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Reviewed by:
  • Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line
  • Richard Dellamora
Calvin Thomas. Male Matters: Masculinity, Anxiety, and the Male Body on the Line. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996. xii + 245 pp.

Calvin Thomas begins his book by recalling a childhood memory of watching a young male friend, in want of a washroom, defecate outside the locked door of the local school. “In broad daylight, at the nether door of the looming school, he began to let fall a dark coiling figure.” This anecdote introduces three topics at the center of Thomas’s book: one is the fascination that males find in their bodily processes, especially those in which matter is expelled from the body; secondly, the conviction that these experiences constitute a mode of what Jacques Derrida refers to as writing; thirdly, that “writing” as a literary activity is fraught with anxiety about producing messy, dirty stuff—and that this very anxiety can be put in service of being male and straight—but differently. In Thomas’s words, “This book deals with a specific instance of men’s fears. It concerns what I consider a constitutively masculine anxiety about the male body as a site for the production of language and representation, the role this anxiety plays in constructions of straight male sexuality, and the various ways in which this anxiety can reinforce—or, potentially disrupt—the representation of masculine identity in writing.” In themselves, these propositions are not novel—Julia Kristeva makes them in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Nor [End Page 488] is the basic tactic of the book new. Thomas attempts to recuperate a straight, male, feminist subject-position through inversion—that is, by acknowledging and even taking pleasure in processes of abjection against which masculine gender-formation is usually defined. Kaja Silverman exploits sexual inversion and perversion similarly in validating male masochism in Male Subjectivity at the Margins. Leo Bersani, who is the most formative theorist of gender for Thomas, has made similar suggestions. Especially for readers of Modern Fiction Studies, then, Thomas might most usefully direct critical attention to a number of male modernists (he focuses on one, James Joyce) in a way that complicates the sorts of readings of masculine representation that are now familiar in feminist literary criticism or in a book such as Chris Craft’s Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850–1920.

Of course, performing, indeed claiming sexual inversion and perversion for oneself (putting one’s body on the line is the way this book terms it), is at odds with the claim to be heterosexual—one that this book might well relinquish on the ground that the choice of a sexual object of the other sex does not necessarily make one either straight or heterosexual. The fact that Thomas does not exploit this paradoxical claim draws my attention back to the door of the school outside of which his friend takes a shit. In Male Matters, institutional contexts are just as salient as doing things visibly out of place. Indeed, despite the emphasis on anality, Thomas evidences something like hyperanxiety about doing certain things outside a number of well-defined contexts. The first of these contexts, as I have already indicated, is that of defining his work in terms of male (heterosexual) feminism. For Thomas, that means aligning his position with that of a number of statements by feminists such as Jane Gallop that his readers will probably already know and agree with. This focused address to heterosexual feminists is made at the expense of the address that he might also make to lesbians, gays, or queer men and women. Indeed, despite occasional references, Thomas learns a lot less from queer critics and theorists than he might. And yet they do matter to him. At one point, he makes crucial use of Bersani’s argument in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” about the “self-shattering” significance of anal sex—yet by recontextualizing the quotation with reference to an earlier work by the same author, Thomas manages to overlook the fact that the prime context of this [End Page 489] essay is male-male sex during the AIDS...

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pp. 488-490
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