Tuesday, January 3, 2012

12 Traveling “To Be There”, but Not As A Tourist

When I began about the “wealth virus” and claimed it was introduced about the 9th century, at least one reader refused to believe that the first oligarchs were the brothers and cousins of the kings in the 9th century or that the oligarchs of today could have inherited the virus—or have been colonized by it—from the king’s favored. It seemed unbelieveable to the reader that compulsion to amass wealth could be at least 11 centuries old and as deadly and worse than the H5N1 bird flu virus.

I am tempted to write this blog my favourite anthropologists (Michael Taussig) and his interest in contrasting the colonial violence practiced by the British and the egalitarianism of the natives of Tierra del Fuego. What makes Taussig’s interest interesting to me is how the “distance” of London from Tierra del Fuego helped exterminate the natives of that land.

The “distance” that I have in mind is immediately accessible to everyone who reads these words. It exists between the viewer of this screen and the screen itself, or the viewer of any news on television and the screen the news comes from. The screen may present us with bodies thrown about a market place, where a terrorist has blown up himself and those about him. The “distance” protects the viewer from any contact with the violence, and whatever he-she may think of the event, he-she has no effect on either its origin or denoument of it.

Professor Taussig does not use “distance” in quite the same sense that I am using it. His example of “distance” is by way of an example that is more direct, a first encounter, in which the distance is “the space between”—“a colonial space par excellence”—on one side of which space a dancing British tar is pulling faces and on the other side of which the natives imitate his every movement. Since Taussig’s expertise is mimesis, Taussig insists that mimesis may persist through myth and is true to tradition.

While discussing mimicry in native ritual dances, Taussig presents us with a story first recorded by ethnographers Spencer and Gillen (students of the Arunta people in Australia):

“…at the close of the nineteenth century when Spencer and Gillen were writing their account of Central Australia, a young man born and bred in Tierra del Fuego, E. Lucas Bridges, saw the spirit of Hachai come out of the lichen-covered rocks. He was painted all over with red and white patterns. Grey bird’s down was stuck over him, and he wore a horned mask with red eyeholes. No horned animal is indigenous to Tierra del Fuego, noted Bridges, yet a hunter of wild cattle would have admired the actor’s performance. ‘His uncertain advances, his threatening tosses of the head, his snorting and sudden forward thrusts of one horn or the other—all were most realistic. The part he was playing came from legendary myth and had doubtless been enacted by the Ona [Selk’nam] for countless generations.’”

What I am trying to suggest makes possible that the existence of the “wealth virus” is akin to the spirit of Hachai emerging from the Australian rocks to a young man born in Tierra del Fuego. Though one may still discover Latvians who know to tell at which phase of the moon it is best to cut certain trees (certainly a remembrance from times, when  Latvia was covered by forests), it is also possible that through the acts of violence and implanting of fear by torture (the spirit of Hachai?), the Latvian culture bears the burden of a distant remembrance of torture, which causes it to try escape a similar encounter by attaching itself to the “wealth virus” as readily as children are fooled (and fascinated by) by a dish known as “viltotais zakhis” (Falscher Hase http://www.chefkoch.de/rezepte/37761012730517/Falscher-Hase.html / False or Welch rabbit), that contains no real rabit meat, but ground carp or in times of war your favourite cat (Dachhase in German). The name probably originated among soldiers marching across Eastern Europe, who had no qualms about cooking a cat, while the poor peasants were left to go catch carp and tell their children a believable lie. It is likely the same dish that in Yiddish language is called “Gefilte Fish” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gefilte_fish . Today such humble origins are difficult to believe when the same Welch rabit appears as Welch rarebit on the menu as Hors d’oeuvre at parties hosted by Wall Street brokers. The same incongruity attaches itself to Latvian-Americans born in America trying to tell Latvians how it is their history came about.

Rather than make all humankind guilty of being s carrier of the “wealth virus”, it is possible to narrow the carriers down to men, violent men especially. I will touch on this phenomenon in my next blog. 829


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