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.

Mundane Magic

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There are plenty of things in the world that strike me as inherently magical—things that possess some kind of strange, surreal quality that may be obvious only to me. Keeping track of these things, even in the back of my mind, is good fodder for short stories or interesting details in scene, even some quick inspiration if I’m stuck. It’s nice to keep a little log of things that seem otherworldly. Here are a few of mine:

  • Kudzu that covers everything in sight, turning the landscape into a green, lumpy monster.
  • Those cats that look like goblins. They’re smarter than they appear, I just know it.
  • Small houses amid rolling green hills. Perhaps that’s my Irish ancestry rearing its head.
  • Strangely shaped rocks in the woods.
  • Crows and ravens: I know this one is cliché now, but it got that way for a reason. There’s a gang of four crows that lives in my neighborhood and I swear that they run the place.
  • Very shaggy cows, e.g. highland cattle. There’s something regal about a shaggy cow, and that’s just not how you expect a cow to look.
  • Mushroom circles. Botanically speaking, mushroom mycelia just grow in that circular pattern and sprout up at intervals; there’s no fairies involved. Knowing that doesn’t mean I’ll step in them, though.

If anyone has anything like this–common things that evoke a sense of the magical or uncanny–feel free to mention them.