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Psychoanalysis In The Accuracy Of Death Meaning In Examples Of Anthropological Ethnographies

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Curating meaning in the experience of life and death is an inevitable process within the human experience. The degree to which the experience of death plays an active part of the material and conscious realm can be understood by looking to the unconscious. Psychoanalysis enables a more comprehensive and accurate interpretation of the meanings of life and death through its conceptualisation of the unconscious foundations of all human experience. Psychoanalysis is the tool by which we can gain deeper insight into the patterns and frameworks that penetrate into the conscious from the unconscious. The universality of psychoanalytic topography can be witnessed socially and cross-culturally, further contributing to the understanding that the unconscious and its formations of meaning in the human psyche are a shared experience that extends into the material, conscious, and cosmological realms. By looking at ethnographies interpreted through the psychoanalytic lens, we are able to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the interplay between rituals, beliefs, materiality, and practices and attitudes that exist around death. To do this we must primarily look to the father of psychoanalysis; Sigmund Freud (1910; 1933; 1985). By understanding the underpinnings of psychoanalysis and its interpretations of life and death through Freud’s work, we gain a deeper knowledge of the unconscious responses to death, in drive, desire, conflict, and mourning. Robert Lifton (1979) introduces the concept of ‘symbolic immortality’ as a universal denial of death within the unconscious. By combining this concept with Freud’s psychoanalytic base further knowledge can be explored through the ethnographic examples that exist within ouroboric cosmologies and show death to be assumed as a transition or transmigration rather than a material end. To understand life is to understand death, therefore we must extrapolate experiences in ethnography around mortuary practices in order to understand the cosmological lifeworld and psyche of the people we are observing. Thus, this essay will holistically explore how psychoanalysis enhances the accuracy of meaning created from ‘the human experience’ through the observance of death in examples from anthropological ethnographies.

Psychoanalysis provides a topographical template and framework for which the experiences of death can be observed and comprehended from a deeper level, that is, beyond the conscious and material world’s experience. The foundation of psychoanalysis deals with the social phenomena of the psyche, thus psychoanalysis in anthropology pertains to the understanding of social phenomena through individual minds. By understanding Freud’s conceptualisation of the mind and specifically, the unconscious, we can gain a more accurate interpretation of meaning. Freud provides the conceptualisation of the “death instinct” that exists universally in the unconscious (Freud, 1933, p. 107). This instinct, which is inclined to revert from one form to an ‘original’ form, transforms the “living into an inorganic state” (Freud, 1933, p. 107). In this conceptualisation of death therefore life can be understood to have originated from an organic, inanimate state. The death instinct can be found in ouroboric societies, which can be understood as self-consuming and self-regenerative or cyclical in nature. This psychoanalytic framework improves our perception of ouroboric societies in which life and death can be seen to be understood as a reflection of the overarching cosmological beliefs in the material world which directly reflect one’s psyche or unconscious. The Yagawoia tribe of Iqwaye in Papua New Guinea embody this eschatology through their symbolism, beliefs, and practices around death. The Yagawoia experience their micro world psyche and the physical macro world as an anthropomorphic characterised oneness that morph parallel experience (Mimica, 1991, p. 41). Dr Mimica identified the ouroboros, conceptualised as a serpent that eats its own tail, as an archetypal symbol within the Yagawoia but also as a symbol that can be used to interpret many other cosmologies (Mimica, 2003, p.63). Mimica employs psychoanalytic techniques to interpret his ethnography of the Yagawoia. He observes their cosmological view as a self-generative bodily totality which is both self-eating and self-copulative (Mimica, 2003, p. 62). As this body social is engaged in its own self-production, it is similarly engaged in self-deconstruction. A “cosmic metabolism” allows for the digestion of the process of life and death to run as a constant flow of entwined interaction and transformation (Mimica, 2003, p. 62). Mortuary practices can induce the observance of absolute totality from life and in death through “eating your own death” or endo-cannibalistic practice. By conceptualising the ouroboric nature of cosmological ontology and employing psychoanalysis allows for a comprehensive understanding of the motivation behind these mortuary practices that would be incomprehensible from the outside. The motivations behind this flow of metabolic transformation are due to the dying person’s soul being transformed into a spirit of the dead by cannibalistic wild spirits that inhabit the innards of the material body (Mimica, 2003, p. 76). After extensive ritual and practice with the corpse left, Mimica observed the Yagawoia form a burial place, which often represents the returning to the womb. In some, the kinship of the deceased plant taro shoot crops around the burial spot (Mimica, 2003, p. 79). These taro shoots will be fertilised by the cosmic body to the deceased and harvested to eat, being consumed primarily by the living kinship (Mimica, 2003, p. 79). In this way the living and the dead are in a constant cycle of transformation and consumption of themselves and their cosmological existence. While this endo-cannibalistic practice is purely a metaphor of consumption in an ouroboric cosmology, without the underpinning of the death instinct and other universal psychoanalytic conceptions it would be impossible to gauge the importance of mortuary practices in the continuation of the lifeworld of the Yagawoia.

Another ethnographic example of the ouroboric and symbolic nature of death within Papua New Guinea is observed with the Gimi of the Eastern Highlands. Like the Yagawoia, Gimi are cosmologically and psychically conceptualised as an ouroboros society that ‘consume’ the process of death and the dead through their transformative mortuary practices. By focussing primarily on the psychoanalytic framework and understanding the ouroboric ontology, the endo-cannibalistic practices employed by the Gimi are ultimately understood to be an important transformative and transmigratory process. The ethnography of Gillison (1983) recounts traditional mortuary practices by Gimi that were abandoned during the 1960’s. These traditional practices involved literal endo-cannibalism, the consumption of human flesh (Gillison, 1983, p. 33). If a man of the tribe passed, this practice involved Gimi women undertaking a period of mourning that usually lasts up to five days in the wife or mother’s house (Gillison, 1983, p. 35). Gillison then describes the rest of the practice as it is described by intention, or what is available to the conscious and material realm but extrapolates more from her implementation of psychoanalysis. This process involves an understanding of Gimi culture norms and niceties. For example, after the mourning period, the deceased is moved into the garden to “decompose”, however, the intention of the practice is to actually divide the corpse into edible pieces (Gillison, 1983, p. 35). Gimi women, in accordance with this mortuary tradition and their mythopoeic beliefs must initially verbally and physically object to this narrative and must agree to instead “save” the corpse from decomposing by “secretly” meeting to butcher the body (1983, p. 36). Even though these women attribute their cannibalistic tendencies to the desire to prevent the body rotting, a psychoanalytic framework, which takes into account the ouroboric nature of their cosmology and understands the desire of immortality, perceives the more accurate comprehension of the practice as being beneficial to the transmigratory and transformative process of death and rebirth. It is a transmutation of their conscious beliefs and an accessing of their unconscious desire that leads their practice. After preparing the body of the deceased in large cooking pots, the Gimi women remain secluded from the men until everything is completely digested (Gillison, 1983, p. 37).

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The men’s actions are further portraying the transmigratory process by slaughtering pigs and allocating the parts of the food corresponding to the parts of the body that were consumed (1983, p. 37). This practice is representative of the end of the mourning and seclusion period (Gillison, 1983, p. 37). Even though the traditional practice of literal endo-cannibalism was stopped many years ago, this aspect of the practice, representing the transformation of the spirit of the deceased through the sacrifice of a pig is still exchanged between Gimi men and women to represent the end of the mortuary practice (Gillison, 1983, p. 38). Approximately a year after the endo-cannibal practice, Gimi men further drive this unconscious desire of transmigration in an extension of the mortuary practice (1983, p. 38). This is done through the Gimi men moving the remains, which is often just bones, to liminal locations that appear to look like vaginas or represent phallic structures (p. 38). These “uterine crevices” often found in dark cavities amongst trees, are representative of the unconscious archetypal symbol of the ouroboros that exists within the psyche of the Gimi (p. 38). Gillison describes this parallel with the landscape of rivers flowing like menstrual blood or semen, giving life to new growth and birds emerging from nests (p. 38). This embodiment of the land, and thus the practice, is in stark contrast to death, it gives nothing but life – the human spirit (Gillison, 1983, p. 39). This “spontaneous life” that emerges through “metaphorical sexual intercourse” of this transmigratory practice provides an end to the mortuary process (p. 39). The regeneration of the psychic self, the material self to the land, and thus an unconscious awareness of the immortality of life existence has been completed (Lifton, 1979). In both the Gimi and the Yagawoia, consumption and endo-cannibalism are life generating and affirm the meaning of their existence within an ouroboric lifeworld. This regeneration of life through the cannibalistic mortuary practices embody the constant change and illusory reversion back towards its initial state as transmigration upon the death instinct is actualised in the ouroboric sphere.

A more comprehensive interpretation of these ethnographic cases can be made by understanding death further through psychoanalytic conceptualisations. Freud proposed death to insight ambivalence and therefore conflict between the living and the dead, and the inner conflict of the psyche (1985, p. 80). As uncovered with a psychoanalytic lens, in both the Gimi and the Yagawoia, the unconscious desire for immortality is upheld and affirmed through the denial of death as an end of existence. Even when the material body has completely disintegrated, there is a belief that the psychic body continues living in the form of spirits (Mimica, 2003; Gillison, 1983). Freud believes this denial is due to our inability to fully realise our own death, in the denial of becoming deceased our unconscious is convinced of our own immortality (Freud, 1985, p. 77). This contradiction, Freud suggests, between the impulses of the unconscious in the human psyche, cause us to speculate on meaning and creates conflict if it is not resolved cosmologically (p. 85). Thus cosmologically, we strive for immortality or an ability to recognise transition, transmutation and transmigration as inherent to the process of death. These collective illusions projected by the living in response to death are encapsulated by Lifton (1979). A psychiatrist, Lifton observed that immortality is not just a psychic unconscious defence against the inner conflict of death, but representative of a universal unconscious desire to have a sense of continuity of life through the markers of biological and historical connections (1979, p. 17). The Gimi and Yagawoia life worlds’ can be psychoanalytically explored through this universal cultural symbolism and desire. As described in the Gimi, the endo-cannibal practice begins a process of transmigration of the dead into an imaginative ‘living’, this connection satiates and harmonises inner psychic conflict (Gillison, 1983; Lifton, 1979). In the Yagawoia, the consumption of taro shoots allows for life to continue in an ouroboric fashion (Mimica, 2003). As Lifton identifies, these connections are not purely biological, but exist in bio sociality, theology, cosmology, and manifest in the conceptualisation of an afterlife or immortality (1979, p. 20). Furthermore, Lifton identified the need for a ‘mode of external nature’ within these immortal conceptualisations (1979, p. 22). As portrayed in the recount of the Gimi men distributing the bones of the deceased into nature, this mode is exemplified through connection to the nature world, in trees, rivers, mountains, wildlife and all that constitutes Mother nature (Lifton, 1979, p. 22). Paralleling human existence with the symbolism of the transience observed in the natural world also allows a deeper understanding of the expression of regeneration, fertility, birth and rebirth, that is symbolised in the ouroboric lifeworld. Life and death therefore exist within a cultural framework that acknowledged change and transformation.

Through the exploration of different ethnographic examples, it is clear that the inevitable occurrence of death is conceptualised through a variety of forms. Psychoanalysis allows for a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of these mortuary practices. These forms are mediated by the unconscious desires of the psyche, that penetrate the conscious and material realms where death is seen to be viewed as a transition rather than a termination. The internalised practices and symbols embedded in a collective unconscious that exist cross-culturally allow the living to harmonise and transform the anxieties of death. Freud and Lifton were two of many prominent figures that provided a basis of psychoanalysis in the more comprehensive and accurate understanding of ethnography in anthropology. The episteme of psychoanalysis as a field underpins and has helped formulate the understanding of anthropological thought and ethnographic study historically.

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Psychoanalysis In The Accuracy Of Death Meaning In Examples Of Anthropological Ethnographies. (2021, October 05). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/psychoanalysis-in-the-accuracy-of-death-meaning-in-examples-of-anthropological-ethnographies/
“Psychoanalysis In The Accuracy Of Death Meaning In Examples Of Anthropological Ethnographies.” Edubirdie, 05 Oct. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/psychoanalysis-in-the-accuracy-of-death-meaning-in-examples-of-anthropological-ethnographies/
Psychoanalysis In The Accuracy Of Death Meaning In Examples Of Anthropological Ethnographies. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/psychoanalysis-in-the-accuracy-of-death-meaning-in-examples-of-anthropological-ethnographies/> [Accessed 5 Feb. 2023].
Psychoanalysis In The Accuracy Of Death Meaning In Examples Of Anthropological Ethnographies [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Oct 05 [cited 2023 Feb 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/psychoanalysis-in-the-accuracy-of-death-meaning-in-examples-of-anthropological-ethnographies/
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