In his 1934 essay “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” Emmanuel Levinas evaluates the social and political realities that led to massive support for the Third Reich. What is fascinating about the essay is that Levinas mostly eschews direct critique of Hiterlism itself, but focuses instead on the problems at the heart of Western liberalism that produce something like Hitlerism.
Today, comparisons between the Third Reich and the “Alt-Right” abound, but critics rarely undertake the level of analysis that Levinas brought to the realities and motivations behind popular support of such a movement. In pursuit of such an analysis, I want to use Levinas’ argument as a lens for comparing two aspects of contemporary culture – Fyre Festival and Incels. While the communities and ideologies surrounding these cultural arenas seem far removed from one another, they should be understood as two sides of the same coin minted by the failures of Western liberalism.
In January, 2019, two competing documentaries on the Fyre Festival premiered on Netflix and Hulu. The Fyre Festival itself was a music festival, akin to Coachella, held on a beach in the Bahamas. For a good primer on the event, as a supplement to the documentaries, I recommend Abby Ohlheiser’s article for The Washington Post. She describes how “Festival-goers paid anywhere from $450 for a no-frills day pass to up to $250,000 for the full VIP experience.
One widely-advertised festival package cost $12,000. There were even packages that included a private yacht.” The event was heavily marketed on social media, pushing the narrative that “anyone who could afford the ticket would arrive in paradise on a private jet with their friends, for a taste of the lifestyle that only seems to exist on the Instagram feeds of models.”
Fyre Fest never occurred. As both documentaries show, the organizers repeatedly misrepresented their cash-flow, as well as their bookings with performers, caterers, transportation, and even the actual location itself. Some of the festival-goers made it to the island (not private, but in fact one of the main Bahamian islands) for the first weekend of the event. Many of these attendees were major Instagram “influencers,” and thus word quickly spread across social media about Fyre’s failure.
Expectedly, social media quickly erupted with socio-economic Schadenfreude as the festival-goers shared images and videos of the decidedly un-luxurious amenities at the festival. For those who wouldn’t or couldn’t drop thousands of dollars for tickets, airfare, and other expenses, it was a moment to revel in the struggles of the wealthy as they enjoy their karmic comeuppance.
The facts of the event and the grift behind it are fascinating, infuriating, and sometimes darkly humorous, especially as presented in the two documentaries. Jen Cheney’s article for Vulture reviews the two movies and solidly summarizes their differences. Plenty of ink has spilled relaying facts about the Fyre Festival and the two documentaries, so I don’t want to belabor description just to repeat the work of others. What I am interested in, however, is how the documentaries characterize the participants (the organizers as well as the festival-goers), and what those characterizations might mean for political identities in American culture.
Cheney observes that “the babies of the ’80s and ’90s may resent the stereotypes that rear their heads in the Hulu documentary, but it does raise provocative points about what makes portions of this demographic so susceptible to endorsements from Kendall Jenner and other, similar attempts at Insta-marketing. Those who like to laugh at rich white people and scoff at impressionable millennials will get the most bang for their buck on Hulu.”
It is precisely this resentment of the characterization of Millenials that warrants attention. There is more at stake than mere frustration over being called lazy youths by baby boomers. This resentment gets to the core of the failure of liberalism and its rejection by those millennials who find the stereotypical millennial experience inaccessible and, ultimately, undesirable.
The “Incel” Movement
Incels, or “Involuntary Celibates” are a growing virtual community that espouses a generally misogynistic philosophy. For a detailed explanation of the Incel community, I recommend an episode of the Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know Podcast, as well as a BBC article by Jonathan Griffin. As Griffin’s article suggests, the Incel community has come under growing scrutiny as the community and ideology has been connected with a number of violent crimes.
The Incel ideology centers on the idea of the “Red Pill,” borrowed from the Matrix movies, which means that an individual accepts the Incel view of the world. This view means “primarily subscribing to the belief that society discriminates, not against women, but against men. Specifically, against you” (Stuff). There is, essentially, a massive conspiracy against non-ideal men, and this conspiracy explains why these men are denied sexual intimacy (hence, they are involuntarily celibate).
All men and women fall into certain categories. For instance, there are “Chads” – men who fulfill the cultural ideal of masculinity and thereby have unfettered access to sex. “Stacys” are the consorts of Chads who conform to the ideal of feminine physique. “Normies” are incels who try to change their status and fail miserably or, at best, inevitably end up cuckolded by Chads.
Underlying the narratives, categories, and extensive jargon of the Incel ideology is a fixation on biological determinism. Within the broader Incel group, there are different “types” that categorize incels by their physical attributes that make them non-ideal. In a call-back to Phrenology, head size is one of the determining features of ideal masculinity.
Other physical attributes likewise determine masculine ideality, as with “heightcels,” or men who are too short to fit the ideal masculine form, whose height deficiency makes them an Incel. This reasoning extends also to race, as, for instance, “Blackcels” are determined inadequate due to their race. “Race Realism” therefore provides a major piece of the Incel ideology, and it fits within the broader biological determinism undergirding the entire worldview.
The deterministic nature of Incel ideology intensifies the pervasive self-loathing in the community. Incels continually reinforce the narratives of their ideology in their discussion threads, and anyone who attempts to better themselves and their circumstances are attacked and referred back to the “normie” narrative. There is no escape. Since one’s lot in life is determined by their genes and skull shape, there are no options but to seethe with hate for oneself and others.
Levinas on Hitlerism
While the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas is often interpreted in oddly esoteric linguistic frameworks, it in reality responds to the philosophical breakdown that led to the failure of Western liberalism in Europe and the advent of Hitlerism prior to World War II. In his 1934 essay “Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism,” published shortly after the National Socialists assumed power, Levinas traces the differences of subjectivity between Judeo-Christian thought, Western liberalism, and Hitlerism.
Levinas’s primary concern in the essay is not necessarily an analysis of Hiterlism, but is instead an account of the failures of Western philosophy that make something like Hiterlism (or Incels) not only possible, but inevitable. Within Western civilization, there is a spirit of freedom that “signifies a conception of human destiny” wherein one “is absolutely free in his relations with the world and the possibilities that solicit action from him. Man is renewed eternally in the face of the Universe. Speaking absolutely, he has no history” (64). This type of freedom is, ultimately, illusory. History weighs on the human subject. Freedom from “history,” in this sense, would mean an impossible freedom from embodiment itself.
Fyre Festival encapsulates this unencumbered freedom of political liberalism. Wealthy, upper middle class millennials seek out the concert-festival experience and its general hedonism and debauchery. The problem is not primarily moral, however — the majority of millennials are not excluded from the concert experience due to morals, but rather due to material limitations.
The majority of Americans (including quite of few of us Millennials) quite literally cannot afford to experience the “freedom” celebrated by Fyre Festival. Not only are the costs exorbitant for the event itself, but the majority of Americans cannot afford to miss a paycheck or shirk their responsibilities as caregiver for children, parents, or friends. The image of freedom constantly promoted by media (social or otherwise) proves essentially unattainable for the vast majority of people.
“Freedom” in liberalism fails to account for the aspects of embodiment that are the unavoidable facts experienced by people with responsibilities to their families and communities. Levinas contrasts this “freedom” with the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of freedom through grace. Under liberalism, “in place of liberation through grace there is autonomy, but the Judeo-Christian leitmotif of freedom pervades this autonomy” (66).
Like the “soul” in Christianity, “reason” remains eternally separated from the body, and for both “the body is an obstacle” which “is to be overcome” (67). The goal of this freedom is to shed the limitations of embodiment in order to experience pure autonomy. Subjectivity within liberalism constructs a distance that “separates man from the world of ideas” so that “he is free and alone in the face of the world” (69).
This understanding of freedom, untethered from the facts of embodiment, obscures the realities experienced by the majority of people. While freedom is supposedly open (or even guaranteed) to all citizens, it is in fact denied to the majority. The select few experience untethered freedom, and, on the other side of the coin, the acutely spurned few burn with anger.
In response to these developments, Levinas explains that “body is not only something eternally foreign,” but in fact it “controls our psychological life, our temperament, and our activities” and, importantly, provides “the feeling of identity” (68). This recognition is, fundamentally, a rejection of Western liberalism and its conception of freedom as detached from embodiment and history. Hitlerism offers one response to this recognition of embodiment in the “new conception of man” predicated upon the “biological” (69).
The biological conception of man results in a kind of enchainment, akin to the biological determinism shared by Incel ideology, wherein “man’s essence no longer lies in freedom, but in a kind of bondage” (69). Presented with the image of unencumbered freedom in liberalism, one faces the factical realities of embodiment as a suffocating enchainment. “Freedom” may be attained by the privileged few, but this serves as no more than a reminder of the realities constantly pressing on the less-privileged majority.
Unlike with Judeo-Christianity or liberalism, with their (albeit problematic) avenues for escape, biological enchainment binds the subject to the forces of history and destiny. As Levinas explains, “from this point on, every social structure that announces an emancipation with respect to the body, without being committed to it [qui ne l’engage pas], is suspected of being a repudiation or a betrayal” (69). Thus, the biological excludes any political conception in which rational, thinking individuals interrelate with society. Levinas poignantly concludes, “and then, if race does not exist, one has to invent it!” (69).
In a society where Fyre Fest represents the pinnacle of liberal freedom, something like Incel ideology and “race realism” become inevitable. “Freedom” is unattainable for those denied access to the upper echelon of society. If the reasons for exclusion are not immediately apparent (destined through economic success, race, head size, or face shape), then an alternative theory will be sought and supplied.
Here is the crucial point in Levinas’s argument – the evils of Hiterlism are not a genius concoction nor a corruption, but a real response to real deficiencies in Western liberalism. Hitlerism recognizes the disembodied nature of liberal subjectivity, wherein the subject loses all sense of their embodied identity, history, and responsibility. In order to capitalize on this deficiency, Hitlerism (and Incel ideology) overemphasizes embodiment and constructs a racialized worldview wherein every person is “chained” to their body, “refusing the power to escape” from themselves (70).
It is a massive oversimplification to directly compare Hitlerism with Incels or the Alt-Right. But they are not unrelated. They find their point of commonality in the shared breakdown of freedom experienced by the majority within Western liberalism. Undoubtedly, journalistic treatment of Incels and the Alt-Right will continue to center around moral outrage and indignation (which is fair). If the underlying problems with liberalism remain unaddressed, however, such groups will continue to grow and multiply.
Michael Laminack is a PhD candidate in the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint PhD Program.