Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

A Few of His Favorite Things

Academic journal article Anthropological Quarterly

A Few of His Favorite Things

Article excerpt

A Few of His Favorite Things Taussig, Michael. My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 336 pp.

For several decades now, Michael Taussig has been on his own anthropological odyssey, sailing away from the fleet to chart a stretch of foreboding darkness low on one horizon. Judging from reports, he has found a coastline there, a place of curling mist and whispering shadows where, as in any good folktale, things both are and aren't what they seem. In any event he shows no sign of returning, and navigates amid the mangrove roots with a compass inscribed W. Benjamin and an attraction to repulsion. This is his latest dispatch, and rather than a conventional map or treatise he is sending a cabinet of curiosities, filled with a welter of stories, observations, and artifacts dredged up through his passing. As the introductory note informs us, we readers are to take it as a response to the bourgeois museum form, epitomized by the gold museum in Colombia's central bank in Bogota. There, fragments of pre-Colombian splendor lie undisturbed by reminders of the many aching hands that returned wealth from New World to Old, the past contained within the bank secured against the past that built it. Taussig's figurative museum, by contrast, practices a reverse alchemy of returning gold to the blood and mud of its production, and situating that impure mass next to a similar one for Colombia's current forbidden treasure, cocaine.

At the center of Taussig's project lies a concern for materiality (or as he puts it in his afterword, "m-a-t-e-r-i-a-l-i-t-y") relative to the dark magics of commodity value, power, colonial practice, and the fitful witchcraft of storytelling. This concern is hardly new to him; indeed it marks a central thematic of his work, beginning with his first book, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Taussig 1980). This early fascination with fetishism led him to further considerations of shamanism, colonial terror, mimesis, the state and masks, all in a continuing search for an approach in which words and things, present and past, can be differently aligned. Throughout he has remained a fierce iconoclast, insisting both on the enactment of theory in the practice of his writing and on the failings of conventional modes of critique.

Replacing Fathers

Years ago, Taussig sat in a Western Colombian town-the very region catalogued for this current project-and wrote a caustic review of two major works by Sidney Mintz (1985) and Eric Wolf (1982), archdeacons of the study of political economy in American anthropology. In it he cast Sweetness and Power and Europe and the People without History as unwitting accomplices to the larger crime of material mystification wrought by capitalism, suggesting that both works remained thoroughly entangled in the fetishism of the very commodity forms they sought to examine. For Mintz and Wolf, Taussig suggested in a particularly biting allusion, modern history was laid out like supermarket shelving; the only question was how best to find one's way along it (Taussig 1989:9-10). Reading a version of this review in the context of a graduate seminar, I was struck by the relish for both rhetorical eloquence and patricide that its pages displayed. True to his subject, Taussig understood the power of style and used it mercilessly, not only disavowing these potential father figures, but also rendering them as naive and ultimately conventional scholars, a fact that Mintz and Wolf sensed and protested in a published response. Taussig, they retorted, was too clever for our own good. Like some intoxicating drug, his reflexivity led to a myopic focus and delusions of grandeur, in which he alone could affect a Houdini-like disengagement from capitalist consumption (Mintz and Wolf 1989:30). "Just say no," they seemed to be pleading to those of us who were potential recruits to the family firm, expressing something akin to the horrified sincerity of suburban parents when confronted by the latest form of youth culture inside their own home. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.