Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sigmund Freud - Totem and Taboo - brief summary by chapter

Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, or Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics (we'll just make do with "Totem and Taboo" here, if you don't mind) is Sigmund Freud's first (but not last) attempt at applying psychoanalysis to culture and human history at large. Published in 1913, Totem and Taboo is now considered a classic anthropological text that even if factually dubious is still very inspiring for the manner in which it engages culture and the collective psyche.

In chapter 1 of Totem and Taboo, titled "The Horrors of Incest", Freud engages with Totemism, discussing Australian Aboriginals who practice animistic Totemism. Freud describes how clan differentiation and marriage are organized through the different totem of each clan and prohibition on marrying somebody from your own totem. The Totem, Freud deduces, prevents incest (since paternal identity is usually not particularly clear in tribal societies).

In chapter 2 ("Taboo and emotional ambivalence") Freud points to the relation between Totemism and taboo with the aid of his psychoanalytic terms of "projection" and "ambivalence". Repression of ambivalent feelings towards others results in projecting them outwards, on to the totem (which serves as a kind of "scape goat" for negative feeling towards adjacent people). Freud then compares this dynamic to the relationship of masses and their rulers.

Chapter 3 ( "Animism, Magic and the Omnipotence of Thought") Freud ties the believe in magic to narcissism and the over-belief in the meaning and effect of our actions and thoughts in regards to reality. The "omnipotence of thoughts" projects inner reality onto the world, an animistic practice we can see today in art, for example.

Chapter 4 of Totem and Taboo  ("The Return of Totemism in Childhood") sets forth one of Freud's wildest cultural ideas, claiming that Totemism, and therefore taboo, originates in one single event. This is, for Freud, the first prototypical case of the Oedipal Complex in which a band of expelled brothers returned to the clan to kill their revered and feared father. The guilt that followed from this event is the basis for all religion, so holds Freud.   

Books to check out:

More articles and summaries of Freud:

Sigmund Freud - summary of ideas and main concepts

Sigmund Freud – "The Uncanny"