Thursday, October 1, 2015

Of Sex and Cannibalism

I began class yesterday by writing on the dry erase board a quote attributed to Margaret Mead: "Mothers are a biological necessity; fathers are a social invention." Naturally, my students found this absurd. In their understanding of the world, a father is required to fertilize the mother's egg, at the very least. Unfortunately, none of them understood my reference to the Tralfamadorians' claim that there are, in fact, seven sexes among Earthlings, all of which are essential for reproduction. We did, however, have a brief but interesting discussion about the role of fathers within kinship structures, and many seemed surprised to learn that, in many societies, the biological father has little to no responsibility in child rearing. In some matrilineal groups, the father has a relationship to his children that is quite different from that of the "head of household" figure in Western society.

In the Trobriand Islands, for example, children have an important relationship with their mother's husband, but he is seen neither as an authority figure nor as a blood relative; it is their maternal uncle who has authority over them in their youth. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, who spent several years living among the Trobrianders in the early 20th century, the father does play a role in procreation, but it is not he who impregnates the woman. Instead, he loosens the vagina in order that a spirit, a baloma, might impregnate her; intercourse stops the menstrual flow by pushing the blood into the woman's head, where the spirit of one of her ancestors enters the blood stream, flows into the womb, and is reborn within the maternal bloodline. The child most likely bears a resemblance to the father, but this is the result of the father spending time with the mother during pregnancy and with the child in its infancy, shaping the child in his image.

Most students in their first anthropology course - and perhaps most of us who hear this version of "the birds and the bees," having learned otherwise in our secondary schooling - might react to the Trobriand denial of biological paternity with laughter, disgust, or somewhere in between the two along the superiority spectrum. One of the things I love about anthropology is that it challenges us to consider these elaborate stories with an appreciation for the human imagination as well as a willingness to rethink the absurd as a truth that is indispensable within a particular life-world. Michael Jackson (the anthropologist, not the late King of Pop) writes of the ethnographer's task,
[T]he alleged rationality or irrationality of a practice is beside the point; what matters is the positive difference it makes to our lives, personal and collective. Consider the Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the Australian Aboriginal denial of paternity - beliefs that contradict our scientific knowledge of the facts of human procreation. In both cases, a logical problem is posed: how to simultaneously stress Christ's humanity and divinity in the first example, and how to simultaneously stress that one's human identity is determined by where you are conceived and born as well as who physically nurtures you in the womb and brings you into the world. In the Christian example, God displaces Joseph as genitor; in the Aboriginal case, patrilineal country is genitor, though in both cases, the pater is the person who provides for the child and helps raise him or her to adulthood.
Context is important in considering each unique ethnographic account of creation or procreation stories; however, if we allow ourselves to look for a common, human thread in such traditions around the world, we might find that our species has often, if not in all times and places, been preoccupied with a rather sexual and cannibalistic question: what are we made of?

Jackson's mention of the Virgin Birth is appropriate here for two reasons. First, this biblical cornerstone resonates with a Trobriand tale in which the mother of a legendary hero becomes pregnant after her vagina is loosened, not by sexual intercourse, but by water dripping from a stalactite in a cave where she sleeps and lives a rather solitary life. While their stories are different in many respects, Christ and Tudava share a uniqueness that comes from the absence of a man in the reproductive process. The role of water in Tudava's conception might also be a noteworthy parallel to the role of the Holy Spirit in that of Christ, not to mention the significance of water in Christian regeneration; however, the value of water among Trobriand societies is certainly not unique. Water is a universal necessity, and if we are seriously considering the substance of human being from a variety of perspectives, we should remember that, chemically speaking, our bodies consist of water more than anything else.

Second, the Virgin Birth is significant in that, in the context of Christian tradition, it is the beginning of a salvific work that is sustained through a sort of cannibalism, albeit (perhaps) symbolic. I believe it to be no literary coincidence that the same god-in-flesh who commanded his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood was first laid down in a manger. While many church communities maintain that the eucharistic bread and wine are merely symbolic reminders of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, most or all share the central tenet that the faithful may partake in the divine nature because, and only because, that nature became flesh: flesh that grew in a womb, experienced the transformations of youth and adulthood, suffered pain and mutilation, died, was buried, and returned from death. Throughout all of this, his earthly father is notably absent from the moment of conception and the events that lead to his death; however, like the husbands of Trobriand mothers, Joseph fulfills an important role during Mary's pregnancy and Jesus' formative years.

When Jesus, prior to his ascension, leaves his inheritance in the hands of Peter, he commands the apostle to feed his sheep. Diversity of interpretations aside, the choice of a feeding metaphor seems a fitting way to punctuate a life story in which flesh and blood, food, wine, and water are of central importance. The gospel, like many creation, procreation, and salvation stories, responds to the most material of human questions: what is the stuff of life? What am I made of?

In some totemic systems, members of a clan are forbidden from eating the totem animal, which is believed to be the embodiment of a common ancestor; however, a sacrificial celebration periodically allows clansmen to join in consuming this animal as a means of asserting their common material identity shared between kin and their deities. Freud imagined the origin of the totemic feast was an act of cannibalism. Several brothers, angry with their father for keeping all of the women for himself, killed and ate him; this savage act, which Freud connects to his Oedipal theories, is commemorated in animal sacrifice, both a means of reenacting the original patricide and preserving the presence of the father in the flesh and blood of the people. While anthropologists have found significant problems with Freud's mythology, I believe something about his imagination resonates with all of us in some way. We all seek a deep, material connection with our kin, including our ancestors and offspring; whether we attempt to make this connection through sex, reproduction, animal sacrifice, or cannibalism, our efforts evidence a structuration of our bodies as sites of material and cultural identity, perpetually torn and reborn through the identity work of individuals and collectives.

One of my students stayed after class yesterday to discuss his research on cannibalism. We discussed some of these ideas, the animal and human sacrifices as well as the mystery cults and sacraments that may be interpreted as vestiges of cannibalistic systems. While I cautioned him against writing his own imagination of prehistoric societies, I encouraged him to look for types or parallels of cannibalism in places where he might least expect it: consumerism, Catholicism, and pornography. I should be careful how I phrase this sort of advice to my students, but I also want to be careful not to leave out a vital aspect of the study of humankind: our bodies, and what we do with them, as tangible (and edible) culture.