In the latest installment of Bwog’s OfficeHop series, Senior CEO Expert Hopper Specialist Peter Sterne visited Anthropology Professor Michael Taussig to ask about… his hammock. Taussig happily shared anecdotes and observations about his prized perch, while impatient grad students grumbled outside his office. If you know a professor with a unique office, be sure to email firstname.lastname@example.org!
Professor Michael Taussig is most famous in his field for showing that South American miners’ fear of the devil is a powerful critique of capitalism, though these days he is more interested in looking at the significance of color in colonialism. Here, he is most well-known for his incredible fashion sense and extremely polarizing teaching style.
And, to the best of our knowledge, he’s the only Columbia professor with a hammock in his office.
“Oh, I’ve had hammocks for decades,” Professor Michael Taussig tells Bwog, “I got this one from San Jacinto, Colombia, in the ’90s. “That was around the time the department reformed, and we were very anti-colonial.”
But wait—isn’t Taussig… still anti-colonial?
“Well,” he pauses, “We were much more so back then. And Joyce Monges [the department’s administrator] said we should get hooks put in the ceiling of the student lounge to hang hammocks, but the hooks were never installed.” Arguing that hammocks can be considered anti-colonial symbols, he cites French sociologist Marcel Mauss, who considered the ways that peoples’ bodies and physical habits are shaped by societal and cultural forces. Such forces program Americans to sit in chairs, so going out of your way to lie in a hammock could be considered a subversive act. So are chairs colonialist? With a hint of indignation, Taussig admits, “when you put it like that, it does sounds crazy.”
Hammocks mean different things to different groups of people. Taussig recalls that while he lived in New Zealand, he was acquainted with a group of anarchists who went out of their way to do nothing, and decided that hammocks, a symbol of resting and laziness, would be perfect for “nonactivists” such as themselves. They set up a company to import hammocks into New Zealand from Colombia, and named it the “Oblomov Trading Co.,” after a Russian novel in which the protagonist finds himself unable to get out of bed one morning and slowly decays. Similarly, Taussig mentions, Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue wrote a book called The Right to Be Lazy, which argued against that too much value was placed on working for others. “On the cover,” Taussig notes, “was a picture of a hammock.”
In Colombia, the upper-middle-class “bring beautiful hammocks to their summer homes. They see hammocks as a Western symbol of luxury,” Taussig explains. In contrast, “in the Amazon frontier, you find grubby, frayed hammocks. It’s just a basic piece of furniture.” They have always been a part of Amazon peasants’ day-to-day lives, and some historians speculate that hammocks were first invented by Amazonian Indians. “But it could be more complicated than that,” Taussig cautions.
“Once, Deirdre de la Cruz, one of my students, came into my office and saw the hammock. She gasped and asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Butler had these instead of chairs?'” Unfortunately, Columbia never installed hooks in Butler. Then again, hammocks do have some drawbacks. “Hammocks are great for afternoon naps,” Taussig advises us, “but torture for the whole night.”