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.

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