Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity

June 28, 2012

The title of this important book echoes both Wallace Stevens' poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and Henry Louis Gates Jr's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. Like Stevens and Gates, Donald Moss offers multiple perspectives: being a man is not simply a choice to be more or less like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Liberace. Each man has internalised an ideal (which Moss calls "my guy") based on disavowals and refusals of other male bodies and behaviours. Each man's "my guy" is, Moss argues, a "private, personal unconscious fantasy...derived from elements that are in conscious public circulation". The fact that he arrives at this point on page 18 demonstrates just how far his book intends to travel from familiar arguments about masculinity in crisis or a continuum of masculinities. Indeed, much of this book's importance rests on its implied argument that such ideas are part of an orthodoxy that may now hinder understanding as much as it once assisted it.

Men are surrounded by potential "me"s and "not-me"s. Andrew Spicer's Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema has shown how cinematic representations of men reproduce categories such as action adventurers, professionals, fools, rebel males and damaged men. These representations go on doing cultural work because everyone knows what these categories' defining characteristics are "supposed" to look like. This, in turn, suggests that each man's masculinity derives from the posing and answering of two related questions: what body and behaviour do I want and need? Which of the publicly available categories are useful to me?

Moss' view of masculinity as a private fantasy constructed from public elements means answers to those questions can never be absolute, and not just because "me, here, now" can only ever be a temporary resting place. Fantasy's instability means that masculinity rests on "the fact of volatility", and Moss cites his changing, conflicted responses to a billboard ad for Calvin Klein briefs he sees on his daily drive to work. That shifting, unpredictable relationship between private and public is tracked throughout this book; four chapters on the masculine self in relation to impossible ideals are followed by four chapters on homosexuality and homophobia, and in turn by chapters on transsexuals and on masculinity and violence.

The author combines his childhood reminiscences of illness and classroom embarrassment, deep personal reflection, his father's war stories, theoretical overviews and case studies from his psychoanalytic practice. This way of writing is common to a range of books on masculinity, but the stylistic mix reflects the volatility he seeks to address. It also exemplifies how, despite Routledge classifying this book under "psychoanalysis", Moss wishes to move beyond restrictive categories. He reminds us that the racist's "category of whiteness, Freud's of the masculine, the homophobe's of the heterosexual" are fantasies in which "what is wanted is what can be had, and had in proper, natural measure". What we desire tempts us with "violation of the appropriate and the natural" and we push what frightens and shames us into the bodies and imagined behaviours of others. Moss' focus on masculinity's basis in repudiation of various others (the emotional, the feminine, the gay) reveals repudiation as a kind of harm "we" take pleasure in doing to "them". This invites chastening reflection on how repudiation is involved in identity generally.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Man: Psychoanalysis and Masculinity

By Donald Moss. Routledge, 176pp, £80.00 and £22.99. ISBN 9780415604918 and 4925. Published 22 May 2012

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