Between the Psyche and the Social: Masculinity, Subjectivity and the First World War Veteran

By Roper, Michael | The Journal of Men's Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Between the Psyche and the Social: Masculinity, Subjectivity and the First World War Veteran


Roper, Michael, The Journal of Men's Studies


Subjectivity occupies an awkward place in much recent work on gender, whether the context of research is contemporary or historical. Within the field there has been a widespread reaction against the supposedly "modernist" assumption of a universal human subject, and a tendency to privilege what could be called "external" understandings of masculinity and femininity. The focus has been on identity: that is, on the normative codes or cultural scripts associated with what it means to be man or woman in a given time and place, and on the contingent, changing, and multiple nature of identities. Approaches that deal with emotional states and unconscious processes, aspects that might be termed more "internal"--and which suggest that there are some essential aspects of subjectivity--have remained, by comparison, under-developed, if not actually decried.

In part this tendency reflects wider theoretical developments, notably the "cultural turn," which, in its most radical incarnations, denies the very idea of a subject existing outside of language. Subjectivity, some argue, is constituted through language and we can never reach beyond "subject positions" to access some authentic "inner" psychological truth or essence (e.g., Bruner, 1991). Much has been gained by this theoretical more. It has sensitized us to the power of language to shape emotions, and to the gaps and dissonance between human experience and its representation. It reminds us that even the most "personal" and intimate of cultural forms, such as the diary, private memoir. life-history interview of letter to a loved one, though the writer might feel it to be an outpouring from the heart, draws upon pre-given conventions of expression and is not a transparent psychological record.

Nevertheless, I depart from the assumption in some of this work that the culturally constructed meanings of masculinity and femininity are wholly defining of subjectivity. I am also keen to persuade those who might accept that there is more to subjectivity than cultural codes, but who nevertheless still take these codes as their principal object of study, that there is much to be gained by thinking about masculinity in terms of relationships, emotional experience, and unconscious processes, matters that are never beyond representation but that are not wholly defined by it either. Interested as I am in subjectivity, I'm always trying to think about what states of mind might be being conveyed by language, and I resist the idea that language wholly encapsulates or constructs emotional states.

The bias toward the external in work on masculinity has been a characteristic from early on. When John Tosh and I wrote the introduction to Manful Assertions (1991) a decade and a half ago, we envisaged masculinity as an over-arching term, which included both cultural and psychological dimensions. We argued that masculinity was "the product both of lived experienced and fantasy," and that further studies were needed to "explore how cultural representations become part of subjective identity" (pp. 14-15). We indicated the need for approaches that explored points of connection between the social and the psychic.

Four years after Manful Assertions the tendency to conceive of masculinity largely in external terms was already being noted. In 1995, Nigel Edley and Margaret Wetherell commented that cultural approaches "might be able to specify the different representations of masculinity made available by a particular culture, but they are not so adept at explaining the emotional investments which men make in such images" (p. 211). In Masculinities, also published in 1995. R. W. Connell warned that a "purely normative definition gives no grip on masculinity at the level of personality" (p. 70). The "erasure" of subjectivity that Steven Angelides notes elsewhere in this journal is widespread within gender studies.

The problem identified over a decade ago as the field consolidated, remains as true today.

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