Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present: International Interdisciplinary Conference (Technical University of Dresden, June 17-20, 2009)1

By Horlacher, Stefan; Schwanebeck, Wieland et al. | Culture, Society and Masculinities, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present: International Interdisciplinary Conference (Technical University of Dresden, June 17-20, 2009)1


Horlacher, Stefan, Schwanebeck, Wieland, Stear, Peter, Culture, Society and Masculinities


Recently, it took the individual actions of a Scottish-born, 48-year-old Australian to once again question the legitimacy of the traditional gender dichotomies generally subscribed to by state legislatures and the wider public they are elected to represent. Norrie May-Welby of Sydney- born a man, before undergoing a sex change operation and eventually opting to become a "neuter"- "made headlines after [...] receiving an official designation of gender neutrality in Australia" but was in next to no time confronted with the withdrawal of this document "over questions of whether the New South Wales registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages had the power to issue such a designation."2

The case of May-Welby resonates with a dramatic development in the contemporary relevance and problematic nature- nature of course being the operative word- of a number of issues raised during the international interdisciplinary conference "Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present," an event hosted by Prof. Dr. Stefan Horlacher at the Technical University of Dresden in lune, 2009. Organized with the support of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung für Wissenschaft, this conference was, as the title suggests, primarily devoted to a series of literary-historical case studies within the scope of surveying and comparing the conception, construction, and representation of masculinity in different historical periods. Beyond exercising the scholarly minds of presenters and participants from a wide range of academic fields in Europe and the U.S., it also attracted the attention of the media, with Germany's preeminent tabloid newspaper BiId as well as television channel MDR losing no time in reporting on the event. Media and public interest stems from the perception of contemporary masculinity as being in an (oxymoronic) state of perpetual crisis, the typical manifestations of which are the increasing gender divide in academic performance, male perpetrated violence in the home or workplace, and most dramatically the copycat massacres in schools and colleges.

It was thus fitting that, given the flurry of media interest in matters masculine, the conference opened with four papers that emphasized the growing cultural, social, and political significance of masculinity studies as an academic discipline. Stefan Horlacher's introductory paper addressed from a theoretical perspective the key questions of "Why Masculinities?" and "Why Literature?," thereby establishing the latter as the preeminent discursive resource for epistemological insights into the historical development and contemporary relevance of masculinities. By addressing key texts situated at the intersection of literature, literary studies, sociology, psychoanalysis, and other fields of research, Horlacher provided the necessary framework for examining the interplay of fictional constructions and of what is commonly perceived non-fictional, that is, "real-life" enactments of masculinities, emphasizing literature's potential to provide alternatives and offer solutions. Horlacher argued that while bearing a clear historical imprint, literary texts nevertheless transcend any narrow notion of mimesis that would reduce them to a mirror or straightforward representation of reality as "given." If one takes into account literature's ability (a) to constitute a discursive field in which even marginalized, aberrant voices can articulate themselves, (b) to give voice to something that could be called "the collective unconscious," and (c) to transcend its time of origin, literature (and literary studies), according to Horlacher, can be viewed as an extraordinarily privileged medium for the conception, reception, and analysis of historically changing phenomena linked to the construction and deconstruction of (not just) British mascuHnities (compare Horlacher, 2004, 2010).

In his keynote address, Harry Brod (Northern Iowa), one of the founders of masculinity studies in the U. …

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Constructions of Masculinity in British Literature from the Middle Ages to the Present: International Interdisciplinary Conference (Technical University of Dresden, June 17-20, 2009)1
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