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  • Masculinity, Psychoanalysis, Straight Queer Theory: Essays on Abjection in Literature, Mass Culture, and Film
  • Tim Dean
Calvin Thomas. Masculinity, Psychoanalysis, Straight Queer Theory: Essays on Abjection in Literature, Mass Culture, and Film. New York: Palgrave, 2008. xvi + 224 pp.

Calvin Thomas says on the first page that he wanted to call his book Adventures in Abjection—a title whose éclat is sadly lacking in the string of nouns concocted by his publisher. The official title faithfully itemizes the book's subject matter and focus, while the wished-for-one suggests the spirit in which Thomas's research and writing were undertaken. Part of what makes this work so appealing is the evident [End Page 871] relish with which its author embraces all things abject. If, according to Julia Kristeva, abjection depends on excluding filth, then the logic of Thomas's project consists in getting down and dirty with the contaminants that normative masculine subjectivities constitutively exclude.

In the psychoanalytic theory of abjection developed most notably by Bataille, Lacan, and Kristeva, the abject threatens identity by virtue of transgressing those boundaries that differentiate one body from another. Of the many corporeal substances that qualify as abject, Thomas is most interested in the anal and the scatological. He aspires to harness the equivocal energies of the abject for a critical project that contests normative masculinity from within—or, rather, from either side of its most vulnerable borders. The book thus contributes to queer theory's critique of sexual identity politics, albeit with a significant difference. Whereas psychoanalytically inflected queer theory attacks imaginary identities by emphasizing the ungovernable displacements of polymorphous desire, Thomas pursues his cognate critique by emphasizing that which is not desired. If desire disturbs identity, arguably the abject does so even more.

The originality of Thomas's critical adventure in abjection lies in his connecting the abject to writing and to representation. Abjection is not simply a theme in the texts he examines; more radically, it is an ontological risk that must be confronted each time the subject attempts to represent him- or herself. Drawing on Lacan, Thomas argues that linguistic alienation converts the writing subject into an object that threatens to slide into the abject: "Just ask the writer about the anxiety he experiences when he faces the blank sheet of paper, and he will tell you who is the turd of his phantasy" (qtd. in Thomas xiv). Given the fantasmatic structure that connects writing to excretion, Thomas contends that "specters of abjection, powerlessness, and penetrability can be said to circle and haunt all scenes of heteromasculinist representation, any visible production of the male body whatsoever" (10). His book seeks to unleash these specters in the service of a project that is at once feminist, deconstructive, and queer.

In the specter of penetrability—specifically, men's anal penetrability—Thomas sees a link to the notion of self-shattering that Leo Bersani draws from Laplanchean psychoanalysis. The book's ethical ambition is to shatter the self by means of "abjective writing" in order to "impede the punitive abjection of the other that the dominant social order enacts and upon which it depends" (xiv). Embracing my own abjection, I no longer need to make others suffer it. Thomas thus exploits the "strange strategic political value in metaphors of dissolution, failure, and collapse" (71). He finds Bersani's early work [End Page 872] congenial because the latter's version of psychoanalysis is so influenced by Bataille. In developing what he rightly calls the "the queerer, more Bataillean Lacan" (70), Thomas also marks his distance from Judith Butler's version of psychoanalysis (which dominated the conceptualization of his previous book, Male Matters). Under the sway of Butler, queer theory has tended to underestimate the significance of Bataille's thinking; Masculinity, Psychoanalysis, Straight Queer Theory goes a considerable way toward redressing this unfortunate tendency.

The book establishes Thomas as a leading voice in the field of critical masculinity studies, in part by revising some of his previous book's claims. Yet Masculinity, Psychoanalysis, Straight Queer Theory also demonstrates the kind of nuanced close readings that his theoretical apparatus can produce. In addition to a substantial discussion of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive...


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