“So who is telling stories nowadays? And who is telling the story about stories?”
Michael Taussig was once dubbed “anthropology’s alternative radical” (by the New York Times, no less). It’s tempting to call him iconoclastic, but his latest collection, The Corn Wolf, problematizes the term ‘iconoclasm’ (it even features an ‘Iconoclasm Dictionary’) so thoroughly that a writer would deploy it at his peril.
Nevertheless, the dilemma sets the mood: Taussig’s work remains as genre-bending today as when he published the book that first raised eyebrows — and ire, among many colleagues in the field — back in 1987.
That book, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man (University of Chicago Press, 1991), launched a multi-pronged attack on some of the discipline’s most sacred conventions, and remains a controversial (and widely used) text in graduate and upper-level undergraduate anthropology courses today. While undergrads found Taussig’s unapologetic accounts of partaking in drug binges with Amazonian shamans titillating, it was the reflexive critique of anthropologists’ obsession with violence and terror, coupled with the experimental and often poetic style of composition, that put other scholars on edge.
Over a quarter century later, his ability to confound cultural critics and confront convention hasn’t waned. His latest collection of essays written over the past decade, The Corn Wolf, squarely tackles many of the key controversies of our time — the academic industrial complex, Occupy Wall Street, the intensification and precarity of neoliberal capitalist culture, the plight of Occupied Palestine, and more — in Taussig’s characteristically poetic, storyteller style.
Finding Magic in the Corporate Academy
Taussig’s work is the sort of bewilderingly beautiful prose (one is often tempted to call it poetry) that’s able to operate on multiple intellectual levels. The first essay in the collection, “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts”, immerses the reader fully and mercilessly in the style. It opens with a poor graduate student realizing that writing up their fieldwork is the most difficult and important task of graduate school, and also the one thing graduate school teaches you nothing about. Fieldwork and writing; “they are both rich, ripe, secret-society-type shenanigans. Could it be that both are based on impossible-to-define talents, intuitions, tricks, and fears?”
No wonder many careerist academics dislike him.
Of course the essay isn’t so much about graduate writing as about his own writing, and about the act of writing — the magical act of writing — itself.
For example, Taussig considers anthropology’s treatment of magic and shamanic sorcery: “Pulling the wool over one’s eyes is a simpler way of putting it… What we have generally done in anthropology is really pretty amazing in this regard, piggybacking on their magic and on their conjuring — their tricks — so as to come up with explanations that seem nonmagical and free of trickery.”
This seemingly nonmagical academic form of writing — or mode of production, as he calls it — is what he refers to as ‘agribusiness writing’: “Agribusiness writing is what we find throughout the university and everyone knows it when they don’t see it.” Against it he pitches the idea of ‘apotropaic writing’, a magic that connives with the prosaic to produce a counter-magic of its own.
When anthropologists demystify shamanic sorcery, for instance, the ‘wolfing’ moves of apotropaic magic would reveal the sorcery implicit in the act of the ‘scientific’ anthropologist’s recasting of shamanism. Indeed, the fact that the wonder and magic of the everyday world has been demystified by science is a sort of magical transformation itself. Is this how we re-enchant the world? By the use of story-telling and writing to re-position what seems like the boring, unmagical workaday world of everyday capitalist drudgery and expose it as the magical sleight-of-hand and tricksterism that it is? “I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as countermagic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.”
The point emerges again, perhaps unintentionally, in Taussig’s essay “The Stories Things Tell and Why They Tell Them”, as he discusses our collective yearning for “the old days”.
“‘The old days’ is actually a talismanic phrase and phase that ushers in prehistory and hence the enchanted world when things spoke to man… it goes along with what is felt to be a certain lack or loss of poetry — of poetry and ritual — in workaday life. But, you ask, has that really disappeared? Does enchantment not resurface under certain conditions, maybe extreme conditions, as in our contemporary world of machines, corporate control, and heady consumerism?”
Our world seems devoid of magic, comprised of boring realities that brook no alternatives: from the academic industrial complex to neoliberal capitalism. The hegemonic mode of thinking which makes us think that way, is perhaps the most magical and insidious form of sorcery there is.
Winnie-the-Pooh, and Wittgenstein, Too
The essays cover a broad range. Taussig discusses the literary work of B. Traven, that enigmatic, socio-political novelist who wrote under a pseudonym in early 20th century Mexico but is believed to have been an exiled German anarchist. Walter Benjamin appears repeatedly; Adorno and Wittgenstein, too. But to follow the startling trajectory of Taussig’s thought requires more than intellectual reference points: he weaves a sort of magic in his storytelling designed to disrupt the reader’s familiar mode of analysis; that agribusiness reading and writing model that underpins not just the academy but so much of our society’s accepted ways of configuring knowledge. A shaman-scholar, indeed. It’s Taussig’s particular talent: not just anyone can develop an essay drawing together bumblebees, the dialectics of humming, Theodor Adorno and Winnie-the-Pooh. Or produce serious, thought-provoking reflections on what a zebra in a zoo must think of a man riding by on a bicycle.
The value of Taussig’s work is that it can often be read on multiple levels; as enriching to return to as when it provokes for the first time, although the experience and what one gains from it is often quite different each time. The essay “Excelente Zona Social”, originally written to commemorate the anniversary of an anthropological classic, meanders through a set of reflections on the nature of ethnographic fieldwork, set against the backdrop of Taussig’s own time spent with peasants battling the Colombian state for control of occupied land. The peasants and their legal advisors compete with the state and the owners of capital (the palmeros, or palm plantation owners) to produce maps of the territory in dispute: on the state’s side, maps demonstrating ownership and property rights; on the peasants’ side, maps demonstrating usage and community history.
What emerges is a struggle over contesting frames of reference, and even over the language used to articulate the politics of presence. The state and palmeros speak in a legal, bureaucratic language; the peasants in a language of anecdotes and shared stories. Their legal advisor puts it bluntly: “’We have to create a new language,’ says Juan Felipe. ‘The palmeros have theirs, and we need to show the world an alternate model.’” The dispute echoes a broader one that is emerging in indigenous studies today, between competing histories of culture and the ways we recognize knowledge. In recent years, this trend has involved challenging the ways in which oral histories are traditionally devalued in western legal and intellectual culture.
Food for thought. But Taussig — like his spirit-guide, Walter Benjamin — takes it a step further and implicates the reader in this process, as well: “the origin of storytelling lies in the encounter between the traveler and those who stay at home,” he reminds us. The reader is not an innocent bystander; a point to which Taussig returns in subsequent essays.
The Politics of Field Notes
Another recurring theme in The Corn Wolf appears in the form of valuable reflections on the nature of the field journal, used by anthropologists to collect notes — sketches, snatches of conversation, reflections, vague impressions — and which is then typically translated into more standard form for reader consumption: books or journal articles. But in this process of translation it loses much of its magic, and that includes the capacity of the field journal to convey actual experience. When an anthropologist ‘writes up’ their fieldnotes, muses Taussig, after-thoughts kick in and infuse and suffuse the process. “By afterthoughts I mean secondary elaborations that arise on top of the original notes, photographs, and drawings. Through stops, starts, sudden swerves, the original is pulled into a wider and wilder landscape. To reread and to rewrite is to tug at the memories buried therein as well as engage with the gaps, questions, connections, conundrums, and big ideas that lie latent and in turn generate more of the same.”
The point of this reflection, Taussig continues, is to challenge the conventional trajectory of field-notes-to-publication. “I feel impelled to ask, therefore, if anthropology has sold itself short in conforming to the idea that its main vehicle of expression is an academic book or journal article? This is not a plea for exact reproduction of the fieldwork notebook but rather a plea for following its furtive forms and mix of private and public…”
There’s a revealing clue here to the circuitous and unorthodox nature of Taussig’s own writing style. It’s a form of “magical anthropology”, for lack of a better term. Critics speak of magical realism in fiction and literature as involving the use of magical elements to achieve a deeper insight into reality (well-known examples include the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende). Adam Hothschild, writing in the New York Review of Books, famously referred to the reportage of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski as comprising a form of “magical journalism”. Such labels describe the use of writing not to convey facts but to communicate experience, by provoking ideas and states of mind that more accurately reflect the perceived reality of a situation, even if the process of doing so requires the storyteller (be they author, journalist or anthropologist) to sometimes run rough-shod over the facts as they might be conventionally presented.
This is also a form of what is referred to as ‘fictocriticism’ — the combination of fictive and non-fictive elements in a single text. Its application has particular merit in anthropology. What many of us consider reality — “the facts”, or those details which are intended to convey and communicate reality — can sometimes themselves prove to be a barrier to comprehending reality as it is experienced by another. Facts are consumed and ordered by the reader within their own frame of reference, neatly reinforcing the reader’s pre-existing sense of reality; the experience of the Other those facts are intended to relay remains uncommunicated.
However, by playing with the presentation of those facts, some storytellers (journalists, social scientists) might manage to more accurately share the insights and experience of the Other, by provoking a deeper, experiential resonance in the reader. Or so a magical anthropology, like magical journalism or magical storytelling of any genre, might suggest.
At any rate, the fact is there’s another thread here worth following: the power of storytelling and the role of the reader, as Taussig explains best in his travelogue-essay, “My Two Weeks in Palestine”. A recurring theme in Taussig’s work is humanity’s fascination with violence and terror. Anthropologists (and other academics) are often criticized for their fly-in, fly-out method of witnessing violence, and of the careers built on our society’s fascination with violence. Like politicians, diplomats, journalists, humanitarians, and others, they are often criticized for writing about violence and terror without (seemingly) actually being able to do anything to stop it or cause it to abate. The academic, therefore, becomes implicated in the culture of violence, helping to stoke humanity’s fascination with the abominable. Yet the complicity of the academic, the anthropologist, is as nothing compared with the complicity of the reader, suggests Taussig.
This alone makes such storytelling and retelling a treacherous activity. Joseph Conrad called it ‘the fascination of the abomination,’ an accurate if ponderous rendering of the stock in trade of war journalists and war photographers, especially the latter, wild men and wild women to the core, too much in love with their work which soon settles into banality. But that is as nothing compared with the conceit of the reader of their work, secure at one remove from the action, yet no less likely to be buoyed up by the tempestuous currents of attraction and repulsion inflaming it before succumbing to indifference or turning the page or clicking the mouse.
In the face of this, what is to be done? Taussig suggests the act of witnessing is important, but it must lead to something more than mere consumption on the part of the reader. Thus the imperative for the writer, the storyteller, to find a way to write their stories (or articles, or books) in such a way as to provoke a more reactive reading that transcends mere passive consumption. Here the unorthodox anthropologist, open to the creative and experimental potential of the field journal medium or other types of experimental writing, might stumble upon ways of provoking such responses.
(I)t is my hope that the flexibility and “multi-tasking” to be found in the fieldworker’s diary can reconfigure this otherwise paralyzing ‘fascination of the abomination.’ Like the magical shield of Perseus, a diary allows of witness without being turned to stone. Like Walter Benjamin’s Denkbilden or ‘thought-images,’ the diary form facilitates grasping those images that flare up at a moment of danger when the potential for innervating the body is at its highest.
In Palestine he is struck by the way people tell him their stories: horrifying, terrible stories, but told thoughtfully and even with humour. “[T]he point was that people were capable, precisely because of their circumstance, of combining the unthinkable with the sayable — that was the miracle — and hence pass the baton of witnessing along to me, to pass on to you in the hope, vain as it may be, that witnessing becomes something more than consumption. Like travel and anthropology, reading has not only its passions but responsibilities, too.”
Taussig’s storytelling, in this collection, include an arc of stories on the pace of modern life: the speed-up of global capitalism, the precarious and destroyed lives it leaves in its ever-present wake, and the protest it sparks as workers and intellectuals and all those left in the margins (which is to say, the majority) struggle to pull the emergency brakes on a society speeding out of control. In “I’m So Angry I Made a Sign”, those brakes take the form of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Taussig witnessed first-hand, and reflects upon in a thoughtful photo-essay.
Even more powerful is the essay that follows: “The Go Slow Party”, a moving cry for resistance against the great speed-up that plagues modern society (including academia). Taussig realizes that “the only time I really go slow is in the shower and having a shit. Both are fine examples of what Hakim Bey called ‘the temporary autonomous zone.’ Both free the mind and stimulate creative thinking…” He proceeds to reflect on the right to be lazy and the need to decolonize play and leisure. His own intervention — fighting for the right to install hammocks in his university department — was denied in favour of his colleagues’ more abstract approaches to the issue, but his reflections on the topic offer a powerful provocation.
In the final essay, “Don Miguel”, he offers some parting advice for anthropologists on the nature of fieldwork.
You learn after a long, long time, that the famous ‘method’ of participant-observation tends to be weighted toward the observation end of things and, what’s more, tends not, according to the profession, to allow much by way of self-observation. What you learn is that because of class and race barriers, what I would call ‘true’ participation is rare and unforgettable, but that the ‘stranger-effect,’ being a foreigner, makes this a lot easier. Some anthropologists, perhaps the great majority, make these barriers into a virtue, claiming that such participation is irrelevant and romantic, that we should study not ourselves, not psychology, not the anthropologist-native interaction, but something as vast and nebulous as ‘culture.’
Not so, asserts Taussig, and he offers a lifetime of examples to the contrary. The particular story he tells in the final essay is an amusing and engaging one: as a student, he made the poor decision to follow the advice of more senior academics and, against his own instincts, reach out to those at the top of the social hierarchy in the region of Colombia in which he was working, instead of simply ignoring them and focusing on the peasants he felt more comfortable with. The result was his being targeted by the local secret police (who had previously ignored him), setting off a frenzied dash around the country to convince the necessary authorities that he and his colleague were, after all, harmless researchers. His point, however, was that his own memory of this incident and the insights it opened up became a unique and different form of participant-observation, because “we had become objects in our own story”.
The Corn Wolf essays are prime Taussig: assuming a form that is both whimsical and yet deadly provocative at the same time. Michael Taussig: anthropology’s trickster magician, poet and storyteller, casts his spell again.