10. the draw of solitude
looking into the parallel between the modernist and the sigma male
I recently was working through Georg Lukacs’ “The Ideology of Modernism”, an essay that falls into the controversial era of Lukacs where he heavily criticizes the aesthetic innovations of modernist writers. As a personal fan of writers such as Joyce and Beckett (both of whom serve as punching bags to Lukacs), I’ve always found the essay challenging, but enlightening. In it, Lukacs manages to tap into a central issue in the ideology of post-WW1 aesthetics that never left our cultural discourse: “Man, for these writers, is by nature solitary, asocial, unable to enter into relationships with other human beings [...] Man, thus imagined, may establish contact with other individuals, but only in a superficial, accidental manner; only, ontologically speaking, by retrospective reflection.” Though the stubborn part of me would argue Joyce inherently refutes this claim, Lukacs’s point largely rings true. The nihilistic belief that man is not social, that man is better off alone, forever trapped within his own head, still stains contemporary culture. And it’s always an intriguing exercise to aim towards these cynical works - is their mindset socially inspired or sunken in a disbelief in human socialness?
At the same time as I was reading the Lukacs essay, I was often stopping to flip through my Instagram and TikTok feeds. Part of the pain of existing in the internet age is a fried attention span. How easily can I focus on something from sentence to sentence? Not easily at all, apparently. However, in the span of flipping through reels, a sudden parallel formed. Though divided by time, Lukacs’s comments on modernism stormed through to fit into a neat parallel with what I was looking at. You see, at that time, I was being barraged by a series of posts that fall under the category of “Sigma Male” posting. Strange term to those who don’t know it, I’m sure, and even more strange parallel to those who recognize it. To explain, the “Sigma Male” is an internet concept that originates from old Alpha and Beta conversations. Internet forums such as 4chan, Reddit, and shitty meme magnetsites like 9Gag and Funnyjunk, were, at one point, obsessed with the concept of male social hierarchies. These hierarchies were based off an old study of wolf packs (one that the researcher himself later discredited): there are Alpha wolves, who lead and fuck and generally own, and Beta wolves, who work and don’t mate and generally suck. When internet users transferred this onto men, they came up with the two categories for men: Alpha’s, who can party, be social, and get girls, and Betas, who are doomed to serve, be isolated, and never ever EVER have a single drop of sex. Now, this, like everything else on the internet, went on to exacerbate and complicate beyond comprehension. Gammas and Omegas were defined and, to be honest with you, I don’t have the time or interest to go figure out what the hell either of those terms mean. What’s important to note is the emergence of the “Sigma” category - the one that exists outside of the hierarchy of men.
The “Sigma Male” is somewhere between an Alpha and a Beta, in regards to denotation. Well, to be honest, he’s mainly a Beta. He doesn’t socialize, stays inside, doesn’t have sex, doesn’t have friends - but, unlike the Beta, he’s made a choice. You see, the “Sigma”, on the surface, has all the calling cards of an Alpha. He’s charismatic, smart, and generally depicted as good-looking - but he’s different. He made a choice in his life - and his choice is to reject women and parties and so on to focus on one thing, and one thing only: himself. Hence the Sigma Male often is depicted outside the complex hierarchy of men - he’s the lone wolf, the John Wick, the American ideal. The posts that I was getting barraged with center around this concept - the lone wolf man who invests in himself and finds ultimate success because of it, rejecting the social life, and generally fun, as solely distracting.
The reason I bring it up is because I was suddenly struck by the eerie similarity with the criticisms of modernism and the insisted pleasures of Sigma Grindset. Though I don’t believe any Sigma Male would come out and say immediately that they isolate themselves, the core fact is there is a parallel between the suggestions of the Sigma Male and Lukacs’s interpretation of Modernism. Yet, while Modernism claims solitude to be the nihilistic fate of mankind, Sigma Malehood views it as the only escape rope to success left in the contemporary world. When I draw the parallel to Lukacs’s modernism, I argue that Sigma Malehood suffers from a similar investment in solitude as modernism. Where Modernism’s interest in man as a solitary creature came from psychopathology and an attempt to reject social criticism as a part of art, Sigma Maleness is a lot more...basic? Bodybuilding and day trading in lieu of actual communion with other humans seems a lot more uninteresting - however, those differences in details, though parallel in purpose, expose features about two different types of solitude.
You see, while the solitude prescribed in Modernism was an attempt to escape historical and social commentary, it nonetheless comes from a feeling of being trapped. The man modernists viewed as solitary was solitary because he was trapped by an unchangeable nature. He cannot help but be trapped within his own head, separated from the rest of the world - the scientific fact of it, through which modernists escape social commentary, damns him to his solitude. Sigma Men tend to not avoid social commentary but reject it outright because their rejection is far more active. They are trapped, but trapped in a changeable way: they are trapped by the human curse of communion. Their hope to change themselves, rather than change the world, results in the actions and ethos that pushes any other person aside.
With Modernism, Lukacs specifically argues that a hyper interest in psychopathology was a part of the reason Modernism came to view man as a solitary unsocial creature. His analysis is two-pronged. Lukacs writes that the view of experience that psychopathology influences as one where man is so internal, so sunken into his head, that he cannot truly experience others or even the external world. Furthermore, the mindset that comes with psychopathology, that there is some deformity hidden among the brains of every human, influences the nihilistic thinking that, not only is man stuck inside his head, man cannot truly connect with another for anything other than perverse or violent reasons. Now, with the Sigma Male, we have to remember that solitude is no longer a plight but an escape - and, where a fascination with the interior supposedly brought modernism to it’s interior, I’d say it’s a sickly lame interest in the exterior that has brought the Sigma Male to it’s beloved solitude.
Following the advent of the term, different niches and aesthetics of primal self-presentations began floating under the “Sigma Male'' umbrella. The powerlifting/bodybuilding niche that had developed on forums like /fit/ started entering into its orbit. It was a good fit - the board members emphasized fitness as a lonely endeavor, solely for one’s own happiness rather than sexual appeal or a sport-like place for community. To the Sigma Male, bodybuilding related to an easy insecurity: the body. With the advent of the internet came a proliferation of health and fitness science. Suddenly, the ability to body build and diet become far more accessible to the public. Young men who would otherwise simply follow their bodily intuition and the resources at hand now could “hack” their bodies. And, because exercise is commonly known (and largely rightfully so) as a healthy outlet, it was quickly understood as the “correct way” to spend one’s time. Slowly, with time, it evolved to be work - working on one’s body. And, with time, the posts regarding fitness became more aggressive, more specifically niche. There’s an abundance of memes, Reels, Tiktoks, focused specifically on overweight people (usually women), mocking them for accepting themselves, rather than “putting the work in”. And, with many things on the internet, the more self-aware bodybuilding-related posts often comment on how the exercise pursued is far less health oriented than in blindly reaching that muscle-bound freak image. Dirty bulks, where teenagers will gorge on as many calories as possible, then cut themselves to 1200 calories a day, causing massive spikes and drops in weight. The hypocritical title of “putting in the work in one’s body” is a cover for what lies underneath - a desperate want to be attractive, to be attracted to others.
Similarly, the “finance bro” niche also began to attach itself to the term - as an online community based around the satirical image of a lonely boy day trading haphazardly on their gaming computer and suddenly coming upon millions of dollars, it fit in well with the “lone wolf” image. Now, with the Sigma Male, similar to the body building aesthetic, the day trading loner millionaire was another method to explain away loneliness as a form of externally attractive success. In a section of “The Ideology of Modernism”, Lukacs describes an escapism inherent to modernism. “The protest expressed by this flight into psychopathology is an abstract gesture; its rejection of reality is wholesale and summary, containing no concrete criticism. It is a gesture, moreover, that is destined to lead nowhere; it is an escape into nothingness.” Basically, as mentioned prior, the fascination with psychopathology and solitude acted as an escape for modernist writers - they had no need to include any social criticism or historical contextualization. They could wander into their abstract worlds, their aesthetic worlds, and exist unbothered.
The daytrading fascination of Sigma Males - and the pride with which they bear the badge of their investments on their posts - is similar in its escapism. However, unlike the usage of bodybuilding to escape the discomfort of the body, daytrading, investing, and solely isolating oneself into focusing on this topic, is an escape from the fragile state of the current world. In recent years, the middle class in America faced two traumatic events that seem to have scrambled its brain. The first was the eye opening foreclosures of the Great Recession. Home ownership, though always built on debt, is a sign of financial safety in America. However, when, in 2007, hundreds of Americans watched their neighbors foreclosed upon and ripped out of their homes, it sent a tremor of fear throughout the country - a class of people who believed they were removed from homelessness were suddenly closer than ever before. At the same time, there was a shift in the cultural paradigm as a huge wellspring of billionaires were raised into popular view, their wealth from the tech boom: Mark Zuckerbeg, Jeff Bezos, and, most idolized, Elon Musk, among others. American culture has always idolized its most rich as folklore-esque figures to worship. Yet, this sudden wellspring was also awe-inspiring due to the sudden nature of their wealth - through stock gambles, idiosyncrasies, and carefully hidden starting funds, they act as a completely unique generation of ultra wealthy - rather than distant gods, they pose their statuses as easily attainable. The middle class mindset was thus warped: its children were suddenly steps away from either homeless or billionaire status. From there, everyone just went a little insane. To the Sigma Male, there’s an escape in following that pathway. And day trading becomes the easy draw - it takes immense focus, little thinking, and can be done alone without another person. And - most importantly - it furthers the belief that one can change everything about their life if they truly try. Work out more. Work harder on your investments. Why do you waste your time on parties? Why do you waste your time on women? You’ll regret it when you’re older, and nothing’s changed - meanwhile, I, Mr. Sigma, will be a millionaire with insane biceps.
I stated at the beginning of the essay that Sigma Men view their solitude as the way they can save themselves, rather than Modernism’s view that it is a damnation of fate. Yet, they become united when one realizes they still refuse the company of fellow man to hunker down, stick their head in the sand, and refuse to work towards a changed world. Though reactions against a horrifying status quo, they still can be boiled down to two different arguments to avoid a problem, and to avoid other humans. At the end of the day, funny or serious, aesthetically innovative or generally lacking self-awareness, they are the invocations of fear - fear against touching one thing, lest the Jenga tower fall. And, though they react against an ever crueler world, they only further allow it to slide down into the abyss. Fear allows no person to take an active stance, to change anything. Instead, it divides into solitude.