Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Male Initiation: Imagining Ritual Necessity

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Male Initiation: Imagining Ritual Necessity

Article excerpt

Immanent in contemporary constructions of and approaches to masculinity is the pertinence of enculturation, the notion of preliminal male subjectivity, and tropes of maturation. Addressing this multi-facetted pertinence, this paper examines anthropological-political formulations of male initiation in terms of the cultural necessity by which it is routinely characterized. This study requires a cross-disciplinary approach and highlights major interpretative schisms among masculinity scholars. Studying the phenomenon of initiation presents an entry to the complex interplay of social ontology ('men', 'boys') on the one hand, and the (re)imagination of cultural legitimacy on the other. Hence, seeming interpretative necessities refer not just to the phenomenological level, but also to science-sociological, ethical and ethno-linguistic (allegoric) levels of deliberations on masculinity and youth. As a case study, contemporary American ideas about male ritualism are discussed, followed by a short typological suggestion for analyzing necessary masculinity and maleness in ritual.

"...If we're going to fantasize ritually, then for god's sake--rather, for the sake of the goddesses--let us do so with irony and humor, as Apuleius did." (Grimes, 2000, p. 33)

A by now familiar corollary of the "intersectionalist" and deconstructive approach to men seen particularly during the 1990s, masculinity has been studied extensively as a trajectory and accomplishment rather than an immutable category. This has made the subject of enculturation critically pertinent to the social ontology of men (e.g.: not boys) as well as to the cultural semantics of "the masculine." Ethnographic studies of initiation, for instance, may refer to thresholds, penetration, or incorporation as tropes largely distinctive of the male attitude to or experience of-in familiar anthropological jargon--the life cycle. Boys, in other words, are "about men." Manhood, in turn, is about boyhood.

The pertinence of trajectory in masculinity studies presented itself pressingly during a bibliographic approach to worldwide "male rites of passage" (Janssen, 2006/7). However, in ethnographic communications masculinity may seem to be a structuring device for, by-product of or merely informing a prescribed dramatis personae for, ritual eventuality. Unsurprisingly we find that the very operationalization of masculinity, and consequently its theoretical mobility, varies with paradigms of interest as is concerned ritual: "sex roles," "gender identity," "male envy," "patriarchy," "religion," "invention of tradition" and cultural revitalization, "mythopoesis," "spirituality," "performativity," and so on. These paradigms inform late 19th and 20th century anthropological interest in male initiation, but also pervade contemporaneous public imagining and psychomedical theorizing of the male life course as segmented and "developmental."

This paper locates these diverse paradigms and asks how ritual has been imagined as crucial for the (re)imagination of the masculine subject. As an anchor for cultural imagination, interpreting initiation refers to a number of anthropological-theological quagmires, among these the ultimate work, or functional necessity, of ritual. Initiation rites, in the armchair and textbook experience, often instrumentalize academic perspectives on masculine trajectories as schismatic, disruptive and non-linear. The major role of academe has consequently been to theorize the psychocultural necessity of this finding. Psychoanalysts, for instance, have primarily theorized the presence and plot of initiations of boys in terms of universal decompensations, necessary disidentifications and foundational resolutions (e.g. Lidz and Lidz, 1989). Ritual here is seen as a dramatized part of generally dramatic constructions of gender that implicate a double necessity: that of staging, or complementing the staging, of the cultural plot, and that of resolving the psychostructural problem, of early life feminization. …

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