Image: All Fours by Matthew Stradling (1998), Oil On Canvas.
‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the queen’ – The Smiths ‘Nowhere Fast’
‘To define is to limit’ – Oscar Wilde A Picture of Dorian Gray (in Kemp, 2013:71)
Punctum Books , an independent open access publisher, describe their work as ‘spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion’. Two new releases: The Penetrated Male by Jonathan Kemp and The End of Man by Jean-Paul Martinon certainly live up to the billing. I am already a fan of Kemp’s work. His debut novel London Triptych, about masculinity and (homo)sexuality in three different eras, is well worth a read.
This time Kemp, who also lectures at Birkbeck university, and Martinon, of Goldsmiths, are exploring similar themes in a more academic format. Kemp’s book is adapted from his PhD thesis. Martinon presents some personal philosophical ‘provocations’. Both authors embark on a project that is dear to my heart: challenging the gender binary and the assumptions behind it. They question why ‘man’ is always placed in opposition to ‘woman’, ‘masculine’ against ‘feminine’, ‘active/strong’ as the antithesis of ‘passive/weak’. And both writers attempt to come up with some solutions to the problem of gender, some alternative and radical ways of understanding our bodies in the social (and textual) world.
Underneath The Covers
Me being me, I lingered longer than other readers might, over the cover images of the two books. They both feature beautiful depictions of naked male bodies, so you can understand my pause. The cover of Martinon’s book is dedicated to a wonderful painting by Jacques Louis David: Male Nude Known As Hector (1778). The model strikes a rather louche pose, one arm behind his head, his body splayed out over a piece of cloth, protecting him from rocks beneath. In the place where his penis might be there sits a fleshy ‘flower’, that reminds me of Georgia O’Keeffe‘s work. This painting is arresting now; imagine how it might have been received by a late eighteenth century viewer?! The use of this image hints at what is to come in Martinon’s writing: an examination of masculinity that always reminds us of its interruptions, what some may term the ‘feminine’ or the Other that constantly undermines ‘man’ as a stable identity.
A more contemporary piece of art adorns Kemp’s book, again alluding to the themes within. Matthew Stradling’s painting All Fours (1998) presents a male nude on his hands and knees, possibly in an act of submissin. In some ways its a strong, muscular, ‘masculine’ body, in others it is exposed and vulnerable. His face is not visible and our eyes (well, mine!) are drawn to his arse as it points upwards towards the top right hand corner of the frame. The picture is spread over both the front and back covers of the book, so the body hangs over the spine as if it’s on a hook.
As for what’s underneath the covers, I don’t think I can quite do either book justice here. They are both challenging and full of ideas so that my head was buzzing with thoughts and questions for a while after finishing reading. So rather than attempt a dissatisfying discussion of all the themes and ideas involved, I am going to focus on one concept/aspect of each book.
The beguiling ‘neuter’ in JP Martinon’s The End Of Man
Martinon takes himself and his own body as a key subject of his book. It may seem an unremarkable thing to do, but in academic writing, it is very rare for scholars to put themselves in the picture so overtly. There is often a ‘detached’ distance between them and that which they write about. I think Martinon and Punctum are brave to take such a personal, embodied approach to the study of masculinities, sex and gender. In describing himself waking up after an afternoon doze, Martinon introduces us to his concept of the ‘neuter’ a point at which the human (male in his case) is ‘pre’ sex and gender, a body in space and time.
‘It is neuter. This does not mean that it has been neutered. It started neuter. It plays and works neuter and the same can be said when it is eating, drinking, or relieving itself. There is no moment that can be pinpointed as being ‘not-neuter’. Even when it sleeps , it remains neuter. And when it wakes up, like it does now on a lazy summer afternoon, it is still neuter, even with its hard-on. It never ceases to be neuter, even when it is weak or about to die. How is one to understand this odd neuter’? (Martinon 2013: 15).
Later he identifies the body, waking up on ‘a lazy summer’s afternoon’ as his own:
‘Dispersing, I become a sexed body… ‘I’ experience something unprecedented: a caress. This caress is not masturbatory yet. The hand hasn’t reached the erection; the mind is still else-where. This caress that is taking place between parts of the body: a bicep by the ribcage or an open hand peacefully resting on a breathing stomach for example’ ( Martinon 2013: 29-30).
I really like this notion of the neuter. Later passages of the book describe how, on getting up and going about his day, he will ‘immediately fall into a cliche’ – of masculinity, of gendered performance (Martinon 2013:47). But his body in its dozy, half-awake state is not yet ‘masculine’, he is not quite a ‘man’ in the way we have come to (mis)understand that loaded word.
Martinon stresses that his neuter is not the neuter that is presented, for example in some (e.g. German) languages as a third option in addition to ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. He explains:
‘Going against its well-known etymological origin, this neuter will not be understood here as what is ‘neither this not that’, ‘neither one nor the other’. To refer to this etymological origin assumes the following question: if it is neither this nor that, then ‘what is it?’ The reference therefore assumes the possibility of a third option: a flaw or relief from the proposed alternative: this or that. But as will be shown, this neuter is not a third option or an interpersonal ‘one’ and it cannot be understood as the question that leads to the third’.
I really like this shattering of the gender binary and of its third, either/or/neither option. It reminds me of some of the problems I have with the categories of ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ (in addition to ‘straight’ and ‘gay’, ‘male’ and ‘female’). Whilst they initially seem to be stretching, challenging the gender and sexuality binaries of gay/straight, male/female, they actually could be seen to reinforce them. And also put bisexual and trans people in that unhappy ‘no man’s land’ between the either and the or. I think Martinon is conceding that this wonderful ‘neuter’ might not be able to survive social life currently, but I see it as a symbol of hope. I hope I am not reading him wrong, but maybe Martinon is saying that if in their ‘natural’, sleepy, human/animal state, bodies can evade, challenge, discard ‘gender’ then maybe one day they might be able to do so whilst actively living (and making culture). A girl can but dream.
The ‘revolutionary anus’ of J Kemp’s The Penetrated Male
‘Hocquenghem argues for anal pleasure not as a specifically homosexual activity, but as a way of undermining all sexual categorisations’ (Kemp 2013: 8)
Jonathan Kemp’s book consists firstly of a literary analysis of some interesting modernist texts. These include Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Baudelaire’s 19th c essays collected in The Painter of Modern Life, Genet’s Querelle of Brest (1947) and Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). But what makes the book ‘pass’ the PhD test of producing ‘an original contribution to knowledge’ is the way Kemp both applies and critiques ‘Queer Theory’ (e.g. Foucault, Bersani, Deleuze, Barthes). In doing so he presents ‘the penetrated male’ body in representation as a radical way of dismantling the well-worn assumption that a ‘penetrated’ male body is necessarily ‘feminine’. Here I am going to look briefly at Kemp’s commentary on Joyce’s Ulysses. Because, as Kemp says, ‘if Genet buckles that metaphor [of the penetrated man as 'feminine'], Joyce will be seen to tear it to pieces’ (Kemp 2013: 164).
‘Ulysses is a prime example of how the body, when it emerges within discourse, often does so in explicitly or scatalogical ways. It is as if these two functions were, by virtue of their supposedly secretive or private nature, outside of the public law of language; as if out of sight is out of mind held true for the body. Or, as if the tabooing of certain words not only excised them from so-called decent or proper language, but excised the very body parts and functions to which they refer. To refer to them thus implies discursive impropriety or indecency’.
Ulysses was published in the early 20th century to the horror of many. I am reminded here of Anthony Burgess’s marvellous book of Joyce appreciation/criticsm: Here Comes Everybody (1965). Burgess describes how Ulysses was first thought of as a ‘dirty’ book. Although it is now considered a literary ‘classic’, Kemp’s observations about certain words, topics and expressions being ‘taboo’ is still relevant in 21st century, ‘sex obsessed’ culture. Nowadays some heterosexual people are enjoying anal pleasure, for example. But is this kept ‘secret’ on an individual level? In my article entitled We need to talk about bumming, I described feeling unable to discuss my own adventures in (hetero) anal with my straight friends. And, whilst gay ‘liberation’ has moved on in leaps and bounds since Joyce’s time, it can be argued that contemporary ‘gay’ culture, which validates ‘respectability’ via e.g. marriage and parenting, reinforces some sexual taboos and puts actual (homo)sex back in the shadows.
Maybe this is partly why I found Kemp’s unearthing of Joyce’s ‘dirt’ so refreshing. He says:’Joyce does not present his characters at stool, or micturating, masturbating or copulating, simply in order to shock, but to present life more fully as it is lived. As Joyce himself remarked, ‘if Ulysses isn’t fit to read, life isn’t fit to live’ (cited in Ellman, 1982:537)’. (Kemp 2013: 171)So I think Kemp takes the view that one of the ‘radical’ aspects of Joyce’s Ulysses in the context of sex and the body, is that it presents humanity in all its glory, and does not sanitise sex or elevate it from other bodily functions. This is in part what made the book so unpalatable when it was first released, even for literary types.‘The disturbing quality of what HG Wells called Joyce’s ‘cloacal obsession’ is indicated by most critics’ dismissal or avoidance of it, as if to talk about shit were tantamount to playing with it, as if there were no space, no difference at all, between words and things. Carl Jung called Ulysses the ‘backside of art’ (cited in Heath 1984) while Ezra Pound urged Joyce to remove most of the scatological references. John Gross avoids the subject altogether, claiming ‘at this hour in the day there is nothing new to be said on such a topic’ (Kemp 2013: 172)
I love this notion of the way people can treat words as if they were the thing they represented. It goes quite a long way to explain why we have all got so screwed up by ‘gender’. Words such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’, ‘female’ have been somehow taken and treated as accurate, whole ‘signifiers’ of whole populations of hugely complex and diverse human beings (and indeed animals). No wonder we’re in such a mess!
Kemp discusses elegantly and clearly why Joyce’s Ulysses can be seen as a ‘way out’ of this bind of gender, and gendered language. In refusing to automatically ascribe ‘femininity’ to the penetrated male body (specifically Bloom’s body in the book), Joyce uses it as a symbol of something different, something new, a departure from the binary. Kemp identifies this ‘departure’ as being possible in and expressing ‘Modernism’. He says:
‘Joyce’s modernism allows for a certain queering of masculinity that doesn’t try to avoid or erase the body’s penetrability; but rather uses it to critique gender dimorphism in interesting ways’ (Kemp 2013: 172).
This ‘modernism’ does of course evolve and morph into ‘postmodernism’ and many of Kemp’s ideas, that emerged from reading Ulysses, are still relevant today in the fully fledged postmodern era. You will have to read Kemp’s book (and ideally Ulysses itself – I confess I only managed up to about page 40 when I tried) to find out more about those ways in which Joyce ‘critiques gender dimorphism’!
The Limits Of Queer Theory (and of this review)
Both Martinon and Kemp refer to and also critique Queer Theory in their new publications. Kemp is critical of how writers such as Bersani and Lacan, even whilst wanting to challenge the gender binary, revert to presenting penetrated (and sometimes even homosexual) men as inherently and unavoidably ‘feminine’ ( Kemp 2013: 1-14). Martinon is concerned about how Queer Theory sometimes forgets itself and its own aims of diffusing and dispersing ‘theory’ and gender, and falls back on limiting definitions. He puts it succinctly in a footnote:
‘Queer Theory ossifies us because it rarely acknowledges that the term ‘queer’ cannot be defined in advance. Queer should always be a term that resists hypostatization and reification into a proper normind status. The only way queer theory can retain its credibility as a tool for thought, is if it always begins with this resistance against definition’. (Martinon 2013: 70)
Some of my own criticisms of Queer Theory are explored in my 2011 novella, Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls. I think I would need more space and time to revisit my position in the light of Kemp’s and Martinon’s observations. I would also be interested to look at my favourite ‘hobby horse’ in the field of masculinities: metrosexuality, in relation to these two Punctum publications.
But I think I have gone on long enough for now, and really the main point I want to make is how much I enjoyed reading these exciting and challenging additions to existing writing on that slippery and fascinating subject of masculinity. I am a woman, of sorts, and my interest in masculinities is of course partly to do with my love of men (including their bodies). But also, as a woman of sorts, I have thought and learned a lot about myself as well as men through reading on this subject. I am proud to add Kemp’s and Martinon’s books to my shelves and my thinking.
To finish I will leave you with an extract from a poem by Don Paterson, which sprung to mind in my Punctum reading. The poem is, of course, called ‘Buggery’:
and though I know it’s over with
and she is miles from me
I stay a while to mine the earth
for what was lost at sea
as if the faces of the drowned
might turn up in the harrow:
hold me when I hold you down
and plough the lonely furrow.
You can buy both titles (including in ebook format) direct from Punctum books:
All Fours by Matthew Stradling
(1998) featured here with permission from the artist. All rights reserved.