What’s love got to do with it?

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Michael Lambek. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.018


What’s love got to do with it?

Michael LAMBEK, University of Toronto

I discuss a set of papers that examine the concept of personhood in Christianity and offer a number of clarifications and suggestions. I suggest examining the ostensible opposition between individual and dividual through the lens of structuralism but also propose that rather than distinct social types it may be a matter of incommensurable forms of perception. I offer the tentative suggestion that love is at once a core symbol within Christianity, an index of “modernity,” and a manifestation or expression of dividuality.

Keywords: Christianity, personhood, individual, dividual, love

I am an interloper in this conversation, being a student neither of Christianity nor of Melanesia. You could say I arrive as an individual relative to a group of dividuals (based on their patterns of reciprocal citation, eliciting or taking pieces of each others’ texts and ideas into their own). But I have drawn on concepts different from but roughly comparable to those of in/dividuality. My concept of the person is recently shaped by the intersection of what I call forensic and mimetic dimensions; these are respectively continuous and discontinuous aspects of personhood (Lambek 2013). I also consider the articulation of action and passion, or agency with patiency (Lambek 2010), mostly in order to think about spirit possession, in which people do, in effect, become one another, but not so much in part as in whole. My concept of the self is informed by object relations theory in psychoanalysis, which analyses how selves are constituted in and through embodied and imagined relations with others, most interestingly relations of introjection and identification. This preempts a distinction of individual from dividual from the start of life. Or perhaps it is to say we are all dividuals before we are individuals. I am fond of the remark by Joan Rivière that “we are members of one another” (as quoted in Chodorow 1989: 158), meant here at the psychic rather than the anatomic or physiological level. In any case, object relations theory provides a significant Western [396]account of dividual persons. This fits as well with the more sociological formulation of George Herbert Mead (1934) with respect to the singular “I” and multiple “mes” that comprise the self.

My concept of culture invokes incommensurability as a feature internal to cultural worlds or social formations, or even persons, and not simply between them, hence I am suspicious of arguments that reduce “individual” cultures to one or two consistent or opposing principles or contrast cultures to one another on such a basis. Perhaps it would be useful to say, in the language of the present authors, that cultures themselves are dividual rather than individual.1 Incommensurability further describes the situation in which one and the same persons could be understood, or could understand themselves, simultaneously and without either commensuration or outright contradiction, as Christian souls to be saved, possessive individuals, and rational deliberators.

As a further caveat, the conversation we have just read is dense and I have to admit I have not understood every step taken in these admirable and substantial papers, nor do I agreed with all statements the authors make. However, as I am writing an afterword, I try to refrain from making the observations expected of a referee. I also avoid trying to summarize the articles, answer the questions they raise, or resolve their differences. I have no answers, only more questions. The first is whether we should seek more conceptual clarity—or whether such clarity would only betray the subject?

The papers address some of the most significant but also the most difficult questions in our discipline. Indeed, the fascination of the problems appears to have some connection to their intractability. One of the central questions, actually an existential one, is how the puzzle of the composition of my own being (matter and spirit, body and mind, etc.) is connected to or becomes separated from the existence of other similar beings, thus whether and how what composes me also composes them and hence whether we are same or different, more or less unified, and so on. Philippe Descola (2013) has tried to map out the formal possibilities at the collective level (in particular, between humans and other species). The question at hand is how this appears or is worked out between and among human beings. Hence although hardly addressed here, the in/dividual distinction has bearing on how we conceive kinship and the distinctions both among kinds and degree of kin relations and between kin and nonkin. Of particular relevance are how conception and sexual relations are understood as well as the care, growth, and maturation of offspring, and eventually the problem of succession. How do all the dividual relations inherent in these processes affect the singularity of the biological beings who are their subjects (their patients and at times their agents)? A second sphere at issue [397]is demarcated by the gift, essentially how we make and partake of relations in a purely social sense irrespective of kinship and mediated by objects or acts.

All of the papers worry over the distinction between individual and dividual. The genealogy of the former term is interestingly addressed by several of the contributors. As Jon Bialecki and Girish Daswani (drawing on Raymond Williams) show, it emerges from the problem of the nature of the Christian Trinity. The dividual, as all the authors remark, is a concept developed by McKim Marriott to think about caste in India, but the authors are less interested in his application than in that of Marilyn Strathern. I will not develop a reading of The gender of the gift myself nor comment on whether more or less literal readings of that ovular work are appropriate. Nor can I stand as Strathern’s “agent” (to invoke James Laidlaw’s [2010] useful way of thinking about that complicated word).2 Instead I will simply ask what work the terms are doing in the articles at hand, what questions they raise (for me) and what to make of it all.

A further set of questions concerns the nature of Christianity and, more or less explicitly, its development in Europe and connection with the rise of capitalism, its identity for many people (witness the Speaker of the House in PNG) with modernity, and ultimately, though it is never said outright, its relation with the evolution of Culture, in the sense of Leslie White (1959) understood as a global phenomenon. Can we speak of the disembedding of the individual in a manner analogous to that in which Polanyi speaks of the disembedding of the economy? Is the historical trend from dividualism to individualism, including the emergence of the autonomous thinker from Plato’s cave to the direct light of reason, something in which Christianity has an integral part? Or conversely, does Christianity manifest a reaction against the alienated individualism and rationalism of secular modernity, as Mark Mosko may be suggesting? Moreover, in this comprehensive picture of the Christian West versus the preor newly Christian Rest, there are notable gaps, particularly with respect to Islam and to China. To the degree that the anthropology of Christianity has focused inward on its subject, we have diverged from Max Weber’s grand project of comparison.

Regarding Christianity itself, in some places the authors are concerned with in/dividuality with respect to Christianity taken as a whole; in others places with the consequences of the Reformation, and yet in other places with the effects specifically of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity. Is the Pentecostal Christian an in/dividual in the same sense as a Catholic or Calvinist Christian? What about Charismatic Catholics? What about a family in which one member speaks in tongues or evangelizes and another does not?

I have the feeling that the anthropology of Christianity is still waiting for a deep cultural analysis that would uncover its central oppositions and the ways these have been worked out over time in a range or series of transformations, manifest theologically, institutionally, and artistically, as well as practically—in relation, for example, to a range of kinship systems, including European ones. Michael Banner’s recent book (2014), written from theology but with great anthropological sensibility, is an excellent start.

[398]I have placed “love” in the title of my essay both because I think it is a key symbol within Christianity and because it seems to illustrate a common expression of dividualism found in Western modernity, both inside Christianity and out. Does not the tremendous salience of love in Western culture offset all the talk about individualism? What else is a love relationship than dividual? Moreover, love might return us to a theme of Strathern’s that is otherwise missing in these papers, namely gender. Does a Melanesian Christian woman who takes Jesus into her heart become thereby androgynous? Is this a contrast with a Western Christian who might perceive the relation as one of a lover?


A central issue in these articles in whether dividual and individual are to be understood as distinct, mutually exclusive types or related in some other way. Here I must admit confusion, on several grounds, and will probably add to it. First, as noted by everyone, the words individual and dividual each carry several different meanings and yet the contributors to the debate do not always specify which meaning of individual or dividual they have in mind. Thus, one source of confusion is that to speak of dividual in contrast to individual in one sense is not necessarily to negate or reject the significance of the individual in all of its other senses. Since the word “individual” and its derivatives (such as “individualism”) are so complex, one cannot presume what dividual is negating or being contrasted to. Simon Coleman, who lucidly sets forth many of the same conceptual issues I raise here, refers usefully to Bryan Turner’s distinctions among “individualism as a doctrine of rights not concerned with the subjectivity of the individual, individuality as a romantic theory of the interior and private nature of personal life, and individuation as referring to bureaucratic practices and disciplines relating to social regimentation and political surveillance” (n4, my emphasis). Yet none of these, it seems to me, is identical with Strathern’s usage, never mind those of C. B. Macpherson, Louis Dumont, or Kenelm Burridge.3 Perhaps Mosko nails the issue at hand best when he refers to Dumont’s point that “dividual” means “divide-able.” Hence we are speaking of persons construed as intrinsically divisible or indivisible. It is good to see Burridge recalled, but his use of “individuals” as exceptional people who stand out from the rest appears quite distinct, unless one were to ask how an ideology or practices of “dividualism” would enable the emergence of a particular kind of distinctive or charismatic individual, in Burridge’s sense.4

[399]Second, whereas some authors appear to treat individual and dividual as ontologically distinct, others see them as outcomes of sets of practices, still others as local models, or even as anthropological thought experiments, others as distinct forms of experience, and yet others as what Liana Chua describes as “tendencies on different scales and temporalities,” or even as distinct choices or tactics. Sometimes there is a shift among these usages within a given argument. There is a difference between saying a certain group of people are or are not in/dividuals and saying that they live with respect to a dominant ideology that defines them as in/dividuals or a set of practices that shapes or accentuates their in/dividuality in a certain way. We might also ask about the dominant modality of in/dividualism—for example, is it understood or experienced primarily psychologically, with respect to dependency and autonomy, or through reciprocal obligations to others, as fundamentally ethical? Perhaps the distinction worked out most clearly in these articles, is whether dividual and individual are to be taken as features characterizing or characteristic of entire societies or cultural worlds, or whether they are to be understood as compartments, components, or levels, and then as opposed and mutually exclusive to one another, as complementary, or as incommensurable to one another.

Let us at the minimum agree to consider them ideal types and to try to avoid reified abstraction.


Dividualism could refer quite specifically to a certain Melanesian way of constituting or thinking about persons or it could be used quite broadly. For example, it could be said to be intrinsic to kinship, hence characteristic of any ascription of personhood in which kinship is primary. In a given kinship system one is simultaneously or sequentially father and son, brother and brother-in-law, son of one’s father and son of one’s mother, and so forth.5 Each of these is both partial and a relation, hence dividual. From this perspective, an “individual” is a composite, a node, or intersection of relations. This is as true for North American or European kinship as for Melanesian, even if the former does not elaborate the implications as strongly as the latter. Fenella Cannell and Susan McKinnon (2013) argue strongly that, the ideology of modernity not withstanding, kinship remains a vibrant part of our lives and social worlds. Hence, though they do not use this language, the implication is that we remain in this respect, in effect, dividual or dividuated, and irrespective of whether we worship in Pentecostal congregations or not at all.

The ethnographic papers have the advantage of starting with observed practices rather than reified abstractions like “Christianity” or “dividualism.” They also implicitly make the methodological point that it can be useful to see how the in/ dividual distinction applies at particular moments, and perhaps especially at death. Death is an event that happens to biological individuals yet is also an occasion at which the social person (in the sense of its parts and relations) is disarticulated and perhaps rearticulated.

Chua shows that dividuality could be displaced from what she calls the horizontal plane with other humans to a vertical plane with deity or refractions of deity, a [400]point reinforced by Mosko, who speaks about the circulation of grace. The relationship of the individual Christian with other members of the congregation is itself distinctive to particular Christian denominations. Yet as Chua notes, apparently irrespective of denomination, to love God should mean also to love ones’ neighbor. The relative importance of external, horizontal relationships with other congregants compared to internal, vertical relationships with God (in various refractions) undoubtedly varies, as do the means by which both are realized. Interiorization is perhaps most extreme in the Calvinist reaction to the ritualism and external hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church, and yet as Weber showed (2011), private relations with God must be manifest in acts in the world. Compare here not only Bidayuh or Melanesian Christian acts but the differences between Swedish (post) Lutherans and Prosperity Christians, as described by Coleman. Pentecostalism in turn redirects action to outward display in a new and newly mediated public arena. Here the internal dialogue or sense of difference within oneself is replaced by an external performance of unity with the other. Like Coleman with respect to Mauss, Mosko rereads Dumont and Weber through the lens of the in/dividual. Bialecki and Daswani indicate how the distinction may inform political theologies. All of this is extremely interesting and a schema of in/dividualism may help us account for or describe these variations, yet I would be hesitant to force them all into it. Hence we might also ask what the limits of the model are.


Ryan Schram offers some useful ground clearing and a beautiful illustration of how incommensurable models work out in practice. He also helpfully contrasts the way Christianity manifests unity with the way Melanesian clanship manifests complementarity. I suspect the relevant contrast is not between unity and division but between two different kinds of unity or solidarity, each with its own internal division, respectively of identical particles and relational complementarity. In fact, these distinctions resonate with Durkheim’s distinction between organic and mechanical solidarity but reverse the evolutionary sequence of his argument. Here Christianity offers the basis for mechanical solidarity; the clans, while equivalent to one another in Durkheim’s mechanical sense, complement each other “organically” at events and occasions like funerals.

In longer work I imagine Schram will link what occurs in funerals with relationships between the matrilineages at other moments of the life cycle (as did Annette Weiner [1976] for the adjacent Trobriands). The question is then how the full Christian liturgical order articulates with the full Melanesian cycle of clan reproduction. Given the geographical location and the evocativeness (for anthropologists of my generation) of the susu, I am also drawn to ask in what respect sorcery and paranoia are manifestations of dividualism and whether they have declined in the years since Reo Fortune (1963) visited the area.

This leads me to a brief African comparison. Africanists cannot talk about issues of partibility without mentioning witchcraft. Witchcraft can be understood not as a discrete or anomalous institution but as the negative expression of a kind of intrinsic dividuality among kin, as, in effect, the way the bad thoughts of one person infect the life of another and in relation to the dividual, albeit discretionary, connections with and protection offered by ancestors (Lambek and Solway 2001). [401]Nevertheless, heightened individualism and increasing witchcraft accusations can be mutually reinforcing. Charismatic Christianity can be seen both as a kind of desperate attempt to cut the circuit between them and as a vehicle to further propel the process (Meyer 1999; Geschiere 1997; De Boeck 2008). One might say that witchcraft is a dividualist reaction to individualism.

A question that is implicit in Schram’s discussion, and in my own so far, is to what degree a theory of dividualism—of divisible persons—is at the same time structuralist, in the sense that relations are prior to or primary over units. Marriott, Strathern, and all the authors here draw from Maussian themes of exchange or circulation, and thus from the same primary source as Claude Lévi-Strauss in his conception of society constituted by means of affinal exchange and the circulation of (whole) persons. But where Lévi-Strauss, drawing equally on Ferdinand de Saussure, built up a theory that emphasized a structure of relations, dividualism remains more empirically rooted in elements, elements that in one sense can be conceived only as individuals in respect to the system within which they are exchanging parts with one another. The more the emphasis is put on strategic transacting, the more individual the dividual elements look. (Thus despite the language of structuring structures, Pierre Bourdieu’s game players resemble possessive individuals more closely than they do Maussian partible persons caught in the obligations of the gift and constituted by its movements, possessed, as it were by the gift, rather than possessing it.) The more structuralist, that is, the greater the emphasis on relations rather than units, the more dividual(ist); conversely, the more transactionalist, the stronger the underlying presumption of individualism, no matter the emphasis of the circulation or recomposition of parts.

Dividualism thus describes a feature of any relatively closed structure of relations, whether among concepts, persons, or groups. Indeed, it corresponds to the insight of structuralism that relations constitute elements rather than (or before) elements constitute relations. The chief innovation of dividualism over Lévi-Straussian structuralism is to show that the relations are internal as well as external to the circulating units we call persons, bodies, or gifts. The dividual is constituted not merely through relations with others outside his or her body but through relations internal to the body, or rather, that move across the barrier of the body or person, and through them, as it were, rather than simply between them. In this sense it is an intensified form of structuralism, taking relationality to a deeper level.

The really hard questions, then, are in what respects modernity is a radical transformation that not only dismantles given historical structures but replaces them with something in which transacting units do have ontological priority over the relations between them, and whether or to what degree dividuals are replaced by individuals. The various theorists invoked in these papers have argued over whether this occurs first at the level of practice or that of ideology, and whether the transformations in practice and ideology correspond with one another. They argue also over the hierarchy of causes in such transformations with respect to economy, polity, and religion.


There is an alternative way to look at the situation than that of mutually exclusive systems, or even a repertoire of incommensurable ideas and practices. Perhaps the [402]strongest insight I gained comes from Schramm’s discussion of perception. Recall the famous and much reproduced image from the perception literature in which viewers of a clever drawing see either a duck or a rabbit and disagree with each other over what they see. With some concentration, one can switch from one’s original perception to the other, but one cannot see both at once. So, of a single object (a drawing) we have two different and seemingly mutually exclusive perceptions. If we shift from ducks and rabbits to dividuals and individuals, perhaps exactly the same situation holds.6

Dividual/individual is similar to the duck/rabbit image as a matter of perception—one can see the same image in two different ways, but not both at once. In a given cultural and historical setting there may be forces conspiring to bring out one form rather than the other, whether through structural factors, ideological ones, or the cultural idioms available. But this will never preclude the other image revealing itself. For Schram, following Strathern, it is partly a matter of elicitation of different relational forms. If I address you or begin my action in one mode, that is what becomes visible between us for a time. What is being elicited is not directly or exclusively either individuality or dividuality but rather a specific form of interaction that renders one visible at the expense of the other. I would add to the arguments here that a chief means of elicitation is the illocutionary force of utterances (thereby departing from Schram’s offhand dismissal of J. L. Austin).7 Illocutionary utterances put things under a description, thus authorizing whether they are to be seen as ducks or rabbits and hence whether they are ducks or rabbits (for present purposes). In certain historical contexts descriptions are entextualized, objectified, removed from the course of action, and thus become types or kinds, models of types or kinds, or hegemonic modes of perception.

I have moved widely across what the editors call scope, scale, and scape. I began by recommending conceptual clarity but have myself succumbed to using terms in various ways. In conclusion I simply suggest that one way to mark a difference that we all seem to be concerned about is as follows: consider the individual to be the subject of a model of atomic persons interacting with each other in external relationships and trying to build connections and unities; and consider the dividual as the subject of a model of persons acting within, or trying to emerge as singularities from, dense nodes, knots, or structures of relations, connections that are ontologically or ontogenetically prior. In theory and in ideology these could be seen as polarities or opposites, possibly even mutually exclusive alternatives or types, but I think they are mutual dimensions both of psychological makeup and experience and of social relations, albeit granted more or less relative emphasis and elaboration in different social formations and in different practices. Perhaps they can be seen as complementary social processes rather than discrete kinds of persons. Maybe [403]they are two different perspectives, duck and rabbit, on and from our common human condition. To understand how one incommensurable perspective comes to override the other I recommend addressing the question located in the title of my intervention, namely: What’s love got to do with it?


Banner, Michael. 2014. Ethics of everyday life: Moral theology, social anthropology, and the imagination of the human. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barth, Fredrik. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. Boston, MA: Little Brown.

Bateson, Gregory. 1958. Naven. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cannell, Fenella, and Susan McKinnon. 2013. Vital relations: Modernity and the persistent life of kinship. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

Cavell, Stanley. 1995. Philosophical passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida. Boston, MA: Blackwell.

Chodorow, Nancy J. 1989. Feminism and psychoanalytic theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

De Boeck, Filip. 2008. “On being Shege in Kinshasa: Children, the occult and the street.” In A reader in the anthropology of religion. 2nd ed. Edited by Michael Lambek, 495–506. Oxford: Blackwell.

Descola, Philippe. 2013. Beyond nature and culture. Translated by J. Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fortune, Reo. 1963. Sorcerers of Dobu: London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Geschiere, Peter. 1997. The modernity of witchcraft. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press

Handler, Richard. 1988. Nationalism and the politics of culture in Quebec. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2010. “Agency and responsibility: Perhaps You can have too much of a good thing.” In Ordinary ethics: Anthropology, language, and action, edited by Michael Lambek, 143–64. New York: Fordham University Press.

Lambek, Michael. 2010. “How to make up one’s mind: Reason, passion, and ethics in spirit possession.” In “Models of the Mind,” edited by Marlene Goldman and Jill Matus, special issue, University of Toronto Quarterly 79 (2): 720–41.

———. 2013. “The continuous and discontinuous person: Two dimensions of ethical life.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19: 837–58.

Lambek, Michael, and Jacqueline Solway, 2001. “Just anger: Scenarios of indignation in Botswana and Madagascar.” Ethnos 66 (1): 1–23.

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, self, and society. Edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 1999. Translating the devil. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

[404]Weber, Max. 2011. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Revised 1920 ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weiner, Annette. 1976. Women of value, men of renown: new perspectives in Trobriand exchange. Austin: University of Texas Press.

White, Leslie. 1959. The evolution of culture. New York: McGraw Hill.

Epilogue: “What’s love got to do with it?”

Résumé : Je commente un ensemble d’essais qui examinent le concept de la personnalité dans le christianisme et propose un certain nombre de clarifications et de suggestions. Je propose d’examiner les oppositions apparentes entre individuel et dividuel en adoptant une perspective structuraliste, mais suggère aussi que ces distinctions ne constituent pas des types sociaux distincts mais plutôt des formes de perception incommensurables. Je suggère enfin que l’amour est à la fois un symbole central du christianisme, un index de “modernité” et une manifestation ou expression de dividualité.

Michael LAMBEK is Professor of Anthropology and holds a Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto. He is the author of three monographs on the western Indian Ocean, including Knowledge and practice in Mayotte (Toronto, 1993) and The weight of the past (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002) and is the editor of several collections, including Illness and irony (with Paul Antze, Berghahn, 2003), Ordinary ethics (Fordham, 2010), and the Companion to the anthropology of religion (with Janice Boddy, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

Michael Lambek
Department of Anthropology
University of Toronto Scarborough
1265 Military Trail Toronto ON M1C 1A4


1. Have we expanded our ideology of individualism to larger units such that we treat cultures, ethnic groups, or now ontologies as individual (discrete, bounded) entities rather than as dividual (relationally produced) ones? For important counter arguments, recall Gregory Bateson on schizmogenesis (1958), Fredrik Barth on ethnic difference (1969), and Richard Handler’s memorable description of the nation state modeled on the order of the possessive individual, “having” its culture and heritage, and even possessing its own minorities (1988).

2. How could we link the concept of agency to the in/dividual difference?

3. One of the interesting tensions in the word “individual” is whether it refers to the singularity and, in Kantian terms, the dignity of each human being, or whether it refers to the commensurability of persons, each simply another anonymous or identical unit within a large mass, say, a population or a congregation, an atomism evincing the loneliness no less than the effervescence of the crowd. Sometimes these meanings appear to come together, as in techniques of surveillance and forensics like fingerprinting, which, in distinguishing one singular human being from another, simultaneously render us all the same and interchangeable; turning Kant upside down, our singularity here becomes a matter of indignity.

4. Perhaps this is where Roy Wagner’s fractal person becomes relevant but here I reach the absolute limits of my competence as discussant.

5. For simplicity of exposition I have held gender constant, while recognizing that for Marilyn Strathern its partibility is of course central,.

6. Hence, Mosko could see a duck where Robbins sees a rabbit (and the same for Urapmin and Mekeo). In Schram’s account Auhelawa can see both and have become adept at alternating between them.

7. I have to note that possibly Duranti himself, but certainly Schram’s invocation of Duranti, has Austin backward. As elucidated by Stanley Cavell (1995), Austin does not claim that unintended utterances are not binding and he tries precisely to get away from the significance of private inner language relative to what is actually said.