Monday, August 29, 2011

Without Kinfolk

Summer is coming to an end, and soon I'll be back in the ordinary world. During the summer, I read widely, about psychology, art, culture and anthropology, and in particular, about the transition from kinship groups to political structures. Kinship seems to work best when in a limited population. Once a group reaches a certain size, two things may happen: A subgroup may split off, maintaining kinship structures, or the larger group may expand and develop political structures. Political structures are formalized relationships in a group that may or may not include blood relatives or that is too large for every member to see one another face-to-face.

I was particularly interested in Eli Sagan's At The Dawn of Tyranny (1985). I've been trying to pin down the turning point in human history in which the dominators took control, and Sagan may have nailed it. He describes the interim societies that are a missing link between kinship groups and the kind of political structures we call civilizations. He calls these interim societies "complex societies" and follows them from chieftainships to kingships—oh, the horror and violence that characterize them all!

Sagan's contention is that although political structures were necessary for humans to advance to higher levels of complexity and sophistication, the transition was fraught with anxiety. Humans evolved in kinship with one another and with nonhumans. Wrenching ourselves away from one another is terrifying. Thus, he concludes, we assuage our anxiety with godlike headmen, violent controlling power, and human sacrifice.

How many of us would be able to murder our own brothers and cousins to secure our power over the group? Only the most wicked bullies and psychopaths are capable of such an act, and these men became the first dominators.

There's lots more to the story, but I'll end it here, and move on to a thought provoked by the idea of kinship loss and anxiety. I come from a family that did not value kin—we were cut off from even our closest cousins and grandparents—and how I miss those relationships today! While my friends may complain about the annoyance of a nasty brother-in-law or that lousy drive up the coast for a wedding, I feel adrift in a sea of strangers and I long for family. But few of us enjoy extended families today and even nuclear families are broken apart by divorce and transience. My own kids, with whom I have wonderful relationships, live thousands of miles away. I'm lucky to see them once or twice a year.

Because of the internet, we've also come to a new turning point with regard to face-to-face relationships. Our friends may live on the other side of the globe. You, who are reading this, are connected to me by the thinnest of electronic threads. I wish you could come to my house. I would offer you the best liquor and cook meals for you, and we could talk late into the night. There's something good that happens between us when we are in one another's presence, and I believe that our anxiety in contemporary dominator cultures may be due in part to the lack of it. Lack of kinfolk. Lack of touch and face-to-face relationship.

Perhaps one way we can transform dominator culture is by re-establishing kinship forms through intentional community and building extended families. I would even venture to say that when we finally come to see every other human being as our kin, our anxiety would turn to peace and violence would cease.


Julieju said...

Very interesting! First of all, though I am way across the land, I sure do like the idea of talking into the night with you after a good meal and drink! As for the other part, whatever the reason we let dominators have power over us, I agree it's time to stop doing that. And recognizing everyone else as kin, or at least as equally valuable life forms with integrity and the spark of divinity, would stop all that. As I think of it, I think it begins even closer to home - deeply recognizing and acknowledging that integrity and worthiness of our own selves is the first step, and perhaps the most important one to making that transformation. As long as we are cut off, fragmented, and in denial of ourselves, it's ok to do it to others too. But really it doesn't matter - love one's self, or love the earth, love other people, or love the stars in the sky - once you are in love, all the barriers come down.

puny human said...

Thanks for the comment Julieju. I've been having trouble posting replies, hence the time lag here. It's very true that self-hate is destructive, and it sometimes expresses itself in hate turned outward as well. We are worthy, as every blade of grass is worthy. Best to you! Puny.