Theses Doctoral

Between the Magic of Magic and the Magic of Money: the Changing Nature of Experience in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Ferro, Maria del Rosario

When people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are gathered around the hearths of their houses, it is common to hear the sound and movement of the women's spindles whirring on the earth floor as they pull out threads of material, and the rhythm of men's hardwood rods rubbing continuously against the mouth of their gourd containers. It is at this point of intimacy and flowing vitality at which the familiarity of the indigenous Sierra comes alive.
According to Kogi, Wiwa and Ika cosmology, there is a life force that grows in people, as much as animals and plants, which like the thread of a spindle extends from the center of the cosmos. "It is here where the Universal Mother planted her gigantic spindle across the highest peak," as she said: "this is Kalusankua, the central post of the world." This vital thread, like an umbilical cord, holds all living elements as they fulfill their fate on Earth. It is a very different strand from the one that Walter Benjamin mentions in the story of the genie who gave the boy a ball of thread and said: "This is the thread of your life. Take it. When you find time heavy on your hands, pull it out; your days will pass quick or slow, according as you unwind the ball rapidly or little by little. So long as you leave the thread alone, you will remain stationary at the same hour of your existence." But the boy started pulling the thread and before he knew it he became a man, married the girl he loved, saw his children grow up, passed over his anxieties, lived honors and profits, and then cut short his old age, all in four months and six days.
Pre-Columbian materials -many times sonorous and full of detailed expressions; made of gold and copper, ceramic, jade and stone quartz of different luster and color- are said to be the medium through which people, plants and animals are able to concentrate the necessary life force to fulfill their fate on Earth. Buried all around the vast mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, these ancient materials sustain the interconnections to the creative energies in the cosmos. However, as these materials are looted and pulled out of ancient indigenous grounds, they cease to hold together the center from which this vital force grows. As they are sold as commodities, they appear in the international art market, independent of their place of origin and devoid of any life force.
With the new modes of industrial production, observes Karl Marx, the creative energy or central force of people disappears in the things that they produce. Matter severed from its producer acquires a second life independent of its source of energy and equivalent to all other things in the form of commodities. As capitalist societies begin to measure the output of energy in terms of this second life of things, individual skills and creative energies become irrelevant to the process of growth. "The individuals are now subordinated to social production, which exists externally to them, as a sort of fate," notes Marx in the Grundrisse in 1857. Walter Benjamin then extends this idea and points out: "In `fate' is concealed the concept of `total experience.'" He quotes the following passage in The Arcades Project: "It is not a question of `the triumph of mind over matter'...; rather, it represents the triumph of the rational and general principles of things over the energy and qualities proper to the living organism."
Even though Pre-Columbian materials are not produced in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta today, they are believed to mediate the energies and qualities proper to living beings. These energies are lost as they are dug out, and as the holes in the Mother Land of the Ika, Wiwa and Kogi people grow, so does the value of these pieces in the market. It is only in the realm of the inorganic that we can begin to fathom this concept of value. Walter Benjamin's notion of a "new kind of 20th C fate" helps us observe this vast contradiction now lived in the native Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, whereby the threads that like umbilical cords connect living beings throughout their life to the sources of energy around their territory, no longer seem to be growing out of experience but rather out of money.
Benjamin points out "a new field force," which opens up in the form of planning... To `plan' is henceforth possible only on a large scale, no longer on an individual scale - and this means neither for the individual nor by the individual." Property is depersonalized in such a way that it is caught up in a whirlpool, lost by one and won by another. Successes and failures arise from causes that are unanticipated, generally unintelligible, and seemingly dependent on chance. He observes this new fate as it plays out in the experience of figures like the gambler, the private collector, the student and the flanneur, that are not completely subordinated to the labor process, but are idlers residing both within and outside the marketplace, between the worlds of magic and money. He observes how "Fortuna" in the double sense of chance and riches is always on the side of these figures. When a gambler wins for example, we don't say it is a consequence of his work activity but it is a matter of luck or chance: "Fortuna" that is on his side. It is this "total experience" as Benjamin calls it, concealed in the form of "Fortuna" which feeds the gambling instincts and animates the myths that consume "guaqueros," people who dig out ancient indigenous burial sites in search of Pre-Columbian treasures, looting enchanted and dangerous places all around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Even though guaqueros climb a mountainous terrain as high as 19,000 feet, and traverse rain forests inhabited by wild animals and plants, these treasure hunters are not so much at the mercy of the mysterious forces of nature, as at the hands of the "inexplicable" in bourgeois society. "The `inexplicable' is enthroned in bourgeois society as in a gambling hall..." notes Benjamin.
Like gamblers, guaqueros are risking a hand-to hand encounter with fate, where the stake is money. They can lose or win immediate and infinite possibilities: money equivalent to anything. Only in response to such fate, like the boy with the ball of thread, is it possible to pull out the material from the place where the earth has been gestating it for centuries and bring it into a new inorganic existence. The guaqueros, like the gamblers, produce in a second, the changes that fate ordinarily effects only in the course of many years. "Isn't there a certain structure of money that can be recognized only in fate, and a certain structure of fate that can be recognized only in money?" asks Benjamin. Such encounter with this new kind of fate occurs as "immediate experience" or das Erlebnis, which comes in the form of shock and discontinuity, points out Benjamin, as opposed to "connected experience" or die Erfahrung which presupposes tradition and continuity. Idlers, like the guaqueros are open to this type of experience. They are not so much following a sequence, as attentively tracing a dynamic that leads them through the excitement of their chase, step by step from one coincidence to the next. They "follow nothing but the whim of the moment."
The Ika Mamos, as much as the Kogi and Wiwa Mamas or high priests who inherit the places where these Pre-Columbian materials are buried, along with the knowledge necessary nourish and connect to the cosmic life force in them, ask: if this is the new fate of the world, then what will happen to these creative energies which need to be sustained in order for the threads of life to continue growing? Will there come a point, they ponder, when the threads of life will cease to grow and all the rivers, as much as the streams in human, plant and animal veins, will dry up? According to Ika, Wiwa and Kogi cosmology, only the ancestors can feed on these ancient materials, so the Mamas and Mamos wonder: is it that people believe they can eat gold too? It is only in terms of this "new kind of 20th Century fate," that we can begin to understand the fantastic transformations and disjunctions of the value of these materials as they move from the native sites where they are buried and nurtured, to the hands of guaqueros who dig them out and sell them. By following this passage between experience and money, Between the Magic of Magic and the Magic of Money, rather like the flanneur that moves in between spaces, inside and outside the marketplace, I want to inquire: what is the fate of these ancient materials and forces, and how does "Fortuna" in the double sense of chance and riches, then reflect back upon current Ika, Kogi and Wiwa existence?

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Taussig, Michael T.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 17, 2015