Tuesday, August 05, 2008

J D Unwin quote from Hopousia: confirmed

Zhasper's Google Book search didn't pick it up for some reason, but a search within Hopousia only for the phrase "human records" (with quotes) yields a positive match for the quote on page 84: "In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a..." and the Google quote ends. Based on other information (this Good News Week article), the full quote carries on over to page 85. Context is still sorely lacking, so it is not yet possible to determine if the quote truly means what anti-gay activists claim it means.

The good news: a copy of Hopousia is currently being registered as sitting on the shelf in the library catalogue of the University of Sydney. The bad news: no way in hell do I have time to get it and look through it properly. I'm barely keeping up with my coursework as it is.

That doesn't mean I won't skive off and have a peak it anyway of course...

Final thoughts: I find the whole idea of "cultural energy" questionable. I'm not the only one, and questions were being raised about the standard that Unwin was using even at the time his work was published. Here is part a review from 1935 of Unwin's original book "Sex and Culture"( full reference for this review is: Benedict R. 1935, 'Review: [untitled]', American Anthropologist, Wew Series, vol 37, no 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec), pp 691-692. I hope I got that right):

The author has studied eighty primitive societies, being guided, he states, only by the character of the descriptions available, and he concludes that there is an invariable correlation between the de- gree of sexual restriction and cultural achievement.

In order to attain this absolute correlation , he has had to manipulate his definitions both of sexual restrictions and of cultural achievement. His correlations, in fact, only concern the limitation of pre-nuptial freedom in women and the nature of religious rites. It is never quite clear why he regards pre-nuptial restrictions as being so much more dynamic than post-nuptial, but restrictions upon the sexual opportunities of women are more desirable than upon those of men, he says, be- cause women are more important in child rearing.

In defining cultural achievement the standard is surprising. The lowest level recognized is that characterized by religion without post-funeral honor of the in- dividual dead or without worship in temples, these two being the criteria of the middle and highest level of primitive cultural achievement. For a culture to rise from the lowest plane to the next higher level it is only necessary to restrict pre- nuptial freedom of women; to rise to the highest level, where they will be capable of building temples, it is only necessary to demand tokens of virginity. It is not necessary that the restrictions shall be enforced for all females in a society. Thus, Samoa has the necessary cultural energy because restrictions are imposed on one girl in the village, the taupou, and rates as a culture with the most stringent re- strictions, whereas Zufii, for instance, ranks as one with complete absence of re- strictions, having, in the author's words, not even "irregular or occasional con- tinence."

It is impossible within the limits of a brief review to criticize the long list of absurdities that are involved in the correlations in this volume. They can be indi- cated from the author's handling of American Indian material. No tribes of North America north of Mexico have, according to his definitions, either temples or an- cestor cult, and must therefore have no restrictions upon sexual freedom. He has described twenty-five tribes from North America, but he has omitted without com- ment or excuse the entire area of the chastity belt. If, as he says, he was guided in his selection entirely by the excellence of the ethnographic material available, it would have been natural to include at least the Menomini and the Cheyenne. The latter's prohibition of pre-nuptial sex life would of course have played havoc with his one-to-one correlation between high cultural status characterized by temples,
and the existence of pre-nuptial restrictions.


The volume is an extreme example of the manipulation of anthropological ma- terial to support private programs of social reform, in this case, a program of return to the immediate Victorian past. It makes clear, as has already been abundantly demonstrated in anthropological literature, that any thesis, no matter how unlikely, can be upheld by a suitable rearrangement of cultural facts from primitive peoples. Only insistance upon a greater scrupulousness and a greater intelligence can pre- vent the recurrence of such volumes of special pleading.

I don't think Ruth Benedict was very impressed.

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