Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing is a 1986 book by Michael Taussig which examines the project of Colonialism as it was carried out in South America.

He first creates a space of an all-too-real and present terror followed by a process of healing that we as readers are ourselves supposed to follow. Through the weaving and interlocking of literature, firsthand accounts, and his ethnographic work, Taussig creates, “a mode of perception--a way of seeing through a way of talking--figuring the world through dialogue that comes alive with sudden transformative force in the crannies of everyday life’s pauses and juxtapositions. . . . It is an irregular, quavering image of hope, this inscription on the edge of official history” (209). In both following his text and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into it as it develops, Taussig himself comes to take on the role of the shaman, and we readers the role of the patient.

Taussig introduces his subject matter in his author’s note, stating that the purpose of his text is to examine, "the politics of epistemic murk and the fiction of the real, in the creation of Indians, in the role of the 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 . . . through the tripping up of power in its own disorderliness. That is why my subject is not the truth of being but the social being of truth, not whether facts are real but what the politics of their interpretation and representation are" (xiii, italics added). As stated above the author begins this discussion first by looking at acts of terror and the “space of death” created there. His case of terror is that of the rubber trade in the Putumayo river area of Colombia of the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of these acts of terror stemmed from British rubber barons of the time trying to impose a capitalist mode of production on an indigenous, "wild", population still living under an economy based upon a gift/exchange system. In the eyes of the British, who violently pressured the natives to extract rubber from the rubber trees of the area, the Indians, "would not work appropriately". The barons' reaction to indigenous resistance was to carry out horrific acts of terror on the minds and bodies of the local population, which Taussig thoroughly documents through providing firsthand accounts from the time. Within the “space of death” created in the Putumayo area came also the death of communal memory and objectivity. Terror resulted in a, “society shrouded in an order so orderly that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it--a death-space in the land of the living where torture's certain uncertainty fed the great machinery of the arbitrariness of power” (4).

Interestingly enough, the powerful force of healing develops from the same space created by the other powerful force of terror: “Shamanic healing . . . like the culture of terror, also develops its force from the colonially generated wildness of the epistemic murk of the space of death” (127). In his section on healing Taussig relates his ethnographic work with José García, an Indian shaman of the Putumayo, during the 1970s. Taussig is particularly compelled by the fact that many peasant colonists seek out José García to be healed. He notes that to the magic already possessed by shamans like García, “colonialism fused its own magic, the magic of primitivism” (216). Here Taussig is speaking of how the shaman has been able to harness the “mystery” and “wildness” projected onto him by Western “civilization” in his practice as a shaman. He goes on to write that this, “folding of the underworld of the conquering society into the culture of the conquered not as an organic synthesis or ‘syncretism’…but as a chamber of mirrors reflecting each stream’s perception of the other” (218). In what does the healing power of wildness lie? Taussig answers this question: "Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage. . . . Wildness is the death space of signification” (219).

“So it has been through the sweep of colonial history where the colonizers provided the colonized with the left-handed gift of the image of the wild man--a gift whose powers the colonizers would be blind to, were it not for the reciprocation of the colonized, bringing together in the dialogical imagination of colonization an image that wrests from civilization its demonic power” (467).

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