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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


So far I've written two posts on the Alex Vernon book ON TARZAN, here and here.

The first essay put forth a semi-personalized disagreement with Vernon's attempt to interpret a particular scene in a Tarzan film, a la Laura Mulvey's "male gaze" theory, while the second elucidates my quasi-Jungian disagreement with any attempt to impose a ratiocentrist straightjacket on creative works, in that case Vernon's quasi-Freudian attempt to read the phenomenon of cannibalism as a "beard" for that ole debbil "homosexual panic."

This third essay is of a piece with the other two in that I'm again drawing from Chapter 4, "Monkey Business." An uncritical reader of this blog could be forgiven for wondering if that was the only chapter I'd read. There are other questionable Vernon interpretations in the book, but Chapter 4 does score highest in my irritation department, possibily because in this chapter he invokes a half dozen authorities whose intellectual legacies I find problematic. Here we have not only Freud but also Rene Girard, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (dealt with this earlier essay), Yvonne Tasker, the ever-doubtable Frederic Wertham, and Laura Mulvey, whose "male gaze" surely underlies much of the theory here though her name's never actually in the book.

Chapter 4 begins by citing as "evidence" of Vernon's theory the climactic (in more ways than one) scene of Philip Jose Farmer's A FEAST UNKNOWN, and then noting how prevalent it was for "gay interest" websites or magazines to co-opt the image of Tarzan for their own use. Neither item proves anything substantive about the Tarzan mythos: they are merely interesting cultural variations on a theme rather than the theme itself.

The Mulveyisms are not long in coming: page 108 tells us that "Adulatory exhibitions of the male body have a difficult time maintaining the integrity of heterosexual manhood." This is of a piece with Laura Mulvey's famous 1975 codification of the dominant cinematic oeuvre as appealing to a "male gaze:"

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.-- Mulvey, VISUAL PLEASURE AND NARRATIVE CINEMA.

Since I'm not of a mind to reread the Mulvey essay at the moment, I'll depend on my recollection that Mulvey never systematically examines to what extent classic Hollywood cinema also represented a "female look" of desire toward men. Had she addressed this tendency in Hollywood film and found that its presence did not negate her theory, I might take her a bit more seriously. As "Visual Pleasure" stands, however, it's merely a hallmark work of ratiocentrism, eager to ignore any contradictory data in order to impose an intellectual paradigm.

Of course, classic cinema is replete with countless examples of male characters being put on display for the delectation of interested viewers. The enormous female fandom of silent star Rudolf Valentino suggests that the "determining gaze" directed toward that star depended far more on his female than his male (be they hetero- or homosexual) audiences. Mulvey's diatribe ignores the influence of female audiences upon cinematic depictions in the early 20th century and how that influence arose from their increasing ability to purchase the fantasies they desired. The fact that those fantasies did not line up with Mulvey's concept of desireable alternatives may suggest that Mulvey, not the audiences, was the one guilty of questionable desires.

Probably drawing more from Yvonne Tasker than from Mulvey, Vernon goes on to give as one example of "adulatory exhibitions" of maleness the "images of Eugene Sandow and other musclemen" who "in Burroughs' day" were "consumed by some men for their erotic appeal." Having admitted that only "some" of the audience may have had homosexual lust for Sandow, Vernon then leapfrogs over the question of female viewers and their possession of both "determining gaze" and economic power. He next tells us that "Sandow had inserted himself into a feminine tradition," which only makes sense if one ignores the long tradition of the male nude in painting and sculpture. Granted, some of these depictions, more so than either Eugene Sandow or Tarzan, may have been directed at a dominant homosexual populace, if the stories about Classical Greece are even partly accurate. But in Classical Greece women definitely had no economic power to influence art, while the women of early 20th-century America, the America of Sandow and Tarzan, unquestionably had such power.

As a sidenote, the entrepreneur most responsible for bringing Sandow to fame in America was one of the same architects of the so-called "determining gaze" of Mulvey: Flo Ziegfeld-- who worked with Sandow some time before his better-known "objectification musicals" with Busby Berkley. A quick check of 'net biographies suggest that Ziegfeld was hetero, but even if he had been gay, it's pretty unlikely that he would have been making much money with Sandow if he'd been depending entirely on the closeted gay population of his time to keep him afloat.

Vernon's indirect quotation of Laura Mulvey's unfounded notion that the recipient of a "gaze," male or otherwise, is automatically "feminized" is integral to Vernon's argument, for only so can he read displays of masculine strength and/or power as codes for some odalisque-like feminine prostation. In my view, neither male nor female are any way "feminized" by receiving an admiring look, be it erotic or non-erotic, or from a male or female. Actual violation *might* be another story, but contra Mulvey and Vernon, looking is-- "just looking."

I find it amusing that while Vernon never pauses in making this "she-male" argument, later in the chapter he backs off a little in stating the equivalence of cannibalism and male homosexuality:

"I am not insisting that every mention of cannibalism carries unconscious coding of sodomitic bestiality, or that we must translate every fantastic ritual sacrifice into a gay oral sex all-night blowout... But we can't ignore the confluence of the primitive, cannibalistic,animalistic, and polymorphously erotic... in Tarzania" (p. 137)

Lest my position still be unclear, it's the same as it was in the essay entitled
A SACRIFICIAL LAMB FOR QUEER THEORY. Yes, the "polymorphously perverse" may well underlie much if not all the energies that go into narrative fiction, though I naturally like Jung's take on those energies better than Freud's. But one does not master the "hermeneutics of deceit" by deceiving. One ought to consider all potential interpretations before settling on one, or at the very least, ought to be able to refute at least the extremely OBVIOUS objections to one's pet theory.

Hmm, wanted to deal with Vernon's quotation of Wertham but this has gone on a little long. More in Part 3.

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