Elliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara massacre was not the result of misogyny or violence in culture. It was the result of a rampant, uncontrollable narcissism — and one that our culture breeds, as a matter of course, every day.
Last Sunday afternoon, I made a cup of coffee, fired up the laptop, went online, noticed that the “manifesto” of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer, had been put online, clicked on to it — and didn’t get up for two hours. I didn’t move, save to scroll down, and at one point to feel my jaw drop.
If you haven’t read Rodger’s 140-page document, you may well not want to. It was described in the news as a “rambling manifesto”. If only. It is neither. A narrative of his life up to the point where he started on the series of killings, “My Twisted World” is no manifesto, nor is it rambling. Repetitive, yes, as Rodger recounts his perceived humiliations and injustices, and above all rejection by women. But what it is is relentless, driving, as beat by beat, Rodger draws us towards the event that happened soon after it was sent to friends and associates — the stabbing murder of three people in his apartment, and the drive-by shooting of three more, two of them young women outside a sorority house — just as he had said he would. It is a terrifying read because you know what’s coming, and because it has the structure of a thriller and may well have been shaped by the genre.
Having detailed a happy early childhood up to the age of six, Rodger starts to paint a picture of things going wrong and a struggle to join the world of love and connection. Then, around a hundred pages in, the “Day of Retribution” appears. The “Day of Retribution” is — well, exactly what happened. Rodger begins suggesting it after he has started to fume with obsessive misogyny, snobbery and casual racist elitism — women are animals who cannot recognise a great man like himself when they see him, black people and poor whites are sub-human. He does not want to start the Day of Retribution, he says; he will try to rejoin humanity (on his own terms). Eventually, he concludes that there is no alternative. He must take revenge on both women and men — women as a whole because they have rejected him, men because they have been accomplices to such rejection. The narrative finishes with him musing that he will have to kill his housemates in order to complete his plan. This is exactly what he appears to have done.
“My Twisted World” is an appalling document, because of the events that occasioned its publicity, but it is also a revealing one. It is the meticulous record of a man suffering a total collapse of mind, subjectivity and selfhood, from a very specific and pure form of narcissistic disordering. Various pundits have tried to attach more complex, and tendentious, diagnoses to Rodger’s behaviour — most of them relying on spurious neuro-psychiatry — but what is plain, as a first-order description, is that Rodger was poisoned by dysfunctional narcissism. By “narcissism” we mean here a basic inability to get the relationship between self and world right. The correct idea of that is that we are limited selves in a world with other people, who have their own projects and motives. The narcissistic reversal is that the world is seen only and always as a function of the self, which is always morally blameless. We are all sufficiently narcissistic to function as subjects, organising the world around us. But we recognise our reality in it — that we fall short in our actions, that we are limited in our powers, that reality is a resistant other that we negotiate.
Occasionally, our narcissism gets off the leash — when we overestimate our worth, underplay our culpability in our failures, forget the otherness of others, and the legitimacy of their worlds. For some very small number of people, that narcissistic disordering becomes jammed on, totalising and completely consumes whatever real assessment of the world they can make. Such people are everywhere, everybody knows one — those in the entertainment industry know many. They usually blaze bright young — and, if they make a sufficient success of it, can accrue sufficient social power to make people put up with their shit. Those who don’t, when they fall, fall far, become malign. They’re the office sociopath, the paranoid in the MP’s waiting room, the adult child who blows up the family at Christmas, and on, and on. Rodger’s record of his decline and fall is a portrait of someone at the very extreme of that disordering — not simply because he ended it with mass murder, but because the record of his life is so relentlessly miserable and wounded.
“The act, evil, futile and despairing, was given a meaning it did not actually possess in service to a set of social causes.”
Like many such afflicted people, Rodger’s world-perception seemed to go wrong pretty early — he records that from the age of eight, he was having great problems connecting with other children, attaching, being simply lost in activity. Whether that was actually the case when he was eight is less important than that he had come to believe it was. His record of his friendships from that age is coloured by this lack of attachment — and then by the beginnings of narcissism, the overvaluation of self, to compensate for the perception of disdain. Rodger’s narrative is a meticulous record of the way in which such a narcissistic shell forms — he becomes increasingly approving of his own appearance (he was blessed/cursed with being conventionally attractive), and then became by stages masculinist, racist and snobbish. What developed early, it seems, was a haughtiness — a belief that people should come to him to be friends. When adolescence hit, that was extended to girls. By the time he had passed through five years of the scarifying US high schools system, he had lost all capacity to connect or to make a way in the world. By the time he was 18, these multiple failures had left him delusional about his own status. He was not recognised as great and a superior mate, so all women must be fools, animals, all men who were not Eurasian as he was were crude and ugly (he seemed to take a pride in the received notion that Eurasian men have “elegant” features), two roommates, geeky types assigned to him by his college, show him friendship, but are “obviously” too low class to connect with. And so on.
As a record it is loathsome, it is pathetic, but above all it is deeply, deeply sad, for it is a record of someone locked in a prison of self, of the eternal defence of a bounded self. In the culture we have now, it is an easy trap to fall into.
Sadder still, however was the reaction to the killings, and to Rodger. Though he had said he would kill women for their slights against him, he had killed more men than women. He was a classic “universalist” killer, not greatly different from the McDonald’s mass killers of the 1980s and ’90s, the school and cinema killers of the 2000s. Yet because of his writings, his act was quickly recuperated as a misogynist killing — a simplistic and self-serving interpretation, as Helen Razer noted yesterday. The act, evil, futile and despairing, was given a meaning it did not actually possess in service to a set of social causes. Cause and effect were reversed. Being narcissistic disordered, Rodger had gradually accreted to himself various hatreds, which would allow him to explain to himself why he felt so rejected. But anyone reading it could see that the original thought was not programmatic. There was just pain and then hate as a way of transmuting it.You would not know this to read the reaction to the event and to the writings. One of the things that was most shocking to me was the annihilating disdain that was directed at Rodger — or his meme, the man himself was dead — as some weird way of dealing with his atrocious act. Because he had thematised his general killing spree as particular — said he was killing women, when he in fact killed more men — he was dismissed as a “loser”, “garbage”, etc on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. People tried to outdo each other in heaping abuse on his memory. There was also a counter-reaction — men on bodybuilding and “pick-up artist” sites lauding his dark existential act. Everyone seemed eager to construct a general killing as specific, for their own cultural-political ends.
This served multiple purposes. First off, it was atavistic, like the mediaeval practice of putting dead people on trial for their misdeeds and rehanging them. No five minute hate of this very disturbed human being was going to bring back the people he killed, so what of it? It was designed to deal with out anguish — especially the anguish of Americans at a process they cannot control, because violent, disturbed people can get handguns. There are any number of Elliott Rodger walking around London, Sydney, etc, today, seething and bubbling with hate — but they do not live in a culture that is both violent and offers easy access to the means of delivering it.
But there was another purpose to it, far from consciously known, and that was the advancement of an ideology — that of a cultural-political elite focused on highly branded oppression. Rodger’s sin was against the six people he killed, but the chaotic randomness of his acts makes less of a story than that it was a specific killing, for misogyny. The lesson drawn is that further insistence on the “wiping out” of misogyny, and on a sort of heightened self-vigilance about one’s negative thoughts would serve to lessen the violence.
As Jeff Sparrow suggests in a perceptive Counterpunch piece, that is to mistake the specific for the general. One could add that it would also be counter-productive. The idea that dark, murderous and irrational impulses could be legislated out of existence, and that this is the lesson we should take from this event, is not only ludicrously misplaced, it has a pretty narrow class agenda. The people imposing such a specific cultural order, such a regime of good thoughts, are the essentially the people who run the higher levels of a post-industrial society, the controllers of discourse. Their particular ideology — which they regard as an eternal truth — is that all racist, sexist, etc, thought should be wiped out at the level of thought rather than at the level of public discourse and action.
The obvious effect of trying to achieve this is that such thought comes to be regarded as more authentic the more it is suppressed, giving it a gloss of liberation. The last 30 years or so have been shaped by this extended culture/class war, whereby diminishing working and lower-middle classes have reacted to their loss of power through a sort of deliberately crude cultural resistance. You can see how this bubbled up in popular culture, especially in things like stand-up comedy, which acts as a social release valve. The more people insist on a no-tolerance policy towards “rape culture”, the more stand-ups, male and female, gleefully fill their set with rape jokes. So it goes. In this class war, which often has a faux proletarianism about it, Elliott Rodger is treated as a scapegoat, to be loaded up with the sins of society and sent into the wilderness. The overall purpose is to deny that social processes produce such tormented and, very very occasionally, violent individuals.
But the plain fact is, that if you have a hyper-individualist society, you will produce people like Elliott Rodger. His account of his life is illuminating because it is such a record of cultural emptiness. Roger lived in a world of placeless suburbs, decommunalised schools and screens, screens, screens. Our world, the one we have made, and the one whose overwhelming characteristic is atomisation. The passage from childhood to tweendom to adolescence today is one in which, to a historically unprecedented degree, people must be “entrepreneurial subjects” — they must assemble their own social context, rather than being able to rely on given networks of family and neighbourhood/culture, something that people could rely on (and be stifled by) until the 1960s. Thus, for every three or four people who succeed at this, there will be one who fails — and as society becomes more disconnected, the ratio will become more brutal.
Jeff Sparrow gives a Marxist account of this, suggesting that the market form creates the alienation that feeds — in very rare cases — the murderousness of an Eliot Rodger. Fair enough, but that is only half the story. At the root is a deeper cultural problem — the atomisation of a high-tech (a)social life, the disintegration of the self that cannot project. Trying to talk about this is difficult, because one effect of this atomisation has been a diminished capacity for people to think about individual selfhood as a social product. As common sense, everyone knows this to be true — any classroom of kids will produce a bell curve of nerds, geeks, drones, normals, outlaws and freaks, and they will essentially define each other into their roles — but for a couple of decades now we have been blasted with the liberal ideology that we are somehow self-choosing sovereign minds.
It is an utterly incoherent idea — who would choose to be as fucked-up as Elliott Rodger? — but it is powerful because it dovetails with notions of consumer choice. Thus the resulting problems of social subjectivity — increasing numbers of children who become dysfunctional and unhappy in adolescence — can be seen as first a failure of will, and then a brain malfunction, and treated with drugs. In a final move, this connects with narrow thought-policing notions of anti-sexism, and anti-racism, etc, etc, in which a deeply disturbed person can be dismissed as human “garbage” on the same grounds — that he could not maintain a mental sovereignty that would allow him to exercise restraint on his most violent urges. It is another example of the way in which an ostensible progressivism serves as an ideological cover for a neoliberal triumphalism. Sheer self-interest suggests that such simplistic notions be knocked on the head.
Toxic narcissism is to our current social order what rickets was to 19th-century capitalism — pervasive, so common as to be half-hidden, a byproduct of the system itself. Your child is not going to gun people down — such symbolic, grotesque acts are vanishingly rare (and 15 women in the US have been murdered in boring, unremarkable fashion by their partners since the Isla Vista massacre happened) — but he may be the one who falters, at the age of eight, 11, 13. It is more likely that this will happen to him than it would have been 30, 50, 100 years ago. It is more important than ever that we think about subjectivity and selfhood as a complex social process than simply ape the winners-and-losers model pushed on us relentlessly by the culture we are being shaped by. And can still extend, to even the most destructive among us, the notion a shared humanity, and the possibility that things could have been otherwise.