Faculty Publication | The Body as Totem in the Asexual Revolution - Saint John's Seminary
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Faculty Publication | The Body as Totem in the Asexual Revolution

January 23, 2021

Legal theorist Helen Alvaré observes that the twentieth century saw a sea change in jurisprudence, whereby “certain forms of sexual expression achieved constitutional status and came to be identified with nothing less than a human being’s ‘identity.’”[1] Tracing this change, beginning with the early contraception cases Griswold v. Connecticut (1968) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), Alvaré shows how the Supreme Court gradually came to embrace a constructivist view of personal identity that was inextricably linked to sexual activity. We become who we are, that is, through our sexual choices.

This is especially true for women, the Court held, because of the possibility of motherhood resulting from said sexual choices. If women are unduly burdened by children, which might disincentivize them to engage in sexual relationships, what happens to their identity? This identity-formation-through-sex rationale is especially clear in the notorious 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the Court writes, women have “organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”[2] Without contraception and abortion, what happens to women’s self-definition? This idea is driven home by the purplest of legal prose in the decision’s famous “mystery of human life” passage:

These matters [of reproduction], involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.[3]

“While Casey's soaring language is certainly subject to varying interpretations,” Alvaré observes, “at the very least it can be said that it firmly linked women's ability to avoid childrearing following sexual intercourse, with her interest in forming her personal identity.”[4]

Recent cases have deepened the identity-sexuality connection by introducing a new line of reasoning. The Lawrence v. Texas (2003) case affirmed through citation the “mystery of life” passage from Casey but added a new element, the elision of persons and their sexual conduct. That is, the outlawing of an act was equivalent to discriminating against the persons who committed that act. While a wholesale adoption of this stance would render criminal law incoherent, it was not seen to be so in the case of sexual conduct. In this way, Alvaré observes, the formula was baked into Court precedent: sexual “conduct equals identity, and denying identity denies personhood.”[5]

I bring up the Supreme Court’s record on sexuality because it places in relief my point in this essay: sexuality bears a disproportionate weight when it comes to contemporary identity-formation. Indeed, there is something quasi-magical today about sexual expressionism. This quasi-magical aspect resembles, I argue, a mystical totemism of the body.

Fetishes and Commodities

The relevance of the language of “totem” is not obvious, so let me unpack it through a brief history. “Totem” is closely related to “fetish,” but the latter term has an older provenance and makes important appearances in the history of philosophy.

Hegel and Marx both knew about fetishes. While we think of fetishism as kinky sexual fixations, this is a late-nineteenth-century adaptation of the word.[6] Portuguese traders had coined the term feitiço, from the Latin factitius, or “artificial,” to describe made objects, such as amulets, that natives in Africa imbued with magic powers.[7] More precisely, fetishes are the material presence of one of the gods.[8] The word in the Portuguese was used in this way as early as the sixteenth century and made its way into travel and ethnographic literature that was widely read by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hegel certainly had read Charles de Brosses’s 1760, Humean account of the origin of all religion in fetishism.[9] “We no longer appreciate what an important and vexing question this was for many thinkers,” Alan Bass notes. “If the one, true God created everything, why did he create man as a fetishist? Kant and Hegel both felt compelled to try to explain fetishism, linking it to what both saw as most unreasonable in ‘primitive’ cultures.”[10]

In part influenced by Hegel’s treatment of African fetish religions in his philosophy of history,[11] Marx repurposed the fetish to show how money and the commodity work a quasi-magical effect.[12] For Hegel and his fellow armchair tourists, fetishism was an unsophisticated and “savage” superstition—one that implicated Catholicism as well, which was seen to be equally fetishistic, a judgment with which Marx agreed.[13] In this overall project, the fetish’s etymological roots in human making were especially apt for Marx’s purposes. Fetishes are cultural products. But they take on a further magical character, one that Marx identified as the commodity’s exchange-value, which obscures the real worth of a thing (its use-value). Commodities are important not for what they actually are, materially, but for what value has been attached to them, spiritually. Money is even worse, since its use-value is negligible. This sort of capitalist mystification is, Marx judged, exactly a kind of fetishization.[14]

Prescinding from the economic questions, the psychological insight Marx demonstrates in this formulation is acute. Given that fetishes are a subset of the larger set of idolatry, they can be analyzed in the same way Marx’s own Judaic heritage dissected the phenomenon of idols. “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands” (Ps 135:15; Ps 115:4). Fetishization is an apt expression for the investment a person might make in a commodity, whose ability to satisfy one’s central desires will always be inadequate.

But the very comprehensiveness of Marx’s analysis renders it problematic. While being always clear-sighted about the idolatrous danger of money, neither Jews nor Christians were simply forbidden to engage in commerce, while idolatry was strictly impermissible. There is some daylight, in other words between money and fetishization. Further, the post-Marxian freighting of “fetish” with sexual overtones overloads the term. With fetishization now representing a kind of superstitious libidinal investment, “fetish” no longer seems to be quite the right word to express all commercial activities. Commodity fetishism certainly still applies, even in the more recent, sexual sense, to, for example, the covetousness of a new, “sexy” phone. Here is Jonathan Franzen noting the erotic nature of new technology, way back in the paleozoic age (that is, 2011):

Our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

Clearly, he is on to something here, with Marx and Freud backing him up. But while this fantasy-commodity schema works well for Franzen’s Blackberry (again, 2011), it does not seem to work as well for humdrum activities such as grocery shopping. Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot.[15]


This impasse brings us to the value of the idea of “totemism.” The totem was a later discovery than the fetish, arriving in the European intellectual scene in 1869. The word came from the North-American Ojibwa tribe and was extended by anthropologists to African, Australian, and other contexts. For a while, totemism was quite a big deal in anthropology and sociology; Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Freud all weighed in.[16]

A totem is an animal or an object that is emblematic of a particular tribe or social unit. The totem is often presented in origin myths as birthing the tribe’s original members. Like the fetish, the totem has a magical ability to protect and guide, but unlike the individualized fetish, the totem’s protective scope is communal, extending as far as the members of the clan. Often the totem’s drawing of clan boundaries entailed marriage law, including forbidding inter-marriage. For this reason, James G. Frazer’s monumental 1910 Totemism and Exogamy gave Freud material to connect totemic religion with the incest taboo in the latter’s Totem and Taboo (1913).[17]

Freud’s subtitle, “Some Points of Agreement between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics,” gets at the importance of totemism for him: totemism is interesting for what it can say about us neurotics today. An exploration of the religiosity of the “primitive savage” casts light on our primal desires and drives, before civilization and repression obscures them. Unsurprisingly, at the origin of civilization Freud finds the Oedipus complex. When the sons of the tribal leader wanted to sleep with his high-caste females, the sons revolted, murdered their father, and ate his flesh. Subsequently they dealt with their guilt through designating an animal protector who personified the qualities of the departed protector-father. This totem was paired with taboos that prohibited the incest that had led to the primal crime.

The totem’s connection to the taboo is to draw attention away from whatever is taboo by symbolizing what the taboo is meant to protect (in the case of incest, for example, non-sexual familial love, or else non-familial sexual love). Yet the totem is also ritually sacrificed, as a way of expunging the forces (such as incestuous lust) that threaten the community. In other words, the totemic animal symbolizes pure family love and yet is sacrificed as a way of safeguarding that love and protecting it against forbidden incest.

The totem is both revered and feared—like Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans—and as such it captures the community’s attention. What is not receiving attention is what the taboo forbids—the incest. The totem serves an important psychic role by making it possible to engage a painful and difficult situation while veiling the taboo situation from sight. But the totem thereby becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Body as Totem

I am not competent to make a judgment on how, or whether, totemism actually functions in tribal contexts, although Freud’s historical proposals have been generally rejected.[18] I am only interested—as was Freud—in what they say about us today. On that subject, I think that, after prescinding from the Oedipal narrative, Freud’s idea of totemism has useful insights. In particular, he postulates four key features of the totem: it identifies, it fascinates, it distracts, and it is sacrificed. It is in these senses that I want to call the body a totem, and the sexual revolution, as expressed in the Supreme Court decisions, a kind of totemism.[19]

Others writing of “post-secularism” have done something like this. For example, Tara Isabella Burton writes of the “strange rites” that permeate contemporary religiosity, “a religion of emotive intuition, of aestheticized and commodified experience, of self-creation and self-improvement and, yes, selfies.”[20] Her subtitle encapsulates the paradox: “New Religions for a Godless World,” religion for secular people who are determined to have transcendence only in carefully controlled doses. This paradox shows the limits of much “post-secular” religiosity, however. The 25% of Americans who register their religion as “none,” and the 40% of millennials who do the same, often “remix” a religion that is purely immanent rather than transcendent. In this project, the body as totem serves a novel purpose.

Let us take the first feature, the totem as identity-formator. When the Supreme Court intones that sexuality is a privileged vehicle through which people “define their views of themselves and their places in society,” it is elevating sexuality to totemic status. This may appear to be a generic sexuality, scrupulously neutral, yet Alvaré’s work has shown that jurisprudence since the 1960s decisively favors nonprocreative sexual expression over parental duties to children. So, it is a particular kind of sexuality that is assumed to bear the weight of identity-formation: the sexuality promoted by the sexual revolution. It is no accident that much of identity politics concerns sexuality. As Carl Trueman put it recently, sex has ceased to be what human beings do and has become what they are. The logical extension of this is identity politics, in which what one does with one’s body gives membership into a certain clan.[21]

Second, the body is both revered and feared. This dichotomy is grounded in the unreflective Cartesianism that is the background static of most moderns’ inner narrative. The locus of personal identity is thought to be my chosen meaning of myself, which is by definition extrinsic to the embodied state.[22] Yet, simultaneously, we elevate the body’s appearance as a means of personal happiness, a performance of identity, and even a brand, in ways that stress our physicality’s meaning-bearing capacity beyond what it can bear.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has an insight into why the body is so compelling for us today. In contrast with the “liquidity” that constitutes our mobile age, the body’s “mortality-bound brevity seems like eternity when compared with the volatility and ephemerality of reference frames, orientation points, classifications and evaluations which liquid modernity puts on and takes off display windows and shop-shelves.” This solidity appeals to us when we are weary of constant flux: “The body, one may say, has become the last shelter and sanctuary of continuity and duration.”[23]

The religious language of “sanctuary” is no accident. Burton highlights the religious language of contemporary wellness-culture: “If our bodies were once temples . . . now they’re miniature gods.”[24] The often expensive “fitness classes, intense meditation apps, mindfulness courses, or ten-step skin-care routines” that might make up a person’s totemic ritual come, however, with a price: obligation, also named “the wellness command.”[25] And this is the dark side of the reverence coin, for what happens when we do not measure up to the demands of the mirror or our Peloton instructor (especially if we live in the White House)?

Rebellion is a perennial temptation against any god, including the god of the body. As Freud puts it, regarding a totemic ruler, “The importance of one particular person is immensely exaggerated and his absolute power is magnified to the most improbable degree, in order that it may be easier to make him responsible for everything disagreeable that the patient may experience.”[26] Along with the improbable power to grant us happiness comes the full responsibility when the totem inevitably fails. And so we oscillate between adoring and scapegoating our bodies, between reverence and rejection.

All of this expended emotional energy brings up the third point: the body distracts us from the real issue, just as Freud’s totem distracted from the primal incest. What is this “real issue” that we do not want to face? It is this, I contend: We do not know who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed, all of which would require an anchoring in a more solid reality than contemporary ephemera grants us. Given that such formal and final causality is only a cultural memory, we are thrown back onto our own resources. Hence we replace being good with an easier project, looking good.

The body is far easier to tinker with than the soul, or so it seems; the body is at least readier to hand. But then something strange happens: For all its materiality, when we try to make the body into a totem, it becomes oddly insubstantial. Judith Butler has grasped this situation, notwithstanding her numerous missteps. As she writes at the beginning of Bodies That Matter,

I began writing this book by trying to consider the materiality of the body only to find that the thought of materiality invariably moved me into other domains . . . Not only did bodies tend to indicate a world beyond themselves, but this movement beyond their own boundaries, a movement of boundary itself, appeared to be quite central to what bodies “are.” I kept losing track of the subject. I proved resistant to discipline. Inevitably, I began to consider that perhaps this resistance to fixing the subject was essential to the matter at hand.[27]

Butler is correct: bodies do in their essence “indicate a world beyond themselves.” They are indeed concerned with the “movement of boundary itself.” They do resist being “fixed” down, and this resistance has to do with the “subject” that so eludes Butler, both here and throughout her philosophy—the subject, that is, that is identical with the human person.

Our bodies, in other words, mark a threshold, the very threshold that defines their purpose as bodies. John Paul II knew what Butler’s “world beyond” the body is: the realm of the personal that is invisible. Bodies exist as liminal realities that both separate out and connect us with other persons. John Paul II summarized the body’s purpose in his hylomorphic aphorism: the body expresses the person. In bringing the invisible reality of the person into visibility—a quasi-sacramental motion, according to the saint—the body does, unerringly, what it is made to do.[28]

But what happens if the interior reality of the person has been forgotten? If the body is no longer seen as the visible pole of the embodied person, the body becomes a cipher, and we are left with Butler’s confusion. In fact, the epigraph to Bodies That Matter is a quotation from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on precisely this point: “If one really thinks about the body as such, there is no possible outline of the body as such. There are thinkings of the systematicity of the body, there are value codings of the body. The body, as such, cannot be thought, and I certainly cannot approach it.”[29]

This liminal nature of the body, marking the border between visibility and invisibility, means that we can believe we are “working on ourselves” when in reality we are just working out at the Pilates studio. We can, in other words, reduce the whole personal reality to the body. Or, conversely, we can believe that our personal reality somehow floats free from the body. Walker Percy called these alternatives “bestialism” and “angelism,” and we are perfectly capable of oscillating between each, even in the course of a day.

Unfortunately, unlike math, a life cannot reconcile extremes into an average. Living at the extremes of the polarity means missing the mark entirely. In this way, the body functions as a totem, when it attracts our gaze either to itself alone or our soul alone, but not to ourselves as we truly are, an embodied personal creature.

This combination of error and symbolic inflation means that the body acts in the fourth way Freud identified: the body is sacrificed, as the totemic animal was in ritual meals. Freud drew upon the work by William Robertson Smith to argue that the “totem meal” was intrinsic to totemism.[30] The priest ritually sacrificed the totem animal, and the clan consumed it in a feast. While Freud’s purpose was to highlight the ambivalence felt by the postulated “primal horde” toward the murdered father, an ambivalence readily seen in modern neurotics in psychoanalysis toward their actual fathers, we can extrapolate to the totemic body. If the totemic sacrifice ritually elevates patricide to a mystical level, likewise does the totemic body’s sacrifice make a ritual of the “slow suicide” of eating disorders and gender-reassignment surgery. Abigail Favale has insightfully noted that transgenderism has become the woke eating disorder, the way to exit the often debilitating adolescent discomfort with one’s body and—for females especially—its over-sexualization. In all of this, however, the body is still not the problem. The crux of the problem remains the identity-disorder that plagues the West—the subject that resists being fixed.

The Body as Totem in the Asexual Revolution, by Dr. Angela Franks. Originally published in the Church Life Journal A Journal of the McGrath Institute for Church Life

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