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Kissing Cousins

Kissing Cousins: A New Kinship Bestiary

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Kissing Cousins
    Book Description:

    Since DNA has replaced blood as the medium through which we establish kinship, how do we determine with whom we are kin? Who counts among those we care for? The distinction between these categories is constantly in flux. How do we come to decide those we may kiss and those we may kill?

    Focusing on narratives of kinship as they are defined in contemporary film, literature, and news media, Frances Bartkowski discusses the impact of "stories of origin" on our regard for nonhuman species. She locates the role of "totems and taboos" in forming and re-forming kinship categories-groupings that enable us to tie the personal to the social-and explores the bestiary, among the oldest of literary forms. The bestiary is the realm in which we allegorize the place of humans and other species, a menagerie encompassing animals we know as well as human-animal chimeras and other beings that challenge the "natural" order of the world. Yet advances in reproductive technologies, the mapping of genomes, and the study of primates continually destabilize these categories and recast the dynamic between the natural and the cultural.

    Bartkowski highlights the arbitrariness of traditional kinship arrangements and asks us to rethink our notions of empathy and ethics. She shows how current dialogues concerning ethics and desire determine contemporary attitudes toward issues of care, and suggests a new framework for negotiating connection and conflict.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51763-8
    Subjects: Philosophy, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-4)

    More than forty-five years ago, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks invited people into their studio, where they improvised on several occasions this imaginary visitor from another time. In the course of these “interviews” with a “man who claims to be 2,000 years old,” Reiner asks Brooks to elaborate on what life was like back then, when folks lived in caves. Pursuing several lines of questioning, he also inquires whether the people who lived in these caves had ways of celebrating their existence: Did they have national anthems, for example? Brooks, in his Jewish-accented man of the past replies, “Of course,...

  5. PART I

      (pp. 7-19)

      To talk about kinship is to invest in the future of our lives together. And the stakes in that investment ought to be legible. So let me say a few things about my personal and professional stake in these matters.

      In its earliest form this project was born out of my encounter with the practices of what were then called “new reproductive technologies.” Though I was availing myself of some of the lowest “tech” versions of these procedures—anonymous donor insemination—I could not help but be provoked to face some of my own deeply held and unexamined assumptions, as...

      (pp. 20-33)

      John Sayles’s film Lone Star (1996) tells a tale that urges us to reexamine some dearly held assumptions about the relation between love and the law. About those we kiss and those we kill. The film is set in a Texas—Mexico border town named Frontera, where history is alive and well and highly contested, and one of the tasks Sayles reckons with is to teach all that must be remembered before it is possible and, yes, desirable to “forget the Alamo.” A family, a town, and the borderlands of two nations must first know what blood has been shed...

      (pp. 34-44)

      Can we summon up a sense of exuberance we once may have felt about the century we are now living in? Can we recall our immense curiosity about beginning to weave ourselves into a new time? Can we recollect an eagerness to let it permeate our daily lives with a sense of the unprecedented?

      The demographers collect narratives indicating that the centenarians among us are on the increase. New centuries carry energies that proliferate stories of birth. What would it mean to consider our new century as a life cycle narrative—developmental. We are early in it still. Our decade...

      (pp. 45-56)

      Anthropologists bring us stories about the myriad forms taken by the urge to create systems of connectedness, commonly called kinship systems, among humans. The variability with which people have arrived at the ways of reckoning their near and dear ones is astonishing. Yet in 1997 in French, and in 2001 in English, a Chinese anthropologist who studied in France but did fieldwork in China presented what he considered to be a unique—in fact, what he called a “unary”—form of kinship. This term is opposed to the “binary” forms that emerge from what may vary widely but is understood...

  6. PART II

    • 5 APES ’R US
      (pp. 59-70)

      It is a commonplace that the characteristics we apply to animals say as much, if not more, about who we are than about the kindred creatures themselves. Human attributes offer a template onto which we can project our resemblances and our differences in ways not necessarily distinct one from the other—what we see is mirage, mirror, and more. Humans make boundaries between themselves and the other animals with whom they share the planet. In that very marking of territory we draw out their differences from us, even as we attribute to them what we are, what we wish to...

      (pp. 71-84)

      Conversations across the species barrier have a kind of periodicity—they keep coming around. There is a photograph taken by Weegee, an urban photojournalist of Depression-era America, that captures an earlier moment when the culture was struggling with issues of who belonged in the social network of care. The photograph is of “Sherry Britton, Showgirl,” reading a book while waiting in the wings; she is dressed and ready to go onstage and, no doubt, literally kick up her heels. The book she is reading is Apes, Men, and Morons, its author’s name, Earnest A. Hooton, plainly visible on its cover....

      (pp. 85-93)

      There is a document circulating on the Internet that we might expect to find in Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes (1963) or Will Self’s Great Apes. But it is to be found in the more virtual realm of academia—drafted by ethicists, philosophers, scientists. It is called the Declaration on Great Apes, echoing the documents of an earlier time declaring the rights of man and woman. It speaks of the great apes as our “disquieting doubles” and makes the case that they be included in an “equality of community” in this age of globalization. Even as we grow...

      (pp. 94-99)

      As the leading metaphor of kinship through this survey of stories, cousinship is used to describe the relationship between great apes and humans. Not a quantitative sort of critic, I haven’t even tried to keep count of the occurrences of the metaphor, so let me cite just one of the more recent spins on our closeness to the great apes: just weeks ago I was passing through the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., where the great ape exhibit enjoins the public to “Come visit your relatives!”

      It would appear that our appetite for seeing ourselves in them,...

      (pp. 100-106)

      On the facing page is a diagram that can be found in “Of Genes and Apes,” an essay by Anne E. Pusey in a collection called Tree of Origin. This schematic narrative has fascinated me since I first encountered it in my reading in the realm of conflict resolution. A growing interdiscipline, conflict resolution includes animal behaviorists, particularly primatologists, and policy makers, especially those grappling with ethical and legal questions. On this continuum we find professionals engaged in thinking about how to take what we find in the forms of conflict and reconciliation enacted nonverbally (but perhaps quite loudly) among...

      (pp. 107-118)

      The iconic representation of the great apes acknowledges four sets of cultures: gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos. The last group keeps falling outside the wider circle of empathy. We idealize and sanitize simultaneously what we stand to learn from their conflict resolution methods in a culture where females dominate. Instead, we keep writing stories and scenarios of chimps where the exploration of conflicts and their enactments allow us to imagine a kind of cousinship that is not the kissing kind.

      Circling back around to where I began this section, it must be said that I was as surprised to find...


      (pp. 121-139)

      In troubling the waters of kinship based on an economy of blood, it becomes apparent that other bodily fluids and substances remain rich metaphors and metonyms; they enable us to cross borders, as well as identities. Permeability raises these questions of intimacy, and what passes across membranes may result from the mixing or shedding of blood. While other mediums are available for the reckoning of kinship, blood still counts when we contemplate who deserves our care and whom we exclude from the regime of the familial, the familiar. These remain crucial sites of conflict and reconciliation in the making of...

    • 12 OF PIGS AND MEN
      (pp. 140-146)

      “Do we have to talk about this?” says the exasperated and about-to-be-outed nonbiological father of Leon in the British film Leon, the Pig Farmer (1992). The film stages a scenario of the unintended consequences of anonymous donor insemination in a closeted world of heterosexual infertile couples. A recently established mother-and-son-designed Web site, The Donor Sibling Registry (, fuels the same desire that animates Leon, a North London, middle-class Jewish boy, to go on a quest for his biological father when he discovers through an “accident”—a term for unplanned children—that his origin lies somewhere other than in the nuclear...

      (pp. 147-153)

      If truth is indeed stranger than fiction, consider some of the kinds of truths we must imagine going on around us—in vitro racially mixed twins-separated-at-birth as a post-modern rewriting of the potentially tragic consequences of mixing. Simon Mawer, a British novelist, calls such stories contemporary urban legends, but court records involving adoption of mixed-up embryos attest to the real in the legendary. Here, for our perusal, is a recent fiction by Mawer that enthralls and appalls as it puts before us the element of choice in the house of fate, to paraphrase Jennifer Ackerman.

      Ackerman’s suggestively titled book Chance...

    • 14 OF LOVE AND LAW
      (pp. 154-166)

      This is a book about who counts. And who cares. Who is cared for by whom? Who are the members of the group that count for each other? And what are their caring obligations? In first being cared for by our kin, we become fluent in the ways of caring. Fluency is always acquired through trial and error. Who decides, for example, when the infant we hold must be let go so that she or he may learn to walk? And what is the affective and cognitive medium of this apprenticeship?

      Recent writings in conflict resolution lead us to contemplate...

    (pp. 167-170)

    Finally, I could no longer resist the voices of those who kept asking whether I had seen the television commercials running in the Geico auto insurance campaign featuring cavemen. So, yes, I ventured into for my “research.” In just a few minutes, I could watch all these thirty-second ads. I need to retell them for those of you who haven’t seen them, because there is one that begs to be included in my bricolage regarding our ancestors, our elders, our imaginary primitive relations if they could speak to us across time. How might we reframe our present and our...

    (pp. 171-178)
    (pp. 179-200)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 201-206)