When contemporary ninnies complain of toxic masculinity, they are not entirely off the mark, even if they remain oblivious of the implications.
Masculinity becomes toxic when the complexity and attendant fragility of a society grow to the point where the male libidinal drive becomes too disruptive to accommodate. Such tightly regimented, dense, automated, networked societies require subjects that must increasingly approximate to genderless automatons.
Freud had already observed in Civilization and Its Discontents that the level of interdependence and collaboration that social life demands would be impossible without the repression of aggression. This was always true, but modernity pushes the instrumentalization of the human organism to the point where the modern subject must be completely stripped of any inclination that might ever so slightly misalign it with the Borg-like corporate hive that encloses it. Inevitably, this translates into an aversion toward every manifestation of refractory masculinity.
The early modern worshipers of the machine did not foresee this. To Marinetti, the machine promised hypermasculinzation, an amplification of the most primitive virility. What it delivered instead was a wholesale gelding of Western man, his transformation into a species of hermaphroditic worm. And it is these invertebrates who today declare that masculinity is toxic, for to them the sight of a man can only convey an intolerable rebuke.
Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the impact of automation on the art object are pertinent to a consideration of what happens to the sexual object and its displacements in the modern era. I think one can speak of both an industrialization of sexual relations and a sexualization of industry.
The “industrialization” of sexual relations is well-illustrated by the stream of drawings, paintings, and objects produced in the early part of the 20th century by Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp that depict coitus as the coupling and grinding of machine parts.
The same images, of course, also depict the sexualization of industrial processes. But where this sexualization of industry achieves real significance is in the erotic allure that attaches to the commodity, the endowment of everything from cars to computers with a sexual aura.
Modernity coincides with a widespread hypersexualization of objects and bodies. This is a new thing. We are not talking about what to the ancients would have constituted beauty. Something else is introduced, which Marx called commodity fetishism, whose full meaning needs to include the sexual connotation.
What comes into view as peculiar to modernity is the simultaneous sexualization of production and consumption. On the consumption side, the commodity induces something like a sexual mania in the consumer. Modern consumption acquires a distinctly onanistic character, at once addictive and unsatisfying since like masturbation, compulsive consumption can only function as what Freud characterized as an “otiose” substitute for heterosexual intercourse.
The upshot is that consumer society is in essence a society of wankers.