Aphrodite of the Future

Article excerpt

MAN TROUBLE If we look too hard--or, better, hard enough--at "masculinity," its meaning dissipates, "as when a word is repeated over and over." This image is from an essay by filmmaker Todd Haynes that appears in this special section of Artforum. Several decades of feminist, gay and lesbian, and race studies have subjected the masculine imperative to sustained inquiry, simultaneously challenging the fixity of gender designations and exposing them as vaporous propositions; nevertheless, it remains difficult for us to talk about our power as men. Looking hard at masculinity is what Haynes does in his text (as in his movies), and it is also what I asked of each of the essayists whose contributions appear in the following pages.

I initially assembled the project in collaboration with Louise Neri, of Parkett magazine. Artforum has pared the original collection of manuscripts down to the half dozen that follow, which also include two entirely new texts (Simon Watney's essay replaces an interview transcript, and Wayne Koestenbaum's piece was freshly commissioned). Artforum curated the accompanying visual essay.

We hope that the essays presented here ultimately point beyond the notion of "men in feminism," the title of a groundbreaking anthology edited by Alice Jardine and Paul Smith. Since that book's publication in 1987, many men in academia, politics, and the arts have absorbed aspects of feminist thinking. Yet the need to examine our power and its abuses will not be erased simply by calling ourselves feminists. If masculinity is an ambivalent category, it is also a complex and multivalent one. The six essays published here are by and large less expository, mare personal, confessional, and writerly, than the academic discussions on which they depend; in their openness and their mobility, they seem somehow suited to, in Kobena Mercer's words, "the recognition of the ambivalence on which all social and psychic relations depend." Their range--not only in terms of rhetorical strategies employed but of identifications registered (both with respect to subject position and disciplinary affiliation)--answers Mercer's call not "for more angsty white male 'self-examination' but for common cause in the strategic analysis of the psychic and social anchoring points that keep us locked into the oppressive fantasies . . . that condition our mutual enmeshment." All these statements construct masculinity not as monolithic but as varied--"an interplay," to quote the literary historian Herbert Sussman, "within each male of the cultural possibilities of manhood at the historical moment." It is in this spirit that Watney calls for an "Aphrodite of the future"--as a vehicle enabling us to imagine a disposition that would refuse the rigid categories of masculinity and femininity--even as he acknowledges their escapability as encoded conventions.

In the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia there is a conical black stone some five feet tall. It was excavated from the Bronze Age shrine of Aphrodite at Palaepaphos, on the south coast of the island, and is generally thought to have been the central cult idol of a vast temple complex that thrived for approximately 1,500 years beginning ca. 1200 B.C. This roughly egg-shaped boulder was one of the most sacred objects in antiquity. Pilgrims came from all around the Mediterranean world to the annual festival of the goddess, where, in exchange for payment, they were given a lump of salt and a phallus--"the phallus clearly being a symbol of Aphrodite as a fertility deity, the salt most probably referring to the birth of the goddess from the sea."[1]

Aphrodite is the richest and most complex embodiment of active sexual desire in Western mythological thought. She is uniquely rich in epithets--Aphrodite the Side-Glancer, the Lover of Smiles, the Lover of the Penis, Aphrodite of the Little Ears, the Beautiful Buttocks, the Bridal Chamber, the Orgasm, and so on. She is Aphrodite the Giver of Joy and Aphrodite the Whore; Aphrodite of the Flowers and Aphrodite the Golden. …