Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.01.22

Claude Calame, Mondher Kilani (ed.), La fabrication de l'humain dans les cultures et en anthropologie.   Lausanne:  Editions Payot, 1999.  Pp. 164.  ISBN 2-601-03249-9, ISSN 0014-2026.  120 Swiss Francs.  

Reviewed by Phiroze Vasunia, University of Southern California (
Word count: 1645 words


Claude Calame, Mondher Kilani, Francesco Remotti, Alain Ballabriga, Annamaria Rivera, Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd, Thomas W. Laqueur, Claude Blanckaert, Wiktor Stoczkowski, Françoise Héritier, Silvana Borutti

The problem of the making of the human being as a socio-cultural animal has preoccupied anthropologists for some decades now. How do human beings negotiate socio-cultural forms within the communities or societies they inhabit? How do these negotiations and interactions give definition to the human identity of human beings? How do traditional or established social practices, institutions, and rituals elaborate models of being human in a given culture? This stimulating collection, edited by Claude Calame and Mondher Kilani, considers the making of the human being as such, both within cultural systems and in anthropological discourse. Readers of this journal who are interested in anthropology as well as in classical studies, and indeed readers who are concerned with the problem of culture more broadly, will find much of value in the book. Even the many essays that are not explicitly directed at Greek and Roman material will merit comment and discussion from readers whose primary research orientation is toward the ancient world.

The book itself is the result of a colloquium organized, in December 1997, at the University of Lausanne, on the theme of "the making of the human in cultures and in anthropology." The colloquium at Lausanne was one in a series of colloquia on the critical construction of anthropological discourse sponsored by a group that styles itself "Patonipala," among whom are not only Calame and Kilani at Lausanne, but also scholars from Pavia, Turin, Nice, and Paris. The essays in this book, in turn, are by a team of academics from Greek and Roman studies, history, and anthropology, and the writings reflect the varied disciplinary backgrounds of the contributors. The book as a whole is a far-reaching amplification and development of ideas worked out initially and brilliantly by such anthropologists as Clifford Geertz, Edmund Leach, and Victor Turner.

The key organizing concept behind the book is that of anthropopoiesis (the word occurs in ancient Greek literature), which refers to the "idea of making, of constructing, of fabricating human beings, or more precisely of models of human beings" (7). Like a bird of prey, this concept hovers over the entire book. It is treated at different moments by various authors: even so, it could have benefited from a clear, definitive elaboration. It appears to encompass the social actors whom anthropologists study as well as the anthropologists who account for their actions. The editors themselves explain anthropopoiesis with the help of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and with a summary of the numerous critical analyses of this narrative. As they observe, interpreters of the story in ancient Greece and Rome focused on the figure of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, and imputed metonymic values to the two. Since then, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this narrative of Persephone and Demeter has been subjected to further critical analysis by a range of scholars, including Friedrich Max Müller, James G. Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Martin P. Nilsson, Karl Kerényi, Carl G. Jung, and Helene P. Foley, to name only a few. These analyses have variously brought out the metonymic, metaphorical, psychoanalytic, ritual, and feminist implications of the story. According to Calame and Kilani, it is clear that the myth of Persephone and Demeter gives us "a representation of the making of man (as Mensch)" (10). But further, they suggest that when we look back at the various readings and interpretations of this narrative, we also understand "the procedures of secondary modelling" on which these readings depend, and thus also understand the assumptions underpinning the critical discourse that presumes to explain the Greek myth. Accordingly, the purpose of anthropopoiesis and of the book is "to reflect on the schematizations and models of the making of the human as well as on the representations of man which are a consequence of them" (10).

The subject of anthropopoiesis is developed as well in the provocative final essay of the book by Silvana Borutti, who reformulates the concept along the double lines of an ontological reading and an epistemological reading. From the ontological perspective, anthropopoiesis poses the origin of human being as a problem, and exposes the fictional ties that unite the biological and cultural realities of humans: so both culture and the cultured human are seen as necessary fictions, while the fictions mask the absence of origin. The epistemological approach is to evaluate the nature of this fictionality and to understand how the fictional process contributes to the making of the human; this approach probes the non-natural aspect of anthropological models, or "the symbolic and formal (poietic) projection of a reality" (157). According to Borutti, the fictional basis of culture has a constructive and fertile character, which human beings use as they make a place for themselves in the world. Similarly, to understand the fictional character of models of anthropology means for scholars to acknowledge the range of possibilities connected with being in a culture: it is a constructive opening up of the world. Thus, Borutti insists on the irreducible distance between representation and reality in various discourses, but at the same time she suggests that this disjunction has a powerful, productive, and transformative value for human beings.

In different ways, the remaining essays in the collection explore the making of the human in various societies and in anthropological discourse. Francesco Remotti presents several theses as a way to discuss the subject of anthropopoiesis and the related concept of anthropogenesis; like others in the volume, he stresses the fictional and transformative power of anthropopoiesis. Alain Ballabriga examines mythic narratives of origin from the Sumerian, Hebrew, and Greek traditions, and discusses the oppositional relationships that develop in these stories about the making of the human: divine and human, male and female, nature and culture. Annamaria Rivera shows how the distinction between animal and human has informed the thinking behind the relationship between nature and culture, and further how the same distinction between animal and human has been used in different cultures to further the bestialization of certain groups of human beings (e.g. racist and anti-Semitic discourses in the twentieth century). Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd studies problems of taxonomy in ancient Greece and China, and illustrates the similarities and differences in how the two cultures drew on metaphors from the animal world to represent human beings; the essay is an extension of Lloyd's comparative work in the human sciences of ancient Greece and China.

In his chapter on the ensemble of significations conveyed by the English word "human," Thomas W. Laqueur looks at this word and its derivatives "humane" and "humanity" in texts from the eighteenth century; he argues that the words "human" and "humane" assumed ethical (not just ontological or metaphysical) dimensions in the eighteenth century, largely because of writings about the American colonies and about the enslavement of black Africans. Unlike Simone de Beauvoir in her argument about "man," he suggests that the making of the human and of humanity is realized not by alterity but rather by community. Claude Blanckaert investigates the racist and Eurocentric background to nineteenth-century arguments over taxonomy in order to understand better the origin of classification in current anthropological discourse and its conditions of production. Wiktor Stoczkowski surveys the arguments made about human appearance in the discipline of paleoanthropology, and indicates how this science belies its empirical basis by relying on the metaphysics and the ideology of the times. And Françoise Héritier writes that the questions raised about parenthood and kinship by the human genome project and by recent developments in artificial procreation were anticipated long ago by tribal societies.

As a glance at the contents of the book indicates, the collection interrogates the category of the human as well as the definitions, meanings, and functions of being human in different cultures. What is missing from the book, however, is a systematic or rigorous questioning of "culture" or "cultures" -- this is an odd and unsatisfying omission in a book that purports to be about the making of the human in various cultures and that invokes such theorists of culture as Geertz and Leach in its pages. This omission is related to a second limitation of the book: there appears to be little discussion here about the ways in which models of being human can engage or conflict with each other in a given culture. To be sure, the dialogic or conflictual nature of the different practices of anthropopoiesis is implicit in several chapters. But it is striking that one can read this book and come away without a sense of the contestatory character of anthropopoietic practices within a cultural system. The book does not explicitly address this aspect of the making of the human, even though it provides some very skilled descriptions and analysis of larger intellectual contexts and ideologies in relation to specific texts and authors. Moreover, one wishes that the impact of globalization and colonialism was treated more forcefully, and less gingerly, in the chapters that deal with material from the eighteenth century and later. Again, these themes are implicit in the discussion but are not worked through systematically at length. A longer introduction by Calame and Kilani could well have addressed the points made here, and it is to be regretted that the editors, who are both extremely sophisticated interpreters of culture, did not enhance the cultural analysis of their opening statement.

This set of essays will contribute to ongoing debates in Greek and Roman studies in a range of different areas, including the study of the body, performance theory, rites of passage, and mythology. A fruitful discussion could be opened up, or carried further, if the book were read along with the work of scholars within the field of classical studies who have published their findings in these subjects (and who both are and are not included in this collection). In general, the book is a helpful and spirited intervention in the area of the "human sciences."

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