Conflicting visions of masculinity in the postmodern era
Monday, 5 September 2022
Masculinity is both a noun and a verb, defined as much by one’s physical characteristics as one’s actions in society. But how precisely is it to be defined biologically and culturally? The former has become a decidedly more slippery project than it once was, now that men, in a stunning rejection of the most fundamental apophatic truth of humanity on earth, can give birth. And the latter, the focus of this essay, seems to suggest two separate and distinct propositions: the first, constrained, and the second, unconstrained.
A useful narrative tool to shed light on the two primary visions of masculinity that occupy the current cultural landscape is Thomas Sowell’s seminal work, A Conflict of Visions. But first, it seems appropriate to give a cursory description of the most common ways that our culture has sought, inadequately and inaccurately, to describe these competing visions. The “soft” male is variously described as a beta male, soy male or cuck; while the “hard” male is described as an alpha male, dominant, narcissistic, an egotist.
The constrained vision of masculinity suggests that manhood is typified by the mastery and control of one’s impulses in order to sublimate one’s appetites into productive and virtuous pursuits; while the unconstrained vision of manhood suggests that one’s appetites should always be satisfied in acts of hedonistic boldness. At the heart of these two conceptions of masculinity lie a narrative about how a man should express his libidinal urges, creative and destructive – and by implication the appropriate use of violence. Masculine energy is creative in the sense that it manifests life through the realization of desire; and it is destructive in the sense that it manifests change through the expression of violence in an effort to realize its desire – the key distinguishing characteristic of masculinity being the expression of intent, with each expression having a positive and negative pole or mode of expression. The two primary archetypes which embody these concepts are that of provider, the creative impulse; and protector, the destructive impulse (i.e., the implied threat of violence). Both the constrained and unconstrained visions of masculinity assert that true masculinity is indeed virtuous, and as such should be pursued as a positive good. The truth of the matter can apparently be found, both agree, in our primordial essence – the ambrosia of manhood. Therein lies the question of how libidinal energies should be understood in the expression of masculinity. All masculine energy flows from it, born out of pure desire. Should these energies be tamed, as in the constrained vision, or should they be encouraged to run wild, as in the unconstrained vision? Both require a kind of cultivation of intent, although quite different.
In addition, both visions of masculinity have a view of what the primordial essence is, and based on what flows from these views, make claims about the innate qualities of this libidinal force, insofar as how it should be used, i.e., harnessed, cultivated, sublimated, fed, etc. These conflicting visions also make a claim about what is authentically masculine, and about masculinity in the “state of nature,” as it were. They seem to generally agree about what masculinity is in the state of nature, but diverge on whether or not this state of nature is virtuous in terms of right action. Both visions seek a Platonic ideal, with the constrained vision arguing that the masculine state of nature must be civilized through acts of free will, and the unconstrained vision suggests that men must plunge themselves ever deeper into the unrefined self in order to mine the depths of what masculinity truly entails, and embrace it with zeal.
The debate about how men should approach the concept of manhood as a Platonic form is often undertaken with these conflicting visions in mind. The search for the masculine ideal has taken the discussion into evolutionary biology, to our mammalian ancestors – if you accept the Darwinian paradigm – where the true masculine self can be recognized by observing primate and pack animal behavior. Common racial socio-cultural tropes also emanate from this concept, where “uncivilized” peoples are more in touch with their libidinal appetites. This line of inquiry, which seeks to make anthropological and cultural claims based on biological facts, is the dominant view within men’s groups today, so much so that its ubiquity makes it invisible and generally accepted as received wisdom. This hypothesis further suggests that culture serves as a container through which a species propagates itself – a kind of evolutionary echo, but nothing more. Biological and evolutionary explanations are necessarily deterministic and reductionist, which unfortunately do not allow for the presence of human consciousness and free will as a causative factor in the development of humanity. The central question at the heart of the relationship between biology and culture in this regard, is if culture is downstream from biology – or the reverse, as is often said about politics and culture.
If culture is downstream from biology, then the evolutionary lens would seem to accurately reflect what masculinity is and how to pursue it as an ideal. If, however, biology is downstream from culture, then this introduces an epistemological conundrum for positivists and empiricists alike, since this would in effect suggest that the observable physical realities we experience each day are manifestations of our values, beliefs, and conscious intent. Perhaps the truth of the matter, as alluded to above, lies in a syncretistic approach, where each vision of masculinity has something to offer those on the path towards becoming a better man, which is indeed a virtuous pursuit.
“The most dangerous state in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them.”
~ F.A. Hayek, qtd. in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell