Abjection Doesn't Scale
When support scenes stigmatize.
In the always-wonderful, Katherine Dee recently discussed a problem very familiar to me: the inevitable dilution of scenes ostensibly dedicated to people with defects, vices, problems; that is, the tendency of such scenes to become milquetoast in their avoidance of the truly gnarly aspects of whatever they concern, or, worse, to actively reify what the scene originally existed to resist.
She first asks: “Why is there so little media for (and about) ugly women?”
…it feels like spaces for the ugly, the abject, and the unattractive—save for maybe fandom, where you’re permanently outside of yourself, or /r/ForeverAloneWomen—have been colonized by… attractive women… The 89 lbs. hypersexual hot mess isn’t the only archetype of female pain.
When did sultry, seductive Lana del Rey become inextricably linked with the femcel, the FEMale CELibate? When I search “femcel” on Tumblr, why do I only see image macros of knock-kneed anorexics and pastel edits of Dominique Swain as Dolores Haze? I mean, I know why. But we need more spaces for female abjection that are abject, as opposed to shrines to what catalyzed the insecurity in the first place. Where’s the catharsis in these aesthetics if you get called “lard ass” on a daily basis and have cystic acne?
My first encounter with this phenomenon was probably in high school. I was quite ugly, ugly in a way that I couldn’t blame on society or “unrealistic standards.” Even with very realistic standards, I was gross; I had a gross face and a gross body, and it was no one’s fault that girls did not find me attractive; I wasn’t attractive; it was a raw fact of life, for me and everyone else. It hurt my feelings, of course, but that doesn’t mean anything; weather can hurt my feelings.
I was also weird, and not in wholly appealing ways. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, “being weird” was in one of its cyclical ascents as “a good thing” in American culture, at least on paper; it was the Tim Burton era, and strange boys and girls could imagine that they were Johnny Depp or Winona Ryder, their idiosyncratic virtues surely soon-to-be discovered and acknowledged by the world in a triumphant cinematic moment (or if not acknowledged, beautifully eulogized in what amounted to the same thing: the conferring of high status on those with low status). But the differences between me and Edward Scissorhands were immense.
Edward didn’t look like the popular boys, it’s true; but he was beautiful, thin, and stylish; I was not.
Edward’s “weirdness” was mostly innocent; there might be misunderstandings, but what Edward wanted and felt and did was nearly entirely virtuous and relatable; not so for me.
Edward had an undeniable talent —topiary gardening— that earned him esteem even in “conventional” society; he was also, in his way, dangerous, capable of standing up to bullies, for example. I had no real talents and was physically weak, although I often had long fingernails due to personal hygiene problems I’ve never shaken.
In sum: at a time in which culture relentlessly celebrated the weirdo, I was aware that this valorization stopped well-short of including actual freaks like me. Into the grunge era, the cultural narrative was purported to be alternative, but the values were all still mainstream-aristocratic; yes, everyone loved Nirvana, but it was still better to be beautiful than ugly, smart than stupid, strong than weak, popular than hated, invited than excluded, charming rather than boring or annoying, etc., even within scenes that would’ve claimed otherwise. Kurt Cobain’s hair was greasy; my hair was greasy; but I wasn’t Kurt Cobain, anymore than I was Edward Scissorhands. I was a nasty-looking jerk, emotionally tilted, insane, sometimes cruel, often resentful and annoying: no one’s idea of a good person. Imagining what sort of mutal-aid society could be composed of people like that is a useful exercise, because it immediately reveals why we were shunned to begin with. I, at least, wasn’t worth a damn and wouldn’t have made a good member of such a scene; I was lost in my own problems, lashing out all the time, delusional about who I was, etc. Such people do not, as a rule, assemble into compelling local cultures. Besides: none of us wanted to be approved of by other losers; although I at least was in deep denial about it, I think we all wanted to be loved by good people, to be admired by capable people, to be desired by beautiful people. We raged at society for reifying things we were laboring to pretend we rejected but which we secretly believed in very deeply. How could we not? It is better, after all, to be good than to be bad; it’s what the words mean.
I’ll never forget telling a friend that “I would never date a cheerleader,” explaining that I felt contempt for superficial scenes like the world of athletics. Let me tell you: if a cheerleader had asked me on a date, I’d have died of happiness. Indeed, when in high school a cute preppie girl strayed from her scene to pluck me out of the crowd and make me her boyfriend, I liquidated my gloomy alternative accessories in an instant.
The Creep / Heap Problem
I have bipolar disorder, but every bipolar scene I’ve been in seems dominated by people who get relatably and sympathetically depressed and gently and harmlessly hyper. My own intuitional view of the disorder —and it’s “gatekeeping” to say this, please know I don’t really mean it intellectually— is that if you’ve never done something literally unforgivable, you probably don’t have it. I found it surprising how anodyne they all were.
But perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Any group large enough to be seen by the world, to have a public presence or social consequence, will tend towards typical scaled-group dynamics. In particular, scaled groups reflect averages of their memberships, such that “what a scene represents” is usually a genericized, low-information set of attributes, values, preferences, and so on. What do a million bipolar people have in common? Not much, actually.
Beyond this raw mathematical fact, in all scenes some things remain true: status games will abound; the craven will outcompete the sincere; the commons will meet with tragedy; and so on. If there had been a community of ugly kids to join in 1995, the most popular people in that group would tend to be those whose ugliness wasn’t, in fact, terminal; they might not be “traditionally beautiful,” but they sure as shit wouldn’t look like I did! If there’s a community of bipolar people, the most popular people in that group will also be good looking, typically, but in addition they’ll be the ones who never say extremely fucked up shit, because by definition extremely fucked up shit tends to alienate people. This dynamic was vividly revealed when Kanye West took his heel turn: the Internet was full of bipolar influencers saying “This is not bipolar disorder; bipolar disorder doesn’t make you say fucked up shit.”
Motherfuckers, please! Ashas pleaded many times: stop pretending that mental illness doesn’t have real costs. Attempts to “reduce stigma” cannot involve falsifying the thing you wish to destigmatize; if they do, we are stigmatizing it even more! Bipolar people definitely say extremely fucked up shit sometimes. And that’s really the least of it; what we do can be far, far worse than mere speech. Now I have to feel ashamed of this not only around sane people who almost never say fucked up shit, but also among bipolar people who say they don’t either! No thanks. (I’m not in any bipolar scenes, obviously).
This all relates to the unavoidable problems of scale and social performance and, I think, holds true across “confessional” groups. The worst drug addicts aren’t posting, and they’re not in rehab; they’re covered in their own filth in crack houses planning ways to steal from their kids to get more drugs. If you’re in such a state, the memes and bromides of addiction scenes are a cheesy bore, utterly distant and irrelevant to you. Articles about “imposter syndrome” are not written by imposters but by successful people, who seem all the more charming as we learn that their many achievements have not rendered them more emotionally secure. “I confess: despite all the Ws, I still feel awkward when I enter a room sometimes.” In the comments: “It is so awesome to see someone like you admit to this!” And so on.
The feeling that “all confessions are in fact status-accruing performances” comes from our sense of these things; we know, on some level, that if your confession were truly shameful, you’d probably not be rewarded for making it in public. If you were actually being “vulnerable,” you’d be attacked. Performances of vulnerability are everywhere now, and while I know from experience that they often feel sincere to those responsible for them, it’s also the case that a part of our brains is forever calculating how we’ll be received, even in moments of extreme pain. Being a social creature is inescapable.
All of that aside: you can be a creep, a loser, hideous, whatever and you can find fellow-feeling in small contexts and various other places; but the moment there’s sufficient scale, a scene will revert to the usual hierarchies, and that’s because —try as we might to pretend otherwise— they reflect how most of us feel most of the time.As the heap of weirdos grows, who will emerge as the influential, the important, the valorized? Whoever appeals to the greatest number. Who appeals to the greatest number? The good, in whatever senses: the beautiful, the charming, the strong, the creative, the talented.
There’s no home for you here
I don’t believe there can be a solution to this. The situation is:
I struggle with a defect; I feel shame, isolation, anguish. I may or may not theorize that I shouldn’t feel these things; I may or may not blame “society” for my feelings or the existence of the category of defect that I am ashamed of. But either way: I feel bad about myself.
I seek others to both commiserate and theorize with; the commiseration is: “Doesn’t it suck to suck?” The theorizing is: “Is it possible that in some way, we do not suck? And it is perhaps others who suck?”
As the scene grows, theorizing outpaces commiseration; it is more scalable —a single theory can resonate with millions, whereas effective commiseration requires small groups and real intimacy and gets complicated fast— and “serves” more members of the scene, and perhaps serves them better; it allows them to reinterpret their defect as “good, actually,” or to shift emphasis to how everyone else is evil / stupid / needs to change in ways they specify.
Who can best embody these re-evaluative theories? Who is the best bipolar person to argue that “actually, bipolar is neutral or good; society is defective in how it relates to us; everyone needs to learn and change to better accommodate us; we are blameless and to be treated as high-status for our innocent suffering?” Definitely not Kanye! (Let alone the many bipolar criminals and abusers and lunatics who exist). Instead, it’ll be a handsome or beautiful bipolar person who has never said or done anything truly horrible, only things that are generically relatable to large crowds along a wide distribution. Who will be the best ugly person to argue that being ugly is good, or is unfairly stigmatized? Probably a pretty attractive one! To Dee’s point, they probably won’t have cystic acne.
Once the scene has scaled to where it’s dominated by this hybrid form of popular-aristocratic hierarchy, many will feel excluded: anyone who e.g. has problems outside the boundaries of what is now its norm-set. That will actually be a lot of people, and at this stage such groups often have a curious emptiness to them, a vagueness of definition and content that I believe is palpable even to those still included. I think this comes from the fact that the scene, now adjacent to mainstream culture (having discarded the real outliers) really does shift its orientation outward; it’s no longer about e.g. “what is true of being ugly,” it’s about “how do we prevail with our group aims in the broader world.” These aims, being basically a kind of politics, are now mostly to do with an other, usually an opposed group that disagrees with the scene’s values or ideas; they’re also straightforwardly concerned with making the scene mainstream-accessible: that’s where the growth is, anyway!
This is how you arrive at a state where crowds of bipolar people say “it’s bad to discuss Kanye because it gives ammunition to people who want to stigmatize mental illness” —or worse, pretend Kanye’s behavior isn’t classic bipolar shit— thereby in their own marvelous way stigmatizing the hell out of mental illness.These aren't members of community looking to bond, share, learn from one another; they're members of an MLM looking to persuade strangers that being bipolar is good and cool and that this disorder causes nothing disorderly, just photogenic tears (ugly criers can go to hell) or a lot of creative output. To do so, they need to forcibly reject anyone who acts mentally ill, which is extremely funny. The famous observation that “every organization appears to be headed by secret agents of its opponents” is probably related to this general phenomenon.
Compensations instead of scenes
It will not surprisethat this all called to my mind one of my favorite remarks, from the philosopher Simone Weil:
“A beautiful woman looking at her image in the mirror may very well believe the image is herself. An ugly woman knows it is not.”
The diction is important: Weil is saying that the ugly know something the beautiful do not. This knowledge —about who we are— is vitally important to our happiness, to our capacity to make sound decisions in the world, to our ability to love and be loved. The compensation for defects is knowledge of this kind, and it is enough, in my opinion, that the failure of scaled scenes of support isn’t terribly unfortunate. Indeed: I think they may sometimes stand in the way of this kind of knowledge: “No, you are your face! And you should identify deeply with your face! Every face is equally good!” All of this is well-intentioned but untrue. It flows from resentment-driven avoidance and delays what’s really needed: personal acceptance of the facts as they are (and a proper situating of them in a broad context: a life in this universe that ends in death; a world of billions which has lasted for eons).
I don’t pretend bipolar disorder is a desirable, quirky eccentricity unfairly maligned; I also feel only mild and IMO appropriate “shame” about it, and I’ve learned a lot from being bipolar. My version of Weil’s aphorism might be:
A sane person reviewing their thoughts may well believe that they’re reliably able to self-assess. An insane person knows they are not.
I wouldn’t trade this knowledge for anything, even as I can get quite sad imagining how my life might’ve been different without the disorder. That’s life: complex tradeoffs and attributes (that don’t define us) playing unpredictable roles in what sort of experience we get here on Earth.
I don’t know; I’m not a group person, so this could all be my own projection; there are no doubt many groups that avoid this fate, and I’d have problems with lots of them, too. But I’ve come to think that —like these groups— I’ve looked outward too much over the course of my life, and that especially anything scaled is dubious. What was needed, for me, was to sort out my relationship with myself and my flaws without society, which doesn’t know shit anyway. It was better once I realized no one out there could make me whole, and certainly no community. No new language, no new social order was likely to matter as much as shedding my entanglements with social concerns altogether. I try even to forget language, to forget all these theories, to live a little bit removed from the words themselves and just with myself and with people. After all: I’m not ugly, and I’m not bipolar. That’s just what they’ve called me, and while it’s useful to coordinate around these concepts and I freely accept them as socially real (and consequential), I try not to get carried away. They’re more sounds coming out of more mouths, none of which will be audible to me in the casket and which therefore shouldn’t be on the beach, either.
Not always, but enough that to pretend otherwise is unjustifiable IMO!
These games of ambiguous intention —a “vulnerable” “confession” that earns only praise can seem both sincere and obviously calculating— are possible because we all believe in several sets of values at once: for example, we may believe that “being mentally ill is totally fine and good and chill, and even virtuous in a way: it entails suffering, which we celebrate, and it produces difference, which can be good, and it’s sometimes artistically valuable,” and so on; and at the same time: “Fuck no, I wouldn’t want my kid to be bipolar, are you kidding me? I’ve seen those screaming homeless people, that would be so sad for them to wind up like that.” Both of these statements are, as people mysteriously say these days, “valid.” The space between them accounts for some of the incoherence of our cultural processes: a group exists to support “the ugly” but inevitably prefers the beautiful, for example.
In Nietzschean terms, I like both “resentment” morality and “aristocratic” morality and think they should be productively in-tension across society; I tend toward the former —a deep element of my being— but I reject criticism of the latter. It’s perfectly valid and has a lot to recommend it.
I don’t care about this at all, incidentally.
It’s one of Conquest’s laws.
Sophia has objections to this statement, I should note!
As someone with a parent whose bipolar manifests in the Kanye register on a good day, this all tracks with my observations!
Feel like there’s real potential for a good stand-up bit about impostor syndrome in unglamorous jobs, like the people hired by Rent the Runway to smell the returned items and determine whether they were properly dry cleaned. “It’s too much pressure! Everyone else on the crotch sniffing team has advanced degrees. How are they trusting ME with this responsibility?”
> But I’ve come to think that —like these groups— I’ve looked outward too much over the course of my life, and that especially anything scaled is dubious. What was needed, for me, was to sort out my relationship with myself and my flaws without society, which doesn’t know shit anyway. It was better once I realized no one out there could make me whole
Taking responsibility over yourself is a lonely affair. The gravity of those pursuing it is always going to be much weaker than those looking outward to cope.
Also don't think I didn't notice that you're a successful and well loved man. How convenient for you to try and make yourself the voice of your group.