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Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern Re-evaluates The Gender of the Gift

Marilyn Strathern began her Food for Thought talk on Wednesday, April 18th, with an anecdote from anthropologist Jane Goodall, who worked among the Kaulong people of Papua New Guinea in the 1950s. When a husband dies, it is customary for his wife to sit vigil with his body overnight. In the morning, her brother must strangle her so that she may follow her spouse into the afterworld.

What could drive people to such extremes? In this talk titled “The Language of Gender: Problems and Counter-Problems in Anthropological Description,” Strathern revisited her famous 1988 book The Gender of The Gift to offer some possible answers to this question from a new perspective.

In The Gender of the Gift (GOG), Strathern used analyses of ethnographic material from across Papua New Guinea to displace Western notions of individual and society which structure much academic analysis and, she pointed out, are central to our notions of gender.

Reflective of its time, Strathern’s work was informed by feminist debates emerging in the 1970s which opened up radical new ways of thinking. One is always influenced by paradigms, she said, and one should not be surprised when they are exhausted. Setting aside the antimony between society and individual in her gender analysis, Strathern seeks other ways of describing sexuality and reproductive life, beginning with some facts about the cultivation of yams and other rhizomatic food crops.

In the reproduction of yams, one part of the plant is cut away and eaten, and another fragment is reserved to be replanted. This fragment then dies away, but produces a clone of itself- a new plant. Strathern discussed the passage of yam cuttings along genealogical lines. Yam cuttings pass from mother to daughter, and father to son, mirroring and creating same-sex genealogical affiliations.

There is a continuity in the reproduction of tubers: the same entity is always replanted, the same individual reproduced at different generational times. As yams are lifted from the soil, so are children born from mothers.

Drawing upon Gillian Gillison’s ethnographic work among the Gimi people of Papua New Guinea, Strathern discussed the strategic denial of the contributions of mothers to reproduction, saying that Gimi theorize an essentially parthogenetic mode of reproduction in which connection to one parent is emphasized as the other is elided. One sex, or vital substance, which is male, is seen to clone itself over and over again. There is no sexual reproduction in the ordinary sense because there is no female substance that is not a transformation of male substance. Persons are seen as containing finite quantities of life force.

Thus, as children grow up their parents grow smaller and weaker. A woman’s body shrinks after giving birth, and a father’s body withers as he ages. Gimi are thus depleted by the children who take their place. This logic of cloning, as Strathern calls it, is as much about decline as of growth. This is deeply related to the cultivation of rhizomatic crops which are cloned, rather than produced by sexual reproduction.

Theories of human reproduction are seen to mirror those of yam cultivation: new generations spring from older ones which inevitably wither and die. People are divided generationally: the distinction between people who are married and procreate and those who are young and unmarried is more significant than that between women and men. This generational divide paints a picture of life divided between those who are moving towards death and those who are springing up, full of life.

Marriage, therefore, is deeply related to death for Gimi people as the birth of their children begins the process of their own inevitable demise. Children replace parents generationally, shedding some light on the importance of a spousal unit dying together to make room for the next generation.

In comparing various accounts of yam and human reproduction, Strathern said it matters very much how things are described. The notion of asexual reproduction, for example, is based on the paradigm of the sexual and on the idea of already pre-existing distinction of two types of entities, male and female. In the case of rhizome crop cultivation, one could describe this as asexual or attend to the binary relations created in the course of its propogation. Yams or taro are divided into that part which is eaten, and that part which is sliced to create a new point of growth.

It’s what people do with the plants that creates this binary relationship, which is given a kinship caste. In the ground, the tubers are regarded as children or ancestral spirits- generations which have either died or not yet been born. One of the existential problems of rhizome cultivators, then, is to produce the next generation of parents, and they do so by replacement. The same individual can be cloned over and over again, but only the cut (between generations, acted out in the cutting of the fragment for cloning) can bring procreation to fruition.

This replacement could also be described as a form of sexual reproduction because the cross-sex relationship of husband and wife is mirrored in the cross-generational relationship of parent and child. If a woman does not have a brother able to kill her after her husband’s death, this duty falls to her son.

Widow strangling is here a sexual act of regeneration, which is why it must be completed by a cross-sex relative. The cross-sex enactment brings into being the cross-generational divide. Techniques of regenerative cloning are not just about the continuity of life following death: in what Strathern calls “rhizome kinship” the binary is between generations.

Regeneration requires a cut separating parents and children, adult plants from the clones they will produce. The cut people make in a tuber also relates the plant to the person cutting. In referring to such plants as “mothers” people also make themselves into fathers- a cross-sex relationship is enacted. Cross sex relations are at any one moment in time like cross generational ones over time: binaries emerge at generative or procreative moments. The detachment is an extraction of a new parent, like the tuber lifted from the soil.

The Kaulong system of reproduction thus works on death itself- on finishing that act of completion to bring into being the next generation of parents. “If I were to use the language of gender, I would say that as the couple moves into ancestorhood (and is no longer generative), the generational shift mirrors the oscillation between same and cross sex relations in life. This starts the cycle of redescription all over again.”

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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