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Michael Taussig (born 3 April 1940 in Sydney) is an Australian anthropologist, born in Sydney of German and Czech/Jewish ancestral parents. He completed secondary education in 1958 at North Sydney Boys High School and then earned a medical degree from the University of Sydney, received his PhD. in anthropology from the London School of Economics and is a professor at Columbia University. Although he has published on medical anthropology, he is best known for his engagement with Marx's idea of commodity fetishism, especially in terms of the work of Walter Benjamin. He won a Berlin Prize 2007 from the American Academy in Berlin.
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980)
The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America is both a polemic about anthropology and an analysis of a set of seemingly magical beliefs held by rural and urban workers in Colombia and Bolivia. His polemic is that the principal concern of anthropology should be to critique Western (specifically, capitalist) culture. He further argues that people living in the periphery of the world capitalist economy have a critical vantage point on capitalism, and articulate their critiques of capitalism in terms of their own cultural idioms. He thus concludes that anthropologists should study peoples living on the periphery of the world capitalist economy as a way of gaining critical insight into the anthropologists' own culture. In short, this polemic shifts the anthropologists' object of study from that of other cultures to that of their own, and repositions the former objects of anthropological study (e.g. indigenous peoples) as valued critical thinkers.
Taussig applies this approach to two beliefs, one based on both his own field research and that of anthropologist June Nash, the second based on his own research. The first is the belief held by semi-proletarianized peasants in Colombia (with an analogous case among Bolivian tin miners) that proletarianized sugar-cane cutters can make a contract with the devil that will cause them to make a good deal of money, but that this money can be spent only on frivolous consumer goods, and that the cutter will die an early miserable death. Taussig suggests that earlier anthropologists might have argued that this belief is a hold-over from pre-capitalist culture, or serves as a leveling mechanism (ensuring that no individual become significantly wealthier than any of his or her fellows). Taussig, however, argues that through the devil, peasants express their recognition that capitalism is based on the magic belief that capital is productive, when in fact capitalism breeds poverty, disease, and death. The second belief provides another example of peasants representing their own understanding of capitalism's claim that capital is productive: the belief that some people engineer a switch that results in a peso, rather than a baby, being baptized. The consequence is that the money, alive, will return to its original owner no matter how it is spent, and bring more money back with it.
Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987)
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In Michael Taussig's seminal work, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, he leads us down a path that examines the project of Colonialism as it was carried out in South America. He first creates a space of an all-too-real and present terror followed by a process of healing that we as readers are ourselves supposed to follow. Through the weaving and interlocking of literature, firsthand accounts, and his ethnographic work, Taussig creates, "a mode of perception—a way of seeing through a way of talking--figuring the world through dialogue that comes alive with sudden transformative force in the crannies of everyday life’s pauses and juxtapositions. ... It is an irregular, quavering image of hope, this inscription on the edge of official history" (209). In both following his text and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into it as it develops, Taussig himself comes to take on the role of the shaman, and we readers the role of the patient.
Taussig introduces his subject matter in his author’s note, stating that the purpose of his text is to examine, "the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real, in the creation of Indians, in the role of the myth and magic in colonial violence as much as in its healing, and in the way that healing can mobilize terror in order to subvert it ... through the tripping up of power in its own disorderliness. That is why my subject is not the truth of being but the social being of truth, not whether facts are real but what the politics of their interpretation and representation are" (xiii, italics added).
As stated above the author begins this discussion first by looking at acts of terror and the "space of death" created there. His case of terror is that of the rubber trade in the Putumayo river area of Colombia of the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of these acts of terror stemmed from British rubber barons of the time trying to impose a capitalist mode of production on an indigenous, "wild", population still living under an economy based upon a gift exchange system. In the eyes of the British, who violently pressured the natives to extract rubber from the rubber trees of the area, the Indians "would not work appropriately". The barons' reaction to indigenous resistance was to carry out horrific acts of terror on the minds and bodies of the local population, which Taussig thoroughly documents through providing firsthand accounts from the time. Within the "space of death" created in the Putumayo area came also the death of communal memory and objectivity. Terror resulted in a, "society shrouded in an order so orderly that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it—a death-space in the land of the living where torture's certain uncertainty fed the great machinery of the arbitrariness of power" (4).
The powerful force of healing develops from the same space created by the other powerful force of terror: "Shamanic healing... like the culture of terror, also develops its force from the colonially generated wildness of the epistemic murk of the space of death" (127). In his section on healing Taussig relates his ethnographic work with José García, an Indian shaman of the Putumayo, during the 1970s. Taussig is particularly compelled by the fact that many peasant colonists seek out José García to be healed. He notes that to the magic already possessed by shamans like García, "colonialism fused its own magic, the magic of primitivism" (216). Here Taussig is speaking of how the shaman has been able to harness the "mystery" and "wildness" projected onto him by Western "civilization" in his practice as a shaman. He goes on to write that this, "folding of the underworld of the conquering society into the culture of the conquered [is] not as an organic synthesis or ‘syncretism’… but as a chamber of mirrors reflecting each stream’s perception of the other" (218). In what does the healing power of wildness lie? Taussig answers this question:
Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage. ... Wildness is the death space of signification” (219).
So it has been through the sweep of colonial history where the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man--a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power (467).
The Nervous System (1992)
Published in 1992, The Nervous System comprises nine essays. Michael Taussig sets out on a journey to explore and describe various forces that shape and mold our present society. He tries to explore the process through which we commodify the state and in that way transfer the power to it. Taussig attempts to show how the state uses forces such as violence or media control to consolidate its power over the people. He argues that we live in a state of emergency, citing Walter Benjamin, that is not ‘an exception but the rule.’ To show the universality of the nervous system he takes his reader through the heights of Machu Picchu, the world of Cuna shamans, and the pale world of New York’s hospital system.
Mimesis and Alterity (1993)
Mimesis and Alterity looks primarily at the way people from different cultures experience the two themes of the book – how we come to adopt or assimilate another's nature or culture (mimesis), and also how we come to identify/distance ourselves with/from it (alterity). Taussig studies this phenomenon through ethnographical accounts of the Cuna, and through the ideas of Walter Benjamin.
The Cuna have adopted a set of wooden figurines for magical ritual that look remarkably like white colonists, to the point of sometimes being recognizable as figures from history that traveled through those parts. If you asked one of the Cuna about the figurines, he would likely deny all connection between the two, creating an epistemic dilemma where something that may appear obvious to anthropologists is anything but obvious to those they study. Another noteworthy peculiarity of Cuna culture that Taussig mentions is the way in which the Cuna have adopted, in their traditional molas, images from western pop culture, including a distorted reflection of the Jack Daniel’s bottle, and also a popular iconic image from the early twentieth century, The Talking Dog, used in advertising gramophones. Taussig criticizes anthropology for reducing the Cuna culture to one in which the Cuna had simply come across the white colonists in the past, were impressed by their large ships and exotic technologies, and mistook them for Gods. For Taussig, this very reduction of the Other is suspect in itself, and through Mimesis and Alterity, he argues from both sides, demonstrating why exactly anthropologists have come to reduce the Cuna culture in this way, and the value of this perspective, at the same time as defending the independence of lived culture from Anthropological reductionism.
- The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, 1980, ISBN 978-0-8078-4106-8.
- Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, 1987, ISBN 978-0-226-79013-8.
- The Nervous System, 1992, ISBN 978-0-415-90445-2.
- Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, 1993, ISBN 978-0-415-90687-6.
- The Magic of the State, 1997, ISBN 978-0-415-91791-9.
- Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, 1999, ISBN 978-0-8047-3200-0.
- Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia, 2003, ISBN 978-0-226-79014-5.
- My Cocaine Museum, 2004, ISBN 978-0-226-79009-1. See an excerpt.
- Walter Benjamin's Grave, 2006, ISBN 978-0-226-79004-6. See an excerpt.
- What Color Is the Sacred?, 2009, ISBN 978-0-226-79006-0. See an excerpt.
- I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Namely My Own, 2011, ISBN 978-0-226-78982-8
- Beauty and the Beast, 2012, ISBN 9780226789866
- The Corn Wolf, 2015, ISBN 9780226310718
- "American Academy Siemens Fellow - Class of Spring 2007". American Academy in Berlin. Retrieved 24 March 2012.
- Taussig, Michael (31 October 2018). "The Ghost in the Machine". Jacobin. Retrieved 1 November 2018.