Friday, September 19, 2008

The Negation of Male Subjectivity

It is disappointing to see that there are so few books in "gender studies" section (at least in the library I go to) which deal with masculinity and "men's issues." That's why I was surprised to find Kaja Silverman's "Male Subjectivity on the Margins" in the feminism and gender studies section of the library. It is actually true that many feminist books also talk about masculinity but they don't go farther than labelling conventional and normative masculinity as pathological and diseased in its pursuit of power, aggression and violence.

Silverman is one of those academic film theorists who are totally up-to-date with the jargons and theories of French philosophers (specially Foucault and Lacan) and as a result parts of it went over my head. I still picked it up because it contained an essay on two of my favourite films by Fassbinder : Berlin Alexanderplatz and In a Year of Thirteen Moons. (Not recommended to Fassbinder newbies or those with weak emotional constitution). The essay is titled "Masochistic Ecstasy and Ruination of Masculinity in Fassbinder's Cinema" and like other essays it also talks about how difficult (or in Fassbinder's case how impossible) it is for anyone to live with a "deviant" masculinity, with a male subjectivity that says "no" to power and other normative male ideals within our current cultural order. She also quotes an academic essay by critic Leo Bersani rather alarmingly titled "Is rectum a grave?" in which she supposedly explains why "rectum is a grave in which the masculine ideal of proud subjectivity is buried." Some of it sounded a little too bizarre to a newbie like me but this essay is supposed to be very influential and controversial. The main idea from as far as I could understand is that men always act from a position of differentiated power and as a result any relationship with such a being can only be masochistic. Male homosexuality is then nothing but an expression of male masochism. She talks about how Fassbinder's questions this need for "phallic sustenance" and then shows how impossible it is to live without it in the society as it is now. There are also other essays on Proust, Lawrence of Arabia, Henry James and one in which she talks about varieties of homosexualities which I have not read yet. To make sense of most of these one needs to be fully conversant with the theories of Foucault and Lacan which I am not.

An extract from the Fassbinder essay here before I return the book back:

In subjecting the central characters of In a Year of Thirteen Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz to castration and amputation, Fassbinder also violates the integrity of what Henri Wallon would call the "body schema," that visual and postural composite which traces the corporeal outlines of the "self." Moreover, not content merely to effect a radical and ultimately unreadable reconfiguration of its protagonist's "literal" body, In a Year of Thirteen Moons insists upon dismantling as well its virtual image, the moi, That film is so relentlessly de-idealizing in the scrutiny it brings to bear both upon body and ego that the male psyche is stripped not only of symbolic, but of libidinal support.

This de-idealization represents both Fassbinder's attempt to demonstrate just how bereft of narcissistic sustenance a subject like the central character of In a Year of Thirteen Moons would be within the present cultural order, and the means by which that film further dismantles male subjectivity. In other words, the film critiques our existing system of sexual differentiation for its inability to accommodate a figure who can be assimilated neither to masculinity nor to femininity, while at the same time maximizing the intransigence of these categories in such a way as to undermine utterly any gesture on its protagonist's part toward the recovery of a phallic identification. For this reason, In a Year of Thirteen Moons entertains a highly ambivalent relation to the pain it dramatizes.

Unlike the film with which I am pairing it, Berlin Alexanderplatz never manages to move its central character into a space definitively beyond normative male subjecitivity. That text is caught in a complex double bind; although it is unwaveringly committed to the annihilation of conventional masculinity, it is also profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of achieving that goal. Berlin Alexanderplatz thus works at the same time to negate male subjectivity, and to negate the possibility of that negation. The end result is a kind of arrestation at the site of suffering. Not surprisingly, in both In a Year of Thirteen Moons and Berlin Alexanderplatz that site is susceptible to extreme eroticization.

In pursuing Fassbinder's negativity to its outer limits, we will consequently find ourselves transported, from time to time, into certain "pleasure zone" - lifted up and out of despair into a kind of delirious joy which is that negativity's other side, and which alone makes it endurable. Both the absolutely refusal of Fassbinder's cinema to provide affirmation, and the access which it periodically yields to a masochistic ecstasy or psychic sublation, locate it in some curious way within another corporeality.


Kubla Khan said...


Nice "talking" to you the other day. Humanities are a grave but more some other time.

your choice of this book gladdens me, because i just got it! quite strange. i have not read it though. Yes, lacan bothers the people i know ( when i apply lacanian methods) more than he bothers me, at least Ecrits is readable. Foucault's writings on these issues that you quoted etc are accessible generally. perhaps i suggest his lectures on power books.

btw, i have liked all your recent posts and the movie post is good. i like that movie too.

on a lighter note, have you watched Withnail & I?, since you are watching british films? it is nothing philosophical but has a side, an air that is decidedly english.

Alok said...

Yes I have seen Withnail and I and loved it but it was really long back. I still remember the last scene very well though in which he recites from Hamlet.

I mean to read some Foucault, will do sometime. Lacan however seems out of bounds. Somehow all this psychoanalysis talk never convinces me, feels like lot of empty and hypothetical bluster.