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Doing Personhood in Chinese Culture

The Desiring Individual, Moralist Self and Relational Person

Yunxiang Yan

This article starts with a brief ethnography of the social actions in which Chinese personhood is constructed and then proposes a tripartite approach to help make sense of personhood as both a state of being and the action of doing. In the process of doing personhood, the reflective and ethical self is consistently mobilized and employed to fight against embodied, individuated desires for the purpose of making a proper relational person who is both social and agentive. This interactive cycle among the individual, self and person in the construction of Chinese personhood manifests itself repeatedly in a lifelong process of becoming, marked by earned recognitions, instead of a clearly defined structure of being that is endorsed by a set of natural rights. Chinese personhood, therefore, is inherently dynamic.

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Spirit of the Future

Movement, Kinetic Distribution, and Personhood among Siberian Eveny

Olga Ulturgasheva

This article discusses the concept of djuluchen (a spirit that travels ahead) among Siberian Eveny, which can illuminate the human potential to foreshadow one’s own future. Looking closely at case studies of Eveny adolescents reveals that the act of planning, narrating, or envisioning a future event, heavily charged and empowered by djuluchen, moves the event to its fulfillment. Drawing from the Deleuzian notion of ‘becoming’, the article shows the connection between prediction and fulfillment involved in the Eveny conceptualization of personhood and destiny. The discussion of ‘kinetic distribution’ and illocutionary acts uncovers the principle of detachability and the partibility of personhood in nomadic ontology.

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Life at a Tangent to Law

Regulations, ‘Mistakes’ and Personhood amongst Kigali’s Motari

Will Rollason

This article concerns the relationship between motorcycle taxi drivers in Kigali and the legal frameworks that govern their business. While motorcyclists commonly subvert legal processes, or avoid complying with regulations, this should not be understood in terms of their ‘resistance’ to legal orders. To do so would imply that laws are imposed on their social lives from without; however, I show how illegalities help to structure social life by creating ‘mistakes’ that are the basis of social relations. I argue that motorcyclists do not confront legal orders in the idiom of resistance, but neither are they determined or shaped directly by legality. Rather, partially formed by breaches of rules, law is integral to their lives, shaping them indirectly or tangentially, according to the relationships and connections ‘mistakes’ with respect to law enable. Law regulates life not by encoding its rules, but by allowing certain kinds of relationships to form.

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The Possibilities of Failure

Personhood and Cognitive Disability in Urban Uganda

Tyler Zoanni

This article offers a person-centred analysis that closely attends to lives shaped by cognitive disability in Uganda. It reflects on the most widely used Ugandan term for disability, obulemu, which literally means ‘state of failure’. Ugandans with cognitive disabilities are often perceived as failed people (abalemu) insofar as they depart from dominant scripts for being human. Yet departures are also beginnings, and I attempt to think failure otherwise. Rather than understand these supposed failures in negative terms – as loss and diminishment of collective and personal possibilities – I focus on the possibilities of failure, tracing what arises around ‘failed people’ in terms of therapeutics, care and personhood. The article intervenes in a wider anthropological conversation about personhood. Rather than privileging cultural concepts of the person or the successful social realization of personhood, as much of that conversation does, the article takes inspiration from Meyer Fortes and makes ‘failures’ of personhood central.

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Dead Canoes

The Fate of Agency in Twentieth-Century Murik Art

David Lipset

In Art and Agency, Alfred Gell seeks to reclaim the anthropology of art for the Durkheimian social. However, in the course of arguing that objects should be viewed as the "outcome, and/or the instrument, of ... agency" (Gell 1998: 15), he takes an essentialized view of the relationship of personhood to embodiment that, on the one hand, preconceives this relationship as consubstantial and, on the other, as static. Nevertheless, viewing art in Gell's way mimics itself; it offers agency, a powerful exegetical methodology for the study of art. In this article, I apply and refine Gell's thesis by means of a historical explication of the theme of agency in the art of the Murik Lakes people, a group of Sepik River fisher folk and traders. More broadly, I argue that Gell's analytical framework in Art and Agency needs to admit that the relationship of art to personhood and modernity is cultural, discursive, and unfinalized, as well as instrumental.

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Revisiting the Menkiti-Gyekye Debate

Who Is a Radical Communitarian?

Motsamai Molefe

In this article, I intervene in the debate about the nature of Afrocommunitarianism between Ifeanyi Menkiti and Kwame Gyekye. I contend that Menkiti’s talk of ‘personhood’ entails a perfectionist moral theory to the effect that one ought to lead a morally excellent life in a context of ‘being-with-others’. Secondly, I deny that Menkiti’s political theory rejects rights per se; rather, I submit, a more charitable reading would recognise that he takes an agnostic stance towards them and that he conceives of an African political theory as one that is duty-based (and if it considers rights at all, these are secondary to duties). I also highlight that Menkiti’s contribution poses a challenge to African philosophers to justify their ontological commitment to rights. I conclude by drawing our attention to the fact that Gyekye’s in his latter political philosophy writings endorses Menkiti’s duty-based political theory, that rights take secondary consideration to duties.

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Laki Charms

'Luck' and Personal Agency in North Mekeo Social Change

Mark S. Mosko

Notions and practices known by the Tok Pisin term laki ('lucky' or 'luck') have for long been widespread across Melanesia. Previous studies have tended to concentrate on laki as 'probabilistic chance' and on its secular (i.e., economic, political, recreational) expressions, most notably in card gambling. Drawing on the perspective of the New Melanesian Ethnography, I focus instead upon the magico-ritual dimensions of laki in a single Papua New Guinean society, North Mekeo, where laki has been adapted to indigenous notions of 'dividual' personal agency that differ radically from exogenous ideas of success through 'pure chance'. On this evidence, I argue that the different perceptions of laki and 'luck' or 'lucky' by North Mekeo and Westerners are indicative of the divergent sorts of agency and sociality that are culturally compatible, respectively, with dividual and individual personhood.

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The Algebra of Souls

Ontological Multiplicity and the Transformation of Animism in Southwest China

Mireille Mazard

In Nusu animism, the number and nature of a person’s ‘soul attributes’ change during his or her lifetime and after death. Drawing on Michael Scott’s study of Arosi poly-ontology, this article situates animistic personhood in a plural socio-cosmic order. Living and dead, human and non-human, Nusu and non-Nusu occupy separate, communicating domains. Meaningful exchanges across boundaries require the metamorphosis of persons and ideas. Nusu animism, continuously engaged in an ‘algebra of souls’, understands the self in terms of its multiplicity, its latent and emerging aspects. Through the ethnography of two death rituals—one ‘real’ and one staged for visiting researchers—this article shows that animism is being hyper-reflexively reinvented by Nusu animists themselves.

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Gathering Up Mutual Help

Relational Freedoms of Tanzanian Market-Women

Daivi Rodima-Taylor

This article offers a relational perspective on the discussion of obligations and freedoms in Kuria women's voluntary associations in Tanzania and explores the impacts of these activities on sociality and public spaces. The constitution of a successful businesswoman is dependent on her membership in various cooperative groups, and her new rights and freedoms reside in the ambiguity between her sovereignty and group belonging. Historically an important means for self-extension, cooperative work remains pertinent in regulating the impacts of new resources. Diverse mediators and conversions have played a key role in building the Kuria person, making available a range of transformative options and revealing the possibilities for mixed forms. It is suggested that an engagement between Melanesian and African perspectives on personhood can contribute to a dynamic and temporally situated study of a social construction of mutuality.

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The Mistakes That Make People

Reconceptualizing Power and Resistance in Rwanda

Will Rollason

This article constitutes a critique of James C. Scott’s theory of everyday resistance and the use of these concepts in anthropology more generally. Its claim is that theories of power and resistance need to be analyzed in terms of local ideas about the nature of people in order to account for what happens in social life. This contention is based on ideas of personhood among motorcycle taxi drivers in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Central to these ideas are the ‘faults’ or ‘mistakes’ that people ‘have’, which form the basis of social relations founded on ‘patience’ or ‘forbearance’. Because of these relations, people typically do not take the form of bounded individuals who can act as resistant subjects in Scott’s terms. Thus, we require a reconceptualization of notions of power and resistance based on Rwandan understandings of the person.