The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

Synopsis

In this classic book, Michael Taussig explores the social significance of the devil in the folklore of contemporary plantation workers and miners in South America. Grounding his analysis in Marxist theory, Taussig finds that the fetishization of evil, in the image of the devil, mediates the conflict between precapitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition. He links traditional narratives of the devil-pact, in which the soul is bartered for illusory or transitory power, with the way in which production in capitalist economies causes workers to become alienated from the commodities they produce. A new chapter for this anniversary edition features a discussion of Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille that extends Taussig's ideas about the devil-pact metaphor.

Excerpt

Thirty years after its first publication in 1980 seems like a good time to add a sort of afterword to this devil book so as to ponder the nature of anthropology as storytelling and bring you up to date with some changes in the situation described in the first half of the book.

But my first interest is with “voice” and the art of writing—that which is the very lifeblood of our work yet rarely gets mentioned. As I see it, our work in anthropology, as much as in philosophy, is a species of poetry, a matter of finding the words and rhythm of language that resonate with what we are writing about. To put it crudely: anthropology studies culture, but in the process “makes” culture as well. To be aware of this is to figure out ways of translating between the known and the unknown without taking away the strangeness of the unknown and, even more important, without blinding oneself and one’s readers to the strangeness of the known, that which we take for granted about ourselves and our ingrained ways of life— such as the very idea of the market economy thrown into bold relief by the devil contract exemplified in this book.

Founded on this as its basic principle, however, the devil book now seems to me to have fallen short in its own mode of storytelling. Instead it is written in a clear, dry, analytic prose that distances itself from its subject matter with the omniscient voice of authority, one of the tricks one quickly learns to adopt in academic writing. of course to deviate from this is to run the considerable risk of losing readers, for they too are habituated to this trick as the language of truth.

Nevertheless, having stumbled into the concept of commodity fetishism—which, if I am not mistaken, was then unknown in the English-speaking world or at least in its social sciences—it was help-

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