MT: The fieldwork is incredibly important to me, because I can’t write without some sense of the tangible. And from that, I generate stories. But that’s absolutely right, all those things you mention are very important.
JC: How did you first come across Benjamin?
MT: I’m thinking…hmmm…I remember a couple of us were reading “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” back when I was an assistant professor in Michigan, in I guess the late 1970s. There wasn’t much sympathy, because his work seemed too obscure amongst the anthropologists, historians that I worked with. I don’t know how [Illuminations] got into my hands. When I read it I was aware that here I was dealing with an incredible stylist, and that still seems to be one of the most important things about him as a writer. Of course writing can’t be detached from content. But he cast an incredible spell. Second, someone who worked between religion and Marxism, the way he did, was exactly what I was searching for. Those terms are perhaps not very good ones, “religion” and “Marxism,” but they give you a sense of where I’m coming from. Let’s put it this way: he was a writer who could help you appreciate the mythic force behind the present and at the same time give an impetus to working out newness, which would be indebted to the old ways but would turn them around. It’s a gift to a writer. It’s a gift to someone who’s interested in creating a new culture, which is of course what Nietzsche always advocated. You don’t just study for study’s sake, so to speak.
That’s why it appealed to me. And I slowly, very slowly, got more and more into him, and I gave a course on Benjamin. I found myself actually sort of worried. I felt like I was getting too much into it, I was too dependent. I read quite widely in theory in the 1980s and 1990s, but I found myself always coming back to him. His work is so much richer than any of the French structuralists or poststructuralists, people like Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Kristeva. They all seemed to be sort of lightweights, you know, sharpening their pencils, compared with this guy. And then I got quite absorbed in his biography. That’s why I particularly love his work in Ibiza, because I’ve been to Ibiza, and hung out with a guy, a poet, who wrote a book called Walter Benjamin in Ibiza. A beautiful book. His name is Vicente Valero, and I’ve been trying to get his book translated here. And I kept picturing Benjamin in Ibiza, writing or writing drafts or getting down ideas about what I consider to be, in some ways, his most important works, like “The Storyteller” and “On the Mimetic Faculty.” So he was like, I don’t know, a muse. I still wonder and worry if it isn’t time I found my own way, though. But I always keep coming back, like magnetic North.
JC: Yeah. I guess when I read a book of yours like Mimesis and Alterity, I’m struck by the way in which you’re what I’d call a “great reader” of Benjamin.
MT: He’s a great inspiration for a writer to be imaginative. I think most scholars’ and commentators’ very work precludes that.
But there are very few literary people — scholars, or political theorists — working on Benjamin who also work with Third World or Global South histories or do fieldwork. Possibly there are some… I don’t pretend to know everything on this score. But I think my contribution probably lies a great deal in that.
JC: Not totally dissimilar to your relationship to Benjamin, I perceive within your books, starting especially with Mimesis and Alterity and continuing up to your latest, Beauty and the Beast, an attempt to reread and reinterpret the classics of anthropology, whether [James George] Frazer’s ideas about magic, or —
MT: Now this is very important. You see, I was part of an anticolonial, post-Vietnam war effect on much of anthropology. And as a sort of mea culpa we had to acknowledge that anthropology was the child of imperialism. So we stayed in anthropology, nonetheless, but wanted to critique from within. We also wanted to study more the frontier situation, the culture of imperialism if you like — the anthropology of imperialism. In doing that, the older anthropology was trashed. Frazer had been trashed by [Bronislaw] Malinowski after a while, and he in turn by the famous British anthropologist [E.E.] Evans-Pritchard, for example, and so on and so forth.
I mounted a much more qualified critique. And I also believed that there was so much that could be added to the current critique of capitalism — of the contemporary world, meaning the 1970s to the present — by reading radically other situations, radically other societies. Such as the Nuer or the Trobriand Islands, or the Western Desert in Australia. This is not to pretend that what we were reading was not influenced by world history and colonialism and neocolonialism. Heaven forbid. But it did mean an opening up to, or not being ashamed by, what could be learned from these very different systems of agriculture, religion, economics. I felt quite looked down on for this, though Marshall Sahlins has addressed the legacy of anthropology in his work in comparable ways. I had to fight through it myself, almost like psychoanalysis. I mean, I wanted to reject all that stuff. I just saw it as colonial politics and toadyism. But I can’t work with that way of thinking anymore.
JC: I see your move here as similar to Gilles Deleuze’s books about his philosophical predecessors, working his way through Spinoza, working his way through Nietzsche.
MT: I find the way that I really work is: you’ve got a problem, you’re obsessed with a phenomenon, and you just read everything you can find on that topic. But it’s not like I’m going to go back and read, like, [Hegel's] The Philosophy of Mind or old-fashioned anthropology for it’s own sake.
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MT: I love Bataille! Bataille was a shock to me, and he should be. Around 1992 or 1993, I was walking through a bookstore, and I came across this book called The College of Sociology. I flipped through it, and I bought it. And I brought it home and I was looking at it, and my hair stood on end. I thought it was so exciting! I called up my friend Barney Cohn, who was a professor of anthropology who died about 10 years ago, and I said, “Barney, this is the book we’ve all been waiting for!” I was so excited. The College of Sociology was something that Bataille was very important in. In about 1939 [1937-1939] a group of people would get together and discuss what they called “sacred sociology.” And I said, “This is exactly where we want to begin, in this crossroads of the sacred, or the ‘negative sacred.’”
I guess I’m contradicting my answer to an earlier question, because I thought that this emphasis on excess and what he calls depense or profitless expenditure was extremely important in understanding torture and violence, in ways that liberals could never contemplate; their analyses weren’t convincing to me. At the same time, Bataille stood outside of the psychoanalytic study of the psychopathological or the irrational. [Here] was an urge for people to dislocate themselves, to get out of themselves and live life in the fast lane. And that history was the result of such an impulse. I found him extremely interesting. I also found him extremely opaque. And nothing of the elegance that someone like Benjamin would provide, the Frankfurt School would provide —
JC: Could that really be said of Adorno’s prose?
MT: [Laughs.] Well, the thing you’ve got to remember is that the College of Sociology was built around, intellectually, a mix of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and ethnography. And I applauded that attempt, to bring those characters together on one page. And so, yeah, Bataille has been very important to me. I have a lot of fun teaching him. I regard him more now as a figure between art and social theory. I like the work he tried to do in economics, The Accursed Share. I think it’s very timely for the environmental crisis that we face today, when we need another economics, which he called “general economy.” His theory of “general economy” is very powerful for understanding the meltdown of the world today — the physical meltdown, as well as the financial.
JC: That theory also seems recognizable, in part, as an extension of Marcel Mauss, of the “gift economy,” but writ into a much broader context.
MT: Well, the “general economy” also gives you a certain sort of grasp of finance capital, hedge funds, and the proclivity for war. These are all stupendous ways of expending the surplus of potlatch.
JC: Certainly there are numerous writers and artists who have influenced you, but I wanted to ask about William Burroughs. At the risk of perpetuating “the yagé guy” image, did you arrive at Burroughs via his book with Ginsberg, The Yage Letters?
MT: I love Burroughs, and he’s often at my right elbow, although I wince sometimes at the maleness of it all. How did I come across Burroughs? Again, I can’t remember. The Putumayo stuff [The Yage Letters] became increasingly important to me when I saw Naked Lunch and what an influence yagé played, he thinks, in all his writing from then on. You know, it’s like his mother lode. But I had been interested in him in a very superficial way prior to that. I do remember reading The Western Lands on the bus going into the Putumayo in the late 1980s.
I recently wrote some stuff on [Brion] Gysin, his companion in the Beat Hotel in Paris. Then I saw how closely Gysin and Burroughs worked together on the montage or cut-ups. I think Burroughs has become important to me as someone who could sustain and give me strength in the montage principle.
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JC: In your essay “Getting High with Benjamin and Burroughs,” you said, “Burroughs himself insisted elsewhere that the task of the writer is to make readers aware of what they already knew without being aware of it.” This strikes me as appropriate to your own work. You’ve noted that you consider part of what you do to be “creative nonfiction.” Which, I suppose, is a way of declaring that your work doesn’t belong solely to the domain of anthropology.
MT: I definitely think it’s writing first, anthropology second. That should be required of any discipline. Though disciplines are bad, by and large. The whole talk about interdisciplinarity and so forth strikes me as complete bullshit. But that’s not really my problem; let’s not get aggressive or antagonistic. I see anthropology — let’s put it this way — as the study of culture. But in studying culture, you remake culture through writing or making a film or whatever other representational mode grabs your fancy.
Writing is… It’s a bit simplistic the way I put it, but I can’t see how you can separate these activities. I wanted to say one thing about storytelling: I say, I think in My Cocaine Museum, in the afterword, that it struck me that most of what anthropologists hear from their so-called “informants” are stories, but the anthropologists don’t recognize them as stories. And they’re very quick to translate them and reduce them into information, through talking to people as “informants.” Of course, Benjamin (let alone your common sense) might tell you there’s a great deal of difference between the wholeness and strength and glamour — and humor — in a story, and that has nothing much to do with information per se. Information is, you know, the modern reification of all of that. So I thought if anthropologists in general are reducing stories into information, my job — or our job — should be the reverse: recognizing that this is storytelling, what’s being told to me, and to take responsibility for writing my own story.
JC: A notable characteristic of your writing is the introductory phrase followed by an interjection or aside followed by the repetition of the introductory phrase. I really like this.
MT: Ah. It’s very important in the shamanism book. I think it developed organically. But you know, you can find contradictions within the paragraph, of course...