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 didn’t see that when I was a doctor.
I studied sociology, which was the radical subject then — huge numbers of students, all over the world. It was a theory of revolution, really. Not so much in the U.S. The U.S. always had these restrictions and was not daring at all, theoretically, and “theory” meant Talcott Parsons. Which was deadening. Actually, stupefying. But outside of the U.S., in England, France, Italy, you know, Germany, it was incredibly different. So my friends I hung out with, some were from Colombia, others locals [Londoners], and we had a lot of interest in what we called “Third World issues.” And some of my friends went to Cuba, but I felt, romantically or whatever, that I wanted to go to a country that had really come close to having a revolution but had misfired and become instead a bloody violence. Peasant against peasant. And that was one thing which sort of drew me to Colombia — trying to get involved, or in some way understand how people would turn on one another like that. I also had two teachers who were involved in Colombia. Andrew Pearce, a sociologist at Oxford, had worked for many years in Colombia, and Orlando Fals-Borda had some friends there, and those guys set me up. So did my fellow grad student Fernando Uricochoea, who was from Colombia himself. When I went in December 1969, I had a handful of really marvelous connections [for] getting involved in left-wing circles.
JC: Back then you did at least one, maybe two pamphlets for workers, peasants, in Spanish?
MT: Well, that was my first book. I wrote it before I did a Ph.D. And I thought that was the principled thing to do. It was partly archival and partly oral history of a town of Afro-Colombians in the interior who had seen in their lifetime a peasant economy become absorbed by agribusiness, devoted to sugarcane. My impulse was to resurrect the second half of the 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1851, and for 50 years the freed slaves developed a really viable agriculture in which they were able to hold off landlords. And the fact was that Colombia was going through successive civil wars for the whole of the second half of the 19th century. So, they were able to maintain their way of life, a new way of life. And I saw a lot of inspiring stories in that.
JC: With your dual background in medicine and anthropology, it seems it would have been easy to carve out a niche in the subfield of “anthropology of medicine,” no?
MT: I thought [the anthropology of medicine] was the easy way out. I didn’t want to get credit for my medical background. I felt that I had to do this afresh, and do it, you know, on my own two feet. So to speak.
JC: There are some memorable comparative analyses between modes of medicine in your essays, like the one about the posters and the paraphernalia of Western medicine in the shaman’s house in Mimesis and Alterity.
MT: Yeah, yeah, that was a strange dude who came to town from the Pacific coast, and he was kind of a mysterious entity, you know? I walked in there because a friend of mine saw [the posters] and was going crazy, and I started to study those ads in the house… You’re quite right to pick on that, because that’s a very fascinating reading of Western medicine, through the sort of distorted lens of a Westerner like myself in a Third World village.
JC: Even if you’re not active in the anthropology of medicine, do you ever get the sense that you’re perceived as “the yagé guy” in the way Weston La Barre is “the peyote guy”?
MT: [Laughs] — I get something of that, but I try to keep control of it. I don’t want to be seen as someone like Timothy Leary. It’s obvious in my shamanism book [Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987)] that I so esteem the experiences I had from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s with a particular shaman in the Putumayo, whom I really grew to adore as a person. That’s Santiago Mutumbajoy. I think I lucked out too, because starting in the 1990s maybe, certainly picking up speed in the 2000s, the yagé or ayahuasca shamanism had become so awfully commodified and tourist-ified and so forth. There’s an excellent book about these recent developments called Yajé: The New Purgatory by Jimmy Weiskopf. I was in another epoch, I think, in which those forces certainly were present, but they took a very mild and I think much more innocent form. So my book is really of an epoch that’s unrepeatable. I had quite a toe-to-toe argument with Peter Lamborn Wilson, known as “Hakim Bey,” about this current craze for yagé in Boston and upstate New York and so forth, and he took up the side that wondered: what was I complaining about? He supported [the yagé craze], he said, because it’s an interesting and maybe spiritually opening experience, and it should be shared 'round the world. And I took another point of view. There’s a pamphlet around…
JC: I have that one! Ayahuasca and Shamanism: An Interview with Michael Taussig by Peter Lamborn Wilson.
MT: Yeah, it’s an interesting debate. I think Peter’s argument is more valid. But I’ve just got this gut feeling that I don’t like it, don’t want to be part of it. I don’t want to sit in a middle-class apartment with a chandelier and a thick carpet and a lot of middle-class people sitting around, and one toilet, and some Indian person — you know, in bare feet — chanting for them. I just don’t like it.
JC: Although there are other topics emanating from your fieldwork in Colombia, “terror” as an idea and in actuality is one thread that runs throughout. At what point did this become a dominant theme in your work?
MT: I think, like shamanism and yagé, terror is something that I like to keep corralled in a corner. I have a feeling that to talk and write about violence, you often get into a sort of pornography of violence. And violence is such a phenomenon that writing about it can make it worse. I don’t see violence as — how should I put it? You can’t objectify the violence and treat it as an object to be prodded and measured and so forth. I feel that writing, no matter what the style, gets the writer and reader involved [in violence] in ways that make the world a worse place. So I treat it with incredible respect, and I sort of have an idea that you can talk about it, write about it once, and you should shut up after that.
I became aware of this when I was writing the shamanism book, and I felt that I couldn’t just write a book about healing and sorcery, and the beauties and agonies of taking yagé and the stories therein of people’s lives. I also had to encompass that within the preceding history of violence, that had become much spoken-about in the Western world.
For instance, violence during the Putumayo rubber boom [of the early 20th century]. And so I just felt that I had to have two bookends: one was going to be violence, and the other was healing. And if you see the subtitle of the book, that’s very obvious.
I also felt that the violence and the healing were closely connected and intertwined. And that there were aspects of violence that I saw in the historical material that seemed to me to burrow into and feed upon the curing that I was describing. So it wasn’t simply that one is opposed to the other. That would be simplistic. I saw the healing and the violence as doing a sort of dance with one another, if you like. And that’s where I came to focus on Dada and implosions and ruptures, and had to undo a lot of the theory in anthropology that came through Victor Turner and Levi-Strauss — the stress on harmony and resolution. I thought that was such bunkum. But when I was reading on Roger Casement, this incredible Irish Anglo-Irishman who was a consul — who was sent to the Putumayo to gather evidence about atrocities because British capital was involved in the Peruvian-Amazon Company. As I read his letters to Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, my eyes popped out of my head. I don’t think we’ve got time to go into it, but that’s what really set me back, thinking about violence. And it came out the way it did, in that book. So that was really the origin of the terror stuff.
JC: The domestic U.S. discourse on terror has expanded in ways since your first books that you cannot have possibly imagined. Still, it’s always struck me that while your time in Colombia provided some uncomfortably front-seat views of terror, your analyses of the phenomena have intentionally never been limited to that country, or even South America more broadly. This is a relatively personal question, so feel free to decline, but I’m curious as to whether your parents’ experiences as Austrian refugees to Australia in the 1930s somehow informs your choice to address terror.
MT: Well, you know, I may be trying to hide my past — or am ignorant of it. But I’ve never thought that, not for a minute.
JC: Yeah, it seemed like it kind of comes up in “The Sun Gives Without Receiving” [from Walter Benjamin’s Grave (2006)].
MT: With my mum?
JC: Yeah, with your mother, and the butter she sent to relatives back in Austria.
MT: Yeah, yeah, you know, they were — my father was Jewish, but he was non-practicing, and my mother was irreligious, and, if anything, Catholic. And she’d been an Austrian CP and a kindergarten teacher. My father was in the Soviet Union for a while as an engineer, working on dams. He was recruited by his fellow Austrian, the physicist Alec Weisberg. But they never talked about the past, you know? They were refugees, and they sort of closed the book on the past. Which was really — in a way — a pity. But no, I’ve never thought of that — no.
JC: Your fieldwork always informs your writing, in part, I imagine, because it constituted a sizeable quantity of your life, your time in Colombia. And, of course, you’re not averse to use of the first-person. At the same time, there are other recurrent influences evident in your works. Foremost, I would say, is Walter Benjamin. But you’ve also evinced a partiality for “classics of anthropology,” the work of Georges Bataille, and a few favorite “literary” authors and other artists.
MT: The fieldwork is incredibly important to me, because I can’t write without some sense of the tangible. And from that, I generate stories. But that’s absolutely right, all those things you mention are very important.
JC: How did you first come across Benjamin?
MT: I’m thinking…hmmm…I remember a couple of us were reading “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” back when I was an assistant professor in Michigan, in I guess the late 1970s. There wasn’t much sympathy, because his work seemed too obscure amongst the anthropologists, historians that I worked with. I don’t know how [Illuminations] got into my hands. When I read it I was aware that here I was dealing with an incredible stylist, and that still seems to be one of the most important things about him as a writer. Of course writing can’t be detached from content. But he cast an incredible spell. Second, someone who worked between religion and Marxism, the way he did, was exactly what I was searching for. Those terms are perhaps not very good ones, “religion” and “Marxism,” but they give you a sense of where I’m coming from. Let’s put it this way: he was a writer who could help you appreciate the mythic force behind the present and at the same time give an impetus to working out newness, which would be indebted to the old ways but would turn them around. It’s a gift to a writer. It’s a gift to someone who’s interested in creating a new culture, which is of course what Nietzsche always advocated. You don’t just study for study’s sake, so to speak.
That’s why it appealed to me. And I slowly, very slowly, got more and more into him, and I gave a course on Benjamin. I found myself actually sort of worried. I felt like I was getting too much into it, I was too dependent. I read quite widely in theory in the 1980s and 1990s, but I found myself always coming back to him. His work is so much richer than any of the French structuralists or poststructuralists, people like Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Kristeva. They all seemed to be sort of lightweights, you know, sharpening their pencils, compared with this guy. And then I got quite absorbed in his biography. That’s why I particularly love his work in Ibiza, because I’ve been to Ibiza, and hung out with a guy, a poet, who wrote a book called Walter Benjamin in Ibiza. A beautiful book. His name is Vicente Valero, and I’ve been trying to get his book translated here. And I kept picturing Benjamin in Ibiza, writing or writing drafts or getting down ideas about what I consider to be, in some ways, his most important works, like “The Storyteller” and “On the Mimetic Faculty.” So he was like, I don’t know, a muse. I still wonder and worry if it isn’t time I found my own way, though. But I always keep coming back, like magnetic North.
JC: Yeah. I guess when I read a book of yours like Mimesis and Alterity, I’m struck by the way in which you’re what I’d call a “great reader” of Benjamin.
MT: He’s a great inspiration for a writer to be imaginative. I think most scholars’ and commentators’ very work precludes that.
But there are very few literary people — scholars, or political theorists — working on Benjamin who also work with Third World or Global South histories or do fieldwork. Possibly there are some… I don’t pretend to know everything on this score. But I think my contribution probably lies a great deal in that.
JC: Not totally dissimilar to your relationship to Benjamin, I perceive within your books, starting especially with Mimesis and Alterity and continuing up to your latest, Beauty and the Beast, an attempt to reread and reinterpret the classics of anthropology, whether [James George] Frazer’s ideas about magic, or —
MT: Now this is very important. You see, I was part of an anticolonial, post-Vietnam war effect on much of anthropology. And as a sort of mea culpa we had to acknowledge that anthropology was the child of imperialism. So we stayed in anthropology, nonetheless, but wanted to critique from within. We also wanted to study more the frontier situation, the culture of imperialism if you like — the anthropology of imperialism. In doing that, the older anthropology was trashed. Frazer had been trashed by [Bronislaw] Malinowski after a while, and he in turn by the famous British anthropologist [E.E.] Evans-Pritchard, for example, and so on and so forth.
I mounted a much more qualified critique. And I also believed that there was so much that could be added to the current critique of capitalism — of the contemporary world, meaning the 1970s to the present — by reading radically other situations, radically other societies. Such as the Nuer or the Trobriand Islands, or the Western Desert in Australia. This is not to pretend that what we were reading was not influenced by world history and colonialism and neocolonialism. Heaven forbid. But it did mean an opening up to, or not being ashamed by, what could be learned from these very different systems of agriculture, religion, economics. I felt quite looked down on for this, though Marshall Sahlins has addressed the legacy of anthropology in his work in comparable ways. I had to fight through it myself, almost like psychoanalysis. I mean, I wanted to reject all that stuff. I just saw it as colonial politics and toadyism. But I can’t work with that way of thinking anymore.
JC: I see your move here as similar to Gilles Deleuze’s books about his philosophical predecessors, working his way through Spinoza, working his way through Nietzsche.
MT: I find the way that I really work is: you’ve got a problem, you’re obsessed with a phenomenon, and you just read everything you can find on that topic. But it’s not like I’m going to go back and read, like, [Hegel's] The Philosophy of Mind or old-fashioned anthropology for it’s own sake.
JC: So how about Bataille? His appearance in your work is probably the most recent…
MT: I love Bataille! Bataille was a shock to me, and he should be. Around 1992 or 1993, I was walking through a bookstore, and I came across this book called The College of Sociology. I flipped through it, and I bought it. And I brought it home and I was looking at it, and my hair stood on end. I thought it was so exciting! I called up my friend Barney Cohn, who was a professor of anthropology who died about 10 years ago, and I said, “Barney, this is the book we’ve all been waiting for!” I was so excited. The College of Sociology was something that Bataille was very important in. In about 1939 [1937-1939] a group of people would get together and discuss what they called “sacred sociology.” And I said, “This is exactly where we want to begin, in this crossroads of the sacred, or the ‘negative sacred.’”
I guess I’m contradicting my answer to an earlier question, because I thought that this emphasis on excess and what he calls depense or profitless expenditure was extremely important in understanding torture and violence, in ways that liberals could never contemplate; their analyses weren’t convincing to me. At the same time, Bataille stood outside of the psychoanalytic study of the psychopathological or the irrational. [Here] was an urge for people to dislocate themselves, to get out of themselves and live life in the fast lane. And that history was the result of such an impulse. I found him extremely interesting. I also found him extremely opaque. And nothing of the elegance that someone like Benjamin would provide, the Frankfurt School would provide —
JC: Could that really be said of Adorno’s prose?
MT: [Laughs.] Well, the thing you’ve got to remember is that the College of Sociology was built around, intellectually, a mix of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and ethnography. And I applauded that attempt, to bring those characters together on one page. And so, yeah, Bataille has been very important to me. I have a lot of fun teaching him. I regard him more now as a figure between art and social theory. I like the work he tried to do in economics, The Accursed Share. I think it’s very timely for the environmental crisis that we face today, when we need another economics, which he called “general economy.” His theory of “general economy” is very powerful for understanding the meltdown of the world today — the physical meltdown, as well as the financial.
JC: That theory also seems recognizable, in part, as an extension of Marcel Mauss, of the “gift economy,” but writ into a much broader context.
MT: Well, the “general economy” also gives you a certain sort of grasp of finance capital, hedge funds, and the proclivity for war. These are all stupendous ways of expending the surplus of potlatch.
JC: Certainly there are numerous writers and artists who have influenced you, but I wanted to ask about William Burroughs. At the risk of perpetuating “the yagé guy” image, did you arrive at Burroughs via his book with Ginsberg, The Yage Letters?
MT: I love Burroughs, and he’s often at my right elbow, although I wince sometimes at the maleness of it all. How did I come across Burroughs? Again, I can’t remember. The Putumayo stuff [The Yage Letters] became increasingly important to me when I saw Naked Lunch and what an influence yagé played, he thinks, in all his writing from then on. You know, it’s like his mother lode. But I had been interested in him in a very superficial way prior to that. I do remember reading The Western Lands on the bus going into the Putumayo in the late 1980s.
I recently wrote some stuff on [Brion] Gysin, his companion in the Beat Hotel in Paris. Then I saw how closely Gysin and Burroughs worked together on the montage or cut-ups. I think Burroughs has become important to me as someone who could sustain and give me strength in the montage principle.
JC: In your essay “Getting High with Benjamin and Burroughs,” you said, “Burroughs himself insisted elsewhere that the task of the writer is to make readers aware of what they already knew without being aware of it.” This strikes me as appropriate to your own work. You’ve noted that you consider part of what you do to be “creative nonfiction.” Which, I suppose, is a way of declaring that your work doesn’t belong solely to the domain of anthropology.
MT: I definitely think it’s writing first, anthropology second. That should be required of any discipline. Though disciplines are bad, by and large. The whole talk about interdisciplinarity and so forth strikes me as complete bullshit. But that’s not really my problem; let’s not get aggressive or antagonistic. I see anthropology — let’s put it this way — as the study of culture. But in studying culture, you remake culture through writing or making a film or whatever other representational mode grabs your fancy.
Writing is… It’s a bit simplistic the way I put it, but I can’t see how you can separate these activities. I wanted to say one thing about storytelling: I say, I think in My Cocaine Museum, in the afterword, that it struck me that most of what anthropologists hear from their so-called “informants” are stories, but the anthropologists don’t recognize them as stories. And they’re very quick to translate them and reduce them into information, through talking to people as “informants.” Of course, Benjamin (let alone your common sense) might tell you there’s a great deal of difference between the wholeness and strength and glamour — and humor — in a story, and that has nothing much to do with information per se. Information is, you know, the modern reification of all of that. So I thought if anthropologists in general are reducing stories into information, my job — or our job — should be the reverse: recognizing that this is storytelling, what’s being told to me, and to take responsibility for writing my own story.
JC: A notable characteristic of your writing is the introductory phrase followed by an interjection or aside followed by the repetition of the introductory phrase. I really like this.
MT: Ah. It’s very important in the shamanism book. I think it developed organically. But you know, you can find contradictions within the paragraph, of course.
JC: But I think that way of opening a paragraph, though it seems to be natural to verbal expression, is very striking on the page — for storytelling in particular. To cop the title of a bit in the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, do you see part of your work as constructing “fractured fairytales”?
MT: Yeah, that would do. I’m glad you brought up the fairytale. Increasingly, I see my work as like a fairytale. And I try to pick up the fairytales that pass for reality. Beauty and the Beast is very much about that. Just look at the first page of, I think, Chapter One —
[Is Beauty destined to end in tragedy?
What a question! Does it not incur the worst of superstition, a dimly sensed unease that too much of something wonderful leads to too much of something terrible? Does it not suggest that beauty is at root inseparable from terror?]
JC: Right, and your daughter’s illustration for the cover!
MT: Yeah, a lot of people love that. A woman at the University of Chicago Press told me that it was the best cover they had this year.
JC: While it’s clear that you’re unlikely to produce something so programmatic as a quintet of books on each of the senses, do you feel you’ve been drawn to one sense more than the others? Or one that you’re keen to explore further?
MT: I’m very drawn to smell, because of the importance that Freud and Horkheimer and Adorno — and my dear Bataille — attribute to the just-so story of the ape ascending from four legs to two legs, and what happens to the place of smell in repression. That famous just-so story? You know, one day I might actually write on that, because I don’t see anyone else doing it. I think I’ve stored up a lot of curiosity. My problem is that once I write on a subject, I get bored with it. I want to move on to something different. Even if there are continuities at another level.
JC: The CD of your field recordings, Yagé Pinta! Psychedelic Shaman Songs of Santiago Mutumbajoy — it took quite a while for those to come out. They were recorded from 1976 to 1981, and were only released five or six years ago. Have you ever considered working in a yet different medium?
MT: The money from that, by the way, all of it went to his daughter. There was like 500 dollars the first year, and I think nothing after. But yeah, I’m writing a play right now, a strange play called The Berlin Sun Theatre: The Mastery of Non-Mastery, and I’m finding it incredibly challenging. I think I’m on my 15th draft. I’m totally at sea, haven’t got a clue how to write. It’s exhilarating and maddening. I’m going to give the first reading on Tuesday, and they’ve got the money to produce it in Germany, in Berlin, late next year. This is going to be with dancers, and music, and sound. Light is probably going to be the crucial element. It’s basically about the anthropocene, the place of the sun. It’s about the re-enchantment of the sun in the age of global meltdown. So this is exciting me a lot.
Another aspect of my work, which is really rather pathetic [laughs] is these attempts to do these watercolors, which were in a way the substance of a recent book called I Swear I Saw This. But they came out in black and white. And whatever skill or beauty or interest in those drawings is probably reserved for the color, not for the line, be that as it may.
I still feel so much happier with the written word.
JC: I do see some parallels between your work and, say, Joseph Cornell’s or Bruce Conner’s films. What would a Michael Taussig film look like?
MT: [Laughs] I’ll get around to it one day. I have some favorite films that I constantly learn from, actually. One is — I like to give this guy publicity, he’s dead now but his work is amazing — Juan Downey. He was a New York avant-garde video maker in the 1970s, and he made this amazing movie called The Laughing Alligator (1979). What is it, maybe 20 minutes long? And you learn so much. And the other movie is by this aboriginal woman, Tracy Moffatt [Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989)], that I’m going to show tonight.
But I think the theatre thing interests me more. I’m not sure why. It’s not theatre so much as performance — but what do we mean by those terms? There’s the kind of theatre I hate, you know, the closed box. I’m interested in being open, having some activity, with people standing and much action with the media of light and sound.
JC: Brecht pops up periodically in your work. Are you talking, then, about the “total environment” of the stage?
MT: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I doubt whether I have the talent to do it. I think I’m probably pretty narrowly a writer.
JC: Yes, well I hear you’ve got a book coming out this spring on the Occupy movement. Any comment about that, or anything else new on the horizon?
MT: I don’t know what to say about that.
JC: Have to wait until it comes out?
MT: Well, it’s got some interesting moves in it, political and cultural, I guess you could say. I went down there with some students in an emergency situation. They wrote stuff for me, and I used a lot of that. So it’s sort of collaborative, and that I haven’t done before. And I’ve never come across any writing — or very little writing — on the Occupy movement that is ethnographic in the way mine is. But mine also moves between more philosophical themes, aesthetic themes, religious themes, as well as the on-the-ground activities. Most of the people I read are pretty lofty, working at levels of political theory and so on, whereas my work takes to this completely other pole. So in that way, I guess, it’s similar to my other ethnographic work.