BMCR 2001.12.07

Staging Masculinity: The Rhetoric of Performance in the Roman World

, Staging masculinity : the rhetoric of performance in the Roman world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 1 online resource (ix, 271 pages).. ISBN 9780472023202. $49.50.

Eighteenth century Americans devoured oratorical handbooks as voraciously as they ate hasty pudding. Training in eloquence, they believed, granted powers of persuasion, refined the vulgar, and made a fine competency test of membership in the sovereign body of the people. “Language most shewes a man,” Ben Jonson had written in 1622, “speake, that I may see thee…No glasse renders a mans forme or likenesse so true to his speech.” But as Theseus laments in the Hippolytus, a man’s soul is not stamped upon his forehead, and speech is the vehicle of lies. In their effort to formulate a “pure” political rhetoric for the Revolution and beyond, colonial speakers found a useful performance model in the ideal marriage of sincerity and artfulness described in the rhetorical texts of ancient Rome. Patrick Henry’s popular “high-wrought yet natural” style (his cry “give me liberty or give me death!” was patterned after a line from Addison or Voltaire) embodied the Ad Herennium‘s advice to “make everything seem straight from the heart” (2.37). The problem, of course, is that this advice about cultivating surfaces of sincerity sits very uneasily with the ancient and early modern conviction that “as a man speaks, so he is.”

This is the kind of internal contradiction that Erik Gunderson (G.) untangles in Staging Masculinity. A shrewd and innovative study of Roman theories of oratorical performance from the Ad Herennium to Lucian, its concern is the relationship between performance and gender: specifically, the Roman handbook’s ingenuous and ingenious promise to help its reader learn to stage his masculinity—or rather, “masculinity”—through proper training in public speech. (G. spares us the scare quotes, as will I, but his anti-essentialist convictions are an important part of the book’s deep argument.) Ancient readers seeking to make themselves a clean copy of Roman masculinity confront an enigma, what V. S. Naipaul calls (speaking of his youthful attempt to enter western culture) the “enigma of arrival”: like acculturation, manliness is a job that’s never finished. Worse, the task is always already impossible. How does one arrive at what’s supposed to be natural in the first place? The aristocratic masculinity “acquired” through training turns out to stand in a highly problematic relation to authenticity, the authenticity that masculinity needs to press its claim of “natural” superiority over women and unmanly men.

G. is highly sensitive to the way contingent social practices create and reinforce the hierarchical categories that societies are accustomed to conceive as natural. To him, the Roman rhetoricians are theorists of the body as an instrument of social mastery, and their handbooks’ prescriptions of elite speech and behavior apply far beyond the bounds of the spoken oration: they seek nothing less than to shape large-scale Roman conceptions of social space and everyone’s place in it. This is precisely the kind of approach that (I think) ancient rhetorical texts cry out for; and the sheer number of ideas G. articulates in the course of the book testifies to the strength and flexibility of his perspective. He knows ancient rhetorical theory inside and out, and his readings of Cicero and Quintilian are consistently insightful and useful. His focus on psychoanalysis as an analytic tool also adds something decidedly new to the mix of recent studies in ancient rhetoric and education. If in the end I found his Freudian and Lacanian arguments the least persuasive in the book, I remain intrigued by the challenge they represent, both to my views of Roman rhetoric and to my own theoretical allegiances.

G.’s interests are not limited to psychoanalysis, but take shape from the work of a broad set of theorists who explore the question of personal identity or subjectivity and its worldly ways and means: Freud, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler (appearing in that order in the Introduction, pp. 3-28). By the end of the first chapter, he has built an interesting, persuasive case for reading Roman rhetorical texts as the classical equivalent of contemporary high theory, on the grounds that both texts share a self-conscious interest in the connections between performance, reading, writing, social codes, and identity formation.

Chapters 1 and 6 begin and end the book with the relations of textuality and lived experience, that is, between texts about performance and performing bodies. Can written texts, frozen in time, hope to capture the essence of the summus orator, bound up as it is with the orator’s real-time mastery of his body? This is a clever way to pose the question, because discomfort about it is evident in the texts. No rhetorician much likes to talk about the fine points of physical delivery. The writer of the Ad Herennium stresses the necessity of practical training (3.27); Cicero worries his discussion of rhythm will make him sound like a professional teacher ( Orator 140). A sociological reading might explain this by saying that an elite man like Cicero tries to avoid any whiff of the “knowledge for cash” transaction that taints the ludus. He prefers the tirocinium fori, or apprenticeship of the forum, where the student learns “naturally” from his (unpaid) elite superiors and where a closed system of personal networking automatically bars admission to the general public. G. rightly believes that this kind of reading is useful as far as it goes but ignores a crucial part of the problem. Rhetorical texts are texts, he reminds us, and their textual nature necessarily shapes their self-described function in the social world (13, 29). Their unwillingness to talk about delivery arises out of a deeper problem in the relations between text and body: it is a “point of crisis” (34).

Here and throughout the book G. sets out to show how rhetorical texts are at once propped up and undermined by internal paradox and instability. The pattern emerges most clearly in Roman rhetorical texts’ descriptions of the speaking body. These map out what promise to be precise taxonomies of the body, from gesture and facial expression to intonation and toga draping. However, the virtually limitless extent to which it is possible to describe the body, as well as changes in body standards over time, make the taxonomic project impossible to complete. G. believes the rhetoricians’ assumption of their impossible task bespeaks their troubled awareness of treating performance—a necessary yet contingent, unpredictable practice—as the locus of the elite man’s masculine identity and social dominance. Further, he says, the relation between Quintilian’s text and his reader is fraught with problems: the student must bring his imperfect knowledge of performance to an imperfect text that imperfectly represents an imperfect performance. All this ensures that the task of rhetorical training never ends. There will always be more body parts to scrutinize, more gestures to discipline. The rhetorician “becomes entangled in regulation that is always inclined to become over-regulation” (44), and Quintilian and his fellow writers of “handbooks of the self” end up trying to shape the universe around oratory, making good oratorical practice the index of the vir bonus, the good man (54). In this stimulating view of the rhetorical text as a Derridean supplement, the rhetorician makes an unrealizable promise to bridge the gulf between the social forces that demand manliness and nature’s failure to meet that demand (45; also 15, 102). The chapter ends with a proleptic glance at Cicero’s De Oratore, which will emerge in Chapter 6 as a response (of a sort) to these problems.

In Chapters 2 and 3, G. examines how the textual tensions mapped out earlier relate to the rhetorician’s prescriptions for bodily and mental self-government. Answering the crisis of textuality (and other pressures) forces Cicero and Quintilian to label as unmanly and vicious those potential selves and bodies that fail to meet their exemplary standards. But here a paradox emerges since writing accounts of these bodies means allowing them into the discourse of masculinity. Vile bodies end up proliferating in the very text that is supposed to keep them out. To enhance the authority and legitimacy of the properly trained speaker’s body, the rhetorician has to “discover” that body as an ideal fusion of matter and soul, a self-knowing entity organized with precise obedience to conventional beliefs about left and right, up and down, straight and crooked, wet and dry, rough and smooth (75-85). G. reads Cicero’s and Quintilian’s efforts to distinguish their teaching from other, improper types of training against the work of Foucault, Bourdieu and Butler on the body and the production of social truth—a rewarding interpretation, though some patience is required to untangle it (60-73). He does not lose sight of the fact that against these virtuous bodies, the seductively soft, erotic, effeminate body still beckons; this is the theme of Chapters 4 and 5.

Given the ethical problems involved in “acting” one way or the other, G. asks, does the oratorical performance of masculinity call into question masculinity’s authenticity? Chapter 4 dissects the significance of the rhetoricians’ appropriation and simultaneous rejection of the skilled dramatic actor as a model for the good man. Rhetoric, he argues, conceals its reliance on other discourses, especially drama and philosophy, in order to claim sole responsibility for the social reproduction of masculinity. The orator’s self-knowledge is a “knowledge of a secure and stable center from which the actors have been banished” (137). Along the way, G. develops a compelling explanation of the obsessive quality of rhetorical handbooks’ lists and descriptions of bodies and styles, designed, he says, as a hostile foreclosure of the “revolutionary possibilities” of performance that Judith Butler’s work explores (117). Another thread developed toward the end of the chapter analyzes the orator’s gaze as a function of the Oedipus complex (140-48) and of the Lacanian spectatorship of the self (145-47).

Chapter 5 turns to the pleasure given by oratory, and considers how it threatens to disrupt the rhetorician’s fantasy of masculinity. The texts under consideration here are two of Lucian’s essays, Praeceptor Rhetorum and Somnium. Their common theme of choice (the Choice of Heracles and Lucian’s choice of career) establishes the student’s choice of oratorical style as bound up with his choice of erotic pleasures—in a sense, his choice of a body. The project of oratorical education has “completely collapsed into a sexual one” (178), and again, the student must choose the path characterized by hardness, toughness, violence, and mastery, lest he become a “nightmarish” self, flaccid, feminine, and foreign. The chapter has a lot to say along the way, but the themes of the book as a whole emerge very clearly under satire’s literalizing gaze.

This is a limited survey of a book that obviously defies easy summary, and it must be said that its challenge does not lie in topical complexity alone. G. himself acknowledges in a closing apologia that his style is difficult (226), and readers will probably agree, perhaps especially with an eye on his discussions of psychoanalytic and performative theory. Though G. compares reading theory to learning a new language (“it is worth the trouble to understand the meaning of both phallogocentrism and ingenium,” vii), his book’s difficulty seems at least partly due to insufficient signposting and a certain willingness to allow repetition to stand in for clarity. It’s not easy to determine the relevance of the book’s many theoretical detours: some turn out to be central, others not. G.’s critique of Bourdieu’s erasure of textuality and his celebration of Butler’s theory of queer performance, to name two important contributions, could (and should) have been brought into better harmony with his larger arguments. Having said this, I want to stress again the virtues of G.’s approach, which is immensely stimulating: the points of contact that he uncovers between ancient and contemporary theory reveal Roman rhetorical writings’ keen awareness of the power of performance and of theory’s crucial yet problematic role in disposing that power. Before concluding, I’ll consider more closely one of G.’s central claims, the scene of “crisis” in Chapters 1 and 6, in order to give a better sense of what his analysis looks like, and to pinpoint a problem in it.

The crisis consists in the supplementarity of the rhetorical text, the fact that it is both a necessary cura for aristocratic masculinity and insufficient for it at the same time, masculinity being a putative essence of natura. The rhetorician’s tendency to over-regulate the speaking body, and to claim over-regulation as constitutive of aristocratic, manly subjectivity, can never really resolve the crisis. In the end, the handbook must “deny for the most part that the problem even exists; make writing into presence and presence into writing” (50). Cicero’s De Oratore is such an exemplary text (55-7). Cicero knows that good men are not born from rules, which is why he refuses to construct such a list in his late work (the handbook-style De Inventione is a product of his youth). In Chapter 6, G. argues that De Oratore‘s dialogue form and dramatic characterizations produce what looks to be a “description, salvation, and successful reproduction of the Roman order” (190). Yet Cicero’s mature attempt to transcend the Quintilianic-type handbook ends up simply raising the bar of self-mastery. Cicero sets an even more impossible task than Quintilian does: to imagine, and then master, the apparatus of aristocratic domination “in its full splendor,” an apparatus defined in part through its freedom from written rules. Like the texts discussed in earlier chapters, De Oratore is shown to invoke the masochistic language of uncertainty and impossibility; the Roman man’s subjectivization remains haunted and incomplete (220). In other words, the student has arrived at an impasse.

But has he? G. seems exactly right to point out that the problems of staging masculinity are part of the fantasy of masculinity, a citadel of the self that is never completely safe from hostile attack or internal decay. Whether the endlessness of the staging process actually succeeds in destabilizing masculinity is a different question altogether. G. tends to assume rather than argue this point. “[T]he endless process of training and threats of failure make the category vir bonus fundamentally unstable…[B]y making the body a problem…, his own arguments destabilize the centered subject” (69, cf. 89, 147, 222).

A fuller account appears in his discussion, in Chapter 3, of Demosthenes’ exemplary exercises of performative self-mastery (described in Quintilian and Plutarch). The orator declaims to the pounding waves in order to inure himself to the roar of the Athenian crowd; he builds a subterranean cave where he shaves half his head, to restrain himself from going out in public; he scrutinizes his delivery in a silver mirror. In a characteristically close and subtle reading, G. interprets the account as a reiteration of his book’s central theme: these descriptions hammer home the message that achieving authentic masculinity is impossible; even isolation and constant practice, though necessary, are never enough. From there, via Lacan, he argues that the hostile suspicion with which Demosthenes and the Demosthenes-like orator monitor themselves fatally undermines the calm self-mastery that the process of training is intended to bestow. Further, the process of imitation itself is flawed. Mirrors like the one in Demosthenes’ cave produce images in reverse, so Demosthenes sees a left hand (the use of which was supposed to be strictly limited in performance) when he is actually gesturing with his right. In his own eyes, watching his image in the mirror, the orator always appears to be making mistakes, mistakes that prompt him aggressively to correct himself. G. suggests that the rhetorical text is like the mirror: full of unsettling representations of erring bodies, in pieces, not wholes, out of which the reader must try to reconstruct an entirety in constant conflict with itself, an entirety that he is constantly reminded is impossible to achieve in any case (103-104). “Only by a thorough and continuous self-mastery [can] one succeed in being what one is” (100), but the orator ends up with “a subjectivity that is anxious about the very question of the subject” (110). Here is a compelling picture of the confused self-hostility that marks the elite subject of rhetorical training, and it convincingly explains why that subject learns contempt and hostility toward others who do not participate in his project of self-making; but again, the connection between anxiety and the collapse of “masculinity” or even “subjectivity” remains unclear.

Not only is this subjectivity chimerical, G. thinks, but the quest for it is horrifying. Rhetorical training enacts a “wounding of the soul” that is intended not to heal, like a “ritual scarification”; the would-be man must keep “busy with his wound, staving off danger while never truly escaping the threat” of unmanliness, femininity, and disempowerment (110). The orator exists in a tormented state, in this view, not only because he is only an imitator in a world that loves authenticity, but because his imitation of virtue must ruthlessly exclude any traces of the foreign, the feminine, the pleasurable—the very potential of a whole self. The manly aristocratic self is “always almost grounded by its own performance, but always also stuck in the process of becoming” (222). It is hard to know to what kind of subjectivization this last sentence does not apply. The sinister aspect of the aristocratic discourse of masculinity-training, as I see it, lies in the way it paints its pilgrim’s progress as the only virtuous path, whereas every other group’s process of identity formation is written off as vicious, limited by nature, by ethnic character, by poverty, and so forth. G. acknowledges this effect many times (e.g. 62, 85, 109, 220); but (problematically in my view) his stress falls on the inevitability of masculinity’s destabilization.

Readers will have guessed by now that they will want to reach their own conclusions. And so they should. By reading the theoretical texts of Rome and modernity in tandem, G. has produced an unusual and provocative work, packed with insights into texts that classical scholarship has until recently largely overlooked. His book will interest anyone eager to think hard about Roman rhetoric, performance, identity, or constructions of gender.