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Between Subjectivation and Subjection: Making ‘Kinship’ Feasible

I have been working through some ‘ancient’ anthropological topics with students, in particular, variations in kinship terminologies cross-culturally, an area of research founded principally by L. H. Morgan in his Systems of consanguinity and affinity in the human family (1871), and molded into an evolutionary ‘grand theory’ in his Ancient Society (1877). Starting out a course on kinship with Victorian anthropology is, I realize, a risky gambit. In a response paper, one student suggested that the view from the windows of 19th-century anthropology was ‘rather grey.’ What could be more arcane than revisiting Iroquois or Crow-Omaha kinship terminologies? Whether or not they are a boring topic, varieties of kinship terminologies are also not easy to wrap one’s head around. To the extent that they divide up a seemingly commonsensical world in an apparently non-commensensical way (for those of us reared in so-called ‘descriptive’ systems, the ‘classificatory’ can be jarring), they challenge our assumptions quite directly. Of course, recognition of this difference is what ignited anthropological interest in the subject and has sustained it through the years. But how to give these topics a contemporary twist?

We have also visited, among other things, Trautmann’s work, especially his recent article on “The Whole History of Kinship Terminology…” There, Trautmann criticizes contemporary models of transformations in kinship terminology, and in doing so suggests that comparative kinship studies might be one avenue into studying the very longue duree of human history. A broadly regional and deeply historical comparative framework may yield advances in ethnological history: “…the deep history that lies between, say, the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the Victorian era, is not thickly populated by anthropologists, especially cultural anthropologists… For all the contemporary commitment of cultural anthropology to history, the deeper past is greatly neglected.” Trautmann suggests that attention to this sort of history would help correct biases built into certain functionalist or synchronic accounts.

So that is one call to give kinship studies a contemporary cast: give kinship a deeper history.

Even so, there are other languages or rhetorics that might make kinship terminologies a hot topic. (I leave aside, for the time being, the sexy and important topics of ‘biotech’ and ‘body’ in contemporary kinship studies.) If, for example, anthropologists of contemporary governments wished to sample of forms of interpellation that precede and exceed the normative force of state power (recalling here the policeman yelling at you on the street), they could do little better than to track the distributions of kin designations in everday practice and in legal discourse. This is precisely what the earlier SM discussion on adoption and ICWA points us toward: divided sovereignties (competing regulations of forms of life) along several axes — the indigenous and liberal, the minority and the majority, ‘kindred’ versus ‘citizens,’ to say nothing of men and women. Beyond the discourse of experts that is a focus of the current analytics of governmentality (whether neo/liberal, totalitarian, or whatever), anthropologists have rich and varied models for how populations are regulated in extra-state circumstances: precisely through the interpellation of subjects in self-perpetuating systems of signification we call kinship terminologies.

It is true that citizens of Melanesian states, for example, are ‘produced’ to some extent by the legacy of foreign rule in the form of the postcolonial state (such as it is in some places). Far more consequential, however, for how people conduct themselves in everyday life and for how they sustain themselves materially are the identities iterated and reiterated in daily, habitual, commonplace encounters with each other. In places like Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) eastern highlands, title to land, for example, is secured only in and through one’s affiliation with a clan that holds in a coprorate fashion the land. ‘Membership’ in a clan is manifest, is elicited, is ‘performed’ through the eventful (ceremonial exchange, committments in battle), but also, and more thoroughly, through the everday modes of address through which people interact (the relatively uneventful). Though I lived in a village, built a house there, ate food there, for my adoptive family, the most important thing I did was to call my kin by their proper terms (e.g., mama, papa, etc. or “ieno” and “ahono” in the local language). Doing so locked me into a structure of social relations that was both utterly constraining, inaugurating all kinds of obligations and protocols pertaining to moral conduct, and enabling. I could engage in action of a consequential sort only by being called into being by ‘reciprocal’ (I mean this in a nontechnical way) address. Kinship terminologies provide examples for two varied interpretations of the productive power of discourses: either the ‘subjection’ favored by Judith Butler and others or the ‘subjectivation’ favored by James Faubion and others. (See their brilliant work in Antigone’s Claim or The Ethics of Kinship.)

Perhaps its a stretch to tie these observations to a previous discussion, but I do wonder sometimes when anthropologists struggle to find languages for thinking about social regulation in the contemporary period (as for example ‘governmentality’) why ‘the market’ springs to mind quite readily while that old workhorse of anthropology — kinship — doesn’t (so often). There are, I imagine, either intricate and important reasons why not, or perhaps simpler ones.

11 thoughts on “Between Subjectivation and Subjection: Making ‘Kinship’ Feasible

  1. Interesting post. I’ve always had a soft spot for the study of kinship terminology. Although I have to say that I find the theorization of socialities (M. Strathern, R. Wagner, P. Descola) more directly relevant to my understanding of the terms in which the interrogation (ugh, sorry for the ugly police-state term) of colonialism, postcolonialism and governmentality by the local takes place. I’m still trying to stretch my brain to see the connection between Trautmann’s call for a deep history of kinship terminology and your concern with the language we use for thinking about systems of social regulation and the social relations incumbent upon those. I’m probably just being thick-headed–maybe a good dip into Dravidian kinship terminology is what I need to shake loose the cobwebs! Anyway, thanks for the post–it got me thinking.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I was simply lumping the Trautmann in with the other remarks as a way of thinking about contemporary approaches to kin terminologies. I suppose, however, that one could also via Trautmann’s (and Morgan’s) arguments about the very slow-changing nature of these systems of naming as a way of correcting or providing a counter example to the supposedly epochally-consequential ways in which reproduction is governed under modernity. But that’s a very very abstract and general point.

  3. Well it is good to see that there is someone more retro than I on Savage Minds! But I must say that I’m not very enthused about ‘kinship’ in the oldschool sense of the term, however much heuristic value these kinship systems may have when you first hit the ground in your fieldsite.

    In think the idea of their being ‘kinship systems’ only seemed feasible to people who 1) were unwilling to open the black box of what ‘following a (kinship) rule’ meant 2) ignore all the things that their informants thought counted as ‘relatedness’ and privilege the biogenetic (in best Standard Average European fashion) 3) assume that ‘cultural’ concepts are atomistic in the same way that phonemes are, which was a good guess but turned out to be true.

    It’s true that reinventing ‘culture’ or ‘socialization’ as ‘governmentality’ or ‘subjectification’ runs the risk of putting very old wine in shoddily made new bottles, and that all macro-actors have as their condition an ‘L’ (as Parsons might put it) of latent understandings. But I must say I do fear a retro-backlash of Good Old Fashioned Kinship. Although I do not mean to suggest that is what you are doing here, Strong.

  4. I take Strong’s point that we need to be careful about the entanglement of our critical language with the social formations it is ostensibly critical of. So “old school” issues like kinship terminology, insofar as they are concerned with social-termporally “conservative” formations, presents us with an alternative to the language of modernity (and the language of the marketplace). As Rex points out, there are reasons why we chucked terminology studies in the first place, not the least of which was the way terminology studies represented its subjects in Western terms. I don’t want to be unfair to Trautmann, because I don’t think he is really saying that we just need to pick up where Morgan left off. But I would object to his project if it assumed that kin terminology is a singular social phenomenon that can be abstracted from processes of formation and use, and fit into a comparative ethnological framework. Of course this isn’t what you are suggesting Strong, and I like what you have to say about the “consequential” actions made possible once your presence was articulated in terms of kinship terminology. So what you are suggesting isn’t a concern with terminology systems per se, but the armature of “relatednesses” (if thats even a word) that emerges from the use of kin terms.

  5. Rex, thanks for the ref! Hey, how about the term “social-termporally” from my previous post? Its just a typo but it almost works there! Maybe I’ve stumbled onto something?

  6. erm… nothing comes to mind… but perhaps we just havent’ discovered the concept yet! “socio-termporality of neoliberalism” could be the next big thing!

  7. We already know what that is: “time space compression.”

    Re: ‘Western’ biases built into study of kin terms. I tend to agree. And it’s fascinating to *arrive* at that realization rather than start with it. In order to get both what ‘kinship’ was for anthropology for most of the twentieth century and why it became problematic for part of it, I think one needs to read deeply and charitably in the subject. It’s also important to think about what is lost (theoretically or empirically) when it is decided that comparative kinship isn’t a tenable subject: above all, comparison goes right out the window.

  8. Strong, you are quite right about the abandonment of comparison. Ever since Fabian, Schneider’s Critique, Said, etc., cultural anthropologists seem to have decided that ethnography and ethnology are mutually exclusive, thus the turn to reflexive and auto-critical styles of writing. Critical writing stands in now for ethnology, at least for those adhering to more interpretive or humanistic understandings of the anthropological project.

  9. Strong — I think you are right that one needs to make an informed critique of kinship rather than just telling people “oh we all know now that that’s wrong”. I also think its quite fascinating to excavate these classic fields with an eye towards understanding the cultural structures which motivate them. It also prevents people from reinventing the wheel (or at least should) — my own work on the rise and fall of ‘cognatic kinship’ has exactly this goal.

    It’s also fascinating watch the subterranean effect of these structures. One of my lingering projects is the literature on ‘taboo’ in Polynesia, and how history of effect of Christian readings of the old testament on treatments of that material. It took people literally centuries to figure out that women in Polynesia weren’t polluting, most of which time was recovering from ‘Western’ presuppositions. It’s a fascinating and complicated story.

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