Enlightened totemism – On Marramao’s The Passage West (Radical Philosophy 2013)

“Totum and Taboo”, Radical Philosophy 179 (2013), 43–46. A review of Giacomo Marramao, The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State, trans. M. Mandarini (London 2012). An excerpt from the author’s typescript is copied below:

Marramao in 2015

‘The totum is the totem’, writes Giacomo Marramao. And apparently he means it, since this is the last thing he writes in chapters 6 and 9 of The Passage West. What he means by it, however, is less apparent. Apart from the Latin—and totum simply designates ‘all’ or ‘the whole’—part of the difficulty is editorial.

The Passage West is Matteo Mandarini’s translation of the second edition of Marramao’s Passaggio a Occidente. Filosofia e globalizzazione (Turin 2003, 2009). The first edition included nine chapters, as opposed to the second edition’s ten. In its first print-run, then, the Passaggio ended with this lapidary, if vague, proposition: ‘The totum is the totem.’ In the second edition, as in Mandarini’s translation, this period becomes a pause, opening onto a tenth chapter that takes confusion as its title—‘After Babel’—and then produces it. (For those not up on their scriptures: ‘The name thereof was called Babel, because there the language of the whole earth was confounded.’) By the time this twenty-page appendage is got through, and regardless of whether Antonio Negri’s ‘Afterword’ is scanned afterwards, we have forgotten Marramao’s point, and his proscription—which, again, is this: ‘The totum is the totem.’

The Algonquian word totem has been literary currency in Europe for a century this year—or last. In his 1913 collection, Totem and Taboo, Freud refers to ‘the new work of E. Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The Totemic System in Australia, 1912’. And it could be Durkheim in 1912 that Marramao wants us to hear in ‘totem’; he never specifies. But I surmise that it is, in the first instance, Freud’s definition of the word in 1913 that should be put to use. Although Freud is lazily re-phrasing, here, a couple of sentences from Sir James Frazer’s ‘The Origin of Totemism’, he writes that the ‘clan totem’ is

the object of veneration of a group of men and women who take their name from the totem and consider themselves consanguineous offspring of a common ancestor, and who are firmly associated with each other through common obligations towards each other as well as by the belief in their totem. Totemism is a religious as well as a social system. On its religious side it consists of mutual respect and consideration between a person and his totem, and on its social side it is composed of obligations of the members of the clan towards each other and towards other clans.

If this is what ‘totem’ means, then Marramao’s totum represents this: an ‘object of veneration’ that implies lineage and political origins; a vector of ‘belief’ (Freud’s Glaube) or ‘mystic union’ (Frazer); and a source of interdiction and injunction—i.e., taboo—within a clan and ‘towards other clans’. And if we modify Marramao’s dictum in light of this, we could perhaps say: ‘The totum is the organising symbol.’ …

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