Thursday, March 28, 2013

William Burroughs, from The Soft Machine (1961)

And the other did not want to touch me because of the white worm-thing inside but no one could refuse if I wanted and ate the fear-softness in other men. The cold was around us in our bones. And I could see the time before the thing when there was green around and the green taste in my mouth and the green plant-shit on my legs. Before the cold... And some did not eat flesh and died because they could not live with the thing inside... Once we caught one of the hairy men with our vine nets and tied him over a slow fire and left him there until he died and the thing sucked his screams moving in my face like smoke and no one could eat the flesh-fear of the hairy man and there was a smell in the cave bent us over... We moved to keep out of our excrement where white worms twisted up feeling for us and the white worm-sickness in all our bodies. We took our pots and spears and moved South and left the black flesh there in the ashes... Came to the great dry plain and only those lived who learned to let the thing surface and eat animal excrement in the brown water holes... Then thick grass and trees and animals. I pulled the skin over my head and I made another man put on the skin and horns and we fucked like the animals stuck together and we found the animals stuck together and killed both so I knew the thing inside me would always find animals to feed my mouth meat... Saw animals chase us with spears and woke eating my own hand and the blood in my mouth made me spit up a bitter green juice. But the next day I ate flesh again and every night we put on animal skins and smeared green animal excrement down our legs and fucked each other with whimpering snorting noises and stuck together shadows on cave walls, and ate surface men... Thick time before thing when the skin over my head and green taste and the horns and we fucked before the cold. The thing inside me would. We caught one of the hairy men animaled him over a slow fire eating my own hand, and the thing sucked his screams green bitter juice. Those lived who learned to let the softness in, eat animal excrement in the brown bones... I made another man put on the skin green plant shit on animal stuck together flesh. So I knew with the thing inside always find animals to feed with our vine nets. Blood in my mouth made me spit up moving in my face like the next day I ate flesh again... Moved to knee legs and fucked each other twisted up feeling and stuck together shadows on our bodies.

Vampire bats—reservoir of rabies virus—gave us the virus gimmick back in the White Time which we used with monotonous results in our frequent skirmishes with the Surface People who moved South ahead of the cold. The virus reservoir was in the brown fat of the bats on which they subsist during hibernation. We learned to make extracts of this fat. Regulated doses could produce either the walking cold inside—our habitual state—or the state of hibernation that preserves the meat indefinitely. Stacked up cord-wood of Surface People in our cool blue grottos where The Queen who now produced the fat from her vast body sat immobile covered with limestone spinning the juice out of her eyes. We are blind and we eat with our eyes which sometimes run together into one, by the usual procedure, giving rise to Cyclops stories and other stories which we edit for improbability scatter before issuing them over the fire to The Carriers privileged class of Story Bearers who are exempt from the meat grotto and go their insouciant South way spreading our edited copies.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Michael Taussig, from Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative

When the human body, a nation’s flag, money, or a public statue is defaced, a strange surplus of negative energy is likely to be aroused from within the defaced thing itself. It is now in a state of desecration, the closest many of us are going to get to the sacred in this modern world. Indeed this negative state can come across as more sacred than “sacred,” especially since that most spectacular defacement, the death of God, was announced by Nietzsche’s madman: “Do you not feel the breath of empty space?” he demands, lantern held high in the blazing sun.

I take this space to be where the defacing action is, sucking in this book as sheerness of movement within an emptiness so empty anything could happen in a continuous blur—like Margaras, the White Cat, Hunter and Killer, not similar to anything, just similar. “He can hide in snow and sunlight on white walls and clouds and rocks,” William Burroughs advises, and “he moves down windy streets with blown newspapers and shreds of music and silver paper in the wind.” Margaras is what this book is, an extended commentary on what G.W.F. Hegel called “the labor of the negative.”

Something so strange emanates from the wound of sacrilege wrought by desecration that rather than pronounce theoretical verdict and encapsulate defacement’s mysterious force, I see my task first and foremost to be not its explanation but its characterization. Yet this is a cheat for, after all, do I really believe there is such a thing as explanation? And as for having a task? Is it not a failure, doomed from the outset, a surrender to the way of the world, wanting to be one with and even devoured by the subject matter of the negative? The ultimate act of being similar?

For characterization of defacement can never confront its object head-on, if only because defacement catches us unawares and can only be known unexpectedly, complicit with the violence of daily life. The writer must confront the resistances. Why else do we write? The shortest way between two points, between violence and its analysis, is the long way round, tracing the edge sideways like the crab scuttling. This we also call the labor of the negative. And here I follow not only the scuttling crab, eyes protruding on stalks, body armor dripping, but Walter Benjamin’s appraisal of Eros is Plato’s Symposium, for whom truth is not a matter of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it.

Thus, so easily we join truth and secret; with rapture we skid between them, envelope the one in the other: truth = secret. Yet embedded within this ingrained poetry of daily habit there exists something not so obvious, a finely tuned theatrical process, thanks to which, as Benjamin sees it, the revelation shall do justice to the secret. In fact, he portrays such a revelation as the burning up of the husk of the beautiful outer appearance of the secret as it enters the realm of ideas; “that is to say,” he adds, “a destruction of the work in which the external form achieves its most brilliant degree of illumination.”

The just revelation amounts to a funeral pyre, and something else, as well. For beauty has been waiting for this incendiary moment as the fate through which it shall rise to unforeseen heights of perfection, where its inner nature shall be revealed for the first time. At the moment of its self-destruction, its illuminating power is greatest. This decidedly mystical process—which I equate with unmasking—whereby truth, as secret, is finally revealed, is hence a sacrifice, even a self-sacrifice, thanks to an inspired act of defacement, beautiful in its own right: violent, negating, and fiery. And this carefully contrived process of the just revelation, be it noted, stands in juxtaposition to exposure, which Benjamin warns, would only destroy the secret.

Yet what if the truth is not so much a secret as a public secret, as is the case with the most important social knowledge, knowing what not to know? Then what happens tot the inspired act of defacement? Does it destroy the secret, or further empower it? For are not shared secrets the basis of our social institutions, the workplace, the market, the family, and the state? Is not such public secrecy the most interesting, the most powerful, the most mischievous and ubiquitous form of socially active knowledge there is? What we call doctrine, ideology, consciousness, beliefs, values, and even discourse, pale into sociological insignificance and philosophical banality in comparison: for it is the task and life force of the public secret to maintain that verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to a quite different sort of revelation that does justice to it. This is the verge of “a thousand plateaus,” resolute in its directionless stasis, my subject, my just subject: the characterization of negation as sacred surplus whose force lies entirely in the mode of revelation we seek and seek to make.

It is the cut of de/facement that releases this surplus, the cut into wholeness as holiness that, in sundering, reveals, as with film montage, not only another view via another frame, but released flows of energy. As Thomas Elsaesser observes in his essay on Dada cinema, “It is the cut as the montage principle that makes the energy in the system visible and active.”

If it is the cut that makes the energy in the system both visible and active, then we should also be aware of cuts in language, strange accidents and contingencies, as in the way the English language brings together as montage the face and sacrilege under the rubric defacement. It is by means of this contingency that I am alerted to the tenderness of face and of faces facing each other, tense with the expectation of secrets as fathomless as they seem worthy of unmasking—one of the heroic tropes, in my experience, of that which we call Enlightenment, no less than of physiognomy, reading insides from outsides, the soul from the face.

I take the face to be the figure of appearance, the appearance of appearance, the figure of figuration, the ur-appearance, if you will, of secrecy itself as the primordial act of presencing. For the face itself is a contingency, at the magical crossroads of mask and window to the soul, one of the better-kept public secrets essential to everyday life. How could this be, this contradiction to end contradiction, crisscrossing itself in endless crossings of the face? And could defacement itself escape this endless back-and-forth of revelation and concealment?

Defacement is like Enlightenment. It brings insides outside, unearthing knowledge, and revealing mystery. As it does this, however, as it spoliates and tears at tegument, it may also animate the thing defaced and the mystery revealed may become more mysterious, indicating the curious magic upon which Enlightenment, in its elimination of magic, depends. In fact, defacement is often the first thing people think of when they think of mimetic magic, like sticking a needle in the heart of a figuring so as to kill the person thereby represented, and it is no accident that this was Frazer’s first example in the scores of pages he dedicated to the magic art in The Golden Bough. Defacement is privileged among these arts of magic because it offers the fast track to the mimetic component of sympathetic magic, in which the representation becomes the represented, only to have the latter die, in the slipstream of its presencing.

Defacement evokes a prehistory of the face as sacrifice, as does Georges Bataille where he rewrites Darwin and Freud with their histories of the almighty consequences of man’s ascent to the upright posture from the crouching ape. This is the long sought-for source of repression, Freud crowed to his muse in Berlin, Wilhelm Fliess, because the sense of smell, finely attuned to the anus and genitals of the Other, thereby lost its ascendency of the senses once man strode forth on two legs. Henceforth the eyes were regnant and shame entered the world, just as sex came to concentrate on the genitals that had to be covered from sight. Hastening to add that it was mere speculation, more often than not consigning these thoughts to elaborate footnotes over a page long, Freud nevertheless clung to this history to the end, over thirty years, from his 1897 letters to Fliess, through the Rat Man and the essay on love and ubiquity of debasement of the loved object, to the ominous Civilization and Its Discontents with its prophecies of sexual demise and the total triumph of bodily repression.

It was not just the nose that was at stake in this millennial struggle for the rights of the body, but the anus as the sensory button of the world, adrift in the wake of civilization as a heavy, if occult, presence, heavy enough for the philosophically trained authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment to affirm for smell an epistemology totally at odds with normal, civilized, perception. For if the visual settled in with a nice sense of distance between self-enclosed subjects and other-enclosed objects, this distancing was annulled with nasal perception, such that the senses ran riotously into one another as much as into the Other, as with the dog, man’s best friend, loyal to a fault, never happier than when its nose is up the Other’s rear end. Hence the ambivalence of primal words, as with “dog,” man’s esteemed companion through the ages, no less than the sign of all that is base and degrading. Hence Bataille, canine to a fault, adding his astonishing fable of the ape’s anus to this series of connections between face and nether regions. It all began as a frightening scene at the zoo, the tender faces of children exposed to the blossoming bottom of the ape swinging its scarlet self into focus to dominate the visual field like a gorgeous flower, suggesting to Bataille that the ascent of man to his privileged status in the cosmic design is summed up in the development of a mysterious organ he called the “pineal eye” on account of its ecstatic relation to the sun. Located at the tippy-top of evolutionary development, the crown of the head, with direct access to the heavens above, this eye is in reality a solar anus whose singular achievement is to make the visual olfactory. Like that noble bird of prey and icon of the state, the eagle of mythology, this is an eye that can look straight into the sun and, when it does so, it stimulates immense, offensive ejaculations as the sign of an orgiastic fusion of self with Other, just as the child screams at the sight of the amazing anus on the other side of the bars. All this is the result of the reconfiguration of the ape’s anatomy, the migration of anus headwise, absorbed into the body of man to conceal itself as a mere cleft in the buttocks. “All the potential for blossoming,” notes Bataille, “found the way open only toward the superior regions of the buccal orifices, toward the throat, the brain, and the eyes. The human face,” he concludes, “is a conflagration that had, until that moment, made of the anal orifice both bud and flame.”

Defacement works on objects the way jokes work on language, bringing out of their inherent magic nowhere more so than when those objects have become routinized and social, like money or the nation’s flag in secular societies where God has long been put in his place. Defacement of such social things, however, brings up a very angry god out of hiding, and Nietzsche’s madman distraught with implications of the death of God knows of no better return to life than this, although to call this a return would be to muffle Michel Foucault’s argument, built on that of  Bataille, that with the death of God transgression acquires a different character than before, because now it is transgression itself that is God, most pronounced, most condensed, in what we call sex—that secret we are henceforth doomed to always speak about precisely because it is secret.

This reconfiguration of repression in which depth becomes surface so as to remain depth, I call the public secret, which, in another version, can be defined as that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated, first drawn to my attention in an extreme form in Colombia in the early 1980’s, when there were so many situations in which people dared not state the obvious, thus outlining it, so to speak, with the spectral radiance of the unsaid; as when people were taken off buses and searched at roadblocks set up by the police or military, the secret being that these same police and military were probably a good deal more involved in terrorism and drug running than the guerrilla forces they were pitted against. Likewise, but in a different register, was what people in the towns and hamlets in northern Cauca, Colombia, where I’ve lived on and off since 1969, call “the law of silence,” a phrase I first heard in the early 1980’s when, side by side with the suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of military rule via recurrent “states of emergency,” mutilated corpses would mysteriously appear on the roads leading to town. Today as I write, in January 1998, the “dirty war” has reached heights nobody would have believed back then, massacres of peasants occurring daily, and it is routine for human-rights people to figure the action in terms of the smoke screen uniting paramilitary killers with the regular military forces. We all “knew” this, and they “knew” we “knew,” but there was no way it could be easily articulated, certainly not on the ground, face-to-face. Such “smoke screens” are surely long known to mankind, but this “long knownness” is itself an intrinsic component of knowing what not to know, such that many times, even in our acknowledging it, in striving to extricate ourselves from its sticky embrace, we fall into even better-laid traps of our own making. Such is the labor of the negative, as when it is pointed out that something may be obvious, but needs stating in order to be obvious. For example, the public secret. Knowing it is essential to its power, equal to the denial. Not being able to say anything is likewise testimony to its power. So it continues, each negation feeding the other while the headlines bleat “EL ESTADO, IMPOTENTE.” And much the same applies, so I am informed, to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and so on. Only the movies tell it like it is, especially those concerning corruption in the New York City police force. But that’ fiction.

My examples, as much as the experience within them, seem extreme and tend to weaken the all-consuming banality of the fact that this negativity of knowing what not to know lies at the heart of a vast range of social powers and knowledge’s intertwined with those powers, such that the clumsy hybrid of power/knowledge comes at last into meaningful focus, it being not that knowledge is power but rather that active not-knowing makes it so. So we fall silent when faced with such a massive sociological phenomenon, aghast at such complicities and ours with it, for without such shared secrets any and all social institutions—workplace, marketplace, state, and family—would founder. “Do you want to know the secret?” asked William Burroughs in the journal he kept in the months before his death. “Hell no!” he replies, talking to himself, to us, his cats, and to death. “All is in the not done.”

Nietzsche would be smiling in his death sleep at this adroit maneuver with the two-realities model of the world, surface and depth, appearance and a hidden essence, bequeathed the West by Plato and Christianity. “The ‘apparent’ world is the only one,” he wrote just before his final breakdown. “The ‘real’ world has only been lyingly added.” That is another karate-like maneuver with reality’s investment in the secret, embracing it in a classic Nervous System play-off. And this mocking language, crisp and timely, reminds us that the point of living, even at the point of death, is not to try to master the secret by evacuating it, as when one says, excited by a sudden insight, that … “the secret of the public secret is that there is none.” Jackpot! Trembling hands reach out to grasp the negativity.

“Hell no!”

So our writing, as much as our living, becomes extensive, opening out pursuant to filmy trails of the unsayable, not closing down on the secret quivering in fear of imminent exposure. So our writing becomes an exercise in life itself, at one with life and within life as lived in social affairs, not transcendent or even a means to such, but contiguous with action and reaction in the great chain of storytelling telling the one before the last. Yet how can you be contiguous with the note merely empty, but negative, space?

Elias Canetti pronounced secrecy as the very core of power. And he is most decidedly right. Wherever there is power, there is secrecy, except it is not only secrecy that lies at the core of power, but public secrecy. And there is a distinct possibility of falling into error here. To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a secret. It is an invention that comes out of the public secret, a limit-case, a supposition, a great “as if,” without which the public secret would evaporate. To see the secret as secret is to take it at face value, which is what the tension in defacement requires. According to Canetti, this tension is where the fetishization of the secret as a hidden and momentous thing, made by persons by transcendent over them, verges on explosive self-destruction capable of dragging us all down. This is his foreboding, what he identifies as the virtual law of the secret. But against this apocalyptic dread, I regard the public secret as fated to maintain the verge where the secret is not destroyed through exposure, but subject to a revelation that does justice to it.

And the madman in the marketplace agonizing at the death of God? Is he really worried about God gone, belated guilt at killing the Father, impetuous deed too easily carried out by the callous, who will live to rue the day? A heavy psychodrama? He certainly is worked up. But about what? Listen to his rant. Is there still any up or down? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?

God is not the problem. Killing him achieved nothing. Maybe less than nothing. The mystery-model of the real continues stronger than before with God-substitutes piling up by the minute. The addiction to the disjunction of appearance and essence goes deep. Before the two thousand years of the Christ-man behind the scene there was the Plato-man with beautiful and true forms hidden behind the sensuous crust of appearance. Secrecy and mystery all the way down. This is why the madman raves and why only the madman raves, because, being mad, he sees that Enlightenment created other gods busy behind the scene of the screen. He smashes his lantern there in the marketplace in broad daylight. “I have come too early,” he says. “This tremendous event is still on its way.”

This then is the breath of empty space. For if we were to abolish depth, what world would be left? The apparent world, perhaps? But no! With the abolition of depth we have also abolished the apparent world!

Canetti’s fear of the apocalyptic powers of the secret as exploding fetish: realized.

And Nietzsche leaves us with this picture of a postfictional world bereft of depth. It is movement etched in black and white. Burroughs’s cat. “He can hide in snow and sunlight on white walls and clouds and rocks, he moves down windy streets with blown newspapers and shreds of music and silver paper in the wind.”

Mid-day, says Nietzsche, setting the scene without the screen. Moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; zenith of mankind.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

William Burroughs, from The Soft Machine (1966)

Joe Brundige brings you the shocking story of the Mayan Caper exclusive to The Evening News — 

A Russian scientist has said: “We will travel not only in space but in time as well” — I have just returned from a thousand-year time trip and I am here to tell you what I saw — And to tell you how such time trips are made — It is a precise operation — It is difficult — It is dangerous — It is the new frontier and only the adventurous need apply — But it belongs to anyone who has the courage and know-how to enter — It belongs to you — 

I started my trip in the morgue with old newspapers, folding in today with yesterday and typing out composites — When you skip through a newspaper as most of us do you see a great deal more than you know — In fact you see it all on a subliminal level — Now when I fold today’s paper in with yesterday’s paper and arrange the pictures to form a time section montage, I am literally moving back to the time when I read yesterday’s paper, that is traveling in time back to yesterday — I did this eight hours a day for three months — I went back as far as the papers went — I dug out old magazines and forgotten novels and letters — I made fold-ins and composites and I did the same with photos — 

The next step was carried out in a film studio — I learned to talk and think backward on all levels — This was done by running film and sound track backward — For example a picture of myself eating a full meal was reversed, from satiety back to hunger — First the film was run at normal speed, then in slow-motion — The same procedure was extended to other physiological processes including orgasm — (It was explained to me that I must put aside all sexual prudery and reticence, that sex was perhaps the heaviest anchor holding one in present time.) For three months I worked with the studio — My basic training in time travel was completed and I was now ready to train specifically for the Mayan assignment —

I went to Mexico City and studied the Mayans with a team of archaeologists — The Mayans lived in what is now Yucatan, British Honduras, and Guatemala — I will not recapitulate what is known of their history, but some observations on the Mayan calendar are essential to understanding this report — The Mayan calendar starts from a mythical date 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu and rolls on to the end of the world, also a definite date depicted in the codices as a God pouring water on the earth — The Mayans had a solar, a lunar, and a ceremonial calendar rolling along like interlocking wheels from 5 Ahua 8 Cumhu to the end — The absolute power of the priests, who formed about 2 percent of the population, depended on their control of this calendar — The extent of this number monopoly can be deduced from the fact that the Mayan verbal language contains no number above ten — Modern Mayan-speaking Indians use Spanish numerals — Mayan agriculture was of the slash and burn type — They had no plows. Plows can not be used in the Mayan area because there is a strata of limestone six inches beneath the surface and the slash and burn method is used to this day — Now slash and burn agriculture is a matter of precise timing — The brush must be cut at a certain time so it will have time to dry and the burning operation carried out before the rains start — A few days’ miscalculation and the year’s crop is lost — 

The Mayan writings have not been fully deciphered, but we know that most of the hieroglyphs refer to dates in the calendar, and these numerals have been translated — It is probable that the other undeciphered symbols refer to the ceremonial calendar — There are only three Mayan codices in existence, one in Dresden, one in Paris, one in Madrid, the others having been burned by Bishop Landa — Mayan is very much a living language and in the more remote villages nothing else is spoken — More routine work — I studied Mayan and listened to it on the tape recorder and mixed Mayan in with English — I made innumerable photomontages of Mayan codices and artifacts — the next step was to find a “vessel” — We sifted through many candidates before settling on a young Mayan worker recently arrived from Yucatan — This boy was about twenty, almost black, with the sloping forehead and curved nose of the ancient Mayans — (The physical type has undergone little alteration) — He was illiterate — He had a history of epilepsy — He was what mediums call a “sensitive” — For another three months I worked with the boy on the tape recorder mixing his speech with mine — (I was quite fluent in Mayan at this point — Unlike Aztec it is an easy language.) It was time now for “the transfer operation” — “I” was to be moved into the body of this young Mayan — The operation is illegal and few are competent to practice it — I was referred to an American doctor who had become a heavy metal addict and lost his certificate — “He is the best transfer artist in the industry” I was told “For a price.” 

We found the doctor in a dingy office on the Avenida Cinco de Mayo — He was a thin grey man who flickered in and out of focus like an old film — I told him what I wanted and he looked at me from a remote distance without warmth or hostility or any emotion I had ever experienced in myself or seen in another — He nodded silently and ordered the Mayan boy to strip, and ran practiced fingers over his naked body — The doctor picked up a box-like instrument with electrical attachments and moved it slowly up and down the boy’s back from the base of the spine to the neck — The instrument clicked like a Geiger counter — The doctor sat down and explained to me that the operation was usually performed with “the hanging technique” — The patient’s neck is broken and during the orgasm that results he passes into the other body — This method, however, was obsolete and dangerous — For the operation to succeed you must work with a pure vessel who has not been subject to parasite invasion — Such subjects are almost impossible to find in present time he stated flatly — His cold grey eyes flicked across the young Mayan’s naked body: 

“This subject is riddled with parasites — If I were to employ the barbarous method used by some of my learned colleagues — (nameless assholes) — you would be eaten body and soul by crab parasites — My technique is quite different — I operate with molds — Your body will remain here intact in deepfreeze — On your return, if you do return, you can have it back.” He looked pointedly at my stomach sagging from sedentary city life — “You could do with a stomach tuck, young man — But one thing at a time — The transfer operation will take some weeks — And I warn you it will be expensive.” 

I told him that cost was no object — The News was behind me all the way — He nodded briefly: “Come back at this time tomorrow.” When we returned to the doctor’s office he introduced me to a thin young man who had the doctor’s cool removed grey eyes — “This is my photographer — I will make my molds from his negatives.” The photographer told me his name was Jiminez — (“Just call me ‘Jimmy the Take’”) — We followed the “Take” to a studio in the same building equipped with a 35 millimeter movie camera and Mayan backdrops — He posed us naked in erection and orgasm, cutting the images in together down the middle line of our bodies — Three times a week we went to the doctor’s office — He looked through rolls of film his eyes intense, cold, impersonal — And ran the clicking box up and down our spines — Then he injected a drug which he described as a variation of the apomorphine formula — The injection caused simultaneous vomiting and orgasm and several times I found myself vomiting and ejaculating in the Mayan vessel — The doctor told me these exercises were only the preliminaries and that the actual operation, despite all precautions and skills, was still dangerous enough. 

At the end of three weeks he indicated the time has come to operate — He arranged us side by side naked on the operating table under floodlights — With a phosphorescent pencil he traced the middle line of our bodies from the cleft under the nose down to the rectum — Then he injected a blue fluid of heavy cold silence as word dust fell from demagnetized patterns — From a remote Polar distance I could see the doctor separate the two halves of our bodies and fitting together a composite being — I came back in other flesh the lookout different, thoughts and memories of the young Mayan drifting through my brain — 

The doctor gave me a bottle of the vomiting drug which he explained was efficacious in blocking out any control waves — He also gave me another drug which, if injected into a subject, would enable me to occupy his body for a few hours and only at night. “Don’t let the sun come up on you or it’s curtains — zero eaten by crab — And now there is the matter of my fee.” 

I handed him a brief case of bank notes and he faded into the shadows furtive and seedy as an old junky. 

The paper and the embassy had warned me that I would be on my own, a thousand years from any help — I had a vibrating camera gun sewed into my fly, a small tape recorder and a transistor radio concealed in a clay pot — I took a plane to Mérida where I set about contacting a “broker” who could put me in touch with a “time guide” — Most of these so-called “brokers” are old drunken frauds and my first contact was no exception — I had been warned to pay nothing until I was satisfied with the arrangements — I found this “broker” in a filthy hut on the outskirts surrounded by a rubbish heap of scrap iron, old bones, broken pottery and worked flints — I produced a bottle of aguardiente and the broker immediately threw down a plastic cup of the raw spirit and sat there swaying back and forth on a stool while I explained my business — He indicated that what I wanted was extremely difficult — Also dangerous and illegal — He could get into trouble — Besides I might be an informer from the Time Police — He would have to think about it — He drank two more cups of spirit and fell on the floor in a stupor — The following day I called again — He had thought it over and perhaps — In any case he would need a week to prepare his medicines and this he could only do if he were properly supplied with aguardiente — And he poured another glass of spirits slopping full — Extremely dissatisfied with the way things were going I left — As I was walking back toward town a boy fell in beside me. 

“Hello, Meester, you look for broker yes? — Muy know good one — Him,” he gestured back toward the hut. “No good borracho son bitch bastard — Take mucho dinero — No do nothing — You come with me, Meester.” 

Thinking I could not do worse, I accompanied the boy to another hut built on stilts over a pond — A youngish man greeted us and listened silently while I explained what I wanted — The boy squatted on the floor rolling a marijuana cigarette — He passed it around and we all smoked — The broker said yes he could make the arrangements and named a price considerably lower than what I had been told to expect — How soon? — He looked at a shelf where I could see a number of elaborate hourglasses with sand in different colors: red, green, black, blue, and white — The glasses were marked with symbols — He explained to me that the sand represented color time and color words — He pointed to a symbol on the green glass, “Then — One hour” — He took out some dried mushrooms and herbs and began cooking them in a clay pot — As green sand touched the symbol, he filled little clay cups and handed one to me and one to the boy — I drank the bitter medicine and almost immediately the pictures I had seen of Mayan artifacts and codices began moving in my brain like animated cartoons — A spermy, compost heap smell filled the room — The boy began to twitch and mutter and fell to the floor in a fit — I could see that he had an erection under his thin trousers — The broker opened the boy’s shirt and pulled off his pants — The penis flipped out spurting in orgasm after orgasm — A green light filled the room and burned through the boy’s flesh — Suddenly he sat up talking in Mayan — The words curled out his mouth and hung visible in the air like vine tendrils — I felt a strange vertigo which I recognized as the motion sickness of time travel — The broker smiled and held out a hand — I passed over his fee — The boy was putting on his clothes — He beckoned me to follow and I got up and left the hut — We were walking along a jungle hut the boy ahead his whole body alert and twitching like a dog — We walked many hours and it was dawn when we came to a clearing where I could see a number of workers with sharp sticks and gourds of seed planting corn — The boy touched my shoulder and disappeared up the path in jungle dawn mist — 

As I stepped forward into the clearing and addressed one of the workers, I felt the crushing weight of evil insect control forcing my thoughts and feelings into prearranged molds, squeezing my spirit in a soft invisible vise — The worker looked at me with dead eyes empty of curiosity or welcome and silently handed me a planting stick — It was not unusual for strangers to wander in out of the jungle since the whole area was ravaged by soil exhaustion — So my presence occasioned no comment — I worked until sundown — I was assigned to a hut by an overseer who carried a carved stick and wore an elaborate headdress indicating his rank — I lay down in the hammock and immediately felt stabbing probes of telepathic interrogation — I turned on the thoughts of a half-witted young Indian — After some hours the invisible presence withdrew — I had passed the first test — 

During the months that followed I worked in the fields — The monotony of this existence made my disguise as a mental defective quite easy — I learned that one could be transferred from field work to rock carving the stellae after a long apprenticeship and only after the priests were satisfied that any thought of resistance was forever extinguished — I decided to retain the anonymous status of a field worker and keep as far as possible out of notice — 

A continuous round of festivals occupied our evenings and holidays — On these occasions the priests appeared in elaborate costumes, often disguised as centipedes or lobsters — Sacrifices were rare, but I witnessed one revolting ceremony in which a young captive was tied to a stake and the priests tore his sex off with white-hot copper claws — I learned also something of the horrible punishments meted out to anyone who dared challenge or even think of challenging the controllers: Death in the Ovens: The violator was placed in a construction of interlocking copper grills — The grills were then heated to white heat and slowly closed on his body. Death In Centipede: The “criminal” was strapped to a couch and eaten alive by giant centipedes — These executions were carried out secretly in rooms under the temple. 

I made recordings of the festivals and the continuous music like a shrill insect frequency that followed the workers all day in the fields — However, I knew that to play these recordings would invite immediate detection — I needed not only the sound track of control but the image track as well before I could take definitive action — I have explained that the Mayan control system depends on the calendar and the codices which contain symbols representing all states of thought and feeling possible to human animals living under such limited circumstances — These are the instruments with which they rotate and control units of thought — I found out also that the priests themselves do not understand exactly how the system works and that I undoubtedly knew more about it than they did as a result of my intensive training and studies — The technicians who had devised the control system had died out and the present line of priests were in the position of some one who knows what buttons to push in order to set a machine in motion, but would have no idea how to fix that machine if it broke down, or to construct another if the machine were destroyed — If I could gain access to the codices and mix the sound and image track the priests would go on pressing the old buttons with unexpected results — In order to accomplish the purpose I prostituted myself to one of the priests — (Most distasteful thing I ever stood still for) — During the sex act he metamorphosed himself into a green crab from the waist up, retaining human legs and genitals that secreted a caustic erogenous slime, while a horrible stench filled the hut — I was able to endure these horrible encounters by promising myself the pleasure of killing this disgusting monster when the time came — And my reputation as an idiot was by now so well established that I escaped all but the most routine control measures — 

The priest had me transferred to janitor work in the temple where I witnessed some executions and saw the prisoners torn body and soul into writhing insect fragments by the ovens, and learned that the giant centipedes were born in the ovens from these mutilated screaming fragments — It was time to act — Using the drug the doctor had given me, I took over the priest’s body, gained access to the room where the codices were kept, and photographed the books — Equipped now with sound and image track of the control machine I was in position to dismantle it — I had only to mix the order of recordings and the order of images and the changed order would be picked up and fed back into the machine — I had recordings of all agricultural operations, cutting and burning brush etc. — I now correlated the recordings of burning brush with the image track of this operation, and shuffled the time so that the order to burn came late and a year’s crop was lost — Famine weakening control lines, I cut radio static into the control music and festival recordings together with sound and image track rebellion. 

“Cut word lines — Cut music lines — Smash the control images — Smash the control machine — Burn the books — Kill the priests — Kill! Kill! Kill! — ” 

Inexorably as the machine had controlled thought feeling and sensory impressions of the workers, the machine now gave the order to dismantle itself and kill the priests — I had the satisfaction of seeing the overseer pegged out in the field, his intestines perforated with hot planting sticks and crammed with corn — I broke out my camera gun and rushed the temple — This weapon takes and vibrates image to radio static — You see the priests were nothing but word and image, an old film rolling on and on with dead actors — Priests and temple guards went up in silver smoke as I blasted my way into the control room and burned the codices — Earthquake tremors under my feet I got out of there fast, blocks of limestone raining all around me — A great weight fell from the sky, winds of the earth whipping palm trees to the ground — Tidal waves rolled over the Mayan control calendar.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Michael Taussig interviewed by John Cline, "I Swear I Read This"

JC: Your fieldwork always informs your writing, in part, I imagine, because it constituted a sizeable quantity of your life, your time in Colombia. And, of course, you’re not averse to use of the first-person. At the same time, there are other recurrent influences evident in your works. Foremost, I would say, is Walter Benjamin. But you’ve also evinced a partiality for “classics of anthropology,” the work of Georges Bataille, and a few favorite “literary” authors and other artists.

MT: The fieldwork is incredibly important to me, because I can’t write without some sense of the tangible. And from that, I generate stories. But that’s absolutely right, all those things you mention are very important.

JC: How did you first come across Benjamin?

MT: I’m thinking…hmmm…I remember a couple of us were reading “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” back when I was an assistant professor in Michigan, in I guess the late 1970s. There wasn’t much sympathy, because his work seemed too obscure amongst the anthropologists, historians that I worked with. I don’t know how [Illuminations] got into my hands. When I read it I was aware that here I was dealing with an incredible stylist, and that still seems to be one of the most important things about him as a writer. Of course writing can’t be detached from content. But he cast an incredible spell. Second, someone who worked between religion and Marxism, the way he did, was exactly what I was searching for. Those terms are perhaps not very good ones, “religion” and “Marxism,” but they give you a sense of where I’m coming from. Let’s put it this way: he was a writer who could help you appreciate the mythic force behind the present and at the same time give an impetus to working out newness, which would be indebted to the old ways but would turn them around. It’s a gift to a writer. It’s a gift to someone who’s interested in creating a new culture, which is of course what Nietzsche always advocated. You don’t just study for study’s sake, so to speak.
That’s why it appealed to me. And I slowly, very slowly, got more and more into him, and I gave a course on Benjamin. I found myself actually sort of worried. I felt like I was getting too much into it, I was too dependent. I read quite widely in theory in the 1980s and 1990s, but I found myself always coming back to him. His work is so much richer than any of the French structuralists or poststructuralists, people like Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Kristeva. They all seemed to be sort of lightweights, you know, sharpening their pencils, compared with this guy. And then I got quite absorbed in his biography. That’s why I particularly love his work in Ibiza, because I’ve been to Ibiza, and hung out with a guy, a poet, who wrote a book called Walter Benjamin in Ibiza. A beautiful book. His name is Vicente Valero, and I’ve been trying to get his book translated here. And I kept picturing Benjamin in Ibiza, writing or writing drafts or getting down ideas about what I consider to be, in some ways, his most important works, like “The Storyteller” and “On the Mimetic Faculty.” So he was like, I don’t know, a muse. I still wonder and worry if it isn’t time I found my own way, though. But I always keep coming back, like magnetic North.

JC: Yeah. I guess when I read a book of yours like Mimesis and Alterity, I’m struck by the way in which you’re what I’d call a “great reader” of Benjamin.

MT: He’s a great inspiration for a writer to be imaginative. I think most scholars’ and commentators’ very work precludes that.

But there are very few literary people — scholars, or political theorists — working on Benjamin who also work with Third World or Global South histories or do fieldwork. Possibly there are some… I don’t pretend to know everything on this score. But I think my contribution probably lies a great deal in that.

JC: Not totally dissimilar to your relationship to Benjamin, I perceive within your books, starting especially with Mimesis and Alterity and continuing up to your latest, Beauty and the Beast, an attempt to reread and reinterpret the classics of anthropology, whether [James George] Frazer’s ideas about magic, or —

MT: Now this is very important. You see, I was part of an anticolonial, post-Vietnam war effect on much of anthropology. And as a sort of mea culpa we had to acknowledge that anthropology was the child of imperialism. So we stayed in anthropology, nonetheless, but wanted to critique from within. We also wanted to study more the frontier situation, the culture of imperialism if you like — the anthropology of imperialism. In doing that, the older anthropology was trashed. Frazer had been trashed by [Bronislaw] Malinowski after a while, and he in turn by the famous British anthropologist [E.E.] Evans-Pritchard, for example, and so on and so forth.

I mounted a much more qualified critique. And I also believed that there was so much that could be added to the current critique of capitalism — of the contemporary world, meaning the 1970s to the present — by reading radically other situations, radically other societies. Such as the Nuer or the Trobriand Islands, or the Western Desert in Australia. This is not to pretend that what we were reading was not influenced by world history and colonialism and neocolonialism. Heaven forbid. But it did mean an opening up to, or not being ashamed by, what could be learned from these very different systems of agriculture, religion, economics. I felt quite looked down on for this, though Marshall Sahlins has addressed the legacy of anthropology in his work in comparable ways. I had to fight through it myself, almost like psychoanalysis. I mean, I wanted to reject all that stuff. I just saw it as colonial politics and toadyism. But I can’t work with that way of thinking anymore.

JC: I see your move here as similar to Gilles Deleuze’s books about his philosophical predecessors, working his way through Spinoza, working his way through Nietzsche.

MT: I find the way that I really work is: you’ve got a problem, you’re obsessed with a phenomenon, and you just read everything you can find on that topic. But it’s not like I’m going to go back and read, like, [Hegel's] The Philosophy of Mind or old-fashioned anthropology for it’s own sake.

*     *     *     *     * 

JC: So how about Bataille? His appearance in your work is probably the most recent…

MT: I love Bataille! Bataille was a shock to me, and he should be. Around 1992 or 1993, I was walking through a bookstore, and I came across this book called The College of Sociology. I flipped through it, and I bought it. And I brought it home and I was looking at it, and my hair stood on end. I thought it was so exciting! I called up my friend Barney Cohn, who was a professor of anthropology who died about 10 years ago, and I said, “Barney, this is the book we’ve all been waiting for!” I was so excited. The College of Sociology was something that Bataille was very important in. In about 1939 [1937-1939] a group of people would get together and discuss what they called “sacred sociology.” And I said, “This is exactly where we want to begin, in this crossroads of the sacred, or the ‘negative sacred.’”

I guess I’m contradicting my answer to an earlier question, because I thought that this emphasis on excess and what he calls depense or profitless expenditure was extremely important in understanding torture and violence, in ways that liberals could never contemplate; their analyses weren’t convincing to me. At the same time, Bataille stood outside of the psychoanalytic study of the psychopathological or the irrational. [Here] was an urge for people to dislocate themselves, to get out of themselves and live life in the fast lane. And that history was the result of such an impulse. I found him extremely interesting. I also found him extremely opaque. And nothing of the elegance that someone like Benjamin would provide, the Frankfurt School would provide —

JC: Could that really be said of Adorno’s prose?

MT: [Laughs.] Well, the thing you’ve got to remember is that the College of Sociology was built around, intellectually, a mix of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and ethnography. And I applauded that attempt, to bring those characters together on one page. And so, yeah, Bataille has been very important to me. I have a lot of fun teaching him. I regard him more now as a figure between art and social theory. I like the work he tried to do in economics, The Accursed Share. I think it’s very timely for the environmental crisis that we face today, when we need another economics, which he called “general economy.” His theory of “general economy” is very powerful for understanding the meltdown of the world today — the physical meltdown, as well as the financial.

JC: That theory also seems recognizable, in part, as an extension of Marcel Mauss, of the “gift economy,” but writ into a much broader context.

MT: Well, the “general economy” also gives you a certain sort of grasp of finance capital, hedge funds, and the proclivity for war. These are all stupendous ways of expending the surplus of potlatch.

JC: Certainly there are numerous writers and artists who have influenced you, but I wanted to ask about William Burroughs. At the risk of perpetuating “the yagé guy” image, did you arrive at Burroughs via his book with Ginsberg, The Yage Letters?

MT: I love Burroughs, and he’s often at my right elbow, although I wince sometimes at the maleness of it all. How did I come across Burroughs? Again, I can’t remember. The Putumayo stuff [The Yage Letters] became increasingly important to me when I saw Naked Lunch and what an influence yagé played, he thinks, in all his writing from then on. You know, it’s like his mother lode. But I had been interested in him in a very superficial way prior to that. I do remember reading The Western Lands on the bus going into the Putumayo in the late 1980s.

I recently wrote some stuff on [Brion] Gysin, his companion in the Beat Hotel in Paris. Then I saw how closely Gysin and Burroughs worked together on the montage or cut-ups. I think Burroughs has become important to me as someone who could sustain and give me strength in the montage principle.

*     *     *     *     * 

JC: In your essay “Getting High with Benjamin and Burroughs,” you said, “Burroughs himself insisted elsewhere that the task of the writer is to make readers aware of what they already knew without being aware of it.” This strikes me as appropriate to your own work. You’ve noted that you consider part of what you do to be “creative nonfiction.” Which, I suppose, is a way of declaring that your work doesn’t belong solely to the domain of anthropology.

MT: I definitely think it’s writing first, anthropology second. That should be required of any discipline. Though disciplines are bad, by and large. The whole talk about interdisciplinarity and so forth strikes me as complete bullshit. But that’s not really my problem; let’s not get aggressive or antagonistic. I see anthropology — let’s put it this way — as the study of culture. But in studying culture, you remake culture through writing or making a film or whatever other representational mode grabs your fancy.

Writing is… It’s a bit simplistic the way I put it, but I can’t see how you can separate these activities. I wanted to say one thing about storytelling: I say, I think in My Cocaine Museum, in the afterword, that it struck me that most of what anthropologists hear from their so-called “informants” are stories, but the anthropologists don’t recognize them as stories. And they’re very quick to translate them and reduce them into information, through talking to people as “informants.” Of course, Benjamin (let alone your common sense) might tell you there’s a great deal of difference between the wholeness and strength and glamour — and humor — in a story, and that has nothing much to do with information per se. Information is, you know, the modern reification of all of that. So I thought if anthropologists in general are reducing stories into information, my job — or our job — should be the reverse: recognizing that this is storytelling, what’s being told to me, and to take responsibility for writing my own story.

JC: A notable characteristic of your writing is the introductory phrase followed by an interjection or aside followed by the repetition of the introductory phrase. I really like this.

MT: Ah. It’s very important in the shamanism book. I think it developed organically. But you know, you can find contradictions within the paragraph, of course...