men

Prologue for the masculine prerogative and the little boy’s dilemma

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I. FOR me, a discussion which involves men is always on which is best understood when it undergoes a schism of sorts. Not only does said schism allow for a less 2-dimensional approach of half of the human race, but it acknowledges – almost from the get-go – that at his core, the male has a bifurcated existence.

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AND this is where, I believe, most of our problems (even those which do not directly appear to relate to this discussion) emerge. The split nature of the human-male is both the driver and the product of our value system in the western world. There is plenty of literature which supports this claim, mainly Freudian and post-Freudian (it is almost impossible not to think of Lacan, much to my own dissatisfaction). That is why I intend to be cautious when addressing this as it is so easy to fall in the trap of post-structuralist-psychoanalytical huba-baloo (i.e. just another form of male display). Nevertheless, where these scholars applied theories on the split or fragmented being to the entire nature of human existence, I intend to direct solely on the male subject. The latter, I admit, will not be a trying task as psychoanalysis envisions the ego as a definitively male one, or at least, one which is definitively conditioned by a male-centred world. In any case, it is important to draw the line right there. In my eyes, it is the male subject which is systematically bifurcated over the time, and the female is not. I stress this distinction perhaps because I envision it as an emancipation from the male ego, and a personal step towards crisping up the edges of a female subjectivity which had always seemed too blurry for me.

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II. WE have come to exist in a quasi-exclusively visual culture. This has in part been accelerated by social-media outlets such as reddit, which functions as a super-printing-press for memes. I see the creation and distribution of images such as memes as a kind of paradox whereby no original copy of an image exists anymore, as the velocity and scale to which it is reproduced and distributed scrambles any kind of traceable route of regression. This visual culture, however, is not entirely dictated by even-newer and even more short-lived image-bytes which flicker on-and-off-on-and-off at us. The modern phenomenon of images as coded messages (messages as we know them in our terms, so hieroglyphs or illuminated manuscripts don’t count) is part of a much broader art historical tradition which goes a couple of centuries back. Without even going into any sort of depth, the effects that images and signs have on us as individuals impacts our collective consciousness. The effects of our visual culture are palpable in everyday life. We deal in terms of signs and signification, and it is extraordinary how, almost as a collective consciousness, we have created a universal language which does not necessitate a translator.What is more impressive to me is that the area we have placed the most effort on to signify and segregate is the realm of gender and sexuality.  Even a 21st century house cat would know better than to buy a Pollypocket for little Bobby, or a miniature truck for little Susie.

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WITHIN the area of gender and sexuality it is obvious that the most visibly revisited subject is the female body. With no exception, it is safe to say that, either by repetition or omission, western visual culture (which, for the most part has been completely dominated by men) has been wholly committed to the representation, regulation and appropriation of feminine physicality. What truly stands out as I write these words is a paper I was assigned in my first year of my BA Art History about fifth century BC Greek pots and vases. I read a paper by scholars T. Rasmussen and N.J. Spivey (great names BTW) which briefly examined the conflicting representation of women on said vases. In almost every vase featured you could feast your eyes on sumptuously carved bodily undulations, some w\hose nudity was used to amplify their promiscuity and others whose heavily draped bodies was a vehicle for their domestic role as chaste wives and daughters. It is remarkable how, in over a two-thousand year period, the same ideals lead us to two extreme points of female existence. There is no fathoming still, of any woman in between, because women are still being at large represented from the eyes of men who either desire or fear them (or probably both).  I am still shocked at the scale to which women over-populate men in visual culture. We are really everywhere, in magazines, in televised ads, and on everyone’s minds – exposed and scrutinised. Aside from the obvious worrisome conclusions we can derive, it is useful to stop and contemplate how incredibly bizarre it all is.  Yet, I don’t want to veer the argument away from my initial focus – men – so I’ll just carry on where I left off.

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IT is easy to misunderstand our world as being ‘full of women’ merely because they appear in almost every-page of visual outlets (I discovered this when my friends and I hysterically flipped through women’s magazines looking for ‘hot men’ for our ‘hot-man wall’ which left us if anything, short of stimulation and short of provisions!) Perhaps when looking closer it becomes obvious that male power functions like Bentham’s panopticon – ever-present yet undetectable. Through this poignant yet invisible power men have been able to prescribe laws (many of which practice female erasure from social issues), build civilisations and direct systems and ideologies. That is not to say that male power is all bad. There is the century old argument, for instance that men are single-minded empire-builders – which I believe for the most part to be quite accurate. As Dr. Helena Cronin once controversially put it, ‘we are all the descendants of those competitive men, and those judicious women’. Dr. Cronin applied Darwinian theories almost as a direct response to Second-Wave Feminism, by which she illustrated that biologically men were more single-minded, competitive and ambitious than women. This was very hard for me to swallow, considering I have always strongly identified with the adjectives above… but who can argue with science?

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III. AND, I suppose, this is where I lead into actually explaining what I mean by a bifurcated male subjectivity. What I illustrated before is something that is basically as undeniable as it is immutable – our basic genetic makeup, our biology and our distant past. Perhaps our differences are merely just fact and we should just get over it – in essentially every other animal the female and the male are identifiable in their disparity, often both in their physical appearance and the roles they hold.

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HOWEVER, both this argument and Dr. Cronin’s alike,  is a gross over-simplification. As feminist author Germaine Greer comments in her first best-seller The Female Eunuch (1970), in no other animal are sexual differences exaggerated and amplified as in human-kind. So another explanation for the apparent gender disparity is most definitely a cultural issue. I believe the most obvious point in favour of this argument is that while scientific laws are a constant, masculinity never has been. While we may be able to find beads of male attitudes across disparate periods and cultures which paint a coherent picture, we may also find this to be a laborious and futile endeavour. In many Japanese households, for example, the women hold a monopoly over the family budget and their husband’s earnings – something unfathomable for a western paterfamilias’ sense of masculinity.

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BETWEEN the late-19th century and today European society shifted from a state of masculinity to what may be called hyper-masculinity. This is a topic which is all too familiar for me, as I dedicated last year’s research to it. In my paper Setting and Disseminating Paradigms of Masculinity in the Late-19th Century Painting  I argued:

Following France’s humiliating defeat by the British at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and Napoleon’s additional failure during the 100 Days campaign (1815), the late nineteenth-century saw a series of subsequent defeats during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1).[2] Where once the French men were revered as the acme of military masculinity, they now returned ‘with their bodies mutilated and incomes slashed, veterans materially cut off, socially severed, and psychologically emasculated’.[3] Such an extreme disfigurement of the physical body relates back to Lacan’s theories of the fragmented self – just as the men’s anatomical integrity was compromised, so too did the military humiliation in the subsequent years perforate the very tissue of their constructed masculinity.[4] Lacan argued in favour of a theoretical dichotomy between the (organic) penis and the (inorganic) phallus.[5] While all male subjects possessed a penis, and lacked the symbolic presence of the phallus, they were wholly charged with the un-achievable task of representing it.[6] The symbolic phallus may be seen less as a focal point of male attributes and more as the ‘renunciation of the feminine’, a model which according to Kimmel is inevitably ‘unrealisable’ and one which provides an exaggeratedly gendered sense of identity which is both ‘tenuous and fragile’.[7]

In short, my text illustrated the  constructed state of masculinity in European mentality (with an obvious emphasis on the French) and how individual subjectivity was suppressed under a layer of cultural neurosis. Males, by their own collective doing, sacrifice their personal identity in favour of a universal status quo.

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I like to romanticise the time when a boy finally becomes a man. Although in truth most of the process, I admit, but happen as a sub-conscious process. There is nothing more in-organic, more counter-intuitive, than our coming of age – both in men and women. When we are babies we are all the same. Many studies conducted in the west demonstrate that babies cry at the same rate and frequency regardless of biological sex, and the rupture which occurs between boys and girls is only exacerbated when a child realises their own gender at around five. I want to call that ‘the little boy’s dilemma’. In his earliest stages of development the infant-boy is fettered to his doting mother as she nurses him, an act which may be regarded as the most sacred of intimacies. As he grows, this intimacy is inevitably lost and he turns to his father (or father-figure). This hardening up of boys into men is not seen as damaging because the system tricks us into thinking about an organic schism between the sexes. Men are hard, women soft – boys blue, girls pink… and so on and so forth. The damage it does to men is also much harder to detect because this is a man’s world. Empire building, leadership and capitalism are all systems put in place by men, for men. The phenomenon of modern capitalism is essentially a rewards based-system where there is a lot to win for very few. When women were more-or-less allowed to participate in this numbers game none of us realised at what disadvantage they would enter the race. Of course, there is the big one – women, as opposed to men, are physiologically equipped to a domestic setting because they have a uterus and therefore must bear children. Some say this is the grand explanation, but I refuse to see it this way – if anything it is the grand excuse. The fact that women bear children would not have been a problem in a society that had been invested in providing equal opportunities from the get-go. The issue of inequality is not one of biological difference, it is about the fact that women have entered a man’s economy without so much as a single meaningful modification or adjustment. Women are expect to work like men, isn’t that naff? A woman, who at some point if she chooses with her partner, will one day bear children, nurse them, have to give them double the attention to compensate for her absent husband who is expected at work – must perform in exactly the same way as a man who has no such responsibilities or needs… and if she can’t keep up, produce steady capital, cross swords in the grand pissing contest that is the male-centred economy, she is exiled back into the kitchen – apron on, pie in hand, baby on tit.

The little boy’s dilemma is also about sex and friendships. Men, perhaps more than ever today when women edge themselves out of the margins of social spheres, like to stick together. The late Dr. Kosofsky-Sedgwick discussed at length the issue of male homosociality in English literature and beyond. A pre-requisite of male-bonding is that it practice total female exclusion but also obligatory heterosexuality. Men are each-other’s brothers, comrades – but in-between the lines, also their biggest competitor’s for female attention in the sexual arena.