Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Sexualized Nerds

I've been reading Daniel Boyardin's book Unheroic conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man.  He argues that our contemporary picture of sexuality arises from the Christian division of masculinity during the Middle Ages into the monk and the knight.  The knight is physical, strong, bold, gallant, and brave.  He is rewarded for his life of the body with romantic love, that is, he is the image of the sexually desirable male.  The monk, on the other hand, in devoting his life to the spirit and to study, is removed from the body and completely desexualized.  He is does not desire (or at least seeks to elevate himself above mere desire) and, more importantly, cannot be seen as an object for desire.  This picture, Boyardin contends, is -- to paraphrase Nietzsche -- rendered invisible because it has triumphed so completely.

But it is not the only picture out there.  Boyardin argues that the Jewish construction of masculinity in classical Talmudic times and in 17-19th century eastern Europe was completely different.  There it was the scholar, the skinny, sensitive, clever nerd who was the real husband bait.  Non-Jews, goyim, were big, strong oafs who were violent and drank too much.  Jewish men who were strong and physical were seen as inferior husbands and fathers.  Unlike the Christians, the Jews had sexualized their monks.

When the notions of heterosexuality and homosexuality were being codified at the end of the 19th century, this sexualized nerd of the Jews is what made it easy to conflate Jewish and gay men, Boyardin holds.  In reaction to this and political injustice Jews were subjected to, we see Freud and Hertzl trying to change Jewish masculinity.  Zionism was an attempt to create muscle Jews, to conform Jewish masculinity to Christian masculinity.  It was, he argues, a move that succeeded, but which impoverished our approach to sexuality.

I look at the rise of the tech world and wonder whether our capitalist presuppositions are undermining this.  If a good husband and father is one who provides for his family and if one could provide better by being a nerd, does that make the nerd hot?  Bill Gates is a better "man" on this account than Joe the Plumber, despite the fact that he is less "masculine."  Is the digital revolution leading to a new kind of sexual revolution allowing us to re-envision masculinity?