Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure

Kent L. Brintnall,
Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure
Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2011
ISBN: 9 780 226074702
US$32.50 (pb).
(Review copy supplied by The University of Chicago Press)

In Ecce Homo: The Male-Body-In-Pain as Redemptive Figure, Kent Brintnall, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, interrogates the spectacle of the tortured, violated, yet eroticized male body. Brintnall provides a variety of case studies, or “connective tissues”, to illustrate the prevalent instances of the male body as a site of tension by juxtaposing corporeal mortality to the redemptive “Christ-like” embodiment of suffering and eventual triumph. Brintnall frames his study by drawing upon the work of French writer Georges Bataille. Bataille’s latter work is of most interest for Brintnall, particularly how visual and visceral experiences associated with images of violated bodies (for example, images of the practice lingchi, which is a form of public execution accomplished by severing the limbs and ripping flesh from the victim’s body) become eroticized and allow readers to “experience feelings that will alter conscious awareness of the world, the other, and one’s relation to both” (6). Ecce Homo, translated literally means “here it is”; Brintnall provides his readers with examples of the male body on public display – on the cinematic screen, hanging in museums, collected in books – to challenge our presuppositions on the culture of masculinity. Brintnall’s goal of reading the male-body-in-pain “shows how such images and discourses pierce the fantasy of autonomous, self-sufficient subjectivity that grounds claims of masculine power and privilege” (20).

Chapter 1 focuses on the tension between suffering and triumph by exploring the tortured and redemptive cinematic body within action films.  Brintnall draws parallels among a variety of eroticized action heroes – Rambo, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace – and the allusions to Jesus’ crucified body. The genre of the action film transposes the heroic character as a publically-visible figure of excess whereby the viewer simultaneously experiences “the male body’s suffering and its erotic allure [which] are virtually inseparable” (31). The chapter draws heavily upon Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze: “The male body’s frequent display evinces its sexual allure and the ubiquity of a desire to gaze upon it” (33). Analyzing the oeuvre of Mel Gibson’s directorial efforts illustrates a desire to make visible the invisible by explicitly showing the tortured male body (from Braveheart’s William Wallace to The Passion of Christ’s Jesus).  Brintnall infuses a sadomasochistic version of masculinity by deconstructing how both characters willingly submit to the public torture; the filmic interpretation results in the eroticization of both bodies that emphasize and problematize a visual strain upon the character whereby the “facial expressions could indicate extreme pain, sexual ecstasy, or both” (43).

Chapter 2 provides a psychoanalytic account of masochistic desire. Written largely as a primer summarizing both Freud and Lacan, the chapter theoretically fills in what Brintnall explores by means of praxis in later chapters. While useful, the chapter seems disjointed and out of place, since we have already been exposed to issues of fetishized bodies and threats of castration in the previous chapter.

Chapter 3 explores the unsettling juxtaposition of form and content within the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Brintnall’s analysis “focuses on how these images train their viewers not only to see the specific subject matter differently, but to see the practice of image making – in art and life – differently” (103). Mapplethorpe’s sexualized and sadomasochistic photographs expose the relationship between power, eroticism, theatricality, identity and image-making. By valorizing the abject, Brintnall argues that Mapplethorpe breaks down the distinction between public and private spaces. Mapplethorpe disrupts more fantastic and heterosexual constructions of the masculine self by artfully depicting the male body as an “iconographic celebration of the phallus and phallic power” (123). Brintnall foregrounds the importance of the spectacle by making the invisible (e.g., a gay S&M subculture) visible “not merely by documenting previously undocumented content, but by depicting the content in a manner that makes it desirable and appealing” (131). In much the same way we derive pleasure from watching films such as The Passion of Christ or Rambo, our desire to view Mapplethorpe’s photography forces us to construct and shift our presuppositions by noticing the erotic subtexts across a variety of cultural artefacts.

Chapter 4 “examines the theme of crucifixion – the reduction of flesh to meat – in [Francis] Bacon’s work [by reflecting] on Bacon’s depiction of the male body and the alluring beauty of its vulnerability and collapse” (136). Brintnall focuses his criticism of Bacon’s work on the crucifixion as a generic term for “a scene where bodily damage is done to a figure in front of an audience” (155). As a vehicle to represent and explore the male body, the crucifixion, as a spectacle, depicts a body in crisis as it is subjected to intense invulnerability and scrutiny while on display. Brintnall offers a chronological overview of Bacon’s paintings to describe the affective nature of his work, particularly his orientation to the body-in-pain as an emotional lynchpin anchoring beauty and agony. Brintnall uses Bacon’s crucifixion images to distance the religious connotations while emphasizing an expansive appeal to the male-body-in-pain: “Both profane and sacred worlds cause human beings anguish, but their respective anguishes have markedly different consequences for how human beings think of themselves and their relation to others and the world” (11).

The subject matter within Ecce Homo cuts across a variety of disciplines; for scholars who focus on media studies, rhetoric, art history and gender studies, Brintnall’s body of work provides a welcome addition to critically reading both the discursive and visual approaches to bodies in pain.  While the body as a spectacle is not a unique perspective, our contemporary cultural climate is rife with examples of bodily protests, debates on sexual mores, and larger issues of legitimacy by providing a voice and image that blends eroticism with consumptive pleasure. Brintnall approaches the male-body-in-pain not as a subject matter that may be distasteful or immoral, but rather as a politically productive site that can be critically engaged in a variety of media. The films, photographs and paintings discussed in Ecce Homo “move the marginalized to the center and the invisible to the public square; the revelation and glorification of that which has been concealed, maligned, and degraded is significant for a range of demeaned subjectivities” (115).

About the Author

Jeremy V. Adolphson

Jeremy V. Adolphson is a PhD student in rhetoric in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. His research interests include fandom and social media, confrontational strategies of extremist organizations and heavy metal music. He has an MA in Communication and Sociology from Northern Illinois University.