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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


For the time being I'm mostly finished with the topic of incest in literary works, though I imagine it'll come up again, given that I stated that it was the best possible symbol of the transgressive nature of sex. However, while on this topical roll I couldn't pass over the chance to do a "compare-and-contrast" between this series and Charles Reece's AMOEBLOG article here.

Reece's 2008 article cites the two main influences on the "centrality of incest" theme I first contrasted with one another here: Freud and Levi-Strauss. However, Reece's essay isn't related to whether or not the two scholars were right or wrong about the centrality issue. Rather, Reece is concerned with the aspect of the "ick factor," the reason why the notion of incest seems almost universally condemned in most human cultures (as Twitchell also avers). Like Twitchell, Reece doesn't concern himself nearly as much as I do with the reasons why condemnation is so often linked with fascination, however.

The centerpiece of Reece's argument stems in large part from the "social intuitionism" of academic psychologist Jonathan Haidt. I find appealing certain aspects of Haidt, who argues that much of what we consider "moral" stems not from reason but from emotional intuitions as to what is improper. Reece says:

Citing a 1991 study of chimpanzees by Frans de Waal, Jonathan Haidt follows a Darwinian line of reasoning about the incest taboo, namely that it's built on deep-seated biological inhibitions which make it feel icky, even though we don't know explicitly why. While all species follow certain descriptive rules of behavior, primates actually turn those descriptive rules into prescriptive ones by threat of force. Thus, de Waal found that an adult chimp might interact with a baby chimp in an inappropriate way (e.g., like an incestuous adult human), but other chimps will go Bronson on him for doing so. That's morality by way of evolution. Haidt refers to this moral view as social intuitionism

Now, I'm at a disadvantage here in not having read any works by Haidt or de Waal, though I did run through a de Waal interview here and a Haidt interview here. But my first reaction to the citation of this one example of chimp-molestation is that by itself it can't be extrapolated into a general "rule against incest." By itself it might validate the notion that lower animals have a sense of "inequity aversion,". One might hazard that the "Charles Bronson apes" may be offended that the baby chimp is being forced into the relationship, not by the incest as such.

Are animals averse to incest? In the cited interview de Waal states that they, like humans, are subject to the "Westermarck effect," in which long propinquity discourages passion. Levi-Strauss seemed to feel that animals were far less discriminating than man, since man's societal prohibition of incest put him apart from the animal kingdom. Who's right? A reading of de Waal's work on the bonobo chimps might tell me if de Waal thinks that the bonobos deserve their reputation for flagrant incest or not, if I ever find time to read it. But is de Waal the final authority?

Fundamentally I agree with Haidt's concept: much of what we consider reasoned morality is born of taste, sentiment and "intuition." But social intuitionism by itself doesn't explain that "fascination" of which I spoke above.

Being influenced by Jung, my own "intuition" tells me to suspect any credo that reads a fantasy as a displacement for "something else." Reece starts his essay talking about the Greek gods (even as Twitchell does), noting that the gods constantly indulged in the very vice that should be repellent to most of their worshippers. Twitchell suggested that the lascivious freedom of the gods was meant to contrast with the dutiful lot of humankind, and Charles Reece seems to be writing in the same vein, though by essay's end he's addressing the example of "cinematic gods:"

Thus, Freud was on to something regarding fantasies. Whether they're about deities or sublimely beautiful actresses, they serve as an originary, primitive defining moment for the social laws that develop in order to protect us from ourselves. I'm guessing that the more beautiful the actress willing to make out with her equally beautiful sibling for the artistic ideal, and the less problem we all have with it, the more entrenched the incest taboo becomes.

I've said before that I think Bataille is more right than Freud. Where Freud thinks the taboo is there to prevent the transgression, Bataille "intuits" that the taboo and its transgression are joined in an interpenetrating dynamic, in which one cannot do without the other. I believe that this dynamic also underlines all of human art, which depends on depicting the conflict of wills, or of icons symbolizing the aspects of differing wills (I'm thinking of abstract artists like Kandinsky here). Thus I would not say that any gods, theological or cinematic, exist PRIMARILY to promote any taboo. Their primary function is to depict the pleasures of transgression, as well as, in a secondary sense, both the pain and pleasure of reining those desires in.


Charles Reece said...

Thus I would not say that any gods, theological or cinematic, exist PRIMARILY to promote any taboo. Their primary function is to depict the pleasures of transgression, as well as, in a secondary sense, both the pain and pleasure of reining those desires in.

I'm with you there. As you've pointed out with Bataille's theorizing, the taboo creates its own transgressive potential. The "gods" here show us the inherent attraction to the repulsion that's always part of the law. In preparing for a future blog entry, I recently read a good critique of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which relates all of this to capitalism.

Gene Phillips said...

I wouldn't agree with the authors analysis of "capitalism's transgressive excesses," because it fails, like a lot of Marxist analysis, to distinguish between normative capitalism and capitalism in its excessive form. Normative capitalism is essentially identical with what Bataille calls "work," those society-benefiting activities that such pleasurable phenomena as sex and violence disrupt. No matter how brobdinagian a capitalistic enterprise may become, as long as it's producing "work," it's fundamentally one with the work archaic peoples did to store grain in granaries, et al.

Taboos come about to protect this kind of work from the chaotic pleasures of sex and violence, so the work wouldn't be *identical* with excess.

The Chainsaw family would certainly be a good representative of, say, unregulated capitalism gone berserk. I for one would like to see Leatherface redone to reflect the nuttiness of our economic meltdown.