Freaky Realism: Michael Taussig's Palma Africana
Magical realism has become something of a sappy genre. The book that really put the genre on the map, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), was not sentimental. Its magical dimension derived from the attempt to find a fictional form for a moment of real violence: the massacre of 3,000 striking United Fruit Company banana plantation workers in 1928.
The region of Colombia from which Garcia Marquez came might be more about palm oil plantations these days. In Palma Africana (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), Michael Taussig wrestles with the problem of accounting for a whole new era of expropriation in a writerly form appropriate to it. The result is not an international literary blockbuster. Times have changed.
Taussig has been coming to Colombia since 1969, and this book is among other things a memorial piece to what is lost. Taussig’s writing is also about what Walter Benjamin called the “mode of perception,” which for the German writer emerged, sometimes with a lag, out of the mode of production. Taussig deploys “vectors of raw facticity” to invent a kind of “freaky realism” for the times. “The instabilities, fragmentation, shock, and phantomlike qualities of the modern—meaning here agribusiness—are to be subject … to the premodern modes of perception as well as the modern, rather than held apart and distinct.”
Marxists see human labor as a pivotal commodity, but this assumes an infrastructure of other commodities for its maintenance. If capitalism is about extracting a surplus from labor by not paying it the full value of what it produces, imperialism is about extracting a surplus from nature. Jason Moore calls it “cheap nature.”1 Colonial extraction takes more than nature can replace. As Marx said, it’s a maker of deserts. Marx included these colonial extraction regimes in what he called the “primitive accumulation” of capital; he was thinking of the Potosí silver mine and the African slave trade, which as Kathyrn Yusoff insists are foundational colonial moments of the Anthropocene.2 But primitive accumulation goes on, even if not quite in the same form. Agribusiness is still forcing out peasant subsistence agriculture, but now in the name of a new kind of commodification where value rests in a large part on the ownership of the genetic information of valuable crops. One of the things empires extract nowadays is genetic information about potentially useful species. As Taussig says, “Seed banks are booty, relics of despoliation.”
A common strain of palm cultivated in Colombia is called American Hope. Taussig is fascinated by industrial videos showing women artificially inseminating American Hope palm plants with some sort of hose or nozzle. Agribusiness forces nature into the commodity form by mimicking only those natural attributes compatible with it, rendering it sterile. It’s like something out of a biopunk science fiction novel.3 As for the land: “What a fate to plant it in row after row of palm for diesel fuel and fingernail polish. ‘Green,’ of course.” Palm oil is a commodity that ends up in an incredibly strange array of other commodities, including pizza dough, detergent, ice cream, chocolate and soap. Palm oil is to what Achille Mbembe calls the “postcolony” what sugar was to colonialism.4
It’s an “agro-genocide.” Agribusiness giants such as Monsanto, Cargill, Ralston Purina are destroying lives of peasants and many species they don’t own. Agribusiness privatizes germ lines and eliminates diversity. This is why a politics of land reform is not enough anymore. Agribusiness controls the value chain through controlling information. In my language, agribusiness is now a part of the “vectoralist class,” a ruling class disinterested in owning the means of production because it controls the information vector, in this case of plant genetics.5 Out in the postcolony, the vectoralist class is at war against both nature and the peasant. The peasants practice inter-planting, curating multi-species gardens, interested mostly in producing use values for themselves, a form of cultivation Taussig calls the “mastery of non-mastery.” In place of which we have the plantation, and the cultivation of a single crop for its exchange value. “Mono-cropping amounts to one of those absolutely fundamental changes in world history comparable to the invention of monogamy and monotheism.”
Speaking of monotheism: the transnational vector that brings palm oil to remote Colombia also brings American Protestantism. “The evangelicals,” Taussig observes, “seem assiduously apolitical if not reactionary, and largely side with the palm plantations. Karl Marx comes to mind concerning religion as the opiate of the people. Yessir. Forgive me if I think of these temples as palm plantations not of the land but of the soul.” But this furious and tempestuous opiate is also an extreme reaction to extreme violence. The global vectors of the extraction and control of value through the ownership of information touch down in the postcolony with a lot of what Anna Tsing calls “friction.”6 In the case of Colombia, there’s a complicated game of law and violence among land owners, state officials, and paramilitaries acting with or against lawyers, peasant associations, and guerrillas. Taussig: “When you stand back and look at this, it comes across as theater and a sort of magic act in which the actors indulge in make-believe in a vast public secret which nobody knows and everyone knows.”
Over the fifty years that Taussig has been coming to Colombia, the game has changed. An injection of military aid from the US in 2000 led to an expansion of paramilitaries which were used to displace peasants, disrupt trade unionists, and kill guerrillas. With the retreat of the guerrillas has come the spread of African palm. The paramilitary forces have won, and become ambiguous (X)paramilitaries, as Taussig calls them. The official enemy and alibi for arms and support from Washington has changed from fighting communists to fighting terrorists. Meanwhile, Colombia has some five or six million displaced people. The language of development diverts attention from violence. There’s a need for other narratives.
What “land reform” has happened has not redistributed land but has just opened marginal land to displaced peasants, onto which the (X)paramilitaries and the landowners—or land-grabbers—follow anyway. Between the peasants and the (X)paras is a kind of ritualized struggle, with elements of play, but also with elements of violence. (Perhaps it was naïve of Foucault to consign sovereign violence to the past.) What surprises Taussig is the mix of violence with friendliness. Still, there is a kind of negative sublime that shrouds both (X)paramilitaries and palm trees. The (X)paramilitaries take over territory from the guerrillas, to no one’s benefit except the landowners’. They mimic both the guerrillas and the state, taking on the appearance of the state to the guerrillas and the appearance of guerrillas to the state. They are a motley of war machines known mostly by some jumble of letters or other. “Acronyms are the dam meant to hold language from total collapse.”
Taussig: “Today the calculus of land and labor has changed since the origins of the plantation in the sixteenth century. If before the problem facing the capitalist was labor, now it is land and uppity peasants resisting enclosure, and the (X)paramilitaries provide the solution.” The (X)paramilitaries are agents of the landowners, and thus indirectly of the landowners’ palm trees and cattle. They eliminated the guerrillas via massacres, cut down the crop trees, destroy seasonal crops, such as rice, corn, manioc. They stand around as bodyguards. They video-tape their actions to spin narratives in which they are defenders against attacks by the peasants rather than then other way around.
The (X)paramilitaries’ trademark is violence with superfluity. They cut people up with chainsaws. They mimic the predatory, like jaguars: “their greatest mimetic feat is their inhumanity.” But do tales of atrocity empower us? García Márquez already had doubts, and so does Taussig, who would rather recover forms of magic that point not just to the past but to other as yet unknown forms of life. One in which there’s more than one kind of agency and more than one kind of agent. Where trees might have a say in things, and peasants can talk of territory as a collective project, as an alternative to the chopped up corpses of both peasants and plantations.
Taussig’s fieldwork is in “a land of heat and swamps and a mighty river spilling its banks every six months, like a tidal wave it be.” Swampy land has an attenuated relation to the state. It seems to be the fate of anthropology to haunt such ambiguous zones, the swamps, the mountain redoubts, the deserts. Some of the swamps Taussig studies do not have official names, are subject to local forms of topographic knowledge. They are sites of legal ambiguities, as well as being amphibious territories, fluctuating between wet and dry. Such marginal land attracts displaced peasants, some the descendants of African slaves, tortured and driven from one place to another in the name of fighting communism and cocaine, but really just making way for agribusiness (and cocaine). (And certain lines of agricultural business are good ways to launder drug money.)
The state may have lost its monopoly on violence to the (X)paramilitaries, but it still tries to retain power over the swamp. Some of it is state land, which peasants and others think is their land by custom and tradition. It was of course once indigenous land, but they are gone. Two kinds of law conflict and overlap: that of the axe and the legal paper. The swamp is a sort of permanent state of exception, of life and decay. It can be drained and developed, or could become a nature reserve—as “wetlands.” However, “drain the swamp” is generally considered a good thing in settler vernacular. And yet, swamps flood, with a kind of excess neither environmental not developmental narratives particularly care for.
The palm plantation is not a pretty landscape. “In between somber African palm plantations—dark, spiny, huge, and frightening—are piled up junk towns of what look like dog kennels…” Herds of cattle blast about like armored cars. The local peasant economy is an ad hoc one, made up of state incomes, cattle, subsistence cultivation, remittances. The peasant association keeps the (X)paramilitaries at bay, a bit. The peasants sleep with their crops sometimes, protecting them. Taussig: “You have to be patient and calm to defend the territory.”
Taussig is skeptical of the way American academia has come to deploy the language of “theory” as a kind of magical shorthand: “My sense is that what is today called ‘theory’ is a cross between magic and the need for mastery; mastery over other people and mastery over reality. (That’s my theory, anyway.)” The abstractions of theory can have too much of an affinity for the abstractions of power, leaving ordinary, insignificant things in the dust. “So why do I persist? What is this nod toward things and a belief in the power of detail?” Taussig is reacting to systematic thinking, whether of development or ethnography, in favor of a bond of empathy for insignificant things. (This tree; that cow). It’s a matter of writing theory differently, in a way that does not bulldoze flat all of the anomalies fieldwork throws up. “The ‘field’ as in ‘fieldwork’ is as much the Self as it is the Other, multiply so, especially now at a time in world history when the subjective nature of nature objects to its objectification and strenuously so.” Theory lacks of theory about its own production, its own history. In Palma Africana, concepts always come from a relation of the ethnographer to some seemingly insignificant thing, which turns out to signify all too much.
Like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Taussig wants to see the symbolic as play that crosses nature with culture as active, as no mere structure doling out combinatory permutations.7 What Viveiros de Castro calls “cannibal metaphysics” seems comparable to what in past work Taussig called “the nervous system.” Both are trying to think more dynamic and open-ended practices of the symbolic that are attentive to details that don’t fit. In Taussig’s “nervous system,” acts of interpretation are not individual acts in individual bodies, but acts of the hermeneutic field itself, a field which is hardly systematic at all, but which compulsively interprets in order to cover up its lack of system. In both Taussig and Viveiros de Castro, ethnography doesn’t uncover symbolic order so much as activate meaning-making, although in Taussig there’s a tendency to leave the symbolic open and unmapped.
Nor is the symbolic woven over a bright binary of the “imaginary.” For Taussig this is an ugly, reifying word, redolent of the obtuse scientism of Lacan, and contrary to the free associations of what Chiara Bottici calls the “imaginal,” which seems to me to fit better with the active and trans-individual model of symbolic practice at the heart of Taussig’s work.8 Taussig prefers to practice a kind of playful positivism, where facts mingle with magic, the profane with the sacred. It’s a kind of ethnographic surrealism built on thought-images: Walter Benjamin gone troppo. It’s an imaginal world where certain things exceed themselves, leap out of their classifications, come in contact with other things. “My belief is that detail, evanescent or banal, is necessary so as to unsettle reality, not because we need all the facts (which no reader pays much attention to, anyway), but because the cunningly rendered detail can, on occasion, sneak through the defenses we erect so as to keep reality from disturbing us.” That’s magic.
It is not uncommon now for there to be ethnographies of non-human things, where objects usually act straightforwardly with some kind of “agency.” Taussig is more interested in magic. Trees might not be just actors in networks, but might watch over the limits to representation, standing at the point where communication fails. Worshiping them might be both irrational and a moment of ecological sanity. In contrast to cannibal metaphysics, in which each pre-contact tropical animal acts as a “person” and each sees each of the others as an animal, Taussig asks about introduced animals. What about cow-spirits? And if there are tree-spirits, what about the agribusiness-designed palm itself?
Things might not only rend factual accounts of themselves, but might participate in a kind of metaphoric sublime. The (X)paramilitary is also a predatory jaguar, an animal being. Maybe there can be a magical other life, a feral imagination for feral beings. It may be the only kind left. Particularly when domestic animals go wild in a new world and become part of it, changing it. Do the introduced animals and plants, domesticated or gone wild, participate in symbolic play in the same way that the pre-existing species do in something like Viveiros de Castro’s cannibal metaphysics? Taussig: “What are we to make of these giant packs broken away from oedipalized domesticity?” Can the imaginal, can the nervous system, work its magic on this damaged life?
What attracts Taussig’s attention are moments of what the Surrealists called “convulsive beauty.” It is not a matter, however, of assimilating this Colombian landscape to a Western surrealist imaginal practice, so much as letting elements of it go feral. A bellowing cow, stuck in the mud: it’s a detail that connects to a wounded nature. Taussig: “this holds out hope for the future in that by such a morbid and roundabout route, nature is not seen as the dead, soulless object of European modernity but as something roused into life through the wounds and war conducted against it. Like the swamp, death, or more specifically disfiguration, makes it alive and more than alive, churning with vitality.” Let’s focus, then, on non-human agency in the Anthropocene, both banal and magical, where everything is tending to go feral.
For Walter Benjamin, objects look back at us; that’s one way of thinking about his fabled concept of the “aura.” The aura is cramped and restricted by commodification, but maybe doesn’t go away. Benjamin is interested in a dual experience of tradition and modernity, the former connected not only to the aura but also to animal sensation, while modern sensation has lost this connection and is distracted by other intensities. Taussig seems to have something similar in view: “The instabilities, fragmentation, shock, and phantomlike qualities of the modern—meaning here agribusiness—are to be subject … to the premodern modes of perception as well as the modern, rather than held apart and distinct.”
The moments when objects can look back might come through close observation of quirky details. That might be what the feeling that a detail has significance actually signals. “Is not the ‘mere’ anecdote the quicksilver flurry that combines the personal with the ways of the world, one eye open to the strange and the untoward, the other eye somewhat bashful and unsure?” The mythological residues of damaged life are to be found in the everyday. It’s the use value of trash, as José Esteban Muñoz observes of the work of Jack Smith in a rather different context.9 When the observer can clock the freaky detail which appears to return the gaze, that’s when another world might appear possible, one that is imminent to the world in which the commodity form otherwise seems to entirely sever things from any relations other than exchange.
Taussig: “Hence the character of my serpentine text: detailed, anecdotal, montaged, and jumping through puddles of tedium.” It’s a matter of thinking a freaky reality by writing at the waterline. The unconscious of both reader and writer meet through an unexpected and not always welcome splash of language. Anecdote and theory can be on the same plane, rather than one being sovereign over the other. Like Benjamin, Taussig has a taste for stories that resist a single interpretation, and serve as inexhaustible templates for making meaning: story as a renewable energy versus the news as disposable mono-meaning narrative.
The magical has to extend into writing itself, a writing where things climb into the words and their possible meanings. Writing is packs of animals, wild and/or feral. This hermeneutic become animist, allowing creatures to creep into words, enlivening writing: the jaguar, the cow, the donkey, but particularly the swamp-borne serpent, sliding along the lines of written type, quietly. Most of the animals were driven out of the swamp (paradise) by cattle, cocaine, palm oil, which are displacing the peasants as the indigenes were previously displaced. They skulk out of the swamp into the text.
If it sounds strange to us moderns that trees or cows might have spirits, consider how we still think of writing in magical ways. Taussig: “Writing is rewriting, which is why we dream of style, spark, seduction and speed—that is, of writing as more than the need or desire to communicate but as an art-form that communicates with communication.” This is where Taussig steps out of anthropology into media theory, where the problem is always with how to observe the form of communication itself, from inside of it. Perhaps there could be a kind of ficto-criticism that is writing about writing that is also writing about something else: in this case, palm trees, cows, a river, a tree. And perhaps this modest kind of magic could at least be outside of, and ward off, the agribusiness writing’s magic which is a magic concealing kind of magic. Critique can expose the concealing magic of commodification but maybe that is not enough. Perhaps one could do with ways of thinking otherwise about social relations, but otherwise also about magic surveying the expansive, fetid life of the swamp, Taussig wonders: “Would it be too much of an overflowing poetic reduction, exaggeration, and simplification to say that the magic behind all these events and diffuse atmospheres is that of global capitalism…?” Maybe it is a kind of sublime terror that reaches into (almost) all of the details. “Doubtless these formulations of mine are forced, histrionic, and fanciful, but then so is global capitalism whereby anonymous forces shrink the world into a paramilitarized nightmare of monstrous creations and violent disembodiments.”
Maybe it’s time for another magic. In magical realism, truth and justice are hostages and everyone knows it. Against which, Taussig fabulates a bestiary of apotropaic writing, a writing which is a magic that wards off bad magic, in this case the concealed magic of agribusiness and its global theft of information.
A counter-magic: “With the braying of the donkey this sensibility opens like a fan.” Of all the animals that populate this serpentine text, the most affecting, for Taussig and this reader, is the donkey that cries in the night. “Turning the world inside out in sonic delirium in the darkness of the night, this animal cry out of nowhere opened up a swathe of mimesis …. The pain in that sound was too much for me to bear.” Language here becomes not a mimesis of Logos, of something higher than the human, but rather implicates the human sideways, as it were, in animality. Taussig: “Is the donkey’s cry the memory of that moment liberating language from God, and is this action repeated by Burroughs as Antichrist cutting the pages, letting the animals out? Does this account for the eviscerating alienation-effect of the cry of the donkey, that equine Antichrist?” The cry can feel like a resetting of the plane of immanence, the field of feelings and sensings, preparing it anew for fresh powers of mimesis. Some nonhumans might have particular powers not just in but about the mimetic landscape. Non-humans might not just speak but speak theory.
The history of the West is one of the repression of the free play of mimesis. Plato wasn’t wrong to want to ban the imitation of animal cries. If the boundary between human and animal is breached by such a doubling, the Republic’s concerted attention to a resemblance to Logos might fall. Paradoxically, Plato subscribes to a magical view of mimesis, whereby imitating a thing I become that thing. Plato “is caught in a bind; to outlaw magic is to entertain the possibility of its efficacy.” Taussig takes sides with the facticity of magic. “Empiricism was never so alive!”
As the Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones once said, it is easier to humanize an animal than to humanize humans. Only by severing the human from its animal doubles can it be human at all. And only some privileged humans: As Adorno and Horkheimer noted, the charge of having powers of mimesis, doubled with the charge of being too close to some sort of animal sensation, are the two recurrent figures where oppression is justified by racism. The other of power (their case study is “the Jew”) is held to be mimetically slippery, always posing as “one of us.” This mimetic faculty is itself held to be a kind of animal cunning. There will supposedly be some sign that gives them away, however (in this case, the Jewish nose). Such is the structure of prejudice as power. It can have other figures. These days one is the trans woman. To transphobes, trans women are slippery mimics of “real” human womanhood, but whose base animal nature is given away by the presence, not of that nose, but of a dick.
Adorno and Horkheimer don’t end with the implication of the other in mimesis, or Taussig either. There’s a dialectical twist. The oppressor group projects mimesis onto the other, claiming to be fully human and free of it, but in so doing practice a mimesis of mimesis. The alleged cunning of the other that is revealed when the swamp is drained provides the alibi to fight them by copying their tactics. The Nazi gives himself license to spy and entrap the mimetically slippery enemy. The paramilitaries copy the mimetic powers they attribute to the guerrillas to sniff them out and kill them.
The constraining and instrumentalizing of mimesis is key part of oppression, in both the representation of the other and in actual oppressive practices. Here is the mimesis of mimesis at its most macabre: Taussig retells a story where paramilitaries dressed 3000 new recruits to their own ranks as guerrillas and killed them. When this was exposed, the victims were described as “false positives.” Mimesis is exploited as a war machine to interact with a world made of imitations of imitations. Perhaps theory needs a critique of the exploitation of mimesis alongside the exploitation of labor.
The mimetic is a kind of copy that selects, doubles, but also differs. Agribusiness is based on the mimesis of nature, so that it can be commodified. Agribusiness plantations also imitate the state, in the ranked encampment style of arrangement of plantations, as orderly as a barracks. In a more contemporary vein, agribusiness as a fraction of the vectoralist class turns genetic information into mimetic doubles, different enough that it can claim it as private property. All in all, a double game that teeters always on the edge of the metaphoric sublime, wherein anything might be doubled, copied, varied—where the imaginal works its magic on the symbolic. Benjamin may have moved on from the magic of language to the magic of commodities in his work, but Taussig brings these two Benjamins back together.
The primary problem of language for Taussig is magic. All mental communication is immediate, which writing can only mimic in a rather more linear fashion. Taussig aspires to practice a writing in which the thing enters the writing directly and immediately. A writing that is not about something but is that something, that is its call. In this text, often it is animals: “They haul themselves in, these animals, into sentences, clamoring for inclusion.” Intangible correspondence is however not a magic outside of power and the commodity entirely. It is what a credit card does, for example. Financial information connects disparate things together. Our individual debts are cut and sliced and mixed and sold on again. One could think here of what Randy Martin calls “the derivative,” with its extraction of component parts from commodity flows and their mixing and matching in portfolios of risk as a kind of non-sensuous correspondence on a grand scale, as the modus vivendi of an entire vectoralist ruling class.10 If the fetishism of commodities is a concealing magic, that of the derivative is also—and on a vastly expanded scale. It is a daunting task to propose a form of counter-magic on such a scale.
There is a famous moment in Lautréamont’s Maldoror when a mother explains to a child why the wolves howl at the moon: they too thirst for the infinite. That is the kind of moment for which Taussig too thirsts, those lightning-fast moments when the reader feels the text skip toward an outside, toward another groove. Could there be another freedom other than bourgeois freedom? One outside of its finite calculations? The name of this book, Palma Africana, is itself mimetic. It is named after a thing, or more particularly after the freaky realism that surrounds it. It’s a book about method that teaches by example, and since the examples are kinds of magic, the book partly reveals them by partly concealing them. It’s about “something more than spiraling descriptions at the crossroads of magic and positivism, something more than swathes of mimesis, namely that trump shamanic card, the alternating current of skilled revelation of skilled concealment.” Like the Surrealists, Taussig makes use of the aura of things, those creepy moments when things return the gaze, revealing their implication in worlds. It is what the commodity form severs from the thing but seems also to always leave behind as a residue, sinking into a kind of murk from which the commodity can’t be free and on which it still actually depends. The aura reveals itself in brief flashes of connection. These spark connections that can point both to the earth and to the infinite. “In Marxist language this translates into the commodity as both thing and spirit (as reification and fetish). In my language it is God and donkey or, if you like, donkey and God.”
The domination through control of information by the world by the vectoralist class does not proceed without friction. It may even stir up turbulent counter-currents. “If it seems perverse and bewildering of me to bring together the pleasure of the text and the forward march of the plantation economy mono-cropping the life out of existence, so be it… The critical move, I believe, the one animating my text here, is the approximation of textual pleasure to the search for an alternative economy to agribusiness thanks to the shock-and-sorcery philosophy agribusiness arouses.” Agribusiness both opens and constrains the powers of mimesis. Taussig wants to press on into those powers. Rather than mourn the loss of the world agribusiness destroys, Taussig asks if something might still be possible in the play of its ruins.
Taussig: “We make networks and collectives that we maintain on the edge of the state that forbids us love and self-government.” That for now will have to do as a provisional project. If those networks are to communicate with each other, to use the vector of communication differently, maybe they will need to explore these other affordances of the mode of perception, those which point to what the commodification of the world in the form of information leaves behind.
1. Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life Brooklyn: Verso, Brooklyn, 2015).
2. Kathryn Yusof, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2019).
3. like Paolo Bacigulpi’s Wind-Up Girl(New York: Night Shade Books, 2009).
4. Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
5. McKenzie Wark, Capital is Dead(Brooklyn: Verso, 2019).
6. Anna Tsing, Friction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
7. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics(Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014).
8. Chiara Bottici, Imaginal Politics (New York: University of Columbia Press, 2019).
9. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, (New York: NYU Press, 2009).
10. Randy Martin, Knowledge LTD (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015).