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  • Basic InstinctA Response to Ramadanovic
  • Judith Roof (bio)

In his timely critique of revisionist kinship studies, Petar Ramadanovic identifies "taboo" as the sticking point where the potentially liberatory value of such discourses disappears. Ramadanovic sets out to rethink taboo, hypothesizing that the "function of the taboo" is to operate as "a fundamental rule that makes sexuality" and "can, of course, be filled with whatever incidental content is politically possible at a given time and place." "Taboo," he continues, "is the condition of culture." As a "function," taboo separates the "orders of nature and culture and make[s] each possible." As that "which makes laws possible," taboo's "function is unconscious." Arguing that contemporary theorists discount the role of the unconscious and rely upon cultural, content-oriented models in their rereadings of kinship, Ramadanovic forwards an understanding of taboo as a part of a "reciprocal" relation with culture wherein the concept of "nature" "is created by culture's separation from it." Nature, according to Ramadanovic, underwrites our instinctive organization of sexual relations with the others around us. As he expresses it: "we can correct the basic assumption of cultural construction theories to say that culture is not a cultural but, rather, a natural construction humans make instinctively. Our most natural behavior is to organize sexual relations with others around us and to do so by imposing certain rules." At the foundation of culture, then, according to Ramadanovic, is not nature, but instinct—the instinct to construct the sexual rules that subtend the culture/nature split.

In locating the impetus to construct sexual prohibitions as instinctive, Ramadanovic seems to be relinquishing any further notion of causation to the large, unwieldy, and ever-changing category of "instinct." In so far as a notion of origin or first cause may not tell us anything anyway, Ramadanovic may be wise to jettison origins as a way out of the problem of how to alter cultural prohibitions in order to permit more diverse human sexual relations. But instead of rejecting causation completely, Ramadanovic produces an originary moebius consisting of the dynamic interplay of culture and nature, ending up at what humans "make instinctively." Instinct, as usual, operates as a species of deity, absorbing uncertainty and providing a delusively specific "cause" when causal chains disappear. Instinct conveniently offers an expandable category associated with the "animal" as well as some "real" biological impetus into which human will, motivation, or any complex causality might disappear whenever our own inventiveness is exhausted—or whenever there is a programmatic need to locate behaviors, beliefs, formations, or organizations as somehow "natural," and therefore proper, ineffable, and "real."

Even if humans have instincts, positioning instinct as the culture-inciting impetus of human social organization itself participates in the same culture/nature structure Ramadanovic so rightly critiques. If we read "nature" through terms that are always already cultural, and if taboo produces a nature/culture divide, then "instinct" itself is produced on the side of nature as a part of that process. Instinct is as much a contrivance of the nature/culture split as anything else. How, then, can instinct become a species of first cause, an unconscious untouched by the processes of taboo (or the source of taboo), so that it can urge towards the construction of order itself? Is Ramadanovic saying that humans have an instinct for culture? If this is the case, what happens to taboo? Is taboo an effect of this instinct? Humans may well be animals, but humans invented the category of instinct to account for behaviors and processes humans did not understand. Instinct is, if anything, a cultural idea.

Ramadanovic's essay raises an interesting possibility in its implicit comparison between unconscious culture-defining processes such as taboo, and the processes at work in the structuring of the subject. Culture is to nature as the conscious is to the unconscious in the subject; both are formed around a prohibition. If, as Ramadanovic suggests, theories of kinship and culture are also theories of the subject, then by this algebra the subjective unconscious becomes the impetus for the emergence of the function of taboo and perhaps the site from which we might understand instinct as operating. To push this...

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