Now is the Taussig of our discontent

John Stevens (8859jstev@UMBSKY.CC.UMB.EDU)
Wed, 5 Oct 1994 15:32:16 EDT

they're cursing my candle!" (adapted from Kent Flannery's "The Goldenn

I think that everyone engaged in the Taussig conversation agrees (on some
level) that, like other postmodern philosopher/talespinners (pun intended),
Taussig is "fascinating but frustrating." His work often forces us to ask what
we're "getting for the time [we] invest in reading him" (both quotes from
Mcreery). Well, I for one admire Taussig's attempts to uncover or revisualize
meaning. In attempting to strip away representation, he can only reveal other
representations, and I think he knows that. So he merrily chugs along, reveal-
ing and re-creating, making fictions and popping conceptual balloons.

But two things need to be considered: one, he *IS* annoying, and sometimes
pointlessly (or uneffectively) so. Two, the definition and purpose of
fiction needs to be addressed and debated. Taussig is not creating fictions
in the stricter sense of the word; that is, "making things up" wholesale. But
he does acknowledge that his work is an act of creation, of making new things
from old things, so to speak. I write fiction, and I also plan to be an
academic, and I know the difference between the two. The short stories I
submit to little literary journals are not the same as the papers I write.
I think Taussig is striving to widen the concept of fiction, primarily in
the way he discusses representation and our longing for "the Other." When
he does this well, it's great. But when he puts a bag over his head, you
can't understand what he's saying. And I think that there are times when
he does put a bag over his head in his writing.

Rick Wilk wrote me and said that "Taussig strikes me as a trickster (and a
self-styled one at that)," and I agree. I admire Taussig's spirit, and when
it comes through in his discourse he makes some stunning points. But when
he indulges in the postmodern obfuscation exercises that some call academic
writing, he loses much of his punch. As Rick said, provocation for provo-
cation's sake ends in nothing, and it's hip to be provocative now. But the
current vogue provocation is passive-aggressive, where it's what you don't
do that's annoying, and you do it that way so you won't get into trouble or
invest too much effort or prestige in your provocation. Like my intellectual
great-great-uncle Paul Radin said, "We cannot be afraid to be wrong." I
admire Taussig's fearlessness in experimentation, but when he descends to
unconstructive shadow-boxing or refuses to refine his positioning he makes
my teeth grind. We need more fearlessness in conclusions as well as in intent.
We must be able to present well situated, coherent, relevant, yet inevitably
vulnerable and dated positions in our discourse. If we don't, then we abrogate
our responsibilities as anthropologists and not only "talkers of social life"
(a la Paul Stoller) but as critics of cultural practice and practitioners of
social analysis and description. When Taussig (or any anthro) fails to do
that, we should all cry wolf.

Respondez, s'il-vous plait?

John Stevens
University of Massachusetts at Boston