Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
797-1873 East Mall
Vancouver, BC
Canada V6T 1Z1

jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission

 


Review

A Review of Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. xix + 336, $22.50 £16.00 pb

 

There is a marvellous diagram in one of Michael Taussig's earlier books, The Magic of the State (1996), that illustrates the bare bones of the economy of a "democratic Elsewhere where gas is dirt cheap and cars abound. Oil out; guns, ammo, videos, and cars in" (p. 148). The "democratic Elsewhere" of The Magic of the State is rather transparently Venezuela, but My Cocaine Museum indicates a rather similar structure of international exchange for Colombia: gold and cocaine out; guns, ammo, videos, and outboard motors in. Reduced here to its brutal underlying simplicity, this is the pattern of Latin American economic history: raw material (silver, guano, bananas, coffee) out; weaponry, luxury goods, and technology in.

For Taussig, this structure is quite literally marvellous. From his first book, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism (1980), he has traced in detail, fascination, and awe the transmutation of matter into money (and back again). Against the usual assumption that commodification implies only standardization and routinization, stripping nature of its unique aura, Taussig insists on the enchantment that persists in and haunts capitalist markets.   As he puts it here, "I don't want to end up with some smug trade-off between money and nature. I want to alienate money's alienation. Make its strangeness strange. I want to make going into a store and buying your daily food, for instance, seem like a miracle" (p. 111).  

Gold and cocaine, the raw matter of My Cocaine Museum, are privileged components of this mysterious system. The power of global capitalism transforms the mud and dirt of the Colombian coast into objects of desire for Wall Street bankers. But in this transformation and refinement, these ever-malleable, essentially formless, substances carry with them a history of oppression and enslavement: "Death stalks these substances in equal measure to the way they enliven life, enchant and compel" (p. 253). Arguing that gold and cocaine are "congealed miasma" (p. 253), Taussig returns to the scene of their production. He describes the violence, the poverty, but also the enchantment that pervades the mangrove swamps and the tropical rivers that for over 500 years have variously drawn, damaged, and disconcerted Indians, conquistadors, and pirates, African slaves and French capital, Russian engineers and Marxist guerrillas.   Women pan for gold dust in minute amounts; men burrow into cliffs by candlelight or dive down into the pitch black to excavate beneath river beds; the FARC and with them the para-militaries encroach from the other side of the Andes, signalling a shift in the coastal economy and bringing with them new forms of violence and corruption.

Taussig's approach is both wildly expansive and stubbornly consistent. My Cocaine Museum is an eclectic collection of stories and anecdotes, readings and reflections, that range from Charles Dickens to Franz Kafka and Seamus Heaney, taking in biology, geology, philosophy, economics, and history interwoven with accounts of ethnographic fieldwork across three decades. It includes a list of island prisons, from Devil's Island to El Frontón, and of tax havens, from Anguilla to Vanuatu.   The book's index includes entries such as "Al Qaeda: and Enron," "boredom: and ethnography," and "color: and Burroughs." Taussig acknowledges that he may "seem like a mad poet on the loose, desperate for new experience, dreaming of exaggerated realities" (p. 174). At the same time, he returns endlessly to the same concerns: for instance to the author he calls "one of my favorites," Walter Benjamin; to the commodity, the state, and the strange conjunction of primitivism and modernity found in each; and to the power of sympathetic magic, the shamanism inherent in mimesis and imitation.

Whether because of his expansiveness or because of his repetition of idées fixes, Taussig's prose often runs away with him.   (His celebrated Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man [1987] is surely at least hundred pages longer than it need be, while The Magic of the State reads like a good article struggling to emerge from a less convincing book.)  My Cocaine Museum is generally more coherent. It is very convincing in its account of the political economy of gold, and the sensory experience of its primitive accumulation at the forgotten frontier where modernity and nature meet: he conveys with astonishingly tactility the heat, the boredom, the rain, and the stickiness of the miasmic scene of wealth's production in a town where cash is always in short supply.  

Surprisingly, however, Taussig has much less to say about either cocaine or the guerrilla that accompany cocaine's arrival, who together ensure that "the coast is no longer boring" (p. 141). Strangely, Taussig is much less at ease with what Fernand Braudel would term the histoire événementielle, the history of events rather than the longue durée of myth and prehistory that he extracts from even the most intensive processes of production and exchange. The FARC haunt this text: they incarnate what is for Taussig the intangible event that marks the arrival of the new. It is symptomatic that the one point at which we think we have met the guerrilla, they turn out instead to be a pair of "daring scam artists" who defraud the villagers of their jewelry (gold, of course) (p. 140). Even the para-militaries, parasitic mimic men of the guerrilla, are treated more substantially, albeit at one remove through a friend of Taussig's who is ex-girlfriend of a para leader. The guerrilla remain, even more so than gold, formless and almost sublimely unrepresentable.

Taussig admits that gold and history have "real histories [. . .] chains of cause and effect over time." He chooses, however, "another, quite different tack. [. . .] This other world is the world of physics and chemistry, sex and silence, dreams and nightmares, and I call it the world of immanence" (p. 314). But is this absolute separation not misleading? Is not the history of cause and effect also experienced tactilely, immanently? Surely the guerrilla bring together immanence and history, in a specific combination of affects and habits. It is strange that through a variety of stratagems, either as here in the recourse to the under-theorized notion of "prehistory" or as in The Magic of the State in the fictionalization of a "democratic Elsewhere," Taussig should wish to keep contemporary history at arm's length. At the same time, here in his account of the now decommissioned island prison La Gorgona, and in Law in a Lawless Land and its "diary of a Limpieza ," he also returns to it, to the point at which history becomes immanence.

 

 

 

JON BEASLEY-MURRAY
University of British Columbia

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last updated October 22, 2004