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The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

Michael T. Taussig
Copyright Date: 1980
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America
    Book Description:

    In this classic book, Michael Taussig explores the social significance of the devil in the folklore of contemporary plantation workers and miners in South America. Grounding his analysis in Marxist theory, Taussig finds that the fetishization of evil, in the image of the devil, mediates the conflict between precapitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition. He links traditional narratives of the devil-pact, in which the soul is bartered for illusory or transitory power, with the way in which production in capitalist economies causes workers to become alienated from the commodities they produce. A new chapter for this anniversary edition features a discussion of Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille that extends Taussig's ideas about the devil-pact metaphor.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0423-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface to the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Michael Taussig
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. PART I Fetishism:: The Master Trope

    • CHAPTER 1 Fetishism and Dialectical Deconstruction
      (pp. 3-12)

      This book attempts to interpret what are to us in the industrialized world the exotic ideas of some rural people in Colombia and Bolivia concerning the meaning of the capitalist relations of production and exchange into which they are daily being drawn. These peasants represent as vividly unnatural, even as evil, practices that most of us in commodity-based societies have come to accept as natural in the everyday workings of our economy, and therefore of the world in general. This representation occurs only when they are proletarianized and refers only to the way of life that is organized by capitalist...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Devil and Commodity Fetishism
      (pp. 13-38)

      In two widely separated areas of rural South America, as peasant cultivators become landless wage laborers, they invoke the devil as part of the process of maintaining or increasing production. However, as peasants working their own land according to their own customs they do not do this. It is only when they are proletarianized that the devil assumes such an importance, no matter how poor and needy these peasants may be and no matter how desirous they are of increasing production. Whereas the imagery of God or the fertility spirits of nature dominates the ethos of labor in the peasant...

  6. PART II The Plantations of the Cauca Valley, Colombia

    • CHAPTER 3 Slave Religion and the Rise of the Free Peasantry
      (pp. 41-69)

      Two generalizations are necessary to any discussion of black slave religion in Latin America. First, the whites were apprehensive of the superlatural powers of their subjects, and vice versa. Second, religion was inseparable from magic, and both permeated everyday life—agriculture, mining, economy, healing, marital affairs, and social relations in general. The Inquisition, for instance, regarded the occult arts that were drawn from the three continents not as idle fantasies but as the exercise of supernatural powers, including an explicit or implicit pact with the devil. The African slaves brought their mysteries and sorcery, the Indians their occult powers to...

    • CHAPTER 4 Owners and Fences
      (pp. 70-92)

      The twentieth century ushered in a vast transformation that virtually broke the back of the peasant class. With the end to the devastating civil war, the war of One Thousand Days in 1902, the triumphant Conservative party was able to enforce a climate of “stability and progress,” establishing the security for foreign investment, which entered Colombia on a scale unequaled for any other Latin American country (Rippy, 1931:152). Much of this capital was invested in the Cauca Valley. President Reyes, a close friend of Santiago Eder’s, was in great need of funds to develop the valley where he himself had...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Devil and the Cosmogenesis of Capitalism
      (pp. 93-111)

      Of all work in the region, wage labor in the agribusinesses is held to be the most arduous and least desirable—even when the daily cash return is high. Above all, it is thehumiliation,the humbling authoritarianism, which agitates the workers, while the large landowners and their foremen complain of the workers’ intransigence and fear their sporadic violence.

      Lower-class people feel that work has somehow become opposed to life. “On the coast we have food but no money,” mourn the immigrant workers from the Pacific coast. “Here we have money but no food.” Locals contrast work in the poverty-stricken...

    • CHAPTER 6 Pollution, Contradiction, and Salvation
      (pp. 112-125)

      Two secular images in the language of sorcery materialize its magical aura: sorcery is personmade, and it is “filth.” Although invisible powers forming an indistinct hierarchy led by the devil are prominent, the emphasis in sorcery is on the creative will of persons. Sorcery is themaleficio, the evil made, or it is, dramatically and simply, the “thing made,” thecosa hecha.It is not seen as fate or as an “accident of God.” The soul of sorcery lies in the poisoned breast of envy, and its dominating motif is filth.

      Following Douglas’s interpretation (1966), ideas of filth and pollution...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Baptism of Money and the Secret of Capital
      (pp. 126-140)

      According to the belief inel bautizo del billete(baptism of the bill) in the southern Cauca Valley, the godparent-to-be conceals a peso note in his or her hand during the baptism of the child by the Catholic priest. The peso bill is thus believed to be baptized instead of the child. When this now baptized bill enters into general monetary circulation, it is believed that the bill will continually return to its owner, with interest, enriching the owner and impoverishing the other parties to the deals transacted by the owner of the bill. The owner is now the godparent...

  7. PART III The Bolivian Tin Mines

    • CHAPTER 8 The Devil in the Mines
      (pp. 143-154)

      In the shafts of the tin mines in the mountains around the city of Oruro, Bolivia, the miners have statues representing the spirit who owns the mines and tin. Known as the devil or as the uncle (Tio), these icons may be as small as a hand or as large as a full-sized human. They hold the power of life and death over the mines and over the miners, who conduct rites of sacrifice and gift exchange to the spirit represented by the icons—the contemporary manifestation of the precolonial power of the mountain (Nash, 1976:27; Costas Arguedas, 1961, 2:303...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Worship of Nature
      (pp. 155-168)

      The mining rituals and the sculptures of the devil are forms of art. If we accept Marcuse’s suggestion that art fights the amnesia of reification by making the petrified world speak and sing against a repressive reality, then we begin to sense how and why the miners’ art is informed by their history extending back through peasant life to preconquest times. As art, these rites and statues dramatize and mold the meaning of the present in the hopes for liberation from it. Through ritual the spirits of nature are aligned with man and come to his aid. Proletarianization of peasants...

    • CHAPTER 1O The Problem of Evil
      (pp. 169-181)

      In contrast to the religion and folklore of Spanish imperialism there was no almighty spirit of evil in the Andean figuration of the spirit world. Evil was neither reified nor fetishized, neither a thing opposed to good nor a thing spiritualized like the devil. Instead, moral philosophy partook of an organic relational quality that reflected the epistemology of transitive social relationships, mutuality, and reciprocity. Yet, insofar as Spanish Catholicism and Andean nature worship blended, the spirit of evil could emerge in Andean symbolic life as the sum of the contradictions that consumed the Spaniards’ and the Indians’ understandings of one...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Iconography of Nature and Conquest
      (pp. 182-198)

      The Spanish conquest brought a spirit of evil to the Indians of the New World, initiating a proess of destruction which that spirit could syrniolize. Beyond that, the conquest also entered he iconography of nature. The landscape of symbols came to include the Indians’ experience of Spanish greed, mastery, and violence.

      Harry Tschopik, Jr., relates that the Aymara of the Bolivian province of Chucuito believe that gold and silver are owned by an evil supernatural being who causes sickness and death; he is often seen as an old dwarf dressed as a Spanish soldier surrounded by his treasures. Given the...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Transformation of Mining and Mining Mythology
      (pp. 199-213)

      Under the Incas, mining was a rather smallscale activity. It was run as a state monopoly and labor was provided by a rotating corvee, the aforementionedmita,which was not particularly burdensome to the miners (Rowe, 1957:52). John Leddy Phelan echoes the prevailing opinion when he says that mining was a minor economic activity because the Incas valued silver and gold only as a form of ornamentation and not as currency or as a depository of wealth (1967). The essential difference between preconquest and postconquest mining was that the former was a tiny part of a self-sufficient economy, whereas the...

    • CHAPTER 13 Peasant Rites of Production
      (pp. 214-222)

      To overlook individualism and conflict in Andean peasant life would be naive. Yet it would be even more erroneous not to emphasize the force exerted by reciprocity and communality. Peasant rites of production mediate the interplay of individuality with community, and in so doing they reflect the principle of inalienability in the constitution of rural life. Miners either come directly from this life or have a background in its dictates and sentiments. Yet the situation that they encounter in the mines is one predicated on alienation and the denial of reciprocity. Their rites of labor and of production reflect this...

    • CHAPTER 14 Mining Magic: The Mediation of Commodity Fetishism
      (pp. 223-228)

      Let us briefly review the salient contrasts between the magic of peasant production and that of mining. Peasants own their means of production, miners do not. Peasants control the organization of work; miners are in constant conflict with managers over job control and wage levels. Peasants combine production for subsistence with some sale of produce; miners are totally dependent on the labor market: the buying and selling of their labor power. Peasant rites associated with production and the means of production are sacrificial exchanges to the mountain spirits. These exchanges secure the right to use the land and ensure its...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 229-234)

    To interpret the social experience reflected in folk magic as that experience changes with a group’s loss of control over its means of production is the hazardous task that I have set out to do. It is also a necessary task; no matter how painstaking we are in charting the chronology of history’s great events, demography, the network of trade, and the transparent facticity of material infrastructures, we will remain blind to history’s great lesson both for society and for the future unless we include the imagination of power as well as the power of the collective imagination.

    As people...

  9. The Sun Gives without Receiving: A Reinterpretation of the Devil Stories
    (pp. 235-266)

    Even though as a child in the 1940s I used to watch my mother sewing up, with the skill of a jeweller, gifts of food parcels to send from sunny Australia to her mother, who had stayed behind in wartorn Vienna, parcels that always contained, as I remember, several pounds of butter, and even though I marveled at how thickly she spread her toast, let alone at her cheerfully acknowledging such unhealthy excess, it was not until I settled down in a hot sugar plantation town in western Colombia in 1970, a town without drinking water or adequate sewage, that...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-288)
  11. Index
    (pp. 289-296)