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By Way of Conclusion

By way of conclusion, some reflections on the cultural variability of the kinship values of birth. For human birth, as has been said, is not a pre-discursive fact. In many lowland South American peoples, it is not necessarily a human birth. Peter Gow writes:

When a Piro baby is born, the first question asked about it is, "Is it human iyineru)?” This question addresses the bodily form of the baby: is it a human, or a fish, or a tortoise, or "an animal nobody had ever seen.” The bodily form of the baby is an intrinsic identity form, which is uninfluenced by parental behaviour. (2000, 47; see Taylor 1998 and Vilaca 2002)

Speaking only of human births, we have already seen that the different cultural discourses of procreation are highly variable as concerns the substantive relations of parents and their offspring. There may be no such recognized relations at all (Kamea, Papua New Guinea). Or if there are substance connections set down in procreation, they may be ignored in the way family relations are known (IKung Bushmen). Then again, only one of the two parents may be substantially linked to the child; either the mother is excluded (Arawete) or the father (Jivaro). If both parents do contribute substance to the fetus, it may be the same substance (Tanimbar) or different substances: and if the latter, these substances may be complementary (Tlingit) or antagonistic (MaeEnga; Daribi). This is not to mention the great variety of such procreative substances or the intangible contributions of parents such as soul (Tlingit) or breath (China). Then again, the parental bestowals may constitute the child’s inner being or outward appearance, and they may entail a collective or an individual identity. Not to mention the important conveyances of spiritual third parties. Should all this cultural variability be laid to a physiological constant? Clearly human birth is a semiotic function of a kinship order, rather than kinship a biological sequitur of birth.

There is, however, one relevant generalization that seems to hold across the several ethnographic references that have been considered here. Either the greater kinship order is already present in persons at birth, as by ancestral means of reproduction; or else kinship relations are largely established in life, as by actual participation in the existence of others. For a given society, these are not necessarily exclusive alternatives, but perhaps only dominant tendencies: the way agnatic clans in the New Guinea Highlands may assimilate some outsiders who have come to live off their lands; or Ge-speaking Amazonians, while generally constructing kinship outside the nuclear family by name- sharing, will observe birth relations within it. But with these reservations, it appears that whether or not kinship is present at procreation depends on the way it is organized in the society at large. Starkly put: kinship is notably built into the relations of procreation in societies predominantly composed of unilineal descent groups; but where cognation or kindred networks prevail, the active participation of people in each other’s existence is a more likely means of kin relationships.

A paper by Anne Christine Taylor (1998), in the course of speaking to the relationship between Achuar (Jivaro) person-hood and kinship, lays out such alternatives of birth- ascribed and life-achieved kinship in a revelatory manner. The text approaches the issues in two complementary ways: in the beginning, by certain observations on the construction of Jivaro persons, with implications regarding the kinship relations in play; in the end, by observations on the construction of kinship relations, with certain implications regarding personhood.

For the Achuar, the constitution of the person is not given at birth. As just mentioned for Piro people, and as is often the case in Amazonia, there is no assurance a priori that the offspring will be human. But if it is, what follows in life is a series of discrete contributions to the composition of the person-body by various members of the society. These “tasks of constitution” are divided among a multitude of contributors:

. . . from some come the name or successive names, from others this or that substance such as blood or bones, from still others the appearance of that second skin which is ornamentation, and from others finally the faculty of sight, understanding, or speech, or the capacity for heroic action. (1998, 318)

Taylor then draws an explicit contrast to the kind of clanic construction of the fetus that we have seen for Tlingit or Enga. By the multiple endowments on the part of various others, the Jivaro person is referred to the society at large rather than one or another of its segments; “and its body is a palimpsest of the collective existence rather than a part of a mechanism or even the microcosm of an encompassing system.” Taylor refuses to speculate whether this ecumenical distribution of person components is a cause or an effect of the prevailing cognatic system—of the kind widely found in the region. But she does say it is at least partly linked to the cognatic order—a kindred schematics, one might note, that usually involves a considerable leeway of kinship choices—by contrast to unilineal structures, which are comparatively rare in lowland South America. Correlatively, this lifetime construction of the person by a multitude of parties is associated with rather vague ideas about the parental contributions to the fetus. The people "seem to accord a very limited interest in the mechanisms of gestation” (320). As we have seen from Taylor’s discussion of the same in another context, even when it comes to the father’s contribution of semen, this is understood as nourishing the child in the womb rather than substantially composing it; and it is no different from his continuing to establish fatherhood by feeding the child in life. Once again, semen is semiotic, here a food rather than a generative substance.

Taylor notes that “anti-organicism” and “anti-segmentarianism” are found elsewhere in the lowlands, but the Jivaro apparently give these unique twists of pragmatism and individual affect. In a concluding discussion of Jivaro kin relationships, she writes:

Sociality is not founded on a jural conception of the obligations due to this or that relative: it is rooted rather in the affectivity created by the nature of commensal or intimate relations between individuals. One does not come into the world in an organized society comprised of groups whose members are integrated by virtue of a pre-established etiquette. One is bom in a social territory, and in that space everyone constructs his own kinship relations. From the semantic classes appropriate to the system of kin relations that he inherits from his culture, each one forges his own matrix of kin, tracing in quotidian practice his own social network. It is through the exercise of a shared relation that one becomes “husband” or “wife," “father” and “son,” and one learns to love his near-ones because they testify to their own affection for him by means of nourishing care—in the same way that one becomes a warrior in response to the hostility of his enemies. (3 3 3-34)

Indeed in Amazonia, people both determine their own kin by opposition to their enemies, and they reproduce the former by assimilating the latter. That is another long essay, already written by others, from which, however, the same lesson could be taken: that as constituted from birth to death and even beyond, kinship is culture, all culture. Precisely as Viveiros de Castro wrote of “Amazonian peoples (for example),” the mistake to be avoided is to imagine they entertain some non-standard biological theory of inheritance; whereas, in truth “Amazonian kinship ideas are tantamount to a non-biological theory of life. Kinship here is what you have when you ‘do without’ a biological theory of relationality” (2009, 241).


Date: 2015-12-24; view: 730

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