How is it that image and the epithet have replaced rhetoric as the stuff of American politics? This is the question proper to Schwarzenegger’s exploitation of the insult “girly-man” in order to attempt to force the recalcitrant state legislature to assent to his budget proposal. The logic of rhetoricity somehow does not apply, and his epithet is immunized against critique whether based on observations of it being contradictory (since the legislators who are called weak are those who are strong in their opposition) or impolitic (since the insult is both sexist and homophobic). It is not sufficient to simply enumerate the casualties of this change in the political landscape (women, gays, immigrants, the poor, people of color, etc., and then debate and political discourse itself) or to note the effectiveness of the strategies, but it is important, because the invisibility of these, both the changes and the casualties, are at least one reason for the effectiveness of the techniques.

In one sense, the function of the epithet is to displace discourse by naming, and to disqualify, thereby, an abject term of the political equation. Interpellation is already a trap; the recognition of the address by its target is an acceptance that forecloses denial. The substitution of epithet for discourse still requires more explanation. It seems that there is little appetite for extended debate on issues. The attention of the masses is so shrunken, deformed and impatient that it seems hardly capable of sustaining debate, preferring instead to take up sides as a fan would, a spectator in a theater of conflict. This is the role that media constantly trains us for. In this role, the function of the iteration of insult by an audience is to produce an identification with the hero in battle, to transform the violence of actual combat into the barbs of verbal warfare. The vicarious passivity of spectatorship does not require understanding, only a subordination of will to the chosen champion (or team). The repetition of insult is authorized by an identification with the heroic figure of the champion. And the responsive chant of the crowd authorizes, in return, the actions of the figurehead as mass body.

The system of Schwarzenegger’s body and Schwarzenegger’s utterance depends in a peculiar way on the specificity of his form, together with the construction of his public persona through cinema and its attendant media manipulations (public relations, and advertising). His rise to the governorship relied heavily on a confusion between his person and his cinematic persona, which is well captured in the use (even if ironically) of the title “governator.” The titles of his most popular movies give an impression of a kind of violent masculinity: The Terminator, Predator, Conan the Barbarian. And this impression is born out in the roles he plays and in the mediated circulation of his reputation. His movie success depends on the congruence between his form, the massive musculature of a body builder, and the roles he takes on; that is, it relies on the equation of effective violence with bodily massiveness as an iconic guarantee of hypertrophic masculinity.

As if his own frame were not male enough, Arnold re-frames his masculinity by surrounding himself with a host of phallic signifiers, from guns, knives and other weapons, to cigars, to massive cars. His allegiance to the Hummer is particularly noteworthy in this regard, since it also partakes of a certain confusion between fantasy and reality. The tank is repurposed for the fantasy of the urban soldier. The Hummer’s three tons of metal arm and massify the suburban male–fuel his identification with the warrior body, and prop up his sagging masculinity by transforming domestic tedium into urban combat. For Arnold though, these toys are claimed as the natural collateral of his wealth, power, mass and maleness. In his iconicity, Arnold’s possession of them functions as origin for their use by the anonymous male. Still, it is hard not to be suspicious that a certain supplementarity attains in his situation as well.

In any case, Schwarzenegger’s figure is not singular and unified, but rather a constellation of idioms of masculinity: power, violence, possession, massiveness, wealth, performance, stupidity, cupidity. This swirl of testosterone emits language in such a way that its sting is tied to the poison of that that hormone. The epithet is thrown from the body as if by centrifugal force; but the body remains linked to the utterance, and gives it force and effectiveness.

The interpellated subject of Schwarzenegger’s insult is trapped by it, because the intellection required as a defense, will only act as a confirmation of an identification with the named effete class. The other defense is a violent one that Arnold is immune from given his symbolic status as iconic hero, emblem of the strong, the victorious. On a practical level, he is immune by virtue of his attendance by a retinue of armed security personnel who make his imposing stature redundant.

... and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.[18]

The utterance, “I call them girly men,” refuses to be a position or an argument, it is simply and only a naming. It sets up a deictic equivalence that suffers no contestation; it is indelible, irrevocable, irreversible. It is a magisterial gesture that enthrones its speaker as the phallic king of a political boys club membered by two species of male. There are no women in this arena for they would turn the epithet into nonsense. “I call them girly men” is an adamic gesture of nominal origination that precedes the existence of the feminine; it brings the feminine into being by pulling it out of a masculine body with the extension of an accusatory finger. The deictic “them” puts Arnold at the source of truth, beyond justification and bathed in the anointing authority of gubernatorial victory, in the mythic excess of meritocratic validation, with its presumed reward, the accumulation of political capital.

Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.[19]
– Walter Benjamin

The anti-grammatical, anti-rhetorical abbreviation of language is linked with the deployment of a hyper-masculine iconicity; they ascend to power together as an aestheticized regime. Here we should notice the echoes of that twinned aestheticization of war and politics about which Benjamin warned us. We must add to that alarm a recognition of the way that gender functions in the mapping of these battlefields. The machinic, the heavy and the solid are idioms of both masculinity and power, which locate themselves in opposition to the thoughtful, the ephemeral, and the delicate, all taken as signs of weakness, and therefore gendered female.

The installation Inscription, explores these issues through abstraction, analogy and transformation; it investigates the problem of the gendered relationship of an aesthetics of power to the act of writing. Inscription is a staging of the encounter between these opposed idioms in the guise of software and hardware, materiality and language, instrument and substance.


[18] Genesis 2:19, King James Bible, Project Gutenberg edition, Second Version, 10th Edition, 1992.

[19] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” p. 242.