Thursday, August 2, 2012

Animals, Humans, Taboo

Valerio Valeri. The Forest of Taboos. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
The late Mary Douglas gave this book a stellar review in either Nature or Science, I forget which. So I bought it and I’ve read most, though not all, of it. Yes, it’s stellar.

I just pulled if off the shelf on the hunch that it would speak to my current interest in Walt Disney’s Dumbo. Why would I think that? Because Dumbo is a story about animals, animals and humans, that’s why. And taboo is very much about animals and humans, but also plants and humans. And, if it is the best treatment we’ve got of taboo—which is pretty much what Douglas said of it—then it just has to be relevant.

It is, and also to object-oriented ontology and animals studies.

But this isn’t going to be a review or summary or anything like it. I just want to quote a few passages from Chapter 4, “Zoology and Meatology”.

p. 179-180:
Precisely because animals are our next of kin, because they offer a ready mirror for human attributes, for virtues and vices, taken together they raise a problem of self-definition for us: to establish where the difference between animal and human lies is to define what it is to be human...We ourselves come from a tradition where animals and humans have been radically opposed on ontological grounds—that is, on the grounds of the soul/body distinction. One way or another, we are all heirs to Descartes on this. He has left us with some outmoded furniture, which we have put in a dark corner but still occasionally use to support our plates when we enjoy our steak or roast.
That is, when we eat animal flesh we do so secure in the belief that animals really are radically different from us and that, therefore, we are not being cannibalistic in eating them. Valeri continues (p. 180):
Descartes believes that granting a soul to animals is an error second only to denying God. Animals are for him pure machines, and as such devoid of any signification beyond their utility. This cleavage is logically related to another one, that of soul and body in humans. Together, they run counter to any possible problematic of taboo, for eating is reduced to the confrontation of two machines, the human-body machine and the animal-body machine, under the detached gaze of a disembodied, self-determining subject—the cogito. Such a subject cannot be undermined by eating; the horrors and the dangers, but also the pleasures, of the transmutation of nonself into self are unknown to it. Food concerns the body, not the soul; res cogitans is radically separated from res extensa, so that the kinship between soulless animal and the soulful human can be severed at the root.
See, animals and machines, the equation of the two. That’s all over the place in cartoons, in Dumbo. But also the identification of animals and humans. But surely identity is transitive, no? So, if ‘animals=machines’ and ‘humans=animals’ then it follows that ‘humans=machines’.



A bit later, p. 180:
If we are to understand why eating, and especially the eating of animals, is inseparable from the idea of taboo in Huaulu, we must forget Descartes or his residual effects on our ideas and practices. We must accept the Huaulu premise that no radical ontological difference between the human eater and the nonhuman eaten exists. [Graham Harman and Tim Morton, did you see THAT?] At the same time, we must not remain Cartesian in the very reversal of the Cartesian ontology. That the Huaulu do not postulate an inseparable ontological barrier between animal and human does not mean that they are not preoccupied with differentiating them. On the contrary, the lack of any guaranteed, a priori difference means that the difference has to be created constantly through various cultural practices which demonstrate it. The main practice of it is precisely that of taboo.
And it’s not as though we Moderns have somehow miraculously broken free of such problems. Not at all. We’ve got them all over the place. Hence the proliferation of Funny Animal cartoons and comics in mid-20th-century America. That, of course, takes some explaining, which is more than I’m up to in this little post.

I note only that on the next page (181) Valeri points out that the Huaulu have no word that corresponds to our word “animal”. He goes on to imply that they don’t have any word corresponding to “plant” either, though he does not say this outright. This is common enough in preliterate societies. In fact, it seems to be the norm (Brent Berlin, Ethnobiological Classification, 1992). This does not, however, mean that they lack the concepts, either or animal or plant. Valeri makes it quite clear that the Huaulu have such concepts.

So, how does a culture deal with concepts from which it lacks names? For that, I suspect, is what’s going on in funny animal cartoons and comics.

More later.


  1. "a priori difference means that the difference has to be created constantly through various cultural practices which demonstrate it."

    I liked this what's always fascinated me about ethnography, the creative energy needed to maintain these repetitions as they move and change.

    Oral societies in particular, as these concepts need to be constantly repeated, have constant contexts in which they spring to mind and mouth.

    Welsh word for poetic inspiration awen translates as breath borne or breeze blown. I think it captures the power, fragility and the constant movement of these things as they move through landscapes.
    of these cultural things.

  2. From whatever dictionary is on my computer:

    ORIGIN Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare ‘breathe or blow into,’ from in- ‘into’ + spirare ‘breathe.’ The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense [impart a truth or idea to someone.]

    ORIGIN Middle English : from Anglo-Norman French, from Latin spiritus ‘breath, spirit,’ from spirare ‘breathe.’

  3. Little gem of an article on Farting, pious effusions and prayer from my archive on this.