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Bodies, Heat, and Taboos: Conceptualizing Modern Personhood in the South African Lowveld

Isak Niehaus
Ethnology
Vol. 41, No. 3 (Summer, 2002), pp. 189-207
DOI: 10.2307/4153025
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4153025
Page Count: 19
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Abstract

The meta-narrative of modernity often posits an inevitable shift from "dividual" to "individual" modalities of personhood. This presumes that with growing commodification, persons are no longer enmeshed in networks of reciprocal exchange, but acquire a sense of individual autonomy, and perceive the body as bounded from external influences. The villagers in the Bushbuckridge area of South Africa, however, continue to perceive the body as permeable and partible. They believe that bodies transmit substances to and incorporate substances from other bodies, and that the conjunction of breath, aura, blood, and flesh gives rise to a dangerous condition of heat. By practicing various taboos associated with sex, pregnancy, and death, villagers aim to avoid contamination. This system of taboos is not a relic of the past, but is integral to contemporary situations of life.

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