If you believe books such as John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, you would get the impression that men don’t engage in a whole lot of communication, and that when they do it is a direct medium that is all about solutions and getting things done. This assumption has become widely adopted as “common sense” and naturalized to the point that it is seldom challenged.
But there are fundamental aspects to this Martian logic that are rarely teased out. The thinking goes that this mode of communication is somehow inherent in men. But styles of communication, like masculinity in general, are largely socially constructed and change depending on when and where you are. So even if we see examples of Gray’s Martian communication everywhere around us we are not seeing the way men are, rather the way men are at the moment.
Men—like women—are complex beings, and everyone is done a great disservice if we assume that because stories of that complexity are not forthcoming then that complexity must not exist. Men and Meaning is an online art-documentary project that seeks to unravel some of that complexity by combining images and texts that tell stories of men’s interiority, and is freely available at www.menandmeaning.com.
The project is informed by my experience as a masculinities researcher and Laki Sideris’ experience as a photographer. Academic masculinities research is crucially important, but I find it often does not provide a compelling account of the interior. Beyond theories and data are people and feelings, and I wanted the opportunity to foreground those feelings in both the subject and myself. Laki’s photography often captures moments of transcendence, an ideal signature to bring to such a project. Laki was particularly drawn to the opportunity to see what new dimensions could be added to his images by putting them in dialogue with text.
Throughout the project, the images are a mixture of the staged and the documentary, the text a mixture of the biographical and the imagined. Our subjects have been a mixture of men we know and strangers in the public domain. For example, the following image is of Laki’s friend George in his home, to which I added a speculative interior monologue about desire:
Image text: Žižek clearly tells us that, “Desire named as desire in this Other is what we think we have chosen, while in fact, by a logic we are not aware of, it was the only choice allowed.” So I have thought long and hard about this desire. From where does it come? Does something stir in the DNA at the sight of these child-bearing hips? Is it the passive availability in her stance that piques my conditioned need to dominate and consume? Could it be—more romantically, more spiritually—the elusive search for completeness? And then I cannot decide if its potency is evidence of the fact that it is indeed the only choice allowed, or whether it is evidence to the contrary (assuming, of course, that such potency can only be authentic). In the end, after all these years, all I know is the net effect of desire: the dissolving away of all things so there is nothing but her and me.
In this image, our friend Sebastiaan is in his office where he works in marketing. Because this image series was staged we embedded the simple text “BRAND IDENTITY” in the mise-en-scène, playing on the concept of what he does for a living, and the way work imprints itself on our identities.
One image series looks at men who are strangers to us on both sides of the Occupy Movement, with the text functioning more as political slogan:
Image text: The Spirit of the Law
Similarly, we visited a tattoo exhibition and contemplated the nature of becoming a man:
Image text: Is a man born or made? In tribal cultures initiation bestows identity upon the individual, facilitating the transition from boy to man through challenge and pain. The mythopoetic men’s movement, typified by Robert Bly’s book Iron John, told us that many of Western society’s ills can be attributed to a lack of contemporary initiation, resulting in a culture of elderless boys suspicious of authority and seeking structure in all the wrong places. But rather than bestowing, initiation erases identity: now you are marked, now you are one of us, now you are no longer the individual. Initiation is a program of authority, a gerontocracy pulling the young into line and imposing conformity via the sleight of hand that is “becoming a man.”
By accepting that Martian style of communication as the truth we are not describing men, rather we are regulating men. Men and Meaning is just one small transgression of this regulation, revealing both depth and beauty in the ordinary. I hope you will join us as this project continues to unfold.