Re: Modifying the Body

Dwight W. Read (dread@ANTHRO.UCLA.EDU)
Wed, 17 Jul 1996 13:24:07 -0700

To the question,
" To whom is kinship "imaginary"?"
Snower replies:

>>Kinship in biology, and biological evolution, is defined as "similar genes."
>Kinship in culture has its basis in out heads. That is why I called it
>imaginary and magical. It has no biological efficacity to it.

Snower clarification helps--I originally read his use of "imaginary" in the
sense of "fictive kin" as the term is used by some cultural anthropologists;
e.g., Netsilik Eskimo sealing partners are said to be "fictive kin" as
opposed to "real kin" who are the folks identified by reference to kin
terms, properly speaking. My questions was based on an erroneous reading of
Snower's comment.

His reply, though, raises another set of issues, namely that in some sense
biological kinship is "more real" than cultural kinship--otherwise, why the
use of the terms "imaginary and magical." This brings us squarely to the
matter of the realtiy of a "constructed reality". Trivially, cultural
defined kinship is not "real" in the sense of identifying genetic
connectedness (though there are those that do want to base kinship,
generally speaking, in biological foundations). Similarly, mathematics is
not "real"--however efficacious it might be in providing the basis for
constructing models which, when given instantition, achieve isomorphism with
the real world. As a construct, mathematics is as "imaginary and magical"
as cultural kinship.

Snower seems to presume that the arbiter of efficaciousness is biological
reality--or at least when he first used the term in a previous post he did
not qualify it (as he does here) with the term "biological". Clearly,
kinship, a constructed reality based on criteria only indirectly, at best,
related to an underlying biology, is not efficacious from a biological
viewpoint. Models derived from cultural kinship are not going to be
effective models at a biological level.

But all of this is based on the false premise that cultural constructs are
intended to be "efficacious" in the sense of the physicist's model as
efficatious with respect to accounting for properties of the external,
physical world. Cultural constructs are, I would suggest, involved in the
business of CONSTRUCTING a reality within which individuals operate, hence
the matter of efficacious with respect to the external world is irrelevant.

To deem this "imaginary and magical" may work if by the latter is only meant
that the phenomena in question are mental constructs, but the terms
"imaginary" and "magical" also carry the sense that these constructs are
less rational, less "real"--which is a valid conclusion only if one first
assumes that the intent of a cultural contruct is to provide a model of the
external world. However, once it is accepted that the intent is to
construct a world within which social action will take place, then the
inappropriateness of terms such as "imaginary" and "magical" becomes more

Snower continues:

>The big question is, is cultural (imaginary) kinship transmitted only by a
>conscious learning process, or is there some machinery we do not know about?
>How is the fascination with tattoo transmitted from the pre-historic to the
>Anerican prisoner, college girl, etc? I think it is more than learning.
>But I refuse to make concessions to Lamarck.

I'm not sure why Snower uses "conscious"--we learn languages without it
being a "conscious learning process". (Or perhaps Snower simply means by
conscious that it is a learning process that has to do sensory input to the
brain.) If we drop the term conscious, then we are left with (a) a brain
wired in a manner that can take noisy input (e.g., the sounds a child hears)
and (b) construct an internal model/grammar/structure that underlies the
noisy input (e.g., internalize a language). There is no reason to assume
that this kind of learning process is limited to language and kinship is an
arena where the some process seems to operate; e.g., we get noisy input--the
way in which a child learns about "kin", terms of addres, terms of
reference, etc. and internalizes a model with its generative logic.
Presumably the same would apply to other cultural constructs.

>All socialization is built on kinship. We are the only animal that has its
>society built on an imaginary kinship, and we thereby transcend family and
>band, or insect colony, to generate, first the totem based tribe, and
>ultimately the modern nation. But there is very much a dark side to this
>process: the ethnic connection as violent and threatening.

Snower seems to assume that "family" or "band" is somehow natural and
prior--else what is being "transcended"? But "family" is already a cultural
construct. What we trascend is the limitation of what can be achieved in
the absence of the richness that is introduced through the capacity to
define a reality within which social interaction will take place.

D. Read