Though it is now discredited, totemism once captured the
imagination of Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, James Frazer, and
other prominent Victorian thinkers. In this lively intellectual
history, Robert Alun Jones considers the construction of a theory
and the divergent ways religious scholars, anthropologists,
psychoanalysts, and cultural theorists drew on totemism to explore
and define primitive and modern societies' religious, cultural, and
sexual norms. Combining innovative readings of individual scholars'
work and a rich portrait of Victorian intellectual life, Jones
brilliantly traces the rise and fall of a powerful idea.
First used to describe the belief systems of Native American
tribes, totemism ultimately encompassed a range of characteristics.
Its features included belief in a guardian spirit that assumed the
form of an a particular animal; a prohibition against marrying
outside the clan combined with a powerful incest taboo; a sacrament
in which members of the totemic clan slaughtered a representative
of the totemic species; and the tracing of descent through the
female rather than the male. These attributes struck a chord with
the late Victorian mentality and its obsession with inappropriate
sexual relations, evolutionary theory, and gender roles. Totemism
represented a set of beliefs that, though utterly primitive and at
a great evolutionary distance, reassured Victorians of their own
more civilized values and practices.
Totemism's attraction to Victorian thinkers reflects the ways in
which the social sciences construct their objects of study rather
than discovering them. In discussing works such as Freud's
Totem and Taboo or Frazer's The Golden Bough,
Jones considers how theorists used the vocabulary of totemism to
suit their intellectual interests and goals. Ultimately,
anthropologists such as A. A. Goldenweiser, Franz Boas, and Claude
Lévi-Strauss argued that totemism was more a reflection of the
concerns of Victorian theorists than of the actual practices and
beliefs of "primitive" societies, and by the late twentieth century
totemism seemed to have disappeared altogether.
Subjects: Anthropology, Psychology
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