The Man of Steel is no-one’s fictive kin

There are two lovably anthropological beats to Man of Steel. The first is a glimpse of knm er 183. A big thanks for pointing that one out goes to my old classmate August Costa.

The second is the absence of fictive kinship.

To paraphrase the man who taught me and August kinship, being related to someone is like being pregnant. You are or you aren’t. A big budget summer blockbuster manages to recognize that, yet many anthropology textbooks and the instructors who choose them continue to make use of the term ‘fictive kin.’ The director of 300 is out in front of you on this one, guys.

Matthew Timothy Bradley

20 thoughts on “The Man of Steel is no-one’s fictive kin

  1. Actually, some might argue that all kinship is fictive, but I don’t like the term so much.
    So here’s another take:
    The clip substantiates that all kinship is performative and rhetorical; that, I find a more fruitful perspective than the tentative ontologies of “fictive” or “non-fictive” (what’s the positive term people prefer?) kinship.
    Who cares if he “is” his son or not? I care that the old man claims him as a son. It’s simple, but it works for me.

  2. I teach the term “fictive kin” as representative not of how peoples around the world actually view their kinship relationships, but as highlighting the western fascination of biology as somehow the only (or most important) part of kinship. In other words, it is an emic term that tells us something about the people who use it. If the point of understanding kinship is to understand how people view themselves as linked together, then the term “fictive kin” is still useful. It’s just not a useful universal or analytical term. 🙂

    One could see the exchange above as a moment of cultural tension inherent in United States society. On the one hand, there is the western assumption that biology = kinship. On the other, we recognize that biology doesn’t always coincide with human relationships and love in a context with adoption. And in the end, human relationships here win out (as they should).

    The pregnancy analogy, by the way, doesn’t hold. In many places you can, in fact, be a little bit pregnant. Or a little bit related. 🙂

  3. In other words, it is an emic term that tells us something about the people who use it. If the point of understanding kinship is to understand how people view themselves as linked together, then the term “fictive kin” is still useful. It’s just not a useful universal or analytical term. 🙂

    I think I take your meaning there. The term “race” could be taught in the same way. But would that have any advantage over teaching that race is a vacuous concept?

    The pregnancy analogy, by the way, doesn’t hold. In many places you can, in fact, be a little bit pregnant.

    Coming from a community with a sky-high teenage pregnancy rate lead me to the long-ago conclusion that the e.p.t. is categorical.

  4. the tentative ontologies of “fictive” or “non-fictive” (what’s the positive term people prefer?) kinship.

    My argument is that it it shouldn’t be conceived of as a binary (non-fictive/fictive) at all. It should be conceived of as a privative (it is there or it is not).

  5. I believe Mateo may be onto something, especially when you consider something fundamental like the Westermarck effect. Either the effect is present or it isn’t, and this is true regardless of whether the subject of the effect classifies the object as a cousin or a brother or whatever else. In this sense, there can be no ‘fictive kinship’, because kinship just is a set of instincts like the Westermarck effect which operate regardless of consciously-held beliefs about the biology of the matter. See Chapais’s Primeval Kinship for perhaps the clearest exposition of this and its embedding in a realistic and probably correct theory of paradigmatic human kinship.

    On the other hand, ‘kinship’ as a category seems to include instinctive effects, like imprinting, in addition to social rules and principles predicated on shared ideas about kin. ‘You can’t marry your classificatory father’s sister’s daughter’ isn’t based on imprinting, and therefore isn’t ‘either present or not’ because you probably won’t have met all of your classificatory father’s sister’s daughters: They will be strangers, with whom you have no ‘kinship’. In this sense, fictive kinship is still a useful category, because it introduces the idea that rules predicated on kin categories can extend to people who are known to be non-kin in either the biological or instinctual sense.

    That, at least, is my view, and I’m assuming I’ve correctly understood what Mateo means by kinship being present or not.

  6. On the other hand, ‘kinship’ as a category seems to include instinctive effects, like imprinting,

    The place of affect within kinship relations is certainly interesting. Love plays a huge role in American kinship. The notion of maternal/paternal instinct in the States attributes embodied parental emotions to shared biology. Something I really liked about the movie was how Martha, Jonathan, and Clark loved one another in exactly that sort of deep, biological way, but it was biological as in ‘endocrinal’ rather than ‘genetic.’

    In this sense, fictive kinship is still a useful category, because it introduces the idea that rules predicated on kin categories can extend to people who are known to be non-kin in either the biological or instinctual sense.

    Well, imprinting isn’t the only route to affect. For instance, in Korea it isn’t strictly illegal to marry someone with the same surname but that’s the de facto situation. When young people meet up for group dates one of the first things everyone does is give their full name. If you are a Kim the thought of having sex with 20% of the other party is going to be icky.

    Placing individuals in classes as Korean surnames do doesn’t have near as big a place in American society as it does in many. Nationality seems somewhat similar, though. There’s an important point in the movie when we discover that the humans outside of Clark/Kal’s family have stopped calling him “the alien” and given him a name (I think you can guess what it is!).

  7. If you are a Kim the thought of having sex with 20% of the other party is going to be icky.

    Maybe, but even if they don’t have this emotion – even if they are attracted, right away, to a fellow Kim – they won’t be allowed to go ahead with it, with peer and parental pressure keeping them apart. It’s a rule based on a notion of kinship, so it’s not as simple as being ‘there or not’. And I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to believe that a Kim meeting another Kim who is known by the first Kim to be adopted, and about whom they experience no revulsion, would still not be entitled to date or marry the adopted Kim, due again to the same social forces. In the same way you won’t find many step-siblings dating or marrying, even though the kinship is, basically, ‘fictive’, and widely known to be so, and even though the Westermarck effect would not necessarily be present.

    So, I think fictive kinship is still a reasonably useful concept, although it applies primarily in the rules and norms that surround kinship ideas and instincts.

  8. I think I take your meaning there. The term “race” could be taught in the same way. But would that have any advantage over teaching that race is a vacuous concept?

    Absolutely, (and yes, I do) because my undergraduate students come to my classes (especially intro classes) with the idea that “race” and “kinship” are real, universal things. Unpacking the terms they use both acknowledges that they are “real” in the sense of social facts, and specific to their own cultural context. Simply telling that that “race” is vacuous sounds like telling them it doesn’t exist — which it does, and they know it does.

  9. Unpacking the terms they use both acknowledges that they are “real” in the sense of social facts, and specific to their own cultural context. Simply telling that that “race” is vacuous sounds like telling them it doesn’t exist — which it does, and they know it does.

    I don’t see that acknowledging the vacuousness (or incorrectness or however one wishes to phrase it) is at odds with also acknowledging that it exists as a social fact. One may acknowledge the fears that some parents have that vaccinations will lead to their children developing autism while also conveying to them that their fears are unsupported by the facts.

  10. Mateo — it sounds like we basically agree, then. I would like my students to know what “fictive kinship” refers to, since they may hear the term elsewhere and hopefully then be able to refute its disciplinary usefulness. 🙂

  11. Sorry, the bit about a Kim not being able to marry another Kim (legally or based on social norms) is not true. I do research in Korea and it would be crazy if a Kim, Park or Yi/Lee couldn’t marry another of the same surname, given the huge number of people with those three names. What is important is not the surname, but the clan identification. If you’re an Andong (place name) Kim marrying a Kyongju (another place name) Kim, that’s fine (and has been fine for a LONG time). There were laws against Andong Kims (for example) marrying one another, for fear of incest, but now that has been relaxed significantly and one must just be able to go eight generations back without a shared ancestor for marriage to be okay within a group (and this is social, not legal- legally there are only restrictions about cousins marrying cousins, as in many Western countries).

  12. Recent comments on race and kinship, as well as the Man of Steel clip (and the ideal white family norm in which it is rooted, and reproduces), have me thinking about this post and all the comments thus far in relation to (1) the one-drop rule, (2) the role Obama’s ‘biracial’ family background had in his electability as president (his white family created a feeling of kinship for some whites, in a way that would not be possible for all (designated) Black candidates, especially the darker and more ‘unambiguously Black’ they are), (3) Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, (4) the longstanding debate over the Black descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, (5) White slave owners who enslaved their own ‘mulatto’ children (and did not manumit them upon the father’s death), and felt far less connection and kinship to their own genetic children–of the same species–than Clark’s human adoptive parents feel toward him though he is an alien from another planet (but he looks White, like them), (6) Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race, (7) this recent NPR segment on “black babies cost less to adopt” (http://www.npr.org/2013/06/27/195967886/six-words-black-babies-cost-less-to-adopt). Whiteness is powerful; and in this context I find myself agreeing with Al on the usefulness of the term ‘fictive’ kin (though from a different perspective), even as I agree with the points Mateo is making for why to abandon the term.

    So yes, I’ve just focused on slavery in relation to kin(ship)–as well as alliance and descent (a very anthropological trinity)–and it will be assumed, as it is assumed offline when people see me and ascribe me Black racial status, with all the attendant negative assumptions (including low intelligence and ‘hypersensitivity’ about race), that the interest is ‘personal’, i.e. because my kin were slaves who came across the Atlantic via the Middle Passage. Fictive kinship, in both cases, as people assume all too easily that they know who my ‘people’ are–and thus already know what my motivations must be and what kind of person I must be. But my parents came here from Africa by plane in the 60s. No, I don’t think about slavery because I have a personal family history/connection to it, but because it continues to structure present social relations and notions of kin, for all of us (here in the US). Some of us just have to recognize this contemporary legacy because we don’t have the privilege of an ascribed social status which allows us not to think about it.

    So yes, I think about ‘fictive kinship’ a lot, especially in relation to race.

    (How) does this reading of race and fictive kin complicate this conversation? I am wondering if it is really as simple as “you are either related or you are not”, especially amidst the social fact of ‘race’, which so often turns on the question of how related–and thus fully human, and in turn worth valuing and respecting–some humans actually are.

  13. Sorry, the bit about a Kim not being able to marry another Kim (legally or based on social norms) is not true. I do research in Korea and it would be crazy if a Kim, Park or Yi/Lee couldn’t marry another of the same surname, given the huge number of people with those three names.

    I did point out that the legal restriction did not exist. I have never been to Korea, I based my comment above on an unsolicited account from a Korean friend. Perhaps she simplified the situation for my benefit.

  14. SPOILERS AHEAD

    the Man of Steel clip (and the ideal white family norm in which it is rooted, and reproduces),

    Race is not that simple in the film. In the penultimate scene in the movie Superman crashes a drone in front of the African-American head of U.S. Northern Command and tells him that he is not going to find out where he hangs his cape. The general asks Superman how he is supposed to be sure that he will not decide to act against American interests, to which Clark/Kal replies, “I’m from Kansas!”

    And in the final scene in the movie we learn that the editor of The Daily Planet, played by Laurence Fishburne, has knowingly put Clark Kent on the payroll as a means of providing him with a cover identity.

  15. Mateo,thanks for your response but it doesn’t really answer the questions I was raising, or the ways in which I was making a point of foregrounding race and/as kinship as political and social-status categories. I specifically used the terms Black and White, intentionally capitalized, to foreground this distinction. Your shift to the term ‘African-American’ shifts the respond away from race to, arguably, ethnicity, and moves away from exactly the distinction I was trying to get SM readers to think more critically about, especially given what I said about how racial ascription is imposed on individuals regardless of class or ethnic background. What does the category ‘African-American’ really even mean, including in the context in which you used it to supplant the term Black–which also raises the question if why this substitution in the first place? And these questions are very much about the issues if race and fictive kin that I was raising in the first place, with my previous comment. Moreover, the example you give don’t actually contest what I was asking/asserting about the hegemony of the normative white family (especially cinematically/televisually), especially in relation to normative discourses of race, citizenship, and national belonging. If anything, the ‘I’m from Kansas’ remark confirms exactly the point I am making about race/kinship/assumed belonging/adoptability.

    Clare, you said you teach race, so perhaps you could elaborate from experience teaching the topic?

    Interesting discussion.

  16. If it’s not true in Korea (and I can easily imagine that to be so), it was at least true in Qing dynasty China. Marrying someone with the same surname was illegal. So it’s not an unrealistic example.

  17. I was thinking about Jason Antrosio’s latest Living Anthropologically post while writing my previous comments, and especially this quote:

    “Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind.”
    –Jonathan Benthall, Enlarging the context of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today 1996:136

    Is thinking about the questions of race and kinship/fictive kinship really so disturbing to peace of mind that the issues being raised can’t be engaged head-on?

    I guess my comments once again represent the ‘affect alien’ DJ Hatfield once referred to when the question of what trolling looks like was raised by Adonia in her Fly on the Wall or Troll post.

    The ‘I’m from Kansas’ quote/scene as a response to my questions is distressing given larger issues of immigration (reform) and the issue of how some non-white bodies are always assumed to be foreign and not-American and can’t get away with saying ‘I’m from Kansas’, even when they are. And then there is the issue of how these questions of race and kinship/fictive kinship relate to the George Zimmerman trial. So no, my questions were not trolling, which makes it all the more interesting that they were answered (and not answered) in the way they were. How we think about these questions matters to much larger issues of social relation, in literal life-and-death ways.

  18. Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised that no answer was forthcoming to my questions, directly to Mateo or Clare, as such is the pattern of anthropology as ‘white public space’. And since the pattern persists I keep pointing it out, especially given the ongoing question on this site (especially via posts by Ryan) about what anthropology is and should be and what constitutes public anthropology.

    It is really sad that the obvious connections between this post and it comments and the Zimmerman trial aren’t being critically interrogated, in relation to race and whiteness, especially by Mateo given the Superman clip, when the closing prosecutorial argument to the all-female (and almost entirely White) jury was to imagine that Trayvon Martin was their own son. Um, hello, fictive kinship (discussion)? So yes, in response to Felix Girke’s question, it does matter whether one is or is not seen as a son, and it matters WHY one can’t be. Yesterday’s verdict made this abundantly clear. The ability to imagine someone as ‘your son’ is very much dependent on race/color.

    I know, given the hierarchies of the anthropological family, what I as a black woman have to say is unimportant (right, just write me off as a troll instead of acknowledging I am asking some substantive questions relative to this discussion of (fictive) kinship and the normative racial assumptions from which it proceeded), so I’ll point folks to the words of some white women instead, two of them anthropologists, all who make clear how relevant my questions are, and how sad it is that, yet again, people just couldn’t deal with discussing race and white privilege: (1) Kate Clancy’s own twitter admission if how her white privilege informed her shock over the Zimmerman verdict, (2) Sarah Kendzior’s most recent post on the verdict for Al Jazeera English, and (3) this Salon post which bears a striking resemblance to the question I asked Kristina Killgrove in the comments section of her recent Savage Minds interview: http://www.salon.com/2013/07/14/americas_summer_of_hate/.

  19. Discusswhiteprivilege, sorry for the delay in responding. I am a) in a European time zone and b) was in fieldwork for 10+ hours for 3 days in a row, so not online. I promise I was not ignoring you. 🙂

    I find your comments insightful and a nice corrective to the yes/no binary of kinship that Mateo seems to be suggesting. I don’t agree with that binary for several reasons, although I recognize that in the United States (and perhaps more specifically in the white middle-class U.S.) that is a common cultural understanding. I have another example to add to your observations about race: compadrazgo — co-parenting. In the Andes (where I work) this is the relationship forged between two adults (who may or may not be biologically related) through the sponsorship of the child of one of them. Major examples of this include parents and baptismal/wedding godparents of a child, but also include other events such as high school graduations, first communion, etc.

    What is interesting is that there is an incest taboo against sex between compadres (which I discovered when one of my compadres expressed his horror at someone teasing him about his American girlfriend, even after he said I was his comadre). Compadrazgo is often used as an example of “fictive kinship,” but it is also very real. Children are believed to take on personality characteristics of their baptismal godparents, for example, and I heard adults attribute their own personalities to godparents rather than biological parents.

    At the same time, people recognize that this is a different kind of kinship than biological kinship — one’s godparents are not one’s parents, and godparents are not all the same. For example, baptismal godparents are the most important, and certainly more related than, say, the godparents for one’s high school graduation. So yes, you are related, but this is not a yes/no situation.

    As for pregnancy, I seem to remember examples of societies where it was believed that fetuses are completed through sex during pregnancy. Thus, a baby is not made in a single event (conception) but rather formed through an ongoing process. I don’t have a cite on that – perhaps someone can help me out. But that would seem to challenge the western idea of “you can’t be a little bit pregnant.”

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