In popular usage today, the word “taboo” seems to explain everything and nothing. On the one hand, it points to something ultimate, sacred, and inviolable. Yet it also seems to be intimately linked to danger, prohibition, and transgression. It is precisely due to this mysterious amphiboly that the term warrants the attention of political theology. This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.
The word “taboo” entered the English language via Victorian protestant voyageurs who documented Polynesian customs, among others. The diary of Captain Cook, for instance, contains entries on indigenous “tabu” interdictions that referred to things sacred, dangerous, and unclean. Although early ethnological studies on its various forms concluded that taboos were senseless vestiges of the past, later theories rejected such evolutionist arguments in favor of functionally and structurally informed conceptions of society, psychology, and culture.
The father of sociology, Emile Durkheim, for instance, drew on Polynesian taboos to explain the significance of the word “sacred” that Europe inherited from the Roman law. He saw the process of sacralization as involving the withdrawal of certain things from their otherwise ordinary use. The withdrawn status of the object, in turn, necessitates the imposition of various interdictions that bring about and maintain its sacrality. Thus, his influential definition of religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden” already establishes taboo as foundational to the emergence of two ontologically different yet mutually inseparable realms of human experience. Taboos, in other words, lie at the heart of such binaries as the separation between religion and politics – binaries that are as conceptual as they are existential.
Freud, on the other hand, put forth another paradigm in which taboos mediate the intimate relationship between individual psyche and civilizational affect. Reading the Greek myth of Oedipus alongside the ethnologic data on the cross-cultural regulation of sexual behavior, he explores the widespread modern horror invoked by incest, even if no one can exactly explain this horror. He examines this in terms of the son’s contradictory feelings: love toward his mother on the one hand, and jealousy toward his father on the other. The contradiction, he suggests, was resolved in primordial times through the act of killing the father, but this act immediately triggered the paroxysm of other feelings such as shame, guilt, and atonement. This logic allows Freud to advance a controversial view in which the Oedipus complex, as an archive of repressed desires, forms the basis of the social and, by extension, of the political order.
Taboos are not only defined by their violation; they are also said to produce in offenders certain symbolic states of disability that are relieved by means of purification. Taking clues from the work of Durkheim, British sociologist Mary Douglas seeks to understand the logic behind defilement and purification rituals that are found across historic as well as cultural differences. In her now-classic Purity and Danger, she suggests that dirt is never an isolated phenomenon. This is because matter becomes meaningful as dirt only through the organization of the surrounding environment according to some sort of taxonomy about how things should stand in the world. Defining dirt simply yet elegantly as “matter out of place,” she puts forward yet another insightful paradigm by drawing attention both to the primacy and to the limits of such processes as classifying, ordering and organizing that produce categories of dirt, taboo, and anomaly in the first place. Although politics is not quite her concern, her argument is nevertheless quite relevant because the governance of people and things quite often involves these processes.
Each in their own way, these sociological, psychological, and cultural approaches establish an analytical paradigm in which taboos mark thresholds and mediate various boundaries of representational and existential significance. Prohibitions, in other words, potentiate closure, authorize rejection, and invoke banishment. Therefore, prohibitions not only justify politics, they found it, though not so much by secularizing the political field as by producing distinctions that merge the religious and the political. And it is the analysis of these distinctions that makes taboo a critical term for political theology.
One might begin with the role that taboos play in making the basic distinction between the self and the other. This is the focus of Julia Kristeva’s work. Building on the psychoanalytic approach of Freud and the taxonomical symbolism of Douglas, Kristeva elaborates abjection as a bodily and affective ground within and against which that distinction occurs. For her, various abominations in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament do not simply correspond to the purity/pollution binary but mark various semiotic and psychological separations as a result of which order, speech, and subject emerge. The process is far from being linear, however, as her attention to the role of the feminine in the tale of Oedipus introduces an ironic loop where abjection to the other is actually the condition of us becoming others to ourselves. Insofar as horror, disgust, and repulsion are necessary by-products of this process, Kristeva seeks to capture the profoundly gendered register of the psychological and, one can argue, political conflict with the other.
If Kristeva looks at the individual desire to separate, the founder of the mimetic theory René Girard examines the collective desire to imitate. Learning through imitation, of course, is a powerful force of socialization for kids, but Girard is interested in how wanting what others have also creates competition and rivalry among adults. In Violence and the Sacred, he contends that rivalry creates situations of intense conflict as it is fraught with the breaking down of social hierarchies and the flattening of differences. Girard does not naturalize differences but seeks to understand the mob mentality and organized violence; the fewer differences there are within the mob, the more those differences are displaced on the figure of the scapegoat. This casts the Christian myth of the sacrificial victim in a radically different light: its redemptive power comes not from the fact that the victim volunteered to be killed, but because killing the victim was a cathartic release of mob violence. The society survives precisely because of the interdiction on subsequent killing and destruction, hence the cultural significance of taboos. Thus, if Kristeva reads taboo as producing the violence of separation, Girard sees taboo as an ethical antidote to mimetics of violence and political scapegoating.
Another influential French theorist, George Bataille, on the other hand, draws inspiration from Freudian psychology to bear upon the links between taboo and the politics of its transgression. In The Accursed Share, his magnum opus on the economy of excess, Bataille also understands taboos as aiming to combat violence, but this is because they withdraw things from the realm of life and production for the purposes of sacrifice, excessive destruction, or exuberant consumption. In this logic, taboos do not so much prohibit certain practices as sort them into different domains of human existence: the domain of work, defined by utility, and the realm of sacrifice, where people indulge in everything that utility forbids – ecstatic excess, careless expenditure, violent destruction. Indulging in the forbidden allows one to go beyond the cultural, lose one’s identity and establish an intimacy with the world that brings about what Bataille calls the inner experience. Transgression, then, does not violate the taboo but suspends it for the sake of excess. The link between religious sacrifice and expenditure extends the significance of taboo into the realm of the political economy, but, above all, Bataille reveals a striking structural (and therefore political) complicity between taboo and its transgression.
This complicity is brought into its logical apotheosis in the work of Giorgio Agamben, who sees prohibition as defining the relationship between politics and life. Like Girard, he is also interested in the sacrificial victim, though for him it is not the social scapegoat, but the obscure legal category of homo sacer whose life can’t be sacrificed and yet can be killed without incurring homicide. This obscurity is explained by the paradox of sovereignty that transcends positive law by its authority to suspend it. Since Agamben follows Schmitt in defining sovereignty not by law but by the decision on it, such concepts like violation or transgression lose their explanatory purchase altogether as law and its exception exchange meanings. The exception, in other words, no longer contradicts the rule but establishes the very grounds of its validity. Agamben thus draws our attention to a series of paradoxes that constitutes the sphere of the political: the relation of inclusive exclusion, indistinction of law that is distinctive to it, exteriority that is internal to law as well as exposure to law by means of being abandoned by it. Revealing these logics of sovereignty inherited from Roman law, Agamben rejects the Durkheimian theory of the sacred as tabooed but venerated. For him, this ambivalence is a later, largely interpretive rendition of what marks the fundamental biopolitical threshold between bare living and a form of life.
The studies discussed so far ground taboo in the history of humanity in terms of its ambiguous amphiboly (sacred/unclean). Yet, given the power dynamics and hierarchies that separate the European context of knowledge formation from the so-called primitive people who practice taboos, one might legitimately ask to what extent this ambiguity has to do with the word itself. Might this ambiguity be indicative of the discursive threshold this indigenous word had to cross to become a category of social analysis? How should one conceptualize taboo, or similar prohibitions for that matter, without reading meaning into them? This question becomes all the more important if we are to take taboo as a critical term of political theology.
To that end, the work by anthropologist Franz Steiner, whose lectures on taboo were published posthumously, develops a highly insightful methodological approach. Indebted to Mauss and Wittgenstein, Steiner notices that the scientific endeavor to establish taboo as a category of cross-cultural validity distorts the complexity of individual phenomena. This, he argues, ends up constructing non-Western societies as primitive and the West as secular and superior to them. To avoid this, he proposes starting from an analysis of danger instead. He defines danger as “a socially unformulated threat” or, counterintuitively, as power. Taboo, then, is not danger in itself but points to potentially dangerous situations by triggering the mechanism of avoidance behavior. It is this relation between danger and restrictive behavior that, Steiner argues, should be studied in each given case.
An illustrative example of his method may be found in his earlier writing, “On the Process of Civilisation.” In it, he shows that an Eskimo individual can live warmly in the world of snow and travel unharmed on his light kayak through the dangerous realm of icebergs, winds, and ocean waves because he knows where danger is and how to avoid it. Steiner goes on to compare this to the Western civilization that, in the name of adapting to nature, has actually expanded the borders between society and danger in a way that danger now penetrates society. Writing on the eve of the Holocaust, he gives an example of the concentration camp where life is fully permeated by violence and danger precisely because the perpetrators knew no ethical limits. It is the society, he says, that now becomes the source of its own danger, and he laments how trivial thunderstorms look when compared to bomb raids. The relevancy of his approach for political theology, therefore, lies in its coming closest to formulating taboo as a form of socio-political life rather than taking it as a symbol of something else.
The insight of this largely neglected methodology opens up different avenues of political and theological inquiry into the topic of taboo. For instance, in a study on medieval tolerantia, historian István Bejczy observes that the Church tolerated Jews, Muslims, infidels, and prostitutes precisely because it condemned their rites. Here, tolerantia is religiously prescribed due to the social and political practices that the medieval Church considered taboo, to use a now thoroughly modern formulation. The medieval tolerantia, in other words, was a form of behaviour in the face of danger that allowed the Church to get along with differences rather than exclude them. This is not to say that it tolerated everything, but prohibition as founding tolerantia does complicate the modern influential paradigm according to which prohibition necessarily leads to abandonment. It is thus imperative that we investigate the theological-political topoi of taboo while also being attentive to the complicated conceptual genealogy of the term in critical theory.
Agamben, G. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998
A sweeping critical account of the constitution of modern life through such categories as exclusion and abandonment in the face of law. The book is also a precursor to his study on the sovereignty of exception – another category of Western political thought that spins off from the ambiguous notions of taboo.
Douglas M. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge, 2002.
Along with showing how seemingly senseless taboos serve to maintain social order, this work also contains many insights into the political significance of such cultural categories as danger, risk and uncertainty.
Girard, R. Violence and the Sacred, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1977.
The text traces a complicated relationship between taboo and violent social behaviour in order to expound the theory of mimesis.
Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, 1984.
The book draws on theories of taboo to establish abjection as a central affective element of modern society. It analytically connects psychological responses to things that disturb boundaries and identities with profoundly traumatic experiences of otherness, othering and discrimination.
Steiner, F. B. Taboo, Truth and Religion, Selected Writings, Edited and with Introduction by Jeremy Adler and Richard Fardon. Berghahn Books. 1999.
This book is not only a case study of taboo, but also offers a brave methodology of cross-cultural analysis of indigenous categories that seeks to avoid the epistemological blindfolders of Western canon. The intriguing implications of this methodology can also be seen in Steiner’s controversial work on slavery, also included in the volume.