Saturday, February 02, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America

From Michael Taussig's fascinating 1980 book "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America":

"In the shafts of the tin mines in the mountains around the city of Oruro, Bolivia, the miners have statues representing the spirit who owns the mines and tin. Known as the devil or as the uncle (Tio), these icons may be as small as a hand or as large as a full-sized human. They hold the power of life and death over the mines and over the miners, who conduct rites of sacrifice and gift exchange to the spirit represented by the icons - the contemporary manifestation of the precolonial power of the mountain (...).

The body is sculptured from mineral. The hands, face and legs are made from clay. Often, bright pieces of metal or light bulbs may be of glass or of crystal sharpened like nails, and the mouth gapes, awaiting offerings of coca and cigarettes. The hands stretch out for liquor. In the Siglo XX mine the icon has an enormous erect penis. The spirit can also appear as an apparition: a blond, bearded, red-faced
gringo (foreigner) wearing a cowboy hat, resembling the technicians and administrators who control the tens of thousands of miners who excavate the tin that since the late nineteenth century has made Bolivia a satellite of the world commodity market. He can also take the form of a succubus offering riches in exchange for one's soul or life (...).

Without the goodwill of this spirit, effected through ritual, both the mineral production and the miners' lives are imperiled. To say the least, this spirit owner of the mines is extraordinarily ambivalent, representing the force of life and the force of death; as the political and economic context changes, so does his ambivalence. Following the revolutionary changes and state nationalization of the mines in 1952, personalistic private ownership by the tin barons was replaced by stultifying bureaucratic control and military dictatorship, which, in some ways, have made the struggle over workers' control even more arduous and critical than it was in the days of the tin barons. Since the military takeover in 1964, the miners' rites to the spirit owner of the mine have been repressed. Asserting that they impede progress, some miners think that these rites are better forgotten. Others claim the opposite and maintain that the management suppressed the rites because they sustain proletarian solidarity and the high level of revolutionary consciousness for which the mining areas are famous."

Post scriptum

Here is a link to a YouTube video of a travel agent with some footage of a statue of the Devil in a Bolivian mine.

The first photo of the devil statue was sourced here.

The second photo of a devil statute was sourced here.

Taussig's book repeatedly quotes a line by Herbert Marcuse, which would be more at home at the excellent 'History is made at night' blog than here. I repeat the quote here nonetheless: "Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance" (from: The aesthetic dimension. Towards a critique of marxist aesthetics).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great book; love his works...