While the nineteenth-century consolidation of the anthropological culture concept shifted ethnological interests away from the figure of the solitary “savage” to wider structures of communal governance, it nonetheless accommodated the eighteenth-century caricatures of instinctive and passionate “savages” by redeploying the terrain of the instinctive onto collective forms of social organization. At the same time, European instincts were believed to achieve greater independence from the material stuff of daily life, being increasingly figured as outside of either social or material influence. The split appears in Freud’s analogy of “savage” sociality and the European psyche in Totem and Taboo as a hesitation about whether law and custom are external to the “savage” psyche or constituent parts of it. Freud’s chief ethnological sources for Totem and Taboo—Lorimer Fison and A. W. Howitt’s Kamilaroi and Kûrnai (1880) and Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen’s Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899)—do not mention instinct, but their analyses of savage sociality nonetheless become the basis for Freud’s early instinct theory. Freud sometimes presents himself as partial to the idea that instinct obviates institutional reinforcement when he needs to make the case that social structures are not transparent reflections of human wishes. This article argues that the ambivalence that appears so frequently in Freud’s analysis of instinct highlights the fact that institutions cannot be thought solely to regulate the undesirable components of instinct.

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