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Totemism, Animism, and Marriage

Ampersand links to a long anti-marriage post by Noah Millman. I won't go through and rebut his particular responses (but there are some criticisms in the comments to his post, including ones by Ampersand and myself). What I'm interested in is what Millman's post reveals about the deeper philosophical contrast between the conservative and liberal views on marriage. Ampersand pointed out the post as an illustration of the underlying sexism of anti-marriage arguments, and he's right on that count. But I also think we can see something perhaps more basic -- and it comes though clearly in the most sexist passage of Millman's argument:

My friend was intrigued. How, he asked the rabbi, do you - how do I - know after one meeting like this that I've found my destined bride. The rabbi looked at him. Listen, he said, when a man is *really* ready to get married, any uterus will do.

To prepare the ground, I want to introduce the anthropological distinction between "totemism" and "animism." The terms refer to different forms of relationships with nature rooted in different types of hunter-gatherer religion. In a totemistic system (such as the Australian Aborigines), social life (including the wider community of nature) is run according to a pattern set down by the ancestors. It's both morally right as well as a source of fulfilment to re-trace the steps of the ancestors. The harmony of the world is maintained by enacting a defined role within the master-plan. In animism (such as many of Canada's First Nations), however, there is no master plan. Nature and society are full of beings who must be negotiated with over and over, and the harmony of the world is founded on the consent of those involved and a sort of invisible hand process. So, for example, take the case of a totemist and an animist going out to hunt deer. The totemist will reason that the ancestors established deer-hunting. Therefore it's the human role to hunt, and the deer's duty to be killed. The animist, on the other hand, will reason that no amount of past deer-hunting can justify presumptively shooting the deer. Rather, the kill must be agreed upon between the hunter and the prey, with the individual prey having a say in whether it's for the best that it be killed.

Conservatism takes a generally totemist view of social relations. In Millman's view, marriage is a template, laid down by God, nature, or tradition. Our duty is to act out the roles it lays out, and in doing so we will find fulfilment. This is what underlies his opening argument that everyone ought to get married, and social pressure (though it seems not outright coercion) is justified in achieving this end. And it underlies his agreement with the rabbi that marriage is not about love, but about finding "a uterus" to fill the wife-and-mother slot in the externally-given template.

Love, on the other hand, is profoundly animistic -- and so it makes sense that Millman minimizes its importance. While one may find duty-fulfilment and satisfaction in a role-defined totemistic relationship, love arises from an appreciation of the particular details of the object of your love. It's about fitting yourself not to a partner but to this partner. It would be a mistake, however, to say that love-based marriage cannot spawn obligations and must wither as soon as the passion fades. Nevertheless, the obligations that members of an animistic couple take on are founded on the same individual negotiation as love. It requires the same animistic skills of responsiveness and agreement, rather than the totemistic skills of role divination and fulfilment.

Interestingly, though, there's nothing essentially anti-marriage about totemism. It's quite plausible that a non-sexist template could be established, in which people seek "a spouse" rather than "a husband" or "a wife." This is difficult at present, since most of the resources that can be used to define and justify such a template have sexist content -- both our longstanding traditions as well as all the major religions are anti-marriage. Nevertheless, there are some people trying to construct such a pro-marriage totemism, usually under the banner of "the conservative case for gay marriage."

The possibility of pro-marriage totemism, I think, points up the shortcomings of Cultural Theory, relational models theory, and other perspectives that put a high analytic importance on the form -- the type of logic and structure -- that ideologies and social relations take. Certainly those issues are important, and failing to recognize when your opponents are operating in a different logical system can lead to much banging of heads against walls. But the contingent content of those logics can be crucially important as well.


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