Untimely Observations

Aesthetic Masculinity


Traditional societies draw a sharp sociological line between boy and man. You may be as young as 10 or 12, and boom, you're supposed to help support your family with income and moral authority. It's harder than you think. I remember being told about the oldest of sons in my grandfather's family. His father passed away when he was just a teenager, so he had to take care of both a grieving mother and nine other siblings, while managing a farm with animals and lots of forest acre. Would you nail that when you were 14, and succeed?

In a culture where manhood starts early and doesn't feature any noticable transition period from boy to man, you quickly adapt to any external circumstances. Those circumstances then help to define what it means to be a man. The properties and values we commonly associate with masculinity: independence, initiative, physical strength, moral and intellectual authority, integrity and artistic sensibility -- they have all spawned out of the tough cultural and physical climate where men have been put to test for survival. Today, with adolescence and aimless lifestyle wandering, young men are no longer men, but in the words of hipster-preacher Mark Driscoll, "boys who can shave." Aesthetic masculinity.

If you study Western popular culture, you get an aesthetic view of masculine behavior and values. It's about fast cars, beer drinking, lots of chicks, nerdy computer games, and political labels. They all share a common denominator, aestheticism, or putting more value in the external than the internal. Instead of showing a man pursuing a value or goal, popular culture portrays a man as someone who has bought a certain gimmick or consumer lifestyle. Of course, since the traditional sociological move from boy to man has slowed down, and in many cases not even been made entirely, men need to share collective identity based on something else. If you're not managing a farm, a family, or a church, you have to pride yourself with something else. In our society, it's appearance.

I call this aesthetic masculinity, because it's a kind of surface religion. Any man can join it as long as he understands how to drink beer or drive fast cars. Since it's mostly about surface, there's little of actual performance attached to this masculine identity. Contrary to men who came before us, who built our railways, wrote our philosophy books, waged war against our old enemies and brought up our parents, modern men don't boost with performance as much as with accessories. It's unfortunate, because it's a form of masculinity that is pacifying generations of young men, rendering them impotent enough to be gullied by welfare agencies and domesticated by women in their surroundings.

Some will say this is a civilization-specific problem: we're too good off to be working hard. But a closer look at this argument reveals its absurdity. There is a ton of things for men to do in a modern society that may define their collective identity. The family structure is broken and most women apparently are not here to do anything about it. Young boys are exchanging school for computer games and wild adventure for television. Houses still don't maintain themselves and there are still a bunch of civic work than can be done outside of your dummy office job. In short, men should have their hands full, so our common welfare is a pathetic excuse for inaction.

Aesthetic masculinity, while parts of it are natural products of the male biological nature of competition, show-off and self-assertiveness, presents a false and weak masculine world view. It is too easy to join and it is consumer-oriented instead of producer-oriented, the latter being an important male virtue. All the cars, beers, chicks and toys in the world, however fun they may be, should not define us as modern men. We carry a tradition too heavy to be replaced by what corporations want to sell us in their latest attempt to forge profitable trends. We are heirs of the work of millions of men. They produced what we live by every day, and they made sure it all worked. Now it's up to us to pass it along to future generations. Paleo-masculinity, as understood in this context, simply means recognizing this tradition and carrying it on with passion throughout daily life. Aesthetics is for show, but only real work is for real men.