Oedipal themes in Gisu circumcision 1
How should an anthropologist use psychoanalysis? What can it add to our accounts? My starting position here is that it provides a hermeneutic which invites us to reinterrogate our data in order to both challenge and augment the interpretations already made on the basis of more standard forms of exegesis. In the Durkheimian tradition within which I have broadly worked, cultural values are taken to be relatively straightforwardly depicted in cultural symbolism. By contrast, psychoanalysis tells us that the symbolic process is complex, bedevilled by the forces of repression, whereby the manifest becomes a mask or, at best, a distorting mirror to psychic reality. If custom may be taken as symbolic in the psychoanalytic sense, speaking to unconscious fantasy and process, then it has the capacity to turn our accepted interpretative canons upside-down. In so doing, it does not, of course, invalidate the cultural interpretation. Devereux’s postulate of ‘complementarity’ is useful here, though it is today less easy to see, as he did, that the coming together of the two perspectives will give a determinate understanding in either.
For many of us our first fieldwork proves the most formative experience of our lives and sets the agenda for much of what we do later. For me, it established a long-lasting source of intrigue with the topic of male circumcision. For the Gisu of Uganda, circumcision presents itself as a particularly severe ordeal which boys are required to undergo roughly between the ages of 17 and 25 in order to validate their claims to manhood. In previous writings, I have explored it from the point of view of what I called their ‘vernacular psychology’, how the Gisu see it as actually creating men, an identity forged in the ritual process (1982, 1989). In another paper (1986), I tried to trace the concordances of their view of this process with its transformational potential and western psychological theories, drawn largely from behaviourist psychology. In neither did I consider psychoanalysis. This is the challenge which I now take up and it is one which allows me to probe new areas, going beneath the overt level of culturally