Ahmad Makia, Raja’a Khalid

Masculinity: A Conversation


image description: a man in a neon green shirt lunges in the free weights section of a gym holding a bench press bar over his head, while another man dressed similarly and wearing headphones watches him, holding a water bottle that he almost looks like he's about to throw

Image from Raja’a Khalid’s Change your Life.

The following conversation will be published, along with its preface, in an upcoming (Nov) print publication, ZIGG.

Jump: Preface | Full Conversation

Raja’a Khalid and I are friends. We both inhabit Dubai. Our families and histories do not originate from nations or places but emerge from the anthropogenic universe that is the Arabian Gulf. We share an English-based education, Islamic upbringing, traumas of adolescence and sex, remixed iterations of cultural secularism from our parents’ post-colonial places of origin, and “Baby One More Time,” of course. Internationally, we are perceived to be wealthy, dripping in oil and perfume; natives of ultra-consumerist hyper-capitalist dictatorial lands; inhabitants of an unsettling, precarious future. We share micro-attitudes and lifestyles, too: both of us are in our thirties and continue to live in our parents’ homes, for cultural and political reasons as well as convenience, we exercise at the same fitness studio, and we sleep with men. We’ve been betrayed by them too. Sometimes, I think we are orbits. Actually, more like glitter poofs.

Raja’a is also a fascinating behavioural subject. Especially for me, a human geographer, who has built a practice on the ecological conditioning of the Gulf’s landscapes — especially the fluids, oil, in excess, water, in scarcity — and how it transfuses through the Gulf’s living bodies, and is later impregnated in their humanized expressions and gestures. I am interested, and so is Raja’a, in the Gulf’s evolutionary subjects and their relational aesthetics with wildlife, ecology, game, gardening. We’ve been questioning how these relations are the result of an accumulated geologic history, and how our practices can acknowledge this evolution to create the logics of a Gulf Bionic. What does Zam Zam water or Stoning of the Devil in Mecca say about a billion or so Muslim devotees and their affinity to the Gulf’s ecology? For me, the Gulf Bionic is a ‘matter subject’, or more precisely, a ‘wet matter subject’: earthwork masqueraders, such as indigenous oil-citizens from the fossil-fuel terra nullius, or the fluid mobile expatriate class from the Indian-Pacific commonwealth, that reveal their distinction from the presumed dominance of human mind, spirit, and creativity; an expansion out into the more-than-human representational.

Our relationship of exchange and discussion began a few years ago. Raja’a started to look critically at the ecological networks and industries of the products that have become definitive, glocalized commodities of the Gulf. Over the years, I have witnessed her research rapport develop to include, leather tanneries in Scotland who make seat wear for Emirates airlines’ first-class cabins; acoustic engineers who provide bespoke ambient music for Gulf restaurants and malls, as well as the azan, the Muslim call to prayer adjusted to daily solar and lunar rotations; biotech solutions for the preservation of palm tree fronds, a ubiquitous beautification feature of indoor and outdoor Gulf spaces; industrial scent diffusers spraying compound patented formula that smell ‘somewhat’ like oud, the rare and precious resin used in Middle Eastern perfumery. Intermittently, she has updated me on her work on lunar plants, comets in religious texts, saluki breeds, and flyknit.

Her interrogations have simulated the Gulf through encyclopedic, cartographic and geospatial research exercises. They ask, what happens to the sounds, smells, gestures, symbols, that appear as seamless and integrated, authentic and natural or native to a cultural space when their underlying engineered frameworks become public. What stories and governmentalities do they deploy and how do these products and sensations become collectively perceived, felt, imagined, and narrated. Her artistic process is indistinguishable from the methodology of a biogeographer, who looks at human society as an ecological group who changes the form and function of the landscape and introduces new relations between areas, with concomitant environmental impacts. Except there is no biota in Raja’a’s world, instead everything is ‘superficial’, engineered, automated, made and undone better. Nothing is spared or goes unquestioned. Rather, what becomes questioned under her discipline is the discrete and internalized nature of affect, emotion and feeling, which today in the liberal humanities is held as areas for genuinity, theoretical optimism and joy—can they really be so innocent, virginal, earthy, trustworthy? And the ‘superficial’ here is used to draw a deliberate connection to the place she practices and lives, Dubai and the Gulf, a space deemed, and doomed to, superficiality, the non-biotic, the death of the natural or organic; a hot, lifeless desert populated by tyrannical oil-rich sheikhs and an oppressed, exploited South Asian migrant class who work for an extractive, technocratic crude oil industry.

In the conversation below, Raja’a and I discuss one of the most pervasive ecological networks, masculinity and male expression. The male’s inclusion in her practice evolves from her study of bodyworks, the surfaces and materialities that surround a body, towards actually studying the body and its work —fitness, vanity, size, matter. In these works, that address masculinity and consumer culture, such as Change your Life and FASTEST WITH THE MOSTEST (2017), we travel through the the ducted experiences of bodies; the duct that is the male body.

It’s worth noting that we are talking more about images of people than their lived experiences or how they choose to mobilize their sexuality and body; this is because we are operating within, or diagnosing, a political situation where genuine ontological struggle is rendered impossible, where the verb “to be” is replaced by something else – “to seem,” or, better, “to affect the image of.” I suggest keeping the typology of the ‘duct’ a companion in your reading of this conversation, as it represents the nearest embodiment of Dubai, and the world, as it is imagined in Raja’a’s practice: the experience of being inside the AC, inside the automobile, inside the oil pipeline, inside the irrigation line, inside the mall, inside Dubai, in which the need for being in a biotic environment is surpassed.

Welcome to the world of Gulf Bionic.

– Ahmad Makia

Jump: Preface | Full Conversation

[This conversation was recorded on 26 December 2017 at Pappa Rotti, on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, UAE.]

AM Let’s start by discussing your more recent artworks that question masculinity and consumerism. I find that today’s culturally sanctioned image of the ‘the man’ – commodified, globalized, cosmopolitan, digitized, advertized – specifically the man that is here-in-Dubai, who arrived in these territories through America’s ejaculations – militaristic, opportunist, capitalist – is an ‘adolescent boy’. And in this imagination of the adolescent boy, he’s irresponsible and unmannered; he runs contrary to the genteel, civilizing figure, or the corporate-suburban-breadwinner figure; he’s not a man of letters; he’s not dandy but hedonistic and irreverent, unlocked and restricted: he wants to run rampant like capital itself. What I feel he tries to say through this costume, well, first, is that he is rotting away, but really the attitude he carries displays a conscious ignorance of his answerability to the world and its emotional, political affairs. He’s a man, but he behaves like a boy, and, at that, a very learned and received image of the boy. What’s that about?

RK It is a direct response to commodities. Men have proven time and time again that they can choose however they like to respond to commodities. Men can choose at any point, at any age, to relate to commodities and public cultures in the way they like. Even when the man chooses to isolate himself, he becomes a grandfather, recluse figure, or an everyday regular joe figure. All kinds of figures and descriptions exist for men. They can also choose the distance from these figures at any age. It is OK to desire a sports car at 20 or 60. Women don’t, they get these things placed onto them, mostly through the gaze of men. I think an interesting example of how this plays out in material I have been particularly drawn to is in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. In the 1991 film, there’s this iconic sequence of Christian Bale working out and going through his morning skin regimen.

image description: a closeup on a man's face as he peels some kind of plastic face mask off of it. he has a dead expression.

Still from American Psycho.

It feels pretty psychotic. You know instantly something’s a bit off. It was parodied recently by Margot Robbie in an ad for Vogue, and although Margot narrates all of the bizarro affective labor it takes for her to look like her, she doesn’t really feel like a psycho. Her skincare routine, her endless list of products, that’s like every other ‘young girl’ so to speak. That’s what it takes to look like even a half decent woman by contemporary social standards. It’s a penetrable space, we’ve all seen her, been in her world, been in her space, in her skin, in her shower, we’ve been her. She’s profiled, written about, covered. But we’ve never been in a space like the one Christian Bale’s character inhabits. There’s a kink there. It’s off, we can’t ever enter that sliver of space between himself and his reflection. It’s his choice and it’s utterly individualistic and nuanced and thoroughly subjective. The narcissistic face mask peeling man is a subject, Margot isn’t.

In the past few years, public behaviour has changed dramatically. Look at the most recent American election, and what kind of contours they cut for their respective genders. You have Trump who is basically a juvenile delinquent, and it is not a senile thing. He’s a pubescent boy-trickster, a troll, and he highly objectifies women. And then there’s Hilary, who has tried so hard to de-sexualize herself, despite her husband, and how he invited a very sexualized gaze onto their marriage. The fact that he was fucking, literally, a girl, in that rank, while he was a president, whose sexuality does that put into question? Hers, not his, because that’s a guy. ‘What were you doing’ is how people look at Hillary – she’s in an ongoing attempt to de-sexualize herself, and these are the extremes offered to you today, what women have to be, what they have to put up with. Yet, she’s still considered hawk-ish, unreasonable, mom-figure, sneaky, bitchy, untrustworthy, shrill – I hate that word.

AM Right. I do believe what underlies all these displays, and social machinations of men, is that men desire to emerge as women; man is on a hidden quest to emerge as a woman. He performs in his anxious ways because he is unable to reach a ‘feminine superiority’ he understands as inherent to the ‘biological woman’. Therefore, he’s rendered the world gynecologic, to repress and undermine this perceived womanly ‘superior force’. A gyno-cracy-ecology-economy, if you like, more so than a patriarchy. This superiority can be traced throughout time, too, like in most Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic religions, and in older societies, like Sparta or Rome, the female body as a kinetic force. Or even in futuristic, dystopian depictions of the world, like in Alien, or World of Men: women are threatening because they are seen as vessels into another spiritual realm, or in touch with a reality that is outside…there is this elusive, unknown quality to them. Man, on the other hand, is very known and accessible, he is ambitious and a capitalist, and what that usually means is that is he is a cheater or a liar, an abuser, a rapist, a killer. Today, maleness is no longer defined or fulfilled in its practice to be devoted to a cause or a loved one, like a parent or lover/partner.

RK This reminds me of the Tarzan tale. In it, you have a Tarzan figure, who is not cultivated and raw, and he has to be cultured in a particular way so that he does not appear threatening to this woman.

image description: cover of the book TARZAN THE UNTAMED by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a bare-chested white man stands next to a lion

Cover image in public domain, found on Wikimedia Commons.

If you are to compare this to films performed by Audrey Hepburn, such as My Fair Lady, she is the character who must undergo a transformation, and it is distinctly expressed through commodities. In My Fair Lady, she has to pass off as a kind of entrepreneur, she is already a regular gal, but she works to pass off as bourgeois. The same happens in Funny Face, in which she is a model, but still has to make that jump, has to join a society by modelling high end fashion. And she does it in Sabrina as well, in which there is always one more thing, one more jump, she has to do to become whatever, usually, nobility, somewhat patrician. But as you see with Tarzan, it is simply about changing his attitude of fear, and so really what I am saying is the standard is so low for men.

AM You notice this in Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s as well. The logic, in this novel, is not so much about the female protagonist, but Capote himself, who is in his own struggle for acquiring and attempting these jumps, statuses, and standards. Capote in his own right evaded certain concepts of a ‘writer’, as recluse and isolated figure, and remade the erudite writer into a professional public attitude, a personality, or glitterati, really. The character of flamboyant writer is traced back to Oscar Wilde, in which one’s textual work is popularized by being a community celebrity and personality, a vanity project, who is obsessed with a bourgeois life. ‘You’ become the work, especially your search for love, hope, and beauty.

RK She’s basically a hick, from a redneck town, who wants to hide her provincial roots and wants to emerge as a cosmopolitan urban figure. And she tries to speak French, but she can’t, so every other word she says, is a single French word, and I find that so relatable to today.

AM The crisis of the contemporary world, to me, at least, is the expression of disappointment, distance, and longing for the bourgeois condition. What I think the crisis is, is that there is no actual, or real, desire in peoples’ lives, but the expression of the desire for an eroticization of daily life. I find this to be genuinely a sad condition, like bad television. I think people have achieved these erotics of life, at least in terms of materialities and manners, also in feeling empowered in being able to select how and why they subscribe to institutes, but then this leads to the typical narrative of the bourgeois fatigue with life: after acquiring all items and status, there remains an absence or loss. This is mostly represented in mainstream Western cinema, as an example, which either shows the drudgeries of the privileged, domestic condition, or over the top Marvel superhero action figures, or romantic comedies, which indicates that romance cannot be other than a comedic idea, which doesn’t even make it a comedy anymore, but almost a satire, and it is a satire of peoples’ own pathologies.

RK It is an autopsy, and, I’m not sure how to say, but an autopsy in a diminishing way to their actual desires, I guess.

AM Yes, haha, I think it also reveals the fear that people have in actually existing in their desires.

RK Yes, because it is frightening.

AM Possibly because they are so banal.

RK But it is banal because we have designed them to look banal. We’ve said that aging is awful, a certain activity or life is awful, because you can’t really sell that idea. What you can sell is to prevent that idea, a depressing one, and I think all of it is very contemporary.

AM I resent these invocations of ‘contemporary’. I am unsure how one is meant to be thoughtful or creative when they aspire to connect or frame their practices as contemporary, which to me is nothing more than a spatial and temporal constriction. ‘Belonging to the time’ is a very dangerous idea for me, and so I am confused in the way contemporaneity is used as an empowering tool. Contemporaneity, I find, is the lived effort to be hopeful, satisfied, content, supportive and emotional in a world that is ominous, full of satire, lies, malice and cruelty. This is experienced so viscerally today as advertising has become not something that is only received and consumed, but a voluntary, yet necessary, labor everyone must perform, ‘you have to do your own promotion’, otherwise you become judged as useless for the global economy. So today you find everything from makeup tutorials, to 5-minute home exercises for getting a rounder butt, or how-to prepare healthy foods. To find celebration in being contemporary is dangerous because claiming contemporary-ness is one way that those thoroughly trapped within consumerist biopower reassure themselves that their constrained, hampered, distracted condition is universal and even natural. That’s why there remains the expression for longing, awaiting, aspiring, seafaring, escaping, romancing.

image description: a man in a neon green shirt holding a bench press bar above his head and staring blankly forward

Image from Raja'a Khalid's Change your Life.

Your thinking, as expressed in your artworks explore this violence in that there is nothing waiting for you, nothing is owed to you, nothing stripped away from you.

RK I think the issue you are describing with works which identify themselves as contemporary is that they are trying to position themselves as some kind of peripheral, critical, ironic discussion or freak-show, but in no way do they possess any marginality. Hood By Air would be an ideal example of this. If it walks like it is from the fringe, talks like it is from the fringe, then it’s probably just another tepid liberal posing as a hotheaded radical and whose guilt is often at times more dangerous than even the worst type of reactionary. You saw this happen, as an example, with the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017, there was Balenciaga, Adidas, and other corporate artifacts, which shows that you are already at the center of something in a way. You’re not getting an insight into some political agency seeking peripheral subject. It’s fashion for rich people. There is nothing surprising. Or threatening even. It’s not outside. Nowadays, you have such extended and sophisticated biopolitical control, that to be freaky or a monstrosity, it would have to be accidental. Not to say, that the world doesn’t still have serial killers, or goryness, but many urges and potentials have been institutionalized that now un-locking from them has become a very radical gesture. Not necessarily their exploration or cultivation. In the 20th century, you had conscription, enforced military, state-sponsored education, and so you already brought many stages of delinquency into a domain of consumption, individual quirks got turned into marketing categories. All of this directed appetite and hunger in very refined ways. I think this is what biopower is: not only the controlling of mechanisms of mind and body, it is to control the things in between that, so control thought, drive, how people think they should be, how people fuck…

It is the calibration of expectations, feelings, personalities, impressions; things that are not tangible. Also, in creating a collective sense of myopia, dread, gloom that sees the world in a particular way. Social media is very good at this. And what’s yet to be discussed, I feel, is that these things are intended, to create white noise, to direct emotion in a particular way, that these are conscious projects. There is a tailoring of the emotional landscape, to sway people in particular direction, to oppose this, feel kinship for this, and it is immediate. I’m not saying that in a given moment we’re supposed to feel in one particular way about an event. We couldn’t possibly manage that. What I’m saying is that we’re supposed to feel about one particular event in a given moment. If that makes sense. It’s the event that is important, not feelings. This is why I stand by saying that Princess Diana’s funeral is probably the greatest work of art ever, in that it triggered such a great emotional response on a global scale, before the internet even.

image description: ground outside wrought iron gates strewn with flowers from princess diana's funeral

Flowers at Princess Di's funeral. PC: Maxwell Hamilton. License: CC BY 2.0.

AM So let us bring this sophistication of biopolitical control in connection to the creation of modern masculinity, something we’ve both explored and thought about. We diagnose varied representations of modern masculinity in our respective works, but we find ourselves looking at the same man because modern masculinity is about the ‘looked-at-ness’ quality of males, and its associated erotic capital/value. In your recent artworks, you present a male that is slick, vain, urban, manicured; he’s probably single, but sexually popular and desirable, which means he gets to be selective and strategic with the sexual activity the world is offering him. We both also agree that this modern masculinity is narcissistic, but our men explore this narcissism in different ways. As an example, I imagine my male as a surfer, as a cool boy, a dude, he’s got a babe, someone like Ashton Kutcher, maybe James Franco. He’s somehow content and creative. He probably makes a lot more noise than your man, sweats more, and he is not recluse. He enjoys life more than your man because he’s got a can-do attitude. My male saunters through the city, yours walks, and in that act, he longs for something. Mine doesn’t; he is fulfilled, satisfied. What do you think your male is looking for? What story do you think my male tells himself that he is able to exist with a satisfied attitude?

RK In FASTEST WITH THE MOSTEST (2017), I marry the figures American Psycho and Wile E Coyote. So, my male is young and afflicted with stockholm syndrome; he’s unhappy, because he suffers from something similar to feminine labor. He’s been forced into a particular life. There is a passivity in the men who work at the frontiers of neoliberal capital, in that they need to be participating and functioning all the time. There’s something nurse-like about them, either being a patient or a client, always tending to the market. He’s pre-tech, I feel. There’s something more unsure about him. You participate in the self-improvement rat race but by assenting to its terms you render your ability to choose moot.

AM You say he is feminine, forced into something, always maintaining, always on call, and so is this what you see as opposing to the male figure I describe.

RK Because he’s not a consumer, conspicuously consuming, and there is a dandy-iness too. My figure is the conspicuous producer and it is not very muscular, and more subordinate.

It is similar to the existential conditioning of females, existential in that women as a market category are conditioned into existence. Which isn’t about the feminization of labor, but the laborization of femininity, as Nina Power discusses in One-Dimensional Woman, that is present at all times: the mom never stops working. The male figure I am constructing is along these lines, always jogging, always working. He’s a fanatic and he re-doubles his effort when he loses his aim. He doesn’t need friends by his side, he just needs to declare it is something he’s done already.

AM He is in a tragic state? Is he in crisis?

RK They are all in crisis. The thing I am interested in is repetition, the routine, the ritual, like the gym project I made, Change your Life (2017). Consuming an item repetitively at a particular time of the day, rolling and unrolling the yoga mat, and then again to work out, taking an uber everyday to work, the repetitive mode.

AM And in these repetitions, and rituals, or devotionary practices, you only see crisis not celebration

RK Yes. Celebration for me comes from a triumph. The way the economy is set-up, especially the image economy, there is no room for triumph, everything is undone, and done better, there is a high alert about social ordering. It doesn’t matter how many followers you have now, next month someone else will have it. It is the same with the body, the workout doesn’t stop, there is a lot of flux, there is no secure place. There is no pyramid. There is no icon, or icons that last long enough, in which they have believers.

image description: a man in the free weights area of a gym wearing a neon green shirt, his fingers bent back as if to suggest STOP, his gaze stressed; two other men also in green shirts are in the background

Image from Raja'a Khalid's Change your Life.

AM I think great satisfaction and fulfillment is gleaned by those who devote and repeat a practice, like in faith systems, or fitness exercising, or any other ritual systems. But for you, practices cannot have an agreement with the user because something else is going to come along and will surpass or supersede it.

RK You are not offered disciplines in the same way anymore, which means you can’t ever be a formal disciple. There is great demand in the market for innovating, for producing. You are not allowed to dedicate yourself to singular things or doing one thing; there is a considered madness about doing that. I mean you can if you want to have a very sustained relationship with a certain space, or practice.

I previously engaged with the idea that you can exchange a lot of effort today with mechanization but I don’t think we’re really, really there. I was trying to link how the Olympics emerged with the idea of the nation-state. Sport became a big feature of how states feel, now, multinationals take this on. Nike, as an example, created female fitness through a particular image, as women didn’t work out like they do now. Now Nike steps in to come in to do things that states are meant to do, like hijab fitness wear. Countries are still trying to figure out if Muslim female athletes should be allowed to wear the hijab and Nike just basically comes in and says yes. Go on. In the US, while government officials debate on how to get healthy lunches into schools etc., sportswear corporations managed to create an entire new ‘bio-political experience’ for women by creating athletic wear that made it more possible for them (across much of the first world) to actively pursue fitness outside of their homes and 'health spas,’ changing the very cultural landscape of so many contemporary cities. And then there are figures like Zuckerberg, who are ‘on’ all the time, and, despite their wealth, are now being required to also be athletic, like many other multinational heads, which is very vulnerable and a little unsettling. There’s an excellent book about this by Jason Kelly titled Sweat Equity: Inside the New Economy of Mind and Body. It’s not a critical text but a really great exhaustive and thorough survey of the various successful fitness business. There’s such big money in fitness right now, not because we couldn’t find our way otherwise, but we are just more efficient and more productive workers when we are healthier, we have a certain stamina and endurance. This is not for our well-being, but really to feed into the economy.

AM Right, maintaining your own well-being contributes so much to someone else, rather than to yourself

RK You are the least important person when considering your health. This is where the Wile Coyote archetype comes in.

image description: cartoon hand holding business card that says WILE E COYOTE, GENIUS, HAVE BRAIN WILL TRAVEL on it

Still from Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

In order to be able to catch the road runner, he has to constantly buy things, shoes, vitamins, to keep up, and this is a very good analogy for how we live our lives today. This is why this body of work is concerned with lifestyle and the male protagonist, like the figure in American Psycho: he too must be buying things, he buys facial cleanser, he has really cool set of glasses and set of business cards. There’s an iconic scene in the film in which all these young professional 30 year olds, who are working their way up the corporate ladder, executives, stockbrokers, and boys like that, compare their custom made business cards. Christian Bale’s character pulls out his business cards and then everyone oohs and ahs and then someone else in the room pulls their business card out and it has one finer detail, it has a watermark, and so Christian Bale’s business card is no longer than the best. So he ends up becoming very upset. The work in the exhibition is a reprinted stack of Wile E Coyote’s Business Cards, echoing the scene in American Psycho.

AM So, your male emerges after the playboy ethic, after the foppish Arrow Man, after David Beckham ‘embraced his femininity’ by wearing a sarong, after the normalization of moisturizing creams for males, after Coca-Cola made Coke Zero. Nothing, however, doubts the position of this man as proto-hetero-straight, which does not mean he does not engage in homosexual behaviour, but he is definitely not perceived as gay or of the ‘gay lifestyle’. This is confusing because the materialities you associate to him are also seen as part – not even part, inherent even – to the gay identity practice, which is the labour of making the male a desirable object, through expressions of hedonism, leisure, sexual liberty, self-love, dieting, aesthetic/athletic care, home decor, and fashion, of course. Way before capital imagined the straight male as a subject of erotic capital, ie the metrosexual movement, gay consumerist lifestyles can be considered the most relevant archetypes for the modern masculine expressions you explore in your work (and the globalizing male public in general). Moreover, figures like we discussed earlier, Wilde and Capote, dandy history too, you can trace this male expression for vanity, to be seen, to be desired, as a production that reverberates time and time again.

It seems that even though we live in a world of hyper-patriarchy, all one can find is the traumas of the unnurtured desires of males.

RK For psychoanalysis, the emergence of a feminized man requires a hyper-masculine scenario: you need to create extremely masculine spaces so that men can express femininity to each other, or a certain erotic, so that they can project femininity onto other man. This you find in the military, as has been widely depicted. If you create these hyper-masculine scenarios, ie spaces that are absent of women, for men, it can be a possible, viable scenario from which certain men attempt to find emotion, or start expressing things like hysteria, or homoerotic behavior. Zizek makes this point in some of his more recent lectures. It was only in his experience in the Yugoslav army that he experienced the most hypersexualized ‘straight’ behavior of his fellow officers. One needs an ideological licence in order to be truly vulgar or truly vulnerable.

image description: ripped naked dude with his hands behind his head and weird blue scales over his eyes

Still from American Psycho.

It is the same with this man I construct, the conspicuous producer, put him in this white-collar, upscale, corporate office, slick bureaucracy, in which women are in the margins of the place, and you’ll find him re-interpreting feminine expression. They are men and they are not queer. But they become flexible.

AM Oh sure, office culture and corporate toilet play. Also, the exploration of these emotions is further amplified when these men leave the hyper-masculine office space and the city, towards the suburb, or the New Urbanist downtown home with a stack of Monocle magazines, which, too, is overly masculine.

RK You need women to remind a man that he’s a man. And so in this scenario, the women must be in this marginal, submissive role, because if she is in the board meeting, she’ll psychologically confuse this play, and she gets implicated, and embodies all the things that were previously being expressed in the male-male relations. This confusion is revealed in popular media culture, too: when a women penetrates an overtly male society such as an all boy school or a prison. In Silence of the Lambs, as an example, when they send Foster to interview Hannibal Lecter, she receives many warnings, like, beware these men have not seen a woman in a long time, and I believe after their first meeting as she leaves, his neighbor in the next cell, jerks off and flings his cum on her, on her face. A highly charged scene; what she’s gone in there for, and what she’s going in for is information. That’s what I feel like women are doing most of the time, entering male spaces to receive, carry and transport information.

AM Information on what?

RK Doesn’t matter. Any kind of information. Probably a message for another dude. The iconic images of women as mediums is what I’m basically interrogating here.

AM Explain?

RK You know, women as operator, secretary, as conduit of information, gossip…women as mediums, fortune tellers. Their bodies are like live wire. Men play or participate in the theatre, women, on the other hand, are there as a channel, as a link to something that is outside of the play, and it reveals well-kept secrets, I guess, because it is unsafe entry for women. She might be asking for information or delivering it. She’ll tell us what not to do. She’s on a civilizing mission.


RK In my male figure, there is a lot of self-love and narcissism. The creation of a space in which all other bodies are dismissed. He’s not a very sexual person, or sexually active. Text in public space now is about a shaping of your own gaze, about empowering, what it is you see when you look in the mirror, you can change everything you dislike about yourself, you can get all these appendages, extensions, solutions for it. You have had fetishists, talismans.

AM I assume much of self-love descends from the human dignity, empowerment, and self-determination discourse, which asks you to create your conditions, your destiny. I think it is dangerous because it assumes so much power is possessed through your own skin and surface. But it is all partial and limited, the human and the universe, as we understand it, is so patchy, and dislocated, so how can you be so certain that so much power is there but is hindered and appeased by other forces, usually institutions, families, societies. We know there is so much more, but really just more information. I do not believe that my purpose here is to fulfill ‘my purpose’; you know you are in the universe, but it doesn’t matter that you are in it, but in it because of it anyway, and so to create all of this care and cultivation around its narrative, preservation, and sustenance, is short-sighted, because all these forces are so much more involved in you, than you are in them, especially since these forces are negligent of your participation.

RK All of this self-realization emerges around the same time we had the loss of faith in the higher tier level of consciousness. There is no god, and so the onus is on the individual, while telling the individual that the universe is indifferent to your happiness. You must make yourself happy, yet absolutely nothing or no one cares if you are happy. This was the supposition and belief in the economic reality, along with other rituals, as they will help you arrive at a destination designed to make your happy. But that ideology has proved completely unserving, you can work so hard and arrive nowhere or in debt – and I think that’s the person I am looking at. You did all the demeaning activities you were told to do to achieve these things, through an initiation, except you were not let into a kind of club. I think this is the exciting thing about initiation, you can play a man your whole life, have the phallus, and do all the sanctioned, and endorsed things but you can still end up not as a man. It doesn’t mean you succeed.

AM It becomes interesting to think about how this expression become reconciled then. Today, there’s so many attitudes addressing this male to male distance, if you will. Today we are very accepting of the idea that not all men, though they have a phallus and patriarchal mechanisms, operate on a powerful and privileged plane anymore, like the geeky male, the scrawny male, the overweight male, the shy, unattractive male…more vulnerable men, even the male as a feminist. Men are not only aggressive. Or these expressions of fluid sexuality, in which men declare that they are not strict to one gender; they might dress-up like a woman to show you that gender binaries don’t matter; or pose for the cover of OUT magazine. Or straight males becoming friends with gay males. What do you think of these expressions: do they reconcile this distance we are diagnosing? Are they fetishistic? Or are they again just another phallus mechanism?

RK You still have a choice in that you are exercising your sexual preference. If you are in a sexually permissive society, and a straight man, the ball is in your court, you participate how you would like to participate. So, to me, they are not very sincere expressions, because I do not see the struggle, or what exactly has been ‘overcome’.

AM And you see this at a great distance from the male you are exploring?

RK It is not even distance, really. All these people you describe can also be this person I depict. Because the person I describe is flexible and porous enough to accommodate a variety of roles. My figure is about competition in a professional space, that is athletic, technical, efficient, it can be at any environment. Male comedians, are a great example of this competition, there is a lot of testerone there. Even though, they might not fulfill or look like a male category, but when you are identified as a male comedian, it means you are at the top of a particular construction of male-ness.

image description: ricky gervais, jerry seinfeld, chris rock, and louis c.k. sit on armchairs in a talk show set from HBO's TALKING FUNNY

Still of Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Louis C. K. talking.

Comedy is such a male-space, women are not, at least historically, understood to be funny. Because comedy is not how women seduce men. It is how men seduce women and other men sometimes. Typically, let’s say. Female comedians’ method of comedy was about being stupid or unintelligent, taken for granted, etc. Men in comedy spaces are highly intelligent, observant; there is a genius element to comedy, especially with things like improvisation and mimicry, it takes prodigal talent, an acute sense of observation to be a wit. Those things are understood to be male mastery. I Love Lucy is the idea of playing dumb in comedy. Christopher Hitchens accused women of not being funny. There was a backlash. Female comedy is about being physically female, although being female is not a universal idea at all, whereas masculinity is a universal category almost. For this I’ll refer to the work of Alenka Zupancic. Woman has always been a legitimate sex, as in, the fact that there is such a category as woman has always been acknowledged, it is a legitimate position, across the world, but just because women are recognised as a category, it didn’t guarantee them (or any subjects within that category) safety or protection from thousands of years of violence and misogyny. Despite being a legitimate category in all societies, historical and contemporary, there is no universal understanding of what the experience of being within that category is like. But for men, there has always been an idea, a legitimate position, a subjectivity, a responsibility, a model and a standard too.

Going back to comedy, male comics are apex creatures, highly-paid geniuses at the top of an intellectual food chain for sure.

AM So what about racialized comedy. In America, this is especially pronounced in the black male entertainment industry: music, dance, athletics, and comedy.

RK Well, they are all athletic categories, really. Being on stage, being a basketball player, all these things require a kind of agility, an exercise, a regime, quickness in response, reflexes. In many ways they are not so different from each other. And they are all performances. Why it is more pronounced because historically it is a body that has been required to be performative and active, so highly commodified. The majority of the people who are consuming these images receive them because it permits them to talk about blackness in the US. A majority white audience can talk about blackness if it is basketball, a runner, musician, rapper, boxer, politician. It has allowed a political black culture to be discussed in the mainstream american arena. You can’t talk about racism in America, if there is not a black male figure who is there looming. Even this question is an example of this, when you simply state these categories, there are so many people that have grown up around my life who fit this category, and I know very intimate details about their lives, and have shaped much of what I, and possibly you, think about blackness in the US. OJ, Michael Jackson, Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and in my domestic education, these are people who I feel like I have a lot of access to.

image description: prince onstage holding the microphone arms flung wide with his guitar swung around his back

Still of Prince in concert. PC: jimieye on Flickr. License: CC BY 2.0.

AM How does this athletic black figure meet the psyche of the modern man we have been describing in this conversation. The one you described at a certain frontier of this femininity.

RK Essentially, the male could be from a variety of backgrounds, because he is a cosmopolitan figure, not necessarily a white figure. But now that you present this question, I don’t think black American athletes would make sense in my example, it wouldn’t make sense. I feel like that the sub-Saharan Africa geography has already been subjected to a lot of critical discussion on athleticism from a particular historical trajectory: that ‘the body’ was brought from a different continent, and weighed, then bred. It is already so institutionalized for long centuries. The institutionalization of athleticism I am talking about is more recent.

The transatlantic slave trade was a eugenicist project. The healthiest men met with the healthiest women, and then there was a kind of farming, and cultivating of bodies. But you see this topic of discussion is tricky because there were multiple strands that emerged with the various eugenicist ideas all taking shape at the same, all for different purposes. There was the forced slavery of countless individuals from the African continent for the purposes of ‘work.’ While that project was about racial purity, it was essentially about health and strength. Meanwhile at the same time you had Blavatsky and all these racial categories, and German Romanticism and all this foundational, highly erroneous and eventually catastrophic thinking about racial purity and the mental superiority of let’s say the German race. Athleticism, health and fertility also played a big part in that but certainly not in the same way. So you have this with the Nazis, right, the Aryan supremacy, through peak fitness, and social intelligence, and therefore an ideal national subject.

That is not the same as the health and fitness thing now which falsely gives a tremendous view that human agency is somehow involved in these decisions related to your body. In which your participation in this neoliberal economy is still staked out. Permissiveness is such a trap. I’d rather be ordered to eat a superfood rather than be made to feel guilty about not eating a superfood. I guess the main figure I am drawing out is still has a kind of option of doing otherwise, to decide how he wants to participate.

AM So one wants to either emerge as a woman, or as a Herculean black man. Haha. A new frontier, is the lanky, skinny asian male, who is now experiencing a sexualizing.

RK This body, as an example, is not so historically eroticized. And deemed not threatening. The historical erotic Asian body is certainly a female. But the feminization or emasculation of the male Asian body emerges with the imperial, colonial project. Things like the Asian exclusionary act, created Asian sexuality (at least as far as it was created/ perpetuated within the American consciousness) as absent. I find the Asian erotic body discussion to be fascinating, mostly because of the association with age: this whole idea that mostly white friends of mine have mulled over that Asian skin ages in a different way. You know that book French Women Don’t Get Fat? It was big. Well there was another one called Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat. Basically that’s what I’m talking about. So you have this cyborgian idea of the continent, think of how Asian skin care products are marketed, how a prominent feature of contemporary urban Asian cities is this gender-bending, youthful, pop culture. Still very Americanized, in a certain way, which reflects how America is lived and felt much more outside its national territories than inside. Or even how a certain body bending is an Oriental construction and this is consumed through American culture.

AM It is becoming very apparent in fashion, too, and music, such as k-pop, the Asian male is appearing in global culture as a new body to be looked at. Like here in the Khaleej, in which you find this charged befriending between Khaleejis and Asian bodies; this obviously starting with Japanese fetishism of the Khaleej but now expanding to an overall Asianness concept of the continent, also extending out to Asian Islam and concepts of futurity, as those experienced in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

RK I think it’s also important here to note the difference between being religious conservative and being traditional. There is a sizable Muslim diaspora in the West that may not adhere to the ethnic traditions of their grandparents but may perhaps maintain a religious conservative attitude. This is not the case for young Asians, the traditions or cultural practices they have inherited are perfectly compatible with contemporary secular life. There’s no doctrine. As for the Asian guy, he’s everywhere. Right now, he’s the man on the moon! Sharp. Fast. He could also be the melancholic hero, slumped in a dingy room somewhere, skinny like you said. This scene works beautifully with the French mal du siecle romantic nineteenth century literary protagonist. I love that. I once had a conversation with a friend about how Simpsonwave music was contemporary day mal du siecle. Have you seen those Youtube videos with a single frame of Lisa Simpson crying in her bed with those really heartbreaking vaporwave tracks.

There’s something very manly about sadness too don’t you think? Did you ever see Sam Taylor Wood’s Cyring Men series? I guess the idea is that it takes great courage to cry when you’re a man. It’s all either very sad or sexy, that’s the range, like David Beckham, with perfumes, and beautiful bodies and nice things. That sweetness allows for erotics etc. My vision for it is all perverted. It’s psychotic, singular, driven, hungry, eye on the prize. No time for romance. Fuck romance.


P.s. in thinking further about the Gulf Bionic, this is always relevant:

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