He’s just not that into you: Negging and the Manipulation of Negativity

| by Benjamin Noys |

A man approaches a woman in a bar and says something negative to her: “Your roots are showing”; “You look amazing. What have you done?”; “If your face was as good as your legs I’d have to marry you”; “Nice eyes – even though one is bigger than the other”; “How brave of you to wear an outfit like that”; “You have a great body. Are you bulimic?” This is negging; a ‘dating’ strategy in which the pick-up artist (PUA), or follower of the PUA’s ‘system’, systematically undermines the confidence of his ‘target’ to make her vulnerable enough to agree to sex.[1]

Negging, as a set of explicit techniques, emerged in the 1990s, unsurprisingly correlated with the emergence of the Internet. It also, again unsurprisingly, correlated with the emergence of neoliberalism as the mode of contemporary capitalist governance. In neoliberalism we are encouraged to conceive of our self as a company or corporate entity. We subject our lives to examination in terms of a cost/benefit analysis and this includes our intimate lives. Michel Houellebecq’s 1994 novel was titled Extension du domaine de la lute, and described a situation in which the struggle of economic success and competition is extended to the sexual field. ‘Negging’ is the emergent strategy for that new domain of the struggle.

Under neoliberalism our amorous encounters become negotiations between corporations. If we aim at a long-lasting or stable relationship then we think in terms of a corporate merger. The serial seductions of the PUA or negger are more like a series of corporate raids, designed to loot value from the other – a literalization of asset-stripping. To achieve this hostile takeover the voice of the negger is the pseudo-objective voice of social value and the sexual marketplace. The negger is a malign ventriloquist, suppressing their ‘self’ to articulate a social negation of the ‘value’ of the targeted woman. For the strategy to work the woman must be a ‘high value’ target, must be vulnerable to being treated in an off-hand manner. Jesse Charger, in a defence of negging, argues that it is a strategy only to be used to bring down those women who ‘overrate’ themselves: ‘So if you’re a normal-looking girl with a normal attitude, you probably will NEVER BE NEGGED in your life. So for crying-out-loud, don’t worry about it.’ ‘Negging’ is presented as an equalizing strategy, a perverse inscription of the perfect marker in true equilibrium, in which every woman is available. The disavowal at work here is that the strategy is presented as ‘making the field even’, when it is, of course, aimed to accrue sexual success and value to the man at the expense of the women and any competing men.

In case you think this description of negging as signature neoliberal strategy is an exaggeration, then consider this. A woman reports being the victim of a successful negging strategy by a man whose opening line was: “you’re a bit less hot than your friend, but it’s OK, because I fancy you.” She goes to his home for sex:

“Anyway, at his house I found he had a spreadsheet of all the women he was seeing, colour coded with days and nights. Do I think he was using those techniques sociopathically, instead of natural charm? Yes. I think he was terrified of having a typical relationship, and he had set lines so he didn’t have to risk actual intimacy.” [2]

This ‘spreadsheet subjectivity’ is an almost too-perfect model of the neoliberal self qua firm.

Negging is the obscene underside, to use Žižek’s phrase, of the ‘affirmative’ culture of neoliberal capitalism. It is the officially licensed domain of obscene enjoyment that confirms the official ‘affirmative’ culture and supplements it with a neg-ativity that expresses its ‘truth’. So the official culture of neoliberal culture explicitly rejects bad feelings, encouraging the attitude of ‘smile or die’. This is given its most extreme form in New Age ideologies, such as Louise Hay’s affirmations that explain any illness or fault as the responsibility of the subject. The neoliberal subject standing before the mirror enunciating their self-affirmations goes out into the world to be, potentially, torn down by the strategy of negging or, we could add, what negging reveals as the culture of neg-ativity that is the true inverse of these affirmations.

Into the Black House
Perhaps the best-known fictional portrait of a PUA is the character Frank Mackey played by Tom Cruise in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. Not only is this Cruise’s best career performance, his onstage ‘manifesto’ usefully condenses the form of PUA neg-ativity:

Respect the cock! And tame the cunt! Tame it! Take it on headfirst with the skills that I will teach you at work and say no! You will not control me! No! You will not take my soul! No! You will not win this game! Because it’s a game, guys. You want to think it’s not, huh? You want to think it’s not? Go back to the schoolyard and you have that crush on big-titted Mary Jane. Respect the cock. You are embedding this thought. I am the one who’s in charge. I am the one who says yes! No! Now! Here! Because it’s universal, man. It is evolutional. It is anthropological. It is biological. It is animal. We… are… men!

While this is fiction, and satire, it is also the perfect summary of the delirious root of the pseudo-rational strategies of the PUA, which are ‘informed’ by neuro-linguistic programming, evolutionary psychology, and other ‘scientific’ justifications.

The horror is the horror of dependency and the desire for separation from the misogynist cliché of the ‘vortex’ of the vagina, which ‘saps’ energy and vitality. In neoliberal selfhood the game is always zero-sum. This is sexuality as resource extraction and exploitation. Also, of course, the audience in the film give-up control to the PUA artist, who ‘embeds’ the thought, the mantra ‘Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!’, which the audience chant. Anderson’s film stages this embrace of passivity, with its homosocial connotations, of obedience to the guru figure. Of course this effect of passivity is then, in real life, quickly displaced onto the activity of serial seduction and vengeance for all past rejections. The PUA is the guru or mentor for those who claim to be ‘dispossessed’, while engaged in systematic acts of dispossession.

We can further probe this delirium by turning to Roberto Arlt’s 1929 novel Seven Madmen. The central character is the Dostoyevskian Remo Erdosian, who has been systematically pilfering from his employer. Finally caught and required to pay back his theft Erdosian tours the ‘madmen’ of Buenos Aires trying to borrow the money. He will eventually embark on a mad scheme of kidnap and murder to fund the revolutionary plans of ‘the Astrologer’, which include releasing plague and poison gas, various schemes for mining gold, and a bizarre fascination for the authoritarian.

Erdosian is wracked by sexual anxiety, alternating between a naïve purity, he wears trousers to bed on his wedding night, and an obsessional sexual fantasy life, ‘gratuitously offending and fouling his soul’.[3] After his wife leaves him Erdosian has a breakdown in which he enters the figurative ‘black house’ of compulsive fantasy and masturbation – the black house that is ‘deep inside himself’.[4] Throwing himself ‘into the delicious terror of masturbation’, Erdosian enters ‘a universe of gelatinous ideas’.[5]

This universe is ‘an ever-changing world of females that no-one could ever cast him from’[6], a kaleidoscopic fantasy world of revenge and satisfaction:

Like someone pulling banknotes earned in many different ways from the same wallet, from the recesses of the dark house Erdosian plucked a fragmented but whole woman, made up from a hundred such creatures split by the same desire repeated a hundred times, always blooming anew in their presence.[7]

In this financial metaphor, Erdosian composes ‘this fantasy woman, made up from the bits and pieces of all the ones he had been unable to possess’.[8]

Arlt’s madmen – with their fantasies of sexual control, spiritual purity, amateur inventions, get-rich-quick schemes, desires for authoritarian revolution (Lenin or Mussolini), and dreams of destruction by plague and bombs – are hauntingly familiar types. The Red Pill Right, Bitcoin enthusiasts, gamers, PUA’s, right-wing accelerationists, tech-fetishists, paleo-dieters, and all the bestiary of the internet offer an uncanny mirror to Arlt’s ‘madmen’. Erdosian’s ‘black house’ is easy enough to imagine as a custom porn search, and offers an x-ray of the fantasy structure of the obscene underside of our culture.

If Erdosian’s imagination turns of a particular cultural expression of sexuality, in, pace Foucault, a repressive form, now the repressive desublimation of contemporary neoliberalism makes these fantasies public. What was Erdosian’s ‘private’ realm of fantasy, his internalized ‘suffering’, his ‘black house, is now the ‘open house’ of what is shared through the internet. Of course on the internet neg-ativity appears as the province of a self-elected elite, like Arlt’s madmen. Although ‘public’ it is the work of those in the know, the non-duped, who claim to know how the world ‘really works’. Like Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), these men know what others, prototypically women, don’t:

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell.

This cultivated cynicism is the style of the neggers who see the world ‘for what it is’, for the ‘elementary particles’[9] of neoliberal subjectivity that confront each other in the war zone of the market.

The control of the ‘inner’ delirium is one channelled to manipulation and to a belief in the supreme value of manipulation. While neggers are themselves manipulated by their PUA guru’s they exempt themselves by the notion of a revelation of an absolutely manipulable world, in which to get on top only requires a mastery of the puppet strings. The result is the construction of the world as hell, but, like Milton’s Satan, ‘Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.’ Of course they do not ‘rule’, but construct a simulacrum of mastery, with violent and toxic social effects, to bolster their conception of the world.

The Ugly Soul
Hegel’s analysis of the ‘beautiful soul’, in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), can provide some crucial clues to unlocking the neg-ativity of the ‘ugly soul’ of the PUA/negger. The ‘beautiful soul’ splits itself from the world and finds its certainty only in itself. This ‘absolute certainty’ of the self means that ‘this world is the utterance of its own voice, which in like manner it has directly heard, and only the echo of which returns to it.’[10] This is the ‘voice’ of the negger/PUA, which voices only the certainty of the self, a self which is the vector for the ‘voice’ of the (sexual) market. The result is an echo chamber, in which the voice produces the victim as the subject that conforms to the negger’s/PUA’s schema: either rejector/castrator, for those who resist or dismiss, or ‘slut’ for those who respond and accept this ‘seduction’.

Hegel argues that the beautiful soul, which flees from actuality to preserve ‘the purity of its heart’, is trapped by its own negativity: ‘The hollow object, which it produces, now fills it, therefore, with the feeling of emptiness.’[11] While ‘purity of heart’ may seem an odd phrase to use to analyse negging, we can note it described the self-deceptive ‘gallantry’ of the negger/PUA, as well as the hypocritical projection of negativity on to the victim. This is the ‘game’ of control, in which all control is on the side of the nagger/PUA, but which produces a void, an object which is not an object. Hegel remarks of the beautiful soul that ‘its activity consists in yearning’.[12]

The final result of the beautiful soul is madness, as the negativity it projects onto the world returns to consume it. It lives in the contradiction of its claimed purity and the world’s disorder, which then evacuates both into abstract emptiness. Hegel writes:

Thus the “beautiful soul”, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is unhinged, disordered, and runs to madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption. Thereby it gives up, as a fact, its stubborn insistence on its own isolated self-existence, but only to bring forth the soulless, spiritless unity of abstract being.[13]

We do not, of course, seem to witness much of this self-consuming madness with the PUA or negger, although it may be out there. Certainly we do witness the madness of this split and the resulting ‘spiritless unity of abstract being’ in their behaviour. In fact this ‘spiritless unity of abstract being’ unlocks the unity of capitalist subjectivity as empty abstraction.

The empty abstraction, of course, has a bearer. These are ‘visceral abstractions’,[14] and visceral in the sense particularly of the assault on the victim. This is not to deny the violent materiality of negging and generalised neg-ativity. Abstraction, in this sense, is certainly real, and certainly a real act of violence. It results, however, in the construction of a ‘spiritless unity’, in which the negger/PUA, while claiming power and authority, is reduced to the bearer of this abstract violence. While they construct women as abstract units on a spreadsheet or score sheet, this calculating approach (in both senses) rebounds to construct the PUA/negger as empty, or as empty except for the violent raging neg-ativity which constitutes their ‘inner’ being.

This is, again, a vision of absolute manipulation. The world is evil, for the negger, because it is a world that rejects the negger, while the negger should be rejecting it. In this second rejection the negger de-links from the world, which becomes a series of abstract units of value that can be manipulated ‘at will’. The manipulator too, however, is reduced to another abstract unit in this world. The capitalist marketplace is the ‘final’ ruler.

Counter Counter-Culture
The style of the subcultural milieu of negging is one that draws, as we’ve seen, on many sources. It is motivated by revenge. This revenge is one taken on women but also, of course, on feminism and various other social gains that emerged from the revolutionary moment of the long 1960s. If neoliberal governance is the overarching roll-back of those movements, while absorbing and retooling elements of the counter-cultural programme, negging is another twist on this recuperation. The neggers claim a freedom that they see as at threat from any infringement on their ‘rights’. They claim and pervert the French 1960s slogan ‘Enjoy without shackles’ [jouir sans entraves]. Alain Badiou has noted how this slogan implies a ‘de-linking’, a nihilism which then turns to the notion that any enjoyment can be bought.[15].

The line between ‘radical’ nihilism and capitalist nihilism is a short one. While the counter-culture has its own well-documented problems with feminism we should note that it also formed an horizon from which questions of liberation could be posed. Feminism was a revolution in the revolution. The reworking or recuperation of these radicalisms by the capitalist restoration, which begun in the 1970s and accelerated since 1989, aims to nullify or pervert those radical negations into the service of the market. Therefore negging is expressive of the empty core of capitalist subjectivity and this process of roll-back.

Negging is not simply one of the ‘new’ counter-cultures, which freely borrows elements from past counter-cultures to construct its ‘retro-sexism’ as the expression of a ‘true’ freedom. It is a counter counter-culture, amplifying the worst elements of the counter-culture (sexism, a de-linked vision of life, radical individualism, etc.) and using those to neutralize any thinking of freedom as a social form by confining freedom to the freedom to enjoy on the sexual marketplace.

While the social conditions that made the counter-culture possible have exhausted themselves, while that dynamic is ‘saturated’, as Badiou would put it, this does not mean this ground should simply be ceded. The neg-ativity of negging is the sign of what comes to fill the absence: the cultural forms of capital lack their own dynamic capacities are operate as parasites on past invention, draining or perverting their content to serve the cultural marketplace. What negging reveals is the violence in this process. Abstractions turn malign and absorb and channel a negativity become malignant once it is blocked from the process of the realization of freedom.

This is why negging is an activity, an endless yearning that freezes liberation into the form of liberation into abstraction and the ‘joys’ of exchange rendered as violent exploitation. Although definitely a minor and peripheral form, this activity attests to a wider series of strategies that inhabit the mode of scandal and shock as affirmative of the status quo. The signature expression of these strategies is the line: “we are just saying what everyone really thinks”. Invoking an uneven and socially necessary policing of speech as ‘totalitarian’ oppression and manipulation, what we are ‘all’ really thinking turns out to be the molten core of capitalist ideology: racism, misogyny, class hatred, fantasies of dominance and control.

Where once the counter-culture aimed to reveal the manipulations of capitalist ideology, the counter counter-culture of neg-ativity reveals the ‘manipulations’ it imputes to any attempt to regulate, control, or restrict the commodification of existence. This is why the neg-ativity of negging is emblematic of the blocking of any transition of negativity to the affirming of freedom. Instead it offers a pseudo-freedom, which is ‘pseudo’ because it is bought through the subjection of the Other, qua victim, and the concomitant emptying of the self. It inhabits neg-ativity as a state of ‘yearning’, which only confirms the world ‘as it is’, or better the ideological vision of the world as violently colliding elementary particles.

Against Neg-ativity
To rupture the culture of negging does not involve refusing negativity, but rather the perversion of negativity into neg-ativity. Those who promote ‘affirmative’ solutions form, as I’ve suggested, merely the flipside of neg-ativity. After all, neg-ativity itself is affirmative of the success of the negger/PUA at the expense of all other subjects, or more particularly at the expense of the female victim. The ‘freedom’ neg-ativity offers is the freedom of what Badiou called de-linking, a claimed ‘freedom’ from manipulation inhabiting the position of the manipulator. This does not involve an escape, but a flight further into manipulation – figured especially in the PUA guru, but also it this vision of the subject who ventriloquizes the market and the order of subjectivity reduced to value.

If negging reveals this state we are already rupturing with its claimed isolation and claimed ability to ‘master’ the market. Negging, instead, inscribes the neg-ativity of neoliberal governance that exceeds the compass of negging. What remains, however, is the more difficult to task of negating this neg-ativity. To simply condemn negging, which obviously requires this gesture, is to leave it isolated in its imaginary position of mastery, which can easily flip-over into claims of victimhood, as we see with the ‘men’s rights movement’. Instead, this neg-ativity needs to register its own isolation and the untenability of this position. The ‘manipulator’ is the one who is also manipulated or, as Lacan put it, the non-dupes err.

This would require another cultural revolution, another rollback of the rollback. The conditions that made the counter-culture possible in its particular form no longer hold. This offers the capacity for re-invention, as so much of the counter-culture was directed against the codifications of the Fordist dispensation. It was this that gave the counter-culture a certain power, but also a certain proximity to the neo-liberal counter-revolution, which also targeted those ‘codifications’ in the name of the market unleashed. If those codifications are gone then the rationale of neo-liberal governance, in its self-image as ‘revolutionary’ market creed, its ‘accelerationist’ imagination, is also put under threat. Negging reveals this, as it desperately tries to find forms of coding, notably PC, to react against. If negging has little to actually negate its own hollowness is revealed, as well as its fundamental violence.

What we might suggest is to need to valorize and retool forms of codification in the name of a real freedom, a concrete freedom directed toward actuality, rather than the ‘freedom’ of flight and escape that forms a common horizon today. Not more de-linking, but less. Not least in the revelation that this de-linking forms an abstract horizon of subjection and ‘manipulation’ by the forms of value and state power. In this way the ‘yearning’ of the ‘beautiful soul’ is brought to confront its own limit, its own negativity, which allows the transformation of irrational neg-ativity into the negativity that would form the transition to rational freedom. To neg the neggers, then, is not to merely insult them, to return neg for neg, gratifying though that might be, but also to confront them with the emptiness of their claims, their own inhabited abstraction, and to offer them a path of re-education to a concrete freedom.

Acknowledgements
I’d like to thank Harrison Fluss for his comments, for his coinage ‘neg-ativity’, and for his advice concerning Hegel.

References
[1] The examples and the description of ‘negging’ are taken from Woolf, who takes them from the PUA website SeductionScience.
[2] In Woolf, Nicky, ‘“Negging”: Anatomy of a Dating Trend’, New Statesman 25 May 2012: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/voices/2012/05/negging-latest-dating-trend
[3] Arlt, Roberto, The Seven Madmen [1929], trans. Nick Caistor (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2015), p. 8.
[4] Arlt, Roberto, op. cit., p. 122.
[5] Ibid, p. 121.
[6] Ibid, p. 121.
[7] Ibid, p. 122.
[8] Ibid, p. 123.
[9] Houellebecq, Michel, The Elementary Particles, trans. Frank Wynne (New York: Vintage, 2001).
[10] Hegel, G.W.F., The Phenomenology of Mind, Marxists Internet Archive:
https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/phindex.htm , #658.
[11] Ibid, #658.
[12] Ibid, #658.
[13] Ibid, #668.
[14] Ngai, Sianne, ‘Visceral Abstractions’, GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 21.1 (2015): 33–63.
[15] Badiou, Alain, The Adventure of French Philosophy, ed., trans. and intro. Bruno Bosteels (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 55.

Bibliography
Arlt, Roberto, The Seven Madmen [1929], trans, Nick Caistor (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2015).
Badiou, Alain, The Adventure of French Philosophy, ed., trans. and intro. Bruno Bosteels (London and New York: Verso, 2012).
Charger, Jesse, ‘Negging Women – 10 Awesome Negs that Work’, SeductionScience (2010): http://www.seductionscience.com/2010/negging-women/
Hegel, G.W.F., The Phenomenology of Mind, Marxists Internet Archive:
https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/phindex.htm
Houellebecq, Michel, The Elementary Particles, trans. Frank Wynne (New York: Vintage, 2001).
Ngai, Sianne, ‘Visceral Abstractions’, GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 21.1 (2015): 33–63.
Woolf, Nicky, ‘“Negging”: Anatomy of a Dating Trend’, New Statesman 25 May 2012: http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/voices/2012/05/negging-latest-dating-trend

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Benjamin Noys is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Chichester. His most recent work is Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (Zero Books, 2014).