Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Chronically Unstable Bodies: Reflections on Amazonian corporalities/Des Corps Chroniquement Instables: Reflexion Sur la Corporalite En Amazonie

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Chronically Unstable Bodies: Reflections on Amazonian corporalities/Des Corps Chroniquement Instables: Reflexion Sur la Corporalite En Amazonie

Article excerpt


Though it only became a specific research topic from the 1970s onwards, the human body has held a certain fascination for anthropology since its outset for two reasons: firstly, owing to its ostensible physical features, it has been used as a means of classifying different races; and, secondly, owing to the impact of culture on the way the body's characteristics and potentialities are seen, it has been assumed to be a naturally given substrate (see Lock 1993: 134; also Conklin 1996: 373). The works of the French sociological school provide our earliest examples of truly sociological or culturalist approaches to the body; pioneering texts include Hertz's paper (1973 [1909]) on cultural--or, more specifically, religious--aspects involved in the predominance of right-handedness and Mauss's essay (1985 [1936]) on body techniques.

Rather than provide a historical resume of studies on the body, (1) I wish to recall the work of two authors, also French and both contemporaries of Mauss. In texts largely forgotten now by anthropology, they call attention to somewhat exceptional aspects of the body that relate to its natural instability rather than its cultural fabrication. In L'ame primitive, published in 1927, Levy-Bruhl observes: 'He [the primitive] therefore sees no difficulty in metamorphoses which to us appear utterly incredible: beings can change their size and form in the blink of an eye' (1996 [1927]: 8).

Leenhardt, in Do Kamo, a book inspired by Levy-Bruhl and dedicated to him, makes similar observations in his description of the Canaque concept of the human being:

  Animals, plants and mythic beings have the same claim men have to
  being considered kamo, if circumstances cause them to assume a certain
  humanity (1979 [1947]: 24).

  He [kamo] undergoes metamorphoses: he is like a character endowed with
  sumptuous wardrobe who perpetually changes costume ... With our own
  concept of man such a view is impossible, but it is possible with a
  broader representation of what is human. For the Melanesian, a glance,
  in fact, is enough to give the form of humanity to an animal (1979
  [1947]: 25).

These descriptions will sound familiar to any Americanist, although what they tell us about a very particular concept of the body has been little explored in the bibliography directly related to corporality.

My aim in this article is to complement the existing descriptions of Amazonian bodies by focusing on processes and phenomena that involve their transformation rather than their fabrication--although we are clearly faced by one and the same problem. Indeed, this is revealed by the apparent contradiction between the abundance of indigenous discourses and practices concerning the gradual make-up of the body, and diverging ideas on the way in which this carefully fabricated body can--in the blink of an eye, as Levy-Bruhl puts it--turn into another type of body. This general uncertainty over forms is a key factor in understanding the concept of body found in the Amazonian region.

The evocation of Leenhardt was not just designed to introduce an Amazonian theme through Melanesia. Although I shall not embark on any systematic comparison of the two ethnographic areas, Melanesia--or, better, some analyses of Melanesia--will be used in the text as a counterpoint enabling the highlighting of certain characteristics of Amazonian concepts of bodies.

Studies of the body

Though it comprises a problem for Americanists, the body is even more of an issue for native peoples, who spend a sizeable portion of their daily lives executing processes they conceive to be linked to the fabrication and controlled transformation of bodies. (2) Since the 1970s, Americanist authors have drawn our attention to the centrality of the body in defining--and differentiating--persons and social groups, as well as to the intense use of the body surface--perforated, painted, tattooed, and decorated--in the circulation of values. …

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