Dennis Goodwin

Cringe

by Dennis Goodwin

Time can only be perceived by accumulation. A second passing is simply more of something. A number will do. Accumulation has a direction— up— giving us a sense of propulsion: a spiral, a line, or a hockey stick, depending on your theory of civilization. Time drips, sucked into this mortal calculator, with each drop, not falling into black infinitude, but hovering, being sundered where it is, by a pure vibration with no sound. A drop of that oceanic feeling, a drop that lets the gasping fish realize the existence of water, a drop of oblivion.

The sweetest drop: the echoing silence, the ripples, the ramparts, the castle in which I’ve forgotten myself. I am online. I am alone, and I am a god, flipping through so many humorous annals of history.

Yet— suddenly— something… violates my oblivion. Are you… another person? No, not here. I’ll meet you at the dead wind of perfect, triangulated interference of all local microwave absorption to the brain tissue. That void amidst the shimmering Bifröst from 5G towers disguised as trees, pine or palm, and mana from Starlink. But I can’t control these circumstances. This is being forced. I feel something I didn’t consent to. Manager? Police? A shiver of electricity goes… up my spine? Goosebumps form, capillaries bulge, I become aware of my macular degeneration, neck pain and carpal tunnel. I forgot I had a body. Until I detect… cringe.

In the bodiless stasis of being online, cringe is the only reminder that you exist in your vestigial meat suit. You can resist hunger, pissing, and shitting as long as you want (until you can’t), but cringe is immediate and irresistible. With a perverse pleasure, you surrender. The physicality of the sensation helps purge your consciousness of needing to deal with that… thing, intuitively deemed to be a culturally undesirable adaptation and evolutionarily destructive.

To cringe is to activate the nervous system’s police force, the central intelligence agency for thoughts, the emotional ICE. There has been a violation of unstated social norms, of which I am somehow an asymmetrical authority.

Any sufficiently advanced society will make the most socially acceptable form of domination indistinguishable from virtue. Cringing is a kind of biological reset back to virtuous equilibrium in the face of new data that may threaten my social status. It describes both the inner and outer limits of social permissibility: a kind of “safe” cringe directed towards those we consider our perceived social inferiors, and a “dangerous” cringe in the presence of our peers or suspected social superiors.1

Safe cringe is the misfiring of purity in another, something too blisteringly sincere to touch, that finds you soul-to-soul with someone you’d rather not be. By rejecting an empathy graft with an unworthy donor, you separate yourself in the social milieu from this dirty specimen. You walk away feeling clean, basking in a halo of virtue. This virtue, one of the most addictive substances in status games, is the ultimate reward of cringe.

Dangerous cringe is a potentially successful risk taken by a social competitor into something familiarly unknown: a path you had previously considered but neutralized, a thought of your own you might have suppressed. That can’t be me. And yet, why do you feel doubt, the pang of jealousy, the sudden loneliness of not being invited to the party? You’re trespassing in the uncanny valley of your most forbidden desires as enjoyed by your closest enemies and most envied peers. Can people really live in such a carefree manner? This misplaced confidence must indicate a leaky worldview— but is it yours, or mine? You cringe to convert unproductive jealousy into the satisfying denigration of unwanted possibility. Cringe is an encounter of an unhappy person with a happy person.

We are always looking out for the best and worst versions of ourselves, as expressed in other people, and lash out at either example in fear. Safe and dangerous cringe may as well represent doubt as to whether or not we have come to terms with our past and future selves, respectively. Draft selves must be purged.

Socialization demands that we constantly navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of cope and cringe, to somehow live a life of radical centrism: to be just the right amount of funny, smart, interesting (enough to service dinner party conversation, but not enough to be a potential domestic terrorist), and a nubile potential mate. To be a flawless cog.

For to be cringe represents a fate worse than death: social death. Unlike real death, you actually have to live with its consequences. Yet without cringe, we otherwise live completely within the guardrails of our internal system, safely within the margins of the social contract, inside the Iron Dome of cope. Cringe tells us we’re still alive.

After all, what isn’t cringe? What’s expected. Drifting through the flotsam and jetsam of new information, the ego selects for narrative continuity, discarding everything else. It copes. In retrospect, it feels like there was no new information at all. Yet every once in a while, something creeps through. A dissonant note is struck. Cringe. There’s data your simulation may be incomplete. An error in the police algorithms at the border of your consciousness: something actually gets through to you. Something our society is engineered, desperately, to prevent: an authentic encounter.

Cringe is a portal, a gift, a pinhole in the atomically smooth surface of cope. Something to be cherished. The most abundant resource in the universe is evidence you are right. So the most valuable resource is evidence you are wrong.

As an anonymous anime avatar once observed, “Everything worth doing is a little cringe.” Happy is he who can enjoy life’s great autistic pleasures: fandoms, lore wikis, comment sections, cuddle puddles, conspiracy theories, the fine minutae of transportation, Victorian race science, digitally transcribing forbidden texts by 9th century Arab polymaths. These true loners at the fringes of human knowledge are the last bastion of integrity, creativity, and beauty online. Autism is an evolutionary adaptation thriving in its niche.

Do you really exist unless you’re being perceived? Without a body, simply as a mind with a force of will, you cannot be perceived online by any other sentient being without expressing yourself. Without posting. Yet every post threatens you: zero likes? A handful? Hundreds, which are still not enough? At least the cringe was bespoke. There exists an even worse fate: the possibility of any one of your thoughts finding escape velocity outside its original context. Thus we encounter one of humanity’s most sinister inventions: all of us. That is, the infinite audience.

In the gaze of the infinite audience, you feel the light from so many eyeballs reflected up your anus, your very body becoming transparent, the mechanisms of every thought, past and present, being dissected. The infinite audience reflects back unto itself all its tawdry replications: globalized supply chains, open office plans, the endless possibilities of dating apps. Every node connected to every other node. All phenomena where what was once mutually defined in small groups with strong bonds is now dissolved in a commodified acid bath. The specific, detailed, nuanced, and romantic is replaced by the generic, smooth, virtuous and plastic. For the infinite audience, there is no other audience: no audience is right or wrong, there is simply the audience. Cringe is often innocent self-expression not meant for the audience it reached.

Yet if its author feels no embarrassment, someone else must. Cringe is infectious, a truly viral emotion, to blood what a yawn is to breath. And if its patient zero has natural immunity, it must aggressively find new hosts. The impulse to share or comment on cringe is so irresistible because it is the only way to banish the negative emotion it triggered within you. Like some forms of demons, it must be passed onto another to be exorcized.

Thus incentivized, it is easier to side with the cringing than the cringeworthy. Witnesses are conscripted unwittingly into the police force of socialization. The cringeworthy are ejected from the group, reinforcing its core values. Perhaps they have violated the narrative consensus, or perhaps their contributions offer inferior rewards to their banishment. Like in a nature documentary, the camera fixates on the slowest, laziest, dumbest gazelle. The lioness chomps. What do the other gazelles think? You posted cringe. Those who remain feel more virtuous, either for helping to sever the weak link, or being implicitly vindicated for having been ignored by the purge.

Any forum becomes a place where every expression has the potential to be instantly universalized. Thus the terrible implications of Kant’s imperative to “live your life as though every act were to become a Universal Law” is revealed, as not the creation of a moral universe, but a truly ingenious prompt for the horror storyline we find we can’t escape from. Stuffed out the airlock by our own sincerity, exposed to the universe, we freeze in fear. A move in any direction, however slight, might result in infinite embarrassment, a kind of torture only Roko’s Basilisk could design. The meek truly inherit such earths.

The procession of every social media platform to date appears to go like this: clandestine meetings of early adopters leads to the debauched revelry of like minds. A critical mass of users having been thus attracted, a titanic clash of subgroups becomes inevitable. This social war leads to an infinite panopticon, a psychological police state where no authentic interaction is left unpunished. Then a precipitous descent into cringe, followed by exit. Thus the cycle begins anew, somewhere else.

In the terminal phase we now see across all the bigger social media platforms, lesser minds succumb to the hobgoblins of self-caricaturization. The commodification of the self is the end goal of oversocialization. Identity is not a melting pot of experimentation, but an attempt at legibility for an audience. You become bad on purpose to make them click. The network is the author of such personalities. Whatever proliferates, whatever reproduces, wins. Humans are just the sex organs of autonomous thoughts. As the anonymous author Zero HP Lovecraft once tweeted, “Twitter is a machine whose purpose is to compute the worst possible take. Every day, it gets closer”.

The “discourse”, the daily outrage, is a malevolent entity disenfranchising millions of rational thought. The worst minds of my generation, etc. It’s a weapon of mass socialization, of reversion to a pathetic mean. Its function is to extinguish any difference of opinion. Every moral must be shared and thus becomes law. There can be no culture because all cultures must be obliterated to promote diversity. There can be no freedom because absolute equality must be enforced.

So there is something noble in those who do not yield to the torrent of denunciation, who persist in being so cringeworthily, maddeningly wrong. No matter how unjustifiable is the hill they die on, the reaction of the crowd can be just as pathetic as the cringe itself. They can pick apart the psychological incentives that warp other peoples’ minds, but can’t turn the same mirror on themselves. As if someone, somewhere, being wrong is a fault to correct in the universe. It takes true artistic talent to be the object of hatred, rather than mere indifference.

The traumatized seek to justify their lack of curiosity by cringing, by rejecting a painful injection of new information into their already contrived system of defense mechanisms. What’s important is not what makes you cringe, but what you do with it.

What is pain, but new information? Lifting heavy objects induces a contortion of facial muscles than can only be described as a cringe. The lifter reaches his limit, acknowledges it, and moves past it. Fibers tear, pain ripples through the reticulospinal tract, flooding the brain with hormonal instructions to build new muscle. Ouch. Growth only exists through trauma.

The beauty of weightlifting as an activity, let alone its gratifying results, is in the transgression of limits. In accessing the sublime. Yet transgression implies thresholds, portals, struggles, and journeys, but we live in a society whose fundamental programming makes everything more and more immediately available, transparent and accessible. What Baudrillard refers to as transcendence, which “has drawn its last breath” inside the simulation of our lost reality, and “[a]ll that remains is the tension of immanence”.2 A vista from which every other vista may be seen, where every node is seamlessly connected to every other node.

The sublime decays into cringe: the tension of constant vectors of attack, of tactical vulnerability to social obliteration. It is a horniness without orgasm, like thousands of planes crashing into the Twin Towers, without exploding, but simply bisecting them like arrows into twin St. Sebastians.

Perhaps the cultural vogue for cringe and bodybuilding informs us that the last vestige of the sublime can be found in the body. Programming your body is programming yourself with corrective pain to the afflictions of modernity. The last enemy after the defeat of every narrative is still man versus self. And while the audience of our body is duly limited by the meatspace we traverse, with all the pleasures that may entail, no one can appreciate it more than one’s self. To live in a body is truly God’s greatest, and most difficult, gift. What do we do when we reach our bodily limit? Cringe and get through it. There are no gains without it.

To create art is the spiritual form of bodybuilding. And just as with lifting weights, without the will to cringe, there can be no art. Consider this definition of creativity: “ideational fluency, a wide relevance horizon, the suspension of inhibiting self-criticism, and novel distortion of ordinary perception and thought”.3 The ability to cringe and get through it. The initial, primitive urge to use rudimentary locomotion to sample the surrounding environment to identify a more ideal state for one’s survival blossoms into a generalized tool for collecting and organizing information into higher rungs of function. They evolve into goals, seeking further, unknown pleasures. The brain selects for information critical to its survival, hence why some species have sonar, or can see ultraviolet light. Sensory organs form a feedback loop, defining reality as simply a consensus hallucination of the most survivable state. Consciousness is a cringe compilation. The artist’s task is to accelerate this tradition into more and more dangerous cringe: to take singular risks, violate boundaries, to be slightly retarded.

To make another cringe is to give them a gift. Blessed is the one who disarms my defense mechanisms, who penetrates my skull with his delicate finger and wipes my third eye of sleepy, singular crust. Yet in the surge of the infinite audience, haters are as accessible as fans. Moreso, because any great work or sentiment will attract far more vitriol than the anodyne “liking” of something. To be dangerously cringe signals you’re on to something.

Blessed, as well, are my haters, who destroy themselves by feeling extremely embarrassed for me, while I feel nothing but my own body reclining on a cloud, post-workout, having grapes served to me by the sex and body type of my choice. Such haters enter a never-ending spiral of virtuous signaling, of deeper and deeper copes, preventing them from ever having another rational thought. I’ve won. The true artist cultivates his haters as deeply as his fans.

An even deeper strategy, for the shy, or autistic, is to fight the infinite audience and ascend into mutual unintelligibility. The firewall of languages already exists as a framework to replicate, where the vagaries of American culture are restricted to English, providing a somewhat controlled drip preserving the cultural memory. (Although the deluge certainly threatens.) Subcultures breed difference, breed new pools of options, into emergent configurations of living, chance selecting for beauty, like the discovery of penicillin. They burrow into the basement of Babel, into the inexplicability of art.

Perhaps this artistic disposition is what we mean by “based”: a substituted, localized version of the sublime. That which is automatic and uncensored, like the bodybuilder’s well-developed muscles: reflexive, pre-cognitive, wu wei. Something truer than what mere truth can state. Yet based cannot be reached except through cringe, through forbidden fun.

For anything real must be instantly neutralized by the twisted, interconnected webs of agencies, corporations, policies, and mutually-reinforcing cabals that converge on their own definition of an acceptable course of history. Man, alone, with no more expression of power, begins to suffocate. Any of the standard classes you may assign yourself in the artificial confines of an RPG— knight, thief, mage, and so on— that is, someone with the tools of history at their disposal, is replaced by the only trope left: the clown. Anything truly novel appears first as dangerous cringe. Safe cringe is the background radiation of the universe, the regime worship we must all align against. It must not overwhelm the encounter with danger, with the maddening, with the truly comic.

As Nick Land summarizes any potential successful movement, whether artistic, political, or spiritual: “No one will take it seriously until it’s too late.” History is only allowed to happen accidentally, as a joke. First as cringe, then as reality. Jokes slip like quantum lube through the velvet traction of the gloves of the iron fist. This is the fork that art has always sought into the electrical socket of history. All the great wars of the future will be memetic, fought by artists. We have arguably already realized our Napoleon in Trump. Genius is anonymous because it belongs to everyone. It is the product of civilization.

To reach for the sublime, and fail, is cringe. We must. To be human, we must. Yet instead of the disabling encounter of the sublime, in a sacrifice of body and mind, cringe can be repeated, collected, accumulated. As if, instead of casting Icarus down with finality, the sun had dribbled him like a basketball: raped by flame, taking serious psychic damage, he channels the 5,800 Kelvin convective zone of his deep core into thermal columns rising to the surface of his broiling skin… and relaxes.

Sustained tolerance for cringe is the power clean of the mind. Quantity births quality. The process of creation is purging all your ideas in increasingly painful masturbation until the serendipitous child is revealed. As the 2nd century Gnostic theologian Carpocrates put it, “to escape the tyranny of the angels, the masters of the cosmos, every possible ignominy should be perpetrated, that you should discharge all debts to the world and to your own body, for only by committing every act can the soul be freed of its passions and return to its original purity.”4 Enough cringe can become a exponential graph of experience indistinguishable from the sublime.

You blush. Is it niacin? Poppers? Viagra? Wim Hof? Or the beauty of pure, sustained embarrassment, the willingness to withstand criticism? Either way, you are experiencing what is truly pleasurable in the presence of every other person on Earth: the perverse pleasure of being your humiliating self. Humiliation is a potent tool of Eros. Most of the difference between a great artist and a terrible artist is persistence in the humiliation of being an artist in the first place. Or: swap artist for lover. The humiliating experience of time.

Compare the humiliation in front of a potential audience of the 8 billion humans we share the planet with, versus the humiliation of being exposed to the completeness of history: the estimated 107 billion people who have ever lived, and the countless trillions of the future. Humiliation offers us attention, verification, recognition: everything promised by ancestor worship, or the promise of being on the right side of history. Whatever I do, my ancestors cry, and my descendants condemn me. Good. I am only one more, a contingency, dutifully added to the chain of time. An accumulation of genes and memes, propagated mostly by violence, and sometimes by stillness, the perfect stillness of history, from the perspective of a flower.

The thing you fear to say, the emotion you fear to feel, the fantasy you must not entertain: everything you’ve ever thrown away from yourself is exactly what you need to be a true artist. And so is your will to have trashed them in the first place. Perspective is born in the trash. Of course, I’m wrong. But you’re my only witness. Still, you’re making me blush.


1. This categorization is adapted from ContraPoints' Cringe, itself based on classifications from Melissa Dahl's Cringeworthy.
2. Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstacy of Communication, pg 55.
3. Arthur R. Jensen, Giftedness and Genius: Crucial Differences, pg 398, citing the work of psychologist Hans Eysenck.
4. As related in Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.

November 2021

Follow me on Twitter: Dennis Goodwin @sdfanvjkg.