Archive for July, 2008

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Initiating Men: Promise Keepers

30 July 2008

With only 50,000 men in attendance last annum, Promise Keepers rallies are soon to be extinct.  But how can we forget that, only a decade ago, that many men were present at each event?  I joined in on a San Diego rally in 1996 and was deeply impressed by the sight of men streaming down the aisles of Padres stadium to confess their sins, be prayed over, and trained in the ways of godly manhood.  Men – Christian and would-be Christian, of all ethnicities, ages five to 95 – longed for and received an initiation of sorts. 

 

As demonstrated in L. Dean Allen’s book, Rise Up O Men of God, Promise Keepers bore much in common with the Men and Religion Forward Movement, which, as the crowning expression of muscular Christianity in America sought to bring men to a place of social responsibility.  Allen also points out key differences in the movements, and I add one more: Promise Keepers depended on rituals for a sense of initiation. 

 

The PK rally was in many ways a production of modern liminal space.  How does one take men (who are used to TV dragging them away from their normal lives) and transport them into a generative, altered state of consciousness?  Promise Keepers capitalized on the two strongest emotional forces they knew: the revival tent meeting and the football game.  As for the first, the Evangelical men’s movement almost always warmed up their events with gospel music, and included an altar call as day turned to night.  I remember being taken aback at the hellfire preacher recruited for the San Diego rally, but his message had its effect.  A good portion of the men, maybe ten percent of the group, poured out onto the field to either “receive Christ” or re-commit their lives to him.  The organ wailed as the penitents gathered around the preacher and wept over their shortcomings as males.  There was the recitation of the sinners’ prayer and the laying on of hands.  As for the second factor, I can only point out that there is nothing so deeply religious as team sports.  Any pastor will tell you that Sundays are a battleground for souls, viz., whether people will worship with the Christian fold or before the television.  (For an iconoclastic presentation of this, see Higgs’ God in the Stadium.)  But PK fused these two forces.  Speakers James Dobson and Tony Evans on one side.  Coaches Bill McCartney and Tony Dungy on the other.  The religio-athletic mood had been set.  And its initiating elders were in place.

 

Yet, for all its direct and indirect ritual, Promise Keepers had a hard time manufacturing a modern initiation.  Critics pointed out that the great majority of the men who reformed their lives were already committed Christians, husbands and fathers.  The in-between liminal space of the revival-tent-turned-football-field was, in reality, already doubly familiar.  It reflected the normal modus operandi of their church life and the typical arousal of sporting events.  In other words, Promise Keepers was successful because it played out a script with which Evangelicals were already familiar, and called them to a life they already knew they were supposed to live.  I do not doubt that many of these men were inspired to be better men and uphold their “promises” to wife, children, churches and Christ.  I too was encouraged.  But were we initiated that night?  Was there a radical self-rearrangement, a moving from one stage to another, a journey into death and back into life? 

 

Perhaps the Christian men’s movement could not hope to achieve so much.  That kind of initiation can only be had in baptism.

 

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Male Initiation, Rant Casey Style

20 July 2008
 
 
 

Palahniuk

Palahniuk

 
 

 

(Over the next week I will be posting several entries on ritual and initiation.  This is the first installment.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Men have a peculiar need for ritual.  Of this I have become convinced.

It came home to me yet again while reading Chuck Palahniuk’s absorbing new book, Rant.  The novel, written in a kind of documentary/oral-story format, follows the larger-than-life story of Rant Casey, a troubled Midwest male who intentionally contracts rabies, again and again, by sticking his arms down rodent boroughs.  In the process he seems to develop unnatural abilities to “smell” people’s lives, concoct bizarre anti-social pranks, and, if the legends be true, figures out how to time travel.  In his adult years he helps popularize a new form of entertainment called “party crashing,” where young adults dress up in alter-ego garb (wedding apparel, student drivers, etc.) and crash into other participants at low speeds in mock dramas.  Bizarre circumstances surround Rant Casey’s life, including the poisoning of many of his family members and, ultimately, his disappearance in a supposedly-fatal crash.  Most of the story is told from his colleagues, who report him to have achieved immortality – or have they just immortalized him in their minds?  What is for sure is that Casey managed to spread his case of rabies far and wide, starting up a kind of rabies cult in the youth culture.

Palahniuk bombards the reader with a host of themes, but let me hone in on his outstanding presentation of initiation rituals in the late-modern world.  Rant can be read as a necessary pairing to Fight Club in this respect.

Like Tyler Durden, Rant Casey is western society’s wake-up call.  In his own diabolical way he challenges the status quo by plunging headlong into antisocial behavior.  Rabies serves as the centerpoint for his anarchistic philosophy.  He not only disturbs his own psychosomatic processes, but intentionally spreads the disease, as if to converts.  It is unclear what kind of metaphysical powers are imparted by rabies, but at the very least it becomes the symbol for everything antiestablishment.  Casey is contrasted with Wallace Boyer, a car salesman who, along with telling about his interaction with Casey, informs the reader about how a good salesman learns the art of mimicry.  Selling cars means leading a potential buyer into thinking he or she is the warm, glowing center of the bourgeois universe.  It means reinforcing his or her insulation from the hard reality of mediocrity-and-then-you-die.  Not so with Casey.  The good life means disrupting every system possible.  Again, like Durden of Fight Club

, Casey is the paragon of “freedom,” secured through the most anti-corporate, anti-family, anti-society actions possible.  Palahniuk clearly despises the bland religion of Martha Stewart living, and so manufactures another villain in service of the necessary shock therapy.  We need to get out of our civilized malaise.

I’m interested in how Casey serves as the initiator of men in this disturbing existential quest.  He seems to inspire men to emulate him in all sorts of ways.  He spreads his thinking as a disease, and his disease as a new way of thinking.  In an altogether unsexual way, he is willing to kiss men to give them rabies.  His total willingness to play the role of the societal Other inspires men to do the same, to forfeit their comfortable lives in pursuit of a more authentic mode.  In this sense Casey strikes me as a kind of pathological version of the Wild Man.  Bly’s Iron John introduced us to this neo-archetype (I say “neo-” because it didn’t come into play until late in the psychology conversations; not even Jung attended to it), the hairy man who is able to initiate men precisely because he doesn’t play by any of the rules of civil society.  Casey exists as a kind of enfleshed shadow hell-bent on pulling sissified boys from their (maternal?) worlds of pleasure and fear.  He infects them.  He reorients their patterns.  He encourages them to pull pranks, to risk everything, even life and limb through vehicular collisions (again, the final initiatory rite in Fight Club

).  He teaches men to stare straight into the face of death – and thus find themselves. 

Like all Palahniuk’s novels, liminality plays an ambiguous role.  By liminality I mean the kind of semi-conscious psychological “space” of rituals.  This kind of detachment from the normal world provides an opportunity to liberate oneself and be rewired.  In a ironic, self-critical way, Palahniuk finishes the novel by bringing out a host of fictional scholars to discuss the anthropological phenomenon of party crashing, even going so far as to quote Victor Turner’s definition of communitas.  It isn’t real community.  It’s a momentary sacred space powered by mutual participation.  Party crashers engage in this behavior for the complex phenomenon of self-making in a temporary “liminoid” environment.  While searching for someone to slam into, participants dress up and play roles, even unholy and unsavory roles, as an outlet for personal expression (think Halloween, Mardi Gras, masquerade balls).  But the act ends there.  They go back to their jobs and quiet little lives.  I love how Palahniuk gets us wondering about how much antisocial behavior actually serves to uphold society.  Party crashing is a release valve.  Moreover, after Casey’s death, endless numbers of teenagers try to contract rabies, or at least fake having it.  They want to be initiated into it, whatever it is.  They want to challenge their identity and re-make themselves.  But in this bizarre disease-embodying are they really “free” from society, from peer expectations, from death?  This kind of ritualistic sublimation of oneself may be nothing more than a veneer.  It all funnels back into society in a healthy way.  That is, unless one is “really free,” like the immortal psychopath, Rant Casey.    

In the days ahead I’ll explore how masculine rituals have been deployed in two rather different groups: the ManKind Project and evangelical Christian churches.  

How does one initiate the guy in his cubicle existence?

How does one initiate the guy in his cubicle existence?

Let me stop here and pose the questions for men’s studies.  What kind of rituals do modern boys and men need in order to break free?  From what are they breaking free?  And why do they need them?  Likewise, this novel raises huge questions for the issue of initiation.  Who is supposed to be initiating boys and men?  Into what are they being initiated?  And how do they achieve liberation in a way that is generative, not destructive?

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Dressing the Part in Zwinky World

11 July 2008

If I might stay in the fashion and gender vein . . . 

 

One of the more popular activities for online youth involves the creation of avatars, that is, animated icons representing oneself.  Zwinky, a software program designed for the very thing, helps people generate anime-inspired personae.  It seems to be especially popular with girls, who can try out all sorts of outfits on their cyberselves, though Zwinky offers a range of male templates. 

Their standard ad features a cartoonish girl with long legs, hourglass waist, big breasts, doe-like eyes.  No surprise there.  But she also sports short hair and skullbones on her bra and shorts. Follow the ad to their site to find most of the other female avatars sharing these core qualities: C-cup-plus chests, skinny girl legs, and eyes as big as plates.  Yet this is no traditional Barbie.  Most have actual hips (thank goodness.  How did hips go out of style?).   A surprising number of the female personalities have an ass-kicking quality to them, a weird hybrid of “Hello Kitty” and punk-goth bitch.

 The male figures appear more normal.  Normal, that is, if one means lean and muscular with smaller heads and piercing eyes.  The men are also encouraged to dress themselves up in various fashions, though I noticed that their wardrobes tend to be limited compared to the women.  With the exception of pimp-wear (gaudy necklaces, pink suits, etc.), the men had relatively standard, casual fare from which to choose, stuff you’d expect to find at a skate park or frat party.  I did find, however, certain male users who had gone towards a bobblehead look.

It is a little surprising that Zwinky, with its be-who-you-want-to-be philosophy, doesn’t challenge social conventions so much as supply their exaggerations. 

 

 

 

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What Is It about a Man in Uniform?

8 July 2008

Especially in bygone days, but even now, it has been common to hear women say, “I love a man in uniform.”  They mean it romantically/sexually, but their attraction clearly stems in large part from the kinds of associations they gather from a uniform.  What women ostensibly mean when they refer to “uniform” are not refrigerator repairmen and Arby’s employees; they mean police officers, military, doctors, firemen.  Notice how each of these uniforms indicate key traits:

  • Economic viability
  • Physical strength and vigor
  • Mental acuity
  • Social status

That is, women can “safe-sexualize” a man in a uniform because he is a known entity.  Other types of uniforms may provide a stereotype for more daring sexual fantasies, such as the shirtless Harlequin romance beefcakes or Diet Coke’s “Lucky” commercials.  But for the most part women fall back on men whose occupations are indicated in safer, more professional garb, making transparent a whole other host of socio-economic qualities.  Uniforms signify a kind of homogeneity useful for identification of one’s rung on the social ladder.  Think about it: it’s indicated in the name itself, uni-formity. 

How interesting that men tend to like women in outfits, not uniforms.  Barring the nursing profession, occupational garb isn’t as important for men, who generally look for women who are able to accentuate their lives, not women who provide a financial or class-status cornerstone.  Thus men like changing appearances, whether that be the changing fashions from day to day or the erotic role-playing in the bedroom.  But these trends may be reversing in some part as women play a greater role in business outside the home and men identify less with their roles as breadwinners and defenders. 

Any further thoughts or observations?

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How the ManKind Project Survived the End of “the Men’s Movement”

5 July 2008

           

Historians, if they remember the mythopoetic men’s movement at all, place it roughly between 1990 and 1993.  Everyone seemed to be talking about men.  Robert Bly’s Iron John and Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly were each bestsellers.  And then off the media radar.  The men’s movement was dead.  Or was it?  One organization survived, even thrived, through it all: the New Warrior Network (NWN), later renamed ManKind Project (MKP).

The New Warrior Network had benefited from the boom years of the movement, certainly, but it also saw uninterrupted growth through the 1990s.  Where five regional centers existed in 1991 and nine in 1992, a full 23 cities had Training Adventure weekends established by 1996.  Some 10,000 men had been initiated by summer of the following year; by summer 2006, 32,000 had been through the weekend training.  The NWN renamed itself “ManKind Project” in 1996 for publicity purposes, but the mission remained relatively steady.  Despite high costs for new initiates ($500-$600 for a weekend) and demanding schedules for the volunteers, the organization has expanded well beyond its initial scope.

 

How has the ManKind Project (MKP) sustained itself?  At first glance, it may have seemed the least likely to survive.  New Warrior weekends received some of the most disparaging media coverage.  The organization had even caught flack from Bly himself, calling it a quick-fix and a caricature of the warrior archetype.  In a devastating turn of events, Ron Hering, one of the founders, was murdered in 1993.  How did it manage to press on, even thrive?  Four things appear to have set it apart: 1) simplification of principles, 2) an outline for progress, 3) federated centralization, and 4) an evangelistic temperament.  These factors made it possible to outlast the boom.

 

First, MKP managed to boil its beliefs down to a minimum.  Other expressions in the movement were so open-ended as to appear either muddled or dismissed as “New Agey.”  The New Warrior Training Adventure weekends were able to focus on several key issues: getting men comfortable with each other, affirmation of male worth, grappling with family wounds, and formulation of a life mission.  A modest set of wisdom could be imparted over the three-day event, enough to feel like true initiation had occurred.  This initiation was understood to be a starting point, an entrance into male maturity.  Moreover, the ManKind Project felt no need to multiply endless archetypes.  Stories and images could be helpful, but the important thing was having a workable theory.  This fell into place for them with Robert Moore’s work on the four-fold king, warrior, magician, lover.  Moore became the unofficial theorist of the masculine soul, speaking at MKP conferences and expositing his anthropology in print.  The organization also loosely appropriated Joseph Campbell’s stages of the hero journey as a paradigm for men’s lives.  It was a manageable system in which to work.    

 

Secondly, MKP offered a blueprint for masculine progress.  After the initiation, having been introduced to the male mysteries, a man is given the next step.  The microcosm of the “I-groups” allows men to process the weekend, bond with each other, and work on personal issues.  Starting shortly after the weekend experience, these groups might last anywhere from eight weeks to several years, two to three hours a session.  From there participants are encouraged to oversee other initiation weekends, or perhaps seek further training, as in Bill Kauth’s “Warrior Monk” program.    Men have responded well to having some manner of structure, instead of having to invent their own way forward.  Where other mythopoetic strands preferred a laissez faire model, the ManKind Project provides a plan for masculine growth.  In the same vein, MKP’s activities have appealed to a spirit of “manly” proactivity that has usually already been inculcated in its participants.  In my own experience, the most frequently used phrase in MKP is “Good work, men.”  The training materials and suggested readings reinforce this approach, emphasizing self-determination, while giving practical steps to make that happen.

 

Third, naturally, MKP’s growth was made possible by centralization of the organization.  From the outset its founders desired to maximize the program.  Kauth was clearly the most important presence within MKP, but he believed strongly that the programs would only grow if managed under local leadership.  While he, Tosi, and Hering had disproportionate control in the early years, they found ways to flatten the hierarchy as the organization expanded.  What resulted was a presbyterian polity, something analogous to the United States government’s balance of powers.  In 1991 the organization established a board consisting of one voting representative from each center.  In 1993 an “executive training director” was appointed to ease the burden on local leaders, and after that numerous “chairs” were added as an executive branch.  Certification of leaders was established, as was the writing of the “Governance and Council” guidelines.  As one leader of the movement conceded, “To become bureaucratic is inevitable.”   By creating a federation that governed both locally and nationally, the MKP adopted polity that had shown itself viable in America.

 

Finally, ManKind Project was evangelistic.  By this one should not hear “Evangelical,” “doctrinaire,” or even “proselytizing.”  Spirituality, being attached only to humanistic principles, allowed the organization to claim, “[W]e don’t invest any of the rituals we use with religious significance.”   MKP, nonetheless, was built on a fairly aggressive word-of-mouth network.  They understood themselves as having a mission to redeem men, and this mission meant initiating and training others.  In language reminiscent of Christian revivalism, Robert Moore once said at rally, “The ManKind Project, I believe, represents a sincere effort to try and create for the first time in the history of our species a vessel of masculine initiation that strives truly to be inclusive . . . . This is a new thing on this planet – a grandiose undertaking, but a worthy undertaking that we have decided to work on.”  He finished by saying, “These are the words I want to leave with you – Keep love alive, keep love alive!  And if we keep love alive, my personal judgment is, nothing is going to stop us.”   In such a way, the MKP retained the belief that men, if truly initiated and transformed, could become the impetus to heal the world.  This gospel was used to recruit men for weekends and plug them into the leadership structures.  Unlike individualistic men’s groups, MKP anchored men within the fraternal system, actively generating a network of “warrior brothers.” 

ManKind Project presses on today.  It faces new organizational struggles, but the content of the programs and the charisma of the participants remain.  In all likelihood MKP will not initiate a new public phase of a men’s movement – but if it stays the course it should darn well survive the next. 

[For footnotes or bibliographical information, contact me.]

 

 

 

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Van Damme’s Universal Language

3 July 2008

Jean-Claude Van Damme told Metro magazine (3 July 2008) that he wasn’t surprised that he had become an international movie star.  “My movies are international,” he said, explaining, “Everybody understands a slap in the face.  In Japan, Belgium or America, a punch is a punch.” 

This, of course, is exactly what dictators and schoolyard bullies and movie directors have known all along, that physical violence communicates in any culture.  Otherwise indifferent audiences have to pay attention.  The attitude Van Damme displays goes a long way in explaining why men in so many societies tend to default to violence as a mark of true masculinity.  It identifies a man as powerful, forceful, and important.  On the other hand, I find it interesting that Van Damme’s statement is patently false in the sense that not all cultures interpret violence to mean the same thing.  It may be a sign of power, but that power may be interpreted as more or less appropriate, more or less fitting as an expression of manliness.  Most cultures tend to find American movies’ bloodshed gratuitous at best. 

I might add that, from what Van Damme movies I’ve been exposed to, the universal language seems to be that of vengeance.  Most every culture seems to relate to a sense of personal justice.  Van Damme plays off this the inherent weakness we have, not for violence per se, but for vigilantism.

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Gatorade and Androgyny

3 July 2008

A Gatorade ad being run this year in the UK features a topless man, a swimmer, bronzed and gleaming.  He has been digitally connected, however, to a woman in a lab coat, clearly a scientist of sorts.  The advertisement, of course, seeks to assure athletes that they are getting the maximum amount of technological research with every swig of their sugarwater.  Why not do so with an eye-grabbing way androgynization that may even express a kind of equalitarian sentiment?

 

The ad is unsettling, however.  The man and a woman are set up as comple a kind of hieros gamos, a kind of yin-yang which works together as non-competitive complementarity.  Yet the man-half makes up 60% or more of the human hybrid in the picture.  Moreover, I find it striking that the man is presented as the archetypal athlete while the woman plays the technical – but supportive – role.  Or, in a kind of post-Victorian expression of modern college enrollment patterns, is the binary oriented around the male-brawn and female-intellect?  Or is it actually reversing the pattern of the sexualization of the female body and the authoritative garbing of the male in a uniform?  I’m not sure if there are other ads in circulation reversing the roles. 

 

Perhaps the bigger question regards the social function of such product images.  Slavoj Žižek notes how the multiplication of “couples” in the West may be, after all, an attempt to gloss over the unspoken dualism at the core of our society.  The he-she unity of the Gatorade ad may simply help “introduce a balanced duality into the minor spheres of consumption,” just like restaurants pair blue and pink packets of artificial sugar, displaying “an attempt to supplement the lack of the founding binary signifying couple that would stand directly for sexual difference” (The Puppet and the Dwarf, pp.25-26).  Have we really dealt with identity and difference by smashing the two together, or is this precisely the avoidance of such questions?