It was a sunny spring day when Michael Taussig, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, wrapped up his graduate seminar on the apocalypse (official title: “Preëmptive Apocalyptic Thought: The Angel of History Reconsidered in Light of Climate Change, the War on Terror, and Financial Meltdown”). Meanwhile, the World Health Organization was warning of an imminent swine-flu pandemic, the gross domestic product shrivelled for the third quarter in a row, and Senator Arlen Specter became a Democrat.
Inside the seminar room, students were discussing Hurricane Katrina and African-American science fiction. Lance Thurner, a candidate for a master’s degree in oral history, was about to show the class a low-budget 2008 film called “The Fullness of Time.” In the movie, Gigi, a woman on a mission from another planet, lands in New Orleans two years after Katrina, with the Mardi Gras Indians and a New Orleans brass band as her spiritual guides. When the screening was over, Taussig, who is sixty-nine, declared it to be “one of the greatest pieces of ethnography I’ve ever seen in my entire life!” He said, “I can’t believe how wonderfully unreal this reality is.”
Taussig, who is the author of such texts as “My Cocaine Museum” and “What Color Is the Sacred?,” is the foremost practitioner of a technique called “fictocriticism,” which the Times has called “gonzo anthropology.” Trained as a physician in Australia, Taussig discovered his calling in the jungles of Colombia, where he travelled in 1969, inspired by the struggles of Marxist guerrillas. (He also discovered there the hallucinogenic properties of yagé.) He is tall, with steel-gray hair, and he had on a jungle-print shirt and linen pants.
He decided to teach a class on the apocalypse, he said, because “now seemed like a good time.” He had to turn away more than a dozen students. Halfway through the semester, he abolished final papers, replacing them with “apo diaries,” in which students were to note omens of the apocalypse around them, using the scrapbooks of William S. Burroughs as a model. One student’s included an image of the wrestler Jake (The Snake) Roberts, snake in hand, juxtaposed with a glaring Jesus, also snake in hand, who is saying, “Don’t fuck with the Apocalypse.”
Topics during the semester have included Glenn Beck, an R.V. that can go two thousand miles without stopping for gas, Walter Benjamin, 9/11, Las Vegas, and apocalyptic Yiddish poetry, which reminded Taussig of a song by the Fugs called “Septuagenarian in Love” (“Every time we have some sex / it almost breaks my balls”). Some students confessed that after a while the material had started scaring them. One developed insomnia.
For the final session, the theme was the cyclical interrelationship of trauma and the apocalypse, and Thurner, after screening the movie, tried to create a theoretical framework for discussion by drawing a series of diagrams, all arrows and blobs, on the blackboard. “So here,” he said, drawing a swooping arc, “we’re coming around to catastrophe. But if we’re preëmptively thinking about it, it’s making it happen faster, right?” He stepped back and looked at the diagrams, puzzled.
Taussig was more interested in Thurner himself, who, pre-academia, was involved in radical anti-globalization and environmental activism. Thurner said that a few people he knew had ended up in prison for doing “some things.”
“What kind of things?” Taussig asked.
“Things were burned down,” Thurner mumbled sheepishly.
“So, according to your third drawing, the only thing you could return to is the moment after the apocalypse,” a young woman said, when discussion moved back to the diagrams. “You’re also assuming that any identity or subjectivity you create is grounded inherently in trauma.”
“Why bring identity into it?” Taussig said. “What’s at stake here is being itself!”
The discussion moved on to Freud, Adorno, diarrhea-related fatalities, the banality of long-term catastrophe versus the excitement of instant apocalypse, Surrealism, a friend who started doing yoga after her father died, drowning polar bears, Jon Stewart, and, finally, swine flu and whether it is a sign of a real or a “mediated” apocalypse.
Taussig interrupted. “If you were living in Mexico City, how on top of your game would you really be?” he asked. “How well could you cope with catastrophe unfolding around you? That’s really where I’d like to leave this class.”
“Oh!” he said, as students solemnly loaded their backpacks. “Don’t forget! Potluck tomorrow! Eight o’clock!”
Halls of Academe: End-Times 101 [The New Yorker]