The virus as taboo, and xenophobia

Freud in Totem and Taboo writes of the logic of taboo in terms of the logic of contagion, of transmission of infection with the taboo through touch. The taboo functions to bind a society according to norms that are believed to protect society’s integrity, such as, classically, the incest taboo.

When we travelled back from Palestine in March it felt as if we were, that is, embodied taboo. We were from ‘outside’, strangers, and regarded as in possession of the contagion, and violating the taboo because we were just ‘there’ or traveling through ‘there’, where ‘there’ was anywhere that wasn’t our own community and home; and because of this, we were on the receiving end of discriminatory language and behaviour.

It is as if the virus is the taboo. A taboo always prohibits that which is deeply held to be desirable, even if that desire operates at an unconscious level. For the virus, as with a taboo, it first and foremost prohibits touch which results in a prohibition of freedom of travel, social intercourse, as well as touching.

For the virus, this particular taboo comes with no external signs (invisible, dangerous and mysterious), it is assumed to be possessed by all, that is all who are not ‘us’: where is, the ‘in’ group, might refer to close family, or a member of a community, or even just everybody that isn’t me. For example, for those vulnerable individuals who are shielding, the other is everybody else: family, the delivery man, the hairdresser, the gardener etc.

And the virus is taboo because it signifies unpredictable and sudden death through suffocation. And death, or the dead, is taboo: ‘ Signifying the wrath of the demons”.

Violators or holders of the taboo (the virus) who violate the taboo (by having or risking literally contact with, or touching, the other) are an object of both fear and to be punished because they incite imitation of the violation (eg having raves, traveling on holidays, not isolating, wearing mask etc.) and the intensity of the desire to punish reflects the intensity with which the violating behavior is actually, if unconsciously, desired as well: to touch, to travel, to not wear a mask etc.

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