Surrealpolitik: Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man

Author: Michael Taussig

Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1987)

Quick Summary

Classic Taussig, a poetic and subtle examination of ritual, magic, and the surreal within colonialism and terror.


There are 11 quotes currently associated with this book.

Tis book of two parts, terror and healing, takes little for granted and leaves even less in its place. It derives from the almost I've years I spent in the southwest of Colombia, South America, from 1969 to 1985, in periods varying from one month to two years. During those times my hand was tried at several things: history, anthropology, medicine, mythology, magic, to name but the nameable and leave the remainder where the subject matter of this book communicates itself -- in the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real, in the creation of Indians, in the role of myth and magic in colonial violence as much as in its healing, and in the way that healing can mobilize terror in order to subvert it, not through heavenly catharses but through the tripping up of power in its own disorderliness. (page xiii)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Postmodernism]
The power of the imagery brought to life by misfortune and its healing in the sickness of Rosario and José Garcia is a power that springs into being where the life story is fitted as allegory to myths of conquest, savagery, and redemption. It should be clear by now that the magic and religious faith involved in this are neither mystical nor pragmatic, and certainly not blind adherence to blinding doctrine. Instead, they constitute an imagery epistemology splicing certainty with doubt, and despair with hope, in which dreaming -- in this case of poor country people -- reworks the significance of imagery that ruling-class institutions such as the Church have appropriated for the task of colonizing utopian fantasies.

In objectifying this reality as lo real maravilloso or realismo mágico, modern Latin American literature builds a (one-way) bridge with oral literature, yet still, so it seems to me, finds it hard to evade the heavy-handedness that Alejo Carpentier reacted against in Parisian surrealism -- the effort to create magic where only a metaphorized form could exist. Surrealism froze time and denarrativized the predictable compositions of bourgeois reality with forms taken from dreams and from decontextualized (hence all the more surreal) artifacts from the primitive world as it was imaginatively glimpsed through African masks and such in the Trocadero. Well, Carpentier found he didn't need the artifacts because there in the streets and the fields and the history of Haiti the marvelously real was staring him in the face. There it was lived. There it was culture, marvelous yet ordinary. (page 165-166)
Tags: [Surrealism, Situationism, Everyday Life]
But why is it that lo real maravilloso becomes such an important category in the consciousness of literary schools from the 1940s onward after 400 years of myth making and magic in Latin American culture? This awakened sensitivity to the magical quality of reality and to the role of myth in history is perhaps an indication of what Ernst Bloch called "non synchronous contradictions" nd is ready-made soil for the sprouting of "dialectical images," in the terminology of Walter Benjamin, for whom (and I quote from Susan Buck-Morss's essay on his notes for his Passagenwerk)

"the dreaming collective of the recent past appeared as a sleeping giant ready to be awakened by the present generation, and the mythic power of both [the recent and the present generations'] dream states were affirmed, the world re-enchanted, but only in order to break out of history's mythic spell, in fact by reappropriating the power bestowed on the objects of mass culture as utopian dream symbols." (page 166)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Myth, Dreams]
In Latin America it has been, by and large, the political function of the Church to harness these images and collective dreams to reactionary social purposes. It is here where Carpentier's sensitivity to myth as the experience of history in the configuration of a changing present is so appropriate and necessary to the development of revolutionary culture and literature. This development stands in relation to the magical realism of popular culture as the only counter-hegemonic force capable of confronting the reactionary usage to which the Church puts that same magical realism in order to mystify it. Yet those who attempt to use such forces run the risk of being used by them. When Carpentier lists reasons why "America is far from having exhausted its wealth of mythologies," we must ask how it is possible to evade their spell... (page 167)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Myth]
What we also see is that an illness of the body is a bodily attempt at inscribing a history of otherness within the body that is the self, a tentative yet life-saving historiography that finds the dead hand of the past never so terribly alive as in the attacks by the spirits of the restless dead, such as Rosario's fiancé, or as in the sorcery of the envious. Through misfortune and its changing definition with attempts at healing, this picturing of the bodily self as the locus of otherness ineluctably enters into the exchange of magical powers established between Indian shamans and the Church, an exchange that operates with the powerful medium of visual images. Hallucinogens and points of rupture in everyday life -- illness, accident, coincidence, dusk -- can make this image-realm manifest and manifestly empowering, and it was Rosario's task to tie the power of the pagan to the power of the Church, ensuring in this circulation of images their dialectical solidarity. (page 168)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Hallucinogens, Carnival, Truth & Real, The Other]
This type of image-making and image-dependent historiography is also the subject of a pointedly eccentric contribution to the twentieth-century Western European theory of social revolution, namely Walter Benjamin's concepts of redemptive criticism and dialectical images. In his youth, in 1914, Benjamin argued for just the kind of historiography as is exhibited in the image-making provoked by the Virgin of Caloto. Contrary to the view of history as a progressive continuum, the young Benjamin advanced the notion that "history rests collected in a focal point, as formerly in the utopian images of thinkers. The elements of the end condition are not present as formless tendencies of progress but instead are embedded in every present as endangered, condemned, and ridiculed creations and ideas." The historical task, he went on to say, "is to give absolute form in a genuine way to the immanent condition of fulfillment, to make it visible and predominant in the present." (page 199)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Activism, Surrealism & Politics, Truth & Real, Conspiracy]
[W]hile the European surrealists were condemned by their society and its traditions (including its traditions of revolution and rebellion) to clumsily manipulate and juxtapose incongruent imagery, laboriously constructing outsized realities, in the European colonies and ex-colonies something like surrealism was inherent as a deeply embedded social practice in everyday life. As for surrealism, so (I would like to suggest) for dialectical images -- the the crucial difference between their European and colonial expressions being that while in Europe they were largely ignored by the populace yet (for the surrealists) "at the service of the revolution," in the colonies and ex-colonies these expressions are intrinsic to the form of life and at the service of its magicians, priests, and sorcerers. (page 201)
Tags: [Surrealism, Everyday Life, Culture]
Rarely was Benjamin able to wean himself from his infatuation with melancholia -- no easy task for a soul so firmly wedded to the redemptive promise of a past whose quintessential feature lay in its premonition of catastrophe. Surrealism did, however, evoke in him an appreciation for the ways by which laughter could crack open the world, exposing the raw nerve-endings of the politicized imagician's zone of struggle -- where "the long-sought image sphere is opened...the sphere, in a word, in which political materialism and physical nature share the inner man." For if surrealism tried to change that sorcery-bundle of mythical representations on which Western culture is based, and did so using images that levered wide contradictions opening the doorway to the marvelous, its own representing had to be both iconic and ironic -- bringing to mind not only Freud's analysis of the unconscious imagery mined and subverted by jokes, but also Mikhail Bakhtin's and Georges Bataille's fascination with anarchist poetics blending the grotesque and the humorous in carnival-like upheavals of degradation and renewal.

And here I think the Latin American "magical realism" of the novelists and their critics fares poorly. There is truth in Carpentier's claim that the Europeans were forcing open the door to the marvelous in their own society with brutish despair, whereas in the colonies those doors stood ajar if not fully open. But neither in his work nor in that of Arguedas, Asturias, or Garcia Marquez, is, to my mind, the force of laughter and anarchy punctuating the misty realm of the marvelous to be heard. Too often the wonder that sustains their stories is represented in accord with a long-standing tradition of folklore, the exotic, and indigenismo that in oscillating between the cute and the romantic is little more than the standard ruling class appropriation of what is held to be the sensual vitality of the common people and their fantasy life. Yet to the surrealists, precisely because of the acute self-consciousness that went hand in hand with the aforementioned "brutish despair," there lay engraved as axiomatic the wonder and irritation expressed by the nose specialist in Berlin, Wilhelm Fliess, who, upon reading the page proofs of his good friend Dr. Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in the autumn of 1899, complained that the dreams were too full of jokes. (page 201-202)
Tags: [Surrealism, Activism, Humor]
It is not with conscious ideology but with what I call implicit social knowledge that I am here concerned, with what moves people without their knowing quite why or quite how, with what makes the real real and the normal normal, and above al with what makes ethical distinctions politically powerful. And in stressing the implicitness of this knowledge, which is also part of its power in social life, I think we are directed away from obvious to what Roland Barthes called obtuse meaning in his analysis of images and their difference from signs...

It is with imagery in the constitution of power/knowledge that the Putumayo world I am looking t is much concerned. And it is very much this obtuse and not the obvious meanings of imagery that leap to the mind's eye -- as in the sliding stops and starts of the phantasmagoria of the yagé nights, no less than in the social relations embedded in sorcery and in the trances that wander through rulers' minds as they are being carried over mountains.

I take implicit social knowledge to be an essentially inarticulable and imageric non discursive knowing of social relationally, and in trying to understand the way that history and memory interact in the constituting of this knowledge, I wish to raise some questions about the way that certain historical events, notably political events of conquest and colonization, become objectified in the contemporary shamanic repertoire as magically empowered imagery capable of causing as well as relieving misfortune. (page 366-367)
Tags: [Surrealism, Carnival, Truth & Real]
What Benjamin came to advocate was a sort of surrealist technique using what he called "dialectical images" -- an obscure yet compelling notion better left to example than to exegesis: what his friend Theodore Adorno referred to as "picture puzzles which shock by way of their enigmatic form and thereby set thinking in motion." Picture puzzles is of course how Freud referred to the manifest content of dream imagery, and if it was to the manifest and not to the latent level that Benjamin was drawn, that was because of the way such images defamiliarized the familiar, redeeming the past in the present in a medley of anarchical ploys. Unlike current modes of deconstruction, however, the intent here was to facilitate the construction of paradise from the glimpses provided of alternative futures when otherwise concealed or forgotten connections with the past were revealed by the juxtaposition of images, as in the technique of montage -- a technique of great importance to Benjamin. Indeed, Stanley Mitchell tells us that "Benjamin came to regard montage, i.e., the ability to capture the infinite, sudden, or subterranean connections of dissimilars, as the major constitutive principle of the artistic imagination in the age of technology." The understanding we are led to is that the "dialectical image" is in itself a montage, both capturing the aforementioned connections between dissimilars and also that which is thereby captured. What was at stake then was the issue of graphicness in Marxist method, and with that the whole way not only of representing history but of changing it. (page 369)
Tags: [Surrealism & Politics, Dreams]
From examples that Benjamin presents of this graphicness in action in the "dialectical image," as in his "One Way Street," we can see that such images are created by the author but are also already formed, or half-formed, so to speak, latent in the world of the popular imagination, awaiting the fine touch of the dialectical imagician's wand -- not unlike Victor Turner's description of the central African herbalist and curer whose adze, in chopping bark off the chosen tree, arouses the slumbering power of material already there awaiting the copula of the magician's touch..

This notion of the activist acting on something ready to be activated is well conveyed where Benjamin writes that "opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know."

But how does one know? (page 370)
Tags: [Politics & Art, Activism, Surrealism & Politics]