Manhood on the Run: Masculine Morality

“Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used.” Othello 2.2

Shakespeare realized that social life is a performance. Othello is a play about how easily misled a gullible person can be if fooled by a good performance that frames reality in a certain way. Iago states, “I am not what I am,” and he understands that no one else is either, taking advantage of misinterpretations and misunderstandings to enact his desires (Othello 1.1). Human existence is a theater, the place we are drawn to look, the space of drama. The word “theory” is derived from a word that means “spectacle” which comes from the Greek theastai (to see, to behold). Othello is also about beholding the spectacle of fragile masculinity, and this post will discuss the theory of morality.

            Masculinity, as a technology of agency, treats the body as prosthesis for the will rather than envisioning embodiment as consciousness, it derives its agency from elsewhere. Augustine sees the body as a jumble of base desires and posits “civilization” (or domestication) as saving this venal corpus from self-destruction via the individual licentious desire for power over others. Instead, he argues that the love we feel for others and the solidarity this produces can lead us to the City of God. To him, this is the only moral choice and the only way to be saved from perdition. Individualism leads straight to the Devil.

            Nietzsche wrote of a morality “beyond good and evil” that didn’t take life so seriously, like those who think our only purpose is to live long enough to propagate and further the species, resulting in a bioeconomics that defines life as too precious to waste in frivolous activity. The absurdity of this situation is lost on most. Marcuse thought that we could develop a new sensibility figured around the life instinct rather than the death instinct that capitalism exploits, driving us toward unification and cooperation rather than competition and conflict.

            Perhaps we need to embrace the total lack of design in nature, the void of purpose, and laugh at the cosmic joke. Experiencing such “joyful wisdom” means apprehending the tide of tragedy and comedy that composes a life. We need not lament this state, just as we need not lament our fate, that we die. We can revel in it. But instead, trauma is written on our bodies. We build facades to protect us from it, but through them reveal it, ultimately creating divides between each other that cause it. We thicken out skins to contain our identities, but would be better as babes who experience a shared skin with caregivers. What happens when this boundary is transgressed, when the structure collapses?

            What is this thing called morality and why are we called to it? Heidegger reminds us that calling is a “beckoning,” an “invitation,” and a “direction.” It is a reaching for something beyond our grasp. Morality is a kind of thinking, and he notes that this word is derived from Old English “thanc” which is a “gathering of all that concerns us, all that we care for, all that touches us insofar as we are, as human beings. What touches us in the sense that it defines and determines our nature, what we care for, what we might call contiguous contact.” A skin that we all share. This contact is the relation between subject and object, the interstice of existing as and existing for: “The gathering of what is next to us here never means an after-the-fact collection of what basically exists, but the tidings that over-take all our doings, the tidings of what we are committed to beforehand by being human beings.” These commitments produce what we consider to me moral and right. Freud believed that we are immoral by nature and all we can do is cage the beast, agreeing in some respects with Augustine. Identity as an individual thrusts us into crisis, according to him, a never-ending struggle for dominance over our own behavior, and this notion is analogous to the masculinist ethos of men needing to be tamed or taught how to dominate themselves. This rhetoric of dominance leads to the issue of supposed innate brutality, nature red in tooth and claw, leading to the paradox of dominance as brutality needed to dominate brutality.

            Our sense of self, what the skin contains, is formed and informed by the cultural conditioning into which we are born, and Freud notes that our enculturation forces us to sublimate joy so that we can face the mindless toil of the capitalist system. This joy can only be reached through the infinite connection to otherness. Freud and Augustine both posit an inherent separation within human subjectivity: from the Divine or the “oceanic feeling” of unity with all. Happiness is reconnecting this severance. Thinking of others’ needs, what many would call the basics of moral behavior, is a commitment to the other that treats them as more than just a prosthesis of self, the Kantian imperative to treat others as ends rather than means. If we consider masculinity as a kind of prosthesis, the technology I have been calling it, it is important to remember Sobchack’s discourse of prosthetics that involves the imbrication of metonymy and synecdoche. In the former, one thing stands in for another, like the “stuffed suits” in a bureaucracy. In the latter, however, a part of a thing stands for the whole, like calling a rude man a “dick.” The prosthetic is part of you but also stands in for the whole of you, defining you.

            Morality is a thinking of the other and one’s relation to them, and how this relationship is culturally defined remains historically contingent. In the Western world, we conceive of a progression in this respect from a medieval concept of divine right to the individual sovereignty of the democratic citizen, but Nietzsche reminds us that “the new . . . is under all circumstances the evil” and “only the old is good” to conservative normality. New moral stances which challenge old wisdom are treated as immoral partly because we do not have the historical experience of their being good. Mindlessly lumping the wisdom of the ages into the only true moral code is itself an immoral act. It is what he derisively designates a “herd instinct.” Too many older morals are designed to preserve the status quo at the expense of certain individuals, a system of privilege and not justice. By accepting the morality of the herd, you abnegate moral choice and become a non-person. This creates a conflict between individual existence and the common good which cannot be resolved, and Nietzsche advocates stepping out of this conundrum to a space beyond good and evil altogether.

            Heidegger complicates this problem when he observes that “the others” does not mean everybody else, “those from whom the I distinguishes itself. They are rather, those from whom one mostly does not distinguish oneself, those among whom one is, to.” He wants to think of being-with as existence instead of a category of being because “the world is always already the one that I share with the others.” Existence implies being with others, sharing existence with them, Mitda-sein. We don’t recognize others by encountering ourselves, but rather by meeting reality, the “surrounding world” that we all share. “Da-sein initially finds ‘itself’ in what it does, needs, expects, has charge of, in the things at hand which it initially takes care of in the surrounding world.”

            Subjectivity is an attention, an attending to our position within the surrounding world. It is in this attending, this taking care of, that moral choice and action resides. “Being for-, against-, and without-one-another, passing-one-another-by, not-mattering-to-one-another, are possible ways of concern” that we choose between. “Ontologically there is an essential distinction between the ‘indifferent’ being together of arbitrary things and the not-mattering-to-one-another of beings who are with one another.” With ultimate authority a thing of the past, a dead God we have yet to dispose of as its corpse festers in our culture, morality descends from on high to the ambit of the individual human. Perhaps due to this daunting responsibility, people still abdicate to the herd mentality, placing the agency on this dead authority, “our most persistent lie,” as Nietzsche put it.

            Heidegger notes that helping others can be a morally questionable act when we take agency away from those for whom we care. “The other is thus displaced, he steps back so that afterwards, when the matter has been attended to, he can take it over as something finished and available or disburden himself of it completely. In this concern, the other can become one who is dependent and dominated even if this domination is a tacit one and remains hidden from him.” Instead, we should provide others with the help they need to care for themselves, as Foucault suggested. Morality manifests as consideration of the other and a tolerance of their otherness.

            Nietzsche argues that joyful existence comes from gratitude, and I would add this to Heidegger’s notions of consideration and tolerance, the thanc within thinking. Another word for these three intentions is love. In order to recognize the other and love them in all their otherness, we must reject the herd instinct of traditional moral codes and instead make moral choices that result in moral conduct, or the best outcome for all. We must recognize the other as a unique individual like ourselves. The false morality, instead of being engendered by love, is produced by fear of the other and this explains the punitive system of retributive justice we use rather than a system of distributive justice based on love.

            According to Nietzsche, “the noble soul has reverence for itself.” We cannot love the other if we do not love ourselves. We need to stop looking for influence from some Big Other in the sky and instead give expression to the will to power that motivates our lives. We need to face the stark reality of our lives without fear, exuberantly embracing it with gratitude. Heidegger observes that “knowing oneself is grounded in primordially understanding being-with. . . . Thus the other is initially disclosed in the taking care of concern. . . . The other is a double of the self. . . . The ‘who’ is neuter, the they.” Now, since masculine subjectivity is tested individuality, and most men fail to measure up, making it an impossible position to attain, how can any man properly know himself, especially when manhood is defined as a constant self-fashioning, as being self-sufficient, and leads to a problematic relationship with being-with others, rendering them as objects to be dominated as proof of masculine agency rather than other beings like us with whom we share the surrounding world. There is no way to revere this self set at odds with reality, let alone love it. Masculinity, in its constant demand for competition renders moral choice impossible.

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