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  • Görkem Özdemir

MEN CRY, and?

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Perhaps it was just another regular gray day in Ljubljana. I stumble across a provocative event title on the Stara mestna elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana’s billboard: “When Men Cry the World Shuts Down.” I immediately pull my smartphone out my pocket and send a picture to my beloved friend Muanis Sinanović. A satirical emoji accompanies the picture I send. He replies, “we’re going”. I say, “Cool, I am in.” We made an appointment to meet at the same location where the Mesto Žensk – City of Women Festival has hosted many events. I was curious to see what would happen.


After a month or so, on the day of the symposium, we meet in the garden of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum. An acquaintance is also sitting there. To illustrate, three Balkan guys are sitting around a table, legs crossed, drinking čaj and kava; discussing emotions, sharing anecdotes from our lives, dissecting double-triple-quadruple standards, pointing out some idioms and expressions to point to cultural similarities and differences in the Balkan region; and occasionally farting. In short, venting socially, physically and metaphorically.


To be honest, we were quite prejudiced about the title of the event at the time, and—I believe—we all had a stereotypical, highly caricatured audience in mind. Even though the audience was slightly different from both of our imaginations, they were all dominated by women and/or the queer community who are either working or interested in the field of gender studies or other areas of the humanities and arts. As we walked towards the gate, one of us anonymously threw a *loud* fart in the air, the humor of this act of secrecy making us laugh just before the entrance. My father sometimes says: “The one who laughs at a fart, do not have a mind more valuable than that fart.” Anyway, the source of the mixture of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, oxygen and sulfur remains strictly confidential. We leave three apes outside of the gate, and three “gentlemen” enter into a confined space of culture and art.


The change was: we crossed the threshold. I believe our prejudices were slightly cracked by the heterogeneity of the waiting audience. Still, it is obvious that there are visibly more women around than men. The crowd looks like it is mostly middle-class, a distinguished minority. People who can afford to be here on an early Friday evening and dedicate/invest their three or so hours. Maybe even precariat in denial like us.


Within a second or two, Muanis and our acquaintance see some familiar faces and our testosterone-releasing group is dispatched for a minute or so. I am surprised to see friends of mine in the waiting crowd. They are equally surprised to see me. Two learned lady friends and I immediately start a conversation. Later, we become a blob of five people in total, two women and three men.


As we talk, a few workers in stained uniforms —who are probably in their forties—pass invisibly through the audience. It is visible that they are well-built, although beer-bellied Balkan people from a different environment. The contrast in their bodies, body language, dialects, loudness, physical appearance is perceptible even from a distance. Needless to say, the three men look like they were from less developed parts of the Balkans and have come to the country to earn a little more than back home. They have finished their shifts. I notice that Muanis is also aware of the temporal presence of the workers in the audience. As the workers pierce through the crowd, Muanis points to them and makes a speculative comment: “These guys never attend these kind of events, and we are going to talk about manhood.” His sarcasm is pointing out something important. I agreed with him in that sense: we were a bunch of people with a specific cultural capital and a general interest in the topic, waiting in a preserved space to talk about a concept: men (and, inevitably, others) in general. It is possible that the workers I am talking about are not even aware of or use the words “patriarchy” or “masculinity” in their everyday lives. Who knows? Just as importantly, this does not automatically make them unemotional or they may benefit from their gender and not being oppressed or exploited.


Just as many feminist (and non-feminist) thinkers, I too believe that men are also being exploited by the patriarchy. But which “patriarchy” are we talking about? Conceptualization of patriarchy as a singular, a monolithic, a crystal entity is problematic because it acts as a meaningless label and is a reductionism. I know and want to believe that, there are also healthy, caring, and supportive patriarchal systems available for everyone. It is possible, it just may need effort. I hoped that we were at the event to discuss on “a patriarchy” which destroys and carelessly devour the earthly resources, where the critical decisions made by billionaires and other non-visible elites for their own benefits, who do not let other voices to speak up and/or listen to them.


Nevertheless, our organic group decided to move inside. It was a complex topic to discuss and we had neither the time nor the priority for it. We have our names struck through at the box office and take our invitations and a complimentary rakija from the welcoming area. As we are specifically informed that it will be hot inside, we move towards the cloakroom to leave our belongings. My expectations were raised a little by the comment about the temperature of the hall. It was indeed going to be hot, both physically and conceptually, thanks to ever-served rakijas, beers, and remarkably controversial discussions.


Just before the entrance to the hall, the three of us posed in front of the event backdrop. I was there with my relatively-new moustache and two women on either side, feeling like a “real” man. I must honestly say that the last sentence is meant to provoke the reader, you. I humbly declare that I will refrain from entering the minefield of gender studies. Specifically for this text—as a reminder—I will share some of my own impressions of the evening. The need to pose for the photograph was more momentous.


As I enter the main hall, the ground-level stage is to my right with a huge screen, and the steps for the audience to perch to my left. The stage is occupied by an enormous projection of a muscular male torso. We are exposed to a giant naked body as we decide where to sit. When my friends choose the very front row; I jokingly say: “No, no, I am not going to sit at the ‘protocol’.” I go upstairs and find an empty spot closer to the sound and light control desk. It is relatively quieter and further from the eyes. There is an older woman with “masculine” features next to me, fiddling with her smartphone and swiping it endlessly, and in front of me sits another man with headphones who disc jockeys to himself on an app. Various small groups are chatting to each other, and lots of women dressed in black are rushing from one side to the other on the ground level. The ever-flowing waves of people fill the empty spots of the ascending structure, finding a place to settle. I enjoy my “privileged position”, my back is supported by the very last row and I can even stretch my leg out or sit cross-legged if I want. A familiar face approaches me and we greet each other by nodding our heads in a “manly” manner. He sits down behind me and we briefly exchange our expectations of the event. After a brief silence, I return to my notebook and begin sketching the hall. It is 17:52, we are at an event of “reclaiming manhood and emotions” and being open about differences, I hoped. I had prepared myself beforehand to turn a deaf ear to the overused impact narratives altered by neo-liberalism and late-stage capitalism. Some words not limited to empowerment, unlearning, red pill and blue pill; and some letters from the Greek alphabet.

The giant screen seems to be the principal element of the evening. A torso with a six-pack abs, stands behind a crooked hand writing. The main title appears as if carved into a rough surface or drawn with crayons in white letters: “WHƎN MeN CRY the WoRLD ƧHUTS DOWN.” Also, the subtitle declares what the event will be about: “Symposium on the emotionality of men in the patriarchy; three hours of talking, crying and DRINKING.” In a similar fashion to the title, the subtitle is squiggly and presents itself with either rage, pain or in a childish manner, or both. Personally, I could not get a clear message from the poster. Perhaps it is just meant to attract some attention. The visual is overly saturated with meanings, carrying a lot of baggage and making a lot of noise. The screen spans over an area of about 40 m2 and dominates the stage with ambiguous manifestations. It certainly defines and sets a visual tone for the upcoming event, but to be honest, it made me remain on the defensive.


A huge truss system with many props hangs from the ceiling above the stage area. Sound and lighting systems are attached to the huge grid structure. The stage is dark and is made of hardwood. There are visible traces of a previous play or a presentation on the stage floor. The lights filtered from the backlit projection glows on the wood floor, creating a vague reflection of the torso. The walls are plain, light‑colored, out of sight, as if they were not there. Steps are rising where the stage ends, towards the back of the hall. There are six or seven rows, if I remember it correctly. A synthetic, petroleum-based wall-to-wall carpet covers all the steps, again in a darker shade. Bodies of human beings are scattered across the steps. The space resembles a linear extrusion of an amphitheater cross-section.


A performative introduction

The lights dim, the murmur of the audience quietens as a woman with a confident stance appears on the stage with a microphone in her hand. Alma R. Selimović welcomes us in English with her distinctive Balkan accent. I sincerely admire her act of speaking in the same way as her mother tongue. What is more, I find this particular cultural artefact of communication—especially in Ljubljana—, authentic, plurivocal and honest. For me, it encompasses the contemporary monocultural hegemony of Anglophone culture and opens a ground for reconciliation. Moreover, it signals to the audience a comfort in one’s own skin and a healthy dose of self-confidence. It is definitely more authentic than imitating a cross-continental imported accent. I wish rest of the Ljubljančani would realize the same, and be more careful when interjecting English phrases into their everyday communication. Speaking of cultural invasion and mental laziness, the same goes for imported worldviews and popular trends. I want to believe that this particular piece on Earth (Slovenia) has its own rich history of language, camaraderie, social values, affects and emotions.

After Selimović’s introduction, the host hands the microphone over to another lady of culture. This time Sodja Lotker greets us. She gives a short speech on the topic with a soothing voice and tears in her eyes. Perhaps it was part of the show, I thought. From her explanation I understand that this event is an artist‑compiled symposium. They add “it is going to be chaotic” in a mischievous manner, and my inner voice says “oh, boy…” with concern. The evening has the potential to turn into a complete chaos. Lotker wipes her eyes and sniffles as she introduces a philosopher for the keynote speech. A man appears on the giant screen.


A lecture

Federico Campagna is on the screen as if he is a digital colossus. A slim, wheat-skinned man in his thirties with a moustache is remotely connected to the hall. He is in his study room because of a health problem. His physical presence is not with us, only a representation on the giant screen and through the suspended speakers. A library full of books behind him silently asserts that he is an avid reader and we are encountering with a scholar. His voice is omnipresent in the space with his idiosyncratic Mediterranean accent. His moving image is in two-dimensional, flatly projected onto the fabric screen. Campagna’s digital representation is amplified four or five times in many senses. It is somewhat eerie.


The philosopher focuses on the concept of “man” within the framework of metaphysics. His rhetoric is impeccable, and his pace is fluid. Some historical examples from different civilizations illustrate his arguments. They are well thought out and entertaining for a while. Campagna definitely knows how to hold the attention of the audience and delivers information in an understandable way. His narrative meanders around the concepts of reality, boundaries of things, reality and fictionality, chronological and historical speculations, the reproduction of the human, poetic dichotomies, personal declarations about emotions, etc. All things considered, I am mildly disturbed by his persuasiveness, yet knowing that he is not an ambassador of truth or sacred knowledge. He juxtaposes things without tautologies. However, I found some of his points to be well-crafted connections between many drifting ideas. Indeed, few of them seemed compelling euphemisms with broad generalizations.

All in all, he proposes few perspectives. In his words: “How can we rethink masculinities and its relationship with emotions?” He offers two different methodologies —contemplating the idea of “man” through acts of “modification, abolishment, retainment”— one based on society, the other on the poetic resonances of the cosmos. The latter is a very fancy word indeed.


In the first one, he lays out three ways of defining “the man” in relation to society. Campagna classifies the first as the “defeatist approach” (41:00), in which the assumption that society is undergoing transformation prevails and the fictional concept of “man” can be modified in parallel with trends and/or adaptations. Here, there are two drawbacks. The philosopher posits that the trends are unpredictable and may not happen at all; also, the adaptation of the concept of “man” may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, possibly making the individual more “disempowered”. Campagna classifies the second one as “in the form of a project or prefiguration (as anarchists call it)” (41:50), where an ideal society with a concept of an “ideal man” can be pursued by applying minor modifications to the society and reaching a goal through certain transformative processes. The third one (42:53), Campagna’s choice, is the “detachment” of the classification of “man” from society. In his words: “To try at least, to rethink what a man is, not on the base with its relationship with the society; but its relationship with us” (44:14). This seems to be a reasonable approach, since the meaning of man is constructed intrapersonally. However, there is a danger of losing the connection with society. As far as I can understand, every construction or fiction needs to be negotiated with others—to be validated/revoked and accepted/rejected by a public. In my opinion, without an external involvement, it could lead to pathological results in an individual and to a split in the societal and physical realities. Please bear this in mind when reading the above: Campagna considers man and woman, or any other category, to be fictions from a metaphysical perspective. Although fictions do not care about personal opinions, they continue to function—even if sometimes by blurring or stepping out of their own boundaries.


The second aspect are poetic resonances. Campagna probes us: in a cosmos where infinite amount of possible dynamics are available, what do we choose? “What is a man?” Thus, a contemplative act might result in a new fictional category, “a new man.” As his explanation gets more abstract, I begin to feel my fatigue, unable to understand his words and losing interest. The clock on my wrist reads 18:45. I let my eyes wander around: A traditional symbol of masculinity is on the screen. My gaze wanders first over his neatly trimmed moustache, then jumps to his cup with a horse figure, then follows his bookcase with its rich collection, then swings to the green foliage on his right, then sways to his presentation notes reflected in his glasses, then fixes on his pupils which switch sides and corners of his screen; then I try to empathize with his nervousness and excitement, but I can’t. I am too tired to push my mirror neurons. At the same time, I try to ignore the woman sitting next to me and her cynical exhalations at some of the remarks during the talk. She chuckles quietly when Campagna talks about the rich emotional landscape of pre-industrial men. Perhaps it is my misinterpretation, I do not have the energy to ask this time. Then I see a member of the audience fidgeting with his phone, and then I focus on my own notes, staring at a page. After a while, I find myself lost in the bombardment of philosophical words. Slowly, it turns into background noise as I try to digest the earlier information. It is still pouring out of the speakers above and spreading through the projection screen in front. Every now and then, during the talk, unnerving laughs emerge from a few members of the audience. I conceptualized this environmental affect as concerning and disturbing rather than joyful and humorous.


Stating the obvious, his statements are auditory, mostly products of verbal language, which is already a fiction in itself. It seems to me that his remarks are products of conscious knowledge, there was no room for imagination. Humankind may not be a purely logical and rational creature, as many think, we mostly act with wants, needs, desires, buffooneries and tomfooleries. Perhaps it would be better if we consider the lecture as a mortal philosopher’s declarations opinions on a certain topic within certain amount of time within a certain attention span. Defining the concept of “man” in words is another form of a deduction in my opinion. In mundane everyday life we may not only think and act with words and their projections on our lives. There might also be other phenomena such as affects and emotions, memories, sensorial stimulations (visuals, smells, sounds, bodily movements), and so on. There may also be other ways of expressing and conveying ideas, not limited to verbal communication, but through other actions; through drawing, sketching, dancing, moving, filming, musicking, listening etc. Equally important, concepts may not only emerge in the written domains, or with textual words, but they can be fixed in this way. I tend to interpret written words as vessels for ideas in temporality, and as mnemonic devices for the future, or for transferring things from non-physical to physical reality. Nevertheless, as a philosopher, lecturing is his way of communicating his ideas with the utmost competence, I respect and admire that. In this context, speaking in words was the most direct way of an open communication. Campagna was admirable in terms of his oratory skills.


There is a very short question and answer section at the very end of Campagna’s talk. I had a question after the long lecture, actually a reminder for him to focus on a sentence he might have forgotten in the flood of words. But there was no time for another question. It was “having to adapt every situation is unnecessarily humiliating” or something close to that. What did the philosopher mean by this remark? I think, theoretically and practically, every human relation may be based on communication, compromises, negotiations, sacrifices, acceptances, surrenders, and yadda yadda yadda. In short, they are all acts of adaptations according to an Other, whether it is a person or a chair or a paycheck. The phrase may make sense from an individual’s interpersonal standpoint, but what does it mean metaphysically?


Anyway, after the applause, the majority of the audience goes out some fresh air and a break. I move too. I stretch my entire body and look around for familiar faces. Muanis and the comrade who was sitting behind me are talking. At first, I am surprised by their companionship, but then I nevertheless join in the conversation.


A performance (?) and a punctuation

It is still cold outside. After sipping a rakija from a hovering tray, I walk towards the hall and sit where my groupof friends had chosen earlier. The couch and the props on the stage are at eye level from here. Our group of friends chatters and patters. The screen is less intimidating from this perspective, or perhaps the new elements on the stage, the rakija, and the socialization have helped a little. Perhaps I have adapted to the ongoing situation.


I do not remember if Lotker introduced the moderator of the performance before, there is this information in my mind: She lives in Finland or is a citizen of Finland or has a residence in Finland or Italy. Unfortunately, my mind was busy and tired, I was not able to listen attentively. Then, a petite woman dominated the stage with a dignified and controlled voice and flamboyant gestures. Her stance was captivating. According to her, her practices revolve around sexuality and erotic somethings, or I misheard. She is wearing a dark blouse with a bold cleavage at the front and is standing on her heels. I interpret her use of voice, attire, and body language as the beginning of the conversational performance. She expresses that the hall is probably not going to be a “safe space”, but suggests it to be a “soft” one in a gleeful and an honest manner.

Three performance artists join her on stage, all men. I knew one of them from the Ljubljana cultural scene and had a chat with him once, the other two were completely new to me. All the people on stage were from different parts of Europe, in alphabetical order: Finland (or Italy or Belarus), Germany, Slovenia and Spain. In such situations, I sometimes feel like an outsider, thanks to hundreds of years of orientalization and Othering. But that is not our topic today, I was curious to experience what was to come.


The female moderator behaves seductively and even provocatively on her single palm-like chair. She lies down, arrogantly opens her both legs as in the infamous “manspreading,” and sometimes patronizes the male performers. The men sit on the couch, slightly uncomfortable, like beads on a necklace, side by side. Perhaps, they are nervous and excited at the same time, because it seems to be an improvisatory thing. Though I am not sure if it is improvised or real, or a fiction, or a fictively real performance. Something hybrid but not quiet, I am confused. Meanwhile, the audience and the people on stage are being served with a continuous stream of beers and rakijas, later accompanied by pizzas.


I listen to the discussion happening on the stage, it is sometimes mild, sometimes emotional, sometimes heavy, sometimes boring. Every now and then, we find ourselves discussing or gossiping among our group of friends. I was hoping that I was not the “only man” who is checking the moderator’s low-cut opening on her garment. My female colleague points out that the screen has been dismantled during the ongoing conversation on stage. She whispers to me in a very low voice that she expects some naked male bodies behind it. Just before, I was expecting a spontaneous “tits out” moment, thanks to my “male gaze.” Suddenly, the idea of seeing lots of men behind the curtain appeared. Expecting a “dicks out for Harambe” moment is rather tasteless. All in all, there seemed to be no person behind the screen which left me and my friend a bit disappointed. Who knows, maybe it was intentional to increase the tension, or just a technical necessity to take the thing down, or maybe there was some other artistic discourse or a conceptual message that we didn’t get.


We ate, drank and conversed. Apart from the stage, a handful of people from the audience took the floor and shared their ideas and anecdotes. This part of the evening was a hybrid talk-show, discussion, performance that I could neither categorize nor make sense of. It was experimental in a sense, but we were very far from the hypothesis that “when men cry the world shuts down”. In my observation, the hall was full of men who embraced their emotionality to an extent, and who were mostly fine with crying or open to discussing it. As Muanis pointed out before, “men” who might be afraid of crying or expressing emotions other than anger and lust were outside that evening. None of us among the audience seemed to have a six-pack or to be the owner a smooth skin as the male figure represented in the event poster. The complimentary pizzas and drinks were good.


Whether there was another intermission or not, I cannot remember. The evening continues with Ana Pavlič’s prepared text, which she reads under a dramatic spotlight. Everywhere else is dimly lit. The fridges look emptier, and this time she is the only one on the couch. The exhaustion of the workday and the whole week, makes it even harder to focus on the semantic content. The tone of her voice was angry and her stares intimidating. It was yet another personal narrative sprinkled with academic jargon. I could only catch buzzwords such as sexism, gender roles, stereotype, etc. I am glad not to hear mansplaining, future is female, kill all men, incels, feminazi and other online forum categorizations and extremist slogans late at night. Even though the performance part is sandwiched between the more serious parts of the event, it was really hard for me to focus in that very last hour. To soften up to things on purpose, Pavlič’s text functions like a comma for the next thing rather than an exclamation mark or a period.


A short musical performance

Four men in suits appear on stage as an a cappella group. One of is playing an electronic piano. They perform Halo by Beyoncé. The vocal performance is quite successful, although I do not know how to react to the chosen song. I know the song but I have never listened to it with full attention. You know, it comes up occasionally in shopping malls, supermarkets, or on TV shows, or on social media videos etc. While being exposed to it live and listening to it attentively, I realize that I was unaware of the lyrics before. A utopian oversentimental love story is being narrated through the mouth of the performer(s). A symbol of purity and/or idolization, in this case a halo, vocalized across the stage to the audience. An artefact of the Christian world. The word-in-repeat is first voiced by male bodies, then amplified by the sound system of the venue. The word rings in an echoic manner: “Halo, halo, halo… Halo, halo, halo…” while the male mouths actually become round with a pointed tip in the middle. Figuratively like a halo. No, I did not understand the connection with the theme of the event. While I was looking for an explanation from my female colleague, she told me that the band was special. I don’t know if she was mocking me or it was for real, but they actually did sing good and from the heart. Regardless, I decide to give up on critical thinking and force myself to enjoy the act and blend in with the mood that was being set for us. While gently swaying our bodies from side to side, we start to snap our fingers. The audience acts as a giant percussive instrument, the vocalists are filling the space with their “angelic” and “masculine” voices. Lights off and applause. Affect is in the air, the audience exits the hall with a little more sentimentality. We were exhausted.

I want to see this particular event, one of a series of three, as a trigger for people to listen and talk to each other more. In the case of this evening, I think the symposium organizers have learned more than the audience. Having unrealistic expectations or overly romantic views on gender roles—or anything in particular—is most likely to divide societies into camps and could act as a catalyst for a dysfunctional world of “us & them” mentalities. In hyper-individualized and atomized societies, we may need more opportunities to communicate, share and listen. Maybe next time in a different setting in the same hall. Regardless of the men and their expressions, the world did not shut down this time and I do not get the title at all.


A Coda

After the successive performances we have a last round of drinks in the courtyard. I chat to Hetzel and Bezjak. Upon leaving, I congratulate the ones nearby, Lotker, Neklyaeva, and Selimović on their courage and shake their hands. We exchange good wishes and I rejoin my group of friends. The five of us walk steadily towards the Slovenska cesta. While waiting at the lights, a funky smell tickles my nose. With a broad smile, I punch two other guys in the group in the shoulder. They grin back at me. The playful suspicions end by a sincere confession from one of them: “Hops causes some discomfort in my digestion system.” With maturity and understanding we continue on our way. I was not sure if the girls were aware of the smell, but a reminder: women and others fart, too.


Credits

When Men Cry the World Shuts Down, Symposium was conceived by Lea Kukovičič (director) and Sodja Lotker (dramaturge), produced by Bunker and coproduced by Prešernovo gledališče Kranj. I attended the symposium on 3 March 2023 at Stara Mestna Elektrarna – Elektro Ljubljana. The whole event lasted about three and a half hours with an intermission and a non-strict door policy. The lecture by the philosopher Federico Campagna is available at https://vimeo.com/805863937. The moderator of the conversation was Eva Neklyaeva and the guest speakers were Julian Hetzel, Primož Bezjak and Juan Carlos Martel Bayod. In lieu of conclusion, a prepared text was read by Ana Pavlič. Blaž Andrejka, Žiga Jan Krese, Luka Grižonič and Tadej Premužič performed a one-song concert at the very end. The full credits are available at https://www.bunker.si/en/when-men-cry-the-world-shuts-down-symposium. This is Görkem Özdemir sketching and writing, thank you for reading my impressions.

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