Rodney Needham

There are conjectures and conjectures - Andrew Lang (1905)


What is totemism? These are the opening words of the present study by Andrew Lang, and they express an interest by which he had long been preoccupied. More widely, it was a topic on which a great deal had been published since the Ojibwa original of the word "totem" was first misunderstood at the end of the eighteenth century, though still without a clear outcome by the early years of the present century. Lang himself had already brought out one book on the subject, The Secret of the Totem (1905) , yet in the last years of his life he resumed a concentration on what was to be his final assessment of the institution, or what was taken to be such. When he died, in 1912, he left the text of Totemism among his papers. His widow presented it to the Folklore Society, of which Lang had been an active member, but with three stipulations : that it was not to be published; that, if it were consulted, no reference to it was to be made under her late husband's name; and that it should not go out of the possession of the Society. It is not known for what reason she laid down these conditions. How the work came to be put into print after all, and eighty-one years since its completion, calls for explanation.

Soon after the deposit of the typescript, the four years of the Great War burdened scholars with graver concerns, and in the ensuing decades the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattered her poppy over Lang's very name. Then came the Second World War, and in September 1940, University College London, where the Folklore Society was based, was struck and badly damaged by incendiary bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. Lang's papers had been housed with the Society's library, not far away, at the Royal Anthropological Institute, and the Society decided to remove its books and documents to places of safety, as the Institute itself was doing with its own library. (Another report has it that the papers of the Folklore Society were stored in the basement of U.C.L. and remained there throughout the war, but as will be seen, Lang's typescript was not there.) Mrs Hilda A. Lake Barnett, a member whose brother had been honorary secretary of the society, observed that its papers etc. had ben put into a number of tea chests, with no lids, and were lying in the basement area of the Institute's premises. Fearing that the papers might be damaged by rain, and that the uppermost ones could be blown away, she had one of the chests hoisted onto her own car and engaged two passing taxis to bring the others to her house in Highgate. There the contents were taken up into an attic, where they remained until 1957, when Mrs Lake Barnett asked Mr Stewart Sanderson (to whom are owed the factual details of this narrative) if he would care to look at them. he found all sorts of notes and typescripts, distributed among the rooms of a large unfurnished Victorian doll's house, and also in wooden orange crates. Mr Sanderson was offered the loan of certain manuscripts, on Scottish folklore (he was then at the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh,) and he took these away to be copied. Twelve years later, in 1969, Mrs Lake Barnett again invited him to visit her, this time to discuss the future of the materials in her attic. It was agreed that they should be transported to the library of University College London, where they would be aggregated to the printed books of the Folklore Society, and this was done. Andrew Lang's typescript on totemism was one of the deposits in the doll's house.

After some while, when the library of the Society was being moved to a different part of University College London, various manuscripts were catalogued and Lang's came to light. It was brought to the attention of the Committee by Dr Katherine Briggs, and the idea came to Mr Sanderson that the book, or at any rate part of it, could be worth publishing as a an aspect of the history of the development of anthropological theory. To this end, and to seek someone who might undertake the requisite editing and annotation he approached Professor D.F. Pocock of the University of Sussex. In the latter part of 1973, Professor Pocock put the question to me. I read the typescript, and formed a good opinion of it, which Professor Pocock conveyed to the Society. Mr Sanderson, President of the Society (and by this time at the University of Leeds) turned to me, and we began to consider how, and in what form, Lang's last book might be published. In view of Mrs Lang's prohibition, the principle of such a venture had first to be examined. The typescript was the property of the Folklore Society, and after the lapse of more than fifty years since the bequest, there seemed to be remain no problem about copyright. it was learned from Mr Roger Lancelyn Green, author of the biography of Lang (1946), that there were no surviving relatives. With these assurances, the Society gave me, in December 1974, full permission to proceed with publication. However, time passed and by 1977 we still had no editor or publisher. In that year, though, the fortunes of Lang's work changed decisively. I put it to a very promising pupil of mine at Oxford, Mr Andrew Duff-Cooper, that he might find it a useful academic exercise to edit the book and provide it with a theoretical commentary, under my supervision, for submission as a thesis for the BLitt, the first research degree, and he agreed. (A factor in his decision may well have been that he was, as Lang had ben and as Mr Lancelyn Green and I also were, a member of Merton College.) Not long afterwards, as it happened, an academic publishing house in America which had seemed the best prospect as publisher concluded that the project was too limited in its potential market, but by this time Mr Duff-Cooper was enthusiastically committed to the task anyway. In the impressively short time of a year, he established the text (which often called for joint decipherment of Lang's autograph interpolations and alterations), transcribed it into a fair copy, and completed a separate volume (also reproduced below) of commentary. In June 1978, Mr Lancelyn Green lunched with us in college, and we had the benefits of his discussions about Lang, the background, and the book in progress. The resultant thesis was examined in September 1978 by Dr John Burrow (University of Sussex) and Dr J.K. Campbell (Oxford) who judged it a substantial and well sustained work of scholarship.

Mr Duff-Cooper left Oxford for research among Balinese on the island of Lombok, and I continued with attempts to find a publisher. These were unsuccessful, the years passed, and the work reposed in the Bodleian Library, until in August 1991 there came two events, one tragic and the other encouraging, that led to the present edition. Dr Duff-Cooper, who by this time had gained a professorship at Seitoku University, Matsudo, near Tokyo in Japan, returned to England in that month, after having been taken ill on holiday, and died in London hospital of amoebic dysentery, on 4 August at the age of only forty-three. A fortnight later I received a letter from Dr Jerry Eades of the University of Kent on secondment to the University of Tokyo, about the Lang typescript. He had met Mr Duff-Cooper in Tokyo and had discussed with him the feasibility of including the Lang book in a series of monographs that he was producing at the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing at the University of Kent. When Dr Duff-Cooper departed from Japan in July, he had left the Lang text and his commentary with him. Dr Eades asked my advice on the procedure to adopt, and then set about the prediction of the volume. Since I had promised Dr Duff-Cooper that I should be prepared to contribute a foreword, this too was agreed on. At very long last, Andrew Lang's last book and his concluding ideas about totemism were to appear in print.


The merits of Lang's book are extensively discussed below by Dr Duff-Cooper, and it must be exceedingly rarely that so subtle and profound a scholarly appreciation should be devoted to the argument that it accompanies. There is no need therefore to include here any further comments of the kind, but there are some additional considerations, as well as later publications, that it may be helpful to mention.

The first issue touches on Lang's connection with Mrs Daisy Bates, the intrepid amateur ethnographer of western Australia whose manuscript reports are several times referred to in the text that follows. The relationship between Lang and Mrs Bates, which rested on correspondence between England and Australia, had ramifications and consequences that have been set out elsewhere (Salter 1972: 131-4; Needham 1974: 147-8, 151). The point of present interest is that by 1910 Lang had agreed , with admirable generosity considering his own commitments and the nature of the undertaking, to revise Mrs Bates's "vast and wandering" compilation, with a view to its publication as a book, and that her reports dealt at some length with totemism. Seven years after Dr Duff-Cooper had completed his work on Lang's text, Daisy Bates's book was published, thanks to much arduous and indomitable editing by Dr Isobel White, as The Native Tribes of Western Australia (Bates 1985), including a chapter on "Totems" (chapter 5). As Dr White observes, "this must have been a difficult chapter for Mrs Bates to write, because many of the facts she had discovered were at variance with the books she had consulted (for example Andrew Lang's Secret of the Totem 1905)" (Bates 1985: 189). Most confusing, as Dr White continues, was the multiplicity of totems with which an individual could have a relationship. In the southwest, there were the phratry totem, the district totem, the class totem, the hereditary totem, and the personal totem, and, moreover, and individual could share his personal totems with his special friend. To the east and north and in the northwest, there were yet further variations. Lang, who had formed his own conception, derived from the extant literature, of what he called "normal totemism" (below, chapter 6) "could not reconcile the multiplicity of totems with his previous notion of what Totemism was all about," and, when it appeared what in certain cases two persons of the same totem could marry,"he suggested that the whole system was breaking down" (White, in Bates 1985: 190). This was indeed a tempting recourse (as it had been to Durkheim), as well as a reasonable one in the light of the disintegration of Australian tribes, and it spared him a wholesale revision of his final summation of a theory of totemism. All the same, it does show that Lang himself was not immune to what he had described as "the almost insuperable difficulty of getting savants to understand an unfamiliar idea" (Lang 1905: 114, n.1). It would be hard to imagine a history of thought that was free of such resistance. In this instance, also, the report in question was just one of a number of contradictions to what had been accepted as the essential nature of totemism. Among the southern people, for example, both the white cockatoo and the crow, which were totems of the moieties, could be eaten; there were no "magical practices" connected with them; no groups of individuals held totemic ceremonies in their honour; there was no singing for the increase of either bird; and, if a member of either moiety died, no special abstinence from its totem was observed (Bates 1985: 192). In addition, Mrs Bates had to controvert Lang's statements that in no tribe with female descent could a district have its local totem and that each child would be of its mother's totem (1905: 73, 75)/ No wonder even Lang found it hard to come to terms with such arresting ethnographic findings If Daisy Bates's field reports make a corrective to Lang's scheme, it may be remarked that so they do also to Lévi-Strauss's purported demonstration that totemism is an illusion (1963). Dr Duff-Cooper has dealt incisively with this author's contentions, but there may yet be occasion for a few additional remarks, especially with regard to the question of how far the contentions would have met Lang's demands of an argument. (Lang happens not to be mentioned in the work in question, doubtless because the literature on totemism is indeed, as the author says, enormous.) The essential is that, while Lévi-Strauss's agreeably compact book is engaging and ingenious, it really contains very little in the way of positive argumentation. Apart from the formal considerations, which are salutary, and the incidental criticisms of the views of certain predecessors which serve the tenor of the exposition, there are in effect just two empirical propositions to be registered. One is that the relations between totemic clans are analogous to those between the species with which they are associated, e.g. by supposed descent (1963: 31). This is in part true by definition, but in part it is untrue to the facts, since it is not ordinarily conceived that natural species are related by marriage, alliance, exchange, or other modes of co-operation such as express relationships between social groups. In respect of marriage, indeed, totemic affiliations propose relationships that in general are actually forbidden; for whereas in nature white cockatoos mate with white cockatoos, in human society White Cockatoos must not marry White cockatoos (ef. Needham 1978: 52-3). Lévi Strauss recognises as much, in fact, when he contradicts Bergson's view that totemism is a means of exogamy, this itself being the effect of an instinct tending to prevent harmful unions between close relatives. "The sociological model adopted would be in curious contradiction with the zoological situation which inspired it: animals are endogamous, not exogamous" (Lévi-Strauss 1963:94). This is a correct point, of course, in its context and with special reference to incest, but in its own turn it contradicts and undermines Lévi-Strauss's premiss that the relations between totemic clans are "analogous" to those obtaining between natural species. The other proposition to be noted is that the resemblance presupposed by so-called totemic representations is between two systems, animal and human, of differences: "it is not the resemblances, but the differences, which resemble each other" (1963: 77). This is a striking phrase, but it is merely rhetorical, and it has no explanatory consequences. The two propositions are interconnected, moreover, in that their common reference is the function of differentiation. Lang describes this as the oldest of scientific theories of totemism, attributing it to Garcilaso de la Vega (Lang 1905: vii) in the early seventeenth century. That is is neither a theory nor an explanation, if these terms are taken at all strictly emphasises the more correct view that differentiation is no more a part of the standard definition of totemism.

As for the theoretical gravamen of Lévi-Strauss's argument, this too can be very briefly stated. Its conclusion is that the reality of totemism, which is an intellectual construction, is reduced to that of "a particular illustration of certain modes of thought" (1963: 104). These modes are correlation and opposition, and totemism is thereby "a particular fashion of formulating a general problem, viz. how to make opposition, instead of being an obstacle to integration, serve rather to produce it" (1963: 89). Objections to this attempted elucidation can be succinctly drawn up. The ethnographic cases on which it is grounded are instances of organisation into toemic moieties, so it is self-evident that these are defined by duality and hence, since they are separate but conjoined, by opposition in these respects. But it is not demonstrated that totemic groups, such as clans, within each moiety are opposed one to another, let alone that the natural species by which they are emblematised are conceived of as thus opposed, severally or by moiety, one to another. How far the ethnography of Australia alone is inconstant with this model is soon obvious from the cases adduced by Lang, and then by those reported by Daisy Bates and her successors. Whether opposition, posited as an obstacle to integration, constitutes a "general problem" for anyone, which is Lévi-Strauss's permiss, must depend on how the concept of "opposition" itself is defined (cf. Needham 1987). Since Lévi-Strauss offers no definition, but seems to adduce the notion is an exceedingly lax and vague manner, his argument that totems are 'good to think" (1963: 104), has no precise analytical value.

An authoritative corrective to Lévi-Strauss is to be found in Stanner's essay on religion, totemism, and symbolism (1965), which serves also to show how far the study of totemism has advanced since Lang's day. A radical challenge to the presuppositions of both writers is made by Stanner's assertion that "European notions of society, external nature, and natural species had no counterpart among their [Australian aborigines] ideas" (1965: 223). What is essential, moreover is that what is meant by totemism in aboriginal Australia is always "a mystical connection" between living persons and other existents, and that the problems of understanding totemism there are the problems of understanding religion anywhere (1965: 225, 224). In this enterprise there is a hindrance in that no really satisfactory classification of Aboriginal totems has yet been devised, and there is also "a strong temptation to find more system in the facts than may actually be there" (1965: 225). Indeed, the rationale of any tribal selection of things as having totemic significance is not clear, "probably it is irreduceably arbitrary" (1965: 227). (Daisy Bates learned in the Murchison district of a woman who had a premature birth at her first sight of a camel, and when she and the baby turned out to be all right the camel was adopted as her children's totem; 1985: 203). In the absence of any clear idea of the nature of a species, a totem is not a species or variety or class as such, nor is it as though it were the cardinal number of all the family of sets associated with that number; "any particular instance of a totem at a place or point of time is, in the symbolic sense, an image of the whole indefinite family of sets" (1965: 229). So little do these considerations accord with the older literature on totemism that Stanner advocates putting a broom to it, since, with the exception of "Durkheim's brilliant muddle," there is little of definite value in it for an understanding of Aboriginal religion (1965: 225). He does not mention Lang, whose work in any case is free od the "antic enthusiasma" for group marriage and most other theoretical fictions of his day, and he could not have consulted the present work as it now stands. What is to be looked for in Lang's critique cannot be an understanding of what has become known only since his death. But, as Dr Duff-Cooper brings out, Lang's arguments are a record of what a pitch could be achieved by intelligence, scholarship, and systematic imagination at a certain stage in the advance of anthropological competence.

That there has been a real advance in the understanding of Australian totemism has been clinched,not many years back, by the exciting discoveries of Dr C.G. von Brandenstein. Here too we can take Lang as a point of reference. In 1905 he surveyed the ethnographic literature and concentrated on the fact that tribes on the northwest seaboard had four "classes" (sections) whose names closely resembled names among the central tribes (1905: 152). From the Arunta, in the centre, to the furthest north and northwest, several of the class names were of the same linguistic origin and once had the same significance. It could be seen, moreover, that some of these names denoted "objects in nature", and, Lang suggested, "class names have often been animal names" (1905: 183). Sixty years later, von Brandenstein, in the course of linguistic research in the field, established that section names were indeed identified with animals: two with different types of goanna, two with different types of kangaroo. The names of the sections were not themselves animal names, as it turned out, but there were nevertheless distinctive associations between sections and animals (von Brandenstein 1970: 41-2). These particulars were, however only the first intimations of a physiognomic typology resorting to two pairs of contrasted temperaments or elements for a general classification. The product was an extremely comprehensive metaphysical scheme that classified men, animals, plants, elements, and objects under four divisions. The major categories combined respectively combinations of the contrasts active/passive, warm-blooded/cold-blooded, and abstract/concrete. This revelatory discovery of a "totemic" metaphysics was an outstanding achievement in twentieth century anthropology (cf. Needham 1974: 30-37), yet it was itself to be surpassed by wider disclosures made by von Brandenstein under the rubric of what he labelled the "phoenix" totemism (1972). He had confirmed that the original four-section (Karierra) system had spread as far to the east as the Aranda of Central Australia, and thence up to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northwest coast of Queensland (1970: 43-4). This focused his attention on the meanings and associations of the additional four names of the subsection (or eight-section) systems of the interior. Here he uncovered the operation of a further significant contrast: big and round/small and fat. This permitted the discrimination of eight categorical divisions, each defined by a distinctive combination of three criteria, e.g. warm-blooded, active, big and round. Such expository hints give no idea of the wonderful order and richness of von Brandenstein's monograph on names and substance of the Australian subsection system (1982), a work that has set a quite new standard in theoretical ethnography. Naturally enough, he has no need to cite Lang, but the reader of the present work will find great encouragement and instruction in comparing Totemism with von Brandenstein's magnificent study of "totemic affiliation".

Finally, another authority calls for particular mention, on both theoretical and methodological grounds as well as for the connection with Lang. Between van Brandenstein's two main expositions of four-section systems and subsection systems respectively, there appeared Francis Korn's Elementary Structures Reconsidered (1973). This included a chapter on the analysis of the Dieri system, a society which, largely on the basis of A.W. Howitt's ethnography, makes repeated appearances in Totemism and in Lévi-Strauss's writings on totemism and on kinship. professor Korn presents a reinterpretation of the structure of the Dieri system, taking into account all the historical reports, which is so comprehensive and cogent as to be considered the culmination of a sequence of attempts to understand this society. In its technicality and its theoretical range, leading to the lucid concision of its finding, it serves here as a demonstration of how intricate has become the explication of the social framework of totemism since Lang's time. nevertheless, Professor Korn makes the occasion to write: "While Frazer's treatment of the dieri (1910) is almost a mere repetition of the ethnographical facts provided by Howitt, the works of Lang [including The Secret of the Totem] and [N.W.] Thomas ... still constitute remarkable pieces of anthropological theory, and their discussions with Howitt ... did throw light on some obscure points in Dieri ethnography" (Korn 1973: 41)


This edition, and first publication, of Andrew Lang's Totemism is a dual memorial, to the author and to the editor.

R.R. Marett once recounted how one night at Oxford he walked with Lang from a dinner party back to Merton. At the lodge, Lang, speaking in the most solemn way, declared: "If I could have made a living out of it, I might have been a great anthropologist" (Green 1946: 74). We do not know what he would have applied himself to in earning such an accolade. It may well seem enough that in whatever he took up, among the topics that hAve persisted as anthropology, he showed himself to be clever, thorough and original. his style in such work has been found straightforward, lucid and fascinating (Green 1946: 79), as for the most part it is in the text that follows. Admitted, the prose style of his fictions can be another matter, and it is very much of its Victorian period; even his biographer thinks that in it the Lang "touch" is an acquired taste (Green 1946: 117). Nevertheless, even this side of his writing makes an interesting connection with a man of similar standing and gifts. Arnold van Gennep, namely reported that it was his reading of Lang's Myth, Ritual, and Religion, when he was a student, that turned him from linguistics and archaeology towards ethnography and such problems as totemism. later he corresponded with Lang, and he sent him a copy of his first book, Tabou et totémisme à Madagascar (1904). In his excursion into fiction, furthermore, it seems probable that he was inspired by Lang's collection of humorous stories. In the Wrong Paradise (1886), when he composed his own volume of satirical tales, Les Demisavanta (1911), on practitioners of various branches of anthropology and others. In particular one of the tales, "MACL", which may be rated the best of van Gennep's skits, was fairly surely modelled on Lang's "The Great Gladstone Myth" (see van Gennep 1967: xiii-xiv). overall, the talents and careers of Lang and van Gennep corresponded; each was a versatile man of letters, making his living by his pen, and each resorted perforce to hackwork, and yet each conducted serious scholarly studies as well (van Gennep 1967: x-xi). Of all the many sides of Lang's literary labours, the anthropological was his favourite and the subject in which he would most have chosen to excel (Green 1946: 74): van Gennep, when he was a boy, dreamed of having his name in Larousse and of being known for an original work (1967: ix). Lang did much to bring clarity to the comparative analysis of Australian social organisation, and also in the service of folklore: van Gennep made his name with his study of the pattern of rites of passage, and also by establishing the study of folklore in France. Neither writer has remained inconsiderable, therefore, in the history of these subjects, and in the judgement of some they rank far higher than that in the esteem to which they are entitled. All the same, if we revert to the question of the recognition of a "great" anthropologist, it will be neither Lang nor van Gennep.

Unquestionably, the great anthropologist of Lang's time and into the early decades of van Gennep's in this century was J.G. Frazer, and with his name we are brought again to the text of Totemism. Van Gennep remarked, as Dr Duff-Cooper notes in his commentary, that the best part of Lang's The Secret of the Totem was where he criticised the theories of others, and in that work Frazer was accorded a critical chapter (chapter XI) all to himself. In Totemism also Frazer's opinions come in for repeated sceptical comment, and, especially in chapter 10, of an invalidating force. Lang is unfailingly courteous in the phrasing of his counter-arguments, even if sometimes a trace of irony can be imputed to him (as, for instance, when, in disposing of Frazer's notion of the influence of climate on culture, he alludes to "the educative ocean"). His hardest general assessment is no harsher than: "Mr Frazer's theory ... does not successfully resist analysis." Before demolishing one of Frazer's conjectures, he proposes: "I must be excused for pointing out ... " At one point, and not for the only time in his writings, he observes that Frazer is "obviously unacquainted with my views" (published years before), which can be taken to imply that Frazer had indeed been acquainted with them but had neglected to acknowledge what he could not refute. (This was a familiar tactic on his part; see, in chapter 6, the charge that he elided crucial facts about the Arunta, or, where he admitted them, gave them a less contrary cast.) Likewise "Mr Frazer omits the passage", i.e. crucial ethnographic evidence that was hostile to his own theory. Again and again, Frazer lets lapse coherence, logic, and the claims of evidence, to the advantage of his conjectures. A marked difference of outlook, also, is evinced by Frazer's assumption that "poor savages blindly obeyed the impulse of ... great evolutionary forces," compared with Lang's persuasion that men were "always speculative" and that in social volution "human reason is implicitly present at every step." At the risk of seeming partial, we may well tend to the conclusion that Lang's arguments confirm him as decidedly Frazer's intellectual superior. For that matter, Edmund Leach has forthrightly declared that "academically speaking, there was very little basis for Frazer's great reputation" (1961: 377). Given the special attention that Frazer pais to totemism and exogamy , with arguments many of which Lange proved to be hollow, Totemism serves to bear out that judgement. Still, it was Frazer who was knighted and awarded the O.M. and numerous honorary doctorates and other public honours, and it was Frazer whose name was made to resound with greatness. Here, it may be inferred, is a mordant lesson to be learned from the history of ideas and of academic advancement.

The other person memorialised here, Dr Duff-Cooper, has clearly registered his claim to recognition in the demanding capacity of editor. His very extended commentary on Lang's work is in many respects a model exercise in sympathetic but not uncritical assessment, and his exposition of related treatments of totemism could have stood by itself. It may be kept in mind, also, that when he accomplished his double task he was in only his second year as a graduate student in social anthropology. He felt, I think, a temperamental affinity with Lang, as an imaginative scholar, and this commitment (perhaps of a rather romantic kind that would have been characteristic of him; (cf. Needham 1991) doubtless contributed essentially to the excellence of the result. It is more than saddening that he was not spared to see the appearance in print of his homage to a predecessor whom he greatly admired. Totemism, in its present form, makes a tribute to him also, as an early testimony to his impressive scholarly diligence and powers of mind.


Grateful acknowledgement is due to the Folklore Society and its officers for their initiative in first seeking a means to have Lang's work published, for granting me permission to oversee its editing and possible publication, and for detailed information as to the provenance of the typescript. Individuals to be named include: Dr Katherine Briggs, Dr Hilda H. Ellis Davidson, Professor the Revd. Canon J.R. Porter, Mr Stewart, F. Sanderson and Dr Jacqueline Simpson. Professor David F. Pocock played a crucial part as mediator when the society approached him for guidance as to the best disposal of the work. Special honour goes to Mrs Hilda A. Lake Barnett for the energetic intervention by which she secured Lang's typescript for posterity.

Dr J.S. Eades, as producer of this volume and general editor of the series in which it appears, will be making his own acknowledgements. Mine, deeply felt, are offered to him for his professional commitment in having undertaken to see the work into the press. I am confident that in this I shall be joined be the editor's mother, Mrs Mary Grinter, and his sister, Miss Louise Cooper, as well as by friends and colleagues who will be gratified by this substantial evidence of Dr Duff-Cooper's talents in the service of Andrew Lang.

Rodney Needham

Oxford, Trinity Term, 1993.

Rodney Needham


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