Letters Archive
Fall 1997, Vol. 6, No. 1
  • The Vaughn Home
  • Person-Centered Approaches to Culture
  • Person-Centered Approaches to Culture

    The 1997/98 Fellows Program, "Person-Centered Approaches to Culture," will examine the link between personality and culture. The program will be directed by Thomas A. Gregor, Professor of Anthropology, and Volney P. Gay, Professor of Religious Studies, Professor of Psychiatry, and Professor of Anthropology. Seven other members of the Vanderbilt University faculty, along with Gilbert H. Herdt, an anthropologist from the University of Chicago, will also participate in the year-long seminar at the Warren Center. Professors Gregor and Gay recently met with Letters to discuss the relationship between individuals and their cultures.

    LETTERS: Would you explain your motivations for directing this Fellows Program?

    GREGOR: My own interest in the seminar is based on my research as an anthropologist. I study a small-scale culture in the Xingu National Park, which is in the Mato Grasso of Brazil. There are ten village tribes there which speak completely unrelated languages, but who have somehow forged a system of peace. In many ways they are remarkable. I spent approximately two years studying their life ways, language, history, culture, gender organization, and process of socialization. What I have found is that in small-scale cultures like this, there is a seamless connection between the life of the individual and the life of the larger group.
    For example, one of the more interesting connections between personal life and cultural life is the similarity between dreams and myths. Both seem to follow a logic of their own. There are wonderful alterations of space and time, and imagery which has an unrealistic quality. Things can exist and not exist at the same time; things can simultaneously be done and undone. What explains the relationship between dreams and myths? When I ask the villagers I work with, they say, "A myth is a dream that many have begun to tell," which puts it nicely. In a small-scale setting like that, there is a close relationship between culture and personal experience.
    Yet there are significant differences between dreams and myths as well. A dream is a personal experience. Dreams are idiosyncratic and often forgotten unless deliberate efforts are made to recall them. A myth, on the other hand, is a cultural product which endures for generations. Myths are dressed up in narrative art and hence are aesthetic in a way that dreams often are not. The relationship of myths and dreams is an old problem, probably first identified by Sigmund Freud.

    GAY: Yes, and Freud probably is the most remarkable spokesperson of the relationship between a person and his or her culture. Freud argued that the institutions of culture parallel the types of personality. He said in a famous passage in Totem and Taboo that the institution of religion is like an obsessional neurosis; philosophy is like a paranoid system; and art is like hysteria. Of course, every thing turns on the word "like." By that he meant that they are similar structures, but not identical.
    There is something about the myth and the dream, as Tom says, or about philosophy and paranoia, which, when you look at them as systems of thought, appear remarkably alike. Yet one is psychopathological and the other is not. So the issue for psychoanalysts like me is why? What makes the manifest contents of a paranoid system something we denote as psychopathological, yet when it is believed on a large scale is called a philosophic or religious system? Why is one sick and the other normal? There is a lot of debate about that.
    The participants in the Fellows Program will discuss this in very different ways. There are historical, literary, and many other ways of talking about this fascinating phenomenon; so mine is hardly exclusive. The seminar lets us bring together people from other discourses and disciplines who can help reflect on what we think is a significant phenomenon which is open to all kinds of theoretical approaches.

    GREGOR: Volney has already referred to Freud's wonderful collection of essays, Totem and Taboo, that was published in 1916. These essays are extraordinary and in some ways mark the beginning of personality and culture research in anthropology. One of them, "Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence," is an effort to show links between taboos, which are cultural rules, and the obsessive compulsive neurosis, which is an individual pattern. The correspondences are extraordinary. Take the taboo, for example, which enjoins people either to perform or not to perform certain kinds of behavior. There are taboos on sexuality, such as the incest taboo, which would be a primary example, cross-culturally. When you ask individuals why they avoid incest, you may be offered an after-the-fact explanation such as genetic damage. More fre quently, the explanation is horror, that it is frightening and dreadful to have sexual relations with one's family.
    An obsession or compulsion has some of the qualities of a personal taboo. People with an obsession or compulsion are enjoined to perform certain kinds of behavior, and feel that they must do so, or else they have prohibitions and feel that there are certain kinds of behavior that they must avoid. For example, people may feel they must wash their hands compulsively many times a day or avoid stepping on cracks on a sidewalk. If you ask them why, they will give an explanation that does not make sense from the point of view of an outside observer—for example, "something terrible will happen.
    Freud noticed other similarities between taboos and obsessions; both seem to spread. He cited a wonderful example of a woman, a patient, who would not accept a gift from her husband because it was purchased on Smith Street. Smith, it turned out, was the maiden name of an individual who lived in another city, who was "impossible," i.e. taboo, from that woman's point of view. Even thoughts about that individual stimulated tremendous amounts of anxiety. So, through mental contamination, the gift purchased on Smith Street was ultimately connected to the woman who was taboo.

    GAY: At the cultural level, Freud used an example of the breath of the Maori Chief. If the Chief breathes on something, he makes that thing taboo, because he himself is taboo.

    GREGOR: Yes, the Chief cannot blow on the fire, because the heat of the fire would convey his breath to the pot, the pot to the liquid, the liquid to the stew, and thus no one could eat the stew be cause it had been contaminated by the Chief's sacred breath. Here we have a personal rule on one hand, and a matter of culture on the other. Freud's genius was to draw the extraordinary parallels that exist between the two. He asked if there might be something in common about the adherent of a taboo and a victim of an obsessive compulsive neurosis, and what that might be. He argued that behind compulsions, obsessions, and taboos, there are forbidden wishes.

    GAY: Freud added to cultural studies a whole theory of instincts, wishes which drive prohibitions, evoke taboos, and so produce indirect expressions we call cultural symbols. In other words, Freud in 1900 gave rise to the modern sense of sexuality, that it is somehow animalistic and a problem for culture. And Freud has not gone away.

    GREGOR: First, there is a wish—a temptation—which is confronted by a prohibition. The result is to disguise the wish.

    GAY: Right, and you can measure the size of the drive by the amount of the prohibition.

    GREGOR: So if someone, for example, will not step on cracks on the sidewalk because he or she is afraid that terrible harm will come to a close family member, a psychotherapist might begin to look at the nature of the relationship between that person and that family member. Similarly, in the case of a taboo like the rule about the Maori Chief, you might begin to wonder if there is some temptation to harm the Chief.

    GAY: The myths that explain the taboo underscore its importance and power. The chiefs are taboo because they have the capacity to affect and control sexual lives. Therefore, like a father and mother, chiefs are resented and, to a degree, are protected by being taboo.

    GREGOR: Freud was not with out error. He noted that small scale tribal societies often have many taboos, whereas cultures that were industrialized have far fewer. He concluded that people in tribal societies were more psychologically ambivalent and conflicted than we are. That is, compulsion and obsession are the same as taboo. I think this is generally regarded by anthropologists as a mistake. There is no evidence that people in small societies are highly neurotic. Yet the parallels between psychopathologies and taboos are many. The relationship between the two may be one of the topics we will explore this year in the seminar.

    GAY: Many anthropologists and social scientists have read Freud and reacted against him in some sense. Take, for example, anthropologists like Claude Lévi Strauss. In his last book, The Jealous Potter, Lévi-Strauss discussed how so-called "primitive" persons basically pre-empt Freud, because they talk about displacement, conversion, and dream process. That is, Lévi-Strauss decided that "primitive" persons do not need psychoanalysis, because psychoanalysis is simply a rediscovery of something that primitives have always known.

    LETTERS: Are you suggesting that, because there are so many links between psychopathologies and cultural institutions, cultures are sick?

    GREGOR: There is a recent book by Robert Egerton called Sick Societies. It begins with the statement: "All cultures are sick. Some are sicker than others," a statement I personally subscribe to. To an extent, cultures are built out of individual experiences, and may well incorporate elements of the pathological in their institutions. Look at what happens when a single individual—an Adolph Hitler, for example— gains control of a society.

    LETTERS: To what extent does an individual have an impact on his or her culture?

    GREGOR: It is an important question: do great men and women act on history? Do the personalities of artists shape artistic movements and traditions? This is a question central to the humanities and social sciences.

    GAY: This is almost cliché in discussions of Hitler. Was Hitler a remarkably brilliant sociopath whose personality was such that he created horrors that otherwise might not have occurred? There is no doubt, at least one could think, that a certain person who comes at the right time in history can transform what we consider vast cultural institutions. That is an open debate. Was Abraham Lincoln the linchpin that made possible the Northern victory in the Civil War? Would George McClellan have given up, resigned, and thus altered American history?

    GREGOR: There seem to be certain areas of culture in which the relationship of the individual to the culture is most vivid. It seems to be what anthropologists call "expressive culture," which includes aspects of culture that are most plastic and fluid. Examples include folklore, the arts, beliefs about the supernatural, and religion in general. The group I work with sound like field biologists when you ask them about the relationship of fish to the trees which exist along the banks of rivers that flood. They explain that the fish accumulate around these trees because they eat the fruit that falls into the water. Then when the banks of the river are inundated by the flood that comes every year, the fish swim out onto the flood plain, defecate the seeds that they have consumed from the fruit, and then these trees are found in new areas. This connection of fish and floods was actually only discovered in the 1980s, and it has been known indefinitely by the villagers.
    On the other hand, when you move into other areas, such as food taboos, religious beliefs, and notions of cosmology, it is a much more person-centered universe. For example, the sun and the moon are twins, and thunder storms and other natural events can be controlled by human intervention, such as blowing away a storm cloud.

    GAY: An anthropologist, Victor Turner, wrote several important books on ritual process, religion, and theater. Turner is Freudian in his own way, in that he talks about this fascinating parallel between individual genius and the cultural transformation of that genius. He presents an elaborate theory of this in From Ritual to Theater, which is a beautiful study of the origins of popular theater out of ritual context. Clearly Greek tragic theater came out of a Greek tragic ritual process, "the goat song." Killing the goat as ritual process may in fact be a development from killing human beings, going back a thousand years before. Turner has an interesting point about the intersection between personality and culture. People we esteem as great geniuses now were deviant in their own times, or even ill. Persons who are not orthodox, if they survive, later seem to become especially important.

    GREGOR: Religious systems may be shaped by personality. Hence religion has elements of paranoia associated with it, in that both are not amenable to logic or testing against reality; they are matters of faith. From an anthropological point of view the paral lel that is most vivid is paranoia and witchcraft. I work in a small scale culture in which people are regularly executed for witchcraft. Witches are believed to make magical darts which are invisible, but which, when tossed through the air, are fatal. When you question adherents about witchcraft and point out that this is a system which is at variance with what is known about how people live and die, the response generally is, "What do you know about this? You are not a witch; you come from an altogether different cul ture." Intriguingly, the notion that people are out to get you through invisible means, often darts are thrown through the air, is common in systems of witchccaft and paranoia. Yet the adher ents of witchcraft beliefs are not clinically paranoid. Once again, it poses a question for us about the relationship of the individual and culture. Witchcraft beliefs, in par ticular, reflect a paranoid thought style and tend to get eroded by things like enlightenment.

    GAY: Where Freud said religious systems are pathological, you will find religious persons who agree and yet are still religious. One could say they are also ironic, or they are self-conscious about it. John Donne, an English poet and theologian, discussed the metaphorical importance of God in a beautiful series of sermons. Persons like Donne, before the rise of social science, operated within a culture, but were also able to realize there is something peculiar about believing these things. So they affirmed it, but they did not believe it in some simple way.

    LETTERS: Why do you want to pursue your investigation of personality and culture in the context of an interdisciplinary seminar?

    GREGOR: The seminar is a particularly apt way to explore these issues. We have scholars in the humanities who will be examining literary and art historic traditions from person-centered points of view. These scholars will be joined by social scientists who have a perspective which is more psychologically based.

    GAY: You can see academic departments as small groups, in Tom's sense of the word. We are cults in the sense that we have our own shrines, deities, and languages. Therefore obscurity is rampant in each of my disciplines: religion, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. So it is important that universities should do what we are doing in this seminar.
    It can be difficult to work interdepartmentally in academia because of the barriers that tend to exist between departments. That is one reason why it is really a fine thing to have the Warren Center.

    GREGOR: It is an investment on the part of the University in interdisciplinary thought.

    GAY: And faculty development.

    GREGOR: The obscurantism of a particular discipline is probably more easily visible from without. The seminar will strip the skin from our eyes, to an extent. We will see ourselves and each other in ways that are new and refreshing. It is wonderful to be able to have a group of very bright, accomplished colleagues with whom one can test one's own ideas and to whom one can contribute ideas. This is just an extraordinary privilege.

    GAY: This seminar is analogous to the Oxford High Table, where senior faculty at Oxford have dinner. It is understood that most faculty will go to most of the dinners and talk. It is a free for-all. Someone once said a lot of great books get published be cause people eat dinner together. It is kind of an ideal for the life of an academic.

    LETTERS: What are the strengths of a study of culture that pays close attention to personality?

    GREGOR: It is holistic. Psychologists are concerned with the individual, sociologists with the group, and humanists and an thropologists with culture. We hope to bring all these perspectives together on a limited set of problems.

    GAY: It is important to note that when we say "individual" and "group," we are being very much naive psychologically. We are presuming that because Tom and I are separate entities that in a way we are individuals, because we are different when we are separate. But it might be psychologically that persons are much more complex and interdependent than they seem, in a concrete physical sense. We hope that our seminar will help us all think better, with more complexity, about these core issues, about what "person" means and what "culture" means as concepts that dominate discourse in the humanities and social sciences.

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