There has never been a book that adequately covers the range of human kinship and domestic organization. This is as near as anyone has got.
Those of us who struggle over French will have to wait for an English translation. Till then, however, Goody’s review gives us a taste of things to come, while taking Godelier to task on a number of issues.
Of particular interest is Godelier’s discussion of primate societies, which he uses to critique his former teacher, Lévi-Strauss, who argued that the “the prohibition of incest … saw the original passage from nature to culture defining human society as such.”
Among the discoveries that have made short work of Lévi-Strauss’s story of the foundations of society have been the findings of primate studies, to which Godelier devotes a sensitive and imaginative chapter. What these have shown is that both chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees in the Congo), our nearest biological relatives, already live in ‘societies’ that exhibit a kind of sketch of human constraints: young females find sexual partners outside their immediate natal group, while young males must wait their turn until adults are willing to yield partners to them. Enforcing at once cooperation and hierarchy, these patterns appear to be the product of mechanisms of natural selection, though they coexist with homosexual pleasures among males and females alike, less obviously attributable to the same functions. The passage from nature to culture with homo sapiens thus cannot have been a sudden, discontinuous transformation, but must have been more evolutionary in nature. The critical novelty in human society, Godelier argues, is that males assume a parental role, something unknown among these primates, where only mothers look after children—fathers being unaware of their connection with them.
Where does this leave the taboo on incest? Rather than insisting that it is ubiquitous—in face of the facts of history, which show that brother–sister, father–daughter and mother–son relations have in some societies, such as Ancient Egypt or Achaemenid Persia, not only not been prohibited, but even enjoined—Godelier suggests that what is actually universal is something simpler. The sexual drive is fundamentally asocial: notoriously no respecter of rules, it even particularly delights in breaking them. Hence for society to be possible at all, it must be constrained. Any society requires therefore the existence of some sexual prohibitions as such. These, however, can take any number of different forms. If taboos on incest are far the most common of these, that is because they guard the door to the parenting unit that distinguishes human from primate societies:
There nowhere exists a society where the individual is authorized to satisfy all his sexual desires (and so also fantasies). And it is always at the threshold of the social units within which men and women cooperate to bring up children, whether or not they have given birth to them, that the most extreme forms of sexual permissiveness have been halted.
More complex is the critique of Godelier’s French/Althusserian focus on religion and ideology over Goody’s own British focus on the economic and political.
Can the contrast between the Jewish practices of close marriage in the Old Testament, and the multiplication of prohibitions in early European marriage by Christianity, be simply explained by differing theological attitudes to desire? Given the formidable extent of the debt of Christian to Jewish religion, it seems unlikely. I have attempted a more concretely based explanation, pointing to the interests of the Church in channelling wealth away from kinship groups to the ecclesia. The requirements of building a ‘great organization’ appear to offer a more plausible logic for the banning of seven degrees of consanguinity than fears of the doubling up of original sin.
I have to admit that while I studied some of the classics on kinship in college (and even high school!), my graduate training largely ignored the subject. Goody attributed the decline in interest to the increasing technicality with which the subject has been treated, and lavishes praise on Godelier for making the subject come alive again. I’m eagerly awaiting the English translation of this book.
(Via Antti Leppänen)