MAN AT A THRESHOLD
There is a photograph of a grown man in a dimly lighted doorway. There he stands, to the left of the frame, peering into the bright world beyond. He is tall, even towering, and yet, because of the darkness that shrouds him, he has become equivocal. A doorway will do this to one – hold one in midfield, between worlds, darkness and light, night and day. For me, this particular photograph in Margot Muir’s series titled ‘Masculinities; and the confining expanding vivid world’, sums up a more complex equivocation regarding the fate of Man, of men, today. No longer the unbridled apogee of power - breadwinner, hunter, father, king – Man, as a definitional trope of order, now finds its role or purpose waning, so that now we find ‘a progressively smaller part of its visible surface illuminated, so that it appears to decrease in size’. This, of course, is the energy-field that informs Muir’s photograph of the man in the doorway – a figure of power, pinched at the left of the frame, oddly cramped despite the immensity of his presence, perhaps trapped, certainly irresolute. Then again, this is what all photographs surely do – they contain, frame, contextualise, inhibit, fix. Photographs formulate. As to their meaning and intention? This is the job of the photographer, in this case Margot Muir, who, despite the objectifying nature of portrait photography, resists any restrictive assignment of focus or intention. Instead, as in the case of the man in the doorway, it is a latent drama that emerges, a story as vignette, some compressed detail, that stays.
If the doorway possesses a particular potency, it is because of its liminality. It is not only a point between worlds, but, as threshold, it also signifies ‘the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested’ – nothing happens until the signal passes the threshold. Indeed, all photographs, given they are framed, can be said to be caught at a threshold, their self-presence always precarious, caught always between being and extinction, apparency and nothingness, and, as such, deeply vulnerable. However, in the case of Muir’s series on ‘Masculinities’, this existential fate of photography has found its correlate in a charged account of a particular gender which, perhaps for the first time in history – certainly since the diminishment of matriarchal culture and muscle many millennia past – now emerges as a palpably uncertain category. That the Canadian philosopher, Jordan Peterson, should come into great prominence today, has everything to do with the waning of masculinity, or, rather, the greater need to ‘correct’ its domineering agency.
Jordan Peterson’s counter is that masculinity need not be ‘toxic’, that the aggregation of its role and purpose in society need not be seen as punitive or exclusionary – that men form part of a complex social choreography, indeed, a dance, which, if checked unwittingly, risks an epistemic and existential imbalance. It is men, Peterson reminds us, who are ‘working in the sewers; they’re up on the power lines in the storms ad rain’. Men ‘often literally work themselves to death’ in the service of others. True, a romantic glow, together with pathos, is typically attached to these otherwise thankless occupations. Better to lash oneself to a ship’s mast and behold a storm – the myth that surrounds William Turner, painter of tempests – but man’s relation to the elements is far more brutal and unforgiving. What Peterson strives to readjust is the tendency of those, cloistered by comfort and righteousness, who choose to diminish men’s purpose. He is neither sentimental nor dogmatic in this volatile regard.
This, too, is the vantage point of Margot Muir. Her series – another addresses the role and fate of women – is designed to coax a dilemma rather than to fix it. Her men peer atop of desks, while adrift in a room, in a doorway, without any declarative resolve – they do not stake a claim, embody no puffery. It is terribly ironic, given the noise concerning ‘toxic masculinity’, that ‘no one cares about the men who fail’. Peterson is just. We forget the invisible yet constitutive role of men, the banality of the work to which they are more often put, preferring to be outraged by the discrepancy between men and women in the higher rank of society. But what of Marlon Brando’s brilliant performance in Streetcar Named Desire, the hapless downtrodden working man who exacts what little power he possesses, his vengeance-rage-impotency, within the confines of his home? My point? That no picture of men can be other than slanted. My further point? That Muir’s take prefers to reveal the paradoxical complexity of men’s being – their deportment, disposition, hesitancies, joys, ordinary pleasures – in short, men’s humanity.
As Peterson reminds us, ‘You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are too complex to understand yourself.’ This astute view, at odds with the Socratic and Kantian belief, Know thyself, reveals to us the vulnerability of being, and, more importantly, the realisation that it is one’s actions, one’s deeds, that best comprise the truth of being. Peterson’s view also contests the Cartesian Cogito – I think therefore I am – because he refuses the acculturated view, consolidated in the putatively ‘enlightened’ 18th century; a view which, today, finds itself increasingly enfeebled, given the insufficiency of binary thinking, pat dualisms, exclusionary values. In fact, as Pankaj Mishra reminds us, ours is an ‘age of anger’ in which ‘reason is doomed’. This realisation lies at the core of Peterson’s recalibration of predictive views of men. It is also central to Muir’s belief in action as manifest thought, the photographic image as the index of being as performance, as an invocation. This is why her men are never parenthetically contained, why their irresolution is constructive. For what Muir, like Peterson, understands, is that no ideological intervention, no politically correct stance – in this case the supposed toxicity of men – can ever override the simple fact that ‘everything you value is a product of unimaginably lengthy developmental processes, personal, cultural, biological’
‘To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order’. For the ideologues amongst us, this is a stereotypical view. Not so for Peterson or Muir. If Muir’s photographs tell us anything – and I don’t believe that a photograph’s greater purpose is to instruct – it is that human disposition is enacted – in T.S. Eliot’s case, a preparing of one’s face to meet the faces one meets – and, as such, always implicitly dramatic. In Muir’s case, that drama is quiet. No noise surrounds her photographs, no insertion of the photographer’s persona. Rather, in the manner, say, of the great 19th century novelist, George Eliot, Muir understands character as an unfolding.
In this regard, concerning the precarity of being, its poignant self-assertions, or the burdens which men assume, what Muir’s series on Masculinities primarily addresses are the unstated, often silenced, dimensions of men’s lives. In this crucial regard, her vision of men, her entire oeuvre, is markedly different to that of another South African photographer, Zanele Muholi, whose visions of womxn all too cloyingly feels illustrative, trope-like, or typological. This is not the place to further provoke this distinction. Muir needs no comparison. However, what can and must be said is that she best understands human fragility, and her take on fragility is invariably disarming – Muir does not tell you what to think, but what to feel, intuit.
In another photograph, in this case of a young boy at a threshold – the son of the man with whom I began this reflection – it is not a clouded or imperceptible scene that we see. No hesitancy is in evidence, no self-doubt, no gravity born of years, but, rather, a fulsome innocence. The boy, who possess as powerful a physique as the father, is dressed in a t-shirt, shorts, socks. The last detail is especially telling – recalling a young Tom Cruise gliding along a polished floor – because it reveals just how self-assured the boy is, despite the infinite comedy affixed to socks. In his hands he holds a football – he has just been made the captain of the team – and, again, it is the ease with which he controls the object. Wholly in place, assured, confident, he embodies the great promise of life. His gender, while stridently in evidence, is a dimension of a greater anticipation of life’s bounty.
In a sense, Muir’s photographs of father and son serve as bookends, though, of course, the span of human life can never be so easily resolved. Then again, if a photograph possesses a frame, so does an essay. This one was always leaning towards a juxtaposition of a father and son, seniority and youth, a complex self-assertion and an unbridled vigour. As Peterson concludes, Men assume ‘the burden of self-conscious vulnerability … accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God…)’. Here we arrive at life as an act of faith, an act that must forego in order to advance, for innocence must be sloughed if mortality is to be truly embraced. And yet, despite the shift away from the ‘paradise’ of childhood, which the young boy in the photograph embodies, it does not mean that one gives up all aspirational yearning. On the contrary, if being is processual, perpetually enacted, never set in adamantine muscle, this is because we remain ever searching. This is the implicit assumption I make when I look at the man in the doorway, the man at a threshold. Therein, darkness is made visible, therein beauty and strength are enshrined – gentleness too.