Taussig is open about the fact that his works include both fact and fiction.
April 21, 2001 NYT
Anthropology's Alternative Radical
By EMILY EAKIN
Among students at Columbia
University, Michael Taussig
has a glamorous reputation. An anthropologist who
specializes in South America, he has hung out with shamans and
tripped on yagé, a potent hallucinogen, dozens of times. He
keeps an enormous rainbow-colored hammock in his campus
office. And his lectures are famous for their dramatic flourishes;
he once gave a talk with his head in a paper bag (a homage to a
Dadaist artist). Not surprisingly, his classes are always filled to
capacity. "He's like a rock star," said one graduate student in
anthropology. "He's the professor that all the students think is
Among his colleagues in anthropology, however, there is no
such consensus. Mr. Taussig owes his academic reputation to a
body of highly unconventional work on topics like devil
worship, shamanism and state terror. Ominous and
otherworldly, his subject matter is inherently provocative. Yet
it is his experimental approach to ethnography, or case studies
of other cultures, as well as his occasional diatribes against the
work of more traditional colleagues that have made him a
polarizing figure in the field.
Over the last several decades, as the exemplars of traditional
fieldwork have been toppled from their pedestals — the current
debate over the ethics and accuracy of Napoleon A. Chagnon's
work with the Yanomami Indians being only the latest example
— Mr. Taussig has been developing a radical alternative. He is
the innovator and most extreme practitioner of what he calls
fictocriticism and what might fairly be described as gonzo
anthropology. Blending fact and fiction, ethnographic
observation, archival history, literary theory and memoir, his
books read more like beatnik novels than sober analyses of
Typical is this passage from "The Magic of the State"
(Routledge, 1997), a more or less fictional ethnography of a
place Mr. Taussig calls "European Elsewhere," but which bears
some similarity to contemporary Venezuela: "The decay. The
gloom descending. The rain dripping from the haze on the
mountain where life and death ferment in the dankness of plastic
everywhere, holy and unclean, garbage everywhere, rocks
painted with the national colors, caves with their interiors
painted with the national colors, people lying still in front of
their shrines under giant trees in the stillness of the night."
| Now the strange thing about this silly
if not desperate place between the real and the really made-up is that
it appears to be where most of us spend most of our time as epistemically correct, socially created, and
occasionally creative beings. We dissimulate. We act and have to act as if mischief were not afoot in the
kingdom of the real and that all around the ground lay firm. That is what the public secret, the facticity of
the social fact, being a social being, is all about. . . . Try to imagine what would happen if we didn't in daily
practice thus conspire to actively forget what Saussure called "the arbritrariness of the sign"? Or try the
opposite experiment. Try to imagine living in a world whose signs were "natural." (xvii-xviii)
Taussig, Michael. "The Report to the Academy." Mimesis and Alterity. NY: Routledge, 1993.
During a recent interview in his office, Mr. Taussig said the
goal of fictocriticism was to "duplicate in the writing something
about the culture itself." (The scholar, 60, declined to be
photographed, saying he thought author photos were vain.) He
said that in "The Magic of the State," the atmospheric prose was
meant to capture the aura of fantasy and superstition surrounding
the state: the way, for example, abstract concepts like "the
economy," "the market," and "the government" are imbued with
human qualities and take on a magical life force of their own.
Reviewing the book in the journal American Anthropologist,
Stephanie Kane, a professor at Indiana University, pronounced
it a "remarkable achievement," teeming with "uncanny
observations." But Micaela di Leonardo, a Northwestern
University anthropologist, writing in The Nation, dismissed it
as "a terrible book" whose style she likened to "Allen Ginsburg
on a very bad day." Mr. Taussig's "contempt for scholarship
leads him into lengthy absurdities," she wrote.
As Gastón Gordillo, an anthropologist and visiting scholar at
the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at
Harvard University, put it: "There are people who love him to
death and people who have big problems with his work. Even if
I don't always agree with him, I think he's one of the most
original and brightest thinkers in anthropology."
To his admirers Mr. Taussig is something of a visionary, a
scholar who found a way out of the paralysis that first gripped
his discipline in the mid-1980's. Under the influence of French
literary theory that held sway at the time, American
anthropology took what scholars refer to as a "linguistic turn."
Ethnographic writing, once considered merely the means for
transmitting data, came to be seen as a politically loaded act.
Cultural biases, under this new thinking, were built right into the
language; ethnographies did not so much represent cultures as
Meanwhile the work of the discipline's stalwarts was
scrutinized and found lacking. Margaret Mead, Colin Turnbull
and Marshall Sahlins were charged with error and
exaggeration. Anthropology had caught what seemed like a
terminal case of self- doubt. Was there anything an ethnographer
could say with certainty about another culture?
"After the crisis of representation in the 1980's, people got
nervous," said Kathleen Stewart, a professor of anthropology at
the University of Texas at Austin and a former student of Mr.
Taussig. "Much of anthropology backed off asking basic
questions about what culture is. Michael Taussig is one of the
few people who was able to continue to ask those questions."
One reason was that he paid little attention to academic debates
in the first place. For one thing, he never intended to become an
anthropologist. Born in Australia, he studied medicine at the
University of Sydney and sociology at the London School of
Economics. When he went to Colombia in 1969, it was to serve
as a doctor for rural Marxist guerrillas. Culture shock led him
to change his mind. "Nothing was black and white," he recalled.
"It wasn't a place a first-world person could just drop into."
He began writing about what he saw instead. His first two
books were more or less conventional ethnographies, albeit
heavily influenced by Marxist theory.
It wasn't until he wrote "Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild
Man" (University of Chicago Press, 1987) that Mr. Taussig
found his signature message and style. While reading archival
reports about the atrocities committed by early-20th-century
rubber traders in the Putamayo Valley, including the maiming
and murder of dozens of Indians, he had a revelation.
"The facts were so bad, so stark, and yet I wanted to see more,"
he said. "I started becoming a kind of violence junkie. I wanted
the material to get wilder and more violent, and I started
wondering about that: What is it in me? Am I a bad person?"
Alternately fascinated and repulsed, Mr. Taussig realized that
his reactions were a clue to understanding the violence, which
otherwise made no sense.
Under the rubber companies' rationale, torture and murder were
required to keep their recalcitrant Indian workers under control,
he found. Ultimately, however, as Mr. Taussig pointed out, the
station managers were simply killing off their labor supply.
Irrational, then, as well as horrifying, the terror in the Putamayo
was part of what Mr. Taussig called culture's "epistemic murk."
It may have been motivated by fears and fantasies about savage
Indians, he concluded, but in its extremeness, it was a
phenomenon that defied explanation. Instead of analyzing the
violence, Mr. Taussig wrote at the beginning of his book, he
wanted to present it "as something you have to try out for
yourself, feeling your way deeper and deeper into the heart of
darkness until you do feel what is at stake, the madness of the
The result was a book both lurid and mesmerizing. Drawing on
the detailed reports of witnesses and investigators as well as
gruesome archival photographs, Mr. Taussig spent the first half
recreating the atmosphere in which the violence took place. The
second half he devoted to the healing rituals performed by the
Indian shamans with whom he had studied. Perversely, he
observed, the white population that once tortured and killed
Indians also depended on them for magical cures.
In short, he concluded, the relationship between the colonizers
and the colonized was riddled with the kind of contradictions
that only something like fictocriticism was adequate to convey.
"I had this notion that the best we could be was storytellers,"
Mr. Taussig said.
For the most part anthropologists were impressed. "He was
trying to infect you with the ideology of terror, to give you a
case of it," said Renato Rosaldo, a professor of anthropology at
Stanford University. "He was talking about the world as we
know it, the culture terror in Argentina and Chile and in the
background the Nazi period. He was saying that people get off
on terror. They get addicted to it. And most efforts to comment
on it fail to account for the grip it has on us."
Implicit in Mr. Taussig's visceral take on terror, however, was
an attack on his field's obsession with meaning. For
anthropologists who had not gotten that message, he published a
long, harshly negative review of books by two of the
discipline's most respected scholars, Sidney W. Mintz and Eric
R. Wolf. But that did little to diminish Mr. Taussig's reputation
as a rising star. In 1988 New York University wooed him away
from the University of Michigan, and in 1993 Columbia lured
him uptown, hoping he would help revitalize its foundering
His presence proved divisive, which some say Columbia
should have predicted. "There's a danger in hiring a person who
is a critic of the discipline as a key scholar in your department,"
observed Katherine E. Hoffman, who received her Ph.D. from
Columbia last year and is now a professor of anthropology at
the University of Illinois in Chicago. Though many say tension
in the department has lately abated — the hiring of five new
senior faculty members has helped — Mr. Taussig's scholarly
provocations have not.
Not long ago, for instance, he recruited local artists and poets to
take part in a yearlong series of performances inspired by a
report on corruption in the New York City police force.
Mr. Taussig said his latest book project, tentatively titled "My
Cocaine Museum," would focus on the Pacific coast of
Colombia, the world's rainiest region. Each chapter will be
devoted to a different aspect of the landscape: mud, rain, heat,
humidity, gold and the cocaine that has largely replaced it. "I
want to give a nature a voice which is not the clichéd voice of
environmental science," he said. "I don't know if it will work."