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September 26, 2006


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"Feminism is a problem because it has made this problem worse. Or, better, maybe it's the failure of the culture to shift properly, to register the change in women's desire and the corresponding change in masculinity."

I think feminism is a problem because it is divorced from the larger social struggle, that it insists there is a "war" between the sexes. Isn't that just what those in power want? A war between different types of workers, male and female, black and white, young and old, domestic and foreign? There is no war between the sexes. That is why we go to bed together, because we need each other and recognize that we are in it together, whether you want to look at that biologically or add the socially conscious component. I mean, people kill each other in wars! I don't want to understate the problems and frustrations and limitations that most women face from one degree to another, but let's call things by their right names.



I have only two comments.

1) Who leaked the memo, you figured us out.

2) New House on tonight!


Hi Jodi--

Your post speaks to my experience of heterosexual masculinity, but I find that rather disturbing.

In one way, perhaps, because it seems to describe a problem which is a problem for me in my life.

But insofar as I, pervertedly, aspire to gratify the Other's desire, the desiring Other is a fantasy. What you are saying is therefore like telling the paranoid that they really are out to get him (which he is likely to view with suspicion).

Also, I don't think your evasion of the implications as regards sexual violence of the position you're articulating is as successful as I would like. Being a rapist is not the same thing as being a bully.

I'd be interested to hear more about what kind of "cultural change" you're suggesting is needed. Part of why I ask is that I feel that the logic of your post somehow gets really close to anti-feminist backlash, but I'm pretty sure you have something else in mind!


This is a highly provocative thesis, and I think it's worth exploring; however, I think it's also important to distinguish between neurosis and perversion in this context. Perversion is a relationship to the Other's *jouissance*. The pervert is that person who claims to have a *knowledge* of enjoyment or what the Other enjoys, and the pervert understands himself as the instrument of the Other's enjoyment (as can be clearly seen in the case of masochism, and more indirectly seen in the case of sadism where the sadist understands himself as an instrument of the Other such as nature or the leader or the Law).

Neurosis is a relationship to the Other's *desire*. Lacan repeatedly claims that the neurotic strives to defend against an anxiety producing desire by transforming it into a determinate demand/request. Many of us are familiar, I'm sure, with the obsessional male who you just can't buy a beer. The moment you buy this guy a beer he sucks it down and is right back up there at the bar buying you a beer, or tries to find a way to get you to the bar a few days later to *repay the debt*. Or perhaps, in a conference situation, you run into him again years later and he insists on buying you a beer. In doing so, he's transforming the act of buying a beer into a determinant demand that allows him to forestall an encounter with desire, or to erase any desiring dimension of that act by "settling accounts". It's not that he knows what you enjoy-- indeed, he's terrified that somehow you might be enjoying him by buying him a beer and perhaps imagines all sorts of horrible scenerios --but rather that he wants all accounts settled and to insure that the opacity embodied in desire never appears. This might be a first difference: Few masculinely sexuated subjects are willing to place themselves in the position of "instrument of enjoyment" in any context-- whether it be work, the butt of someone else's jokes, losing, or a romantic relationship --whereas the perverted subject is delighted to be the instrument of enjoyment... Perhaps this is what is disturbing about early Alda; that he seems to submit himself to the enjoyment of the Other in his "sensitivity"?

So I guess I'm wondering whether it's accurate to see masculine sexuality as a stance with regard to feminine enjoyment or feminine desire. Isn't it that masculine sexuated subjects strive to transform feminine desire into specific demands or requests. I can think of a few relationships I know of where the man scurries about all the time trying to satisfy each of his partner's demands, all the while complaining about how demanding she is, while experiencing anxiety when no demands are present. "If only I satisfy all her demands, she'll finally shut up!" I've also worked with a number of male analysands-- who I would say were sexuated in a masculine fashion as well --who endlessly complained about their partner's speech, bitterly frustrated by how it was "aimless" and without point, and who would get very frustrated because when they tried to "solve the problem" the woman would say "you're missing the point". "What the hell does she want? I tried to solve the problem for her!" And, of course, there are those other men who complain endlessly about the women in their lives who fret over them, insisting they eat, etc., suggesting that they feel as if they're being made into objects of enjoyment. It seems to me this is a common way in which the failure of the sexual relationship is experienced from the masculine side... Not as a lack of enjoyment in fucking, but in this speech that is experienced as anxiety provoking. So in this structure, is the man who tries to answer all the woman's *demands*, believing that desire is like a system of accounts without any remainders, someone who understands himself as one who has *knowledge* of jouissance?

Sade never expresses any doubts. At the open of _Philosophy in the Bedroom_ Le Chevalier and Madame de Saint-Ange entertain no doubts as to whether or not the young woman they're planning on "degrading and corrupting" will consent (the question is irrelevant, as Deleuze points out in his brilliant "Coldness and Cruelty"; "the sadist would never accept the person who willingly came to the castle..."), and that ultimately she'll enjoy. They describe their plans as "educating", and I think it's true that perverts often see themselves as educators... They know the truth, and sometimes feel compelled to educate the rest of the world. Yet in neurotically structured masculine structure, there seems to be constant doubt as to what woman enjoys and wants (another mainstay in masculine fantasy is the anxiety that women only enact certain things to please them, not truly enjoying them, as if enjoyment were either completely absent in women, or forever elsewhere).

On the other hand, both Freud and Lacan are emphatic in insisting that perversion is closely associated with masculine subjectivity (though for very different reasons in each theorist, I think... In Freud, it has to do with the passive/active couplet, while in Lacan it has to do with the relation of masculinity to objet a). I think it's worth asking whether this is the case, or whether masculine forms of perversion are just often more striking and less socially sanctioned (it's possible to think relations to one's body image or ways of relating to one's child as a perverse relation in certain circumstances). Anyway, enough rambling.


Sinthome--thanks for clarifying neurosis/desire and perversion/jouissance. The thesis I want to defend (provisionally) is that a man is a pervert, one who knows and kind make himself an instrument of a woman's jouissance. The doubting neurotic, then, is not really a man; his masculinity is in doubt, at issue, uncertain. The whole effort to translate women's desire into specific demand that can be satisfied (thus eliminating her desire) suggests that we are dealing with someone who isn't a man, who hasn't worked out the kind of impossible fantasy of a man I describe here. I think that it's significant that men I list are fictional--the ideal of a man is of course impossible for any actual man to live up to, which is part of the horror and challenge facing masculinity now.

A whole set of changes--feminism, anti-racism, and queer identity politics as well as neoliberal economic globalization (I like using the term decline of symbolic efficiency to refer to all this and mroe)--has made masculinity more challenging than ever before. It's much, much harder to make oneself an instrument of a woman's enjoyent, largely because her enjoyment is less confined within a cultural script of repressive femininity.

Edie--I used the old term war between the sexes because I thought it captured an important moment in second wave feminism. People need lots of things and the most profound of these needs require cooperation. Instead, under capitalism (as well as other economic forms) we don't organize ourselves in terms of collectively meeting these needs but instead hierarchically and exploitatively. I don't think that feminism cut itself off from the larger social struggle--second wave feminists were active in anti war, anti-racist, and socialist movements. Current feminists also anchor their work and thought in larger social matters. So, I disagree with your claim here.

Hugh, I didn't want to seem backlashy at all. Precisely the opposite! I did too easily gloss over sexual violence. There are a few reasons for this--one is that some of the most influential feminist writing about masculinity as focused exclusively on violence and I wanted to move in a different direction. Should I ever develop these thoughts into something longer I would need to say more about sexual violence. I would probably go in the direction of efforts to adopt a veneer or image of masculinity, a pretense of being a man under impossible conditions, that go awry. But I would also want to historicize this since I am interested here in masculinity and femininity as historical fantasies (so I'm not thinking about them in terms of the formulae of sexuation, which don't seem to me to say much about masculinity and femininity, other than to explain the impossibility of a sexual relationship). Cultural change--I was trying to mark responses to feminism as failures. So, Alan Alda Mr. Sensitive Guy is a response that eliminates the man (he isn't a man). Or, the guy who has to ask a bunch of questions--do you want to do this, do that, go here, be touched there--is not a man; the man knows how a woman enjoys, perhaps more than she does herself. And, the problem with this is that it tells us that it's impossible to be a man. This is the problem of masculinity that encounters men today.

PE Bird! Thanks--and glad that you share my enthusiasm for House. I like how the show shows him thinking, there are scenes just of him thinking, figuring things out. And, even though half his guesses will be wrong, there is the underlying certainty that he will be right, that he can push aside trivial emotions and know.


My question: where is Ti Grace Atkinson now? For some reason I think she might have become a physicist, or is that someone else from that era? Anyway, this lead me to get one of her old books off the shelf. Which might mean answering all these comments differently. Hmmmm. But certainly feminism(s) are not divorced from the "larger social struggle" unless by that you mean social struggles other than war, domestic and foreign policy, race, reproductive justice, taxation, redefining power, etc etc. I am not clear what the "larger struggle" is referred to by some commenters. And, by implication, I think there are some naive or erroneous meanings of feminism(s) too. . . . .


i don't think a woman just wants a perverse invunerable man. And perhaps that is the type of woman man worships at the feet of perverse and invulnerable.

Adam Kotsko

The true contemporary man is not House, but Wilson.


Adam--the emphasis is on contemporary, not man. Wilson knows nothing of jouissance (his wife kicked him out for crying out loud)--perhaps you are being ironic?


Besides, we aren't talking about men, but the masculine.

Charles R

Speaking of a different Wilson, why not compare the Wilson from Home Improvement with Tim, the main male figure from the same show? Which was the true man: the hidden, faceless figure full of truth and aphorism whose re-telling the hands-on man always bumbled, or the open, grunting, public figure who could not figure out his wife's desires in every episode? (With Al, as always, the parenthetical figure.)

Nevertheless, the thesis of this entry is intriguing and helpful in its provocation, but I have nothing really to add or detract after Sinthome's treatment. I do admit, though, that it's interesting to read a more psychoanalytically informed treatment of the typical manly "I tired to give her the solution!" complaint than what I normally hear as the treatment.

Benjamin Geer

If being what women want is all about knowing what women want, do we have a tautology here? Is there something that women want other than to believe that their man knows what they want?

How about this: Women (and here I'm talking about American women, since that seems to be the context you're writing about) want to be beautiful. While men want to be handsome in order to attract a woman, women want a man in order to feel beautiful.

These proliferating new desires you refer to are mainly focused on an ever-increasing proliferation of very slightly different beauty accessories, now including the career-as-beauty-accessory and the man-as-beauty-accessory. And just as handbags and makeup are differentiated on ever more subtle criteria, women also look for ever more infinitesimal, superficial differences in men's behaviour: men's clothing, hairstyle, musical tastes, humour, etc. must now conform to very precise specifications defined by the culture industry. However, men who are emotionally vulnerable, who ask questions, etc., are still rejected out of hand, as you noted. Women's proliferating desires haven't included a desire for a wider range of personalities among men. Instead, as Adorno observed, all human qualities are commodified, and women have caught up to men in becoming consumers of such commodities.


Benjamin, thanks, interesting resposne. Here's what I think: the gap between being and knowing makes the issue non-tautological, first. So, it's not simply a matter of a woman believing this impossible fantasy; rather, it's (being a man in the sense I'm describing here or what PE Bird described as 'the masculine") a man actively making himself into the intrument or object necessary for her jouissance.

I think that the focus on beauty is way too restrictive and, actually, a kinda of combination of a past (Renaissance?) ideal with consumerism. For the most part, as the cite from IT suggests, women link beauty to other women; we know that men are less totalitarian about how much we way and that precious few pay attention to the details of our clothes. Career isn't about beauty; for some of us, it's a necessity, we have to work to eat.

It may be the case that women's desire's have broadened in terms of the kind of men desired (allowing for the fantasy of a Man to become less rigid than I suggest with my list of men above). But, I think that the formula--a Man knows the secret of a woman's jouissance and makes him himself an instrument of it--still applies. Mr. Sensitive and questioning needs to find a woman who likes this sort of thing, who doesn't want to be known, who realizes there is no secret of jouissance, who accepts that masculinity if a fantasy. There may be some women like this out there.


all of these structures can switch around quite rapidly it seems? Is that linked to anxiety in some way and a and perverse mothers, lots and olts of them?

Benjamin Geer

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Jodi. Indeed there are women who like sensitive and questioning men, but most of the ones I've met have been European (like my wife), not American (like me). (Which is not to say that the dynamic you describe is absent in Europe, far from it.) You may want to explore this dimension if you pursue this idea further.

It seemed to me that there was perhaps a small contradiction between saying that "women want men", as you put it, on one hand, and saying on the other hand that men are merely the instruments of what women want. Doesn't the latter statement imply that what women want is actually something other than men? But if you drop the idea that what women want is men (which perhaps was just a rhetorical device that I took more seriously than you intended), and that men are mere instruments, I think your idea makes sense.

The question remains where these desires come from, the ones that men are meant to be the instruments of. Forgive me if I'm misreading you, but your original post seems to imply that we're witnessing a spontaneous, unmediated proliferation of women's desires, which appear simply because the restrictions that men placed on them are gradually being lifted. At the same time, though, you acknowledge women's role in policing each other's desires in ways that men don't care about, which means that some kind of social mediation is going on. Bourdieu argued that tastes, far from being a matter of personal preference, are like rules that people have to master in order to compete for social capital, i.e. they're part of class membership. This means that there's a lot at stake in the struggle to create tastes and hence desires, and suggests a key role for the culture industry in doing so. But if you don't like this analysis, how do you explain, say, the preoccupation you mentioned with the details of clothing?

Yes, people need careers in order to eat, but that doesn't fully explain everyone's choice of career, or choice of hobbies for that matter; taste seems to play a role. When I used to teach guitar, I always wondered why most of my male students all wanted to play improvised rock or jazz solos, while most of my female students weren't interested in that at all, and wanted instead to accompany themselves while singing. Isn't it because a woman can see herself as beautiful while she's singing and strumming a guitar, but not while she's playing a rock guitar solo? And mustn't that have something to do with the kinds of behaviour that the music industry has taught us to expect from its glamorous stars?

Benjamin Geer

Typo in my comment above: the last sentence of the second paragraph should read, "But if you drop the idea that what women want is men (which perhaps was just a rhetorical device that I took more seriously than you intended), and say that men are mere instruments, I think your idea makes sense." I sympathise with your book proofreading problems...

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