Sunday, June 08, 2008

Michael Taussig - Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing (pt. 1)

Michael Taussig's 1986 ethnography "Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing" examines the origins of the extraordinary cruelties inflicted by colonial rubber traders upon Colombian Indians and those of the shamanic healing rituals of the Colombian Indians living in the Putumayo foothills.

In Taussig's view, both the cruelties and the healing rituals are motivated by a view of the Indian as a Wild Man, that savage from medieval and Renaissance legend, Europe's version of Bigfoot.

The cruelties visited upon the Indians in the 19th and early 20th century by the colonial rubber industry were extreme. This terror was bloodthirstier by far than could be explained by rational, economic motives: in fact, the terror went against business interests as it destroyed scarce labor power. Taussig views the terror as an abreaction against the Wild Man, a construction of the Indian as a savage anti-self of the colonist, an anti-self which necessitated violence as savage as the 'savage' it was directed against. This anti-self was not well-defined and clear-cut, but was swathed in what Taussig calls 'epistemic murk': the colonists worried incessantly about the Wild Man, and this worry infected their imagination with terrible nightmares of Indian attacks, conspiracies, uprising, treachery, etc. It was the unclear, murky nature of the wildness ascribed to Indians in colonial fabulation that gave this wildness such a powerful, obsessing hold on the imagination of the colonists.

Quoting Alfred Métraux's 1958 book 'Voodoo In Haiti', Taussig notes that "Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. The master maltreated his slave, but feared his hatred. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the magical powers imputed to him."

White colonists visit Indian shamans to be cured of the sorcery. The sorcery is either of human origin, perpetrated because of Invidia (envy, a capitalist affect par excellence), or the result of mal aires (literally 'bad winds'; for Taussig, memories about Indians killed in colonial conquest coming back to haunt colonists). The colonists believe that the 'wilder', the more mysterious the Indian is, the more powerful his healing capabilities are. Thus, in the healing rituals of Indian shamans, the healers use the view of the Indian as a Wild Man. The terrific magical powers imputed to the shamans by the white colonists are a colonial construction appropriated and used by the colonized. Taussig: "So it has been through the sweep of colonial history where the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man--a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power.” It is Exotica used as a healing power by those deemed Exotic by the colonists.

The shamans use yagé, a hallucinogenic drink made from the Banisteriopsis spp. vine, native to the Amazon Rainforest, in their healing rituals. The psychological effects of yagé, the montage-like (dis-)order of the healing rituals and the symbolic wildness create an 'epistemic murk' which heals by unraveling colonial, capitalist culture: "Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage. (...) Wildness is the death space of signification.”

Some critical remarks:
- Taussig's book is about yagé ceremonies and the symbolic efficacy of montage and cut-ups. Yet Burrough's and Ginzberg's book 1963 "The Yagé Latters" is only given passing mention. Isn't it likely that Taussig's book is more deeply indebted to Burrough's conceptual apparatus than he acknowledges?
- Taussig's description of the montage-like (dis-)order of the healing rituals is also very reminiscent of Deleuze's and Guattari's concept of the rhizome. Another unacknowledged inspiration?
- In one of the final chapters of the book, Taussig almost calls Victor Turner a fascist, in short because he feels Turner's (Durkheim- and Mauss-inspired) attention to the community-forming effect of ritual and symbols is totalitarian. I disagree with Taussig on this point. Not only does Taussig fail to acknowledge the roots of Durkheim's and Mauss's thought in left wing (albeit non-Marxist) activism, and the continued relevance of that thought for issues of social solidarity. But if one denies the continued importance of community and solidarity, one plays into the hands of neoliberalism and its spurious, atomizing individualism. Furthermore, isn't Taussig's unwarranted attack on Turner the type of theoretical intolerance which will ultimately lead to a left wing divided against itself, to left wing paralysis? Finally, Taussig misrepresents the dynamic nature of Turner's analytic framework, which is directed not towards legitimizing stable hegemonies but towards change, towards "social structure in action".

Despite these criticisms 'Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man. A Study in Terror and Healing' is rightly regarded as Taussig's major work. Where Taussig's 1980 book 'The devil and commodity fetishism in South America' suffered from a heavy-handed Marxist approach, the orthodoxies had been shaken off by Taussig when he wrote this book six years later. While retaining a strong left wing political focus, Taussig's approach to his subject matter had become much more free (in an almost Free Jazz sense of the word). Walter Benjamin's work had clearly begun to inspire Taussig. But the book is not only highly interesting not only from a theoretical standpoint. It is also very well written, the theoretical content informing the literary structure of the book: the text is riddled by alterations, cracks, displacements and swerves, making it a work of hallucinatory montage. Recommended!


wilfried said...

hey, your blog is rocking!

valter said...

Thanks Wilfried, I enjoy 'social fiction' too!

Anonymous said...

just so you know,yage isn't a drink. it's a powder that they actually process from the leaves and they snort it through a bamboo tube... in case you didn't know