Postmodern Culture 2.1 (September, 1991): electronic format

Joseph A. Boone and Michael Cadden, eds. Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, eds. Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1990.

Copyright (c) 1991 by Charles Stivale, all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author and advance notification of the editors.

[1] While pondering different lines of approach for a review of two collections of essays on the implications of "(male) feminist criticism" and on the "gender(ed)" construction of canonical male writers, I stare at the front covers of each. The title Engendering Men—on a black background in sharp, white script, the letters of MEN in bold print, with the subtitle under and slightly alongside MEN, in much smaller, uniform blue print--contrasts with the Claridge/Langland cover: a wide band of gray on the left and a thin band of gray on the right border a central strip in pink hue containing the same photograph twice, at top and at bottom. Within and across the top of the upper left rectangle, next to the word "OUT," are the black letters "OF BOUNDS," under which, in thinner black letters on the pink background, is the subtitle Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism. As for the cover illustrations on each, over one-third of the cover above the names "Boone and Cadden" shows a reproduction of a painting by Joaquin Sorolla entitled Children at the Beach. The subject, three naked boys lying on their stomachs, legs spread and buttocks exposed, on wet sand and in extremely shallow water, is a scene of youthful repose that contrasts with the images on Out of Bounds: the photograph by Eadweard Muybridge, reproduced twice and overlaid with a pink hue, depicts the right body profile of a naked, muscular male climbing (or descending) a barely visible ladder, with a fully loaded bricklayer's basket weighing down heavily on the right shoulder and its pole extending vertically downward along the body beyond the bottom of the photo.

[2] My contemplation of these "packages" relates not only to the strategies of these editions themselves, but also to the act of reviewing collections on (en)gender(ed) males and their criticism within the "cyberspace" of PMC. Assuming my role as electronic pitchman, I wish to re-view these texts in terms of their valence as products of the marketplace, to draw on overlaps and interweaves between the projects, to locate dissonances within and between them, in short, to study these collections as assembled productions. The Boone/Cadden title relates directly to marketing strategies announced in the introduction: with momentum provided by a "friendly push from Elaine Showalter, an established feminist critic who had the savvy to recognize a good opportunity for her less experienced colleagues" (1), the editors' goal is "to make more visible the efforts of all those individual men throughout the academy who have already begun the task . . . of reconceptualizing themselves as men and hence as critics of the literary and cultural texts that we have inherited and are in the process of recreating. In engendering ourselves, in making visible our textual/sexual bodies, we thus acknowledge our part in a movement whose time, we hope, has come" (7). In form and content, then, this title is explicit about seizing the time and need for the product, and the cover illustration emphasizes this move: boys nakedly displayed and bonding in enjoyable (perhaps even productive) repose. Furthermore, inside facing the title page is another painting in black, white and gray tones (George Platte Lynes's Charles Nielson with J. Ogle (behind glass)) presenting a rear view of a naked standing male figure, the right arm slightly bent and touching a translucent glass. Behind this, facing the first naked male is a second; his left hand meets the first male's right on the glass in a mirror effect, and the male gaze that we can see is trained directly at the face opposite him, the other gaze remaining invisible to the viewer.

[3] Mirror images, male bonding, bodies and gazes reaching yet separate, in confident repose yet prepared for activity--the package enveloping and preceding Engendering Men relates directly to the contributors' stance vis-à-vis feminism as articulated by the editors: "Feminism has engendered us, even as we strive to engender a practice that might not always be the same as feminist practice, but that remains in contiguity with its politics" (1). Just as the editors are careful to note that the "we" invoked in the introduction "does not and cannot always encompass the variety of voices and opinions gathered here under the aegis of 'engendering men'," they also insist that the subtitle points to an ongoing process of reaching while not yet touching, "work that by its very nature is yet in search of is own (im)proper 'name'" (2). Citing Adrienne Rich, the editors see feminism as "a matter of vision and revision," entailing "new ways of interacting with our worlds and our lives, our literatures and our cultures" and constituting a "revolutionary task in which both men and women can--indeed must--participate if we are to create a nonsexist future" (3). This activity, however, remains distinct from feminism, drawing on multiple methodologies, enunciated in multiple voices, seeking "to create a field of study that, as yet, remains amorphous and . . . a question" (3), much like the relations of male bodies in the two liminary illustrations.

[4] The strain of such exertion is illustrated much more evidently on the cover of Out of Bounds: under a certainly brutal weight and ungainly means of transport, the photographs bordering the pink rectangle from above and below depict the message that progress is slow and painful, hampered by the male's limited means and burden. Curious, then, that in the introduction, what the women editors describe is their own conceptual exertion throughout the successive definitions of their project. Following the 1986 special MLA session on "Male Feminist Voices," they had to revise the original assumption that antipatriarchal activity, e.g. male writer's resistance to the phallic mode, "would necessarily encompass feminism" (3), choosing a new title, Out of Bounds, to indicate the possibilities of "liberation of both sexes from gender proscriptions" (5). However, since no uniform feminist methodology for inquiry unites the collected essays, the editors had to move beyond the old subtitle, Male Writers and Feminist Inquiry, and adopt the current one to foreground the main thesis of "gender in the writings of male canonical authors sensitive to the limitations of language in their culture" as well as the project's context, "criticism offered up by women and men inscribed, inevitably, by same conditions they seek to question" (5).

[5] The cover illustrations would correspond, then, to this collection's explicit "justification": that "whereas 'man' has indeed functioned as the nodal point for traditional literary criticism of the past centuries, man as a gendered, cultural creature has received precious little attention. And to take feminist criticism seriously as a method that places gender at the heart of things is to insist that to ignore the question 'What is it to be a man?' is to imperil both the rigor and the integrity of feminist theory and practice" (7). Although not sharing a single feminist methodology, these essays address the focal issue of selected male canonical writers: "What do male writers who feel fettered by the patriarchal literary tradition do to escape a language implicitly--often explicitly--defined as their own?" (11). The editors argue that "the generative--we would call it 'feminist'--act for the male writers of our study, then, is . . . breaking down or dismantling the terms and forms that have preserved the status quo of two genders" (12). We can view the cover as illustrating acts of male exertion with its feminist tinge that the essays emphasize, the cover figure enveloped by a pink haze in the difficult and careful process of "dismantling" linguistic limitations and gender proscriptions imposed by their culture.

[6] That the editors of Out of Bounds choose to include treatments only of canonical writers engaged in or in conflict with this dismantling process is, to my mind, a strength of the collection for its marketing strategies, but possibly a source of frustration for scholars and students seeking pat answers to questions on gender and patriarchy. For the editors insist that another goal of the collection is to find a way to discuss dualities, "masculine/ feminine, female/male, male feminist/female feminist, homosexual/ heterosexual" without "reinforcing, at however a covert level, a dualism that always, in the end, keeps people in their place" (9). One strategy to achieve this goal is "to allow to stand, in this volume, multifarious uses of these gender/sexual terms, pinned down through the context of each individual essay." It is up to the individual essayists and, by extension, the readers to cope with/against "terms that would succeed in polarizing-- or simplifying--their arguments" (9). So this collection, organized in chronological reference to the writers studied, offers numerous possibilities for mixing, matching and confronting the essays, approaches, and definitions: to name but a few, James Phelan (on masculine voice in Thackerey's Vanity Fair) vis-a-vis Margaret Higonnet (on woman's voice in Hardy's Tess); Claridge (on the Romantic female as situated by Shelley) vis-à-vis William Veeder (on the Realist Henry James's identification with the feminine); and two strange volume-fellows (more on this later), Frank Lentricchia (on Frost) and Joseph A. Boone (on Durrell).

[7] In contrast, the organization of the Boone/Cadden collection emphasizes a definite solidarity, even confidence, in grouping its essays into four thematic clusters. While I could quibble about what seems to be the editors' arbitrary assignment of some essays to a specific section rather than to another, this collection is clearly of the utmost interest for seminars and scholarly research, providing needed definitions of diverse positions and extensive questioning that scholars and critics must henceforth pursue in future feminist research. However, some uneasy tensions arise in the editors', and especially Boone's, introductory essays regarding the field (male feminist criticism) that they hope in some way to delineate. In a bracketed preface to his essay "Of Me(n) and Feminism: Who(se) Is the Sex That Writes?," Boone explains that the essay originally expressed, in 1987, his "uneasiness about the way in which men's relation to feminist criticism was at the time being politicized in academic circles" (11). Despite Boone's relief at discovering "that some of my most immediate worries seem less relevant in light of the two [sic] years that have intervened" thanks to current work contributing to the constitution of "male feminist criticism," the editors still rely on "the reappearance" of Boone's essay (previously published in Linda Kauffman's 1989 Gender and Theory [Blackwell] edition) and its "less relevant" anxiety. In fact, they state that this essay serves as "an overview of the whole phenomenon of 'male feminist criticism' as it has evolved at conventions and in anthologies over the last few years" (4, my emphasis). This claim for the essay's breadth is astounding in itself and all the more so given the volume in which it appears, one that includes essays that question the very possibility of such an essentializing gesture. Moreover, Boone's essay itself reproaches one critic (Elaine Showalter) for such generalizing moves (15) and constructs its own narrative of exclusion and difference in relation to the emergence of the field that the essays purport to outline.

[8] The depiction of this "whole phenomenon of 'male feminist criticism'" relies on Boone's identification of a "gap between the 'me' and 'men' in 'me(n)'" (13), and through its exposure, "we can perhaps open up a space within the discourse of feminism where a male voice professing a feminist politics can have something to say beyond impossibilities and apologies and unresolved ire" (12). Thus, the "reappearance" of this essay allows Boone to recycle a limited and privileged narrative of "the debate surrounding men and feminism in [his] own 'workplace'" (13). The five steps of this experience are posed as "seemingly random moments": Elaine Showalter's now canonical 1983 essay, "Critical Cross-Dressing"; the 1984 MLA sections on "Men in Feminism"; "another MLA panel on 'male feminist voices' in which [Boone] participated in 1986" (13); the Alice Jardine/Paul Smith Men in Feminism collection; the aforementioned Kauffman collection "for which this essay was conceived." Boone ostensibly seeks to render visible the "'me(n)' gap" as a "discontinuity that has in turned inspired me to question the discursive formations in the literary critical institution whereby the concept of men and feminism, transformed into a territorial battlefield, has attained an 'impossible' status" (13). "Impossible" for whom? With the quotation marks retained, Boone refers to Stephen Heath's assertion in Men in Feminism, "Men's relation to feminism is an impossible one." Yet if, as Boone suggests and to which the following essays bear witness, these anxieties are no longer entirely relevant to the emergence of this field, recycling this essay must serve other ends than to describe the "whole phenomenon."

[9] To this strategy, I apply Boone's own criticism of "the hidden, or not-so-hidden, agendas" of "many of the contributors to Men in Feminism," i.e. the "use of the subject 'male feminism'. . . as their[/his] pretext to wage other critical wars," male feminism then becoming "the ultimately expendable item of exchange that merely gets the conversation going" (20). Boone's own agenda and "unresolved ire" are suggested, in fact, by the "moments" chosen as constitutive of the emergence of the "whole phenomenon." Consider the fifth moment, the "kind of coda" in which Boone discusses "the form--and formulation" of the Kauffman collection. The invitation letter to contribute to this collection "inevitably" reproduced, says Boone, the discomfort of a division between "male essayists" answered by "female theorists." For his "peace of mind" both in the original and now in the recycled essay, Boone cleverly chooses to "include [him]self among the 'female theorists' . . . in hopes of creating a bit of healthy confusion, a field of imaginative play that might contribute to the liberation of our current discourses on and around the subject of 'men and feminism'" (21). How this self-inclusion accomplishes this goal was and is still not entirely clear, but a significant gap in the later, revised version is Boone's omission of any mention that, following Gender & Theory's format, Toril Moi articulated therein a pithy response to his original text. However, rather than employ this revised version to respond to Moi's criticism--notably, of the essay's anecdotal "parochialism," of its sub-text "structured over a series of oppositions: old/young, visible/invisible, known/unknown, speaking/silent and so on" (Gender and Theory 186) -- Boone (and Boone/Cadden in the introduction) simply elide any reference to this response, relieving the "unresolved ire" instead through criticism of Kauffman's volume.

[10] This dissonance in Boone's essay emerges in another example of his experience of the "'me(n)' gap" that occurred as sole male participant not just in any MLA special session, but the one from which Claridge and Langland's volume resulted. Boone bases his critique first on "the very construction of the panel" ("reinstat[ing], once again, a male-female opposition," 17), then on questions that the organizers "might have opened up" (18) that he gladly provides. But Boone's return to another source of "unresolved ire," the personal circumstances of the panel's constitution, suggests that his objections are not so much theoretical ("man" was there reconstituted as "a homogeneous entity") as personal, that this man was the fall-guy (18). Although not yet published at the time Boone revised the essay on "Me(n) and Feminism," the Claridge/Langland volume nonetheless receives an oblique shot: while the volume, says Boone, "promises to move beyond its panel format in exciting directions"-- for example, "several male contributors, none easily assimilable to the other, are being included, and at least some will be talking about men's experiences" (21)--the transition sentence preceding Boone's comments on Kauffman's collection still provides a warning (to whom?) related if only by contiguity to the Claridge/Langland volume: "The danger is always there of reinstating those potentially blinding symmetries that a feminist understanding of difference should instead encourage us all as feminists to unravel, to move beyond" (21).

[11] The overlap of Boone's participation in each volume offers a further possibility of textual juxtaposition. A contemporary male critic undergoing particular scrutiny in the Boone/Cadden volume is Frank Lentricchia; in "Redeeming the Phallus: Wallace Stevens, Frank Lentricchia, and the Politics of (Hetero)Sexuality," Lee Edelman examines not only Lentricchia's predominantly heterosexual reading of Stevens, but also the critic's polemic with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar on feminist criticism. About Edelman's fine reading that employs Wallace Stevens's poetry as a strategic textual exemplar--"an instrument of analytic leverage that can help to articulate a critique of those gestures whereby criticism refuses or denies its own positioning within a framework that a gay theory might enable us to read" (37)--, Boone/Cadden comment: "Edelman's essay takes a recent interview with Frank Lentricchia as its point of departure in order to analyze one way in which feminism has been attacked so as to appropriate for straight men a universal copyright on cultural subversiveness" (4, my emphasis). One notices here a distinct shift of Edelman's focus, away from gay theory and toward the attack on feminism, away from Stevens toward Lentricchia. Boone/Cadden continue: "Edelman counters this strategy with one of his own--a reading of Wallace Stevens that critiques Lentricchia's male sexual positioning (and posturing) from an explicitly gay perspective" (5, my emphasis). Quite true, if understandably reductive, but why the unnecessary parenthetical editorial comment?

[12] The implicit agenda of the editors is explicitly provided in Boone's bracketed preface to his essay: having been relieved of some "worries" by the new productivity in the field of "male feminist criticism," Boone also concludes that the earlier emphasis on "the issue of naming--whether to take on the label, for instance, of 'male feminism'--now strikes me as perhaps less urgent than measuring the degree of commitment to a feminist politics demonstrated in these men's newly engendered methods of analysis" (11, my emphasis). What the tools of this "measurement" might be are not clear, but whereas the contributors to Engendering Men, by dint of the inclusion of their essays, no doubt "measure up" to the standards of the emergent field, Lentricchia clearly does not. It is understandable, then, that from Boone's perspective,"none" of the male contributors to the Claridge/Langland volume are "easily assimilable to the others" since the demonstration therein of "the degree of commitment to a feminist politics" would no doubt be found wanting, especially given the implicit requirement of discussing "men's experiences" met only by a few of those contributors (men and women). However, in light of Lentricchia's "privileged" position in Engendering Men as anti-feminist fall-guy, an added textual confrontation available in Out of Bounds for classroom debate would be Lentricchia's "The Resentments of Robert Frost" with Boone's essay on Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, if only for their distinct approaches for exploring the focal authors' expression of male desire.

[13] To return to the liminary illustrations of Engendering Men, there is clearly much more going on than meets the eye underneath the placid surface of males in the solidarity of contemplative repose. One suggestion for readers of this collection is to move from Boone's essay to the final one by Robert Vorlicky, "(In)Visible Alliances: Conflicting 'Chronicles' of Feminisms," on the need for and possibilities of alliances (male/female, hetero-/homosexual). This essay serves as a splendid statement of the complex relations addressed throughout the volume and would have been a more fitting opening essay. While both volumes speak to questions vital to postmodern concerns, they market these in distinct ways that respond to perceived demands from readers/consumers and also create choices for their engagement with each set of texts. On one hand, the consumer might read essays in each volume as isolated from the others and reap certain, if limited, benefits; on the other hand, through the juxtaposition and confrontation of the volumes' essays, the reader will encounter the tension inherent to the emergence of new fields of inquiry. However, as I have suggested, one also discovers the multiple difficulties of alliances and the distinct, often irreconcilable, differences in the processes of (en)gender(ing) due in no small part to the collision of ethical concerns with personal agendas.

Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University