Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Kula Bodies – III

For this next installment of what’s turning out to be a fairly slow-moving series I’m going to briefly review some of the features of dividuality which have emerged out of ethnographic accounts of personhood in Melansia, with particular reference to the work of Marilyn Strathern and Edward LiPuma.

The Gender of the Gift
Marilyn Strathern’s highly-acclaimed 1988 study of Highland New Guinea society sets out the concept that Melanesian persons are dividual. She argues that personhood arises from relations between others and the continuing relationships that each person engages in – that people in Melanesia are “multiply-authored”. The dividual aspect of personhood stresses that each person is a composite of the substances and actions of others – the dividual person is composed of components from the entire community. Melanesians do not conceptualise social life in terms of the individual versus society. Strathern also introduces the concept of the partible person. She proposes that “objects are created not in contradistinction to persons but out of persons.” By giving gifts, people give a part of themselves. Gifts are not symbolic of a person, but that they are “extracted from one and absorbed by another.” She calls this continuity between people and objects a “mediated exchange” – a gift logic as opposed to the (Western) commodity logic, which is rooted in a fundamental discontinuity between people and things. It is this logic of commodities, she argues, which disposes Westerners to to locate power, possession and control in a one-to-one relation between discrete attributes and the unitary individual. In Melanesian gift exchanges, the gift itself is multiply-authored by the relations that have both produced it and exchanged it; that things are part of the community, and may have agency and be persons themselves – which change as they gather new relations into their biographies. Gifts are not only inseperable from social relations, they also create new social relations.

Melanesian conceptions of gender is similarly relational – organs can be seen as male or female dependent on particular contexts and situations; there is no “given” correspondence between biology and gender, and persons are conceived of as composites of the gendered contributions of each parent.

The differences between personhood in the West and out of Melanesian ethnographies are summarised in the following table (after LiPuma (2000):

Persons are distinct from the relations which unite and define them.Persons are compound and plural sites of the relations that bring them together.
Collectivity is presented as the unification of pluralities. The singular person is an individual.Collective life is presented as an essential unity. Singular person is a composite.
Society and individual are held in relations of opposition, contestation and hierarchy.The Social and the individual are parallel, homologous and equivalent.
Person is the subject of of an explicit and visible ideology - "individualism"No explicit ideology of personhood.
Person's behaviour & intentions interpreted as outward expression of inner qualities.Person's behaviour & intentions interpreted in terms of actions within a particular context.
Persons mature biogenetically as consequence of inner potential.Persons grow transactionally as beneficiaries of other person's actions.
Self-knowledge is internal and independent.Persons depend on others for self-knowledge and they are not the authors of this knowledge.
Power is a possession.Power is a relation.
Sexual identity should be stable. Social Identity should replicate natural physiological state.Sexual identity can alternate. Social Identity seperate from physiological state.
Social external to individual - imposes rules, norms, conventions.Society embodied as a disposition to think, act, feel in a certain way.
Commodity logic emphasises knowledge about things & knowing the nature of objects.Gift logic emphasises knowledge about persons & knowing the person-making powers of objects.

Encompassing Others
A central concern in Edward LiPuma’s (2000) account of the Maring culture of Highland New Guinea is cultural transformation – the processes by which a society is shaped (and reshapes itself) “as a consequence of being inexorably encompassed within a state … and inundated by Western capitalism, Christianity, and commercially driven mass culture.” LiPuma names these processes encompassment and explores how they “progressively and simultaneously subsume, enchant, and engulf others”:

If there is a major feature of the globalization of modernity, it is the West’s relentless embrace of other histories and territories. From island Oceania to the New Guinea Highlands peoples who have long stood at the epicentre of our discourse now join labour unions, form women’s rights organisations, consciously engage in the politics of the nation-state, contemplate the nature of democracy and human rights, invoke the images of MTV and Christian broadcasting, attend Western-like schools, learn to speak English, appropriate a wide variety of Western technologies, and are increasingly immersed in mass commodity culture: and this is only for starters. The West has effectively othered others.

In reviewing Melanesian conceptions of personhood, LiPuma stresses that, rather than seeing the differences between Western and Melanesian personhood in opposition to each other (effectively making these two forms of society incommensurable) that dividuality and individuality are two modes of personhood which may be ubiquitous, but that different cultures exhibit more of a tendency towards one or the other pole. Indigenous Melanesian society, he suggests, emphasizes the relational and marginalises the individuality of persons (individualistic behaviour is frequently linked to accusations of sorcery), whilst Western societies valorize the autonomous and bounded aspect of personhood, whilst de-emphasizing the relational aspect.

“…it is a misunderstanding to assume either that the social emerges out of individual actions (a powerful strain in Western ideology that has seeped into much of its scientific epistemology) or that the individual ever completely dissappears by virtue of indigenous forms of relational totalization (such as those posited for certain New Guinea societies). It would seem rather that persons emerge precisely from that tension between dividual and individual aspects/relations. And the terms and conditions of this tension, and thus the kind (or range) of persons that are produced, will vary historically.

LiPuma’s analysis of encompassment eschews the simplistic notion of a monolithic Western juggernaut erasing other cultures, yet he is clear that the relationship between the West and the Maring people is asymmetrical: “the degree to which the Maring could transform the West was nowhere near the power of the West to transform them” – adding later that the Maring have been compelled to come to terms with wage-labour and commodities, but that they cannot, in turn, compel Westerners to accept the logic of the gift. He pays particular attention to the ways in which encompassment operates within the practices of everyday life – in transforming the habitus of dispositions – changing the ways in which a people think about their world. These are the less obvious modalities of power which is visible only through changes in habits and everyday routines.

There is much of interest in Encompassing Others – particularly in respect to issues around the cultural appropriation debate, the romanticisation of tribal peoples, and the relationship between ethnography and colonialism, so its a text I will turn to again at some point.

In the next post I’ll look at some further configurations of dividuality in respect to India.

Christopher Fowler, The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropological Approach (Routledge, 2004)
Edward LiPuma, Encompassing Others: The Magic of Modernity in Melanesia (Univ. Michigan Press, 2000)
Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift (Univ. California Press, 1988)

One comment

  1. Alice Y.
    Posted April 16th 2011 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I really like this post, thanks for writing this. The contrasting models of personhood you’ve set out illuminate for me some of the tensions I experience in attempting to live out the “alternative reality” of the Gospel. The words are useful for pointing to the ways in which, as you say, the everyday routines and habits illuminate the models we are using for our sense of identity.
    I think it may seem overly introspective to a lot of people that the way I interact with the people and things I touch in my daily life is an important foundation for my spiritual practice. But the ways of knowing that I use in the tiniest of everyday interactions are the foundation for a different basis of relationship, the consequences of which are far -reaching: calling us into sustainable and respectful interactions with our ecological life-support systems on this planet.
    This kind of analysis is something I can draw on in trying to describe the “way of knowing” that I call the Gospel – a Holy Spirit that includes and celebrates, transforms and renews, and which calls me further into a different kind of living on this planet. Walter Wink’s stuff on the spirituality of institutions seems to me to be another branch of this kind of thinking: he has a gift of illuminating a deeply rooted story about encounter and transformation between contrasting ‘systems of the world’ – in particular what he calls “the domination system” that could be equated with an industrial growth model, and the opponent that I understand as the the Gospel, which is a model of creative, transforming power relations.
    For me there is a real urgency about defeating commodity logic’s hold on my habits, and being able to participate in the articulation a critical discourse to hold free of that logic: I believe a sustainable mode of inhabitation for this planet is built on a different foundation to the poisonous excess and waste of the domination system.