Michael Taussig – Doctor and Anthropologist

Michael Taussig is an Australian anthropologist who has made significant contributions to the fields of medical anthropology, critical theory and Marxist thought.

He was born in Sydney in 1940, and studied medicine at the University of Sydney before completing his PhD in anthropology at the London School of Economics.

The influence of medicine

Taussig’s early experiences as a doctor in Colombia formed the basis of his later work on medical anthropology. He observed how Western medicine was often imposed upon indigenous cultures, sometimes with disastrous results. In his book “The Magic of the State” (1997), Taussig discusses how the colonial power relations that shaped these encounters gave rise to what he calls ‘the fetish character of modern life.’

“People today gain magical power not from the dead, but from the state’s 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 imagery—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. Hobbes’s Leviathan is mythical yet also terribly real. This is where the rationalist analysis of the state loses ground.”

Michael Taussig, in an interview with David Levi Strauss

Michael Taussig on Commodity Fetishism

Taussig’s work on Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin has been especially influential, especially concerning the idea of commodity fetishism, and he is considered one of the most important contemporary thinkers in the field.

Commodity fetishism refers to how capitalist societies come to value objects and commodities above all else, often disregarding the social and human factors that go into their production. Taussig’s work has been hugely important in highlighting this phenomenon and has helped to shape our understanding of how capitalism functions. For Taussig, commodity fetishism is not simply an economic phenomenon, but rather a broader cultural condition that shapes all aspects of social life.

Books by Taussig

The works of Michael Taussig are essential reading for any student of anthropology or critical theory. His books include The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (1993), Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (1999), What Color Is Your Blood? AIDS and Society in Brazil (2006), “The Magic of the State” and “DefECT: A Cultural History of Defectiveness.”

His work has helped to redefine our understanding of culture and society, and his influence can be seen in the work of many contemporary anthropologists.

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