Angela Nagle recently wrote an excellent piece about Alex Lee Moyer’s TFW no GF—which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a documentary that’s usually billed as being about incels, but is mostly about the weird, nebulous space of Twitter that Kantbot occupies. And that’s not a ding on the film, which is acts as a vitally important time capsule, but I think this misunderstanding is reflective of the state of how people perceive internet history more generally.
Reading Angela’s piece, two things occurred to me…
First was the impossibility of writing about online trends outside of a narrow range including (but not limited to) TikTok recipes, queer memes, and left wing podcasts. If you go against the mainstream media narrative, you get framed as an apologist or sympathizer for, typically, white nationalism or some other despicable belief. Any gesture toward empathy is framed as ‘irresponsible,’ as Angela gestures to in her piece. If you are too honest in your assessment, if you sound too much like an enemy (e.g. if you point out real instances of misogyny, even by self-identified misogynists), you open yourself up to getting brigaded. You become a sacrificial lamb even if it doesn’t really make sense for you to be one. It’s always the most vicious kind of distortion too, which, as I said in a piece Friday, is reminiscent of woke mobbing. (I encourage everyone to read the update I posted to that piece, by the way.) I’ve also heard people suggest that challenging how these people define their own identities will attract the most aggressive attacks. I find that compelling, but I think generally, there’s a suspicion of anyone who looks at them too deeply without pandering. Anyone I know of who’s evaded critique pays lip service to their social politics—similar to how you can’t open a Verso Book without seeing a parenthetical that notes ‘and especially trans women of color,’ even and perhaps especially if the book’s topic is not germane to TWOC.I won’t say that women draw the short end of the stick here, but being a woman certainly opens you up to a unique set of criticisms. It’s worth acknowledging that men get banished and brigaded, too.
The second, and maybe more interesting, thought I had was that for incels specifically, I really do believe the usual critiques put too much stress on either material conditions or digital propagandizing. Even people who accept the premise that these are men who are truly facing rejection stop there. What if incels are just a natural product to the volume of rejection people experience? I’ve written before about how modern life is filled with endless micro-rejections, things that may not register as rejection on the surface, but certainly must have some kind of psychological impact. So, that is to say, it’s not just being rejected on Tinder, it’s the endless stream of rejection. When we minimize the incel reaction, I think it’s from the paradigm of like, ‘One woman rejected one man.’ Or maybe we assume that’s happened a handful of times. But we neglect to consider all the 'silent’ forms of rejection this person is experiencing on a daily basis. There’s probably some confirmation bias baked in too: it’s easy to start reading things as rejection even if they’re not, but I think that might, again, be a product of how we trivialize these smaller things. And beyond stuff like empty dating app inboxes, Facebook un-friendings or Twitter and Instagram unfollows— how does our unconscious mind clock a routine lack of eye contact or inability to see smiles, with the ubiquity of mask-wearing? Real life friends who come over and due to their own baggage or rudeness spend the whole time scrolling their phones? It’s easy to assume that it’s just annoying or inspires a feeling of loneliness, but what if our lizard brains process it as rejection? And from there come responses in the shape of identities.
Another thing that’s been on my mind this weekend (and doesn’t feel like it could wait for another newsletter) is the intersection of “long COVID” and “identity fandom.”
I think I’m reaching this place where I believe everything has been colonized into a fandom. (For those who aren’t as keyed in on this topic, my friend and co-researcher Monia wrote an expansive essay about fandom that I’ll be publishing later next week.) My sense is that the Anglosphere is a network of fandoms that interface with one another in surprising ways. There are the fandoms we’re familiar with—media, music, politics—and there are also new fandoms, some of which fall under this umbrella idea of ‘identity fandom.’
If you belong to an “identity fandom,” I don’t think that means you’re not authentically that identity. It just means the way we interact with culture products relating to those identities is similar to how we would a fandom.
But what does all this have to do with “long COVID”?
I think people who think about long COVID through the lens of Lyme Disease or fibromyalgia are really onto something. It’s difficult because I’m of the belief that medicine hasn’t caught up with all the many ways we can be sick, and what tends to cause these sicknesses, including environmental factors. I’m also aware of the long history of marginalized people’s health being undermined by the medical establishment (sorry heterodox thinkers, but you gotta call a spade a spade here).
Since around ~2010, the ‘chronically ill’ have gained more visibility—it’s become both a more nebulous identity category, and seems to have, like many other things, joined the ranks of ‘identity fandom,’ replete with fan works like fan art.
It seems to be a mix of people with illnesses that are poorly understood and unnamed, people with well-known illnesses, and people whose anxiety psychosomatically manifests. It’s that third group that’s the tinderbox, that thing we’re not supposed to talk about but we know exists.
But the truth of the matter is, what started as a niche support group exploded into something else and is now a fully-fledged a consumer identity. I’m still doing research into this, but my gut tells me that alarms should have gone off around the same time people outside of the chronic illness community started saying things like “I don’t have the spoons to do this.”
Many of us are familiar with people like this in our lives, they’ve always existed. It’s not a new phenomenon. What is new is how people engage with it, though.
And again, I want to make it perfectly clear that I don’t think that people who are chronically ill are de facto “faking it.” I don’t think we should be policing people’s medical histories. We do need to be aware that as barriers of entry get lower or are non-existent though, the dynamics change and the populations of people interacting with this stuff become more diverse.
Anyway: I think long COVID is our first super mainstream iteration of this—other examples seem to have been relatively niche. But long COVID is everywhere.
What do you guys think? Am I underestimating Lyme? Is this happening at all?
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