Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 1998, Vol. 6, No.2
  • Examining Secrecy and Sexuality
  • Celebrating Ten Years
  • Fellows Look Back at the Center's First Decade
  • His Long Home
  • Examining Secrecy and Sexuality


    Gilbert H. Herdt is the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow and a visiting professor of anthropology. He comes from the University of Chicago, where he is professor of psychology and professor of social sciences in the College. He teaches in the graduate study program of the Committee on Human Development and is director of the Center for Research on Culture and Mental Health. Professor Herdt is participating in the 1997/98 Fellows Program on person-centered approaches to culture. He discussed his recent work with Letters.

    LETTERS: How did you come to dedicate so much of your work to studying the Sambia in New Guinea?

    HERDT: As in many other areas of our lives, there is both a personal and an intellectual response. On the personal side, the Sambian people are warm and friendly. They create in you some of the deepest feelings of friendship and attachment. I have seen this happen not only in myself, but in many other visitors. For example, Paul Reddish, the BBC producer of my film about the Sambia, Guardians of the Flutes, just fell in love with the people. I have many, many deep old friendships now with people who are the children of people I knew twenty-five years ago.
    Then, of course, there is the beauty of nature in the rain forest throughout Sambia, which has one of the world's last great rain forests. For me, growing up in rural Kansas, this was completely exotic, and I never failed to be impressed by the natural beauty of the area. So that was certainly another draw to return.
    On the intellectual side, the Sambia pose some very interesting questions for anthropology and, more generally for any student of the human condition, because they challenge one to think about what is possible in the range of diversity of human customs. They pose profound questions about gender and sexual behavior and development, which have been the focus of my work for the last two decades.
    My original assignment as a Ph.D. student was to examine the ritual initiations of Sambia boys. I wanted to study an intact tradition, that is to say, a culture in which initiations were being performed in a more or less traditional way. I did not want to go to a place and just have people tell me their memories of initiations that no longer took place.
    So I sought a place that was remote. There were no schools or trade posts. For about a year, when I was there for my original field work, I was really the only European in the area for about fifty miles.
    That degree of isolation ensured the continuity of the ritual traditions, in the face of great social change and missionization throughout the entire area of New Guinea. In the early 1980s, a small air strip was built in the valley, and the mission opposed ritual customs. In 1985, the government opened a primary school in the valley. The effect of those forces was simply overwhelming and the initiation practices largely came to end in the middle and late 1980s.
    When I write about the Sambia today in terms of their initiation practices, I really think about them as an historical reality. They shed light on the effect of warfare on communal life as well as the effect of warfare on gender roles, particularly what is called sexual antagonism, that is to say, a highly institutionalized hostility between men and women, as well as the implementation of boy-inseminating practices, through the men's secret society. These all created a cluster of important concepts, beliefs, and relationships that I felt was a unique "experiment" in the human condition and warranted sustained attention over the last two and a half decades.
    What I am doing at the Warren Center this year is completing the second part of a study that I began in early 1980s, which is called Guardians of the Flutes. This is really my magnum opus in bringing together the entire body of my observations of ritual initiation — not only what people say, but what I actually witnessed myself.

    LETTERS: How does your research relate to debates about culture?

    HERDT: I would like to focus my answer on two aspects of culture. One has to do with the study of secrecy, which is one of my pet projects. The other has to do with the study of sexuality, which is always my ongoing area of study in a broader sense than New Guinea.
    By secrecy, I mean here not individual secrets but rather collective systems of secret knowledge, typically implemented by rituals, which are, in the case of New Guinea, religious practices. It is perfectly clear, if you follow the cultural logic of these systems of secrecy, that they are intended to create two different cultural realities. One is the public reality, which is for public consumption. This really involves representations and performances on the stage of society, the high stakes of political and economic roles, and all the other things that we believe to be important to the social realm.
    In addition to this reality, in New Guinea societies and probably in many others as well (certainly in our own social history prior to the modern period), the secret society was intended, among those initiated into it, to provide an alternative reality to use in competition with or contestation of the public realm.
    We might ask why it is necessary to create two cultural realities; it is difficult enough to sustain one! Why add another huge, laborious, and enormously psychically expensive project? I think the answer to that can be summed up in one word: warfare. Warfare, in the historical and the material environment of the Sambia and many of the other people in New Guinea, created absolute conditions of survival that meant people could never really trust those outside their own village.
    But because of the necessity of social reproduction, which meant that women would be brought in from other villages in order to ensure that incest would not occur, women were being brought from hostile, essentially enemy villages to marry into a local patriarchal group. In a small village, these women were treated tantamount to being enemies. When they came in, then, they became a proxy for that enemy group.
    Thus was created a double symbolic representation—of enemy as a political group, which is the "men over there," and "enemy as Woman," who is "inside the group" and potentially disloyal and disruptive. The antagonism was exacerbated greatly by the fact that since these small villages had such highly ritualized relationships with each other, they had to arrange marriages as political agreements. Hence, marriages were created in which people were almost strangers when they were wed. Men and women alike had virtually no say over whom they would marry. The elders arranged marriages.
    There would be, therefore, almost no concept of romance. While I would not say that there was no concept of love, because I think love exists as a kind of emotion, a human emotional array, there is no concept of romantic love attached to sexual relations in the way that we think about it in our own society.
    The arranged marriages thus furthered the process of objectifying the Other. So Woman becomes objectified and almost fetishized. There is no easy way to personalize and make what is an object into a subject. Only aging and time do that. Having children, becoming a parent, becoming a grandparent, being around many years, becoming trustworthy and loyal are what create affection for women, particularly on the part of men who were strangers to them.
    Of course that is very different from the affection of the children to the mother. Many, many Sambia men were greatly afraid of the strong attachment that developed between a mother and her children. After all, they still have the perception that the mother's best interests do not lie in the village. They lie in a village somewhere else. She might then turn the loyaltles of her sons against her husband.
    Therefore, to ensure that the men would have loyalty to their primary male group, men used secret initiations and forcibly severed the relationship between mother and son by bringing the boy into the men's house and creating extremely powerful avoidance taboos. Boys could have absolutely no contact with women once they were initiated, between the ages of seven and ten.
    Boys could not talk to or see their mothers. They could not take food or other goods directly from their mothers. The mothers could never go close to the men's house and certainly could never enter it—that was absolutely forbidden. All of the secret activities surrounding war and rituals were off limits for women and young children.
    By creating secrecy within the men's house, the men provided an alternative reality to the maternal reality that the boys grew up with, which was the reality of the public domain, as well as their experiences with their mothers and the subjectivities of being close to their mothers and other women. We can think of that alternative secret reality as a kind of male utopia in the world. This reality in some sense denies the existence of individual and personally distinct women and substitutes a proxy in a shadow game in which abstract Woman, as an ideological puppet figure, is introduced. The boys, through years of ritual practices, become increasingly disengaged from the real women they knew.
    The effects of all of these secret practices are to deny the dependency of men upon women and to create a bond among the men, which is more powerful and stronger than anything else that existed before it. In such a utopian world, the men go to the farthest extreme, which is to claim that they, within themselves, can reproduce the world, which denies an absolute relationship to women in order to reproduce the culture. That is what I think is at stake in secrecy.
    Contained within the secret society are many, many parts that have to do with how we think about culture. What is culture? Is there one culture in a society or are there many? Must culture be only public or can it also be private or secret? Of course, mixed in with issues of culture, and even as telling for our own society, is the question of when, because of gender, people have quite divergent developmental pathways leading from childhood into adulthood, do these pathways create different cultural realities by the time these people have grown up?
    In our society, it so happens that we have a huge investment in the perpetuation of an ideology that everybody is the same: all men are created equal, all women are created equal, and there are no intrinsic differences between people. Whether in fact there are any differences or not is a very, very complicated question.
    One can argue that men and women do, to a certain extent, have divergent developmental pathways with divergent subjectivities. By the time they move into adulthood, into their social roles, this diversity is sufficient to create some sense of social and cultural difference between how men and women in our society think, act, behave, handle emotions, create relationships, and deal with politics and sex. So I do not feel the argument I am making about the Sambia is unique. It has certain implications for how we think about gender in the United States as well.

    LETTERS: The second aspect of culture that your research sheds light on, you said, was sexuality.

    HERDT: Yes, sexuality comes in because erotics in social and cultural study, not just anthropology, was often treated as a rather uninteresting derivative of biology. Anthropology created a new and very important idea through the work of Bronislaw Kasper Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead: the idea that culture could create diversity in many domains in the human experience, including the sexual. But anthropologists never really followed this idea out to its logical conclusion. They seldom thought that the social construction of human experience could go so far as to change people's desires.
    In the earlier part of this century, cultural theorists regarded variations of sexuality as biological deviations. Sex was a weak form of biology, but it was still a form of biology, and culture was not so powerful that it could overturn biology. Malinowski's theory of culture was one in which humans have innate biological needs, including sexual needs, and the role of culture is to fulfill a set of functions that will meet those needs. The biology is creating the culture.
    Now we have extensive evidence from the cross-cultural record that suggests that theory is probably erroneous. (See my 1997 book, Same Sex, Different Cultures.) In the development of most individuals in a cultural context, whether they are Russian, American, Sambian, or whatever, the interaction between nature and nurture, beginning at the earliest moments in development, before age one, is so emotionally bound and so creating of their realities—their ontologies—as individual agents, that it is probably almost impossible by around the age of six or seven to undo what is biology and what is culture.
    It is probably the case that sexuality, contrary to the view of the early cultural theorists, should be thought of in a very different way. The way in which a culture creates its sexuality system, or to use the term of Gayle Ruben, its sex and gender system, provides a unique window on understanding a culture. That window tells us something about what is special and distinctive about this particular culture's world view and beliefs and about how it handles and idealizes "human nature" in male and female.
    I believe that each culture constructs what we could call its sexual culture. A culture's system of beliefs, rules, norms, symbolic objects, gender roles, meanings, and devices is a way of creating as well as controlling sexual behavior. All cultures have a stake in the control of sexual behavior, because that is about the concept of personhood, as well as marriage, property, and reproduction, which are highly politically and morally charged questions for every culture.
    The creation of a sexual culture is an epistemology, a system of knowledge about the world, and about things in the world. Sexual culture provides for a culture its received theory of what human nature is. What is a man? What is a woman? What is manliness? What is womanliness? What is a boy? What is a girl? What is heterosexuality? What is homosexuality? What is sex for? What is good about sex? What is bad about sex? Those questions are all being iterated as a set of distinctions from the locally created theory of human sexual nature. This theory is then being promoted and taught to children, becomes part of their individual ontologies, and then feeds back into what we might call the collective pool of the sexual culture and its public representations for the culture as a whole.
    Now, that all sounds like a very neat and tidy system, but it has seams. It has many, many possibilities for rift, conflict, and what today's postmodernists like to call certain sites for cultural resistance, particularly to the norm, if you follow out the argument of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, and his proteges. The norm itself becomes both the focus of conformity as well as a focus of resistance to convention.
    One example of such a norm is the concept of heterosexual marriage today. On the one hand it is a focus of conformity to be married, to have the church ritual, to have children. On the other hand, it is a focus of thought that marriage is a site of entrapment and imprisonment for a woman. It is also a site in which emotional turmoil may occur, and possibly child abuse. There can be discord between the religion of the husband and wife. They may argue over their careers, where one may have to give up some of one's person in favor of the other and lose some of one's independence. All of that becomes a whole set of debates within a culture about sexual nature. Debates also occur with homosexuality. A whole set of ideas are created through our culture about what is necessarily natural and unnatural.

    LETTERS: Could you describe your participation in the seminar on person-centered approaches to culture?

    HERDT: The fellows are a very nice, extremely diverse group of people. The seminar, in a broad sense, is about the relationship between concepts of person and concepts of culture. Person-centered ethnography is a means of talking about accounts of social and cultural life, which provides understanding of the relationship between a certain kind of text or experience and some broader framework for thinking about what the human condition is.
    The fellows share a very strong humanistic interest. A lot of our discussions have centered around poetry, writing, art, and the organization of religious experiences. My role is, first of all, to present my own work. I talk about the Sambia and what I am working on this year, volume two of my study, Guardians of the Flutes.
    I am a clinically trained anthropologist. After I received my degree in anthropology, I had clinical training at UCLA in the department of psychiatry, which enabled me to use clinical concepts and techniques. One of the distinctive things about my work is that it is more about individuals than many anthropological works are. I am interested in individual lives, individual histories, and individual narratives.
    So by virtue of this interest, I tend to listen. I want to hear what people have to say. I find I am at tempting to create some kind of gestalt of an entire seminar, to think, "Well, now, how does it all add up? This person is interested in German literature, this person is interested in the sociology of religion, this person is interested in Amazonian culture, and this person is interested in psychiatry and the ritual of psychotherapy." What I do, which I think is particular to me, is listen to each person's perspective and try to put various perspectives together into a whole. Because that is what studying culture is. It is understanding parts as a whole, putting parts back into a context, into a gestalt.

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