Sunday thoughts on Taussig, titles for articles & commodity fetishism in South America

Michael Taussig is one of Australia’s sexier anthropological exports.

I was tempted to describe Taussig as a classic “rock star” academic but then I wondered what that even means. He has an unconventional approach and style to ethnography+anthropology (perhaps because he started his career in another discipline), which gives him an air of irreverence and stand-alone confidence. He is certainly charismatic and, while it’s taboo to mention such things in academia, he also happens to be very handsome. Add to all this the fact that he’s an exceptional scholar and a brilliant theorist and you have a pretty good case for an academic crush.

To give a sense of his body of work (and the evidently snappy titling of his journal articles), among the many and diverse articles he’s written are: ‘What Do Drawings Want?’ in Culture, Theory and Critique (2009)’, ‘The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts” Critical Inquiry (2008),  ‘Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror’ in Critical inquiry (2008). ‘Redeeming Indigo’ in Theory, Culture & Society (2008). ‘Getting High with Walter Benjamin and William Burroughs’ in Cabinet (2008). ‘Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism’ in Critical Inquiry (2008).

Among the books he’s written are ‘What Color is the Sacred?’ (2009), ‘My Cocaine Museum’ (2004). Defacement (1999). ‘Magic of the State’ (1997), ‘Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses’ (1993) & ‘Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing’ (1987).

I read a couple of reviews this morning and noted one reviewer’s comment re ‘My Cocaine Museum’ thus,

“If Hunter S. Thompson had been trained by Boaz in anthropology, Engels in economics and Arendt in philosophy, he might write something like Taussig [..]”

Taussig is most acclaimed or widely recognized for his 1980 ethnography ‘The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America’, which I’ve been revisiting of late. There are a number of parallels between the way Yolŋu and the rural people of Colombia and Bolivia (about whom Taussig writes), consider market relations, it seems … I think.

Interesting things of which to think on this here sunny Sunday.

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Devil and Commodity Fetishism. I only wish he hadn’t used the term ‘precapitalist’ because it lends itself to the denial of coevality in many ways. Anyhow – a brilliant ethnography. I have broken up the paragraphs for ease of reading.

‘This book attempts to interpret what are to us in the industrialised world the exotic ideas of some rural people in Colombia and Bolivia concerning the meaning of the capitalist relations of production and exchange into which they are daily being drawn.

These peasants represent as vividly unnatural, even as evil, practices that most of us in commodity-based societies have come to accept as natural in the everyday workings of our economy, and therefore of the world in general.

This representation occurs only when they are proletarianized and refers only to the way of life that is organized by capitalist relations of production. It neither occurs in nor refers to the peasant’s way of life.

Any work of interpretation includes elements of uncertainly and intellectual self-effacement. For what truth is being displayed by one’s interpretation? Is it nothing more than a mediation between the unfamiliar and the familiar?

Assuredly, that is the more honest, if less grandiose, practices of the interpreter; yet, in confronting the implications of this practice we discern that the interpretation of the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar impugns the familiar itself. The truth of interpretation lies in its intellectual structure of contrasts, and its reality is inherently self-critical.

So, although, this work focuses on the cultural reactions of peasants to industrial capitalism and attempts to interpret those reactions, it is, inevitably, also an esoteric attempt to critically illuminate the ways by which those of us who are long accustomed to capitalist culture have arrived at the point at which this familiarity persuades us that our cultural form is not historical, not social, not human, but natural – “thing-like” and physical.

In other words, it is an attempt forced upon us by confrontation with precapitalist cultures to account for the phantom objectivity with which capitalist culture enshrouds its social creations.

Time, space, matter, cause, relation, human nature, and society itself are social products created by man just as are the different types of tools, farming systems, clothes, houses, monuments, languages, myths, and so on, that mankind has produced since the dawn of human life.

But to their participants, all cultures tend to present these categories as if they were not social products but elemental and immutable things. As soon as such categories are defined as natural, rather than as social, products, epistemology itself acts to conceal understanding of the social order, our experience, our understanding, our explanations – all serve merely to ratify the conventions that sustain our sense of reality unless we appreciate the extent to which the basic “building blocks” of our experience and our sensed reality are not natural but social constructions.

In capitalist culture this blindness to the social basis of essential categories makes a social reading of supposedly natural things deeply perplexing’ (Michael Taussig 1980, Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America’ University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, pp. 3-4).

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