Purity Spirals, Political Alliances, and Movement Building

I know I said I was going for a while, and I will be going for a while, but I said that before the news broke from the US. And it is both horrifying, and horribly clarifying.

There has over the last week been another painful eruption of a rift that has been erupting intermittently for the last four years. This rift is not, for me, a personal or individual matter. My concerns are not about personalities or power or recognition, or trying to shore up the power of a group of ‘elite’ women against the voices of ‘ordinary’ women. It pains me enormously when women feel their contributions aren’t valued because it is not true that the only work that matters in this movement is the sort of stuff that gets you good marks at school.[1] I know many women feel wounded around that, and I understand that women do not get enough recognition in this world, and often have to struggle damn hard to even have a chance of becoming what they have the potential to become. Which is part of why I fight for us and why I have said, and mean it with every fibre of my body, that all the work is valuable. There is nobody in this movement who is nobody. We have created, together, the most living, breathing, vibrant, colourful, powerful, political force I could ever have hoped to be involved in. And every single thing that every woman does, matters.

For me, this rift is about politics not personalities. It is about building a political movement, and about whose political interests that movement represents.

Because when it comes down to it, that is what political movements are about.

The movement that I have been involved in – that I have tried to contribute to us building together – is, first and foremost, about representing the interests of women as a class. It is about defending the political existence of women as a sex class, the rights and resources that flow from that, and about resisting the harm destroying women as a political class will do to female people, especially the most vulnerable among us. It is, secondly, about defending the rights of gay men and lesbians to draw boundaries around their same sex attraction, and because we are a pro-women movement opposed to male dominance and male coercion, it is particularly about defending lesbian women’s sexual boundaries. Lastly, because we are women, and many women are mothers, it is also about defending children and the developmental process that enables them to reach mental and sexual maturity. Grounded on gender critical feminist principles, our concerns rest on critiquing the conservative imposition of patriarchal gender norms on children and preventing the medicalisation of gender non-conforming children, many of whom will become gay men and lesbian women. As a pro-woman movement, we have a particular interest in the staggering increase in young trans identifying females, and in drawing attention to the harm being done to GNC and lesbian girls, and all the young women traumatised by going through puberty in a violent patriarchal society that turns them into sexual objects when they are barely even pubescent.

I do not think there is anything ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ about this.

I think it is about defending women against manifest harms to them, and harms to their children.

I think it is about representing women’s political interests, and the political ground we are defending those interests on.

There is a lot of talk out there at the moment about purity spirals and purity politics. I understand why, and I agree with a lot of it. We are up against a political movement which is basically the incarnation of a medieval puritan witch hunt. We are dealing day-in day-out with a bunch of pious narcissistic assholes who are smashed out of their heads on self-righteousness and spend their time running around raising Twitchfork mobs because someone who claims to be ‘A Member of the Elect’ once sat in a pub next to someone who once liked a tweet by someone who follows J.K. Rowling. We are dealing with a totalitarian cult that demands complete and total compliance with every single one of their bullshit claims, bullshit analogies, and all their bullshit hyperbole and emotional blackmail. That mandates that none of the many staggeringly harmful implications of their reality denying batshittery is so much as mentioned, let alone interrogated, and accuses anyone who mentions it of being every kind of political monster in human history.

It is important to all of us, I think, that we are not a cult. It is important that we oppose the authoritarianism of contemporary trans rights politics, and the abject political intolerance and piety of the ‘social justice/wokeist’ left more generally. It is important that we allow people to express their political opinions freely, and to respect the fact that we don’t all have to agree about everything. It is important not to replicate the black and white ‘us’ vs ‘them,’ ‘goodies’ vs ‘baddies’ binary bullshit that is being constantly churned out by the people who are always piously lecturing us about smashing the fucking binary.

There is a type of negative politics that is about ‘us’ vs ‘them,’ and hatred, and projection, and ‘othering’ and intolerance. But there is also a form of positive politics that is about standing for certain groups of people’s actual material interests in the world. The trans rights movement has tried to silence and censure us by positioning us as all about hatred and othering, by claiming we are ‘anti-trans’ Nazi bigots. In response, we have consistently argued that we are not ‘anti-trans,’ but ‘pro-woman.’ That what we are doing is defending the political interests of women, and the analysis of the oppression of women as a sex class, and that if a bunch of people come along a start telling us that women’s political interests are a hate crime, they can kindly fuck the fuck off.

It is, of course, possible – and indeed, desirable – to talk to people who do not share your political opinions or political interests. It is possible to not think they are entirely bad people, and of course, there are very few people who are entirely bad. It is not necessary to piously sneer at people you have fundamental disagreements with, or completely rubbish them as humans, or paint them as monsters, or get your rocks off by posing around about how pure and good you are and how terrible and evil they are, as if that does anything to really improve how badly the world treats people anyway. And it is not acceptable to try and stop people expressing their political views, to try and get them fired from their jobs, or to manipulatively leverage a distorted discourse of safety and harm in order to enforce your political project on the rest of society without due democratic discussion and political scrutiny of its tenets or implications.

All of us should oppose a discourse of political purity that others and monsters people you do not politically agree with, and even those with diametrically opposing political interests.  All of us should oppose a discourse that seeks to use that monstering to deny anyone political voice, the right to represent their own political interests, and to make their own arguments in those interests. And we should all oppose it because it is inimical to the very fabric and functioning of democracy.

But democracy also works best when there are different groups of people standing for the interests of different groups of people. The movement that I, and I believe many of us, have been so involved in building, is a pro-woman movement based on gender critical feminist principles. It is not political purity politics to assert that people who have just successfully enacted a political act that is manifestly hostile to the political interests of women – and will cause untold harm to women – cannot, by definition, be part of a movement that is about representing the interests of women as a class, and are not, in fact, allies of any movement that is genuinely grounded in representing women’s political interests. The interests of people who know what a woman is and will use that knowledge to take away women’s freedom are not the same as the interests of people who know what a woman is and understand that we need that knowledge in order to defend women’s rights from the kind of people who would take them away.

This is not a matter of just ‘talking to’ people you disagree with, or respecting their rights to speak, or not monstering them like a pious asshole. It is not about which newspaper you read, or write in, or even about what chat show host you speak to. It is about making concrete political cause, in the name of women’s rights, with people who are actively engaged in a successful program to dismantle women’s right to reproductive freedom, and, by the looks of things, will come for gay men and lesbians next. Our opposition to trans ideology is based on the critique of gender, and on understanding that patriarchy works as a system that controls women as a reproductive resource. The right to abortion, and the right to contraception – which is now also under threat in the States – is at the very heart of the political ground we are standing on. The people we have been saying we should not stand in material political alliance with have been engaged in a many decade long campaign to turn women back into male controlled reproductive units. Matt Walsh has ‘theocratic fascist’ on his Twitter bio, and he is not just having a laugh. It is not hyperbole to say that these people are fucking Gilead coming down the pipes.

From ‘Women and the Religious Right,’ Jayne Egerton, Radical Notion Issue 5

The only sense in which we can be ‘allies’ with someone like Matt Walsh and his friends over at The Daily Wire, or the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), or the Heritage Foundation, is if our movement is not actually grounded in being ‘pro-woman,’ and is, rather, as the TRAs constantly tell us, only about being ‘anti-trans’ to the exclusion of women’s other core political interests. We argue constantly with the TRAs when they call us right-wing, Nazis, the alt-right, Christian fundamentalists. We point out correctly that knowing that male and female people exist is as much a sign of political alignment as knowing that the sea is wet. We point out that there are three political positions here, which they keep collapsing into a false binary, and that gender critical people do not object to trans ideology for the same conservative reasons that people like Matt Walsh do. We point out that we are not going to be emotionally blackmailed and gaslit and manipulated into subjugating women’s rights to the demands of the trans rights movement by them constantly calling us Nazis and telling us we are being used as stooges by the Christian right.

But if that is what we say, then it is a matter of political truth-telling that we walk the talk. It is a matter of actually representing the interests of who we say we are representing. The TRAs say we are in alliance with extremely right-wing patriarchal men who are hostile to women’s rights and gay rights and that this shows that our movement is a sham, that it is nothing but a front. We tell them, all the time, that that is a gratuitous smear and a lie they are using to politically coerce us. And it matters that when we tell them it’s a lie, we are telling the truth. It matters because the power and success of this movement, and everything we have won against the odds, has come from the fact that we are speaking truth to power. It matters because we are defending the very structure of reality and the political interests of women that follow directly from that reality. It matters because when we say that women are oppressed as a reproductive sex class, and we are standing against an ideology that will disappear and cover over the interests of women as a reproductive sex class, that is actually what we are doing. It matters that when we say we are pro-woman, that that is the truth.

If that is not the truth of who we are, then I do not believe we will win this political fight.

And if that is not the truth of who we are, then it may be the case that we should not win this political fight, because the harm to the people we claim to be fighting for will be astronomical.

I do not believe that this is purity politics.

I believe it is a matter of standing in truth for the political interests of who you say you are standing for.

This is also not about a tribal politics of left versus right, Tory bad/Labour good. It is not about supporting your political side with the blind devotion of your favourite football team. There are many of us who have come from the left who now feel politically homeless, who feel abandoned and betrayed by political forces that have so transparently and callously placed the interests of males above the interests of women, while constantly gaslighting us about ‘the right side of history.’ The women in the United States are now pincered between two powerful patriarchal forces. Between those who are enacting a foundational form of patriarchal oppression on women’s bodies, annihilating our humanity by reducing us to reproductive vessels, and those who would erase us in law, and will defend our reproductive rights but refuse to recognise our very existence and the fact that it is because of our bodies that we can be subjected to oppression and control in this most ancient and axiomatic of ways.

What it means to me, above all, to say that I come at this fight from the left, is that I come at it from understanding that we are fighting for the material interests of women as a class. That we are fighting against a system of male power that has dehumanised, exploited, and traumatised us, for thousands of years, by using us as a resource to meet male needs and male interests. There is, again, nothing ‘academic’ about this. This is force and violence that is enacted on women’s bodies, all across the planet, all the time, and that is now about to be enacted with blinding, horrifying transparency on the bodies of women who live in a place that pretends to be a paragon of freedom and democracy and progress.

This is, as we have always said, about sex-based power, and about male interests in women’s bodies, and women’s labour, and women’s attention, and women’s compliance. Those of us who have come at this fight from the ground of defending women’s political interests, and the analysis of sex-based oppression, have repeatedly pointed out that left wing men have just as much interest in exploiting our bodies and labour as do right wing men, and that this is not accidentally related to why they are so blatantly stoked about the fact that they now get to erase us and dump all their repressed misogynist resentment, while smugly polishing their woke halos. Women cannot trust, and have never been able to trust, any political movement dominated by men to represent women’s political interests. That is why – that has always been why – we need a women’s movement. That is why males – from both the left and the right – have an interest in colonising that movement and turning it against women’s interests. That is why women who want to court institutional male power are rewarded for colluding in turning our movement against us. That is why, over and over again, we must build and rebuild our movement, from the ground up, on the basis of what women need to lead flourishing human lives, and what women need to be free.

For all the horror and distress of the hard, grinding, traumatising battle we have found ourselves in, the beating, exhilarating heart of what has kept me going all through it, is the energy and rage and passion and joy of women uniting, talking about our lives and what they mean politically, finding ourselves, and standing up for our needs, together. Woman’s Place bringing 500 women together in a church in Bloomsbury in early 2019 was the most electric and electrifying political experience of my life. There were women who have been in the women’s movement since the 1980s who said they had never seen, or felt, anything like it. We blew the fucking roof off that place. And after the long, hard PUUUUUULLLLLLLLLL of 2018, when we were fighting so fiercely against such odds, it was at that moment that I knew in my guts and in my bones, from the shiver running right up my spine, that we could win this thing.

We will win because we are right. Because standing up for the political interests of female people, for our right to be recognised in law, for our need for spaces for our dignity and safety, and to recover from the violence done to us, is just. Because it is unjust for people to try and colonise our existence and subjugate our interests to their own. Because it is totalitarian and undemocratic for people to try and coerce and bully us into getting what they want at our expense. Because reality cannot be wished away with words, and because when people understand the coercion and reality denial and shitting on other people’s needs that are central to the realisation of the project of the current trans rights movement, they will not have it. Our job is to communicate that truth, and we are doing it, very very effectively.

We live in a system of male power, and we need male people to understand the justice of our cause, and to speak up in support. But we have not built this movement by courting the favour of men from the left or men from the right. We have built this movement on the graft and passion and smarts and creativity of women. We have built it with every banner, word, ribbon, costume, T-shirt, stich, sticker, speech, made by women, for women.

We have built it by standing up for the interests of women as a political sex class and defending women against the harm that is done to them, wherever and whenever their interests as a sex class are trampled.

And it matters very much that we are doing exactly what we say we are doing, and that we are exactly who we say that we are.

[1] I know I haven’t always responded well to questions which are framed around this dynamic of ‘academic’ vs ‘ordinary’ women, and I am sorry for it. That is a question of my own wounds.

Annals of the TERF-Wars: Book Edition!

So, as most of you know, there is now a collection of my writings available in hardcopy book form.

We did one print run and there are just a couple of hundred copies left, so if you would like to get your hands on one, please order now!

The book is only available from The Radical Notion shop here.

Original Repetition: A Note

Introduction to the Introduction

So, I’ve been writing the material for the new course I’m teaching on Male Dominance over at the Centre for Feminist Thought. The Unit I’m working on right now is on Irigaray’s reading of Plato’s ‘Analogy of the Cave,’ and what that tells us about the mistakes made in Platonic/essentialist accounts of how words mean what they mean. As you are all painfully aware, we spend rather a lot of time right now arguing with people about how words mean what they mean, and whether the word ‘woman’ has any meaning at all, or whether we are in fact just some palimpsest-void-Frankenstein’s-Monster-type-creature who can be inhabited by anyone who feels like it. As you also probably know, I spend rather a lot of time on Twitter shouting at people about essentialism, and why it’s not a good enough account of how words mean what they mean, or whether things exist, and sometimes that seems to degenerate into days arguing about carrots. Anyway, this piece of writing started as an introduction to some rather dry exposition on Derrida’s critique of Plato, and well, then it got kind of fun. It touches on a lot of issues relevant to the present debate, so, I thought I’d share.


This is a piece of exposition of Derrida’s analysis of ‘original repetition’ which I wrote as part of my PhD work. Deconstruction is fundamentally an ontological project, not a theory of language. Derrida started his career analysing meaning for very much the same reason as Irigaray’s corpus is based on her analysis of Plato’s ‘scene of representation,’ because Western philosophy’s essentialist story about ‘how words mean things’ tells us something very significant about our ontological assumptions. Specifically, it tells us something about the effort to construct meaning/Being/subjects/selves as self-identical or sovereign and to deny the fact that all entities exist only in relation and in networks of dependency.  

Like Irigaray, Derrida’s project is based on critiquing Plato’s effort to construct what he calls the ‘ideality of meaning’ – which means ‘the idea(l) of meaning as represented by the Platonic Idea,’ and, more generally, philosophical idealism. (Note, following non-phallic both/and logic, the critique of idealism shouldn’t lead to a reductive materialism, but to the understanding that everything human comes into existence through the interaction of matter and idea). Derrida’s argument – which is actually a demonstration – is that the abstract concepts which identify what is ‘the same’ in every concrete instantiation of the concept depend on repetition, because you can only say two things are ‘the same’ if there are two things. What this means is that the concept of identity depends on difference, and every effort to remove difference from identity involves some act of erasure or repression. This ‘twoness’ of repetition which underpins the self-identity of the Idea is analogous to what Irigaray is pointing at as the mechanism of reflection or specularisation in the ‘scene of representation,’ and throughout the text she often specifically references the repression of ‘repetition’ and ‘semblance’ in the construction of the Platonic Idea as Sameness or Self-Identity. This is, I would argue, a direct allusion to Derrida’s argument, which made a big splash in French intellectual circles in 1967, six years before Speculum was published.

In its most basic terms, Irigaray’s argument about the necessity of reflection or mirroring come down to the fact that we can only ‘conceive’ (note the pregnancy association) an object, if there is both us and the object. Humans do not generate ideas straight out of the purity of our minds (like Athena from Zeus’s head), they do not have a single origin inside us. Rather, we generate concepts in dialectical interaction with the world, through the interaction of our minds (ideas) and the world (often matter, also, other subjects). To refer this to the present debate, this is why trans activist claims about the sovereignty of identities (‘I am what I say I am’ (which is pretty much what God says from Burning Bush)) are ontological bunk, and necessarily involve trying to dominate others as reflecting surfaces (which is what pronoun protocols are, see ‘Ontological Totalitarianism by Numbers’). You do not have an ‘identity’ independently of other human beings. Nor can you simply ‘socially construct’ concepts which name the material world in defiance of how the material world actually is. If your concept doesn’t actually work to allow you to ‘grasp’ the material world, the world will tell you about it pretty damn quick. *Thwack*

What this comes down to is the fact that concepts are not actually representations, that is, they are not immaterial pictures we just have in our minds. The deconstructive tradition, which Irigaray is placing herself in by using the phrase ‘scene of representation,’ is in this respect fundamentally a critique of the very idea that concepts should be understood as mental pictures (formed in the first instance on the back of our eyes, like a mirror – hence also why the critique of representation is a critique of the Western privileging of vision as the allegory of knowledge…See?). That type of representation of representation makes us think that concepts are just things we conceive – generate – with our minds (or our mind’s eye), while the object of our concept is out there, somewhere in the world. And then we spend an enormous amount of time trying to work out how to stick the concept and the object back together. (Here I always end up thinking of a not-very-co-ordinated toddler repeatedly failing to stick two bits of Lego together, although that’s not quite right, because it is us who broke the two pieces apart in the first place and then can’t work how they fit together. As Wittgenstein would have it, it is philosophising that is creating the problem it can’t solve).

If you start from the assumption of representation, from a subject-object dualism, it becomes very hard to explain how concepts relate to objects, and you then allow the possibility of all kinds of idiotic notions about how ideas for very basic material features of the world are just ‘socially constructed’ and you can just as well make them up any old way you like because ‘I WANT.’ (See, toddlers…who think they’re God). Here, both Derrida and Irigaray are working in the tradition articulated by Heidegger’ critique of essence in Being and Time (‘Existence precedes essence,’ why indeed, yes it does). Heidegger’s basic argument is that human being must be fundamentally understood as what he calls ‘In-der-Welt-sein’ (don’t you love a good German compound noun), which means, ‘Being-in-the-world.’ We are not sovereign identities, we are, rather, a type of ‘Mitsein,’ or ‘With-Being.’ Everything exists between. Or as Irigaray points out in ‘Plato’s Hystera,’ it all comes down to the passage.

In Heidegger’s model, concepts are not representations, they are tools – they are things which allow us to grasp, interact with, and manipulate the world. He famously illustrates this by talking about using a hammer. (Notably, Wittgenstein was also on a roof using a hammer when he realised his previous Platonic inspired treatise on how concepts work like pure abstract crystalline logic was a load of old tosh and went off to write the Philosophical Investigations). If we understand that we are beings-in-the-world, and that concepts are tools that interface between us and the world, as we materially interact with it, it suddenly becomes much easier to understand how concepts and the world relate to each other. (Part of the problem here is that philosophers tend to think about the world, not do stuff in it). This also usefully explains why the trans activist effort to efface sex and replace it with gender identity causes so many material fuck-ups. As I once said to Grace Lavery, what you are doing is taking my hammer, replacing it with a fish, and telling me I can still hit nails with it.

That Grace Lavery – alleged post-structuralist and friend of Judy – had no damn idea what I was talking about is also usefully illustrative of the fundamental intellectual mistakes at work here, and how the Platonic ‘scene of representation’ is implicated in all of this. As I try to explain in the ‘Butler and Bodies’ essay, the reception of deconstruction was utterly messed up by the fact that people’s Platonic assumptions run so deep. People simply assume that if meaning works, it must work in the way Plato said it did – concepts must be mental representations, or immaterial essences, that function by gathering together everything that is ‘the same’ in concrete particulars and abstracting from them (hence all the intersex and ‘some women are infertile’ arguments). Because they are still wedded to the belief that that is the only way meaning could possibly work, when that model is critiqued, what people then hear is ‘there is no meaning.’ This is the sense in which all allegedly post-structuralist thinking that propagates extreme social constructivism (hello Judy) are just reverse-Platonic exercises in massively missing the point. (And allegedly ‘deconstructing binaries’ by just reversing them and/or, erasing differences, doh).

Because the fact is that the human capacity for meaning-making transparently works; not perfectly, of course, but, within specific interactions – context, relation, time / web, matrix, text / body, voice, matter – meaning works with a remarkable degree of precision. (The determination of meaning will increase in direct relation to the specificity of its context. That’s why, for example, moral judgements must be made in relation to concrete instances, and we need human judgment to interpret the universality of law. It’s also why if you take signs out of their context and repeat them ad-infinitum and Tumblrise everything together it feels like meaning is degrading…. Ta-dah! Post-modernism. The next thing you know sociology professors will be writing peer-reviewed journal articles that consist of nothing but randomly arranged memes they nicked off Twitter. No, that could never happen). Anyway, the point is that it is not the job of thinking to tell people that a core feature of our being-in-the-world that transparently works to a high degree of reliability does not work because they’ve done some clever-ass theory or played Platonic jiggery-pokery with a bunch of definitions. It’s the job of thinking to explain how things work. And it’s the moral obligation of thinking to make pretty damn sure it understands how things work before making bonkers suggestions about how to fix things. (If your working model is made up wish fulfilment, you will break things, not fix them).

While we’re here we should add that despite the endless parade of edgy blue-hairs, extreme social constructivism is not ‘sophisticated,’ and nuanced, dialectical, forms of realism or materialism are not ‘naïve’ or ‘simplistic.’ Extreme social constructivism is like a stoned-17-year-old-who’s-just-discovered-solipsism’s idea of a sophisticated idea. And no one who espouses this nonsense lives in the world as if what they are saying is true. If they did, they wouldn’t be able to walk around without constantly banging into things. Anyway, the basic point is this: If your theory is telling you that an empirical phenomenon (like meaning, or the existence of human selves, or the capacity for moral judgement) doesn’t work when it evidently does, then your theory is either wrong, or is only part of the story. (I think the latter is true of Platonic essentialism… clearly pattern recognition, working out what is the same and what is different, is a part of the story, as long as we remember that what is different is as important as what is the same).

The conclusion that should be drawn from the deconstructive critique of the Platonic Idea is not that meaning doesn’t work (or that subjects don’t exist), but that it doesn’t work like that, or not only like that. This is precisely the conclusion drawn by the feminist strand of deconstructive thinking Irigaray is working in. What is notable – inevitable – here, is that it’s the reverse-Platonist, masculinist, strand of that tradition – the one that thinks if things don’t work as the Phallus says they should then they don’t work at all – that has come to stand for ‘post-structuralism’ in the intellectual landscape. Because who listens to women?? Or rather, who listens to women when they are challenging the entire phallic economy of Western thinking??? Of course, when they collude with it (hello again Judy), they will be paid double for their efforts, for helping the Father bury the body and cover up his material exploitation so he can carry on accumulating profit in the game of specul(aris)ation.

Irigaray’s insists that the phallic economy, the reduction of mother-matter to mirror, is a woman/earth-erasing exploitative racket that is held in place by the masculine insistence that this is how things must be, because otherwise there is no meaning, form, or order, and we will all be plunged into the dark earthy depths of feminine chaos and madness. (This is related to the dialectical reversal adopted by the masculinist social constructivist side and given a liberatory ‘queer’ spin. Because if putting solid impenetrable boundaries around things is identitarian, binary, black and white, ‘othering,’ and generally ‘bad,’ then we should obviously just smash everything up and turn the whole world into schizophrenic grey goop. Seriously people, you were supposed to have learned something about thinking in either/or terms about insides and outsides. I have three words for you: Semi. Permeable. Membrane. It’s what makes life go).

For Irigaray, the phallic insistence on the necessity of the Idea is erected over the fact of fundamental constitutive relation, multiply evidenced by the ‘aporia of original repetition,’ conceptualisation as being-in-the-world, and the coming into existence of all human life through sexual conjunction (let’s talk about gametes and men’s seed) and the two-in-one-being of material gestation. That is, the phallic economy is built on a massive conceptual lie – which corresponds to an act of repressed exploitation, a debt to the bodies of women and the earth that is never recognised, and allows the Father, the Phallus, and Capital, to merrily carry on with the business of rape, pillage and accumulation. It is here, however, that Irigaray finds hope. Because if the phallic economy is a lie based on denying the fundamental conditions of existence, it follows then that there must be another way. This is what we will explore more fully in the last Unit of the course, ‘Thinking Otherwise.’

So, that turned into a ramble twice as long as the exposition it is introducing. I hope it was useful. Now, on to the Derrida. As I said, this was written as part of my PhD work, so, like the parts of my dissertation we will look at in later units, it’s written in quite a technical philosophical register, with a sad lack of jokes and swears. Forgive me….     

(Brighton, 2022)                         


The fact that one of the earliest formulations of Derrida’s project was as a critique of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ indicates that exploring the ontological implications of time was central to his thought from its inception. Proceeding from this moment, the object of deconstructive critique remained – in significant respects – formally stable throughout its many iterations, the structure denoted as ‘presence’ in the early work – and principally excavated through interrogating the linguistic sign qua Idea – giving way, by the last stages of the project, to the intellectual conceit named as “ipseity in general.” (R: 11) The structure of the ipse is determined, Derrida’s tireless forensic repeatedly reveals, by two interlaced features, the pretense of temporal and spatial self-presence or self-identity, and its being is maintained, therefore, by a ruthless, persistent – and ultimately untenable – suppression of the reality of time and relation. The fact of the ontological reality of time and relation is not, however, simply asserted by Derrida, but systematically demonstrated through the activity of deconstructive analysis, which functions to reveal the way in which any entity posited as a temporal/spatial identity (the strategy hereafter referred to as ‘identitarianism’) is necessarily maintained by a nexus of disavowed temporal/spatial relation which brings it into contradiction with itself and undermines its claims to identity.  

For expository purposes we will focus here on just one axiomatic example of deconstructive analysis, the undermining of the presence of the ideality of meaning (as the emissary of being in general) by the temporospatial relation Derrida names différance, spacing or iterability.  According to the analysis proposed in the triumvirate of Speech and Phenomena (1967), Of Grammatology (1967) and ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1967), the identitarian inclination of Western metaphysics has led to the consistent privileging of the ‘living sign’ of speech over the ‘dead sign’ of the written word. This is because, Derrida will suggest, the phoneme allows us to conceive the sign as nothing other than the expressive externalization of an ideal intelligible interior meaning, an emissary of, in effect, a pure noetic apprehension of essence. It thus functions to posits the self-present identity of meaning and sign, and to construe the sign as nothing other than the means of conveyance of the ideality of meaning which issues from a singular origin within the mind of the subject.

We have, however, no reason to consent to the empirical existence of ‘noesis,’ and, as Derrida’s textual excavations reveal, the attempts to construct meaning as a self-present identity invariably rely on a necessarily artificial exclusion of the ideal from any evidence of its imbrication with principles of temporal and spatial relation. The reason for the necessity of the exclusion stems, Derrida suggests, from the fact that the ideal exists only as an abstraction from the empirical fact of repetition. If we remember, the Divided Line gives us no explicit exemplar of the process of ‘noesis’ and can ask us to conceive it only as a reversal of ‘dianoia,’ the process by which the intellect abstracts to ideal entities on the basis of the perception of repetition (and illustrated by geometry).  What this reveals is that the phenomena that we may denote as ‘the repetition of the same’ is the condition of possibility of ideality. In Speech and Phenomena, Derrida informs us that meaning does not arise as the consequence of a “pure and primordial presentation…in the original,” (SP: 45) but rather, “ideality is the very form in which the presence of an object in general may be indefinitely repeated as the same.” (SP: 9) Consequently, “ideality is not an existent that has fallen from the sky; its origin will always be the possible repetition of a productive act.”  (SP: 6)

For Derrida, the fact of repetition is evinced by the grapheme, those multiple and material traces which stands in the same relation to ideal meaning as material particulars (or instantiations of a triangle) stand to the Platonic idea (or form of the triangle). The repression of writing by speech is thus a denial of the fact that meaning derives from abstraction from repetition, a denial which is impelled by the fact that repetition implies, necessarily, temporospatial relation and thus undermines the claim of ideal entities to absolute temporal and spatial self-presence. The fact that repetition necessarily implies relation in time and space derives from the fact that for something to repeat itself as the same, there must be, a priori, a minimum of two entities involved, entities which are neither temporally or spatially identical with themselves. The structure of this necessary two-ness which underpins the ideal one, will be named by Derrida ‘iterability,’ or ‘primordial repetition,’ and the fact that this structure implies variance between one mark and another in both temporal (deferral) and spatial (difference) registers will be captured by the neologism, différance. Thus, to Derrida’s mind, the very existence of an ideal entity – that which posits itself as a temporal and spatial identity – depends on the structure of repetition, a structure which necessarily implies temporal and spatial différance. This internal contradiction in any identitarian positing is what Derrida’s careful textual forensic intends to repeatedly reveal, and is expressed in the general formula of the one aporia “that infinitely distributes itself” (FL: 250), the ‘aporia of original repetition,’ viz:

The condition of possibility of x being an identity

Is the condition of impossibility of x being an identity

(Brooklyn, 2010)



R         Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005)

SP        Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973)

FL       ‘Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’’ in Acts of Religion, Ed. Gil Anidjar(London, New York: Routledge, 2002)

Smashing the Binary – A Dissection of Sex Denial

So, in honour of the High Priestess of Genderology being dispatched to remind the great and the good that those uppity witches are all fascists and most definitely *should not be listened to* (nothing remotely normative or disciplinary going on here honest innit), here is the first draft of the piece I finished last week on why sex denial is a pile of conceptual bullshit. The argument works, in fact, by playing Butler at her own game, and demonstrating that actually, it is her who is committed to absolutist and determinist ideas about sex, which is what leads her to the catastrophic and idiotic conclusion we need to all play a massive international round of ‘let’s pretend’ enforced by women losing their jobs, being threatened and punched, and occasionally patronised by a famed ‘feminist’ academic who transparently hasn’t got a damn clue what is actually happening.

But of course, I have “never actually read any works in gender studies.” Indeed, I managed to write this 15,000 word take down of Butler based on the recipe I found on the back of a packet of Uncle Ben’s while snorting the hate being spread by those jihadists over at Mumsnet. “Quick and fearful conclusions take the place of considered judgments,” do they Judy? Well, let’s see shall we…

Read or download here:

Spectacular Rage

So, following from the recent events in Plymouth and the conversation about Incels, and also this thread I did yesterday about male entitlement and creepiness, I thought I’d publish this. It’s a chapter from my PhD on what MRA culture tells us about the fundamental structure of misogyny, and the central role of entitlement and narcissistic rage to the mechanism of male violence. It’s a bit academic-y in places, so, just skip over any bits where it gets too waffly.

ETA: About the references, if you follow this link to the full work, you can find the references.

1. The Female of the Species

“[O]ut of respect for men,” writes Drealm, contributor to a manosphere[1] internet forum,[2] a woman “should dress in a way that doesn’t excite men,” and to do otherwise, is “an assault on men’s sexuality.” As a resident of the “big liberalized hypersexual runway show” that is Berkeley, California, Drealm is, he bemoans, “forced to stare at hundreds if not thousands of women a day” all of whom, “bring sluttiness to all (sic) new pinnacle.” Given that it’s evidently impossible, “on a primal level,” to “get passed my sexual urges when looking at sluts,” the “only time it’s enjoyable looking at promiscuously dressed women,” is, he continues, “if you can have them on the spot.” A man like Drealm, when confronted with a desirable woman he cannot immediately possess, has only one option. “The only thing I want to do to a slut is rape them…If I extrapolate this observation to society, I think it’s easy to see why in a slut society women will be more prey to rape…Simply put, dressing like sluts brings out murders, rapists and sadists in men (sic)…A society based on sluts, might as well be a pro-rapist society.” (Drealm 2010)

It would perhaps be comforting, given the much-noted semi-literacy of substantial sections of the manosphere, to explain away sentiments such as those expressed above as the rantings of the somewhat critically challenged. However, as the variety of ethno-graphic, historical and literary sources we will draw on in this chapter demonstrate, such sentiments are far from aberrant, and are, moreover, remarkably consistent in their contours. In Drealm’s discourse we find the tried and tested tropes of the rape apologist; the primal and absolute irresistibility of male desire, and the projection of that desire onto its object, resulting in the experience of being ‘assaulted’ by the perceived source of one’s own heteronomous inclinations. Through the largely imperceptible lens of sovereign autonomy, men read their desire for women as not only women’s responsibility – she was, after all, ‘asking for it’ – but as a source of her nefarious and illegitimate power over them. As the protagonist of The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) tells Tolstoy’s narrator, the “origin of the ascendancy of women, from which the whole world is suffering,”[3] (Tolstoy 1993/1889:83) is the “palpable danger” of a “ball dress,” (84) those “meretricious costumes…calculated directly to provoke passion” (85) by which a woman “completely enslaves…and acquires a terrible power over men.” (84)

As Dworkin notes in the commentary on Kreutzer which opens Intercourse, the “rage against women as a group is particularly located here,” animated by the “reduction of humanity into being an object for sex” which “carries with it the power to dominate men because men want the object and the sex.” These “trivial, mediocre things (women)” have a “power over men,” which is “experienced by the men as…emotionally real, sexually real” and “psychologically real.” It is a power which, she continues forcefully, “emerges as the reason for the wrath of the misogynist.” (Dworkin 2007:18) Indeed, as David D. Gilmore observes in Misogyny: The Male Malady, his ethnographic survey of global woman-hating, misogyny is characterized by a “core imagery” which, I would argue, dramatizes men’s experience of women as the source of an assault on their sovereign impenetrability. The imagery, or as Irigaray would say, imaginary, of misogyny, exhibits, Gilmore notes, a “fear of intrusion, of possession” by “an invasive evil, originating outside the body…identified with alienness, and which, insidious and irresistible, penetrates the self.” (Gilmore 2001:141)

By far the most prevalent of these misogynist imaginaries is, Gilmore’s survey suggests, that revolving around images of purity and contamination. The ‘gynogenetic-toxin’ trope, as Gilmore calls it, “entails fantasies of noxious substances intruding” or “magical invasion by which the pollutants penetrate the male body.” (138) While the ‘thaumatological’ conception of the “lethal power of female substances” which literally “‘get under’ the man’s skin” (39) is, Gilmore contends, most commonly confined to preliterate peoples,[4] the notion that women are best treated as “nuclear waste or a highly contagious disease” (Cited Futrelle 2010d) is alive and well among contemporary Men’s Rights Activists. This discourse often focuses on women as a source of literal infection, the fact that they “are far more likely to have STD’s than men…are filthy, and…will lie about their infections.” (Cited Futrelle 2010b) Notably however, the contagion-trope is sometimes extended to other arenas in which women are considered to aggress upon men, most particularly with respect to their alleged economic vampirism. “Western women” are “toxic human beings” who are both “dangerous physically (many of them have STD’s)” and “economically (look at hulk hogan’s ex and her new yacht the alimoney (sic)).” (Cited Futrelle 2010e) Or, as one commentator at ‘A Voice for Men’ delicately puts it, “stay away from them, dont (sic) be around them for too long and most importantly when pumping them with man juice wear protection so you dont (sic) get infected with child support.” (Cited Futrelle 2010e)

In the medieval European tradition, the metaphorics of contagion surfaced, Gilmore notes, in the “pseudo-medical idiom” found in Spanish treatises on preventive medicine that “portrayed women as a pestilence.”[5] (2001:139) Infection-anxiety is also associated with that great outbreak of medieval mass-misogyny, the witch-hunt. The witch “magically intrudes some noxious material into the victim” (139) or annihilates his self-possession in an act of colonizing sorcery. “In many cultures,” Dworkin notes, “woman herself is magical and evil…she exercises an illegitimate; therefore magical; therefore wicked; therefore originating in Satan: power over men.” (Dworkin 2007: 82) In “Europe during the Inquisition “ she continues, “women were slaughtered for this rape of the male that took place in his own mind,” executed by the score “for possessing him by…making him have sex or want…sex that was not…of his will or predetermination.” (81) The bewitching spells cast by ‘black magic women’[6] are with us to this day, as are the pointed teeth and serpent-tongues of many, much more ancient monsters. Medusa and great sea snake Tiamat, mother of the Mesopotamian pantheon, winding their way across millennia and slithering out across Rudyard Kipling’s page. The deadly ‘female of the species,’ a “basking cobra” whose sibilant speech will “enthrall but not enslave,” and who’s venomous voice “drips, corrodes, and poisons.” (‘The Female of the Species,’ 1911) And with us too are the nymphs and watery sirens, our everyday emblems of the destructive seductress, singing an enticing sweetness that will dash a man to pieces on the rocks and drag him down into the depths.

Metaphors of contagion are often accompanied in misogynist discourse by aquatic imagery; the threat to lucidity and solid definition posed by vast, dark, permeating water. The seduced man, Beauvoir notes, “loses himself, he drinks the potion that turns him into a stranger to himself, he falls to the bottom of deadly and roiling waters.” (Beauvoir 2011/1949:188) Such imagery exhibits, Gilmore observes, an “overriding…fear of collapsing or imploding ego boundaries,” (2001:141) of “moral surrender” as “a submerging into formlessness.” (140) It is also frequently figured as a specific trajectory, a downfall, which, as we will see in our discussion of primary narcissism, conjures both the dread and the longing for a lost Eden of plentitude, the return – or regression – to a time before self-awareness and individuation ushered in the knowledge of need. The lure of such fantasies must be resisted by any man who wishes to maintain his self-possession, and failure comes at a cost of disintegration or deadly depletion. If a woman who breaks down a man’s defenses does not penetrate him with her venom, she will, instead, suck him dry. Both the “idiom of semen loss and the metaphor of financial ruin,” (142) as well as the ever-present threat of women’s sexual voraciousness, exhibit men’s fear of woman’s “evacuative power.” She is a “hellish cannibalistic siphon,” (143) a “vampire, ghoul, eater, drinker.” Her “sex organ feeds gluttonously on the male sex organ.” (Beauvoir 2011:192)

The need to avoid the lethal consequences of succumbing to sexual temptation has led to the creation of a sub-section of the Men’s Rights Movement dedicated to ‘Men Going Their Own Way’ (MGTOW). MGTOW pride themselves on not only avoiding the toothy snares of womenfolk, but on breaking the monopoly power exercised by the shadowy forces of the ‘pussy cartel.’[7] According to MRA lore, women are concerned with nothing but leveraging their erotic capital for all it is worth, and feminism’s sole function is to serve as ideological cover for the cartel’s hostile takeover of all of men’s assets.  According to this logic, “nothing upsets cupcakes [women] more” than Men Going Their Own Way, “since cupcakes believe the world revolves around them and their almighty vagina.” If the MGTOW’s boycott is successful, and women’s “vaginae (sic) aren’t needed for men to have fun,” they will “lose their power” and their ability to “control as many men as they can in all circumstances.” (Cited Futrelle 2015a)

Yet, despite MGTOWs avowed intent to “stay the hell away” from women, they are nonetheless, as men with “normal drives and impulses” still tormented by the fact that “some of them look hot anyway.” This is “very annoying,” writes one MGTOW, and “distracts me from other important work.” Indeed, the average MGTOW is driven to wonder, “[h]ow do you reduce desire for the female sex – besides going gay, of course.” (Cited Futrelle 2010c) There are a wide range of answers to this perpetual conundrum, from a near obsession with the utopian possibilities of sexbots (Yiannopoulos 2015), through good old-fashioned aversion therapy (‘How to find women disgusting,’ Futrelle 2010c), to more high-minded solutions. “Purify yourself from the evil in our society,” warns one more philosophically-inclined MGTOW. “God made man in His image, and women was made in the image of Satan.” She is “a test,” a “stumbling block for man,” her “filth is part of the obstacle course set before us.” To counter the corrupting tendency to “lust after women sexually,” a man should “[l]isten to classical music. Read Shakes-peare and Frost. Meditate. Take long walks….Elevate yourself above such filth of the flesh.” (Cited Futrelle 2010b) Plato, indeed, would be proud.

2. The Rape of Europe

On the afternoon of July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian man in his early thirties, set off an explosion in the government district of central Oslo, killing eight people. Within a couple of hours he had made his way to the small island of Utøya where the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party, the AUF, were holding their annual summer camp. In the course of an hour and a half Breivik shot and killed sixty-nine people – the youngest of whom was fourteen – and injured over a hundred more. On the morning of the attacks he had electronically released 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, a fifteen-hundred page ‘manifesto,’ or rather, compendium, outlining his fervent belief in the need to defend the ethnic, cultural, national and sexual purity of European, an in particular, Nordic, civilization from the imminent peril posed by Islamicization. In the manifesto Breivik suggests to his fellow ‘resistance fighters’ that “[w]hen we blow up a building full of…traitors it is not only for the purpose of killing. An important part of the operation is to force awareness of our movement and our ideology” which “is the product we want to sell to the European peoples.” (Breivik 2011:1068) As indicated by the press-pack of swaggering photos included at the end of the manifesto, the murder of seventy-seven other human beings had been Breivik’s idea of a “marketing operation.” (15)

Writing in The Guardian that July, I suggested that what was most interesting about Breivik’s sprawling compendium of internet-culled conspiracy theory, apocryphal history and erroneous statistics, was its pungent mixture of racism and misogyny. (Jones 2011a) The way in which Breivik’s palpable anxiety about the penetrable borders of Europe, figured as the body of a pliable woman, revealed the delineations of the sovereign imaginary. As David Gilmore documents – and our discussion of Christopher Lasch’s Freudian fears will evince – the disintegrating peril represented by woman reaches its most abstract form in anxieties about the very collapse of civilization. (Gilmore 2001:144) According to Breivik’s introduction to A European Declaration – a brief history of the pernicious influence of ‘political correctness’ or ‘cultural Marxism’ – the “feminisation of European culture” (28) has turned previously stalwart men into “a touchy-feely subspecies,” (29) incapable of the rigorous defense of European national borders or cultural values against the amassing barbarian hordes. “It is not only our right but…our duty…to preserve our identity…culture and…national sovereignty by preventing the ongoing Islamisation,” (8) Breivik writes. But be warned that if you “break down men’s masculinity, their…ability to defend themselves and their families” which is “exactly what Western women have done for the last forty years,” then “you destroy the country.” (343) Both “culturally and demographically,” he continues, “radical feminism has been one of the most important causes of the current weakness of Western civilization.” (351) As such, the “fate of European civilisation depends on European men steadfastly resisting Politically Correct feminism.” (31)

The notional reason for this feminist peril is, as Breivik intimates above, Western women’s failure to behave like good-little breeders. Seduced into thinking they can ‘have it all,’ European women have produced nothing but demographic collapse; a tide that must be turned by restricting birth control and abortion, and discouraging women from taking “anything above a bachelor’s degree.” (1181) But what really animates Breivik’s fears is the way the “weakness” of perceived feminization has opened Europe up to the “secondary infection” (337) of Islamicization. The once impregnable sovereign states of Europe have become a yielding body politic, easily penetrable by the foreign and the foreigner. Section 2.89, which decries the position once voiced by a “stupid blonde woman author” that it is sometimes better to “accept submission” rather than “fight” (697) is entitled ‘The Rape of Europe.’[8] The feminists, Marxists and ‘suicidal humanists’ who have conspired, or rather, collaborated, in the project of multiculturalism are roundly indicted as ‘traitor whores.’

There are well over 150 references to rape scattered throughout the text – every one of which pertains to rape committed by Muslim men, mostly against Christian or Western women. Reprising a common theme of the internet-based ‘counter-jihad’ movement, Europe is increasingly, Breivik contends, in the grip of Muslim rape epidemic. Because, according to the ethno-sexual logic of sovereign purity, rape within an ethnic group does not signify, Breivik’s position is predicated on denying that the majority of sexual crimes against European women are, and have always been, committed by European men. “The truth,” we are told, with scant regard for the statistics, is “that European men have treated women with greater respect than the men of almost any other major civilization on earth.” (343) By contrast, “the sexual harassment and rape of non-Muslim women” as “part and parcel of Jihad,” has led to a recent explosion in sexual violence. In a piece of rape-apologia which gives the lie to his concern for his country-women’s sexual safety, this tsunami of Muslim violation is one which, it is suggested, “Western women have to some extent brought upon themselves.” (343) Their “psychological warfare against the male gender role” has destroyed “every defensive structure of European society,” (30) and turned women “into a weapon of mass destruction against…civilization.” (343) But their comeuppance will come. Having “paved the way for the forces that will dismantle Western feminism” such women will “end up in bed, sometimes quite literally, with the people who want to enslave them.” (346)

Western women’s civilization-wrecking power is also attested to in Breivik’s long excursus into “the lethal and destructive societal force” of the “sex and the city lifestyle.” (1168) Sexual ethics, Breivik notes, with momentary neutrality, deals with “issues arising from all aspects of sexuality and human sexual behavior.” (1168) Its breakdown, however, is singularly “manifested through…young women’s susceptibility to have one night stands, pre-marital sex and the average amount of sexual partners for women during a lifetime.” He provides a handy chart, ranking European nation’s sexual ethics – that is, women’s promiscuity – on a scale from 0 to 100. The data for the chart, he explains without pause, is based “on the experiences of my network of male friends (my own included)” on “visit[ing] all these countries.” Some 50% of his female friends, he continues sadly, now fall “under the definition…female sluts” because they have had 20 or more partners, a situation that is, he argues, “clearly not sustainable.” (1170)  

Quite why this should be so is never fully elucidated. It seems simply evident to Breivik that a chaos of undisciplined female flesh will inexorably cause “all social structures to completely deteriorate.” Rather unsurprisingly, however, this cataclysmic outcome is linked in his mind with the threat of contagion, the fact that “many people are suffering from STDs as a result of the current lack of sexual morals.” (1172) In the thought of sovereign integrity, allowing the outside, the foreign, to penetrate inside, is straight-forwardly synonymous with the corruption of both the individual body and the body politic. It is thus that we find Breivik, in an apparent non sequitur, moving within pages from a discussion of the “devastating” economic impact of STDs in Western Europe to an account of the tragedy of the “rapid extinction of the Nordic genotype.” (1182) “Marxist procreation policies,” by which he means, he clarifies, “feminism,” are “deliberate genocidal practices.” They will lead inevitably to the “demographical annihilation of European ethic groups” and the “destruction of European culture.” (1157)

3. The Nice Guy

A little under three years after the Utøya massacre, on the other side of the Northern Hemisphere, another ‘manifesto’ was electronically published as a prelude to mass murder. On May 23 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year old student, stabbed his roommates to death before driving to the center of Isla Vista, California, where he intended to launch an assault on the building of the Alpha Phi Sorority, selected after “extensive research” because it was the one with “the most beautiful girls.” (Rodger 2014a:132) He found the doors to the sorority house locked, and instead of “sneak[ing] into their house…and slaughter[ing] every single one of them” (132) as he had planned, he shot three women who were standing out the front of the house, killing two of them. He drove to a nearby deli and shot a young man dead, before careering through Isla Vista, striking people with his car and firing indiscriminately. After gunfire exchanges with the police, Rodger’s car crashed into a parked vehicle and came to a halt. The police found him dead inside from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

While Breivik’s compendium sketches the contours of the sovereign imaginary in a political register, and is concerned with the threat of foreign penetration, Rodger’s My Twisted World is personal, an autobiographical etiology of his murderous rage. The 137-page ‘manifesto’ petulantly catalogues every slight and victory of his short life, documenting an abiding inability to contend with the dilemma of desire or respond to the frustration of his needs with anything other than an incensed, entitled, fury. The story begins with everyday childhood disappointments but becomes, incrementally, testament to a volcanic resentment focused on “hot, beautiful blonde girls” (132) who “dare” to “give their love and sex to those other men and not me.” (134) In the video released just prior to the massacre, Rodger’s explained that ‘The Day of Retribution,’ was a result of having “been forced to endure an existence of loneliness and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.” While “throw[ing] themselves” at “obnoxious brutes,” all “those girls that I have desired so much” have, he continued, “rejected me and looked at me as an inferior man.” (Rodger 2014b)

In a refrain that sounds throughout My Twisted World, this state of affairs was, Roger’s complained, “not fair,” “an injustice” and “a crime.” (Rodger 2014b) ‘The Day of Retribution’ would be, he wrote,’ the “final solution to all of the injustices…all of the wrongs I’ve had to face in my sorry excuse of a life.” It would enable him to “finally… punish” men for “living a…more pleasurable life than me” and women for “giving that pleasurable life to those males instead of me.” These men and women had, he wrote, “denied me a happy life, and in return I will take away all of their lives. It is only fair.” Imagining himself “the closest thing there is to a living god…[m]agnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent,’ his ‘Day of Retribution’ would “purify the world of everything that is wrong with it…punishing everyone I deem to be impure and depraved.” (2014a:135)

Unlike in Breivik’s case, the media were quick to pick up on Rodger’s evident misogyny, and, for the first time, a wide variety of think-pieces were simultaneously published on the lethal consequence of what Michael Kimmel has called ‘aggrieved entitlement.’ (Kimmel 2013; Penny 2014; Valenti 2014) Many of these noted that Rodger’s had frequented Men’s Rights forums online, and that his discourse chimed with that used by MRAs and Pick Up Artists, particularly in the way he framed himself as a ‘nice guy’ robbed of his sexual dues by “spoiled, stuck-up blonde s***[s]” (Rodger 2014b) and the swaggering ‘alphas’ they dated (Marcotte 2014). The florid nature of Rodger’s grandiose fantasies in the manifesto’s final pages certainly warrants the suspicion that his narcissistic tendencies were clinical in proportion. It would, however, be mistaken to infer from this, as Chris Ferguson did in Time magazine, that it is possible to cleanly dissect mental illness – the “real” reason for his rampage – from a “cultural hatred for women” which merely served as a pretext. (Ferguson 2014)

What comes across most forcefully from Rodger’s self-pitying diatribe is the total absence of any other human consciousness. It is litany of fury (17; 18), outrage (10) and indignation (17; 40) which proceeds from childhood “tantrum,” (6) through adolescent “tantrum” (43) to full-blown adult “tantrum,” (108) with barely a glimmer of awareness of the interior life or particular needs of anyone other than himself, whether it be the people who cared for him, or the women whose affection he thought he deserved. Elliot Rodger’s ‘twisted world’ was entirely populated by tokens of his own aggrandizement or inadequacy, like the Pokemon cards he traded as a child. He was consumed by the need for recognition (24), but, like the self-positing Kojèvean subject, was concerned only with the ‘absolute reality’ and ‘absolute value’ of himself. Here was a sovereign-self – a ‘living god’ – who ‘in no sense want[ed] to recognize the other in turn.’

As we will explore in the next chapter, Elliot Rodger’s florid narcissism was only a more extreme manifestation of a general phenomenon intimately related to the hegemonic masculine ideal of sovereign self-sufficiency. This ideal, as we have seen, tends to posit sexual interaction as a one-way act of conquest and possession in order to disavow the vulnerability that derives from desiring other human beings, and, as the case of Elliot Rodger’s makes evident, is often accompanied by an overweening sense of proprietorial entitlement. Rodger’s was, from the onset of puberty, tormented by his own desire, (30-31; 39; 47) but while incessantly asking why the world was so unfair to him, he never once escaped the prison of his frustration long enough to wonder whether others’ disinclination to meet his needs had anything to with his greeting their successes with a singular and unrelenting hostility. (16; 53; 56; 79; 87) He spent his early adulthood transfixed by the idea that he could have lived an “amazing and blissful life…if only females were sexually attracted” to him, (135) but never once considered if the fact that they were not had anything to do with the bare concealment of his entitled misogynist rage. To his mind, his lack of sexual success resulted only from women’s aberrant choices, the fact that they were interested in ‘alpha’ males and not (mass-murdering) ‘beta nice-guys’ like himself.  Women, he writes on the penultimate page of his screed, are “flawed creatures” who are “completely controlled by their depraved emotions and vile sexual impulses.” They are thus only attracted to the “most brutal of men,” the “stupid, degenerate” and “obnoxious,” rather than choosing “to mate… instead” with “magnificent gentlemen like myself.” They should not, therefore, “have the right to choose who to…breed with,” and that “decision…should be made for them by rational men of intelligence.” They should be placed in “concentration camps” and “quarantined like the plague they are,” allowing them to “be used in a manner that actually benefits a civilized society.” (136) Why women didn’t want to date him is, indeed, a puzzle.

4. The Anguish of Possession

Like Rodger, the protagonist of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev, also spends his life tortured by his own desire. For two years prior to losing his virginity he had “already…been corrupted in imagination” and “the bare thought of woman, not of any particular woman, but of woman in general, tormented me.” (Tolstoy 1993/1889:75) Assured by his peers that after sex “all my struggles and my suffering would disappear” (75-6), Pozdnyshev gives himself over to an experience he comes to describe as “a fall,” (76) and became, like the “opium-eater, the drunkard, and the immoderate smoker,” a “voluptuary.” (77) Like Kant, Pozdnyshev is convinced that sex is an inevitable debasement of the “simple, clear, pure relations with womankind” (77) that are only attainable before man’s descent into longing and corruption. He searches for a wife, “a girl whose purity would qualify her to the dignity” of the position, but rejects many candidates as insufficiently “immaculate.” Eventually he settles on one he believes to be “the pink of moral perfection” (78) and proposes to her, and thus, he tells us, “fell into what may be described as a kind of trap.” (82)

Also like Kant, Pozdnyshev considers the debasement of the “spiritual character” (85) of men and women’s humanity to derive from the fact that woman “is looked upon and sought after as an instrument of pleasure, and that this view is considered the right one.” (95) Dworkin’s Kantian leanings lead her to conclude that Tolstoy is here exhibiting “a comprehension, almost unique in male literature, of the fundamental simplicity and destructiveness of sexual exploitation,” the fact that “intercourse distorts and ultimately destroys any potential human equality between men and women by turning women into objects and men into exploiters.” (Dworkin 2007:12) However, as we explored in Chapter 3, there is no necessary reason why taking someone as an object of desire is incompatible with respecting their being as a person, unless one is unwilling to countenance the possibility that that desire might be frustrated. But to Pozdnyshev’s mind, as for the Hegelian master, desire leads inexorably to domination. Women will “remain forever a being of a lower order,” a “degraded, demoralized serf” of a “demoralized slave-owner,” unless there is a “change in men’s view of women” as an “instrument of pleasure.” (Tolstoy 1993:96)

Pozdnyshev, like Rodger, also fails to understand that his unhappy situation is a product, not of the necessary architecture of desire, but the embedding of that desire within his own sense of possessive entitlement. He recognizes that “[d]uring the entire course” of his “married life,” he “never once enjoyed a moment’s relief from the maddening pangs of jealously.” (97) But for him, as for Rodger, these heteronomous inclinations are not his own, but are visited on him by an external nature his feels powerless against. His enmity towards his wife begins, and festers, through his sense of disgust after “outbursts of headstrong animal appetites,” (109) and, upon perceiving an attraction between her and the violinist with whom she will play the sonata, a “fury took possession of my soul.” (116) On the day he murders her he loses “the power of controlling my feelings,” (127) and the “furious wild beast of jealousy within me roared in his den and endeavored to escape.” (124) There is nothing to be done. His hand is forced. Men can only “give themselves up to indulgence or separate from their wives, or else must kill themselves or their wives as I killed mine.” (109) Through all of this, as also in Rodger’s case, Pozdnyshev’s “predominating feeling…was pity for myself.” (116) He was tormented like a “beast in a cage” and he “suffered terribly.” (128)

And so the lie is given to Rodger’s conviction that his life would have been unimpeded bliss if only his desire had achieved the satisfaction to which he thought he was entitled. As Dworkin observes, the root of Pozdnyshev’s torment was the impossibility of achieving the total possession of his wife, an appropriation demanded, I have argued, by the sovereign subject’s inability to tolerate the vulnerability and possible frustration of its own heteronomous desires. Pozdnyshev was, he tells us, “convinced I possessed an indefeasible right to my wife, just as if she were myself,” but yet, “at the same time…felt that I could not possess her, that she was not mine, and that she could dispose of herself as she liked” and “in a manner that I did not approve.” (129) For such a man, Dworkin argues, his “right to use a woman’s body…has a nightmarish dimension originating in his absolute arrogance, his sense of total possession, which the woman…must not suborn or he will suffer.” The “recognition that finally her body is not his being an agony to him, causing him real and unbearable anguish.” (2007:21)

In The Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye describes this male desire to perform a total ‘annexation’ by which the “slave’s substance is assimilated to the master” in terms of the “transference Ti-Grace Atkinson called ‘metaphysical cannibalism.’” (Frye 1983:65) However, as Rebecca Whisnant observes, the “problem with such annexation, from the exploiter’s point of view, is that it is inevitably partial, unstable and insecure.” (Whisnant 2008:163) For Whisnant, in line with her defense of the importance of feminism retaining a discourse of sovereign integrity, the reason for this necessary partiality of possession is “because of the irreducible fact of bodily separateness.” (163) You “cannot annex my living body and make it literally part of you,” she writes, and thus, “the separateness, privacy and internality of women’s bodies is one of the few structural brakes on the patriarchal annexation and exploitation of women.” It is, she continues, “enormously important that our bodies do, in fact, ‘end at the skin’” for “in the face of metaphysical cannibalism, the separateness of our female bodies is all that stands in the way of our being eaten alive.” (164)

I think this is wrong. Not only, or most importantly, because the imperative of sovereign integrity is the motive force of the appropriation that Whisnant wants to deploy it against. Nor even because it reinscribes the logic by which personhood is understood as a territorial integrity and penetration becomes figured as an act of possession. The reason why it is impossible to achieve total appropriation of another person is not because their body is wrapped in a defensive sheath of skin, but because they are a person, and thus, have their own process of becoming, of unfolding towards their own ends. As Pozdnyshev indicates, they might at any time be “minded to dispose of” themselves “in a manner” other than one their would-be possessor might “approve.” (Tolstoy 1993:129) As Pozdnyshev looks at his dying wife, at her “bruised, blue face” for “the first time I forgot myself, my rights, my pride” and “saw in her a human being.” (139) As Dworkin observes, her “death ended his pain” because it “ended her rebellion against her object status,” her “assertion of will in this body that belonged to him.” (2007:22)

What confounded Pozdnyshev, and also, Dworkin suggests, his creator Tolstoy, was the inability to tolerate the intensity and precarity of desire without converting it into a doomed gesture of possession. Tolstoy, Dworkin asserts, “blamed and hated” his wife Sophie, “feeling antagonism and repulsion” towards her “because he wanted to fuck her.” Like his protagonist he “experienced the obsession as internal violence, violating him, not her.” The “wanting was violent – stubborn, cruel, as he called it,” and resulted in such enmity towards his wife that she came to the sad conclusion that the “main thing is not to love” because it is “so painful and humiliating” and “all my pride is trampled in the mud.” (24)

5. Entitlement and Invulnerability

David Gilmore concludes his ethnography of misogyny by noting that “men’s feelings towards women are contradictory, labile, bifurcated, and ambivalent,” (2001:202) a “hodgepodge of…contrasting impulses, starkly contradictory affect and fantasies.” (203) In a manner resonant of the position I am advancing, Gilmore suggests that this ambivalence derives from the fact that “most men need women desperately, and most men reject this driving need as both unworthy or dangerous.” (9) However, despite our agreement that misogyny issues from the tension between men’s need for women, and the way they respond to that need, Gilmore’s portrays both elements of this equation with a reifying complacency that gives his position a wholly different complexion. My concern is with the way that the imperative of sovereign integrity informs men’s experience, understanding and expression of their desire. Gilmore, by contrast, considers both men’s desire, and the way in which they manage it, to be a matter of hydraulic natural forces.

Gilmore’s text displays an inveterate hostility to feminism. He castigates the ‘viriphobia’ of radical feminists and ‘anti-masculinist’ theorists such as R.W Connell for their “hatred and fear of heterosexual masculinity,” and sets his sights predictably on Dworkin – the go-to anti-feminist bogey-woman – for her belief that men are “constitutionally” or “ipso facto evil.” (12) And yet, while dismissing feminist analysis for purportedly under-standing male violence as “stemming from innate aggression” caused by men’s “endo-crinology,” (173) he is, at the same time, happy to suggest that the “engines of conflicted emotion” which underpin misogyny are “peremptory male desire” combined with “the unconscious feelings of discomfort that such feelings prompt on behalf of the superego.” (203; my emphasis)

Appending the adjective ‘peremptory’[9] to ‘male desire’ here transforms Gilmore’s potentially illuminating account of the tension between men’s sexual desire and their response to that desire, into a paradigmatic instance of what Wendy Hollway famously called ‘male sexual drive discourse.’ As Hollway noted, this discourse is prevalent both “in common-sense assumptions” while also being “reproduced and legitimized by experts.” (Hollway 2004:227) It departs from the observation – or assertion[10] – that men’s sex drive differs from women’s, both in terms of a desire for more frequent sex, and a wider variety of partners. And, as we have seen in our encounter with sociobiology, its “key tenet” (227) is that these differences are entirely biological in origin, an inheritance ‘hard-wired’ by the reproductive demands of our evolutionary past. A recent article on ‘Men’s Sexual Response’ published by the medical website Netdoctor gives a nicely illustrative example. The reason “why the human race has survived for hundreds of thousands of years,” writes a Dr. David Delvin, is because “nature has ‘programmed’ men to be mad keen on penetrating women – and getting sperm into them.” And while this “may not sound very nice,” Dr. Delvin admits, it is, nonetheless, and notwithstanding all scholarly reservations about sociobiological story-telling, “the scientific truth.” (Delvin 2014)

The function of sociobiological appeal in male sex drive discourse is to quietly convert an observation about men’s stronger sexual drive into the more-or-less explicit assertion that it is a “deep, driving ‘biological imperative,’” (Delvin 2014) and not individual male persons, who are singularly responsible for the expression of that desire. It is not particular men who are unable to tolerate frustration. It is not a certain individual whose response is ‘peremptory,’ and will brook no refusal in his quest for satisfaction. It is, rather, the unmediated activity of desire itself. Male sex drive discourse is thus a startling iteration of the tendency to posit desire as a heteronomous inclination, here invested with the authority and force of evolutionary necessity. It visits itself like Cupid’s arrow upon an otherwise autonomous person, or attacks the subject, as Pozdnyshev’s metaphors suggest, with the irresistible ferocity of an untamed animal. In some instances, as for David Gilmore, the nature of that force is literally hydraulic, the build up of sperm putting “relentless pressure on the man for release.” (2001:167)

For reasons that are never fully explained, the only satisfactory resolution to such hydraulic pressure is that provided by a woman, and their non-compliance, their tendency to act as an “inhibiting object” (167) leads then, inexorably, to “unremitting frustration” (222) and associated “feelings of anger” or “acts of aggression.” (167) As Nicole Gavey has noted, male sex drive discourse has multiple words for these ‘inhibiting objects.’ It calls them ‘ball-breakers,’ or ‘cock teasers,’ or ‘frigid, uptight bitches.’ (Cf. Gavey 2008:105) It often rounds out its sociobiological schooling with an appeal to women’s understanding, and hence, implicitly, their accommodation, of men’s far more pressing needs. As Dr. Delvin tells us, it is “enormously difficult for women to understand just how powerful the average man’s sex drive is,” (Delvin 2014) as if, somehow, this were not a truth drummed incessantly into women from the time of puberty onwards.[11]

What Gilmore fails entirely to consider is the extent to which men’s persistent claims about the irrepressible hydraulics of their desire serve to legitimate instances where that desire is expressed to devastating consequence. Moreover, he doesn’t interrogate whether men’s ‘unremitting frustration’ or ‘feelings of anger’ might by produced by means other than an unmediated, unstoppable force mechanically colliding with an ‘inhibiting object.’ As we will examine in the next chapter, the findings of empirical psychology demonstrate that one of the most significant predictors of men’s sexual aggression is not the frustration of their desires, but the belief that their desires should not be frustrated. Male sex drive discourse instills in men the conviction that they have a natural right to sexual satisfaction, and that they are less than entirely responsible for the consequences of that satisfaction being frustrated. Male sex drive discourse is not a mere adumbration of ‘scientific truth.’ It is the discursive scaffold of male sexual entitlement.

What Gilmore’s analysis also elides is the way the hydraulics of entitlement arises, not by simple unmediated mechanism, but in conjunction with the architecture of masculine invulnerability. He recognizes that ‘most men reject’ their ‘driving need’ for women ‘as both unworthy or dangerous,’ (Cf. 9) or that man’s hostility stems from a “basic discomfort about his passionate desire for woman in all her guises.” (204) However, this ‘basic discomfort’ requires, to Gilmore’s mind, little critical interrogation or cultural interpretation beyond an appeal to fluid mechanics.  Gilmore is skeptical of the “idea that misogyny is a by-product of the culture of manhood,” (173) and, having reductively equated cultural masculinity with machismo, observes that many peace-loving non-warrior societies, such as the Nepalese Hindus, or Buddhists, still exhibit “horror mulieris in one form or another.” (174) It is this affective imaginary dimension of misogyny that also leads Gilmore to dismiss feminist analysis, claiming that there is no logical reason why “a political ideology of male supremacy should necessarily include magical elements, a terror of the vagina…phobias about mermaids…and concepts of pollution and contagion.” (180) Misogyny is, he asserts, an  “irrational emotionality,” and is hence distinct from “the simple expediency that characterizes political oppression.” (181) The consistent contours of misogyny – the “repetitive emotional complex in so many males” – clearly points, rather “to some psychogenic factor above and beyond the vicissitudes of social context or environment.” (219)

The first observation to make here is that cultural masculinity is not merely machismo. As Robert Brannon famously outlined in the opening essay of The Forty-Nine Percent Majority (1976), the male sex role can be understood as consisting of four principal dimensions: 1) ‘No Sissy Stuff,’ or the repudiation of the feminine, 2) ‘The Big Wheel,’ or the need to achieve success, status and respect, 3) ‘The Sturdy Oak,’ denoting a mental and physical toughness born of confidence, self-reliance and courage, and finally, 4) ‘Give’em Hell,’ which concerns the manly projection of aggression, violence or risk-taking. (Brannon 1976) Only this last dimension corresponds to Gilmore’s reading of cultural masculinity as the type of machismo found in warrior-societies, but we may well imagine that the pacifist culture of, say, Nepalese Buddhist monks, is nonetheless committed to the equally masculine virtues of self-possession, or the meditative mastery of turbulent feminine emotionality. In contrast to Gilmore’s reduction of masculinity to machismo, I would argue that Brannon’s dimensions are threaded together by the imperative of sovereign invulnerability. This is most evident in two of the four facets; the repudiation of the feminine, which includes, most critically, the injunction against exhibiting emotions suggesting vulnerability[12] or tenderness, and relatedly, the pressure to assume a pose of tough – impermeable even – self-sufficiency.[13] As we have explored, however, sovereign self-positing – with its denial of dependency and urge to establish itself as absolute – is also implicated in mechanisms of domination, manifested through displays of aggression and the pursuit of superior status. What, after all, is ‘the fight to the death for pure prestige’ if not an exhibition of machismo in the service of swaggering superiority?

Contra Gilmore, therefore, there is actually a connection between the political organization of male dominance and the masculine imaginary’s anxiety about the threat of invasion, contagion or pollution. That connection is to be found in what Beauvoir, we will recall, called the ‘existential infrastructure’ of masculinity; the mechanism of sovereign self-positing, impelled, I have argued, by the disavowal of vulnerability implied by both constitutive relation, and ongoing relational need. The masculine subject’s pose of sovereign self-sufficiency is, we have seen, implicated in men’s refusal to assume responsibility for their own desire, which is frequently regarded as visited on them as if from outside, emanating from its object, and often, literally or figuratively, getting under their skin, We have considered the way that this experience of heteronomous desire gives rise to a dilemma, a felt torsion between the sovereign imperative of autonomy, and the possibility of intimacy or sexual satisfaction. This dilemma, I have argued, is often resolved by constructing penetrative intercourse as an act of possession, an moment of potential vulnerability converted into all-conquering-potency. And it is the determination to enforce this resolution of the tension between need and invulnerability, and not the evolved hydraulics of desire, which best accounts for the prevalence of masculine sexual entitlement, the conversion of women into appropriable object, property, or resource, and the blinding specular rage that ensues when women refuse to comply with such carefully crafted conceits.

6. Paradise Lost

In addition to gesturing at the literal pressure exerted by desire, Gilmore account of men’s ‘basic discomfort’ with their longings also draws on that great model of intra-psychic hydraulics, psychoanalysis. Rather than looking to cultural or political interpretations of masculinity formation, we should rather, Gilmore suggests, focus on “psychogenic factors,” (219) the “unconscious feelings of discomfort” that desire, or rather, libido, “prompts on behalf of the superego.” (203) The influence of this Oedipal account of the tension between desire and super-egoic injunction surfaces also in Gilmore’s reading of the misogynist’s regressive anxieties. The trope of the downfall, he suggests, signals surrender to the “universal” siren call of the “prelapsarian world of infancy,” (159-60) the longing for the ‘limitless’[14] Edenic narcissism in which mother and child were merged,[15] and need and its satisfaction precisely coincided.  In this state, before emerging self-awareness brought desire and pain into the world,[16] there was no wanting, tension, pressure or frustration. The imaginary of primary narcissism is of, Margaret Whitford notes, “an ideal sense of well-being” in which “one knows nothing of need but, being ignorant of one’s real dependence, feels autonomous and omnipotent.” (Whitford 2003:30)

According to classical psychoanalysis the boy’s Oedipal task is to drag himself – or rather, be dragged[17] – out of the warm, ‘oceanic’ immersion in the mother in order achieve rigorous self-delineation. This process of ‘differentiation’, or ‘separation-individuation,’ is, Nancy Chodorow observes, an “essential early task of infantile development,” and involves the “development of ego boundaries (a sense of personal psychological division from the rest of the world) and of a body ego (a sense of the permanence of one’s physical separateness and the predictable boundedness of one’s own body, of a distinction between inside and outside).” (Chodorow 1989:102) This concept of the subject qua spatial integrity is, our analyses have suggested, inherently defensive. The emerging ego, like Parmenidean Being, is ‘fenced about,’ and bounded, “symbolized in dreams,” Lacan would claim, “by a fortress.” (Lacan 1977:5) In The Bonds of Love, her classic study of the psychoanalytic roots of domination, Jessica Benjamin observes the way in which the Freudian account of individuation conceives it asa “process of disentanglement,” rather than a developing state of intersubjective “balance,”[18] (Benjamin 1988:46) a consequence, I would argue, of understanding the subject according to the logic of sovereign impermeability. As suggested by Keller’s notions of the ‘soluble’ and the ‘separative,’ the psychoanalytic self can exist in only one of two opposed states, either entirely merged, or absolutely separate. As such, it casts “experiences of union…and self-other harmony as regressive opposites to differentiation and self-other distinction.” (Benjamin 1988:46-47)

Classical psychoanalysis thus takes for granted that individuation, and according to Benjamin’s Hegelian-inflected reading, the subject’s quest for recognition, cannot be achieved within the mother-child dyad. It assumes that “two subjects alone could never confront each other without merging, one being subordinated and assimilated by the other.” (Benjamin 1995:96) The Oedipus complex is thus posited to “organize[s] the great task of coming to terms with difference,” and to foster the child’s evolving aware-ness of the existence of others, and “an eternal reality that is truly outside of his control.” (1988:140) The supplanting of the child’s narcissistic omnipotence – his transition from dissolute pre-Oedipal pleasure to the hard fact of limitation – is achieved through the imposition of the law of the father, the paternal injunction which breaks the maternal-infant dyad and accomplishes the task of “bringing the child into reality.” (1995:96)

For the male child this break has two critical moments – the repudiation of the maternal feminine, and the transferal of identification to the phallic power of the father, which, Benjamin notes, “represents freedom from dependency on the powerful mother of early infancy.” (Benjamin 1988:95) The paternal injunction, the “oedipal structure of subordination to paternal authority,” (Benjamin 1995:96) is famously – and somewhat cryptically – portrayed by classical analysis as enforced through the threat of castration. This notion becomes more readily comprehensible however, if we follow Benjamin’s suggestion that the phallus represents the achievement of individuation wrought from the threat of archaic maternal dependency. The ‘castration anxiety’ that impels the male child toward the father thus names the psychosocial tension associated with an incomplete incarnation of masculine independence; the penalties the growing boy incurs for failing to cleanse himself sufficiently of ‘sissy stuff.’ The threat of castration is the threat of social emasculation if one does not learn to abide by the imperative of sovereign invulnerability. 

The Oedipus complex is thus organized around the opposition between the “progressive, oedipal father and a regressive, archaic mother,” (Benjamin 1988:146) and accordingly gives birth to two psychic structures. The ‘ego-ideal’ – named by Freud as ‘heir to our narcissism’ – is the remaining “locus of the child’s desire for omnipotence and aspira-tions to perfection,” (148) while the ‘super-ego’ – or ‘heir to the Oedipus complex’ – is tasked with maintaining the subject’s hard-won delineation. As Benjamin observes, the “superego represents the paternal demand for separation, and the ego ideal represents the goal of maternal oneness.” (149) The Oedipal achievement of individuation is, however, precarious. The lure of primary narcissistic union – the total, tensionless fulfillment of the pleasure principle – is thought to exert a continual and “profound psychological force.” (174) For men, Gilmore suggests, the “sensual impulse,” the “vulnerability to sensuality itself” is experienced as inherently “regressive,” suggestive of “going back in time, devolving…returning to a prior, formless, childlike state.” (2001: 140) Such sensuality, inextricably bound to the memory of the mother, is linked to an “inherent vulnerability within the male psyche, a specifically masculine susceptibility” conceived as a “lingering residue of femininity within the man.” (140) And it is for this reason, Gilmore would suggest, that men’s libidinal desires prompt profound “unconscious feelings of discom-fort…on behalf of the superego.” (203) Both “femininity and narcissism,” Benjamin observes, are “twin sirens calling us back to undifferentiated infantile bliss.” (1988:147)

And so the figure of the mother is merged with the figure of the lover. Just as with the object of adult desire, “the opening to the mother,” Irigaray writes, “appears as threats of contagion, contamination, falling into sickness, madness, death.” (Irigaray 1993/1987:15)

If “the father did not intervene to sever this uncomfortably close link” between the male child and “the original matrix,” she continues, “there would be a danger of fusion, death, lethal sleep.” (14) The threat posed by the regressive force of this original identification, makes of the mother – as of the lover – a monster. She is a “devouring mouth,” (16) “dreaded…over-whelming and tantalizing,” (Benjamin 1995:99) a “toothy or engulfing vagina” as “ferocious as the boy’s unsatisfied desire.” (100) As symbol of the “early, primitive gratifications that must be renounced,” (Benjamin 1988:159) she becomes an index of insatiable orality, and the vertiginous, destructive depths to which desire will drag an unsuspecting self. In the Oedipal imaginary the “mouth cavity of the child” becomes, Irigaray writes, “a bottomless pit,” an “unquenchable thirst,” the need to be filled “to the brim.” (1993:15-6) If the fledgling self is to emerge unscathed, both the omnipotent devouring mother, and the child’s insatiable orality, must be rigorously resisted. Given the mother/lover’s tantalizing power, only an “equally omnipotent father appears strong enough to counteract this regressive urge” and safely deliver “the child to the reality principle.” (Benjamin 1988:174)

7. The Culture of Narcissism

This story of the child’s deliverance from the regressive clutches of the mother has been told and retold. (Cf. n.20) While Freud chose the Oedipus myth to illustrate the male child’s psychosexual conflicts, the resolution of the complex is more accurately rendered by the Oresteia’sdepiction of, as Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel observes, the “subordina-tion of the chthonic law of subterranean maternal powers to celestial Olympian law.” (1989:28) The judgment of Athena, absolving Orestes of the murder of his mother, and converting the chthonic furies, and their demand for blood-justice, into the kindly Eumenides, is commonly understood as the founding gesture of civilization – the imposition of juridico-political order on the savage ways of wild women. Athena[19] is, famously, the most masculine of goddesses, born fully formed and armed to the hilt, [20] she burst forth from her father’s head after he had ingested her mother Metis. Her casting vote in favor of Orestes is given, Athena explains, because “[n]o mother gave me birth,” and she is therefore inclined to uphold “the father’s claim / And male supremacy in all things.” (Aeschylus 1956:736-738) Thus, Irigaray notes ruefully, “the murder of the mother is rewarded by letting the son go scot free, by burying the madness of women – and burying women in madness – and by introducing the image of the virgin goddess, born of the Father, obedient to his laws at the expense of the mother.” (1993:13)

The story of Orestes’ acquittal is then both, and at the same time, an account of imagined social transformation, and individual psychogenesis. The trial institutes the principle of communal justice, “the lasting bonds of law” over the individualist “shackles of the primitive vendetta.” (Fagles 1977:22) But this transition – called by Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, “the decisive step of civilization”[21] – is achieved, as we have seen, by explicit maternal repudiation, and a process of juridical accounting which values only the crime against the father, and not the murder of a daughter or a mother. Just as the Oedipal resolution marks the transition from primitive maternal dependence to identification with the father’s sovereign law, the Oresteia can be read also as representing the movement “from a matriarchy to a patriarchy…equivalent to the subordination of material…to spiritual principles.” (Chasseguet-Smirgel 1989/1986:28) Such an interpretation is supported by Freud’s almost parapraxical observation that insight into the pre-Oedipal life of the child “comes to us as a surprise, like the discovery, in another field, of the Minoan-Mycenean civilization behind the civilization of Greece.” (Freud 2001d/1931:226) But this is not just ancient history. “Our society and our culture” are, Irigaray tells us, founded on “the basis of an original matricide,” (1993: 11) a gesture repeated, once and once again, with each encircling of a new sovereign self. “Everything described in the Oresteia,” she warns, “is still taking place.” (12)

Thus we arrive at the confluence between the misogynist’s regressive terrors and the fear – expressed with such brutality by Anders Breivik – that the waning of paternal authority will lead to total cultural collapse.[22] The most influential modern recounting of this narrative was that given by Christopher Lasch in his bestselling The Culture of Narcissism (1979), widely credited with popularizing the then abstruse psychoanalytic term. Lasch’s account of cultural degeneration was considerably more complicated[23] than those still served up by politicians, MRAs and tabloid journalists (Cf. n.23), but it retained the hallmarks of the form. Lasch’s narcissist is “[a]cquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits.” He “does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future” but rather “demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” (Lasch 1979:xvi) His cultural landscape is marked by “the proliferation of images,” “therapeutic ideologies,” “the cult of consumption” (32) and “the fascination with fame and celebrity.” (176) Unlike the “rugged individualist” (10) of yesteryear, who “had in himself the principle of self-government,” (131) the fragile, insatiable narcissist is other-directed and concerned only with “an admiring audience.” (10) And while the self-directed individual regards the world as “an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design,” the narcissist’s “world is a mirror.” (10) Lasch may have deployed a reworked account of the development of moral restraint (Cf. n.24), but the cause of this limitless voraciousness nonetheless remained changes in family structure and the diminished role of the father in “the conscious life of the child.” (176) In The Minimal Self, published five years after his popular polemic, Lasch underlined that the significance of “the emotional absence of the father” lay in “the removal of an important obstacle to the child’s illusion of omnipotence.” (Lasch 1984:192)

While The Culture of Narcissism steered clear of any overt discussion of gender, its argument invokes, as Jessica Benjamin notes, a “debate over Oedipus and Narcissus” that “has an implicit sexual politics.” (1988:156) For Stephanie Engels, writing in The Socialist Review in 1980, Lasch’s analysis, like Breivik’s thirty years later, reflected a fear of individual and cultural ‘feminization.’ (Cf. Benjamin 1988: 156) Indeed, there is a marked resonance between Lasch’s critique of mass consumption driven by “unsatisfied oral cravings,” (33) and the misogynist’s fear of a cultural collapse precipitated by women’s sexual wantonness,[24] or the specious suggestion that, as Pozdnyshev claims, “all the trade in the luxuries of life is called into existence and sustained…in order to satisfy the whim of woman.” (Tolstoy 1993:84) It is indicative of the paternal schema of Lasch’s thought that he considers insatiable orality – the residue of unrestrained pre-Oedipal narcissism – to be a defining feature of a narcissistic culture, despite the fact that it features nowhere in diagnostic criteria of narcissistic personality disorder, and analytic accounts, as we will explore shortly, are, as Elizabeth Lunbeck suggests, concerned rather with the “narcissist’s many refusals in the name of self-sufficiency.” (Lunbeck 2014:15) That is, she continues, “Lasch’s imperial self of yesteryear was…a clinical description of the analyst’s narcissist,” the “so-called autonomous self of Western culture…that celebrates renunciation, independence, and sovereign self-mastery.” (36)

Lasch was, however, implacably resistant to the gendered reading of his analysis. By the time of The Minimal Self he had apparently concluded that the “desire for complete self-sufficiency” was “just as much a legacy of primary narcissism as the desire for mutuality and relatedness,” (1984:245) and that both equally expressed the urge to “to revive the original illusion of omnipotence and deny our dependence on external sources of nourishment and gratification.” (246) He was adamant, however, that there could be no suggestion that “the qualities associated respectively with the ego ideal and the superego are assigned a gender so that feminine ‘mutuality’ and ‘relatedness’ can be played off against the ‘radically autonomous’ masculine sense of self.” (1984: 245) “[A]ll of us, men and women alike” he argued “experience the pain of separation and simultaneously long for the restoration of the original sense of union,” and it is impossible to identify “the desire to return to this blissful state” with “ ‘feminine mutuality’” without obscuring both its universality and the illusions of ‘radical autonomy’ to which it also gives rise, in women as well as men.” (246) The feminist critique was, he suggested, simply the dialectical reversal of the “technological project of achieving independence from nature” which “embodies the solipsistic side of narcissism.” (246) This “party of Narcissus,” (255) as he called it, “permeates not only the women’s movement but the environmental movement and the peace movement as well,” celebrating “a narcissistic symbiosis with nature as a cure for technological solipsism,” (248) and demanding the “‘resurrection of the body’” and of “‘feminine’ intuition and feeling against the instrumental reason of the male.” (258)[25]

Lasch may well be commended for belatedly recognizing self-sufficiency as an equal manifestation of narcissism, and his diagnosis of the yearning for ‘a narcissistic symbiosis with nature’ in elements of the environmental and women’s movement is not without merit. His critique, however, founders on the facile equation of narcissistic symbiosis with ‘relatedness’ or ‘mutuality,’ both of which require the apprehension of separate subjectivities between whom relation is enacted.  Positing the feminist critique as a simple dialectical reversal of the masculine ideal of sovereign autonomy fails utterly to appreciate the extent to which feminist accounts of cultural narcissism conceive both the vision of primary narcissism, and its dialectical negation in illusions of self-sufficiency, to be products of the patriarchal metaphysics of the Same, a logic of impermeability which, as we have encountered, understands relation only according to the couplet ‘soluble’/‘absolute.’ The assertion of the need to interrogate sovereign self-sufficiency in order to allow for mutual recognition, genuine intersubjectivity, and a culture of difference rather than domination, is not a prescription of narcissistic dissolution, of mystical union or wanton gratification. It is a demand that difference be thought otherwise, and it requires what Lasch could not appreciate – an understanding that the dreaded and desired imaginary of pre-Oedipal, oceanic annihilation, may be itself a symptom of the fortifications we erect against it.

[1] The ‘manosphere’ is a portmanteau word that designates that section of the blogosphere dedicated to Men’s Rights Activism (MRA) and its associated movements (e.g. MGTOW – Men Going Their Own Way and PUAs – Pick-Up Artists). The most prominent MRA blog is ‘A Voice For Men’ http://www.avoiceformen.com/ founded by Paul Elam, a man who also styles himself as ‘The Happy Misogynist’ https://www.youtube.com/user/TheHappyMisogynist. The best resource available for exploring the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) on the internet is undoubtedly that provided by David Futrelle at his blog ‘We Hunted the Mammoth’ (previously Manboobz), which has been documenting the misogyny of the burgeoning manosphere since 2010 http://wehuntedthemammoth.com/

[2] ‘Observations on How Women Dress’ at CoAlpha Reactionary Forum (Drealm 2010)

[3] “Millions of people, generations of slaves, perish in the penal servitude of the factories merely in order to satisfy the whim of woman. Women, like empresses, condemn to imprisonment and hard labor nine tenths of mankind.” (Tolstoy 1993:84) This idea of the global consequences of women’s insatiability and power over men has been given a new twist by the MRMs coining of ‘Gynocentrism Theory.’ Women “already hold the power – sexual power – and so have no need to engage in things like feminism. They already have everything feminism could offer them, that is, control over men….Gynocentrism Theory teaches us that even when those individuals in powerful roles are mostly men, they are doing the bidding of women, not of men en masse; thus the lie is given to Patriarchy Theory.” (Cited Futrelle 2010a)

[4] While less common than figurative iterations, belief in the invasive power of female substances is still sometimes literally rendered in modern MRA discourse. A 2015 post by David Futrelle recounts a recent video in which one ‘activist’ informs his audience that the “vagina produces a thick fluid known as copulin that has actual mind control effects on a male’s brain,” and enables her to “change, remove, or insert memories in a man’s mind,” “[t]ell the male what he sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes,” and “[i]nsert subconscious thoughts that will surface as “his own ideas” or behavior later.” The “female genitals squirt fluid into the male member and that’s…how the copulins get inside of you.” This, we are assured, “isn’t a conspiracy theory…when I…heard about this it reminded me of the original film invasion of the body snatchers.” (Futrelle 2015b)

[5] Cf. Michael Soloman (1997) The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

[6] “Woman has transformed herself into an object of pleasure of such terrible effect that a man can not calmly approach her. No sooner does a man draw near a woman that he falls under the power of her spell, and his senses are forthwith paralyzed.” (Tolstoy 1993:84)

[7] “[W]omen have cornered the market on sexual intercourse, and are able to dictate the price and the accompanying politics much as OPEC might set the terms for oil…Understand, that the higher valuation of female sexuality translates into both female power and loss of male power. Since female supremacy is feminism’s driving ambition, it makes sense that the women’s movement has undertaken to siphon power away from men using every siphon hose imaginable….Men should cease to value female sexuality beyond a certain fixed rate. Once the cost exceeds this rate, the value should fall to zero—leaving the purveyors in their deserted market stall.” (Cited Futrelle 2011)

[8] In The Wound and the Witness, Jennifer R Ballengee discusses the treatment of the myth of the rape of Europa in the Hellenistic novel The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon. The novel opens with a scene in which an unnamed narrator contemplates a painting of Europa riding on the back of the bull that depicts – as do many later portrayals – the bull being led by Eros. This scene establishes, Ballengee notes, “a pre-cedent of aesthetic enjoyment of the visual synthesis of beauty and violence that…echoes through the narrative.” (2009:75-6) The rest of the novel recounts the protagonist Kleitophon’s trials in love, beginning with his first meeting with Leukippe, whose face “flashed on my eyes like lightening.” (1.1.3; Cited 76) Kleitophon tells the narrator, “As soon as I had seen her, I was lost. For beauty’s wound is sharper than any weapon’s and it runs through the eyes and down to the soul. It is through the eye that the wound of eros passes.” (1.4.4-5; Cited 76) As Ballengee notes, Kleitophon’s description of his first encounter with Leu-kippe “draws an unmistakable reference to the appearance of Europa…in the previously described pain-ting” and enacts the “motif of eros as physically wounding” (76), and “the painful experience of the pen-etration of the body by eros,” (77) which “occurs with overwhelming frequency in the Greek novels.” (76)

[9] ‘Peremptory’ denotes ‘admitting no refusal, or further questions or debates’ and was introduced into English and French from Roman jurisprudence, as in the example ‘perēmptōrium ēdictum.’ It is thus, an adjective of absolute imperative, deriving from the Latin ‘perimere,’ meaning to ‘kill,’ ‘destroy,’ or ‘annihilate.’ With respect to the relation between male sexual entitlement and the widely perceived ‘right’ of men to purchase, possess, or own the bodies of women, it is worth noting that ‘perimere’ is formed of the prefix ‘per-’ (meaning ‘through,’ ‘entirely,’ or ‘thoroughly’) and the suffix ‘-emere’  (‘to buy’ or ‘to purchase’), hence, ‘to purchase entirely’ or ‘non-negotiably.’

[10] Given the chiasmatic intertwining of the material and ideal, I would want to underline that my argument here is not predicated on an unequivocal rejection of the assertion that men’s sex drive differs in significant respects from women’s. This may well be the case, and there are certainly hormonal reasons to suppose that it is. That said, following a chiasmatic reading, just as a critique of ‘male sexual drive discourse’ does not necessarily indicate a belief in the pure construction of sexual drives, it also does not indicate a belief that cultural norms play no significant role in the expression of those drives, particularly with respect to the way notions of the ‘peremptory’ nature of those drives legitimates their ‘peremptory’ expression. Given the vast apparatus of gendered norms about the differing nature of male and female sexual drives and behavior, and the fact that we have no data about the expression of those drives absent those norms, all categorical claims about their ‘naturalness’ or otherwise should be regarded with skepticism.

[11] “Shotland and Hunter (1995) reported that among the 40% of college women in their sample who had at least once consented to unwanted sex, the most common reasons for this behavior included: ‘I didn’t want to disappoint him,’ (67%) ‘I didn’t want to seem like I had been leading him on,’(56%) ‘He was aroused and I didn’t want to stop him,’ (56%) ‘I didn’t want to destroy the mood,’ (50%) and ‘I was afraid he’d stop going out with me.’ (21%)” (Gilbert, et al.1999: 757) Nicole Gavey also discusses two interviews she conducted during the course of a study on women and condom use which demonstrates, she notes, how “even an embodiment of male sex drive discourse that is not perceived to be coercive can act out levels of sexual urgency that provide a momentum that is difficult for a woman to stop.” (2008:119) In both instances female subjects recounted instances in which they were required to physically push their partners off them in order to ensure they used protection. As Gavey notes, these two encounters are evidence of the way in which male sexual drive discourse “places the sexual needs of men as paramount” and the extent to which women’s resistance must contend with the knowledge that “it would not be right or fair for a woman to stop sex before male orgasm.” (121)

[12] In his analysis of the central tenets of what he calls ‘The Guy Code’ Michael Kimmel notes that the development of an acceptable masculinity requires boys “suppress all the feelings they associate with the maternal – compassion, nurturance, vulnerability, dependency.” (Kimmel 2008:52)

[13] These two facets of cultural masculinity are organized around the binary of softness/ permeability vs. hardness/impermeability and hence represent the two aspects of an ontology of sovereign integrity, viz., the feminine as that which needs the external/allows the outside in, and the masculine as that which does not.

[14] “The original sense of oneness was seen as absolute, as ‘limitless narcissism.’” (Benjamin 1988:47)

[15] “A child of either gender is born originally with what is called a “narcissistic relation to reality”: cognitively and libidinally it experiences itself as merged and continuous with the world in general, and with its mother or caretaker in particular.” (Chodorow 1989:102)

[16] It is notable that The Fall – the development of self-awareness, figured paradigmatically as the emergence of sexual shame – is said to result from eating the fruit of ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ (Genesis 2:17) That is, the Bible clearly links self-awareness, and the emergence of need, with the cognizance of difference, although that difference is always already understood as a hierarchical polarity.

[17] The extent to which the Oedipal paternal injunction corresponds to a process of forcibly extracting the male child from a place of dark, regressive, security is clearly reminiscent of the way Plato’s prisoner is dragged from the ‘womb’ of the cave in the course of the philosopher’s education and ascent towards ideality.

[18] Psychoanalysis defines “differentiation not as a tension or balance, not in terms of mutual recognition, but solely as the achievement of separation: as long as the boy gets away from the mother, he has successfully become as individual.” (Benjamin 1988: 165-6) “Separation takes precedence over connection, and constructing boundaries becomes more important than insuring attachment.” (170)

[19] Athena’s legend is intertwined with that of Medusa, whose severed head was embossed upon her shield. According to tradition, it was Athena who turned Medusa into a Gorgon as punishment for her rape by Poseidon, and it was Athena who gave Perseus the polished specular shield which deflected/reflected Medusa’s petrifying gaze and enabled him to remove her head. Perseus murder of Medua is an archetypal instance of the young male warrior’s victory over the monstrous feminine, as found also, for example, in the Babylonian creation myth’s depiction of Marduk’s.defeat of the sea-serpent, and primal ocean goddess, Tiamat. Perseus, and Athena with whom he is linked, thus represent the ascendance of paternal law over the forces of chthonic feminine chaos, and, following Freud’s famous footnote, the threat of emasculating castration – or pre-Oedipal disintegration – represented by devouring Gorgon femininity.

[20] Like the ‘virgin goddess’ Athena, the power of Joan, Maid of Orleans, is also linked to her repudiation of the feminine, signified by her virginity, and her martial costume. For Dwokin, the armor, which “closed off” Joan’s body and rendered her sexually “inaccessible” (2007:126) was the basis of her “autonomy” and “intransigent self-definition.” (105) An impenetrable shell which asserted “that which was fundamental but had not yet been claimed by any woman… the right to physical privacy…essential to personal freedom and self-determination.” (128) Notably, the sovereignty enacted by Joan’s armored body is linked to Joan’s status as “the first French nationalist, a military liberator of an occupied country that did not yet see itself as she…militantly saw it – as a…unity that must repel foreign domination.” (103; my emphasis)

[21] “Human life in common is only made possible when a majority comes together which is stronger than the individual” in order to “set up as ‘right’ in opposition to the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force.’ This replacement of the power of the individual with the power of the community represents the decisive step of civilization.” (Freud 2001c: 95)

[22] Following a week of acquisitive rioting in England in 2011, I wrote a reflection on the way this purported case of moral collapse was linked by the Prime Minister and cultural commentators with the breakdown of the nuclear family and, in particular, the absence of father-figures. This argument – which views fatherlessness as the responsibility of excessively emancipated women and a usurping ‘nanny-state’ – is predicated on the Oedipal assumption that only men, and the law they impose, are capable of taming wanton human desire and instilling morality. (Jones 2011b) One of the commentators outlining this position was Melanie Phillips, who wrote in The Daily Mail that, “the single most crucial factor behind all this mayhem is the willed removal of the most important thing that socialises children and turns them from feral savages into civilised citizens: a father who is a fully committed member of the family unit.” Notably, Phillips was quoted by Breivik in A European Declaration of Independence, both on the subject of the state’s ‘culturally suicidal’ support for single mothers (Breivik 2011:368) and on immigration. Breivik in fact reproduced an entire article by Phillips on Labour’s immigration policy that claimed that the then government had “been engaged upon a deliberate and secret policy of national cultural sabotage.” (Breivik 2011:375-377; Phillips 2009)

[23] Lasch’s version of the cultural damage wrought by inadequate paternal authority (in his version a consequence of industrialization and the farming out of family functions to various institutions of the state), does not reside simply in the father’s failure to impose paternal law.  The crisis is due, not so much to a simple “‘decline of the superego’ as to an alteration of its contents.” (1979:178) Lasch contests Freud’s claim that the superego is ‘heir to the Oedipus complex’ and it “cannot be understood to serve as the representative of established morality” as “those who see psychoanalysis as the last bastion of patriarchal morality” assume. The superego is rather an archaic vestige of the “unconscious rage of infancy” which was “directed initially against his parents…reinternalized as…domineering images of authority, and finally redirected in this form against the ego.” (1984:175) The role of the real father is, therefore, to mitigate the formation of a unduly punitive superego, and his absence “allows early fantasies of the father to dominate subsequent development.” (1979:175) That is, the “‘decline of the superego’ in a permissive society is better understood as the creation of a new kind of superego in which archaic elements predominate.” (179) As Jessica Benjamin notes this schema is still dependent on the “assumption that the [pre-Oedipal] narcissistic or infantile components of the psyche are the more destructive ones” and that “psychological development is a progress away from badness” dependent on “paternal authority.” (1988:138-9)

[24] “Feminism has only concealed the nature of women. It is traditionalism that addresses the nature of women correctly, as deviant sexual beings that have an insatiable sex appetite and will manipulate everyone around them given the chance. Why do you think traditional values always restrict sex? Because it is a basic requirement of civilization and patriarchy. It allows for the advancement of civilization, so that everyone isn’t stuck in a hedonistic orgy (sexual or other pleasures).” (Futrelle 2015c)

[25] In a chapter tellingly entitled ‘The Ideological Assault on the Ego,’ Lasch dedicates a full five-pages of his rebuttal of the feminist critique of The Culture of Narcissism to documenting the “shopworn slogans and platitudes” advanced by those who “blindly follow feminists in conceiving ‘feminine’ virtues as the remedy for environmental destruction, imperialism, and war.” (248) In what, according to the logic of restrained masculine locution, could be described as an almost hysterical display, he piles example after example after example. William Irwin Thompson indicts the phallic culture of industrialism that “climaxes in the technological rape of Vietnam,” (248) and Marilyn Ferguson recommends a “new sensibility” that “rests on the limits of rational thought.” (250) Mary Daly turns up to castigate “male demonic destructive-ness” (249) and even Valerie Solanas puts in an appearance, with her, Lasch claims, “reductive interpreta-tion of war” (249) as something to do with males “obsession to compensate for not being female” (249) and “inability to relate and to feel compassion.” (250) “The predicable quality of such arguments,” Lasch writes “shows how deeply psychopolitical clichés, thanks to feminism, psychiatry, and the culture of psychic self-help, have penetrated popular thinking.” (248)

Sex-based vs Gender-based Oppression: A Fisk of Dembroff

A couple of weekends ago I got into it on Twitter with the Feminist Next Door, over a bunch of things, including her claim that women are subject to ‘gender-based’ rather than ‘sex-based’ oppression. As I said at the time, this makes no earthly sense to me, and I responded with a thread about how patriarchy functions by treating women as a resource, which also – plug – happens to the theme of the forthcoming issue of The Radical Notion. Handily, at the end of last week, this video appeared in my mentions… a presentation by the AFAB non-binary Yale philosopher Robin Dembroff, purporting to explain why patriarchy has nothing to do with male dominance and female subordination and why we should all understand it as a system of ‘gender-based oppression’ (which if Dembroff’s illustrations are anything to go by, is really the mostest oppressive to gender non-conforming men). You will no doubt be surprised when I say this still makes no earthly sense to me, but Dembroff’s presentation serves as a useful example of what people are thinking when they assert that patriarchy is a ‘gender-based’ rather that a ‘sex-based’ system, and it’s therefore worth unpicking.

So Dembroff presentation is called ‘Putting Real Men on Top,’ and is an outline sketch of their book, Real Men on Top: The Relation of Patriarchy, forthcoming from OUP. It concerns, as Dembroff says, “the metaphysics of patriarchy,’ and specifically the effort to demonstrate that patriarchy is not a sex-based system, and that, as Dembroff asserts at the start, “No one is oppressed because they are a woman.” (Dembroff admits this is a surprising claim for the beginning of a feminist philosophy talk (well Robin, in-fucking-deed)). The second ‘surprising’ claim Dembroff kicks off with is ‘No one is oppressed because they are a man, but many people we take to be men experience gender oppression.’ It is exemplary of this entire talk that right from the off, the ‘gender oppression’ experienced by males (sorry ‘people we take to be men’) is foregrounded, and the effects of patriarchy on female people completely fucking ignored. (Heaven forfend feminists concern themselves with the oppression of female people!)

According to Dembroff, people have a “knee-jerk reaction” (1.23 min) to these claims because they have “implicitly absorbed” what Dembroff calls ‘the binary model of patriarchy.’ Note, we must have ‘implicitly absorbed it,’ it is an unreflective, probably primitive, reflex, because it couldn’t possibly be that we have thought long and hard about it and come to the conclusion that no, we’re pretty sure patriarchy is sex-based. (This is basically just an academic iteration of ‘educate yourself’).

Dembroff defines the binary model of patriarchy as “a system of gender oppression, in which men are privileged because they are men, and women are oppressed because they are women.” Problems arise immediately here because even while trying to critique the radical feminist model, Dembroff can only represent it in their own wokeist terms, that is, that patriarchy is a model of ‘gender oppression’ rather than ‘sex-based oppression,’ and is best understood in terms of ‘privilege’ – a word which individualises structural class-based phenomenon, and then allows you to say things like ‘look this man isn’t ‘privileged’ because he’s gender non-conforming, therefore patriarchy isn’t about male dominance.’ (Handy that). No radical feminist would define patriarchy in these terms, rather, our definition would go something like, ‘a system of male dominance and female subordination which functions through structural sex class relations and is inculcated, enforced and maintained by gender socialisation, policing and hierarchy.’ As we keep saying, ad nauseum, gender is the mechanism of enforcement of sex-class relations, and if you don’t relate gender to its role in maintaining sex-class relations, it’s just some random free-floating discursive widget that exists for no apparent reason, as Robin is about to helpfully demonstrate.

So, Robin wants to keep the idea of patriarchy as ‘gender oppression,’ (THAT WASN’T THE ORIGINAL IDEA WAS IT ROBIN???) but get rid of the thought that it ‘privileges’ men and oppresses women. In so doing they will provide an excellent illustration of how changing the definition of patriarchy from ‘sex-based’ to ‘gender-based’ is really useful for outright denying the structural subordination of female people as a class.

The overall aim of the talk is to explain how patriarchy works if it is not explicable in terms of “facts about who are men and women.” As if anyone who’s spent more than five minutes considering women’s oppression thinks ‘facts about who are men and women’ are sufficient to explain the existence of patriarchy anyway. Dembroff stunningly illuminating answer is that patriarchy, that is, ‘a system of gender oppression, is explained by facts about how we stand in relation to ideals of manhood and womanhood.’ Ideals of manhood and womanhood are artefacts of gender, so Dembroff’s argument here is basically that ‘gender oppression is explained by gender.’ Which is tautological and hence, not an explanation of anything. That someone with a job in the philosophy department at Yale can present this screaming ‘tautology-identifying-as-an-explanation’ to a bunch of professional philosophers in a professional philosophy webinar and not be laughed out of town is, in and of itself, a pretty compelling example of how far academic philosophy has departed from its disciplinary norms on the trans issue. Anyway, given no one stood up and pressed the big red tautology button, I guess we’d better carry on.

Notably, at this point, Dembroff’s trans ideological commitment to conflating sex and gender, and presenting both as cultural artefacts, comes clearly into focus. ‘Ideals of manhood and womanhood’ includes, not only norms about masculinity and femininity, but also, norms about what makes a male body male or a female body female. There will be further more florid recitation of the sex denialist theses later, of course. Inevitably, at no point will Dembroff admit that they’re conflating sex and gender, and that the whole effort to subsume sex-class analysis by gender depends on it.

According to Dembroff then, patriarchy is a system of gender oppression that enforces ideals of manhood and womanhood. By radical feminist lights, this is half right, in that of course we agree that patriarchy functions by enforcing gender norms (as opposed to thinking patriarchy simply is this system of norms). Note, however, that as we saw above, Dembroff has smuggled ‘thinking humans are sexed’ into the definition of ‘gender ideals’ here, and ta-dah, women who think oppression is sex-based can therefore be dismissed as evil right wing patriarchal bigots. Cool. By this reasoning, the people who benefit from patriarchy are not all men, but only men who conform to patriarchal ideals of manhood, what we’d call, ‘patriarchal men.’ And this is true, if you think that the only benefits and harms of the system relate to the policing of gender. That we’re actually dealing with a structural system of material resource extraction has already been completely elided. As then has the fact that gender non-conforming males, who may well be discriminated against, largely by other males, still benefit from the reproductive, domestic and emotional labour of females. (The issue of gay men’s exploitation of female surrogates would be axiomatic here for example).

So, that’s the introduction, already a conceptual car crash. If the tautology, conflation and general sniffiness about giving a shit about women wasn’t enough to put you off already, strap in, there’s plenty more where that came from.

The rest is divided into three, slowly unfolding and more detailed car crashes, as follows:

1. Against the Binary Model

So, this is what Dembroff claims is the traditional ‘binary’ definition of patriarchy as a system of ‘male supremacy’ used by feminists, which doesn’t actually represent anything like the feminist account of why male dominance exists, and reduces it all to the flat-headed also-tautological thought that male dominance just is a system of male dominance.

There are two problems for the binary model according to Dembroff.

As suggested above, the second feature here is just wrong. Facts about the existence of men and women don’t explain patriarchy. That would be biological determinism. Which is what Dembroff thinks we believe, because Dembroff is either a) dumb or b) strategically disingenuous. The first feature, that we think gendered power relations act on already existing sexed humans is true. Dembroff, as we also saw above, will dismiss that, because ‘sex-is-a-spectrum-Judith-Butler-is-the-oracle’ etc.

The first problem with this model for Dembroff is it “reduces gender oppression to women’s oppression.” (OH NO! CAN’T HAVE THAT!) Sarcasm aside, this is not an accurate representation of our understanding of how patriarchy works, but it’s a distortion again created by Dembroff conflation of sex-based oppression with gender-oppression. Dembroff seems intent on wilfully ignoring that the analysis of how gender functions was in fact developed by radical feminists, and we have long been cognisant of the fact that patriarchal masculinity is harmful to men as individuals, and that heteronormativity – which is a gendered bolt-on to the system of sex-based oppression – is harmful to gay men and lesbians (Adrienne Rich came up with the concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality‘ LONG before Butler showed up.) However, the sex-based oppression of women is not reducible to gender oppression. The easiest way to conceptualise this is in relation to the double bind. The concept of the double-bind was notably outlined by Marilyn Frye in her essay ‘Oppression,’ which Dembroff references a couple of times in this talk. Frye focuses there mostly on classic double binds, such as those around the madonna/whore dichotomy, which present women with to two choices, neither of which are good.

I think it is important however to extend the notion of the double bind to make it clear that all patriarchal norms create double-binds for women, and indeed, for all people who are oppressed by hierarchical mechanisms. The structure of patriarchal gender as experienced by women is such that women are disadvantaged whether or not they conform to, or rebel against, gendered norms. This is because the function of patriarchal gender is to socialise women into performing the role of a reproductive resource, and service class, for males. If women correctly perform patriarchal femininity, therefore, they are undermining their humanity, and placing themselves in a position of exploitation. And this is true, even while they are not subject to any kind of social sanction for their gender. That is, sex-based oppression is distinct from gender-based discrimination, if gender-based is understood to be ‘disadvantage accrued because of how you do gender.’ Males can be subject to gender-based discrimination, but not to sex-based oppression. And males who perform patriarchal masculinity correctly benefit from it, whereas females who perform patriarchal femininity correctly get screwed by it (that’s the point), and also get screwed if they rebel against it (which would be gender-based discrimination). What is therefore completely occluded by subsuming ‘sex-based oppression’ under ‘gender oppression’ is the fundamental structure by which gender functions to extract resources from female people as a class. Well done Robin, have a book deal.

Dembroff will allegedly demonstrate that patriarchy can’t be a system which privileges men as a class by using examples of places where individual men from racialised or sexual minorities are disadvantaged. They then assert that we can’t account for this, and further, that we would deny that is has anything to do with the gender (SEX!) of the individuals, because apparently if you believe in sex-class analysis you have to believe all individual men are privileged and have to be a reductive idiot who can’t understand the nuances of how gender works (which Dembroff genuinely seems to think they are the first person to grasp.) Of course, males who do not perfectly perform white patriarchal masculinity will be penalised by gender-policing, that’s the foundational mechanism through which male dominance is inculcated and enforced. However, this only undermines sex-class analysis if you individualise it, obdurately refuse to grasp how gender functions to structure sex-class relations, and pretend you can’t understand how gender-based hierarchies are intertwined with both racialised and socio-economic hierarchies.

Indeed, Dembroff will use ‘the problem of intersectionality’ in order to somehow prove patriarchy can’t be a system of sex-based oppression, focusing on three legal cases where claims were made under Title VII protections against ‘gender discrimination.’ What the examples prove, I would suggest, is not that sex-based oppression doesn’t exist, but that a) it needs to account for how that is modulated by race and b) that discrimination on the basis of gender non-conformity should be a separate class of legal phenomena which shouldn’t be crowbarred into ‘sex-based’ discrimination. Dembroff however, having reduced ‘the binary model’ to a straw-woman account which apparently can’t explain discrimination against GNC people as an auxiliary effect of sex-based oppression, will claim that these examples show us why sex-based oppression isn’t a thing, and, moreover, thinking about sex-based oppression is bad and wrong because it “reduces gender oppression to a homogenous notion of women’s oppression.” No Robin, no. The oppression of women as a class is not identical to ‘gender policing.’ It cannot be, because women are still exploited and subjugated as members of a sex-class even when they are subject to no gender based discrimination at all, even while they are fulsomely praised for being an ideal home-maker, a good little girl, or for styling themselves for the male gaze. It is you, by collapsing the notion of sex-based oppression into gender-based discrimination, who have produced this reduction, and doggedly attributed it to us, in wilful denial of the fact that it was us who produced this analysis already.

Dembroff maintains that the ‘usefulness’ of the ‘binary model’ is very limited (all that unuseful focusing on women when you should have been paying attention to the damage done to people who really matter eh Robin?). It’s not useful, they claim, because it doesn’t provide a “unified understanding of gender oppression,” which apparently, was what the concept of patriarchy was supposed to provide. Again Robin, no. The concept of patriarchy was developed, by women, to explain the social subordination of women. It was not supposed to provide a ‘unified theory of how patriarchy really hurts men the most,’ although the concept of gender as the mechanism of sex-based oppression, does, in fact, explain why males who do not successfully perform patriarchal dominance are disadvantaged by that, relative to other males. So what is your point, exactly, other than, ‘we need to stop paying any attention whatsoever to the sex-based exploitation of women’??? [Enter Sally Haslanger stage right, still furiously falling over herself to make up for that time she once ‘problematically’ claimed that people who are perceived as female were subject to oppression on that basis. Don’t worry Sally, just a few more years rowing back on any commitment to the exploitation of your sex-class and you’ll be forgiven!!]

2. What Explains Gender Oppression?

The binary model apparently tries to explain gender oppression by ‘facts about women and men,’ which Dembroff thinks they’ve just dealt with. So, now we’re now going to try plugging a bunch of other things into the tautology ‘gender oppression is caused by gender’ and see what happens. Fun!

The first of these, roughly, gender identity, can’t explain gendered oppression because it is itself produced in relation to that oppression. True. That’s why you shouldn’t try to define people by it in law right? The second thing, social roles of subordination and dominance, also doesn’t explain it for the same reason. Quite. (Hmmm, maybe gender doesn’t explain gendered oppression after all). Dembroff will then change tack and interpret gender to mean sex, and explain that that doesn’t work, because if you take sex to be the sole cause of patriarchy, you are committing biological determinism. This is true, if you think that the body being central to the explanation of patriarchy commits you to thinking biology must therefore be the sole determinant of the existence of patriarchy. As Dembroff says, if you “think there is nothing social that bridges the gap between the body and social hierarchy” (24.08), then you’re Stephen Pinker or something. The fact that feminists who believe in sex-based oppression have been arguing with Stephen Pinker since long before I was a baby radfem seems not to concern Dembroff.

It is completely stupid to insist that anyone who thinks the body is central to the oppression of women must think the body is the only variable in the story and is therefore a biological determinist. But this kind of move, as I discuss in more detail in the intro to the Spring issue of The Radical Notion, has long been used by those who want to erase the analysis of patriarchy as a system of sex-based resource extraction, and replace it with free-floating gender wibble-wobble. A system of resource extraction depends on both the properties of the ‘raw material’ which mean that it fulfils a certain set of human needs, and a historical and social system which developed in order to facilitate the appropriation of that material. Dembroff may as well argue here that because the international oil trade does not arise by mechanical necessity from the existence of oil that the material properties of oil have nothing to do with the oil trade. Like I said, completely fucking stupid. Still, this kind of argument is apparently allowed to fly. And I’m sure that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that erasing the recognition of sex-based resource extraction serves the interests of males very nicely thank you very much.

The fourth plug-in will be ‘sex based features plus their social meanings.’ This won’t work, Dembroff thinks, because apparently, the features which make a body male or female are just totally random ever morphing cultural phenomenon that have absolutely nothing to do with human’s reproductive potential… *lapses into rote sex denial*…”something something many (um 99.8% in fact) bodies have clusters of features which mean they can be classified as male or female, something something, ‘exhaustive binary’ (no, edge cases are normal in all classification) something something ‘relation of body to cultural ideas’ (yes, human concepts involve the relation between things in the world and our classification systems, that doesn’t mean classification is just some piece of arbitrary cultural wibble) something something normative, (OMGHARD NOT NORMATIVE, THAT IS THE WORST AND MOST EVIL OF ALL THE SINS, I mean, seriously, who gives a fuck if female people’s bodies are exploited and abused day in and day out as long as we DON’T SAY ANYTHING NORMATIVE.)” Robin is then going to list all the people harmed by these pernicious normative ideals, which will of course conflate normative ideals of sex with normative ideals of gender, starting with intersex people, running through trans, gay and indigenous people, and ending with ‘”even hilariously, Suffragettes.” (28.30) I’m not quite sure what’s hilarious about force-feeding women for the gender non-complying temerity of demanding the vote. Maybe it’s funny because us evil green-purple-and-white types allegedly don’t believe in gender oppression but “Ha! Look! You experience it too” (*slow blink*). Or maybe it’s just hilarious because Robin hates women. Really, who can say.

Anyway, so, to recap, gender oppression can’t be ‘explained’ by gender identity, by people filling certain social roles, by sex, or by sex plus its social meanings. So what, tell us, Robin, explains gender oppression.

The explanation is that gender oppression is explained by a ‘two place relation’ between individuals and gender ideals. Note again the collapsing of male/masculinity and female/femininity into ‘ideals of manhood an womanhood.’ This two place relation ‘binds and polices’ individuals according to gender ideals – it’s normative gender policing basically. So, the stunning new model of patriarchy for which we should happily abandon our account of sex-based resource appropriation is…. ‘gender oppression (which is being devalued or treated badly because you don’t conform to normative gender ideals) is caused by gender policing (which is being subjected to normative gender ideals.’ Great, glad we got that all sorted.

This apparently ‘helps’ because gender ideals are inflected by ‘racism, nationalism, homophobia and abelism’ (not sexism, naturally), and it therefore allows us to understand how different intersectional groups are differently impacted by gender policing. U-huh. You don’t need to abolish sex-based class analysis to do that Robin. You just have to understand how gender works differentially at the intersection of different hierarchies.

Anyway, Robin is now going to talk a lot about how individuals stand in relation to gender ideals, without actually dealing with the fact that gender ideals are applied to people on the basis of their sex, and it’s not possible to make sense of how gay men, or Black men, are judged in relation to ideals of gender without it being the case that people can recognise them as males to begin with. But hey, mere details. Robin is also not going to even remotely attempt to explain where these ideals come from, what their functions is, how they arose, or how they serve any system of material interests. They’re just there. Gender oppression exists because there are gender ideals, and those are historical and shit, and they change, and they don’t serve any particular ends (other than hurting some men probably), and they are applied to people, on some basis, which has definitely not got anything to do with their sex. Right-o. Really clarifying, thanks for all those diagrams and arrows Robin. Made a massive theoretical contribution there.

3. Patriarchy is a Dynamic System of Real Men’s Dominance

“With that in our back pocket” Robin says at this point. With what in your back-pocket Robin??? The claim that gender oppression is caused by gendered ideals? BRILLIANT. Now we get a load of true but not remotely groundbreaking stuff about how patriarchy benefits men who perform patriarchal masculinity. (Sorry, silly me, not men, there is no such thing as men, only “people who are bound and policed by ideals of manhood” for evidently completely arbitrary reasons.) What this benefit actually consists of Robin never says. Given the manifest circularity we’ve been subject to so far, they probably think that ‘the benefit of performing patriarchal dominance is that you are dominant’ is a novel or explanatory insight. Indeed, Dembroff notes, people who do not perform patriarchal masculinity correctly are disadvantaged, and that disadvantage seems to inhere in the ‘way they are valued.’ (At this point Robin is even forced to note that women who perform patriarchal femininity correctly are ‘valued less’ than men… yes Robin, why might that be??? What does that tell you about how well the idea of gender oppression captures the experience of female people who are still treated like shit even when they play right by all the gender norms????)

As you might be able to tell, I’m pretty much losing the will to live now. There’s some stuff that involves Robin bending themselves into a pretzel to avoid dealing with the fact the existence of male animals is not actually something created by patriarchal ideals of gender, followed by something about Aristotelian teleology and how masculinity is the ‘end’ of maleness that makes virtually no sense and gives the concept no substance whatsoever. Then there is more discussion about the negative effects accrued by males (sorry, ‘people who are bound and policed by ideals of manhood’) who don’t do patriarchal masculinity correctly. Okay we get it Robin, men being hurt by gender is really really important and women’s material exploitation and subordination regardless of how they do gender is just totally fucking irrelevant to anything. Which brings us to the final slide I want to look at, the one where, on the basis of a whole load of tautological reasoning, sex/gender conflation, and sex-denialist bullshit, Robin finally delivers the real goods, the assertion that ‘patriarchy is not a system of male dominance and female subordination.’ There is no way to describe this other than as an act of manifest class betrayal. And I have to say Robin, on the evidence presented here, that fancy-ass job and fancy-ass book-deal weren’t bestowed in recognition of your stellar philosophical chops, soooo…..

Sex and the Census: Audiobook Special

So, I decided to make some recordings of the ‘Sex and the Census’ report as it is pretty dense, and I thought it might help some people to listen rather than read.

I’ve just finished the first section, and will be uploading the following sections over the next few days.

Some people on Twits suggested they would be happy to pay for copies. I want to make it freely available, but if you feel so inclined, please bung a few quid in the PayPal.


  1. Introductions

The Political Erasure of Sex: Sex and the Census

Last night, along with Alice Sullivan, Lisa Mackenzie, and Selina Todd, I was delighted to participate in the latest WPUK webinar on the jiggery pokery that is going on with the upcoming census.

The whole webinar is now available. I appear to have lost the top of my head, but you can’t have everything…

My presentation is based on a report we’ve just released which I’ve been working on for the last many months with Lisa Mackenzie, of MurrayBlackburnMackenzie. The report is part of a larger project called ‘The Political Erasure of Sex,’ which aims to document the process of policy capture in our public institutions, and the impact it’s having on the recognition of sex in law, language, public policy, and data capture. This first report, Sex and the Census, documents how our census authorities have corrupted the collection of sex-data, due to the influence of trans stakeholders who are invested in gender identity overwriting sex. It provides a very detailed analysis of the question development process of the Office for National Statistics, and the National Records of Scotland, over recent years, and the way it has been impacted by trans ideology and the interests of trans stakeholders and respondents. It pays particular attention to the massive amount of conceptual confusion evidenced in the recent work of the census authorities, the way this leads to them corrupting the sex variable, and their apparent complete lack of awareness that women, and data users more widely, are stakeholders in the sex question on the census.

The recent work on the census, I argue, is a staggering manifestation of the impact of trans ideological framing on our public institutions, and is exemplary of how policy capture by trans rights stakeholders is undermining the political recognition of sex.

The report can be downloaded here:

For those of you interested in the presentation I gave last night, the slides are available here:

Lastly, if you prefer to read the presentation you can here.