Monday, 2 January 2012

Taboo, or not Taboo?

Two new studies point towards the interesting interaction between psycho-social taboo’s, belief systems, social practice and ecological effects on species survival and biodiversity.

The first is a rather tragic example of how psycho-social-cultural shifts can have major ecological effects. In particular that ideas and beliefs (via their effects on local mental ecologies and then social ecologies) can be devastating on local flora and fauna (natural ecologies). Here we see the ecopsychoanalytic use of Guattari’s three ecologies of mind, society and nature as nonlinear interlocking dynamical systems of mutual contingencies.

Madagascan lemurs endangered by eroding taboos

First Jenkins et al’s (2011) Analysis of Patterns of Bushmeat Consumption Reveals Extensive Exploitation of Protected Species in Eastern Madagascar (also reported on the BBC with the more evocative title: Eroding taboos see lemurs end up on dinner tables)

Madigascar is one of the most ecologically important places on Earth. An ancient island which split from the Gondwana supercontinent 165 million years ago, it is a biodiversity hotspot (over 95% of its plants and animals cannot be found anywhere else) which sometimes leads it to being described as the ‘eighth continent’. 

Jenkins et al (2011) write that:
Taboos have provided protection to some species, particularly the Endangered Indri, but we present evidence that this taboo is rapidly eroding. By considering a variety of potential influences on consumption in a single study we have improved understanding of who is eating bushmeat and why... The erosion of traditional cultural taboos in Madagascar has led to an unsustainable number of lemurs being killed for bushmeat...Some species do not reach maturity for up to nine years and produce offspring once every two or three years...Primates, in general, are known to be extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.
Christopher Golden, from the Harvard Center for the Environment, US, said the island nation had a rich natural heritage. "If you look at the mammals especially, which are the main group of animals affected by the bushmeat trade, all the primates - 100% of them - are unique to the island.

They suggest the rise in illegal hunting is due to rapid social change (partly due to gold mining), increased demand for meat and lack of alternatives, and importantly a decline in traditional taboos: "When you have globalisation and outside influences, traditional cultures break down and change faster." 

What are these taboos? There are several traditions explaining these. One tells of an Indris Lemur who saved a man falling from a tree while collecting honey. Other beliefs include the idea that they are ancestors that became lost in the rainforests and turned into lemurs to survive. 

What does this have to do with psychoanalysis?

As we know Freud wrote a whole book on taboo (and totemism), and looking at these taboos may not only have practical consequences on the eco-psycho-social system of places such as Madigascar, but may also help us explore ourselves and our relationship with the nonhuman world. In particular we can explore the connection Freud suggested between animal totemism and animal phobias in childhood, starting with Freud's famous patient, now best known as the 'wolfman':
I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window.
There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again. (Freud 1918)

In Freud's Bestiary: How Does PsychoanalysisTreat Animals? Genosko (1993) explores this area in some depth and uses Deleuze and Guattari's critique of Freud to open up a what he calls a 'zoological vision' for psychoanalysis. He notes that Freud's interpretation of the scene in the wolfman’s dream depicted in the painting below, involves a reversal so that it is the (human) child “who takes the active position while other nonhuman animals assume the passive role of being looked at” (Genosko 1993, 614). 

We could see this move as representative of the repression of the ecological unconscious in Western culture, as “Freud initiates a unidirectional communication appropriate to the collector: animals are exhibited, mounted or unmounted, in display cases...a full-blown domestication of the scene” by which the “gaze of the other is emptied... becoming an unseeing look like that of zoo animals, objects for our inspection” (Genosko 1993, 614).

Animals stalk the pages of Freud's other case histories too. Erst Lehrs had his own 'becoming-animal' by being transformed through his case history into the 'Rat Man'. He was also given the nickname 'corpse-bird', and Freud in addition labelled him “an osphresiolagniac, a snooping and sniffling dogchild” (Genosko 1993, 603). Freud himself is well known for his love of dogs.

Werewolves and civilization

Barbara Creed (2005, 123), in Phallic Panic: Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny argues that in his description of the Wolf-Man, “Freud focused too much on his own phantasy of the castrating paternal figure and not enough on his fearful folkloric con, the wolf-man in sheep's clothing.” Deleuze and Guattari (2003a, 38) in their book A Thousand Plateus: Capitalism and Schiophrenia (in their Chapter '1914: One or Several Wolves?') hold a similar position when they write that “The trap was set from the start...Talk as he might about wolves, howl as he might like a wolf, Freud does not even listen; he glances at his dog and answers, 'It's daddy.' ” 

This is true of Freud's work more generally, where both animal totems and animal phobias involve according to Freud (at least for the boy) a substitute for the (Oedipal) father. In 'The Return of Totemism in Childhood' in Totem and Taboo Freud (1913a, 187; quoted in Genosko 1993, 608) claims that animal phobias are “a very common, and perhaps the earliest, form of psychoneurotic illness occurring in childhood”.

For Freud, the “ambivalent attitude (to obey and transgress) toward the two principal taboos of totemism” (Genosko 1993, 608) is identical to “the primal wishes of children and the two crimes of Oedipus”. By displacing anxieties relating to the father onto an animal substitute, the animal turns into an object of both fear and fascination, such as Little Arpad's chickens (Ferenczi 1952), and Little Hans' horse.

Hans identified with his father by becoming a horse, trotting around the household, neighing, wearing a nosebag, and, finally, by biting his father and behaving in a fearless way toward him (Freud, 1909a, 213-214)... Ferenczi's 'Little Chanticleer' expressed that he had become a chicken in numerous ways...cackling and crowing...singing songs with chicken themes, play[ing] with toy fowls by 'slaughtering' and 'caressing' them. (Genosko 1993, 608)

Creed (2005, 130) connects the totemism described by Freud to the cannibalism theme of the werewolf myth, where she suggests that “Through metamorphosis and cannibalism, the wolf-man points to the 'instability of the paternal metaphor' and the failure of civilization”. For Creed, “the cannibal meal of the wolf-man myth symbolizes a pact not with civilization but with nature and wilderness.” The wolfman is an uncanny creature of the inbetween, being neither man nor beast, and belonging to neither city or forest while dwelling in both. Therefore, the werewolf, as myth, as film motif, and as patients' phantasies and phobias refers not simply to the return of repressed desires which the City has blunted and eroded, but rather:

...the wolf-man signifies those indeterminate, uncanny animal spaces necessary to the creation and definition of their opposite: the familiar, civilized human city. The wolf-man does not leave the town or city to live in exile in the forest; he is compelled to live as an exile within the city...he engages in a modern reworking of murder and the totem meal which celebrates not the emergence of civilization but its end (Creed 2005, 133).

This theme is explored in more depth (and its relation to the becoming-animal of horror films) in my book (in chapter 10: Becoming-Animal and the Zoological Imagination). From an ecopsychoanalytic perspective one important aspect of Freud's descriptions of animal phobias is an implicit suggestion that psychological health involves overcoming such ambivalences, enabling a return to the previously 'excellent relations' with animals. Freud (1913a, 187) writes that sources for animal phobias are both 'textual', where animals are “only known to the child from picture books and fairy tales” and 'contextual' through direct contact, depending on the geographical location of the child: “horses, dogs, cats, less often birds, and with striking frequency very small creatures such as beetles and butterflies”.

Freud...said little about prephobic relations except that children identify strongly with nonhumans...seen as “full equals”...he showed little interest in the positive relations that may again obtain between children and animals after a successful was not only that Hans “ceased to be afraid of horses.” Rather, he recovered the pleasure that they gave him and the wonder they inspired... Psychoanalysis...[has] a certain unrealized potential in reconstituting the relations between children and animals (Genosko 1993, 610)

At the heart of Deleuze and Guattari's (2003a, 240) critique of Freud is their claim that “the only kind of animals that psychoanalysis understands are individuated animals, family pets, sentimental, Oedipal animals each with its own petty history, ‘my’ cat, ‘my’ dog.” For them, Freud could not allow the Wolf-Man to become Wolf and join the pack but instead worked to 'Oedipalize' the Wolf-Man's animal becomings, rather than recognising that “every animal is fundamentally a band, a pack” (Deleuze & Guattari 2003a, 239).

Tiger bone in your wine sir?
All this might lead us to want to look beyond the confines of 'cannibalistic' western culture, and seek for wisdom in the traditions of the ‘indigenous’ and the ‘non-Western’ but this simple dualism is highly problematic as I discuss in chapter 7 of my book: 'Ecopsychology and the Greening of Psychotherapy'.

As Freud wrote, the flip-side of the taboo against consumption of the totem animal is a strong desire for this permitted on socially prescribed feasts, including the Christian communion where the congregation collectively eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ, as well as the infantile experience of feeding at the breast where one devours what one loves.

What are the most forbidden animals for in Western culture to eat today? The most taboo animals would have to be the most endangered species, especially the large fauna so beloved of conservation charities, like tigers (the interesting exception here might unfortunately be our cherished ‘Oedipal’ pets, our dogs and cats, as for many we would be more upset at the death of ‘our’ pet than the annihilation and extinction of an entire species).

A further paper: Biodiversity:Endangered and in demand, discuses the effects of traditional asian medicinal beliefs and its collision with modern capitalism and species biodiversity:
“With an ingredients list that includes rhino horn and tiger bone, traditional Asian medicine is on a collision course with wildlife preservation. The rhino and its horn [used to treat everything from fever to AIDS, cancer and brain haemorrhages] are not alone: powdered tiger bone is used to treat rheumatism; the scales of the toothless, anteater-like pangolin are believed to reduce swelling and improve blood circulation; and guilinggao, a jelly derived from the shells of freshwater turtles, was used to treat smallpox in a nineteenth-century emperor, with little success — in Taiwan it is now reputed to cure cancer. It is a similar story for many other endangered species whose commercial use is restricted — or banned outright — by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).”

These damaging practices are now combining with the dramatically rising wealth in China to form a new demand for high status consumables such as using tiger bone in wine and shampoo, and tiger penis soup.

The illicit trade in wildlife is a booming industry, estimated by the US congressional research service to be worth as much as US$20 billion globally each year. Although this figure includes trade in bushmeat, skins and exotic pets, in the expanding Asian market, estimated to be the largest in the world, a significant driver is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Indeed, despite showing signs of decline in the 1990s, the poaching and trade of endangered animals such as tigers and rhinos is once again on the rise
One likely factor driving this demand is the rise in the wealth of China, says Sabri Zain, director of advocacy for Traffic International in Cambridge, UK, which was established in 1973 to monitor wildlife trade. “Currently China is the biggest market,” he says. This dominance is not just a consequence of China's population, or the fact that traditional Asian medicine has its roots there, but to the country's rapidly rising incomes. “There are more people who can afford it,” Zain says.
The market for these substances also seems to be expanding. A range of new products has emerged over the past decade, available as black market products or through online stores. “Tiger bone is now being used in wine,” says Debbie Banks, a senior tiger investigator with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a campaign group in London. It is a similar story with other new products made with tiger bones, such as shampoo — or indeed with tiger penis soup, which has no perceived medicinal value whatsoever, she says. In fact, these wines, shampoos and soups are not part of the traditional medicine repertoire at all. However, they do lean on the same beliefs, says Banks. “They are seen as status products,” she adds.
Indeed this association with status is a major issue, reflected in the demographic of the modern-day user of these products, says Zain. “It's a myth that these products are only being consumed by an older generation. It's not just the old fogies, it is also young, wealthy professionals,” he says. “It may be a way of showing their peers that they can afford these very expensive medicinal products.”  And there appear to be plenty who meet that financial test. In 2008, a survey of nearly 1,000 people from six cities across China found that 1.9% of respondents had consumed a medicine or tonic containing tiger within the past 12 months2. If this represents national consumption, it would mean a user base of around 25 million people.
In Vietnam, which is one of the largest markets for TCM outside China, traditional remedies are sought after. If incomes were to increase, so too would consumption of products containing endangered species3. This is hardly surprising, says Zain, given the perception that products such as rhino horn are capable of curing cancer — a medicinal property previously unheard of in traditional Asian medicine.
But perhaps the most disturbing notion is the prospect that people might trade in endangered animals as a means of “investing in extinction”. This is the idea that by actively buying up and stockpiling rare animal parts, one can not only push up the price, but also encourage further poaching that will eventually force the species into extinction. In cold-blooded business terms it makes an awful lot of sense, says John Scanlon, secretary-general of CITES in Geneva, Switzerland. “If something is rare it becomes more attractive,” he says. “And the rarer something is, the more valuable it becomes.”

Taboo or not taboo?
Again, here we have the combustible mix of psychological beliefs, social practices, economic forces, and major ecological effects. Do we perhaps then need more taboos? More barriers against unrestrained desire for ever greater levels of consumption? (see also Susan Bodnar's chapter in Vital Signs). Is even asking this question breaking a fundamental taboo in capitalist society, where our first duty is as consumer rather than citizen, where our cultural ego-ideal commands us to buy? In order to see the ecological effect of a newly introduced taboo we can consider the traditional use of tigerskins in Tibet: "Following a campaign to raise awareness of the tiger's plight, and an appeal by the Dalai Lama in 2006 for Tibetans to stop wearing the fashionable tiger-skin chubas, demand fell dramatically. Tiger skins were burned and it became socially unacceptable to wear or sell them, and demand in Tibet has all but disappeared." 

While the long-term effects of this newly invoked taboo on the three ecologies are hard to predict, for example whether it will result in an increased reliance on imported synthetic fabrics made elsewhere, whether we like it or not theytaboos will continue to play an important role in the three ecologies. Taboos can both tell us something about ourselves (teaching us about our mental ecology) but also effect social practice (social ecology) with dramatic reverberations on biodiversity (natural ecology), and are worth reflecting on to better understand their complex effects throughout the eco-psycho-social space.

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