Culture of Terror, Space of Death

Taussig, Michael. 1984. “Culture of Terror, Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26(3): 467-497.

In this essay, Michael Taussig wants to explore “the mediation of the culture of terror through narration” and specifically “the problems of writing effectively against terror” (467). He offers the “space of death” as a threshold that helps create meaning and consciousness in societies in which terror and torture are endemic. He traces how a horrific culture of terror can be produced from the fine, delicate fibers of mystery, fantasy, rumor, and the everyday—what Taussig calls a “dense web of magical realism” (469). In one of the most provocative passages of the essay, he writes:

While much attention is given to “ideology” in the social sciences, virtually none as far as I know is given to the fact that people delineate their world, including its large as well as its micro-scale politics, in stories and story-like creations and very rarely, if ever, in ideologies (as customarily defined). Surely it is in the coils of rumor, gossip, story, and chit-chat where ideology and ideas become emotionally powerful and enter into active social circulation and meaningful existence. (464)

The problem, of course, is that such stories and narratives are constitutive of the power that creates and sustains a culture of terror. More times than we can count the butt of these narratives are culturally constructed alien Others, making them discursively available for all kinds of violent subjections—the Jew, the Indian, the woman, the communist. Mass populations are controlled via such “cultural elaborations of fear” (469). Taussig points out the “reciprocating yet distorted mimesis” such processes imply, whereby the “construction of colonial culture—the colonial mirrorwhich reflects back onto the colonists the barbarity of their own social relations, but as imputed to the savage or evil figures they wish to colonize” (495). In other words, the colonists project outwardly the savage beings they, themselves become. “The space of death is preeminently a space of transformation: through the experience of death, life; through fear, loss of self and conformity to a new reality; or through evil, good”.

Considering the devastating consequences of Othering and the danger of aestheticizing horror, he asks: “What sort of understanding-what sort of speech, writing, and construction of meaning by any mode-can deal with and subvert that?” The goal, he counters, is turning the discourse against itself (471).

That would be the true catharsis, the great counterdiscourse whose poetics we must ponder in the political terrain now urgently exposed today; the form wherein all that appeals and seduces in the iconography and sensuality of the underworld becomes its own force for self-subversion. Foucault’s concept of discourse eludes this aspiration and concept of dialectically engaged subversion. But it is with this poetics that we must develop the cultural politics appropriate to our times. (471-472)

Taussig explores these problems by drawing on the text of Roger Casement’s fact-finding mission through the Colombian region of Putumayo in 1910 sparked by a media exposé the year before. The 136-page report prepared for the English Foreign Office documents the atrocities surrounding the rubber industry and its enslavement of natives, a story Taussig says Casement was well-positioned to write considering his own roots as a colonial subject (Irish).

Taussig notes the “unreal atmosphere of ordinariness, of the ordinariness of the extraordinary” of Casement’s narrative (477), documenting such things as water-boarding—though of recent fame, a technique that dates back to Spanish Inquisitors. Casement notes the torture was designed “to just stop short of taking life while inspiring the acute mental fear and inflicting much of the physical agony of death” (477). The litany of horrors is endless in the Casement report. Such terror metastasized into “an organized culture with its systematized rules, imagery, procedures, and meanings involved in spectacles and rituals that sustained the precarious solidarity of the rubber company employees as well as beating out through the body of the tortured some sort of canonical truth about Civilization and Business” (495).

Although Casement reasons that labor scarcity was the source of this vile system, Taussig suggests that the forms of labor and economic organization on offer as well as the cultural construction of evil played just as important roles (479). Taussig hints that the lack of capitalist institutions and markets necessitated the torture and terror. (Perhaps the primitive accumulation of the New World providing the preconditions of capitalist development.) Taussig steps back from endorsing this hypothesis, while noting the inherent contradiction of decimating your own labor force. Instead, he asserts: “To claim the rationality of business for this is to claim and sustain an illusory rationality, obscuring our understanding of the way business can transform the use of terror from the means into an end in itself” (479).

Despite the utter coercion of the system, many indigenous slaves were simulatenously indebted servants—a curious pretense. For Taussig, these debts constitute the fictional realities, the magical realisms, that were part of a system of synergistic formulas between “savagery and business, cannibalism and capitalism” (484). Indeed, underwriting the stories and narratives that created and sustained the culture of terror were two central motifs: “the horrors of the jungle and the horrors of savagery” (482). White fears of cannibalism and Indian rebellion—the latter, well-founded—included the geographies of fear that dovetailed seamlessly with such combinations of nature and savagery.

Here the European and colonist image of the primeval jungle with its vines and rubber trees and domination of man’s domination stands forth as the colonially apt metaphor of the great space of terror and deep cruelties. (Europe-late nineteenth century, penetrating the ancient forests of the tropics.) Carlos Fuentes asserts that Latin American literature is woven between the poles formed by nature and the dictator, in which the destructiveness of the former serves to reflect even more destructive social relations. (482)

Taussig gives an eloquent description of what I’ve had in mind in what I’m calling a “Dystopian Eden”:

The truly crucial feature lies in creating an uncertain reality out of fiction, a nightmarish reality in which the unstable interplay of truth and illusion becomes a social force of horrendous and phantasmic dimensions. To an important extent all societies live by fictions taken as reality. What distinguishes cultures of terror is that the epistemological, ontological, and otherwise purely philosophical problem of reality-and-illusion, certainty-and-doubt, becomes infinitely more than a “merely” philosophical problem. It becomes a high-powered tool for domination and a principal medium of political practice. And in the Putumayo rubber boom this medium of epistemic and ontological murk was most keenly figured and objectified as the space of death. (492)

Rubber station managers were obsessed with death and saw it around every corner and behind every plant. The only way to live in such a terrifying world, one chronicler wrote, was to inspire that same terror. The Indian, though animalized, is made human or human-like in the refracted form of being “human enough” for labor and torture; it is in this way that the savagery imputed to the wild Indian is embodied by the torturers themselves—mimesis. “For it is not the victim as animal that gratifies the torturer, but the fact that the victim is human, thus enabling the torturer to become the savage” (484).

And in another flash of “Dystopian Eden” that I quote at length:

Tenaciously embedded in this artful practice is a vast and mystifying Western history and iconography of evil in the imagery of the inferno and the savage-wedded to and inseparable from paradise, utopia, and the good. It is to the subversion of that apocalyptic dialectic that all of us would be advised to bend our counterdiscursive efforts, in a quite different poetics of good-and evil whose cathartic force lies not with cataclysmic resolution of contradictions but with their disruption.

Post-Enlightenment European culture makes it difficult if not impossible to penetrate the hallucinatory veil of the heart of darkness without either succumbing to its hallucinatory quality or losing that quality. Fascist poetics succeed where liberal rationalism self-destructs. But what might point a way out of this impasse is precisely what is so painfully absent from all the Putumayo accounts, namely, the narrative and narrative mode of the Indians which does de-sensationalize terror so that the histrionic stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious (to adopt Benjamin’s formula) is indeed denied by an optic which perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday. At least this is the poetics of the sorcery and shamanism I know about in the upper reaches of the Putumayo, but that is another history for another time, not only of terror but of healing as well. (496-497)

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