by Justin E. H. Smith
One of the most controversial scenes in Shohei Imamura's 1966 film, The Pornographers, depicts three veteran directors from the Japanese porn industry in conversation, casually questioning the legitimacy of the prohibition on sex between fathers and daughters. To be willing to ask this question at all is meant to signal ultimate rottenness. Yet it is an important question, perhaps the most important question about the structure and nature of human society. It may be answered succinctly: a family is defined, even sustained in existence, by the rules governing who may have sex with whom in a household (or in a yurt, or tent, or cave); and families, in turn, are the building-blocks of society. The incest taboo is the fons et origo of social reality.
But this answer to the pornographers' question, an answer already familiar at the time of publication of Edward Westermarck's History of Human Marriage in 1891, has in turn spawned generations of new questions, some the plain product of academic inbreeding, some showing hopeful new mutations that promise to help along the project –a laudable one, in this author's view– of tracing the social world back to its ground in nature.
Now it might seem odd to think of the incest taboo as a starting point for thinking naturalistically about human society. It was long supposed that it is precisely the prohibition on sex with close relatives that separates human beings from animals. The author of the 1891 History explicitly claimed that what we now call the 'Westermarck Effect', the “remarkable absence of erotic feelings” in children who grew up together, was something that did not extend beyond the bounds of the human species. Freud would see this 'remarkable absence' as a repressed presence, but he would nonetheless agree that it is something that only operates within the human species. Animals have often been distinguished from humans in that, so it has been thought, they will mount just about anything, including their sisters and mothers, whereas we humans exercise some restraint.
Thus as recently as 1960 the social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins felt comfortable repeating the myth of human origins as one in which we matured out of our primate wantonness and began regulating our sexuality: “human society overcame or subordinated such primate propensities as selfishness, indiscriminate sexuality, dominance and brute competition… In its early days it accomplished the greatest reform in history, the overthrow of the human primate nature” (“The Origin of Society,” Scientific American 203, 1960: 76-87, p. 86). At around the same time, Kinji Imanishi was beginning to publish studies showing the “adumbrations of incest taboo and exogamy which have been institutionalized in human society” (“The Origin of the Human Family: A Primatological Approach,” in Imanishi and Altmann (eds.), Japanese Monkeys: A Collection of Translations, Edmonton, 1965, 113-140, p. 120).
But for reasons that parallel those hashed out in the famous sociobiology debates of the late 1970s, most social anthropologists have been hesitant to see the primate evidence as at all relevant to our study of human kinship. Meyer Fortes, for example, looks at primate incest avoidance and sees only more monkey-business-as-usual: “The truth is,” he writes, “that non-human primates lack any form of social organization or social structure in any sense comparable to that of humans. This is because the regularities that are observable in their modes of temporal and spatial association do not ensue from rules apprehended and conformed to” (Rules and the Emergence of Society, London, Royal Anthropological Institute, 1983, p. 22).
Here anthropology is stumbling into a deep problem about morality that has exercised the best philosophical minds. In his Treatise of Human Nature David Hume considered the supposed wantonness of animal sexuality, and concluded that if there is no moral transgression there, then there cannot be any moral transgression in tabooed human pairings either, since in order for human beings to have ever come to know they were doing something wrong, it must already have been wrong before they knew it. Thus anyone who says that morality binds humans but not animals to stick to a certain course of action “is evidently arguing in a circle” (A Treatise on Human Nature T 220.127.116.11).
Alongside tool use and language, avoidance of sex with close family members was long seen as one of the marks of human uniqueness. On all three counts, the old picture is breaking down. I take it that this shift speaks in favor of a return to Hume's take on morality: whatever humans ought or oughtn't be doing, the 'ought' here is not operating in any fundamentally different way than it does in the animal kingdom. Pace Fortes, patterns of behavior in animals do not have to be given a name in order to have something in common with what are called 'rules' among humans.
In fact, where the taboo breaks down among humans tends to be precisely in that social context where people believe themselves to be furthest from mere animality, superhuman, and therefore not subject to ordinary morality. Thus brother-sister incest is most common in aristocratic lineages: we have elegant love letters from at least one early modern Persian prince to his sister, wondering how, coming as they do from such a glorious family, it would ever be possible to love anyone outside of it. In the kapu legal system of precolonial Hawai'i, incestuous unions in the highest social class were regarded with immense respect. Seen from this perspective, we might conclude that incest avoidance is not what separates humans from animals, but rather what separates common humans from their aristocratic betters.
These considerations put us in a better position to answer the Japanese pornographers' question. Fathers may not have sex with daughters not because of any inherent 'turpitude' (Hume's word) in the relation, but simply because society must have some order or other (otherwise, in a variation of the anthropic principle, we would not be thinking and writing and publishing about such things), and it is ordered upwards from its basic units: its families. Order emerges in part from the way we schedule our holidays; the way we set the table and sit at it; the way we bow, kiss, or shake hands upon meeting. But perhaps most importantly it emerges from the way we regulate our sex lives, which is very nearly the same as to say from the way we think of family.
I suspect, in turn, that the myth echoed by Hume, Sahlins, and so many others, of the birth of human society out of the incest taboo, may be interpreted as a sort of microscale –or perhaps, literally, a microeconomic– version of the myth of the origins of civil society out of a social contract. That is to say: it never actually happened, and whatever it is we are doing now has not just apparent but real affinities with the principles of organization in other groups of social mammals that dictate which may have sex with which. If we agree that what goes on at this microscale is not non-political (as most academics anyway have at least pretended to do since that slogan about the identity of the personal and the political emerged in the 1960s), and may even be an ideal laboratory for the study of the political, then it would seem to follow that incest, its avoidance, and the structuring force that this avoidance has on human social reality, all ought to be of tremendous interest to political theorists.
These were once of much greater interest than they are now, though even in their heyday this interest was principally restricted to continental Europe. The problem of incest, which once crossed several disciplines in both the human and natural sciences, today finds only a few dying echoes in the very most irrelevant branchings of literary studies. In what the practitioners of these same literary studies might call un double mouvement, incest continues to be of interest to empirically oriented primatologists (see, for example, Bernard Chapais's excellent Primeval Kinship: How Pair-bonding Gave Birth to Human Society, Harvard University Press, 2008, which inter alia provides a rich discussion of the work of Fortes, Imanishi, and others), yet the primatologists' work typically fails to capture the attention of political and social theorists.
The only reason I can find to explain the general absence of interest in this topic, in spite of its obvious connection to a host of fundamental issues in the human, natural, and social sciences, is simple, old-fashioned prudishness. And the result is that we continue to think about the basic units of our social reality in a glaringly superficial way. The pornographer, as far out on the margins of society as one can be, was asking a question that needs to be answered if society is to be understood.
For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.