Saturday, August 20, 2005

Cultural Congoscetti

Cultural Congoscetti

Its a jungle out there.

I cut and paste this photo coz i thought it would match the entry I'm about to write. the mispell is correct. I'm playing on cognoscetti, the congo, glamorous intellectuals and culture. It should be suitable opening for todays topic -which is about when I went and heard Michael Taussig giving a talk.

Regular Readers BE WARNED. this blog entry is going to have huge amounts of gratuitous name dropping. I'm trying to gain some currency in the bloghood as one of those cool people that do fun stuff. See pikky above. It's about as real as my tan.

OK so thursday night I rocked up to UTS to hear Taussig talk. He wrote a couple of amazing books on what I'd call 'radical anthopology'. One of my favourite lecturers at art school got me onto taussig after I raved about Alphonso Lingis. My friend Golden Boy bought "the devil and commodity fetishism in South America" I bought "Shamanism, colonialism and the wild man". Form followed content. It blew my mind. I got stuck for years on the chapter about "there is something in between the sweaty arse of him that rides and the labouring back of him that is ridden". This was fleshy wild writing. there was also a deep moral imperative in the book. He started of with the history of Roger Casement and his report on the British atrocities in darkest peru. Crikey. quick segue to Conrad. Think of Apocalypse now. double it. No triple it. Every society has its monsters. Every culture has its nightmares. One of Taussigs themes in Shamanism - was exploring the use of extremely powerful hallucinogens in healing by the descendants of the nightmare. the role of indians as bearers of colonisers evil, and bearers of magic is really interesting. tausig wrote about Yage - a form of DMT which is also derived from indigenous Australian plants (acacias). I wouldn't dream of touching it ever - but its one of those esoteric topics that used to go down well at certain parties about 10 years ago. While writing honours - I became entranced with Mimesis and Alterity - and it became on of those handy tomes (like Walter Benjamin's passagewerken) that I'd have next to me whenever I wrote - so I could dip in and out. Taussigs writing helped me really undertstand not only critical ethnography - but mimesis and performing of mimetic practices as a strategy of resitance and counter resistance. through taussig I could fnally read Irigaray.

So the chance the hear the man live - and see him in the flesh was pretty exciting. It was up there with Judith Butler and Liz Grosz (Liz is talking for free at usyd next thursday!!!!) . So thursday, Arrived early. Tried to persuade my old lecturer to come - but he had familial committments.

I walked in with Jebni and Sandy (this is the gratuitous reference that denotes my status in the blogocracy).
I wanted to sit up close and do some drawing so I moved down the front. there were no left hand sided lecture seats.Damn.

Michael Taussig was clearly one of those spunky young 70's groovy intellectuals. And he still holds his body like a man sure of his sex appeal. Like Jaques Derrida, he wears his white hair as if it was a bleached warhol wig. He also wore tight denim jeans. They could have been acid washed - but I think they were the deliberate noughties reference. Tight brown leather skin and a deep fuscia raw silk body shirt. Eyes barely opened as he placed and removed small red plastic rimmed reading specs during the perfomrance. Not many men in their 60's can ooze sex with such aplomb during a speaking engagement. Except some actors. And Taussig's delivery was much more of a performance than anything else. Sheer brilliance. This is why we go to hear someone speak. to see the oracle - or to see the performance of deep textual charisma. I had difficulty drawing him. I kind of got some of the gestures, and loking at my drawings I can SMELL him. Smell the room, smell my excitement.

Oh. enough gushing - I'll try to discuss the ideas like eany decent girl should.

I think the talk was called "the colour of the Sacred". And he was playing ficto critical performance, and I feel bad for forgetting my voice recorder. He sounded like my friend Ryan, with umms and aaahs and sighs - and the mind darting in different places, and he presented a series of impressions and made lots of 'in jokes'. Oh fuck - 'in jokes' in lectures are scary. They remind me of improvised jazz sets - when someone finishes their solo - and its a game between the players and the audience to know when they have finished their impro or not. who can clap at the right time? Oh the scary smugness of getting it right. In public. Its a bit like any ejaculation. Embarrassing and a bit smelly.

But I'll forgive taussig. coz of the shirt and the uhm and ahs and the vagueness which convey a certain level of humility. And because he used PHOTOCOPIES ON ACETATE!!! You know - like overheads! no powerpoint! how vintage! Abel told me that she and her classmates use powerpoint for their first year undergraduate talks. Oh dear. Its time has come and gone so fast.

The content of his talk was hard to pin down - because he gave fledgling forays into bioethics and the possibilities of new bodies, new experiences in changing climates. Using the phrase 'an anthropology of atmosphere'. He threw in a few other Deleuzian plays for good measure and then went back to everyone's favourite grandads of modernism. Marcel Proust and Walter Benjamin, and their relationship to and invocations of colour and how it is experienced. He was talking my language.

The main focus of the talk was on Malinowski - and photographs of him among the Trobriand Islanders. Malinowski is known as 'the father of modern anthropology". I read some of his stuff and liked it - coz his observations on gift economies were used by Mauss and others as a form of reflexive ethnography - to explore the irrational and anachronistic at the heart of industrial societes. Malinowski is also famous for 'inventing' participant observation' - or a form of close living with the subjects (or objects?) of study .........

Taussig had a couple of images of Malinowski in his impeccable white and pith helmets - among these dark bodies, and he spoke at lenght of the (irrational) preoccupation of malinowski and 'the west' with creating a source of authority that was colourless and ascribing colour to primitives, children and women. He also picked some great photo with the caption "Ethnographer with a man wearing a wig" and used it to epxlore the irrationallity of ethnogrpahy and secondary texts associated with it. Taussigs descriptions of the "tantalising tumescent posture of malinowski" (in his whites and bald head) against the "fading dark skin of the man of sorcery" was delightful.

In exploring the facets of face painting, as opposed to painting of faces Taussig tore more at the tensions at the heart of the Eruopcentric project of representations. He also discussed Malinowskiss diaries and their separations form (and appparent mimicking of) his field records.

OVerall it was a nice meditation onto ethnography and critical ethnography as well as colour and the tyrrany of beige. Afterwards - I saw one of my old supervisors and was persuaded to have a beer and go to a pizza party at the home of 'one of my classmates' (if you can call fellow phD students classmates). Suddenly I found myself in one of those cool academic parties I'd dreamt of ever since reading "whos afraid of virginia woolf" . Ohh the joy of great minds numbing their brains with alchohol and blithering wildly! Taussig was there, but mercifully not at the centre of any coteries of adoring fans (the sure sign that this was a selective engagement). I tried not to gush and joined in the babble, but I felt like I reckon my friends son did when he was 5 and first saw that chad morgan performing the dog cry from "the sheik of scrubby creek". do I need any more words than this?

I'd asked a question at the end of the talk. usually in any talk I make a point of asking the most dumb question possible. this time I was beaten to the post by a clinical anthoropologist exploring physiotherapists experiences of auras in their patients, and an audience member who nearly got out the words "collective unconsioussness" before Taussig supplied a quick segue off somewhere. Even extremely cool anthropologists who've done lots of drugs and been around a lot of very weird people have their zones of evident discomfort.

smarty mayhem wanted to pop in something about Louis Kahn and the the St. Petersberg theosophists and their belief that all beings were made from light - stating that the precise moment of modernisms chomophobia taking hold was accompanied by an avant garde tradition of chromophilia - and in the 20th c - a weirdly scientised form of it too........

but I didn't - coz I hate posy questions that sound more like statements (Oh1 look how careful I am!). SO I bored him with it at the party and he smiled and said "yeah, I want some duck".

this was less cool than his response to my question in the lecture, which was about dayglo. Coz I was so blown away by his descriptions of the crazy coloured soldiers in Paris that I thought he must have noticed all the dayglo that has proliferated in (blue collar) workwear.

" I hadn't thought about that at all, really, ahhh nooo..... but err.."and then he went off into a nice discussion of anoline dyes and indigo and lots of stuff that I knew already (but he didn't know that) aobut the homogeneity of contemporary pigments - especially in clothes - and how it was the heterogeneity of pre industrial pigemnts that made a lot of older paintings far more interesting than curent ones. this I already knew - but it was nice to hear him say it.
He didn't really answer my question - he explained the social reaons for the Dayglo on workmen as being probably for safety reasons. bugger. I ahd hoped for somehting more trippy - along the line sof some sort of Maussian take - on the need to mark certain types of bodies.

Anyway - at the party - Pru the host was able to engage a little more. She is the workwear fashion queen (her thesis is on airline uniforms) - and she was happy to launch into an explanation of the different fabrics and dyes used and the cuts and designs...... My real query is about this not being fashion - and how it became demarcated as non fashion - and then how it then circulates in a curiously porous relationship to clothing retail - like Two dollar shops ad even lowes - so its a sort of sub fashion - that is operating as far more than as 'functionalist' dangerwear - but denotative of a whole heap of other socialised feelings aobut colour, conformity and power. This proved a opular party topic alll round so I reckon it was a winner as far as questions go. top marks for requisite Aussie quirkiness.

I've decided to start writing up some of my 'field notes' for the research on artist models and the life class. I've been reading lots of critical ethnogrpahy and apparently that is the done thing. this may also motivate me to starrt writing that paper I need to have done on er... 3 weeks. shit.

look at for more of my rants in a different area. My life is trifurcating and I can see a future when I spend MY WHOLE LIFE updating blogs. Its a GREAT way to avoid my relationship dramas. Right now I'm getting torched on my art reviews. this is compelling and demoralising at once.


Glen Fuller said...

yo mayhem, ben directed me to your comments at the lecture because of this blog post of mine where i also think about what is going on with work wear:

rapunzel.emma said...

Hi Mayhem,

I, too, avoid my relationship dramas, mostly becuause they cannot be solved, and staying in a relationship, therefor, seems to be bascially about minimising the damage they cause. (That and, of course, the constant process of saying "Yes, I understand, and I will try (again) to change that.")

I am not really supposed to write about my relationship probs on my blog, so you are kind of lucky she lets you.

In other commentary: Beige IS tyranical! Why all the stuff about clothes, anyway? Is that what you do at uni?


mayhem said...

who's the she to let me write or not??? I killed off the angel in the house years ago.

On beige and dayglo - I'm writing officially not about clothes at all - I'm writing about nude life models and the life classes - but I'm a fabric nut. I really like a lot of fashion theory - coz it pulls other stuff apart at the seams - body/embodiment/fabrication theory, lots of art theory and has nice little pull ins on cultural theory.

which reminds me - back to that abstract!