Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Sex, Violence and 'Cultural Constructionism.' (Response to Paul Roscoe, Man, Vol. 29, P. 49, 1994)(includes Author's Reply)

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Sex, Violence and 'Cultural Constructionism.' (Response to Paul Roscoe, Man, Vol. 29, P. 49, 1994)(includes Author's Reply)

Article excerpt

Paul Roscoe's important contribution to this journal (Man (N.S.) 29, 49-76) can be 'read' as showing that, just as Western neuroscience posits a link between sex and violence, so too do various (other) folk theories, in the West and elsewhere. But a more penetrating 'reading', I suggest, is that, even when regarded equally as 'cultural constructs', these theories are not so remarkably different from one another as the neo-Whorfianism of (say) Geertz (e.g., 1973; 1983; 1984) and Schneider (e.g., 1967; 1976; 1984) would lead one to believe. And - a daring suggestion, this, in these 'postmodern' times the Western neuroscience version is different from the rest in that it is a self-conscious statement of association in the real world of human subjective experience. By contrast, the rest of the theories are entrapped in that experience: the association they posit is metaphorical and unanalysed. Analysis (as some Western folk theory has it) may be (metaphorical) paralysis, but it is also (as Freud said expressly, and as all of Western science implies) a path to liberation.

But Roscoe needs to attend a little more to both the content and the context of such theories, whether Western 'lay', Western 'scholarly', or non-Western. Thus, although both male and female sexuality are viewed as dangerous, I should hazard the guess that the most common danger assigned to the former is of a 'projective' sort (e.g. penis = spear), whereas the danger most frequently linked with the latter is its alleged 'absorptive' threat (e.g., vagina = swallower): Roscoe alludes to this point (p. 63), but it needs to be made more explicit. Furthermore, the passive voice in the preceding sentence conceals what I take to be uncontroversial but nonetheless remarkable, namely that these constructions about male and female sexuality are mostly (though not entirely) entertained by males. Whether there are associated neurological differences between the sexes is outside my bailiwick, though it occurs to me that Nancy Chodorow's ideas about the different paths males and females take to maturity (Chodorow 1978) may be pertinent to the matter. In a nutshell, Chodorow - and a wealth of ethnography, history and fiction - suggest that manhood is usually achieved assertively, womanhood more quietly.

Although the cross-cultural linkage between sex and violence is beyond dispute, Roscoe needs to pay more sustained attention to those materials whereby the two are construed to be antithetical. Exemplary here are the Roman Catholic antithesis between the Fall and the Crucifixion (e.g., Bloch & Parry 1982: 14; Phillips 1984: 121; Warner 1976: 59), which is widely paralleled in sacrificial theory elsewhere (e.g., Burkert 1983: 60-61; Combs-Schilling 1989: 239-43; Jay 1992: 29; Keesing 1982: 64; Valeri 1985: 64); the widespread notion that contact with the reproductive tract is damaging to a variety of assertive 'projects' (e.g., hunting, warfare, until the last century participation in the 'Oxbridge' system of 'higher' education); and various versions of what has been called 'the hunting hypothesis' (Ardrey 1976), whereby Nature is transcended and Culture gained by subordinating eroticism to collective killing (e.g. Service 1962: 43-7; Tiger & Fox 1971; Washburn & Lancaster 1968). It should be noted that, in most if not all of these antitheses, there are certain more or less explicit linkages, such that those generative activities construed to be more profound are also construed to be violent and male, those more mundane to be sexual and female.

Roscoe's presentation of his own materials from a part of Papua New Guinea suggest a further link in this metaphorical chain, whereby sex, violence and prestation are related: thus in Yangoru Boiken idiom giving gifts to exchange partners, as well as to matrilateral and affinal kin, is likened to hurling spears at them (p. 60). All or part of this chain is present elsewhere - as in the anal erotic/aggressive elements in the northwest native American/potlatch (Dundes 1979); in the fact that Trobriand men use love magic on their kula partners (Weiner 1976: 218); and in the experience of one of my northeast Arnhem Land informants, who felt 'shamed' (guramirri) by continued prestations from a would-be son-in-law but whose honour was regained by the counter-gift of one of his daughters (Shapiro 1981: 56). …

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