Academic journal article Ethnology

The Problem of Mute Metaphor: Gender and Kinship in Seaboard Melanesia

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Problem of Mute Metaphor: Gender and Kinship in Seaboard Melanesia

Article excerpt

This article examines how genealogical relationships are differentially expressed by women and men. In particular, it analyzes five paired sets of kinship data that were collected in a Melanesian society during the early 1980s. These data support the following assertions: (1) between the sexes, discourse of kinship is not monologic or closed off from contestation or at least disagreement; (2) the ways in which kinship discourse varies does not engage the sexes in self-contained views that may be isolable or set in opposition to each other; and (3) the relationship between or among these discursive differences expresses interrelated embodiments of the sexes in folk reproduction beliefs. We must begin by dispensing with some of the theoretical baggage that has weighed down the cultural study of gender and discourse in kinship-based societies.

A WIDESPREAD PHENOMENON

The discourse of Bakweri women, said Edwin Ardener (1972, 1975), was muted. Being politically marginalized, they did not or would not speak to him: "they giggle when young, snort when old, reject the question, laugh at the topic, and the like" (Ardener 1972:137). Bakweri men, by contrast, seemed eager to communicate models of nature and culture that were more readily comprehensible. In ethnography, Ardener generalized, the mutedness of women was a widespread phenomenon. He did not blame researchers for not trying to represent women's points of view. Rather, for him, the problem of their political subordination resulted in a different, feminine concept of culture. Men tend to view social life in terms of "bounded" models of culture. Fieldworkers therefore gravitate toward what men say because bounded models are what they want to hear about. Ardener did not imply that women do not possess abstract models of culture, only that their models are bounded from the nonsocial or natural world in a different, more mysterious way than men's models. Women often employ symbolism and mythology to express themselves in a way that encompasses relationships rather than excludes and opposes them. Their ideas thus become simply unrecognizable to ethnographers as models of society (Ardener 1972:136-42; see also 1975:23-25).

Were we then to conclude that because women do not define the boundaries between nature and culture in the same way as men that they are somehow closer to nature? Following Levi-Strauss (1969[1949]), Ortner's (1974) well-known argument took just this position. In order to account for the universal symbolic subordination of the cultural category woman, Ortner (1974; see also Rosaldo 1974), defined culture as scale of moral transcendence by which nature is brought to heel. Because of women's greater bodily involvement in reproduction - through menstruation, pregnancy, and birth - woman as a symbolic or cultural category belongs to nature (Ortner 1974:76). "Woman creates naturally from within her own being, whereas man is free to, or forced to, create artificially, that is, through cultural means, and in such a way as to sustain culture" (Ortner 1974:77). Women's social roles, moreover, force them to devote more time to childcare and other domestic duties. As a result, they forfeit prestige and political power. They fail to participate in the broader, more transcendent cultural roles and projects. Last, because women learn to perform domestic duties, they develop social orientations that members of society recognize as characteristically feminine. Their orientations are more emotional, individualistic, and immediate than public or synthetic. Since culture works to bring nature under control, womanhood is relegated to secondary status in society (cf. Ortner 1990). Also, Ortner pointed out, the feminine is more complicated than that. As a subject of symbolism, woman often occupies an intermediate position between nature and culture and may evoke both.

Ortner's argument provoked a strong reaction among feminist cultural anthropologists, whose general critique went as follows: by making universal claims about the gender of nature and culture, Ortner had taken for granted Western "facts" of bodily difference and demanded them from settings where they simply did not exist. …

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