Male Trouble: Masculinity and the Performance of Crisis by Fintan Walsh

Walsh, Fintan. Male Trouble: Masculinity and the Performance of Crisis. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010. 240 pages; $80.00 hardcover.


“This is not a sociological book,” writes Fintan Walsh in the introduction to Male Trouble (11). Though he follows this assertion with an exhortation to bear in mind the social context of his investigation (contemporary USA, Britain and Ireland), it is this disciplinary preference that signposts one of the major limitations of what is nevertheless a valuable study of how masculine subjectivities are produced through performances of abjection. The framework of Walsh’s analysis is the rapidly growing field of dysfunctional masculinity studies, represented by transdisciplinary scholars such as Michael Kimmel, David Savran, Kaja Silverman, Susan Faludi, Calvin Thomas, and most recently by Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, and Hamilton Carroll’s Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity.

Male Trouble displays in its title its theoretical debt to the work of Judith Butler. The theoretical field it negotiates is represented by the intersections of psychoanalysis and queer theory, in addition to a vigorous, often overly-present but generally clearly presented backdrop of Hegelian continental philosophy, which following the lead of Slavoj Žižek is utilized as a critical reading tool for understanding popular—mostly visual—cultures. Objects of Walsh’s gaze include Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the plays of Mark O’Rowe and Mark Ravenhill (most notable for Shopping and Fucking), the abject performance art of Ron Athey and Franko B., the public performances of magician David Blaine and British fathers rights group Fathers 4 Justice, and MTV television series and film spin-off Jackass. There is something both canny and uncanny in the act of reading the ideas of Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva in the service of understanding Jackass.

Following a major trend in contemporary theories of male masochism[1], Walsh appears to subscribe to the notion that masculine performances of abject weakness and victimization represent a form of ruse to re-envision male subjectivity and re-establish male authority. Male trouble, argues Walsh, is a performative practice, or set of practices, that bring male subjectivity into being, foregrounding the bodily abject as its “defining feature” and articulating it in the service of masculine dominance (4). Yet, in bypassing the social dimensions of this phenomenon (with the exception of a chapter that situates Gibson and the US Christian Right in response to gay rights), and its discursive relationships not just to capitalism, but multiculturalism, feminism, and queer theory, Walsh’s methodology risks being an essentializing one. Male Trouble offers an overly rigid psychoanalytic explanation of male abjection, constructing the appearance of immutable structures out of abject performances that represent aesthetic and psychological responses to the questioning of white patriarchy. The result is a universalizing portrait in which masculinity is doomed to re-assert itself patriarchally. What this ultimately means for Walsh is that male trouble has nowhere to “go”: no place or modality in or through which to redeem or transform itself.

In the politically charged field of gender studies, and masculinity studies in particular, Walsh treads carefully. He chastises masculine cultural productions that do not engage enough with feminist and gay causes: it is “problematic,” Walsh argues, that Athey “does not wound himself strictly to attack patriarchal systems” (116), and foregrounds potentially misogynistic representations of the “matriarchs” who raised him cruelly. Walsh conforms here to what has become a re-iterated performative move in its own right: the (masochistic) critical position that judges masculine aesthetics and inevitably finds them lacking, producing masculinities through critical castigation. Throughout gender studies, masculine assertion is too often essentialized—strategically or not—as pathologically patriarchal, and Walsh tends to reproduce this trope. This is exemplified by Walsh’s insufficiently critical use of theory in general, which he often reifies but seldom challenges or historicizes. When the author states that Jackass is “rarely critical of its constitutive terms” (174), he could be describing one of Male Trouble’s more visible shortcomings. One consequence is Walsh’s apparent conflation of the notion of heterosexual masculine subjectivities constituted by the repression of femininities and homosexualities, with the social oppression of them. Contemporary non-misogynistic, non-homophobic and progressive masculinities attest, on the contrary, to psychic, aesthetic, and social dimensions of agency not adequately explored here. In other words, subjectivities produced through disciplining structures of repression and abjection do not necessarily reproduce abject or oppressive social conducts. In one of the book’s more glaring, yet sympathetic ironies, Walsh ends with an exhortation for masculinities to attune themselves more sensitively to the (much contested site of the) pregnant female body and the womb. After elucidating one dysfunctional masculinity after the other, and neglecting the performance of positive and involved fatherhood as necessary for progressive social change (Kimmel), Walsh pauses too fleetingly on this possible locus for masculinity to redeem its failings.

Male Trouble’s most valuable contribution to the current field of dysfunctional masculinity studies lies however in its meticulous, convincing elaborations on the roles of sacrifice and submission within the matrix of reproduction of male identity and masculine power structures. Keenly attuned to dimensions of Christian sacrality and the psychic and aesthetic powers of the Christological narrative of sacrifice and submission, Walsh’s close readings flesh out how hegemonic hetero-masculinities are reproduced through abject and performative submission to the more powerful male (God the father), through the figure of the suffering Christ as male submissive hero and son. But where Judith Butler carves a progressive politics of performative hope and futurity out of her critical readings, Walsh encounters problems following such a path, and finds limited redemption in a further fracturing, de-subjectivizing “ethic of fragilization” (182-190). Masculine self-destruction begetting masculine self-deconstruction, in a seemingly endless circularity: perhaps it is a self-awareness of the discipline (masculinity studies) that makes the difference.

Daniel Lukes is completing his PhD in the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University. His dissertation considers generative relationships between counter-hegemonic masculinities that articulate themselves through the category of failure, in contemporary North American, British and West European literature and culture, and feminist, gender and psychoanalytic theories. He is currently co-editing a critical anthology on the writings of William T. Vollmann.


 [1] According to Gilles Deleuze’s influential analysis in Coldness and Cruelty, instead of repressing homosexual feelings toward the father, as per Freud, male heterosexual masochism represents a pact between the son and the “oral mother” to dethrone and expel the father from the symbolic order.