Monday, July 27, 2009

Embracing the superficial

In my last post I looked at the ideas of Professor Judith Butler. I want to follow up by seeing how these ideas play out in the writings of one of her fans, Professor David Gauntlett.

Professor Gauntlett is keen to publicise the works of both Judith Butler and the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. In one article, Gauntlett explains why he considers the ideas of Foucault and Judith Butler to be powerful and liberating:

I like the idea that identities aren't fixed ... that our destiny and power and life are not determined by a few supposedly descriptive 'facts' about yourself such as gender, class, ethnicity, age and so on.

This is liberalism in a nutshell. Liberals believe that the highest good is to be autonomous. Therefore, the aim is to self-determine who we are (Foucault, for instance, promoted "the idea of a self which has to be created as a work of art"). But this means rejecting, as "restrictions" on the self, whatever is significant in our life which is predetermined rather than self-determined, such as our gender, class and ethnicity.

The result is that Professor Gauntlett, in his writing, insists that our identities be multiple and fluid; that we should aim above all to do our own thing; that tradition is a negative, hostile force; that the overthrow of traditional roles is progressive; and that society is advancing toward liberal or post-traditional attitudes.

Let's consider some excerpts from Professor Gauntlett's book, Media, Gender and Identity. The gist of the book is that popular culture is at the forefront of smashing the old to make way for the liberated future:

Fluidity of identities and the decline of tradition

... identity is today seen as more fluid and transformable than ever before. Twenty or thirty years ago, analysis of popular media often told researchers that mainstream culture was ... trying to push people back into traditional categories. Today ... the mass media is a force for change ... masculine ideals of absolute toughness, stubborn self-reliance and emotional silence have been shaken ... Although gender categories have not been shattered, these alternative ideas and images have at least created space for a greater diversity of identities.

Modern media has little time or respect for tradition. The whole idea of traditions comes to seem quite strange ... What's so great about the past? ... it must surely be considered good if modern media is encouraging the overthrow of traditions which kept people within limiting compartments.

And then there's this:

The knowing construction of identity

Modern Western societies do not leave individuals in any doubt that they need to make choices of identity and lifestyle ... As the sociologist Ulrich Beck has noted, in late modern societies everyone wants to 'live their own life', but this is, at the same time, 'an experimental life' ... Because 'inherited recipes for living and role stereotypes fail to function', we have to make our own new patterns of being, and ... it seems clear that the media plays an important role ...

Magazines ... provide information about sex, relationships and lifestyles which can be put to a variety of uses. Television programmes, pop songs, adverts, movies and the internet all also provide numerous kinds of 'guidance' ... in the myriad suggestions of ways of living which they imply. We lap up this material because the social construction of identity today is the knowing social construction of identity. Your life is your project - there is no escape.

So let's sum up to this point. Professor Butler believes that a traditional culture kept people within "limiting compartments". We are supposed to agree with him that a strong masculinity was "limiting" to men - as opposed to making our own "pattern of being" from a modern pop culture of rap songs, lads' magazines and sitcoms.

Well, I know which option I find more limiting. A traditional masculinity had depth. It was a larger aspect of being, one difficult to fill. In contrast, a modern pop culture runs more on the surface. It operates more at the level of lifestyle and celebrity. I would not like to have to construct my identity out of it - it is this that would be an exercise in self-limitation.

But Professor Gauntlett is serious in what he claims. He argues that the older generations would be less "narrow-minded" if only they read FHM or Cosmopolitan:

Generational differences

... Traditional attitudes may be scarce amongst the under-30s, but still thrive in the hearts of some over-65s. We cannot help but notice, of course, that older people are also unlikely to be consumers of magazines like Cosmopolitan, More or FHM, and are not a key audience for today's pop music sensations ... [it] remains to be seen whether the post-traditional young women and men of today will grow up to be the narrow-minded traditionalists of the future.

Professor Gauntlett has studied lads' magazines like FHM and is impressed by their influence on men:

These lifestyle publications were perpetually concerned with how to treat women, have a good relationship, and live an enjoyable life. Rather than being a return to essentialism - i.e. the idea of a traditional 'real' man, as biology and destiny 'intended' - I argued that men's magazines have an almost obsessive relationship with the socially constructed nature of manhood. Gaps in a person's attempt to generate a masculine image are a source of humour in these magazines, because those breaches reveal what we all know - but some choose to hide - that masculinity is a socially constructed performance anyway ...

It's not all a world of transformed masculinities, though. Images of the conventionally rugged, super-independent, extra-strong macho man still circulate in popular culture. And as incitements for women to fulfil any role proliferate, conventional masculinity is increasingly exposed as tediously monolithic. In contrast with women's 'you can be anything' ethos, the identities promoted to men are relatively constrained.

Again, think of the choice on offer here. What Professor Gauntlett is offering men, as a liberal, is a fake masculinity that is merely performed. The flagship for this new "masculinity" is FHM magazine. In the current issue of this magazine are, predictably, features on celebrities and Hollywood. There are lifestyle articles on gaming, on curing hangovers and on healthy hearts. It's just modern pop culture aimed at younger men.

Isn't it this version of masculinity, Professor Gauntlett's version, which is "constrained"? What does it really offer? Pretend manhood, celebrities, lifestyle advice and pictures of women. Is this really enough for a man to make a decent life out of?

It's true that traditional masculinity didn't tell men that they could be anything. But this would have been bad advice anyway - just as it has been for a certain generation of women.

Finally, let me underline what is so striking about Professor Gauntlett's views. He holds out to us a certain vision in which we give up deeper forms of human identity and being for a pop culture lifestyle. He seems to have no qualms at all about the trade off. Tradition strikes him as strange. FHM magazines become the hopeful standard-bearers of the new world to come.


  1. "masculine ideals of absolute toughness, stubborn self-reliance and emotional silence have been shaken "

    Isn't absolute self-reliance the point of liberalism? If you are going to totally define yourself, from top to bottom, wouldn't any form of dependence interfere?

    So popular magazines produced to sell products have replaced the traditions that were previously taught by families. How is this an improvement? Getting your identity from mass media is not being self-directed is it? This is some form of turbo-capitalism it seems. "Be what the marketers tell you to be."

    If the economy crumbles as badly as it did in in the 1920s-1930s, they will not be able to continue down this path. This is purely a luxury leisure.

  2. Liesel, two excellent points.

    Professor Gauntlett is caught in a bind when it comes to male independence. On the one hand, he wants to throw off traditional masculinity, so the strongly self-reliant male is out. On the other hand, we are supposed to aim at independence and self-reliance in order to be autonomous. So for women self-reliance is in, even though for men it is out.

    And yes, if we were truly free floating and self-directed we would not be taking our cues from the production meetings of Consolidated Press.

  3. Secession from the dominant culture created by the liberal intelligentsia might be feasible in private life, but in public life there's no escape from the politics and social morality of liberal intellectuals like professors Butler and Gauntlett.

    This is why kicking against the ascendant pricks is such a lonely activity.

  4. “This is liberalism in a nutshell. Liberals believe that the highest good is to be autonomous.”

    Liberalism in a nutshell is naïve. Even if we took God out of the equation so we can look through the spectacles of liberalism, we can still see shortsighted ideology. I believe their weak foundation is supported by the idea that mankind can get along. However, history has proven otherwise. From 1847 to 1877 the Mormon prophet Brigham Young tried to create a society in the Indian Territory where all was common and there were to be no rich or poor among them. Unfortunately Young was also naïve that this could be possible while in our natural state. Moses tried to give the children a higher law, but we know the outcome of that event. So, can we all just get along………NO!