Birkbeck 4: the political uses of gender history

Several speakers at the Birkbeck conference (particularly John Tosh and Harry Brod, who have a very long history in the field) were urging that the history of masculinity reconnects with its roots in the politics of the New Men’s movements, and political engagement was also one theme of an extra lecture associated with the conference: the inaugural lecture for the Birkbeck Institute of Gender and Sexuality. This was given by Judith Halberstam, whose book on ‘Female masculinity’ I’d heard about, but haven’t read; she’s also written on transgender issues. Her lecture was on ‘Bees, bio-piracy and the queer art of cross-pollination’: I found it interesting and accessible, but ultimately frustrating.

Judith Halberstam saw herself as producing ‘alternative political imaginaries’, and was drawing on two sources: recent work on transbiology and animated children’s films on animals (a current interest of hers). She was focusing particularly on bees, which she saw as ‘wonderfully queer’, and pointing out how often they had been used as a political metaphor for many different purposes (both historically and in recent films). Such political ideas turn up even in films ostensibly for children: she showed extracts from Jerry Seinfield’s Bee Movie which came close to communism, where Barry the bee realises how humans exploit bees by taking their honey. (Though, as she points out, the movie then retreats from this political position).

But her discussion of this movie also shows the political problems of a position based on postmodernism. Halberstam was rightly indignant about Bee Movie showing bees as living in heterosexual families, but elsewhere in her talk and the questions afterwards she was saying she didn’t want to privilege the natural. She’s not trying to figure out what happens in nature, she’s not trained to do that and there are no right narratives anyway.

In that case, I wondered, what is wrong with the conjugal family bee? If you’re not going to ‘privilege the natural’, then showing bees in nuclear families or in largely asexual swarms is surely just a matter of preference: there is no reason to choose a more accurate version. And what can academics bring to politics, in that case? Halberstam sees the role of the intellectual as ferreting out alternatives, but it’s not clear that academics are best placed to do that. Her other main case study was the work of the Austrian artist Ines Doujak on biopiracy: see here and here for her artwork ‘Victory Garden’. Doujak is protesting about the exploiting by commercial companies of the genetic resources of the Third World (patenting indigenous plants etc). If the role of the intellectual is largely to show alternatives, isn’t a creative artist better placed to do so than an academic? They can imagine more exotic things, they have a training in hunting for influences and fragments and mosaicing them. What is an academic’s role in this?

And yet Halberstam said that Doujak wasn’t just producing an artwork, she was also producing an ‘archive’, and she’s recently published a book on biopiracy. In this book, she includes details about what companies are doing round the world. In other words, for an effective political project, you need things like e.g. facts, details and all the other knowledge that postmodernists don’t think matter, but which other academics are actually rather good at researching.

So for those of us historians of masculinity who still live in the past-reality-based community, what can we bring (if anything) to the progressive politics of gender, and should we be doing so? There is the obvious possible problem of distorting our research to fit our political ideology, but assuming we can avoid that, is there anything useful we can do (particularly those of us working on pre-modern periods)? I’ll focus here on our effect on how individual men think about gender (as in the New Men’s movement), on the grounds that the personal here is, as usual, political.

I want to go back again to my distinction of masculinity as subjectivity, practice and ideology. John Tosh, as I’ve already remarked, was urging us to study male subjectivity more, but paradoxically, I think that’s the least politically useful topic. The study of male subjectivity tends to be politically useful only when men can see their own feelings reflected in the past, so that they’re led to realise that they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that. (Finding that men had different feelings about a situation in the past is only useful if you’re going to try a kind of historical cognitive-based therapy: ‘that man didn’t feel humiliated by his wife’s betrayal, therefore I needn’t either’). This identification with men in the past may well have been important for some men at the start of the men’s movement, particularly for those, like gays, who had been ‘people without a past’. But now I’d say that such finding of kindred spirits is far more effectively done via internet discussion groups than by a search for emotional predecessors.

The historical study of male practice, in contrast, seems to me politically useful both positively and negatively. Other men have in the past raised their children on their own, and this is how they did it. Other groups of men in the past have chosen to be sexually restrained rather than sexually voracious; we could do so to. The problem is that historical practice can’t easily be disentangled from historical circumstances. It’s very hard to have the same kind of father-son relationship in a modern era where the majority of time is spent in separate institutions (work/school), than it is an early modern period when a father is training a son in a profession in his own household. Pre-modern male practice therefore isn’t particularly helpful for everyday modern life, except for those prepared to drop out of the system completely.

In fact, the most politically useful aspect of masculinity to study is ideology, even though John Tosh thinks that we study this too much. It’s useful firstly, because historians can demonstrate that the ideology of masculinity is an ideology, it’s not just natural and inevitable. For a very neat demonstration of a historical debunking (not by a historian) of an evolutionary psychology paper, see Ben Goldacre on pink. Just showing that masculinity has changed in the past is an important step to showing it can be changed again. And secondly, we can present past images of acceptable masculinity that may be liberating for men: John Tosh mentioned the acceptability of male crying in early nineteenth century culture. How much we contribute to each part of this ideological investigation may vary: I don’t think that the study of medieval masculinity is going to contribute many positive role models for men, but it is extremely useful for demolishing myths about the eternal male. Historians of gender can have a political role while staying within a traditional framework of academic standards, but they do need to understand carefully exactly what it is they can contribute.

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