Palms

 

Michael Taussig

 

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1.  Palm oil is to our time in history what sugar was to slavery and modern colonialism.

2.  From palm oil an enormous variety of products can be made thanks to modern chemistry.  Most of the contents of the supermarket, for example.

3.  In Colombia oil palm is “un cultivo de paras” (or should we say (X)paras).

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1.  Along with cattle and African Palm in these parts of northern Colombia you get statues too, of upstanding men in bourgeois suits and hats and spectacles like the ex-president of Colombia, Alfonso López Michelsen, standing with much gravitas on the tarmac of the Valledupar Airport, ten hours from where I was living by launch and bus, and whom my lawyer friend tells me got early into the marijuana trade and then increasingly into the cattle trade ending up with humungous cattle spreads across northern Colombia. Just a story, you say. After all, cattle are ever so much more respectable than marijuana et al. Such a nice, respectable, cachaco, too, my friend Rosario told me.

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2. Another thing about donkeys compared with horses is the noise they make. Late at night in the village I would hear a donkey bray—such a strange word, bray—right outside my window, like a giant with an asthmatic attack vomiting its heart out. The air seems to get sucked in with a rasping sound as if the donkey was swallowing an African Palm tree, fronds, thorns, and all, followed by a gurgling and a rumbling and then this terrible vomiting as if everything within is being torn out guts and all, in an explosion turning the universe inside out. It was thunder not out there but in my soul in the black of night. Sometimes another donkey far away would bray in response. 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 mimeses. Was this a love song or a declaration of war, or both, as young Michael and doña Edith claimed?

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The planes take off and land while Alfonso stands rooted, sentinel of all this coming and going but, as is the wont of statues, doesn’t see or say much. Perhaps like blind Tiresias he is wise to play dumb, for there are many secrets here. Grey warplanes are lined up on the tarmac, straight from the arsenal of the USA, which has showered the Colombian state with weaponry. Now, that’s statuary for you, that brooding flock of warplanes pregnant with bombs. Was I therefore wrong to think of them as cattle? Maybe not. Cattle that can fly and defecate on the guerrilla who say that when the bombs drop you have to lie down with your mouth open in a pathetic effort to protect you eardrums. Picture that. Picture that as statuary, bodies prone flatter than flat on the ground with mouths agape as lightning flashes and ear drums burst. If it is difficult for the sculptor of the bourgeois male in our less than heroic age to manifest manly power without seating his subject on a horse, imagine how hard it would be to create a sense of dignity and power if the man was a peasant riding a donkey with his sandaled feet scraping the ground. At least, the sculptor can place his cachaco beneath this aerial coming and going. But then the peasant does carry a machete. And then there are the angels, another form of statuary, small girls on their donkeys riding back and forth to school through the forest alive with (X)paramilitaries, chattering birds, and monkeys throwing sticks.

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The pain in that sound was too much for me to bear. No wonder Plato goes to such lengths as to warn against imitating horses neighing.  And if he was so uptight about a horse, one can only imagine his horror at the thought that the future guardians of his more than perfect republic would dare mimic a donkey! Language would give up the ghost, logic would disappear, and the republic would fall just like I hear it crashing to the ground outside my window. Is this why the cry of the donkey shivers the soul?

Actually, despite his critique of mimesis in other texts, Plato here adheres to the magical view of mimesis that in imitating something I can or will become that thing. He cannot put it baldly like that since that would be to admit to the truth and the reality of the magic of the mimetic faculty. Like the British administration in colonial Africa he is caught in a bind--to outlaw magic is to admit to its presence and even efficacy.

Plato is not alone here. The history of the west is the history of the repression of mimesis along with and tied to the domination of nature. Mimesis (together with its embodiments in poetry, myth, children’s play, and storytelling) is dangerous. Far from being set aside because it is inferior or distasteful or just plain silly, mimesis is to be actively repressed on account of its power. This certainly touches a nerve and what better symbol of all that is held to be wrong-headed and stupid with mimesis than the (cry of the) donkey?

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3. I believe Deleuze and Guattari would regard the crying of the donkey as a sound accessing what they call the “plane of immanence.” Such a sound has express-track status because it is like chalk scraping the blackboard—a sound that takes the human body out of itself. But what is this “plane of immanence”? It is not so much a place or a thing or a surface, as it is a network of metamorphoses and anamorphoses that D&G regard as “becomings” very much including “becoming animal.”  It would be quite wrong to think of the “plane of immanence” as one thing and the metamorphoses of “becomings” as another. Instead the plane is itself constituted by these becomings such that impulsions running wave-like through the bodily unconscious might be a better phrasing or offer a better picture of this “plane,” understanding “bodily” here as referring to my body, your body, and the body of the world.

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4.  A brief interlude: This is the body the sorcerer intuits from which we can all learn (noting that D&G make considerable use of the sorcerer in their discussion of “the plane of immanence”).  Let me offer an example: Stones walk across the desert. The stones sing. Sorcerers listen. They learn the song, the whitefish song, for example. They sing it to kill a person living in the north by the sea. The tides go out a long way there. As the moon waxes and wanes so the tides go out and come in further and further and as they do so the stomach of the victim expands and contracts until after some weeks that person dies. My body, your body, and the body of the world

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This very story moves along the plane of immanence and constitutes it as well: like the chalk “walking” and “singing” across the blackboard and like the cry of the donkey. (All this singing!)

But is there not something a little off with my phrasing here? For it is not so much a question of the cry of the donkey accessing the plane of immanence, nor of its constituting aforesaid plane, but that the plane of immanence is itself overthrown, as in shock. Yes! that’s it. Not even the plane of immanence can stand up to this sound. It is as if the very plane of immanence turns on itself—which is pretty much Walter B. Cannon’s idea of what happened to the body in shock due to massive blood loss in the trenches in WW1 as the autonomic nervous system, meaning the bodily unconscious, meant to protect the body, is also what kills it as it reaches and bypasses the extremes of auto-regulation.

The cry of the donkey is just such a shock, a reset of the plane of immanence, a flushing out of sound and the mimetic potentials therein.

Such bodily impulsion refers me to mana, the magic behind magic, as delineated by Hubert and Mauss in their general theory of magic (1902). Mana is for them a way of contesting intellectualist theories of magic based on the utilitarian logic of the individual as famously advanced by Frazer in The Golden Bough.

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Borrowing the term mana from the indigenous people of the South Pacific (via the missionary and anthropologist, R. H. Codrington), Hubert and Mauss were at pains not to follow the conscious thought of the calculating individual but the unconscious thought of the collective which I myself understand to include a whole lot more than people. Animals, plants, swamps, and rivers are there too in that collectivity with its unconscious thought.

For me, mana is the magic of magic that lies behind what Walter Benjamin called “the mimetic faculty” and “non-sensuous similarities.” The latter was a dodgy move on Benjamin’s part. He wished to preserve the exactness of mimesis and its associated thrill while acknowledging the fact that most correspondences a la Baudelaire did not, certainly not at first sight, match up as one-to-one imitation or embrace a direct physical connection.

However Benjamin made his “dodgy move” more as an hypothesis and method for investigation of the mimetic workings of language. Behind this was his interest in the idea that the origins of written language lay in magical practice, something I myself associate with the gods Hermes (Greek) and Thoth (Egyptian), each one a god of both magic and writing. And behind this interest in the magical origins of language lay Benjamin’s fascination with similarity as a basic principle in earlier epochs for understanding the world as with macrocosmic/microcosmic models.

A stunning instance of this “doctrine of the similar” is that of the Cuna Indians of the San Blas Islands, between Panama and Colombia, made famous in the anthropological record by Baron Nordenskiold and by Claude Lévi-Strauss in “The Effectiveness of Symbols.” In Lévi-Strauss’s essay the actual body of a woman in obstructed labor being sung to by the shaman is actually/also the spirit body of the great mother. It is to the latter that the song is directed so as to assist the earthly mother give birth. But Levi-Strauss is unaware that the hours-long song is directed to the spirit, not the actual mother.

The Cuna accounts are important in demonstrating that for all the exactitude of the copies, there is room for wildly fanciful divergences as well. Far from being a “faithful copy,” the copy can be flagrantly surreal, which would fit nicely with Benjamin’s idea of “non-sensuous similarity.”

It makes you wonder if the donkey has been selected through millennia as the Great Mimetic Trick, nowhere more so than in the milieu of the adult’s imagination of the child’s imagination.

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These trickier, non-one-to-one mimeses, bear on my own practice and passion here, which is with writing--and not just with writing but with writing in which the things written about enter into the writing itself. It is as if writing can summon what it refers to into itself. On this view writing is not about something but is that something. It is not a label. It is not wrapping. It is a call, just as the cry of the donkey is a call.

The cry of the donkey holds me to this. It is the cry that leaps off the page as blindfold children try to pin the tail back on the donkey and we laugh at the anatomical dislocations. Two sides of one coin: the cry that erupts and the tail that hangs forlornly off the donkey’s nose or floats mid-air amid the raucous laughter of the onlookers. Cacophony all around. Mimesis unhinged. “Let the animals loose.” Cut ups.

But there is one question that plagues me here. Why are donkeys so photogenic? It is as if they are the very mimesis of the very idea of beauty. Forget statues of naked Greek youth. As for Plato’s celebrated forms, is the donkey the form of forms?

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5.  Benjamin’s concept of non-sensuous similarities presumes the notion that language is a net to be found everywhere, a fact of nature. Hence the following electrifying statement (written by a young Benjamin in 1916): “There is no event or thing in either animate of inanimate nature that does not in some way partake of language, for it is in the nature of all to communicate their mental meanings.” At one point in all earnestness he asks: to whom is the language of the lamp directed? To the fox? To the mountain?

And as if this is not enough, what of Benjamin’s next step? Namely his invocation of magic, claiming that “mediation,” meaning the “immediacy of all mental communication,” is the “fundamental problem” of linguistic theory and that this “immediacy” can be called magic. Small wonder he concludes by saying that “the primary problem of language is magic.” Benjamin, until his death, remained steadfastly opposed to the notion that language is an instrument of communication. This opposition, in turn, informs all his work. Not only his way of looking at things, at film, at literature, and politics, but also his crafting of his writing.However, as he became caught up in Marxist ideas (after reading Georg Lukács’s essay on the fetish quality of the commodity in 1924 on the island of Capri), Benjamin changed his position to one that kept juggling the aforesaid magic of the language of things with the magic of commodities. Now the lamp speaks differently to the fox, to the mountain, and to man.

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Equally bracing are the insights into Benjamin’s “Language of Things” essay provided by documentary filmmaker Hito Steyerl in 2006. She advocates a filmmaking that amounts precisely to his view of the language of things, especially now in a globalizing commodity world, exactly where our oil palm in northern Colombia and the Choco is situated. Benjamin would have felt vindicated! A feature film tells a story. A documentary is more inclined to follow the language of things through imagery, especially by means of “non-sensuous correspondences.”

After all, capitalism does this effortlessly, via your credit card, for instance. Today this is the new normal, a recirculating fairy tale world in which things speak to things like in an enchanted forest. The stupendous forces of marketing, especially its visual imagery, persistently coopt Benjamin’s language of things, allowing the capitalist public sphere to swamp all other circuits of translation. This is pointedly the case with palm oil and the oil palm. Is not palm oil the metamorphic sublime, that thing from which all other things are made? And surely this very sublimity is what makes my task here both necessary and easier, the task, that is, of tracing circuits of (non-sensuous) correspondence in which the things written about enter into the writing itself?

As for capitalist circuitry, is this not a gift to a certain class of documentary filmmaker, anxious and excited by the possibility of eliciting an alternate world through an alternate web of things that are not so much things or thingly things as they are nodes in webs of translation that allow for the cooptation, so to speak, of the cooption provided by the commodity-form? Can we out-palm the metamorphic sublime of the oil palm, seeing that we have such an abundance of mimeses by which things talk to other things, first the magic box of tricks supplied by the capitalist commodity-form and second the Faustian chemistry of palm oil itself from which just about everything in the supermarket is made? The challenge for such a filmmaker, like the mimetologically inclined anthropologist, is to figure out a way of “talking” with things via non-sensuous, mimetic, correspondence. 

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6.  (An esoteric aside.) Thirteen years after his “theological” essay on the language of things, we find Benjamin warning against the occult, advising the reader on the need for a dialectic optic which sees the everyday as impenetrable and vice versa, all in the name of the overarching concept of “profane illumination” which meshes the theological with the material, or, in our terms, God with the donkey, no less than the union of what he called the “image-space” with the “body-space.”

Is not the donkey the epitome of the profane? But what of the illumination of “the profane illumination” and what of “the body-space”? ”Illumination” certainly suggests theology but does it not also indicate the sonic delirium of the cry of the donkey opening up swathes of mimeses? For is not profanation itself sacred? Is not the donkey on which the Messiah enters the Holy City a profane illumination or at least an indispensable part thereof?

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As for the magic of language, is the donkey the anti-Christ, challenging God who created the world through the word? Is this why the donkey is held to be the very quintessence of stupidity, another word for which is “dumb,” which means not only stupid but without speech?

In that 1916 essay on language of Benjamin’s that I just cited, he works through Genesis in the Hebrew bible to pick up on stage two of the making of the world, when God breathes life into the clay that is mankind and thus provides humans with the gift of language freed of God.

Is the donkey’s cry the memory of that moment liberating language from God, and is this action repeated by William Burroughs, as antichrist cutting the pages, letting the animals out.

To me, he wrote in 1961 (and I paraphrase): words are like animals. Cut the pages and set the words free. 

Does this account for the eviscerating alienation-effect of the cry of the donkey, that equine Anti-Christ?

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After all, the representation of the devil as an ass is not only very old and disturbing, but is what brings a mighty non-sensuous correspondence into focus, namely the correspondence between the equine ass and the human backside also known, in English, at least, as the arse and, in American English, as the ass. Indeed kissing the donkey’s arse is part of European folklore concerning the cult of Satanic witchcraft. Now, that is mimesis! And let us not forget the common story that men in the swamplands from which I write in northern Colombia are said to have sexual intercourse with donkeys.

As for the magic of mimesis it is this magic that makes mimesis thrilling without us quite knowing why. Mimesis is thrilling because potentially it allows you to become other, which is the reason why we enjoy reading--and writing. Both are magical acts--and arts.

I write “thrilling” but I also mean the joy of mimesis, which in turn invokes play, as with the play of children, and also our understanding of play as experimenting with reality and investigating it.

With the braying of the donkey this sensibility opens like a fan. Then the bodily unconscious takes fire. “People’s habits are continually disturbed by things which trouble the calm ordering of life,” write Hubert and Mauss, “drought, wealth, illness, war, meteors, stones with special shapes, abnormal individuals, etc. At each shock, at each perception of the unusual, society hesitates, searches, waits.”

These shocks “turn the abnormal into mana.”As regards shocks, not only meteors and droughts but surely—surely (X)paramilitaries and the vast fields of palma africana they advance?

Does this mean I am connecting if not equating the expansion of the palma africana plantation with the braying of the donkey? Is that a non-sensuous correspondence, an assemblage held together with sticky mimetic glue that shakes the world as it compresses at midnight outside my window?

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Michael Taussig began his professional life as a doctor and then became an anthropologist. He teaches at Columbia University

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