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The ‘Dividual Androgyne’ and Me: a Personal Affair

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Abstract

In the 25 years since Marilyn Strathern published The Gender of the Gift (1988) its signature concepts of the ‘dividual androgyne’ and ‘sociality’ have received almost no criticism in the anthropological literature and are now widely accepted as true. The ‘dividual’ is considered to be ‘a new, non-unitary model of embodiment and … one of the most important theoretical accomplishments to emerge from Melanesian ethnography in the latter part of the 20th Century’ despite the fact that it erases affect, agency, identity and other essential features of human beings (Lipset 2008).

The present critique of Strathern's concept of the androgynous ‘dividual’ challenges its legitimacy as a Melanesian or any other ‘premodern’ form of personhood and suggests that it expresses the wish of academic feminists in the 1970s and 1980s to locate an indigenous model for androgyny and to characterise patriarchy, misogyny and sexual segregation as peculiarly Western. The article explores aspects of Gimi myth, ritual and exchange which Strathern claims helped her to formulate the concept of the ‘dividual’ (especially those surrounding men's sacred bamboo flutes) and concludes that she mistook a virulently anti-female ideology – including a fantasy in which men may subsume or incorporate certain aspects of female anatomy – for benign accommodation between the sexes. The ‘dividual’ does not correspond to social reality among the Gimi and paradoxically affirms Lévi-Strauss' classic demonstration in the Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949) that ‘the gender of the gift’ is invariably female.

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