Is manhood something we have or something we put on? Jeremy Brunger looks at how we show people who we are.
As I write this I have the poet TS Eliot’s words fresh in my head, stirring about in a buzz of elan: “Between the desire / and the spasm… / falls the shadow” of our common modernity, that historical quirk which witnessed a population increase of unprecedented magnitude, the microwave, the atom bomb, the laptop, and the blog. Modernists hold that we have lived through a permanent and revolutionary break with the past, are our own masters, and have inherited a clean slate on which we write for the future rather than the populous graveyards stretching back into immemorial time. The critics tend to date this either to the philosophy of Descartes, in the 17th century, or the late 19th century, when industrial capitalism began to make its desires identical to the dominion of the entire world. Regardless, it is evident that human life is, at least on the material surface, quite a different beast than what came before our modern age. We have heard of Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Many people, now long dead, never had the pleasure. And we await more prophets in our own living century.
This modern revolution has affected manhood–an ancient notion, however differently it has been expressed throughout the succession of the epochs–to a stunning degree. Several thousand years ago Plato wrote about the splendors of homosexual love–perhaps we progressives in the 21st century are finally coming to recognize the truth in his thinking after the long misery in between. A hundred years ago, pink was the color baby boys were swaddled in, and blue was the color girls were swaddled in. The dandies of the 19th century were the epitome of manhood, as distanced as they were from the common working rabble; they spent more time on their appearance than did their female counterparts (and did more drugs). Now we have an entire splinter of the male social form: we live in America, the land of the market, which is to say, the land of options. You can even buy yourself off the television, one article of clothing at a time. Metrosexual? No problem. Heterosexual-lite? You can find that on channel 16. The warehouse of identities is infinite.
For all the tolerance that this sort of identity-formation can produce, however, it also produces as a by-product of the free market a sort of inauthenticity that lingers about one like a silhouette. I work in a grocery store in a college town and so see a wide variety of people every day. On a normal day, hipsters (metrosexual-lite, say), men with tattooed faces, family men, professional men, and the homeless pass through the store; we get into casual conversation; I judge according to appearances using that as a material referent, a symbol, while reminding myself that nevertheless appearances do deceive. I see enough people to begin to think about patterns–and I studied enough structuralist social theory* at university to understand that appearances, when they are intentional, convey a whole host of information. What a person consciously represents himself as, by dress or speech, directly refers to a symbol in the larger structure of culture: be it authority, chic-ness, literacy, or aggression. Only in America is the phrase “what do these jeans say about me” taken almost as a literal question. Your jeans might say you are Brad Pitt, a hippie, a dad wearing “dad jeans,” what have you. And so too for the rest of the human apparel.
The existentialists of the 20th century have a lot to teach the 21st. Sartre’s whole theory of human life (minus his later Marxism) centered on the authentic versus the inauthentic, the substantial as opposed to the mass-produced. He opposed sameness while deploring intentional uniquity: the point of it all was to be yourself without trying. We would do well to imitate his lesson. It is all too easy to conform to some pre-molded identity one gleans from the surrounding cultural matrix out of sheer stress: consider black men who consciously look like gangsters, or gay men who consciously lisp and pretend to be helpless. It is not that one can’t get one’s identity from culture. Indeed, this is the way the process works, culture is its source; the problem is the ease of it all, the market-based farce that is American selfhood. You are not being yourself if you are not yourself, and rest assured, you are not Brad Pitt or Jay Z. We try to be phantoms out of laziness or confusion, but they are not us. It is bad faith to think otherwise. Thus my intense distaste for “celebrity culture.” But then I do hate all attempts to distribute bread and circuses to the people.
There is no shame in being mainstream (at least, in the non-political spheres). Most people are mainstream because they simply spend too much time and energy merely surviving; their work clothes become their normal clothes, they lose their taste for new music and other forms of art, and so on. The necessities of animal life overshadow the impulses for creativity. This is fine, or at least, it is normal. The shame lies in the sad attempts to refute this inevitability: the parents who still drink like college kids, the middle aged man who tries to rap out old LL Cool J lyrics, the elderly whose only attachment to the cultural sphere is the political (and Fox News is most certainly a manifest form of bad faith). Our culture is our creation, but sometimes it creates us back.
It is said that we have entered a period of extended adolescence, where the identity-shopping common to teenagers begins to extend well into middle age. Ours is a commodity-based society: anything, and therefore everything, can be traded, trimmed down, changed fundamentally. Not only our buildings and products, but our selves and our bodies. This is the key American innovation: we invented adolescence (look at the psychological history of the concept).
But now we are drowning in it. Like everything else, we have over-produced ourselves into a crisis, not of identity per se, but rather a crisis of infinite masculinities (and femininities). In the 1980s, the buff, extroverted athlete was the ideal of American youth. Now it’s the skinny, awkward computer geek (a trend easily linked to economic developments, of course). We have lost our norms and entered a period of gender-anomie. Anomie is the observation that what once cemented our social mores has disappeared or changed so substantively as to rewrite the rules of the game. This has happened to gender庸or good and for ill, no doubt. I write this not as a jeremiad, nor do I think it is a particularly bad development. I only notice that once new forms and new norms come into play, the old ones die out. And manhood is going to look very different in the coming century. In the meantime, under our American capitalism, which Karl Marx once referred to as the orgy of the market, it remains important to be yourself too, long as you don’t buy yourself doing it.
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