totem and taboo: the mythology of conformity

A guest blog by Tai Carmen at Parallax (Parallax: Exploring the Architecture of Human Perception)

Tai Carmen:

The story goes like a joke: five monkeys and a banana. Or a parable: under the banana there was a ladder, and every time a monkey climbed the ladder to reach for the banana, he and the other monkeys in the group received a shock of cold water. Eventually no one reached for the banana at all.

totem 1. Patricia Ariel:I am a Brazilian artist living in US for 6 years. I've been doing a lot of artistic stuff throughout my life and I cannot imagine myself following a different path... Art is my oxygen, my addiction. Currently I've been dedicating my time uniquely to painting and drawing, using mostly acrylics and pencil on masonite and paperboard and exploring the combination figurative/abstract art to express metaphysical ideas and myths. click image for more...

In this famous experiment, monkeys conditioned not to pursue the banana were replaced one by one with unconditioned monkeys. Each time a new member of the group began to climb the ladder to get the forbidden fruit, the rest of the group dissuaded him by force, regardless of whether they themselves had experienced the cold water spray. The banana had become taboo.

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Eventually the entire group was replaced with monkeys who had never experienced the water spray firsthand, yet the banana remained untouched. The conditioning had become self-perpetuating, independently functioning upon its own momentum.

Studies in group theory indicate that we naturally bend our opinions at least marginally if not majorly to conform to group values and standards. Who among us hasn’t found themselves laughing in a moment of group solidarity without quite getting the joke?

A similar experiment from the U.K.:Put eight monkeys in a room. In the middle of the room is a ladder, leading to a bunch of bananas hanging from a hook on the ceiling. Each time a monkey tries to climb the ladder, all the monkeys are sprayed with ice water, which makes them miserable. Soon enough, whenever a monkey attempts to climb the ladder, all of the other monkeys, not wanting to be sprayed, set upon him and beat him up. Soon, none of the eight monkeys ever attempts to climb the ladder. One of the original monkeys is then removed, and a new monkey is put in the room. Seeing the bananas and the ladder, he wonders why none of the other monkeys are doing the obvious. But undaunted, he immediately begins to climb the ladder. All the other monkeys fall upon him and beat him silly. He has no idea why. However, he no longer attempts to climb the ladder. A second original monkey is removed and replaced. The newcomer again attempts to climb the ladder, but all the other monkeys hammer the crap out of him.... click image for more...

In the Asch Conformity Experiment, test subjects were placed in groups consisting of fake participants and asked a variety of questions. Such as, “Compare the length of A to an everyday object,” “Which line is longer than the other?” and “Which lines are the same length?” etc.

When alone, the answers people gave were almost unanimously correct. In the groups of fake participants, however, when each person had to say their answer out loud, incorrect answers proffered confidently by fake group members caused test

ects to falter and give 30 % incorrect answers to these deceptively simple visual tests.

Stanley Milgram. ---Would you be the lone wolf to say the correct answer, or would you simply go with the general consensus of the group and issue the same answer as everyone else. This, my friends, is conformity, and Asch's experiment - simple and thus easy to propose and explain - dealt with this on a smaller scale. The test subject knew what the right answer was - it was obvious! What made him issue the incorrect answer was that everyone else was issuing that answer. Essentially, he conformed to the actions of others, because he did not want to be the one to stand out. Not only that, but with a group of five or six people issuing the same answer, the collective logic of that group completely dwarfs our own logic. In essence, we become part of the common brain serving the entire group. Majority rules, but a common question is; how can this occur in a real-life situation? In perhaps one of the most frightening ways possible, actually. --- click image for more...

In his explosively titled work, Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between The Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics, Freud speculates that modern institutions such as family, law, and religion still closely resemble the tribal cultures from which they sprang, specifically in totemic projection and conformity achieved through the exercise of taboo.

Derived from the term “ototeman” in the Ojibwe language, meaning “brother-sister kin,” Totemism indicates the veneration of sacred objects as symbols. A totem is any animal, plant, or other object, natural or supernatural, which provides deeply symbolic meaning for a person or social group. A great example of modern totemism can be found in sports fans. I think Longhorns (seen above), I think totemism. There are many reasons for this. Longhorns fans are hog wild about Bevo. At sporting events people "bleed orange"-- win or lose, rival or no rival. Being a Longhorn carries a certain level of pride, sincerity and integrity. Like with being a member of any society, there are certain realities involved with being a fan of or actually being a Texas Longhorn. The thinking seems to be along the lines of I am part of this group, therefore I belong to everything it stands for. For some, it's not about being an individual at all. It's about the prestige or what belonging to the group means to them. click image for more...

For Alan Watts the primary taboo in today’s culture is against knowing the true nature of the self, which he suggests is multi-dimensional and universally connected. ”If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.”

Watts elaborates, “Although our bodies are bounded with skin, and we can differentiate between outside and inside, they cannot exist except in a certain kind of natural environment. [...]We do not ‘come into’ this world. We come out of it, like leaves from a tree.” Watts:...explores an unrecognized but mighty taboo--our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are. Briefly, the thesis is that the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy religions of the East--in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man's natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction. We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe. For this purpose I have drawn on the insights of Vedanta, stating them, however, in a completely modern and Western style--so that this volume makes no attempt to be a textbook on or introduction to Vedanta in the ordinary sense. It is rather a cross-fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition. click image for more....

In 1954 Robert Bannister was the first man recorded to run a mile in under one minute. Though never before achieved, after Bannister proved it possible, the four minute mile barrier was soon broken by others.

What are the grand, socially defining taboos that hold power today in your country? What taboos exist within your social culture? Do they make sense, or are the conditioned monkeys dissuading you from reaching for your banana?


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2 Responses to totem and taboo: the mythology of conformity

  1. Tai Carmen says:

    That’s cool. You got the footage! :)

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