What’s your favourite taboo?

Mimetic theory sees taboos (and prohibitions) as necessary in culture/religion — along with myths and rituals — to protect us from all-against-all mimetic violence. Cultures create taboos to forbid access to behaviours that might lead to a mimetic crisis, trying to reduce intense and escalating rivalries.

What is taboo and what is sacred — pure and impure, clean and unclean — are usually linked; as Britt Johnston says in How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion (2004),

“Human culture inhibits the development of the mimetic crisis by also putting in place taboos, laws, and other forms of sacred differentiation so that the effects of mimesis are reduced, thus slowing the development of mimetic crises.”

Girard, in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), describes how taboos that seem quite different — e.g., against floods, medical epidemics, mirrors, and twins — actually stem from the same logic, that of limiting escalating imitation:

“A good example of an apparently absurd prohibition is one that in many societies prohibits imitative behavior. One must not copy the gesture of another member of the community or repeat his words. The same concern can no doubt be seen in the prohibition of the use of proper names, or in the fear of mirrors …. Inevitably we imagine that the prohibitions covering imitative phenomena must be quite distinct from those against violence or intense rivalries. But this is not the case. When is impressive in imitative phenomena is that those who participate in them never cease imitating one another, each one transforming himself into the simulacrum of the other. … What strikes the primitive is the resemblance between the competitors, the identity of aims and tactics, the symmetry of gesture, etc. “

Floods, epidemics, and other natural disasters resemble mimetic propagation and spread. They snowball in similar ways as do interpersonal conflicts, compounding their damage. All prohibitions are in essence anti-mimetic, leading us away from imitation, from a flattening of difference.

Girard summarises:

“Prohibited objects are first of all those that might give rise to mimetic rivalry, then the behaviors characteristic of its progressively violence phases, finally individuals who appear to have ‘symptoms’ thought to be  inevitably contagious, such as twins, adolescents at the stage of imitation, women during their menstrual period, or the sick or the dead, those excluded temporarily from the community.”

Elaborating on the connection between imitation and the “progressively violent phases” of mimetic contagion and escalation, Girard says, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (2001) that

“the cultures that do no tolerate twins confuse their natural resemblance in the biological order with the level effect of mimetic rivalries. … to the extent that their antagonisms become embittered, … antagonists resemble one another more and more. They confront one another all the more implacably because  their conflict dissolves the real differences  that formerly separated them. Envy, jealousy, and hate render alike those they possess, but in our world people tend to misunderstand or ignore the resemblances and identities that these passions generate. They have ears only for the deceptive celebration of differences, which rages more than ever in our societies, not because real differences are increasing but because they are disappearing.”

Lack of differentiation is problematic for at least three reasons that I can think of:

1. The more people we take to be our equals, similar to us, the more people will be for us to envy and to be in rivalry with. We compete with those around us, in or surrounding our social sphere, in or nearby our social status.

2. As Girard describes at length, undifferentiation reminds us of the mob, of  disorder, of the clammering in one voice that means were in the midst of some societal catastrophe.

3. Lack of difference also reminds us of death, because in death we all look the same, decay the same, and do not exhibit our quirky and identity-defining individual differences. We lose identity. We lose our selves.

On the other hand, difference is also problematic, because with perceived difference comes status; and the desire to attain greater status, approbation, and worth; and the desire for what the other has, seems to have, or desires themselves. Here lie the roots of rivalry.

(Alain de Botton describes status, equality, and difference very well in his book Status Anxiety. Paul Nuechterlein describes mimetic theory’s view of equality (lack of difference) — and its dangers — in an essay at Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.)

Back to taboos. Common taboos (and, on the flip side, rituals) are sexual (incest, adultery, and generally, who can do what with whom when), death-related (killing, especially of parents by children and children by parents; doing most anything associated with the dead or gravely ill, particularly touching them), and body-related (concerning handling of bodily fluids and waste products, how much of the body can be revealed, etc.) because these are areas where behavior threatens to erase distinctions between us (see Girard’s summary, above).

You can determine what’s taboo in a culture, or micro-culture, by observing what behaviour or speech leads others to exhibit moral outrage and anger, or to express disgust and revulsion, or to attempt to expel or silence the behaviour (or the behaver).  And you can also make this determination by listening for euphemisms, as noted in the first article I want to highlight, The word: Don’t say it by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe (13 Feb 2011). She speaks here of “benign” euphemisms:

“Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with. … So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. … And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.”

In DNA testing gives doctors a new dilemma: Baylor geneticists warn procedure can detect incest, raise ethical issues by Todd Ackerman in the Houston Chronicle (11 Feb 2011), incest is the taboo that is coming more and more to light as DNA tests are done more often:

“Sex between first-degree relatives [parent-child, sibling-sibling] is illegal throughout the country …. ‘Certainly, the concept of incest gets people a little on edge.  … But we do a lot of diagnostic tests that have the potential to show possible evidence of child abuse, the most dramatic ethical issue raised by this testing’s occasional discoveries of incest.’ …

“Tests showing 25 percent of identical DNA are evidence of parentage by first-degree relatives. The percentage drops to 12.5 percent for uncle-niece relationships and about 6 percent for first cousins. Beaudet [Baylor’s chairman of molecular and human genetics] said he is not interested in judging the latter two cases, which are not taboo in some societies.”

Joanne Carando, in a fascinating article on Hawaiian royal incest (Hawaiian Royal Incest: A Study in the Sacrificial Origin of Monarchy, 2002), views incest in a Girardian light, and we are back to undifferentiation again:

“The consequence of [incest and parricide] is the destruction of the difference, from which follows mad rivalry (Girard 1972, 115). For instance, in Oedipus Rex, parricide is the conclusion of the conflictual symmetry between the father and the son. It is anger that led Oedipus out of Corinth for there he was the bastard child, and it made him kill the old man who was blocking his way, his real father. The same anger led Laios to first hold his whip against his son; and in the beginning it is anger again that motivated the paternal decision to eliminate his child. Parricide implies the destruction of the difference with the father. Incest, in Oedipus Rex again, is destructive of an other major difference in the family. Jocasta is the mother/spouse whose womb bore both Oedipus and his sons. In this case incest entails a double lack of differenciation: between the son and his mother and between the father and his sons.

“The taboos of incest and parricide are directly linked to the sacrificial crisis and their unique purpose is to prevent its repetition. “


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