The traditional masculine image of Western patriarchal societies has been defined by physical performance for thousands of years. For example, the ability to hunt, work, and provide for the family, and to be a soldier and protect the borders. This masculine image received a profound cultural shock with industrialization. An illustration of this shock is the formula for calculating mechanical work, which every student learns. Work is the product of a force multiplied by the distance an object is moved. This formula seems innocent, but to give such a definition to the term work isn’t automatic. It’s a concept inseparable from the creation and spread of capitalist doctrine.
In 1829, the physical definition of work was first published in two books, Calculation of the Effect of Machines by Gustav Coriolis and Introduction to Industrial Mechanics by Jean-Victor Poncelet. Both books were written for business management and not university research. According to these authors, work was no longer an activity reserved exclusively for people and embedded in the context of their situation in life. Animals and machines can also work, provided they can overcome mechanical resistance. It was suddenly possible to use a generalized, objective measure to determine the pay for individual workers. Every “living machine” (human) can be defined by the limited amount of work that can be accomplished in a day. The central economic question becomes: What is the maximum amount of work a person can accomplish per day? People become not only a calculated part of the larger machinery, but also the victim of their intimidating power.
Regardless of how strong or fit an individual is, they have no chance when competing against a steam roller, a printing press, or a speeding train. The worker becomes a vulnerable and even destructible object in a way that had been unimaginable in the past. This change unavoidably alters the masculine image—a man has been reduced to something minuscule. Such a Fordism seeks maximum utility from its workers, even to the point of using them up. Conversely, it has created a structure that seeks to protect the body to keep it, in the biopolitical sense, productive and capable of reproduction and production for as long as possible.
Further, the increasing industrialization of wars in the 19th century caused a dramatic rise in the number of disabled men. The American Civil War created a huge market for prosthetics and other medical technologies. Serious injuries and disfigurements created on the battlefield, alongside the scarcity of secure industrial jobs, contributed to an increased demand for prosthetic eyes and plastic surgery. It’s no coincidence that the 19th century also witnessed the creation of a new literary genre, horror. In it are body-pulverizing, distorting, and transgressive and violent orgies that continue to be developed in the mediums of photography and film. Horror creates a space for the broken body to become visible as a point of fascination, a spectacle. In prior discourse, such a body had usually been excluded or ignored. With this background in mind, the radical portrayal of the body in popular culture can be seen as a symptomatic expression of the crisis of the masculine body, unresolved since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Contemporary masculinity is torn. It isn’t the fitness, power, and potency of a muscular, well-trained man that achieves social status, but the power of his technology and how well he can use it. Masculinity is negotiated through skill with technology and digital tools. This change opens up new subcultural spaces for resistance. Cyborg technology can shake up the patriarchal, heteronormative, and grandiose codes of the symbolic order, opening up new possibilities for emancipation. The traditional masculine image has long been a distortion of the technological-capitalistic world. This distortion has also been driven to emancipating extremes: teledildonics and sex machines, biohacking and screw-it-yourself, bodies with expanded sexual abilities, eroticgenetic utopias, and the breaking open of cultural codes. Our bodies are not our prisons. What we make of our bodies, how they are defined, subjugates us. Marx states that we need to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being. It’s time to free ourselves. We must radically dedicate ourselves to our wishes.
Offerus Ablinger has captured this aim on his canvas, and we should dare to dream, too.
What is TRANS/MASC’s central theme?
Transhumanism is a philosophical idea that seeks to expand the boundaries of human performance, or possibilities, physical and psychological, through the use of technology. My starting point is a science-fiction scenario based on queer/gay subculture. We often become our own imagined utopia. In art, fictional worlds are far ahead of current science and technology.
Does this mean we need new stories?
That we need new stories was a topic in Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay A Cyborg Manifesto. The image of masculinity in my work is a sign of the transition to a new period, the formative ideas of which emerged and developed in the charged atmosphere of counterculture and only later became part of the mainstream. For example, concepts such as fetishes, body augmentation, dildos, trans signs, body hybridization, and drag evolved in the queer/gay subculture before being adopted in everyday life. Heteronormative constructs that don’t seem to work for this subculture are often deconstructed or amplified. These parameters then determine if an individual can claim a place or fulfill the requirements of this system or the wider society.
Can you give me an example?
One would be the exaggerated masculine body in the gay scene, which includes extreme body optimization and body worship. Compart-mentalized thinking and binary codes can be easily recognized in this case. In this setting, the need for self-determination over the body is very much at the forefront, as are striving to belong and having a place in our system.
Offerus Ablinger is an artist and queer activist. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna with Ashley Hans Scheirl. His works include paintings, performance art, installations, and stage design. Central themes of his work comprise norms within groups who do not conform to the social mainstream, social constructs, and physicality. In a series of paintings entitled TRANS/MASC, he explores the possibilities of a new transhuman masculinity.
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