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Kula Bodies – II: Dividuals?

“…persons – single actors – are not thought in South Asia to be “individual,” that is, indivisible, bounded units, as they are in much of Western social and psychological theory as well as in common sense. Instead, it appears that persons are generally thought by South Asians to be “dividual” or divisible. To exist, dividual persons absorb heterogeneous material influences. They must also give out from themselves particles of their own coded substances – essences, residues, or other active influences – that may then reproduce in others something of the nature of the persons in whom they have originated.” McKim Marriott Hindu Transactions: Diversity without Dualism

For this post, I’m going to briefly outline the concept of the “dividual” person as expressed by McKim Marriott, Ronald Inden, et al.

The debate over South Asian personhood was initiated by Dumont’s presentation of a key difference between the significance of the “individual” in Western societes and the presumed absence of such a concept in “traditional” societies such as India. Dumont asserted that Indians derived their sense of identity not through a sense of being an autonomous individual, but only through relations – family, village, caste – to which the sense of individuality is subservient. The only institution Dumont did see something akin to the the idea of Western individualism was in the figure of the renuniciate. Dumont’s famous classification of Indian personhood was “homo hierarchus” – as opposed to “homo aequalis”. Dumont argued that Caste hierarchy, in India, rested on the conception of society as an organic whole, structured according to a dominant religious scale of purity – impurity. Dumont drew on classical Indian texts such as the Dharmasastra, and ethnographies of rural Indian villages to support his position.

McKim Marriott’s critical response to Dumont’s theory is the concept of “dividual” personhood. In contrast to the dominant western concept of individuality – which presents personhood as bounded, unique and self-determining, dividual persons may be thought of as multiply-authored composites; made up of “substance-codes” (i.e. blood, alcohol, cooked food, knowledge) which are transmitted between bodies, persons, and castes. Substances-codes mingle within bodies, but are inseperable from the “outside” world, and constantly circulate. Some substance-codes for example, are considered to be “hot” and stress maleness, so absorbing them “masculinises” the person. Substance-codes are continually circulated and transformed through social interactions; and the exchange of substances (giving and receiving) changes a person internally.

Marriott’s work on substance-codes draws heavily on David Schneider’s highly influential work on kinship (see American Kinship: A Cultural Account.). Schneider argued that “relatives” were defined in terms of “blood relationship” and that this blood relationship is a relationship of substance, of “shared biogenetic material”. Schneider also argued that the American sense of kinship was built from two elements – relationship as a natural substance (the order of nature), and relationship as code for conduct (the order of law). Hence some relationships existed through nature alone – such as parent+child, whilst others, such as man+wife were relatives by law. There are also relations which are built out of blood – partaking of both nature/substance and law/code.

Marriott & Inden drew attention to similar symbolic domains in Bengali culture – that for nature, Bengalis use the organic symbols of blood and genetic substance, and for law, they refer to the concept of dharma. However, they observe that when a Bengali woman marries, her body is considered to be transformed and so too, is her code of conduct. The “code” for a particular group or family unit is thought to be carried in the bodily substance shared by persons belonging to that group. So, bodily substance and conduct-code are not fixed, but malleable. Further, there is no fundamental opposition between “nature” and “law”. Marriott & Inden also claimed that this symbolic order was remarkably consistent over a long period of time – and drew on a broad range of textual sources to confirm this. Marriott et al argue that an individual’s bodily substance, whilst determined within broad limits at birth, continues to be shaped and modified by subsequent events (such as marriage) and by personal conduct. A person’s bodily substance also shapes their moral behaviour. Also, subtances that are taken into the body – food for example – also affect a person’s bodily substance.

By Indian modes of thought, what goes on between actors are the same connected processes of mixing and seperation that go on within actors. Actors’ particular natures are thought to be the results as well as causes of their particular actions (karma). Varied codes of action or codes of conduct (dharma) are thought to be naturally embodied in actors and otherwise substantialized in the flow of things that pass among actors. Thus the assumption of the easy, proper seperability of action from actor, of code from sustance … that pervades both Western philosophy and Western common sense … is generally absent: code and substance (Sanskrit purusa, and prakriti, dharma, and sarira, and so on) cannot have seperate existences in this world of constituted things as conceived by most South Asians. (Marriott, 1976:109-10)

Marriott’s emic presentation of dividuality has been taken up by a wide range of scholars – ethnographers, archeologists, and queer theorists for example; it has been deployed by Indologists such as David Gordon White and Frederick M. Smith and has been used in a number of studies of personhood, gender and age. I’ll be looking at some of these – and also reviewing some critics of dividuality – in the next post in this series.