Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words

The title of this blog post is actually the title of an essay written by Sigmund Freud. The following text is an excerpt from a reading response that I wrote in a philosophy class that I'm taking right now at UVU called "Freud and Philosophy" (taught by Shannon Mussett). This writing is in response to a reading that we were doing from a section in Freud's book "Totem and Taboo". The section had a few parts that reminded me of Freud's essay "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words". It is a very interesting essay that I recommend checking out, it's a bit difficult to find though. I thought this would be appropriate on this blog.

An excerpt from my (Travis Low) reading response paper:

"...Taboo is something that interests me very much. The concept of taboo is mind boggling in that it alludes to something or someone that is unapproachable, forbidden, holy, unclean, sacred, dangerous, etc. This antithetical description or definition of the word ‘taboo’ made me think of one of Freud’s essays that I recently read called “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words,” wherein Freud examines ancient Egyptian words that have two different meanings which are opposed to one another. That is, single words that refer to two different states that are at odds with each other. For example, the Egyptian word for ‘light’ is the same as the Egyptian word for ‘dark’, the same goes for inside/outside, strong/weak, old/young, far/near, and so on. The single word refers to both states, or at least the presence of one state and the absence of its contrary state. Instead of having two words for each manifestation, one word describes the contradictory phenomena. If the concept is abstract, the specific manifestations can be shown in several ways; if written, a simple symbol or picture at the beginning or end of the word can distinguish between the two meanings, if spoken, special emphasis can be placed on the pronunciation of the word in a number of ways, illustrating the nature of the manifestation being referred to. (For example, the word standing for both ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ would be pronounced very powerfully and deeply if referring to ‘strong’, but would be pronounced very softly and delicately if referring to ‘weak’.) This is also true in many other languages. In Latin, for instance, the word ‘sacer’ means both ‘sacred’ and ‘accursed’, and ‘altus’ means both ‘high’ and ‘deep’. (This is all paraphrased from Freud’s essay “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words”) So, I would think that the word taboo, also having an antithetical meaning and essence to it, must have been developed in a similar way, where one word was placed upon the presence of two antithetical states, desires or impulses. Freud also points out early on in the reading that the word ‘taboo’ is an ancient/primal polynesian word.

Taboo is especially interesting being a phenomena that comes upon objects or people for social/cultural reasons and that the phenomena is charged with contradictory forces. Objects of taboo, as said above, are both holy and unclean, both sacred and forbidden, etc. If something is taboo it means that the thing or person of taboo has some kind of prohibition placed upon it, it is warned against, unapproachable. It is both desired and unwanted, it could bring both delight and sorrow.

This brings to mind Frued’s conception of fetish. I wonder how Freud would tie taboo into his understanding of fetishes. It seems like objects that we fetishize are at the same time objects of taboo. To fetishize something is to consider the it to be worthy of worshiping or desiring to no end, but the very fact that we define it as ‘fetish’ implies that it is some kind of unhealthy, or (to use Freud’s language) ‘deviant’ obsession or need. (Maybe even an addiction?!)..."

The spice up this post here is a photo. Yes, that is a Sigmund Freud action figure.


Scott Abbott said...

Freud and Nietzsche and Mussett action figures are examples of the Janus-faced nature of taboo. Thanks Travis.