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Having Your Beefcake and Eating it Too: Capitalism and Masculinity

Jonathan Kemp, Birkbeck College, University of London

This paper locates the roots of contemporary patriarchal mainstream masculinity in late nineteenth century developments in body building and the emergence of beefcake photography. It identifies the ways in which the rise of Capitalism is inextricably bound up with the image of musclebound masculinity. Examining the conceptual limitations at work in the term ‘beefcake’, the paper will argue that our toxic attachment to a monolithic masculinity which finds it most profound expression in destruction and force is a form of Stockholm Syndrome; as if testosterone were a race poison to which we’ve developed a fatal addiction.

I. The Body As Object

Theodor Adorno, in his book Negative Dialectics, reminds us that ,“objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder”. In other words, every time we create a concept there is always something left out, something that doesn’t fit in, something lopped off in order for the concept to circulate and function in its ideal form. Like the ugly sisters hacking off toes to squeeze their bloodied feet into the glass slipper in the hope of marrying the handsome prince, our standard ways of conceptualizing inevitably distort the realities they purport to describe in order to establish a seamless identity between the concept and its object. Every concept thus requires conformity to its idealized form, and what doesn’t conform to the ideal is violently amputated in the rush to define and control. In other words, to define is to limit. It’s never the full picture. The full picture is messier, more complex, and includes all those things that don’t conform to the concept in its idealized form. The act of conceptualization, in other words, always produces a remainder.

Adorno calls this remainder the non-identical and it is here, he claims, where what doesn’t fit in is discarded, that something approaching the truth can be found. It is precisely the things that do not fit in that will provide the supplement necessary for the full picture to emerge. Every definition thus helps shapes an ideology at the expense of the truth, peddling as somehow natural or inevitable what is, in actuality, a conglomeration of custom, political motivation, cultural assumption, and embedded historicity. Concepts have a history which is always political, charged with implicit values whilst nonchalantly parading as self-evident, as purely and simply ‘what is’.

With this in mind, I’m going to start to think about some of the things erased or removed from our conceptualization of the term “beefcake”. I’m going to focus on the non-identical, on the excluded or erased aspects of that concept. On what isn’t being said when we use that word. In this way, I hope to expose the ideological oppressions, the violent hierarchies, that lurk just outside the ring fencing of that concept.

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