Category Archives: Essay

Constructing Persons: Artifacts and Animism in South American Ethno-Metaphysics

A truly fascinating set of correspondences seems to be present in the dialogues surrounding recent anthropological work in the areas of artifactual subjectivities and animistic relationality, such that these two trends may very well have a great deal to communicate one to the other.  In some senses, both the relationships between, and the relationships that compose, persons – decidedly including other-than-human persons (Hallowell in Tedlock & Tedlock 1975) – seem to present two viewpoints on markedly similar phenomena, albeit occurring at different scales.  Questions of the boundaries of persons and subjectivites, especially as they partake in compositional-relational multiplicities, suggest that the discourses of “ownership” and “mastery” (Fausto 2008) in South American ethno-metaphysics may very well act as key insights into the development of any meaningful answers.  Making use of anthropological theory current in the discussion of Amerindian ways of knowing, I will endeavor to engage with what Kenneth Morrison has described as “ground which has been left nearly fallow” (in Harvey 2000: 24) in terms of Hallowell’s initial insights into the implications of ethno-metaphysics (in Tedlock & Tedlock 1975: 143), and to find places of communication between distinct theoretical trends, where there is ethnographic foundation in place to do so.

Construction, relationship, and schematic organization are at the heart of this investigation’s understanding of personhood in an Amerindian ethno-metaphysical context.  I propose to explore questions of the artifactual composition of persons and personhood, making use of the extraordinary ethnographic detail drawn from Fernando Santos-Granero’s collection The Occult Life of Things.  Making use of ethnographic material describing artifacts such as body ornaments, baby hammocks, and the painting of designs, I will examine the 1) modes of constructing – both socially and spiritually – the necessary subjectivities that ultimately produce personhood in these contexts.  Drawing extensively from Pablo Amaringo’s artistic work on his experiences as a vegetalista, coupled with both his own authorial explanation and anthropological exposition by Luis Luna, I will also explore 2) the ways in which relationships are established and maintained with powerful other-than-human-persons in this particular mode of South American shamanism.  This exploration will concentrate on spirits that teach, heal, curse, marry, and both enhance and disrupt the social patterns of human-persons, as a method of exploring the extraordinary range of relationships possible between human and other-than-human persons.  Finally, I will undertake 3) an examination of how the discourses surrounding mothers, masters, and owners can be understood in these contexts as well, supported by ethnographic material from a number of sources as they relate to relationships with, and the ‘taming of,’ the Other.

If we take seriously what Neil Whitehead has described as the “alternative modernities” (2002: 176) of indigenous cultures, then it is vital that these metaphysical structures, as found within unique ways of knowing and being in the world, be taken seriously, as real and worthy alternatives to the ways of living that so dominate the “West”, and its rapidly globalizing world-view.  Such a unilateral description, however, is too broad, as there are very real shifts in the way in which many engaged in political, social, and philosophical discourses in the West have come to understand the metaphysical underpinnings of the world.  From the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, to the post-structuralist philosophies and theories of Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, and Michael Foucault, the distinctions that have driven Western cultural assumptions for hundreds of years are beginning to be seriously questioned.  Distinctions between mind and body, nature and culture, and even human and non-human are all being troubled, shown to be tenuous or fallible categories that erect barriers and boundaries where none may, in fact, exist in other cultural worldviews.  What better time, then, as Western philosophy and metaphysics finds itself reworking its most fundamental assumptions about the world, to draw ethno-metaphysics into these same dialogues, on equal footing?  These are ways of knowing, of conceiving of the world, that are in every way as robust, meaningful, and vital as those of Western discourses.  It is not, however, that these emerging Western philosophies “make intelligible” the discourses of ethno-metaphysics.  It is rather that, by expressing parallels and intersections between these emerging currents in Western philosophy, and concepts tied to metaphysical notions as expressed by indigenous peoples and translated by contemporary anthropological theory, it becomes necessary – even mandatory – to engage with ethno-metaphysical conceptions of the world with the same degree of respect and consideration afforded to their complimentary Western intellectual traditions.  It becomes necessary to treat these modes of conceiving with the same intellectual rigor, entering as far as is possible into the cultural underpinnings and realities that structure these metaphysics, as Western modes of conceiving have been treated, using the mantra of cultural relativism not as an aegis against the discomfort of their implications, but as a bridge to pass over into different worldviews as far as it is possible to go.

In this paper I will attempt to explore 1) the artifactual or compositional nature of personhood, 2) the centrality of relationship to animism and the possibility of personhood as a site of relation, and 3) the potential synthesis between notions of composition and relationship.  This paper proposes an idea of relationship-all-the-way-down, which is to suggest that persons are themselves composed of multiplicities, which at a different sense of scale, may themselves be possessed of their own subjectivities.  It is to question the borders of what makes a person, a person, especially in context with the Amerindian ideas of ownership and mastery as they present to us yet again this image of collectivity, multiplicity, and a sense of scale.  If artifacts can sometimes be persons, or can when combined with other ‘objects’ can become persons, or some humans are sometimes not full persons until composed of, or combined with, artifacts, and if the dynamics between persons and other persons (human or other-than-human) are relational and, in a way, compositional, where do the borders or boundaries of personhood begin and end?  Is it, as an informant of Viveiros de Castro’s suggested, “spirits all the way down” (2004)?

The Artifactual Construction of Persons

More importantly, the coming into being of the present-day world was not the result of a creation ex nihilo, but rather the product of the transformation of preexisting things….  These characteristics endow Amerindian cosmologies with a ‘constructional’ character that contrasts strongly with the ‘creationist’ emphasis of other cosmologies such as the Judeo-Christian. (Santos-Granero 2009: 4)

In many Amerindian cosmologies, the physical world has been constructed from the actions, and even bodies, of the deities during the events of the primordial world[1].  Salient features of the landscape may be the remnants or transformations of people cursed by a deity for moral or convivial failures, or even the transformed figures of a divine being him or herself.  Animals in their present forms are sometimes thought to be transformations of previous humans who ceased to be human – often due to some primordial error, oversight, failure, or choice – and became the animals seen today (Santos-Granero 2004: 96).  Such a cosmological focus on transformation places the emphasis on the nature of a thing less in an essential “identity” more commonly seen in creation-oriented cosmologies, and more on the position of a given thing in terms of its relationships to other things.  This being the case, it is a reasonable, and even inevitable, step that any ontology implied from such constructional cosmologies would consider similar transformations and compositions as the methods by which persons are produced.  In the absence of an essential created and univocal identity in terms of things, animals, and places, it only makes sense that persons would similarly be the products of compositions and relations far more than they would an a priori self-hood.  As Santos-Granero suggests (in line with Els Lagrou), if “all living beings appear as composite beings”, then any “native Amazonian theory of objects must be a theory of the person” (Ibid. 8).

In order to adequately discuss the artifactual construction of persons, especially keeping in line with the terminology that many of the ethnographies make use of, it is necessary to briefly describe a few key theoretical terms that will be employed.  This is, in large part, to disambiguate these terms from other similar terms, and in some cases from themselves in other contexts.  The three terms most central to the uses they will be put to in this case are Subjectivity, Agentivity, and Artifact.  For the purposes of this paper, I intend subjectivity to mean the potential for personhood, or the possession of a distinct position and set of perceptive and potentially conscious capacities, with which the world and relationships are recognized and communicated with. It is possible for a ‘thing’ to possess degrees of subjectivity, such that it may either be wholly subjective of its own ‘power,’ or it may acquire subjectivity through contact with other subjectivities, in effect becoming subjectivized.  This process, as we draw the term from Santos-Granero, can be understood as ‘ensoulment’ (Ibid. 8-9).  What is not implied is agentivity, which must be understood as something, while related, distinct from subjectivity.  Agentivity is a power of action, generally held to be possessed by some, but not all, subjects.  Certain ‘things’ may, in fact, possess a measure of agentivity without any attendant subjectivity, though these ‘things’ must often be directed by something possessing subjectivity in order for its capacity for action to be effected.  The primary distinction to be borne in mind between subjectivity and agentivity is that subjectivity tends to be used in the context of a potential for personhood and a capacity to engage in relationship, where agentivity tends to be used in the context of a potential to act, regardless of whether or not this potential to act entails the presence of will and volition.  Finally, artifacts, for the purposes of this paper, should be understood to be any object or thing that has been made by, or which participates in a relationship of utility with, a given person or subject.  In effect, if it can be made or used then it can be considered in terms of artifactuality, whether it has, or does not have, any subjectivity of its own.  This means that objects like stools, benches, cigar holders, specific stones, and other items may all be artifacts, if they are made use of, or related to, by acting persons in ways that empower, enable, facilitate, or enhance action by a person, especially including ritual action.  That animals, humans, and spirits may all fall within this broad definition of artifactuality is not beyond the scope of its intent.

Within the bounds of Amazonian cosmology, Santos-Granero proposes five distinct types of objects: “(1) objects originating through self-transformation, (2) objects originating through metamorphosis, (3) objects originating through mimesis, (4) objects originating through ensoulment, and (5) plain objects” (2009: 8-9).  By and large, the objects under discussion in this paper will focus on the fourth type, those originating through ensoulment, especially as it informs the distinction between subjective and subjectivized.  As mentioned earlier, while subjectivity may be understood as manifested directly by persons, subjectivization is a more complex idea, implying degrees of subjectivity.  Rather than being something that an artifact or person simply possesses or does not, subjectivity in these cases can be understood as falling along a spectrum of greater and lesser.  “These ‘states of subjectivity’… depend to a great extent on the amount and quality of the ‘soul substance’ that they are thought to possess” (Ibid. 13).  What is unique about this state of subjectivization is that, as implied by the term ‘ensoulment,’ the subjectivity of an artifact or being may be, in a way, activated by being brought into the orbit of another more ‘powerful’ subjectivity.  “The subjectivation or subjectification of such objects is achieved through intimate contact or through the activation of a pre-existing, latent subjectivity” (Ibid. 14).  It is these kinds of subjectivities activated through a process of ensoulment that will most inform the discussions that follow in terms of the artifactual construction of persons.  The human persons in the following cases (but not, necessarily, in all that could be elaborated) act as that ‘more powerful’ subjectivity that activates the subjectivity of artifactual “others.”  What should not be misunderstood from this, however, is that it is not a question of a human’s personhood existing prior to the incorporation or engagement with an artifact, even if the human’s subjectivity is that which activates the subjectivity of the other.  Personhood is something produced in cooperation and via the incorporation of, or composition with, the artifact, their mutual subjectivities participating in the resulting personhood.  This will be explored more fully below, in context with specific ethnographic examples.

“It is no accident that among the Mamaindê, the prototypical object, the one that can be generically called ‘thing’ (wasain’ du), is the body ornament” (Miller in Santos-Granero 2009: 76), especially as it is this wasain’ du that can open the door to Mamaindê concepts of the artifactual construction or composition of persons.  While distinctly ‘objects’ in the sense that they are, most commonly, strands of black beads to be worn, wasain’ du are central to the production of personhood, seen most clearly in the initiation rituals of pubescent girls.  These body ornaments possess a subjectivity of their own, though in terms made use of earlier, the quantity of ‘soul-stuff’ that they possess is not such that they are considered distinctly as persons of their own accord.  Interestingly, though, they are capable of some degree of action or, in our previously noted terminology, agentivity, as they possess the capacity for transformation.  As Miller states:

During the period of seclusion central to female puberty rites, the secluded girl cannot wear body ornaments lest these transform into dangerous animals.  People say that in the darkness of the hut, where the girl is confined, bands, cotton anklets, and cotton bracelets can turn into snakes or giant centipedes. (Ibid. 64-65)

During the ceremonies of initiation themselves, however, it is just this capacity for transformation that makes the wasain’ du powerful ornaments to be incorporated by the girl as she is herself transformed toward full personhood.  Though these body ornaments are dangerous during the seclusion period because of their potential for transformation, “during the feast that marks the end of seclusion, they become indispensable.  They are identified with the girl to such an extent that both become a single ‘thing’ (wasain’ du)” (Ibid. 65).  These body ornaments which had previously been unincorporated, and potentially even threatening to the girl, become part of her so fully that they are identified as the same ‘thing.’  The more potent ‘soul-stuff’ or subjectivity of the girl brings the wasain’ du into her orbit, incorporating their previously threatening power into her newly produced person.  But it is not simply the seclusion and the wasain’ du, alone, that effect the transformation of the girl.  While such seclusion is pivotal to the liminality of any initiation ceremony (in Turner’s sense of the liminal), it is not alone enough, even as the wasain’ du are gifted and incorporated, to cause the socially radical transformation from child to woman.  Miller asserts that pubescent girls are “actively ‘made’ through human agency” (Ibid. 65) in the transformational space of the initiation ritual.  It is not just the artifact and the girl, but the act of construction or composition performed by other human agents, that transforms her, along with her incorporated artifacts, into a new and fully formed person.  This is a key point, for it is not only the proximity of potential subjectivities and subjectivizations that produce a transformation, but the agency of some human subject – in this case, elders or ritual leaders – that constructs, as an active force, these pieces into a new whole.  Indeed, as her parents remove her from the mandatory seclusion preceding the initiation ritual, they “often call her affectionately, ‘my thing’ (da wasain’ du),” implying that the girl is, after a fashion, the ‘handicraft’ of her parents (Ibid. 65).  It is not that the girl is objectified, but that the objects are subjectivized (Ibid. 65), such that the girl who has been constructed, and the things that now participate in the new construction of this same girl’s personhood, are both artifactually-composed, and now possessed, together, of a new kind of subjectivity.

Birth is, perhaps obviously, one of the cardinal events involved with the production of a new potential person.  But as the event of initiation makes explicit, this person is, ultimately, still only potentially possessed of personhood in many Amerindian social systems, requiring further refinement, fabrication, and construction to attain a full and socially-realized personhood.  Initiation and its artifacts are not, however, the sole means by which a child is encouraged toward this finishing – in the case of the Urarina, baby hammocks play an important role in the completion of a newborn child.  In this case, the infant is recognized as being still in need of the formative powers of the mother, the nourishing force of womb and placenta still important to the growth and maturation of the child despite its having been born.  To this end, Urarina mothers fashion their baby hammocks as artifacts explicitly intended to aid in this extra-uterine work.  “Through the mother’s investment of labor and love, the hammock is identified with its maker as a partial extension of her person… explicitly intended to substitute for the mother as the child is progressively distanced from her” (Walker in Santos-Granero 2009: 84).  As the child sleeps in the hammock, slowly swung, being rocked to sleep throughout much of its young life, the hammock “gradually forms an integral connection to the baby, a kind of ‘ensoulment’… through which each becomes an extension of the other” (Ibid. 85).  This connection both to the mother, through her work and love involved in making the hammock and its rattle, and the connection to the child through prolonged intimate contact, means that this object “becomes an integral part of both the mother and child, an extension of their collective person, and cannot be unambiguously interpreted as belonging to either.  Much like the placenta, the hammock binds a baby to its mother and mediates between them….” (Ibid 89).  If the hammock acts as an artifact that simultaneously plays a part in both the person of the mother and the child, then it is perhaps no surprise that, combined with its rattle, the hammock is directly involved with the mediation necessary for the incorporation of alterity by the newborn child.  The rattle is the mother’s “unique and personalized contribution to the continuing formation of her child outside the womb” (Ibid. 87), insofar as she gathers together many different objects – everything from animal claws to spent shotgun shells – and binds them together in a bundle that is tied beneath the hammock near the child’s head (Ibid. 88).  The intention is for the spirits and subjectivities of these objects to be incorporated by the subjectivity of the child, ‘playing together’ as it were (Ibid. 89), though the child does is not meant to physically interact with the object.  These rattle-objects, containing some of the subjectivity of the Other, both animal and Western-technological, are meant to be incorporated by the growing child, in the safely mediated space of the hammock, such that strength, resistance, stamina, skill in hunting and providing, and other similar attributes might be absorbed via the potency of these elements of alterity.

As both the wasain’ du of the Mamaindê and the baby hammocks of the Urarina have shown, artifacts have the capacity to act as methods by which the Other might be incorporated into the self, either through the direct effecting of a new personhood during initiation, or through the enhancement and maturation of a new child.  Among the Cashinahua, this role is played not by material objects, but rather by designs.  These designs, called kene, can be both painted onto objects and people, or woven into cloth, and represent, as Lagrou states, the “core metaphor for how identity is made out of alterity” (in Santos-Granero 2009: 200).  It is not the kene themselves, however, that are the alterity being incorporated.  The designs are not the Other, but rather lead to it.  This is because kene are considered the ‘language of yuxin’, or the language of spirits (Ibid. 194), and, thereby, “Being of the language of the yuxibu… function as paths leading to their owners” (Ibid. 198).  The designs of the Cashinahua were mythically given by the boa, upon whose brilliant skin all possible designs are able to be found (Ibid. 201).  Whereas the men see these designs in their visions while drinking the ayahuasca brew, women were given by the boa the designs that are able to be woven and painted.  As designs given by the other, and leading to the other, kene act as a mediation between the direct perception of this same other and the humans who see, weave, or paint these designs.  The designs stand for and lead to the other, and when worn in cloth or painted on the body, draw the power of the specific other designated by the same to the bearer.  Distinctly, however, it is not that these designs merely stand for their owners, a kind of proxy by which the other might be addressed.  As Lagrou states, “The agential aspect of the connection between the yuxibu and their designs is revealed by the fact that designs link different worlds of perception.  Rather than functioning as a means for sociocognitive classification, they open up pathways for perceptive transformation” (Ibid. 198).  This is to say that kene designs do not merely suggest, point to, or remind of the yuxibu spirits, but rather they make possible the transformations of perception and cognition necessary to engage with these others.  By being a kind of ‘language of the spirits’, they enable communication.  If kene do open the possibilities of communication with, and even potentially the incorporation of, the Other in terms of yuxibu spirits, what effect does this have on personhood?  According to Lagrou

this Amerindian way of relating to otherness implies that one becomes self through partially becoming other, and that the subjectivity of self is significantly enhanced by intimate contact with – and even incorporation of – the other, be it an enemy, spirit being, animal, or plant. (Ibid. 195).

This assertion seems to bear up under the ethnographic evidence presented, both here and elsewhere, and answers, in no small part, why artifacts and the artifactual construction of personhood seem to be linked, more or less intimately, with the incorporation of alterity in a variety of forms.  As suggested above, the kene operate as a path between the human self and the yuxibu spirit-other, and as such the designs do not stand-for one or the other.  They are not signifiers.  Like a physical path winding through the forest between, for example, two villages – the path itself, even as it enters one village or the other, does not cease to be a path, and does not cease to participate with the other village simultaneously.  It does not cease to be itself, even as it is connected to and participating in both of its endpoints.  The dirt of the trail, the commerce, traffic, hopes, thoughts, intentions, and ideas of the people and things in each village participate in the totality of the path.  The path is not only the ground, but the uses, ideas, and dialogues that surround it.  The path is a becoming-space between the two villages, where neither village may cease to be itself, but becomes-other through the path.  So too, then, the paths of the kene, which explicitly lead to this other – the spirits and spirit worlds they inhabit – can be understood as a space between, a becoming-other of the self.  The kene are themselves becoming-spaces like paths between villages, designs that lead to the spirits, but may be incorporated – worn, painted, etc. – by human actors, such that, by participating in the design of the kene, the human participates in a becoming-spirit, and the spirit in a becoming-human.

Though it is beyond the scope of this investigation to consider whether the artifactual construction of personhood, and its intimate involvement with alterity, can be borne out in every ethnographic example that might be put forward for scrutiny in terms of artifacts and subjectivity, it nonetheless seems deserving of serious attention.  Regardless, having explored the composition of persons through artifacts and objects, in an attempt to understand the spaces of relationship within multiplicities-as-selves, it is necessary now to turn to a different sense of scale: animism, and the relationships between these, constructed and composite, selves.

Animistic Relationality between Persons

Animism in modern anthropological theory has little to do with the ideas put forward by Tylor when the term was first brought into anthropological parlance.  No longer an accusation of a kind of childish thinking or mistaken epistemology, modern animisms “are theories, discourses and practices of relationship, of living well, of realising more fully what it means to be a person, and a human person, in the company of other persons, not all of whom are human but all of whom are worthy of respect” (Harvey 2006: xvii).  If “relationship” and “respect” are the watchwords of the New Animism, this has bearing not just on ethereal notions of a more holistic earthly community of persons, but directly on the ways in which we know, and how we structure our understanding of the nature of being.  Ontology, as ways of being, and epistemology, as ways of knowing, both figure prominently in how this new field ethno-metaphysics has been explored.  From A. Irving Hallowell’s original, and ground-breaking, investigation of Ojibwa ontology, to Nurit Bird-Davis’s work with a Nayaka relational epistemology, animism in modern anthropological theory has put forward a remarkable challenge to contemporary, mechanistic world-views.  Though a broad survey of sources could be made in terms of these kinds of relationships between human and other-than-human persons, in the interests both of restraining scope and consistency of testimony, a focus will be placed on three distinct types of spirits with which human persons may come into contact: spirits that teach, spirits involved in sorcery and healing, and spirits that participate with humans in other, not necessarily functionally-oriented, relationships.  For these, the work of Pablo Amaringo and Luis Luna will act as the primary source, in large measure because of the richness and vibrancy of the material, especially in keeping with this paper’s focus on South American shamanic worldviews.  The works of art found in Ayahuasca Visions were painted by Pablo Amaringo from his life-long experiences as a vegetalista.  As a point of clarification, vegetalismo is a broad term for mestizo shamanism, as distinct from other indigenous forms of shamanism to be found throughout the Amazon.  Though, as Luna indicates, mestizo shamanism is in many cases “a direct continuation of shamanism as it is found among ethnic groups” (1986: 31), it does have its own unique attributes and manifestations, and is not meant to be considered as representative of all forms of shamanism in Amazonia, or South American more broadly.  In fact, given the heterogeneity of practice and philosophy that marks the phenomenon of mestizo shamanism (see Beyer 2009, Dobkin de Rios 1972), the reports of Pablo Amaringo and Luis Luna are not meant to be representative or inclusive of even all mestizo shamanism.  There are, however, some significant commonalities, and for the purposes of this investigation’s discourse on the relationships between human-persons and spirit-persons, it will act as a useful window into metaphysical concepts of the region.  Though ultimately Don Pablo withdrew from the shamanic profession, his paintings and his explication of their contents are an incredible source of insight into the ways in which shamans see, know, and relate to the vast and diverse world of the spirits.  The significant majority of the visions are drawn from what Don Pablo witnessed or performed during sessions held while drinking ayahuasca.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to describe the effects of the brew, but suffice it to say, as an oversimplification for the purposes only of brevity, that ayahuasca acts as both a doorway and a tool by which many, but by no means all, Amazonian shamans interact with, and ultimately come to wield power in, the world of spirits.

Spirits that teach, and learning directly from the plant spirits, is a common notion throughout much of the Amazon, found in both indigenous and mestizo shamanism.  While apprenticeship can be of significant importance in the education of a neophyte shaman, among many vegetalistas, knowledge acquired directly from the plants themselves is a common path to knowledge and power (Luna and Amaringo 1999: 12).  Though ayahuasca [Banisteriopsis caapi], chacruna [Psychotria viridis], and toé [Brugmansia sp.] are all considered extremely powerful plant teachers (each of these plants contains psychoactive alkaloids, active either individually or in combination), it is not only those plants that cause hallucinations and alterations of perceptions that are considered to have spirits, or that are known to be able to teach.  More interesting in this context, perhaps, are the plants and spirits as they are seen under the influence of the ayahuasca brew, representing plants as teachers of specific kinds of knowledge and power, whether they are individually psychoactive or not.  An example of this can be seen in the following description of the spirit of a tree, one that teaches wisdom:

To the far left we see the remocaspi tree [Aspidosperma excelsum, Pithecellobium laetum] and its spirit.  The spirit is a wise old Chinese king, wearing a golden crown.  He bestows sublime wisdom upon those who have prepared themselves properly to eat of this plant.  The king holds a scepter of death and will bring down its power upon anyone who has not followed the strict dietary regime that ingesting this plant requires. (Luna and Amaringo 1999: 54)

As is made clear in the example, the relationship between the human who would learn from this tree spirit, and the spirit itself, is not one that is purely benevolent in nature.  Though the tree is willing to teach, it reserves the right to bring down a ‘scepter of death’ on anyone who has not shown the proper respect by following the requisite diet.  While the plant spirits may very well teach, they are not without their own requirements for doing so, complicating what might otherwise seem a simple and benevolently tutelary relationship.  Another tree which regularly enters the discourses of vegetalismo is the lupuna tree, specifically in this case, lupuna colorada.  The spirit of this tree is described as follows:

This tree’s mother-spirit is a woman of dark complexion with cat eyes and a gold chain around her neck.  She is very useful to sorcerers who do evil things.  The knowledge that this princess bestows is almost always turned towards sorcery and very seldom towards curanderos that heal and save lives. (Ibid. 54)

Here, though there is no mistaking that the lupuna tree can certainly teach, it is not knowledge of healing and wisdom that this tree has to offer.  This tree teaches sorcerers the power to kill or cause harm.  It seems an even further complication of relationship, as the tree must be engaged with respectfully by the human in order to learn from it, but even should the relationship between the tree and the human not be one of antagonism, the knowledge that is conveyed is knowledge that can only rarely be used for healing, but is instead most commonly turned toward destructive purposes.  While “respect” and “relationship” are still the signal words of this kind of animistic engagement with a particular tree, the “respect” being shown less that of a kind of courtesy, and more the kind that one might show a source of significant danger, even if it is not immediately threatening – say, perhaps, the kind of respect one might have for a venomous snake.

Healing and sorcery are by far the two most prevalent topics of discourse when discussing Amazonian shamanism, both indigenous and mestizo.  It is not surprising then that spirit-persons play a significant role in these activities as well.  Indeed, much of the healing performed by vegetalistas is given power and even wholly effected by their allied spirits.  However, in much the same way as Amerindian shamanism more broadly, much of what can be used to cure, can be used to kill.  The spirits themselves, while having as we saw above with the lupuna tree some degree of a tendency toward healing or harming on their own, may in many cases be directed to both healing and to sorcery at the behest of the specialist.  In another vision, we have an example of a spirit that is used for both healing and harming:

To the right, we see a serpent called yura-chupa [white tail], which attacks with the sting of its tail.  It is very agile, possessing extraordinary speed, and the curandero uses it to cure from a great distance without the necessity of moving; or a sorcerer uses it to harm from a distance. (Ibid. 106)

This serpent, while not being dedicated to the performance of evil, can certainly be used toward that end the same as the healing shaman may use it to heal.  Though there are spirits in the employ of a vegetalista that may be more inclined to heal than to harm, or conversely to harm than to heal, much of the purported “ambivalence” of Amazonian shamanism is due just to this kind of involvement with, and of, many spirits who may be bound neither solely to healing nor solely to harming.  As an example of the ways in which spirits heal, the following excerpt from a different vision describes the actions that particular spirits take on the illness affecting a woman:

The achiapu come to the aid of the vegetalista.  They are princes with spears that destroy all the microbes contained in the phlegm of the boa, because if this is not done, the woman would die of vaginal hemorrhage. (Ibid. 112)

Here, a woman is being harmed by a boa, and the achiapu spirits work directly against the microbes in the phlegm of this creature, protecting the woman and working toward her health and recovery.  It is a remarkable picture of a mode of healing, where the spirits, instead of bringing a kind of medicine or some other soothing gesture, engage in struggle and conflict directly with the infecting agent.  Different from the perhaps more abstract notions of “teaching” plants, these spirits take up arms in service of the vegetalista and for the defense and healing of a woman.  As a series of relationships between both the shaman and the spirits, and the woman and the spirits, it is possible again to consider the remarkable range of relationship in animistic terms, relationships that involve struggles for life and death, enacting veritable battles in and through the persons of the humans involved.

There are other relationships which humans might enter into with spirits, where spirits can be seen to both enhance and disrupt, but above all participate in, the social patterns of humans.  For the sake of brevity we will only outline a few here, without discussing them at length, as each, ultimately, is deserving of a more thorough treatment, especially to be understood within cultural, mythological, historical, and economic contexts that this paper does have the scope to accommodate.  There are shamans called bancos [benches] upon whom the spirits come and ‘sit’ (Ibid. 100).  These shamans are said to be extraordinarily powerful, as the spirits operate directly through them, needing no mediation.  In another case, there is a woman who has been made pregnant by a boa, due to breaking proscription dealing with sexuality (Ibid. 110) (for a more complete exploration of this pan-Amazonian motif, see Wright 1993, as he details the figure of the Anaconda and its relationship to water, sexuality, fertility, alterity, and social patterns in Baniwa cosmology).  Healing the woman requires extracting what the boa has impregnated her with, which may be both physical and spiritual serpents.  Other spirits are known for seducing and abducting humans, like the yakuruna’s of the under-water worlds, which again, like the vision of the Anaconda, echo themes of water, sexuality, and seduction (Luna and Amaringo 1999: 124).  Other spirits act as parts of a shaman or sorcerer’s arsenal for violent ‘astral’ battles, having powers of attack that can be as unique as casting spells that cause the opposing shaman to forget how to marshal his own powers of defense (Ibid. 132).  As has been our purpose to explore, the “respect” and “relationship” of animism does not in any way imply a benign world of mutual understanding, but rather opens the human world to a host of new relationships, many of which are beneficial, while many others may prove dangerous.  In the reality as presented by these visions, humans are situated in a world that is populated with an extraordinarily wide variety of other subjectivities, spirit-persons that have their own intentions and volitions, and who participate with humans, not always benevolently, but in a distinctly social way.  That is to say that these spirits are persons with whom one can, and in some cases must, establish relationships that draw humans into the social realm of the spirits, and the spirits into the social realm of humans.

Artifacts, especially those with some degree of subjectivity, have been shown to be those used in the construction and composition of persons.  Relationships between human and spirit persons have also been investigated, showing the strange orientations, positions, and intentions that can be at play in their organization.  While these two modes of relating may seem to be active in ways that are mutually distinct – and certainly, in many ways, they are – it may be possible to conceptually bridge the gap between them.  Shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, are often conceived of as collective beings, persons no longer fully human, nor fully spirit, but in some ways composed of spirits.  Notable in this case is not that personhood is constructed out of artifacts, but rather that the multiplicity of selves and perceptual orientations or subjectivities that a shaman may lay claim to ultimately inhabit him or her.  Though many examples could be explored, two prototypical cases will be enough to reflect the broad view of these kinds of relationships.

One of the most well known of these cases has been recorded by Michael Harner among the Shuar/Achuar (known as the Jívaro when he was doing his ethnographic work).  These shamans are known to ingest magical darts, or tsentsak, which are said to be spirit helpers of the shaman, used to both cure illness as well as to cause it (Harner 1990: 16).  As Harner reports, “Different types of tsentsak cause, and are used to cure, different kinds of degrees of illness.  The greater variety of these power objects that a shaman has in his body, the greater his ability as a doctor” (Ibid. 17).  What is notable in this interaction between a shaman and his or her darts, however, is that these darts have both an ordinary and nonordinary aspect, and that these darts are, simultaneously, objects and spirits, and possessed of their own subjectivities, intentions, and inclinations (Ibid. 17).  In fact, the process of mastering the pull of these darts as they, outside of the intentions of the shaman, desire to cause harm, is one of the major projects of becoming a shaman among the Shuar/Achuar.  In this case, these spirits are simultaneously beings or persons with whom the shaman must maintain relationship, but also part of the shaman’s self, embedded in his or her body.  The shaman, in this case, is a multiple being, possessed both of and by these alternate subjectivities and intentionalities contained within him or her.

The egaando or stone bowls that are ‘tamed’ by an Urarina shaman are said to contain these similar kinds of darts.  Though perhaps more commonly in Amazonian shamanic systems these darts are acquired through eating small objects – worms, thorns, and insects, among others – the egaando are said to ‘lay eggs’ in the songs of the shaman, and ‘empty out’ into him or her, in order ‘to have grandchildren’ and multiply (Walker in Santos-Granero 2009: 93).  As with the darts of the Shuar/Achuar, the Urarina shaman must feed the darts with tobacco juice.  Doing so, the shaman is said to be “playing” with the darts, as they are “going around and around for fun”, singing and making the shaman sing (Ibid. 93).  In the case of the Urarina shaman, these darts are acquired as the egaando is ‘tamed,’ a process that requires an alliance with the Mother of Brugmansia, giving the shaman a “clear position of authority” (Ibid. 95).  The darts, able to both heal and kill, are as the offspring of the egaando and the shaman together, their subjectivities acting in concert.  Though the egaando is tamed by the shaman, it is not so wholly subsumed into his or her own subjectivity that it is unable to act, unable to ‘lay its eggs,’ unable to work with the shaman of its own volition.  This idea is vital, as it suggests that, despite participating in, or with, another more powerful or comprehensive subjectivity, smaller, but still discrete subjectivities are not in all cases ‘devoured’ and obliterated in terms of their own selfhood, but may instead be incorporated and, as the Urarina have termed it, ‘tamed.’

I return here to an investigation of the shifting sense of scale at which relationships are carried out between humans and other-than-human persons.  Relationships with spirits in the examples detailed above show a set of correspondences that are not so easily reducible to an untroubled identity of “shaman” and “spirits” in terms of interiority and exteriority.  While the complexity of the ways in which shamans and spirits interact and interrelate has been shown to be anything but a harmonic balance of conviviality, there is all the same a sense in which the shaman and his or her spirits are not so easily disengaged one from the other.  If the spirits can exert some force of will with their own intentionalities, if they can act, teach, heal, harm, and even kidnap the souls of human persons, then in the midst of a shaman’s performances, it seems unlikely to be able to actively determine who is the principle actor and who the subordinate.  If the spirits act as sources of information to the shaman about what must be done, and then at his or her direction perform actions in line with the information revealed, then at best the relationship must be understood as one of negotiation and dialogue, especially when these spirits find themselves housed within the very body of the shaman.  The shaman, in this sense, is an active multiplicity, a subject that is composed of a multitude of other subjects, but who is not reducible to the either a single or a multiple.  The shaman is not more than one, but is one-as-many, capable of many distinct perspectives, the subjectivities of his spirits adding to his power, while at times straining against it.  If persons may sometimes be constructed of artifacts, if persons are composed already of many subjectivities brought together as one multiplicity, then how much more multi-vocal must the nature of a shaman be, who is, like others, already a multiplicity.  As the shaman explicitly incorporates other active subjectivities (in the forms of darts and spirits) into him or herself, this multi-vocality of the subject or self must likewise expand.  The shaman becomes as a swarm of intentions and powers, a collection of ideas and emotions, a multitude of affects and perceptions, brought together to act under his or her direction.  Subsuming the subjectivities of the spirits entirely would obviate their power to act at the behest of the shaman, as the spirits must be able to act under their own impulse to accomplish that which the shaman may not him- or herself know how to do – as in the case of diagnosis, or the curing of a specific disease, where a shaman relies on the independent agency of the spirits in their own fields of expertise.  If this is the case, then the shaman might be considered to be acting as a leader of a pack, or a chief among warriors, rather than a single unified self.  A leader is no less a member of the multiplicity for his or her potential capacity to direct the whole toward some action.  A wolf as pack-leader does not bear the raw power of the pack within his own individual teeth and eyes and legs, and commands no pack of which he is not himself, definitively, a member.  It may well be that the shaman is much the same, having less ‘devoured and dominated the spirits’ than ‘incorporated’ and in his turn ‘become incorporated’ into a new kind of multiplicity.

Mothers, Masters, and Owners

It is this notion of leadership within a multiplicity, and the boundaries of that multiplicity, to which I will now turn, looking toward the ubiquitous notions of mothers, masters, and owners in Amazonian cosmologies.  Beginning with a selection of ethnographic material, the distinct ideas of mothers of plants[2], masters of animals, and owners of things, places, and spirits will be investigated in order to attempt to understand where different scales of multiplicity begin and end, and how the boundaries between multiplicities are drawn.  The key question, complex but now approachable, for the entirety of this investigation begins to emerge here.  If selves are multiplicities as they are composed of artifacts and spirits – these uniquely subjectivized things, or even distinct and complete subjectivities in their own right – and the relationships between many selves produce further multiplicities, where can boundaries be drawn to establish a distinct pattern or shape to any one multiplicity, producing a self?  What causes it to be unique and distinct from the internal artifactual-subjective multiplicities that compose it, and the external animistic-relational multiplicities in which it participates?  An idea to be borne in mind throughout this discussion is that “masters,” in Carlos Fausto’s discussion of the topic in Amazonia, may be seen as a kind of intercessor with the other, a single ‘point-of-contact’ by which a multiplicity might engage and be engaged with by the other (Fausto 2008).  Though this idea will be approached in greater detail below, such a positioning may help to contextualize the ethnographic material to be presented.

As a point of clarification, mothers, masters, and owners, as elements of terminology, are very regularly used, or at least translated, with some degree of interchangeably in ethnographic testimony.  The “mother” of a plant is a term often used in vegetalismo to refer not only to the spirit of an individual plant, but the spirit of the plant ‘family’ more broadly.  The term “master” is very often used in indigenous cosmological systems in terms of animals, especially as it concerns hunting, and shamanic intercession with the balances of predation.  The term “owner” is used in wide variety of situations, both where what is discussed is a simple statement of personal possession, as well as more expansive notions of the ‘owner’ of places, medicines, technologies, and many other ‘things.’  Ultimately though, the mother of a plant may be the master of the plant may be the owner of the plant – the terms are not wholly distinct from one another.  As terminology is selected and used in distinct cases, the intent is not to imply that the term selected should suggest a particular reification of use in context.  For the purposes of this discussion, “mother” will be discussed adjacent to plants and trees, “master” will be used in the context of animals and certain objects, and “owner” will be employed for spirits, places, and other ‘things’ more broadly defined, but this is only to attempt an organization based loosely on the terms most often translated as such in a given context in the literature.  The terminology of both testimony and anthropological commentary may very well extend beyond these bounds even as we make use of them.

In the mestizo shamanism of the Amazon, many plants are considered to have ‘mothers,’ perhaps especially those with a particularly prominent place in social life, or those that function as psychoactives when ingested.  “Important food plants like manioc, large trees like the lupuna (Ceiba pentandra), psychotropic plants, and plants used in the preparation of important medicines and poison for hunting and fishing are considered to have particularly strong spirits” (Luna and Amaringo 1999: 54).  While the use of some of these plants, and the relationships with the spirits or mothers of them, may entail a degree of incorporation – as we have seen, the incorporation of the other is one of the surest roads to power or enhanced selfhood and subjectivity – for others, it is not that one attempts to dominate or incorporate the power of a plant and its spirit, but rather that one calls on the power of the spirit for aid.  As Philippe Erikson suggests, “among Shipibo herbalists… the intention is not to take over and become the new ‘owner’ oneself, but to summon the help of the original ‘master’ (of medicinal plants, in this case)” (in Santos-Granero 2009: 185).  Plants whose mothers are beyond simple incorporation into the self – the mother of the ayahuasca vine, or the toé tree, for example – who, while able to teach and even offer help, are not of an order as to be “mastered” by any one shaman, may still participate in relationship all the same.  More than individual plants, though, are certain mothers whose domains are said to extend as broadly as the entirety of the forest.  Occurring in mestizo Amazonian discourse is the sachamama, or the Mother of the Jungle, who is described as “a huge boa of 50 meters or more that is believed to stay in the same place for many years. Vegetation grows on its body, so that it may easily be taken for a fallen tree” (Luna 1986: 78).  She is described simultaneously as being the “mother of all snakes”, whose icaro (spell or curing song) can draw snakes to the location of the vegetalista while he or she sings (Ibid. 78).  This “mother” has an attractive power over all within its domain, much as other spirit and plant mothers are said to.  The mother of all the snakes may not itself be the singular spirit of each individual snake, much as the spirit associated with an individual plant may not ultimately be the “mother” of all plants of that species, but she no less has power that she is able to exert over all in her domain.  These mothers of plants, snakes, and even the jungle itself, act with a compulsive power over those within their domains, but, I would argue, as leaders or mediators, the ‘point of contact’ by which the multiplicities with which they ultimately participate may be apprehended and related to by that which is other to them.

The Master of Animals is likewise a recurrent motif in Amazonian cosmologies, linked to shamanism, hunting, and predation, especially in societies for whom hunting still plays, or recently played, a significant role in subsistence.  Among the Tukano with whom Reichel-Dolmatoff worked, this figure is known as Vaí-mahsë, and is often “imagined as a red dwarf, a phallic being, in charge of the propagation of the animal world.  He is first and foremost a gamekeeper who protects his wards…” (1996: 42).  Here, rather like the sachamama above, the master of animals is not understood to be the spirit of a single animal, but rather protector and ‘ward’ of the collectivity of animals within his domain, the one who acts on behalf of the animals, once again mediating with shamans and hunters who are the Other of the animals.  This master is known to punish those who ‘exceed themselves in their pursuit of prey” (Ibid. 42), acting as a powerful force toward the maintenance of balance and equilibrium, in many ways (as Reichel-Dolmatoff argues of the Tukano spiritual systems more broadly) the embodiment of an ecological principle.  In a similar vein and as touched upon above, Carlos Fausto suggests that his notion of the “master-chief form” as it relates to a “singular image of a collectivity” can be applied as well to the master of animals (Fausto 2008).  As he says, “The prototypical example is the figure of the master of peccaries.  Here the master is a chief who contains a collectivity of peccaries, conceived as his children or wild pets” (Ibid.).  Containment, multiplicity, and collectivity feature prominently in much of Fausto’s commentary, which will be returned to more fully below, but for now it is enough to recognize that the masters of animals, like the mothers of plants, are essentially linked to the lives and forms of their ‘children,’ distinct, perhaps, in their agency or potency, but simultaneously participating in and, in a way, composed of, the multiplicity of forms within their domains.

“Owner” is not a category that is qualitatively distinct from “mother” or “master” in the current context as discussed previously, but the concept of ownership does have the distinction of turning this discussion in a slightly new direction.  It is within this context that it will be possible to consider how ‘things’ may shift from their presence within a given multiplicity, and move into another; that is to say, how things – such as shamanic artifacts, spirits of the forest, etc. – are taken and ‘tamed’ to a participation in a new multiplicity or collectivity.  Though a more theoretically nuanced explication will follow, a particularly notable ethnographic account will be explored in order to position and contextualize this discussion of ownership.  Among the Urarina – who we have already discussed with regard to baby hammocks and briefly with regard to spirit-darts – shamans are known to prize specific artifacts, called egaando or stone bowls, as powerful sources of spiritual power (Walker in Santos-Granero 2009: 90).  As touched upon previously, and as with other sources of power throughout Amazonia, these stone bowls are thought to contain potent spirit darts, granting the shaman access to significant new power – that is, if the bowls are able to be ‘tamed’ into his or her service.  What is striking in this case is that the taming required of these bowls is not the subjugation or domination of an individual ‘will’ to that of the shaman.  More interestingly, it is that the bowl and its power must be extracted from the original multiplicity within which it was situated, as it is not, at the outset, responsible for its own subjectivity, but is a functioning component of an entirely other collectivity.  Speaking of the egaando, Walker states:

Although occupying a ‘point of view,’ capable of causing harm by ‘looking,’ its status as a person is ambiguous, diffuse, and devoid of individual identity.  It is not readily distinguished as an entity separate from the rocky riverbed in which it rests, nor from their shared Mother or Owner, who has both a spiritual and locational aspect (respectively caratiri neba, ‘mother of rocky rapids,’ and nacanocari, a kind of alligator). (Ibid. 91)

The stone bowl, though identifiable as a unique ‘thing,’ and possessed of what we have previously termed a kind of ‘agentivity,’ is not thought to be a ‘person,’ or fully subjective in its own right.  The first aspect of taming this artifact consists of taking over its power from its previous owner, in this case the place of the rocky riverbed and rapids.  This is not the end of the taming, though, as the potential for the egaando to cause harm does not diminish simply by having been extricated from its previous multiplicity.  It must be re-introduced into the multiplicity of the shaman, participating with the shaman in his or her work, without its hostility and aggression being allowed to continue acting in the manner to which it had previously been accustomed.  In doing so, the egaando begins to take on a subjectivity that it did not previously possess.  It becomes aware in a way that, within the context of its previous owner, it had not been, suggesting yet again, as has been pointed to before in this discussion, that subjectivity itself is a matter of the types of relationships in which any given ‘thing’ participates.  As Walker continues:

From an Urarina point of view, it would seem that its newfound ‘consciousness,’ as represented by its ability to enter into increasingly coherent dialogues, is not somehow transferred or ‘captured’ from its owner… but is rather the form taken by its own will – its innate hostility or predatory force – when prevented from simple expression as a deed.  It is an aggression turned inward and back on itself, an internalization that creates an autonomous, internal space, producing conscience and the conditions for reflexivity. (Ibid. 96)

This is a remarkable way of conceiving of the production of reflexivity, such that the subjectivity of a ‘thing’ depends on the ways in which it relates to others, and as seen above in terms of the ‘turning back’ of aggression, how it relates to itself.  When hostility and the intention of predation is stymied, the agentivity of the object that had previously been directed by the rocky-river-rapids-mother as the multiplicity in which it had participated is repurposed and reoriented by the shaman.  The ‘thing’ which had previously been without its own awareness or subjectivity, suddenly takes it on.  It becomes conscious, and capable of participating in other, newer, more complex relations within the new multiplicity of stone-bowl-shaman.

In a way, this account, when fully examined, reaches to the lengths and breadths of the questions posed by this paper.  How persons are formed of multiple subjectivities, and how these multiplicities, within multiplicities, as they relate to multiplicities, can have boundaries traced at the edges to recognize discrete ‘selves,’ have answers suggested by this, and other preceding, examples.  Following this concept of ownership, it may well prove possible to view both the artifactual construction of persons and the animistic relationality between persons as two different senses of scale in which similar ideas are at work in the structuring of multiplicities.  To undertake this, however, it will be necessary to look more fully at the theoretical viewpoint of Carlos Fausto as he puts forward a general theory of ownership in Amazonia.

It is an intriguing notion to address selves as multiplicities, to discuss subjectivities and agentivities in terms of the intentions and volitions of collective selves.  But it leaves unanswered a critical question: how is a multiplicity ever interacted with as a singularity?  If we can accept that persons are constructed of multiplicities, and that actions and motivations may be drawn from a broad range of subjectivities, this does not answer how, or at what line of boundary, a multiplicity is able to be engaged with as a self by other selves, who may themselves be multiplicities in kind.  How do the parts of these strange molecular structures not collapse in on themselves, or into one another, becoming unidentifiable and incoherent swarming masses?  Toward an answer of this, Carlos Fausto has suggested that we “imagine the Amerindian world as a world of owners and the owner as a model of the magnified person” (2008).  This magnified person is not, as might be imagined, a leader that is ranged above or beyond the rest, at least within the collectivity with which it participates.  The implication is not that this magnified person has domination or control, or that it is the single subjectivity to whom all else are beholden.  Fausto suggests that:

In this sense, rather than being a representative (i.e. someone occupying the place of another), the master-chief is the form through which a collective is constituted as an image: it comprises the form in which a singularity is presented to others. (2008)

This is significant, because it does not imply a mandatory social organization, and it does not suggest itself as a model for how relationships within the collective are arranged.  Instead, the owner or master in this case is that which presents a singularity to other multiplicities, who themselves very likely have masters or chiefs presenting them as singularities.  In this way, the multiplicity is not reduced to a ‘single’, nor even to a ‘multiple’, but neither is it prevented from engaging in other, external relationships that could blur the boundary between one self and another.  It is in this way then that persons, who are composed of artifactual subjectivities and spirits, may interact with other persons who are likewise composed.  Relationships and a sense of scale come into focus.  This structuring of internal relationships between the objects of a multiplicity is reflected in the structuring of external relationships between master-chiefs as the presentation-of-singularity to others.

If the “magnified person” (Ibid.) is the key to understanding how multiplicities may present a singularity to others, there is an implication that there is something about the position-to-the-other that makes this magnified person distinct from the other selves that compose the multiplicity.  This distinctiveness may suggest an answer to one of the remaining questions in terms of these multiplicities: how the boundary of the multiplicity itself is determined.  It is possible, given the examples of the many artifactually-constructed persons in the preceding ethnographic material, and the discussion of shamans as having spirits living within them, to suggest that the boundaries and limits of these kinds of multiplicities may be marked out by this “magnified person.”  This is, perhaps, because this magnified person is as close to the Other as one within the multiplicity can itself go, without abandoning the multiplicity and changing state entirely.  The magnified person is at the limit of what it can mean to participate within the multiplicity, as it reaches toward the Other with whom he, she, or even it – as leader, master, chief, or owner – mediates.  It may even present a model for a further understanding of the prevalent fear in many indigenous shamanic world-views that the shaman will leave his community behind and fully become a predatory jaguar.  The shaman is already at the limits, defining the boundaries of the multiplicity of the community in terms of the Other, for beyond the intercession and mediation of the shaman, the Other is, in effect, a wholly distinct set of multiplicities.  Too far beyond, and the shaman ceases to be in a becoming-process toward the Other, and changes the nature of his participation with a new multiplicity entirely, and may take on the point of view of a predator, permanently.  In this sense, it is that element that is at the furthest edge, that element that mediates with the other, that element that, in Fausto’s terminology, is the “magnified person,” that draws the limit and boundary of the ‘self’ of the multiplicity.  These boundaries are, however, distinctly permeable, transitions between one multiplicity and another occurring in line with the will, volition, agency, perspective, and habits of any such participant in a multiplicity.

Relationship All the Way Down

In its way, it is an animistic question.  Where do persons begin and end?  At what level of scale?  If persons are constructed of multiple subjectivities – which may themselves be persons – then where and how do these animistic virtues of respect and relationship come into play?  My intention in this paper has been to investigate a broad array of compositional arrangements of persons, of relationships between persons, and the ways in which persons may themselves participate in multiplicities, without, on the one hand, altogether losing their subjectivity, or on the other, participating exclusively in relational positions of domination or subjugation.  Strathern’s ‘dividual,’ as Bird-Davis describes it, is “a person constitutive of relationships” (in Harvey 2002: 76) or one who “objectifies relationships and makes them known” (Ibid. 83-84).  Though this paper does not make use of this specific terminology, the concept is a powerful one: the idea that persons and selves are ultimately the site of a nexus of relationships.  What is suggested by the foregoing ethnographic material is that these relationships are not, however, only external, social relationships, but may very well be internal relationships, bearing on the multiplicity that is the person or self.  If it is possible to make this move, then an understanding of the artifact-subjectivity and compositional nature of personhood, and the external social relationships that situate or constitute a particular person, can find common ground.  It is possible to consider these internal and external relationships as different apprehensions of a phenomenon occurring at different scales, the moving into and out of particular multiplicities to investigate their component structures and relational networks.  The question of the boundary and borderline of specific selves has, if not a full answer, then a distinct set of viable possibilities in terms of Fausto’s magnified person and the expanded concepts of ownership and mastery.  This proposal toward answering where and how the borders of a singularity might be made out of a multiplicity, especially in that this singularity is the multiplicity as it is presented to the other, suggests a model wherein the relationships that compose a person or self from multiple subjectivities internally, and the relationships that situate a self or person in context with others externally, are able to be recognized as similar processes, though as it has been my intention to show in this paper, acting at different scales.

If any of the foregoing can be considered viable in terms of the ethnographic material presented and the theoretical accounts referenced, then a few further notable questions are raised.  If these “senses of scale” are active in human persons, then it would not be beyond the boundaries of reason to assume, from an animistic perspective, that these same processes of relationship are likely to be at work in other beings – notably animals, plants, and spirits.  But what if we shift a sense of scale upward once more, from the human?  The series of relationships that situate a person socially – especially in the animistic sense of the social where all objects, plants, trees, animals, spirits, and the rest take part – describe a different multiplicity, one that, if considered from this perspective, is tantamount to an ecology of place.  The multiple beings – humans, animals, plants, and spirits – that make up a given set of social relationships are themselves a geographically and historically situated multiplicity, and in every sense ecological.  And if, as we have seen at other senses of scale, subjectivity and agentivity go hand in hand with the composition of a multiplicity in terms of its personhood, then the scale of human relationship with the surrounding world may prove to be one in which our subjectivities are at work within a larger multiplicity that is itself possessed of its own forms of subjectivity.  The animistic sense of respect at this level of scale immediately sheds any potential residual humanistic paternalism, and takes on rather a distinctly negotiated sense of the human place in the cosmos.  The spaces in which we live in may, like us, be themselves compositionally constructed, and possessed of their own subjectivities; but at this expansive sense of scale, the ‘things’ of which these spaces are composed may very well be us.


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Wright, Robin. “Umawali. Hohodene myths of the Anaconda, father of the fish.” Societe suisse des Americanistes / Schweizerische Amerikanisten-Gesellschaft. Bulletin 57-58, 1993-1994, pp. 37-48



[1] It is worth noting that there are many other Amerindian cosmologies where the universe does, in fact, begin with a “blank” state, from which an intention, will, or movement of some kind emerges at the outset.  However, that not all Amerindian cosmologies fit a pattern of “constructional” does not negatively impact the arguments put forward here.

[2] The term “mother” is found most commonly in the discourses of vegetalismo as described by Luis E. Luna and Marlene Dobkin de Rios, and will be used in that context throughout this paper.


One Wound: Shamanism and the Crisis of the West

The truth is that there is too much to say.  Too much for an essay, too much for a single monograph, or even perhaps a series of them.  What shamanism – in whatever form it may take, for whatever methods and techniques or ways of knowing that may be assigned to the word – has to offer to the modern West, what possibilities it opens, and what contradictions and conflicts it may introduce, is a subject upon which it would be unreasonable to expect a single endeavor to have any hope of approaching a fully definitive statement.  The hope of this short essay then cannot be to architect the weight-bearing structures of a comprehensive argument, but rather to bend down to the earth, and humbly plant a seed.  A seed not arrogantly offered to the mind of the reader for whom such seeds and ideas may have long since found their place – likely to the point of broader and more efficacious expansion or contestation – but to the mind of the author, that by having been offered, they might not so soon be forgotten.

The modern West seems to have reached a crisis of faith.  Economic structures tremble on the verge of collapse.  Political ideologies have become brittle, unable to adapt or evolve at pace with the changes in the societies they are meant to guide and represent.  Natural “resources” – consciously objecting to the anthropocentrism inherent in this characterization apropos of a Heideggerian ‘productionist metaphysics’ (see Zimmerman 1990) – have begun to manifest signs of being overtaxed, their further exploitation requiring ever more elaborate measures or invasive devastation to tap, with all the attendant disastrous consequences these entail.  The 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most public example.  It is increasingly difficult to trust that our water, our air, and our soil are free of contamination.  Increasingly difficult to trust our banks not to fail, our officials to ethically and responsibly govern.  Anxieties and repressions betray us, working like an undertow against our own more noble endeavors.  The modern West seems to have, in many cases simply and perhaps quite rightly, lost faith.

But this wound is one wound.  The existential anguish too easily discernable in the modern West, and the all but unchecked ecological devastation being wreaked moment by moment and day by day on the natural world, are not, as they may at first glance appear to be, two separate cancers.  Our wound is one wound, but as evidenced by the Cartesian divide so entrenched in the ontologies of the West, we witness this wound made manifest in two seemingly distinct realms: that of mind, and that of body.  That is to say that there is an existential crisis, this ‘loss of faith’ or a Weberian ‘disenchantment’, visible in the life patterns of both groups and individuals, evident in their ways of living, thinking, and desiring.  But concomitant with this, and here it is necessary to assert that it is concomitant and not simply correlated or contemporary with, are the ecological disasters and apocalyptic scenarios so often painted in the rhetoric of environmental collapse, global warming, and ecosystem disruption or obliteration.  If our social and often individual alienation and nihilism are the wound in the mind of our Cartesian dualism, the ecological disasters are the wound as manifested in the body.  It is a single wound, expressed multiply, anthropocentric and Cartesian thought dividing humanity from nature as mind is divided from body.

Shamanism stands in a unique place among the many methodologies of healing and integration to approach such a wound, able to act simultaneously upon physical and psychological realities without an absolute division between the two.  Indeed, it is just in shamanism’s focus on the underlying ‘spiritual’ reality of illness and disease that this potential efficacy can be found, whether spirit itself is posited to have an ontological reality, or is seen to be simply the affective space of play between these two other Cartesian-established polarities.  Though spirit may ultimately, upon investigation and using shamanic techniques – by taking shamans, as Jeremy Narby suggests, seriously and “at their word” (108) – prove to be more than simply the becoming-space of difference between the mind and body, even if spirit is limited to this notion alone, it would not of necessity lack the salutary power to be effective in the healing of this existential/ecological cancer.

Such a pronouncement, of course, cannot be granted without evidence.  To consider shamanism potentially viable as a methodology of healing and integration, a number of considerations must be taken into account.  First, and perhaps foremost, is the techno-scientific lens through which the modern West views itself and the world, and the critique of this way of knowing that must occur in order to make both conceptual and ethical space in the discourse for the radically different way of knowing and acting that shamanism entails.  Such a radical difference in ways of knowing and conceiving bring to mind, and to the discourse, the necessary “change in consciousness” that has been posited by many participating in the movements that can be broadly located within the phenomenon that Bron Taylor has termed “Dark Green Religion”, especially those, for the purposes of this discussion, of deep ecology and neo-shamanism.  That the elaboration of this idea does not fall into the ever-present trap of utopianism, the limitations of importing shamanic concepts to the modern West must be considered, and the oft-ignored dark side of shamanic activity must also be recognized and given place.  Finally, however, despite and in some cases even because of the constraints and limitations inherent in shamanism, it may prove possible to consider shamanism as a viable ‘spiritual’ methodology to engage with the crises of the modern West, as it may present a uniquely egalitarian, anti-centrist, holistic, and local-as-global form of spirituality.

A Short Critique of Western Modernity

The Kogi, after nearly four hundred years of seclusion, emerged from the Sierra Nevada with their warning to Younger Brother, bringing a message “from the heart of the world.”  Their warning of rampant deforestation, unchecked mining, and pollution of the natural world was designed to alert us that these actions were not simply going to lead to ecological and spiritual collapse at some point in the future, but were already producing effects of that very collapse.  That warning came over twenty years ago, and despite some tentative political rhetoric, little has substantively changed in the intervening years.  At best, the rapidity of certain depredations has been slowed, but the attitudes embedded within socio-cultural realities of globalism, modernization, and capitalism have not abated.  We hurtle ever more quickly toward environmental and ecological collapse, and though there is perhaps a need to remain intellectually wary of any message with such an apocalyptic tone, these dire prognostications are backed increasingly and more urgently by scientific investigations, those both of micro-environments and local ecologies, as well as those more globally situated, especially in terms of global warming.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide sources for the elaboration and justification of these ideas, but Al Gore’s work such as Earth in the Balance or the film, and literature surrounding, his An Inconvenient Truth would act as excellent primers toward the same.

The fact of these warnings on impending ecological collapse, though, does not answer from whence the courses of action that have led to such a state originated, nor what modes of conceiving of the world produced the frameworks wherein such action could occur.  There is no simple answer to this question.  Philosophies, religions, cultural idiosyncrasies, the expressions of political power, technological advancement and industrialization, along with many other possible currents of motive force, have all done their parts to shape any meaningful answer to such a question.  However, for the purpose of opening space to the introduction of shamanism and shamanic ideas, it is possible to limit the necessary critique, for the time being, to a much smaller subset of these forces, taking on only the conflicts that must be directly engaged with to move forward.  The most central conflict that must be addressed in the dialogue between shamanic worldviews and that of the modern West is the techno-scientific anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of Western ways of engaging with the natural world.  It is arguably from the implications of this worldview that a great deal of the specific ecological and existential damage can be traced.  To engage with this idea, however, we must investigate it in its parts.

When techno-scientism is spoken of in this context, it is not the process or procedure of science as a way of knowing that is being brought under critique directly, though there is a distinct argument to be made in terms of an intellectual colonialism on this front as well when it comes into imperialistic contact with indigenous ways of knowing.  It is rather this worldview’s roots in what Michael Zimmerman has described as, in terms of Heidegger’s thought, a ‘productionist metaphysics’.  By way of a minor explication of what is a significantly more complex argument, this is the notion that beginning as early as Plato in the history of Western thought, concepts and ideas themselves had begun to be positioned as artifacts of production, insofar as both concepts and objects-in-the-world were given epistemological veracity and ontological status only insofar as they ‘functioned’ toward some human-oriented goal or end.  As Timothy Clark summarizes the argument, “the hidden anthropocentrism of Western thought, its unacknowledged projection of instrumentalist or technological modes of thinking upon the cosmos as a whole” (Clark 30) is that which underlies the exploitative cast of the structures of Western consciousness.  Techno-scientism, as a means of knowing-and-production, is blind to realities that cannot be made to directly serve human interest, for it is only in terms of human interest that they are appropriated as knowledge.  For modern techno-scientism, the essential nature of the factory is built into this very insistence upon proof-as-repetition for the production or manufacturing of any value of truth.

It is not, however, this techno-scientism alone that must come under critique, for ultimately it is the anthropocentrism that is bound up with such a worldview that lends the exploitative cast to such a way of knowing.  Drawing a uniqueness around, and within the circle of, the ‘human’ as it divides from ‘nature’, as Von Stuckrad says of Schelling’s thought, “reduces nature to a ‘mere mechanism’” and that it “practically forces nature under humankind’s interests that do not shrink from nature’s destruction – ‘because as long as nature serves man’s needs, it will be killed’” (786).  Such an effect on the ‘mere mechanism’ of nature seems evident in the ecological crisis facing the planet, and yet the deleterious effects of such anthropocentrism cannot be limited even to this.  Much of the Weberian ‘disenchantment’, psychological dysfunction, and existential unrest in the modern West can also likely be laid at its feet.  Positing as the ultimate end and final answer that from which the question itself springs is the very essence of nihilism.  Anthropocentrism is doomed to failure as a worldview because it is in the end tautological.  It insists upon the essential validity and necessity of the “human” just as it asks the question of what is essentially valid and necessary in that same “humanity”.  That which cannot point beyond itself, dies, and in the death of such a worldview, the values upon which life and society are built have no referent beyond their own positing, leading inevitably, like an edifice with no foundation, to collapse.

Dark Green Religion

“’More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one’” (White, quoted in Taylor 11).  It is to the nihilism that the failure of an anthropocentric worldview leads that an insistence upon a radical “change in consciousness” and even a kind of “spiritual awakening” is often suggested as the only potentially efficacious antidote.  In Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion, such sentiments can be found in the rhetoric of those running the gamut from mystically-inclined poets to staunch atheist-materialist scientists – albeit with differing significance given the specific kinds of supernatural or naturalistic world views – but perhaps nowhere more clearly stated than in a discussion of Dave Foreman of Earth First!:

As Foreman put it in an early Earth First! Publication, ‘Until the paradigm of Western Civilization is replaced by another worldview’ – and here he alluded to the goddess religions of the ancients and to Native American worldviews – ‘until children see wisdom alone on a mountain rather than in books alone,’ the restoration of earth-harmonious communities will be impossible.

(Taylor 78)

Without making any claims toward predicting what form or fashion such a change in consciousness or spiritual awakening might take, it does not seem to be suggesting too wild a notion to affirm that remedies leveraged toward only the symptoms of the existential and ecological crises in the West will invariably fall short.  If the critique leveraged against a ‘productionist metaphysic’ does in fact show itself capable of standing up to a more rigorous investigation than space permits to undertake here, then it cannot be but by a radical alteration in the very way we ‘produce’ or engage with and create concepts, as well as their technological and mechanistic ‘products’, that such a change in consciousness could come about.

If no prediction on the form such a change in consciousness might ultimately take can be definitively put forward, it might no less enhance the discussion to attempt to locate within modern “Dark Green” movements forms that seem at least to precipitate such a change, if they may be themselves – in current configurations – uncertain to act as the sole agent of the same.  Deep Ecology and Neo-Shamanism – or what Kocku Von Stuckrad terms, following Annette Høst’s lead, “modern western shamanism” (774) – both provide notable examples of existing systems of belief and action that have already attempted to begin incorporating the kind of radical changes in consciousness that seem in line with those suggested to be necessary more globally.  As Bron Taylor reports in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (ERN) “many deep ecologists believe that only by ‘resacralizing’ our perceptions of the natural world can we put ecosystems above narrow human interests and learn to live harmoniously with the natural world, thereby averting ecological catastrophe” (456).  Such a ‘resacralizing’ would position the natural world as having value intrinsic to its own existence, above and beyond its utilitarian value to humanity, a restructuring of value propositions necessary to a more fundamental change in consciousness.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer either a defense or critique of deep ecology as such, but the movement bears notice in the current context given its concerns with ecological devastation and search for more radical methods by which a new way to live can be imagined and undertaken.

Just as deep ecology seeks to engage with ecological wrongs as perpetuated by human actors by means of a retraining or reimagining of consciousness and the actions so guided, so too do many forms of neo-shamanism attempt to salve the psychological and existential crises felt by many in the modern West.  Though there is an undeniable overlap between ecological concerns and neo-shamanic themes, the majority of neo-shamanic theory and practice is done within the context of a kind of ‘therapy’ or spiritual healing.  As Vitebsky states speaking of neo-shamanism, “Through the idiom of therapy, it is also relocated inside the self” (in Harvey 293).  Though it is to Vitebsky’s point that neo-shamanism fails to engage with the essential holism that is entailed by shamanic cosmogonies and cosmologies, such an ‘internalizing’ of shamanic realities provides what can be seen to be, for a modern rational-positivist mindset ubiquitous in the West, a kind of necessary bridge between what would otherwise present too radical a departure from Western worldviews.  This bridge may yet, as with deep ecology’s ‘resacralizing’, prove to be at least a preliminary model from which more radical departures from dominant Western worldviews may begin to take place.

The Problem of Holism

In a trenchant discussion of shamanism, especially an emergent or re-emergent neo-shamanism, Piers Vitebsky presents what is perhaps the single most critical argument against the possibility of translating shamanic worldviews to the lives and minds of those in the modern West.  Though he traces a number of features of what can be seen as boundary-markers of shamanistic worldviews, it is his discussion of holism that proves to be his most central and devastating set of  assertions against the Western appropriation of shamanism in its totality, and it is this holism that must be investigated and incorporated into any projection of shamanism as a potentially viable methodology and worldview as it relates to the crises of the modern West.  Concurrent with this notion of holism, is the need to take a longer and further look at what has been termed the “dark side” of shamanism, in the form of sorcery, magical violence, and the ritual production of death, for such a “dark side” is by no means absent in indigenous worldviews upon which neo-shamanism purports to be patterned.

“The one thing global culture cannot recapture is the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge.  Even where the epistemology is admired, there is a lack of appropriate context for belief and application” (Vitebsky 296).  The problem is, perhaps at its heart, a postmodern one.  Whatever the hopes and beliefs placed in neo-shamanism by Western practitioners, it is still ultimately “just another” way of viewing the world, a particular set of methods or means by which to gain insight or understanding, the revelations and knowledge acquired able to be multiply interpreted and applied.  Neo-shamanism can be cross-pollinated by psychological therapies and insights, interpenetrated by the spiritual realities of other religious traditions, bound up with the scientific understandings, and simply ignored when other ways of knowing provide more direct or immediate results or responses, especially those that fit more fully or clearly with ontological structures already cognitively established.  While this may be seen as a strength, in some senses, in that the useful or functional aspects of many traditions and ways of knowing might be made use of simultaneously, what it lacks is a cosmological unity, a single and coherent way of making the cosmic, local.  “The shamanic sense of place, at once cosmic and local, becomes difficult to sustain but is replaced largely by a sense that each person carries the totality of space within themselves” (Vitebsky 295).  This interiorization of shamanic realities ultimately denies them the radically transformative powers that are their birthright, leaving such power waiting, latent but non-actualized.  If the power of shamanism is, as Joanna Overing suggests, its potential for ‘world-making’ (see Overing 1990) – which is to say, its capacity to construct and create worlds from the components of other worlds, such that novel experience is brought within cosmologically and ontologically meaningful parameters – then for shamanism to be effective in its most potent ways, the worlds that it creates from must fall within its purview.  This is not to say that shamanism cannot draw from worlds and aspects of worlds that are not explicitly shamanic in nature, but rather that the worlds and worldviews of participants in shamanic experience must grant the authority of shamanic world-making to work in, over, and through the aspects of other worlds, such that it is not excluded from the totality of experience.  If the reality of shamanic experience and power is seen to be something only “interior” to the participant or practitioner, then it is excluded from the breadth of the cosmological reality that shapes experience, and ultimately fails to be holistic in a meaningful sense.

Much to the same end, the vast majority of neo-shamanism finds itself situated within the “therapeutic” model as presented earlier.  As Michael Harner himself says of his ‘core shamanism’, “The way I offer you is that of the healer, not the sorcerer, and the methods given are those for achieving well-being and health, and for helping others” (xxiv).  While this is not to suggest that practitioners of neo-shamanism should be investing their energy in causing or perpetuating harm, much of the discourse surrounding neo-shamanism has very little space for recognizing that among indigenous practitioners of shamanism, the exercise of power is very often thronged about with the dialogues of ambivalence, inasmuch as power, shamanic or otherwise, is never seen to be inherently beneficent, but is rather capable of both harm and healing, at the same time.  Indeed, in many indigenous cosmologies, the powers that heal stem from much the same source as those powers that kill (see Harner 1990 for a discussion of tsentsak among the Jívaro or Shuar, or Wright 1998 for a discussion of Kuwai and the origins of manhene among the Baniwa).  This darker aspect of shamanism can ill-afford to be ignored or misunderstood, if the power of shamanism, even as it is translated into neo-shamanism, is to be hoped for as a source of transformative healing in the West.  This, however, points more broadly to the problem of evil in general.  In indigenous cosmologies, evil is very rarely something to be overcome, once and for all, and done away with permanently.  Rather, evil – which is perhaps not the most precise term, but is meant to include without being limited to, disease, illness, hurt, sorcery, loss, and death – is an inarguable and unavoidable aspect of reality itself, given no less place or even necessity than the cosmological good.  By being a presence that is not meant to be conquered, vanquished, or done away with, evil presents itself in dialogue with good, in a place of negotiation then that can include the human actor in both the resistance to and expression of both good and evil.  This dialogue or negotiation is a crucial aspect of holism, for without cosmogonic or cosmological precedent for the persistence and ineradicability of evil, its presence presents a mortal obstacle to the viability of good.  Daily life will consistently reaffirm the existence of both “good” and “evil” realities, and a spiritual methodology that does not intimately grapple with both, that does not present a coherent cosmological case for the existence and presence of both, will fail to be holistic in the ways most critical for such a spirituality to express and make use of power.

In Defense of Shamanism

How then is it possible to present any kind of answer to Vitebsky’s challenge of holism?  Any such answer must engage with questions of ‘local’ spirituality, bioregional-oriented ecological and cultural action, cosmological holism, and a distinct wariness of the utopianism that can spring from an overly romanticized view of shamanism itself.  Inasmuch as the nature of this essay is, at best, probative, no comprehensive argument will be undertaken, though certain possibilities will be pointed to, as avenues of further exploration.  However, as cosmological holism is the most salient aspect of Vitebsky’s critique, and is that aspect that is least easily answered, the surrounding elements will be addressed first, by way of preparing the space.

To return again to a current within the broader umbrella of “Dark Green” movements, bioregionalism affords a number of correspondences with indigenous cultures that might be described as shamanic, or participating in shamanic worldviews.  “Bioregionalism is both a philosophy and social activism that favors a small-scale, decentralized, and place-based approach to life,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), a philosophy which

has also been influenced by a diversity of voices in social and ecological movements that support the spiritual, sacramental, psychological, and biophysical connections between human beings, the human awareness of place and community, and the understanding of nature as part of a larger circle of animals, plants, and insects.

(McGinnis in ERN, 188)

A philosophy or set of beliefs oriented in such a way show a profound resonance with many indigenous ways of life, already migrating toward the “animism in practice” (779) that Drury, cited by Von Stuckrad, states shamanism to be.  Even further, “Bioregionalism is not a new idea but can be traced to the aboriginal, primal and native inhabitants of the landscape,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), which is to say that it may be possible to see bioregionalism as simply a modern recapitulation of the same basic principles that shaped indigenous outlooks on a sense of place in the natural world.  If it is possible to consider bioregionalism along these lines, then the possibility that shamanism, as a spirituality already proven to be effective in such a socio-cultural milieu, might be able to integrate into this Western development becomes one significant enough to note.

Bioregionalism is often associated with concepts of “self-rule”, the local and place-based styles of living quite understandably extending to systems of governance and authority.  This dovetails nicely into one of Vitebsky’s statements on the core traits of shamanism, describing shamans as “often politically dissident or anti-centrist” (in Harvey, 279).  Shamans and shamanic knowledge, especially that as revealed in ecstasy or ‘trance’, is regularly considered to be ill-conducive to the establishment of centralized forms of hierarchical power.  This is not a wholly uncontested notion, however, as Nicholas Thomas argues explicitly, saying, “It would be wrong to assume that shamanism is in any sense essentially antihierarchical or essentially dissociated from hierarchy” (in Thomas and Humphrey, 16).  Thomas and others in the same volume (Shamanism, History, and the State) put forward a number of arguments to the effect that shamanic power can be co-opted by the state, or by other politically-minded actors, toward the establishment of hierarchy.  While there is neither time nor space to engage in such a debate in this essay, it is worth noting that in many of such examples, shamanic power was certainly made use of for the establishment of hierarchy, but significantly less often used in its maintenance, implying that shamanic power can be utilized to effect change, but is often too difficult to constrain to the formal outlines of more rigid hierarchies once that same change has been established.  Shamanisms that remain coupled tightly to hierarchical power have a distinct tendency to bend toward priesthoods, the ecstatic and revelatory nature of the practice giving way to liturgical and dogmatic structures.  As Stephen Hugh-Jones says of Horizontal Shamanism (HS, the ecstatic-tending type) when opposing it to Vertical Shamanism (VS, the priestly-tending type):

In many Amazonian societies, HS occurs on its own.  It appears to be associated with more egalitarian, forest-oriented societies…. Secular power is often separated from sacred power….  Shamanism is individualistic, open to all adult men, frequently involves widespread and relatively free use of hallucinogenic substances, and is only peripherally involved in the ritual reproduction of society.

(Hugh-Jones in Thomas and Humphrey, 33)

It can reasonably be suggested then, I believe, that “ecstatic” shamanisms – those involving direct experience of other worlds and beings, and entailing individual revelations – can be seen as following Vitebsky’s “anti-centrist” marker, even if the line between ecstatic vs. priestly shamanisms may not always be a perfectly clear division.  If this is so, then shamanism fits again into the social and political ideologies implied by bioregionalism, another area in which a Western cultural manifestation has interplay with shamanic worldviews.

Vitebsky’s critique of holism, especially as it concerns the cosmological aspects of a true, living holism, still lie unanswered, if perhaps approached by the interplay between bioregionalism and shamanism.  The reality is that the way forward is not clear.  As long as an animist-shamanic-ecological worldview is simply another option among many, a way of knowing that is measured by its applicability to a particular subset or domain of knowledge, but not seen to pervade the discourses of all modes of knowing, all modes of being and living – from the social and political to the simply pragmatic and commonplace, from the spiritual or religious to the philosophical and technological – then it will lack the truly transformative power that it might otherwise lay claim to.  It may well be that such social, cultural, ontological, and epistemological transformation must take its cue from a phrase common in Anarchist theory, to “create the new world in the shell of the old.”  Radical change on a global scale driven by the ideology of a single movement is not only unlikely, but brings with it the possibility of all the attendant nightmares of any other hegemony bordering on fascism.  But what Vitebsky sees as the fragmentation of the environmental movements (in Harvey 292), I would argue might be instead seen as a new kind of adaptive strength.  In the short term such confrontations with established power may certainly result in failures, but they will not always, and the loose association, the decisions to band together to act when and where such action seems necessary, dictated not by the dogmatic pressures of a monolithic Revolution, but rather by the passion of those individually dedicated to specific change is perhaps the single best avenue of hope for the progression of change in the modern world.  Our very disenchantment and alienation can be seen as a kind of inoculation against many of the more overt forms of “movement” rhetoric, meaning that – so long as lapses into apathy or nihilistic despair can be averted – those committed to change are likely to be committed with eyes open and consistently critical, in the most positive sense, of all new forms and expressions of power, even those in which they participate toward their own ends.  Such loose organization and cause-oriented gathering has a dynamic, organic quality to it that makes it fit easily within a bioregional philosophy, one which has the very real potential to provide back a new holism, one that is concerned locally, one that understands its life and its spirituality as bound up with the immediate place within which it finds itself situated, but has the capacity to bear in mind the boundaries of becoming between what is the local and what is the global.  A movement that is not a movement cannot be resisted by the normal repressive structures.  And it is shamanism, as both a series of techniques or an expression of spirituality, that has the potential to navigate the new boundaries, re-establishing holistic cosmologies, unique to the locality of place, but in ways that allow an open-ended dialogue with alternate cosmological holisms, non-reductively expressing unique spiritualities of those populating bioregionally local spaces, while simultaneously providing practicable models for spiritual and social life that, through the eristic and dissident nature of shamanism, allow social and cultural realities that have been shaped by these models to be held open and in negotiation.  In a new world where boundaries are not the divisions between Kantian things-in-themselves, but rather Deleuzian processes of becoming, the borders and edges of things better understood in a Derridian sense of différance than as clearly demarcating object-identity certainties, shamanism provides the transgressive and transformative potentials to navigate such boundaries, as it has done between heavens, hells, and human lives since time immemorial.  What remains is only the question of catalyst.

Works Cited

Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998. Print.

Harvey, Graham. Shamanism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Harner, Michael J. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.

Clark, Timothy. Martin Heidegger. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Zimmerman, Michael E. Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art. The Indiana series in the philosophy of technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Print.

Taylor, Bron R. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Print.

Taylor, Bron R, Jeffrey Kaplan, Laura Hobgood-Oster, Adrian J. Ivakhiv, and Michael York. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. Print.

Thomas, Nicholas, and Caroline Humphrey. Shamanism, History, and the State. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku. “ReEnchanting Nature: Modern Western Shamanism and Nineteenth-Century Thought.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70.4 (2002): 771–799. Print.

Overing, Joanna. “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amazon.” Man 25.4 (1990): 602-19. Print.

Wright, Robin. Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.

Sorcery and Society: At the Intersection of Ethics and Cosmology

It is often at the intersection of cosmology and ethical engagement that the Western anthropological investigator finds him or herself in terms of indigenous cultural expression, perhaps nowhere more immediately evident than in the face of the cultural production of violence, sorcery, and death.  Such an investigation of kanaimà among the Patamuna likewise begins with cosmology – that is to say, the ordering and structuring of the universe – and in the end returns to it, though through a perhaps unexpectedly circuitous route, its expression and analysis along the way navigating the problematization and situatedness of history, sociality, and politics. Indeed, as Neil Whitehead suggests, all “Acts of history-making include not only material, physical events but a hidden dimension of struggle for the order of the cosmos” (131). This struggle is not limited to the combat and aggressions of indigenous shamans and sorcerers, working by turn toward order or chaos, or toward sociality and its antithesis, but encompasses as well the struggle between colonial or neo-colonial cultures and indigenous cultures, each striving to simultaneously understand, derive, determine, and defend meaningful order in the context of indigenous cultural expressions.  Any such alignment with the construction of this kind of meaningful order bears indisputably on cosmology, in that, within both the culture of the investigator and the culture of the investigated, it arranges and delineates patterns, in line with Geertz, that act as both “models of” and “models for” reality (in Lambek 65).  It is for this reason that ethical response must be so carefully borne in mind by investigators into indigenous cultures: it is impossible to absent the responsibility and admission of agency in the process of determining the boundaries of a multifaceted modernity as it presents itself, often unasked, to these same indigenous cultures under investigation.  Questions of ethical response, especially to such a highly charged subject as violent death, must remain at the forefront of any discussion or investigation, for it is here that cosmology returns, in a very immediate sense – whatever this “poetics of violence” (Whitehead 65) may ultimately describe, the meaningful content that is drawn from such debate and discussion is, inarguably, part of a process of defining an “order to the universe” of indigenous cultural expression, and as such, is a very real agent in a cosmological process that distinctly impacts and affects the individuals and cultures under investigation.  Ethics becomes a question not raised as an intellectual abstraction, but one that bears on the very nature of the ordering of the universe, and hence on cosmology itself.  In order to approach such an ethically circumscribed investigation, it is paramount that these kinds of “darker” cultural expressions – be they sorcery, cannibalism, or kanaimà – be explicitly situated within their cosmological, historical, and social settings as they have been described and lived.  By approaching an understanding of kanaimà, and sorcery or dark shamanism more generally, within the framework of the construction and maintenance of sociality, identity, and alterity, it should prove possible to work toward a demarcation of the boundaries of ethical investigation and theorization about these kinds of indigenous cultural expressions, without making the mistake of silence on the one hand, or sensationalism on the other.  To be silent paints a false picture, which itself does an injustice to the complexity and depth of indigenous cosmological representations and attendant praxes, and yet without vigilance, sensationalism recapitulates all the worst attitudes and lends itself to all the prejudices of colonialism.  The challenge is, as Fernando Santos-Granero has said, “to find ways of talking about cultural practices that are odious to Western sensitivity without either making enemies out of those who practice them or providing their enemies with arguments to deny them their rights” (in Whitehead and Wright, 14).

Beginning with a definition of kanaimà immediately makes apparent some of the complexity surrounding both the practice and terminology.  As Whitehead affirms, “The term kanaimà refers both to a mode of ritual mutilation and killing and to its practitioners.  The term also can allude to a more diffuse idea of active spiritual malignancy, in existence from the beginning of time, that consumes the assassins” (1).  From this it is possible to discern that not only does the practice of kanaimà have a real, physical brutality to it, making necessary such an investigation into the nature of its violence, but that this corporeal or somatic expression has a cosmological positioning for both the murderers and the murdered.  This positioning can be understood in terms of that ubiquitous Amerindian cosmological trope of predation and exchange, for again as Whitehead indicates, “Kanaimà as a shamanic practice centers on the relationship of exchange between the kanaimà adept and Makunaima, creator of plants and animals, and this interrelation of affinity, cannibal predation, and exchange forms a triad in other Amazonian cosmologies” (Whitehead and Wright 61).  It is possible then to suggest that there are two struggling tendencies at play in the cultural and cosmological arena wherein such acts are carried out: a tendency toward the creation and maintenance of sociality, and a tendency toward the destruction or unmaking of the same.  This duality has explication in Patamuna cosmology, though it can be found in many Amerindian cultures.  Sorcery and dark shamanism – of which kanaimà is a form – are regularly opposed to the socially constructive forms of healing or light shamanism, though this opposition is by no means a simple binary of good and evil, nor are the actors and agents of one force and the other so easily distinguishable or even disentangleable one from the other.  In Patamuna culture, this duality has, again, a cosmological origin.

This divergence begins with the cosmogenesis of society itself, which is pictured as the divine gift of Piai’ima, through the revelation of shamanic techniques and the means of manioc agriculture.  By contrast Makunaima, ‘a man who can command anything,’ although contemporary with and related to Piai’ima, begets no social order and through his malicious trickery can be understood as even inimical to such order (Whitehead 102-103).

Makunaima’s association with kanaimà and his seeming antipathy to ordered society, and potentially to the very tendency toward sociality, casts the practitioners of kanaimà then as agents working in this cosmological tradition as outlined by the deity himself, engaging in assaults not just on the bodies of their victims, but on the body-politic of society.  This is an intriguing, but ultimately unsettling, concept, for such an antisocial spirituality seems at odds with Durkheim’s notion of God as society, a notion that, even if not held to mark the furthest limits or extents of religious experience, does have an inarguable appeal as a notion of how religious experience functions as an aspect of culture.  But as Whitehead states “kanaimà is the archetype of senseless, meaningless death, precisely because kanaimà cannot be located in the production and continuation of society but rather stands in opposition to it” (237).  The reification of ideals within a cosmology that do not reproduce society and societal structures, values, and mores thereby begs the question of when and how such ideals were elevated to sacred postulates at all.  It is not possible, in this case, to simply reduce kanaimà to an aberration, a kind of reactionary “satanic” or antinomian cult, insofar as it has equal place cosmologically with other forms of shamanism, and the spirit or deity toward which such efforts are directed is not simply a destructive or evil god, but is also the same entity that provides sustenance in the forms of plant and animal life to humans.  Indeed, beyond the acceptance that kanaimà “is from the first time – a primordial force that has structured the universe and formed the world as we know it” (Whitehead 41), and participates in notions of predation and exchange between humans, plants, animals, and an at least violent, if not outright malevolent, divinity, there seems little to position or situate this expression of violence in terms that are amenable to the production and reproduction of society.  Kanaimà, and perhaps sorcery more generally, seems to be a kind of spirituality that finds its cultural expression in terms of this previously suggested antisocial tendency, meaning that while it can be acknowledged as a cultural production, it may not be a social one.

A cosmological template of anti-sociality does not, however, relieve kanaimà of a historicity, nor of social impact, interpretation, and explication.  In order to understand kanaimà not as a timeless, atavistic expression of an untouched indigeneity, but as an aspect of the dialogues of modernity and traditionality in Patamuna culture, it is necessary to examine the ways in which kanaimà has changed and adapted in response to the expansion of modernity.  Modernity itself, however, is a term that is complicated by more than “a simple opposition of, say, feathers and loincloths to trousers and shirts” (Whitehead 176).  Patamuna culture has not remained inviolate, and the encroachment of sustained development and other aspects of neo-colonial culture have resulted in an “explosion of alternative modernities” (Whitehead 176) in which both indigenous modernities produced by Amerindian agency in terms of their own history, as well as those of neo-colonial incursion, simultaneously participate in drawing the boundaries between what is seen as “traditional” and what is seen as “modern.”  In the context of these multiple modernities, then, kanaimà emerges as a cultural production of violence distinctly shaped by historical experience.  While kanaimà had purportedly been an active force in Patamuna culture from time immemorial, it was the missionary-led suppression of its countervailing force, the piya and alleluia shamans, that opened a space for the unchecked expansion of kanaimà as a cultural presence.  According to Whitehead, “the missionaries laid the groundwork for the current upsurge in kanaimà by their culturally inept suppression of piya and alleluia” (166).  In a way that is not dissimilar to Robin Wright’s statements on the abandonment of traditional shamanism concomitant with evangelical conversion among the Baniwa and the resultant lack of cultural resources “capable of combating witchcraft” (Whitehead and Wright 103), with the suppression of piya and alleluia shamans by the missionaries among the Patamuna, kanaimà – itself a form of dark shamanism or sorcery, akin to the witchcraft noted by Wright – had no naturally balancing force with which to contend any longer.  Like any ecological system, once this balance has been disturbed, those forms less suppressed and weakened tend to overrun to the point of dangerous excess.  Missionary involvement was not, however, the single source of historical pressure to cause an exacerbation of kanaimà activity.  Whitehead contends that it was gun warfare and the smaller parties that could be made offensively viable through its adoption that led to the practice of kanaimà spreading more rapidly (138).  In Patamuna culture, revenge killings had traditionally been the province of the wenaiman, or “secret avenger” (Whitehead 136) which was a small group formed for rapid response, with the intention of a very immediate redress of wrongs or aggression.  However, as gun warfare became more the norm, assault parties were able to diminish in size without entailing a subsequent loss of effectiveness, making the tracking and pursuit correspondingly more difficult for the wenaiman (Whitehead 138).  Because kanaimà was “an already accomplished exponent of solitary or small group attack” (Whitehead 138), its role began to increase, taking over cultural productions of violence that had been previously reserved for other groups.  Its extension into warfare, in this light, is an understandable response, though it is important to recognize that kanaimà is not, by this token, a kind of war shamanism, but that instead “the growing connection between kanaimà and warfare was a historical, not ritual, phenomenon” (Whitehead 133-134).  That the form of kanaimà had a new-found utility in its application toward the ends of warfare does not indicate that the ritual realities of kanaimà had mutated from their origins.  This conflation of kanaimà with war shamanism, or with a revenge complex more broadly, proves necessary to disentangle, if for no other reason than because it has acted as a vehicle for anthropological and ethnological sanitization of the practice in the literature surrounding kanaimà.  Attempting to situate kanaimà as an enactment of a “retributive law and capital punishment” (Whitehead 45) or an “eye-for-an-eye” kind of lex talionis, while an appealing notion in that it grants the vicious assault of kanaimà a socially productive place, is a misleadingly reductive explanation.  As comforting as it might be, perhaps, to reformulate an understanding of kanaimà in terms of the production of order, albeit even a violent one, Whitehead’s analysis argues:

That vengeance does not fully explain kanaimà is also evident from the fact that contemporary kanaimà killings do not necessarily follow a pattern of personal dispute, for even if that remains a possibility, it is the arbitrary nature of the victims that most concerns that Patamuna today (76).

This “arbitrary nature of the victims” – including women and children, those having neither the standing nor the force required to cause injury or insult grave enough to warrant a vengeful death – precludes a notion of kanaimà as being able to be easily situated within the constraints of a socially sanctionable enactment of violent retaliation by an aggrieved party.  Attempting to wrestle this admittedly difficult subject into a more palatable Western moral category of violent cultural production bears out the “futility of sanitizing the violence of others” (Whitehead and Wright 15), though a Western discomfort with violence that has not been socially sanctioned stems as much, it seems, from the fact that the unbounded nature of such violence imposes upon our sensibilities the necessary reengagement with our own social and cultural productions of violence, as from any direct moral repugnance for violence on its own terms.

Just as kanaimà is not free of history in either its expression or analysis, neither is it unyoked from its social impacts and implications, however thoroughly it may be an attack on that same sociality.  That kanaimà should have a social interpretation and degree of engagement should not be surprising, since the actors of kanaimà, both aggressors and victims, are regularly drawn from the same social sphere.  Kanaimà can be seen to be a mode of constructing a kind of Amerindian identity among the Patamuna, as well as a source of explanation, giving a frame of reference and “used to supply meaning to an otherwise purposeless death” (Whitehead 207).  While the agents of kanaimà, and the violent deaths such a practice entails, may not be able to be understood as producing sociality, it is possible to understand kanaimà as a manifestation of a hyper-traditionality in active opposition to the encroachments of modernity (Whitehead 175).  In the ambiguities of the acknowledged multitude of modernities facing indigenous culture, a determination of a clear identity takes on a distinct value.  Kanaimà, both because of its capacity to generate abhorrence through the mechanisms of its violence and because of its potential to “bring whites within native categories in a way that renders them less powerful and threatening” (Whitehead 38) by means of this occult aggression, is able to be understood as a “real Amerindian thing” (Whitehead 201), making it uniquely suited to the task of constructing or producing this same indigenous identity.  However much outrage might be suffered at the hands of kanaimà, the fact of its efficacy against the encroachment neo-colonial culture renders it with a significant degree of ambiguity in its social interpretation, for while it is bound to cause sorrow among the indigenous people themselves, it is inarguably a powerful force of establishing potency in the face of a devouring alterity in the form of modernity (Whitehead 204).

“The common denominator of all these acts is that they are antisocial; they threaten the integrity of the bodies of individual Arawak men and women or that of the body politic as a whole” (Santos-Granero, in Whitead and Wright 298).  Though speaking of witchcraft more broadly, Santos-Granero clearly sums up this notion of sorcery, dark shamanism, and kanaimà as culturally meaningful productions of violence that seem to be manifestations of this tendency toward the destruction or disintegration of society.  What is uniquely troubling to a Western investigator of these kinds of cultural expressions, and no less occupies indigenous discourse in efforts to comprehend and make meaningful such events, is that the normal divisions of enmity and alterity do not seem to demarcate the boundaries of permissible violence.  In both Western and indigenous cultures, to kill an enemy – be it a personal enemy for reasons of vengeance, or a social enemy as in warfare – does not threaten the foundations of sociality itself.  Such an expression of violence is, in a sense, socially “sanctioned” for use, especially, as Whitehead argues, to the ends determined acceptable by the State (195).  But in both indigenous and Western cultures, violence enacted against subjects who stand in a kinship relation, or at least in an equitable and non-inimical relation, to the perpetrator of such an aggression, does violence not only to the body of the victim, but to the body-politic of the social group as a whole.  It attacks a notion of sociality in such a way that it becomes extraordinarily difficult to attempt to draw such acts back into socially productive categories.  The distinction, then, may simply be that “Westerners culturally represent the collective violence of others as an aspect of their sociocultural incapacity but, by contrast, see their own violence as criminal or delinquent only in an individual sense, rather than as an aspect of wider cultural patterns” (Whitehead 246).  It may very well be that this kind of aggressively antisocial cultural expression may not be localized to indigenous cultures participating in sorcery and dark shamanism, but may be in evidence in Western cultures as well, though without specifically named institutions such as kanaimà by which they are able to be identified.  Understanding and representing antisocial violence as a cultural form, rather than the aberrant behavior of “delinquent individuals” has the potential to lead the discourse in a direction that will prove meaningful not only for analysis and theoretical situating of violent indigenous cultural expression, but of violent cultural expression in Western culture as well.  For it is in this theoretical situating that a return to the same cosmological process with which the investigation was begun can be recognized.  The structuring and ordering of a world – especially, perhaps, that world of meaning – is an elaboration of a cosmology, and mandates again an ethical engagement with the same.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Neil L. Dark Shamans: Kanaimà and the Poetics of Violent Death. Durham, N.C: Duke UP, 2002.

Whitehead, Neil L, and Robin Wright. In Darkness and Secrecy: The Anthropology of Assault Sorcery and Witchcraft in Amazonia. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004.

Lambek, Michael. A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Blackwell anthologies in social and cultural anthropology, 2. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.

Comprehension and Creation: The Process of WorldMaking in Joanna Overing’s “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds”

It is a question of how worlds are made.  For every incompatibility of worldview between a Western researcher and an indigenous informant, and between every logical incommensurability of facts or reasoning one to the other, we see at the crux of the impasse a failure – perhaps counter-intuitively more often on the part of the Western viewpoint – to anticipate and apprehend the very process of world-making that underlies the frames of reference in which both participants find themselves uniquely situated.  It is this question that Joanna Overing approaches in her article “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds”, effectively making use of certain epistemological and ontological arguments as put forward in Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking.  By approaching the question of world-making in general, and then addressing the shaman (or ruwang in the terms of the Piaroa) as a “’world maker’, a creator of knowledge (Overing 604)” in particular, Overing is able to neatly dismantle crucial aspects of the perennial debate over the nature of certain kinds of ‘metaphoric’ or ‘symbolic’ language often utilized by indigenous peoples, and reframe them in terms of Goodman’s “process of knowing (Overing 605).”  This is not a small step, for knowing as a process of world creation is the very essence of shamanic – and indeed, all – world-making, lending itself to a potent reformulation of the dialogues of contradiction between otherwise incompatible ‘world versions’.  This reformulation provides a means by which incompatibility between world versions, as well as the mechanism of contradiction and incoherence within individual world versions, might be understood and ultimately resolved.  Perhaps more powerfully though, this reformulation allows us to re-interrogate the nature of what we can call ‘truth’, subjecting its measure no longer to its coincidence with an impossible-to-ascertain external referent – or “bedrock of reality (Overing 610)” – but instead recognizing that, as Overing says of Goodman’s argument, “A statement is true, and a description or representation right, for a world it fits (Overing 606).”  When ‘truth’ is freed from an insistence upon a single, unitary basis in some external and seemingly unattainable ‘reality’, we find ourselves in the unique position to confront one of the most long-standing contradictions between a Western, materialist-positivist worldview, and at least one particular aspect of those of many, if not most, indigenous cultures: the notion of the reality of spirit.

“If worlds are as much made as found, so also knowing is as much remaking as reporting… Comprehension and creation go on together (Goodman, in Overing 602).”  Overing’s quotation of Goodman establishes the centrality of this theme: knowing is a process of world making.  While it is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt a reduplication of either Goodman or Overing’s fully expressed arguments on the nature of such world-making as an epistemological and ontological process, a perhaps reductively abbreviated expression of the main points will facilitate the furthering of the present discourse.  In effect, it can be persuasively argued that speaking of any single, unitary external reality is impossible, inasmuch as such discussion is forced, by the nature of descriptive language in general, to find itself positioned within a particular frame of reference.  Indeed, Overing surmises from Goodman’s arguments that “One cannot say what something is without a frame of reference (Overing 605).”  If identity, and thereby truth, cannot be disentangled from the frames of reference by which it is purported to be known, then identity, and truth itself, can only be discussed in terms of the system of reference that has produced it.  What this allows then, for the anthropologist working in context of shamanic knowledge, is to engage in an appreciation of a multiplicity of frames of reference, or ‘world versions’ that compose and comprise the multifaceted worldview of an indigenous informant, treating the expressions of this worldview no longer as simply ‘poetic’ and ‘metaphorical’ – if not ultimately beholden to logic – but rather as cogent statements about a multiplicity of world versions “already at hand (Overing 606),” and able to be used as the source-stuff of newly creative acts.

It is these newly creative acts that we are most interested in when we speak of shamanic activity, perhaps most readily exemplified in acts of curing.  As Overing says, “Each successful cure was considered to be an original act (602)” by the Piaroa with whom she worked.  The idea expressed here is one based on a shaman’s powerful knowledge of multiple world versions, worlds composed of relationships and correspondences that, when emphasized, de-emphasized, omitted, or appended in novel ways, produce new world versions that allow for a given illness to be contextualized in terms of both ‘before time’ and ‘today time’, as Overing describes them.  This contextualization and re-ordering is, itself, powerful, inasmuch as knowledge of these systems and their manipulation is power.  The shaman – or ruwang – has power over an illness or disease when and if he or she can ‘rightly’ (within a world version, or a newly constructed world version) establish the nature, origins, correspondences, and relationships of creatures, beings, or entities that have associations with or ‘ownership of’ the specific illness.  This idea reminds distinctly of Graham Townsley’s discussion of Yaminahua shamans, and their utilization of a “densely metaphoric (Townsley, in Narby 269)” curing language, described as “language twisting-twisting (Townsley, in Narby 270).”  Yaminahua shamans state that “’twisted language brings me close but not too close – with normal words I would crash into things – with twisted ones I circle around them – I can see them clearly.’ (Townsley, in Narby 270).”  Townsley discusses the nature of a shamanic cure by stating that “It is interesting in this context that the only thing named by direct, as opposed to ‘twisted’ language is the woman’s body itself at the moment in which, precisely, the images of the song are intended to physically ‘crash’ into it, effecting the real cure (Townsley, in Narby 271).”  Though Townsley does not take his understanding of this ‘densely metaphoric’ language in the direction that Overing does via Goodman’s argument, the mechanism of curing can be seen to have a kind of resonance.  It is the constructions of the words – and via the words, worlds, and the contextualizing of illness within them – that effect the cure.  Shamanic power is again a manifestation of a unique and peculiar kind of knowledge-in-practice.

Goodman’s system as delineated by Overing describes both the production of knowledge, and the ascertainment of ‘truth’ for a given world version.  However, the kind of “relativism” that Goodman’s hypothesis may at least arguably represent is not without a number of potential difficulties for application.  As soon as more than one world version exists, it is almost certain that the ‘truth-values’ produced by one will find themselves in conflict with the ‘truth-values’ of another.  Differing ontological structures and their attendant procedures for understanding the world or worlds will almost inevitably generate certain arrangements of knowledge that are simply incommunicable and incommensurable with the arrangements of others, despite the fact that the much the same process of world making took place at the outset for each – as Overing states, “the process of worldmaking… followed in the West and in the jungle are much akin to one another.  The scientist… and shaman-curer are ‘doing much the same thing’ in their construction of versions of worlds (603).”  When these arrangements of knowledge find themselves in seeming contradiction or conflict, a Western investigator – his or her conception of the world bounded by scientific or positivist principles – will almost certainly be at a loss for a mechanism of reconciliation.  The idea of a unitary, external reality is an assumption so fundamental to a scientific/positivist worldview that it is, in the general case, unlikely to even be held up as one to be questioned.  Nevertheless, if we follow Goodman’s argument in Overing’s explication, many conflicts and contradictions between different systems of understanding may be quietly and easily resolved.  The simple idea that there are a multiplicity of simultaneously existing, even conflicting, worlds and that “there is no solid bedrock of reality to which we can turn to assess world versions (Overing 605)” relieves the existential pressure of answering which ‘world version’ is more ‘right’ or ‘true’.  Conflict and contrast between systems is resolved by an allowance for a multiplicity of worlds, existing simultaneously, the description of each of which is not dependent on the complicity of any other system of description.

What is dangerous, however, is the ease with which a principle such as this kind of ‘multiplicity of worlds’ can lead to an anarchism of ontologies.  A world version, when constructed from facets, aspects, and elements of other world versions, must produce a self-coherent descriptive system able to ‘fit’ the experience of phenomena to the structure and processes implied by the ontology itself.  This is to say that not all newly constructed world versions, nor all actions taken, explanations given, or understandings formed within a given world version, can be said to be as ‘right’ as any other.  Crucially, there must be a means by which contradiction and incoherence may be measured, especially internally to a given world version.  Goodman describes this in terms of ‘fit’, by which he seems to mean the degree to which phenomena or experience can be meaningfully situated within an expression of reality or world version (Overing 606).  Overing gives an example of a novice shaman whose song, lacking the technical complexity and metaphorical depth – and thereby the prophylactic and healing power – of a master shaman, was deemed ‘wrong’ instead of ‘right’, despite having ostensibly been sung about the same mythical events (615).  In this case, by failing to make a new world in terms of those “already at hand (Overing 606)” in ways powerful enough to include a density of metaphor and symbol drawn from both ‘before time’ and ‘today time’, the novice shaman produced a song that simply ‘did not fit’ correctly or effectively into the multiplicity of world versions in existence, and was not, thereby, capable of generating a new world version, either.  By having failed to know, the novice shaman failed to create, rendering his cure ineffective.

In his or her songs, chants, rituals, myths, and ecstatic experiences, a shaman’s world-making cannot not be considered as merely abstract imaginations, something akin to a flight of fancy or an elaboration of some distinctive fiction.  These are not fictive worlds, and as such, typically Western ideas of ‘imagination’ simply do not apply.  What is most central is the recognition that shamans are, in fact, creating real worlds, inasmuch as these worlds are, according to Goodman’s argument, as epistemologically or ontologically valid as any Western or scientific world version.  The idea of a ‘bedrock’ or externally referential reality from which the versions can be said to ultimately spring must perforce be abandoned, given that we cannot perceive, communicate, or understand beyond the bounds of a particular frame of reference.  In light of this, the power of the shaman might be stated as the ability to move within and between these frames of reference, to turn them to his own ends, and in so-doing, form-by-framing new worlds from other worlds “already at hand (Overing 606).”

Such a notion insists that we take Edith Turner’s assertion that “there is spirit stuff (Turner, in Harvey 146)” far more seriously than we might otherwise feel compelled to.  It is one thing to say that, from a certain perspective, perhaps there are ways of understanding the world in which ‘spirit stuff’ seems to be a plausible hypothesis, all the while implying that such a perspective or world-view has no empirical reality.  It is quite another, however, to admit and follow through to the logical extent of Goodman’s ideas.  If all worlds are addressable only in terms of their points of reference, to which no ‘bedrock’ can be referenced for a final or ultimate test of some external reality, and if ‘truth’ is little more than “’what the tests test’ (Goodman, in Overing 617)”, then any powerfully descriptive and self-coherent world version must be taken as seriously as any other.  There is no objective stance by which to compare, judge, and determine the rightness or wrongness of one or the other world version without engendering the conflict of yet a third viewpoint.  It is then, following this reasoning, no longer acceptable merely to acknowledge the agnostic ‘possibility’ of an indigenous experience of a nominal ‘spirit’, but rather manifest as a kind of mandate to evaluate and experience these worldviews as closely and fully as possible, taking seriously indigenous notions of ‘spirit’.  Such world versions have no less worthy claim to a shape and structuring of reality than any other – whatever a modern, Western, rational-positivist mindset might otherwise insist upon – and as such must be treated seriously, with all of the ontological earth-shaking they may in fact imply.  Indeed, Turner asserts that

Mainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information – central in the people’s own view – and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such ‘metaphor’ is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mindset of the society.  Clearly, this is a laudable endeavor as far as it goes.  But the neglect of the central material savors our old bete noire, intellectual imperialism.

(Turner, in Harvey 148)

Overing’s work as it builds on Goodman’s hypothesis of world-making affords anthropologists a singular opportunity to get beyond some of the more fundamental impasses between a Western worldview and those of indigenous peoples.  By introducing a philosophic relativism that still maintains a kind of stubborn insistence on the capacity to measure ‘truth’ within a given world version, Overing provides a bridge between a Western conception of a unitary world, structured according to logically “sequential links (Overing 611),” and alternate conceptions of a multiplicity of worlds, bound or ordered by other principles, including those of morality and mythic correspondence.  Such a bridge is built, however, on relativistic suggestions that unsettle much of the complacency of the Western worldview, showing it to be structured around the idea of “a world fixed and found (Goodman, in Overing 603)”, which simply cannot be said to be in evidence.  The implications of such a theory, both for the expanded possibilities of understanding, and for the very ontologies by which we shape our lives, cannot be overstated.

Works Cited

Overing, Joanna. “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amazon.” Man 25.4 (1990): 602-19. Print.

Narby, Jeremy, and Francis Huxley, eds. Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2001. Print.

Harvey, Graham. Shamanism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.