Michael Taussig - Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man - 1987
Nov. 18, 1998
On Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: Part 2
I have only gotten a little bit of the way into Part 2 of this book, spending my time catching up and Part 1, so I am stuck wondering how things will connect. There seems to be an almost too easy comparison of the relationship between colonists or shamans and the natives. The journey into the jungle is said to be like going from "civilization to hell itself," where there is nothing but fear, which must be combated. This sounds like the shaman's journey to other planes, a task which involves pain but is less aggressive, and the shaman must then harness the powers instead of killing them. Both are given power by others, a presumably naive trust, but choose to use this power in different ways. Either way it shows that those who encounter the unknown make allegory of it in order to absorb or understand it. By knowing or possessing something, like fear or sickness, one can then remove or use it. The colonists turned their knowledge of fear into a tool of terror, whereas shamans use their knowledge of sickness to heal. Terror destroys sense, and healing creates sense. They are born together but at different ends of the jungle, and must meet in the middle.
One thing that intrigued me about the healing process itself was the idea that what a shaman had to do to heal was "transform evil into a life-bestowing power." (p.149) Does this then mean that good and bad are made of the same stuff, one misused? That the same once-evil spirit could remain, just turned over? Perhaps this illustrates the delicacy of the choices of those who have power. A shaman could easily go bad, and a colonist could also turn terror on his fellow colonists or perhaps do some other "good" with this intimacy with fear. It seems that predisposition matters here, and expectations/stories/history have great underlying power over the powerful.
So why does Taussig present things this way? Is he providing a space for the two rulers of sense to meet and do combat? Is he telling us to look at and be careful with our own stories and their possible effects? He says in the end of Part 1 that the "science of man" (anthropology) can not go forward until we reassess the myths we make and perhaps find some new connection to the mystical, or at least the more fundamental, elements of our nature, which we share with all people. The destruction of sense does not need us to facilitate it; nature has a way of doing enough of that on its own.