Gigenes and Gignetics


Here is my Russian book whose title translates as “The Phenomenon of Kinship: Prolegomena to an Idenetic Theory.” It was published as No. 6 of Kinship Algebra with support from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (St. Petersburg, 2001). It is a transmogrified version of my Ph.D. dissertation “Generation, Age, and Gender in Kin Terminological Systems” defended at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethography “Kunstkamera”, St. Petersburg, in 1997. My formula “the phenomenon of kinship,” which signals an emphasis on a holistic, multidisciplinary and philosophical approach to what once was confined to the straightjacket of ethnography-ethnology-anthropology, has achieved some popularity as evidenced by three consecutive panels organized by Kinship Algebra‘s editor-in-chief Vladimir Popov at the III (Moscow, June 8-11, 1999), IV (Nal’chik, August 28-31, 2001) and V (Omsk, July 9-12, 2003) Congresses of Ethnographers and Anthropologists of Russia. Parts of my dissertation and book, with their characteristic vocabulary (e.g. “anomalous kinship systems,” “self-reciprocal kinship terminology and behavioral patterns,” etc.), were integrated into the course “Introduction to Kinship Studies” taught at the Department of Sociology of St. Petersburg State University. The course was developed by my former colleague at the Department of Baltic and Volgaic Studies at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, Marina S. Kuropiatnik.

Idenetics is a term I used to refer to “kinship studies” in a more scholastic fashion, but up until recently I was unaware of the fact that the term idene was coined in 1959 by psychologist Henry A. Murray to describe a cultural counterpart of the gene. His “idene,” however, was cognate with English “idea,” while my “idenetics” came from Latin id ‘that’ and evoked the contemporary focus on identity. Rhymed with genetics and semiotics, idenetics reflected my intention to bridge kinship as a source of self and kinship as a mode of reproduction of a human group. The important difference between my idenes and idemes and a host of other neologisms (such as the famous meme of Richard Dawkins) intended to describe a cultural analogue of the gene is that I take human kinship as the locus of what is usually called “cultural evolution.”

The term “idene” did not fully capture the intention behind it, but I chose it as a temporary crutch. Since then I have coined two new terms, namely gigene and gignetics (from the Indo-European reduplicated intransitive present recorded in Gk gígnomai and Lat gignō ‘I am born, I emerge’ and derived from the root *gen-), which seem to provide a perfect tension between the cultural and the natural sides of inheritance. So formulated, gignetics aims to reach out to such approaches to genetics, inheritance and evolution as epigenetics, “new organicism,” and Jean Piaget‘s genetic epistemology and phenocopy theory. The creative value of the epi-prefix in the generation of hypotheses pertaining to the unity of form and function is attested in Dmitry Olderogge‘s term epigamy (exogamy and endogamy combined) onto which I modeled the term epistence (essence and existence combined) in The Phenomenon of Kinship.

Biologically speaking, gigene is a unity of genotype and phenotype, of inheritance and intelligence, and of evolution and development. Hence the iconic meaning of reduplication in the gen-root. If a gene simply codes for a phenotype, a gigene is a gene interpreted as such by its smart phenotype. Philosophically defined, kinship is thinking with one’s own kind, and this formulation succinctly positions kinship studies in a largely-uncharted area between subjectivism (generically, “I think therefore I am”) and objectivism (“Things are the way they are”). One could also offer a semiotic definition of kinship, which would describe it as a social system in which a human being acts as substitution for (i.e. a sign of) another human being. My semiotic understanding of kinship stands in some degree of relationship to exchange theory (and specifically to Levi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship, 1949), actor-network theory developed by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, and to the Tartu-Moscow school of semiotics. Gignetics differs from exchange theory in postulating a wider network of exchangeable objects (women, men, children, ancestors, etc.); from actor network theory in giving priority to embodied, interhuman, iconic semiosis; and from conventional semiotics by reducing the prominence of abstract, conceptual, symbolic semiosis. The founder of modern semiotics, Charles S. Peirce, was interested in kinship terms as part of his algebra of relations (in turn initiated by the British logician Augustus de Morgan in 1855 on the basis of his observations of the use of kin terms in English). The idea of relationality was part and parcel of Peirce’s category of iconicity.

Gignetics replaces the semiotic triad “icon-index-symbol” with another triad “irony-name-icon,” in which the relationships between the signifier and the signified are all causal. Irony is understood conventionally as a sign, whose intended meaning is the opposite from its literal meaning. In the idenetic triad, irony plays the role of icon in the semiotic triad. Unlike iconicity, however, it is not based on the vague notion of similarity, but on the rigorous notion of symmetricity. Name, in agreement with analytic philosophy from Gottlob Frege to Saul Kripke to John Perry, is a sign existing only by virtue of its previous or future use. Unlike a simple index, such as a pronoun, that makes sense only in the context of an act of enunciation, name connects two or more speech acts. Icon is taken to mean a sign that constitutes a thing regardless of its being a sign. In gignetics, icon occupies the place of symbol in conventional semiotics. Unlike semiotics and structuralism, idenetics considers the very question of the arbitrariness of the sign unscientific and vacuous. What is interesting about symbols (now called icons), is not that they share no inherent properties with a thing in the real world, but that they have their own “thingy” structure, like the word that has a root and an affix. This rethinking of the semiotic triad relieves the category of sign from the extremes of both structuralism, with its neglect of performance (see Mikhail Bakhtin) and practice (see Pierre Bourdieu), and naturalism. Instead of a sign itself, idenetics prefers to speak of a design (as in de-sign), a naturally occurring referential cluster in which both the signified and the signified are charged with the properties of each other. Gigene and design are synonymous. A kin term is an epitome of design in natural languages: the English term dad is ironic in the sense of invoking not only the ‘father’ but also its exact opposite, the ‘son’; it is a name by virtue of its rigid attachment to a pair of individuals in the real world; and it is iconic in the sense of possessing a formal (in this case reduplicative) structure.

While already outdated in terms of the supporting database, the Russian book is much wider in scope than what I have so far written in English. It ranges from Heideggerian philosophy to Amerindian and Siberian mythology and represents my search for cultural patterns underlying human kinship. Since the book was published, I have noticed a few errors in the phonetics and semantics of kin terms. A few stepping-stones to the monograph can be found below.





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