Monday, November 23, 2009

Totem and Taboo / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, tr. -- NY: Random House, 1938

Sigmund Freud's influence on the 20th century is hard to overestimate. His contribution to psychology had an impact on nearly every social science and the humanities generally. In his work Totem and Taboo, Freud himself brings his insights drawn from years of psycho-analysis to anthropology. While these insights are valuable, the work is, by and large, indebted to the work of previously published anthropologists, particularly J.G. Frazer (see Totemism and Exogamy and The Golden Bough.

Freud is not completely clear about the extent to which the theories at the core of his psycho-analytic practice explain the determinants of hunter-gatherer societies. In places, he merely claims that there are analogies between the behavior of his neurotic patients and the behavior of members of communities constraint by taboos. In both instances, there is no rational explanation of these behaviors. Consequently, Freud seeks explanation in the sublimation of libidious drives in the neurotic patient and the reverence of the totem in the hunter-gatherer society.

However, Freud suggests that the incest taboo common in hunter-gatherer societies has its roots in the Oedipal Complex. Here, he makes a claim that is stronger than analogy, asserting that the mature reaction against the boy's sexual love for his mother results in a prohibition against sex with all close female relatives. Freud complicates this explanation with an account of the origin of the totem. Freud writes that the people identified with a totem are "brothers," all culpable in the murder of the "father." Given this society of brothers, it becomes taboo to mate with anyone identified with the totem, i.e., anyone within one's tribe. By this, Freud uses his psycho-sexual theory to explain exogamous marriage practices in hunter-gatherer societies.

Totem and Taboo convinced me that Freud's psycho-sexual theories -- in so far as they might be correct -- must have some influence on tribal social structures and behavior. Exactly what this influence is remains unclear to me. Totem and Taboo succeeds insofar as it shows how Freud's theories might be used in fields outside of psychology; however, I was disappointed in the detail and force of his specific arguments and disappointed by the derivative nature of his discussion of anthropology.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, ed. -- NY: Random House, 1938

After reading Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, it's easy to understand why he shocked the Victorian world. We might take his views in stride today, but asserting that children had sex drives and elaborating forms of "perversion" was a stark departure from the climate of his time.

Sex Theory is divided into three sections. The first claims that sex "aberrations" can be explained by understanding the interactions between the infantile sex instinct and their restraining forces, shame, loathing, sympathy, morality, and authority. The aberrations include fetishism, sadism, masochism, voyeurism, and inversion (homosexuality). Psychoanalysis can understand the causes of these aberrations by uncovering unusual events in the psycho-sexual development of the child resulting in either "inhibited development" or "dissociations from the normal development."

Today, one might question the moral judgements (implicit or explicit) in Freud's account, particularly with regard to homosexuality, as today we recognize a wider diversity of sexual behavior as healthy and normal. Nonetheless, Freud's observation that infantile sexuality has some significant affect on adult personality stills seems plausible. In the second section of Sex Theory, Freud describes various stages and characteristics of infantile sexuality. It may have been less shocking to his time had he called this "carnal satisfaction," since much of what he described was considered to be quite distinct from adult sex. Nonetheless, describing it in these terms establishes the connection between infantile and adult sexuality and expands the boundaries of what might be understood sex. Both consequences are important to understanding his theories.

The third section, entitled "The Transformation of Puberty," explains the important phase in which the diverse streams of infantile sexuality are united into "one unit, one striving, with one aim" to become adult sexuality. At the same time, he recognizes that perversion and neurosis (perversion's "negative") are present to some degree in all adults.

After reading Three Contributions to Sex Theory, I can appreciate how Freud has been identified as one of history's greatest theorists. Whether his particular theories are valid or not does not detract from the rigor of his analyses and the creativity of his approach to understanding the human psyche. It seems quite appropriate to rank him with Aristotle, Galileo, and Darwin.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement / Sigmund Freud -- in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, ed. -- NY: Random House, 1938

The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement is a short work composed of three chapters. In the first, Freud recounts his early investigation of the psyche in collaboration with Josef Breuer and his ground breaking invention and development of the psychoanalytic method. The chapter is largely biographical, but includes brief explanations of Freud's central ideas, particularly the libido, the unconscious, and repression. Freud describes the scientific establishment's opposition to his emphasis on sexuality, particularly infantile sexuality. Of course, in time he attracted enough adherents to found a movement.

The second chapter is largely an account of the growth of that movement and is perhaps the least interesting of the three chapters. Most of what one learns is the names of the psychoanalyists and the cities in which they worked.

The third chapter recounts the defection of Alfred Adler and Carl Jung from Freudian orthodoxy. Here Freud describes what he takes to be the elements in Adler and Jung which depart from essential psycholanalytic principles. According to Freud, Adler de-emphasizes the unconscious and seeks to explain neurosis and other psychological phenomena by examining primarily the ego, while Jung abandons the sexual impulse and its repression as being the root cause of neurosis, but adapts such complexes as the family and Oedipus complex for "use in abstract streams of though, of ethics, and religious mysticism." Freud finds Adler's views meaningful, but "radically false;" whereas he finds Jung's views "unintelligible, muddled and confused," though he acknowledges that he might simply be misunderstanding the content and object of Jung's psychology.

Overall, Freud's History of the Psychoanalytic Movement seems more concerned with setting the record straight (from his point of view) of the internecine struggles within the movement. Freud often suggests that those who disagreed with him did so out of professional ambition -- to escape from the shadow of the master -- pointing out where they have falsely claimed priority in discovering one or another concept within psychoanalysis. It's ironic that Freud regularly claims these initial discoveries for himself.

History is a quick and easy read, contains a number of valuable nuggets of information, but is by and large a superficial account of the movement.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Food Wars / Walden Bello -- London: Verso, 2009.

From 2006 to 2008 food prices around the world rose drastically. Oxford economist Paul Collier argued that this had a three-fold cause: (1) an increase in demand from a more prosperous Asia, (2) the European ban on genetically modified foods, and (3) North American production of Ethanol instead of food. In The Food Wars, Walden Bello argues that the rise in food prices is "a manifestation of what may be the lat stage of the displacement of peasant agriculture by capitalist agriculture."

While Bello offers his as an alternative account to Collier's account, the two are not without some commonalities. What distinguishes them is that while Collier must surely find the rise in food prices unfortunate for the world's poor, he does not criticize the forces behind the price increase. Bello is, on the other hand, deeply critical of them. He points to the global, neo-liberal commodification of food and the significant subsidies for food production by the United States and Europe. Neo-liberalism opened markets in Asia, Africa, and South America to European and American agribusinesses, while subsidies allowed these agribusinesses to flood markets with food that is cheaper than what can be grown locally. Overproduction resulted in dumping which damaged local farmers.

The recent rise in food prices was merely the result of the global financial collapse which caused agribusinesses to withdraw from their developing world markets. Without strong, local peasant production of food, prices rose sharply.

While passionately presented, key inferences in Bello's argument seem weak. He provides a good deal of support for claims that capitalist food production has undermined peasant food production, but he does not demonstrate that there has been a decline in food exports causing a supply crisis. Indeed, his work would have been better had he not introduced it with a discussion of the rise in food prices. After all, his aims are larger than explaining a recent price fluctuation. The Food Wars seeks to compare two modes of food production: the international capitalist model and the local peasant model. The former offers profits for agribusiness, while the latter offers food security for people in developing countries. That much seems true and well supported by Bello's book.

After introducing the two models, Bello offers us four chapters on how capitalism has undermined peasant farming in Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and China. Each tells a slightly different story, but contributes to the theme of the conflict between the two modes of production. Bello discusses the dangers of agrofuels, both for the planet and for peasant farmers in another chapter, and he concludes his work by describing what he believes is an international peasant movement (Via Campesina) that is becoming increasingly conscious of its revolutionary role. Disregarding certain framing and tangential points (e.g., the rise in food prices), Bello's work is a valuable examination of international food production and the plight of billions of people.

The primary weakness of Bello's work is his insufficient examination of the resource limits that the world is now facing. Everywhere, water resources are becoming fully exploited and annual conventional oil production is likely to begin a long decline. The former will restrict industrial growth and pit local capitalists against peasant farmers. The latter will make the North American model of petrochemical food production unsustainable. A fuller analysis of these forces would yield a much more prescient treatment of future "food wars" than what we have from Bello.

Even with these shortcomings, The Food Wars is a valuable and informative work on one of the worlds most important topics.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Missouri's War: The Civil War in Documents / Silvana R. Siddali, ed. -- Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.

Missouri seldom gets a lot of attention in broad overviews of the Civil War. Too much happened in Virginia and in other southern states to allow for anything more than a cursory account of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon's efforts to secure Missouri. Nonetheless, early events in Missouri were likely key to heading off a longer war than actually unfolded. With a secure base in St. Louis, Grant was able to launch his successful invasion of the South, and capture Vicksburg. Had St. Louis remained contested in the early years or had it become a Southern stronghold, it is doubtful that Grant's could have attempted an invasion at all and the course of the war would have been profoundly different.

Happily, there are many specialized books detailing events in Missouri. Some are historical sketches others are replete with important documents. Missouri's War, edited by Silvana R. Siddali is a mixture of the two formats. Each of its eight chapters are composed largely of letters, newspaper articles, government reports and proclamations, with each document preceded by an introductory paragraph. Each chapter is also introduced with a few pages setting the context of the chapter's subject. These include treatments of Slavery, the popular reaction to the war, battles in Missouri, condition for Missouri residents, and issues related to emancipation.

Siddali's introductions are clear and useful. Reading only the chapter introductions amounts to reading a thorough article on the war in Missouri. Following that, one can pick out the chapters of most interest and read the documents contained therein. Perhaps the most interesting documents are personal letters describing prominent events. While newspaper accounts of the era provide explicitly partisan descriptions, private letters even more so humanize the political and social sentiments that animated the country.

Among the most illuminating aspects of Missouri's War is the extent to which the question of emancipation and equal rights for slaves was a tactical matter in winning the war. The large majority of Missourians were not slave owners and were committed to keeping the state in the Union. However, they also had little sympathy for abolitionists and resented the intrusion of wider national disputes in their affairs. Many appeared to believe that by accommodating slavery, the Union could be preserved and war could be avoided; however, once the war began, there appeared to be a steady change in public opinion. By the middle of the war, the idea that abolishing slavery would remove the bone of contention and bring peace to Missouri and possibly to the nation.

The popular understanding of the Civil War and the dispute over slavery leans toward a simplified conflict of extremes. However, reading the documents in Missouri's War Highlights how few extremists there were in the country or at least in Missouri and how nuanced was the thinking about slavery and how reluctant the population, particularly the population of the North, was to engage in war. Nonetheless, the conflict over slavery was too profound and the commitments of the Southern Radicals and the Abolitionists were to entrenched not to bring the great bulk of the population into the conflict. Missouri, even more so that other border states, illustrates this broader political dynamic.

Missouri's War is one volume in a series being published by Ohio University Press entitled The Civil War in the Great Interior. Works on Ohio and Indiana are already published with works on Kansas, Michigan, and Wisconsin forthcoming. If they are as good as Missouri's War, they will be well worth reading.