In Totem and Taboo, Freud discusses how the developmental patterns of the psyche shape the course of human civilization. His discussion assumes that the behavior of primitive peoples will illustrate certain aspects of the unconscious, as well as the mechanisms of repression/sublimation, in a clearer manner than the behavior of more civilized peoples. He turns to the almost universally recognized cultural taboo against incest and examines how it structures primitive societies. The focus of his discussion is on the totem system that structures many primitive groups. The totem is a sacred animal which a certain tribe or clan has elected and which its members are forbidden to kill or eat except during certain special rituals. Members of the same totem clan are also prohibited from having sexual relations with one another. The totem is usually passed on to succeeding generations of the tribe through the female line.
The first section, titled “The Savage’s Dread of Incest,” utilizes the works of early ethnographers, such as Andrew Lang’s The Secret of the Totem (1905) and J.G. Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy (1910), as source material. The totem prohibition—the violation of which involves death or social exclusion)—occurs invariably among primitive peoples and covers all manner of familial relations (son/mother, brother/sister, son-in-law/mother-in-law). Psychoanalytic studies, Freud concludes, show that such taboos necessitate the repression of sexual drives and are the major source of neurotic behavior in the individual of modern society.
In the second section of the essay, “Taboo and the Ambivalence of the Emotions,” Freud argues that ambivalence is central to the concept of the taboo. Because it represents powerful desires within the individual that must be repressed, the focus of the taboo is the object of strong attraction; because of the extreme negative consequences of transgression, people also have a strong aversion to the desires that generate the taboo. Thus, the taboo system in primitive cultures affords the individual a kind of ambivalence which reduces any potential neurotic conflict. Taboos in primitive societies are usually institutionalized (ritualized) within a particular cultural pattern through their association with concepts of a demon or a deity. This institutionalization is an example of a defense mechanism known as projection, in which feelings are transferred to external objects. In such primitive cultures in which projection is thus a prominent and codified feature of the society, prohibitions do not necessarily give rise to neuroses, since acceptable and nonacceptable action is openly defined for all members.
In modern European societies in which these prohibited behaviors are often not even publicly acknowledged (much less institutionalized in socially sanctioned cultural patterns), the tendency toward the development of neurotic compulsions is more pronounced because the resultant conflict is internalized. Religion does codify prohibitions against certain sexual behaviors, but religious taboos are often not clearly integrated into secular institutions in European societies. This lack of clearly structured taboos occasions the phenomena of conscience and guilt. Modern society thus produces, Freud concludes, many more neurotic individuals who...
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Without such a system of symbolic displacement of violent emotions, social order—and therefore civilization—would have been impossible. The notion that civilization is based on the sublimation of instinctive urges represents a central Freudian idea that was developed at length in Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930; Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930). In Totem and Taboo, Freud sets out to illustrate how certain ideas fundamental to his early views of the personality— particularly that of the Oedipus complex—can be found within the ritual patterns of less developed cultures; the book is an application of psychoanalytic theory to the field of anthropology. This book was written to provide more evidence that psychoanalytical theories can account for all varieties and historical stages of human behavior. These ideas concerning the psychological origins of primitive religion presented in Totem and Taboo are also expanded upon (in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition) in Freud’s later work Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion: Drei Abhandlungen (1937-1939; Moses and Monotheism, 1939). He clearly had realized relatively early that his ideas concerning the individual psyche were applicable to broader areas of human activity.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud broadens the scope of his work from the structure of the individual personality to the history of cultural and societal development. This book has had important ramifications for subsequent theories of unconscious psychological mechanisms operating within certain social institutions—such as politics and warfare, justice and the legal system, religious belief and ritual organization. For example, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s book Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955) is a good example of the application of Freudian ideas to political theories of social and economic development. Also, Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) represents the use of Freudian concepts in the area of Marxist literary theory and interpretation.