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MICHAEL TAUSSIG with Nathlie Provosty and Jarrett Earnest

Drawing by Michael Taussig. Courtesy the University of Chicago Press.

The anthropologist, author, and Columbia University professor Michael Taussig is best known for his book My Cocaine Museum (2004) and his many decades living, on and off, in the Putumayo region of Colombia. On the occasion of the publication of his newest book, The Corn Wolf (University of Chicago Press, 2015),Taussig sat down with artist Nathlie Provosty and writer Jarrett Earnest to share his experiences of having been paralyzed, bedridden, and eventually pulled into the adventure of the “mastery of non-mastery”—a concept he mediates with nimble mental acrobatics.

Nathlie Provosty: Skimming the top of your CV, I noticed under the heading “Degrees and Titles:” “1952 President and Founding member of the Castlecrag Stamp Club.” You were twelve.

Michael Taussig: [Laughs.] I threw that in to spoof the academy!

Provosty: Ha! Well, I love that stamps have images, are sticky, and travel. They are symbols with the power to move messages through the sky. This former hobby of yours is a beautiful microcosm of your trajectory and later interests.

Taussig: At the time the most I would have thought about such a trajectory would be unconsciously. I went every few months into the Royal Arcade—a truly Benjaminian arcade in the center of Sydney—to bargain for stamps with experts behind glass counters full of stamps. I remember being over-awed because at that time, in the ’50s, with the independence of former colonies, there were all these new nations issuing big flashy stamps with which no philatelist could keep up. But it’s a nice parable you’ve created.

Jarrett Earnest: It’s nice starting with “childhood,” not just for the psychoanalytic playtime of retroactively reading significance into symbols, but because of the wonderful essay “Humming” in your new book The Corn Wolf, which begins by discussing Winnie-the-Pooh, which you describe as “a missage [sic] in a bottle thrown in the rising floodwaters of becoming—becomings between child and adult, child and animals, child and toys, most especially that toy we call language, both spoken and written, both heard and read.” I was wondering what stories you read or listened to as a child.

Taussig: Well, I was sick a lot as a kid; I was in bed half my childhood. I had rheumatic fever about five times between the ages of six and eighteen, so I read an awful lot. My mother exhausted the Sydney public library, and then discovered the U.S. Information Service, and they had American books, which were a great find.

Earnest: Why were you ill so much as a child?

Taussig: It’s a long story and a strange story. My parents had split up and I was put into a boarding school. It was a very “progressive” school, so all the kids, no matter their age, were in one classroom. We did a lot of finger paintings and linocuts and had to go swimming early in the morning in the sea which at that time frightened me. I’ve always been frightened of it, though I later became a surfer. Surf is the model for the Dionysian. One day at boarding school I went into the sea and I couldn’t stand up when the whistle blew. They said I was paralyzed with polio, which was around in those days, and I was taken on a stretcher to the hospital and was there for months, diagnosed with rheumatic fever, which recurred every year or two. Years later I talked in London with a Jungian, John Layard, the kindest man, who worked in Kingsley Hall with Ronnie (R.D.) Laing and David Cooper, a clinic with live-in young people diagnosed as “schizophrenics” running the place. Do you know Laing’s book, The Divided Self? It was famous in the sixties, a sort of bible at the time. So, I met John Layard through an American, Harry Pincus, a beautiful guy at the London School of Economics who subsequently killed himself when I was in Colombia the first time. Harry had a lot of entrée with people like that and took me to meet Layard, who in the twenties or thirties had been an anthropologist in Malekula, an island in the South Pacific, and subsequently had a nervous breakdown. I must have been twenty-eight, and Layard, in his eighties, looked at me, leaned forward, and asked: “Why did you get rheumatic fever?” There was a burning light behind his eyes. He was insinuating that there must have been a psycho-cultural reason for this illness; that it was not a physical thing. That knocked me out because I thought I was reasonably self-aware but this man was turning my life upside down. It shocked me. And according to all the statistics on rheumatic heart disease I was destined for an early demise, but here I am, so maybe Layard was right but then the EKG didn’t think so.

Earnest: You have increasingly made yourself as a character in your writing, but that character is itself a very elaborate construction. It seems that the story of the sick little boy reading adventure stories in bed that grows up to go on actual adventures through the jungle is an incredibly interesting, if reductive to the point of cliché, psycho-biographical lens on your work. Why have you chosen to not mention any of this in your writing?

Taussig: Well, have I made myself a character, or simply an “I,” as part of an epistemological method in social inquiry that requires the writer to be part of the story? As for talking—revealing—my childhood and my dreaming in bed of being active in far-away places, it’s only recently I’ve chosen to speak about that aspect of myself, Jarrett. Superstitious as it may seem, I felt myself under some sort of death-spell driving me to the edge. But I was also cautious and even hypocritical because I wanted to become some sort of academic, intellectual, or writer. I would like to think of myself as a daredevil one hundred percent, driven by the thought, “I’m going to die early so what the hell.” But let’s put the big framework on here: this was the ’60s—what Marshall Sahlins calls “the shortest decade of the 20th century.” What I did was madcap in a conventional way: a coffee-revolutionary from Western Europe where I had been studying, who went to the Third World to join the revolution, a journey with too many missionary and do-gooding undercurrents with colonial implications—and you can go down the list.

Provosty: Well, you went to Colombia with these Marxist ideas and seem to have been turned away from sociology, toward anthropology, by becoming captivated by the devil, which became your book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America.

Taussig: Yes, the devil was my route out of a straight-shooting Marxist materialism. It was a way of changing the game, a radical change in my thinking. In my memory of that time, I had never come across anybody writing about commodity fetishism in the English language—the Germans were talking about it in the late ’20s, but none of it penetrated British Marxism. For me it was exciting to suddenly be able to spiritualize the economy in accord with that famous chapter on the fetish in Marx that was the bane of the economic reductionists. At the time I also saw this as part of the anti-Vietnam War cause, if you like, the adventurist cause, which was to enliven the analysis, vampire-like, with the spirit of other people’s resistance. I was trying to do some emotional/intellectual work on the nature of the market, on the nature of the commodity, on something we take for granted in the West by representing it as something alienated, in Brechtian terms, to make it seem strange. Later on I thought, this enlivening with resistance is really a bit of a rip-off. I didn’t want to pursue that anymore because I saw it as a substitute for one’s own resistance. Yet the Brechtian strategy with the devil was more than that; my idea was to challenge the taken-for-granted character of the commodity transaction in the First World by seeing it through the eyes—or least the stories—of others living on the periphery, transitioning from peasant farming to landless laborer status, working for cash in agri-business.

Reading Bataille ten years later was a shock. In an essay with the title “The Sun Gives Without Receiving,” I put forward the idea that the devil stories were more about people’s seduction by extremes, by what Bataille called dépense or wasting, implying Dionysian, unprofitable expenditure; such that the stories were not to be fitted into a functionalist analysis. Rather, the devil was a figure that invited you into outer-space ways of being-and-thinking about the world—which doesn’t contradict the power of the analysis of the commodity, but complements it. Good for the devil! [Laughs.]

Earnest: I’m going to return to childhood for a moment: several of the writers you have deep relationships with—Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust—hold childhood in an extremely important place within their thinking. How do you see your childhood functioning in relation to your worldview?

Taussig: I came across an article in a Chicago literary magazine about twenty years ago talking about the relationship between boys’ adventure stories and colonialism, which resonated with me as I can see how boys’ minds were formed in most of the 20th century with these sorts of yarns, and I can’t help but think that that did have an impact on me. Later on, when I was introduced to the Sydney anarchists, I swallowed whole the Western European Anarchist literature of the 19th century, which became added in complex and contradictory ways to this sense of adventure.

My parents were refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia and I’d like to think that had some influence too, but indirectly, since they never spoke about the Third Reich or Europe, and detested Austria and would never go back—never. When I was about sixteen I discovered a book about the persecution of party members written by a Polish-Austrian physicist named Alex Weissberg, Conspiracy of Silence, who as a Communist recruited engineers and chemists to the Soviet Union, of whom my father was one, and appears in this book together with my mother in a love triangle connecting southern Russia, Vienna, and London. That was the first string that I started to unravel about their history.

Drawing by Michael Taussig. Courtesy the University of Chicago Press.

Earnest: What did your father do?

Taussig: He was an engineer, cynical about politics when I pressed him. I figured he didn’t talk history, but he wore history; my memory is he wore the same clothes decade in and decade out—the same hat, the shirt with thin stripes, the cut of the suit—this is my imagination now.

Provosty: Was his closet filled with duplicates of the same outfit?

Taussig: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I cannot remember me and my mother ever reminiscing either. She was a great cook and would make apple strudel, working on the pastry laid out thinner than thin across the kitchen table. She would cook three- or four-course meals almost every day. Looking back I see this as a wonderfully curious structure of memory in food and clothing

Earnest: Growing up in Australia, how does the colonial imaginary function differently?

Taussig: Such a good question! My impulse is to say it’s very specific, meaning different to other colonies. When I grew up, there were “no Aborigines in Australia”—blackness was rendered that invisible. I’ve spoken to white kids my age from country towns who have completely different memories because there were indigenous people out west from Sydney. They’ve told me stories about their childhood, bitter stories, like the American South. In terms of the press: there was no TV when I grew up, there was no sensitivity or knowledge, or rather there was blindness and repression combined. It was an uptight, white colony of rednecks, a working class colony flooded with immigrants after the Second World War with testy relationships between them and the “real” white Australians, never mind the indigenes. “Anglo-Saxon” attitudes were supreme. The Queen. The Protestant Church—I’m trying to give a thumbnail sketch. There was something like a freedom ride copied off the United States when I was in my mid-twenties and there were people involved in that on the edges of my Sydney circle. But I would say people that I knew growing up were blissfully ignorant, and although they had that wonderful Australian attitude of a “fair go”—it was for whites only. Then, like a thunderclap, in the late ’70s people started to learn of massacres of indigenous people. How did that affect my attitudes when I went to London? The “fair go” Aussie egalitarianism made me more rough-and-ready, quick to jump at hierarchies of which I found plenty of when I was in London in 1968. Plenty. In England, Australians were seen as inferior; middle class English people buoyed themselves up with that sensibility—I think they probably still do. And when I got to England I became aware of class in a new way. It saturated everything. And Marxism was so strong there compared with my anarchist Sydney! Through all of that my colonial sensibility was muted and complicated, but the Vietnam War and the cultural tumult of the ’60s were a great teacher.

Earnest: Over the course of your writing, there are a few terms that keep returning, becoming re-inflected. One of these is your seemingly paradoxical ideal of “the mastery of non-mastery”—when did it first enter your concerns and how has it changed?

Taussig: I was hoping you might ask that question because it is new and important to me. Mastery of non-mastery is a tongue-twister I found in Benjamin and Bataille, yet I see intimations of it in my Mimesis and Alterity, which is crucial because mimesis is what mastery of non-mastery pivots on. You mimic and subvert mastery in one breath, in yourself as much as in the world; a re-write of Hegel’s master-slave parable.

In Benjamin’s “To the Planetarium,” he says that, because of World War I, people sensed a new cosmic understanding undermining the mastery of nature because of the fantastical power of military technology standing over nature in brilliant Technicolor; in effect, mastery undermining itself and everything else. Five years after Benjamin’s death, Oppenheimer nailed it with his “brighter than a thousand suns,” in which technology dwarfs the cosmic flair of ancient mythology. Hence Benjamin’s call in 1928 for an attitude towards technology of the mastery of non-mastery, reinforced by his understanding of the central importance of cosmic sensitivities prior to modernity.

I used this idea when writing a theater piece, the Berlin Sun Theater, which I later wanted to convert into a book with the theater text on one page and commentary on the facing page. I spent months on this because it seemed to fall apart the more time I spent on it. One thing that was happening was that the poetic language of the text was infiltrating the commentary and the commentary was becoming more like the poetic text. Talk about mimesis and alterity! I realized then that I had no criteria for understanding what was poetry, what was prose, or what was analytic or poetic language—it was a terrible nausea. Eventually I condensed it into a more straightforward book. It’s a strange piece of work. The title of that will be The Mastery of Non-Mastery and the main “character” is the sun in the age of global meltdown. I was captivated by the mastery of non-masterywhich I held to be an anarchistic, joyful notion, which puts the pressure on us in a zen-like way to inhabit and subvert the impulse for domination.

I had been working previously with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment where again and again they talk about domination of nature, and they mean nature out there and in here—inner world and outer world—with appendices on the domination of women and animals. The book starts with Homer and goes through to Nazi Germany, always following this one thread: domination of nature, understanding Enlightenment as irrational; as mythic fear become radical.

So for a long time I was thinking: how can you get out of this “domination of nature?” Does a mimetic relation to nature suggest a way out, being a yielding relation instead of a relationship of domination? That seemed promising but too simple, while the paradoxical formulation suggested the appropriate degree of complexity; imitating mastery in order to subvert it in never-ending paradox.

Earnest: One of the things that is wonderful about it as a term is that it erupts out of your work in a completely natural way. In the essay “Viscerality, Faith, and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic” you describe the fundamental technique of shamanic magic as “the skilled revelation of skilled concealment,” which seems as a concept to prefigure the mastery of non-mastery; one can see the way that the mastery of non-masteryemerges out from a very dense body of work, as an underlying formulation.

Taussig: You’re so right. That’s exactly it. A still earlier formulation was “The Nervous System.”

Earnest: I was thinking about it when you spoke of the Professor/Daredevil situation as it relates to the discipline of anthropology—you are a star professor in a discipline you’ve spent your professional life deconstructing, poking your finger into the academy’s skilled concealments. I wonder, do you believe contradictions always need to be resolved?—because the mastery of non-mastery suggests otherwise, it seems against resolutions and ultimate revelations.

Taussig: Yes, that is very much the case. My take on Proust, and what I call “the bodily unconscious,” figures into this as well; in Proust there are untold pages of complex sensuous description that make the reader aware in new ways of the things of this world—the flowers, the shadows on the road, the woman’s dress, sounds—he slows down your senses, he widens the spectrum between stimulus and response, between a sign and its meaning. It’s like you’re getting training on how to sense. I see this as raising into awareness of that which we are unaware, namely the bodily unconscious, and then, having raised it, he lets it drop back into the body, leaving just a tremor in consciousness of its history. Something came and went and now the scene is different, as are you. This fits well with Freud’s model of consciousness, the stimulus shield, and memory, as in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Benjamin’s use of that in his second essay on Baudelaire. What I call the tremor, the residue, is like gold to work with. As you imply, it seems to me that the whole point of skilled revelation and skilled concealment is not to reveal but to intimate in scenes that flit over consciousness like butterfly wings. That is what’s so wrong with so much academic work, that it aspires toward fundamental explanations and cannot handle this juggling. And that was the basis of my non-semiotic or anti-semiotic take on color in What Color Is the Sacred; that awareness of color responds to the play of the bodily unconscious in a global history of colonialism and it is this recondite quality and this instability that makes color such an enigma.

The other person involved in the skilled revelation of skilled concealment is, of course, Nietzsche. In his second preface to The Gay Science, he says something like: it’s only young and hence unwise philosophers who want to tear off the veil. But we who’ve been around a bit are not into the revelation thing. He cites the story of the witch Baubo, who raises her skirt and reveals herself to the grieving Demeter to make her laugh, which she does, and then Baubo drops the skirt.

Provosty: Sacrifice is discussed in the beginning of Dialectics of Enlightenment, and also in Couliano’s book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, where the sacrifice is a break; it breaks the normal life so that in there you can place a new intention. Now holding that thought, it seems that your impulse to explore the mastery of non-mastery is an attempt at the question: how can one un-colonize oneself? So, I’m very interested in your ritual experiences in the Putumayo and how they could have functioned like sacrifices or breaks, even self-sacrifice, by way of nausea and transgression.

Taussig: You’re right to emphasize the slashing presence of the sacred and the marvelous. That rupture gives the colonial and de-colonizing moment its opportunity; namely that the shaman compacts the magic of colonial fabulation regarding the people of the forest, who are magically powerful persons precisely because they are seen by outsiders as primitive, thereby endowed with magical powers. The colonizer is therewith healed of misfortune and granted grace on account of colonial ideology! That’s the nub! But as regards that slashing presence, surely the shaman brings a tremendously old pre-colonial tradition to the hallucinogenic ritual, an experience granted a deeply visceral response to visual images and a Dionysiac merging between observer and observed. You actually feel these images entering into you, and vice versa. But then in addition there is the mundane foundation of the mis-en-scène entailing chatting, joking, and crying all night long, which had a big impact on my interest in storytelling. It was hard for me to go back and teach after these experiences, because it seemed like lecturing in the classroom was so ungentle and one-sided in comparison to the give and take in those conversations and I was being a clumsy oaf.

I think there has been a revolution in the English-speaking world the past twenty or thirty years embracing the value of narrative and even the anecdote, but through that very embrace rendering storytelling rather corny. “What’s your story?” And that goes hand-in-hand with not so much an appreciation as an appropriation of the imagination, now coded as “the imaginary,” like some foreign species of duck. Narrative, anecdote, and imagination become means to ends; not ends in themselves.

In writing my shamanism and terror book in the early eighties, I thought a lot about their stories and my stories; how most of the stories I heard in the Putumayo were fragmented observations, that might be only four words, or might go on a long time, but very rarely did they have a beginning, middle, and end, for example. Is that how living speech works, I wondered, submerging story-like production in speech that is not staged—not like that storyteller described by Benjamin? Not at all. And that made me restless about my stories, or should I say my story-like productions, veering between fact and anecdote. I wanted to put scare quotes around the word story while deeply indebted to it as a way of dancing with that spirit people call “theory.”

Provosty: In that case, how do you see a story’s construction in relation to truth telling? Or of fiction that is more real than what is “real?” You’ve used this term “ficto-criticism”—

Taussig: For at least two decades I’ve been thinking a great deal about ficto-criticism as a cross-over between fiction and non-fiction because, well, it’s so much fun. Yet it is difficult to define. Most of us end up sounding awkward about what is the mix between fact and fiction. A person like Derrida, tiptoeing around aporias with his idea of the necessary fiction distinguishing between fact and fiction, seems to me wonderfully ficto-critical, and this distinction seems to me as basic to thought as to the practice of power in the world at large.

As regards ethnography, telling stories with a ficto-critical sensibility implies performance in the writing; the rhythm and speed, the tone of voice, the position or maybe even changes in the position of the writer as a voice. Also the mischief-making tongue-in-cheek conspiration with the reader, the text as a movie, the text as a magic spell, and so forth can be involved. William Burroughs does it so well.

It’s a beguiling term—“ficto-criticism”—because so much value is placed on not allowing fiction to intrude into serious research. You could say that research actually expends most of its creative energy in blocking creative energy. At the same time it should be obvious that our facts are permeated by narrative and myth—by a priori assumptions of which we are blissfully unaware—and by particular visions of the world, all of which allow the scientific or non-fictional account to proceed. The writing and image-making concerning violence is a telling example. Most people are at least dimly aware that these two distinct modes actually depend upon one another, the fictive and the critical. The point is to get them in the same room. Game on! In my own writing I find the distinction itself to be at the core of what I am doing—as a performance of masking and un-masking in a primitive initiation ritual, thereby entailing a love of the art of writing and of reading.

Michael Taussig.

In Law in a Lawless Land there is a chapter that is very strange—I took upon myself (a lapsed medical doctor) the task of practicing the indigenous curing I got to know in the Upper Amazon, but doing it in an Afro-Colombian agri-business town where such modes of curing are unknown. A seventeen-year-old girl was wasting away, not eating, her body not her own, lying in the fetid darkness of her small room, parents desperate. I knew the family over thirty years, since 1970, and was told she had been ensorcelled by the woman living opposite whose daughter had died in childbirth. As I was singing, and I’m not much of a singer, I lost my nerve and felt I was trespassing on all sorts of domains. The songs are wordless emanations of sounds from the body connected in undefined ways with spiritual powers—of the river, and the forest, but also, I think, connected to many other powers that characterize our modern world. In my despair I thought I can’t pretend that I see or hear spirits but I can envision the people who do so in the Indian healing séances on the other side of the mountains, and thereby I found I was able to continue. My envisioning of those people imparted their strength to me. They were my spirits. After all, I had in my comings and goings, been part of that Amazonian community from 1972 to 1997.

When I went back to try and write about it in my diary, I felt too shook up and exhausted. I couldn’t write for a day or two. I started to think, “what is writing in a diary, anyway?”

The spirits sing through the shaman, and I thought, here I am, thinking about ethnographic diaries, and so I asked the question of myself—Who do you write to when you write in a diary? Who do you write to when you write? I know you are not really writing about yourself or to yourself because the Self keeps dissolving. Rather you are writing to an imagined but elusive audience looking over your shoulder.

So, in asking who I am writing to, and why, the answer stared me in the face. It’s the spirits! We assume the writer is communicating something to someone, but then what does it mean if you put an intermediary in there, as with this healing where I was able to continue with my ritual by envisaging people who believe in spirits and make something fine. At first it’s surprising—asserting that writing is to and with the help of spirits—but I thought, doesn’t the surprise spring from the anemic language of the modern Self and the watered-down views of reality of modern psychology, which holds writing to be a one-to-one relationship of “communication?”

Provosty: It sounds like you set a spell on yourself—you tricked yourself.

Taussig: You know people are crazy when they write and need all manner of tricks to make them even crazier.


Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.

Nathlie Provosty

NATHLIE PROVOSTY is an artist living in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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