A colleague reports to me that, in one of her lectures, a young fellow began his intervention with the following preface: ‘Speaking as someone who presents as a man…’
What are we to make of this?
It is tempting to make fun of it. In the circumstances, he could just as informatively have said, ‘Speaking as someone who presents as white…’ or ‘Speaking as someone who presents as having tattoos…’ or, for that matter, ‘Speaking as someone who presents as sitting in the third row….’
I need to point out that he was (I am told) not someone who ‘presents as a man’ in any sense in which that phrase is illocutionarily happy. He wasn’t, for instance, a cross-dresser, or transgendered, or a male-looking intersexual. He was a just an ordinary white man (more exactly, a teenager), with visible tattoos, sitting in the third row.
The suggestion been put to me that he may have been trying to demonstrate a special kind of woke-ness. He was showing his awareness that gender roles are partly constituted by self-presentation. But it is a bit hard to suppose that this would have come as news to anyone in that class, or even outside it. Can there be anyone left, even among the bad guys, who does not know that manhood is partly constituted by, and in, the presentation of self? (‘Man up!’, ‘Be a man!’, ‘What kind of man are you?’) And since everyone knows this it seems odd to make such a grandiose gesture in support of the obvious, especially in a university.
A different suggestion is that he may have been trying to undermine, by affirming with irony, the epistemic authority of men. The ‘speaking as’ locution is often used in the first person to claim theoretical authority, i.e. the epistemic privilege of one’s own perspective, as in: ‘speaking as a woman…’ , ‘speaking as a Jew…’ ‘speaking as a professor…’ So the boy’s preface could have been meant as an ironic, post-modernising riff on male-authority claims. Not, ‘speaking as a man’ (=> ‘I know these things!’), but speaking as someone who so presents and, in drawing attention to that presentation, thereby implicitly undermining patriarchal authority. How? If all there is to a man’s perspective is what follows from man-presentation, then people will come to see that those who so present don’t have any real authority. What sort of epistemic authority could come from presentation alone? If I want to know how things stand in string theory, I will ask a theoretical physicist—but I’ll stay away from someone who says he ‘presents as a theoretical physicist’. I won’t even go to him if I’m wondering what life is like as a theoretical physicist. For all I know he may mean that he just plays one on TV. If any epistemic privilege comes with that position, is the privilege of an actor, not of a physicist.
There is a further catch. Part of what it is to be a man, in our culture, is to not affirm or imply that manhood is achieved solely by or in presentation. To put it loosely, a boy who prefaces his interventions with, ‘speaking as someone who presents as a man’ raises the suspicion, in that very preface, that he is not really (or not yet) a man. For it is unmanly to self-consciously present as a man. And if one is not yet a man but hopes to become one, there is a lot more work to be done than hedging one’s remarks with reference to a man’s perspective. That suggests the intervention under scrutiny may have rested on a false presupposition about our concept of ‘a man’, namely, that presenting makes things so. But because that is so obviously false, no one was likely to count against the authority of men the lesser, or different, status of someone who merely ‘presents as’ a man, i.e. who is not a ‘real man’. The other guys in the lecture, on hearing his remark, were unlikely to blossom into self-reflection, ‘OMG—that’s me too, a mere presentation, a performance!’ More likely they thought, ‘WTF—him again.’ If so, male authority probably emerged unscathed.
So maybe we should revise the account. Perhaps the interventional preface was intended by the boy only to disown his own manhood and any claim to authority that might come with that. His point was not so much social as personal: ‘I hereby choose not to speak as a man [which I am], but instead as one who merely so presents.’ I am not so sure, however, that one gets to speak as a man-presenter just by uttering prefaces like that. (It would have been interesting to know what transgendered students in class thought of his intervention. Would they have thought it enough to permit him to speak as, or with, them? I have my doubts.)
Offhand, my feeling is that even the purely personal explanation is deficient. It is clear that although most social roles involve the presentation of self, few are wholly constituted by self-presentation. That is why a white woman cannot just ‘present herself’ into being black, and why—a fact that now causes much personal misery and conflict—a male cannot just ‘present himself’ into being a woman.
But this point goes deeper. By the same token, one cannot just ‘present oneself’ into actually presenting oneself. That is to say, there are also social criteria for a particular performance to count as a presentation of self. When the artist Greyson Perry dresses as his alter-ego Claire (below) he is not presenting as a woman, not only because he is not trying to pass, and not only because he is failing to pass, but because Claire’s outfits and speech do not even amount to self-presentations. They are performance art.
So I am now thinking, with some sadness, that the boy in the lecture hall not only failed to undermine patriarchal authority, and failed to disown his own masculinity, he did not even manage to present as a (‘real’) man. Perhaps he succeeded in presenting as the sort of white college kid with tattoos who goes around saying ‘I speak as someone who presents as a man.’ I guess that too is a kind of performance art.
I am not denying the urgent need for change in our damaging concepts of masculinity (and femininity), nor am I pessimistic about the prospects for change. It is a question of ways and means. We can change these concepts and, to the extent that our selves are constituted by them, we can change our selves. But we cannot simply ‘present’—let alone think—ourselves into personal, social, or conceptual change. That is why Marx wrote, ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. He did not write, ‘the point is to change it by doing philosophy’. And were Marx with us today, I am sure he would say that self-conscious self-presentation is about as effective in producing real social change as what he, somewhat unfairly, dismissed as ‘philosophy’.