Welcome to part three of my live-blog reading of David Blankenhorn’s The Future of Marriage (2007). You can read part one and part two here.
Following his introduction, defining his core question (“what is marriage?”), and a romp through prehistorical mating and family formation, David B. turns his attention to two case-studies, if you will, of cultures in which marriages serve an important role in family formation. We’re moving, in this case, away from the entirely speculative to slightly firmer ground, as the primary source material for early human civilizations is a bit more robust. In chapter three (“The River Valleys”), Blankenhorn draws on art and artifacts, and the work of historians and archeologists who study the ancient world. In chapter four (“The Trobriand Islands”), he turns to the work of ethnographers (from the West) who have studied the lives and culture of the native people of the the Kiriwina islands in Papua New Guinea over several generations, beginning in the early twentieth century with Bronislaw Malinowski’s work. We’ll return to chapter four below, but first let’s take a look at chapter three.
Chapter Three: “The River Valleys”
- This chapter opens with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, and two plaques from lower Mesopotamia, circa 2000-1000 BCE. One plaque depicts a female-male couple in the midst of penis-in-vagina intercourse. The other shows a couple, clothed and facing one another in an intimate embrace. Blankenhorn’s interpretation of this plaque is one of an early image of social (rather than sexual) couple intimacy. I’m comfortable with that interpretation. What I’m less comfortable with is his dismissal of the sexually-explicit plaque, and others like it, as “almost pornographic,” (almost?) “as if intended for entertainment and (primarily male) sexual arousal” (43). I’m — what? First of all, I’d call a plaque depicting naked fun sexytimes as straight-up porn. I mean, I suppose you could quibble that the term is anachronistic, okay, but it’s certainly sexually explicit. And wherefore have we suddenly decided it was designed for “primarily male” arousal? Sounds to me like the lady in question is having a fairly good time — from David’s description, she’s on top/in front of the standing male partner, with her legs wrapped around his hips as she rides him. That takes initiative, and would be a fairly good angle by which to have one’s ladybits stimulated. So I’m not sure why the imagery suggests men only — except if you assume porn is an all-male preserve. Which in turn tells me something about your perspective on gender and sexuality.
- Exploring the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1750 BCE) and other ancient marital practices, David B. dismisses the notion of women being bought and sold as wives to be “nonsense,” and the notion of a “bride price” to be “misleading” (50). He contends, instead, that gifts were exchanged between families and therefore … equality! His point here is, I think, to push back against a narrative of marriage that some political activists and scholars, including many feminists, put forward which is that it is inherently an oppressive and patriarchal institution. The origins of marriage, some feminists conclude, is so corrupt that it cannot be redeemed as a social practice that embraces gender equality and diverse family forms. I have two thoughts on this push-pull undercurrent (which will resurface again, with more virulence, in later chapters):
- First, I think that David B. has an exaggerated sense of how widespread anti-marriage sentiment is in the present day. I think he’s cherry-picking again. Yes, obviously, you’re going to find scholars and activists who rail against marriage as tantamount to sexual slavery or indentured servitude. In some eras, and in some cultures, that charge holds more weight than in others. American women in the 1840s, for example, had a case to make that the laws of coverture — which legally erased their independent existence — were unjust, a violation of their dignity and worth as human beings. But America as a nation is one of the most pro-marriage cultures in the world, so the fact that he’s writing as if he’s discovered a great conspiracy of scholars to make marriage seem evil is kinda undermining his case. It cues into right-wing accusations of liberal bias within the academy which just aren’t all that persuasive without much more evidence than David B. provides.
- Second, I am concerned that his sense of marriage being under siege from some anti-marriage lobby is causing him to ignore certain historical evidence that doesn’t fit with his own desire for a history of strong marriage culture in the river valley cultures. History is complicated, and always a matter of interpretation on some level. Obviously. So he’s free to make the case that Mesopotamian marriages show signs of a more egalitarian principle than other scholars have argued. But he needs to make that case: acknowledging what other scholars in the field have said before him, and articulating where he thinks they’ve gone wrong based on the evidence. This chapter is full of vague references to “some scholars” and “others have suggested,” none of which references are directly footnoted (50). I know I’m a footnote-crazed historian, but I like my sources documented. And as a feminist, I’m also concerned that in the interest of his pro-[a certain vision of]-marriage agenda, he’s glossing over ways in which some marriage practices in some cultures over time have, indeed, been extremely patriarchal and have absolutely involved “bride price” tributes between families. To call the identification of such material exchange “nonsense” erases the experience of women whose marriages were (and in some cases continue to be) subject to such arrangements. He describes such non-egalitarian practices the “patriarchal distortion,” a turn of phrase that suggests the original, the real form of marriage (this river valleys model) was, in fact, gender-egalitarian. I’m unsure how this helps his case with marriage skeptics, since however pure the original model might have been, the derivatives still existed (and continue to exist) and are still frameworks for coercion. To erase the coercive forms from history is an act of violence toward those who had to live within them.
- Throughout this chapter, we see again the desire to come up with One True Definition of Marriage for All Time and in All Places, despite the earlier acknowledgement that there has never been one. On page 55, for example: “We moderns often seem to assume that couples long ago were not as emotionally aware as we are today … For almost all of humanity, marriage has always and in all places ‘really’ been about the male-female sexual bond and the children that result from that bond. That was certainly true in the two river valleys where this distinctive way of men and women living together became a vibrant public institution.” In my chosen field of history we like to quote L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently here.” This doesn’t mean we are incapable of understanding, on some measure, what human beings of hundreds, thousands of years ago might have experienced or felt. It does mean that we must always be aware of the dangers of presentism: the inclination to interpret the evidence of the past through the paradigms of the present. To some extent, presentism is unavoidable — but it is also important to acknowledge it as one of our limitations. I am hardly arrogant enough to imagine the people living in 1750 BCE were “not as emotionally aware as we are today.” But I am wary of assuming they were emotionally aware in the same way I am; that they made sense of the world in the way I would.
Chapter Four: “The Trobriand Islands”
Am I the only one who was disturbed by the fact that this chapter begins, “I am an old woman, a grandmother. I live on the island of Boyowa. I can tell you what you want to know” (69)?
See, I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that the one section in this book that imagines the voice of another individual in this manner is a situation in which we have a white, Western dude taking on the voice of a Papua New Guinean elderwoman.
“The Trobriand Islands” chapter is, like chapter three, another case study. The purpose of these two case studies together is to set us up for chapter five, in which we are given the outline of the One True Form of Marriage. By comparing and contrasting marriage as found in Mesopotamia and marriage on twentieth-century Kiriwina, Blankenhorn is hoping to “test the hypothesis that there is a core, cross-cultural there to marriage — that underneath all the astonishing diversity of custom, there is in fact a definable human universal called marriage“ (71).
So, well, first off two examples does not a “universal” make. Take any two examples of something, put them side-by-side, and pick a commonality: yay! we’ve found our common core. It’s enticingly simple, but ultimately sloppy. The universal that Blankenhorn ultimately comes up with involves tethering the male and female human to their offspring (more on that when we get to chapter five). But that core is shaky at best. For one, modern conceptions of biological parenthood — of key importance to David B. in 2007 (and many others still today) as they sought to continue excluding same-sex couples from marriage — simply don’t fit within the metaphysical realm of Trobriand traditions as David B. himself explains them. I am not a trained anthropologist, nor have I read any of the anthropologists whom Blankenhorn cites here. But according to his own narrative, the people of Kiriwina believe (or at least believed for many centuries) that human beings were created separate from sexual intercourse — that the souls of ancestors descended into the wombs of women when they were ready to be reborn. David glosses over this aspect of procreation and describes how male-female couples parent, and how they exist in a wider web of familial relationships … while maintaining that the key lesson to be derived from all of this is that marriage exists to provide human children with a mother and a father.
It’s just that … I could as easily take different lessons away from the contours of the society he describes. For example, I could argue that a society in which physical procreation is understood to be a metaphysical combination of lost soul and female procreative energy, a very different framework might exist to think about the ethics of assisted reproduction. I could argue that the interwoven system of extended family support — by which each male head-of-household not only provides for his children and his sisters’ children, but accepts support from his brother-in-laws as well — makes an argument for a more communal system of successful childcare (“it takes a village…”), as opposed to the isolated dyads of our modern Western society.
Blankenhorn’s focus keeps shifting from the practice(s) of marriage to the practice(s) of childrearing. I agree with him that both are aspects of how humans create kin and share the care and keeping of one another. However, I think his determination to extract from all of human diversity some sort of proof that the only and best way of doing this is through male-female bio-parent pairs is … well, both boring and destined to … “fail” is too strong a word. “Over-reach”? He looks at these “past is a foreign country” civilizations, sees marriage, and goes, “Aha! I know what marriage looks like, therefore …” but marriage — even the parenting aspects of marriage — have been quite different in days gone by. People of all classes fostered (or sold) their children into servitude in order to better their children’s lives (and/or their own), for example. Sometimes this was exploitative, but sometimes it was a canny way to get your children fed, housed, and educated. The result was that you — the biological parent(s) — were not the functional parent of your child.
On Kiriwina, to return to David’s example, a child’s uncle, not father, is understood to be their closest biological male relative. The father (whom we would understand as the biological parent) is the socially-accepted parent of a child not believed to be biologically related to him. Later in the book, David B. describes in shocked tones the way some same-sex couples seek to have both parents down as simply parents not adoptive parents or some other form of legal kin. Their argument is not particularly far away from the Kiriwina concept — it’s just that one instance fits tidily into Blankenhorn’s notion of marriage’s One True Form and the other doesn’t. So one gets described as an ingenious cross-cultural example of marriage’s universality … the other as a shocking deviation from the marriage plot.
Next we’ll tackle chapter five, “What Marriage Is.”
(I know; such a cliff-hanger!)