The significance of contexts
The first analytical line to draw from this case is that it illustrates well what happens when social contexts become mixed. By social context I here mean more or less institutionalised frames that contain not only certain types of practices but also—as a consequence of this—certain ways of thinking. I have elsewhere discussed the term in detail (cf. chapters 2, 8 and 9 in Helle-Valle 1997) and will here only give a brief outline of the term. ‘Social context’ relies heavily on, and is closely related to Wittgenstein’s concepts of ‘language game’ and ‘forms of life’ (Wittgenstein 1968), but also akin to Bourdieu’s ‘field’ (Bourdieu 1991) and Goffman’s ‘frame’ (Goffman 1974). For the present purpose the main relevance is that the term provides a way of treating cultural diversity analytically. In the late 1980s it was pointed out by many academics that our conventional idea about ‘culture’, although useful in many ways, gave a false impression of homogeneity and unity. ‘One society, one culture’ was the underlying assumption and although most have treated the term sensibly there are imbued connotations that create a tendency of reification and homogeneity (Appadurai 1986, 1988; Keesing 1987, 1990). The realisation that conventional conceptions of ‘culture’ are flawed is, however, only a first step. As long as one is not a radical postmodernist advocating non-systematic, impressionistic presentations there is need for finding new ways to grasp the undeniable regularities that after all characterise social life.
A central contention in my argument is that meanings are products of the practical tasks they by necessity are parts of. The argument is philosophical and logical and holds, at its core, that language, symbols and other expressions of meanings cannot be self-containing, consistent wholes whose tangible expressions only re-present this totality through application of rules: “Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself’ (Wittgenstein 1979:139, cf. also Malinowski 1974; Searle 1992; Taylor 1993). Practice is logically prior to meaning in the sense that meaning is about something (Bourdieu 1990), thus different meanings go along with different practices. That meanings normally have systematic qualities (i. e. constitute cultural patterns) is therefore caused by routi – nisation of practice, not by the existence of some transcendental langue. However, since practice is genuinely novel—being enacted in new ways on new situations involving different subject-positions—systems of meaning cannot be consistent and logical, rather they are fuzzy and routinely contested (Bourdieu 1977,
This implies an ontological claim: people think differently in different contexts, and therefore it is unrealistic and hence analytically unfortunate to talk of ‘one culture’ as if a group had one, unified way of thinking—irrespective of the practical contexts it accompanies. One reason for the hegemonic position of the conventional idea of culture is the Western propensity for creating an ‘illusion of
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wholeness’ (Ewing 1990). This illusion springs from the normative idea that we are whole, consistent selves; we are in-dividuals. Ewing argues that non-Western and Western selves alike are contextual and shifting, and that the idea of ‘wholeness’ related to the self is illusory. In all societies “people can be observed to project multiple, inconsistent self-representations that are context-dependent and might shift rapidly” (Ewing 1990:251). This argument can then be linked to Strathern’s concept ‘dividual’ (Strathern 1988). Although her argument is about Melanesians, it might well be argued that the Melanesian case is just one variant of the more general argument that “persons emerge precisely from that tension between dividual and individual aspects/relations” (LiPuma 1998). The in-dividual aspect of persons is especially salient in language (the “I”) and in its physical shape of a body (Lambek 1998). The direct extension of this line of thought is that as we speak of many facets of a person, then we also must speak of many sexualities in one person, a point I shall return to shortly.
From within this perspective it can be argued that the crisis—not only the death but also the events that led to the man’s death—is the result of the man insisting on drawing together events that most villagers feel belong to different social contexts. The widespread extra-marital sexual networking that takes place in the village constitutes (together with practices such as beer-drinking) a social context that for villagers is defined and recognised as distinctly different from the marital setting. The latter is part of what can well be described as being part of a traditional context—a context that all in all is dominated by a perspective that, although not a replica of, has its roots in the past. This perspective (in Wittgenstein’s term, language-game) contains fairly unambiguous ideas about gender roles and relative social positions, defined by kinship ideology. The former context, on the other hand, is infused by an ‘ethos’ that is in many ways the opposite of the kinship-dominated context. To some extent it is constructed and gets its legitimation by being an alternative, opposing sociality; blurred and even inverse hierarchical structures, alternative gender roles, etc. (Helle-Valle 1997:ch. 8). In short, the context is in many ways a manifestation of Bakhtin’s carnevalesque sociality (Bakhtin 1984).
Thus, the man and his lover established a relationship, and hence paired identities, that was seen by villagers as belonging to a social realm conventionally defined as being apart from the realm of kinship and marriage (Helle-Valle 1997:ch. 8). By being villagers living village lives they of course also routinely took part in other social contexts. Cultural competence thence consists not only of knowing the meaning-contents of different contexts but also knowing how to combine and make relevant contexts in proper ways. Every villager is, in other words, an embodiment of dividualities that are institutionally organised in different social contexts.
The initial transgression was not that the man had a lover but that he expressed a desire to make public a ‘promiscuous’ relationship by taking her as a second wife. This decision was not based on cultural incompetence but grew out of a strong desire to make his relationship public. He might have had a hope of
Understanding Sexuality in Africa: Diversity and Contextualised Dividuality
having two wives but his actions could just as well have been a way to provoke his wife into wanting a divorce. Thus, apart from the fact that most people felt that this was a provocation that compelled the wife to act, it also provoked people because it implied that the man threatened to conflate borders. That is, he attempted to in-dividualise a dividually defined social constellation. In short, his actions were seen as threatening cultural order since his plan would mix contexts that should not be mixed.
What eventually heightened the moral crisis in this situation was the death. On the one hand most people involved evidently thought that the wife had not acted out of evil, but was only responding to a provocation. However, the death of a husband and father requires a ritualised response, and hence the mobilising of kinship networks. Furthermore, since the lover was more or less official and a possible wife-to-be, since she had children by him, and since she was a vital factor in the death of the man, the elders felt that she had to be involved. If not, the purification rituals that were needed in order to restore cultural order would not have the desired effect. But the uneasiness everyone involved felt was caused by the fact that she belonged to another context; thus she both should and should not be there—she was herself ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1966).
This event clearly shows that African sexuality is not as plain and straightforward an affair as some have claimed (Caldwell and Caldwell 1987; Caldwell et al.
1989) . Different social contexts involve different rules and taboos associated with sex, i. e. different sexual mores and practices. It is therefore not appropriate to talk of one (African) sexuality, rather there are several sexualities linked to different contexts and hence different dividualities. But in the daily life and the pragmatic ways of much African sociality this sexual multiplicity is not seen, and often not reflected on by the participants themselves (cf. Ahlberg 1994; Heald 1995). By framing different practices in different settings people manage to live lives that appear as rather ordinary and uncomplicated but which owe their smoothness to the extent the participants manage to frame sociality in practical ways (Ewing
. An additional case should illustrate this well; a middle-aged man in the village had a father who became seriously ill. The norms required that he abstained from sex as long as his father was seriously ill. The problem was, however, that he remained ill for years. And the son was a man who greatly enjoyed keeping lovers. So after a while he decided that the rules were not really that strict, that it was just superstition, etc. This worked well for the man until, after eight years, the father died—a death that resulted in a pathological psychological crisis for the son. He became seriously depressed and blamed himself for the death of his father. It took many months before he became more or less his old self again, and it was obvious that his father’s death had caused his compartmentalised framing of
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practices and norms to collapse. The death forced a causal link between his own sexual behaviour and the death of his father, a link that he had managed to keep at bay by contextualising his different sexualities as long as his father was alive.