (patriarchy for those who aren’t nerds) economy complicates incel arguments on their face. Women’s constant regulation as simple commodities by which male actors do capitalism unto them is also a sort of castration, yet because absolute enjoyment is affixed to object of the feminine, feminized objects exist as fiction. Incels take the fiction as real. There is no end of examples of this sort of logic existing in different areas, though the intensity of them differs. This is why “incel” is associated with other similar memes. Check it:

  • Femcel
  • Trancel
  • Blackcel
  • Demcel (I made this one up myself)

The importance of this is not detailing niche internet subcultures, but how the logic of desire, capitalist accumulation, and limitless enjoyment is not unique to Incels. Incels, who are more often than not young men, have several tiers and variations of political beliefs, but a commonality is a nihilism in their pursuit of the real. This nihilism is often expressed as violence, misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. as they cling to fiction and archaic depictions. Incel is a cultural attitude that increasingly is disavowed by mainstream feminist groups but I think this is a mistake. If we are to truly transform this destructive behavior and ideology, there must be a concerted effort to listen to the particular grievances of incels and how they have developed, to begin with. Essentialist thought regarding the absolute inhumanity of misogynistic young men is quite frankly uninteresting and does little to further an understanding that can achieve the political acumen of many Marxist-feminist inclined people. Now caveats abound, I do not believe that Incels are “actually the woke ones.” I do not believe that the ever-increasing care economy should have to accommodate rhetorically, symbolically, emotionally, and physically violent people. There must be a confrontation with the “other’s” castration. I also believe the abject sexist attitudes and ideologies of incels are nothing to be celebrated nor circulated but perhaps when thinking about The Joker (2019) you can say “Wow I understand his plight as a symbolically castrated male but like didn’t he break into that lady house? That was incel shit.”

Sources & Extended Literature:

Kill All Normies- Angela Nagle

Speculum of The Other Woman- Luce Irigaray

Ecrits- Jacques Lacan

Anti-Oedipus- Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari

Frantz Fanon- Black Skin, White Masks

Incels- Contrapoints (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fD2briZ6fB0)

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Travis Edwards

Travis Edwards

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Anthropologist specializing in gender, psychoanalysis, and failure.