Animal Totems and Taboos: An Ecopsychoanalytic Perspective

by Joseph Dodds

November 26, 2012


What is an animal? In addition to biological and ecological answers, the animal needs to be explored in its psychological and social dimensions. The animal has long been a symbol of human psyche and culture, from fairy tales to horror films, Oedipal pets to animal phobias, scapegoating and large-group symbols, philosophy to ideology and myth. This article explores animal symbols, totems and taboos, and their interaction with non-human nature, through the perspective of ecopsychoanalysis (Dodds 2011), combining, psychoanalytic, eco(psycho)logical and Deleuze-Guattarian modes of thought. Three animal-types are identified, and these are placed within Guattari’s ‘three ecologies’ of mind, society, and nature, seen as in constant, complex nonlinear interaction with one another. Expanding Bion’s ‘binocular vision’, we need to include along with individual psychology and social dynamics interactions with non-human nature. How does an idea or a phantasy impact on an ecosystem or social system? How do our own minds shudder upon collision with the hyperobject of climate change? These are some of the core concerns that ecopsychoanalysis seeks to address.


Animal Totems and Taboos: An Ecopsychoanalytic Perspective



I. Lizard and Porcupine: What Is An Animal?


In addition to biological and ecological answers to this question, the animal needs to be explored in its psycho-social dimensions. As I argue in my book Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos: complexity theory, Deleuze|Guattari, and psychoanalysis for a climate in crisis (Dodds 2011), the animal has long been a symbol of human psyche and culture, from fairy tales to horror films, Oedipal pets to animal phobias, philosophy to ideology and myth. Here, our psychological use of the animal is explored in the context of emerging ecological relations, which develop alongside object relations, and human culture's relationship to the non-human world of nature. This article explores the animal symbol from the perspective of ecopsychoanalysis, combining, psychoanalytic, group analytic, eco(psycho)logical and Deleuze-Guattarian (becoming-animal) perspectives.


We need to reflect on the psychological importance of the ecological imaginary. Our minds, films, and artwork, are populated with flora and fauna of all kinds, some related to 'real' existing lifeforms in the external world, some more the product of phantasy and ecologies of the inner world. For Deleuze and Guattari (2003b, 184) “art is continually haunted by the animal”, both of which mark out a territory and embody dynamic forces of territorialization and deterritorialization. As an expression of our inner space, these creatures stalk our dreams, our stories, our myths, our fairy tales, our films, and our nightmares, and they influence the way we deal with the nature around us. Paul Shepard (Roszak 1995, 36) notes that “[g]ames and stories involving animals serve as projections for the discovery of the plurality of the self.” There is an ecology of the inner world, an ecology of mind (Bateson 2000), just as there is an ecology of nature.


Of course, there are major problems here. Do animals (or 'nature') have any ontological status beyond being carriers of human symbolic meaning? Are they just a backdrop for our projections? A tapestry to weave our dreams? Resources to be extracted? Crucial here, is that whether we like it or not, we do use animals in this way, but we need to get more precise. In The Animal That Therefore I am (inspired by a look from his cat) Jacques Derrida (2008), in what he calls a ‘zoo-auto-bio-bibiolography’, returns over his own work to passages where specific animals appear (monkeys, ants, horses, hedgehogs, eagles, worms, etc.) Following Derrida, Žižek (2011) describes how in general philosophers tend to have one particular animal in mind when defining ‘the animal’, such as Heidegger’s lizard, who sits on a rock in the sun, without knowing it is a rock or a sun. As Heidegger (2001) anthropocentrically writes, “the stone is worldless; the animal is poor in world, man is world forming”.


We may also think here of Freud’s (1921, 101, see also Grimwade 2011) use of Schopenhauer’s porcupines, who wish to huddle together for warmth on a cold winter’s day only to be pushed away from each other by their spines if they get to close. Before his 1919 trip to America (while he was writing Group Psychology where the porcupine analogy appears), Freud announced to his inner circle: “I am going to the USA to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.” (Prochnik 2007). In way of explanation, Freud went on “Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail.” According to Ernest Jones, “The phrase, ‘to find one’s porcupine,’ became a recognized saying in our circle” (Prochnik 2007). Whatever other meanings the porcupine held for Freud (he did eventually manage to spot a dead one on a forest hike with the Putman family in America), he kept a bronzed porcupine statue on his desk for the rest of his life.


For Levinas, the animal is exempt from the gaze of the other, while for Descartes, animals are automata who could not think and therefore could not suffer. Both moves exempt them from ethical consideration. For Lacan, although the human is seen as the speaking animal, the animal as such is denied language, and expelled into the extra-discursive space beyond the Symbolic order. Derrida (2008) interrogates philosophy’s anthropocentric use of the animal which aims to demarcate a clear line with the human via lack, as well as noting the use of animals to embody the human Other. Furthermore, under the rubric of ‘the animal’ all the extraordinary heterogeneity from ameobas to antelopes are lost. For Derrida, such rhetorical strategies are intimately connected with the immense violence and destruction evidenced in the human-animal relation. Derrida (2008, 229) coins the term limitrophy, to describe this exploration of the various lines drawn between animal and human, “not just because it… concern[s] what sprouts or grows at the limit, around the limit, by maintaining the limit, but also what feeds the limit, generates it, raises, and complicates it. Everything I’ll say will consist, certainly not in effacing the limit, but in multiplying its figures, in complicating, thickening, delinearizing, folding, and dividing the line precisely by making it increase and multiple.”


The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Felix Guattari have a complex relation to animals throughout their work. Animality, for Deleuze and Guattari, involves the construction of worlds and the marking of territories, even worlds as tiny as the tick’s. They also form complex assemblages (eg. the wasp and the orchid). According to Beaulieu (2011), crucial to their project is a de-anthropomophisation of the animal-human relation (including a critique of the animal-oedipalisation, reference, and metaphor), and an exploration of the becoming-animal of the human. In my book I go into more detail on this perspective. In this article I will limit my use of Deleuze and Guattari to the specific examples given, and hope they can help to open up psychoanalytic perspectives in this area, rather than replace them. My main aim in this paper is to discuss the concepts of the three ecologies (Guattari 2000) of mind, nature and society, with a focus on the animal.




II. Cat and Eagle: Animality and the Three Ecologies


Ecology is above all the science of relationships, and the relation of these relationships to a particular environment. In its classic definition these included the relationships between organisms and their environments, including other organisms. Ecology is study of this world or home ('oikos'), ecosystem, including the place itself, the specific animals it ‘contains’, the complex web of relationships it constitutes and the fact that these can never be clearly separated (animal, relationship, place).Ecological, relational, and situational thinking can be applied to other ecosystems, whether social, virtual, or psychological. In his book Chaosmosis, Guattari (1995, 91) called for a generalized science of ecosystems or 'ecosophy', a generalized machinics with “resonances, alliances and feedback loops between various regimes, signifying and non-signifying, human and non-human, natural and cultural, material and representational”.


The structure of this paper will take as a starting point Deleuze and Guattari’s (2000, 2003a) distinction of three ‘types’ of animals: 1. Oedipal (individuated, pet) animals, 2. State (mythic) animals, 3. Pack (wild, nomadic) animals. Broadly speaking, we can identify these animals with what Guattari (2000) called the three ecologies, the ecology of mind (Bateson 2000), the ecology of society, and the ecology of nature. Although these ‘diagrams’ don’t overlap completely, we might identify mental ecology with individuated, Oedipal family pets (‘my’ cat); social ecology with the powerful group symbols of mythic (State) animals (British or Czech Lion, American Eagle); and natural ecology with wild, nomadic, pack animals, outside of individual or social human control. We can see here a parallel with Lacan’s triad of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. However, Derrida’s and Deleuze-Guattari’s critique of Lacan is precisely the attempt to define animals by their exclusion from the human symbolic, and the related denigration of systems of animal signalling and communication. Deleuze and Guattari refuse a priviledged placed for the ‘human’ signifying regime, and instead describe a world where “a semiotic fragment rubs shoulders with a chemical interaction, an electron crashes into a language” (Deleuze|Guattari 2003a, 69),


What this possibility alerts us to is that even when focussing on one level, whether the meaning of an animal symbol in a patient’s dream, or the ritual use of a totemistic ancestor-animal, a large-group animal identification, scapegoating and projective processes, or when studying an endangered species, the three ecologies need to be seen as in constant, complex, nonlinear interaction with one another. Our fantasies about animals do tell us something about ourselves, and about the human relationship with the nonhuman other, but they also have real effects on that other, through interactions with social ecology and natural ecology. Jung was basically correct in that the animals in our patient’s dreams reflect not only individual meanings but also form part of our collective fantasy, although the alternative is just as important. However, in our current time of ecological crisis, it is likely that on at least some level the animal ambassadors in our patient’s dreams reflect the effects of the ecological crisis, as the ‘hyperobject’ of climate change impacts on our minds, individually and collectively.


Timothy Morton (2010) claims we are entering the dawn of the age of the ‘hyperobject’, objects massively distributed in space and time such as climate, which are increasingly becoming the main objects of our reality, with more prosaic objects such as the rain falling on our head losing density or substance as we understand more of their contingency on ‘objects’ such as ‘climate’ or ‘global warming’. These objects were there all along, but as they impact on our psychic, social and physical spaces there is also a vague sense of mourning for the passing of a world where things at least felt more stable and real. But this stability was an illusion created by the fact that things we gave names to like ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ had gone on as they did for a sufficiently long time, in terms of the human temporal horizon, that we just accepted them as a fixed background, rather than the highly contingent confluence of factors which lay beyond our limited phenomenological experience of temporality and causality. Morton’s (2008) ‘dark ecology’ (see also Žižek 2007) suggests we may need to accept not only that this stable background is lost, but rather we must mourn for the fact that it was never there, that the very idea of a stable background is part of the problem, and that we need an ‘ecology without nature’. However, there is something here that is difficult for us to let go. This winter in Prague was perhaps the first in living memory (or at least my memory) without snow. The sledges remained in the cellar.


In terms of the three ecologies, when we fly on a plane to have a powerful psychological and symbolic experience of communing with nature, embodied perhaps by an animal such as an elephant in India or Sri Lanka, we cannot in reality (no matter how much we try in our minds) separate out this experience from the damage done to the world through our carbon emitting flight, or the effects on the social ecology of the places we visit, as we become vectors for spreading our own cultural memes no less then our biological diseases. For another example, we can turn to The Harry Potter films and books have been one of the most successful cultural products in recent times, with their powerful archetypal symbolism and engaging developmental processes in the characters. The owls of the wizards embody many human ideas around wisdom, (in)sight, and nature, and draws on dense mythological and psychological symbolism. However, this cultural-symbolic level has real ecological effects. In 2010 the Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh blamed Harry Potter fans for the reduction in number of wild owls in India, which are increasingly under threat, as more people seek pets to connect with the animal-mythical symbol popularised by these films (BBC 2010).


Therefore, we need to analyse the complex meanings of the animal at psychological levels, without losing sight of the constant conjunction of nonlinear effects between the three ecologies. How does an idea impact on an ecosystem or social system? How does a phantasy, anxiety or defence impact on biodiversity, and vice versa? How do these responses affect nature itself, even if nature perhaps never existed (Žižek 2007, Morton 2008), at least in the form we assumed? Like the collision between the Earth and the strange planet Melancholia in Lars Von Trier’s (2011) hauntingly beautiful film of the same name, how do the new hyperobjects appearing on our horizon impact our individual and collective psyches?


The film Melancholia is framed with the destruction of the Earth, as it collides with the mysterious eponymous planet in a 'dance of death'. However this is an incredibly slow motion destruction, which evokes aspects of our relation to the ecological crisis. Timothy Morton has described the feeling as like realising you are in the middle of a very slow moving nuclear bomb, and we are just able to notice what we are losing but seem paralysed to act before the damage is done. The opening sequence of the film, set to the powerful, beautiful and disturbing sounds of Wagner, captures aspects of our own activity in relation to climate change, which oscillates between manic denial and activity and frozen stasis. Combining several dream-like sequences, which are framed so beautifully they appear like photographs, full of depth of meaning in their compositional placement, but gradually we see they are also moving, with the timelessness of the unconscious. The use of extreme slow motion could be related to our sense of seeing disaster approaching. We act with such slowness it is as though we remain stuck while we lurch towards the precipice, unable to act, to move, or to escape. We can also contrast the intensive movement we feel while the image’s extensive movement slows to a halt, and toswitching between the intensive speed of paranoia and the frozen time of the catatonic (Deleuze & Guattari 2000).



III. Lemur and Rhino: Natural Ecology


Jenkins et al’s (2011) study ‘Analysis of Patterns of Bushmeat Consumption Reveals Extensive Exploitation of Protected Species in Eastern Madagascar’, is a rather tragic example of how psycho-social-cultural shifts can have major ecological effects. In particular that ideas and beliefs (via their effects on local mental ecologies and social ecologies) can be devastating on local flora and fauna (natural ecologies). Here we see the ecopsychoanalytic use of Guattari’s (2000) three ecologies of mind, society and nature as nonlinear interlocking dynamical systems of mutual contingencies.


Madigascar is one of the most ecologically important places on Earth. An ancient island which split from the Gondwana supercontinent 165 million years ago, it is a biodiversity hotspot where over 95% of its plants and animals, including all the primates, are endemic to the island, which has lead to its description as the ‘eighth continent’. Jenkins et al (2011) write that:


Taboos have provided protection to some species, particularly the Endangered Indri, but…this taboo is rapidly eroding... [leading] to an unsustainable number of lemurs being killed for bushmeat... Some species do not reach maturity for up to nine years and produce offspring once every two or three years... Primates, in general, are known to be extremely vulnerable to overexploitation.


The authors of the study suggest the rise in illegal hunting is due to rapid social change (in particular as a consequence of gold mining), increased demand for meat and lack of alternatives, and importantly a decline in traditional taboos. What are these taboos? There are several traditions explaining these. One tells of an Indris Lemur who saved a man falling from a tree while collecting honey. Other beliefs include the idea that they are ancestors that became lost in the rainforests and turned into lemurs to survive. The latter is close to Freud’s (1913a) controversial study of taboo and totemism, and looking at these taboos may not only have practical consequences on the eco-psycho-social system of places such as Madagascar, but may also help us explore ourselves and our relationship with the nonhuman world.


In Freud’s (1913a) model, the flip-side of the taboo against consumption of the totem animal is a strong desire to transgress, permitted in some groups on socially prescribed totem feasts, including the Christian communion where the congregation collectively eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ, as well as the infantile experience of feeding at the breast where one devours what one loves. What are the most forbidden animals for in Western culture to eat today? The first choice would be the most endangered species, especially the large fauna so beloved of conservation charities, like tigers. The interesting exception here might be our cherished ‘Oedipal’ pets, ‘our’ dogs and cats, as many would be more upset at the death of ‘their’ pet than the annihilation and extinction of an entire species.


In ‘Biodiversity: Endangered and in demand’, Graham-Rowe (2011) discuses the effects that traditional Chinese medicinal beliefs (where for example the rhino horn is used to treat everything from fever to AIDS, cancer and brain haemorrhages), and its collision with modern capitalism, has on species biodiversity.


Traditional Asian medicine is on a collision course with wildlife preservation. The rhino and its horn are not alone: powdered tiger bone is used to treat rheumatism; the scales of the toothless, anteater-like pangolin are believed to reduce swelling and improve blood circulation; and guilinggao, a jelly derived from the shells of freshwater turtles, was used to treat smallpox in a nineteenth-century emperor, with little success - in Taiwan it is now reputed to cure cancer. It is a similar story for many other endangered species whose commercial use is restricted - or banned outright - by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). (Graham-Rowe 2011)


These damaging practices are now combining with the dramatically rising wealth in China to form a new demand for high status consumables such as using tiger bone in wine and shampoo, and tiger penis soup.


The illicit trade in wildlife is a booming industry, estimated by the US congressional research service to be worth as much as US$20 billion globally each year…a significant driver is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Indeed, despite showing signs of decline in the 1990s, the poaching and trade of endangered animals such as tigers and rhinos is once again on the rise. (Graham-Rowe 2011)


The role of such rare animal products is partly as status symbols, as only the most wealthy can afford them, but this now applies to more and more people.


In 2008, a survey of nearly 1,000 people from six cities across China found that 1.9% of respondents had consumed a medicine or tonic containing tiger within the past 12 months. If this represents national consumption, it would mean a user base of around 25 million people. In Vietnam, which is one of the largest markets for TCM outside China, traditional remedies are sought after. If incomes were to increase, so too would consumption of products containing endangered species. This is hardly surprising…given the perception that products such as rhino horn are capable of curing cancer. (Graham-Rowe 2011)


Especially worrying here is the possibility that people are ‘investing in extinction’. By buying up such body parts the animals themselves become rarer, further pushing up the price. You can’t get any rarer than extinct. Psychoanalysts would also look beyond the cold logic of monetary exchange in such practice towards more perverse forms of positive delight in such behavior, related perhaps to what Paul Hoggett (2009) identifies in the increasingly perverse natures of our response to ecological collapse. Again, here we have the combustible mix of psychological beliefs, social practices, economic forces, and major ecological effects.




IV. Wolf and Rat: Mental Ecology


Animal totems and taboos return us to the clinical origins of psychoanalysis in many of the classic case histories, as well as to Freud’s study on the origin of religion and culture. For Freud, both animal totems and animal phobias involve (at least for the boy) a substitute for the Oedipal father. In 'The Return of Totemism in Childhood' in Totem and Taboo, Freud (1913a, 187; in Genosko 1993, 608) claims that animal phobias are “a very common, and perhaps the earliest, form of psychoneurotic illness occurring in childhood”. As Genosko explains, this suggests that the “ambivalent attitude (to obey and transgress) toward the two principle taboos of totemism” (Genosko 1993, 608) is identical to “the primal wishes of children and the two crimes of Oedipus”. By displacing anxieties relating to the father onto an animal substitute, the animal turns into an object of both fear and fascination such as Little Arpad's chickens (Ferenczi 1952), and Little Hans' horse.


Hans identified with his father by becoming a horse, trotting around the household, neighing, wearing a nosebag, and, finally, by biting his father and behaving in a fearless way toward him (Freud, 1909a, 213-214)... Ferenczi's 'Little Chanticleer' expressed that he had become a chicken in numerous ways...cackling and crowing...singing songs with chicken themes, play[ing] with toy fowls by 'slaughtering' and 'caressing' them. (Genosko 1993, 608)


(‘Slaughtering’ and ‘caressing’. Psychoanalysis from the start was at least times exquisitely able to hold on to an extraordinary sense of ambivalence and paradox). Freud (1913a, 187) writes that sources for animal phobias are both 'textual', where animals are “only known to the child from picture books and fairy tales” and 'contextual' through direct contact, depending on the geographical location of the child: “horses, dogs, cats, less often birds, and with striking frequency very small creatures such as beetles and butterflies”. To explore this further we can turn to perhaps the most famous of Freud's ‘animal-patients’, the 'Wolfman', and the dream around which his analysis, and to some extent his life, revolved:


I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in bed. (My bed stood with its foot towards the window; in front of the window there was a row of old walnut trees. I know it was winter when I had the dream, and night-time.) Suddenly the window opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep-dogs, for they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the wolves, I screamed and woke up. My nurse hurried to my bed, to see what had happened to me. It took quite a long while before I was convinced that it had only been a dream; I had had such a clear and life-like picture of the window opening and the wolves sitting on the tree. At last I grew quieter, felt as though I had escaped from some danger, and went to sleep again. (Freud 1918, 29)


In ‘Freud's Bestiary: How Does Psychoanalysis Treat Animals?’ Genosko (1993) uses Deleuze and Guattari's critique of Freud to open up a what he calls a 'zoological vision' for psychoanalysis. He notes that Freud's complex interpretation of the scene in the wolfman’s dream (as reflecting the child’s witnessing the parental intercourse of the primal scene, castration anxiety, and fear of the father), ignores many of the crucial textual and contextual sources for his patient’s wolf imagery, and involves a reversal so that it is the (human) child “who takes the active position while other nonhuman animals assume the passive role of being looked at” (Genosko 1993, 614). We could see this move as representative of the repression of the ecological unconscious in Western culture (Roszak 1995), as “Freud initiates a unidirectional communication appropriate to the collector …a full-blown domestication of the scene” by which the “gaze of the other is emptied” becoming “the unseeing look of zoo animals, objects for our inspection” (Genosko 1993, 614). Freud does not see the wolf, but only the substitute for the Oedipal father. The trees and wintry weather are also screened out in this analysis (except in so far as their relation to the fairy tale he was told as a child evokes castration imagery).


Animality lies at the heart of Deleuze and Guattari's (2003a, 240) critique of Freud in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schiophrenia, when they claim that “the only kind of animals that psychoanalysis understands are individuated animals, family pets, sentimental, Oedipal animals each with its own petty history”. For them, Freud could not allow the Wolfman to become Wolf and join the pack but instead worked to 'Oedipalize' the Wolfman's animal becomings” (Deleuze & Guattari 2003a, 239). The point here is not that Freud is necessarily wrong in his analysis, but rather that the fact that we may use animals in this way is highly problematic and needs unpacking.


Barbara Creed (2005, 123), in Phallic Panic: Film, Horror and the Primal Uncanny, argues that in his description of the Wolfman, “Freud focused too much on his own phantasy of the castrating paternal figure and not enough on his fearful folkloric icon, the wolf-man in sheep's clothing.” Creed (2005, 130) connects the totemism described by Freud to the cannibalism theme of the werewolf myth, where she suggests that “through metamorphosis and cannibalism, the wolf-man points to the instability of the paternal metaphor and the failure of civilization”. For Creed, “the cannibal meal of the wolf-man myth symbolizes a pact not with civilization but with nature and wilderness.” The wolfman is an uncanny creature of the inbetween, neither man nor beast, neither a denizen of the city or forest but both and neither. Therefore, the werewolf symbol refers not simply to the return of repressed desires which the City has blunted and eroded, but rather “signifies those indeterminate, uncanny animal spaces necessary to the creation and definition of their opposite: the familiar, civilized human city...a modern reworking of murder and the totem meal which celebrates not the emergence of civilization but its end” (Creed 2005, 133).


Woman, death and nature (the latter embodied especially by the animal), constitutes what Creed (2005) calls the primal uncanny of patriarchal culture. These connections can be explored in the image of the grave-womb, and the fear of being buried alive (Poe 1998, Bakhtin 1984). For Freud (1919, 245): “This unheimlich [uncanny] place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning...the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ is the token of repression”. However, what for Freud are merely symbolic stand-ins for the mothers body may themselves point in a quite direct way to something even more 'primal', the idea of a return to the Earth itself, the home [oikos] from which we come. In horror at times these connections are more explicit. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum transforms into a giant insect after a machinic rebirth in a metallic womb. In Dracula films, after each blood-feast the animal-metamorphosing monster returns to his coffin containing ancient earth.


Similarly, in 'The Theme of the Three Caskets', Freud (1913b, 301) refers to the three aspects of the mother for man, “the mother herself, the beloved one who is chosen after the pattern, and lastly Mother Earth who received him once more.” These relations are also studied in Bakhtin's (1984, 21) work in his research into degradation and carnival reversals:


'Downward' is element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the womb) element of birth...(the maternal breasts)...while in their purely bodily aspect, which is not clearly differentiated from the cosmic, the upper part is the face or the head and the lower part is the genital organs, the belly, and the buttocks... To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better.


This symbolism is ancient, with faeces playing an important, and also a productive and joyful role in Rabelais' (1965, 597) carnivalesque prose, which Bakhtin takes as the starting point for his study. The importance of shit in this universe of meaning is of being “intermediate between earth and body, as something relating the one to the other” (Bakhtin 1984, 175). Shit here thus acts as a kind of transitional object (Winnicott 1999), occupying the intermezzo (Deleuze & Guattari 2003a) “It is also an intermediate, between the living body and disintegrating matter” (Bakhtin 1984, 174), and therefore provides a more positive approach to Kristeva’s (1982) theory of abjection, and thereby a counterpoint to Creeds abjection based reading of horror.


Just as for Bakhtin the degredation in carnival rituals ultimately served a process of psycho-social renewal (a composting of the self), one important aspect of Freud's descriptions of animal phobias from an ecopsychoanalytic perspective is the implicit suggestion that psychological health involves working through such ambivalences. According to Genosko (1993, 610) this shows that psychoanalysis has “a certain unrealized potential in reconstituting the relations between children and animals”.


To conclude this section, do we perhaps then need more taboos? More barriers against unrestrained desire for ever greater levels of consumption (Bigda-Peyton 2004, Bodnar 2008)? Is even asking this question breaking a fundamental taboo in capitalist society, where our first duty is as consumer rather than citizen, where our cultural ego-ideal commands us to buy? Today however, in the new ‘austerity’, we are made to feel guilty for both not living up to the demands of consumerism, not buying enough to keep the economy moving, but also for following this command all too easily. The rise of vegetarianism in the West is an example of an emerging self-imposed taboo, which has major ecological impacts. The UN has claimed that the two biggest decisions individuals can make to reduce their negative effects on the environment is to stop eating meat or eat less meat, and to stop driving cars (or flying) or drive (and fly) less. Breeding animals for meat uses 10 times as many crops as it would to feed the same number of people, and according to Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that direct emissions from meat production account for about 18% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions”, greater even than transport, and therefore that “among options for mitigating climate change, changing diets is something one should consider” (in Black 2008).


In order to see the ecological effect of another newly introduced taboo we can consider the traditional use of tigerskins in Tibet: “Following a campaign to raise awareness of the tiger's plight, and an appeal by the Dalai Lama in 2006 for Tibetans to stop wearing the fashionable tiger-skin chubas, demand fell dramatically. Tiger skins were burned and it became socially unacceptable to wear or sell them, and demand in Tibet has all but disappeared” (Graham-Rowe 2011). While the long-term ecological effects of this newly invoked taboo are hard to predict, for example whether it will result in an increased reliance on imported synthetic fabrics made elsewhere, whether we like it or not taboos will continue to play an important role in the three ecologies. This article is not an attempt to argue for or against taboos, rather to open up a reflective space to consider how animal taboos can both tell us something about ourselves (teaching us about our mental ecology) but also effect social practice (social ecology) with dramatic consequences on biodiversity (natural ecology), and are worth reflecting on to better understand their complex effects throughout the eco-psycho-social space.




V. Lion and Cockroach: Social Ecology


After looking at the interaction between mental ecology and natural ecology, we turn more fully to social ecology. A useful resource here is the work of Volkan (2000) on 'large-group' dynamics, where we can see important examples of what Deleuze and Guattari called ‘mythic’ or State animals, the second category in their tripartite scheme (Oedipal-individuated, mythic-State, wild-nomadic-pack).


We can think here of animals such as the Afghan snow leopard, the British or Czech lion, the American or Moravian eagles, or the Indian Elephant or tiger (see the useful page listing national animal symbols on Wikipedia, 2012). We might also consider how scapegoat animals are used by opposing groups to attack, denigrate or demonise the alien group-other, represented by alien animal-other (e.g. the attribution of Jews as rats, or Tutsi's as cockroaches during their respective genocides). This symbolism can also be resisted and reused, such as the Banksy's use of rats in his graffiti art, and occurs in other religious or political large groups (such as the Christian fish or lamb, the Rastafarian lion, or the US Republican Party's use of the elephant). Exploring the roles of such animals in the ecological imaginary can lead to further understanding of the intersection between mental ecologies, social ecologies, and natural ecologies.


The expression of large-group identities through animal symbols are ancient and ubiquitous going back to the totemic use of animals and nature at the beginning of human history, studied already in different ways by Freud and Jung. Animals here function as a collective projection of human characteristics and also provide objects of collective introjective identification, as the group internalizes the characteristics of the animal in rituals such as the totem meal.


The symbolic significance of animals is sometimes obvious and primal, such as those associated with fertility, warfare, wisdom…while in other cases animals are used as symbols for complex and abstract ideas and beliefs…[e.g.] that an omnipotent lion of the heavens swallowed the sun and thereby brought on darkness each day (Biedermann, 1992). In ancient Egypt, Sekhmet, the goddess of war and defender of the sun god Re, was represented by a lion, and in Judeo-Christian tradition, the lion symbolizes both divine and evil power. The wolf has symbolic significance in Old Norse mythology, as well as in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, China, and numerous other cultures, tribes, and ethno national groups. The Turks’ use of the wolf dates back thousands of years to their early history in the steppes of Central Asia. (Volkan 2000)


In some cases, the origins of a particular large-group animal symbol can be traced to the identification of a particular leader with the animal in question.For example, both Genghis Khan and Hitler had strong connections to wolves, the former claiming to be descended from a blue-gray ‘chosen wolf’, and the latter, whose given name means ‘Athalwolf’ in Old German, called the SS his ‘wolf-pack’ and gave the name wolf to his favourite dog (Volkan 2000; Ehrenreich 1997). Such animals therefore become a collective unifying symbol around which the group forms powerful bonds, through the processes Freud identified in group formation.


In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud (1921) wrote that in groups, group members take the leader in place of their ego-ideal, abolishing fears of difference and the responsibility of reconciling competing drives. Aggression within the group, a minimum of which is necessary to maintain individuality, is turned outward, to the enemy, and even small differences between groups are accentuated, in what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences, where powerful affective intensities become arranged around ‘badges’ of group identity, policing the boundaries and maintaining inside-outside group-membranes, while individual differences within the group collapse. Group members’ egos become identified with one another due to sharing the same ego-ideal, and they can thus literally love each other as themselves (narcissistically) and create a kind of ‘group narcissism’ and a sense of collective power. As well as leading us to our most tragic and violent moments, such dynamics can also at times lift us to our greatest heights, as it enables us to move beyond purely egoistic motives to an almost mystical oceanic feeling, feelings of merger when the ego feels it has expanded to include the whole group, recalling to feelings of at-oneness with mother before the difficult and painful process of individuation began.


For Volkan (2000) during the process of development and gradual integration of a sense of self, there are always elements that remain unintegrated. ‘Suitable reservoirs’ are then sought in order to dispose of/deal with these ‘good’ and ‘bad’ internal objects which threaten to destabalize the always partially fragile core identity of the self (and group). The child in question here is always part of a group, a culture, therefore large-group animal symbols can function as an externalization of uningrated self- and object-representations. Cultural symbols are injected with fresh emotional charge with each generation, if they can succeed in retaining their social role as containers, and they also provide read-made channels for the flow of emotional meaning. Unlike transitional objects (Winnicott 1999) which are chosen by the child for personal meaning in the developing self-object differentiation, animal symbols as suitable reservoirs, for Volkan (2000), are offered to children by adult members of a specific large group and “become the foundation on which more sophisticated ideations and affects concerning ethno-national…and large-group” identity.


Such large-group animals symbols are not only recipients of our internal phantasies but themselves powerfully structure our internal worlds. A mutual-amplification positive feedback process can then take place, especially if the large-group identity is threatened. Here, the large-group regresses, turning the animal symbols into ‘protosymbols’. We see a degeneration from what Hana Segal called a ‘symbolic representation’, where there is a clear distinction between a symbol (e.g. a word) and the thing it symbolises (which requires the work of mourning of Klein’s depressive position) to a ‘symbolic equation’, where there is no ‘gap’ and the animal symbol is felt to actually be the group identity in a concrete way characteristic of psychotic thinking. We can consider for example the intense emotional investments in animal symbols during the Cold War:


Americans characterized the Russian bear as a vicious, devouring, castrating, or murdering animal, while Soviets portrayed the American eagle as representing a combination of maliciously carnivorous and greedy morality with exhibitionistic phallic activity. Such depictions invoked anger and were considered deeply offensive by the respective sides. (Volkan 2000)


Where the large-group animal symbol concerns not ones own group but the enemy-other, we find ourselves faced with the scapegoat. Psychoanalytically, what occurs in scapegoating is a repression or denial of the bad and sinful aspects of the self and a projection of these split off parts onto an other, who thereafter embodies all the evil the self or community wishes to reject. They therefore appear to deserve to be attacked and persecuted. Scapegoating is about finding somewhere to put something we don't want, and of forcing the container to accept the projection, often violently. Perhaps there are other ways to achieve this goal, dealing with unintegrated, unwanted aspects of the self, without resorting to violence? As Adorno and Horkheimer write in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1994, 187).


Impulses which the subject will not admit as his own, even though they are most assuredly so, are attributed to the object – the prospective victim… In Fascism this behaviour is made political; the object of the illness is deemed true to reality; and the mad system becomes the reasonable norm in the world, and deviation from it, a neurosis.


The animal (goat) therefore stands at the origin of the scapegoating process, but also helps to provide the form and content of each scapegoating event. The content of racist fantasies such as anti-Semitism also contains a lot of highly primitive anal material, such as shit, insects, an infestation of rats and parasites, as well as archaic oral phantasies of devouring. This allows us to see the primitive psychological basis for racist splitting and hate, and recalls Franz Kafka’s (2007) story The Metamorphosis where the minor bureaucrat Gregor Samsa awakens to find he has turned into a giant insect, itself perhaps in part a working through in the medium of art the racist projections saturating the culture. The Metamorphosis can therefore be seen in part as Kafka’s ‘becoming-animal’, his ‘becoming-scapegoat’.


Deleuze and Guattari (2003a) introduce their concept of ‘becoming-animal’ (see Dodds 2011, 2012) with a discussion of the 1971 horror film Willard. Willard is a social misfit with an intense relationship to 'his' rat Ben and the many other rats he 'collects' and fails to kill at various moments in the film. He eventually rejects these rats in favour of a human relationship with a woman, at which point he plans to poison Ben and the other rats, who respond with an attack and the rat-pack devour Willard, the film ending with a close up of Ben's face. The horror of such scenes represent a reversal of the scapegoat process, where the animal to be abjected (Kristeva's 1982) instead abjects the human subject.


A first expiatory animal is sacrificed, but a second is driven away, sent out into the desert wilderness. In the signifying regime, the scapegoat represents a new form of increasing entropy in the system of signs: it is charged with everything that was 'bad' in a given period, that is, everything that resisted signifying signs...everything that was unable to recharge the signifier at its centre and carries of everything that spills beyond the outermost circle. incarnates that line of flight the signifying regime cannot absolute detteritorialization (Deleuze|Guattari (2003a, 116).


Returning to Volkan, we can see how large-group animal symbols function in this way to ‘dehumanize’ the enemy during scapegoating processes and intergroup violence.


[The] large group regresses and begins to utilize protosymbols of the enemy as their shared “bad” suitable reservoir… First, the enemy is demonized but still is perceived as retaining human qualities, although they are predominantly negative human qualities. Later, those of an enemy group may be rendered as vermin or a loathsome animal that must be exterminated, or a cancer that must be excised “for the sake of humanity.” In Rwanda, Hutu first referred to Tutsi as evil people and later began calling them "cafards," meaning cockroaches.

However, while psychoanalysis and group analysis are crucial in exploring these levels of the animal symbol, Volkan here remains unfortunately still too anthropocentric in his analysis. In reality, it is not only that humans that are forced to take on animal characteristics (dehumanization), but it is also the animal which is forced to take on rejected and projected human attributes (deanimalization), and that these two processes are locked in mutual interaction.


Here, ecopsychoanalysis can help provide a stereoscopic (binocular) vision, or reversible perspective (Bion, see Grotstein 2007), to look again at the psychodynamics of such problems from a new angle. Deleuze and Guattar’s ‘Oedipal’ or individuated animals or pets represents ‘humanised animals’, while the denigrated animal-other of scapegoating is an ‘animalized human’ which Wolfe and Elmer (1995, 147) call “perhaps the most troubling category of all”. In both cases the animals concerned are ‘deanimalised’, reduced to carrying human levels of meaning. Wolfe and Elmer (1995) also propose two further categories. ‘Animalized animals’ and ‘humanized humans’ relate to the clear distinction Derrida maintains has been the aim of anthropocentric philosophy, to keep animals a separate, absolute animal other from a definition of humanity shorn of its creatureliness. Both are ostensibly ‘pure’ categories, allowing us to exercise violence and exploitation by bypassing any sense of guilt, but remain ‘ideological fictions’ only maintained through the frantic labour of constant redrawing of the boundaries at ever new points.




VI. Parakeet and Sphinx: Complexity in the Three Ecologies


In Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos (Dodds 2011), I draw on complexity theory (Stacey 2006) to explore how on the level of social ecology, we can rethink Bion's (1961) work group and basic assumption groups in terms of interactions which create regions of stability and disintegration, with potentially creative fractal regions of bounded instability at the edge of chaos between them. As Stacey (2006) argued, nonlinear fractal geometry undermines any clear line between inside and outside, providing new ways to think about the individual and group (and therefore also animals and humans) in terms of multidimensional fractal borderzones. Attempts to define clear inside-outside boundaries through animal symbols and animal-group scapegoats will therefore always be problematic, and their very fragility lead to greater levels of violence to maintain their function in our affective economy. While at times appearing remarkably stable, complexity theory helps explain how they can also hide a marked instability, and dynamic and sudden shifts always remain a possibility.


This opening up of a more complex view of boundary regions beyond simple inside/outside binaries also applies to animal classifications such as Deleuze and Guattari’s Oedipal/State/Nomad triad. Strange hybrid animals will always exceed and blur such distinctions, embodying what Delueze and Guattari call, a line of flight. Genosko's (1993, 617) aim is to “open the associative chain to animals not so easily subsumed under the morals of castration and father surrogate” while avoiding romanticizing the schizo-swarm by “treating the Wolf-Man as a psychotic whose body was trampled by wild packs and teeming swarms, a body...that never turned off, that never stabilized, and knew no decathexis.” For Genosko (1993, 627) Freud's (1921, 130) referance to Schopenhauer's porcupines represents a mixed pack “stable in its instability, inasmuch as it composes and decomposes itself in its very unfolding.” Here we could make a 'complexity' reading of the pack, the 'strange' pack as a dissipative structure, a fractal pattern with complex interminglings of order and disorder arising from far-from-equilibrium interactions at the edge of chaos.


From this perspective, we can more clearly envisage that animal symbols do not have to be imposed by a Freudian group-leader-father, but rather can be seen in terms of Jaques' (1955) social phantasy systems as emerging through the self-organization of individual defences, with global patterns feeding back to effect lower levels recursively. This embodies a system of multistability, with complex movements between basins of attraction as internal objects and affects flow through the network, with major shifts between states. Such shifts sometimes occur after long periods when the system seems stuck despite the best efforts to destabilize it by pushing it towards a bifurcation. These dynamics can be understood as weaving and unweaving animal totems and taboos in the three ecologies.


For an example of a nonlinear social phantasy ecosystem in climate change we can consider to Randall's (2005) discussion of the non-active majority who project environmental concern onto activists functioning as containers for the split-off collective environmental superego, with complex and shifting subjective positions and affects coursing round the eco-psycho-social circuit (Dodds 2011). Randall (2005, 176-7) suggests that as collective guilt becomes more shared, it can be “managed in more creative ways”, becoming “less persecutory and destructive” where projections are reduced and a larger non-psychotic space created for reparative action. Animal-symbols can provide containers for such reparative responses, as well as the scapegoating dynamics studied above. In Volkan’s (2000, 1976) analysis of the animal-reservoir ‘chosen’ by Cypriot Turks in response to the ‘tumultuous’ period following Britain’s withdrawl in 1960, he writes:

[W]ithin three years a bloody conflict broke out between the two groups. Between 1963 and 1968, Cypriot Turks were forced to live in increasingly small enclaves that became more like prisons or ghettos. During this traumatic period of their history, they raised hundreds…of parakeets, whose cages hung everywhere… The Cypriot Turks were preoccupied with the birds and obsessively kept track of which ones were fertile, which was the mother of other birds, which one was crippled, and so on. 

How can this be understood? For Volkan, this represented a positive reversal. From representing ‘bad’ parts, of the “victimized, imprisoned Turks” and the subhuman living conditions, it first allowed them to externalize their bad aspects, to bear their sense of persecutory entrapment. However, the same symbol then allowed a psycho-social shift by becoming a ‘good suitable reservoir’, representing “hopeful, good parts—as long as the birds were fertile and sang happily, Cypriot Turks unconsciously felt assured that they themselves could survive imprisonment.” This situation changed following the 1968 military intervention of Turky, which ‘released’ Cypriot Turks from their ghettos. While some parakeets continued to be kept as pets, their previous psycho-social function collapsed, and the birds set free.


A nonlinear social systems perspective lets us explore the affective feedback loops carried around the circuit with complex social and psychological effects, as projective and introjective identifications, splittings and scapegoating, transferences and countertransferences, reverberate back and forth in new iterations as the system moves forward in time. Complexity theory allows us to open up the ecological vision of psychoanalysis through the gap prised open by Deleuze and Guattari's critique. Of course, ecopsychoanalysis cannot stop here with the psychological and social symbolism of such animals, but instead needs to follow the circuits of effects onwards throughout the three ecologies, with chains of effects both in the psycho-social space and in natural ecologies, including actual (non-symbolic) animals. As Deleuze and Guattari (2003a, 549) put it, a “territorial assemblage opens onto a social assemblage” which is also “connected to cosmic forces” and to “pulsations of the earth” (Deleuze|Guattari 2003a, 549).


What happened to these parakeets? While the image of their flight of freedom from their cages is an inspiring one, did they die out, unable to survive outside their imprisonment in an environment they were not adapted to? How did the dramatic shifts following the Turkish intervention effect not only the animal symbols of the large group at a social-psychological level, but at an ecological one as well? These are the kinds of questions that need and Guattari’s three ecologies helps us to conceptualize. What is the primal animal in psychoanalysis' zoological imagination? Genosko (1993, 629) argues it is not the wolf, the rat, or even Freud's dog, but the Sphynx. That strange 'hybrid' animal is already a pack, already the becoming-human of the animal and the becoming-animal of the human. The important work done by psychoanalysis and group analysis on mental ecologies and social ecologies remain crucial, but ecopsychoanalysis suggests it needs also to be combined with a greater awareness of the complex nonlinear reverberations with natural ecologies of the Earth.






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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Joseph Dodds "Animal Totems and Taboos: An Ecopsychoanalytic Perspective". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 24, 2012, Published: November 26, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Joseph Dodds