Two in pretty quick succession! The Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP) has just published a paper of mine. It’s an article drawn from my thesis work – it’s probably the chapter I’m most proud of, work I’m still excited about. Though I’m studying acupuncture and herbalism at the moment, I’m still very interested in ayahuasca research, and so I’m really excited to have this paper published.
Religion, Medicine, and Healing: An Anthology is a new collection of academic articles put together by my friend and mentor Robin Wright. I had the opportunity to contribute an article to the collection, and I’m excited to say that it has now come out! It’s an ebook in the vitalsource ecosystem, so I can’t post a direct link to the article, but check out the cover. Very cool! There’s also a pretty cool flyer. Oh, and “La Medicina: Ritual and Healing with Ayahuasca” is the title of my article, so it’s also the title of this post.
The Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos (NEIP) just put my thesis up online! I’ve been a member of the group since 2011 – extremely active, vocal group full of rigorous academic work on the benefits, drawbacks, and remarkable distinctness of psychoactives and psychoactive experience. The group comes from a wide variety of national and disciplinary backgrounds, and I’m really happy to have the opportunity to get the thesis online with them!
I’m toying around with this as a potential MA thesis topic. I’m posting it here for possible feedback and thoughts… I’m excited about the ideas, whether they go forward in exactly this form or not!
Update – 2011/10/08 – Minor rewording
The Trees are Human: Psychoactive Plants, the Subjectivity of Nature, and an Engagement with Modernity in the Napo Runa Kichwa Culture of Ecuador
This thesis is an exploration of the intersection of three distinct areas of inquiry: the experience – shamanic, religious, mystical, or ecstatic – of psychoactive plants; worldviews that recognize and affirm subjectivity and agency in the other-than-human-persons of plants, animals, and places; and how such worldviews engage with, resist, integrate, and transform forces of globalization, in terms of neoliberal economic policy, cultural integration of technological change, and democratic forms of government and self-government. In following a set of concepts put forward by Ralph Metzner among others, this work suggests that unique responses to the ecological and psycho-social devastation currently facing the techno-scientific, capitalist-industrialist “modern” world may very well be found in the link between worldviews affirming the subjectivity of nature, and the phenomenology of the experience of psychoactive plants. This is to say that it is possible that affirming the subjectivity of aspects of the “natural” world can act as a means by which ecological factors cease to be understood only as resources for human exploitation. This thesis presents an effort to understand how Napo Runa people are able to engage with the seemingly inherent tensions between the forces of globalization and more traditional ways of understanding the world, without forcing a false dialectical synthesis. By focusing on specific ethnographic research, an effort is made to see these worldviews in context with one another as they are being actively lived and negotiated. This research focuses on understanding and communicating the complexity of lived worldviews through stories, histories, and the relating of experiences of the Napo Runa Kichwa people near Tena, Ecuador. This ethnographic research is done in an attempt to ascertain how psychoactive plants and worldviews that affirm the subjectivity of the other-than-human “natural” world are in dialogue with one another, and thereby mutually informing. Embedded within such an effort is a questioning of whether or not the “tensions” that might be perceived between these worldviews and techno-scientific ones present themselves as such for Runa people, or if such tensions are a product of putatively Western and, perhaps more explicitly, academic, categories. Shaping the aims of this research is the question of how people, both shamans and non-shamans, characterize their experience with psychoactive plants, what they draw from these experiences as personally meaningful, and how these experiences have translated into action in, and understanding of, the world. An effort is made to ensure that the immediate and personal experiences of people stand side by side with discussions of urbanization, neoliberal economic policy, and techno-scientific modernity, such that categorical contrasts are neither ignored nor erected without immediate grounding in lived experience.
In doing research for the new working group on psychoactive plants and religion, I came across an article by Ralph Metzner published in the Eleusis journal in 1997. In it, he puts forward the premise that a revival of animistic worldviews is necessary to combat the exploitation and destruction of the ecosystems of which we are ourselves part, and that psychoactive plants and the shamanic systems of knowledge within which their use has been situated are very likely to play a distinct role in any such radical change. Though the article was published in ’97, it’s no less relevant or timely now than it was then, and I found it distinctly inspiring. Having written recently on animistic worldviews and their relationships to an embedded and immediate sense of ecology, it makes me downright enthusiastic to read other work like this!
In Iquitos, Peru, Westerners, often described as ayahuasca tourists, seek out both indigenous and mestizo shamans who will, for a price, lead them in ceremonies where participants partake of a psychoactive brew. The shamans range from the truly knowledgeable to the outright opportunist, and the Westerners range from sincere pilgrim to hedonistic tourist. What is not surprising within these ceremonies is that some Westerners feel they get nothing from the experience but a disorienting and disappointing series of colors and images, most often coupled with violent and unpleasant bodily effects. With the vast cultural differences in worldview, etiology of illness, methodology of healing, understandings of the spiritual, cosmological frames for reality, and even ontological structures of the real, it is far less surprising that there are failures to mediate these gaps than that, with some degree of regularity, there are successes in these mediations. A number of recent research initiatives into this phenomenon, along with decades of consistent anecdotal evidence, have begun to show that, for all of the critiques that can be leveled against the practice of ayahuasca tourism, there are a surprising number of reports of meaningful healing, personal transformation, and expressions of therapeutic benefit (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005).
It is my intention in this paper to present a series of individually composed descriptive sections, outlining the three fundamental factors at play in these shamanic “healing spaces.” Such a “healing space” in the scope of this discussion can be understood as the space of dialogue, negotiation, and encounter that is manifested between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony. Endeavoring to establish a sense of Place, I will begin with a brief history of Iquitos, and an outline of its more modern composition. Continuing from this, I will turn to a sketch of Persons, including mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers as they participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. This discussion will entail an overview of the etiologies of illness and a general outline of distinct cultural understandings and expectations that inform the participation in these ceremonies for many members of each cultural group. I will then examine the nature of the ayahuasca brew in terms of cognitive psychology, in an effort to understand how the psychoactive substance plays its role in the establishment of a cross-cultural healing space. Finally, I intend to propose Michael Taussig’s notion of Montage in terms of ayahuasca shamanism (1991), and Joanna Overing’s notions of the shaman as a “maker of worlds” (1990), as anthropological models that reach toward a theory of shamanic action in these cross-cultural healing spaces. The varied forces at play in the history of Iquitos, the diverse cultural backgrounds of those persons involved, and the striking phenomenology of the experience of ayahuasca, all find a powerful, and mutually resonant, metaphor in the ideas of collage, montage, and bricolage. It is my intention to explore the possibility that the mechanisms of montage and world-making may draw elements from personal background, historical and cultural place, and the phenomena of the ayahuasca experience itself, to create a space for healing that is able to be effective cross-culturally. It is not my intention at any point to attempt to transcend the reality of distinct cultural obstacles to shared conceptions of healing, spirituality, and transformation, but rather to suggest that it is just these cultural obstacles and distinctions that can be worked within and through, to act as the components of a newly composed, dynamic, and adaptive shared understanding, within the space of the ceremony. It is an engagement that is less concerned with the specific mechanisms of how shamans heal, and more with how they create and make use of a particular kind of transformational, even liminal, space, where, among other things, healing can occur.
More than any other single aspect, the river defines the city of Iquitos. The river mediates – dividing, joining, marking boundaries and troubling them – between the forest and the city, the monte and the ciudad (Beyer 2009: 307). The geographical location of the city has situated it as an economic, historical, and socio-cultural crossroads unlike any other in the Peruvian Amazon. Its component parts in terms of persons, cultures, and their histories, come together as a collage of elements. These elements are never wholly subsumed by, or transformed into, one another, and yet are in constant and immediate contact, as parts of a single, mutually-informing, composite and constructed whole. Indigenous, mestizo, and white persons – with histories that have been as broad as they have been bloody – all play roles in the making of this place. Colonialism and the rubber trade have left their marks deeply on the city and its population, with mestizo and ribereño cultures plagued by discrimination and grinding poverty. Sorcery, like poverty, is an inescapable fact of mestizo life in Iquitos, with each of these exacerbating, and in some ways giving rise to, the other. But poverty and sorcery do not provide the whole of the picture, though they do color and underlie many of its realities. Shamanism has flourished in Iquitos, in part to counter just this same sorcery, but also as a source of healing for those who cannot afford, or cannot be treated meaningfully by, Western biomedicine. Such a flourishing of shamanism has given the city a reputation as a powerful center of spiritual activity. The discourse surrounding the spiritual power of local shamans has spread, both through anthropological literature and from the more hyperbolic claims of psychedelic enthusiasts, into the currents of drug, New Age, and other sub-and-counter cultures of the West, drawing an increasing number of seekers, tourists, and pilgrims to the riverside city. It is possible to understand the city’s draw as a manifestation of what Allan Morinis has described of other pilgrimage destinations more generally as a kind of “spiritual magnetism” (1992: 5), where the fascination with a particular destination reaches beyond its initial social and cultural boundaries.
Ayahuasca stands out as the single-most sought after ‘hallucinogenic’ experience to be found in the discourse surrounding Iquitos as a tourist or pilgrimage destination. Shamans and ayahuasqueros, or those claiming these and similar titles, are able to provide this service for a fee. Acting as an avenue of economic advancement, such a provision of services has led to an emergent phenomenon of ayahuasca shamans who, instead of, or not primarily, working within their own communities, are dedicated to working with and for ayahuasca tourists (Proctor 2001). Such tourism has been vehemently decried by a number of anthropologists as exploitative and dangerous, calling into question both the motives of the tourists and the qualifications and ethics of these putative shamans. Undeniably, much of this critique is well founded. And yet, here again, economic opportunism and Western consumerism do not paint a full picture. Research and case studies are beginning to show that while the pejorative sense of ‘tourist’ is potentially applicable to some, the idea of ‘pilgrim’ may be more useful in understanding the phenomenon under investigation when speaking of Westerners making their way to a place abroad, especially as they go in search of healing and transformation. Certainly, spiritual-consumerism, an ‘orientalist’ (Said 1979) fascination with the remote Other, and broad misconceptions about the history and nature of shamanism all play very distinct roles in the way in which Western seekers conceive of the ayahuasca-shamanic experience of which they go in search. There are, however, also very distinct structural affinities between this phenomenon and religious pilgrimage, and even the discourses of religious conversion. In some ways, the very composite nature of the city of Iquitos, the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience, and the intentions, preconceptions, and agencies of the persons involved reflect one another, producing a unique sense of place. Such a place is simultaneously physically, socio-culturally, and historically situated, and yet works through, or even transforms, these forces and factors into something that is more than simply their sum.
A Sense of Place
Though the site which was to become Iquitos was initially established in the 18th century as a Jesuit mission, it was not until the 1840’s that the Iquitos Indians settled there with their white patrón (Stanfield 1998: 30), founding the city in its modern economic and historical context. Located near the confluence of the Nanay and Amazon rivers, and less than eighty miles from where the headwaters of the Ucayali and Marañón themselves converge, Iquitos has been, from the very beginning, located at a key geographical point for trade flowing through the Peruvian Amazon. Class and racial divisions, still evident today, were likewise present from the beginning, where a small white elite economically, socially, and politically dominated and oppressed the significantly more numerous indigenous and mestizo populations (Ibid. 30). Though Iquitos was well situated for commerce, until the advent of the Rubber Boom, the city remained relatively small. By 1864, however, little more than twenty years from its founding, steamboats, factories, docks, and manufacturing centers were brought to the city by British companies and the Peruvian navy, bringing rapid growth with them (Ibid. 31). As the demand for rubber increased throughout the world, Iquitos was inundated with thousands of new immigrants, decimating indigenous populations via violence, slavery, and disease, and radically altering the political and cultural realities of those who remained (Ibid. 36). By 1905, Iquitos was a booming port town, where
Indians and partially acculturated cholos formed the working class, Chinese merchants and restauranteurs figured prominently among the petty retailers, while European merchants controlled the most lucrative wholesale trade. Along the muddy streets, one could see – along with the harried Indian porters and the pigs routing through garbage – newcomers from Germany, Brazil, Spain, Italy, France, England, China, Portugal, Morocco, Columbia, Ecuador, as well as a few from North American and Russia. (Ibid. 108)
Notably, it was not only the swelling population, systemic racism, and the acculturative impact of Western goods that so distinctly shaped much of what modern Iquitos was to become. The techniques of rubber tapping themselves, as they were practiced in the Amazon, played a significant role. Tapping a Hevea tree, which produced a finer quality of latex, was something that could be done sustainably, where a single tapper, working in relative isolation, could tend a few hundred trees at a time, spread over many dozens of acres of forest. The trouble with this was that even with a hundred trees or more, Hevea trees, while sustainable, could only yield roughly 5-7 pounds of dry rubber per tree annually. On the other hand, Castilloa trees, while they had to be felled, killing the tree, could produce upwards of 200 pounds of latex in a matter of days. The caucho model of scouring the forest for these immense trees caused the vast majority of rubber tappers to be constantly wandering, untraceable, forever in search of these lucrative but highly perishable resources. As Stanfield says, “The mobility necessary for caucho collection resulted in a less stable lifestyle, one that proved highly disruptive for the caucheros, the environment, and Amerindians alike” (1998: 24). It was in large part this wandering of the caucheros, however, and the contact with indigenous peoples that it facilitated, that played a significant role in the cross-cultural sharing of shamanic techniques that, at least initially and in part, lead to the vegetalismo shamanism of the mestizo population in Iquitos (Beyer 2009: 301).
When the Rubber Boom did finally collapse around 1912, it was due, again, to the details of harvesting the latex from the trees. Hevea trees are susceptible to a particular form of leaf blight that is common in the Amazon, making plantations of them unfeasible, as the blight passes from tree to tree. However, in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, this blight does not exist. Vast plantations of the sustainable Hevea trees were able to be planted in these locations, and as they both produced a finer quality latex than the Castilloa trees and did not require anything like the same labor to acquire from the forest, the costs of the latex from these plantations so drastically undercut the Amazonian market that it simply could not compete. Almost overnight, the boom went bust. The commerce that had sustained Iquitos vanished, and thousands of migrants and tappers were suddenly without any other home, and without economic prospects. Some, certainly, returned to their original homes, but many moved to Iquitos, or slightly up and down river from the city, establishing small settlements near the banks of the river. Swidden gardens, fishing, foraging in the forest, and game hunting became – much like those of the lives and homes they had left behind – the economic survival strategies for thousands of people, but now without the social and cultural infrastructures that had supported these ways of life prior to the boom. These conditions have changed little, even to the present day. As Beyer remarks of the continuing economic divisions and juxtapositions in the life of the city:
The contradictions remain. The people who inhabit the jungles surrounding Iquitos have no electricity or running water except the river. Yet they can watch the latest North American programs on blaring old televisions when they come to town, by dugout canoe, to pick up supplies or sell jungle produce. (2009: 293-294)
Traditional ways of living stack up next to modern technologies, the selling of plants and produce gathered from the forest takes place jostled up against satellite dishes, laptops, cell phones (Ibid. 293).
These disparities point toward the poverty that gives rise to the practices of sorcery that so mark life in Iquitos, and as is true of many indigenous cultures of the Amazon, envy is, in many ways, at the root of it. Though the emotion of envy itself is not necessarily thought to be the direct cause of misfortune, envy, resentment, and jealousy – all encapsulated by the term envidia – are where the desire to cause harm, and to inflict suffering on another begins. As Beyer suggests, in Iquitos, “Life is perceived as a zero-sum game. To receive more than a fair share of good is necessarily to deprive another” (2009: 137). It is poverty and its attendant miseries, however, that underlie much of the desire to make use of sorcery in social settings. Most mestizo inhabitants of the city have little to no expectation or hope of economic advancement. Education is extremely limited, and the classist and racist structures in the city keep many, if not most, of the inhabitants from receiving even what is potentially available. Medical care is virtually unavailable, whether due to the doctors’ inability to understand or deal with culturally-described illnesses, or due more pragmatically to the inability of the patients to pay for expensive prescriptions. Caught up in the “social disintegration that marks this culture of poverty” (Dobkin de Rios 1972: 65), jealousy over love rivals, the uncertainty of being able to acquire even basic necessities, and domestic instability of all kinds ensure that want and need are constant companions in all social interaction. When these needs and desires are not able to be met, but the needs or desires of another seem to be, the disparity is not one that can be written off as random chance. As with many indigenous and mestizo societies of Amazonia, everything that happens is considered to have been intended by someone or something. Bad luck in business is not a sorry happenstance, but an evil fortune sent by a brujo, the manifestation of someone’s envy or resentment for some perceived disparity, or breach of egalitarianism (Beyer 2009: 132). When snake bites, falls, and bad machete accidents occur, it is not a question of how such a thing happened, but is rather a question of why (Luna 1986: 120), or, perhaps more explicitly, why me and who was responsible.
Sorcery and poverty are in many ways the boundary terms for mestizo life in Iquitos, providing both its shape and limits. In the Peruvian Amazon, being mestizo “is a complex identity, a form of hybridity, contradictory and ambivalent” (Beyer 2009: 294). Though ostensibly referring to those of “mixed blood,” the reality is that “mestizo” covers a wide range of persons, from acculturated indigenous peoples to the varying mixtures of white and indigenous lineages, and pertinent to life in Iquitos, the varying shades of the color of skin (Luna 1986: 31). This hybridity echoes the city itself in some ways, situated as it is on the river, which is the essential mediator between city and forest. If the river negotiates the bounds of city and forest, the mestizo identity negotiates the boundaries between indigenous and white, in some cases incorporating both, and in others marking them as distinct (Beyer 2009: 307). The river, again, being the dominant feature, it is perhaps no surprise that a term often interchangeable with mestizo is ribereño, or “riverbank dweller” (Ibid. 296). In reality, ribereño culture extends far beyond the mestizaje, being composed of a broad range of people of many different ethnic or historical origins, all living in very similar ways. Speaking Spanish, wearing European clothing, making and working in swidden gardens, hunting, fishing, foraging in the forest, and traveling the river in peque-peque and/or dugout canoes are all the hallmarks of ribereño culture in the Peruvian Amazon (Ibid. 297). As noted previously, the origins of this pattern of living are in many ways the result of the collapse of the Rubber Boom, rubber tappers heading back toward the city, and migrants with nowhere else to go, establishing new lives on the banks of the river, near enough to the city for trade, but far enough to carve out a living from the land.
Though the majority of the population of Iquitos is culturally mestizo, a segment of the population does self-identify as indigenous. Shipibo women can often be seen selling handcrafts and wares by the side of the street (Fotiou 2010: 29), and a number of successful Shipibo shamans have migrated upriver from Pucallpa to be nearer the tourist clientele (Ibid. 121). Though there are other indigenous groups that have historically lived – and still live – nearer Iquitos than the Shipibo, the Shipibo who have migrated to Iquitos are particularly relevant in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca shamanism. Having a reputation as the most powerful ayahuasqueros (Ibid. 29), Shipibo shamans are sought out by both Westerners and mestizos alike. Though many of the healing techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans are similar to those used by mestizo shamans, the foundational cosmologies and theories through which Shipibo shamans conceive of and perform their work differ in significant ways from those of mestizo shamans. Cultural differences, both in regard to cosmological structures and social life, are certainly present between mestizo and indigenous inhabitants of the city. However, as described before in terms of ribereño culture, what marks out difference between indigenous and mestizo in the daily life of Iquitos is not necessarily visible characteristics, nor the claims to “blood” or lineage. As Beyer states, “some Indians have European ancestors, and many mestizos do not. The criteria defining these two groups are cultural, and, increasingly, socioeconomic” (2009: 295). This is not to suggest that indigenous identities are so porous as to become undifferentiated from mestizo identities, but rather that these identities may be defined more by those living them, than by externally ascertainable or assignable criteria.
Whether in search of shamanic healing or some other diversion, Westerners arrive in Iquitos by the bus full, driven in from the single open-air airport, past the rusted hulks of abandoned planes out in the tall grasses beyond the landing strip. Ecotourism, drug tourism, and sex tourism are all well known features of the tourist-trade in Iquitos, and though these kinds of tourism are beyond the scope of this paper, to what degree there is overlap and interplay with the forms of tourism under discussion is certainly a worthy subject for further investigation. Though many terms have been suggested for the phenomenon wherein Westerners arrive in the Amazon to participate in shamanic rituals – not the least of which is ‘drug tourism’ as put forward by Marlene Dobkin de Rios in a number of publications – in this paper I intend to make use of Fotiou’s term ‘shamanic tourism’ (2010: 2). Though undoubtedly there are Westerners for whom the somewhat pejorative sensibility of ‘drug tourist’ is appropriate, there are many others for whom the motivations that they self-report do not lend themselves to its applicability. As Michael Winkelman says of his case studies among just these kind of ‘shamanic tourists’
Contrary to the characterization as “drug tourists,” the principal motivations can be characterized as: seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. (2005: 209)
Self-reported motivations such as these belie the notion that the intentions for use are “simply to get high” (Dobkin de Rios 2009: 166), and while such hedonistic pursuits may be the case for some tourists, it cannot be supposed that this is the case for all, or even necessarily the majority, of them. Repeated case studies and anthropological field work have suggested that the motivations for these tourists are not exclusively hedonistic in nature, but seem to reflect deeply felt desires and drives toward enhanced spirituality, healing, and personal transformation (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005). To that end, the other often considered term, ‘ayahuasca tourism,’ will not be made use of either. Though it, like ‘drug tourism,’ is likely to describe some of those participating in these experiences, in the sense that what is sought out is more akin to transformation than simply to the seeing of visions, the term ‘ayahuasca tourism’ shifts the focus of the participants’ intentions from the spiritual to the phenomenological, making the term reductive and inhibiting its utility. It is worth noting that the terminology of ‘tourist’ is problematic, and though this paper will make use of ‘shamanic tourist’, the term ‘tourist’ itself does retain a trace of preemptive judgment about the goals of a given Western seeker. A tourist, in these cases, is as likely to be a pilgrim, a term which may present a less biased and more nuanced understanding of the goals, especially in line with the stated motivations, of Westerners seeking out these experiences. However, supplanting the term tourist with that of pilgrim unfairly prejudices the debate on the other side as well. To place the discussion on more neutral ground, the term ‘seeker’ will be used as a potentially viable substitute. A tourist may simply be seeking diversion, while a pilgrim may be seeking the transcendent. While I will not suppose to close the debate by inserting ‘pilgrim’ in as the descriptor of Westerners participating in ayahuasca shamanism in Iquitos, neither am I comfortable labeling them as simply ‘tourist.’ Though I will employ Fotiou’s term of ‘shamanic tourist’ from time to time in specific contexts, more broadly, when speaking of Westerners in Iquitos for the purposes of healing and transformation while working with an ayahuasca shaman, I intend to make use of the term ‘seeker’ to keep the discussion more terminologically aligned with the intentions of this investigation.
Finally, though Keith Basso’s work was performed in cooperation with the Apache in North America (1996), and thus geographically somewhat far afield from the current discussion situated in Peru, the powerful, almost lyrical, style of Basso’s work presents a way of understanding place, how it lives with people, how it is remembered, how it is known, and how it actively shapes lives, persons, and memories, such that it cannot be left absent from the discussion. As noted early on, it is the river that most defines the city of Iquitos. As the preceding discussions of geography, history, and socioeconomic situatedness have endeavored to show, the “making of place” is of the utmost importance in an understanding of the city. The river is a physical force, but also a metaphoric boundary between the forest and the city, vital to ribereño lives, shaping their possibilities and prospects, sustaining and providing for daily needs, and acting as the mediatory presence between all other aspects of life, both self and Other. Though mestizo culture may not reflect Apache in terms of complex place names and histories-in-the-landscape, I would argue that the landscape, its immediacy, its daily relevance, and its profound presence – especially in terms of the scale and power of the Amazon river itself – is central to the ways in which the places of social and cultural life are made in the Peruvian Amazon. Iquitos is a crossroads, a place where cultures, peoples, rivers, forest, and city all meet, exchange with, and inform one another. While the history of these meetings has often been brutal, it has no less established a place that is as much defined by the heterogeneous nature of its components as it is by their production of a whole. The place of Iquitos is made by, and continues to shape, its inhabitants, as being a historical and socio-cultural crossroads, a boundary place much like the river which defines it. That shamanism, a phenomenon explicitly linked with boundary states and mediation, should have arisen here as an experience that reaches beyond its cultural foundations and out into the Western imaginary is fully in line with the way in which place both shapes and is shaped by the lives of those who live within it.
A Shared Healing Myth
Whether shamanic ritual or a prescription for pills, sharing a belief in the causes and cures of illness is a crucial understanding to be held common between patient and healer. A worldview that allows pathologies and the etiologies of particular illnesses to be meaningfully communicated, at least in part if not full, from the doctor, shaman, or healing specialist to a patient, regardless of the mode of operation of any particular treatment, has shown to be crucial for the efficacy of therapeutic relationships (Walsh 2007: 59). If this is the case, how is it possible, then, for ayahuasca shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, to act as healers for Western seekers? Westerners, whether they are in search of healing on physical, psychological, or spiritual levels, by and large do not share indigenous or mestizo worldviews. This is not a suggestion that all Westerners can be meaningfully grouped together to imply a single common, or even dominant, understanding of the world in physical, psychological, or spiritual terms. Western culture is composed of innumerable sub-cultures and micro-cultures, identities that are shaped and reshaped throughout the lifetimes of those who comprise them. But even in the cases of those more ‘open’ to spiritual notions that may conflict with the broader assumptions of scientific rational-positivism and mechanistic views of the universe – such as New Age influenced sub-cultures, pagan and neo-pagan movements, and the like – Westerners are unlikely to share common notions of the ‘spiritual’ with the shamans they seek out. Ideas of ‘energies,’ chakras, karma, martial-arts-influenced ideas of chi, and New Age terms like the ‘higher self’ find themselves mixed and matched with a great deal of novelty in the minds of many Western spiritual seekers, developing personal theories that are as much self-help rhetoric as they are spiritual paths (Beyer 2009: 353). Such a statement is not meant to denigrate or cast any aspersions on the validity of any given personal spiritual insight, but rather to suggest that notions of the spiritual in Western parlance may have little in common with indigenous and mestizo notions of living spiritual entities such as the chullachaqui who haunts the forests, or the dangerous and seductive water-persons like the yukaruna. To make use of a term common in modern anthropological discourse around a new “respect and relationship” animism, indigenous and mestizo shamans are far more likely to consider the spiritual world not in terms of mystical transcendence or self-realization, but more in terms of relationships with other-than-human-persons (Harvey 2006). In similar ways, the categories of pop psychology and self-help – such as personal growth, emotional cleansing, and the like – that are often raised in the testimonies of Western seekers cannot be expected to be part of the worldviews of the indigenous and mestizo shamans. These worldviews, while both ostensibly ‘spiritual’ in nature, leave open the question of how space for healing is to be established that can be meaningful and effective for both healer and patient.
Marlene Dobkin de Rios – a medical anthropologist whose work has been foundational in the study of ayahuasca, especially in and around the city of Iquitos – has been one of the most strident critics of ‘drug tourism.’ It is because of its distinct relevance to the subjects at hand, both thematically and locationally, that I will primarily focus on her work in this discussion, and by no means is it my intention to ignore the ideas or contributions of other anthropologists working along similar lines. Her critiques of the phenomenon of ‘drug tourism’ continue to provide some of the greatest challenges to any possibility of meaningful cross-cultural healing in shamanic experience, especially in Iquitos. Among these critiques, one of the most difficult to grapple with is the doubtable authenticity of the practitioners she has labeled ‘neoshamans’ (2009: 128) – men (for it is almost without exception men instead of women) who have no formal shamanic training, who have not undergone the extremely rigorous traditional diets and apprenticeships, but nonetheless offer what they at least profess to be ayahuasca to unwary Westerners, whose own motivations and intentions may be similarly questionable. Those that she describes as ‘neoshamans’ are, by and large, strict opportunists, with interest not in healing, but in the money to be made at the expense of naive Western seekers. It is an enduring and unsolved problem, a phenomenon still readily found in Iquitos, which has the potential to leave real and long-lasting psychological and emotional damage in its wake. Dobkin de Rios has also pointedly described ayahuasca and drug tourism as “merely a footnote to drug trafficking around the world” (Ibid. 169), suggesting that Westerners seeking out these experiences are “urban educated men and women who tour Latin American simply to get high” (Ibid. 166). She has asserted that the majority of Western motivations for seeking out ayahuasca shamanic experience stem from “psychological states such as low self-esteem, values confusion, drug abuse… and chronic consumerism” (1994: 16). Between the charlatanism of certain ayahuasqueros and the purported “empty self” (Ibid. 16) of the Western seeker, these critiques seem damning for any hope of engagement between healer and patient. Indeed, more fully, she suggests
Unlike some anthropologists, who hope for a mutual learning experience culturally to occur between people who differ ethnically (see Geertz 1966), I think that there is little hope for communication between the drug tourists and the Amazonians. The Amazonians’ tradition of ayahuasca use is linked in a matrix dealing with the moral order, with good and evil, with animals and humans, and with health and illness, which has little correspondence or sympathy with the experiences of people in industrial societies. (Ibid. 18)
While there are myriad documented cases of the charlatanism she describes, and certainly an “empty self” may describe a number of Western seekers, this leaves, as Fotiou suggests, little space for any valid or meaningful spiritual experience (2010: 126), which is problematized by the remarkable number of reports of the efficacy of these cross-cultural shamanic healings. But if research suggests that cross-cultural healing and the facilitation of personal transformation is not only viable, but accomplished with some degree of regularity, in these ayahuasca shamanic ceremonies (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005), how can this be reconciled with the critiques that Dobkin de Rios leverages? If a shared healing myth does not exist between the healer and the patient, if the patient’s motives may not in all cases be ‘pure,’ and the healer’s authenticity and ethics are sometimes in doubt, how can the consistency with which healing does seem to be effected be accounted for?
Though an answer may not be easily suggestible, there are a number of ways in which these critiques can be addressed, if not wholly resolved. The potential charlatanism of untrained ‘neoshamans’ is something that has been attested to by a significant number of anthropologists and even other well-established shamans. In an interview, a well known Shipibo shaman named Guillermo Arévalo describes what he calls “folkloric shamansim” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 203). He opposes this to traditional shamanism, suggesting that “folkloric shamanism” has been designed to appeal to Western sensibilities, for the purposes of extracting money. However, by that same token, Arévalo himself is the owner and operator of an ayahuasca lodge and retreat by the name of “Espiritu de Anaconda,” which is well known for its involvement with Western seekers, having been the subject of a number of articles, and even two feature-length documentary films. In many ways, the “authenticity” of a given shaman may simply be something that has been decided in a similar way in indigenous societies: effectiveness. Arévalo, in a separate interview, suggests that “Right now, in the Amazon, we can’t say that there’s any pure tradition. It’s mixed” (Beyer 2009: 281), and as Fotiou suggests, some of the concerns over charlatanism in ayahuasca shamanism are based in “critiques that themselves suffer from naive notions of authenticity” (2010: 3-4). This is not to downplay the reality of the harm that can be wrought by those who attempt to make use of powerful psychoactive substances without the proper training, especially when they are called on to act as the leader or safeguard in these situations. Such actions can have very real and very dangerous psychological consequences for those involved. Rather, it is to suggest that establishing authenticity in shamanic practice has traditionally been a troubling subject, even for indigenous communities. Ultimately, it is those shamans who cannot heal, who diagnose illness incorrectly, or fall prey to other tell-tale signs of fraud, who are castigated, and suffer the loss of their clientele. That this kind of self-regulation can prove effective in indigenous communities, of course, does not suggest that the transient nature of the tourist’s involvement affords the same opportunity for this kind of systemic self-correction. It may however imply that opportunism and fraud are not phenomena that are wholly new to tourist-centric shamanic practice, either.
In his case study of the attendees of an ayahuasca retreat in Brazil, Michael Winkelman found that for many Western seekers, the motivations they gave for their desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic retreat were distinctly different than the consumerist-oriented “empty self” previously noted. He states of these motivations and intentions that the primary reasons included
establishing spiritual awareness and relations and personal spiritual development. For many, the motivation included emotional healing, and for some, assistance in dealing with substance abuse issues. Others expressed the desire to get a personal direction in life, to engage in a personal evolution. Only one respondent mentioned hedonistic reasons, i.e. the visual effects produced by ayahuasca. (2005: 211)
This suggests that while the hedonism supposed of those who would “tour Latin America simply to get high” may hold for some of those seeking out these experiences, many others have motivations more in line with healing and personal transformation, hallmarks of many spiritual pursuits. While Fotiou (2010) and Winkelman (2005) have some of the clearest data on the subject, a diverse range of anecdotal accounts can be put forward from many internet forums and even feature-length documentaries (such as Vine of the Soul) that all suggest similar patterns of a desire for healing and transformation as the primary stated intentions for participating in these experiences. Guillermo Arévalo, the Shipibo shaman noted previously, has stated of his personal experience with Westerners that
Principally, these tourists come to try to resolve personal problems. They say it is a self-encounter. They want to find the solution to their own problems and then to liberate themselves from those problems or the psychological traumas that they suffer. Others look for spiritual responses. They want to know the true spiritual path. (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204)
These statements make it difficult to countenance the suggestion, put forward by a number of anthropologists, that a desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic ceremony is purely the product of a consumerist-driven need to fill an “empty self” with goods and experiences. In many ways, this discourse describes many of the same themes that have been elaborated in the anthropology of pilgrimage, especially as it is compared to the modern tourist. The questioning of the sincerity and authenticity of motivation that seem to be at the core of the critique of this kind of shamanic tourism are very resonant with many critiques leveled at tourism more broadly, and are subject to much the same problematization. Engaging in such a problematization is beyond the scope of this paper, but see Morinis (1992) and Ivakhiv (2003) for more extensive treatments of the subject.
If the questions of the authenticity of both shamans and seekers have been addressed – though in no way closed or wholly answered – there remains perhaps the most significant obstacle in the path of the healer-patient relationship, bringing the discussion back around to where it began: the shared healing myth. Though cultural expectations and understandings between shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, and the Western seekers who arrive in Iquitos are without a doubt distinct from one another, such expectations and understandings are not static, nor are they absolute. As Fotiou suggests,
South American shamanism has always been about intercultural exchange and has drawn symbols and power from a variety of sources. More than sharing sociocultural content, ayahuasca shamanism provides an intercultural space for westerners and locals to dialogue. (2010: 4)
As can be seen in a wide variety of ethnographic material from the Peruvian Amazon, vegetalismo – mestizo shamanism – is voraciously syncretic (Beyer 2009: 341), absorbing and transforming outside influences from sources as widely dispersed as technological advances, philosophy, metaphysical theory, psychology, science fiction, Christian eschatology, and New Age conceptions of the self. South American shamanism can be understood, broadly speaking, as a methodology of mediation with the Other, an ability of the ritual specialist to incorporate, transform, become, and resist the influences, ideas, and power of the Other. To that end, while Western psycho-spiritual discourse may be populated by ideas not readily or originally available within the discourses of ayahuasca shamanism, many have become rapidly absorbed and integrated into the rhetoric of healing and transformation. Beyer, like many other anthropologists and scholars, speaks of the mestizo shamans with whom he worked as making use of – side by side with water spirits and spirits of the animals – Martian teachers, aliens that spoke computer languages, and entities that could manipulate electro-magnetic forces (2009: 339). And this movement is not only seen to occur in one direction. Fotiou asserts that “there is a two-way exchange and westerners adopt shamanic discourse as well, especially one that involves relationships with non-human persons” (2010: 2). In this way, the gap that exists between the healer’s worldview and the worldview of the patient can begin to narrow. Incorporating and making use of not just the terminology, but also the interconnected concepts and their cosmological or ontological implications, of the Other-in-relationship provides a way, not around, but through the cultural barriers that might otherwise prevent a meaningful exchange from taking place. A shared healing myth is a powerful component of any therapeutic experience, and while Westerners and shamans may not participate in identical, or even similar, cultural backgrounds, it may be possible for the dialogue between them to establish a new, dynamic healing myth as they proceed.
If it is possible to establish a shared, dynamic, healing myth between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony, then the cultural preconceptions and expectations that seem most useful to explore toward an understanding of how these might come together seem to be the etiology of illness and the theories underlying the methods of healing. In short, what causes illness or distress, and what alleviates the same, will act as windows into the distinct cultural categories of healer and patient. The causes and cures will be examined for mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers in turn. This examination will be significantly truncated for the sake of brevity and space, though it could readily support a much more extensive investigation.
Luis Luna, in his extensive work on vegetalismo, has described an etiology of illness among mestizo shamans that covers a lengthy list of sources from which one might be made to suffer some kind of disease or sickness (1986: 120). Needs of space prohibit the reproduction of the rather extensive discussion here, but by way of summary, the sources of illness can be broadly divided between two categories: spirits and humans. Sorcery, in its way, is at the root of all illness, the question being only whether it was precipitated by an offended spirit, or a resentful human. Spirits of specific plants, animals, and trees can all be sources of illness, though the spirits of the dead, the yakaruna of the river and the sacharuna of the forest can all be responsible for casting spirit darts, and even for abduction, both of souls and whole human-persons. Humans can, likewise, be responsible for illness, sending witchcraft, causing bad luck, praying evil prayers, chanting evil spells, or even physically placing poison where it will come into contact with another. Just as envidia is a social reality in mestizo life, so too is the notion that much of the spirit world is “basically hostile to human beings” (Ibid. 120), requiring constant vigilance, right action, and the intervention of specialists to maintain health and good fortune. When health has been compromised from one of these hostile sources, it becomes necessary to seek out a shaman to work a cure. While biomedicine, when available, is able to alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses, it is important again to recognize that the important question being asked is less how one became ill, and more why. Shamans have the ability to engage with an illness both to alleviate the physical difficulty, but also to address the social cause. This is perhaps more evident if it is recognized that, as Luna asserts, “the idea of healing also includes the manipulation of spiritual forces in the alleviation of financial and emotional problems” (Ibid. 32), such that biomedically-addressable illnesses are not explicitly distinguished from psycho-spiritual, and even fortune-related, troubles in mestizo life. The techniques employed to effect healing in these cases are very similar to Amazonian shamanic techniques more generally. Songs – in this case, icaros – are sung, mapacho tobacco smoke is fumigated over the patient, rattles are shaken and made use of to direct spiritual energy by the shamans, and spirit-darts, or virotes, are sucked from the patient, the evil either being sent back to the source of the malevolence, or simply ‘away.’ It is worth noting that while animals, plants, and trees are considered as potential sources of illness, in mestizo life “sicknesses are almost universally caused by the malevolence of other people” (Beyer 2009: 132). As described previously, envidia goes hand in hand with sorcery, and it is primarily envy, jealousy, and resentment that are thought to be the real source behind the significant majority of illness in mestizo social spheres.
Traditionally among Shipibo shamans, while both spirits and humans are likewise considered as potential sources of illness, the ways in which one might become ill from these sources are distinct from the etiologies present among mestizo shamans. Much of the shamanic discourse around healing among the Shipibo is concerned with the patterns of quené, or complex geometric designs as they are envisioned by shamans during ayahuasca ceremonies (Gebhart-Sayer 1985, Illius in Langdon 1992, Brabec de Mori 2009). These designs are understood by the Shipibo shamans to be capable of both healing and harming, such that a patient may be afflicted by the quené sent by a spirit or sorcerer, but then ultimately healed or restored by the quené applied by a healing shaman. These designs are intimately related to songs, sung and whistled by the shaman as he or she goes about the process of healing, or even by the sorcerer during harming. The songs, especially when performed in the context of ayahuasca ritual spaces, elicit these complex patterns and visions, as a form of mediation with the spirits. As Illius asserts, “The sick person’s designs are distorted and must be restored to return to health,” (in Langdon 1992: 65-66), suggesting that these patterns are in some ways bound up with the composition of the person. Other authors similarly note that when the patterns and designs of these songs have been used to cure or heal, they are “sealed” into the patient, becoming part of their makeup. When new illnesses occur, or sorcery is worked against a patient, even other shamans from the one who originally healed the patient can see the healing work that was done, and can see the new illness or sorcery as a “smearing,” “clouding,” or “distortion” of these earlier designs. While many of the techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans in healing – fumigation of mapacho tobacco smoke, the prescription of diets, the utilization of rattles and songs, and the sucking out of illness – may be similar to techniques utilized by other shamans in the Amazon, the way in which these illnesses are understood to operate – how these designs relate to spirits, shamans, and sorcerers, especially through song – is distinctly different. Though certainly other Panoan peoples share certain similar understandings of these designs and their spiritual and therapeutic potentials (see Lagrou in Santos-Granero 2009 for an exploration of these themes among the Cashinahua), these ideas are not shared unilaterally by mestizo shamans by any means, and certainly are not found in the worldviews of Westerners who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies with these shamans.
Before discussing etiologies of illness and theories of the modes of healing among Western seekers, it seems prudent to address a question that lingers within any such discussion of Western involvement in shamanic experience: why shamanism? There are many other spiritual paths available in the religious marketplace, many of which make claims to healing and personal transformation. While undoubtedly certain residual colonialist attitudes about shamanism being ‘closer to nature’ – in the sense of indigenous peoples being supposed in the Western imagination to be ‘without culture’ – can be pointed to in the preconceptions of many Westerners, any such fascination with a ‘primitive’ other seems unlikely to sustain the degree of interest and enthusiasm that shamanism, in its many guises, has continued to excite. Michael Harner has suggested that this sustained and increasing interest in shamanism is because “many educated, thinking people have left the Age of Faith behind them. They no longer trust ecclesiastical dogma and authority to provide them with adequate evidence of the realms of spirit” (1990: xi), proposing instead that Western seekers tend to be more interested in directly experiencing and testing the “limits of reality,” since, as he states, shamanism is “a methodology, not a religion” (Ibid. xii). Fotiou similarly asserts that
Ayahuasca experiences are attractive to Western people because, in a way, they give them direct access to the spiritual and the divine within. There is no intermediary as in organized religions. (2010: 130)
Even the terminological debates surrounding psychoactive substances reflect changing values and ways of understanding. The term entheogen has been circulated more recently, intended to imply something like “generating the divine within.” The term has begun, at least within certain circles, to replace others like “psychedelic,” “hallucinogen,” “psychotomimetic,” and the heavily prejudicial “drug.” While, on its own terms, “entheogen” too is prejudicial in the sense that it suggests a sacredness or spirituality to these substances that may still be open to debate, the intention in most cases is simply to shift thinking away from the more clinical and techno-scientific interpretations of these substances, and turn them more toward the understandings that have, in more traditional cultures, driven their use. The difference between a drug, a psychedelic, and an entheogen, ultimately, is in how it conceived of and how it is used. Though such an aside may seem peripheral, I would argue that an understanding of the words practitioners choose to describe their experiences directly impacts the question of “why shamanism.” A direct, personal contact with these powerful experiences is an undeniable draw for many who have felt alienated by the strictures and dogmas of organized religion. Whether through entheogens, trance-inducement by drumming, or other techniques designed to instigate experience beyond the bounds of normal, waking consciousness, the appeal of shamanism to precipitate healing, transformation, and communion with the spiritual or divine has a distinct and undeniable attraction for many Western seekers.
While undoubtedly many, if not most, Westerners participating in shamanic ceremonies tend to have biomedical understandings of disease, including notions of germs, bacteria, viruses, infection, genetic dispositions, and other similar concepts, it is not usually, or at least not primarily, these more physical or biological illnesses for which Westerners come to the Amazon in hopes of a cure. The wide varieties of technologies and chemicals that are available to Western biomedicine are, in most cases, seen as sufficient for treating explicitly physical ills by most Westerners. More common are psycho-spiritual complaints such as depression, anxiety, disaffection, alienation, and disconnection – a sense of being lost, or lacking something quintessentially ‘spiritual’ to give meaning or fulfillment to life. Asked if he saw a spiritual or psychological crisis in European and North American communities based on those participants with whom he had interacted, the Shipibo shaman Guillermo Arévalo responded “That’s what I see. It is clear among many people. Indeed, many of them also suffer from depression. Others are enslaved by their work. Others are hooked into materialism and they have been neglectful of the spiritual part of themselves” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204). This is made clear again in the words these seekers make use of themselves, when describing their motivations for participating in ayahuasca-shamanic ceremonies. As summarized by Winkelman, these are
seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. The motivation and perceived benefits both point to transpersonal concerns, with the principal perceived benefits involving increased self awareness, insights and access to deeper levels of the self that enhanced personal development and the higher self, providing personal direction in life. (2005: 209)
The illness, or psycho-spiritual lack, in the experience of these Western seekers is in many ways pointed to by the rhetoric used to describe motivations and benefits. An unfulfilled or flagging spirituality and personal development, emotional wounds, and a distance or disconnect from the sacred – all of these seem to serve in the place of an etiology of illness in these cases. While the terminology may ring of pop psychology and self-help, the illnesses engendered from these sources are insistent enough to warrant seeking help outside one’s own cultural boundaries, suggesting that the issues as they distress individual participants’ lives are real enough. While disaffection or alienation may be a particularly culture-bound illness, it is not necessary to understand it as any less real than anorexia nervosa experienced by young women in the West (Beyer 2009: 152), or the threat of, and affliction caused by, sorcery that pervades so much of the social discourse in the Amazon.
This sketch, however, does not end neatly. The etiology of illness, coupled with the theories underlying the modes of healing, for shamanic worldviews, find logical compliment in one another. That is to say that the causes of illness fall within a worldview that is matched by the modes of healing that are appealed to. But for Western seekers with illnesses described as spiritual – those requiring emotional healing and personal transformation – complimentary modes of healing within their own culture do not seem readily available. Whether this is due to an actual societal or cultural lack of a healing methodology, or due instead to the idiosyncrasies of personal taste and preference, these Western seekers find themselves with an illness or lack where the specialists involved in this potential methodology for healing, shamans, do not share the same understandings and expectations about the world. Whether intentionally or no, the question of a shared healing myth returns. Despite the fact that certain pieces of terminology and conceptual material do seem to cross cultural boundaries and allow a new healing myth to be dynamically created, the problem is not wholly resolved. What facilitates this dynamic creation of a new healing myth? Though both shamans and patients may make an effort to describe intentions and understandings to one another in terms that make sense to each, it is unlikely that every shaman and every patient have the time or the means to actively structure a full range of understandings that would supplant the need for a truly shared worldview. To answer this, one of the original questions outlined in this investigation is drawn nearer – the possibility that it is less important to understand, in these cases, how shamans heal, than it is to understand how they make use of a particular kind of transformational space. But to make such a suggestion worthwhile, it is first necessary to describe the actions of the brew, ayahuasca.
The Psychology of the Ayahuasca Experience
This is perhaps the moral of the whole story. The cross-personal commonalities exhibited in Ayahuasca visions, the wondrous scenarios revealed by them, and the insights gained through them are perhaps neither just psychological, nor just reflective of other realms, nor are they ‘merely’ a creation of the human mind. Rather, they might be psychological and creative and real. But when we appreciate this, so much of the fundamental notions by which we view both mind and world have to be considerably altered. (Shanon 2002: 401)
While certainly all perception of and action in the world is to a large extent culturally situated, there are certain strictly cognitive effects of the ayahuasca brew that allow it to shake culturally inculcated structures and constants, radically unmaking the ego and identities of the participants for some finite duration during the experience. The shaking of these constants places participants into a cognitive situation where they are more ‘open’ to the incorporation of ideas, suggestions, images, and ways of thinking that might otherwise seem alien and inassimilable to “normal” consciousness. Charles Grob and Benny Shanon’s psychological analyses of ayahuasca’s effects provide a window into how psychoactive components of the brew alter both perceptive and emotional structures. Many of the characteristics described by Grob hold true for altered states facilitated by entheogens in general, while those described by Shanon are specific to ayahuasca.
Grob outlines ten distinct characteristics “understood to be virtually universal to such altered state experience[s]” (in Metzner 2006: 75). Though some of these are undoubtedly more relevant than others for the current investigation, as a brief overview, the characteristics he reports as “universal” fall into the following categories: 1) alterations in thinking, 2) alterations in time sense, 3) fear of loss of control, 4) changes in emotional expression, 5) changes in body image, 6) perceptual alterations, 7) changes in meaning or significance, 8) a sense of the Ineffable, 9) feelings of rejuvenation, and 10) hypersuggestibility (Ibid. 75-76). Just this list alone goes some way toward understanding how a “shaking up” of consciousness might be precipitated in line with cross-cultural communication of meaning, but a few of these categories are worth noting specifically. Changes in body image entail the “dissolution of boundaries between self and others” where an individual identity or ego-self is no longer understood to be wholly distinct from the surrounding world, and the persons in it (Ibid. 75). When taken together with the experience of hypersuggestibility – which, as evidenced by the name, implies a profound increase in the capacity for suggestion to alter both perception and attitude – this indiscernability of distinct identity creates a situation in which ideas, even socio-culturally abnormal or uncommon ideas, can be incorporated with a marked rapidity. As these ideas are suggested and incorporated, the potential for the meanings associated with them, and the significance of the ideas themselves, can take on an extraordinary weight, such that certain words, phrases, and images can profoundly shape both an immediate experience, and potentially a subsequently altered worldview. If, as the entheogenic experience begins to close, a feeling of rejuvenation or rebirth is felt by the participant, the potential for the weight of suggestions made, or concepts encountered in the ceremony, to remain with the participant for a more extended duration is significantly enhanced. Though no single characteristic of the entheogenic encounter alone presents a mechanism by which cross-cultural dialogues might effect healing, taken together as they act on a participant in a ceremony, such an outcome becomes more plausible.
If these aspects of enthogenic encounters in general have the potential to produce a space where the transformation of identity may occur, ayahuasca has a number of unique cognitive effects that allow it to act as a “perceptual bricoleur” (Beyer 2009: 235). While an analysis of purely perceptual alterations under the influence of a psychoactive would do little to further an understanding of how a healing space is facilitated by employing ayahuasca, it is important to remember that these alterations of perception are, in most cases, matched by similar alterations in cognition. This is to say that the psychological processes hinted at by the visual effects noted are not limited only to the visible percepts, but extend into the cognitive functions of the participants as well, such that while a given ‘hallucination’ may be recognized as such, it is also very often taken as simultaneously ‘real’ within the space of the ceremony (see Beyer 2009: 233 for examples of this phenomenon).
Benny Shanon outlines a number of cognitive-psychological effects of ayahuasca, only a very few of which will be able to be explored within the scope of this paper. The most important of these, for the purposes of this discussion, are superposition and collage, the power of metaphor, and the Double-Face configuration. The phenomenon of superposition can be described as one where a given set of ‘real’ objects coincide with, but are not overlapped or mutated by, visionary objects, with a semantically meaningful relationship between the two. An example given by Shanon describes an experience wherein bodies were witnessed as hanging from a large tree. The tree was ‘real’ in the sense that it corresponded to a tree that was visible and solid outside of the entheogenic experience, but the bodies that were hanging from the tree did not correspond to a reality able to be experienced outside of the altered state (2002: 78-79). What is important to note in such a case is that the bodies were hanging from the tree, a relationship that, in effect, ‘makes sense’ for the coupling of bodies and trees, inasmuch as the bodies were not floating like balloons, dancing on the branches, or anything of the sort. This is an example of what Shanon has described as a relationship of “collage” (Ibid. 79), insofar as the aspects of the vision were drawn both from something in the ‘real’ world as well as from the visionary experience, and yet combined in such a way as to produce a result that had semantic meaningfulness. In line with the semantic meaningfulness of a particular vision, the power of metaphor stands out, according to Shanon, as “one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition” (Ibid. 336). In terms of cognitive psychology, Shanon describes metaphor as that feature of cognition which allows agents to “draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things”, wherein meaningful features “are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made up and new semantic features are generated” (Ibid. 336). Shanon proposes that ayahuasca plays directly upon this cognitive capacity for metaphor and the generation of novel semantic categories and connections, such that previously unrelated concepts and ideas can be drawn into relationship with one another in ways that are both meaningful and durable, potentially beyond the termination of the ayahuasca experience. Closely associated with the capacity for metaphor to draw schematic sets into novel relationships with one another is the Double-Face configuration, where existing semantic content is recognized to bear secondary or tertiary meanings not previously experienced or expressed. Shanon describes this as the mechanism that is at work in many puns and jokes, where a word, phrase, or even whole scenario is constructed and presented in such a way that the crux of the joke or pun lies in shifting the expected result or intention to suggest a novel connection between disparate semantic categories or domains. Words that can mean multiple things, utilized in an identical phraseology, may impart different and diverse meanings, dependent on the context within which they are deployed. Superimposing the meaning of a given articulation from one semantic domain onto another produces novelty in the more extended context. Scenarios and images may suggest outcomes that can be suddenly inverted or transformed upon the interruption of a discordant piece of information not originally present. Ayahuasca, Shanon suggests, plays on this capacity of language and image in cognitive apperception to present unexpected insights and interruptions into seemingly familiar conscious structures and ideational schemas. This allows participants in an ayahuasca experience to understand long-held identity structures and inculcated cultural values in radically different ways, even to the point of begin able to choose to retain, modify, or abandon them.
A more full treatment of the data gathered by Shanon, the situations in which he gathered it, and the striking nature of both the commonalities and differences of the experiences reported by his informants cross-culturally is beyond the scope of this paper, but, however brief, the preceding has attempted to establish some of the cognitive effects charted in his study as they relate to the space of healing between patient and shaman in an ayahuasca ceremony. When coupled with the “universal” characteristics of entheogenic experience as detailed by Grob, a broad outline emerges that suggests, from a psychological perspective, that cross-cultural communication and dialogue may prove to be a real possibility in an ayahuasca ceremony. With this in mind, and considering the concepts of bricolage and collage that have both been raised in a psychological context, I intend now to return to montage and world-making in anthropological discourse, coming back to where the intentions of this investigation began.
Healing, Montage, and World-Making
This investigation has, internal to its own structure, attempted to act as a kind of montage, presenting fragments and selections from contexts seemingly distinct from one another, in order to produce an image from the component parts that come together to form a new whole. A history of place, a traversal of the etiologies of illness among differing cultural groups, and the psychological effects of a psychoactive brew, have been drawn together, placed such that they are intended to simultaneously reflect one another, but still distinguish differences of origin and aim that in some ways make them largely incommunicable one to the other. In the structure of the paper I have attempted to reproduce, in a limited way, the same montage or collage of factors that are present in the spaces of healing and transformation that shamans in Iquitos are asked to hold open for a wide variety of clients in an ayahuasca ceremony. But why montage, as a form? In a way it reflects a desire not to neatly fit these distinct factors into a false narrative, and an attempt to allow their mutual resonance to arise, or fail to arise, of their own accord, without wedging them uncomfortably into molds they may not adequately fill. But perhaps more to the point, it is that it is montage itself that is the resonance between these factors, the play of montage and collage within the construction of each in its own terms, that acts as the commonality between these. The city of Iquitos has been drawn from a wide variety of social, historical, cultural, and economic forces, a patchwork of indigenous, mestizo, and European elements, strung together to produce a place that is remarkable for its role as a crossroads and borderland. Shamans have, perhaps definitionally, always been those to traverse any such borderlands, transgressing boundaries between self and other, merging, resisting, but above all mediating between these. That the persons of indigenous and mestizo shamans should take up residence and ply their trade in a physical, historic, and economic crossroads should not seem in anyway surprising. Nor should the presence of the Western others, as they seek out something definitively unavailable within their own cultures. If Iquitos has historically been a crossroads – socially, economically, and culturally, though its function as such has been at times notoriously violent and cruel – then its continuing nature as such a crossroads, if now for different reasons and appealing to different needs or desires, should likewise not prove unexpected. And as ayahuasca brings together healer and patient, it too acts, within the psychologies and cognitive structures of each, as its own force of collage and bricolage, restructuring and changing previous arrangements of ideas and concepts, integrating those which had perhaps previously seemed alien or incompatible.
But can montage be that mechanism, within a healing space opened and held by the shaman, that brings together aspects and elements of worldviews and conceptual categories, of life experiences and unspoken hopes, that can ultimately effect healing? In his extraordinary Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig suggests in terms of ayahuasca ceremonies that
The ‘mystical insights’ given by visions and tumbling fragments of memory pictures oscillating in a polyphonic discursive room full of leaping shadows and sensory pandemonium are not insights granted by depths mysterious and other. Rather, they are made, not granted, in the ability of montage to provoke sudden and infinite connections between dissimilars in an endless or almost endless process of connection-making and connection-breaking. (1991: 441)
The sacred brew of ayahuasca, in the space between the shaman and the patient, acts as a potent force of montage, actively bringing together concepts, cosmological referents, and ontological structures in novel ways, such that, as an adept within the navigation and utilization of the properties of this space, the shaman can effect the healing and, in the rhetoric of Western seekers, the personal transformation of the patient. Such a notion, while in a significantly different ethnographical context, is not dissimilar to the World-Making proposed by Joanna Overing in terms of the ruwang of the Piaroa, working with concepts drawn from Nelson Goodman’s philsophy (1990). Overing suggests that the power of the shaman has to do with his or her capacity to build meaningful worlds from pieces of other, pre-existing worlds. These new worlds, as they are developed in accordance with an attempt to alleviate the suffering or heal the illness of a particular patient, are structured in ways that allow pieces of myth, history, and even daily life to be drawn from their respective wholes, and repositioned together in ways that allow their novel arrangement to uniquely and explicitly address the situation of the patient in question. What is crucial to understand, even in such a brief outline of Overing’s ideas, is that these worlds are real to both the patient and the shaman, that they are not derivative or secondary spaces. All worlds, in Overing’s explication of Nelson Goodman’s philosophy, are ultimately constructed from pieces of other worlds, giving no primacy – and crucially, no pejorative cast – to any world so constructed. This is to say that this new world developed on the principles of montage is no less valid or meaningful than a “prior” world from which its aspects were drawn, but is instead simply another resonant world that informs, even as it potentially contrasts with and contradicts, the worlds from which its aspects were composed. Such a constructional notion of reality echoes what Santos-Granero has described as “Amerindian constructional cosmologies” (2009: 3), wherein all cosmological structures, even as they produce the lived and historical world, are compositional or constructional in nature, drawn from pre-existing features and elements. According to Santos-Granero, creation in many Amerindian cosmologies is not ex nihilo, but always constructed from prior or previous elements (Ibid. 4), suggesting that both the primordial and manifest worlds are ultimately the product of a function of montage, just as the healings of a shaman may be said to be. If the world itself can be understood as having been constructed through a function of montage, healings and other transformations seem within the realm of plausible as well.
Such a suggestion can be both elaborated and problematized. As shamans have long been the mediators with the Other, and have in many ways drawn power from just such an Other, syncretism of ideas is not only to be expected, but is wholly consistent with the operation of shamanism (Luna 1986: 35). This is to say that the incorporation of New Age terminology, the images of biomedicine and technology, and other such syncretic actions of indigenous and mestizo shamans is wholly in line with the mediatory capacity that in many ways defines the position of the shaman. At the same time, real questions can be raised as to what extent cultural barriers can be crossed, even granting the assumption of a healing space participating in montage. Piers Vitebsky has raised problems centered around the ‘holism of worldview’ that shamanism, especially indigenous shamanism, has traditionally entailed, and how central such a holism of worldview is to the efficacy of shamanic action (in Harvey 2003). Even in Overing’s work we can see an echo of this, as the “new worlds” that are constructed from aspects of others must be constructed in such a way as to remain meaningful and viable in terms of their constituent parts, and the uses to which they are put for healing. This is to say that while cultures may be acted in and through to produce new worlds, there are still cultural rules or understandings that will ultimately determine the viability and coherence of any newly produced world through these actions of montage. Not all constructions are meaningful or acceptable in all cultural contexts. As Vitebsky’s argument suggests, albeit in terms of Western-oriented neo-shamanisms, if the shamanic worldview is not understood as potent in all aspects and spheres of life – physical, psychological, spiritual, social, cultural, economic, etc. – then its power to act is significantly curtailed. This does not, I would argue, imply that such a “healing space” of person, place, and sacred substance cannot be effective, but rather that it must be a space of negotiation and dialogue, one that does not attempt to transcend cultural barriers, but rather to integrate and absorb them – to build bridges out of the bricks of the walls.
There is so much more that can, and perhaps should, be said. There are questions about the ethics of shamanic tourism, about what the impact on local cultures might be. As indigenous and mestizo young people become interested in ayahuasca shamanism more to pander to tourists than to work in their communities, there are real questions about how such tourism may impact these traditions, and whether that impact will entail, in some ways, the destruction of their cultural meanings, as they are applied more and more to clientele whose rhetoric, problems, and ills do not fit with traditional structures (Proctor 2001). Neither is the charlatanism and opportunism noted by Dobkin de Rios simply ameliorated by the plausibility of real and meaningful healing in some cases. But beyond the potential dangers or troubles surrounding the dynamics of shamanic tourism, there are theoretical questions that invite further investigation. If, as Fotiou asserts, the “question is no longer ‘if’ indigenous knowledge is going to be shared with outsiders but how and under what terms” (2010: 309), then as a religious or spiritual phenomenon, this shamanic tourism has intriguing correspondences to other religious phenomenon. Pilgrimage, especially in terms of kind of structuralist division between sacred Center and a fascination with the distant Other (Cohen in Morinis 1992), bears directly on this kind of religious phenomenon, especially as modernized Western seekers trouble the notion of any original, cultural Center. In a similar way, the dialogues surrounding healing and personal transformation that are so ubiquitous in the reports and testimonies of Westerners involved in shamanic tourism (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005, Vine of the Soul 2009, Other Worlds 2002) echo similar refrains in the testimonies of those that have undergone religious conversion (see Steigenga and Cleary 2007 for an elaboration on the discourses of conversion as they are found in Latin America). That the intentions and outcomes of participants in shamanic tourism may have an interplay with the same motivations, expectations, and experiences as those undergoing religious conversion suggests that there may be an affinity between the two experiences, though inasmuch as shamanic tourism does not require or present a model for converting to any given religion or set of beliefs, the differences may be as informative as the similarities.
Ultimately, it may well prove to be the relationality of the experience, the space between shaman and patient – the healing space created and held by the shaman, making effective use of ayahuasca to open dialogue and negotiated senses of the meaningful or “real” with the patient – that effects the power of the ceremony. To bring together that which did not before fit, to assemble a world from the self-help concepts of a patient, from the other-than-human spirits of the shaman, from the colonialist preconceptions of a Westerner, from the dynamic nature of tradition, and from the visual and auditory noise of the river and forest and city and unmuffled moto-taxis and carts of fruit and satellite dishes and dugout canoes and cheap cell phones – it is just this that is that essence of montage. Where this space holds, and where the power of montage can be brought to bear – that power that is, as Taussig suggests a kind of “Epic theater aimed not at overcoming but at alienating alienation” (1991: 329) – social and cultural barriers may not cease to matter, but may be transformed and transmuted into a new shared myth.
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 The terminology of Western and Westerner is problematic as a categorical identification. Many who come to participate in these ceremonies are not, geographically or culturally, “Western”. Similarly, the many sub- and micro-cultures that exist among those even nominally “Western” defy any singular category to adequately define or even describe the many different persons making these kinds of journeys. The term is, however, regularly employed in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca tourism to suggest Western-educated persons coming from industrialized social backgrounds. It will be made use of in that context, though relevant distinctions will be noted in the discussion.
 See Ivakhiv 2003 for a broader treatment of the themes of New Age tourist and pilgrim.
 While vegetalismo, or mestizo shamanism, may have had some of its traditions retained from many original indigenous traditions of acculturated populations as they became indistinguishable from mestizo in rebereño life, much of the vegetalismo shamanism that became established in Iquitos was drawn from the return of these rubber tappers, as they brought back what they had learned in their time away (Luna 1986: 31).
 See Cohen in Morinis 1992 for an anthropological analysis of what distinguishes a tourist from a pilgrim.
 This use of the term ‘neoshaman’ should be understood as distinct from its use in terms of Westerners participating as shamans, such as in Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism (Harner 1990).
 This use of the term “syncretic” is not intended to introduce notions of authenticity or purity into the discourse at this point, but rather to acknowledge an active and agentive multivalency. Vegetalismo broadly speaking does not have a set of orthodox beliefs that it must sustain as authentic in order to retain a coherent identity, but is rather oriented toward maintaining and enhancing an efficacy in healing and practice. While questions surrounding tradition vs. innovation can certainly be raised, as this paper endeavors to show, syncretism in mestizo shamanism may deal more with a mediation with the Other than questions of traditional systems of belief.
 Cf. Luna and Amaringo 1999.
 In many religious contexts, the term ‘sacrament’ is made use of as well. For a more detailed analysis of the use of the term sacrament vs. sacramental in sociological terms as it applies to ayahuasca, see Baker 2005.
 Many analyses of the phenomenology and psychology of ayahuasca begin with a detailed account of how the harmine and harmaline alkaloids potentiate the DMT that is thought to produce the majority of the visual features of an ayahuasca experience. Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, and would not significantly aid an understanding of the shamanic healing space. Likewise, a detailed phenomenology of the stages of ayahuasca inebriation, common visual motifs and themes, and the somatic effects of the brew, while related to the subject at hand, do not fall within its scope.
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. 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, 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
 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.
 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.
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.
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.
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Taita Juan, an indigenous shaman who was taken into custody for possession of ayahuasca in mid-October has been cleared of charges, and is being freed. Apparently this happened almost a month ago, but I hadn’t heard. Excellent news!
You can read more here:
Graham Hancock has written a short article for BoingBoing on Ayahuasca. Nothing incredibly profound, but, as usual, he’s a compelling writer, and since I find his stance on the shamanic experience of ayahuasca to be, from my experience, an accurate one, I’d say go take a look.