Mimesis and Magic: Michael Taussig

In a small room full of professors and students, the lights are dimmed, and an image of a woman transforming into a palm tree is projected onto the screen. At the head of the table, cast in dramatic shadow, is a man who resembles a very tall turtle. He peers over his glasses at a sheaf of pages in his hands. In an Australian accent, he reads aloud to us, the room hushed except for his voice and the hurried scribbles of pens attempting to take down as much information as possible but not lose track of the story. He is describing nighttime, and a donkey. In a moment that startles the affect of the room, he lets out a harsh bray that stutters everyone else into surprised laughter. 

If you’ve never read Michael Taussig, I can’t say I’m surprised, unless you’re an anthropologist. But I can safely say you’ll never read anything like him. He writes about magic and mimesis (to condense the uncondensable), and does the kind of writing that evokes what it is it’s about: writing about mimesis that is, in a very absolute way, mimesis. (Mimesis is, essentially, copying–reflecting and becoming other.) Taussig’s writing is breathtaking, befuddling, and unrevealing.

I had the privilege to not only spend a semester reading Taussig under the guidance of two of his former graduate students (now my professors), but actually hearing him speak in a public lecture and a private workshop over the last week. It’s going to take me a long, long while to digest it all.

I won’t go on too long, but I want to think briefly about Taussig’s theory of ethnographic writing, which I believe is applicable to all writing. To paraphrase Taussig, writing by engaging what the writing is about, ie. writing magically about magic, is the writing looking inward at itself, evoking a process of mimesis. It draws an emphatic connection between the writer, the reader, the text, and the subject of the text, blurring the lines between them, the reader or writer becoming other, becoming the subject written about.

If you haven’t read Taussig, I suggest you do so at least once (but prepare to be baffled). If not to understand the theory, then do so to learn something about a powerful way of writing.

Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day! It’s a good day to recognize that we are entirely dependent upon our planet and its resources, and if we don’t start making some changes we won’t like the results. It’s also a good day to remember that people worldwide are already suffering due to climate change, especially people who have the least power to facilitate the changes we need to make. Climate change affects populations disproportionately, and its effects cannot be separated from all other socioeconomic factors.

Rant over. In honor of Earth Day, along with some mindfulness, have a very, very cool resource: Planet Maker. This insanely cool site allows you to design a planet according to your very specific specifications. Awesome for worldbuilding.

Happy Earth Day!

Review: When the Moon Was Ours

cover

When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, number one on my 2017 must-reads list, has been read! As I have been waiting to read this book since before it was released, I consider this a victory.

The crux of the story is the changing relationship between two strange inhabitants of a small town: Miel, a girl who was found in a water tower, and Sam, the boy who paints moons and hangs them everywhere. It’s a story of identity, love, fear, and family.

The book is incredibly beautiful. The prose is poetic, and the plot moves along gently. I was surprised and pleased at the fairy-tale like quality the story has the moment I opened the book. McLemore did a stellar job with the two transgender characters in the book, which I learned after I finished was due to her experience with her husband, who himself is trans. I’m glad she included this note at the end, because the tone of the book upon reflection took on the aura of a long, carefully crafted love letter.

Beauty and delicate nature aside, I did struggle at times with the passivity of Miel, the main character. Quiescent protagonists have never quite been my cup of tea: the ease with which Miel lets the people around her manipulate her life drove me quite frantic. In addition, at times the drowsiness of the plot left me unmotivated to continue until about half-way through, when the conflict truly started to pick up.

On the whole, however, the book is beautiful and poignant, with excellently represented characters. There was one scene involving a rose and a wrist that to this day, a month later, makes me cringe and hold my own wrist, and if that isn’t a mark of good writing, I don’t know what is. If you’re looking for diverse characters in every respect and beautiful, etherial writing, this book is for you.

Surrealist Writing Games

Sounds kind of like Reindeer Games. But detailed instructions to surrealist writing can be found halfway through André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, which requires at least two hours and a strong cup of tea to make any kind of sense.

Essentially, the goal is to tap into your subconscious. Sit, clear your mind, and begin to write–not focusing on what you’re writing or what you’ve written, only moving forward with the flow of the act. Writes Breton, “the first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard.”

A friend and I tried the practice out: It’s absolutely harder than it sounds, equally fun, and I invite anyone to try it out. We certainly had fun laughing at our results. Below is my most viewable piece.

Slashing and violent do the urges come to us, the authors, creators, merry-makers, weaving lost threads under the suns of our ancestors: what is sense? But the moment to moment daze, understanding flashes of white, of the apples which bloom beneath our feet to perish and make merry the ebullient tomatoes of servitude, sorrow, reminiscing. Do not but fear at the faint thought of the scavenger, whom to all else is nothing. Let carnage strip from beaks, flesh from feathers that reach the night. Every thought is fluttering, passing, self-aware. It hurts!

 

What have you written this week? (Probably more than you think.)

Sometimes I have to remind myself that while I’m not writing as in working on my manuscript, I’m still writing as in practicing putting one word in front of the other. And honestly, it all adds up to experience. So while I’ve had no time to work on BOTD this week, here are some things that I’ve written since Monday.

  • A writing prompt about the Grim Reaper, a child protection services agent, and three hellions
  • An extensive outline and pages of notes for a paper dealing with science fiction and the Gaia Theory
  • A half-page summary of Cities, People, and Language by James C. Scott
  • Several powerpoint slides and a presentation outline of a paper on the effects of atmospheric CO2 on photosynthesis
  • A scholarship award acceptance blurb
  • A blurb about a club for practicing Kichwa
  • Countless emails
  • Detailed notes for a grassroots social justice organization meeting
  • A scrapped retelling of the myth of Icarus
  • Notes on several presentations/lectures by archaeoastronomer Dr. Anthony Aveni
  • Notes from 18 hours worth of classes
  • Several to-do lists per day
  • And 1 blog post (you’re reading it)

So if you feel like you’re not getting any writing done, as I frequently do, stop and take a look at how you’re evaluating ‘writing’. In the overall scheme of things, any practice is valid practice. Whether you mean to or not, you’re improving every time you stick two words together.

Editing Editing Editing

EDITING. Endless, exhausting, invigorating. It’s how I’ll be spending my writing hours today, so I thought I’d share my current process. (Of course, there are so many processes and stages and convolutions that I could never document them all.)

My manuscript is at that stage where it doesn’t need another entire from-scratch draft, but the prose needs some all-around touching up. Here’s how I’m doing that this week:

Step 1: Open original document on half of the screen.

Step 2: Open new document on other half.

Step 3: Re-type the original in new document, taking it a chapter at a time.

Thus far I’ve found this method to work really well for me. I’m following along my story and fixing what needs to be fixed, tuning what needs to be tuned, but in a controlled way that doesn’t feel like I’m re-inventing the wheel. I’d love to hear anyone else’s preferred methods of torture as well.

There and Back Again

It’s incredible what a good break from reality does for a person: starting my days off running on the beach and swimming in the ocean did wonders for my creativity–I think I wrote more in the last week and a half than I have in months. Of course, the resulting dive back into business is a shock. But it’s good to be back in the game.

This week’s reading list: Michel Foucault, Michael Taussig, Clifford James, Gretel Van Wieren, Aradhana Sharma. A bit different from my spring break line up! Definitely more highlighting involved.

I’d better get used to the fact that my life is one long reading list of one kind or another. But really, that’s much better than the alternative, which is not reading at all or, god forbid, reading in moderation.

pile of books edited

(Infinite, it stretches on.)