Totem and Taboo

I’ve been reading Freud’s Totem and Taboo over the past couple weeks. One thing that strikes me is how foreign his approach is to contemporary academic sensibilities, at least in the circles I’m most familiar with. Obviously no one wants to use racist and derogatory terms such as “savages” and “primitive peoples,” but it seems that the solution that most of those doing ambitious philosophical and theoretical work in the West have chosen is never to mention such people at all.

I’ve mentioned before how resolutely intra-Western Agamben is, and of course the same could be said of Derrida and many other prestigious postwar intellectuals. Even postcolonial discourse seems most often to occupy itself with analyzing and critiquing Western representations of outsiders rather than somehow bringing them directly to the fore (correct me if I’m wrong, though — I haven’t yet delved as deeply into that literature as I should).

Somehow the way to get past the colonial/imperial structure is to remain completely within the Western tradition, reading it against the grain, subverting it from within (or showing how it subverts itself), etc., etc. Meanwhile, those who do attempt to engage positively with non-Western discourses are often stereotyped as non-serious — think of the instinctive eye-roll that accompanies the announcement that someone is really fascinated with Buddhism, or the “froofiness” associated with affirmations of the values of Native American cultures, etc. The really serious people do the hard work of dealing with the Western tradition in all its enormity — everyone who ventures outside that circle seems to be either a dilletante or a hippy.

One recent book that breaks out of this deadlock is David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, which surveys societies across the globe and human history with an ambition unseen since the days of Frazer or Eliade. But precisely for that reason, I suspect he’ll have trouble getting heard in many of the academic circles that could really benefit from thinking through his work.

[Disclaimers: I’m as guilty of this as anybody, if not moreso, and I can only speak for my immediate academic circles within theology, continental philosophy, and comp lit, which may turn out to be uniquely problematic in this regard.]

13 thoughts on “Totem and Taboo

  1. There is no outside? How can Buddhism and Native American cultures not be part of the Western tradition? Capitalist modernity’s temporal retroactive appropriation of everything and anything?

  2. There are also two divides, I suspect; on the one hand, there’s the East is East, West is West, and never the twain thing and books like Bulliet’s “The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization,” or Cooper/Burbank’s “Empires in World History” are two off the top of my head examples of the kinds of really good gap-bridgers that exist, but that people tend not to read as much as they should. Both acknowledge important civilizational differences but sort of derive those differences from and through millenia of global contact. And of course there’s stuff like Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, which is an attempt to move beyond the exact poco dilemma you cite, though I’m not convinced by how he does it. But that’s not the non-West you were mainly talking about, right? When it comes to the people Freud called “savages,” all the good work does tend to come out of anthropology departments, which is why Graeber is such a stark outlier; no one else takes “primitive” people seriously and writes about them. I’d venture a guess that we can blame the area-studies-ification of academia in the post-war era for at least some of this; when “Middle Eastern Studies” becomes a category at the same level as “Political Science,” it’s hardly surprising that the latter would categorically exclude everything in the former from its purview.

  3. Of course Buddhism and “indigenous” philosophies are not part of the “west.” The “west” is not a geographic signifier, a point that I make in my introduction to philosophy classes. I then invite my students to take my World Humanities/Religion class …. I do not think that we should be apologetic about this or see domination lurking under every leaf until some move to exclusivity or hierarchy is made … but as Adam points out it usually does…

  4. Curious what you thought of Freud’s argument in general, especially some of his theological speculations. I believe Lacan said Totem and Taboo is one the modern world’s major myths. Although Lacan is quite critical of this work in Seminar XVII, as I recall.

  5. Once you grant his premise, the theological arguments make perfect sense — yet his premise of the murder of the primal father is kind of nuts. It seems weirdly contradictory, because on the one hand it reflects an apparently invariant feature of the unconscious (ambivalence of emotions toward the dead), yet on the other hand he thinks it makes more sense if it really happened. And then how it gets “passed down” is far from clear to me.

  6. It’s a bit bizarre, and if nothing else it was a creative attempt to combine anthropology, religion, and psychoanalysis. Lacan’s major problem was that it reverses the relationship between law and enjoyment found in Oedipus. In Totem and Taboo, the law is instituted after trangression, and the relationship is reversed in Oedipus. Right, I don’t understand how its transmitted either. Not surprisingly, practicing psychoanalysts totally ignore Freud’s cultural writings.

  7. I haven’t read Graeber’s book, but I have read Robert Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution,” which is rather ambitious in scope (Bellah says that religion began 200 million years ago with the dawn of maternal care). And Bellah’s at pains to divorce evolution from progress, and in so doing, give, say, Aboriginal religions their due. Am wondering if anyone here has read it and if so, what you think about it.

  8. What about Max Weber’s comparative religion if one wants to bring in someone who did research outside the western tradition? Very influential on the Frankfurt School if not French Theorists, although, to paraphrase slightly, Foucault did say had he discovered the Frankfurt earlier it might have saved him a lot of work.
    With regard to Adorno, the Marx-Nietzsche-Freud triangle is often mentioned, if we are referring to Totem and Taboo, but that triangle wouldn’t have been so neatly tied by him if it weren’t for the pioneering work of Weber.

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