Anthropology's Storyteller-Shaman-Sorcerer Strikes Again With 'The Corn Wolf'
Michael Taussig’s work both attracts and angers other anthropologists. It also re-enchants a discipline that is in desperate need of it.
“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.