Week 7 (Julia): Colonial Taboos, Neurotic Cyborgs, Temporality and Totemism: time after time.

In reading the excerpts assigned from Freud’s Totem and Taboo I found myself thinking, not only about the emergence of a psychoanalytically informed anthropology, but also about how the role of the anthropologist and the role of the psychoanalyst may overlap in some interesting ways. First, could the work produced within this colonial context by both anthropologists and Freud, be guided by, generated through, and described as, psychological tourism? The second point of connection that I perceive belongs to how, in the texts we have read so far, the anthropologist, like the psychoanalyst, engenders a one-way relationship of disclosure and intimacy. Just as the psychoanalyst revealed nothing about [himself] while his patient was encouraged to confess all, the anthropologist placed himself in the same authoritative invisible role while expecting the same willingness of disclosure from his objects of study. As Asad pointed out a few weeks ago (p.17), and as Kelly honed in on in her reflection on Functionalism, the colonial anthropologist engaging in fieldwork depended entirely on being provided an intimate exposé of the social lives of [his] subjects while his life remained private. Could this one-way intimacy be described as a taboo beheld by the anthropologist/psychoanalyst?

As Freud explains, taboo encapsulates a thing that is thought to be both sacred and unclean. As such, it is above all else, not to be touched. Hence the foremost feature that defines one’s relation to taboo is the “dread of contact with it”(p.25). If we think of touching as a conceptual form of contact, what are we to make of the one-way touching institutionalized by psychoanalysts/anthropologists? While anthropologists/ psychoanalysts rely on observing the daily ways in which “the other” makes contact, the distance the anthropologist/psychoanalyst places between himself and his objects of study disenables the exchange of contact between his objects and himself. Could this institutionalized rejection of exchanging contact with the object of study embody the enactment of a taboo that is specifically formed through colonialist fears and desires of the Other? Is Freud embodying and enacting the very concept that he is analyzing? Since Totem and Taboo could only ever have been written through the unequal exchange of contact, through Freud’s unwillingness to reach out and engage in an trade of touching with his Others, is Totem and Taboo an archive of Freud’s ambivalent dread and desire of the Other? In other words, perhaps Totem and Taboo is, amongst other things, a record of Freud’s own struggle with that which he registers as taboo. Hence, could it be that to colonial anthropologists the non-western Other is taboo while to the old school psychoanalyst, the patient is taboo?


For the remainder of my reflection this week I would like to return back and continue to expand upon my queries explored in reflection #2 relating to time and anthropology. I would like to do this because I think that Freud, in Totem and Taboo, is doing something very different than the other texts we have studied thus far in respect to time. At the beginning of “The Horror of Incest” Freud states the importance of studying “savages” as “their mental life must have a particular interest for us if we are right in seeing in it a well-preserved picture of an early state of our own development” (p.1). Freud goes on to explain that he has chosen to examine the Australian aboriginals because they embody the most “backward” of humans and thus are a receptacle in which to “observe much that is archaic and that has perished elsewhere” (p.1). This formulation of time adheres to the notion that the “savage” is a living fossil that represents our ancient history. It is this formulation that has been provided by the anthropologists that we have read so far. However, Freud goes on to complicate this account of time by drawing together the “savage” with the “neurotic”.

Freud perceives the originality of his work as deriving from the ways in which he locates the “savage” within the neurotic patient, stating, “All I have been able to add to our understanding of it [the savage and incest taboos] is to emphasize the fact that it is essentially an infantile feature and that it reveals a striking agreement with the mental life of neurotic patients” (p.16). Hence, the child/savage equation that Tylor envisioned lives within Freud’s modern neurotic patient. The presence of the “savage” as constituting neurosis in the modern subject continues to structure Freud’s chapter “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence”. In this chapter Freud claims, “Neurotics, who are obliged to reproduce the struggle and the taboo resulting from it, may be said to have inherited an archaic constitution as an atavistic vestige” (p.66).

Furthermore, Freud disrupts the notion held by various investigators that totemic institutions represent a “necessary phase of human development which has been passed through universally” (footnote 2, p.3). Instead Freud argues that “in those races in which totemism exists today, we may find it in various stages of decay and disintegration or in the process of transition to other social and religious institutions” (footnote 2, p.4). Thus, the history of totemism goes way back, meaning that the “primitive people” of Freud’s day embody traces of older totemic systems, while contemporary religious institutions represent either a distortion or transitional phase of totemism. Accordingly, Freud contextualizes neurotics within the totemic paradigm phase of evolution and makes the radical claim that religious institutions are totemic in nature. Hence, the religious institution becomes a totemic symbol and the religious person becomes the neurotic subject. And in making these moves, Freud is undoing and remaking mental illness and race as identities that are implicitly co-produced through one another.

To close this reflection, I would like to point out how, in Totem and Taboo, the anthropologist’s quest to travel back and forth in time is localized in the neurotic patient. In his text, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), John Reider examines the cyborg as a fraught figure composed of binaries such as “primitive”/“civilized”, present/past, racialized/nonracialized, nature/technology and is accordingly problematically deployed in science fiction and critical texts in ways that valorize the hegemonic “parts” and devalue the subjugated “parts”. In this sense, is Freud’s neurotic patient, as uniting the fraught tensions between past/present, primitve/cilivized, east/west, racialized/nonracialized an early articulation of the cyborg? Furthermore, could an appreciation of Freud’s cyborgization of time through the body of the neurotic subject lead to an analysis of the relationship between ambivalence and the cyborg? Hence, is the cyborg, at heart, an ambivalent figure? Or perhaps identifying the cyborg as having anything “at its heart” is the ultimate misnomer? Regardless, contextualizing the cyborg as embodying taboo and emotional ambivalence might be fruitful.



Rieder, John. (2008). Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Middletown Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

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1 Response to Week 7 (Julia): Colonial Taboos, Neurotic Cyborgs, Temporality and Totemism: time after time.

  1. kelly says:

    I really like the connection you between psychoanalytic forms of intimacy and the anthropologist/object relationship. The intimacy in Freud’s text is something that is expertly hidden. He writes as if the ‘truth’ about the neurotic subject is self-evident and is not a product of an intimate psychoanalyst/patient relationship, a relationship that then becomes erased as it transformed into a mobile subject category. Looking forward to Friday!

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