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Kubik, G. Malamusi, M.A. (2002). Formulas of Defense: A Psychoanalytic Investigation in Southeast Africa. Am. Imago, 59(2):171-196.

(2002). American Imago, 59(2):171-196

Formulas of Defense: A Psychoanalytic Investigation in Southeast Africa

Gerhard Kubik and Moya Aliya Malamusi


Maxims of interdiction constitute a specific form of symbol-laden verbal expression in many cultures. Psychologically, one can categorize them as formulas of defense. Like proverbs, they are employed didactically as social correctives. Nominally, they focus on acts to be avoided and install a taboo against their violation. Formulas of defense are distinct from simple prohibitions or direct reproaches in that they are symbolic in content and aimed at the subject's unconscious. They can therefore be interpreted with the tools of psychoanalytic theory.

Like proverbs, moreover, maxims of interdiction must be analyzed contextually. Although the existing collections from different parts of the world constitute an indispensable pool of reference, most give no clue as to the actual applications of the maxims in a given culture. These are in no way uniform. What affective and cognitive situations can function as triggers for the recitation of a maxim? What are the concrete inducements to an individual or a group in a community to step forward and pronounce one of these emphatic, condensed formulas? Do they serve to warn listeners or simply to expose them to philosophical wisdom?

Having spent half a lifetime in sub-Saharan Africa, I have much observational material from that region in my files and diaries. It was there that I developed a method with which one can disentangle the symbolic content of a maxim that is otherwise only comprehensible from within the culture. My method is designed specifically for the analysis of formulas of defense and lays open their unconscious motivations.

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