Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sex and Repression...

I've written before about Bronislav Malinowski, an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th C who did important research in Papua New Guineau and Australia in particular. He often called himself a sociologist, since in those days it was a field that used observation and analysis and was motivated by a search for truth. Today it has degenerated into an attempt to justify its own prejudices, and serious scientists avoid the term. Anthropology is a field that is in danger of going the same way, but in his day both words referred to the authentic pursuit of knowledge.

I spoke last time about ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’, a description of life among the Trobriand Islanders, and particularly of the remarkable Kula system of ceremonial trading.

In ‘Sex and Repression in Savage Society’ he criticises the then relatively new discipline of psycho-analysis, on a number of grounds, but he starts by pointing out that Freud based his work mainly on observations of upper-middle classes families from Vienna, and was almost completely ignorant of other kinds of family and social structure, even within Europe, let alone the great variation that exists around the world, from the most primitive tribes to the wealthiest western nations, and that, if he had learnt about them, he would have reached very different conclusions.

Malinowski also challenges the founding myth of Freudian psycho-analysis, the Oedipal desire to replace the patriarch, by showing clearly, first that it could not have been a real event which created this supposed aspect of human culture, and secondly that the relations between one generation and the next are played out in far too many different ways, and were historically quite unlike the situations Freud studied, for there to be any such common cultural element in the human psyche.

I say 'shows' because he does. He doesn’t express doubt, take issue, shout, torture the terms until they scream, or throw dogmatic nonsense about; he simply states what he has observes and explains why Freud’s theories, the very basis of his psycho-analysis, are so deficient as to be worthless.

I can’t link to it, or even copy and paste, for technical reasons related to my rural idyll, but the books are at Project Gutenberg and are worth reading. Sex and Repression is quite short and readable, and much of the demolition is in the first pages.


Vincent said...

I rather wished you could have said more. Whenever I read people's comments about Freud these days, they always say that they think him important but don't agree with his theories about sex. I conclude that nobody admits to agreeing with them anymore, except a hard core of traditional Freudian analysts, if they have not dispersed without trace, like - like communists still loyal to Stalin or Mao, for example.

CIngram said...

I don't know that I can say much more, not about Freud, anyway. I know nothing of what Freudian analysts do these days, or even if they still exist. I imagine there's a market for it, as there is for most things.

What I was struck by was the extreme narrowness and lack of historical, geographical and social perspective in the sexual theories of Freud, which Malinowski made refreshingly clear.

It should be remembered that even the most primitive, uncontacted, or uninfluenced, hunter-gatherers live, like us, in a conceptual world almost entirely of their own making. Their social behaviour is not instinctive, like that of monkeys, but has been created by them, and by generations of their forebears. This includes all aspects of social interaction, hierarchy, general morality, 'good manners', and sexual practice. All of this is defined, in an almost completely arbitrary way, and hedged about with strictures, taboos, punishments and justifying legends to hide the fact that it has, in the end, no basis in anything but custom. There are almost no underlying constants to be found. Every conceivable aspect or variant of sexual behaviour is forbidden somewhere, permitted somewhere else, and compulsory in yet another place. To attempt to class the Oedipus complex, or some other specific sexual trauma, as a defining element of the human psyche is ridiculous.