Since the inception of anthropology in the second half of the 19th century, kinship has been its buzzword. Scholars have studied kinship systems of distant cultures and proposed many definitions of it, yet, up to now there is no satisfactory definition that everyone would agree on. Moreover, being focused on studying and analyzing “others”, anthropologists turned their attention to themselves and to the “Western”1 world not so long ago—thus, a great deal of inquiries into the ‘Western” society were attempted by other disciplines, including but not limited to sociology, political science and philosophy.
In this paper, building on Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women” and on the chapter from Judith Butler’s book “Undoing Gender” titled “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual? “, I will briefly explore the category of kinship, its relation and significance for the contemporary societies. Trying to envision “genderless but not sexless society” (Rubin 1975:204) and to develop a refined concept of a “sex/gender system” (1975:159), Gayle Rubin traces the narratives of female oppression and subordination through the works of Marx, Engels, Levi-Strauss, Freud, and Lacan.
She calls her method exegesis, though warning the reader that sometimes her reading of a text is not strictly exegetical but rather “freely interpretative, moving from the explicit content of a text to its presuppositions and implications” (1975:159). Though the essay is very loaded and contains a lot of thoughtful and insightful moments, I will focus on Rubin’s ideas on kinship. Building on Levi-Strauss and psychoanalysis, Rubin concludes that kinship-a system regulating human sexuality—is indeed redicated on compulsory heterosexuality, which is in its turn conditioned by Oedipal crisis, incest taboo and taboo on homosexuality. However, she notes, “[t]he organization of sex and gender [kinship) once had functions other than itself—it organized society. Now, it only organizes and reproduces itself. The kinds of relationships of sexuality established in the dim human past still dominate our sexual lives, our ideas about men and women, and the ways we raise our children.
But they lack the functional load they once carried. One of the most conspicuous features of kinship is that is has been systematically stripped of its functions—political, economic, educational, and organizational. It has been reduced to its barest bones—sex and gender” (1975:199, emphasis original). From the first glance, the claim about the insignificance of kinship seems to be unquestionable—the role of kinship is indeed less visible in the modern world, especially in the ‘West”.
But did kinship really lose its organizational power or was it just transformed and became less visible? Or, maybe, “Western” anthropological eyes are less trained to spot kinship and its significance in “Western” societies? In order to attempt to answer these questions, I will turn to Judith Butler’s piece “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual? ” that provides a new glance on the topic of kinship. It could be said that Butler comes in precisely at the point where Rubin puts full stop.
Butler proposes to understand kinship as a broader structure than Rubin defines it (though she doesn’t explicitly mention Rubin, she does take a lot from LeviStrauss, who was the primary source of Rubin’s reflections of kinship) and to disjoin it from the “marriage assumption”. Butler proposes to define kinship “as a set of practices that institutes relationships of various kinds which negotiate the reproduction of life and the demands of death, then kinship practices will be those that emerge to address fundamental forms of human dependency, which may include birth, child rearing, relations of motional dependency and support, generational ties, illness, dying, and death (to name a few). Kinship is neither a fully autonomous sphere, proclaimed to be distinct from community and friendship-or the regulations of the state—through some definitional fiat, nor is it “over” or “dead” just because, as David Schneider has consequentially argued, it has lost the capacity to be formalized and tracked in the conventional ways that ethnologists in the past have attempted to do. ” (2004:102-103).
Reflecting on the possibilities of radical politics that speaks from the place that is beyond the realm of recognizable and the necessity of making political claims that ask the state for legitimization and thus are always based on state’s recognition, Butler elaborates on the debate on gay marriage in France in order to advance her argument—that in contemporary France, culture, which is equated with amorphous Frenchness, still pretty much rests upon compulsory heterosexuality that rests on incest taboo and thus “compulsory exogamy”, as Butler puts it. The woman from elsewhere makes sure that the men from here will reproduce their own kind. She secures the reproduction of cultural identity in this way.
The ambiguous “clan” designates a “primitive” group for Levi-Strauss in 1949, but it comes to function ideologically for the cultural unity of the nation in 1999-2000, in the context of a Europe beset with opening borders and new immigrants. The incest taboo thus comes to function in tandem with a racialist project to reproduce culture and, in the French context, to reproduce the implicit identification of French culture with universality. (2004:121-122). Thus, Butler shows how kinship still functions in the “Western” world; however, kinship is now frequently understood under the term of national culture. As Butler proceeds with her analysis, it is possible to see that contrary to Rubin’s claims, kinship has been not “reduced to its barest bone”, moreover, it still has its organizational functions and these functions are pretty far from being out of date.
It is possible to suggest here that Rubin optics, when she was making this claim, was limited by her disciplinary field, as at the time when the essay was written and published, anthropology was still focused on “others” and was not prepared to scrutinize its home countries. Thus, it was almost unimaginable for Rubin and her fellow colleagues to apply the categories they used to analyze mostly distant and exotic cultures to themselves and the “Western” world.
Rubin’s conclusion about the reduced and limited role of kinship in the contemporary society, I suggest, comes from this (limiting and limited) disciplinary optics. However, as Butler would show almost twenty years after, kinship still matters—as the rhetoric of the cultural reproduction and what it means to belong to a certain culture is indeed rooted in kinship structures and our understanding of them.
Similar to Butler’s are also the claims of Indigenous feminism’s theorists Arvin Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill, who note that “the management of Indigenous peoples’ gender roles and sexuality” by settler colonialism was closely linked to erosion of Indigenous people’s structures of kinship and its replacement with a new kinship system—the one based on the ‘Western” ideas of heteropaternalism and heteropatriarchy (2013:15).
As the examples of the erosion of Indigenous kinship and of topdown imposition of the new system, the authors mention the Indian Act of 1876 that regulated Indian’s marriage and the lines of descent and the practice of removing children from Native families in order to put them to boarding schools. They mention that this kind of practice was needed “to destroy the transfer of Indigenous identity, politics, and culture to the next generations. ” (Maile, et al. 2013:15).
Just as Butler claims, the figure of a child is pivotal in revealing modern-day ideas about kinship-precisely because kinship is frequently understood as a practice undertaken by members of society to transmit their identity. When Butler notes about the implicit equation of Frenchness with universality, it might be interesting to turn back to Rubin’s text and ask—whether her claim about the lack of kinship’s organizational functions isn’t premised on the tacit assumption of the universality of Western culture”.
If, for instance, one dares to examine the importance of kinship in post-Soviet societies, one can reach strikingly different conclusions. This claim can be supported by the practices of nepotism that are quite widespread in post-Soviet economies. Similarly to kinship, nepotism is a set of practices, undertaken in order to create networks of support; these practices provide people with a tool to differentiate and classify other people from their community in order to understand whom they can turn to for help and who is an outsider to the network of exchange.
Regarding contemporary representations of kinship and the anxieties surrounding it, it may be interesting to notice that incest taboo lingers on in the contemporary societies as well, though today it appears to be more rational and backed up by science. Still, sexual relationships between step siblings are under the risk of high social reproach and stigmatization, though step siblings are not related by blood, so medicalized reasoning that backs up the prohibition on brother-sister relations does not provide satisfactory explanation.
However, it can be explained by assuming the presupposition that kinship, though less visible and tangible, still organizes contemporary societies and to a certain extent (though to a lesser extent than it does in traditional societies) organizes our views on who is marriageable and who is not. Though my reflections on kinship in the contemporary world have taken a bit different direction than Butler’s stance on the topic, it is by no means to suggest that her refine and revealing analysis is not important.
On the contrary, her ideas on the equation of kinship with modern-day national culture are incredibly insightful and worthy of pursuing further. My reflections are rather of supplementary value in order to enhance and highlight the main claim of this paper and the claim of Butler’s piece—kinship still matters in the contemporary world. However, it is indeed less visible and more difficult to track in the ways that anthropologists used to do it.