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The Kinship Mode of Human Reproduction

If I read him correctly, Robert McKinley (1981, 2001), in innovative discussions of the problem, while acknowledging that kinship terminology has a genealogical component, denies the implication that the genealogical-«<7»-biological meanings are “primary.” They comprise rather a “folk biology” that itself expresses the larger principles of kinship order, including (one presumes) the relations of marriage, filiation, and descent. As he puts it: “A more appropriate understanding of the situation is that the entire terminological system speaks in a genealogical idiom about the relations among social position5” (1981, 359; emphasis in original). In this connection comes an explanatory footnote:

I now examine the terminological system. In doing this it will be necessary to refer indirectly to what seems to be the biological system but only as this has been culturally appropriated by the system of terminology.. .. Here it is important to recognize that genealogical reckoning is already a way of placing a cultural construction on supposedly preexisting biological facts. But even more important is for us to recognize that what seems to be an element of biological or genealogical information in the referential meaning of kinship vocabulary is, in fact, the use of a metaphor borrowed from folk biology to express the relational properties of the social positions which compose a kinship system. Kinship is a way of being socially connected and folk biology provides the closest conceptual model for this type of linkability. (1981, 386; emphasis in original)

Following McKinley, one might well reverse the received wisdom on the primacy of birth relations, for insofar as these are secondary formations, derivative of the schemes of social order, birth is the metaphor.

Indeed, primary terms are already metaphorical from a biological standpoint, insofar as local modes of reproduction may deny any substantive connection between one or another parent—or even both parents—and their children. We have seen examples in chapter 1. including reproduction by reincarnation, and more will follow. Or consider the !Kung Bushmen, just discussed: given their general organization on a non- genealogical (name-sharing) basis, one can understand why !Kung people—although they believe that the father’s semen unites with the mother’s blood to form a child—do not invoke such connections in referring to close kin but speak of them simply as their “own people” (Marshall 1957, 13). It follows that the most general acceptation of parent-child and sibling terms is not biological but sociological: they describe domestic and familial relations of coexistence, the full mutuality of being in quotidian social practice, whence their appropriateness to performative and classificatory relations of the same intersubjective quality.

Still, the decisive fallacy in the argument that biological relations constitute “primary” kinship, which is then extended to others by secondary considerations, is that it takes the parents of the child out of their social contexts and presumes they are abstract beings, without any identity except a genital one, who produce an equally abstract child out of the union of their bodily substances. Here is a whole complex of generic humans: an ego, his or her genitor, genetrix, and their offspring, all without social identity, linked through the equally undetermined relations of birth. In the long anthropological tradition that birth relations as locally conceived comprise the biogenetic bases of kinship, rarely if ever have scholars who so argue attempted to account for these culturally specific notions of procreation. It is as if these were just so many mistaken ideas of the physiology of conception. All around the world, people got the facts of life wrong, but that’s what they have been talking about—a presumption that preserves the appearances of the abstract model. Hence, the question of what motivates these diverse concepts of human reproduction remains unasked and unanswered. What if the mother’s blood were the blood of her own mother (and brother, etc.) or of her lineage, and what if the father’s semen came from the soil of the clan? Unlike the Robinsonades of the economists, we are not dealing with a lone man and woman copulating on a desert island and thus producing a society. As parents, they already have kinship identities and relationships, the specific logics and attributes of which are transmitted even in the substances they convey to their offspring. For where they are relevant, the blood, milk, semen, bone, flesh, spirit, or whatever of procreation are not simply physiological phenomena, nor do they belong to the parents alone. They are, as I have said, meaningful social endowments that situate the child in a broadly extended and specifically structured field of kin relationships. Through such substances, the child is ipso facto connected to wider circles of paternal and maternal relatives —let alone all those implicated when conception also involves bestowals from ancestral beings. So again, “biological” relations being social relations, in such cases the nexus of so-called extended kinship is already in the composition of the fetus.

Consider the implications if the “blood” a mother contributes to the fetus is indeed the blood of her mother. What wider relationships might thus be logically entailed and sociologically inscribed in the relations of procreation? For one, it follows that the child will be related from birth to her mother’s sister in the same way she is related to the woman who bore her—her mother and her mother’s sister having the same blood (from their mother). And the child will then be related to her mother’s sister’s children in the same way she is related to her “own” brother and sister, all having this maternal blood. As I say, we are not dealing with a couple reproducing all alone on a desert island. Yet not only is classificatory kinship thus built into procreation, but such conceptual transmissions help explain how and


why in so many societies parallel cousins (children of one’s mother’s sister and father’s brother) are distinguished from cross-cousins (children of one’s mother’s brother and father’s sister). This has been a long-standing issue of debate in kinship studies, and not easily resolved, because the special forms of marriage and descent that might account for this opposition of parallel and cross-relatives are not as widely distributed as the phenomenon. However, a distinction between maternal and paternal contributions to the fetus—such as blood and semen or flesh and bone—would be structurally sufficient (Busby 1997); and at the same time, it would be consistent with affinal relationships in a wide array of kinship systems, with or without descent groups of whatever dispensation— matrilineal, patrilineal, bilineal, ambilateral, etc. (cf. Sheffler and Lounsbury 1971; Hornborg 1988).—For where the paternal and maternal substances of conception are different in kind and significant in practice, the child will share a certain parental being through procreation with all parallel cousins and none in this way with cross-cousins. Given the incest tabu, the child has the same maternal blood as her mother’s sister’s children, but not her mother’s brother’s children, since they have a different maternal source; and the same paternal substance as her father’s brother’s children, but not her father’s sister’s children, since they have a different paternal source. Thus, cross-cousins would not be the "consanguineal” relatives they appear to be in our misleading kinship diagrams and genealogical notions (Dumont, 1953, 1963). More precisely, they would not be consubstantial kin, and accordingly they may well be good to marry. In a fine analysis of just such differential transmissions of substance by gender in Dravidian kinship systems of India, Cecilia Busby writes: “The cross cousins have mothers who are unrelated to each other, and fathers who are unrelated to each other. Hence they are themselves as little related to each other as they could be: they are in fact potential spouses” (1997, 38)A In any case, it is high time to investigate these culturally variable conceptions of conception, and although I can hardly claim to do the subject justice, I offer here a few brief notices of what is ethnographically at stake. Again, at stake is the hypothesis that relations of procreation are patterned by the kinship order in which they are embedded: accordingly, they will vary in the matter of which parent contributes what, if anything, to the composition of the child; and, likewise, what spiritual, behavioral, or morphological characteristics are bestowed by relevant third parties. Inasmuch as genealogical connections entail such attributes, they are not logically or temporally prior to culture, let alone to kinship. Indeed, inasmuch as gender and fertility are at issue, there is a good logical chance that relations of human reproduction involve attributes of cosmic dimensions, that they represent human modes of universal powers and processes of fertility.

One caveat, however: these are not so many “theories of conception,” as anthropologists are wont to say. For the peoples concerned, they are not theories but the known facts of life. Moreover, they are socially significant facts, not just organic processes. It is probably better not to speak of “biology” at all, folk or otherwise, since few or no peoples other than Euro-Americans understand themselves to be constructed upon—or in fundamental ways, against—some biological-corporeal substratum. For many, their kinship is already given in their flesh—as in the following ethnographic reports:

In the hierarchical structures of mother’s brother’s daughter (MBD) marriage (generalized exchange) of eastern Indonesia, where wife-givers generally outrank wife- takers, the transmission of mother’s “blood” is the salient feature of procreation—inasmuch as it is also the reproduction of power and wealth. The emphasis on the “flow of life” through maternal blood may be accompanied by a relative neglect of the father’s contribution, notably his “blood,” as well as some devaluation of, if not disinterest in, any other substantive aspect of reproduction (Fox 1980). Susan McKinnon (1991, 110) relates that the people of the Tanimbar Islands, although not particularly prudish, are reluctant to talk about sexual fluids or the process of human reproduction—except when it comes to “mother’s blood.” This alone is the bodily substance that is freely, “in fact, obsessively,” talked about. Although it appears that fathers are also linked to their offspring by “blood,” the Tanimbarese “continually stress that the ultimate origin of blood is the side of the mother.” Note that in a system of MBD marriage and patrilineal descent, the father’s maternal blood is the same as the mother’s, inasmuch as the father’s mother comes from the same group as his wife, ego’s mother. And such maternal blood, as McKinnon observes, is not only associated with life; it underlies the idea of kin relationship and defines “the universe of kin”—a bit more than birthing a child:


In the midst of what is otherwise a striking vagueness on the subject of bodily substances, one thing stands out with marked clarity: blood is a vital substance that is intimately associated with life, and its flow defines both the universe of kin and the commonality that underlies the idea of relation. (1991,110)


Without going into the rich detail of McKinnon’s account, it only needs be added here that the procreative role of the father is undeveloped relative to mother’s blood not only because of redundancy but because the greater political system of the Tanimbarese, as well as the main circulation of wealth, is ordered by the asymmetric relations of wife- takers to wife-givers, and the dues the former owe the latter as the source of their life (mother’s blood). Paternal descent is the given or unmarked condition compared to the politics of maternal blood. As F. A. E. van Wouden famously observed of eastern Indonesia, asymmetric MBD marriage “is the pivot on which turns the activity of social groups”—even as their human society is thus organized in the same way as the cosmos (1968, 2). Just so, in the analogous case of the Mambai of Timor, Elizabeth Traube notes that, conceived as a line of men, the house is “both immutable and stable”; whereas the ties a house contracts through women are “both mutable and fertile.” Hence, “social life is based on a complementary balance between a stable male order and a dynamic female order” (1986, 96).

The Makassae of Timor, as reported by Shepard Forman (1980,159ff.), offer an exemplary instance of the cosmology of human reproduction. Like the Tanimbarese, they practice MBD marriage, wife-givers being superior to wife-takers, although in procreation each contributes essentially similar child-making substances. Father and mother “join together the force of our veins,” the “white blood” (semen) and the red blood that form the child. Moreover, the associated exchanges of bride-wealth and food between the paternal and maternal kin mediate a certain connection between human birth and cosmic fertility. Comprised of work animals, gold, cloth, and other valuables, the wealth passing from wife-takers to wife-givers is reciprocated by cooked rice and pork—which are the source of the bloods that make a child. The exchange, observes Forman, “is a statement about the extension of life through agricultural production and sexual reproduction” (160). Food is the flesh of Mother Earth or her children, and it grows by the complementary action of the dew, which is Father Sky’s sperm, and the rain, which is his blood. Forman explains:

According to the Makassae, dew . . . enters plants through their leaves and mingles with the moisture [blood?] produced by the decay of our dead bodies, which when buried return to Mother Earth's womb, thereby giving life to root crops, maize, rice, and coconuts and filling their fruits with liquid and making them grow. Blood flows in rivulets, . . . the veins of Mother Earth, to the sea. There, male and female bloods unite and rise to the clouds, before returning to earth as life-giving rain. (161)

Forman goes on to document how, in the further affinal roles in mortuary exchanges and the rebuilding of sacred houses, the lineage, too, is fashioned from the same life components. At birth the child is already akin to members of his lineage and the forces of the universe. No “extension” of kinship is needed.

For an informative contrast, by virtue of the distinct and complementary endowments of paternal and maternal elements to the child, consider the procreative complex of the matrilineal Tlingit of the American Northwest Coast. Again, the mode of reproduction represents in its own terms a larger system of relations between groups, as mediated by the rules of marriage (Kan 1986, 1989). Every Tlingit village is composed of the members of exogamous matri-moieties, which are in turn divided into exogamous clans and lineages or houses. The commonly preferred marriage of men to their patrilateral cross-cousins (FZD), when strictly followed, has the effect of reciprocal exchange of husbands between matrilineal groups in successive generations: the son of a man who has gone to reproduce another house returns to do the same for his father’s natal group. Even where the lesser segments of the moiety do not practice a strict reciprocity, marriage with a classificatory FZD produces the same exchange of men at the level of the moieties.—Although the moieties are co-present in Tlingit villages, each is considered an “outside tribe” or “stranger” to the other. Here is an inner-and-own/outer- and-other relationship between intermarrying groups, a relationship that is reproduced in the smallest microcosm of procreation and the universal system of cosmic powers—thereby instantiating the one in the other.

The inner core of the Tlingit child, consisting of bones and spiritual attributes possessed by the matrilineal ancestors, is the legacy of the mother. The matrikin apparently contribute as well to the outside, the body and flesh that house and protect that inner core of true self, but the face of the child in particular, as well as important behavioral characteristics, come from the father. Yet note the presence of a third, spiritual party in procreation, the maternal ancestors. The effect is not only to counterpose a maternal inside to a paternal outside, but a generic and collective inner self to the external and individualizing component of the face and personality attributes provided by the father, the affinal “stranger” from the opposed moiety. Interesting that this set of contrasts replicate in procreation the relations between the allied houses of the parents in ritual, economic, and political practice.

Outsiders, the father’s people support the life and shape the destiny of their child of the other moiety. Taking central roles in the child’s life-crisis rites, they thus transform him or her into reproductive adults and persons of value. For children of rank, this includes the paternal ministrations that launch a chiefly career. The father and his people sponsor ceremonies and participate in potlatches that endow his son (of the opposite moiety) with the bodily attributes and status of aristocracy. Analogously, the paternal kin are responsible for carving the crests that distinguish their affines’ houses. They give face to the house as they do to the child. The crests represent the animal spirits that are the sources of the maternal kin’s well-being. This ability to transform the powers of the wild into fundamental domestic spirits of their affines is the corollary of the outside status of the paternal kin—for indeed it is the forces outside and greater than society that bestow its fertility and prosperity. For their services of empowerment, the father’s people are in turn gifted and feasted by their affines.

The same relations between internal- maternal and external-paternal obtain among the matrilineal Tsimshian—as Margaret Seguin Anderson describes:


Tsimshian saw symbolic associations between fathers, foreigners, animals and supernaturals. A father contributed food to his wife and children, members of a waap (house, local lineage] different from his own, as animals fed their bodies to humans who lived in a world other than their own. Just as the real animal remained in its own village, the reality of the father remained part of his own waap. Members of father's clan had special ritual duties to a child, and were paid by the matriclan for these duties at feasts. (2004,419)


But return for a moment to the collective ancestral identity bestowed by the Tlingit mother in conception practice, likewise in contrast to the individualizing contribution of paternal substance. Here, in the transmission of a collective matrilineal nature is an evident contradiction of the supposed “primacy” of the kinship of procreation, which is then allegedly extended to distant classificatory kin. Again, it is rather the other way around. The larger relations of ancestry and descent, which is also to say the siblingship of the matrilineal clan as well as affinal connections, are here introjected into the relations of procreation. In such respects, the child is at birth an instance of classificatory categories as well as a specific kin-person in a network thereof.

Nancy Munn describes a very similar mode of matrilineal reproduction among Gawa Islanders of the Melanesian Massim. For Gawa likewise, facial appearance is the paternal (affinal) contribution to the child: a contingent and external contribution, as Munn observes, involving “the domain of relationality to the other, or to an extrinsic, external order”; whereas the blood coming from the mother binds the fetus substantially and enduringly to "the other who is the interior self,” the matrikin and the ancestors (1986, 143).—On the other hand, a very clear example of the like in a patrilineal order appears in Mervyn Meggitt’s classic work (1965) on the lineage system of the Mae-Enga (New Guinea Highlands).

For the Enga, the integration of the ancestral group in the composition of the fetus is already implied by the local definition of the clan as “a line of men begotten by the one penis” (Meggitt 1965, 8). In effect, then, all members of the clan have the same father: they are generically siblings, at least those of the same generation. But it is especially the practices of complex marriage (in the Levi- Straussian sense) that help explain the encompassment of the system of patrilineal groups, own and affinal, within the relations of procreation. The distinctive feature of complex marriage rules is that they specify categories of persons, mainly relatives, one cannot marry, such that the positive determination of whom one may marry becomes the default case of anyone not prohibited. Thus negatively phrased, the Enga marriage proscriptions are many and extensive. Besides women from one’s own clan, the rules stipulate that a man should not marry any female descendant of any living or dead woman of one’s own clan; any woman of the subclans of the husbands of women of one’s own clan; any woman of the subclans of one’s father’s mother, mother’s mother, and mother’s father; any woman of the sub-clans of wives of living men of one’s own patrilineage; and more. Enga explain that they want to extend their affinal relationships as widely as possible, hence without duplication, and in this way achieve optimal returns for their bride-wealth payments in political and economic alliances. But this is only possible because of the collective way the proscriptions are phrased in terms of lineages, subclans, and clans. A marriage thus implicates whole patrilineal groups as such in affinal relationships, albeit in the non-repetitive way of a single union. Moreover, inasmuch as any given patrilineal group holds the different marriages of its individual members in common, the matrilateral ties will not differentiate the generic “sibling” identities of lineage or clan-mates. Rather, "the stress on agnation as an organizing principle is so

marked that marriage ties in themselves do little to differentiate individuals or sibling groups within the patrilineage or clan” (Meggitt 1965, 158). Although the

relationships of mother’s brother and their maternal nephews are especially solidary, the life-giving ministrations of children by their matrilateral kin are apparently limited—as is also consistent with the customary integration of wives in their husband’s agnatic groups.

Indeed, the Enga famously fight the same people they marry, taking wives in one-off unions with nearby clans with whom they may well be in competition. Probably the several ambivalences of affinity are in play in the equally famously antithetical relationships of Enga men and women, especially in matters of sexuality, and their respective contributions to the makeup of children.

For present purposes, what is significant about the makeup of Enga children is the relative devaluation of the father’s substantive contribution to the fetus in favor of the spiritual bestowals of the patrilineal clan ancestor—which is also to say that the so- called primary kinship of fatherhood is secondary to the extended brotherhood of the clan. A child is conceived by the mingling of paternal semen and menstrual blood in the mother’s womb. However, four months after conception, “a spirit animates the foetus and gives it an individual personality.” Coming from the paternal side, this spirit is not, however, transmitted through the father’s semen. As Meggitt tells:

Instead it (the spirit] is in some way implanted by the totality of ancestral ghosts of the father’s clan and seems to be an emanation of their generalized potency. . . . The existence of the ancestral ghosts is thus as necessary for the birth of a normal child as the initial conjunction of semen and menstrual blood.(163)

Moreover, in “people’s everyday comments on human conception and childbirth, they place little emphasis on the father's biological role and are more concerned with the acquisition of a spirit and ultimately of a social identity as a consequence of the father’s clan membership. The father’s agnatic affiliation legitimately relates the child both by descent and through ritual to a group of clan ancestral ghosts. (163)

People also stress that the mother’s blood, producing the child’s skin and flesh, provides the outward bodily components that enclose and in effect protect the inward spiritual elements of the clan—although, as noted, the former do not create the child’s individuality. But just as singular affinal relationships engage the patrilineal totalities of lineages, subclans, and clans, so the collective identities of the marriage are then realized in the constitution of the one child. Once again, the “extended” kinship category is already present in the so- called primary relationships. The larger structures and values of society are realized in the microcosm of human reproduction.

Very similar collective determinations of kinship in the relations of procreation can be found in African societies that are likewise organized in corporate patrilineal or matrilineal groups, as Karla Poe we (1981) has recognized. Respectively emphasizing the paternal or maternal role in conception, the procreation concepts of the patrilineal Zulu or the matrilineal Luapula people, for example, “somehow show how kin are equated.” The Zulu isithunzi, the clan ancestral shades, are “present in the procreative act,” concentrated in the paternal semen, which “contributes the fundamental makeup of the male or female foetus” (8). Emerging from the earth, the ancestral shades endow the child with clan characteristics, to return to the earth at the latter’s death. The clan ancestors of the mother are also present in procreation as menstrual blood. Hence:

Both parties play an important role in procreation, but while female's shades feed the foetus with blood in the womb and with milk following its birth, the male's isithunzi give the child its clan and personality characteristics. Through continual deposition of male fluid in the womb during pregnancy, a male's shades strengthen the unborn child. The work of conception is the work of men. It is they, not women, who pass their shades from generation to generation. (8)^

By Poewe’s account, the matrilineal Luapula are rather the mirror image. Here, “female substance is simply the dominant symbol which stands for identification of oneself with others of an undifferentiated collectivity” (8). There logically follows another appearance of the “kinship I” (see chapter 1):

Since clans and tribes are “one person,” a person living now is always, actually or potentially, the embodiment of someone who lived hundreds of years ago. When that person relates the history which he inherited with the position, he speaks in the "I" form as if he were the ancestor and the events occurred today. Likewise if a prominent man married a prominent woman their respective successors and whole clans many generations thence are transformed into that man and woman, are referred to as being that man and woman, and are perpetually related as husband and wife, even if the incumbents to the two positions are of the same sex (65; emphasis in original)

Everything happens here as if the “kinship I,” reincarnation, positional succession, common descent, and lineal and affinal relations of procreation were so many aspects of the same thing: mutuality of being, or more particularly its epitome, the union of discrete subjects in the “one person.”


Date: 2015-12-24; view: 2155

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