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Eugenia W. Herbert. Iron, Gender and Power.

Article  in  Museum Anthropology · March 1995


DOI: 10.1525/mua.1995.19.1.68

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Jane I. Guyer
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68 MUSEUM ANTHROPOLOGY VOLUME 19 NUMBER Iqq 5
'

cede their centrality as the major sources of evidence


from which to understand African cultural history. As
a complement, one of the most important resources
is the vast collections ofAfrican objects now stored in
museums: the currencies, reliquaries, and masks
whose loss probably deeply affected the very social
dynamics the ethnographers described. Communicat-
ing with those objects now becomes one of a limited
roster of methods for recuperating the cultures of the
past. Eugenia Herbert takes on that challenge with
respect to cultural conceptidns of iron. The result is a
major contribution-to method as well as to the the-
ory of gender in precolonial society.
She starts from an object-the gynecomorphic
shape of many African smelting furnaces-and works
outward through indigenous exegeses and direct evi-
dential statements of observers to the full verbal and
performative arts of the smelt, and then to analogs in
other domains of activity. The second chapter reviews
four well-described cases, ind then moves on to pre-
served texts of '\arords, music and dance" (p' 65),
medicines and sacrifices, and taboos against female
access, the smelters' sexual exposure, and contact
with menstruation. Analysis of the symbolism of the
forge and the uses of iron to make marriages adds the
weight of iteration and thereby authority to her inter-
pretation, which is then presented in summary form
in chapter 5. This series of intellectual explorations of
objects and textual sources is built up logically and
expertly, with self-questioning about its legitimacy at
every point, and reminders even up to the last section
of the last chapter that the author herself had "no
idea" that the cultural configuration she found would
turn out to be so widespread, and invites the reader
to greet her findings with "considerable skepticism"
(p. 233).
In fact, however, her arguments in parts 1 and 2 of
+++ this three-movement orchestration are profoundly
persuasive. Herbert argues that 'the metallurgical
Iron, Gender and Power: Rituals of Transforma- drama" (p. 61) is based on a paradigm of human
tion in African Sociefies. EUGENTA w. HERBERT. reproduction, but one in which there is "an exclusively
Bloomin gton : lnd iana U niversity Press, 1993. 277 male control of fertility" (p. I27). Detailed practices
pp.42 b/w photographs,9 figures, appendix, bib- relative to the smelt refer in direct and indirect ways
liography, index. $39.95 (cloth), $18.95 (paper). to these basic symbolic propositions, and furthermore
there is an extended play of overlapping and intrud-
ing meanings from metallurgyto chiefship to hunting,
JANE I. GI.JYER all of which center on male powers of transformation.
Northwestern University "Female power is not denied; it is appropriated or
assimilated. . ." (p. 228). As a contrast and a test she
As scholarship documents in increasing detail the explores the symbolism of pottery production, and
changes that colonialism wrought, the classic ethnog- finds that even in their own productive domain female
raphies published during the colonial period must works fall short of key male activities in'the degree
---*--

of ritualization and in the power they encod e" (p.27) .


The last section is the most ambitious and the least
conclusive, as she herself points out. The power of the
genderized imagery cannot fully explain social prac-
tice because African rituals of transformation do not
assume natural sexual dichotomies. Rather they pro-
claim openly that gender is constructed. If so, then
both the categories and the practices allow a substan-
tial latitude for change, without alteration of the
general principle of "male" appropriation. The book
ends, then, on an invitation to think about a conun-
drum: if gender is self-consciously a play on ideas,
how do we describe the process bywhich conceptions
became acts and acts provoked conceptualization, in
the rapidly changing world that was pre-colonial
Africa? Clearly Herbert is not thinking in classic struc-
turalist terms about reproduction and transformation,
because she takes on that historical challenge. But
neither does she do a lot more than pose the problem:
of the 'blank screen" with respect to evidence, the
'lnadequate terms to convey ideas of causality" (p.
235) and her own conviction that one missing piece
of the story is the gender conceptions held by women.
There are also other productive skills which could
well demand the exquisitely detailed, erudite, and
sensitive treatment that Herbert brings to metallurgy,
leadership, hunting and pottery such as spinning and
weaving, raffia cloth production, medicine-making,
cultivation, and so on. These also, taken togethel
might help to fill out the mysteries of "rnale appro-
priation," in the context of a gender-flexible philoso-
phy, major technical innovation, and massive trade.
In my own view, howeveq our analytical categories
for the knowledge-social action relationship are also
part of the problem: the need for terms that capture
and make available for comparative use the manifest
realiry that is conveyed in this fine book, namely that
the force of conceptual logic coexisted with open
frontiers of possibility. *

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