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Encyclopedia > Michael Taussig

Michael Taussig (b. 1940) received his PhD. in anthropology from the London School of Economics and is a professor at Columbia University. Although he has published on Medical anthropology he is best known for his engagement with Marx´s idea of commodity fetishism, especially in terms of the work of Walter Benjamin Anthropology (from the Greek word άνθρωπος, human or person) consists of the study of humanity (see genus Homo). ... The London School of Economics and Political Science, often referred to as the London School of Economics or simply the LSE, is a specialist university and a constituent college of the federal University of London, located on Houghton Street in Central London, off the Aldwych and next to the Royal... Columbia University is a private university in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of the Borough of Manhattan in New York City. ... Medical anthropology is a sub-branch of cultural anthropology that is concerned with the application of anthropological and social science theories and methods to questions about health, illness and healing. ... Karl Heinrich Marx (May 5, 1818, Trier, Germany – March 14, 1883, London) was an immensely influential German philosopher, political economist, and socialist revolutionary. ... In Marxist theory, commodity fetishism is an inauthentic state of social relations, said to arise in complex capitalist market systems, where social relationships are confused with their medium, the commodity. ... Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892 – September 27, 1940) was a German Marxist literary critic and philosopher. ...


The Devil And Commodity Fetishism

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America is both a polemic about anthropology and an analysis of a set of seemingly magical beliefs held by rural and urban workers in Colombia and Bolivia. His polemic is that the principle concern of anthropology should be to critique Western (specifically,capitalist) culture. He further argues that people living in the periphery of the world capitalist economy have a critical vantage point on capitalism, and articulate their critiques of capitalism in terms of their own cultural idioms. He thus concludes that anthropologists should study peoples living on the periphery of the world capitalist economy as a way of gaining critical insight into the anthropologists´´ own culture. In short, this polemic shifts the anthropologists´ object of study fromn that of other cultures to that of their own, and repositions the former objects of anthropological study (e.g. indigenous peoples) as valued critical thinkers. For other uses, see Capitalism (disambiguation). ...

Taussig applies this approach to two beliefs, one based based on both his own field research and that of anthropologist June Nash, the second based on his own research. The first is the belief held by semi-proletarianized peasants in Colombia (with an analogous case among Bolivian tin miners) that proletarianized sugar-cane cutters can make a contract with the devil that will cause them to make a good deal of money, but that this money can be spent only on frivolous consumer goods, and that the cutter will die an early miserable death. Taussig suggests that earlier anthropologists might have argued that this belief is a hold-over from pre-capitalist culture, or serves as a levelling mechanism (ensuring that no individual become significantly wealthier than any of his or her fellows). Taussig however argues that the through the devil, peasants express their recognition that capìtalism is based on the magic believe that capital is productive, when in fact capitalism breeds poverty, disease, and death. The second belief provides another example of peasants representing their own understanding of capitalism´s claim that capital is productive: the belief that some people engineer a switch that results in a peso, rather than a baby, being baptised. The consequence is that the money, alive, will return to its original owner no matter how it is spent, and bring more money back with it.

Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987)

In Michael Taussig's seminal work, Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing, he leads us down a path that examines the project of Colonialism as it was carried out in South America. He first creates a space of an all too real and present terror followed by a process of healing that we as the reader are ourselves supposed to follow. Through the weaving and interlocking of literature, first-hand accounts, and his ethnographic work Taussig creates, “a mode of perception-a way of seeing through a way of talking- figuring the world through dialogue that comes alive with sudden transformative force in the crannies of everyday life’s pauses and juxtapositions…It is an irregular, quavering image of hope, this inscription on the edge of official history” (p. 209). In both following his text and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into it as it develops, Taussig himself comes to take on the role as the shaman, and we readers the role of the patient.

Taussig introduces his subject matter in his author’s note, stating that the purpose of his text is to examine, "the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real, in the creation of Indians, in the role of the myth and magic in colonial violence as much as in its healing, and in the way that healing, and in the way that healing can mobilize terror in order to subvert it…through the tripping up of power in its own disorderliness. That is why my subject is not the truth of being but the social being of truth, not whether facts are real but what the politics of their interpretation and representation are" (xiii, italics added). As stated above the author begins this discussion first by looking at acts of terror and the “space of death” created there within. His case of terror is that of the rubber trade in the Putumayo river area of Colombia of the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of these acts of terror stemmed from British rubber barons of the time trying to impose a capitalist mode of production onto an indigenous, “Wild”, population still living under an economy based upon a gift/exchange system. In the eyes of the British, who violently pressured the natives to extract rubber from the rubber trees of the area, the Indians, “would not work appropriately”. The baron’s reaction to indigenous resistance was to carry out horrific acts of terror on the minds and bodies of the local population, which Taussig thoroughly documents through providing first-hand accounts from the time. Within the “space of death” created in the Putumayo also came the death of communal memory and objectivity. Terror resulted in a, “society shrouded in an order so orderly that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it- a death-space in the land of the living where torture’s certain uncertainty fed the great machinery of the arbitrariness of power” (4).

Interestingly enough the powerful force of healing develops from the same space created by the other powerful force of terror: “Shamanic healing…like the culture of terror, also develops its force from the colonially generated wildness of the epistemic murk of the space of death” (127). In his section on healing Taussig relates his ethnographic work with José García, an Indian shaman of the Putumayo, during the 1970’s. Taussig is particularly compelled by the fact that many peasant colonists seek out José García to be healed. He notes that to the magic already possessed by shamans like García, “colonialism fused its own magic, the magic of primitivism” (216). Here Taussig is speaking on how the shaman has been able to harness the “mystery” and “wildness” projected onto him by Western “civilization” in his practice as a shaman. He goes on to write that this, “folding of the underworld of the conquering society into the culture of the conquered not as an organic synthesis or ‘syncretism’…but as a chamber of mirrors reflecting each stream’s perception of the other” (218). In what does the healing power of wildness lie? Taussig answers this question, stating, "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.” (219)

“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.” (467)

The Nervous System (1992)

Written in 1992, the Nervous System is an insightful anthropological work comprised of nine essays. Michael Taussing sets out on a journey to explore and describe various forces that shape and mold our present society. He tries to explore the process through which we commodify the state and in that way transfer the power to it. Taussig shows how the state uses forces such as violence or media control to consolidate its power over the people. He persuasively argues that we live in a state of emergency that is not ‘an exception but the rule’. To show the universality of the nervous system he takes his reader through the heights of Macchu Picchu, the world of Cuna shamans and through the pale world of New York’s hospital.

Mimesis and Alterity (1993)

Mimesis and Alterity looks primarily at the way that people from different cultures experience the two themes of the book – how we come to adopt or assimilate another’s nature or culture (mimesis), and also how we come to distance ourselves from it (alterity). The primary object of study is the "legendary white indian," a population also known as the Cuna. The Cuna have adopted a set of wooden figurines for magical ritual that look remarkably like white colonists, to the point of sometimes being recognizable as figures from history that traveled through those parts. If you asked one of the Cuna about it, they would likely deny all connection between the two, creating an epistemic dilemma where something that may appear obvious to Anthropologists is anything but obvious to those they study. Another noteworthy peculiarity of Cuna culture that Michael Taussig mentions is the way in which the Cuna have adopted, in their traditional molas, images from western pop culture, including a distorted reflection of the Jack Daniel’s bottle, and also a popular iconic image from the early twentieth century, The Talking Dog, used in advertising gramophones. Taussig criticizes Anthropology for simply reducing another culture's history to one in which the Cuna had simply come across the white colonists in the past, were impressed by their large ships and exotic technologies, and mistook them for Gods. For Michael Taussig, this very reduction of the Other is suspect in itself, and through Mimesis and Alterity, argues from both sides, demonstrating why exactly Anthropologists have come to reduce the Cuna culture in this way, and the value of this perspective, at the same time as defending the independence of lived culture from Anthropological reductionism.


  • The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, 1980
  • Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man : A Study in Terror and Healing, 1987
  • The Nervous System, 1992
  • Mimesis and Alterity; A Particular History of the Senses, 1993
  • The Magic of the State, 1997
  • Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, 1999
  • Law in a Lawless Land : Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia, 2003
  • My Cocaine Museum, 2004
  • Walter Benjamin's Grave, 2006

External links

  • Taussig Bio page at Columbia University

  Results from FactBites:
American Ethnologist - Online Book Reviews (887 words)
Michael Taussig’s “museum” is very different: Through his “displays,” a visitor is treated to an imagined journey in Colombia.
Taussig evokes the weariness and lethargy that are felt in these humid, torrid zones and that are produced by the state’s neglect.
Taussig’s depiction of miasma, swamps, and bogs tells us much about the pollution, fear, and sickness created by cleaning up everything in bureaucracies and in ethnographic writing.
Cultural anthropology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1269 words)
These anthropologists continue to concern themselves with the distinct ways people in different locales experience and understand their lives, but they often argue that one cannot understand these particular ways of life solely in the local context; one must analyze them (they say) in the context of regional or even global political and economic relations.
Notable proponents of this approach include Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, George Marcus, Sidney Mintz, Michael Taussig and Eric Wolf.
A growing trend in anthropological research and analysis is the use of multi-sited ethnography, discussed in George Marcus's article "Ethnography In/Of the World System: the Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography" [1].
  More results at FactBites »



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