What Comes After the Man-Child?

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 22, 2013

What Comes After the Man-Child?

Caution: 2,880 words ahead

I have mixed feelings about Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child, and will write them down here for whoever cares enough to know. Let’s assume you’ve read it, and know something about the book it is commenting on, Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl.

I liked the article. I also think Tiqqun is on to something important, although I recognize that their articulation of the idea is, to use the cliché, quite problematic. Weigel and Ahern, authors of Man-Child, want to say that Tiqqun are consciously indulging in misogyny despite any contentions to the contrary, but this falls flat for me. They form a connection to ironic sexism of comedians like Daniel Tosh, but there’s nothing comedic about the text. It reads to me as a story of unspeakable horror and despair, of contemporary life as an utter wasteland.

I confess I was taken aback by one of Tiqqun’s aphorisms:

Deep down inside, the Young-Girl has the personality of a tampon: she exemplifies all of the appropriate indifference, all of the necessary coldness demanded by the conditions of metropolitan life.

At first this seemed obviously offensive, but after looking into it, the word for tampon in French can be translated as rubber stamp, which would make indifference and coldness make more sense. The point is that the Young-Girl has the personality of a bureaucrat, not a tampon. Perhaps there is an elaborate pun here: since both men and women are quite anxious that it should happen on schedule, is menstruation not the most bureaucratic of bodily functions?

But it doesn’t matter much what I think, and anyway, its pointless to debate whether the actual text is misogynistic or not because even Weigel and Ahern spend very little time on it. You don’t have to do any kind of deep reading to detect the possibility of sexism, you only need to read the cover. It’s (almost) all right there in the title: a critique of the figure of the Young-Girl. It doesn’t matter what it consists of, because we can easily posit a sexist reader for whom this would excuse their misogyny, allowing them to conceal it behind a veneer of anti-capitalist righteousness.

Content is irrelevant; the premise itself is “problematic.” Starting with the idea that Youth and Femininity are transformed into what Tiqqun call youthitude and feminitude, then “elevated to the rank of ideal regulators of empire-citizen integration,” the potential for the critique to be interpreted as sexist is unavoidable.

Tiqqun’s warning that “Minds looking for moral comfort or for vice to condemn will find in these scattered pages but roads that will lead them nowhere,” is easily sidestepped by waving the magic death-of-the-author wand, so it is impossible to introduce enough caveats and qualifications to escape the charge. The only option is to not make the critique at all.

That leaves us with a deadlock. Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl is sexist in its effects, but to raise the charge of sexism is to silence the critique, which is a pro-capitalist move in its effects. There’s no solution here, at least none that I can see. No matter how many times we repeat the magic word “raceclassgender,” no synthesis is possible. Weigel and Ahern attempt to solve it by adding the figure of the Man-Child, apparently out of the belief that Tiqqun’s sexism lies in the way they only provide men with a target on whom they may vent their rage. We need an equivalent for women, thus the Man-Child is born.

But this doesn’t work because it brushes aside Tiqqun’s basic premise: that the Young-Girl, the archetype of our domination under consumer capitalism, has a specific (but non-exclusive) connection to femininity and women. Weigel and Ahern’s concept of the Man-Child loses sight of the following critical point:

Commodity society can now give an air of emancipation to those that in the past it treated as minorities, who were the most foreign and most spontaneously hostile to commodity society, not having been folded into its dominant norms of integration.

The previously mentioned deadlock repeats itself here. In the 20th century, consumerism and the media spectacle arose as new arenas of power, to which women and other excluded minorities were granted unprecedented access. The price was allowing the tendrils of capitalism to encroach even further into our hearts, minds and identities, yes, but to vilify this aspect of capitalism is to attack one of the few opportunities that women have to gain power.

And there’s no shortage of men on male-dominated internet forums like Reddit who are always ready to criticize allegedly vapid Hollywood starlets, as if they are to blame, apparantly unaware that the spectacle is in large part staged for their erotic enjoyment, which is continuously fomented on the most popular subreddits.

So it’s certainly possible that Tiqqun’s critique could have negative repercussions for women, and that should give us pause. However, we probably need to take Tiqqun at their word that this isn’t their intent. Weigel and Ahern don’t allow for this, claiming that because they use the language of critical theory, the readers give them a pass on their sexism.

But that’s not why they get a pass. It’s because they claim that the Young-Girl is a symptom of capitalism. Weigel and Ahern understand this part of the argument. They phrase it as “capitalism compel[ing] individuals to internalize its imperatives.” If we responded to the Young-Girl critique by stigmatizing actual people who embody those attributes—who have no real choice but to follow the imperatives of capitalism, and effectively are the symptom—then we would be trying to manage the symptom rather than the cause, which would be an attempt to make capitalism function better. If that’s Tiqqun’s secret agenda, then not only are they crypto-misogynists, they are also crypto-capitalists.

Weigel and Ahern criticize the attitude that says that issues of sex and gender come after the revolution—and rightly so. But this problem does not come up for the critique of the Young-Girl. As a symptom of contemporary capitalism, it is impossible to get your hate on for actually-existing Young-Girls and still maintain any kind of fidelity to Tiqqun’s analysis. There is a risk that some people won’t get this point and it will fan the flames of misogyny, but this problem is not unique to Tiqqun. Any critique that points out the failures of capitalism runs the risk of feeding fascist tendencies that want to distract attention from the problems of the system and locate them in the figure of the Jew, the Illegal Immigrant, the Welfare Queen and so on, where the system can be stabilized if only we eliminate this foreign intruder. If we criticize greedy bankers and financial speculation, is this not one step away from anti-semitism?

Lacking any kind of structural analysis of capitalism, Weigel and Ahern’s critique does not get this pass. Its goal is simply to incite contempt for the Man-Child, even extending it to specific men of their acquaintance who we are told embody this archetype, who may well deserve it. The critique is accurate, and names a tendency among men that I myself see everywhere, and has long been a thorn in my side.

The Man-Child “hangs out” with my sister, and when asked where the (non-)relationship is headed, answers with bullshit like “I’m not really into labels, you know? Why can’t we just ‘be’?” I tell her she needs to cut him lose; she thinks it will be different this time, but it never is.

When my wife and I announced we were pregnant, most of our friends where happy for us. To his credit, the Man-Child tried to be, but within two years we had stopped hearing from him. For him, a baby is a life-destroying alien catastrophe and he can’t relate to anyone who would want one, much less two.

Wherever you meet him, the Man-Child is irresponsible, aimless, unreliable, unable to commit to anything or anyone, and lacking in integrity. He doesn’t care if no one trusts him with anything important because he doesn’t want any obligations anyway. It would be easy for me to hate him for what he’s done to me, and sometimes I do. But it’s a little more complicated for me, because unlike Weigel and Ahern, I also know why he exists. And many men, of similar age and race and class, also know.

We were never taught to be men because when we were growing up, the concept was passé. We were mercifully spared from induction into the cult of toxic masculinity, and as a result, there is very little of the traditional status competition, the fight for the alpha position, among this group of men. It is well-known that men often resort to violence when they feel their status threatened, and this violence is often directed at women. But for a younger generation of men, this is less of concern. They have nothing to prove, because they accept with a shrug that they do not and cannot meet the standards of masculinity.

They are emotionally expressive and sensitive, not stoic. They’re playful, introspective, self-aware, unpretentious and able to be openly vulnerable. They’re not very competitive, dominant or aggressive, and so. It should be obvious that all of these standards attributes are the result of the traumatic transition from boyhood into manhood. Repudiating them does not create for us an alternative model of what it means to be a man; it simply leaves us at the age when we would have been initiated into patriarchal masculinity. The result is the Man-Child phenomenon—men in their 20s and even as old as 30s emotionally stuck at the age of 13 or 14.

Hollywood has produced an entire series of movies that play on this phenomenon, many of which are written, directed or produced by Judd Apatow and star Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Will Ferrel, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill or Michael Cera. The main characters aren’t exclusively men—women play the main role in Young Adult, The Future, Girls, Bridesmaids, Ass Backwards, Bad Teacher—but very often they are. They’re unemployed or underemployed and still live with their parents (Jeff Who Lives at Home, Adventureland, Step Brothers), sexually inexperienced (40-Year Old Virgin, Adventureland, Superbad), failures in relationships (Old School, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and of course, terrified of fatherhood (Knocked Up, Away We Go).

Despite the examples of women who play these roles, we regard this as a male archetype dealing with a male set of problems because in almost every way, it is a photographic negative of the traditional image of masculinity. These films embrace the irony of men to failing to achieve this ideal, presenting it in a sympathetic, humorous light. Many of these films are romantic movies with male leads that are marketed towards men and explore the landscape of male emotion, dependency, vulnerability and weakness that the traditional masculine ideal rendered off-limits.

Weigel and Ahern contempt fails to take the progressive, feminist dimension at the heart of the Man-Child into account. Crucially, they ignore the way that the character completely repudiates compensatory violence as a response to threats to his masculine identity. At times, their contempt veers into outright mockery (“…the Man-Child cries for a dutiful interpreter to come and tidy up”), apparantly unaware of the way that this kind of taunting has a very long tradition of being used to pressure men to use violence to affirm their masculinity. They are not alone. There’s an unfortunate trend of resorting to similar tactics in response to the dubious claims of victimhood of the men’s rights movement.

Attacking the Man-Child in this way is quick and satisfying, but has a negative side effect of taking him on in his most progressive manifestation, making common cause with any number of evangelical Christian groups who think men today are sissies and need to “man up”.

Weigel and Ahern are correct to say that the problem here is irony, but it goes beyond the ambiguities of ironic sexism. There’s a deeper problematic irony in the Man-Child: the disjunction between our expectations of full-grown men and their actual boyish behavior, of which there’s nothing really ambiguous at all.

Irony is what remains in the wake of the leftist cultural critique that is afraid to propose positive alternatives. It is able to deflate our belief in traditional masculine virtues, but the work of replacing it with something else is continuously deferred. As a purely negative gesture, it generates the figure of the Man-Child, a man who is defined in terms of what he is not. Weigel and Ahern name this indecision and undecidability. Not just ambiguous or indecisive in his life, the Man-Child fixes in place what would normally be a transitional point, deferring adulthood and leaving open the question of what it means to be an adult.

This indecision is by design. In 2009, feminist activist Courtney Martin wrote What’s the Alternative to Tucker Max? about a conference for college-age men involved in gender activism.

In attendance were about 200 individuals, representing 40 colleges and two dozen organizations, many of them sporting titles like Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, Men Can Stop Rape, and Men Stopping Violence. Notice a trend here? This contemporary movement of gender-conscious young men is largely identifying themselves in terms of what they are against. They’re not rapists. They’re not misogynists… They’re also not particularly effective in imagining what they do want to be.

Anna North on Jezebel followed up with a response that encapsulates the problem:

But the idea of a top-down “masculinity” for men to aspire to, of “models,” as Martin puts it, just seems restrictive. Yes, young men need to see thoughtful, feminist men, especially if they’re not yet truly comfortable with women. But said thoughtful, feminist men don’t necessarily have to offer a new masculinity — rather, they can simply teach that how men understand their gender is up to them, and that they shouldn’t feel the need to fit themselves into any particular mold. This might be difficult — young people, despite their protestations of rebellion, kind of like molds — but it would move us one step closer to a world in which gender was an opportunity for self-expression, not a cage of expectations. The lack of a new paradigm for masculinity may look like emptiness, but it’s also freedom.

I have serious doubts about whether a new masculine paradigm is a good idea—making it gender-specific seems like a wrong move. But a new model of adulthood that applied equally to men and women? That’s sounds like a very good idea. But not for North, who exemplifies a particular strain of liberal individualist thinking that advances a critique of cultural norms as such for restricting individual self-expression. Often originating from English departments, such thinking combines apparently disparate social justice and aesthetic concerns into a unified artistic critique against sexist clichés, tropes and stereotypes, as if the most important problem with bigotry is that it’s boring and predictable. This idea is now more than 50 years old—maybe it’s time to admit that it’s a dead end.

At the conference, Courtney Martin tells us of a young man who objected to the concept of a “feminist masculinity” model for men on the grounds that “it would be one more box that young men felt they had to fit into.” Aside the gender-specific component, what is so terrible about that? The vague anxiety about committing to anything in particular is the disease of the Man-Child, made especially apparent when he is faced with fatherhood. For this reason, Weigel and Ahern are extremely perceptive in identifying the refusal of fatherhood at the heart of the Man-Child.

Man-Children overlook the fact that social reproduction—the work of having and raising kids—is not mere replication. It can be creative. That is, it might offer opportunities for social transformation. What would Preliminary Materials for a Theory of Motherhood look like? Maybe instead of more smarter-than-thou critiques, we need more imagination, more courage. In place of obscurantism, clarity and organization. In place of indecision and irony, a praise song and a program.

Instead of the empty nihilism of self-expression, maybe it is time to put away childish things, and start thinking about a way of being in the world that’s not solely about oneself, a way that involves other people. We might renew the forgotten language of ethics: character, commitment, duty, discipline, responsibility, loyalty, love and solidarity.