Masculinity Research
PD Dr. Torsten Voß / German Studies
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The man as a man does not exist

The Germanist PD Dr. Torsten Voß on Masculinities Research at the Bergische University

When is a man a man?' Herbert Grönemeyer asks in his 1984 song 'Männer' (Men) and lists a whole series of attributes that are often attributed to the stronger sex. But is that really the case? Masculinity research or Men`s Studies designed the concept of hegemonic masculinity, which was developed in the mid-1980s. At the Bergische Universität, the Germanist Dr. Torsten Voß is engaged in this field of research. When asked about the song question posed at the beginning, the researcher spontaneously says, "Never!" Why this is so, what has changed over time or why this research is still so young, the accomplished scientist describes and yet begins with the first written findings, which were already recorded in the 19th century.

The characteristics of a hero are the beginning

"Actually, masculinity research begins as early as the 19th century with the Englishman Thomas Carlyle, who wrote a book in 1840 titled 'On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History,'" Voß explains. It is a work that describes the qualities a hero must have. There, he says, are categories for heroism and masculinity for the first time. "This is not a work critical of ideology, but it is an essay still born out of the spirit of romanticism and historicism, which tries to use figures from heroic history, from mythology, but also from political history, to show examples of male heroic, particularly exposed behavior." Otherwise, he said, masculinity studies has always actually emerged implicitly indirectly with women's studies and constructivism. In the beginning, women's studies was a political issue that developed out of feminism and pointed out the unfair distribution of the sexes in leadership positions as well as in social, political, and economic positions. And if you do that with women, you can just as well do it with the so-called male gender," says the scientist. Important foundations of masculinity research came from the United States and reached Germany only in the 1980s/1990s.

Women's studies condition masculinity research

"In its beginnings, women's studies was not necessarily purely epistemologically oriented, it didn't just follow an epistemological interest," explains Voß, "but was primarily a political, a social concern to draw attention to grievances." However, he says, masculinity research naturally adopted some terminology from women's studies. "The big difference between social gender and biological gender, between sex and gender, was made very clear by the American philosopher Judith Butler very early on in the U.S., and that spilled over into masculinity research both in the U.S. and in Germany." Unlike women's studies, however, masculinity research has always been able to focus more on purely scientific theoretical contexts and has not had to go into this vanguard position as much as feminism has.

Research on men set in late

It was not until the 1990s that research on masculinity began in Germany, with the exception of Klaus Theweleit's classic Männerphantasien (1977/1978), which took an ideology-critical and psychoanalytical look at the aggression potential of Freikorps and other male associations of the interwar period. The cultivation of (pre)fascist consciousness in connection with the soldierly concept of "body armor" was elaborated as constitutive for the emergence of notions of masculinity at that time and developed a great sustainability within gender studies until today. "Nevertheless, the humanities, literary and cultural studies were still dominated differently in the 1980s and early 1990s, and other approaches to research prevailed," says Voß. "Deconstructivism (an analytical procedure that critically questions central, presupposed concepts of traditional philosophy, editor`s note), which denied any form of coherence of meaning at all in texts but also in social contexts, was then able to merge with Men`s Studies quite well, however. Especially if you assume that there is no such thing as a firmly determined gender, you can work very nicely with constructivist or social-historical approaches when it comes to the conditions under which masculinities emerge." So, he says, people used previous disciplines, such as social history, deconstruction, and poststructuralism, to analyze and reconstruct the conditions of masculinities in more detail through the factors that give rise to them. The origins of this came from the United States. Robert/Raewyn Connell and Judith Butler, along with German-speaking pioneers such as Walter Erhart, Stefan Horlacher, and Toni Tholen, were the leading lights.

Competitive pressure evokes top dog behavior

An essay entitled 'Approaches to a New Sociology of Masculinity' by the authors Carrigan, Connell, and Lee had a major influence on the development of theory in masculinity research in 1985. Among other things, it focuses on men's leadership roles, in which they often oppress not only women but also fellow sex workers. "That is quite flatly and populistically expressed first of all this simple top dog behavior," says Voß, at the same time putting forward the thesis that neoliberal economic structures are also quite simply responsible for this, ensuring that a stronger competitive struggle arises, which he also sees in science. "Due to their careers, people naturally try to outdo their competitors and keep them down, i.e. not to let them have their say, to emphasize their own position more than it actually is, to refuse discourse in order to position themselves more prominently. And it is not only gender attributes or gender constructs that are responsible for this, but a general neoliberal economic and social structure, oriented by the pressure of competition, which currently runs through all areas of activity and knows how to adorn itself with the attributes of competitiveness and optimization of efficiency. Subcutaneously, gender-coded ideas also play into this thinking and behavior again and again."

Male lifeworlds back then

In research, one often reads about 'male lifeworlds`. But what do they look like? "Because of the mixing of the sexes and the fields of work, they don't exist anymore," explains Voß. "You have to differentiate between historical masculinity worlds and current masculinity worlds. In the past, typical male environments were, of course, the military, the barracks, the pub or the regulars' table, the sports field, the brothel or the casino. There, where the man could stand his ground, where he could 'be who,' as the Australian philosopher and masculinity researcher Michael Eldred aptly put it." There are wonderful literary examples of this, which are also called 'barracks literature' or 'brothel literature' and whose representatives include, for example, Joseph Roth, Alexander Lernet-Holenia or Ernst von Salomon. Even spaces were counter-gendered, that is, occupied in a masculine or feminine way. A typical example of this, he said, was the gentlemen's room. "After dinner, you sit there and drink your brandy, while in the past the ladies tasted their mocha in the salon. With the increasing intermingling, however, a fluidity can then be registered there over time."

Men`s Studies or Masculinities

Even the name "Men`s Studies" is controversial. The British sociologist and co-founder of men`s studies, Jeff Hearn, for example, suggested 'The Critique of Men' as a subject name. "'The critic of men` is very awkward" says Voß, "I find a catchword more interesting. I reject Men`s Studies myself because I think it is too strongly focused on men, even though it is a plural form. I always choose Masculinities, or masculinities, in my own work, deliberately using a neutral plural formula." Masculinities shows the man in all facets. The man as father, son, soldier, worker, lover, object and subject. The man as a diverse being. The man as a construction. "With 'the critic of men' there is always an interest that is distant from science, critical of ideology, political, and I always fear - and this is also the accusation that is always made against us gender researchers - that we would make our own sensitivities, our own interests and sexual dispositions the object of research. Moreover, the plural formula in Masculinities shows very nicely that there is no such thing as a man as a man, but rather different understandings of masculinities that are constantly unfolding, asserting, performing, and reconstructing themselves."

Is men's studies coming out of the gay scene?

In 1975, the first nationwide men's group meeting took place at the Berlin Gay Center with about 100 people in attendance. This begs the question, then, does German men's research come out of the gay scene? "Jain I would say. Since this masculinity research, these masculinities did not necessarily want to be only ideology-critical," explains Voß. In the gay scene, he says, it is also very much about striving for emancipation and not just primarily about an epistemological motive. There, he says, there is a parallel with early feminism, where the general aim is to draw attention to grievances and oppression at the level of simple human coexistence. "That is also a topic of the sciences, but one has outlined a similar problematic there with, which we also had with early feminism. Then the political issue comes before the epistemological interest." Since 1983, gender-sensitive men have been meeting once a year around the Ascension Day holiday on their own initiative for the 'Nationwide Men's Meeting'. In the style of the traditional Father's Day, however, other contents are discussed at these meetings; they show currents and developments in the men's movement scene. Topics at the first meeting were at that time among other things man politics, body experience, difference between orgasm and ejaculation. In general, the topic of 'sexual orientation' was at the top of the list of discussions for several years. "In literary studies, it still plays an immensely important role in adolescent literature and in novels for children and young adults," says the researcher. Questions about gender, sexual orientation or the first homoerotic experiences of a boy who otherwise tends to be classified as heterosexual are dealt with there in wonderful texts, he says. "In addition, something like sexual orientation still plays a big role, of course, because it's catchy, and you can reach an incredible number of recipients with it."

Forms of experience of masculinity

The topics of masculinity research are extensive, but one has to separate between the scientific disciplines, explains Voß. For example, the topic initially found its way into sociology, the social sciences, psychology, education, but also literary studies, he says. "And that's where different sciences intertwine, so masculinity research, just like gender research, is generally a wonderful development area for interdisciplinary work, for interdisciplinarity." "Crucial in masculinity research, for example in literary studies, art studies or media studies, are the various forms of experience and practices of masculinities that are reconstructed" continues Voß. "Where is masculinity located, where are masculinities enacted, torpedoed or prevented? What social, spatial, bodily and habitual forms of unfolding masculinity exist and how are these deployed in social interaction, in communicative contexts and in conversation?" In this regard, literary studies, which deal with communication and language, are tremendously authoritative, because they can adequately demonstrate this in the literary-aesthetic stagings of gender roles.

Men and fatherhood

Another area of masculinity research also deals with the topic of fatherhood. While changing diapers used to be considered a no-go, it is now taken for granted by young fathers. "That's because self-assertion, or how you situate yourself socially when it comes to perception, is no longer primarily about gender, but also about skills." The fields of activity of men, women and diverse people are no longer so fixed, he said, because people no longer define themselves by a typical male or female field of activity. There is a big difference between father figures, for example, in 18th- and 19th-century literature, he said, which was still very much limited by the external impact in professions and behavior on the one hand and behavior in private life contexts on the other. "Modern parents today parent differently and don't put as much emphasis on these binary differences."

When is a man a man?

The image of the man has changed throughout history. So the man as a man has never existed, and yet songs, movies and literature keep trying to fool us with familiar images of masculinity as they should be. "There is no such thing as the man," Voß summarizes, "that's where the concept of masculinities can help us. There are different masculine forms of behavior. Am I sitting at the regulars' table, am I in the barracks, am I in the fraternity, am I sitting in the faculty conference, etc., so I switch back and forth between different masculinities and corresponding behaviors depending on the situation." One is also sometimes a different man at work than, say, at home or even at the Opera Ball, he said. "This situational switching between masculinities is always also a melange of foreign expectations and self-image." In literature, this can be read particularly impressively in the story 'The Prussian Officer' by D.H. Lawrence, in which a Prussian captain suddenly realizes that he has fallen in love with his ensign. "He lives out this taboo by torturing the ensign, choosing a behavioral, communicative and punitive practice quite common in the Prussian army of the time, with its cadre obedience, in order to channel his drive in this way." This story vividly illustrates the discrepancy between self-image and expectations of others, which is also based on such conflicts and shows that there is no such thing as masculinity, but only different masculinities. Even today it seems to be difficult for many men to deal with their diverse roles. Showing weakness is still impossible in many areas today, he said. "I know colleagues from Switzerland who work in industrial research. Coming out would not be a problem there, but showing weakness, according to the motto, I can't do that today, is also not looked upon favorably today. So you're not only not allowed to say it, but you're also not allowed to act like it. This pressure is gender-independent, but it has a different effect because men or men's roles react differently to this pressure." The task of literary studies is to reconstruct this in literary aesthetic forms of staging, to prove it and to show how gender is staged and performed.

Uwe Blass

PD Dr. Torsten Voß is a lecturer in Modern German Literature in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität.

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