HIS BOOKS are ever rooted in the visceral, the experienced — a hallmark of a life in fieldwork. Though the anthropologist Michael Taussig has conducted most of that work in Colombia, his methodology is unique, a kind of embodied philosophy. Throughout his career, his research has been guided by complex ideas: from the onset of commodity fetishism among Third World peasants to the nature of State violence. His latest work, Beauty and the Beast, is about the peculiar metaphysics of plastic surgery.
I first came to Taussig through Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (1993), while working through an idea about the way foreign music circulates among U.S. listeners. Mimesis and Alterity offered a poignant framework for understanding that exchange, in particular Taussig’s notion of “sympathetic magic” (adapted from James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough), which he uses to discuss the way Panama’s Kuna Indians incorporated Nipper, the little dog listening to “His Master’s Voice,” into their traditional mola textiles. As the grandson of a traveling RCA salesman (and a scholar of ethnomusicology), I was hooked.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Michael about his intellectual influences, his awakening to politics, and his thoughts on the craft of writing.
John Cline: You were trained as a medical doctor before pursuing an anthropology degree. What were you up to during those years before you started fieldwork in Colombia?
Michael Taussig: It was the 1960s and life seemed something that you really had to get out and grasp. I found the medical profession — the medical culture — that I was in (in Australia) extraordinarily narrow. And I wanted to get involved in political things. I went to England to study anthropology, and everyone around me was going on to a higher degree in medicine, becoming dermatologists, psychologists, etc. I had always wanted to read philosophy and get involved in, I don’t know, some casual or bohemian lifestyle? So I guess I just saw the writing on the wall. I didn’t want to become one of those people. I wanted to become, you know, a coffee house revolutionary! And then I got to Colombia, and I realized I was way out of my depth. I was suffering from all sorts of Western delusions.
JC: What drew you to Colombia initially?
MT: I’m from Sydney, graduated in Sydney, was a resident doctor in the best training school there, the Royal Prince Albert Hospital. But I went to London because I thought I would make this jump, and I would study sociology at the London School of Economics. I had a very close friend who was studying anthropology. I had belonged, for the five years prior to that, to a group called the Sydney Push — “push” a sort of Australian slang for a gang — and they were anarchists of one sort or another. Most of them came out of the philosophy department at [the University of] Sydney. This is really an important part of me; it sort of conditioned me to think about other things in life.
Looking back, there’s lots I could have done differently, of course, and I could have stayed being a doctor and worked in a more political way in Australia. But I ...read more