Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sigmund Freud - "Totem and Taboo"

Chapter 1: “The Horror of Incest”
Freud begins Totem and Taboo by postulating an equation between the psychological development of primitives (the earliest human societies, living in the simplest forms of social organization), savages (contemporary human societies who lack any sense of modern culture and live under similarly simple forms of social organization), and neurotic patients, particularly children (again, not doing scare quotes, too many instances of this and Freud uses them in a technical sense, but this starts off on a nice note, eh?). This tripartite equation Freud uses to resolve a paradox: although one might expect that primitive and savage societies would have fittingly primitive and savage sexual ethics (ie. none), one finds upon examination that these societies “set before themselves with the most scrupulous care and the most painful severity of avoiding incestuous relations. Indeed, their whole social organization seems to serve that purpose or to have been brought into relation with its attainment.” (4)
Primitive and savage societies have equivalent forms of social and religious organization, namely totemism. The social border of each tribe is identification with a particular totem animal, after which the tribe names itself, and each individual within the tribe is related in a form of social identification stronger than blood ties. The totem animal is defined as the father and guardian spirit of the tribe, and each member is under obligation not to kill or eat it, except on ceremonial occasions. For Freud, however, the most interesting practice of totemism is exogamy, the forbidding of sexual relations between individuals sharing a totem. Nothing in the concept of totem stands as justification for this practice, and appears to have “nothing to do with totemism, but became attached to it (without there being any underlying connection) at some time when marriage restrictions became necessary.” (7)
Four further facts regarding totemism pique Freud’s curiosity:
  1. Violation of exogamy, or incest, is punished by the whole community, as opposed to other violations of totemic codes, suggesting that the punish expiates some danger that threatens the entire community.
  2. Marriages that may result in children as much as passing affairs unlikely to result in children are equally punished, indicating that there is no practical basis for exogamy.
  3. Although totems are hereditary and so apply to all members within a tribe,
  4. Exogamic rules seem designed particularly to prevent unions between a man and his mother and/or sisters. All women of the tribe are treated as if they were blood relatives.
From the preceding Freud concludes that “these savages have an unusually great horror of incest, or are sensitive on the subject to an unusual degree, and that they combine this with a peculiarity which remains obscure to us – of replacing real blood-relationship by totem kinship.” (9) However, at certain approved ceremonies, incest is permitted. This situation is complicated by the further institution of marriage phratries, subgroups within and between tribes which are themselves exogamous. So for instance, if Daniel the Savage (new nickname, please) marries into a phratry, the offspring of that marriage cannot marry another member of that phratry, even if those phratry members are members of other tribes under different totems.
Furthermore, strict practices were undertaken to prevent even seeing an individual with whom one might have incest, called avoidances. Freud goes through a litany of these avoidances, often going to extremes (for instance, in several cases if a man notices his sister walking down a road, one of the two has to hide out of sight until the other passes), but noting that prohibitions limiting the activities of men with women in their tribe/phratry are far more severe than those for women. In particular relations between sons and their mothers-in-law are stringently avoided. Freud speculates that this may be explained by reference to separate impulses in the son-in-law and the mother-in-law which in combination with each other foster feelings of sexual desire between the two that must be repressed: the mother-in-law, recognizing that her sexual life with her husband is ebbing, identifies with her daughter in order to vicariously experience sexual desire through her, thus feeling an impulse to fall in love with the son-in-law. For the son-in-law’s part, his original repressed desire for his mother, the first object of his sexual desire, is displaced onto his wife, but the impulse towards mother-love always threatens to reestablish itself, such that he is prone to sexual desires towards his mother-in-law.
Freud extrapolates that repressed incestuous desires between family members are most likely the explanation for all avoidances, according with knowledge garnered from his studies on infantile sexuality. The original choices of love objects for infants are their family members, particularly the boy for his mother and then his sister if he has one, but these are always repressed. In most cases the boy successfully substitutes other women outside the family for these original choices, but neurotic patients suffer from inhibition and regression, or that “he has either failed to get free from the psycho-sexual conditions that prevailed in his childhood or he has returned to them.” (22) In civilized societies, this condition is relatively rare, but Freud speculates that in primitive or savage societies sexual desires have not been as successfully sublimated as in modern Europe, such that the equation between primitives, savages, and neurotics seems to him justified by the available evidence.
Chapters 2 and 3: “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence,” “Animism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thoughts”
Very little of note occurs in these chapters, most of which are spent re-presenting ethnographic data on a multitude of primitive and savage societies already collected in the works of James Frazer and Edward Tylor. In light of this, I will just summarize a few important arguments that Freud makes at various points in these chapters.
Taboo – Freud defines taboo as a condition of being both consecrated and dangerously dirty, and the actions which cause this condition. A taboo is something set apart from common activity and is thus prohibited to most individuals in a society without their knowing or even questioning why, and is thus taken as a matter of course. Special individuals such as kings, priests, and criminals, are taken to be subjected to taboos, and thus are attributed a dangerous and contagious power of pollution. Primitive and savage societies thus create a system of elaborate ceremonial actions to expiate the danger posed by taboos.
Freud outlines a parallel between primitive and savage taboos and the actions of obsessive neurotics, who possess a fear, particularly of touching, certain objects, for fear that they may pollute or defile them. They are equally unable to explain the origin of these fears, and are therefore taken for granted, though they also construct elaborate rituals to allay the fear of touching these prohibited objects. Freud argues that in the case of obsessional neurosis patients at one point possessed a desire for these objects, which had later to be repressed, creating an ambivalent relationship between the neurotic and the object, who experiences the conscious revulsion against touching it while simultaneously a subconscious desire for it. The ritual activities of obsessive neurotics are just as much, then, ways to avoid touching forbidden objects as they are ways of acting out this forbidden touching in a safe way, of coming as close as possible to touching these objects without actually doing so.
Taking his parallel back to primitive and savage taboos, Freud speculates that the earliest taboos must have been “prohibitions of primeval [sic] antiquity which were at some time externally imposed by the previous generation. These prohibitions must have concerned activities towards which there was a strong inclination.” (40) Since the earliest taboos prohibited the killing of the totem animal and incest, Freud concludes that these must have been the two strongest desires of primitive humanity. The communal punishment of transgressors of the two taboos, was for Freud a protection against the tempting quality transgression might have: if one person could follow their unconscious desires and not be punished, why not everybody? The community had to collectively punish breakers of taboos in order to collectively disavow their unconscious desires.
Freud thus neatly summarizes his conclusions:
Taboo is a primeval [sic] prohibition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject. The desire to violate it persists in their unconscious; those who obey they taboo have an ambivalent attitude to what the taboo prohibits. The magical power that is attributed to taboo is based on the capacity for arousing temptation; and it acts like a contagion because examples are contagious and because the prohibited desire in the unconscious shifts from one thing to another. The fact that the violation of a taboo can be atoned for by a renunciation shows that renunciation lies at the basis of obedience to taboo. (44-45)
Also, without knowledge of the origins of taboos, when they are internalized across generations the force of guilt against violation is felt in the consciousness as conscience, indicating for Freud a probable origin of moral sensibilities.
Overdetermination of psychic events – Primitive and savage communities have an animistic view of the universe, or one dominated by all objects in the universe possess a soul or spiritual being which animates them, and that the universe as a whole is animated by a spiritual being. Animism, however, is merely a way primitive and savage individuals interpret events in the world around them, as opposed to religious and scientific interpretations of the world. Animism, religion, and science, for Freud constitute 3 stages in human intellectual development, based on their interpretations of how nature functions.
Animism, however, bears a striking resemblance to the ways obsessional neurotics and children understand their ability to influence the universe, all of which suffer in Freud’s view from belief in the omnipotence of thoughts, or in other words that human thoughts have efficacious power in the world. Human thoughts and desires can lead to physical results, according to these three groups, thus creating magical belief, that one’s thoughts and intentions can have impacts in the world if combined with proper rituals. In animism such omnipotence humans attribute to themselves, causing Freud to postulate an early form of the theory of narcissism (this book having been written before Freud’s famous paper on narcissism) that underlies this viewpoint, where one overvalues oneself as a love object and attributes to oneself the powers that one later attributes to others. In religious thinking, omnipotence of thinking is attributed to a god or gods who are stand-ins for one’s parents, representing the psychological stage where one’s sexual attraction is directed towards one’s family. And finally in scientific thinking, it is renounced entirely, corresponding to the psychological point where “an individual has reached maturity, has renounced the pleasure principle, adjusted himself to reality and turned to the external world for the object of his desires.” (112-113)
Each of these forms of thinking, however, is organized according to a stage of human psycho-sexual development. The results of an individual’s thinking thus has two determinations: that of their “philosophy of nature” (Freud’s term, 95) and of the psychological process underlying it. Human thinking is thus overdetermined: “at least two reasons can be discovered for each of its products: a reason based on the premises of the system (a reason, then, which may be delusional) and a concealed reason, which must judge to be the truly operative and the real one.” (119)
Chapter 4: “The Return of Totemism in Childhood”
Freud now returns to question the origins of totemism and exogamy, taking as his guide the overdetermination of psychic events to argue that any coherent explanation of their origins (as well as that of religion) must have both a historical and a psychological component. Before embarking on this explanation, Freud notes a few oddities about the history of totemism and exogamy that also guide his explanation: (1) it would appear that totemism is older than the practice of exogamy, (2) the first exogamic sexual restrictions were placed upon a younger generation by the older, and (3) there is no instinctual aversion to incest, but only one that is conditioned by social and familial factors. In fact, as Freud notes, our earliest childhood love objects are consistently incestuous, indicating that events during life and not innate psychology must be the explanation for the horror of incest.
Freud begins the historical component of his explanation by citing Darwin’s theory of the primal horde, the most primitive form of human social organization. Primitive humanity “lived in small communities, each with as many wives as he could support and obtain, whom he would have jealously guarded against all other men. Or he may have lived with several wives by himself, like the Gorilla; for all the natives ‘agree that but one adult male is seen in a band; when the young male grows up, a contest takes place for mastery, and the strongest, by killing and driving out the others, establishes himself as the head of the community.” (Dr. Savage, quoted in Darwin, quoted in Freud, 156). As one adult male leads the horde and therefore owns all of the wives, exogamy is a de facto practice for all the other, weaker males. It would seem from this, however, that exogamy then precedes totemism, and so Freud is left with a paradox of which comes first: exogamy or totemism?
The limitations of contemporary historical theories of the origins of totemism and exogamy prompt Freud to add “one single ray of light” from psychoanalysis (157). Primitives, savages, and children seem to behave almost identically towards animals, having no qualms about treating them as friends and equals. At some points, however, children can develop animal phobias against animals for which they had hitherto felt peculiarly great affection. Freud speculates that these phobias are grounded in the child’s (particularly the boy’s) fear of his father, which he displaces onto the animal. Freud locates the origin of these phobias in the Oedipus complex:
The hatred of his father that arises in a boy from rivalry for his mother is no able to achieve uninhibited sway over his mind; it has to content against his old-established affection and admiration for the very same person. The child finds relief from the conflict arising out of this double-sided, this ambivalent emotional attitude towards his father by displacing his hostile and fearful feelings on to a substitute for his father. The displacement cannot, however, bring the conflict to an end, it cannot effect a clear-cut severance between the affectionate and the hostile feelings. On the contrary, the conflict is resumes in relation to the object on to which the displacement has been made: the ambivalence is extended to it. (160)
Freud notes with interest as well that if the totem animal is taken as a substitute for the father, the two taboos of totemism are identical to the crimes of Oedipus: not killing and eating the totem corresponds to the desire to murder one’s father and exogamy proscribes sleeping with his wife, the child’s mother.
Having suggested that the totem animal may be a substitute for the group’s primal father-figure, he then establishes the link between totemism and the sacrificial meal, what he takes to be the earliest religious rite. The flesh and blood of the sacrificial animal was shared in common by each of a tribe’s members who were under religious duty and social obligation to share in the meal. The sacrificial animal could also only be killed on these prescribed festival days, and killing was forbidden on all other days. Killing the sacrificial animal was considered a crime incurring guilt, and so had to be shared by the entire community, thus indicating that the animal was considered a member of the tribe. Since sacrifice was a feature of totemic religions, Freud concludes that the sacrificial animal was in the case of totemic societies in fact none other than the totem animal, the subject of taboos.
The totem animal as sacrificial animal is to be mourned and treated with respect by the tribe. After the sacrificial meal, however, ceremonies took place which expressed joy at the totem animal’s death, allowing for unlimited excess and taboo-breaking. For Freud this demonstrates an emotional ambivalence the members of the tribe felt towards the totem animal, perfectly explainable if the totem animal is taken as a substitute for the father, towards whom the sons feel both love and also competitive hatred.
From here Freud links his psychological observations with the historical theory of the primal horde. The primal horde pre-existed totemism, as a social system, made up only of a father who owned several wives and who drove away his sons in jealously guarding his women. And then, this happened:
One day the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end to the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. […] Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers: and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things – of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion. (176)
The brothers in question had the same feelings of ambivalence all boys have for their fathers in Freud’s Oedipal schema: love and identification with him and his power, but hatred and jealousy for his possessing his mother’s love instead of the child. The act of killing their father resolved their feelings of hatred with him, but in their place guilt arose, shared by each member of the horde, They resolved this ambivalence by renouncing their claim to the women within the horde, creating a de jure out of a de facto practice of exogamy, and by substituting the father with a totem animal on which they placed their ambivalent feelings, creating totemism. Totemism was in essence a covenant with their father, exchanging the father’s protection through the totem animal with their promise not to repeat their act on the totem animal.
Totemism came about as the resolution of ambivalent feelings towards a group’s father-figure. An early rebellion prompts guilt which creates what Freud terms deferred obedience to the patriarchal rule of the father. For Freud, “all later religions are seen to be attempts at solving the same problem. The vary according to the stage of civilization at which they arise and according to the methods which they adopt; but all have the same end in view and are reactions to the same great event with which civilization began and which, since it occurred, has not allowed mankind a moment’s rest.” (180) All religion, according to Freud, are ways of re-experiencing the primal event of the killing of the primal father without actually killing him, as ways to mediate between the contradictory feelings of love and hatred for the father.
The resolution of this ambivalence also gave rise to the first moral codes. The brothers’ act of renouncing their wives not only served the psychological purpose of allaying their guilt for their father’s murder but also the practical purpose of stating that no brother would put himself in the position of the father again. The first moral prohibition was against fratricide, which in Freud’s speculations very quickly became generalized to cover all members of society, who concludes that “society was now based on complicity in the common crime; religion was based on the sense of guilt and remorse attaching to his; while morality was based partly on the exigencies of this society and partly on the penance demanded by the sense of guild.” (181)
Religion developed as the ambivalent feelings of the sons towards their father became further developed. In a sacrificial meal, the father was dually represented as totem animal and god. The gods of early religions were thus fittingly theriomorphic, only to be elevated later on into an anthropomorphic figure as a “more serious effort at atonement than had been the ancient covenant with the totem.” (185) At this point, however, societies also disavowed their guilt by claiming as elements of doctrine that the father-god demanded the sacrificial meal himself. A more efficient method of resolving ambivalence and denying guilt, however, was found with the Christian religion, replacing a primary father god with a son god, Jesus Christ. Here the son not only atones for himself and all other members of the society through his sacrifice, but also makes himself into a god, in the same gesture atoning for the father’s murder and taking his place, finally accomplishing what the original brothers could not. Freud sees a similar condition underlying the drama of Greek tragedy. A Greek tragic hero bears tragic guilt which he inherited from past generations, originating in some rebellion against a divine authority. Although the chorus attempts to sympathize and alleviate the hero’s guilt, it is in fact the hero that allays the guilt and complicity in the original crime of the chorus, and so he takes on all of the tragic guilt for himself as a key element of a tragedy’s plot.
Freud speculates that the guilt from the primal father’s murder was inherited as a disposition towards emotional ambivalence towards parents that could be activated given correct conditions. Thus neurosis also has an overdetermined origin: both in the historical fact of the primal murder, and also in psychological fact. For Freud, all that is required to trigger the emotional ambivalence inherited from ages past is the impulse or wish, which can be felt at any time, to kill the father, and the extent to which individuals feel this can determine the extent to which they feel moral restrictions, and ultimately suffer from neurosis. Freud thus concludes this book by suggesting that the origin of all culture and society resides in the Oedipus complex and the ways it is resolved. Culture sorta like this:


  1. This was so good. I've read the book before, but this helped anyway!

  2. Thank you so much! You are a life saver!

  3. This is really an excellent summary. You clearly understand T and T and are also an excellent teacher

  4. is "Taboo is a primeval [sic] prohibition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject. The desire to violate it persists in their unconscious; those who obey they taboo have an ambivalent attitude to what the taboo prohibits. The magical power that is attributed to taboo is based on the capacity for arousing temptation; and it acts like a contagion because examples are contagious and because the prohibited desire in the unconscious shifts from one thing to another. The fact that the violation of a taboo can be atoned for by a renunciation shows that renunciation lies at the basis of obedience to taboo. (44-45)" a direct quote from the book?

  5. This is very helpful thank you :). Greetinga from Indonesia