The Mastery of Non-Mastery

a narrative that, even when circling away to the streets of Paris or the souks of Tangiers, continually spirals back to the figures by the roadside

The Mastery of Non-Mastery

I Swear I Saw This by Michael Taussig. University of Chicago Press. 173 pages.

SIX YEARS AGO, on a balmy afternoon, the anthropologist Michael Taussig was taking a cab ride in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. As the taxi sped into a freeway tunnel, he spotted a homeless couple at the side of the road, caught between the hurtling traffic and the wall of the concrete underpass. In that momentary glimpse, it seemed as if one figure, a woman, was sewing the other, a man, into a nylon sack. “Why do they choose this place?” he asked the driver. “Because it’s warm in the tunnel,” the driver replied. Taussig made a note in his notebook, drew a quick sketch, and scrawled underneath it in red pencil, “I swear I saw this.”

This brief vision forms the kernel of Taussig’s new book, a narrative that, even when circling away to the streets of Paris or the souks of Tangiers, continually spirals back to the figures by the roadside, the nylon bag, and the passersby. There is, of course, a rational explanation for the scene rooted in everyday politics. Most likely these were peasants driven from their home by paramilitaries who, under the guise of hunting down terrorists in Colombia, are helping the landowning cocaine barons and bio-fuel mafia get their hands on potentially rich agricultural land. In the past 10 years, paramilitary units have been responsible for an estimated 140,000 deaths, and over one million rural inhabitants have been displaced from their land. Meanwhile, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, the president who set up one of the largest paramilitary units in the country, has been awarded international honors by George W. Bush and Oxford University.

But this political, rational explanation — hard-hitting as it may be — is not sufficient. Taussig is concerned with mining further meaning from this scene, the significance of the vision. The inexplicability of the woman sewing the bag and the absurdity of the taxi driver’s explanation — they were seeking warmth in a fumy, noisy, polluted underpass when the average July temperature in Medellín is 72 degrees Fahrenheit — become sources of mystical reflection.


There are two types of anthropologists: One models himself on the scientist, treating the world as his laboratory, people as his raw data. He mounts surveys, crunches numbers, and, crucially, remains detached and dispassionate throughout the process. He applies for big research grants with “expected outcomes” and “anticipated impact” carefully delineated long before he has gone out into the field. The other kind of anthropologist is more like a religious initiate, participating fully in the culture in which he is placed and intimating that he is then the possessor of some secret knowledge. Like an initiate, he cannot anticipate any “outcomes” before they happen but must simply live in the moment and immerse himself in the local customs and values.

It is this latter tradition of which Michael Taussig, an eminent professor at Columbia University, is one of the greatest exponents. The New York Times has called his work “gonzo anthropology.” He has drunk hallucinatory yagé on the sandy banks of the Putumayo River. He’s cured the sick with the aid of spirits. He’s escaped from guerrillas in a dugout canoe at dawn. Above all, he is interested in individual stories and experiences, unique tales that cannot be reduced to rational explanation or bland report. To read Taussig is to have an adventure in which one can move from Walter Benjamin’s experiments with hashish to American kids’ drawings to that dawn-lit canoe without skipping a beat. His narrative is lyrical, mesmeric.

At the center of Taussig’s method is the anthropologist’s desire to bear witness to what he cannot understand. Meditating on his sketch and notes, Taussig imbues the event with the magical aura of a collector’s gem. Was it chance or fate that brought them together in that tunnel? And was it chance or fate that transfigured the relatively common scene into something haunting and extraordinary?

The implication of this spiraling, self-reflexive account is that the anthropologist is like a shaman, guiding us along a revelatory journey. When a shaman drinks yagé, his head becomes clearer. While the group of “ensorcelled” participants becomes lost in their hallucinations, “wasted and freaking out,” the shaman then takes more yagé, guiding the group in song and dance in order to “fight the tempest.” Taussig suggests that the experienced shaman is able to shape the Dionysiac ecstasy of self-abandonment with a continual grip on Apollonian rational control. Similarly, the anthropologist makes field notes and drawings in an attempt to direct his disordered experience. The notes, often later inscrutable even to the writer himself, at once embody chaos and attest to the desire to understand — and to the feeling that, at least for one moment, such experiences did hold meaning. For that brief moment, as Taussig puts it, we reach the “cherished Zenlike moment of the mastery of non-mastery.”

It is in the spirit of celebrating his “non-mastery” that Taussig spends some time considering his sketches. Even he admits that he is not good at drawing, as that skill is conventionally evaluated, and his illustration of the couple in the tunnel is pretty difficult to make out without explanation. But this is supposedly the point, that the sketch and the note are both enigmatic, testifying rather to the anthropologist’s form of attention than to the scene itself. Drawing, Taussig explains, is wrongly repressed by our rational culture, encouraged only in childhood but gradually sidelined and ultimately erased by writing as we mature. Photography also is inferior to drawing, in his opinion, because of its mechanical, documentary claim to be objective: “Photography is a taking, the drawing a making.” In the days of Photoshop, and given the current fashion for conceptual photography, such distinctions might seem to be breaking down. (Conceptual photography and Photoshop allow photography to be a form of “making” too, since the photographer can manipulate the image creatively and can conceptually think about the image, rather than treating it as a documentary evidential image.) In any case, to anyone other than the anthropologist himself, the work of a photojournalist like Jason P. Howe’s Colombia: Between the Lines would likely reveal more about the country — and about the outsider’s ambiguous relationship with the troubled situation there — than the lone, sausage-like figures in Taussig’s notebook. And yet, if one accepts the sketch not as a form of communication but as the symbolic trace of a vision vanished, then the drawing acquires a private, coded significance. (For instance, Taussig’s scrawled record of hallucinations: how, after all, can one photograph a drug trip?)

Taking for granted that there is no rational agenda and no objective criteria, Taussig ponders what draws an anthropologist to one scene rather than another. He moves from his own yagé hallucinations to Walter Benjamin’s and William Burroughs’s scrapbooks: texts that, with their random collages of newspaper cuttings, memoirs, aphorisms, and sketched observations, illustrate the effect of chance on a collection. Yet, once in the book, the random object or observation acquires the patina of value, or what Benjamin called the object’s “aura.” For the anthropologist, then, the smattering of chance observations and quick sketches comprise a mystic pattern, like a handprint, or the chance lines and colors of a personal library. Each object grows in significance as it takes its inexplicable but apparently necessary place in the whole. Benjamin dreamt of a “magic encyclopedia,” and Taussig wants to invest his notebooks with a like talismanic quality; the fetish compels him.

The reflections in I Swear I Saw This may wander out into hallucinations and magic, but in constantly returning to the scene in the freeway tunnel, Taussig manages to focus the discussion on ethics and choice as well as chance and aesthetics. While the book might be a cut-and-paste sojourn over an imagined landscape, its author never allows one to forget that these flights were sparked by the arresting image of poverty and destitution. At times, Taussig’s imagination seems related less to modernist literature, to which the book’s blurb compares him, or to self-gratifying writers like Burroughs, than to William Wordsworth, who in his socially conscientious way was fascinated by encounters with blind beggars or discharged soldiers. He recounts in The Prelude:

Amid the moving pageant, ’twas my chance

Abruptly to be smitten with the view

Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,

Stood propp’d against a Wall, upon his Chest

Wearing a written paper, to explain

The story of the Man, and who he was.

My mind did at this spectacle turn round

As with the might of waters, and it seemed

To me that in this Label was a type,

Or emblem, of the utmost that we know,

Both of ourselves and of the universe;

And, on the shape of the unmoving man,

His fixèd face and sightless eyes, I looked

As if admonish’d from another world.

Wordsworth’s sense of the “admonishment from another world” is latent in Taussig’s sensitivity to other cultures. In swearing by what he saw, the author stands behind the notion that bearing witness, if only for a second, can alter one’s life, that it can offer a haunting chastisement even if — or especially if — it is one that we cannot fully comprehend.

Of course, the relationship between an anthropologist and the people studied has the potential to be problematic, rather like the relationship of a photojournalist to his subjects; both anthropologist and photojournalist are privileged outsiders, jetting into the field, exploiting the people for useful material, and escaping when the situation gets complicated. In his book Routes, the anthropologist James Clifford attempts to modify this perception by arguing that all people are in transition, that the indigenous community under study is also moving, just like the anthropologist, and that fieldwork should thus be considered a meeting of two mutually traveling cultures. Michael Taussig’s vision from the taxi window was perhaps an extreme case of fleeting encounter in transition, and some of his attempts to forge an instinctive connection between viewer and viewed — at one point he argues that the woman’s stitching of the bag was like his hand sketching the scene — strike one as a little misplaced. It is hard to imagine any connection between a professor seated comfortably in a speeding taxi and a homeless peasant taking shelter in an underpass.

On the other hand, his reflections upon his sense of shock, that this scene was one of “abject horror” and therefore demanded his testimony, even if that was a brief, incredulous “I swear I saw this,” does indicate a sense of shared humanity and a strong register of its violation. As Taussig explains, what he was shocked by was the fact that nobody else seemed shocked by the degradation and fearfulness of these peasants’ lives, that their fate is accepted as a regular fact of modern city life. With evident anger and shame he reflects on “the stupendous normality of the abnormal in today’s third-world cities. It is this normality of the abnormal, the fact [that] the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule, that this drawing of mine is getting at.”

In Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, her book on war photography, she writes, “It seems a good in itself to acknowledge, to have enlarged, one’s sense of how much suffering caused by human wickedness there is in the world we share with others.” Just looking may not be enough, but sometimes bearing witness, and perhaps a little sketching and reflecting, it is all we can do.

LARB Contributor

Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, England, and the author ofDigging the Dirt: The Archaeological Imagination (2004) and The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (2007).


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