The Mastery of Non-Mastery

Tumblr_m1omardgY11qhwx0oJennifer Wallace on Michael Taussig’s I Swear I Saw This, in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

There are two types of anthropologists: One models himself on the scientist, treating the world as his laboratory, people as his raw data. He mounts surveys, crunches numbers, and, crucially, remains detached and dispassionate throughout the process. He applies for big research grants with “expected outcomes” and “anticipated impact” carefully delineated long before he has gone out into the field. The other kind of anthropologist is more like a religious initiate, participating fully in the culture in which he is placed and intimating that he is then the possessor of some secret knowledge. Like an initiate, he cannot anticipate any “outcomes” before they happen but must simply live in the moment and immerse himself in the local customs and values.

It is this latter tradition of which Michael Taussig, an eminent professor at Columbia University, is one of the greatest exponents. The New York Times has called his work “gonzo anthropology.” He has drunk hallucinatory yagé on the sandy banks of the Putumayo River. He’s cured the sick with the aid of spirits. He’s escaped from guerrillas in a dugout canoe at dawn. Above all, he is interested in individual stories and experiences, unique tales that cannot be reduced to rational explanation or bland report. To read Taussig is to have an adventure in which one can move from Walter Benjamin’s experiments with hashish to American kids’ drawings to that dawn-lit canoe without skipping a beat. His narrative is lyrical, mesmeric.

At the center of Taussig’s method is the anthropologist’s desire to bear witness to what he cannot understand. Meditating on his sketch and notes, Taussig imbues the event with the magical aura of a collector’s gem. Was it chance or fate that brought them together in that tunnel? And was it chance or fate that transfigured the relatively common scene into something haunting and extraordinary?