Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Individualism and collectivism: the problem of men

The traditional round, mud hut stands on the edge of the village. A small way further and the rolling hills of the Transkei, on which it stands, fall off into the Indian Ocean. It is symbolic of the role which the structure plays in the ritual that is in process inside.

Entering the hut, the nose is filled with the smell of dried grass and smouldering logs. The eyes take time to adjust to the dim, smoke filtered light before the sense experience begins again. Inside it is dark with an accompanying quiet. Deep brown walls provide a stark background for three white-ochre painted bodies who sit naked on blankets, their month old circumcised penises, tightly wrapped and bound to the waist, exposed.

Their ghostly appearance is again symbolic, as is their newly cut manhood – a sign of the transition to ubudoda (manhood). The abakhwetha (new initiates) are liminal; they are no longer boys, not yet men. Their seclusion keeps them away from the community that has, will, shape and give meaning to their lives when they return home as amadoda (men). A month ago they were abakwenkwe (boys) and all they can think about is coming home, the start of a new life, new responsibilities, through the practice of ubudoda.

Each umkhwetha (initiate) is on an individual journey. He is not, however, alone because the transition is a shared one, in fact his journey makes no sense outside of the greater whole. He is walking a path that his father, grandfather, and fathers before them have walked and so his passage is as much of the past as it is the present, and even the future; the journey his sons and their sons will have to make if they are to become amadoda.

This is the “rite of passage”.

An important addition to the above is the very different worldview of another. The ties that bind, those primary ties that bind this individual to the group, are long broken:

"I am a product of western, Enlightenment individualism through which I am “free” in determining and choosing my associations and affiliations. Yet, in being free I lack that belonging to kin, group, or community that shapes and gives structure, collective meaning, to the individual’s life."

"I am also a man. I am a man though I am not sure how and when this became so. I am a man because my culture has lost its rituals to make it so. I am a man not through rite but because the words man and boy no longer denote some important distinction. The boundary between the two is no longer of some greater significance, it is porous and I have managed to slip through. (My passage was not achieved through rite, nor was it my (cultural) right). As such I have nothing to show for this change and cannot identify that thing that makes this difference, between boyhood and manhood, so. I still feel very much a boy sometimes, ill prepared to face the world. There is much fear in me that I do not, must not, make shown, “cowboys don’t cry” after all."

"I am a hegemon. I wear a skin of bright white privilege, a sex that is not of the fairer kind and am classed in a way that makes me a member of a small, global elite. Oh, and I am compulsively heterosexual. Any talk of privilege is addressing me in part or as an archetypal whole. In looking at hierarchies (of privilege) in these categories of being, I am associated with the hegemonic in them all. Such a subject position allows me access to privileges denied others (those crudely classified as women, blacks, the poor, homosexuals) and enjoyed by the few; this is not because I have earned them in the sense of having laboured for them but because my physicality is the marker of such privilege."


The two above passages paint very different pictures. The individuals in both are shown as very one dimensional characters, products of their environments and particular histories but little more, and yet inside of these two passages we can begin to get a sense of the multi-layered histories, environments and contexts that has shaped them. The first is a snapshot of the world of three Xhosa abakhwetha during their rite of passage to manhood. While this process is gendered – boys becoming men together – it has a larger importance than the mere making of men, it is a process through which boys are invited to create a selfhood, find a way of being that best serves the individual and his particular social world.

The second is an essentialist rendering of one who is fully individuated, a man who is also in transition inside of the personal project of confronting the self toward finding a way of being that involves a more positive expression of manhood, selfhood. An essential process after the realisation that the models or ideals of masculinity he has been socialised into (through the gendered institutions of the family, culture, school, sport, the media and so on), that make claims on this troubled conscious, are not only oppressive of others but more importantly himself. The commonality in these rites of passage diverge here however, as the resources this individual has at his disposal are very different to the ones used by the abakhwetha in their transition to manhood.

Why do they diverge? Well, from the shared common ground of being men in the world the commonality diverges as it is shaped by the forces of worldview that exert themselves on differing consciousnesses and, ultimately, shape their social worlds.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Individualism and collectivism explored

The collective

A useful conceptual framework that helps articulate that feature of collective life on which group social structure and its functioning is predicated can be found the writing of RenĂ© Girard. Girard (1972) sees society, culture, as having an inherent order which he calls “degree”. Within a culture the individual’s place is clear to him or her because that culture dictates roles for its member – father, daughter, uncle, chief, warrior, labourer, medicine (wo)man, etc. This order makes social meaning possible because the individual comes to understand him/herself in relation to others through the structures of culture. Girard says that:

"‘Degree,’ or gradus, is the underlying principle of all order, natural and cultural. It permits individuals to find a place for themselves in society; it lends a meaning to things, arranging them in proper sequence within a hierarchy; it defines the objects and moral standards that men alter, manipulate, and transform" (1972: 50).

Degree then is something that, to borrow from Mbiti (1967), “largely governs the behaviour, thinking and whole life of the individual in the society of which he is a member” (1967: 104). This feature is such that:

“Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoices, he rejoices not alone but with his kinsmen, his neighbours and his relative dead or living…Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man.” (1967: 108-109)
Mbiti’s plays cleverly on Descartes’ concept of “I think, therefore I am” – probably the best known articulation of individualist being – by presenting what might be seen as the collectivist equivalent. The individual inside of the collective has no meaning, no degree, outside of his/her group and so that individual’s sense of self is tied to into this belonging; while the individualist thinks and so becomes a self, the individual in the group is gains selfhood through his/her relation to others.

The simplest expression of the collectivist logic can be found in the Xhosa phrase umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu (a person is only a person through people) or ubuntu.

The individualised
Psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s (1942) book Fear of Freedom is a comprehensive work which looks at the forces that gave rise to the individual and the consequences (social, economic, political and psychological) of this process. The starting point of the book is the social, economic, and political changes that took place in Europe, beginning in Renaissance Italy in the 14th century, that resulted in both physical and psychological shifts inside these European societies that ultimately gave birth to the individual.

In short, the breakdown of traditional (collective) social organisation through the changes in the cultural, political and economic order (towards capitalism) lead to the decline of fixed social positions and cooperative interaction, all of which gave rise to widespread competition and the birth of a new kind of individual; one whose success or failure was determined by individual capacity and willingness to succeed through the accumulation of wealth, status and power. Such a setting eroded much of the cooperation and collective purpose that existed before and helped pit one self-serving individual against another. For Fromm this societal development finds its roots in the emergence of the capitalist economic order in which the economics, and following from this the social, religious and political, of Europe changed from an ordered (read Degree) system inside of which collective operation was common to one in which this order was replaced by free market and individualist operation. Thus was the individual born.

The individualist mode of being has been the dominant one influencing recent world history (through imperialism, colonialism and now globalisation and capitalism) which has had an unsettling effecting on traditional structures, organisation and gender regimes. The impact on men inside of both modes of being has made men and masculinities problematic globally. Men are increasingly vulnerable, isolated and self-interested, as informed by individualistic ways of being, often with negative outcomes.

Among the amaXhosa, for example, an individual’s place in society is clear, a man is a man and a boy a boy, each with their own place, role, and responsibility within Xhosa society. Ritual is illustrative of these positions as the rite of passage is the process by which degree is adjusted in the transition from one clear status to another.

On the other hand, those who are fully individuated are often in a situation where the primary ties (family, community, culture, etc.) are broken in that they have little to no obligations to those they would normally be bonded or responsible towards. Instead they choose their associations based on wants and needs, they do not identify with a particular culture which gives meaning or direction to social life, the main binding association being based on the modern-day contract. Such people tend to be a product of the amalgamation of a range of diverse, different, and even contradictory influences and ideas. In short, they can lack a strong sense of degree, a state that allows they unlimited "freedom" in movement and in what they are allowed to experiment or engage with, the ability to make and unmake themselves as and then they choose, but this often leaves them with feelings of loneliness and without a concrete sense of who "I am" or how to be.

It is much like the ship that shed its own anchor in an attempt to become free, but then finds itself at the mercy of an utterly indifferent sea...