In the center of the room stands a small stool over which a banana is ever-so deliciously suspended. When the first monkey attempts to grab the banana a hose sprays him with water. The same fate befalls the second hungry monkey, and the third, until the room full of monkeys is conditioned directly or indirectly to avoid reaching for the banana at all costs. In the next phase of the experiment a single monkey is removed and replaced by a new monkey. This immigrant monkey is quickly socialized, through gesture or noise, to not touch the cursed banana. By and by, all of the original monkeys are replaced, and though the hose has long since been removed, the banana still hangs there, stimulating an outward desire balanced against unfounded contempt.


Totem and Taboo concerns the origin of ambivalent desires, conscience, and, concomitant with these developments, the origin of culture. Freud juxtaposes the obsessional attitudes of the neurotic with the taboos of the Frazerian savage, locating them both within the context of the Oedipus myth. For Freud, A taboo is “a prohibited action, for performing which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious” (1913 32), much like, or so he saw it, Oedipus’ bedding of his mother and killing of his father seemed a bit too convenient of a lapse.  Rather than actually carrying these fantasies, we experience neuroses, or, “asocial structures that endeavour to achieve by private means what is effected in society by collective effort”. The link Freud attempts to establish between neurosis and taboo in this text, it should be noted, is neither causal nor consequent.  The two conditions operate spatially and temporally on different planes. “After all,” Freud tells us, “taboo is not a neurosis but a social institution” (71).  The peculiar kind of relationship they share, Freud calls, “psychological agreement” (36), or “points of agreement” (26, 72), and though categorically different objects, they share a common concern; namely ambivalent desires. 


How, Freud’s essay asks, can we understand the taboo and neurosis in light of one another, and in the process, come not only to an understanding of both, but also to a realization of the very origins of culture? For Freud, the taboo, as prohibited, is universally and virulently attached to person, place, thing, or transitory condition.  The same holds for the neurosis. The ‘points of agreement’ between these two categories are fourfold: firstly, neither shows assignable motives and are equally puzzling in their origins. Secondly, both are maintained by internal necessity. Thirdly, both readily exhibit displaceability―(often through touching). Lastly, both give rise to injunctions.


A potentially useful way we might make sense out of Freud’s sociological project and to associate it while distancing it from individual neurosis is to look at it through the lens of the pre-Darwinian evolutionist, Lamarck. While species evolve in a conclusively Darwinian fashion, we might see societies as Lamarckian―that is, as with Lamarck’s putative giraffe whose neck gets longer as it stretches for leaves, societies themselves mold and morph in response to external and internal conditions, and unlike with the Darwinian model, our Lamarckian model is not constantly marked by an isolated analytic of death, regeneration, and a series of hand-offs, but rather treats society, memory, trauma, as a common possession of one entity: “…We let the sense of guilt for a deed survive for thousands of years, remaining effective in generations which could not have known anything of this deed. We allow an emotional process such as might have arisen among generations of sons that had been ill-treated by their fathers, to continue to new generations which had escaped such treatment by the very removal of the father” (Freud 259). For Freud, as for our monkeys above, there must be continuity to preserve ‘society’ as a unit; were it the case that individual beings, (as in the Darwinian model), were not captives of a continuous society, they would be immediately free from it. Freud writes, “If psychic processes of one generation did not continue in the next, if each had to acquire its attitude towards life afresh, there would be no progress in this field and almost no development” (Freud 260). 


Through this string of history, society (as Lamarckian giraffe) locks into its collective memory (or the ‘psychic mass’), all of our ancestors’ murders, altruisms, losses, and so forth, from which our consciousness (and conscience) has developed into its current state.  This statement, and the argument in favor of the primal killing that naturally follows from it, will require a bit of explication.  To this end, we might here discuss Malinowski’s (mis)reading of Freud.


Malinowski, in his analysis of Freud, fails to understand that Freud is not ‘discovering’ the origin of culture, but rather, ‘proclaiming’ it.   Malinowski is quite right to note that Freud gives his murderers tools, (and at that, ‘some advance in culture’ and ‘the use of a new weapon’ in a pre-cultural world! (Malinowski 137)), but, rather than contradicting Freud’s argument, it in fact deepens it by reassuring us that Freud was after a notion of ‘culture’ far different from any historical notion of culture which Malinowski was willing to entertain. What Freud is in fact arguing is that something important and irrevocable happened on the societal level: we suddenly encountered our ambivalence, or rather, the fact that our single bodies simultaneously hold multiple and contradictory desires and emotions. Malinowski writes, “culture, we must remember, cannot be created in one moment and by one act” (147), but this is exactly what Freud has in mind. One, horrible, terrifying earthquake in which culture is not discovered but defined - a great earthquake in the history of man that has not yet and will never stopped rumbling. For Freud this event changed not only what we do, but was of such emotional power that it in fact changed the very nature of what we are. Malinowski’s attempts to rescue Darwin from Freud’s talons by denying the distinction between man and monkey, misunderstands that Freud is working through the argument based not on an empirical model, but a rational one. Freud is interested in traumas like Marx was interested in modes of production. 


But why must it have been the primal crime? Why should we buy into something so seemingly fairytale like? Is this the wrong question all together? It is Freud’s just-so story, true not because it issues from truth but because truth issues so clearly from it. The very contradictory emotions, existing at once within the subject that amounts to (rather than causes) the arrival of the ego. The ambi-valence of the new, human, subject replaces the singular ‘valence,’ accounting for the first relationship between man-and-himself.  This in turn, through analogy, accounts for a re-defining of the relationship that men can have with each other.  “the dead now became stronger than the living had been.”


ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture