The Dread is Elsewhere
photo: Timothy Wood, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

The Dread is Elsewhere

Talk with Andrzej Leder

Taboos once regulated life within a community. Now they are something that marks the boundaries between communities. If an exchange of taboos does occur, it is what is usually described as ‘identity play’ or a fluid identity – says Andrzej Leder

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BOGUSŁAW DEPTUŁA: Are there any taboos left today?

ANDRZEJ LEDER: Lots of them. There are many taboos. We’re surrounded by them.

Will taboos always exist?

That depends on your philosophical or anthropological persuasion, but I believe that yes, taboos will always exist and are inevitable.

Could you name a few?

Take for example the place we’re in now, a place where you eat. The first taboo that comes to mind is that of odor. This taboo, which separates the function of eating from the… opposite one, is still a strong and unwavering taboo in Western culture.

Which taboos do you consider most important nowadays, ones that are absolutely unbreakable? Those that pertain to the body?

Andrzej Leder

Born 1960.
During his research on culture, he combines both his medical and psychiatric experience and a solid background in philosophy. His main interests are the modern tired psyche and psychiatric diagnoses of the future man, describing fears and desires of our grandchildren.
Leder is recognised by his easy style, backed by the rigorous habits of philosophical writing, and a wide pop cultural context, in which – similar to the likes of like Baudrillard or Žižek – he places his tales of modern culture and myths.
He works at the Institute of Philosophy at the Polish Academy of Sciences, researching philosophical foundations of modern culture. His published works include: Przemiana mitów czyli życie w epoce schyłku (1997), Nieświadomość jako pustka (2001), Przemiana mitów druga czyli wojna o obraz (2004).

No, not the ones associated with the body. A variety of old taboos regarding the issue of the body have changed greatly over the past hundred years. But there is one classical taboo that remains just as strong, the one that sparked the issue of taboo in contemporary anthropology, the one that Lévi-Strauss wrote about, as did all the thinkers who studied the subject – that is, the taboo of incest. Despite the fact, of course, that some have voiced rather excessive opinions claiming, that maybe we should do something about it, it’s still a very strong taboo in Western culture, and in practically all cultures.

What about public life? Are there any taboos there that, when made public, will cause a person to be ostracized, that make a pariah out of someone?

There are still many taboos in Poland associated with sexual behavior. That is in fact a very strong taboo, but it’s one that’s changing. Look at Germany, a country that, for a long time, was very focused on the traditional, heterosexual form of sexuality. And now Berlin has a homosexual mayor. The situation in Paris is, or was, similar. In this regard, changes in Poland have not occurred or are occurring slowly. But naturally, even in countries where such changes are under way, there exist very strong taboos regarding sexuality.

Are there any unbreakable taboos tied to diet?

That’s a very interesting question, because the restrictions associated with dietary taboos have always been very strict. In most cultures, they were a strong determinant of how people lived and how they ate. The function of these taboos varied greatly. In some cultures, they were said to have a primarily economic function. Take for example the traditional Hindu ban on eating cows, which was tied to the fact that cows were indispensable as a source of many other goods, and thus it would be absurd to eat them. But it’s not clear if that is the only function of taboo. What we have observed, though, over the past few decades, is that every culture that is drawn into the fold of modernization, globalization, and cultural exchange, begins to lose its traditional norms. People observe taboos less and less. On the other hand, very strong taboos still exist. We have the universal taboo regarding the consumption of human flesh. I don’t think there’s a single culture that permits it, and whether cannibals ever actually existed is questionable, although, for the most part, we now believe they did exist, but that’s something that changes in anthropology. Opinions on their existence change every now and again. Either way, it’s a very, very strong taboo, and acts of cannibalism – which do happen in Western culture, we know about a certain man in Germany who ate someone, whom he had met online – are rather considered to dramatically break a taboo. In other words, they are there to be break a taboo. There are, of course, various taboos that are traditionally religious, such as keeping kosher in Judaism, or the equivalent in Islam, but the fact is, they have become to play a discerning role, a cultural manifestation, rather than something completely obvious. Nothing is as obvious as it once was, when people lived in communities in which it was obvious that some things may be eaten, and others may not. Nowadays, if someone doesn’t eat something, it is a manifestation towards those, who do eat it. The function of taboo has changed.

In a world where cultures have obviously started to mix, where despite all the differences and variety, etc. there are so many things that connect these worlds ― will an exchange of taboos occur?

Taboos once regulated life within a community. Now they are something that marks the boundaries between communities. If an exchange of taboos does occur, it is what is usually described as “identity play” or a fluid identity. In other words, someone brought up with a given identity suddenly decides to assume a completely opposite identity, like a European who converts to Islam, or vice-versa. That’s what taboo exchange is about, but that’s not a real taboo anymore. It’s just fun, something people call taboo. A real taboo has to provoke what anthropologists, and later psychologists, described as a sense of dread experienced when faced with a taboo. There has to be a tangible force in it. If the experience lacks these elements, then it’s not a taboo, it’s just fun, plain old folklore. Of course, taboos still exist and will continue to exist.

A phenomenon that appeared in art at one point was the deep exploration of the body. This mostly occurred in the 90s.

I think that the phenomenon of the body in the 90s was a result of a significant shift in culture. To use a psychoanalytic term, culture became extremely narcissistic in that period. Narcissism, of course, focuses on the body, on the image of the self and on the physical ways of exploring that image, although it can have positive aspects, like the whole image-oriented exercise trend, etc. but it can also have extremely negative sides, such as humiliation or mutilation of the body, and that aspect, as a reaction to that focus on the body, definitely existed as well. Interestingly enough, great developments in medical techniques occurred at the same time, making it possible to modify the body, swap out parts, to treat it like raw material. These possibilities, combined with interest in the subject, caused an explosion, although, interestingly, I think we can say this is a thing of the past, I think everyone has gotten a bit bored with it.

I think a stage of burnout has been reached, which may, of course, be a signal that something is done with and we can put it away. It has ceased to resonate artistically or ideologically.

Or, if we go back to the basic concept of taboo, we could say the dread is elsewhere, there’s nothing left here to instill that feeling of dread in us, and at the same fascinate us and attract us.

translated by Arthur Barys


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