I have often wondered how it might be possible to unsteady the deepest cultural habits, to problematise the stranglehold of what Bourdieu would no doubt have termed the 'habitus', that 'operation of culture onto the body': what are the real prospects for upturning the habitus, for engaging in a kind of scholarship that sets out, in the spirit of an absolute activism, to shake the deeply embedded gender ideologies of Western masculinity to its core? We might even think this as in some sense a hopelessly Foucauldian move, a smart, even witty arse-bearing at faux fiends and make-believe monsters, always shouting as if with the pious zealot's commitment, but really speaking from a mandarin position of loathsome aristocratic detachment.
And here is the key problem - how are we to think this without this loathsome aristocratic detachment, how to make the process simply begin, even start to unsettle without noting something that is at core absurd in the attempt? Maybe humour is the only way, maybe comedy the best chance for an unsettling; the absurd, it seems, might be one way to name that which is dangerous, that which flouts the rules of so-called common sense, which refuses the hegemonic stranglehold on what is acceptable and what ridiculous.
Let's begin at a place I know quite well, and one that draws me back to it over and over (why is this this? perhaps that's a different post). I want to visit late nineteenth-century Vienna and ask these questions about comedy, the absurd, the ridiculous pose of thinking as if no longer inside, no longer implicated in the hegemonic stranglehold of that body, that male, swaggering graphism that haunts every attempt to think it differently, to think as if we were infinitely malleable. Why Vienna and why then? Well it is a place, I suggest, where we come to see, possibly at its most intense, some of the the ways in which the modern habitus is put into place, disciplined and held under the powerful sway of masculine hegemony; this is the moment of Freud, of film, of radio, of phonography, of regimes, of health farms, of endless quirky sanitoria.. the place of the first celebrities, of the first rehab, of the first Priory.
the cultural-historical shorthand of taxonomy (from the Greek taxis
[‘arrangement’] and nomos [‘law’]) is something of
which Michel Foucault was especially fond. At the Viennese fin de
siècle, a place Foucault rarely visited, taxonomies
proliferate, but, unlike the exotic taxonomies of the Foucauldian
they do so according to a logic that is seductively close to
our own: they proliferate in order to fill out or thicken the
empirical texture of the world. Laughter fills Foucault’s response
to the exotic taxonomies of distant and strange places, and the
purpose of that laughter is quite explicit – to articulate the
seductive nature of difference. There is also laughter to be had for
us, no doubt, in the face of fin-de-siècle Viennese
taxonomies, but this is a laughter which resounds in response to a
set of epistemological problems rather too similar to our own: the
seductive epistemological closeness of the Viennese fin de siècle,
its metropolitan imagination, its fascination for decline and
degeneration and its obsession with the inner self, might so easily
stand in for our own late modern predicament.
Hegemonic masculinities, those which shore up, enrich and polemicise atavistic claims to men’s a priori right to public discourse, become describable at the fin de siècle by means of a new proliferation of taxonomial adjectives: it becomes possible at last to speak empirically or ‘in detail’ of men, to understand men as objects of scrutiny, to construe them as susceptible to the operation of discourse. In this, the Austro-German fin de siècle marks a ‘thickening’ (a somatising) of the solidity of masculine hegemony by making available to that hegemony a new set of epistemological tools with which to define, circumscribe and construe itself.
This self-discoursing nonetheless brings with it a consequent and paradoxical ‘thinning’ of hegemony, a counter-effect to the thickening, which threatens men’s exclusive access to discourse: characterisation, description and other forms of empirical ‘capture’ are also the very same processes through which man had sought to ‘capture’ the feminine and through which man now becomes the object of his own discourse. This is the double bind of the new empirical man-object: on the one hand it is ‘thickened’ by its detailed taxonomical capture in the empirical discourses; on the other, it thereby loses its invisible, relatively unchallenged, status as silent bearer of discourse.
A ubiquitous response to this double bind was to deliberately appropriate more self-consciously atavistic discursive markers of masculinity – markers which had seemed, until the medicalisation of men that marked the fin de siècle, to operate without impediment, to operate as salient and powerful assurances of man’s power before his constitution as patient and case study. These atavistic markers – amongst which we might include textual authority, physical strength, uprightness, moral and intellectual superiority and a firm grasp of the public arena – seemed, in the fin de siècle imagination, to call up a golden age of Arcadian masculinity: undoubtedly, what characterises the operation of hegemonic masculinity at the fin de siècle is thus a kind of gender nostalgia.
It is no doubt the case that men have consistently made (and continue to make) recourse to the operation of coercive discourse in order to articulate their masculinity as inevitably hegemonic, but at the fin de siècle this habit takes on a particularly intense quality. By figuring authority, reputation and/or professional competence as contiguous with virility, men take flight into hyperbolic phallic discourse: this discourse finds expression in body-discoursing through an emphasis on bodily well-being and a normalised physical masculinity on the one hand, and in the aestheticisation of political life and a withdrawal into the intellect (a flight from the body) on the other. The Danish pedagogue Jens Peter Müller’s exaggerated Hellenic poses in his exercise system Mein System (1905) demonstrate how the nostalgic masculinity of the fin de siècle finds expression also in a rage against the new:
A portion of the authors of our belles-lettres have done incalculable harm to the young people in our society by systematically championing, through personal example as well as through their writings, a mixture of exclusively intellectual culture, physical weakness and moral sickness…. The typical office worker in big cities is often a sad sight. Hunched over in early years, his shoulders and hips made crooked by the awkward position at his desk, his face pale, pimply, and powdered, his thin neck sticking out of a collar that a normal could use as a cuff, his foppish, fashionable suit rotating around pipe-cleaners that are supposed to be arms.
Müller’s emphasis on physicality underlines the nostalgic quality of masculinity at the fin de siècle and shows how that nostalgia can find expression in exaggerated binarisms: sickly modern urban (false) man versus the healthy physicality of the (true) Arcadian, intellectuals versus the ‘normal’, moral weakness versus moral health. It is also evident here that the metonymic juxtaposition of physical and moral weakness is meant to dramatise the moral malaise of metropolitan culture, a malaise which is written onto the bodies of its weak and sickly men.
The Körperkult or body cult of the Viennese hegemon thus always finds its counterpart in the dreamy aestheticism of groups like the Secessionists and their emphasis on ornament and, in its popular reception, on the consumption of objets d’art. Hence, the ‘virility’ of which I speak above is neither fully ‘physical’ nor completely figurative, but held at the level of discourse, having a vividly affective and effective cultural life – it functions at the level of the habitus, the discursive imagination of the body.
As we see from Müller’s System, images of exemplary male bodies, of exemplary masculine physical attitudes, undoubtedly touch the discursive operation of hegemonic masculinity, but it is also in the invisibility of the male body, its trussing and wrapping in the anonymous garb of institutional misogyny that masculinity continues to try to operate its silent monopoly: this is the other side of gender nostalgia, its yearning for the discursive silence of Arcadian masculinity.
The ‘strong’ gender thus attempts to sustain its operative power by engaging a dichotomous strategy: a refusal of physical objectification – resisting its reconstitution by the new sciences and continuing to insist on physicality as a privileged site of the feminine – on the one hand, and an embracing of exaggerated images of physical masculinity on the other.
Characteristics, typologies, nomenclatures – the stuff of taxonomy – operate as shorthand for the messy operation of cultural fields. The characteristics of masculinity which proliferate in the new fin-de-siècle ‘sciences’ of gender and sexuality are too numerous to name, but those of the hegemon centre on an anxious overarticulation of physical and figurative solidity – Festigkeit, Standhaftigkeit, Geradheit, Rechtschaffenheit, Zuverlässigkeit, Tapferkeit, Aufrichtigkeit, Virilität, Zeugungskraft. The typologies are fewer – soldier, monarch, entrepreneur, worker, artist, author, intellectual; its nomenclatures are fewer still – man, and in the new medicalised discourse of sexuality, heterosexual.
In this taxonomy, the logic of masculine ‘solidity’ or Festigkeit is assured by a double-edged refusal of and simultaneous recourse to the new medicine in sexology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In 1886, Richard Krafft-Ebing published his Psychopathia Sexualis in which he outlined the prospect for a science of sexual pathology and in which hegemonic masculinity (‘the divine image of the poet’) is juxtaposed with its shadowy counterparts (‘horrid caricatures’):
proposes psychopathology as [the object of] scholarly study confronts
there the dark sides of human existence and the sufferings of man in
whose shadow the glistening divine image of the poet is turned into
horrid caricatures and the aesthetic and the moral lose faith in the
eternal image of God. It is the sad privilege of medicine, and
especially of psychiatry, to have to witness the reverse side of
life, human weaknesses and wretchedness.
What is interesting here for our purposes is the almost melodramatic (even ‘Gothic’) characterisation of counter-hegemonic masculinity. Just as the ‘glistening divine image of the poet’ [‘das glänzende Götterbild des Dichters’] finds its counterpart in his ‘dark sides of human existence’ [‘einer Nachtseite menschlichen Lebens’], so fin-de-siècle gender and sexuality, as medicalised discourses of personality, work with asymmetrical binarisms that place a certain amount of pressure on undersides, hidden worlds, dark mirror images, others, to reflect back the glistening hegemony of the bourgeois male: distorted mirror images, pale reflections, creatures of the night that stalk the haunted psyche of the bourgeois male all figure as proliferating viral others to the singularity of the hegemonic male.
This underworld is peopled by the pale and the emaciated, a derivative world of mockery, mimicry, false gods and vicious dandies. Perhaps most crucially, this underworld, or perhaps better ‘world of the others,’ is also a world of the rabble, of the mindless collective, Nietzsche’s ‘valley’. This is the logical extension of gender nostalgia at the fin de siècle – homophobia, misogyny, misanthropy, and an aristocratic disdain for the collective.
To return to the opening out of the
beginning of this post, then, this place holds sway of its citizens
by holding up to scrutiny, by displaying, demonstrating, what horrors
befall the counter-hegemon - he is lost to a world of heartless
vicious and cruel monsters that will not leave him until he is
broken, limp with opium, emptied out, sucked dry. The operation of
gender hegemony thus operates here like this: the fear of what lies
outside is what holds men inside, keeps them safely at bay and
insists on their allegiance to a simple but powerful creed: stand
upright, be steadfast to the principles of inscrutable masculinity,
hold onto your Herrschaft for dear life and watch out for
those deadly sirens that will turn you any moment, calling calling,
To refuse that hegemony, it seems, is to painfully twist and turn in the way of the underworld: come down with me, into the depths, into that place where Freud saw Lüger, in the darkest and most terrifying underplaces where we can tarry with the monsters.