Properties of Blood I.10: The Demands of Blood, Part G

As an experiment, I am going to post this part in two installments of 750 words.  The subject of the conclusion is how kinship, when it is ritualized and extended through fictions, is the basis of the human political order.

Even in the simplest social organizations, friendships and alliances can develop independently of blood ties or lineage systems.  If kinship is the model expression of social amity, then those who enjoy such amity begin to be regarded as something like kin.  Though kinship may seem exclusive, an iron destiny dictated by blood, there are formal mechanisms in many societies by which outsiders can be be adopted into the lineage.  These range from transparent fictions—such as drinking out of the same cup and pledging Bruderschaft—where the burden is felt rather lightly—to ritualized adoptions that confer nearly all the rights and duties of kinship upon the adoptee.  In Roman law, an adopted son was subject to the same rights, penalties, and incest prohibitions as a son by birth.  This is the strongest possible affirmation of fictive kinship, but even the linking of arms and drinking the cup of brotherhood that I once experienced in Kosovo confers a burden of memory

It is difficult if not impossible for the denizens of modern and postmodern North America to appreciate the significance kinship has had for most of the earth’s societies.  The great stumbling block is the liberal theory or rather myth of individualism that dominates the entire spectrum of political debate and has so interwoven itself into our consciousness and dreams that we cannot read the tragedy of Antigone without making her an individual or even a proto-feminist martyr, when in fact her heroic action in burying her brother derives from the duty of kinship.  This danger is underscored by Julian Pitt- Rivers, the anthropologist who has already been cited for his insights into the duties of neighbors in a Spanish village:

A system of thought that takes the individual as its starting-point and assumes that he is motivated by self-interest, faces a difficulty in confronting the examples of behaviour that is not so motivated... the majority of the world’s cultures do not share the individualism of the modern West and have no need to explain what appears to them evident: that the self is not the individual self alone, but includes, according to circumstances, those with whom the self is conceived as solidary, in the first place, his kin.

After this prefatory admonition, Pitt-Rivers goes on to take up his subject, how kith become kin, that is how we come to treat an outsider as a member of our kin group, imposing and accepting the bonds of altruism.  There are, as can be expected, gradations of acceptance from the casual friendship of drinking buddies and workmates to ritualized forms of friendship to unritualized fictive kinship (“This is your uncle Chris”) to formal and ritualized brotherhood or adoption into the clan.  A key element, Pitt-Rivers argues, is ritual, and he points to the role of god-parents in Mediterranean societies.  In parts of Spain and Latin America a godparent or compadre, is not only treated as kin to the child and his family but also accepts certain responsibilities toward another compadre.  A similar bond is expressed in Serbian by the word kum, which describes such relationships as godfather and something like the best man at a wedding.  It is in principle an enduring bond, not a mere social convention.

A sociological survey of fictionalized kin rituals would drive the point home, if it did not put readers to sleep, but anyone familiar with any traditional society will immediately think of parallels.  The distinction between kin and kith, while real enough in biological terms, can be obscured by oaths, rituals, and other customs.  While it is probably too much to say that kin is always the model for kith or that the Greeks were right in using the same word, philia, for both sets of relations, it does seem probable that our ability to form stable friendships arises in part from our experience of kinship.  Feelings of kinship are a weaker analogy to the dependency of child upon mother that psychologists call attachment. John Bowlby and his disciples have shown pretty decisively that the a child’s failure to form an attachment in early life can make it difficult for the grownup to establish satisfactory relations with wife and friends, and the failure to experience the demands of kinship may be at the root of some of the social dissolution of postmodern life.  Being a neighbor grows out of being a kinsmen, and being a good citizen in a nation of 300 million citizens, while necessarily an abstraction, may not be easy for men and women who have not been subjected to the obligations of blood.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Many African-American people gather yearly or perhaps at designated times for large family celebrations that will last for several days. It is a ritual that binds them as kin.

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dot, the Wisconsin branch of my family does an annual brewery tour in Milwaukee followed by dinner at a Milwaukee restaurant. My wife and I with our younger daughter were able to attend a couple of years ago.

    The Van Zandt Society holds a “family reunion” somewhere each year for descendants of any of the three lines of Van Sants, Van Zandts, or other variations of the name. I have not been able to attend any. They met in Annapolis in 2006, but that was before I discovered them. I did discover a previously unknown relative who lives in Peoria. My Grandfather is Bill’s Great Grandfather. After Bill’s Great Grandmother died, my Grandfather George married my Grandmother Olive.

    I recall reading at least ten years ago about an extended family that formed a family corporation. Each separate family owns shares in the corporation, which acts as a mutual aid organization to help struggling members. Of course, there is a lot of pressure on individual families to be contributors and not drains on the corporation. Membership is voluntary and individual families can opt out.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Family reunions of various types are pretty common among Southerners

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming – With first ancestors coming to the new world as early as 1651, Van Sants are located in every state. Although my branch moved from New Amsterdam through Bucks County, PA to eventually settle in the Midwest, many branches also settled in the West and South. For example, Khleber Miller Van Zandt (1836-1930), who was born in Tennessee, moved to Texas and was one of the prominent founders of Fort Worth, TX. During the War he served as a Captain of Company D, Seventh Texas Infantry. He is one of my distant relations (from our common ancestor) who is much more accomplished than me. My great uncle Samuel enlisted in the Union Army when he was 17. I hope to attend one of the Van Zandt Society reunions before I die. Imagine all of the things to talk about with such an extended family and its amazing and varied history.

  5. Vincent Dinoso says:

    Filipinos have similar ways of integrating outsiders into the kin group. Godparents (ninongs and ninangs in Tagalog) are expected to have some extended role in their godchild’s life. In a Filipino wedding, the couple will ask older married people, evenly divided between men and women, to be their sponsors (the same words, ninong and ninang, are used to refer to them). These sponsors are supposed to take an active role in helping and advising the couple as they begin to live out their married life. My wife grew up in the Philippines in a strong nexus of relatives and close family friends. I am half Filipino but grew up in the U.S. I can attest that she has much stronger sense of obligation to family and friends than I have developed.

  6. Sam Dickson says:

    I cannnot wait to get my hands on this book and focus my eyes on it.

    The mini-appetizer you sent was devoured and gulped down whole in a NY second.

    This book is saying what I have long wanted someone to say.

    Hurry up, Dr. Fleming!