Thinking about Incest 11: Saving the Viennese Witchdoctor

If social conservatives bridle and high school students snicker at the sound of Freud’s name, the reaction of intellectuals is hardly more sophisticated. They almost divide into two exclusive and exhaustive groups: those who read “Freud” as “fraud” and those who read it as “joy” (its meaning in German). Patricia Kitcher, Freud’s Dream: A Complete Interdisciplinary Science of Mind (MIT Press, 1992), p.4.

One of the more simultaneously entertaining, puzzling, and frustrating parts of the anthropological literature on incest and the Westermarck Effect is the back-and-forth between those defending, and those attacking, Freud’s views of incest, childhood sexuality, and spelling out their relationship to the Westermarck Effect. Freud and Westermarck themselves were clearly at odds, and we have seen much to suggest the basis for that tension.

For Freud (like Levi-Strauss), incest taboos mark a firm line between animal nature and human civilization: animals, and our own animal side (aka “the id”, amongst other things), are incestuous, a nature whose tensions for family life gives rise to the need for incest taboos. This is part of a broader view of the pervasiveness of sexuality in the human condition, one that is both polymorphic (and so can be found as childhood sexuality, or as the basis for the symbolism of dreams or everyday psychopathology) and promiscuous unless subdued by the firm hand of control issued by societal rules, and absorbed by the ego and superego of the individual. (Yes, there are other ways to spell this out in Freudian terms than via an appeal to the id / ego / superego trichotomy, but it is at least one way.)

For Westermarck, incest taboos are an expression of a pre-existing mechanism for the avoidance of incest, one that is part of our animal heritage, rather than opposed to it. Sexuality is a feature of creatures once they reach a certain stage of development, one typically associated with secondary sex characteristics in animals.

Here one might think that there is a decisive disagreement, one characterized by disagreement over basic issues such as

• Do nonhuman animals and humans share a mechanism for incest avoidance? (Freud “no”; Westermarck “yes)
• Are nonhuman animals incestuous by nature? (Freud “yes”; Westermarck “no”)
• Are incest taboos opposed to our most basic sexual drives? (Freud “yes”; Westermarck “no”)
• Is sexuality a key feature of infancy and childhood? (Freud “yes; Westermarck “no”)

But then we meet prominently-placed articles like the following triad:

  • David H. Spain, “The Westermarck-Freud Incest-Theory Debate: An Evaluation and Reformulation” (Current Anthropology 28(5) 1987, pp.623-645)
  • John M. Ingham and David H. Spain, “Sensual Attachment and Incest Avoidance in Human Evolution and Child Development” (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11 (2005), pp.677-701.
  • Gregory C. Leavitt, “The Incest Taboo?: A Reconsideration of Westermarck” (Anthropological Theory 7 (3007), pp.393-419).

All of these are critical of Westermarck’s view, the evidence typically adduced for it (e.g., the Israeli kibbutz studies, the sim-pua marriages in Taiwan), and more generally “Darwinian social science”. Fair enough. But, staggeringly, at least the first two offer a kind of defense of Freud over Westermarck, or even provide a reconciliation of the two, and of Freud with nonhuman data on inbreeding and incest avoidance. While there’s much of value in these reconsiderations and reformulations, resurrecting Freud here as a supplicant to or victor over Westermarck on incest in particular is especially puzzling. Even perverse. Here’s why.

Freud held, notoriously, from 1893 until early 1897, what euphemistically became known as the “seduction theory” of neuroses. On this view, the result of his clinical practice, neuroses, especially prevalent amongst his largely female clientele, were caused by traumas induced by sexual assault and rape, often perpetrated by adult male members of their own families. Father-daughter, grandfather-daughter, uncle-daughter, brother-daughter incest, for example. Starting in 1897, Freud abandoned this view, preferring instead the view that the reports of incest that he had, until that point, taken at face value, were instead imaginative projections by those reporting them. These fantasies of incest became the key to many core Freudian concepts—repression, childhood sexuality, the unconscious, female neuroses, wish fulfillment, the Oedipal complex—that were articulated largely between 1900 and 1920, including, most relevant in this context, in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (from 1905), and Totem and Taboo (1913). They were based crucially on the view that these reported cases of incest did not really happen but instead revealed the core workings of the hyperactive imaginations of children and the wish fulfillment of daughters to have sex with their male relatives. In short, they resting on not believing what women said, and denying the prevalence of incestuous sexual assault. I would count that as Strike 1 on the incest front for Freud, and like most Strike 1s, it means that you don’t get to first base.

Strike 2: in Totem and Taboo, it is especially clear that the only serious constraints there are on “the sex instinct”, one of a small number of basic instincts in Freudian psychology, are derived from human social rules and inhibitions passed from adults to children, giving rise to the emotions of shame and guilt in matters sexual. The basic nonhuman primate data on this is simply incompatible with this perspective on the avoidance of incest–see Thinking about Incest 8. (That’s one reason why Ingham and Spain, relying on older reports of primate sociality that tend to report this instance or that instance of possible incest, try to argue—hopelessly, in my view—that nonhuman primates are incestuous.) They aren’t, and more generally, “animal nature” is not unrestrictedly promiscuous. As in other areas, Freud here relies on the state of the art in related fields—evolutionary anthropology, sexology, zoology—and much of what was taken for granted there relevant to his views has turned out to be mistaken. Badly mistaken.

What, I wonder, would folks take to be Strike 3? I would vote for the whole idea of infantile sexuality, and the broadening of the notion of sexuality to include more or less anything that a psychoanalyst might free associate with sex. Attributing deep-running sexual agency not only to pre-pubertal children but infants from birth strikes me as one of the more spectacular and damaging clinical and theoretical blunders of the 20th-century, making those who are victims of sexual assault unconsciously complicit in the crimes they are subject to, and projecting the fantasies of Victorian and then Edwardian gentlemen onto infants and children. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!

The kind of response that one finds in Ingham and Spain misses the big picture here, and borders on disingenuousness, playing up what is trivially true in Freud and underplaying the rather large things that Freud got wrong. For example, they conclude, diplomatically playing the “Well, Freud-didn’t-get-everything-right (and neither do evolutionary psychologists) card”:

Freud was correct in inferring that shame, disgust, and cultural norms contribute to incest avoidance in human beings and in concluding that child development has consequences for adult sexuality and intimacy. This does not mean that Freud was on the right track in every respect however. One of our main problems with Freud is that he sometimes loses sight of his more nuanced remarks about self-regulation and love and simply sets a paternalistic superego or culture in opposition to an atavistic sexual drive. Ironically, one of our main problems with evolutionary psychology is that it reads too much like Freud in just this respect (e.g.see Barash & Lipton 2001:189). As a theory of human nature and culture, the drive/conflict model (both Freud’s and evolutionary psychology’s) has a measure of truth but, as we believe we have demonstrated, it is too simple and one-sided (pp.694-695)

The problem is that the opposition of which they speak lies at the heart of Freud’s ideas about incest and its avoidance. This is just of those cherry-picking excursions you can’t reasonable sign up for.


One thought on “Thinking about Incest 11: Saving the Viennese Witchdoctor

  1. Freud, is virtually indefensible. I mean many parents do zero sex education, they don’t mention a single thing, nada. Schools have to take up their slack. Incest being taboo is also rarely spoken of(If a child is at school he won’t tell siblings to date each other if they know they’re siblings… and if he doesn’t the other child will respond that its his/her sibling. All of these interactions will occur with no one teaching them this.), and brothers and sisters often bath together at an early age with no form of sexual tension taking place.

    So it would seem some sort of innate mechanism is there, that causes disgust towards incest in hormone-driven-high-sex drive adolescents.

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