What We Talked About At ISA: The Monstrous Masculine: War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior

If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire – one might indeed say the need – in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest.

Chinua Achebe, ‘An Image of Africa’ (1978)

Sometimes it seems that we’re merely Constructions made out of yarn, paper & wood with threads rising from our toes and fingertips. We pretend to talk and act as though we were alive but actually we don’t have any choice in the matter. Some secret power directs us.

Evan S. Connell, The Diary Of A Rapist (1966)

1. Rape, Ultra-Violence and Beethoven

When we speak of men in feminism, we might speak generally or specifically, of properties of maleness and masculinity or of things done by particular men (and usually some combination of the two). What is at stake is the distinction between masculinity as a set of internal properties and as a set of relational, and hence contingent, ones. Although this can be taken as denying any substance at all to that category ‘man’, it is perhaps just as well to say that we all build our own subdivided orders of maleness – from men we know, knew, or think we are; from our salient models of true and false and ambiguous masculinity; from the postures and poses we take as appropriate towards them; and from the frames we adopt for dealing with variety, with all the space for the exemplar, the exception, the masquerade and the average that they bring.

The monstrous masculine is one such model, or rather a set of models united by family resemblance. An object of horror, the monstrous masculine is a repository for tropes that identify the hideous excesses and obscene pleasures of maleness. Channelling Barbara Creed (and some Sjoberg and Gentry), it is a set of tropes and themes in our imaginaries of social action, frequently evoking, among others, ideas of a limitless and aggressive sexuality, a cold and calculating self-regard and/or a submerged, if frequently actualised, hatred of women and Woman that borders on the instinctual. In accounts of wartime sexual violence, this figure of the rapacious warrior (usually African) comes to be represented in terms of the calculating soldier-strategist (who chooses rape as a hyper-efficient means to an accumulatory end); the angry soldier-rapist (expressing a deep desire and sexuality); or the habitual soldier-ritualist (enacting the memes and symbolic imperatives of a community, culture or even race).

Think of the figure of the unreason-laced psychopath rapist, whether in the version Joanna Bourke examines as the ‘rapacious degenerate’ or that which Susan Brownmiller addresses as the ‘police-blotter rapist’: “[t]he typical American perpetrator of forcible rape…little more than an aggressive, hostile youth who chooses to do violence to women”. Such protagonists are common in popular representations of rape. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex and his droogs prowl the streets and lanes of town and country, opportunistically submitting the unlucky to attacks driven by a relentless juvenile machismo. And in the scandalous Irréversible, rape is also the product of a subterranean drive. ‘Le Tenia’ does not even search his victim for money as an afterthought – his priorities are only to enact his spontaneous lust and be called ‘daddy’ as he does so.

The monstrous masculine unites conceptions and intimations of masculinity as pathology. This is the Real of a “terrifying dimension, as the primordial abyss which swallows everything, dissolving all identities”. Put otherwise, it embodies in its most psychoanalytic inflection the idea (following Nick Cave) that the desire to possess her is a wound.

As Mark Fisher so aptly comments:

That’s forensically precise: it’s not her that’s causing the pain, but the desire to have her…Desire emerges here as a miserable, humiliating pressure, a mocking throb as unrelenting and unforgiving as migraine; a dulling intoxicant that overwhelms sense…only loops round in interminable purgatorial circuits…screams for some kind of release, even if that means (self)destruction.

2. A Hawkish Feminism?

One charge against feminism, increasingly heard, is that it is complicit in contemporary militarism. At the most obvious level, its topics and concerns, particularly in their liberal guise, buttress and scaffold the rhetorics of war-making. The narrative placement of particular victimised women and their suffering can thus be seen, for example, as the key to legitimating the war in Iraq, a move in which both American progressives and neo-conservatives could join together in adopting a doctrine of ‘imperial feminism’. In a repeat of an old story about the movement’s internal struggles, the sign of ‘feminism’ is seen to become synonymous with whiteness and ‘the West’, while ‘misogyny’ comes to mean an racialised or culturalised other in ‘the East’ or ‘the South’ and is marked by blackness.

Most prominent in this respect is Jean Bethke Elshtain. Previously regarded as a central figure in the academic feminist movement, and very widely cited for her insights into the construction of masculine heroes in Women and War, Elshtain has, since 9/11, turned towards a forceful embrace of American power as the proper modality for achieving emancipatory ends, such that the ‘Melian Maxim’ may be reversed: ‘The strong do what they must, in order that the weak not suffer what they too often will’.

In the context of international law, critics point out that the new visibility of wartime sexual violence has not been a neutral phenomenon. Instead, the prosecution of sexual crimes has intersected with a particular ethnic imaginary portraying a particular set of combatants (for example, ‘Serbs’) as inherently or especially predisposed to war rape. Moreover, the cases opened by the International Criminal Court have focused exclusively on African conflicts, amplifying narratives of peculiarly African subjects and their barbarity in justifying its mission. When unified with metaphors of savage, victim and saviour in human rights activism, such rhetorical moves can be read as deeply Eurocentric, displacing crimes and wrongs internal to the saviour nations in the construction of people in need of rescuing, producing a “metaphor…thus laced with the pathology of self-redemption”.

This will be familiar to some from Mahmood Mamdani’s sharp criticisms of Save Darfur and others, and their simplifying narratives as a grand displacement of complex thinking about war: while Americans recognised messy and difficult choices in the ongoing war in Iraq, Darfur became the locale for an easy set of answers around duty and the necessity of militarism. For journalists, this authorised a ‘pornography of violence’ focused on stories of genocidal wartime sexual violence. On this account the extensive coverage given to Darfur and the question of ‘genocide’ contrasts starkly with the attention directed at the conflict in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa, a neglect driven by the interests of Western companies and states in the region and their desire to continue business as usual. Stories of ethnic ideology and rape in this coverage produced a view of the janjaweed are ‘literally’ devils on horseback, manifestations of the monstrous masculine acting out a deep collective hatred rather than responding to a complex set of political and social factors.

The strategic ethnocentrism in this case becomes particularly clear in comparison with the treatment of sexual violence in the US Military. Where violence in Darfur is portrayed as collective and related to culture or ethnicity (the slaughter of the ‘African’ Fur and others by Northern ‘Arabs’), rape by US troops receives vanishingly little coverage and even then is predominantly conceptualised in terms of individual wrong-doing or a general callousness among senior military figures acting under the pressure of war. In fact, existing research indicates that sexual violence is a systematic and institutionalised problem within the US Military. Madeline Morris’ comprehensive survey found that, in comparison to ‘peacetime’ crimes, military rape in war contexts rose to some 260% of the civilian rate, a differential related to specific forms of masculinist indoctrination.

Consider, for example, the general silence (and absent activism) around the rape of women in the US military (and female private contractors) by their compatriots and colleagues. A report on the extent of gender violence paid for by the Department of Defence found in 2003 that almost a third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking  health care had experienced rape or attempted rape during their time in the US Military. Moreover, 37% of those respondents said they had been raped multiple times and a further 17% said they had been gang raped. It seems reasonable to assume that such patterns are reproduced in relations both with the comfort women that go with military operations and in interactions with conquered/liberated peoples.

3. Narrating Wartime Sexual Violence

Feminism (or a kind of feminism) can thus be charged, at varying levels of intensity, with a gynocentric disregard of the neo-colonial implications of purportedly emancipatory politics, a misguided faith in the new military humanism or merely the provision of vocabularies amenable to warring rhetoric. Through its account of the monstrous masculine in wartime sexual violence, feminism or its rhetorics can thus be differentially deployed by or as power to frame a particular set of men as especially or essentially monstrous, and so locate them outside of the space of social reason and social action. Once conceptualised as this kind of excessive eruption or void, they can only be dealt with in one language, that of violence. As eradicating forces, they must themselves be eradicated. A classic zero-sum move.

What to make of this confluence of arguments? Two challenges and one proposal. First, on the charge of imperial feminism, it is hardly evident at what depth these militarised grammars can be reduced to feminism in any meaningful sense. Why not, for example, simply regard it as a success of the actual social movements of the last centuries which now make it impossible to construct a rationale of rights and duties without reference to their gendered implications (at least in some form)?

Second, and more fundamentally, what is the role of the monstrous masculine in developing social theory itself? At the most obvious level, a straightforward rejection of tropes derived from it assumes that they are somehow inaccurate or flawed. But acts of brutality do occur, and speaking of them should not be adjured in the hope that doing so will prevent warring projects which we would otherwise oppose. In that sense, we can hardly attempt to banish the spectre of the Real in the hope of proceeding without such affective reactions. And, at a more complex level, there is a question about how all social theory deals with narrating its objects, particularly in terms of emancipatory theory and politics. After all, even naming a particular set of social relations as patriarchy might carry the whiff of the monstrous masculine, drawing all men as the zombie-like agents of a strange and terrifying power (this is, of course, the hysterical cry of anti-feminists everywhere).

This is no less so for diagnosis of class, culture, state, nation or political community. In every case the attempt to grasp relations as fundamentally social may turn individuals into cyphers for a broader process, and so imbue them with extreme characteristics that appear beyond their control. In every case the process of political consciousness-making requires an imagination and a narration of the evils and wrongs of a system, and so brings us necessarily face-to-face with a traumatic and horrifying element that would otherwise be invisible to us. This is the sense in which social and political thought plays upon, even requires, images of others that could be used to marginalise and then attack them.

Finally, the challenge. The monstrous masculine and its appearance and non-appearance in relation to rape in different violent contexts requires further exploration and a much more comprehensive comparative analysis of texts (media, policy and academic). Conceptually, a process of tracing such themes back or away from feminist activism would also illuminate the genealogical lines that might link or separate feminism and imperialism. Indeed, as the critiques of imperialist feminism currently stand, there is far too little exploration of the ways in which feminism is said to become imperial feminism – the lines of diffusion, the sociological practices and the activist networks which would transfer and transform particular tropes and ideas from the realm of anti-militarism to the advocacy of military intervention under the aegis of humanitarianism.

3 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: The Monstrous Masculine: War Rape, Race/Gender, and the Figure of the Rapacious African Warrior

  1. Say have you seen Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War? It’s not considered a good war movie, or that’s the general opinion that goes amongst the boys (mostly my male relatives) who have seen it because it’s more about rape and than war. When it’s represented, war and rape don’t seem gel, at the most if it’s a side dish to the action. I made the connection with the movie when I was reading Against Our Will and found a similar account in it and googled the movie and then the memories came back. Apparently it’s based on this
    I can’t access it because I don’t have an account.
    De Palma went ahead to make Redacted and I’m thinking if he did it twice then the guy had an agenda.
    And super post as usual.


  2. Thanks very much r. I haven’t seen either and will definitely check them out. The tension in the paper at the moment is how I’m going to make the link from the undeniable (to me) presence of the Monstrous Masculine in popular representations (mainly war films), where it is largely externalised into male bad apples (particularly where US troops are involved) and the influence the Monstrous Masculine has when it comes to characterising certain conflicts in media, policy or academic writing.

    p.s. I think the New Yorker report (and hence ‘Casualties of War’) is based on an event covered in some detail by Gina Weaver in her book on rape in Vietnam (‘Ideologies of Forgetting’).


  3. Pingback: How Much Rape Is There In The Congo (DRC)? And How Does It Matter? « The Disorder Of Things

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