Monday, September 11, 2006

Reading, or rereading Edmund Leach: Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse. The discussion and diagrams of the categories of taboo and their relation (or lack thereof) to the "law" of non-contradiction -there's no discussion, it's ignored entirely (and for good reason)- should be required reading for every intro to analytical thinking.
The category of taboo is reserved for those things that are both P and ~P. Feces, both me and not me, are taboo. A teacher of introductory psychology will have her students spit into a paper cup and then ask them to drink what just came from their mouths. All bodily excretions with the exception of tears are treated as controlled substances (and feces, urine, semen, menses, the 'proper' words, are latin imports). In English you insult someone by calling them a pig, not a giraffe. We don't eat giraffes, as we don't eat dogs, but dogs are pets. You marry a neighbor's daughter, not your sister and not an outsider.

We regulate the world in the act of naming and not naming; these are the basic truths of language and social life. Even economists and analytical philosophers are products of culture. But social life is always producing new taboos, and removing others. Art is a locus of the taboo, the place for those objects, events and creatures that are ambiguous, that are between names.
What is the significance of the individual in Shakespeare or Michelangelo, of the noble dwarfs in Velazquez, or the naked whore in Olympia? What were the terms of discussion about blacks, Indians or women in the 19th century, or 40 years ago, or concerning Palestinians now, in the American press? What is America in the European imagination? What is the significance of money for Brad DeLong? He doesn't know and he doesn't want to know.

What was long beyond discussion in post war Germany?

The taboo is a universal category. What it encompasses varies by time and place. I'm not that bothered by people who adhere to them strictly; I'm not bothered by those who argue against most of them. I'm disgusted by those who imagine themselves immune. They're the most predictable things in creation.
If the links die: the first is a discussion on a German website of Gunter Grass' admission of being in the SS. The second is the last interview with Sebald, a week before he died.


  1. Leach's theory is almost the same as that as of Mary Daly in Purity and Danger. Being sexist or ignorant, I had assumed that her book was based upon his much shorter article but the book came out 11 years before the article in 1966. He "builds upon Mary Daly" apparently

    I don't think I would want to drink a cup of tears. I have never heard of this definition of art before.

  2. Leach's essay was published in 1964.


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