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Re: [xmca] moral life of babies

On May 12, 2010, at 5:16 PM, mike cole wrote:

> Question: The pattern Martin describes with Sarah and Jenny (hmmm, i once
> had a little one named Jenny) appears very wide spread among
> American middle class mothers. It appears virtually absent in a lot of
> cultures (Kaluli, Yucatec Maya........). Seems doubtful that the Kaluli or
> the Maya lack imagination or communication. What might be the functional
> equivalents?
> mike

Mike, you are certainly correct that what I described between Sarah and Jenny is culture-specific. But I think Larry is equally correct to say that imagination (prolepsis?) is involved in all cultures' treatment of their children. I am reading the ethnographies by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff of the Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the north of Colombia. Life there is certainly very different from Northern California! The Kogi consider their newborn to be "little adults" that "still know nothing" and so are not to be held responsible for their actions. Boy infants are considered to be already masculine, a companion to the father and a member of the group of adult men. Girls are involved from the outset in the economic activity of their mothers. Both genders are from a very young age taken by their mother into the mountain as part of daily activity. 

For the first 4 weeks the baby is firmly wrapped and carried by the mother, along with her other burdens. At first they cry a lot, from hunger, physical discomfort, or abrupt changes in temperature, but because the adults can do little to satisfy their desires the cries soon cease, and babies older than a month rarely cry. 

From around a month until 6 months the infant is carried in a cotton bag, one of the "mochilas" that is made locally. The mother carries this bag on her back, tying its strap in front of her. Only the child's head protrudes, flopping from side to side until it happens to rest against the mother's back. In the house the bag is hung vertically wherever is convenient, with the baby still inside, its back against the wall. This is generally how the baby sleeps, though occasionally the mother will take it out of the bag and they will sleep together for warmth. This practice, however, is considered "dangerous," and there is much talk of occasions when a mother squashed her baby (I think 'squashed' is the translation!). 

Outside, the baby is hung from a handy tree branch or the bag is placed on the ground. The infant can move only its head, but seems not to be inconvenienced by the restriction. Often the baby cries only when it is removed from the bag. It is generally taken out only to be washed, warmed in front of the fire, or fed. Only when, more than 6 months old, the infant starts to move so vigorously that it may fall from the bag during the night does the mother allow it to sleep with her. Outside the house the baby still travels in the bag, but inside it now generally sits, and soon begins to crawl. R-D describes this sudden liberty as a new phase in which the infant discovers the possibility of moving towards and away from people, and moving towards the fire for warmth. The adults find these efforts amusing, and say that the infant now "goes searching for food!" They express their pride and approval, and consider that now the infant is definitely entering the "human" phase. This is the occasion for a small ceremony to which the shaman is invited, and at which plantain, yuca, beans and meat are served. The shaman performs a chant in which he asks the universal mother (the earth) to care for the child its whole life. This is, R-D proposes, a kind of initiation rite into the adult cycle of nutrition which has much importance for the individual.

Here there seems to be much less face-to-face interaction than is typical in the US or England, but still adults are interpreting the child's motivation in what Larry refers to as an "as if" way, so that the infant is completely embedded in a cultural and historical matrix - a second, social, womb from which a recognizable Kogi eventually emerges. R-D's interpretation of the mechanisms is too Freudian for my taste, but even so he is surely correct to see the origins of adult personality and worldview in these practices of child-rearing.


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