The Guilded Age Called; It Would Like Its Iconography Back

by zunguzungu

I find something totally fascinating about this mix of self-realization male-bonding rhetoric and the oddly juxtoposed image of be-hatted and be-mustachioed manly men enjoying each other’s company. Says a lot–I believe–about how we view masculinity through a lens of American never-was nostalgia, or at least how my own education in how to desire has allowed insight into those larger culturally-taught skills.

Take, for example, the guy whose arm is draped so lovingly in his pal’s lap and try to imagine that not signifying coupling up if you saw two men doing it in an American public space. I have the same sort of feeling watching a lot of the Johnny To movies, where male bonding manages to be sexual without being sexualized, if I can make that distinction; since I probably can’t, what I mean is this: when the other gangsters in Exiled tear Lam Suet’s pants off to show that he has gotten excited by their talk of brothels, it both is and isn’t homoerotic as the term would be most basically defined the American cultural lowest common denominator. Of course it is about sex and it’s about sex in a way that bonds men together in the absence of women, but it isn’t about sex in the way the American sexual idiom teaches us to read it as–as a prelude to actual sexual congress, and therefore a catalyst and a warning–were it to happen in an American movie, for example. In other words, while it’s roughly translatable, like reading Brazilian Portuguese when you know Spanish, it also registers as a significantly foreign idiom. You can make sense of it, but you can’t ignore that there’s more going on than you can fully decode, nor can what you fully incorporate the things you understand you don’t understand.

This poster gives me the same feeling. While the language of self-help is utterly familiar–from the presumption that without help you will continue “spoiling relationships” to the unexplained valorization of “change” and “living more fully in the present moment”–the picture itself feels oddly dissonant, like a badly subtitled movie. They stare at that camera the way my grandfather’s generation did, that mix of guarded solemnity and veiled posing, produced by a very different relationship to the camera. While the poster’s text implies an unmediated collectivity of men, the relationship around the central older man suggests to me a family portrait, and if the absence of women does not necessarily signify anything per se (as it does in the poster’s text), it is at least consonant with the rugged frontierish vibe they’re giving off, from the rough wooden post to the neck-kerchief to the hats worn indoors; these are manly men, but what kind of manliness is it? Are these men that cherish male-bonding, or is it the rugged masculinity of the frontier cowboy, who creates domestic spaces but can never fully be at ease within them? The outdoor clothes worn indoors would seem to indicate the latter, if I can speculate.

But even more telling, I think, is the manner in which placing an intentionally anachronistic image of masculinity in the context of an implied present crisis of masculinity speaks to how masculinity is enunciated through reference to history. After all, as the EotAW reminds us in their list of American verities, American masculinity is always in crisis, always under threat by some incarnation of the advancing frontier of domesticity that is enabled by and then consumes the gloriously violent homo-social space of the Western frontier, bringing in its wake the emasculating forces of the market, the factory, or cosmopolitan urbanism. But the corollary to that verity is that masculinity is always just having emerged from its golden age, always nostalgically looking back to the time when men were real men and when women knew their place (as in this case, outside the frame). Yet the feeling of anachronism doesn’t go away, exactly; it remains in the frame, speaking worldessly, and perhaps giving shape–as unincorporated surplus–to masculine desires that the desires we’ve been educated into can’t speak to.