Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Conceiving Relatedness: Non-Substantial Relations among the Kamea of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Conceiving Relatedness: Non-Substantial Relations among the Kamea of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

In 1997, Julie Garber--a California property developer--became the first woman in history to achieve the dubious distinction of nearly becoming a mother from beyond the grave. Three years earlier, the 26-year-old woman had learned that she was suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Before embarking on a course of chemotherapy that would leave her infertile, she arranged with a sperm bank to have a dozen of her eggs fertilized and the resulting embryos frozen (Pepper 1996; Peres 1997a; 1997b; Weiss 1998). Her hope was to have them implanted in her uterus after recovery. When Garber died, her parents hired a surrogate mother to bring their daughter's ungestated offspring to term--an act which they said fulfilled one of Julie's last wishes. The plan was to give any resulting offspring to one of their remaining children to bring up. After three attempts, the scheme came to an abrupt end in December 1997, when the last of Julie's embryos was rejected by the surrogate mother's body several weeks into the pregnancy (Siegelitzkovich 1998).

Although the Garbers' decision to carry their daughter's child to term raised serious ethical questions, (1) the practice of harvesting gametes from the deceased has become fairly commonplace in Europe and North America. A survey in 1997 found that fourteen clinics in the United States had honoured requests for sperm to be collected from the recently deceased (Andrews 1999a). (2) Cappy Rothman, a leading advocate of the use of this technology, defended the practice before a 1997 session of the New York legislature where the question under debate was whether to allow the sperm of a man to be used without his expressed prior consent. Rothman argued that there is less grief for the wife and family members of the deceased if his sperm is preserved (Andrews 1999b: 227). He told legislators:

  In one case where a man died by gunshot and I collected his sperm, his
  family followed me to the sperm bank and were consoled by seeing his
  motile sperm under the microscope. To console families in that way at
  a time of grief and tragedy is clearly part of my responsibility as a
  healer (quoted in Andrews 1999b: 227).

The practice of posthumous reproduction helps to highlight several important suppositions that exist at the heart of Euro-American kinship configurations. The first is the idea that individuals (re)produce individuals: (3) hence using the gametes of a deceased loved one for procreative purposes allows survivors to imagine that they have not been 'lost' to them forever. The second is the idea that reproduction entails the replication of individual traits--an act that is believed to be carried forward through the transmission of procreative substance across generations. Taken together, these assumptions give rise to a host of related ideas. In particular, they privilege the parent-child tie as the nexus of social reproduction, and they prompt us to imagine crossgenerational connections as necessarily involving an embodied link between individuals.

Drawing upon data collected among Kamea--a Highland Papua New Guinea (PNG) group with whom I conducted thirty-one months of ethnographic research--this article considers an alternative cultural logic. In contrast to Europeans and North Americans, Kamea do not rely upon physiological reproduction as a means of grounding social relationships through time. Despite my repeated efforts to ground intergenerational relationships in a procreative bond, the people I knew were very insistent upon the fact that neither a mother nor a father shares substance in common with their offspring. The tie between a parent and child is imagined as an inherently non-embodied one. This article should therefore be seen as an extended case study of how the world looks from a perspective very different from that represented in much of the standard ethnographic literature.

On the relevance of substance

I begin this exploration of Kamea conceptions with a brief anecdote. …

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