Review: My Cocaine Museum by Michael Taussig

Michael Taussig’s book, My Cocaine Museum, is an experimental text that seeks to explore the “imagined realities” of the cocaine industry in Colombia. Opening with a history of Colombia’s gold industry and its similarities to the cocaine trade, Taussig presents his readers with a “human history as natural history”, stressing the historical and symbolic likenesses between gold and cocaine production. Written in a non-traditional style of ethnographic writing that reads like a fictional narrative, misgivings arise through the course of the text if it is viewed through a strictly traditional lens. Although the majority of the book adheres to a distinct framework in its literal style, at times its linearity becomes hard to follow as Taussig goes back and forth between gold’s significance, cocaine’s relation to gold, and anecdotal stories told by Colombian informants who often seem to serve more as decorative enhancements to Taussig’s main points of cocaine and Colombian history than first-hand sources of information.

In the beginning of his book, Taussig gives the reader a detailed overview of gold’s historical significance through the explanation of its production and its ties to the utilization of both African and indigenous Indians as slaves, and their creation of the Gold Museum. However, this is a history wrought with obvious displeasure by Taussig. It becomes apparent from the first chapter that Taussig’s book serves as a counter to the purported notion of the gold museum in Colombia. His cocaine museum is meant to memorialize the very people and materials that were used to construct the museum and who were excluded from its falsified history. What Taussig seeks is to give voice to an imagined museum, where the history of its objects are given presence. In his forward, Taussig writes of the Marxist philosophy of “fetishism”, making correlations between fetishism of gold and cocaine. Taussig equates his cocaine museum to a fetish, where cocaine has gone beyond itself and taken on a life of its own.

Taussig’s text is organized into three broad chapters which are further divided into 31 subchapters that first address gold’s history and cocaine’s likeness to it, then continues with the social history of gold and cocaine and their relationship to violence, the devil and dangers inherent with its cultivation; and finally to a reimagining and reflection of a Colombia that includes the many faces of a country with a rich history. By utilizing a naming convention that makes allusions to the acculturation of gold and cocaine as substances, Taussig also names his chapters in a way that conveys a tactile sense of heat, weather, rain, boredom, and entropy.

As a traditional ethnography, several issues arise with the text’s organization. It can be difficult for the reader to gain a comprehensive understanding of what Taussig seeks to answer. Littered throughout his text are conversations with local Colombians who build a personal narrative that blurs the line of accurateness and historical truthfulness. In its way, this reflexive and disjointed juxtaposition of discussions with his informants serves to reimagine an alternate story that subverts the ordinary and otherwise known history of Colombia. In effect, the seedier underbelly of the drug world is revealed and we learn how pervasive violence and dangers are in Colombia’s drug industry. Passages detailing the dangers and violence appear throughout the book where Taussig discusses the overuse of underage labor, the dangers of “diving”, human mule trafficking, guerilla warfare, and automatic weapons dealings and use.

In his later chapters, Taussig writes about conversations with prisoners who had committed atrocious murders and likens them to the underhanded pinning’s of corrupt government officials. Another intriguing point that Taussig makes clear is the belief that the Reagan era and “the war against drugs” was actually creating and maintaining a “War for drugs” (p.18), cementing the fact that violence was both a normal occurrence in Colombian life and an overarching development that spread elsewhere.

In relation to a more globalized understanding of gold and cocaine as commodities, Taussig believes that “inevitably money – like color – makes one think of stories of transmutation of form into substance and of substance into flows” (p.26); alluding to cocaine’s connection to the vicious cycle of prohibition and transgression, or ““breakthrough economy”- where first you make the rule, and then you make money breaking the rule” (p.144). This idea is similar to Appadurai’s understanding of a cultural flow and its ability to produce identity and community (Appadurai 2000). Taussig makes apparent the far-reaching effects of cocaine by mentioning its desirable attributes to Wall Street professionals and the inherent oppression of cocaine’s history. This globalizing is also seen in the companies that came to Colombia to manufacture it; for example his mention of the early mining expeditions by the Russians.

Throughout the text, Taussig juxtaposes gold and cocaine and creates a materiality through their social histories and commonalities. He imagines a world that seeks to answer the questions of, “what happens to the gold/cocaine that is mined? What would a cocaine museum look like? And could we have predicted the vicious cycle of drugs through its tight connections in prehistory of gold and cocaine”? (p.13-14). Whether these questions get answered depends on the perspective in which Taussig’s text is read. To me, they are answered on the surface level, where Taussig has successfully re-imagined and given new meaning to Colombia’s drug world, essentially creating a “magic realism” that is plausible.

However successful Taussig may have been in illustrating his “magic realism”, I unfortunately found the overall literary approach distracting and at times disjointed with regard to making connections to writers outside of the field of anthropology. Placing these figures in a world in which reimagining is so conceptual that it serves to detract from a more concrete anthropological perspective renders the text less believable as a traditional ethnography. This experimental approach left me wanting a fuller and more concise framework in which to read about the Colombians’ connection to cocaine.


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