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After Isla Vista: The New Male Gaze

Occupy SF Pro-Fabulous

After Isla Vista we need to say, yes, it’s all men. Not all the time and not every man all the time. But every man some time. For after the misogynist/racist mass murder in Isla Vista, some men started posting #notallmen. But it is, insofar as male-identified people are interpolated (hailed/called/named) by the new male gaze. Whether we like it or not and until it has been refused, queered and made alter.

That’s how cultures work–there are ways of making meaning that are recognized. Laura Mulvey described in 1975 how the male gaze made “woman as image, man as bearer of the look,” by means of Hollywood cinema. Even then, as she pointed out, such cinema was a thing of the past. The hope was that radical or alternative cinema might bring about that change. Many felt optimistic that it had been.

And now, despite all the obvious gains made by feminism and LGBTQ activism, the new male gaze is visible in porn, video games, sexts, Snapchat, Tinder, Grindr, okcupid and all the other ways of commodifying excitation. With 2.5 billion people online and half the planetary population under thirty, this new form is still working itself out.

The Isla Vista massacre, like most such events, was a horribly perverse form of this media spectacle. Initiated by the perpetrator on YouTube, disseminated worldwide by all forms of news media and rebutted on Twitter by the #yesallwomen project, it horrifies above and beyond the awful specifics because we know not only that nothing will be done but this is how things now are. Everyday—but a new everyday because YouTube and Twitter are not ten years old yet, let alone Snapchat and so on.

The new male gaze is violently intersected with white supremacy. The Isla Vista perpetrator killed three Asian men and was obviously (and tediously) conflicted over his Asian mother. The gun is the tool of white supremacy, from its use in the white citizen militia deployed against indigenous people or fugitive slaves to today’s almost routine slayings. In the classic male gaze of narrative cinema, the action centered on what Hollywood actors call “The Gun.” It was a representative symbol of Cold War domination, never more notably than when deployed by a woman, as in High Noon. The films of the period expressed by displacement the police and army massacres in U.S.-dominated developing nations around the world that still relativize (without diminishing) what happens in the United States.

Since at least Gran Torino (2008), the Young Man (with apologies to Tikkun) has known that the old cinematic ways and the old actors like Clint Eastwood don’t cut it any more. The Young Man, who is the subject and object of the new male gaze, embraces digital media in all its forms and experiences as his reality. He is not a single person but a set of ideas about people that shape how actually existing people act.

The Young Man is always white or white-identified. He uses the gun because that is what he does in the first-person shooter video game. And then sometimes, disastrously, a Young Man finally erases the boundary between what he does on the screen and what he wants to do in real life. It always ends with the ritual suicide as the embodied form of “game over.” Not all men embrace being a Young Man. Not all Young Men act out the implications. But some do and with regularity.

Beatrix Campbell has called this new masculinity “neoliberal neopatriarchy.” You can trace this back to Ronald Reagan, the B-movie cowboy actor who instigated the financialization of everything. His aged bluster evoked the cinematic male gaze and we mistook it for “the second time as farce.” Or if there was a farcical aspect to it, the tragedies were everywhere from Guatemala to Grenada and the Gulf.

There is a dimension in which this description falters nonetheless. To be a patriarch is to have authority, over a family in general and women in particular. The Young Man is acutely aware that he lacks authority. His action is always designed to get people to notice him and to register, finally, the ways in which he has been unfairly treated. He believes in neoliberalism and is often its beneficiary, like the Hollywood-nurtured Isla Vista perpetrator. But like Fredo, he wants respect and he does not get it.

The Young Man feels this loss of authority so acutely because it contrasts intensely with his online pornographic world that the philosopher Nancy Bauer has called “pornutopia”:

The good citizens of the porn world, inexorably ravenous, are also perfectly sexually compatible with one another. Everyone is desired by everyone he or she desires. Serendipitously, as it always turns out, to gratify yourself sexually by imposing your desires on another person is automatically to gratify that person as well.

By seeing online porn as an extension of printed and video formats, Bauer perhaps misses the extent to which this apparent endless online gratification actually flows in what Beatriz Preciado has called “circuits of excitation-frustration.” Porn studies pioneer Linda Williams has recently called for a critical approach to the “intersection of public policy, new technologies, and embodied life” in the vast array of online porn. This is awkward, difficult work to imagine doing, which suggests it’s important.

There is a new form of capital being created here, in Preciado’s words, “that makes all commodities simultaneously an incitation to sexual pleasure and the frustration of that same pleasure.” It’s that feeling of excitement when you get a shiny new digital toy, followed by the frustration when it doesn’t quite work as you hoped. It’s the frustration, not the excitation, that drives the body back into the circuit. It’s expressed by the tag-line for the hook-up site Tinder: “It’s like real life, but better.” How it’s better is not explained of course because it can’t be—the excitement leads to frustration and back to Tinder.

The new male gaze is most troubled by queerness, especially when queer deflects the question of object choice—in other words, when being queer is not (only) about (consistent) expression of desire.

When it was most revolutionary, Occupy was queer and feminist in this sense. It was queer anarchy, as Jack Halberstam puts it. It was a place where excitation flowed into excitation. It was the look into a person’s eyes when they looked back and allowed you to invent them. It was expressed in and through the whole body. There was of course a sexiness to it. People often spoke about “falling in love.” Later this was made respectable by talk of the “beloved community” and other forms of Christian doctrine. But when it was happening, as it did from time to time and not just at the beginning, it was wild without being violent, liberating without being oppressive. Queer, in the sense of José Muñoz, “the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”

At other times, it wasn’t at all. The OWS “process” was strongly reminiscent of second wave feminism. How events happened was as important as what was done. How people got to participate mattered perhaps most of all. Soon, though, impatience with these questions became standard. What mattered now was “the work” and “getting things done.” People often identified this slippage as neoliberal. Not often enough was it clear that it was also neopatriarchal. Looking back now, the thinking through of gender and sexuality was too much in the frame of earlier moments and not aware enough of the transformed context. Too often, people saw gender/sexuality as issues that had been “done” and didn’t need work. And there were some sexual assaults in many encampments. Perhaps that was inevitable in open, public space at night but it rightly also felt like the betrayal of some of the best ideals of the movement that no-one had stopped it.

And now the queer/feminist revolution is now being rewritten as the main failing of the movement by those seeking to return to a class analysis. If we’re going to have something to say about the new male gaze, the Young Man, and the circuits of excitation-frustration, it’s not going to happen in a new Communist Party. Take a look at the rape culture in Britain’s Socialist Workers Party if you don’t believe me.

The Marxist rewriting of Occupy tells, more in sorrow than anger, how it failed to analyze the conjuncture properly. It is an attempt to revive the old male gaze and to restore socialist patriarchy. It’s finding an audience. I hear a lot about class as the dominant form of oppression, about how gender issues can wait and/or are a distraction, about how race was talked about too much.

The tension over gender was the main takeaway of a workshop called “Theory After Occupy” that I ran this Spring. Of course, as I was the facilitator, that’s my fault for not thinking it through well enough. And we talked as well about how the first three books on Occupy’s history have been by young men, who happen to be white. And so, gentle reader, if you’re as smart as I think you are, you’ll see where this is going.

“After Occupy” was intended to be a collaborative writing project. Through a combination of my own failings and lack of insight and perhaps the general exhaustion, that hasn’t been working. And I think what I’ve been discussing here is the key block–the intersection of misogyny and racism in the new male gaze that can’t be wished away. After Isla Vista, it’s time to take what the Zapatistas call a Year of Silence (which isn’t necessarily a year long as the transformation of Subcommandante Marcos demonstrated nicely) and work some things out. It’s enough already from me. Over to you, to her, to everybody.

Originally published on tidalmag.org.

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