By Emma Holten, March 2014
Forming identity in the postmodern mess
Why does it seem that American society is in decline,… What if everything … could all be traced to a common origin that is extremely pervasive yet is all but absent from the national dialog, indeed for the dialog of the entire western world?
Opening lines of the article “The Misandry Bubble” by internet economist “The Futurist”, January 2011.
According to french philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard “Postmodernism has changed the way in which identity is viewed by moving it away from the concept of a unified self, to one where the self is viewed as a multiple rather than the modern view of it being fixed. This allows the self to constantly construct and reconstruct as an identity”.1 A new sort of freedom, a freedom to live different lives with different values and structures. One would think that this state would lead to increased happiness: finally, we have a choice in what ways we wish to prioritize and live life.
What is going on, then? A state of constant internal and external anxiety as taken a stranglehold on the regular American! Headlines like “America: #1 In Fear, Stress, Anger, Divorce, Obesity, Anti-Depressants, Etc”.2 and “Americans ‘snapping’ by the millions”3 indicate that, indeed, something is worrying and scaring us. The word crisis comes to mind.
We all feel scared sometimes. Fear, in its essence, is a feeling fueled by suspicion or expectancy.
As described by German philosopher Martin Heidegger, things, indeed, are much scarier if we do not really know what they are: “As it comes close, this “it can, and yet it may not” becomes aggravated. We say “it is fearsome”. This implies that what is detrimental as coming-close carries with it the patent possibility that it may stay away and pass us by; but instead of lessening of extinguishing our fearing, this enhances it.”4 Thus, not really being able to concretely define what it is we fear, or when it will happen, makes us more afraid.
This puts us in a position where determining what exactly is making us scared will make us less afraid. The article “The Misandry Bubble” is such an attempt. Written anonymously by internet economist “The Futurist” in the beginning of 2010, it taps into what, according to him, is the root of social ills, insecurities and fears. Further, he gives a tool set for how to plan your life if you want to avoid falling victim to these things and decrease fear.
Employing Sara Ahmed’s theories on affective economies and structures of hate and fear5, I will analyze Futurist’s method of reasoning and tracing of causation. Seizing on specific parts of the (rather long) text, my focus will be the way he tries to fixate the slippery resource of fear, especially pertaining to the institution of marriage and relations with women.
Looking closer at his tactics for handling the issues he puts forward, I will be using E. K. Sedgwick’s thoughts on paranoid method.
Whether what The Futurist says is “true” or not, is wholly irrelevant. The texts immense popularity6 means that its logic has proved legible to thousands of people, making it a worthy topic of analysis.
Slippery, sticky slopes
In her article “Affective Economies” Sara Ahmed grants us new tools to deal with something very close to all of us: our fears. Contesting the commonplace notion that stuff makes us scared – that some things have scariness inherent inside them, and then scare us as soon as we come into close contact with them – she tries to separate objects and emotions.
She argues for the existence of what she calls affective economies. “… emotions involve subjects and objects, but without residing positively within them. Indeed, emotions may only seem like a form of residence as an effect of a certain history, a history that may operate by concealing its own traces.”7 Here, Ahmed covers nearly everything from spiders to hooded men in dark alleyways. She concedes that, yes, the feeling of fear can be initiated by the nearing of an object or a subject, but that does not mean that that it is objectively lessening our safety.
Her next point, though, is the most weighty one: our fears are constituted by history/discourse and can therefore be much more politically charged than the spider or the shadow. The more a certain affect is attributed to a certain object or subject, the more this affect “sticks” to it, and judged to be “of it” instead of “on it”. Further, it shows that we are prone to misappropriate affects.
When we feel safe, familiar, scared, or treated unfairly, our attempt to locate the origin of this feeling can be faulty and misconstrued, because the basis of the attempt is the assumption that such an origin, or in The Futurists words “the root”, can actually exist.
Even so, fear still has central determining role in society, and plays a large part in conditioning our acts. Because no object or subject in themselves contain an affect, it makes every person and every thing a nodal point in an exchange economy of affect. This is the role of limiting: “… the movement of affect is crucial to the very making of a difference between “in here” and “out there” … the accumulation of affective value shapes the surfaces of bodies and worlds”8 This means that we use affect, and especially fear, which is the emotion linked to that which is foreign, other, or alien to delineate and situate ourselves in communities and interactions. To determine what is outside us, unpredictable, and what is inside us, familiar, predictable and controllable. It is thus a vital component in determining identity through affiliation.
In the introduction I mentioned how fear is inextricably linked to anxiety and foreshadowing: “If fear has an object, then fear can be contained by the object. When the object of fear threatens to pass by, then fear can no longer be contained by an object.”9 Fear swirls around us, fear of not knowing what will happen. It follows that we attempt to locate our fears inside objects or concrete changes in society or in our lives, because it makes it easier to deal with and less fearsome.
Dealing with fears
The question, then, becomes how to handle these issues in our day-to-day lives. Do we attempt to locate our fears, “lock them down”, or do we let them roam, realizing our limited power over almost everything? Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick illustrates the tortured life of the paranoid employing the former, fearing humiliation: “…far from becoming stronger through obviating or alleviating humiliation, a humiliation theory becomes stronger insofar as it fails to do so.”10 Implying that if you employ paranoid strategy, expecting to be humiliated, you cannot “win”. If you end up not being humiliated, you were wrong, at the cost of extreme suspicion of your surroundings. If you end up being humiliated, you were still right, but ended up humiliated anyway. Either way, your life will be mostly absorbed in negative affect:”… the mushrooming, self-confirming strength of a monopolistic strategy of anticipating negative affect can have … the effect of entirely blocking the potentially operative goal of seeking positive affect”11
This points to the conclusion that even though the paranoid might be right or wrong it doesn’t really matter, seeing as his main preoccupation will be with eschewing negative affect which, contrary to his beliefs, is not the same as increasing positive affect.
The Plight of men
“The Misandry Bubble” is an online article written by an anonymous writer who calls himself “The Futurist”. On his blog http://www.singularity2050.com/12, he routinely (up until July 2012) posted articles of, what he calls, a “prophetic” nature, most of them pertaining to economic issues like baby boomer’s retirement plans.
The Futurist writes anonymously. While this may to regular readers seem to indicate that he does not want to fully stand by what he is writing, it aligns perfectly with his claim that men who express his views are oppressed, victimized, and silenced in society. It only furthers his claim and paints him as being one, faceless voice in a sea of many oppressed millions. It shows him as being no man in particular, and thus potentially any man.
In the beginning of 2010 he wrote “Bubble” (all quotes are from this article unless otherwise noted), summarized by him: “The Western World has quietly become a civilization that undervalues men and overvalues women … and where male nature is vilified but female nature is celebrated.”13 (my emphasis) He goes on to chronicle injustices experienced by men, specifically focusing on the downfall of what he calls “Marriage 1.0” which has been exchanged with “Marriage 2.0”. His analysis of marriage contains signs of fear of change and social instability, and will serve as my fitting example of affective economies at work.
As described earlier, according to Ahmed, we fear far more what we cannot describe or fixate than that which is concrete. The Futurist echoes this claim with one of his own: “Polls of men have shown that there is one thing men fear even more than being raped themselves, and that is being cuckolded”. Being cuckolded is to be cheated on by one’s wife. What makes this act possible, according to Futurist, is that marriage is no longer an institution in tight social control. Citing women’s naturally “hypergamous”14 nature, being a victim of cuckoldery is extremely likely to happen in a marriage unless a man stays the most desirable man in the woman’s life15.
Here the Futurist manages a metonymic slide: opening up pre-existing prejudices about women, Futurist stick these to the female body as if they were inherent in them: “Women may only be attracted to one man at any given time [whereas men are attracted to many], but as the status … of men fluctuate a woman’s attention may shift from a declining man to an ascendant man”. By completely rendering a woman’s acts to her ‘natural’ acts, he denies her agency or individual interests, in the process reducing her to nothing but an animal reacting to instincts.
He relates this nature in women to men living in a sort of entropy: “Any unsuspecting man can be sucked into this shadow state”. Using the word “sucked”, Futurist invokes our fears of losing control, like dying in quicksand, where, if you have been caught, it is impossible to get out. The only way to avoid this is constant vigilance. If you are at any point “unsuspecting”, meaning relaxed or happy you will fall victim. The woman’s hypergamy is inevitable, Futurist is only enlightening you to what you are already victim to.
Being a victim of cuckoldery is described in the text as “the ultimate violation and betrayal”. The danger in cuckolding lies largely in the humiliation of continuing life without knowing that you are the victim of a violation of this sort.
Suspicion of cuckoldery, then, is projected as a necessary state of mind for every man seeking to lessen his general fear of betrayal and humiliation. This is, from the Futurist, an encouragement to inhabit what Melanie Klein calls “The paranoid/schizophrenic position which ”…is a position of terrible alertness to the dangers posed by the hateful and envious part-objects that one defensively projects into, carves out of, and ingests from the world around one”16
Note especially the use of the word position here. This is an outlook of choice that agrees that what is most fearful is the indefinable, and then attempts to solve it by manifesting fears in objects and, especially, subjects. Suspicion alone becomes grounds for extreme caution. Your wife need not have exhibited any sign of having these traits for the suspicion to be well-grounded, somehow, her not raising this suspicion makes her even more suspicious.
Living with the fear of being betrayed by the woman you love (along with the humiliation this will bring your masculinity in public17) is worse than knowing that it has actually happened or will, surely, happen. This places the original marriage in what was before a zone protected by this kind of fear, to one where it is now not: “What was once the bedrock of society has quietly mutated…into a shockingly unequal arrangement…where man is…subjected to a myriad of sadistic risks” (my emphasis)
This is what Ahmed coins The wish for Return. The Futurist laments the fall of “traditional” marriage: “…in the past, if a a woman wanted to leave her husband had to prove misconduct on the part of the husband”. There is here an obvious nostalgia for a time that was not only driven by pleasure and desire, but of a sense of commitment and obligation; and maybe most importantly, predictability. A wish to secure the marriage with an almost palpable border. Ahmed: “it must be presumed that things are not secure, in and of themselves, in order to justify the imperative to make things secure”18 Due to hypergamy, the marriage is not secure, we must take steps to secure it.
Futurist is fully aware that restating marriage to its previous form is also a limiting of men’s free movement. Prioritizing security and the alleviation of surprise is, in his approach, preferable to living a life that might be driven by pleasure, but full of surprises. He is fully willing to limit his own freedom and others’ if it means a more secure, predictable future
What The Futurist is arguing is that he is now in a situation where there are “too many things outside his control that can catastrophically ruin his finances, emotions, and quality of life”, and that these possibilities leaves a man no choice but to be constantly on his guard.
Economies of suspicion
The Futurist’s approach is tautological. Even if you do not catch a woman cheating on you, she highly likely has as her hypergamic behavior is “neither right nor wrong, merely natural”. If she does cheat on you, it only confirmed your worst fears, and it may slightly lessen your pain that you at least saw it coming. It’s Schrodinger’s cuckolding.
This makes the Futurist’s approach what Silvan Tomkins calls a strong theory: “it enables more and more experiences to be accounted for at instances of humiliating experiences on the one hand, or to the extent that to which it enables more and more anticipation of such contingencies before they actually happen”19 As the Futurist’s fear of cuckolding and his assurance of hypergamy as being inherent in females encompass more and more of his existence, it becomes the defining factor of every single one of his acts. It renders him unable to enter into meaningful relationships with 50% of the population. All for the sake of predicting (not avoiding) a potentially humiliating situation.
The all-encompassing nature of his thoughts about women becomes obvious in his description of men who help women’s causes politically: “Equally culpable [for furthering the current situation] are men who ignorantly believe that acting as obsequious yes-men to ‘feminists’ turning against other men in the hope that their posturing will earn them residual scraps of female affection.” This aligns with Ahmed’s theory as treating affect as an economy. The casting of women as a homogenous group creates an “in here” containing men that must be protected from “out there”, containing women. The movement of the affective economy creates a border between men and women: “fear does not involve the defense of borders that already exist; rather, fear makes those borders by establishing objects from which the subject, in fearing, can stand apart, objects that become “the not””20
The economic aspect here, is that it constitutes rights and affects as if they are finite. Supporting one group (women) automatically means not supporting another(men): “fear works to restrict some bodies through the movement and expansion of others”21. Attempts at elimination of fear automatically means an attempt at locating where this fear comes from. Due to the impossibility of fear inhabiting identifiable objects, negative affect is forcefully stuck to something (women), to identify what is inherently not to be trusted and should be held under suspicion.
Paranoia as tactic
“The problem is rather that, of all forms of love, paranoia is the most ascetic, the love that demands least from its object”22. At no point is there an example of an actual interaction with a woman asking her how she would see all this. The Futurist calls it the way he sees it.
He launches a theory that, in its structure, is almost impossible to disprove, seeing as any act that debunks the theory is unnatural, an exception. This means that every time the theory fails, it becomes a confirmation of its strength. It does not want to be disproven, seeing as humiliation is the thing to be avoided at all costs: “… it can’t help or can’t do anything other than prove the very same assumptions with which it began”23.
In its attempt to fixate the source of fear (blame) it leaves next to no room for forces of good, because doing good in an economic logic has no meaning. There is only gaining or losing ground/power. Reducing any and every act to simply a spasm of evolutionary biology, it negates any way of thinking that isn’t mimetic to its own as being illogical. In truth, the only way out becomes alertness associated with resignation.
In this way, the paranoia surrounding gender essentialism the Futurist exhibits is very much a choice of strategy to approach a life of unpredictability: “To take seriously the strategy of maximizing positive affect rather than simply enjoying it when the occasion arises, is entirely out of the question”24
The Futurist attempts nothing but unveiling his truth. There is no doubt that he holds everything that he states in this text to be beneficial knowledge to any man attempting to keep his life devoid of painful surprises or humiliations. What it all comes down to, is am approach to an increasingly unpredictable life. The political movements of the past 100 years have been towards lessening the importance of gender, sexuality, and skin color in legal proceedings and rights, and is, as stated by Lyotard, a vital part of postmodernism.
But why chose the paranoid/schizophrenic position, so fraught with negative affect?
The wish for a determined identity and narrative; The Futurist is fully willing to limit his own freedoms to terminate marriage, for example, for the sake of increasing his own ability to predict the curve of his life.
Postmodernism, in its essence embracing inessentialism, glorifying different ways of life as being of equal worth, and surprise as being the least surprising thing of all, has left The Futurist without a narrative. There is no causality. Marriage doesn’t secure you a spouse or a family home for the rest of your life. Your gender (almost!) doesn’t define the course of your life. Eliminating contact with the unfamiliar when engaging seriously with other people is impossible.
It is true: In Heidegger’s and Ahmed’s definition of fear, a postmodern life will be more fearful because less about life is known for sure. But following Sedgwick, attempting to lessen this fear by fixating it and trying to eliminate surprise doesn’t make us happy either.
It would seem, if we want to be happy, we must cease to be scared of that which we do not know, and radically rethink how we constitute “in here” and “out there”.
1 Lyotard, Jean-Francois: “Scriptures: Diffracted Traces.” Theory, Culture and Society, p 21. 2004
4 Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time, SCM Press, 1962
5 Ahmed, Sara: “Affective Economies”, Social Text 79, vol 2, Duke University Press, 2004
6 The last post mentioning it was written on April 22, 2014. https://www.google.com/search?es_sm=119&q=%22the+misandry+bubble%22&oq=%22the+misandry+bubble%22&gs_l=serp.3..0j0i22i30l2.3448.5251.0.7188.8.131.52.0.0.0.1330.1399.1j7-1.2.0….0…1c.1.42.serp..0.2.1397.VzRg-hF36OM
7 Ahmed, p. 119
8 Ahmed p. 121
9 Ahmed p. 125
10 Sedgwick, E. K.: Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You.” In Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
11 Sedgwick p. 136
12 If nothing else is noted, every quote in this essay will be from here. The article has no page numbers.
14 Hypergamy means that a woman will always seek out the most “Alpha” male she can find, even if she is married to someone else. This behaviour i innate in female nature. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypergamy
15 In the text follows here a longer part about being an alpha male, which are the types of men women are deemed to be most attracted to. See here: http://www.modernmalelifestyle.com/Article/Alpha-Male-vs-Beta-Male-Traits-Know-Difference-2
16 Cited in Sedgwick, p. 128
18 Ahmed p. 132
19 Cited in Sedgwick p. 132
20 Ahmed p. 128
21 Ahmed p. 130
22 Sedgwick p. 132
23 Sedgwick p. 135
24 Tomkins, quoted in Sedgwick p. 137