Over the holidays I stumbled across Suits and found myself weirdly hooked by it. It tells the story of Mike Ross, a gifted stoner whose life has been going nowhere, bumbling into an interview for new associates at a prestigious law firm while trying to escape the police after a drug deal gone wrong. He is taken on by Harvey Specter, the firm’s top lawyer, who has found himself frustrated by his company’s policy of only hiring Harvard Law graduates. Seeing something special in Mike, he contrives to bring him to the firm and helps cover up his lack of a law degree.

Upon arriving at the firm, Mike finds himself mired in awkwardness, as his photographic memory often falls short of indicating what he should do and say when presented with the rules of legal institutions and the cultural norms found in a firm entirely populated by alumni of the law school he claims to have attended. Harvey presses upon him that this is his ‘chance’ and that to take it he must cast off the old friendships which have weighed him down, reconstructing himself for the new life he has stumbled into. It’s this biographical aspect of the show which intrigued me. Nonetheless, it also has a lot of weaknesses:

If Dallas grapples with the question of how to remain contemporary,Suits seems to be on a mission to convince viewers it was made in the 80s, sealed in a time-capsule and only recently excavated.

Even amid the sunny escapist output of the USA network, the series is a baffling anachronism. It proudly resides in an alternate universe where oily, overcompensated attorneys are hailed as heroes. Where their Italian sports cars, designer apparel and addiction to winning at all costs are seen as enviable character traits.

http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2012/jun/27/jonathan-bernstein-us-tv-dallas-suits

It’s hard to argue with this criticism. I don’t even think the show is good in any straight foward sense. But I found it oddly compelling. My aim here is to explain the reasons for this, which all stem from the figure of Harvey Specter. In contrast to the bumbling charm of Mike, Harvey always knows what to do, always knows what to say and is admired and reviled in equal measure. Harvey Specter is a socipath and, furthermore, he has worked to become this way. He is a man who is “against having emotions, not against using them” and he seeks to help Mike come to share this trait.

I use the term ‘sociopathy’ in the admittedly slightly glib sense employed by Adam Kotsko in his Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. His interest is in a class of characters who have increasingly come to dominate television and film in recent years. Though there are undoubtedly differences between Don Draper, Tony Soprano, Gregory House, Stringer Bell, Dexter et al (a list which seems a little incomplete without Vic Mackey) Kotsko argues that they share an indifference towards the moral order, manifested in a capacity to live outside social norms and yet also instrumentalize those norms to pursue their own agenda. While these characters might also share a degree of psychological complexity relative to their more shallowly characterised forebearers, he suggests that,

It is hard to believe, however, that the exploration of the dark side of the human psyche for its own sake is behind the appeal of these sociopathic characters. What, then, is going on in this trend? My hypothesis is that the sociopaths we watch on TV allow us to indulge in a kind of thought experiment, based on the question: “What if I really and truly did not give a fuck about anyone?” And the answer they provide? “Then I would be powerful and free.” (pg 4)

Kotsko sees sociopathy, understood as a cultural type embodied in such characters, as constituting a form of ‘reverse awkwardness’. In contrast to sociopathy, where lack of social connection engenders a capacity to masterfully manipulate social norms, awkwardness obtains in being drawn in and “rendered powerless by the intensity of their social connection” (pg 5). The appeal of the former rests on the experience of the latter, as our familiarity with the acute force of social pressure yields a vicarious thrill when we are presented with the lives of those immune to such pressure. These are people who always know exactly what to do. They are unbound by social pressure. They masterfully manipulate those interactions, which in reality exist as geysers of awkwardness, in a way which runs so contrary to our everyday experience. Their indifference to the social order translates as power and freedom. This is a figure who “transcends the social, who is not bound by it in any gut-level way and who can therefore use it purely as a tool”. Against the backdrop of a “social order that is breaking down, making impossible demands while failing to deliver on its promises” such characters become immensely compelling (pg 9-10).

The fascination with individuals ‘who make their own rules’ cannot be understood in isolation from the social changes which are rendering ‘the rules’ paradoxically more transparent and yet also opaque. The preoccupation with mastery, the capacity to glide through life while always knowing what to do and say, stems from the broader conditions under which this is becoming ever less possible. I think Margaret Archer’s notion of the ‘reflexive imperative’ is useful here, as a way of understanding how the intensification of social and cultural change renders individual reflexivity (reflecting on one’s self in relation to one’s circumstances) ever more imperative in daily live. As she argues, “action needs to be at least recurrent in kind in order for norms to develop to cover it”. Variety and novelty can fuel awkwardness, much as they can also open up the possibility of a depth of connection and human understanding which might formerly have been crushed by the stultifying weight of tradition and routine. These are two sides of the same coin. The dilemma in everyday life consists in the difficulty of knowing if we are doing things ‘right’, if such a notion even makes sense and how others who are similarly confused respond to what we are doing, whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. The sociopath fascinates because they embody a fantasistic solution to this dilemma. However in reality, we are faced with the ‘awkward abyss’,

Threatened by the awkward abyss, we cling to our declining social norms and ask them to be more than they are or can be. We let them rule over us all the more as they fail to serve us, either by providing clear expectations or approximating some form of justice or fairness. (pg 15)

But what would it be like to avoid this? What would it be like to just be? As Kotsko puts it, “if only I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything, we think — then I would be powerful and free” (pg 7). But we do, so we are not. Even if we truly did want to be this way, it is an option that is foreclosed by the weight of commitment. Or is it? What intrigues me about Suits is how much of the narrative arc of the two main protagonists revolves around Harvey Specter socialising Mike Ross into sociopathy. In seeking to ‘mentor’ Mike, Harvey is also teaching how he can be emulated by him. What stops this being obnoxious is the gradual revelation of the extent to which Harvey has had to cultivate his sociopathy, much as Mike must now do himself.

When we meet Harvey, he is pure presence. He controls every situation, always ready with a witty retort or a strategic reaction. This also leaves him paradoxically absent. In the first half of the show’s initial season, we see little of Harvey qua person beyond occasional allusions to his longstanding friendship with his boss. In one scene Mike attempts to come over to Harvey’s apartment to share news of a breakthrough on a case. Having sternly ordered him not to come round, he opens the door and we see Harvey in casual clothes for the first time in the show. However the door is immediately closed on Mike (and on us). There’s a sense in which Harvey seems almost unrecognisable as a person, as his preoccupation with his own social mastery leaves his inner life entirely opaque. At one point he boasts to Mike about having Michael Jordan on his speed dial, proving this to an initially sceptical Mike who then turns and asks “who are you?”.

It’s a good question and one which is eventually addressed. As the first season approaches its end, we come to see more of Harvey and how he came to be the person that he is. The meaningful relationship with his boss which was intermittently hinted at (she supported him through law school and their relationship existed prior to this) finds more direct reflection in the figure of his stated mentor, the New York District Attorney. In the first half of the season, we see a Harvey who is already fully formed and self-subsistent. But later we begin to see how he came to be this way. He was not born “the best closer in New York city”. He had to become him. He had to make himself into who he wanted to be. We begin to see something of his inner life. We see that he hates to lose. We even see him lose his temper. He reminds us that sociopaths, in Kotsko’s sense, are people too. They are admired people, as a search through youtube for videos of Harvey will make clear.

From The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, pg 134:

That Sunday, after I’d slept off our long night, I logged in to Facebook to see an endless stream of videos that the boys had filmed at the club. In them, the boys were not chatting up or kissing girls they had met, as I had expected. Instead, they were performing an elaborate ritual only they would have the strange, cold vanity to invent, in which they would methodically chat up and reject girls that the bouncers had brought to their table. “Leave! You’re not pretty enough!” one of them seemed to say over the din of the club as he shooed the girls away in succession like so many servants. Even though I had been living in this boys’ world for almost two years, I was still a bit shocked. Their products ultimately reflected their real- life behavior. Instead of making a technology of understanding, we seemed sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.

The intruiging suggestion made by Losse is that these tech bros represent an epochal transformation in American alpha masculinity. She doesn’t really follow it up but I’m completely persuaded that tech bros, as well as bro culture in general, represent something of profound sociological significance.

I wrote an overly brief post recently about the Elliot Rodger case (in the process offending some guys who are nice, though not ‘nice guys’) – this article by Richard Seymour, prefixed with a trigger warning, deftly shows how there’s much more to this case than just one person’s contingent hatred and brutality:

This is why it is essential, though not sufficient, to listen to what Rodger says. The killer left a detailed life story, and many video diaries, and his obsessions with gender, class and race, his framework of privilege and entitlement, structure the entirety of his account. The hatred and resentment toward women in particular, and the masculinist fantasies of retribution and cleansing, provide the quilting point, through which he explains his issues to himself: everything can be resolved if only they can be made to pay. And there is no obvious reason why a mental illness should express itself in such a toxic fusion of gendered, classed and raced resentment and rage, leading to the premeditated “slaughter” of seven people (including himself), like “animals”.

Before going any further, I would add that in explaining himself the killer clearly sought to aestheticise his actions, and courted precisely the wide audience for his own gargantuan melodrama that he regarded as befitting his proper status, and which he has now obtained. As he put it, “infamy is better than total obscurity”. To talk about him, to review and punctuate his own words, is to be partially complicit in this. But there is one way in which to avoid being complicit, and that is to categorically reject the demonological approach and to notice the appallingly quotidian, commonplace nature of the ideologies informing this atrocity, and the equally too common systemic and individual violence against women that these ideologies are linked to. Because Rodger is not so unusual among twenty-something males. You’ve met men like him. His issues, his insecurities, the huge burden of resentment and shame, the ideology of violent women-hatred that he gives realisation to, are all too widespread. And this is what is most frightening, and what is missed by the rush to confine this case to a psychological black box.

I think Richard’s point here is really important. The refusal to analyse a case like this in anything other than its own terms, treating it entirely as an expression of the inner strivings of the individual at its centre, entails complicity in that person’s own self-aggrandisement. We have a moral responsibility to analyse cases like this – to not treat them as entirely exempt from history while also avoiding the risk that we reduce them to the banal and everyday (to borrow a distinction from Bauman). In analysing them we refuse Rodger’s aspiration to be a ‘god’ in relation to the ‘animals’, instead showing how his actions reflect much broader trends which, when inflected through his personal cruelty and rage, led to these horrific crimes.

The gunman committed his killing spree just hours after posting a chilling video online in which he spelled out his murderous plans for “retribution” because of rebuffs by female students at college.

Lamenting that he was still a virgin at 22, he declared, “I will kill every single blonde *** I see”, and blamed women for throwing themselves at “obnoxious brutes” but rejecting him, the “supreme gentleman”.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/10853875/California-drive-by-shooting-Son-of-Hunger-Games-assistant-director-Elliot-Rodger-suspected-of-killing-six.html

I find it hard not to connect America’s latest mass shooting to the much discussed Nice Guy Syndrome. Watch the killer’s final video if you want to see what I mean (massive trigger warning) – my point is not that ‘nice guys’ are incipient murderers but only that, at least in this case, the grievances cited by the killer are markedly those of the quintessential ‘nice guy’ e.g. “girls, all I’ve ever wanted was to love you and be loved by you … but you think I’m unworthy of you”. It scares the shit out of me how widespread this feeling, which in this case led this ‘nice guy’ towards murder, might be. 

BSA Gender Study Group and BSA Youth Study Group

Masculinities, Adaptation and Difference

A joint, one day seminar

http://bsamasculinities.wordpress.com/

BSA Meeting Room, Imperial Wharf, London

Friday 4 July 2014

Call for Papers

Deadline extended to 25.04.2014

Since the late 1970s critical studies of men and masculinities have explored the ways in which men’s lives have been shaped by a variety of cultural, political and economic transformations, from increasing gender equality and the growing recognition of LGBT rights to the wide-ranging transformations in employment associated with globalization and neo-liberal capitalism. On the whole, research about men over this period of scholarship may be seen as having coalesced around the theme of adaptation, with different groups of men interpreted as either succeeding or failing in their attempts to adapt to new circumstances. Thus, while hegemonic forms of masculinity have been regarded as capable of adapting to changing circumstances while retaining their dominance, other, more subordinate forms of masculinity have often been regarded as failing to adapt to the new demands and realities of more feminized labour markets and liberal societies.

While a welcome corrective to popular representations or notions of masculinity as a singular, essentialised form, this body of work as a whole might be accused of presenting a somewhat polarized portrait of men, which not only exaggerates the extent of change or resistance to change at these two extremes, but also misses the more subtle forms of adaptation and resistance amongst ‘middling’ men.

This seminar invites a broader perspective on men’s adaptations from across the spectrum of masculinities, drawing attention to the diverse ways in which men with different social characteristics have adapted to changing demands in different spheres of their lives. In particular, echoing recent work in the study of femininities, it invites perspectives on the ways in which class, ethnicity, age, and other aspects of difference shape men’s responses to neo-liberal demands for ‘self-making’ across three interconnected spheres: education and employment, lifestyles and consumption, and family. What pressures are different men under to ‘reinvent themselves’ across these different spheres, how are these pressures experienced, and to what extent are emergent ways of ‘being a man’ available to men across a range of subject positions? In exploring these questions, we understand masculinity as not necessarily fixed to the ‘sexed’ body and thus take account of female and trans masculinities.

Abstracts of 300-400 words should be sent to bsamasculinities@gmail.com<mailto:bsamasculinities@gmail.com> by Friday 25 April 2014.

Organisers: Charlie Walker (University of Southampton), Steven Roberts (University of Kent), Sally Hines (University of Leeds) and Zowie Davy (University of Lincoln)

Fees: £25 for BSA members; £40 non members

To book online please go http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/eventBooking.aspx?id=EVT10355

Or to contact the event department at the BSA please send your question to events@britsoc.org.uk<mailto:events@britsoc.org.uk>

Please distribute widely

1st International Conference on Men and Masculinities: “Identities, Cultures, Societies” will be held on 11-13 September 2014 in Izmir Turkey. Initiative for Critical Studies of Masculinities (ICSM) invites proposals for the first international conference on men and masculinities to take place in Turkey, in collaboration with Stony Brook University Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Ankara University Women’s Studies Centre (KASAUM) and Izmir University Women’s Studies Centre. The deadline for submission is 30th March 2014. For details please check the conference website http://icsmsymposium.org

1st International Conference on Men and Masculinities “Identities, Cultures, Societies”

11–13 September 2014, Izmir Turkey

Call for Papers

Initiative for Critical Studies of Masculinities (ICSM) cordially invites proposals for the first international conference on men and masculinities to take place in Turkey, in collaboration with Stony Brook University Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, Ankara University Women’s Studies Centre (KASAUM) and Izmir University Women’s Studies Centre. The conference aims to discuss theories, narratives, experiences, discourses, and activisms related to transformations of and challenges to men and masculinities with a particular focus on the Global Southern and Eastern European contexts.

Various phenomena such as globalisation and reconfigurations of nation states/nationalisms; identity politics; new social movements and political activism; rise in digital technology and the new social media; and the influence of postmodern and queer theory have changed and challenged men’s lives and masculinities in distinct ways. Yet there is little consensus on how to characterise transformations caused by such phenomena. We are seeking to explore issues related to such transformations with their political, economic, social and cultural implications for men and masculinities. We are also interested in addressing issues concerning methodologies, scope and conceptual boundaries of the critical studies of men and masculinities that need rethinking in light of these changes and developments. In order to contribute to these debates, researchers from social sciences and humanities are invited to send proposals to discuss topics including, but not limited to:

•       Revolutionary movements, political activism, ethnic/religious conflicts
•       Nationalism, military and militarisation
•       Lived experiences and/or representations of the body, disability
•       Sexualities, desire, pornography
•       Intimacy, affective turn, emotions
•       Subjectivities and experiences
•       Queering men and masculinities, sexual identities
•       Legacy of masculinity studies, future agenda, feminisms

Confirmed keynote speakers include Michael Kimmel, Jeff Hearn, Elijah C. Nealy and Serpil Sancar.

We invite proposals for individual presentations, panels, poster, film, and photography presentations. In addition to the formal presentations, the conference will also provide a forum setting for graduate students to discuss their work-in-progress. Following the conference, a selection of papers will be published in a special issue of the Masculinities: A Journal of Identity and Culture.

Abstracts of up to 300 words for individual papers and 600 words for panel proposals as well as a 100-word biographical note should be sent to icsmsymposium@gmail.com by 30 March 2014. Graduate students who wish to take part in the forum discussions should send a 300-word description of their research and a 100-word biographical note. Notification of acceptance will be made by 02 May 2014. The registration fee for the conference is 70 € and 40 € for graduate students. Five conference fee waivers will be granted for graduate students based on need and merit.

For further queries, please contact at icsmsymposium@gmail.com

http://icsmsymposium.org

http://masculinitiesjournal.org