There is a deeply shocking, and somehow, at the same time, shockingly credible story in today’s Guardian about the rising rates of violence, intimidation, control and general abuse directed by teenage boys and young adult men against their female counterparts. The piece follows a warning this week by Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, that teenage girls between 16 and 19 - closely followed by girls aged 20 to 24 - are now the group most at risk of domestic violence. Portraying an adolescent universe in which young women are routinely subjected to sexual slurs, and humiliated or ostracized for perceived permissiveness, the story also echoes one which appeared in January, noting that, at the same time, young women are also being pressured into sex with either one or multiple partners, and/or having their movements and social interactions monitored and controlled by men through the threat of violence.
What struck me about both of these stories is the role attributed to social networking sites in general, and Facebook in particular, in the creation of so-called ‘Sket-sites,’ in which intimate images and/or details of a girl’s sexual behaviour are posted online, and men invited to pass judgement or gives marks out of ten on a scale of nought to…you get the idea. The reason why this is particularly striking was that it follows, by only a few weeks, my finally getting around to watching The Social Network, and being, on that occasion, deeply struck by learning that the most powerful incarnation of Web 2.0 was unambiguously forged in the fires of misogyny. Zuckerberg, we recall, having been dumped by his girlfriend (for being an asshole, not a nerd) retires to his dorm and whips up a program called Facemash, which invites innumerable anonymous men to make judgements on the relative sexual attractiveness of two randomly-selected young female students, the photos of whom Zuckerberg has oh-so-respectfully hacked from the school’s websites. This opportunity to subject such a large number of unsuspecting young women to the objectifying and violently adjudicating male gaze is so compelling, we are led to believe, that within hours the Harvard network succumbs to the intensity of traffic.
There is an evident similarity – even a line of continuity - between these two moments in the history of social network media, and it is a similarity which speaks of several things. It tells us simply, in the first place, about the incipient violence which underlies so many of the invidious comparisons the late capitalist subject is invited to make in cyberspace. While in part Facebook is just what it pretends to be - a place to stay in touch with ‘friends’ - it is, also, and at the same time, a masterful exercise in exacerbating all that social-status-anxiety so central to eroding solidarity, promoting competition, and ensuring our continued servitude as good consumers. It seems likely that individuals of both gender are equally subject to the continuous pressure of comparing themselves negatively to people with more friends, better-looking partners, and more exotic holiday destinations than themselves (not to mention all the celestial people we are encouraged to fixate on). However, while evidence about the ever-increasing rates of depression among teenage girls suggests that they - as befits their social conditioning – direct that negative pressure inwardly, boys – equally in accordance with their given roles – tend to transmute all their fragility and vulnerability into violence.
As I have suggested before, misogyny is, at base, a particularly virulent variation of the generalized violence which derives from the inability of the masculine* ego to tolerate its vulnerability, and which results in the need to violently dominate pretty much everything around it – children, people with different colored skin, terrorists, oil-fields, the north pole. Women are particularly favored as the object of this violence because they exist as the most visible embodiment of the lie of masculine invulnerability… they are, in short, what men need – as their mothers, as their lovers, as the mothers of their children. Masculinity, as thus constructed, is, hence, caught within an apparently irreducible series of conflicts which all spring from the terms of its definition:
- Masculinity is defined as invulnerability, but that invulnerability is a lie, and it is a lie which is particularly evinced by the existence of woman as something which men need.
- Because women are the evidence of this lie, they must be symbolically/actually erased i.e. the threat they pose to the lie must be erased in the act of domination.
- At the same time, even though it is evidently a lie, this vulnerability cannot be recognized, because to do so would be to admit, in public, that, according to the terms of the definition, one is not a man.
- This would be, in effect, to place oneself in the position of a woman. This is anathema to the masculine ego, because, by its own logic, women are those things which must be erased/dominated (remember, it is always the biggest chauvinists who are keen on chivalry). To admit to vulnerability is, therefore, according to the structure of the masculine ego, to necessarily position oneself as the object of masculine domination.
- The masculine ego is therefore faced with the struggle to maintain an identity which is, necessarily, a lie, and which, therefore, is always, entirely beset, at its very core, with profound anxiety. There is no resolution of this anxiety within the terms of its definition, because vulnerability cannot be admitted. The absolute impossibility of resolving this anxiety transmutes, over the course of time, into an ever-increasing hatred of that which is perceived to be the source of the irresolvability. And, in an increasingly futile and desperate attempt to resolve the anxiety, there is an ever-increasing need to dominate, and finally, complete the erasure of that which evidences the lie. Because, y’know…if at first you don’t succeed...
Ultimately, capitalism and misogyny are yoked together in the masculine ego’s ever-increasing spiral of exploitation and attempted erasure, and, hence, to return to where we began, it is not entirely surprising to find an upturn of violence against women at the point in our history where the brute domination of the neoliberal project is no longer really even trying to conceal itself. Nor is it suprising that in Facebook we glimpse the alliance between the invidious competitiveness of the late-capitalist subject, the anxiety it articulates, and the impulse to transmute that anxiety into the most revolting acts of misogynist domination. Lastly, it is also unsuprising that the rendering of Mark Zuckerberg’s own story should provide such a perfect parable of our times. The boy-man who performed one of the great miracles of capitalist accumulation – beginning with the voyeuristic violence of Facemash and ending with a business card reading ‘I’m CEO bitch’ – because he couldn’t cope with being rejected by a woman that he wanted. A dinner guest of my closest friend** – a man who works in finance of course – saw here a heartwarming tale about the possibilities of worldly success. The (not-so)-subtlety of Sorkin’s satire had clearly passed him by. As the film closed on Zuckerberg sitting alone encased in glass, we were left with nothing but the echoing abyss, the endless violence, and the ultimate futility of the neoliberal patriarchal subject. It was just really fucking sad. And as words have apparently failed me, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to get a drink.
* Let’s be clear here…these things are kind of mutually-defining….i.e. the ‘masculine ego’ is defined as 'the invulnerable' or ‘that which cannot tolerate vulnerability’...that's not my definition, look at yesterday's post, it's just the definition. Not all men have a masculine ego as defined, and a large number of women are also masculine-identified in this respect – particularly insofar as one of the most unhelpful legacies of equality feminism has been the empowerment of women on a model of masculine power. Nonetheless, it is still overwhelmingly the case, as my post yesterday explored, that men are subjected to an enormous amount of pressure to incarnate a version of invulnerable masculinity, probably from about the moment the ultrasound identifies the small sticking out piece of flesh. As feminists are generally fond of saying, this ain’t good for no-one…not for men, not for women, not for the environment, not for the possibility of this species making it though the next century.
** To she – who will remain nameless – for several insights in this piece, and much inspiration in many conversations over many years…thank you.