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"It is the contemporary elixir from which all manner of being emerges, the metamorphic sublime, an alchemist's dream." So begins Palma Africana, the latest attempt by anthropologist Michael Taussig to make sense of the contemporary moment. But to what elixir does he refer? Palm oil. Saturating everything from potato chips to nail polish, palm oil has made its way into half of the packaged goods in our supermarkets. By 2020, world production will be double what it was in 2000. In Colombia, palm oil plantations are covering over onetime cornucopias of animal, bird, and plant life. Over time, they threaten indigenous livelihoods and give rise to abusive labor conditions and major human rights violations. The list of entwined horrors--climatic, biological, social--is long. But Taussig takes no comfort in our usual labels: "habitat loss," "human rights abuses," "climate change." The shock of these words has passed; nowadays it is all a blur. Hence, Taussig's keen attention to words and writing throughout this work. He takes cues from precursors' ruminations: Roland Barthes' suggestion that trees form an alphabet in which the palm tree is the loveliest; William Burroughs' retort to critics that for him words are like animals--cut them and the words are let free. Steeped in a lifetime of philosophical and ethnographic exploration, Palma Africana undercuts the banality of the destruction taking place all around us and offers a penetrating vision of the global condition. Richly illustrated and written with experimental verve, this book is Taussig's Tristes Tropiques for the twenty-first century.
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"Anthropologists (and those in allied disciplines) know Taussig as a stylistic innovator. . . Taussig's fragmentary autobiographical and fieldwork reflections also make it clear that the book is at least as much about language and writing as it is about palm oil. . . Through this book's radical alertness, Taussig chooses examples not for their prestige but for their provocation."-- "Times Literary Supplement" "This is Taussig at the top of his form. Iconoclastic, experimental, and poetic, refusing 'theory' even as he makes it do his work. Magic, metaphor, love, violence, excess, and mimetics--their urgency amplified through the rush of a narrative that is itself a brilliantly sustained reflection on storytelling, writing, and ethnography."-- "Hugh Raffles, The New School" "Taussig's question is always, 'how to write about such things?' In Palma Africana, the palm tree morphs into a figure for writing itself. Taking his cue from Barthes, Taussig records himself producing a text that falls back over the world it describes. To write about the political economy of the palm tree, he invents a genre of palm tree writing. As Taussig brilliantly shows, falling back is a procedure of self-reflection--a way of folding the text back on its world."-- "Christopher Bracken, University of Alberta, Canada" "Taussig takes a phantasmagorical look at an ecological menace. . . . the voices of Colombian peasants, activists, lawyers, and writers are everywhere in Palma Africana: witnessing, recounting, lamenting, joking, fantasizing, and resisting."-- "4columns" "Palma Africana tells the tale of a swamp thing becoming a plantation thing, but never quite. Taussig's stunning, serpentine ethnography tracks how state and global market forces cannibalize each another to generate the Colombian palm oil plantation complex. Winding through stories of murderous paramilitaries, cattlemen-become-drugmen, and dispossessed subsistence farmers seeking to recompose interspecies intimacies, this vital book opens our senses to the ongoing work of human-animal-plant resistance in the age of dark biocapital."-- "Stefan Helmreich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology"
Michael Taussig is the Class of 1933 Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including The Corn Wolf and Beauty and the Beast, both published by the University of Chicago Press.