'We should not be afraid of biology, nor so refined or tricky in our theorising of gender that we have no place for sweaty bodies … masculinities are embodied without ceasing to be social … we experience masculinities (in part) as certain muscular tensions, postures, physical skills, ways of moving and so on'.
According to Connell’s approach to gender, the body and social cannot be collapsed into one another, but constitute a process of ‘body-reflexivity’ – a ‘social-biological-social’ circuit.
But there is still some work to do to get into the nitty-gritty of how masculinity is done, and what bodies feel like as men play sport, work, learn, and enter into relationships. The differences between what men say, and what they do and feel in the heat of the moment, can be very marked. Bodies can reveal much when we take note of them in action. Experiences will often contradict what we expect. The discrepancy between what ought to be done and what is done can open up new possibilities and dismantle expectations.
Connell’s approach to the body by way of his model of ‘body-reflexivity’ positions the mind as where the subject learns about gender, while the body is taken as a purely physical concern. However, our bodies are an affective entity and not an instrumental object. Rather than write about bodies it is also productive to write through bodies: the randomness, movement, affects, actions, and viscerality. As the sociologist Michele Barrett suggests, we need to involve bodies so that our insights are ‘imaginative, sensual even, in that they speak to experience, which includes the senses rather than simply cognition’.
To get at an account of masculinity that moves beyond such a dualism the feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz suggests refiguring the body as an affective assemblage – affecting and being affected. Grosz points out that such assemblages are the way that ‘(fragments) of bodies come together with or align themselves to other things’. Bodies are psychological, biological and sociological relationships whereby the interrelationship of the elements cannot be reduced to those elements. Bodies always move, rearrange and connect with other things to form new bodies. They are not simply disciplined, trained or inscribed, but are a dynamic activity somewhere between the sociological, psychological, and physiological. What Grosz turns me away from is a causal relationship that keeps the social outside of the corporeal.
According to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze such assemblages always move, rearrange and connect with other things to form new bodies. According to Deleuze these assemblages are ‘turning points, and points of inflection, bottlenecks, knots, foyers, and centres, points of fusion, condensation and boiling . . . sensitive points’. In fact, 'male' bodies don't necessarily have exclusive connection rights with masculinity, 'female' bodies do too (remembering that 'male' and 'female' are gendered readings of bodies in the first place). I want to be clear; I am not saying that masculinity is biological, but that doing masculinity is complex to the point that the connections and locomotion of bodies overpower any modelling, or the ability to move into or out of masculinities. As Deleuze explains, one cannot hold on to a subject position, or adopt or reject the possibility of movement. We are part of movement instead of being the origin of an effort. There are always changing configurations, meaning that there is an ongoing style to masculinity, and not a typology of masculinities.
To accommodate the moving awareness we could refer to the importance of ‘style’. I understand this to be an embodied, social, sensual and spatial expression of masculinity. Force, grace, and fluidity make up style, qualities that go beyond a set of physical acts. Style is where a body is not a personally remembered physical co-ordination but life and bodies affecting and being affected during assemblages. Style is always evolving, taking on elements and discarding them. We combine some moves with others, modify moves, transform moves entirely, or invent them as though for the first time.
Life always travels differently. Style highlights how those who do masculinity are part of a dynamic existence. What we need to avoid then is any attempt to specify a particular way to model arrangements, but rather emphasise details and examples rather than abstracted patterns. It is important to work through dynamic performances to register new possibilities and creativity, to open up masculinity to uncertainties.
To understand masculinity better it is important to appreciate the dynamism and movement it can actually entail, despite the many attempts to 'capture' it, block it, and define it. To re-figure masculinity in this way means recognising that feelings and bodies and creativity are important to how people belong, come to understand themselves as masculine, how they decide which performances matter or not, and how they learn to do masculinity. Such accounts of masculinity will reveal that that there is no ‘true’ way to do or feel masculinity, or typology of masculinities. Appreciating masculinity as style can contribute to unsettling historical, cultural and psychological assumptions about masculinity. It can also reveal that even within what appear to be hegemonic performances of masculinity difference, uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, and feelings also happen. And there is promise there ...