"As the French critic Maurice Blanchot wrote, "The image has nothing to do with signification, meaning, as implied by the existence of the world, the effort of truth, the law and the brightness of the day. Not only is the image of an object not the meaning of that object and of no help in comprehending it, but it tends to withdraw it from its meaning by maintaining it in the immobility of a resemblance that it has nothing to resemble" ... It is this severance of meaning and its object, this resemblance of nothing, that the crisis of looking intersects with the crisis of the body. In contemporary culture we promote the body as infinitely extendable and manageable. Indeed, we mediate this concept through the permeation of the photographic image in popular culture - through advertising and dominant discourse that place the young, beautiful, erotic body as the desirable object of social attention. This is a body apparently conditioned by personal control (moral concern). But the splitting apart of image and meaning pointed to by Blanchot suggests that such control is illusory. There is no single truth; there are only competing narratives and interpretations of a world that cannot be wholly, accurately described." (My bold)

Chris Townsend.1



In contemporary society we seek to control our body and the representation of its image. Although I agree that this control is illusory because there is no single truth in the world, the image of the body has come to be seen as one of the major processes through which we constitute our self. Conditioned by personal and social controls the upkeep of the body has become a moral concern. Projecting our image into the world and constructing that image through reflected appraisal and social comparison the image of the body, far from being a resemblance of nothing, has become a stable, fixed re(as)semblance of the signified ideals of society embodied through the facade of the simulacra, the mask of the perfect form. Body image has become part of a semiotic language of commodities,2 one that generates its own meanings based on the definition and consequent desirability of certain idealised forms (signs) and their oppositions, where body and its image has been transformed from flui-id use value (lived reality) to fixed exchange value (a known value). A process of symbolization has taken place where the body image stands for something else, stands for the (un)obtainable ideal of the simulacra that we can all strive for. It has become a 'symbolic token',3 a simulacrum of the real where it's exchange value during a transaction is separated from its actual context, its value taken for granted even if the actual body is not present (such as in photographic and pornographic images of the body or descriptions of muscular bodies in the sex chat rooms of the Internet). And if the body is actually present in a situational context so much the better. It is devoured, consumed by the desiring fetishistic gaze,4 a desire for pleasurable looking at the the simulacrum, the fantasy as the 'real' come to life as a commodity. As Jon Stratton has observed,

"The fascination with the image is driven by the scopophilia [desire for pleasurable looking] of fetishistic desire. It is this which produces the shift to an emphasis on simulacra, that is ... a disregard of 'original' reality in favour of a simulated one ... In an order dominated by the cultural-fetishistic gaze, that which is spectacularly [after Guy Debord's idea of the 'spectacle'] presented is experienced in the context of a desire for the simulacrum as the 'real' ... here it is the viewer's 'lack' which drives a consuming gaze ... there is a continuum running from 'images' to 'commodities' that is determined by the fetishistic gaze. The key here is appearance, which, of course, underlies spectacle."5

The image of the muscular mesomorphic body is the spectacle, an appearance that signifies perfection itself, and appearance in which we can all believe but which not all of us can attain or possess.
Does the image of the body resemble part of the original meaning of the object, or is the image totally devoid of its original meaning and reliant on cultural signifiers to express a simulation of its original meaning, a re(as)semblance that stands for something else, a resemblance that is assembled from the signifiers of commodity society?
I believe that the construction and definition of body image is orthogonal, neither just 'natural' nor just an artifice of consumer culture, but dependent upon intersections and interactions of the lived reality of the body and the signifiers of consumer culture, both aspects competing narratives and possible interpretations influencing its determination. Having said that also I believe that consumer culture has, to a significant extent, limited and defined the possible interpretations, significations, and language of what is seen to be sexually desirable and valuable in the different situational contexts in which the male body image operates. As Susan Stewart has commented,

" ... the contemporary fetishization of the body in consumer culture is dependent upon the system of images within which the corporeal has been transformed into another point of representation. As Lacan has noted, the pleasure of possessing an object is dependent upon others. Thus the object's position in a system of referents - a system we may simultaneously and variously characterize as the psychoanalytic life history or as the points of an exchange economy marking the places of "existence" - and not any intrinsic qualities of the object or even its context of origin, determines its fetishistic value."6

Herein lies the crisis of doubt that arises in gay men. It flows between the act of looking, the image of the body and the meaning of that image as a) a possible representation of lived reality; or b) a representation that is self/other-determined through the object's position in a system of referents in a commodity society. According to Stewart not even the 'natural' qualities of an object or where it came from determine its fetishistic exchange value. The body has become corpo-real, a body of reality based on a desire for the simulated body as the real, the body of plenitude, the 'ideal' super-body. Through the gaze gay men may, then, desire this image of the 'ideal', the simulacrum of the muscular mesomorphic body, but in reality not all gay men can possess it (through genetic or financial reasons for example). This engenders doubt and anxiety in some gay men when they can not possess, have intimacy and connection with the object of their fantasies and desires. And when the opportunity presents itself to have and to hold, to possess such an object of desire then, as we have seen from my analysis of the interview data, some gay men will grasp this opportunity with abandon. For gay men the muscular mesomorphic body image has possibly become the fetish, a stable image of perfection in which it is possible to believe and whose possession will protect the gay man against the vacillations, discriminations and persecutions of the world. Julien Levy defines fetishism as the, "Doctrine of spirit embodied in or attached to, or conveying influence through certain material objects. In the terminology of psychoanalysis, the transference of the libido from the whole object of affection to a part, a symbol, an article of clothing."7 "Freud reckoned that the fetish is a substitute, a substitution of the unnatural for the natural."8

In my view the body image has become the fetish. In the transference of the libido onto a symbol, the body image is that symbol defined by the simulacrum as real in consumer culture. The body image (and by extension the body itself) has become the embodiment of the fetish, the replacement of the natural by the unnatural, the imperfect for the perfect. As Gilles Deleuze has noted,

"The fetish is ... not a symbol at all, but as it were a frozen, arrested, two-dimensional image, a photograph to which one returns repeatedly to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement, the harmful discoveries that result from exploration; it represents the last point at which it was still possible to believe ..."9

For some gay men the image of the muscular mesomorphic body may have become the last point at which it is still possible to believe. It may have become a two-dimensional image, an image that is frozen in its stability and its perfection,10 and image which exorcises the harmful fluctuations of identity that result from desire, sexual interaction, and abjection,11 and one to which gay men have to return to time and time again to validate their sense of self worth in relation to this frozen fetishized image.
Murray Healy, in his book 'Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and QueerAppropriation' has written an interesting and thought provoking analysis of the function of fetishism in gay male sex. He suggests that in the 1980s the 'clone' scene fetishes such as muscularity, moustaches, hairiness and genital size emerged in gay subculture as an embodiment of traditional masculinity and phallicism in a reaction against the stereotypical effeminate limp-wristed nancy boy, a previous gay male iconographic incarnation. Healy goes on to suggest that because the fear of castration is doubly present because both partner's possess a penis (and therefore both can be castrated), "The femininity of both must be denied through fetish. The penis alone is not protection enough; the phallic fetishes guard against castration inherent in earlier homosexual identities, reinstating them as real men."12

In other words femininity and difference are denied through the uniform adoption of traditional masculine representational codes of dress, appearance and phallicism. Whilst agreeing with Healy on this point, that macho representational codes were an attempt by gay men to be seen as 'real' men in a disavowal of the feminine and of difference, I think the overinvestment in contemporary gay society in the smooth, muscular mesomorphic 'Party Boy' image as the epitome of the gay 'ideal' is of a slightly different order. Macho 'clone' fetishes such as moustaches and beards could be grown by almost everyone and any-body could go out and buy a pair of boots, a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. Body image was not so de rigeur and the whole 'clone' image, even though it was a uniform masculine image, was a far more democratically and socially attainable image than the current stereotype of the 'Party Boy' image.
Murray Healy then states that, "The investment in masculine codes cannot therefore be separated from the male social contexts that gave them meaning, and all the oppressive patriarchal privilege that entails. Playing with male symbols is a power game; fetishes are power tools,"13 and cites Gough and Macnair who believe that fetishism, "Is experienced as a compulsive urge because sexuality is "exercised for alien social needs.""14
According to Gough and Macnair then, we experience fetishism as a compulsive urge because we have sex on others terms, on the terms of a dominant, hegemonic patriarchal homosexuality. The body as fetish in homosex has become the ultimate power tool in the hands of others, a ruling elite who possess and control the sexual accessibility and cultural delineation of such a body.

Murray Healy continues,

"The phallus is powerful as a signifier of difference. Luce Irigaray suggests that, "in homosexual sex, the phallus is disempowered as it is no longer a signifier of difference but sameness." This might explain the overcompensatory stockpiling of masculine fetishes that characterizes gay macho presentational codes, in a strenuous effort to disavow the powerless phallus ... If Irigaray is correct and it is only difference that will re-empower the phallus, (is it?) then this hyperaccumulation is doomed to failure as it leads only to a uniform extreme masculinity. It is no accident that the masculinized subculture came to be christened the 'clone' scene, with everyone expected to wield the same phallic symbols, and uniformity still rules in its subsequent permutations. Difference - signifiers of femininity - is often forcibly disallowed ..."15 (My bold)

I agree that signifiers of femininity (but not necessarily difference, which may not be the same thing as femininity) are often forcibly disallowed in regard to the uniformity of phallic symbols but I wonder if the phallus was ever really disempowered in homosex? I think not.
In the muscular mesomorph the phallus has become the body, the body is the fetish, the signifier of power for the hidden penis. This is an armoured body, stiff, rigid, impervious, masculine, a grand facsimile (from the Latin: facsimile! make something like it!) of the rigid penis, the embodiment of power in a patriarchal homosexuality which defines some gay men as 'real men'. If the phallus is a powerful signifier of difference from the feminine as Murray Healy says, it does not just loose its power because you have two men together as Luce Irigaray believes, to become a symbol of sameness. Your sexual partner's sameness may infer your own castration (femininity) which has to be denied through the fetish of the body but this does not mean that the phallus itself or the phallic body as fetish is disempowered in homosex, far from it. With the old recurrent stereotype of the gay man as camp and effeminate present within the dominant, heterosexual culture, the phallic power invested in the construction of a macho body became the primary marking of difference from this stereotype. In some ways it challenged the definition of what a gay man should look like and act like, by making them a 'masculine' gay. "The overcompensatory stockpiling of masculine fetishes that characterizes gay macho presentational codes," was another way of stressing this difference in uniformity.
Uniformity does rule in its subsequent permutations but, as I have said earlier, it is a different kind of uniformity, one that is not available to every gay man, one that demands sacrifices and hides the costs of labour implicit in its production.

In contemporary gay society I believe that the body phallus as fetish is still empowered as a signifier of difference, not so much in regards to the old effeminate stereotype but from one gay body to another, from a gay man who possesses a muscular mesomorphic body to one that does not, from one who is seen through his body as fetish as a "real" masculine gay man to one who is not. I do not believe that the phallus has to be re-empowered through difference for it has never been dis-empowered in the first place. What I do believe is that we should encourage difference not so much through signifiers of femininity, but through possible alternative ways we can encourage gay men to look at their own and other men's bodies without resorting to historical definitions of men's bodies as the ultimate power tool, the ultimate fetish in the representation of masculine gender roles.




1. Blanchot, Maurice. The Gaze of Orpheus. New York: Barrytown, 1981, p.85, quoted in Townsend, Chris. Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking. Munich: Prestel, 1998, p.10.

2. "In his essay 'The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class,'Dean MacCannell suggests that we see the relation between commodities as a "semiotic" one: "In Marx's treatment of it, the system of commodity production under capitalism resembles nothing so much as a language. A language is entirely social, entirely arbitrary and fully capable of generating meanings in itself." (MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books, 1976, p.20). Yet to say that the system of commodity production "resembles" language is not enough; it is necessary to outline the nature of that resemblance, to note the symbolic nature of the commodity once it is transformed from use value to exchange value and defined within a system of signs and their oppositions. "It is possible to consider the exchange of commodities as a semiotic phenomenon not because the exchange of goods implies a physical exchange, but because in the exchange the use valueof the goods is transformed into their exchange value -and therefore a process of signification or symbolizationtakes place, this later being perfected by the appearance of money, which stands for something else." writes Umberto Eco." (Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976, pp.24-25).

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p.6.

3. " ... 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 ..."

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

4. "It is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the product's of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities."

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. (trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling). New York: Modern Library, 1906, p.83, quoted in Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p.164.

5. Stratton, Jon. The Desirable Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, p.59.

6. Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, pp.163-164.

7. Levy, Julien. Surrealism. (Exhibition catalogue). New York: No Publisher, 1936, pp.98-99, quoted in Blair, Lindsay. Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order. London: Reaktion Books, 1998, p.125.

8. Blair, Lindsay. Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order. London: Reaktion Books, 1998, p.125.

9. Deleuze, Gilles. Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty. New York : Zone Books, MIT Press, 1989, p.31.

10. "Gay society is very post-traditional, full of reflexivity, and the gay lifestyle for a certain section of the gay community does concern the very core of their self-identity but it is not a making and remaking - just a making and then a fixed, modernist platform within defined parameters."

Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. California: Stanford University Press, 1991, p.80.

Commenting on this quotation I note that,

"In the formation of self-identity, then, Giddens sees the gay lifestyle as being defined within parameters, despite the fact that it is a post-traditional, or fluid society. This observation can equally apply to the gay muscular body in its response to oppression. In collaboration the gay body may become a fixed ideal, viewed from a single point perspective; not an ironic body that is made and remade in fluid form but 'just a making and then a fixed, modernist (plat)form within defined parameters'; a safe and secure form that accepts no imperfections. In the making of the muscular body to avoid oppression there may be a fluid post-modernity, where the body is altered through use of tummy tucks, butt and pec enlargements, chin lifts, muscle sculpting, penis enlargement, etc., but it then becomes a fixed entity requiring sacrifices for its upkeep. This fixity may be challenged during the inter-action of exchange at the sexual interface where there may be a possible disruption of stable muscular body-image boundaries, when the body is exposed to Dionysian desires and the moist, the mysterious, the chthonian, even death."

Bunyan, Marcus. Sex and Sensibility: Gay Eth(n)ics into the New Millennium. Unpublished paper from 'Where The Wild Things Are', Community Health Conference, Melbourne, Victoria, 1999, quoted in Bunyan, Marcus. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and The Gay Male. Unpublished CD ROM. Melbourne: RMIT University, 2000. Theoretical Press Sex and Sensibility 1. Hard copy of Project notes, p.190.

11. "In 'Powers of Horror', Kristeva describes the 'abject' as: "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules ... Abjection, therefore, transgresses the body and commingles self and other in a breakdown of boundaries.""

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection. (trans. by Leon Roudiez). New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, p.4, quoted in Davis, Melody. The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991, pp.104-105.

12. Healy, Murray. Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation. London: Cassell, 1996, p.107.

13. Ibid., p.108.

14. Gough, Jamie and Macnair, Mike. Gay Liberation in the Eighties. Guernsey: Pluto Press, 1985, p.193, quoted in Healy, Murray. Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation. London: Cassell, 1996, p.108.

15. Irigaray, Luce. "Commodities Among Themselves," in This Sex Which is Not One. (trans. Catherine Porter). New York: Cornell University Press, 1985, p.193, quoted in Healy, Murray. Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation. London: Cassell, 1996, p.108.