Michael Taussig - Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man - 1987
Nov 11, 1998
On Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: Part 1
I spent much of my time reading Taussig between states of subdued revulsion and sick curiosity. His descriptions of atrocities of torture in the Congo and the Amazon are so matter-of-fact and historical, but with a poetic tinge that implies he was either intrigued or disgusted by them himself. It is not his fault that this is how these events were portrayed decades ago, and we are in the same boat when we look at them - a boat placed at great distance from the island of cruelty. This distance is why we react the way we do, and Taussig notes this in his first line: we only know of foreign acts through the words of others. We read in a state of constant discovery, hence the excitement, and also in a state of confusion and misunderstanding, hence the visceral reaction replacing logic. In a way we are forced to abandon logic, because if we try to makes sense of the violence, our only option is to be skeptical, disregard the stories as fabrication. We haven't seen them ourselves, that kind of act has never (or most likely not frequently) happened in our environment, and so we have no way to imagine it or give it substance. This is why Casement could sympathize - he could relate to the violence through his Irish background.
If this is true, then why is it that sensationalism, the underlining of foreign oddities, is normally so powerful and quickly absorbed? If we can not relate, why do we let the curiosity win out and not disregard things like superstitious Native American rituals or the simplistic qualities of an Egyptian citizen, which people can take seriously and work into their world views, even if they are surface readings and possibly false? If we make the argument that they are part of fundamental human nature, and thus familiar to us at some deep level, then why can we not understand violence, which is possibly one of the most basic drives and abilities of humans?
Could it perhaps be the sacredness of the death-space that we all acknowledge but do our best to ignore? When it comes to matters so strong as death, perhaps we are prone to sobering up - ignoring the possible truth in vain hopes of our own inability to conceive of, and thus be able to do, such a serious thing. If it is true that we depend on our mortality to provide meaning and consciousness, as Taussig suggests, then by turning a blind eyes to our membership on the world of mortals, do we somehow have less meaning, less consciousness? Perhaps we, as immortal members of the civilized world, lack the very region of meaning that we would need to allow us to be curious (not necessarily un-emotional) about torture instead of overwhelmed and dismissing.