Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line

Calvin Thomas
Chicago: University of Illinois Press
0 252 02202 5
$24.95 (hb)
245 pp.

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A work that seriously attempts to examine, and intelligently deconstruct, the representation of masculinity in literature is certainly required. Male Matters by Calvin Thomas attempts to do this.

This book deals with a specific instance of men's fears. It concerns what I consider a constitutively masculine anxiety about the male body as a site for the production of language and representation, the role that this anxiety plays in the construction of straight male sexuality, and the various ways in which this anxiety can reinforce - or potentially, disrupt - the representation of masculine identity in writing (p13).

The work is split into six main chapters (with extensive notes) dealing with scholarly authors such as Freud, Joyce, Hegel, Bataille and Derrida. On a whole this is a well crafted book, that is both 'clever' and full of insight. It is well written and often quite witty. The style that Thomas adopts is also interesting in that he openly suggests another aim of the book is to generate more anxiety amongst its male readers.

Indeed, after reading this book, I am certainly left with concerns and anxieties of my own. Of all the books I have read or reviewed on men and masculinity, none have left me pondering the questions that Thomas's book has. However, one important question is about the nature of the book itself. The question is simple and to the point. What is the real aim of the book?

Thomas starts the work identifying his own Southern working-class roots yet what this book says would have very little relevance to any working class men, appealing mainly to a middle-class, middle-brow and largely middle American intelligentsia. The complexity of the discussion means that the book is only accessible to those readers with a sound understanding of masculinity debates and at least some background in postmodern deconstructionism. If the subtext of this book is to make men anxious about their masculinity, then Thomas misses his own point. The book is only accessible by those who (I suspect) are 'already anxious' about their masculinity and the way it is represented. So, what is the book's real aim? If masculinity and the representation of hegemonic masculinity is to change or at least be made visible, the value of such limited literary re-definition must be questioned.

A second 'anxiety' relates to the post-structural reading or re-reading of the works that Thomas cites. The reading of literature is by necessity a subjective and individual experience. As such the representations of masculinity that literature generates will also differ depending on the reader. The representations and deconstruction of those representations will always be subjective and therefore questionable. For example, in this work I would argue that the treatment of Joyce is certainly questionable. Is it not perhaps the fact that Joyce was like many other men of his time, and certainly like many men now? The reduction of Joyce to the anal is of limited merit especially when Joyce offers a richer presentation of masculinity not limited by sexuality or by images of the body. For example, in Portrait of the Artist Joyce spends a great deal of time outlining the type of masculine ideal represented by the Catholic Church, particularly that form optimized by the Jesuit school masters of Dedalus's school days. What mention of this? To come back to the point any re-reading of literature is bound to be subjective and it must be left to the individual to ascertain a book's merit or contribution to our general understanding.

However, my own 'anxieties' should not detract from the overall value of this work. The book certainly has something to offer and clearly points to the useful methodology of using classical or modern texts in the understanding of the masculine condition. Thomas's book should have wide appeal and would not look 'out of place' on the recommended reading lists for students of literary criticism or gender studies.

John Goodwin
Centre For Labour Market Studies
Leicester University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996