After Adorno: Letter To Simpson

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Letters From An Alien, Masculinities, metrosexuality, Metrosexy
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On March 18th, 1936, from London, England, Theodor Adorno, Marxist Cultural Philosopher wrote to his friend, Walter Benjamin, another Marxist Cultural Philosopher:

‘If today I proceed to convey to you some notes on your extraordinary study [‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’], I certainly have no intention of offering you criticism or even an adequate response. ‘

He then went on to give Benjamin a heartfelt, enthusiastic but also detailed and rigorous critique of Benjamin’s now classic essay.

It is in that spirit that I came up with a criticism of the work of my esteemed gentleman scholar associate, Mr Mark Simpson, after reading an interview (with someone else this time) about his latest book, Metrosexy.

This is my note:

Dear Mr Simpson,

It has been illuminating for me reading your interview with Grooming Guru about Metrosexy, as for once it was not me posing the questions! It showed to me some aspects of your work that I have some small but significant misgivings about. And I state them here, as Adorno stated his criticisms of Benjamin’s The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, with no other intention than to strengthen your thesis and your arguments. And to ‘serve our general line, which is now so clearly discernible’ as Adorno put it in his letter to Benjamin.

In the interview you say:

‘Instead of men becoming ‘more like women’ what we’re seeing is men being less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. In much the same way that women have been since the feminist revolution of the 1970s.’

And it is on this question of whether or not women are ‘less inhibited in their behaviour by worries about what is masculine and feminine’ in particular that I must take issue with you.

Women, in this ‘post-feminist’ age, are indeed able to wear trousers, snog their friends when they are pissed, take up jobs previously reserved for men, and even fart and belch like truckers. But this does not mean they are not just as anxious about masculinity or femininity as ever.

You know my phrase ‘mumsy cupcake feminists’. Well, that concept represents the current trend, particularly amongst middle class women, to expect to be given equal rights and opportunities, in the workplace etc, whilst also maintaining their position of queen of the castle at home. And in that castle, women expect often to have a male partner, and a nice home, and a talent for baking, and lovely clothes, and plenty of shoes, and hopefully a couple of sprogs running around to finish off the picture. They are also expected to have certain opinions that best befit a lady, such as a liberal attitude to sex, unless it is the ‘wrong’ kind, for example that carried out by sex workers or porn actors. And they are expected to be very judgemental about the ‘excessive’ aspects of men’s sexualities, including sexual aggression and open displays of homosexuality and bisexuality.

My point is, dear Mister Simpson, that women who do not fit this model of femininity, who are ‘too masculine’ in their behaviours, who do not have children and nice homes, who do not wear classicly elegant clothes, who do not turn their noses up at people who work in the sex industry, or who work in the sex industry themselves, they are seen as ‘lesser women’.

I understand there was a ‘feminist revolution of the 1970s’, as I was born out of and into the belly of that revolution. (There is a question of how ‘universal’ the impact of that ‘revolution’ has been by the way. Sometimes I wonder if it only really happened in my tiny, women’s lib activist, urban middle class corner of the world).  I know that feminism has enabled women some freedoms of gender/sexual expression that until recently have been denied men. But I think it is misleading to suggest women do not still demonstrate considerable anxiety (which can also manifest itself as ‘homophobia/misandry/transphobia’ for want of better words) about gender and sexual identities. In understanding this point, you will not only see more clearly the conceptual relationship between ‘men’ and ‘women’ in society, but will also be in a stronger position to examine how metrosexuality in men, actually has not eradicated men’s own anxieties about masculinity and femininity(and hetero/homosexuality). It could be that in some ways it accentuates some of these anxieties.  You may be suffering, as Adorno suggested Benjamin did about the proletariat, a bit of ‘romanticism’ about the liberating potential of metrosexuality for men.

Also, I think actually that men are becoming more like women. In the sense that men, as subjects and actors within consumer capitalism, are being treated by corporations/advertising etc, almost exactly as women are. If, since consumer capitalism took hold of our society, the consumer has traditionally been positioned as ‘woman’, then men are now occupying that position, and doing so very fetchingly I might add. I agree it is irrelevant whether ‘men’ are actually like ‘women’ or not, as men and women are quite useless concepts to describe how people actually are. But ‘men’ are becoming more like ‘women’ in terms of how they are positioned, and how they respond to social forces, in a materialist sense I think, to use Adorno’s terminology.

I believe you to be the leading expert and scholar in the study of men and masculinities working today. But I think your unique position in relation to men, is not quite matched by your interest in and understanding of women in contemporary culture. I know when you are challenged about your lack of knowledge of/reference to/interest in women you tend to retort that a) you are not interested in women either sexually or sociologically and b) feminism has made sure women get prioritised in any discussions of gender, so , seriously, what about the men?

This might serve as an acceptable response, except as we know, gender is only and always the sets of interactions and comparisons between ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identities in a social context. And it always involves men and women as actors.  As the quote from your interview above indicates, when you theorise men and masculinity, you cannot help but do so in relation to women and femininity.  Therefore both sides need to be investigated with some degree of rigour. So maybe now you have completed your masterwork, Metrosexy, you may consider spending some time thinking about this issue of how femininity (and masculinity) as demonstrated by women, relates to  men’s identities. I believe this will deepen your understanding of metrosexuality, and its conflicts and contradictions. And you know I am always here to give some perspective, even though I have my own ‘issues’ with women/femininity. My issues come from being one of those vile creatures so I have no choice but to face up to my ‘monstrous feminine’.

To conclude, I quote Adorno in his letter to his friend:

‘I feel that our theoretical disagreement is not really a discord between us but rather, that it is my task to hold your arm steady until the sun of Brecht* has once more sunk into exotic waters. Please understand my criticisms only in this spirit’.

*Macho Faggery

Your ardent Simpsonista


  1. P.s. I think this may in part, at least, be a case of methodology. Some of my favourite work by Simpson has been his ‘participant observation’ in social/cultural settings. And most of those, apart from the gayest gaylord ones, include women. More recently he has tended to do textual/visual analysis and his textual/visual interests concern only men. And plenty of texts/visual forms only feature men!

    BUT I would still suggest, even if he doesn’t want to go ‘back in the field’ that there are plenty of fascinating contemporary cultural texts/forms that just happen to not be GAY!

  2. P.p.s. I hope it was obvious but as you know I am not very good at irony in the post-ironic world, so it might not have been-this was in part a tribute/pisstake of Adorno’s incredibly serious style (in his original letter). His letter reminded me of myself and my own ridiculous sincere seriousness so much, that it inspired me to do me doing Adorno doing me… doing Simpson.

  3. Elise says:

    I think your style worked, anyway, because both the letter and the postscripts made me lol. As to the rest, I will refrain from being an overbearing mommy, and leave Mark to his own defense.

  4. Interesting what you said about Mumsy cupcake feminists….

    Got into an argument with one when she was talking about the porn industry….

    ….eventually “objectification” came up and I said well if women are objectified as sex objects-men are objectified as success objects. I’d leave a link, but I abandoned the conversation as she only wanted to indoctrinate her readers with dogma….

    Interesting how you are accusing Mark Simpson of being myopic for not including women in the discussion. It is similar to when feminists talk about gender-then men bombard the boards saying that what is said is nothing like their lived experience. Then the feminists dismiss it with “what about teh menz?” and “mansplainin’.”

  5. Another note to Mr S:

    Sometimes if I challenge you it feels like I am challenging the ‘dominant’ actor in the dynamic. The one who has status and authority. And greater intellect/claim to knowledge.

    But I know that’s not the case. Is Benjamin superior to Adorno? I don’t thinkso. The reason it feels like that, apart from individual psychology, is that your work represents the ‘dominant culture’ even while it subverts it. That’s why I mean you are like Fuck Yeah Menswear.

    How can I argue with FuckYeahMenswear?! I CAN’T.

    Your work completely changed my perspective on gender and sexuality in some ways, confirmed my feelings and ideas in others, gave me the confidence to ditch feminism, and has inspired me to think and write in a way that I thought I never would again. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe some other writer would have done all that. Maybe I did it all myself. But I don’t see how that’s possible. These things are always very specific.

    And what impact have I had on you, your thinking and writing? Except that I have shored it up. I haven’t actually made you consider anything that you wouldn’t have otherwise. I guess there’s some sadness there.

  6. elissa says:

    Well said and wonderful tip toeing around the ego of your dear friend. Two romantics in a pea pod, to be sure.

    I’d like to add my own by saying that more freedom does not translate to less anxiety. On a fairly shallow level, consumerism and mushrooming choices depend very much on increased anxiety to function properly.

    • I am drawn to men with big egos, elissa. But at least this time, the man in question has something to be egotistical about (and I don’t mean his cock.)

      Yes I agree about consumerism I think it makes gender anxiety take new forms all the time.

  7. elissa says:

    Yes, but does he have a big cock anyway? I’m at the point where I need him to have one…to continue to appreciate his writing, as I do now.

    Don’t tell me if he does not -:)

  8. Elise says:

    To me the real question is: did Benjamin have a big cock?

    Yay 21st century internet intellectual discussion!

    (At least I know for sure that Paglia has one.)

    • well, in Foucault’s Daughter I say that all queer theorists must have big cocks! I say it ironically but you get a lot of phallic energy off them. Benjamin I find a bit less phallic than some.

  9. Elise says:

    I’m just reading a book I’ve had on my shelf for a long time, ‘Freud’s Women,’ which suggests that the most Phallic Daddy of them all was a mamma’s boy (well, no surprises there), the well-loved first-born son of a young, smart, strong-willed mother. Which is much the same account Mark gives of Morrissey’s genesis in St. Moz. Eventually, “phallic energy” (or male narcissism) can be traced back to Mommy! If one follows Simpson.

    • I don’t know if ‘phallic energy’ is the same as ‘male narcissism’ and I don’t follow Simpson on Freud. Partly because Simpson hasn’t read enough Freud to be respected as a Freudian. But I am not here to tear a strip of MetroMomma. I find Freud a bit annoying on ‘the mother’ anyway.

  10. Elise says:

    I’m sure it’s not the same at all. But to employ one of my favourite QRG/B quotes: “Behind every great man is a woman with penis envy and a kitchen knife….”

    • I don’t have a kitchen knife. Yet. But I can go down that road if necessary. Seems ridiculous if it came to that. It would also be self-destructive. I need ‘Mark Simpson’ the same way I need ‘Walter Benjamin’ and ‘Roland Barthes’ and ‘Michel Foucault’ and ‘Susan Sontag’ and ‘Judith Butler’.

  11. Elise says:

    Good to know you’ve got the kitchen knife in reserve though! I mean, Simpson’s ready with his cane, if necessary.

  12. Kitchen knives trump canes. And I am a masochist. That’s part of the issue I am much more used to taking a beating than Daddy-OH.

  13. Elise says:

    Hahaha! The cunt never wins an argument, but the masochist wins *every* argument.

  14. There is a resiliance that relates to masochism. If a sadist is uncomfortable he tends to want to get away from the source of discomfort. A masochist sticks it out.

  15. Elise says:

    Which is what people (feminist critics in particular) don’t understand about Freud’s concept of masochism, drawn from our “passive” sexual role. But I think Freud himself did.

  16. Elise says:

    Freud’s concept of “female masochism,” that is.

    • He doesn’t convince me on female masochism. I expect it would have been difficult to distinguish in Victorian times from general modes of being ‘feminine’ for women.

      if you have any recommended reading on Freud on female masochism I will add it to my homework. I have read three essays in sexuality and Dora. But I think he misses a few tricks with her, too!

      • Elise says:

        Freud misses a million tricks when it comes to women. Sometimes I feel like my entire life’s theoretical work has been supplementing Freud’s thought on women. But I was too wise to make it a career!

        I don’t think I got the female masochism thing directly from him, though, but from Paglia, and can’t remember if she discusses it in SP or one of her article collections.

        • Well lots of other people have made it a career but I don’t like their versions either!

          Paglia the ball-breaker, an expert in women’s masochism? Hmmm…

          Mr S won’t come near this conversation now, it has got far too vaggy (as Brett Easton Ellis put it).

          I will have to start again with my campaign!

      • Shatterface says:

        If you want to read something useful on Freud try reading something by Frederick Crewes, Hans Eyesenck, Raymond Tallis, etc. who show Freud up for the pseudoscientific fraud he actually was.

  17. […] After Adorno: Letter To Simpson […]

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