“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 one-time 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’s suggestion that trees form an alphabet in which the palm tree is the loveliest; William Burroughs’s retort to critics that for him words are alive like animals and don’t like to be kept in pages—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.