Review of Chris Knight's "Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture"

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In WR 309, we published a contribution from one of our close sympathisers (‘Baboon'):  ‘Baboon's revenge: marxism versus feminism on the origins of humanity ', a report of a meeting presented by Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group at the Anarchist Bookfair in London last October.

In our introduction we said that we felt that Baboon's contribution raised some interesting questions about human origins and early human society and that we hoped to come back to this at a later date.

Baboon's article is very critical of Knight's basic thesis, rejecting it as anarchist and feminist. Having recently read Chris Knight's major theoretical work Blood Relations: Menstruation and the origins of Culture (Yale University press, 1991), I feel that his work deserves rather more consideration, even if some of Baboon's key criticisms certainly express valid concerns.

Before saying anything about Knight's theory, some points about his political background. Knight is not as far as I can see an anarchist - rather he is basically a Trotskyist in political outlook. However, we should also bear in mind that he is a professional anthropologist and his work as such cannot be mechanically reduced to his politics. Furthermore, Knight does not espouse an overtly feminist ideology but sees his work in direct continuity with that of Marx and especially Engels. And while we are talking about general, historical questions, it is perfectly possible for academics who hold leftist views on more immediate political issues to make worthwhile contributions to marxist theory provided these contributions are evaluated in a critical manner from a proletarian perspective.

The basic problem raised in Knight's book is the role of woman in the transition from nature to culture. An important point of departure is Knight's rejection of the dominant trends in official anthropology, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, which for a long time has been dominated by functionalist, empiricist and relativist theories which have moved very far indeed from the evolutionist spirit of early anthropological studies, which saw the study of ‘primitive' and ‘exotic' human societies as a key to understanding the origins of humanity and its basic cultural institutions. These later schools tended to focus instead on the workings of particular social groups and aimed to understand their cultural forms (myth, ritual, kinship, etc) purely in terms of the ‘function' they perform for that particular group. The avoidance of ‘grand theories of origins' and of ‘sweeping generalisations' about human society, as Knight points out, was particularly useful for colonial administrators (and the anthropologists employed by them) who had to ‘deal' with tribal groupings and only sought to understand their institutions as a means to controlling them for the economic and political benefit of the Empire. We could add that this retreat into the small and the immediate is a reflection of a general trend in the bourgeoisie's thinking about society and history in its epoch of decline, since any genuine historical and social clarity can only remind the ruling class of the limitations and unavoidable demise of the mode of production it serves. In any case, Knight makes no apology for returning to the fundamental issue of the ‘transition from ape to man' and the origins of culture, which had been of such central interest both to the founders of scientific socialism and to the early pioneers of anthropology[1].   

At the same time, Knight's thesis is to some extent a riposte to the theories of the French structuralist Levi-Strauss, who represents a school of thought that is less coy than the Anglo-Saxons about posing the question of origins. According to Levi-Strauss, culture emerges from nature through a kind of social contract among the males in early or proto-human society: it is the men who agree among themselves to exchange females in a manner regulated by custom rather than simply imposing a hierarchy of physical force to establish access to the females. Following Engels, Knight argues that ‘woman' in the earliest human societies was not a mere passive object, a simple instrument for the satisfaction of male desire. In fact, Knight sees the transition from primate to human culture in an act of conscious social rebellion by the female of the species, the ‘sex strike', through which the females overturned the rule of the tyrannical male who had hitherto won the ‘right' to enjoy his female through his monopoly of physical force - a right which was not accompanied by any ‘duties' such as the provision of females with meat or a settled space to look after their young, since females were obliged to follow the male hunters, carrying their young with them, in order to then compete for sexual favours in exchange for a share of the kill. In Knight's ‘myth', the origin of human culture lies essentially in the discovery of the power of solidarity, through the females' collective refusal of sex until the males had brought home the bacon; in doing so, Knight speculates, the females won over the less dominant males, previously excluded from the ‘harem', who could more readily understand the value of forgoing the immediate satisfaction of consuming the product of the hunt.

Furthermore, Knight argues, the sex strike was reinforced by the ability of the human female to synchronise menstruation and establish it as a ‘period' in which sexual relations are banned, enabling the men to go off and hunt without fear of the females being enjoyed sexually by rival males. The idea is that this synchronisation was timed by the 29.5-day cycle of the moon, which in turn regulated the period of the hunt.

Alongside the whole complex of moon and menstruation myths and rituals, Knight refers to a number of very widespread institutions and beliefs which for him are an echo of this formative ‘event' (or rather, transformative process) in human history. Particularly important is the ‘own kill' rule which appears as a crucial basis for the distribution of the products of the hunt in numerous hunter-gatherer societies. According to this rule it is expressly forbidden for the hunter (almost invariably a male) to consume, either in part, or wholly, the products of his own kill (or at least certain forms of kill, usually the larger animals). These products must then be returned to the community through a variety of often extremely complex totemic/kinship laws[2].    

Knight also talks about the ubiquitous ‘myth of matriarchy': according to many hunting peoples, there was once a time when the women had the monopoly over the tribe's sacred rituals, until the men rebelled against this state of affairs and appropriated control of the sacred for themselves. In Australia, these myths are connected to the symbol of the Rainbow Serpent and to the practise of male incision and circumcision. For Knight, who does not doubt that tribal mythologies (especially in a society with such a vast period of continuity as that of the Australian aborigines) contain an important germ of historical memory, all these symbolisms are a remnant of a phase in which female power played a crucial role in the formation of culture, and represent a real attempt of the men to reappropriate control over social life: in later myths and rituals, the androgynous Rainbow Serpent may be presented as a power that punishes females who break tribal taboos, while practises which draw blood from the penis are seen as an attempt to gain the power of female menstruation by imitating it. Indeed, Knight talks about a male ‘counter-revolution' which at some point followed the ‘human revolution' led by the females. He even constructs a possible scenario in the case of Australia, in which this process corresponded to the transition away from the hunting of large animals who were becoming extinct as a result of climate change and human predation.

The principal merit of Knight's book, in my opinion, is that by seeking to return to the question of the origins of culture it offers an alternative to the dominant trend of blinkered anti-theoretical empiricism in anthropological theory. Knight sees himself as a sociobiologist, but one who has tried to take the findings of this approach out of the hands of those who have used it to develop deeply reactionary arguments about the ‘territorial imperative' and the inevitability of male domination. He does this by emphasising the central role not only of women but of solidarity in the evolution of the modern human being.

This said, Knight's book is stimulating as much for the arguments that seem convincing as for the questions it does not seem to pose or to answer satisfactorily. Some examples:

  • - for Engels, the "world historical defeat of the female sex" which he talks about in Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State takes place as a result of the rise of private property and the gradual emergence of class divisions. For Knight, there is already a ‘male counter-revolution' at the most primordial level of human culture (as in the ‘paleolithic' culture of Australia, for Testart the epitome of primitive communism). The material basis of this counter-revolution is only partly dealt with and there is no attempt to explain why his views differ substantially from Engels on this point. Furthermore, Knight does not explain why different hunter-gatherer societies do not have the same degree of male monopoly of social life or the sacred as they do in the Australian tribes (although there as well there are many counter-tendencies to this);
  • - One of Baboon's most important criticisms of Knight's thesis is that, apart from a couple of references in the book that are not followed up, he seems to show no interest at all in what for Marx and Engels was an absolutely central element in the emergence of the specifically human consciousness of the world: not only the question of reproduction, but the question of production, of labour, and the social relations which permit its development. Indeed, when Baboon raised the question of tool-making as a factor in the evolution of human consciousness, Knight described this as an "anti-woman" approach (as though the use of tools were the exclusive privilege of males). It is here that Knight seems to slip into a purely feminist approach, as there can hardly be a serious marxist account of human origins that doesn't at least acknowledge and assimilate the contribution of Marx, Engels, Pannekoek and others on "the role of labour in the transition from ape to man";
  • - Baboon also takes exception to Knight's view of primate existence, challenging his tendency to see primate society as a ‘war of each against all'. In fact, marxist theorists have always see the existence of certain social instincts inherited from our animal ancestors as playing a key part in the development of human solidarity and moral feelings. Also questionable is Knight's view that human culture, with its characteristic elements of art, language, symbolism, etc, only emerged relatively recently (around 70,000 years ago, perhaps less), excluding previous forms of homo sapiens including the Neanderthals. A number of paleoanthropologists would not agree that Neanderthal man was totally devoid of culture;
  • - One final point, although there could be many: Knight notes certain similarities between his scenario and Freud's ‘revolt against the primal father'. But he does not follow this up. For Freud, the inauguration of human culture also coincided with the inauguration of guilt and repression, a problem that Knight does not consider at all, at least not in this work. In my opinion (and however ‘symbolic' Freud's scenario in Totem and Taboo may be) a serious attempt to understand humanity's origins cannot do without a thorough engagement with the questions that Freud posed.

This text is an individual contribution, as was Baboon's, and I hope it will provoke further discussion of these issues.  

Amos 4/10/08



[1] In doing so, Knight is aware that in a certain sense he is constructing a myth or ‘Just-So' story, rather in the manner of Freud with his idea of the rebellion of the young males against the ‘Primal Father' who held the monopoly over the females, as expounded in Totem and Taboo. We are not asked to take Knight's scenario literally but as a model to be examined. 

[2] In his work Le Communisme Primitif (1986) the French anthropologist Alain Testart takes the own kill rule, or the rule of ‘what is mine is not mine but yours' as the key to understanding the social relations of primitive communism. Knight acknowledges Testart's work, particularly his investigation of the "ideology of blood" in primitive society, although he finds his ultimate explanation for this ideology "disappointing". I would agree with this; but it is unfortunate that Knight doesn't seek to investigate the key question posed by Testart's book - the definition of primitive communism as a mode of production. Knight uses the term in a rather loose manner throughout Blood Relations