John Borneman, “Belonging and Group Identification in the Maternal Register: The Case of Syria among the Arab Revolts”

Political revolts are most frequently interpreted solely in the register of the father. Characteristic of the Arab revolts, which began in December 2010, is the absence of the father. In this lecture, Professor Borneman has argued that these are not uprisings against the father, but as initially motivated more by calls for kefaya (enough) and al hurriyyah (freedom or liberty), passions that operate in the register of the mother. Focusing on the revolt in Syria as an “integrative revolution,” he will discuss the emergent forms of authority, belonging, and group identification and the primary importance of such forms of affinity, attachment, and solidarity in building the new community (the umma).

Professor Borneman teaches courses on culture and international order, the anthropology of memory, money, sex, and cultural diversity. He has written widely on kinship, sexuality, nationality, and political form, with an ethnographic focus on Germany and currently Lebanon. He has been quest professor at the University of California, Berkeley; Stockholm University (Sweden); Bergen University (Norway); the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris (France); Fullbright Professor at Humboldt Universitaet zu Berlin (Germany) and the University of Aleppo (Syria).

His publications include Belonging in the Two Berlins: Kin, State, Nation (1992); Settling Accounts: Violence, Justice and accountability in Postsocioalist States (1997); Subversions of International Order: Studies in the Political Anthropology of Culture (1998); Death of the Father: Toward an Anthropology of the End in Political Authority (2003), and The Case of Ariel Sharon and the Fate of Universal Jurisdiction (2004).

Tribes should not be understood as a stage of a chronological development culminating in “modernity.” Tribes are useful for certain modern regimes, for instance in Syria: it reasserts the matrilineal system.

The maternal register is an analytic tool particularly useful to understand certain systems of hierarchy in today’s societies. Food, for instance, is a domain in which this register sheds a lot of light. Nurturance can be done in many ways and food becomes one of the many ways the maternal register operates in the mind. There is a deep attachment to the mother’s food that becomes resonant of all attachment.

The maternal register is not a theory of gender. One must differentiate the maternal and the feminine. The maternal is about inclusiveness, not just about order. But certain male groups can rely on the maternal register!


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