Syllable and Sound
Michael Taussig The following was originally presented as a lecture at Duke University, January 2010; originally printed in Trigger93: The Word, Volume 1.
"The brain is just the weight of God," wrote Emily Dickinson,
For, lift them, pound to pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, playing with language, which means playing with interpretations, tricks of reference, and heart-rending ambiguity. It is a tremendous thing, the ultimate estranging Enlightenment thing, to reduce God to an entity that, like the brain, can be weighed and compared pound to pound. But then once you have taken that plunge, it is hard to resist going the whole hog and asking literal questions: how much might he weigh, and whether his weight is constant and whether, like an Old Testament god such as Brecht's Baal, he might be prone to stuffing himself with food and drink and blowing out into a many pounded god indeed? Is he middle class so that even if he is god of the fast-food nation he can yet remain like Bill Clinton slim and trim, as is not only proper, nowadays, but is the sort of miracle that only he could pull off and that America sorely needs? Is he even a guy?
Of all organs, the brain strikes me as especially uncanny to look at and to hold and to eat, too. Is this because it is quote unquote the seat of consciousness, which must be very close to god, especially when you consider the very strange status of that piece of it called the pineal gland, seen by different philosophers, such as Rene Descartes, as the guardian of the threshold where matter and ideas, things and god, meet? Ah! The pineal gland, that good old friend lost in swirling deconstructing mists of con-fusion, its importance way bigger than its diminutive size, more like a syllable than a sound, like Kafka's doorman to the law who likes to keep you waiting way past bedtime.
Well that was a long time ago, you say, so now I should, like a good scientist, bring you up to date and tell you about a professor who came to my campus in Ann Arbor as a special guest of the philosophy department and who was kind enough to give a little talk to the anthropologists on certain aspects of the topic of his invention known as "sociobiology." When he was done, a graduate student challenged his reduction of mind to matter, and she did so in a rather persistent manner. The visitor brought out two words that I recall well -- talk about poetry! One was "preprint," which was new to me, and the other was -- well you guessed it -- our old friend the pineal gland. He had a preprint with him he said, gesturing vainly to his back pocket, and went on to sketch in the miraculous role of the pineal gland -- what I call Kafka's guardian -- in pulling off the greatest alchemical trick of all time, converting chemical and electrical impulses into thoughts and god knows what else god knows.
Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their tools of trade, and here I cannot but wonder at the relationship between "preprint" and pineal gland, as if the pineal gland is the permanently preprinting device, that god-awesome potential behind all potentiation, the dream and vision almost within grasp that, yes!, with a little more of a nudge and a little more money from the National Science Foundation, will -- like infinitesimal calculus -- keep on closing the gap between soul and electricity, thought and genes, mind and matter...such that finally, on the Day of Judgment perhaps, we shall be able to fuse the two into one, like cheese melting into the pizza crust.
I wonder, however, if reduction of this order can ever be achieved without the miracle working pizza god? For as the professor reached for his preprint, he became pale -- perhaps the preprint was not there or was only in the pre-preprint stage -- and he slowly slid off his chair into a dead faint. Boy, were his hosts in the philosophy department worried, running around in circles looking for a wet handkerchief while casting dirty looks at that graduate student who was basically doing nothing more than following graduate school protocol in going for the jugular, as they say. Others might call it murder, or at the least manslaughter, and still others sorcery. Slowly he recovered consciousness and was led away by his handlers to deliver, next day, a robust declaration concerning sociobiology. But you do have to wonder. Perhaps the pineal gland misfired or something? Who knows?
On the other hand might this not have been a fortuitous ascent into the higher realms of consciousness whereby the soul escapes the body for a lofty purpose, thereby contributing in no small measure to the power and brilliance of his lecture the following day? Who knows. Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their tools of trade, and of course picturing too, as in a blacked out lecture hall in an old Midwestern university where a slide-show is going on sometime around 1980. Up on the stage a strongly built academic is in his three-piece suit lecturing on his favorite theme, ethnobotany, a field he claims to have invented or at least put on the map. The hall is large and full of people.
The slide-show takes us to the Amazon looking for rubber for the USA during World War II and then, lo and behold!, we come across some Indians with their strange hair-dos and body paint and near nakedness. Why! They are taking drugs! Some rare snuff you get blown up you nose through a hollow bird bone the shape of a "Y."
In the dark, the lecturer is but a vague shadow manipulating the images that come out of nowhere to fall like blessed light on the screen. The face of one of those Indians now occupies the whole screen. It is a face covered with yellow-green mucus. He is cross-eyed and out of focus. Heaven forbid, he is taking a psychedelic drug. The hall is deathly quiet.
"They call this drug their god," says the man in the three-piece suit. His voice reverberates.
He pauses, a blur in the dark, "I will show you what their god is!"
Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being their tools of trade, along with their picturing. The screen goes black for a moment and is then filled with the most serene blue, that celestial blue of the ceilings of churches in the countryside in Colombia, that same celestial blue I saw repeatedly in medical school in Australia in biochemistry classes, the trick being that the white outline of the hexagonal benzene ring is thereby brilliantly set off and easy to read.
And here it was again. Twenty years had passed. And here it was again. That same blue. That heavenly blue. And that same hexagon, albeit with a few more bells and whistles.
"This is their god!"
And there was their god. A hexagon ring on its bed of celestial blue. The audience gasped and tittered and I, who had also taken hallucinogens with the Indians in the Amazon, walked out, stumbling in the dark and leaving them to further enlightenment.
So by all means let us talk about science and religion, but first let us talk a little about the art of science including its shamanism and the art of out-shamanizing the other shaman, which is what most of shamanism is about anyway.
What the man in the three-piece suit did not get, at least consciously, and ditto the audience, was the stupendous fact that in replacing "their god" with a biochemical formula he was actually showing us his god and implicitly urging us to accept this god as ours as well.
The translation of god into a hexagon is pretty much the same as the pre-print of the pineal gland in that in trying to close the gap by reducing god to a chemical, you become aware that the gap can never be closed. The cheese will not melt into the pizza. The magical thing -- the formula -- is itself just that: magical, a symbol, if you like, standing in for something else that leads to another something else ad nauseam. Hexagons all the way down.
Moreover the man in the three-piece suit is piggy backing on them naked Indians and their gods of the pre-print era. He uses them to cancel themselves out in place of science. But he does not realize that in cancelling them out this way he is actually in need of their power -- their symbolic power, if you like -- so that as with Hegel's aufhebung he is utterly dependent on the ghost in the machine, the act he is reacting against, victim of the anxiety of influence that befalls us all. This is nothing more than the missionary position as well as that of the conquistadores, building churches on top of their temples.
Finally, I hardly need to bring to your attention the ritual upon which all this depends-the darkened room, the man with the magic wand-i.e. pointer, the magic of the slides, the abrupt montage action from the mucus smeared face to the celestial blue of chemistry, and of course the exotic nature of the subject matter, all mustered together to provide a mighty wallop.
Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being part of their trade, so it would only be fair for me to tell you about my own performance as an academic giving the lowdown on magic and the religion-science interface. It was many years ago in 1972 in the whitewashed colonial city of Popayan in Southern Colombia and I was giving an academic talk -- my very first -- to an audience of students and professors in a room in the Casa Mosquera in the oldest university in the Americas. A job was being advertised in the anthropology department and I had elected as my title "Brujeria y Estructura Social" (Witchcraft and Social Structure), having been impressed by two things that had happened to me recently. One was my discovery of sorcery and the other was my desperate search for enlightenment on this obscure and eerie topic -- it never having been part of my orthodox Marxist sociological training at the LSE.
With the luxury of hindsight I now see that my lecture title was intended to impress my prospective audience with a finely balanced tension between mystery and science, as with the magical word "estructura" or "structure," the implication of that one word being that science had magic by the balls, so to speak.
When I got off the bus after a three hour trip up the Andes from the hot sugarcane valley where I lived, I was both surprised and proud to see in bold black letters on yellow parchment on the venerable whitewashed walls all over town that a "Dr. Michael Taussig from the University of London" was going to give a talk on "Witchcraft and Social Structure." Later I realized that this advertising all over town was responsible for the large number of elderly women seated in the front rows of that room in the Casa Mosquera, silent as mice but with anticipation all over their faces. It turned out that they were witches themselves or attached to spirit centers of dubious repute.
Opening with a description of the poverty in the sugarcane areas, I used the word barriga to describe the swollen stomachs of a near majority of kids because of malnutrition and intestinal parasites. Like a shot, a professor of anthropology -- who had extensive rice farms in that region and had written on tobacco among Colombian Indians for the same ethnobotany department that the man in the three piece suit had founded -- stood up shouting that he didn't want to hear any more of this demagoguery and that the word barriga was vulgar usage. I was staggered. But no sooner had he spat out what he had to say than a bunch of vociferous students stood up and shouted at him that he was the demagogic one! I have no idea how I finished my talk but I do recall the glistening eyes of the elderly ladies in the front row.
However I did finish, to tepid applause, only to be met by a strident call to arms from the back of the room. With the voice of a preacher, a man in his thirties implored the audience to take account of the work of Sir Isaac Newton. "Once you reckon with that," he thundered, "you will realize there is no such thing as witchcraft." The women in front were spellbound, as was I. "This must be like what happened in the days of Enlightenment," I thought to myself, "in Paris, London, and Konigsberg."
To say the least I was confused and a little scared by the passions aroused as one of the elderly women approached me, smiling, with her card advertising a spirit center. With my title advertised all around town -- Witchcraft and Social Structure -- I had come looking for a job as a scientific anthropologist. To polish my wares I had industriously applied the poetics-of-mystery versus the revelatory powers-of-science, allowing the concept of "structure" to do the heavy lifting, so as to allow science to have the final say. And what had happened? The witches took me as one of their own and the students, who had at first rushed to my defense, finished up by throwing Marxist and Enlightenment stones, identifying me in the same way as did the elderly ladies, as a spokesman for witchcraft. Everything was twisted upside down. Truly witchcraft is a trying phenomenon. There seemed no room for the neutral, dispassionate observer because description was conflated with advocacy -- first by the large rice farm owner, professor of anthropology, interpreting my description as demagogic leftism, and later by the students, or some of them, conflating my description with advocacy of something that, according to them, did not exist or, if it did, should not. Their dilemma was that of outlawing something that in their eyes did not exist. This must have been the same dilemma facing administration in the colonies of the European powers. What good would Sir Isaac Newton provide me in such a situation, especially as I was now on the side of the witches?
Poets must be shamans of a particular kind, conjuring and sleight of hand being part of their trade, and here I was, the scientist, caught by poetics and hung out to dry. Let us review the evidence.
First, the sociobiologist, the ethnobotanist, and I myself, were all operating in fields overlapping with, or fully within, the human and social sciences. Second, we were each of us operating in one of the preeminent theaters of scientific discussion, namely the lecture theater. Third, each one of us acted like shamans in using our trick of the trade-language, our mumbo jumbo such as the pineal gland, the "pre-print," the biochemical formula, and in my case the ever-ready workhorse of "structure." Fourth, in each case we were addressing issues of consciousness, and in my case and that of the ethnobotanist, that of religion and magic, making a real mess of things. We were novices because we had gotten the science-magic thing ballsed up. We were totally taken in by scientism and the mythology of the detached observer, oblivious to our social and mythic contexts and the impact our selves made in those contexts. We were in fact using implicit magic to contain magic. We were using ritual and theater to contain ritual and theater. And we were using poetry to out-maneuver the poetry inherent to all human understanding and activity. And we failed. We were not up to the task. Maybe the ethnobotanist got away with it. You can't beat a magic lantern show and he had enormous prestige and the right audience, young science jocks like himself. And plants are guarantees of innocence and honesty, not to mention beauty.
But we were not good enough because we were confused without knowing we were confused. We thought we were fighting the good fight against obscurantism and mumbo jumbo, magic, and religion, etc., in the name of genetics and Darwin, biochemistry, and structure. But willy nilly without being aware, we were actually practicing the same stealth arts we thought we were fighting, and from which we thought we were immune. If only we had started afresh, with the poets, and listened to Emily Dickinson, "The brain is wider than the sky,"
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.  Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown,
and Company, 1924), Part One: Life, CXXVI (126).
 Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown,
and Company, 1924), Part One: Life, CXXVI (126).