Palma Africana Brian Dillon

Michael Taussig takes a phantasmagorical look at an ecological menace.

Palma Africana, by Michael Taussig, University of Chicago Press,
258 pages, $25

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As he recalled in his book The Corn Wolf, the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig first traveled to Colombia in 1969, “to join the revolution.” He meant the uprising of left-wing guerrillas, but he might equally have intended innovations then current in anthropology itself. Taussig had arrived at his academic discipline (neither word is quite right) via a medical degree in Sydney and postgraduate degrees at the London School of Economics. Anthropology and sociology were changing fast, the influence of structuralism having banished theories of progressive societal development in favor of synchronic and cross-cultural views of symbolism, ritual, and the practice of everyday life. Alongside the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Taussig’s generation had also discovered the dissident surrealism of Roger Caillois and Georges Bataille. And it’s in the heated admixture of the two tendencies—high theory and a kind of hallucinatory critique—that Taussig’s work has been forged since. In books such as Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man (1987), My Cocaine Museum (2004), and now his phantasmagorical study of the palm oil industry in Colombia, he’s pioneered a mode of cultural-political writing that he was calling “fictocriticism” before the term became fashionable.

Taussig has been studying the cultural and political impact of innovations in agriculture since his doctoral work. The depredations of the palm-oil industry upon certain parts of the world have been exposed and criticized by environmentalists and others in recent years. As Taussig points out, palm oil is already in half the packaged goods in your supermarket—consult the World Wildlife Fund website and you’ll discover it’s in everything from chocolate to biodiesel, shampoo to pizza dough. (You’ll also find that it’s a linguistically slippery product, the oil and its derivatives insinuating their way into ingredients lists under various aliases: hydrated palm glycerides, ethyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmityl alcohol.) Why should the most widely used vegetable oil in the world concern us, exactly? Most obviously: cultivation of Elaeis guineensis, the oil palm tree, has destroyed forests and wildlife habitats. And in contrast, for example, to sugar production under colonialism, oil palm cultivation and processing requires a tiny workforce, which means vast rural unemployment. It’s also been linked in Colombia to grotesque levels of violence by state forces and security companies employed by landowners. “The number of killings tell one story. But the manner of killing is quite another, the paramilitaries being especially nifty with chainsaws.”

Since his first visit in 1969, Taussig has been returning to Colombia every year. His familiarity with villages and swamps and domestic animals, with peasant farms threatened by state-sanctioned paramilitaries, is evident on almost every page of Palma Africana. Most of the facts Taussig gives us about the consequences of palm-oil production on the country and its population are in the first third of his book. We learn about the peremptory displacement of peasants and destruction of their crops, the paramilitaries with picturesque nicknames—the Saint, the Dwarf, Tombstone Face—who murder and intimidate when communities (and NGOs) try to resist. The violence that accompanies the industry’s growth is just the latest Colombian conflict concerning land use: cattle, bananas, and cocaine have all been at the center of land wars. As Taussig notes, readers of One Hundred Years of Solitude may recall Gabriel García Márquez’s description of the historical amnesia surrounding the massacre, in 1928, of up to two thousand striking workers of the United Fruit Company.

If Palma Africana were only a study of the material effects of the palm-oil industry on Colombia, it would be a necessary but limited volume. As it is, Taussig’s citation of Márquez’s 1967 magical-realist novel is a clue to his other, stranger, interests and insights. The oil palm is not only a money-making crop and ecological menace; it is also a symbolic species, a metaphorical and magic plant. Given the ubiquity of palm oil in our food and cosmetics, Taussig writes, there is a sense in which we are all becoming palms—or engaged in a process of “becoming-palm,” if we cast things in the style of Deleuze and Guattari. Taussig makes unexpected links between magical realism, shamanic ritual, and cultural theory. Thinkers who have nourished much of his writing in the past decades seem always to have had some kind of vegetal imagination; we might easily think of Walter Benjamin and hashish, William Burroughs and the opium poppy. But Taussig is entranced especially by a photograph and a passage in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, where the critic reflects on the image of a palm tree: “According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets. Of all the tree letters, the palm is loveliest.”

Isn’t there something obscene about linking in this way the real violence and horror of oil-palm politics to Barthes’s subjective and aesthetic ruminations? That’s Taussig’s own question, not mine. And he answers forcefully (“so be it”) that the only way to write—or perhaps the only way he can write—about contemporary Colombia is in a “serpentine practice,” by admitting that brutal facts slip easily into figure and myth, image and fiction. (Everyone Taussig meets has read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and everyone recognizes its confusion of magic with history.) More than that: a true history of this innocent plant and its vexing effects must be written in a register—or rather a mix of genres: memoir, fiction, theory, and reportage—that reflects the constant struggle for supremacy among stories told about industry, progress, tradition, and struggle. Self-conscious but not precious—he’s an engagingly informal writer much of the time—Taussig is searching “for a mode of writing that links the writing with what the writing is about (which is what this book is about).”

The result is a book that feels politically urgent in content and at the same time layered and weird and open, in its approach, to being repurposed for other histories and other places—Taussig has hoped to write, he tells us toward the end of the book, “in such a way that language itself became ‘ecological’.” If there is a sense that his canon of writers and thinkers (Benjamin, Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari) is a touch overfamiliar—well, he has been doing this kind of work for some time and is maybe entitled to his talismanic or ritual reference points. But the voices of Colombian peasants, activists, lawyers, and writers are also everywhere in Palma Africana: witnessing, recounting, lamenting, joking, fantasizing, and resisting.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism: on Form, Feeling & Nonfiction will be published in September by New York Review Books. He is working on a novel and a book about sentences.

Michael Taussig takes a phantasmagorical look at an ecological menace
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