[NB] Kinship, Maternity, Gender

Ancestry and lineage are hot topics in magical circles these days, but in talking about these things we often fall into vague and romantic notions about how kinship is constituted and defined. Having talked about the very concrete connections between kinship and kalunga recently, Lucien Scubla’s Giving Life, Giving Death: Psychoanalysis, Anthropology, Philosophy has been a timely read. The way in which Scubla repositions kinship studies to emphasize the central fact of maternity (and highlight how it is often overlooked) resonates with much of my own thinking.

Scubla’s work provides cross-cultural perspective on the deep similarities between human kinship patterns. Even where they diverge, they seem to diverge in response to common realities. This indicates that there are forces at work (Scubla falls back to the biological, but I think we can include other forces, too) at work shaping disparate cultures. Despite my sympathy for Scubla, I have some critical perspective on his work, partially informed by deeper dives into the conceptual and ritual field of kalunga. This is going to be theoretical, but it’s the lead in to what I hope will be a more concrete discussion about lineage and kinship.

Scubla comes in hot and heavy, arguing (rightly to my mind) that accounts of kinship in the ethnographic and psychoanalytic literature have unduly emphasized the role of men as the agents and brokers of marital alliance. In so doing, kinship studies have elided the most fundamental element of kinship, namely reproduction. He doesn’t dismiss the importance of kinship as alliance (though occasionally he does seem to lose sight of it), but he argues we can make more sense of kinship structures in their diversity if we treat them first and foremost as responses to the facts of reproduction and women’s centrality in that process.

Where we find structures in places that disadvantage women, Scubla argues that most have them have their roots in an effort by men within a specific society to take control of female reproduction and to abrogate female authority in order to grant themselves privileges that compensate for a sense of deficiency they feel before the wonder of maternity. I’m not sure if he would call himself feminist and on several points he finds himself at odds with feminist interpretations of ethnographic accounts. While wiling to acknowledge deep inequalities, he is also eager to point out cultures where apparent inequalities depend upon us applying values which insiders would not share.

Scubla seems to think that where we see clear signs of male privilege, the structures that support it result from an admixture of unconscious denial and self-conscious appropriation. The heart of this effort are cultural institutions of male initiation which affirm the man’s essential role in preserving life (most often through his capacity to hunt and kill), providing him a (magical) power to compensate for women’s seemingly inherent powers. If he’s right about the arrangement, it may be a quite old one, since one of the hypotheses out there for Göbekli Tepe is that it served as an initiatory lodge for male hunters.

(As an aside: this account Göbekli Tepe and the rivalry of the sexes could reframe Mithraic material against a deep prehistorical layer of human experience. The way in which Mithraic material seems to be in dialogue with the figure of the Great Mother suggests a classic pattern in male initiatory societies justifying themselves on the basis of having stolen something from women or of having received a special dispensation from a powerful maternal ancestress. The family of animal images at play in the greater Mithraic model also fits well with the way various animals dominate different buildings within Göbekli Tepe.)

All this said, where Scubla turns to homosexuality and gender variance his account goes awry. Having found how essential maternity is to the structuring of human society, he takes a dim view toward contemporary accounts of gender variance that unpin it from the biological facts of human reproduction. I am sympathetic to him here, but he overreaches and ends up saying fairly nonsensical or wrongheaded things about homosexuality and gender variance.

He is frustrated first with a number of ethnographers who have made use of ethnographic variety to justify gender relativism. He argues (mostly if not always sensibly) that there are ways in which the gendered division of labor is nearly universally made, a distinction that seems to be rooted in distinguishing the blood shed in violence from the blood shed as part of the female reproductive cycle (menstruation and child birth). He complains that too many ethnographers fail to contextualize this variation in each culture and so mistake a variation in how this is carried out with a genuine variation in the sexual division of labor. In short, they conflate a principle having numerous applications with there being numerous principles.

He also argues that there is a problem with using ethnographic data politically. Ethnography should be, on his account, descriptive and explanatory, not evaluative. However, in criticizing gay marriage, he makes exactly this same mistake. He affirms that marriage is universally a matter of polarity brought together by a mediating third (including the marriage of male and female icons, queens and wives, queens and dead horses as justified marriages). However, in using ethnographic data to evaluate what is marriage, he is failing to describe and explain the actual fact of contemporary gay marriage.

I don’t want to try and jump in and interpret that fact right now because it requires a lengthy detour through Elizabeth I’s transformation of the European world and the emergence of state capitalism, but it has to be treated as a fact, just like he treats the marriage of two statues, a king and the dirt, or a queen and a dead horse.

His attack on ethnographic accounts of third and other genders is even more problematic. It relies on an isolated and cherry-picked example from the Inuit for whom gendered child labor forms an essential part of their lifeways. So, for example, when a family has two boys and no girls, they will name one of the boys with a girl’s name and assign them to a girl’s work. As they come into adolescence, they will then be reassigned to their birth sex’s tasks, an often stressful adaptation. From these children shamans often come, so Scubla suggests (reasonably) that this isn’t a third gender, but an expression of mediation that affirms the two genders.

This is not the most exemplary case of gender variation. He says nothing about the two spirit gender roles that appear among some Americans or the Aravani of South Asia. He says nothing about the Roman legal system which recognized (or, rather, failed to recognize) men who dedicated themselves to Cybele as neither male nor female. He says nothing about more recent transgender identities. The ethnographic fact of all of those remains. That they may depend upon primary male/female designations makes sense, but the durability of these identities over the course of a lifetime would indicate they nonetheless occupy a different gendered category. Mediation, sure, but mediation can produce novel forms.

At various points, Scubla also laments the way in which Aristotle has been treated by contemporary scholars of gender and ethnography. Scubla sees in Aristotle’s embryology a superior model for understanding the differentiation of the sexes. Again, while I am sympathetic to his defense of Aristotle, Scubla seems to be largely ignorant of the ways modern embryology already encompasses and surpasses Aristotle’s understanding. Improved models of conception and fetal development are part of the scientific account of sexual diversity.

In other words, if you follow out the line of Scubla’s argument rather than the conclusions he too abruptly draws, you find yourself in a field of ethnographic and biological concepts that supports the existence of more than one gender. This doesn’t overturn Scubla’s emphasis on maternity or displace maternity from its fundamental place in the development of kinship structures and the continuation of human society. It does indicate that this fundamental sexual dimorphism can complicate itself, producing secondary forms of sex and gender, forms that are dependent but real.

I am picking on these points because Scubla seems to be one of the better informed and thoughtful voices of a more conservative intellectual strain which conflates necessary and probing criticisms of radical social constructivism with supporting forms of blunt essentialism that mutilate and misunderstand human plasticity. We need that plasticity now more than ever as we negotiate this guttering late imperial moment. An appreciation for our plasticity is not incongruous with a sense of its limitations.

Go back to this account of the mothers, for example, which makes so much of the ritual life a stage upon which the mothers think through human potentials.


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