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Corn-Wolf in Pandemia

By Nicolas Rasiulis, McGill University

Spring Equinox, 2020, two days before my previously anticipated departure for Mongolia to conduct the majority of my PhD fieldwork. I recently vacated my apartment-become-home in Montréal, and established a transitory domus “back home” in Ottawa whence I will take off for the taiga to rejoin Dukha reindeer pastoralists. I will take off… But when? Transition in Ottawa is now indefinite. Welcome to Pandemia.

What is and what is not non-essential travel and non-essential social proximity? These questions burn close to heart as I write, legs jittering with more gusto and relentlessness than they usually do, longing for proximity with a specific elsewhere and particular others. A scholarship expiration date looms, and so does the uncertainty of a career path that depends on field research and on the transduction of this into writing – the more, the better.  

In Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough,’ Wittgenstein (1979) employs “Corn-Wolf” as a literal and metaphorical exemplar of “a movement or slithering and shaking that occurs in figures of speech […] with terms of reference that slip over into allied terms of reference such that cause becomes effect and insides outsides” (Taussig 2010, 27). Corn-Wolf is manifold. It is simultaneously:

“1) That which is hidden in the last sheaf of corn harvested.

2) The last sheaf itself.

3) The [hu]man who binds the last sheaf” (Ibid).

Taussig questions whether Wittgenstein is here evoking and conjuring “the magic in language” (Ibid), and whether this is the “whole mythology […] deposited in our language” of which Wittgenstein spoke (Idem, 28). Taussig further fleshes out Corn-Wolf as the sacrificed “human being or animal standing in for the corn spirit” (Idem, 27). He then intimates Corn-Wolf and literary “Corn-Wolfing” with “Nervous System writing” (Idem, 31), “writing that finds itself implicated in the play of institutionalized power” where epistemic murk is bluffed about as concrete reality, and where it is expected of us to “play by the rules only to find there are none and then […] you are jerked into a spine-breaking recognition that yes! after all, there are rules” (Idem, 31). Aiming “at being one jump ahead of the rules of rulelessness” whilst aware that “this is a doomed pursuit” (Idem, 32), Nervous System writing “has for a brief moment this one chance, the one permanently before the last, to make this intervention in the state of emergency, before the writer’s story is swallowed up by the response it causes” (Ibid). If there is magic or mythology in language, Nervous System writing “aims not at exposing [it] but at conniving with it” (Ibid).

There coexists in academia a disenchanting yet no less magical literary form: “agribusiness writing” (Ibid), “a mode of production […] that conceals the means of production,” that reduces writing to information bereft of style, character, humour and perspectival dynamism (Idem, 29). It occludes the experiential nature of writing for producer and audience, operationalizing the craft merely as a streamlined way for providing explanation (Ibid). It occults the magic and sacrifice in writing, giving form to the circumstances in which Nervous System writing is implicated.

Taussig said that in an era of environmental upheaval, “it is worth thinking about the disappearance of the vegetable god and its sacrifice. In the supermarket there is no last sheaf” (Idem, 27-28; emphasis added). Alas, in 2020 there might be a last sheaf in the supermarket. There sure seems to be a last package of toilet paper. What might happen if a time happens upon us where there is and subsequently was a last sheaf of, say, kale?

Doing anthropology in this new volatile atmosphere is unconducive to grocery shopping, let alone agribusiness writing. Figuring out how to do fieldwork and how to “convert” that into writing are “arguably the two most important aspects of anthropology and social science, and they are both rich, ripe secrets” (Idem, 26). Although this is not my first reindeer rodeo, I must figure this out again and anew. Business as usual. But usual business is now a whole new ball game in Pandemia.

Agribusiness writing depends on control. Much of my academic writing has explored the emergent and unpredictable nature of life and, by extension, the acrobatic and improvisatory nature of Dukha livelihoods and anthropological practice. I now realize to what extent I had so much control. In tandem with freedom of travel, the homeostasis of administrative and financial environments favoured the concreteness and expediency of all I need to do to obtain money, do research, write, graduate, and obtain more money to do more research to write more to get a job to keep getting money to do research and to write. Scrutinizing my needs as I come face to face with them, I wonder just how necessary they are, and what my life might become with less control. Might control be a rare and ephemeral delicacy?

I wonder whether we will get back to normal, or if this is the new normal. The past normalcy which I now crave was ironically quite weird; unique time of widespread freedom of movement and association, of control. Might coronavirus be “defacing” the “public secret” (Taussig 1999) that our normal has been weird, and that weird is quite normal? Might the loss of control over some aspects of life edify—by situational necessity—control over other aspects, if only concerning the immediacy of our own person?

If only I had done (or not done) this or that—were it not for those “Nights of White Satin” (The Moody Blues 1967)—I might be thriving in the pulse of Dukha community right now. But those days that I could be tasting now are gone. Today I find myself in “Days of Future Passed” (Ibid) looking in from the outside unto a Malinowski-like me cut off from home by world events rather than the other way around. Now I must get a grip on myself and do what I can amidst what I cannot control. I must relearn ‘the rules of rulelessness’ and connive with the Nervous System.

Bibliography

Taussig, Michael. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

——-2010. “The Corn-Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts.” In Critical Inquiry 37:26-33.

The Moody Blues. 1967. “Nights in White Satin.” In the album Days of Future Passed. London: Deram Records.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1979. Remarks on Frazer’s “Golden Bough.” Trans. and ed. Rhees, Rush. Nottinghamshire: Brynmill.

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