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0472067575
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08/10/2001
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University of Michigan Press
Masculinity, Motherhood, and Mockery: Psychoanalyzing Culture and the Iatmul Naven Rite in New Guinea

Masculinity, Motherhood, and Mockery: Psychoanalyzing Culture and the Iatmul Naven Rite in New Guinea

by Eric Kline Silverman

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ISBN-13: 9780472067572
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 08/10/2001
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
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Masculinity, Motherhood, and Mockery: Psychoanalyzing Culture and the Iatmul Naven Rite in New Guinea


By Eric Kline Silverman

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001 Eric Kline Silverman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472067575

Introduction: The Grotesque and the Moral
In June 1994, I returned briefly to the middle Sepik River. Four years had elapsed since my doctoral fieldwork in the prosperous fishing and horticultural village of Tambunum. At that time, the broad themes of this book were more or less outlined. But I lacked a singular image or event that could frame my study of men, ritual, and maternal representations. I needed what psychoanalysts call the "aha" of recognition, a summarizing flash of perspective. For me, this insight occurred during a fleeting moment of playful interaction between a mother and her son. This was the scene that finally crystallized the relationship between masculinity and motherhood that is my focus.
As I sat on the steps of my house that morning in June, I watched a young boy wandering in his father's courtyard. Like toddlers everywhere, Miwai cheerfully disregarded his mother, Njoula. She playfully called after him: makparl ndumbwi, kavlay ndumbwi, "bad sperm, little sperm." Njoula happened to glance at my astonished countenance. We both laughed.
How is it, I wondered, that a mother -- someone who embodies the highest ideals of selflessness andnurture in this culture -- would mock her young son with such a phrase? Was it a taboo sexual jest? A whimsical idiom of masculine inadequacy? A suggestion that the father's reproductive substances are impotent before the power of uterine fertility and feeding? Was it a maternal face that men rarely encounter, or rarely imagine, at least so abruptly? Or was this statement a comic expression of a more serious side of motherhood, one that is deeply consequential for men and women alike? In this book, I seek to answer these questions by interpreting the psychodynamic and cultural paradoxes that will occupy this mother and her son, indeed, all Eastern Iatmul persons, as they grapple with the passions and expectations of their social universe.
The Argument
My goal is to analyze the relationship between masculinity and motherhood by focusing on two countervailing images of the body that the great literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin dubbed the "moral" and the "grotesque." Eastern Iatmul men idealize an image of motherhood that is nurturing, sheltering, cleansing, fertile, and chaste, in a word, moral. But men also fear an equally compelling image of motherhood that is defiling, dangerous, orificial, aggressive, and carnal, hence, grotesque. My argument, in short, is that masculinity in Tambunum is a rejoinder to these contrary images of motherhood. Indeed, I understand culture itself, or herself as the case so often appears in the middle Sepik, to be an endless conversation between antithetical visions of social order, self, and desire. I say endless because, ultimately, neither the moral nor the grotesque in Bakhtin's view, neither the authoritative nor the rebellious, holds sway. Instead, the colloquy of culture engenders profound emotional ambivalence.
It will not suffice, however, solely to interpret the symbolism of Eastern Iatmul masculinity and motherhood through a dialogical lens. I need also to analyze the psychodynamic motivations of this cultural conversation in order to account for why men and women so often express themselves in terms of the maternal body. In so doing, I anchor the cultural pervasiveness of maternal representations, especially in the imagination of men, to the nostalgia of infancy, the complexity of oedipal desire, and what Margaret Mead (1949) aptly termed male "womb envy." Eastern Iatmul women, while they may aspire to the politicoritual privileges of men and respect greatly the august bearing of manhood, nonetheless evince no yearning to become fathers. Men, however, in ways they do not always wish to admit, define themselves as mothers.
While my focus is on the metaphoric voices of masculinity and motherhood in the middle Sepik, I seek as well to converse with several debates in contemporary anthropology and social thought. Methodologically, I parse culture into dialogical images of the body and morality. But I also synthesize this theory of culture with various psychoanalytic perspectives on masculinity, motherhood, and social life. Ethnographically, the book revises recent notions of Melanesian personhood and gender, and, more significantly, provides new data and interpretations on a ceremonial locus classicus in anthropology, namely, the Iatmul naven rite, which remains at the center of lively debate. Finally, it is my hope that this book will contribute novel conceptual and ethnographic insights to the increasingly urgent discussions about the meanings and misfortunes of masculinity.
An Anthropological Legacy
The relationship between Iatmul masculinity and motherhood is powerfully dramatized by a famous ceremony known as naven. This rite was first analyzed by the brilliant, iconoclastic thinker Gregory Bateson in two editions of a book titled after the ceremony itself, Naven (1936, 1958). Bateson's study was the first epistemological triumph of anthropology and a pioneering account of ritual, personhood, and gender (Keesing 1982, 1991; Lipset 1982; Houseman and Severi 1998). It is one of only a handful of early-twentieth-century ethnographies that continue to exercise theoretical influence across the spectrum of anthropological and social thought (Marcus 1985; Geertz 1988, 7; Nadar 1988). My own interpretations build on this legacy.
The naven rite celebrates first-time cultural achievements such as spearing fish, wearing spirit masks, trapping prawns, and, formerly, bloodshed. Today, naven also honors the feats of modernity, including airplane travel and the purchase of a 25- or 40-horsepower outboard motor for a dugout canoe. Bateson saw naven as a perplexing rite of transvestism and ridicule. Mothers' brothers, then and now, dress like old hags and lampoon birth while women, adorned with male finery, boastfully prance in a burlesque rendition of masculinity. Especially vexing for Bateson was the culminating gesture, a "sexual salute" (Bateson 1936, 13) known as nggariik whereby a maternal uncle honors his nephew by sliding his buttocks down the youth's leg. At the end of the rite, the emotionally exhausted honorees present gifts to their matrikin and other ritual participants.
The bizarre antics of naven, Bateson argued, enable men and women to transgress their emotional norms or ethos, and thereby to achieve a degree of psychological integration. In everyday life, he observed, Iatmul women tend to be cooperative and demure; men are fiercely competitive and flamboyant (Bateson 1936, chaps. 9-10). Women derive joy from the achievements of others yet the norms of daily life provide them with no means of lively, public celebration. By the same token, the self-serving exuberance of men denies them the capacity to derive pleasure from any accomplishment that is not of their own making. During naven, however, women do rejoice raucously in public, and men do celebrate rather than challenge the achievements of others. Through the nggariik gesture, in this view, the maternal uncle pantomimes birth in order to claim a role in fostering the developing personhood of his niece or nephew. Yet while naven permits each gender to transcend its emotional limitations, the mockery of these transgressions maintains, in the end, normative behavioral and ethological patterns.
Sociologically, naven was equally integrative. Iatmul relationships, Bateson claimed, are beset by a divisive principle he called schismogenesis. Bateson (1936, 265; 1935a) defined this cumbersome neologism -- developed, like his ethos concept, through legendary fieldwork conversations with Mead and Fortune -- as "a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behaviour resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals." Schismogenesis also characterized normative modes of interaction between Iatmul groups. Unless curtailed, the "progressive change" (Bateson 1936, 176-77) of schismogenesis would eventually fracture a community into extinction. The village would simply collapse.
Since the 1890s (Kuper 1988, pt. 1), anthropologists have looked to marriage for the integration of so-called primitive societies. Rules of matrimony, in this view, guarantee that separate groups periodically restore bonds of solidarity by exchanging women and valuables, and by merging their collective interests. Yet Iatmul marriage rules, observed Bateson, were contradictory. What's more, people tended to ignore them. In the absence of a coherent and binding marriage system, there seemed to be no provision for Iatmul society to renew itself. What held the community together? Bateson's answer was the naven rite, a ceremony that regularly ensured the exchange of gifts and ritual theatrics between intermarrying patrilines. Naven, not marriage, renewed the moral relationship between affinal patrilines and thereby counteracted schismogenesis. In sum, Bateson resolved the enigma of naven through a unique combination of functionalism and what later became known as the Culture and Personality school of anthropology. However outlandish naven appeared to be, it restored society and psyche.
An Anthropological Puzzle
When I set forth for Tambunum in August 1988, I had no intention of studying the naven rite since Bateson had presumably solved the puzzle. Likewise, I had little concern with masculinity and motherhood. Shortly after my arrival, though, I witnessed my first naven. This rite, and the many others that followed, including two for myself, exhibited a different tone and drama than those reported by Bateson. These ceremonies did not appear to effect any psychological, emotional, or sociological closure -- just the opposite. The ritual seemed to intensify the paradoxes and conflicts of the culture. It especially confounded the standards of masculinity and motherhood.
The Eastern Iatmul ceremony does, as Bateson observed, celebrate the mastery of cultural skill. Yet naven in Tambunum is an elaborate event only on the occasion of male achievement. More significant, the central dramatis personae of these large-scale performances are mother-figures who beat women and especially men with palm fronds, embarrass them with bawdy jokes, and pelt them with substances that symbolize menstrual blood and feces. These women, despite their maternal associations, contravene the nurturing ideals of motherhood that are so dear to men -- and to which men attribute their growth, brawn, and cultural successes. The women also, during the rite, regress men back into infants and thus subvert the stated intent of naven, namely, the celebration of achievement.
The uncle's nggariik gesture, too, hardly seemed laudatory. It was mortifying! Upon its performance, men often wept tears of shame, not joy. Indeed, the mother's brother, when he rubs his buttocks down the shin of his nephew, appears ignominiously to expose, sometimes even before women, all the hidden yearnings and taboo desires of masculinity. Naven is no heroic vision of manhood. No exemplars of moral mothering appear during the rite. Rather, naven portrays masculinity as a tragic tale that is scripted through images of carnivalesque motherhood.
I vividly recall parading down the village after one of my own extemporaneous naven rites. This particular ceremony celebrated a personal as well as cultural achievement: paddling a dugout canoe while standing. I was enthusiastically mocked by elder maternal women whom I ordinarily treated with the deference befitting of stately grandmothers. They ran up the village and thrashed me with sticks and branches. They mouthed ribald jests, smeared handfuls of mud in my face and hair, and spit red betel juice on my head. Other women cheered. The "mothers" next chased after my brothers, some of whom ran inside and hid. When these ritualized aggressions vanished, as quickly as they appeared, men shook their heads with silent bemusement. Somewhat stunned, a bit embarrassed, and filthy beyond belief, I quietly walked to the river to bathe. Later, another group of women hurried to my house with coconut half-shells of mud, only to be stopped by my adopted mother who was concerned for my basic well-being.
Playful thrashings. Filthy defilement. Lewd quips. Fleeing men. Blood-red spittle. All instigated by mother-figures, and directed at men. Despite the singular genius of Bateson's analysis, the puzzle of naven persisted. A clear understanding of the rite, I realized, required a framework that would interpret the bodily semiotics of masculinity and motherhood. I now sketch the three dimensions of that framework: the dialogical, the psychoanalytic, and the gendered.
The Dialogical Perspective
At least since Hobbes, two images of the body have prevailed in Western thought. The individual body is natural, appetitive, orificial, unkempt, and transgressive. By contrast, the social body is cultural, inhibited, bounded, clean, and obedient. As a symbol for sociopolitical order and legitimate authority, the social body, like Hobbes's anthropomorphic Leviathan ([1651] 1958), encompasses individual bodies within its juridical contours (MacRae 1975; Foucault 1978, 1979). The social body carefully preserves the morphological distinctions male/female, pollution/purity, inside/outside, upper/lower, and so forth. It cautiously regulates feeding, excretion, and sexuality. All told, the social body privileges the maintenance of collective life over the dissonant, individualistic, and concupiscent aspects of human experience.
Anthropologists tend to associate the social body with rules governing sexuality, diet, beauty, and what Mauss ([1935] 1979) termed the everyday "techniques" of the body such as posture (see also Synnott and Howes 1992; Synnott 1993; Strathern 1996). These "collective representations," as the Durkheimians emphasized, are particularly evident during communal ritual when the norms and categories of social order are painted, incised, and otherwise marked on the potentially rebellious bodies of individuals (Durkheim [1912] 1995; Hertz [1909] 1960; Mauss [1925] 1990). Even licentious "rites of reversal," which disfigure the body and disarticulate social divisions, are said to regenerate the social order (van Gennep [1908] 1960; Radcliffe-Brown 1940; Gluckman 1945, 1956; Turner 1967b, 1969; Geertz 1972). Bateson was no enthusiast of this functionalist, teleological tradition (e.g., 1958, 287-88). Nevertheless, the ritual behaviors of naven, he asserted, which were censored from mundane life, integrated Iatmul society and psychology.
Yet, as we learn from Freud (1913), the triumph of collective morality over bodily passion is ambivalent. Sexuality and violence are forever poised to shatter the conventions of social life. Human discord and woe are integral to culture, not residual. Still, the conflicts of human experience in the Sepik are too complex to be understood solely in terms of the opposition between social morality and individualistic desire. We need a binocular view of culture that recognizes the body as a source of passion and a symbol of social order. This perspective, too, must be attuned to the plurality and cacophony of culture. In other words, we need the dialogical framework of Bakhtin.
Bakhtin understood culture to consist of contrary discourses -- authoritative and dissident, dominant and submerged, verbal and gestural -- that are lent two antithetical human forms. The "moral" body, much as Durkheim and Hobbes theorized, symbolizes the official view of social order. This body is thoughtful, somber, restrained, and sanitized. Its profile is unambiguously defined. It shuns eros. It refuses to open itself to the world unless permitted by the reigning authority. Literally and metaphorically, the moral body keeps its mouth shut.
But, Janus-faced, the moral body has a necessary counterpart that Bakhtin (1984a, 1984b) termed the "grotesque." This carnivalesque body expresses "the hyperbolization and hypertrophization of corporeality" in order to transform the world into oxymoronic ambivalence (Lachmann 1988, 126-30). The grotesque body overwhelms the contemplative voice of authority with laughter, gluttony, and lechery. Here, thoughtful restraint is muted by the sensual, procreative, and defiling excrescences and cavities of what Bakhtin called the "lower bodily stratum." This body trespasses across the boundaries of hierarchy, taste, and gender (Davis 1975). Above all, the grotesque body is dominated by an insatiable, devouring and egesting, carnal maw.
The grotesque body is "never finished, never completed" since it "swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world" (Bakhtin 1984a, 317). Bakhtin realized that the grotesque is no simple expression or aesthetic of destruction. Grotesque logic is refractory. It combines images of death and rebirth, defecation and parturition, abuse and praise. Hence, cultural dialogism leads neither to Marxian revolution nor to functionalist orthodoxy but, rather, to ambivalence. The dialogical relationship between the moral and the grotesque captures, in Bakhtin's (1984a, 62) felicitous phrase, the "contradictory, double-faced fullness of life."
New Guinea is far afield from the Rabelaisian carnival. Nonetheless, Bakhtin's focus on bodily imagery is especially suitable for Melanesia, a region where ritual and myth are replete with symbols of feeding, sexuality, birth, decay, excretion, phallus, vulva, and breast. Indeed, bodies in Melanesia are subject to innumerable rules and a heightened awareness concerning sociosomatic boundaries, pollution, order, and purity. Yet ritual in Melanesia often violates fantastically this meticulous moral topography. Furthermore, body symbols in this region are rarely stable, unitary, or limited to a single context.
Indeed, epistemic gaps are commonplace in Melanesian cosmologies. Discursive strategies, as Weiner (1995a, 9) writes, tend "more to cut off or obviate explanatory expansion than to facilitate it." Local interpretation and reflexivity are elusive endeavors, more a matter of insinuation than clarity (Weiner 1995b). For me, Bakhtin's "idea of hidden dialogue as a metaphor and a methodology" (Lipset 1997, 4) encourages anthropological analysis to attend to the irreducible polyphony of local thought and experience. Of course, culture also exhibits a degree of systemic coherence, or patterning. We need not rehearse the Boasian arguments against what Lowie once chastised as the "threads and patches" theory of culture. With this in mind, I have tried to discern symbolic connections as well as the symbolism of silence, discrepancy, uncertainty, and doubt. There is sense, we might say, to nonsense, to the "contradictory, double-faced fullness of life" that is the artifice of culture.
Why artifice? Because, as Lipset (1997, 12) writes for the Murik of the Sepik Estuary, the symbols of culture that Sepik men deploy in validating themselves "foreground what is not the case while backgrounding what is true." In Tambunum, the artifice of manhood and culture is best revealed, I argue, through two related discourses of the body and morality. On the one hand, as I have already stated, there is a dialogical relationship between masculinity and motherhood. On the other hand, the cultural elaboration of motherhood herself comprises its own double-voiced, and double-bodied, conversation between the moral and the grotesque. Separately, and together, these two dialogues are forever unresolved, and forever ambivalent.
The Psychoanalytic Perspective
After I was established in Tambunum and set about the affairs of fieldwork, I was immediately struck by two seemingly unrelated aspects of marriage and architecture. When Eastern Iatmul describe their ideal form of matrimony, they say that the bridegroom's father "gets his mother back." This idiom, and the rule of marriage it specifies, hints at a yearning by adult men to rejoin their mothers. The vernacular architecture reveals a more ambivalent, even fearful, image of motherhood. Eastern Iatmul explicitly envision their domestic houses to be nurturing mothers. Yet the doorways, which symbolize the genitals of these mothers, are often surrounded by ornamental crocodile teeth. These contrary symbols of motherhood, I realized, elicit local meanings that are both cultural and psychodynamic.
I did not enter the Sepik with any expectation of engaging in what Freud termed "applied psychoanalysis." Rather, my adoption of psychoanalysis for the interpretation of cultural symbolism was encouraged solely by the visual, ritual, and conversational idioms of motherhood I encountered, again and again, in contexts that are essential to men. While psychoanalytic analysis in cultural anthropology remains controversial, much of this dissension arises from misunderstanding. Let me explain.
As Paul (1987) observes, the anthropological distrust of psychoanalysis (e.g., Leach 1958) rests on the false belief that culture is entirely distinct from the individual (see also Spiro 1951). To the contrary, Obeyesekere (1981) splendidly analyzes the interrelationship between private and public symbols during the popular Kataragama ceremony in Sri Lanka. Through optional participation in various ceremonial dramas, the "deep motivations" of male and female ecstatics are therapeutically "canalized and objectified in a culturally constituted symbol system" (Obeyesekere 1990, 12). Conversely, the private psychological idiosyncrasies of these men and women provoke behaviors that, while somewhat eccentric, are nonetheless integral to the ceremony. Accordingly, psychodynamic processes are vital for the analysis of cultural symbolism.
Personal symbols, Obeyesekere (1981) emphasizes, originate in and remain tethered to deep motivation. Their primary significance lies in the unconscious and emotional lives of specific individuals. "Psychogenetic" symbols, while they also originate in the unconscious, are detached from deep psychological motivations. These symbols, as in myth and ritual, code for the collective rules, etiquettes, and tenets of culture -- social life rather than the lives of individuals. But it is equally true, as I show in this book, that cultural symbols communicate messages of psychodynamic or unconscious importance to groups rather than simply to individuals. Often, these symbols express "psychic problems arising from relations with parents and significant others, themselves conditioned by the nature of socialization under the governance of specific familial structures and values" (Obeyesekere 1990, 25). This is especially so in societies that promote myth and ritual as legitimate modes of everyday action and intellectual activity. In these communities, where the mythic and the mundane intentionally overlap, fantasy is not, as in our own society, consigned to irrational and often devalued realms such as child's play, art, or psychological abnormality. Hence, in Tambunum, mythopoeic fantasy is a fundamental element of the overall worldview.
Myth, ritual, and other highly stylized realms of culture often communicate conscious messages. This is obvious. Less evident, these cultural expressions are also "designed to be deciphered subliminally by the innate mechanisms of symbol formation which typify the unconscious psyche of homo sapiens" (Paul 1987, 89). Primary processes such as condensation, inversion, and especially projection are as integral to myth and ritual as they are to dreams. But as Obeyesekere (1990, 51-68) reminds us, a Freudian outlook on myth and ritual does not understand cultural symbols to arise from dreams. The "work of culture," according to Obeyesekere (1990, 55-56), entails modes of mentation that are absent from Freud's (1900) "dream-work," especially "the logic of causality, syntax, and temporal sequence." A psychoanalytic interpretation of cultural symbolism is not, therefore, tantamount to saying that culture is psyche. Quite the opposite: so-called Freudian symbols, argues Paul (1987, 89-90), are "out there in the culture to begin with," as a "shared basic template" that pertains to both panhuman and culture-specific patterns of sociality.
Like language, then, psychodynamic structures exist as collective phenomena. Insofar as one can study grammar without scrutinizing the linguistic competence of specific individuals, Paul (1997) argues, one can equally interpret public expressions of fantasy without reference to individual biographies. When fantasies, claims Paul (1987, 91), "express themselves in forms intended for public consumption, such as ... myth, or ritual, we may be assured that precisely because they are intended for communication, it is possible for us to comprehend them." The matter of verification here is no more occult than in any other anthropological approach to symbolic meaning (Paul 1987). One seeks to demonstrate the presence of patterns and themes in a broad array of social and cultural contexts that may include, as in this book, marriage and myth, childhood and kinship, architecture and canoes, sexuality and ritual.
In exploring Eastern Iatmul masculinity and motherhood, I offer four specific psychodynamic arguments. First, I demonstrate the centrality of the preoedipal mother-child bond in the cultural imagination of men and, to a lesser extent, women (see Klein [1932] 1975; Mahler 1963, 1971; Chodorow 1978). As Mead (1949, 112) noticed, the play of adolescent Iatmul boys turned "phantasy back towards the childhood that they shared with their mothers, not forward towards the splendour and dash of male public life." As a result, at least in the view of classic psychoanalysis, the attainment of manhood requires a traumatic repudiation of preoedipal attachment, what Greenson (1968) terms "disidentifying" from the mother. Thus Iatmul women are aggressively excluded from the male cult. Displays of hypermasculinity and male solidarity, so it is declared, are defenses against a regression to early maternal symbiosis (e.g., Lidz and Lidz 1977, 1989; Herdt 1981, 1982a; Poole 1982; Stoller and Herdt 1982; Gregor 1985; Gilmore 1987a, 1990; Ingham 1996a, 66-70).
But the central dramas of manhood in Tambunum, while they do strive to define masculinity in the absence of women and femininity, also express a profound desire by men to return to an ideal, nurturing mother (see also Loewald 1979; Herdt 1987; Juillerat 1999). This is my second psychodynamic argument: masculinization in Tambunum adheres to a broad "maternal schema" (Lipset 1997; Barlow 1995). Indeed, Eastern Iatmul manhood often resembles a great "transitional object" (Winnicott 1953, 1967) -- albeit one that, as Juillerat (1988) argues for Yafar, a nonriverine Sepik society, is entirely unsuccessful.
Men in Tambunum also define themselves through oedipal desires and anxieties. This is my third psychodynamic argument. Here, however, the central dimension of oedipality is not punitive fatherhood (see Whiting, Kluckhohn, and Anthony 1958; Burton and Whiting 1961; Kitahara 1974). Rather, oedipal imbroglios such as marriage and inheritance revolve around motherfigures. Even the symbolism of male initiation, where senior men dominate their juniors, privileges the maternal rather than the male or paternal body.
Male envy of female parturition and fertility is my final psychodynamic argument, one inspired by the eminent work of Alan Dundes (e.g., 1962, 1976b, 1979, 1983, 1986, 1993). Hence, while women are barred from the male cult house, the building itself is a mother. In her "belly" men store ritual accoutrements that their primal forefathers allegedly purloined from ancestresses in order, as men say today, to compensate for their inability to give birth. Yet men in Tambunum do not only mirror the female body. Rather, they often displace the procreative potential of women with idioms of anal birth. This aspiration notwithstanding, men scorn the female reproductive tract (see also Loewald 1951; Bloch and Guggenheim 1981, 379-80; Shapiro 1989, 72). At the same time, men carefully disguise their parturient fictions as if the very value of manhood itself would be divested of its meaning should it be truly understood by women. For this reason, among others, the uncle's renowned nggariik gesture during the naven rite, when he slides his buttocks down a youth's leg, is especially embarrassing for men when it is staged, as it often is, before an audience of women.
It must not be supposed, however, that Eastern Iatmul women passively acquiesce to men's psychodynamic encounters with motherhood. On this point, I fuse my psychoanalytic perspective with the contrapuntal imagery of Bakhtin's moral and grotesque (see also Daelemans and Maranhao 1990; Ingham 1996a). During the naven rite, women and mother-figures respond to masculinity with thrashings, ribald jokes, and the hurling of debased substances. Not only do women thus contest the nostalgic yearnings of men and vividly portray men's fear of female sexuality, but they also invert the idealized nurturing capacities of motherhood. In so doing, women during naven doubly disgrace manhood since they call into question both the foundations and fables of male self-worth.
The Gendered Perspective
The symbolism and values of Eastern Iatmul masculinity are also connected to broader notions of personhood and gender. For this reason, I must address Strathern's (1988) wide-ranging thesis that Melanesian persons are divisible and partible rather than indivisible and bounded. At "the heart," writes Weiner (1995a, 13), lies "not some inviolable self-identity but the deposited or introjected traces, both semiological and imagistic, of the others who constitute that person."
Yet personhood in Tambunum is only partially sociocentric, as others have argued for non-Melanesian societies (Shweder and Bourne 1984; Hollan 1992; Spiro 1993). Eastern Iatmul deeply respect the egocentric agency and concealed thoughts of individuals. Even "an unborn child," wrote Mead (1949, 83), "can hurry or delay as it wishes." The Eastern Iatmul person is no mere "ensemble of personages" as Leenhardt ([1949] 1979, 153) claimed for the Canaque of New Caledonia, a being who "exists only insofar as he acts his role in the course of his relationships ... an empty space." Not only does identity in Tambunum assume dual forms, sociocentric and egocentric, but each form entails its own desires, emotions, and persuasions.
Gender is equally dual and fluid. According to Strathern (1988), Melanesian gender is "transactional" rather than fixed, inherent, and mutually exclusive. What you do with the body is more important than what you have. In some settings, usually mundane ones, Melanesian men and women act as same-sex beings who are singularly "male" or "female." But in other contexts, such as myth and ritual, men and women are cross-sexed. They transact substances, personified objects, and body parts that are normally coded as solely male or female.
The truly important diacritics of Eastern Iatmul gender are, as per Strathern, androgynous. Nevertheless, one gender in Tambunum is more androgynous than the other: male. Whereas men model their identity after motherhood, women rarely aspire to be fathers. Whereas the overall thrust of myth and ritual is often the incorporation by men of uterine organs and capacities, women hardly ever seek out male or paternal physiology. In the Eastern Iatmul case, therefore, the theory of "transactional" gender must be redesigned to recognize men's psychodynamic desire for the parturient abilities of women. This yearning, however, is largely silent. It is muted, in fact, by the eager willingness of men to extol the merits of motherhood and to articulate the perceived dangers of the female body. Finding a genuine identity amid this dialogue of contrary values and virtues is the great predicament of Eastern Iatmul masculinity.
Chapter Summaries
I have divided the book into three parts that respectively interpret the cosmological, social, and ritual relationships between masculinity and motherhood. The first part, "Cosmic Masculinity," begins by sketching the social organization, ecology, and history of Tambunum (chap. 2). Far more important, I interpret the myth of Kwianalagwi, an ancestress who transformed the fetid sores that carpeted her aging body into palm trees that, when mixed with coital fluids, enabled the creation of edible sago, the sine qua non of a maternal repast. Kwianalagwi thus represents the predicament of men as they define themselves in terms of inimical visions of motherhood.
Chapter 3 discusses gender as well as the presence of bodily and uterine reproductive symbols in totemism, cosmology, and male initiation. The chapter ends with an interpretation of a mythic snake-child who was killed for his refusal to vacate the shelter of his mother's womb, a fate that symbolically threatens all men in the culture. I next turn to the human body itself (chap. 4) and consider conception, ethnophysiology, sexuality, the bodily referents of personal names, and, odd though it may now seem, the procreative symbolism of male flatulence. Here, I expound on the local acknowledgment by men that, while they alone sit on wooden stools, mothers are the true "stools" or pillars of the culture. Yet motherhood is not merely nurturing and reproductive. She is also a clown, personified by men, who chases and teases children. Chapter 5 expands on this dissonant imagery by analyzing domestic dwellings as symbolic mothers who shelter and devour their inhabitants. Houses also exacerbate oedipal tension since fathers build these architectural mothers at great personal travail yet cede them to their sons.
The first two chapters of the second part, "Social Masculinity," detail the relationship between masculinity and motherhood in kinship and marriage. I discuss the contrast between patrilineal trees and feminine water, as well as child-raising and the roles of kin who significantly shape male identity such as fathers, maternal uncles, and mothers (chap. 6). I also inquire, in chapter 7, into the complex entanglement of oedipal desire and preferential marriage since a son's ideal bride is his father's "mother." The last chapter of this part examines masculine incompetence and perilous achievements, two situations that threaten to regress men to a shameful state of childhood defilement (chap. 8). Much of this humiliation arises from the cultural elaboration of feces and maternal care such that men are identified simultaneously as dependent infants and solicitous mothers.
The centerpiece of the book is the last part, "Ritual Masculinity." In chapter 9, I interpret the carnivalesque dramas of the famous naven rite wherein figures of motherhood, as I mentioned earlier, seek to assault, seduce, defile, and embarrass men. Much of this material is entirely new to the ethnographic literature and thus enhances considerably the long-standing debate over the significance of the naven rite (e.g., Rubel and Rosman 1978; D'Amato 1979; Handelman 1979; Gewertz 1983; Karp 1987; Lindenbaum 1987; Houseman and Severi 1998; Juillerat 1999). In my view, naven is a perverse mockery of masculinity and motherhood that exposes the fictions and fragility of manhood.
The differing strands of the book come together in chapter 10 with an interpretation of the enigmatic nggariik pantomime. Why does a maternal uncle during naven feel compelled to wipe his buttocks down a nephew's leg? The answer lies in complex images of excrement and birth, taboo eroticism and male shame, the laughter of women and the tears of men. The nggariik gesture, I will show, uncovers all the earnestness, folly, and pathos of Eastern Iatmul manhood.
Finally, in the Epilogue, I ask, What, if anything, can the cultural construction of manhood in the middle Sepik River tell us about masculinity in general? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere between a young boy who desired to wander from his mother, yet was unable to escape her mocking jest, and adult men who present their buttocks to nephews in a tearful gesture of masculine celebration.


Continues...

Excerpted from Masculinity, Motherhood, and Mockery: Psychoanalyzing Culture and the Iatmul Naven Rite in New Guinea by Eric Kline Silverman Copyright © 2001 by Eric Kline Silverman. Excerpted by permission.
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