Provocation

Well, I wrote the last post with the intention of being provocative. And look… I succeeded. My PhD student, Jack McGowan, swiftly proclaimed that what I had written ‘hurt my eyes and my brain’, and that he had to respond. That response is posted – unedited – below:

Reverberations? Indeed: so I’ll take my academic life in my hands and join you in taking the risk of “looking like a bit of a tit” You are absolutely right that this issue should be examined in a historical light, and that it is “surprising how little you hear of such rituals in British regiments earlier in the modern period”. However, given our discussions about assumed, shared, political-cultural-social norms – yours, mine, and many historians’ – I would suggest that the contemporary situation must be viewed within a wider cultural context. At the very least, some contrasting light can perhaps be shed by a different ‘cultural’ perspective?

Coming from the notoriously violent west coast of Northern Britain, I am no stranger to ritualized, coercive, ‘set-piece’ male violence, often to express and cement relationships of power. Moreover, Scotland’s unemployment black-spots have provided notably high per capita numbers of military recruits in recent decades (I believe???). It therefore provides a substantial proportion of those you rightly describe as coming “from backgrounds where physical violence is more present than it is in the world of the junior academic or the London reporter.” “Some of them are not that bright.” Absolutely correct on both counts: some of us went to school with them.

I can also well believe that “pretty much any junior infantry officer I have taught has been able to talk about having their eyes opened to the amount of low level violence that goes on amongst those they lead.” However, this somewhat contradicts your Reaction 2), i.e., that “boys will be boys.” Your implication, perhaps unintended, is that it is more understandable and/or acceptable that certain types of boys will be boys. Within certain social spheres it maybe indeed be “all fun until someone goes too far.” Within other mileux it is never fun. It is deadly serious – and deadly. It doesn’t occur within a ‘clubbable’, enclosed context; it happens on the streets and in the home. Is it not this latter (and often not very) “low level violence” which, at the national-cultural level in the 21st century, is the physical and psychological raw material which must be moulded and integrated into a fighting force? This little-educated, non-enlightened, non-Fight Club school of contemporary male violence must surely, despite rigorous training, honing, refining and direction, remain the very backbone of the contemporary “army designed for war”.

I am, therefore, confused as to where you draw the distinction between “boys being boys” and “soldiers being soldiers”, and left wondering how many commandos from Salford or Airdrie have “been on a sports club night out” which might have ended in rituals bearing any resemblance to those reported. Which of the two apparently discrete models of male violence is harnessing the other? And who, precisely, is the ‘enemy’ in such a context? In other words, what – other than tacit institutional license – differentiates this from assault on the street?

Finally, none of this explains the apparently essential prerequisite of nakedness. This is the truly ‘bizarre’ element, which I find more than merely “puzzling”. While territorial gang fights occur in many British city centres, they do not, to my knowledge, involve group male nudity. Like you, “I’ve never got involved in a fight, or stripped naked (voluntarily or otherwise).” Unlike you, however, I’ve only ever seen other people (i.e. men) do the former.

Therefore, it is your relatively mild reaction to the nakedness which I find most striking. Perhaps someone better qualified than I will continue this beyond the realms of mere “male posturing and bravado and all that” to address the elusive borderline between male homo-sociability (even when expressed through anti-sociability) and homoeroticism (even when expressed through physical domination and subjugation). I do believe, however, that this is what these ‘ceremonies’ must be seen, at least in part, to represent.

Perhaps we have both merely revealed that there are no objective points of view; but we can never be reminded of that too often.

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5 Responses to Provocation

  1. The nudity, to my mind, was the most surprising and uncomfortable part (along with the cross-dresing, maybe!) and made me think about class differences in british male bonding rituals. Running round naked or in women’s underwear is very much what Oxbridge rugby teams do, and is not, to the best of my knowledge, a feature of most working-class men’s social sphere. Whearas the casual low-to-medium level violence is much more likely in a post-football or late licence bar scenario which is much more the ordinary working class male bonding space.

    So maybe what is wierd is the combination of the two types of male idiocy in one?

    On a historical note, certain advancing German stormtroopers in March 1918, upon reaching deserted French farmhouses, stopped to eat and drink but also to dress up in the frocks and frillies they found there, apparently.

  2. Jessica says:

    The research that Jason Pelplinski is currently doing at UCL into the behaviours of male groups when drunk may be of use here. He talks about a shift from hegemonic masculine behaviours, through homosocial behaviours (hugging) to behaviour that verges on the homo-erotic, primarily involving cross-dressing although I think nudity plays a part in it. I think he focusses on sports teams (not necessarily university sports teams) but I know he has talked about stag nights as well which may (or may not) complicate the class issue.

  3. Dan says:

    As I said to Jack, you cultural historians are so sex-obsessed, you’d think a penis was phallic… I am not sure that we have to read nudity as _solely_ ‘homo-erotic’. That’s not just my English male reluctance to discuss matters sexual. Casting off your uniform means casting off badges of rank and seniority. It’s therefore a vital part of cathartic ritual. These are also guys who see each other naked the whole time: Marines spend a large chunk of their time communal living (sometimes, depending on duty, in small groups in very enclosed spaces for prolonged tours). Nudity isn’t that special to them. If they were Dutch or Swedish, you’d be saying how their nakedness demonstrated their liberation and self-assurance.
    Vanda – what about all those working class types you’re meant to be letting into Oxford these days? Not that I managed it, of course, but I’ve heard tell that some of them (us?) play rugby (albeit often league rather than union) once they get there. The collision between different male bonding rituals is what modern Britain is all about. Idiocy/fun: there’s a fine line. The walk along it is what’s important.

  4. Anonymous says:

    On a historical note, certain advancing German stormtroopers in March 1918, upon reaching deserted French farmhouses, stopped to eat and drink but also to dress up in the frocks and frillies they found there, apparently.

    Also noted in accounts of British soldiers after the storming of Badajoz, IIRC. And I think I’ve heard of similar tales in the Thirty Years War.

  5. yeah, there are ordinary working class students at oxford but I’ve never seen any of them naked.

    wait, that came out wrong…

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