Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dead Weight Of The State

Michael Taussig is one of the few Marxist Anthropologists to study magick. Over twenty years ago I came across his book;The devil and commodity fetishism in South America"; which deals with the beliefs of Bolivian Miners about the devil living in the caves they mine. Many of these miners are children as documented in the film;The Devils Miner.

And they are of course indigenous peoples, enslaved by their Spanish colonizers hundreds of years ago to mine for the old Empires of Europe. They have transfered the belief in animistic spirits from their earlier native religions, to the god forms of their adopted religion; Catholicism. As with most colonized peoples the old gods become the devils of the new religion.

Commodity Fetishism and the Devil had a major influence on me in looking at a historical materialist/dialectical interpretation of magick.

I recently came across an interview with Taussig, about his book The Magic Of the State and his comments are worth reprinting here, in light of my post on Gothic Capitalism.

In The Magic of the State, you write about the relation between traditional magical rites and rituals of spirit possession and the workings of the modern nation-state. You base this book on fieldwork on a magic mountain in the middle of Venezuela, where spirit possession is practiced, and where theres something about spirit possession which is amicable toward hierarchy, stratification, and maybe even the State.

This book concerns spirit-possession on the mountain of Maria Lionza in central Venezuela in the 1980s and 1990s, where pilgrims in large numbers become possessed by the spirits of the dead under the rule of an imaginary spirit queen, Maria Lionza. Especially important are the spirits of the Indians who allegedly fought the Spanish in the sixteenth century and the independence soldiers of the early nineteenth century, including many black foot soldiers as well as white officers, most notably Simón Bolívar—as highlighted in the state’s school textbooks, in the unending stream of state iconography from postage stamps to wall murals on bus stops and outside schools, from the standardized village, town, and city central square, the naming of mountain peaks, and of course in the physiognomy of authority wherever it be.

The dead are a great source of magical élan, grace, and power. This has been present in many cultures since the first burial. Indeed Georges Bataille (to whose ideas The Magic of the State is greatly indebted) argued from archaeological evidence and physical anthropology that the corpse is the origin of taboos, respect for the dead being what separates the human from the animal... Just imagine, then, the power that can accrue to the modern state, that great machine of death and war!

People today gain magical power not from the dead, but from the states embellishment of them. And the state, authoritarian and spooky, is as much possessed by the dead as is any individual pilgrim. The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, is the embodiment of this. In a sense he was predestined by this mystical foundation of authority as writ into the post-colonial exploitation of colonial history. The success of the Patriot Act and of the current US administration owes a great deal to this, too, after 9/11.

However my argument is that such spirit possession is a dramatization not only of the Great Events but also of the more subtle imageric- and feeling-states present in the artwork of the state any and everywhere, from the traffic cop and tax clerk to the pomp and ceremony of national celebrations, from a Latin American pseudo-democracy to the US and Western European states as well. Hobbess Leviathan is mythical yet also terribly real. This is where the rationalist analysis of the state loses ground. Foucault was amazingly short-sighted in dismissing blood and the figure of the Ruler.
It is not only the capitalist state which rules based on the rites of the dead but capitalism itself as Marx reminds us.

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
Karl Marx
If Capitalism is vampiric then the modern Terror State and its perpetual State of Terror (an extension of the Cold War) is very much a Zombie state, a state that has created a fictional monster; the terrorist, who once upon a time was the Anarchist of the 19th Century and today is Islamic Jihadists. Terrorists/Zombies are everywhere, they are out to get us, they are going to overwhelm us in shopping malls. The popularity of modern Zombie culture is a reflection of the cultural terror created by the politics of fear.

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