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Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body Chris Otter Journal of Social History, Volume 44, Number 1, Fall 2010, pp. 247-248 (Review) Published by George Mason University Press For additional information about this article http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jsh/summary/v044/44.1.otter.html Access Provided by Rutgers University at 05/20/11 4:56AM GMT REVIEWS 247 SECTION 1 GENDER ISSUES Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body. By Christopher E. For
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  Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body Chris Otter Journal of Social History, Volume 44, Number 1, Fall 2010, pp.247-248 (Review) Published by George Mason University Press For additional information about this article Access Provided by Rutgers University at 05/20/11 4:56AM GMT http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jsh/summary/v044/44.1.otter.html  REVIEWS247 SECTION 1GENDER ISSUES Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body . ByChristopher E. Forth (New York and Basingstoke, UK: PalgraveMacMillan, 2008. xi plus 285 pp. $29.95 paperback, $85 hardcover). In this engaging, sophisticated book, Christopher Forth provides a transnationalhistory of masculinity over the last three hundred years of Western history. “Moder-nity” and“masculinity,” he argues, exist in a state of inescapable and productivetension. Every “progressive” development in the West, such as new forms of tech-nology, the rise of commercial society and urbanization, make possible new formsof masculinity: techno-nerdishness, aggressive stockbroking and metrosexuality, forexample. However, such novel masculinities appear haunted by a past where menwere harder, more physically virile and less constricted by civilization. This explainsrecurring efforts to escape the effeminizing tendencies of modern life by returningto something more simple, visceralandnatural,like athleticism and militarism. Mod-ern masculinity, then, is structurally unstable, dynamic and contradictory.Such formulations can often seem rather abstract, but Forth’s history is satis-fyingly, indeed ebulliently, fleshy. He explores the dynamic of modern masculin-ity across a broad range of bodily practices, including dueling, sexuality, fashion,manners, warfare, bodybuilding, and, perhaps most intriguingly, diet. Food, Forthargues, has for centuries been a critical site where claims and counter-claims aboutmasculinity have been made, in multiple cultural contexts. There has never beena stable “masculine diet” but rather a series of competing masculine diets reflect-ing various constructions of masculinity. In the eighteenth century, for example,the British celebrated their plain and perhaps rather monotonous diet as “manly”(105) and contrasted it to the more refined, effete, modern French diet. Yet Frenchgastronomy was itself an exclusively male practice, and gastronomes regularly usedmilitaristic language to depict their meals (107). Consumption of meat, whichrose dramatically in the nineteenth century, was firmly connected to ideals of virility, strength and violence, but ‘muscular vegetarians’ challenged this assump-tion by arguing that meat-eating was profoundly artificial, unhealthy and unmanly(112). A meatless diet would be more natural in that it would produce less violentmen. Others retorted that men were naturally hunters: “true” masculinity ap-peared, and appears, endlessly elusive. Meanwhile, obesity, once equated withsturdy stoutness, slowly became a bodily demonstration of failed self-mastery andsoftness. In his fascinating discussion of the gender problems of the modern clerk,Forth depicts this quintessentially petit-bourgeois figure wedged behind a desk,enslaved by technology, surrounded by women and lamenting his slowly expand-ing paunch. Little wonder that men have become as dietarily confused as women.The ineluctable ambivalences of modern masculinity have also been articu-lated around the issue of violence. For many modern commentators, the tran-scendence of violence and aggression is the mark of progress, while the capacity  journal of social history248fall 2010to neutralize pain through analgesics and anesthetics is routinely heralded as thegreatest of scientific developments. Yet excessive passivity, and over-sensitivity topain, is among the most obvious hallmarks of weakness and effeminacy. As Forthnotes, this explains a notable trend (at both individual and collective levels) to-wards periodic renewal of masculinity through controlled violence or measureddoses of pain (115-116). This attempt at rejuvenation has taken numerous cul-turally-consecrated forms, from the rise of organized sport and extreme leisurepractices to compulsory military service. As Forth puts it, the introduction of com-pulsory military service in Prussia in 1813 was “gender therapy for burghers whowere distanced from a warrior lifestyle” (130).At no time (or place) in the modern West, then, can masculinity really besaid to have been stable and unproblematic. Moreover, as Forth conclusivelydemonstrates, this instability has been lived at many levels or scales: within theindividual, between individuals, and between nations and cultures. It is also ex-perienced in profoundly bodily ways, through the sports one plays, the clothesone wears and the food one eats. Self-control and respectability were masculinevirtues, but periodic, controlled, loss of control connected men with a naturalcore largely untouched by civilization. Thus men have the privilege of being si-multaneously both modern and non-modern, and the curse of being unable toever perfectly transcend the opposition. This balancing act becomes, for the in-dividual, a question of ethics, and for cultures, a broader political question.Forth’s history is lively and compelling, but it is not without its problems. Heis, for example, clearly stronger on the modern than the premodern period. In hisbrief analysis of medieval and early modern Europe, for example, he argues thatcourt society offered a “further refinement” of the practices of earlier chivalric andwarrior cultures, a claim which seems to echo some of the most schematic andteleological claims of Norbert Elias (24). 1 Moreover, while he is skilled at teasingout different forms of middle-class masculinity, he is at times less convincing withworking-class and racial masculinities. He does note how the equation of mas-culinity and strength has been particularly problematic for black men, since theensuing connection with the primitive almost unavoidably amplifies biological orcultural stereotypes of race, but more on the nuances surrounding this question,and others relating to both race and empire, would have enriched his study.Such omissions are, however, probably inevitable in such an ambitious,sweeping study. Forth has produced both a truly successful, and wonderfully well-written, synthesis of the rich literature on modern masculinity, and a probing,gendered recasting of Elias’s civilizing process. It provides abundant insights notonly into the history of gender, but also the histories of the body, war, sexuality anddiet. This breadth, combined with methodological sophistication, deserves tobring this book a truly wide readership. The Ohio State University Chris OtterENDNOTES 1. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations , rev. ed., trans. Ed-mund Jephcott, ed. Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell (Oxford, 1994).
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