Author Archives: jcoletaylor

Gar Alperovitz’s new article on the question of socialism and beyond

It’s a long article, but the final paragraph points to why the whole thing is important to read (and I quote):

The important points to emphasize are three: [1] There is openness in the public, and especially among a much, much broader group than many think, to discussing these issues – including even the word “socialism;” [2] It is accordingly time to get very serious about some of the challenging substantive and theoretical issues involved; and [3] There are also many on-the-ground experiments, and projects and developments that suggest practical directions that are under way, but also that a new politics (whatever it is called) might begin to build upon them if it got serious.

We have a lot to talk about, and we need a lot more voices in the debate than the traditional – and definitely the institutional – Left. Socialism may just not mean what you think it means – hell, it doesn’t mean what I think it means, and that’s why I think the new debate is so exciting.

Whole article here.

Ritual Healing and the Aftermath of Dystopia

Utopia, Dystopia, and History

In analyzing ritual healing practices of the Amazonian rainforest and riverine cultural groups residing in southern Colombia, eastern Ecuador, and on into parts of lowland Peru, I follow Taussig in noting that illness and suffering tend to be understood, in the eyes of the ‘patients’ themselves, in terms that are “economic, political, and social, as well as those of bodily disease” (1980:219). If the body is disciplined, constrained, constituted, and produced by a variety of forces – ecological, political-economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual among others – then the body is, in a sense, the actual site of history, manifest. That is to say that these historically constitutive forces that act on bodies must be understood to act on, to the point of identity with, the biophysical body, the social body, and the body politic at one in the same moment (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987:29), making the ‘all-at-once’ of the body central to any understanding of ritual healing.[1] In order to understand the suffering that such ritual healing practices must engage with, then, it is necessary to understand the geographical-historical place these bodies inhabit. I am interested in looking at the Amazonian rubber economy of roughly 1880 through 1914, and the effects this period has left buried, perhaps in shallow graves, in the ground of contemporary Amazonia. By associating the concept of dystopia with the ‘end of history’, and this in turn with what Taussig has described as a “culture of terror” and a “space of death” (1987:3-36), it is my intention to follow a trail through the legacy of the rubber economy in this region on through its intersection with historical sorcery and multi-generational trauma, to the question of how to heal historical violence, and where ritual healing intersects with the bondage of debt.

Harvey designates ‘spatial’ and ‘process’ utopias as two distinct forms in which utopian aspirations can be organized (2000:159-179). In an analysis of ‘spatial’ utopias, he points out the way in which certain, classic, models of utopia are arranged in order to isolate them from the pressures of historical change. He suggests that ‘process’ utopias, by contrast, do not attempt to isolate a given spatial organization from historical change, but rather project onto the historical process itself a teleology that is predictive of some final utopian moment that will ‘end’ history. While this second ‘process’ utopia is more apropos of neoliberal capitalism, and likely the nascent capitalism of the rubber epoch in Amazonia, it is the first form of utopia that I am interested in for the purposes of this paper. It is the sense in which history ‘stops’ for a given spatial organization that I find most telling for the way in which the rubber economy became a dystopia for indigenous lives of the era. Utopia, in this sense, is something outside of history, becoming operative under its own internal harmonies, and unreliant on external influences to retain its state or position, effectively isolating it from history. Dystopia then can be understood as the opposite extreme, as something overdetermined by historical forces, where no novel action can arise, and cut off from the liberties of potential change. Here utopia is never subject to change, while dystopia is incapable of it. This inescapability provides an effective analytic lens through which to view the terror of the rubber boom in Amazonia.

Dystopia, the End of History, and the Space of Death

The imperialist justifications for the colonization and enslavement of indigenous persons in much of the Amazon tended to be based, when not denying their humanity outright, on a sense of indigenous people as those ‘without history’. Problematically, many of these assumptions have been carried forward even as late as Steward’s 1946 tome the Handbook of South American Indians (Fausto and Heckenberger 2007:2). This colonialist, and often bluntly racist, conception has been sharply rebuked by contemporary research. By highlighting instead the “regional scale and supra-ethnic character of Amerindian social organization” (Whitehead 1994:34), it is possible to look more carefully at the continuous processes of change that have gone on for indigenous groups before, during, with, and in spite of European contact (Whitehead 1994; Fausto and Heckenberger 2007; Zarzar and Román 1983). This has proved to be an especially potent tool for historical analysis in terms of ethnogenesis, marking it as a process of creative adaptation in the face of violent repression and exclusion, albeit one which is never unilinear or internally uncontested (Hill 1996). By recognizing the multiple modes of indigenous socio-political organization, all naturalized notions of ‘ethnicity’ become suspect, as ethnicity in emic categories – both prior to and throughout much of the colonial period – was as much related to economic production and trade networks as it was to linguistic or kinship commonalities (Whitehead 1994; A. Taylor 1999).[2] Indeed, it was the effects of violence, disease, slavery, and missionization that led to the fragmentation and “breakdown of macrosystems and regional networks” that had played such a pronounced role in indigenous identity formation prior to contact (A. Taylor 1999:208), ultimately producing the smaller, less complex, and more localized socio-political forms suggested as a-historically ‘typical’ by Steward and Métraux (1946).

Bartolomé de las Casas  decried the “brutal massacres”, “frightful and disgraceful crimes”, and “terrible butchery” during the early colonial period of Spanish invasion (in Peterson and Vásquez 2008:70-72), and the rubber economy in Amazonia unsettlingly echoed the worst abuses of this period. In the region of the Amazon outlined here, indigenous populations declined, between roughly 1550 to 1780, by eighty percent (A. Taylor 1999:238). The literature detailing this history is a tangle of violence, slavery, and disease, shot through with the rhetoric of saving souls (San Román 1975:85-87; Kohn 1992:51; Whitten 1976:10, 207-208; Myers 1974:139-147). The mission pueblos, in part because they acted as focal points for the spread of disease, became associated for indigenous peoples with the image of death (San Román 1975:87). The effects of disease, however, should not be mistaken for those of simple biological pathology – as Whitten clearly notes, “in these centuries the Spanish crown’s insatiable mercantile thirst for gold articulated well with the church’s insatiable desire for bureaucratic expansion” (1976:207), suggesting that calculated intentions drove the cataclysmic effects on bodies and territories of indigenous peoples as much as any happenstance of disease vector.

While rubber may have been the commodity, the object of control in Amazonia during the rubber boom was labor – or perhaps more clearly put, the organization and compulsion of indigenous bodies (Whitten 1976:211). The influx of capital from foreign investment created a situation in which the demand for rubber was extraordinary, but due to both socio-cultural norms and simple geographic logistics, the rationalization of rubber production was not feasible in the Amazon (Weinstein 1983:3, 263-264). Because wages on the ‘free’ labor market were high given the remoteness of much of the territory, the solution was often to simply coerce the required labor from indigenous populations (Taussig 1987:53). After 1892 when the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador, “more than half of the Quichua men living near Loreto were chained and taken to work the ‘rubber lanes’ on the lower rivers in Peru and Colombia” (Hudelson 1984:68).[3] It is Weinstein’s thesis that these colonialist, classist, and racist attitudes represented and enforced during the terror of the rubber boom were behind the failure of this economic explosion to “give rise to a basic transformation of Amazonian society” (1983:267) in terms of economic development and socio-political arrangements. Moreover, it was international demand for rubber that “opened the floodgate for atrocities in Amazonia”, those which were to be “hauntingly reminiscent of those described by Bartolomé de las Casas” (Lane 2003:78). It is not difficult to find descriptions of the terror that reigned in many areas of the Amazon during the rubber economy (Stanfield 1998; Taussig 1987:3-138), but what is striking is the degree to which such violence seems related to the all-pervading system of debt (A. Taylor 2007:143; Stanfield 1998:37-60; Taussig 1987:53-71).

It is the relationship between a system of debt and the performance of such extraordinary violence as plagued the rubber-boom-era Amazon that orients an invocation of dystopia as an analytic tool. If inescapability of structurally compelling historical forces is a worthy view on dystopia, then the pervasive bondage of debt in terms of peonage and forced labor provide a convincing image of the rubber economy as dystopian. The utter absence of a cash economy or an internal labor market meant that “wage labor was impossible”, making the only source of labor available the compulsion of indigenous persons into service (Stanfield 1998:40). However, as outright slavery had by the nineteenth century dropped from favor in liberal-minded European societies, it became necessary to establish a polite fiction over the institution by invoking the ‘moral’ need to repay debt (Taussig 1987:65-70; Stanfield 1998:39-62). In this manner indigenous persons, as well as unfortunate others, could find themselves pressed on threat of violence to accept wildly overvalued goods, as well as unwanted and unneeded lines of credit with company stores, as ‘advances’ in exchange for their labor. Roger Casement, known for his clear descriptions of both British violence in the Congo and later in rubber era Amazonia, described this situation as making a “compulsory debtor” out of a person so forced, though he would go on to affirm that such a debt was “pretext altogether”, for it was threats and enactments of violence that were the real “hold on the Indian in the Putumayo” (in Taussig 1987:70-71). Both Casement and a contemporary, if more melodramatic, voice in Hardenburg noted “the lurid details of flogging, mass slaughter, decapitation, rape, dismemberment, and pleasure-killing” performed routinely in the Amazon of the rubber boom, and in the Putumayo in particular (Stanfield 1998:133). It is virtually impossible not to note the mad logic of the marketplace, the commoditization of lives and labor, where patróns sold human beings back and forth “like chattel” (Stanfield 1998:47-48), via the accounts of their debt. Indeed, Taussig suggests that, in the Amazon during the rubber boom, in answer to the question of what makes a human, human, “the answer lying closest to hand is his debt” (Taussig 1987:70). This throws into unsettling relief the distinction between debt-peonage and slavery. Though neither promised any greater security of rights or property, the debtor could be simultaneously a fetishized ‘object’ in terms of his[4] debt, though still recognized as a social ‘person’ in this sense. The slave, on the other hand, per Patterson’s notion (1982) and as echoed in Graeber’s recent work on debt (2011), had undergone ‘social death’ by being uprooted from any community or social network which would have conferred upon them a form of personhood. Within a space of terror such as the Putumayo, the very production of personhood via social relationships – throughout the entire aviamiento system of patróns, international business partners, rubber tappers, and Indian labor – was transformed by, and perhaps only understandable in terms of, inescapable bonds of debt. It was perhaps this inescapability as much as anything else that lead to a kind of madness of violence, for as Taussig suggests, it was the fiction of the “appearance of trade” in which the debtor is a free person able to exchange himself, and somehow his family for generations at a time, on the market as labor, and hence as a debt, on which the whole fiction of the system depends (1987:65). What shows the system mad is that despite the efforts to maintain such a fiction, the rubber traders “were just as ready to claim the flesh of a debtor’s body” as any amount of rubber (Taussig 1987:65).

“Ineffability is a striking feature of this death-space” (Taussig 1987:4), a space where the arbitrary exercise of brutal force and lethal power – the ability to hold children as young as nine years old as concubines, to torture or murder a man for no fault, but rather as entertainment (Stanfield 1998:128) – suggests that the performance of terror ceased to be, if it ever had been, in service of an attempt to rationalize production of rubber, but rather toward “the inscription of a mythology in the Indian body”, in this case the mythology of a colonial ‘civilization’ onto a fantasy of ‘wildness’ (Taussig 1987:27). What stands out from both Taussig and Stanfield’s accounts of the Putumayo, is the uncertainty, the ambiguity and amorphousness of the spatiotemporal place of the Putumayo in the rubber boom era. As Taussig compellingly suggests, this uncertainty is itself the groundless-ground of a culture of terror (1987:4). As lethal as any particular event of violence was the promise, miasmatic, of the same waiting senselessly at the end of an arbitrary and even anonymous gun barrel or machete blade. How many had died, and what was fabrication, what was sensationalistic – and was, as Taussig asks, the sensationalism perhaps nevertheless part of the real of the space (1987:32-33)? Casement estimated that for the production of 4,000 tons of rubber over the period of 12 years, no less – and likely many more – than 30,000 indigenous lives had been taken, through explicit violence or the toll of disease and starvation (Taussig 1987:20). In such a space, reasoned estimates echo in shock as if they must be hyperbolic.

Healing and History, Ritual and Debt

History, for many indigenous people of this region, is understood to be of and in the earth itself. Uzendoski states that for the Napo Runa, “there is no reality that is not part of place”, and that the past is something, like plant growth, that blossoms into the present, which, fading, becomes again the ground of the future, which finally is the same allpa as the past (2012:15). The production of subjectivities are often expressed in these terms, as a socio-ecological and cosmo-political network of relationship between humans, animals, plants, rivers, mountains, ancestors, and powerful beings that cross boundaries between forest and urban spaces, as well as contemporary history and the primordial past (Kohn 2007:106-125; Uzendoski 2005:201).[5] Bodies and personhoods are developed in relation to the earth, and the history it holds. This intersects with Taussig’s notion of ‘historical sorcery’ – he suggests an image of sorcery as an “evil wind”, wherein the “history of the conquest itself acquires the role of the sorcerer” (1987:373). In this conception, the historical space of colonial violence itself becomes a “temporal hell located in a fermenting, rotting, organic underground of time” (1987:372). Sorcery in this temporal sense reminds of the notions of historical and multigenerational trauma noted by Good (2008:5), where structural violence not only occurs in the past, but echoes in experiences of suffering through generations. History, as it produces persons and bodies in kind, also produces this suffering, via the selfsame forces.[6]

The question becomes how to heal historical violence. The political agency so powerfully displayed by indigenous persons throughout this region, both historically and in contemporary political practice, give answer on one level to the work that must be done to right structurally repressive forces.[7] But if there is a relationship between inescapable debt and the production of violence, then contemporary indigenous lives are still under threat. Neoliberal structural reform advocated, or demanded, by the IMF, World Bank, and other international financial bodies leads to national, regional, local, familial, and individual debt in unprecedented ways (Cleary and Steigenga 2004:14; Lane 2003:96; Warren and Jackson 2002:15; Whitten 2003:11-19). All exploitation and structural violence must be actively produced and performed in contemporary situations by contemporary actors for them to have compelling force, but there is nevertheless the troubling sense that colonial history and the repressions of the rubber economy find themselves being replayed in novel but nevertheless familiar ways. Whitten notes that Steve Forbes likened Ecuador’s turning to the IMF for aid as a hemophiliac turning to Dracula for safety, and suggests that this analogy runs startlingly close to indigenous ideas of the “pishtaco or ñakak… the foreign, white bogey man who renders and sells ‘indian fat’ and sucks the blood of indigenous people” (2003:3). The threat is to the body, as physical as it is economic. And if the site of suffering is the body – material, social, and politic – then the question I am interested in asking is just where it is that ritual healing intersects with the alleviation of both historical suffering and the multiple crises of debt. It is my contention that the very corporeal mortality of the body is an effective denial of any ‘end of history’, whether a utopian isolation, or a dystopian inescapability. Mortal things cannot evade history, and this reverberates through institutions wrought by the same. The capacity to heal and be healed suggests there are always, in a sense, spaces left for historical ‘play’, openings to novelty both in terms of crisis and transformation. Whitten affirms that “shamanism provides a focal point for confronting and containing the real forces which dismember” the lifeways of the Napo Runa (2007[1979]), which suggests that an understanding of ritual engagement with the problem of national, regional, local, and individual debt is central to a full understanding of its elaboration as suffering in indigenous lives. Uzendoski notes, “the logic of debt-peonage… continues to exist culturally in Napo even after the actual institution does not” (2003:135). There are numerous studies of ritual healing in this region,[8] and likewise a significant number of analyses of both political-economic structural suffering and discourses of sorcery in terms of envy and violence.[9] What I am interested in opening is a direction for inquiry oriented toward where sorcery, history, and global networks of debt intersect in embodied lives of indigenous Amazonians of this region, and how these forces – as cosmological, in a sense, as they are economic – are engaged with in a space of ritual healing.


I very much want to thank Robin Wright for his constant mentorship, without which I would not have been able even to begin this line of research. I want to thank Whitney Sanford for giving me the opportunity to explore “utopias and dystopias” as an analytic lens through which to view this particular period of history, and for acquainting me with Harvey’s Spaces of Hope. I want also to thank the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida for their support over the last two years, giving me the opportunity to pursue this course of study.


Beyer, Stephan V.

2009 Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Brysk, Alison.

2004 From Civil Society to Collective Action: The Politics of Religion in Ecuador. In Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change. Edward L. Cleary and Timothy J. Steigenga, eds. Pp. 25-42. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Cárdenas, Timoteo C.

1989 Los Unaya y Su Mundo: Aproximación al Sistema Médico de Los Shipibo-Conibo del Río Ucayali. Lima, Peru: Instituto Indigenista Peruano.

Cleary, Edward L. and Timothy J. Steigenga.

2004 Resurgent Voices: Indians, Politics, and Religion in Latin America. In Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change. Edward L. Cleary and Timothy J. Steigenga, eds. Pp. 1-24. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Csordas, Thomas.

1988 Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology. Ethos 18:5-47.

Das, Veena.

2000 Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Das, Veena with Arthur Kleinman, Margarate Lock, and Pamela Reynolds.

2001 Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dobkin, de Rios, Marlene.

1972 Visionary Vine: Psychedelic Healing in the Peruvian Amazon. San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co.

Fausto, Carlos and Michael Heckenberger.

2007 Indigenous History and the History of the ‘Indians’. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 1-43. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Good, Mary-Jo D. V.

1992 Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Good, Mary-Jo D. V. with Sandra Teresa Hyde, Sarah Pinto, and Byron J. Good.

2008 Postcolonial Disorders. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Graeber, David.

2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn: Melville House.

Harner, Michael J.

1972 The Jívaro, People of the Sacred Waterfalls.  New York: Doubleday/Natural History Press.

Harvey, David.

2000 Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heckenberger, Michael.

2004 The Wars Within: Xinguano Witchcraft and Balance of Power. In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds. Pp. 179-201. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hill, Jonathan D.

1996 History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Hudelson, John.

1984 The Lowland Quichua as ‘Tribe’. In Political Anthropology of Ecuador: Perspectives from Indigenous Cultures. Jeffrey Ehrenreich, ed. Pp. 59-79. Albany: Society for Latin American Anthropology.

Kleinman, Arthur.

1992 Pain and Resistance: The Delegitimation and Relegitimation of Local Worlds. In Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Paul E. Brodwin and Byron J. Good, eds. Pp. 169-197. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1995 Writing at the Margin: Discourse between Anthropology and Medicine. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, Paul E. Brodwin, Byron J. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio Good.

1992 Pain as Human Experience: An Introduction. In Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Good, Mary-Jo DelVecchio, Paul E. Brodwin and Byron J. Good, eds Pp. 1-28. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das, and Margaret M. Lock.

1997 Social Suffering. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kohn, Eduardo O.

1992 La Cultura Médica de los Runas de la Región Amazónica. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala.

2007 Animal Masters and the Ecological Embedding of History among the Ávila Runa of Ecuador. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 106-129. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Lane, Kris.

2003 Haunting the Present: Five Colonial Legacies for the New Millennium. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 75-101. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Luna, Luis Eduardo.

1986 Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

Myers, Thomas P.

1974 Spanish Contacts and Social Change on the Ucayali River, Peru. Ethnohistory 21(2):135-157.

1981 Aboriginal Trade Networks in Amazonia. In Networks of the Past: Regional Interaction in Archaeology. Peter D. Francis, F.J. Kense, and P.G. Duke, eds. Pp. 19-30. Calgary: University of Calgary.

Patterson, Orlando.

1982 Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Peterson, Anna Lisa, and Manuel A. Vásquez.

2008 Latin American Religions: Histories and Documents in Context. New York: New York University Press.

Rubenstein, Steven.

2002 Alejandro Tsakimp: A Shuar Healer in the Margins of History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

San Román, Jesús Victor.

1975 Perfiles Históricos de la Amazonía Peruana. Lima: Ediciones Paulinas.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Margaret M. Lock.

1987 The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1(1):6-41.

Stanfield, Michael E.

1998 Red Rubber, Bleeding Trees: Violence, Slavery, and Empire in Northwest Amazonia, 1850-1933. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Steward, Julian H.

1963 Handbook of South American Indians. New York: Cooper Square Publishers.

Stewart, Pamela J, and Andrew Strathern.

2004 Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Strathern, Andrew.

1996 Body Thoughts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Taussig, Michael.

1980 Folk Healing and the Structure of Conquest in Southwest Colombia. Journal of Latin American Lore 6(2):217-278.

1987 Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2010[1980] The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Taylor, Anne Christine.

1999 The Western Margins of Amazonia from the Early Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century. In The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Volume III: South America, Part 2. Frank Saloman and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds. Pp. 188-256. New York: Cambridge University Press.

2007 Sick of History: Contrasting Regimes of Historicity in the Upper Amazon. In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia: Anthropological Perspectives. Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, eds. Pp. 133-168. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Tournon, Jacques.

2002 La Merma Mágica: Vida e Historia de Los Shipibo-Conibo del Ucayali. Lima, Perú: Centro Amazónico de Antropología y Aplicación Práctica (CAAAP).

Uzendoski, Michael.

2003 Purgatory, Protestantism, and Peonage: Napo Runa Evangelicals and the Domestication of the Masculine Will. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 129-153. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2005 The Napo Runa of Amazonian Ecuador. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Uzendoski, Michael, and Edith F. Calapucha-Tapuy.

2012 The Ecology of the Spoken Word: Amazonian Storytelling and Shamanism Among the Napo Runa. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Warren, Kay B. and Jean E. Jackson.

2002 Introduction: Studying Indigenous Activism in Latin America. In Indigenous Movements, Self-Representation, and the State in Latin America. Kay B. Warren and Jean E. Jackson, eds. Pp. 1-46. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Weinstein, Barbara.

1983 The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Whitehead, Neil L.

1994 Ancient Amerindian Polities of the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Atlantic Coast: A Preliminary Analysis of Their Passage from Antiquity to Extinction. In Amazonian Indians from Prehistory to Present: Anthropological Perspectives. Anna Roosevelt, ed. Pp. 33-54. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press.

2002 Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.

2004 Violence. Santa Fe: School of American Research.

Whitehead, Neil L. and Robin Wright.

2004 Introduction: Dark Shamanism. In In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Neil Whitehead and Robin Wright, eds. Pp. 1-20. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Whitten, Norman E.

1976 Sacha Runa: Ethnicity and Adaptation of Ecuadorian Jungle Quichua. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

2003 Introduction. In Millennial Ecuador: Critical Essays on Cultural Transformation and Social Dynamics. Norman Whitten, ed. Pp. 1-45. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

2007[1979] Soul Vine Shaman., accessed March 6, 2013.

Whitten, Norman E, and Dorothea S. Whitten.

2008 Puyo Runa: Imagery and Power in Modern Amazonia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Zarzar, Alonso and Luis Román.

1983 Relaciones Intertribales en el Bajo Urubamba y Alto Ucayali. Miraflores: Centro de Investigación y Promoción Amazónica.


[1] Cf. Csordas 1988; Strathern (1996:178)

[2] Cf. Zarzar and Román (1983:24) for ethnicity as a particular historical moment than an essential category

[3] Cf. San Román (1975:142-150) for more on the coercion of indigenous bodies to rubber slavery

[4] Here I opt for the gendered term, as men tended to be the explicit debtors in this system. Women were systematically exploited, raped, and enslaved, but debtors were almost exclusively men.

[5] Cf. A. Taylor (2007) for alternative indigenous modes of engaging with history among the Shuar and the Runa of this region.

[6] Cf. Kleinman (1992), Das  et. al. (2001), Kleinman et. al. (1997) for analyses of cultural elaborations of ‘suffering’ in anthropological and ethnographic literature.

[7] Cf. Uzendoski (2005:147) for the echo of colonial era ancestral heroes in contemporary resistance. See Tournon (2002:59-60) for an analysis of both Atahualpa and Runcato’s revolutionary movements in the colonial era. See Whitten (2003) and Brysk (2004) for accounts of contemporary levantamientos in Ecuador by indigenous activists. See Warren and Jackson (2002) for an analysis of current indigenous movements and the establishment of new political power throughout Latin America.

[8] Cf. work by Beyer (2009), Luna (1986), Dobkin de Rios (1972), Tournon (2002), Cárdenas Timoteo (1989), and Harner (1972).

[9] Cf. work by Whitehead and Wright (2004), Heckenberger (2004), Whitehead (2002; 2004), and Stewart and Strathern (2004), and Rubenstein (2002), Taussig (2010[1980]).

On agency and structure – or why some and not others?

A week or two ago I ended up in a conversation with a few friends of mine. After a couple of beers all around, the topics at hand – discussion of the performance over the last year of a few mutual projects, plans for the coming year – drifted into more esoteric territory. I’ve spent the last few years studying religion in Latin America, and the anthropology of religion more generally, and as we began to talk about the nature of free will, whether it exists or whether it’s an illusion of chemistry in our minds, we headed into territory that I enjoy discussing. This led to a discussion on how it is that some people seem to ‘make it’ – economically, socially, politically – and others fail to thrive. Positions came out in interesting ways, and tended broadly toward poles that I would describe as “strong agency” and “strong structure.” That is to say that though no aggressive positions were laid out, and no one seemed to particularly take up the gauntlet for any one position to the exclusion of the others, the rhetorical movements suggested a keen awareness of the tension between the historical agency of a given individual – his or her capacity to make a way in the world – and the structured nature of our capacities and possibilities in socio-cultural, political-economic, intellectual, and even biological terms. I put my two cents in, given my anti-statist and anti-capitalist leanings, but the old structure-vs-agency debate doesn’t lend itself to concrete positions: too oriented toward structure and we become determinists, too much emphasis on agency and we slide into neoliberalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

If I didn’t take a hard-and-fast stance on a position during the conversation, I nevertheless chatted with relative ease over the rhetorical points I’m used to making in discussions like that, stemming from my own tendencies to post-Left anarchist political theory. But the conversation has replayed itself in my head on and off, and I’ve realized that my politics tend to obscure a more ready response to any given discussion, as I encounter it. I tend to have my ‘beliefs’ lined up and ready for distribution – I do my best no longer to explicitly defend or attack any position, but with my own ‘-isms’ already arranged, I tend to frame what I hear and what I understand in those terms, and respond accordingly.

I am a practicing Zen Buddhist. I’ve begun to realize that, if I’m to take a commitment to compassion and understanding seriously, especially in terms of being simply honest and present to the world as it arises, that my political stances are, like all other beliefs, provisional and contingent constructions – thoughts, as it were, hardened or sedimented into a habitual pattern. Recognizing this – over and over again – I’ve decided to take another look at how I might go about trying to engage with the questions that were raised.

My knee-jerk response to phrases like ‘pull oneself up by the bootstraps’ is to line up sociological analysis or historical critique that discredit the underlying myopia of privilege that this kind of rhetoric tends to entail. I’m not walking that back – I do have a very real discomfort, to the point of outrage, with any sense in which the victim is blamed for their own misery, especially when that misery tends to be caused or exacerbated by political-economic systems that work to sustain and support those who are using said rhetoric. However, I know the people that I was talking to very well, and these are not people who would see a family hungry on the street and let them stay that way. These people give back to their friends, their neighborhoods, their churches, and their community. The question was not raised to point a finger in blame, but rather honestly investigating why some people from seemingly identical circumstances are able to “make it”, when others are not. It was the way in which I responded to that question previously that I want to address more fully. Or, rather, I want to propose a different way. This is an exercise, for me, in attempting to apply Buddhist principles of compassion and understanding to my own engagement with political discourse, and even with political expectation. Applying it in my life means applying it in all of my life.

What happens when I apply compassion to a question of those who, for one reason or another, do not ‘make it’ in economic, political, or social terms? First, though, what is it I’m trying to say when I say ‘make it’? I am not in any way implying some kind of naturalized or objective standard of ‘success’ in any one life. I could not pretend to venture an all-inclusive standard by which this could be judged, even for just middle-class urban and suburban people in the US, or even just in my home town. Rather, I’ll address it in terms that were evident in our conversation that evening. Many of us at that meeting came from poor backgrounds, whether that meant relying on government lunch programs at school or handouts from the church, or even having had to fight our way to and from the bus stop some days. So, in that context, ‘making it’ referred to those of us, and those we knew, who had gotten out of that kind of life, who had gone on to be, effectively, middle class. I am not celebrating that as ‘making it’ as any kind of endorsement in some kind of bourgeois way. Rather, I’m recognizing that for many lower to lower-middle class Americans, the desire to have stability – a nice house, a car or two, the ability to buy things for their kids, the desire, in short, to become middle class – is a very real, meaningful goal. Making that transition is often the work of a lifetime. I’m not, in this brief essay, engaging with the ethics of a consumer culture, or the ideology of acquisition and accumulation that underlie it. I’m only recognizing the legitimacy, within these cultural constraints, of those goals, and the moral-ethical force they have in ordering many lives.

In those terms, how do we understand someone who has not ‘made it’? I believe, here, compassion has us look at structure. What are the forces arrayed against them? What are the realities – economic, political, historical, cultural – that have constituted their subjectivities, their worldviews, their outlooks, and thereby the tools they have at hand with which to effect agentive change in their lives, and simultaneously the obstacles that work toward making those tools ineffective? Systemic racism, class-ism, sexism and the like barely scratch the surface of that kind of analysis. We need insights along the lines of Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, and Butler, at the minimum, to begin any such discussion. This is where compassion, I believe, leads. Rather than try to find some quality of character or some essence of the person – or even some pivotal event – that is lacking in those who have not reached this – admittedly arbitrary – marker of class-mobility, it serves far better to look at these individual people, and understand them in their specificity. Here we look at what a potentially antagonistic ‘structure’ does – in its disciplining, and even its constituting – to situate lives in such a way as to make certain kinds of mobility or certain historically or economically-agentive acts more and less feasible, or even possible. I believe that compassion, in this sense, is understanding, as it opens on recognizing people just as they are, without judgement or expectation. Of course, what we do with that information – how we then act politically when we recognize the structural forces at play – is a far more potentially revolutionary question.

But, so the argument would go, there are those who ‘make it’. There are always, within any given population, some who do fit the image having ‘pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,’ and made it out of a situation that trapped so many others. I have, of course, any number of leftist critiques of this kind of logic. That no ‘one’ makes it, but is rather propelled by the efforts of a whole community, that without networks of support of whatever kind, it would be impossible to ‘make it’, for the social world is quite literally constituted by other persons, individuals, and so any effect of agency in a social sense always involves the presence of, and friction with, other people. There is no raw ‘stuff’ out of which to ‘make’ oneself, and whatever accidents of biology, birth, and history that produce individuals capable of acts that distinguish them from others must recognize that they have not only been given their field of action by a whole social world, but that they have been constituted by it in virtually every meaningful sense. However – and here I am moving away from my leftist comfort zone – hard work does mean something. We cannot celebrate the historical agency of the oppressed around the world without recognizing it at home. I have seen friends – and I have been among them, as one of them – work nights and weekends for years to build and grow an idea into a functioning business. It was always within the context of a community of friends, but the work and the effort and the uncertainty and the resolve absolutely mean something.

And it is here that I would apply a sense of ‘understanding’. That is to say that rather than jump, as I am wont to do, to a critical analysis along the lines of the one laid out in the previous paragraph, to stop for a moment, and address the situation as it arises. There is a sense in which the historical agency of someone has been effective, to ‘make it’, as it were. I’m not denying any of what I said before, and I am not attempting to dehistoricize the individuals – this group of friends and I were, that evening though not all evenings, white, male, and educated. We had between us an extraordinary set of advantages. And yet I’ve worked with them for years, and there has been a very real display of ‘agency’ in the sense of hard work, continued efforts through failure, and the like. What I believe ‘understanding’ then can help to highlight is the set of advantages, strategic moves, choices, supports, possibilities, and even chance encounters that gave rise to the eventual effect of ‘making it’ in these terms. Rather than looking, again, for a set of characteristics, or some reified essence or attribute, that ’caused’ a person to succeed (in their own sense of the word), the application of ‘understanding’ or even ‘wisdom’ in Buddhist-ethical terms makes it possible engage with what made such an outcome possible. And again, here, understanding becomes compassion, when looked at this way, as it does not undercut a celebration of individual efforts or delegitimize a person’s own historical agency. We are compassionate through that understanding.

In this way, we sidestep the entire conception of blame or praise. We can recognize the limitations of structure, and work through compassion to alleviate the suffering that this can at times cause. We can acknowledge and even celebrate individual historical agency without essentializing the – always contingent in both its manifestation and definition – ‘success’ of a person’s efforts. I am a consistent advocate of the notion that agency is made from structure, and structure is produced by agency, in a constant dialectical process. Human lives and bodies are the manifest site of historical forces, where these forces find their expression and resistance simultaneously. I do not recognize structure and agency to be distinct from one another, at one level of analysis. But at the same moment, they do act as rhetorical poles from which many – even casual, like the conversation of my friends and I – investigations begin, or to which they are often drawn to end. What I want to suggest, and it is of course not radical but perhaps merely a Buddhist-flavored ethical stamp on what has been the practice of social scientists and others for decades, is that compassion and understanding be the guiding motivations behind the application of these two rhetorical poles in analysis. Grounding the application of structure and agency in compassion and understanding leaves impotent the political impulse to blame the victim, or to praise the exception, but rather aids in opening up our beliefs – and our hearts – to insights that work toward liberation from suffering, whether understood as economic, political, bodily, or spiritual suffering.

A new direction

I’m contemplating taking this site in something of a new direction. My posts here lately have been few and far between. My ideas have been changing, and I’m realizing more and more how much I want to know how to heal, as much as I want to study healing academically. I’m not sure what that means for me yet, but I’m changing the title of the blog, to remind me that I need to be posting here about the things that are working in my thoughts. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading on herbalism, healing traditions from a wide variety of places, as well as my more consistent work and research on my MA thesis. I’ve felt positively inspired by all of the work and research, though in unexpected ways.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days and weeks, as I think about it more. Still, I felt like it was important to recognize the change.

Economics and Being

In a system of finite resources and potentially unbounded desire, either one establishes a reciprocal and egalitarian form of economic distribution, or there will, inevitably and even necessarily, be inequality in the concomitant distribution of power, and even ontological value. The problem with inequality is that it does not just take more from one ontologically equal actor and give it to another. It inherently degrades the ontological status of the one from whom more is taken. There is a valuation of intrinsic, existential “worthiness” in terms of being itself made when one actor is granted more than another. It is a valuation that has extreme social, environmental, and – of course – economic repercussions. If an ostensibly human actor is “worth less” than another, then not only will that actor receive less than an equal portion, but the means by which that actor can support him or herself, the places in which he or she lives, the relationships that he or she is able to form, are degraded. Being, in the ontological sense, is degraded by economic inequality.

Earthkeepers: Ecospiritual Practice for the Week of Jan 16 – 22

There’s a group affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville that I’m a part of, which focuses on what ecospirituality or “green religion.” I’m a small (read: single person) part of that group, and as part of an attempt to be involved, I’ll be leading one of the meetings on Sunday afternoon (01/22) around 4pm. I wrote up a little bit of an introduction to what the meeting will be about, and it’s been posted over here. I’m excited about it, and wanted to mention it here as well!

New article on LSD at the Points blog

As part of their Freaky Friday series, the Points blog has put up a new article on how the cultural impact of LSD went far beyond those who were actually taking the substance, opening out into a broader social milieu where these experiences – in terms of art, trip reports, aesthetics, and new forms of rhetoric – provided a space to talk about personal kinds of spirituality, over and often against institutional religion, in a way that had not to that point existed in US society.

Give it a read!

From the DPA: Congress Set to Escalate War on Drugs, Despite Decades of Failure and Unaffordable Price Tag

This article makes me terrified and furious at the same time. My research could land me in jail. Legitimate and legal activities performed by researchers in other countries, if they violate US law, could land those researchers in jail.

It is fiscally, logistically – not to mention morally – implausible to continue fighting this so-called “war” on civil liberties and  cognitive-spiritual freedom. Certainly there are psychoactive substances that are dangerous. I have a significant amount of personal experience with members of my family and rehab. We need a lot more research and much better education at all levels about what different substances can do, and what they can’t, and where the lines are drawn. But criminalization and prohibition is the most ridiculous answer from a policy perspective that I can imagine. It costs more in raw dollars, lives, and time than it will ever merit back, and incarcerates people who simply need help and rehabilitation, and puts drastic limits on all the good that many of these substances could do. These kind of misguided laws amplify the social harm they seek to prevent through an unconscionable process of misinformation and criminalization.

To extend that kind of policy outward such that treatment facilities and healing centers working in other countries with different ideas about how psychoactive substances can or should be used now act as legal traps for US researchers and therapists working in these fields? Unconscionable.

Update [2011-12-09]: The bill is HR 313. A summary can be found here. To be clear, what I find frustrating is not the ostensible purposes of the bill. While I would argue (with anyone that will listen) that prohibition is an absurd policy stance, what I am frustrated with about the bill is not what I perceive to be the obvious attempt to stop those who are colluding to traffic narcotics outside of, and ultimately into, the US. I understand that the point of the bill is to give the government some kind of leverage so that people guilty of actions outside the country, explicitly designed to break laws in the US, are able to be put within the legal grasp of the justice machinery. I understand that. What I’m frustrated with is two-fold. First, it’s implausible to suspect that we can actually enforce laws like this. Making it a law, from the way I understand what I’ve read of it, seems unlikely to actually lead to a significant number of arrests, and even less actual stymying of the flow of illicit substances across US borders. Second, the way the law is structured (again, if I understand it correctly), it casts such a wide net that researchers working on cannabis in other countries, people working with substances banned in this country but that are being used for medical purposes in other countries (like ayahuasca and addiction, ayahuasca and depression, among many, many others) would be in serious danger of arrest. My own research, which I have intended to orient toward a study of ayahuasca tourism as a form of religious pilgrimage, could be construed as an active attempt to break US drug laws outside of the country. My frustration is that the law may very well cast a net so wide, or at least leave room open for this kind of interpretation, that legitimate research being done outside of the US will be impacted. Our own draconian drug laws are our own problem to fight and work through. But I need to understand this law better, and I very much hope that I’m misunderstanding the ways in which it could be applied.

You can find out more here at popvox, and you can send a letter to your representative about it here.