Summer 2005

The Magic of the State: An Interview with Michael Taussig

Hierarchy, stratification, and the power of spirit possession

David Levi Strauss and Michael Taussig

I first met Mick Taussig about eight years ago, as The Magic of the State (Routledge, 1997) was coming out. I’d read Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (University of Chicago Press, 1987) when it appeared, and was especially drawn to its treatment of images and ima­ge-making in power relations. Later I was invited to participate in an informal seminar that Mick and Peter Lamborn Wilson had gathered around the subject of shamanism. The conversation among Mick, Peter, and me, on states both fictional and non, has continued since then around frequent fires and dinners, almost always within a stone’s throw of the Rondout Creek, where we all live in the Hudson Valley.

After getting a medical degree from the University of Sydney, Australia in 1964 and working as a physician in the university’s main teaching hospital for a year and in general practice for another six months, Mick read for a Master’s degree in sociology at the London School of Economics and worked as a psychiatric resident in mental hospitals in London. He was appointed a Research Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies of London University in 1969, and went to Colombia in September of that year, to “join the Revolution.” What he saw there intrigued him, and his fieldwork in Colombia, Putamayo, and Venezuela would continue over the next four decades. His Ph.D. dissertation (with Julian Pitt-Rivers) examining the socio-cultural impact of the commercialization of agriculture was published in Spanish in 1975. He taught in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and in Performance Studies at New York University before accepting his current position as Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of eight books: The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987), The Nervous System (1992), Mimesis and Alterity (1993), The Magic of the State (1997), Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (1999), Law in a Lawless Land (2003), and My Cocaine Museum (2004).

The Magic of the State is my favorite of all of Mick’s books, because of its particular mixing of fiction and documentary. “This is the most ‘fictional’ of my writings,” Mick told me. “I use the Sydney expression ‘fictocriticism’ to convey the hybrid sense and I clearly designate the fictional quality through a variety of devices, mainly humor and tone, camp and arch-camp. An aim of such writing is to turn the attention of the reader to the very act of writing as an ‘anthropological’ or cultural act which engages with the desire to succumb to authority in general, and to colonial or post-colonial tropes in particular.” As the New York Times put it, “Over the last several decades, as the exemplars of traditional fieldwork have been toppled from their pedestals, Taussig has been developing a radical alternative. . . . Blending fact and fiction, ethnographic observation, archival history, literary theory and memoir, his books read more like beatnik novels than sober analyses of other­ ­cultures....”

David Levi Strauss: In The Magic of the State, you write about the relation between traditional magical rites and rituals of spirit possession and the workings of the modern nation-state. You base this book on fieldwork on a “magic mountain” in the middle of Venezuela, where spirit possession is practiced, and where “there’s something about spirit possession which is amicable toward hierarchy, stratification, and maybe even the State.”

Michael Taussig: This book concerns spirit-possession on the mountain of Maria Lionza in central Venezuela in the 1980s and 1990s, where pilgrims in large numbers become possessed by the spirits of the dead under the rule of an imaginary spirit queen, Maria Lionza. Especially important are the spirits of the Indians who allegedly fought the Spanish in the sixteenth century and the independence soldiers of the early nineteenth century, including many black foot soldiers as well as white officers, most notably Simón Bolívar—as highlighted in the state’s school textbooks, in the unending stream of state iconography from postage stamps to wall murals on bus stops and outside schools, from the standardized village, town, and city central square, the naming of mountain peaks, and of course in the physiognomy of authority wherever it be.

The dead are a great source of magical élan, grace, and power. This has been present in many cultures since the first burial. Indeed Georges Bataille (to whose ideas The Magic of the State is greatly indebted) argued from archaeological evidence and physical anthropology that the corpse is the origin of taboos, respect for the dead being what separates the human from the animal... Just imagine, then, the power that can accrue to the modern state, that great machine of death and war!

People today gain magical power not from the dead, but from the state’s embellishment of them. And the state, authoritarian and spooky, is as much possessed by the dead as is any individual pilgrim. The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, is the embodiment of this. In a sense he was predestined by this mystical foundation of authority as writ into the postcolonial exploitation of colonial history. The success of the Patriot Act and of the current US administration owes a great deal to this, too, after 9/11.

However my argument is that such spirit possession is a dramatization not only of the Great Events but also of the more subtle imageric- and feeling-states present in the artwork of the state any and everywhere, from the traffic cop and tax clerk to the pomp and ceremony of national celebrations, from a Latin American pseudo-democracy to the US and Western European states as well. Hobbes’s Leviathan is mythical yet also terribly real. This is where the rationalist analysis of the state loses ground. Foucault was amazingly short-sighted in dismissing “blood” and the figure of the Ruler.

In terms of craft and presentation, the mountain in my book is like a window opening onto the magic of the state. This is an anthropology not of the poor and powerless, but of the state as a reified entity, lusting in its spirited magnificence, hungry for soulstuff.

I love the mixing of fiction and documentary in this book. “Torn between the overlapping claims of fiction and those of documentary,” you write in the preface, “I have allowed this magic of the state to settle in its awkwardness in the division of the forms.... Through something like Brecht’s estrangement-effect, naming as renaming can provide insight into what we call history, its making no less than its retelling, especially history of the spirits of the dead as the mark of nation and state, but I have in mind, by renaming, something else as well—namely the evocation of a fictive nation-state in place of real ones so as to better grasp the elusive nature of stately being. After all it is not only the writer of fiction who fuses reality with dreamlike states. This privilege also belongs, as Kafka taught, to the being-in-the-world of the modern state itself.” Do you think that, in casting this account in fictional terms, you were able to get closer to the “being-in-the-world” of the state?

Da mix. If you assume, as I do, that reality is really made up, then you are automatically launched into this wild project conflating fiction and non-fiction. The only choice you’ve got is whether to acknowledge this or not, whether you will exploit the joints and seams, or not, and whether you will allow the sheer act of writing itself to seem a self-conscious activity, drawing attention to the continuous work of make-believe in art no less than in politics and everyday life. Because they expand the notion of theater in these ways, and because they animate the magic of the state, Brecht and Kafka make congenial company for anyone working with the mix.

In Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, you point out that Walter Benjamin recognized that “it was in the less conscious image realm and in the dreamworld of the popular imagination” that it was necessary to act if one wanted change. And your epigraph to The Magic of the State is from Nietzsche in The Gay Science: “How foolish it would be to suppose that one only needs to point out this origin and this misty shroud of delusion in order to destroy the world that counts for real, so-called ‘reality.’ We can only destroy as creators.” Is this why you wrote The Magic of the State as essentially a work of fiction?

As you suggest, fiction allowed me to be more truthful, as when starting with the fourth chapter the narrator transforms into Captain Mission who, somewhat like a character in a play, allows me, the writer, to gain distance from what is being described. This is quite different from writing in the third person, the more usual form of non-fiction, because a note of make-believe and playfulness is injected into the work such that the reader is never quite sure what is “real” and what is not.

Mission himself is a play on the anthropologist as a man-with-a-mission, even as a latter day missionary, and also invokes the French pirate operating out of northern Madagascar in the seventeenth century whom William Burroughs made much of in his Cities of the Red Night. I especially liked having him and the Chief Justice—another character I made up—fight it out, spiritually, so to speak, up there on a plateau on the magic mountain. Chief was Chief Justice Rehnquist who around the time of writing the book was offering a heartfelt defense of the sanctity of the US flag in a flag burning case that reached the US Supreme Court. Flags are quite commonly used for their magic in possession ceremonies on the magic mountain. Mission and Chief get into disputes about postmodernism, about narrative and metaphor, as Chief lies on his back on the ground, his body convulsing, as he vainly tries to give birth to a demonic spirit possessing him. You can hear the wild screams as well as the knives thudding into the ground hurled from Mission’s practiced hands. This was literary theory!

Reading it, I was struck by the sheer efficacy of storytelling, how it’s a much more efficient way to communicate about people and concepts, because of the way it stays in the memory and the way it works on the imagination.

Yes! I love storytelling despite my reservations about the coercion of narrative. I love the fantasy of putting yourself, as reader or writer, into the shoes of the Other. But in my line of business you have to develop a type of storytelling that stands outside as much as inside the story—Brecht’s issue with the fourth wall.

All the details in The Magic and the State are exactly what you would find on the mountain. Nothing is made up by me in that regard. Yet, by invoking these out-of-town characters, I can relieve the reader of the tedium of documentary while presenting a meta-level or second layer of consideration, namely the parallel between what is being described and what is occurring on the written page as part of the writer’s craft, a series of feints, trials, bluff, and scramble of words with things—in brief, the permanently, delicately provisional nature of documentary which, instead, is usually presented as hassle-free and truth-clinching.

Right from the beginning, fiction also enters with the un-named country in which the magic mountain is set. I decided not to make this a statement about Venezuela, but instead make it an “anywhere” or at least an imaginary Latin American country. By not naming it, I committed the “crime” of decontextualization—“Where are we?”—and compounded this by giving the adjoining country (my beloved Colombia) the name of Costaguana, which is the name Joseph Conrad applies to Colombia, or at least the Santa Marta region on the Caribbean coast, in his novel Nostromo.

This work has tremendous relevance to my own investigations into the political uses of the magic of images. For the book on photography and belief that I’m writing now, I take permission to use “magic” first from Vilém Flusser’s groundbreaking work in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, and move from that into the “science of images” developed in the Renaissance, especially by Giordano Bruno, to theorize the current state of image politics. Anyone living in Bush & Co.’s United States cannot help but draw parallels between the spirit-possession politics and image magic of The Magic of the State and the current situation here. Do you think those parallels are relevant?

Spirit possession can be a marvelous exploration and use of images, I think, in so far as it achieves Nietzsche’s mix of the Apollonian and Dionysian modes of engagement with the image. The possessed person moves into the image, which acquires a three-dimensional reality, so to speak, and does so by means of body-rhythms as with music and dance, what we might call the “bodily unconscious.” Furthermore, spirit possession, like jazz music or interpretive literary criticism and social science, often allows for a free-wheeling improvisation of a role tailored to the specific problem of human relations that drives the person to either seek possession or seek guidance from someone possessed.

In an interview a few years ago with Peter Lamborn Wilson, you outlined your theory that “magic in Colombia, if not in other places, had an awful lot to do with fantasies about otherness.” Do you think this is relevant to the current situation in the US?

Always. Magic, spirit possession, fast-track access of the occult, are heavily dependent on colonization and racist hierarchies as well as gendered ones (women are “intuitive,” no good at science but are always the ones who find lost things...). The primitive is blessed with magic and is there as a resource to be tapped by the “civilized.” This has existed, I think, since pretty much the beginnings of the human race, but was certainly boosted by the Enlightenment and modern colonialism. Crucial here is the way civilized/primitive is mapped onto metaphoric/literal.

How much of the magic of the state is manipulation by state operators, and how much is projection from the people onto those operators and operations—a popular participation?

It’s a circle.

I’m fascinated by the notion of corruption and a sort of “institutionalized fraud” in magic. You write about the change in the Venezuelan “perfumeries” (bodegas, candle shops) in 1985 when magical essences were made legal as “cosmetics,” and a woman tells you that the cosmetics business is “all ticket,” by which she means it’s all marketing (labeling, branding, advertising).

What is your working definition of “magic?” Is it different from the one used by Marcel Mauss? In Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, you say, “By magic it should be here plainly understood that we are talking about knowledge and words, words and their ability to effect things. In effect we are talking about the marketing of a theory of signification and of rhetoric, indeed, not just of knowledge but of what is in a deeply significant sense the knowledge of knowledge that has to remain inaccessible for that knowledge to exist.” How do you keep magic distinct from religion in The Magic of the State?

This is an artifact to some extent, because here I was using “magic” as used by Indians in the southwest of Colombia to refer to white man’s books on magic as sold in the marketplaces. But there is no doubt that the “knowledge of knowledge that has to remain inaccessible” is as good a way as any of thinking of magic’s knot we can’t and mustn’t untie if we wish to go on thinking and talking, like you need a certain speed to keep riding a bicycle.

Michael Taussig is the author of numerous books, including Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (University of Chicago Press, 1987), The Nervous System (Routledge, 1992), Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (Routledge, 1993), Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford University Press, 1999), Law in a Lawless Land (The New Press, 2003), and My Cocaine Museum (University of Chicago Press, 2004). He is a professor of anthropology at Columbia University.

David Levi Strauss is the author of Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography & Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture, 2003), The Fighting Is a Dance, Too, on the works of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero (Roth Horowitz, 2000), Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art & Politics (Autonomedia, 1999), and Broken Wings: The Legacy of Landmines (Greenville Museum of Art, 1997). He received a Guggenheim fellowship for 2003–2004 to write his next book on how and why we believe photographic images.

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