An essential guide to those technological totems and taboos which help us navigate the chaotic terrain of today’s mediascape.

Mar 25th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

totemThe Totem Redux

The totem is dead and buried; both as a way to help organize social cohesion (for participants) and as a model for the mapping of any given group (for observers). After all, it has been over half a century since the doyen of structuralist anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss delivered his influential funeral oration for the notion of the totem – “the phantasmagoria of the theorists” (58). And yet the word keeps cropping up in popular consciousness, enjoying an ongoing after-life as a fuzzy metaphor for certain types of extra-human symbols, affiliations, identifications, and behaviors. Indeed the totem continues to serve all sorts of vague purposes, beyond or outside the technical usage of social scientists, or the indigenous people from whom the term was originally borrowed. The New Age fondness for personal animal spirit helpers – a popular poaching and personalization of clanbased totemic relationships – is only the most explicit instance of the ways in which the modern world continues to employ symbolic figures as virtual guides for actual situations. Nor is it necessary to wear an eagle feather in one’s hair to be attuned to this kind of ubiquitous projection. The famous contrada of Siena, for instance, continue to compete against each other in the manic horse-race inside the city itself, bearing the heraldic emblems of their respective family trees (including caterpillars, owls, dragons, unicorns, towers, and sea-shells). Some may consider this merely a vestigial ritual – an echo of the medieval knights who once roamed the same territory, with shields emblazoned with meaningful images. But we can also trace the impulse forward in time. Contemporary sports teams, for instance, not only have mascots dancing on the side-lines, but also the invisible and omnipresent totems which bear witness to the day’s play; and whose capricious moods either make or break them during the game. Hipsters, Hell’s Angels, and bored suburbanites tattoo their bodies with images meaningful to their personal mythologies: skulls, dragons, doves, lions, roses, fairies, rock stars, clowns, mothers, lovers, cartoon characters, Ankhs, peace signs, mandalas, quills, tea-pots, bar-codes, and so on. Preteen schoolgirls refuse to leave home unless at least one accessory or item of clothing is emblazoned with Hello Kitty. While atheistic academics begin to irrationally sweat if they realize they have boarded a long-haul flight without their St. Christopher medal (*cough cough*).


The totem is such a suggestive figure because it potentially includes all figures. Anything (that is, any thing), is a totem waiting to happen, thanks to the idiosyncratic ways in which people psychologically and emotionally invest in objects (which, of course, can be a rather clinical word for other subjects). Now that the totem has become more personalized, and liberated from the limitations of collective sense, it can be as varied as the contingency of any given biography. The totem is an empty outline waiting to be shaped into something specific through subjective cathexis. This empty space is negatively charged. Its power comes from without. It is a fulcrum or quilting point around which things, events, convictions, desires, hunches, plea bargains, epiphanies, mistakes, and so on, circle and gather. The child’s teddy-bear, for instance, is a proto-totem – an object of libidinal investment and proxy imaginings. The true totemic moment comes when the child identifies with – or at least obsesses over – an absent figure, such as a Pikachu or Spider Man. Here the break has been made between the fort of the concrete possession (or companion), and the da of virtual connection. The (relatively) stabilized narratives of selfhood, which constitute the “healthy” and normal adult, allow the totem to take a different kind of root, in different psychic soil. The mature individual has learned to internalize and virtualize the teddy-bear, giving it a far more complex, ambivalent, and symptomatic spin. We can function “on our own” in society, as long as we know – on some level – that someone or something is looking out for us, and has our welfare at heart. As a result, the fully totemized person is content (more or less), with the tote bag emblazoned with their badge of belonging: NPR, PBS, BBC, The So-and-So Food Co-op, etc. (or, alternatively, the bumper stickers and other paraphernalia that decorate one’s motor vehicle: the Christian fish, the Confederate flag, the yellow ribbon, buxom mud-flap silhouettes, truck nuts, etc.).

The totem is particularly seductive because – to gesture to Lacan – it emerges from the Real, yet straddles the Imaginary and the Symbolic. All three bases are covered. The totem is thus a frequently traveled sky-bridge between our daydreams and the external conditions and expectations which either limit or enable them to happen (of course, usually the former). To put it another way, if Deleuze is more your cup of poison, the totem is the figure or refrain which crystallizes an assemblage over time. It is the desiring-machine which allows intensities to mark out a familiar territory, all the while threatening (or promising) to form a line-of-flight into unknown landscapes.

In the 1888 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the celebrated mythographer and anthropologist, J. G. Frazer, wrote “[a] totem is a class of material objects which a savage regards with superstitious respect, believing that there exists between him and every member of the class an intimate and altogether special relation.” We need only jettison the offensive word “savage” and replace it with mike“person,” and we have a perfectly serviceable definition for totems today. In contrast to Frazer’s definition, however, the chapters which follow emphasize the virtual aspect of the material objects (often animals, but not at all exclusively), which manifest the relationship. In other words, the focus will be on the imaginative,6 abstract, metaphysical ways in which humans enlist nonhumans to look after them (or, indeed, how humans feel they have been drafted by nonhumans to be challenged, tested, or provoked). The New York Giants, for instance, can only have a virtual relationship with their team totem (unless we consider anyone above seven foot a “giant”). The same applies for the New Jersey Devils. The Chicago Bears could feasibly point to an actual bear as a totem, but refrain to do so, for practical and political reasons. In contrast, the Louisiana State University Tigers often bring a real live Bengal tiger (named Mike) to the stadium. But even as this animal fascinates by its exotic presence, it still merely represents – stands in for – the idealized avatar of tigerness which the team hopes to channel in battle. If Mike dies – as he has, sadly, several times during the history of the team – the totem is still alive and well, since it is always primarily a generic, virtual figure. Even if we only consider faux-tigers, the fuzzy suit of the mascot-totem is the most important part, and not the parade of different, anonymous, pelvic-thrusting freshmen who inhabit it over the course of several decades.

Once you start scanning the landscape for examples, and relinquish the purist, historical definitions bequeathed – and later dismissed – by anthropologists, totems begin to mushroom all over the place. Indeed the vernacularization of the term has been going on for some time. Only two years after Frazer’s 1888 entry in the stately English encyclopedia of record, London’s cheeky Pall Mall Gazette made special note of “[t]he vulgar embroidered smoking-cap, which used to be the distinctive totem of the bazaar debauchee.” It did not take long for the word to be employed outside the academy for any item with identificatory powers – in this case, a smoking-cap. More than a century later, and the totem has continued to multiply and morph within public discourse. Consider how the figure of the “grizzly mom” or “tiger mom” has circulated in the “lamestream” media in the last few years, evoking a kind of “spirit animal” for certain ideologically-charged demographic clusters. We could indeed add the notion of the “cougar,” a sexually aggressive older woman, who is said to embody the highly coiled energies of a wild, predatory feline (an association with a long history, extending through the various “cat people” of the noirish imagination, but with a new suburban twist).


pettmanDominic Pettman (Ph.D.) is a writer and academic, specializing in cultural, critical, and media theory. Currently he is Chair of the Culture and Media Department at Eugene Lang College, and also an Associate Professor at the New School for Social Research (New York City). Pettman’s work explores topics ranging from digital culture, new media, modern literature, visual culture, audio culture, popular and unpopular cultures, affect theory, libidinal economies, and the increasingly blurry boundaries between humans, animals, and machines.

His books include, On the Technopoetics of Capture (Fordham forthcoming 2014), In Divisible Cities — A Phanto-Cartographical Missive (Dead Letter Office, Punctum Books, forthcoming 2013), Look at the Bunny — Totem, Taboo, Technology (Zero Books 2013), Human Error — Species-Being and Media Machines (Minnesota 2011),Love and Other Technologies — Retrofitting Eros for the Information Age (Fordham 2006), Avoiding the Subject — Media, Culture and the Object written with Justin Clemens (AUP 2004), After the Orgy — Toward a Politics of Exhaustion (SUNY 2002).

Pettman has presented papers all over the world, and has also taught at the American University of Paris, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Geneva, the University of Melbourne, and the Polytechnic University, Brooklyn.

In addition to academic work, Pettman writes regularly for Reflex magazine (Switzerland) and is a semiotic consultant for various media and communications companies based in Europe and New York.bunnycover

Look at the Bunny - Totem, Taboo, Technology

978-1-78099-139-9 (Paperback) £12.99 $22.95

978-1-78099-140-5 (eBook) £6.99 $9.99

Are totems merely a thing of the distant past? Or might it be that our sleek new machines are producing totemic forces which we are only beginning to recognize?

This book asks to what degree today's media technologies are haunted by a Freudian ghost, functioning as totems or taboos (or both). By isolating five case-studies (rabbits in popular culture, animated creatures that go "off-program," virtual lovers, jealous animal spirit guides, and electronic paradises), Look at the Bunny highlights and explores today's techno-totemic environment. In doing so, it explores how nonhuman avatars are increasingly expected to shepherd us beyond our land-locked identities, into a risky - sometimes ecstatic - relationship with the Other.

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