The Queer Psychoanalysis Society

Bend It Like Bex, Flex It Like Barts: Contemporary Metrosexuality and Its Pursuit of the Fabulous

In Art, film, Gender Studies, Lacan, LGBT, Masquerade, Performativity, Politics, Queer Theory, The End of Heterosexuality? on May 28, 2014 at 8:59 am

The second in our on-going series on “The End of Heterosexuality?”
Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.35.47 PM

by Michael Angelo Tata 


for 12 Pack

12 Pack Takes Over  (photo via

12 Pack Takes Over (photo via

Introduction: Narcissus Blinked (#sorrynotsorry)       

Selfie Wars take no prisoners: and so it is with vibrant male display in mind in the grand age of reality stardom that I offer the following series of reflections on what the metrosexual has done to interrupt a certain domination of the surface by homosexual culture in general, broken up into four installments, a tetraptych to be displayed at an impossible memorial ceremony where mourning and melancholia cross wires like so much spaghetti thrown against the wall just to see if it will stick, proof that the apartment was always a rental. In the first, printed here, immediately after this preface, and in direct physical contact with it, as if that matters (it might, actually), I trace out the rough contours of a fashion history that has left men in the dust in order clarify why exactly the metrosexual should arrive as such a surprise on the scene of display, where he seems to abjure both heterosexual and homosexual orthodoxies, making the future of each unclear, muddled and completely vulnerable to apocalypse. In the second, I gaze upon more recent history—and yet years that seem to have slipped so far and so quickly into oblivion, now that time has accelerated even beyond the spaciotemporal compression initially postulated by David Harvey in his analysis of postmodern culture and that Husserlian Internal Time Consciousness, a phenomenological mainstay, has become just another bone in the Pomo Reliquary—to examine what Gianni Versace has contributed to male efflorescence and in particular how he has clothed the whore so that his eventual disappearance will be more meaningful within the context of these struggles over aesthetic ownership (for in the end, not everyone owns male display—others are owned by it, or find themselves disowned completely, dissed and alone).

Next, in the third panel, if I may be permitted to stick with the poltytych metaphor from classical devotional painting, which seems entirely apt, I examine seminal aesthetician Edmund Burke’s ideas about the external features of the beautiful and the sublime so that the stakes of metrosexual reversal as the sublime becomes beautiful in a species of metaphysical makeover are spelled out clearly: the shift is not benign, and might even be described as tactical, assuming aesthetics is a war, which it might very well be, if entomology and ornithology have taught us anything and if the human experience is not such a radical break with nature as we might initially have fancied back at the start of Enlightenment thinking (it’s no accident that the typical Sadean justification of sexual violence is always that nature is cruel). Lastly, the final section of my lyric evocation introduces future mourning into the discussion, as it attunes itself to the affinity of fashion for the corpse and looks at the strange friendship the two entities share on both runway and street: for if every fashion stance is a commentary or gloss on death, then the metrosexual, too, must die, and be glossed, perhaps still remaining glossy, a creature most at home on the pages of a magazine or the charmed quadrilateral of the billboard, much like the Armani one famously perched along the elevated High Line Park in New York City, a metrosexual anchor. Assigning a value to that/these death(s) is imperative, for not every disappearance counts, much as we might wish it did: for to end and to stop denote different modes of cessation, as Arthur Danto has taught us in his writings about the famous End of Art: not every stop is an end, although every end stops (the trick is for the disaster to be world-historical).

Giorgio on the High Line (photo via

Giorgio on the High Line (photo via

In the end, I am treating metrosexuals just as so much theory has illustriously treated drag queens and kings: that is, as semiotic mysteries, strange places where biology gives way to the supernatural and we come to doubt the inexorability of our own givens. Can narcissism be doubted, though? Is the cogito lost in its own pattern of reflections a grounding narrative of the human experience, a primary occurrence of narcissism and one that will haunt philosophy as the horror story of its roots in a solipsism that is counterproductive at the core, to use the lingo of Deleuze and Guattari with respect to their famous Corps Sans Organes? Here, reflection means image as much as thought: a phantom presence emanating from the mirror’s tain along with thought coming to know itself through the medium of thought, a paradox that seems to place every idea and concept into jeopardy, including those related to the ego and its objectifications, specular externalizations of desire’s cloudy programmatic taking concrete form in an agora that is equally stage and page (paper, but supremely Web). Furthermore, the fact that I write these words from Miami Beach, Florida, must mean something: I will leave it up to my readers to determine my own situation among these debates based on the simple fact of geography and the promises a map can make—for where else would a piece such as this be written, except among beautiful, self-obsessed fashion creatures blissfully unaware of their own mortalities, in particular as they await the arrival of their international mentor, David Beckham, who famously plans to relocate to SOFL with his family? The metrosexuals might end heterosexuality as we have known it, but they also put the brakes on homosexuality, and I have every intention to concede graciously: they are really just New and Improved gay men, much as the ideal woman is a trannie, even if her uterus is only a dream wrapped in a hallucination. What these facts reveal about sexuality in general and its enchainment to a logic of visibility and expression is sketched out here, but can only be realized back out in the world, where identities are battled out every day and style is only occasionally a supermarket but is more often than not an abbatoir.

Michael Angelo Tata

Miami Beach 2014


I. Renouncing Renunciation: The M-to-M Revolution

Renunciation: Before and After (photo via coil

Renunciation: Before and After (photo via

The fin-de-millénaire phenomenon of metrosexuality is by far the most important mutation within heterosexual masculinity since the emergence of the middle class in the 18th century doomed straight men to a life of achromatic business attire fit for a funeral—the funeral of a certain concept of masculine display central to ethnology and psychoanalysis, as well the burial of a kind of puffery which according to evolutionary biology is located within primitive male brain structures associated with reptilian awareness.[1]

The Origins of Male Puffery? Meet Anolis carolinensis—Miami Native (photo via

The Origins of Male Puffery? Meet Anolis carolinensis—Miami Native
(photo via

Before what the fashion world heralded as “The Great Masculine Renunciation” banished the visual luridness of the pre-revolutionary aristocrat from masculinity proper, men were free to don regalia which would later become identified with femininity: powdered wigs, bold colors, and tight fabrics, not to mention more exotic gear, like the codpiece, the Artois shoe buckle, or the cape, items long since banished to the effulgences of pop music (the reprisal of the codpiece in the 80s by Cameo’s lead singer Larry Earnest Blackmon) or the chronicles of obesity (think: Dom DeLuise out on the town). Psychoanalyst John Carl Flügel in his influential Psychology of Clothes was the first to identify this closure as a post-Revolutionary aesthetic, a very real response to the emerging bureaucracy which would be the true legacy of the Être Supreme and French Republican Calendar, as the emergent middle class created the workaday world in the image of sobriety, consistency and reproducibility—ideas he attempted to challenge through his co-founding of the Men’s Dress Reform Party in 1929, an organization whose mission was to counter the “ascetic reaction-formation” which has suppressed male narcissism, and to rehabilitate male fashion and corporeality in general. In his words:

At about that time there occurred one of the most remarkable events in the whole history of dress, one under the influence of which we are still living, one, moreover, which has attracted far less attention than it deserves: men gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and thereby making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation.’ Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful (111).

Thus in Flügel’s estimation, the French Revolution revolutionized not only society, but also gender, redefining maleness for a bourgeois world which now had to earn its way not through the inheritance of titles or a genetic connection to a Sun King, but instead through everyday labor that was largely administrative and demanded a suppression of the flagrant and the florid, the industrial world requiring the managerial prowess of nondescript worker bees to keep its motion perpetual.

Cameo Does Shakespeare (photo via

Cameo Does Shakespeare (photo via

By the time industrialism began to wane in the mid-twentieth century, the greatness of the Great Masculine Renunciation had taken two centuries of casualties, fashion victims in the sense that, deserting them, fashion had victimized them, leaving them without vibrancy, without variety and with a truncated identity. Having developed everything it could develop and having industrialized everything that could be industrialized, the largely informational society which resulted had even less use for an embellished masculinity, as so many workers became ‘managers’ and pencil-pushers. As described by Daniel Bell in his influential The Coming of Post-industrial Society, this social structure reorganized bits and bytes, its employees floating paper and tapping at keys within the homogenized beige cubes of space which came to constitute the physicality of the business world, a place where the male physique would not need to be muscle-bound or physically massive since nothing weighty needed to be done. For both industrial and post-industrial societies, the men orchestrating and managing it had to tone down the excesses endemic to an aristocratic manhood revolutionized out of existence in the interest of capital, which demanded a certain neutrality and interchangeability, adhering to a principle that, truly, any man could be any man, just as every commodity could be exchanged for every commodity. For these social moments, the proletarian, long alienated from vivid display and accustomed to not affording variegation—for example, as with the history of an expensive synthetic dye like fuchsin and its use for pricy garments in the 19th century, differentiation is not always available to just anyone—was not receptive to the ecstatic display rejected by the burgeoning middle class, leaving this impulse nowhere to go but in the direction of estivation.[2] Industrialism had no use for it, and neither did post-industrialism—at least not yet. For these men and their respective renunciations, all of them “great” and “masculine,” costume was truly radical in and of the ornamentation it rejected and the uniformity it fostered, as well as the globalism and universalism it both presupposed and crafted in its adherence to a male subjectivity identified with permanence, classicism and stability. A Magrittan dream of bowler hats and crisp lapels, these men were visually nondescript, the general equivalence central to capital demanding a corresponding equivalence within masculinity, which after the guillotine was charged with creating men divorced from ostentation as well as from the singularity of brash individualism.

It’s Raining Men: Post-revolutionary Downpour (image via

It’s Raining Men: Post-revolutionary Downpour (image via

Straight (and not-so-straight) men since the French Revolution have certainly had their share of feminine moments, as the history of the macaroni in the 18th century and the dandy in the 19th century have demonstrated and as any portrait of Beau Brummell radiates, despite his claims to a less ornamental masculinity. In addition, there have been little coups along the way, many not without their gains. The decadent British Victorian culture of Charles Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley espoused its own critique of the limitations of male renunciation, particularly with regard to Wilde’s promulgation of “Aesthetic Dress,” while a century later and a continent away, the polyester culture of the 1970s American disco generation, as permanently etched on cultural consciousness by John Travolta and his Saturday Night Fever ensemble, gave men the leeway to get in touch with their softer sides (for Travolta, through the ironically fierce and highly masculinized competitiveness of disco culture). While moments such as these, diverse and chronologically distant as they are, have been refreshing and inspiring, it is primarily the metro who has brought to fruition Flügel’s dream by reconciling male body and fashion, putting forth a brutal aesthetic of male beauty involving body as much as clothing, albeit by modeling himself on the homosexual male, developing an attitude toward display which is part innovation, yet mostly coöptation (in fact, its innovativeness is that it coopts). Unlike the Victorian dandy or disco stud, the metro, this creature on our microscope slide, is not tinged with homosexual phantasm in quite the same way, his sexual preference for the opposite sex not coming into question as viciously or as vehemently, although pointed interrogatives do arise: for him, the excessiveness of display is a masculine and straight challenge through and through, his enlightenment permitting him to cull from gay men with whom he is at best merely confraternal the choicest aspects of their visages and torsos for his own repurposing, thereby granting Flügel his wish of a re-charged male body clothed in the fluxions of temporality.[3] Whether he is “sub”-cultural in the strictest Hebdigian sense remains to be determined, as it is not clear if he survives as mutation within homosexuality, and is hence parasitic upon it, or if he pinches off from the gay subculture he emulates to do his own thing in another stratum: what exactly will sociology do with this creature who, if we take his name seriously, derives his sexuality and sexual identity from the metropolis, who himself becomes a metropolis of postures and poses? Does it matter which cage we use to contain him, how we draw the boundaries of this ideal city?

Taking a cue from the homosexual paradigm of what in America was called the Chelsea Boy and which achieved popularity in the mid- to late nineties and best described by Michelangelo Signorile in journalistic exposés like his Life Outside, the metrosexual learned the lesson of identifying with his surfaces well, being a more than apt pupil at the mystery of becoming two-dimensional.

South Beach Body Stress  (photo via

South Beach Body Stress (photo via

Here, the “ecstasy of communication,” as Baudrillard has formulated the concept critical to postmodern theory, demands not so much the cramming of semantics into one flat channel that can’t possibly contain it, yet miraculously does, but rather the collapse of subjectivity into the dimension of the surface, which, whether we take it as matte or glossy, causes psyche to burst at the seems and reel with pleasure at the pains of its enclosure (hyperrealism, as opposed to surrealism). Ultimately, the look and lifestyle of the Chelsea Boy reached a crisis point through the fragmented and failed glamour of Andrew Cunanan, whose untimely murder of Gianni Versace in 1997 bespoke Cunanan’s own inability to become the Versace ideal for reasons equally socio-economic, ethnic and tychic: hence in Gary Indiana’s Three Month Fever he kills out of a fear of his immigrant roots and a loathing of his inability to be white and spoiled, while in Maureen Orth’s even more excoriating Vulgar Favors he is an obscene party monster milking the oldie circuit for a cachéthat will elude him ontologically and existentially.[4]

The Closing of Casa Casuarina: Neo-Permian Collapse (photo via

The Closing of Casa Casuarina: Neo-Permian Collapse (photo via

Post-Versace, the metros were free to take the Chelsea Boy look and aesthetic (one may argue even ethics) as their own. Cunanan killed not only Versace, but the culture accreting around him, leaving display ripe for the picking, as the pre-metro straight man learned to embrace worldiness and its many sumptuary signs, symbols and indications for the first time since an 80s flamboyance which recuperated fashion but left body largely untouched, had flowered. Within this context, the complaint of the diabolical yet aesthetically alive protagonist regarding the body of U2’s Bono during a concert appearance in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is hilariously apt:

But when I sit down something strange on the stage catches my eye. Bono has moved across the stage, following me to my seat, and he’s staring into my eyes, kneeling at the edge of the stage, wearing black jeans (maybe Gitano), sandals, a leather vest with no shirt beneath it. His body is white, covered with sweat, and it’s not worked out enough, there’s no muscle tone and what definition there might be is covered beneath a paltry amount of chest hair (Easton Ellis, 146).

Furthermore, like the disco aesthetic I have previously mentioned, the visual extremes of 80s masculinity that did not fall under the rubric ‘heterosexual camp’ (for example, the teased hair and aquamarine zebra Spandex associated with metal culture) did to some degree infuse hetero-masculinity with sexual dubiousness, a lush ambiguity which did not make it into the 90s but which, while it prevailed, produced the likes of Etienne Daho and France and Simon Le Bon in the UK as glorious artifacts of another time. Absorbing a worldview and cleaning it up enough to make it respectable, the metro, visually but not sexually gay, took on the Chelsea Boy’s project of self-beautification, turning himself into a trophy boy par excellence—and being straight, he could take the trophy relatively unchallenged, loving cup to his subversive love of a gay men he might nor might not identify as adelphos, but whom he might mine for ideas, attitudes and altitudes. Learning to live at the Pec Deck, tweak his eyebrows, wax his chest, and take on the smoothness that Edmund Burke connected with femininity proper and the pursuit of beauty it inspired, becoming expert at baking at the tanning salon and squeezing into designer jeans three sizes too small, the metrosexual took on the impetus of superficiality which had dominated the American homosexual aesthetic for so much of the nineties, making attention to appearance and narcissism his life’s work as he reintegrated body and fashion. What was appalling was how well he succeeded at philantia and its compulsory rituals of torsion, flexion, coloration, locomotion and gustation, even gestation, as one metro produced another in a dazzling string of “bros” and “bras” entering into autoerotic bromances where like and like acted synergistically.

King of the Metros + His Toy Boy (photo via dial

King of the Metros + His Toy Boy  (photo via


[1] In the standard Lacanian account, display is a manly affair, an effect of masquerade obscuring men’s lack of the phallus with a compensatory show. His “What Is a Picture?” is particularly clear on this point. In his words: “In the case of display, usually on the part of the male animal, or in the case of grimacing swelling by which the animal enters the play of combat in the form of intimidation, the being gives of himself, or receives from the other, something that is like a mask, a double, an envelope, a thrown-off skin, thrown in order to cover the frame of a shield. It is through this separated form of himself that the being comes into play in his effects of life and death, and it might be said that it is with the help of this doubling of the other, or of oneself, that is realized the conjunction from which proceeds the renewal of beings in reproduction” (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 107). As regards the R-complex, see Dorion Sagan’s “An Evolutionary Striptease” in his and Lynn Margulis’ Dazzle Gradually. According to Sagan, the R-complex dictates a certain puffery, causing male reptiles to take up the most space possible when confronting a rival. This structure remains in the human brain as a cerebral vestige, yet may still exert an influence on male display in humans, just as it has been shown to affect primate display behaviors. For example, experiments with the Anolis lizard have revealed the connection of the R-complex to the intense visuality of puffery. Specifically, when one hemisphere of the lizard’s stratial forebrain is damaged, and the lizard uses the eye connected to that hemisphere to regard a threatening rival, no display results. The case is quite different for the other eye, which connects with a healthy hemisphere: now, “[t]he reptile reacts with species-typical challenge or territorial displays: he pushes up with his feet, swells out his throat fan, and changes his position so that his imposing long side, his profile, is exposed to his rival. In a word, he makes himself big. The normal Anolis lizard with intact R-complex is like a man who puffs out his chest or stands over an adversary to get a psychological advantage. He is cold, predictable. You might even call him macho” (133).

[2] I examine the history of the dye fuchsin and its role in the inaccessibilities of visual variegation in my “Post-Proustian Glamour” (rhizomes.5). My point in mentioning the dye making possible for the first time a consumable fuchsia is that variety can be costly, something not everyone can afford, and as such a sign of wealth or aristocratic advantage (as purples were, for example, in Medieval Europe). As for proletarian display and its history, the tattoo commands further examination, especially as its inking ties to concepts of the body and the types of display it might be subjected to within a particular social class. It may even be argued that working class men took on the project of display during the years of the Great Masculine Renunciation, depending on how we interpret the tattoo and its showcasing of skin and muscle.

[3] I mention the concept of confraternity with an eye to Derrida’s use of the theme in his Politics of Friendship. For Derrida, the problem is that, if democracy relies upon a concept of fraternity, as the French Revolution has assured us it does, then those excluded from fraternity, such as the sister, find themselves excised from the order it instantiates, which is essentially a formalized brotherhood. How can we retain the concept of fraternity, yet make it less fraternal (some may argue more, perhaps most, fraternal)? Within masculinity itself, the problem becomes how we are to incorporate the homosexual male into the bonds of fraternity making democracy possible. This same problem haunts the transsexual more acutely: how can we create a fraternity of the transsexual, one uniting straight man with transgendered man? The most radical radical democracy, one beyond even Laclau and Butler, seems to demand this revision in the nature of the fraternal.

[4] Again, I think of Derrida—in this instance, of his adherence to the Aristotelian distinction between the automatic (mere chance) and the tychic (luck) drawn in his Physics. In his analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Counterfeit Money” in Given Time, Derrida allies fortune/tyché with nature, as it is the “fact of birth” (an Arendtian term I import from The Origins of Totalitarianism) which in the poem determines social station and the need for almsgiving and alms-receiving—in short, anything and everything involving social position. Outside the poem, Derrida’s point would be that, natural, fortune is essentially a given, yet another aspect of our thrownness with which we must contend. On a related note, see Jacques Lacan’s analysis of eu- and dys-tychia, or good and bad fortune, in his “Tuché and Automaton” (Four Fundamental Concepts).

About the Author

Michael Angelo Tata is the Executive Editor of the Sydney-based electronic journal of literature, art and new media nebu[lab] and a member of the editorial collectives of the journals Kritikos and rhizomes. His Andy Warhol: Sublime Superficiality arrived to critical acclaim from Intertheory Press in 2010. His lyric essays on poetics, psychoanalysis and philosophy appear most recently in the collections The Salt Companion to Charles Bernstein and Neurology and Modernity: A Cultural History of Nervous Systems, 1800-1950 as well as the British journal Parallax (Routledge). His poetry and graffiti are featured in the British journal Rattle and in the American journal Xanadu. He also writes reviews of contemporary Aesthetics titles for Temple University’s and Mount Holyoke College’s Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

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