Friday, July 30, 2010

Nathan Hitchcock - Review of Eric Magnuson, Transforming Culture: Inside the Men’s Movement

This review appears in the new online issue of Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. Sounds like and interesting book to add to my reading list.

June 2010
Volume 4, Number 2
Pages: 97-99
Issue (471 KB PDF)
Review (93 KB PDF)

Review of Eric Magnuson, Transforming Culture: Inside the Men’s Movement
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007), 167 pp.
Nathan Hitchcock

The mythopoetic men’s movement went underground again after a difficult season of national publicity in the early 1990s. “New men” were presented as those who flee to the woods, take their shirts off, drum, tell fairy tales, weep, howl, hug other men, and come home kinder—but basically the same. Twenty years later only a fraction of mythopoetic groups survive, and, understandably, they make pains to stay out of the limelight. Why, then, does this men’s movement continue to anger and inspire and amuse and haunt us? Eric Magnuson gives a modest but compelling answer: mythopoetic work changes men from the inside-out. For all their political shortcomings, these spiritual-therapeutic groups have constituted a kind of “seed movement” that challenges hegemony and reconstructs a new social order from the bottom up.

In chapter one Magnuson gives an overview of the mythopoetic men’s movement and evaluations of it. The problem with earlier critiques from Michael Kimmel, Kenneth Clatterbaugh, Judith Newton and the like, he says, was their unwillingness to engage with the movement from within, preferring to dismantle the popular texts. For all their theoretical insight, their criticism tended to miss the liberating reconstruction of masculinity that was happening at the most basic levels. To rectify this, Magnuson presents a longitudinal ethnographic study of one particular men’s group, the Open Plain Men’s Circle. He presents findings from his eight-year analysis of this one independent organization. Through 230 meetings, 55 hours of interviews and hundreds of informal conversations, the author concludes that mythopoetic men are in the process of rejecting the old masculine way of “being unreliable, overly rational, disempowered, emotionally closed off, deceitful, unloving, competitive, and oppressive,” erecting in its place a masculinity that is “reliable, spiritual, open-minded, empowered, emotionally open, truthful, loving, cooperative, and liberational” (p. 18).

As a sociologist, Magnuson is very conscious about knitting together the macro- and the micro-. He therefore devotes his second chapter to various modern gender theories and argues for the superiority of the semiotic view (which understands gender as symbolic social constructions rather than essential traits inherent in the sexes). This purview aligns him more closely with profeminist critics than with the men’s movement’s major exponents. Magnuson’s methodology assures the reader that the conclusions of his fairly narrow study are not arbitrary. While he succeeds on this score, the most serious shortcoming of Changing Men, Transforming Culture is Magnuson’s claim that the Open Plain Men’s Circle is representative of the mythopoetic men’s movement. It seems to me that his study glosses over the variegated expressions in the work of Joseph Jastrab, Robert Bly, Michael Meade, the ManKind Project, and the hundreds of groups throughout New England, the Northwoods and California. These groups ranged widely with regard to type of organization, programs, essentialistic language and spiritual tenor. On this level, the superior historico-sociological study remains Michael Schwalbe’s Unlocking the Iron Cage (1996). Magnuson compensates for this historical lacuna with a persistent appeal to the theoretical macro-level.

Perhaps the most important contribution of the book comes in chapter three, in which Magnuson describes the function of the mythopoetic leader as an “organic intellectual.” The leader is the practitioner and interpreter of the big ideas of the movement. Moreover, in bringing material and activities to the group, he is at the forefront of evoking cognitive, practical and even political change within the men. Magnuson details seven functions of the organic intellectual as he guides the group. This leader exerts tremendous influence on the shape of the group through suggestion and manipulation—though his authority is not beyond question. I sense this presentation sheds light even on leaders within (the more typical) democratic men’s group, since one or two men in any given setting tend to become the de facto disseminators of ideas and the gatekeepers of the circle. I also found of interest the wide array of religious practices imported into Magnuson’s own group. There is a pluralistic reconfiguration going on among these men as the leader tries to introduce, filter and harmonize disparate religious customs.
Read the whole review.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You also might enjoy "Being Ourself" by Ty Clement. (just some more summer reading! ;o) )