DEVELOPMENT OF EVOLVING THEORY: THE TEXTU(R)AL BODY

 
"The social definition of men as holders of power is translated not only into mental body images and fantasies, but into muscle tensions, postures, the feel and texture of the body. This is one of the main ways in which the power of men becomes 'naturalized', ie., seen as part of the order of nature. It is very important in allowing belief in the superiority of men, and the oppressive practices that flow from it, to be sustained by men who in other respects have very little power."

R. Connell.1

"Although it would be quite wrong to say that all homosexual men are attracted to a certain type of man, that is, attracted to the same degree of masculine expression, masculinity is the source of homoerotic desire. The desire for male bodies, after all, is an attraction to the physical sign of masculinity."

Brian Pronger.2

 

Ultimately the most recognisable male physical sign within the gay community is that of the muscular mesomorphic body. Its semiotic language, its text if you like, can be read by anyone who has knowledge of the rituals of the gay territory and environment. And like a piece of text it is, like every-body, a construction which hides other meanings, other insecurities behind its facade. But when putting on a mask, it is only the mask you see and not other things that lie behind the mask. The ultimate physical sign of gay men wanting to be "real men" has become a 'simulacra',3 a simulation of reality which is more real than reality itself, where the image is the reality and has become more real than the feel and texture of the body itself.
But what happens when the body does become textural, not just an image but a physical body with tactile presence? When gay men can fulfil their fantasies and touch, hold, feel, fuck and be intimate with such a body? The hard, muscular body affirms the power of masculinity whilst at the same time upsetting the ritualised equilibrium, the moral prohibitions (such as the taboo of unsafe sex) that constraint gay men's everyday lives. George Lakoff has termed the, "Embodied structures of understanding by which we grasp the world,"4 'experiential realism'.5 Unlike Michel Foucault's construction of the body which is formulated from a discursive aspect, being 'other-determined' by the scrutiny and opinions of society and its members, experiential realism posits that experience and knowledge is structured by the body prior to the construction of discourse (the context of utterances, and the conditions that constrain and support its meaning). Of experiential realism Chris Schilling observes that,

" ... it is based on the assumption that experience and knowledge is structured by the human body in a significant way which is prior to and independent of discourse. Far from discourse determining the body in a Foucaldian sense, then, the body is integrally involved in the construction of discourse. The relevance of this [Lakoff's] work ... is that it implies that the concepts and classificatory schemes which inform our understanding of women's and men's bodies do not stem purely from disembodied categories we utilize as a result of some externally located dominant ideology. Instead, they are based in a very important way upon our multiple experiences of embodiment. These involve seeing, experiencing and imagining our own and other people's bodies."6 (My bold)

Personally, I do not believe that discourse and the body lie at the opposite ends of the one axis, either one thing or the other. I believe that they are orthogonal, that they intersect and interact at various points that can change depending on the situational context, and that they are unpredictably (in)dependently variable.
Our understanding of experience and knowledge does not stem purely from the body but neither does it stem purely from discourse. I believe that our understanding of men's bodies emerges from a combination of both disembodied categories (being 'other determined') and our subjective multiple experiences of embodiment. This is the lived reality of our bodies; the textu(r)al feel of our bodies, both the text (the signs they emit and their meanings), and the texture (the embodiment of desires and feelings), are vital to the understanding how gay men feel and interact in various sexual encounters. My analysis of the interview data has provided me with a valuable insight into the phenomenology of gay men's sexual experience; about how gay men feel and act in sexual encounters. As David Smail has commented,

"We find it more important to preserve and foster the myth of sexuality as mechanical process than we do to develop any kind of detailed or sensitive phenomenology of sexual experience (ie., establishing how in fact people experience their sexual needs and feelings). I suspect that a vast proportion of people live in secret unhappiness about their sexuality because they are unable to meet what are in truth entirely mythical 'norms' of 'performance'."7

Norms of performance are not just measured in terms of sexual performance but also in terms of how the body image measures up, performs in relationship to the 'ideal' of the muscular mesomorphic body. From the analysis of the interview data I believe that a phenomenology of sexual experience, establishing how people experience the relationship between living in their body, discourse, morals, and sexual intercourse would reveal the effect and performance of body image on self-esteem and the effect both aspects have on the occurrence of unsafe sexual activity. As the body becomes more implicated in technological developments8 (for example cosmetic surgery, organ and limb replacement, cloning, and genetic engineering), and the upkeep of the body is increasingly seen by society and the individual as a moral choice, our bodies will become even more embedded in complicated 'abstract systems'9 which challenge our understanding of how we feel and act in our bodies and how we interact with other bodies.
There is another paradox here, for the more we know how to control the body, the more knowledge we have of it, the more we can alter it, the less certain we are as to what the body is, how it should be controlled, and what happens when we (sub)consciously loose control of the body and its impulses. As we seek to control the body, to govern the stability of the image of the body that we present to others in order for this representation to be seen as a valuable commodity of exchange (to get the highest price and the best return for our investment), perhaps the flu-id lived reality of the body is no longer the same as the stable re-presentation of the body, a representation that re(as)sembles not the original truth of the lived body, but the simulation of a perfect form.

 

 

Footnotes

1. Connell, R. Gender and Power. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987, p.85, quoted in Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, p.112.

2. Pronger, Brian. The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990, p.130.

3. "In Baudrillard's world, reality is mediated by the image, it has become replaced by a system of simulacra. At times this simulation of reality appears more real than real - hyper real ..."

Moore, Suzanne. "Getting a Bit of the Other - the Pimps of Postmodernism," in Chapman, Rowena and Rutherford, Jonathon (eds.,). Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988, pp.180-181.

4. Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp.112-114.

5. For a discussion of Lakoff's theory of 'experiential realism' see Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

6. Op. cit., pp.112-114.

7. Smail, David. Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1984, p.113.

8. "The problem with such investment is that the body has become an increasingly inadequate basis on which this project of the self can be built. This is because the body itself is implicated in technological developments, or 'abstract systems' (which consist of 'symbolic tokens' such as money, which separate transactions from their immediate contexts) which have called into question our sense of what the body is ..." (My bold)

Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp.181-183.

9. Ibid., pp.181-183.