July 19, 2024

The Pharmakon and Ayahuasca Globalization (Roger Green)

Jacques Derrida theorized in an interview on “The Rhetoric of Drugs”:

The production and distribution of drugs are, of course, primarily organized by right-wing forces or regimes, by a certain form of capitalism.  But in Western Europe drug consumption and certain drug culture are often associated with vaguely anti-establishment, left-leaning ideology, whereas the brutality of repressive politics has the characteristics of the right, and indeed of the extreme right-wing. (253)

These sentences nicely show one way that political tensions, perhaps through fits and starts and not an elegant dialectic, still move toward a kind of telos. He goes on to say, presciently:

We can in principle account for all these phenomena: they are not so strange as they first appear. In its particulars and within its boundaries, the code of these paradoxes is destined for an upheaval, and, to tell the truth, it is already undergoing one.  But by recording, transcribing, or translating such an upheaval, we can only try to mitigate its threat.  To economize it.  This is always possible and works: up to a point.  As sudden and overwhelming as it may be, this event had heralded itself before we could talk about history or memory.  The virus has no age. (254)

Derrida is particularly thinking of the AIDS crisis here, and those familiar with his work will know he is also echoing his thought on pharmakon and the tension between Philosophy and Rhetoric in Phaedrus and Gorgias.

In David Boothroyd’s Culture on Drugs, he argues:

[W]hen considering that bit of culture we call ‘theory’ and ‘drugs’, it must be acknowledged that theory is itself nothing other than part of ‘culture on drugs’.  As there is no meta-discourse of drug culture, one must, so to speak, allow drugs to do the talking: as [Avital] Ronell says, one has to acknowledge that drugs are ‘a radically nomadic parasite let loose from the will of language’. (12)

Discourse, in other words, is already imbricated within a narcotic culture.  Historian of modernity, David Courtwright, characterizes modernity as a “psychoactive revolution,” while counterculture guru’s such as Terence McKenna, amplifying on Mircea Eliade’s descriptions of shamanism as “archaic techniques of ecstasy,” called for an “archaic revival.”

While I have critiqued the dogmatically liberal impulses within such thinking elsewhere, new books such as Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind continue to pique popular interest in the revival of psychedelic science, often by merely remixing interesting but already well-iterated information.

Narrative moments in Pollan’s book, for example, mirror ways Nicolas Langlitz’s work has set up psychedelic science since “the decade of the brain.” Langlitz’s work been interesting, not the least because his PhD in Anthropology and Medical Doctorate afford him uniquely specialized knowledge in his participant observations of labs testing psychedelics on human subjects.

While giving a thorough history of medical ethical issues and the decline and resurgence of psychedelic testing in the wake of gregarious figures like Timothy Leary, Langlitz notes the resurgence of theological questions explored by Leary & Co. early on at Milbrook with the International Federation of Internal Freedom (IFIF).

But as the name suggests, such internal maneuverings already display a cultural set and setting for the rationale underwriting psychonautical expeditions.  Foucault’s lectures On the Government of the Living and Peter Sloterdijk’s characterizations of In the World Interior of Capital  both point to the internalizing of ascetic conscience over a broad period of history, emerging in the virtualized deterritorializing efforts of modernity to map and measure the globe.

In this post I want to draw on a larger way of framing discussions of drugs and capitalism, with particular attention to discourse on psychedelic and ayahuasca research.  I situate both within a larger modernist project.

It is in the context of early modernity and the emergence of euro-christian notions of property and capital that we see the alienated doubling of ‘Man’ the automaton, Rousseau’s ‘citizen’ that cultivates the melancholic longing that the Romantics and others have lamented as the culture of habeas corpus detached itself from what Alexander Weheliye has called, habeas viscus.

Weheliye describes habeas viscus as, “The conjoining of flesh and compound habeas viscus brings into view an articulated assemblage of the human (viscus/flesh) borne of political violence, while at the same time not losing sight of the different ways the law pugnaciously adjudicates who is deserving of personhood and who is not (habeas)” (11).  I would say Weheliye’s point is evidenced by Indigenous People’s relationship to the globalization of ayahuasca.

Psychedelic scientists, ayahuasca tourists, and psychonauts are largely the worker bees of Queen Capitalism, colonizing the interior “landscape” of consciousness.   The universality of consciousness and the mechanisms of the brain are written of frequently with little attention to the sort of critiques Weheliye makes of “biopolitical” and “bare life” conversations.

Weheliye’s critique is basically that Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben neglect to account for the ways racialized assemblages underwrite our claims about science and knowledge.  There is no objectified or scientific “bare life” not already filtered through our “racialized assemblages.”  Nicolas Langlitz’s research concerning the presence of theological discussions in psychedelic testing on human subjects is echoed in grand titles of works like William A. Richard’s Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, which is based on research at Johns Hopkins.

Another area of my “worker bee” metaphor for global capitalism exists in the ongoing discussions about “entheogens.” Recently, Brazilian ayahuasca churches such as União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime have won (and lost) significant legal battles in nations outside of South America.

The first thing to note is that the “State-recognized” Ayahuasca religions all come from Brazil and have little in common with Indigenous Peoples’ issues, even though indigenous identities may play roles within their theological cosmoses.  I believe the greatest impact of the internationalization of ayahuasca for Indigenous Peoples is indeed that the motivations behind the diaspora have nothing to do with them but oftentimes employ colonial imaginings of Indigenous People.  So, tracking the issues as they specifically relate to Indigenous concerns is one way to analyze the situation concerning drugs and global capitalism.

Or to put it another way: the narratives of progress and activism seeking both religious exemptions for entheogens (indeed within the neologism ‘entheogens’ itself), as well as rhetorical attempts by organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Assoctiation for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) that seek through appeals to medical and therapeutic research to lift band on specific controlled substances, ought to be situated within broader historical capitalist and colonialist impulses.

The groups that have sought religious status are highly organized and invested, even if unconsciously, in the integration of their practices within dominant society.  People outside of discussions about ayahuasca’s transnational diaspora often have a mistaken assumption about the religions’ Indigenous qualities.  They are unaware of how the figure of the ‘Indian’ is at work in their own imaginaries, even when they feel they are being supportive of Indigenous peoples.

This has led Amazonian groups such as the Union of Indigenous Yagé Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) to form alliances and write statements on cultural appropriationCarlos Suárez Álvarez writes of the explosion of ayahuasca healing centers in Peru: “It is a business. I myself have confirmed that there are at least 40 such ayahuasca lodges in Iquitos, capital of the Peruvian jungle. Last year, 10 of those centers lodged 4,000 visitors, each of whom stayed for at least a week, paying from 100 to 200 dollars a night, for a total revenue of around 5,600,000 dollars.”

Almost all ayahuasca consumption is being perpetuated in what is perhaps too off-handedly referred to as “New Age” contexts, and in those contexts romanticizing Indigenous “knowledge” saturates discourse.  In considering a broader history of liberal global capitalism, I tend to read New Age esoteric practices as euro-christian, even when they adopt images and ideas foreign to more Orthodox Christian practices or claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Nicholas Campion has claimed, “The modern New Age movement, in spite of its presumed association with the 1960s, millenarian in character and forms part of a broader cultural tradition which extends from the modern west to back through Christian millenarianism to the ancient Near East” (5).  At the same time, in much of the discourse on ayahuasca and ayahuasca ‘religions’ there is scant attention from the discipline of religious studies, and so few writing about ayahuasca right now has a sophisticated or rigorous conception of what a ‘religion’ is as an analytic term.

This is a massive problem because ongoing attempts to both seek special permission from governing bodies means that lawyers and judges are constantly involved in what officially constitutes a religion.  For Americans especially, but also in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights and more recently The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as well, religious freedom is highly valued as an outgrowth of religious wars in Europe during the 16thand 17thcenturies.

The language in such official documents assume a static and transcendent concept of ‘religion’ and scholars in religious studies in recent years have given a lot of scrutiny to the idea of religion as a largely Protestant but generally Christian invention employed by European colonizing nations to the rest of the world.

David Chidester’s work in south Africa has been especially useful, and his recent Empire of Religion is especially poignant here.  Any study that seeks to make a serious inquiry into any of the ayahuasca phenomena needs a rigorous concept of ‘religion’ that includes is Christian conceptual origin (see Nongbri, Masuzawa, and Schott here as well).

The term “shamanism” is another generalized Western concept that creates a catchall category for culturally discreet practices.  This of course comes from now outdated notions of “World” or “Comparative Religion” within religious studies that remain in popular use by both academics in other disciplines and broader publics.  Due to its pervasiveness in the literature on ayahuasca, I will have to use it here, but let me qualify from the outset that I see the term as essentially a Christianizing force of globalization in the sense that it flattens distinctions between groups through an assumption of universal translate-ability.

For me, “neo-shamanism,” even when its practitioners expressly reject Christianity, is, like New Age, largely still a euro-christian colonizing force.  Such rejections only refer to what George Layoff calls “surface frames.”  This is not to say that there are not pagan elements within the hegemony, as Jonathan Cole nicely presented in his article last month for The New Polis.

Although archaeological evidence shows a heavy use of “mind-altering,” “psychedelic,” or “entheogenic” substances – attained through both plants and animals – going back several thousand years, ayahuasca itself is harder to trace.  Native Peoples, as Tink Tinker among many others have noted, do not have a concept of ‘religion’, at least not any compatible with the Western-influenced, static and transcendent concept.

By far, when we look at the “religious” or “ritual” use of plants throughout both South and North America, tobacco would seem to be the “entheogen” of choice. As Johannes Wilbert notes in Tobacco and Shamanism in South America, certain varieties of the Nicotiana plant have long been cultivated throughout South America, the Caribbean and North America, although the practices of heavy ingestion – whether drank or inhaled as smoke or snuff (rapé) – especially among groups such as the Jivaro is more characteristic of the southern hemisphere.

Peter Gow’s famous essay, “River People: Shamanism and History in Western Amazonia” traces the fact that ayahuasca use in the Amazon was largely localized, but as Christian missionaries took Indian slaves with them into the interiors of the jungle, different Indigenous groups began to spread its use.

The fact that for many groups, ayahuasca is consumed in a nightly ritual, leaving a purged and cleansed, often energetic feeling the next day, there are many reasons one could speculate Indigenous People, who knew local plants in ways that Westerners still today cannot conceive, might secretly ingest it while their colonizers slept.  In any case, as Gow and Michael Taussig have shown, the drama of ayahuasca itself is the drama of colonization and colonial history.

Tracking the influence of ayahuasca diaspora among Indigenous Amazonians, Glenn Shepard’s essay, “Will the Real Shaman Please Stand Up?” details the fact that for the Matsigenka people, while there was frequent use of the ayahuasca vine going back an unknown amount of time, it was only during the 1950s and 1960s that they were introduced to recipes with the Chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis).  While ayahuasca by itself if ingested in high doses can have some psychedelic effect, Chacrunacontains much larger quantities of DMT.

What Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) has, are scientifically called monoamine oxidose inhibitors (MAOIs) which essentially allow the human body to synthesize the DMT in the stomach and send it to the brain in 8-12 hour sessions.  Suffice it to say that for the Matsigenka, who received the leaf from travelers from Urubamba suddenly had way heavier psychedelic experiences.  As Shepard notes, the embrace of the new recipe came at the cost of older recipes and uses for the vine.

Indigenous uses of ayahuasca and mixtures with countless varieties of other plants are generally eliminated by Westerners’ focus on ayahuasca as a single substance, despite vaping recipes. There are also about nine different species of the vine itself, and so any kind of singular usage is already inaccurate, at least culturally speaking.  But as both religious groups who do get permission from governments outside of South America, such as the UDV church in the United States, this often comes with registering the precisely the amounts of plants imported and exported.

It also involves dealing with organizations such as the FDA and regulating recipes so that people can keep track of dosage levels and health inspections.  What people physically ingest in the U.S. as ayahuasca is not comparable to much of what is ingested in a variety of different forms in the Amazon. Moreover, as more and more NGOs and ayahuasca tourists visit and set up shop in the Amazon, more and more regulation gets called for. So, just as New Age seekers seek to “escape” the depraved emptiness of “secularized” “consumer” or “material” culture of the West, they bring with them the institutional trappings to the Amazon.  What will happen to Indigenous practices when one needs to pass a board exam or get a license to practice ayahuasca “shamanism”?

Still, other groups such as International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service (ICEERS) promotes scientific research, human rights, and protection for Indigenous people.  Beatriz Caiuby Labate has been tireless in her efforts to attend to ethical research and advocacy.

Within liberalizing discourse, sexual predation is another frequently discussed issue in discussions about regulated uses of ayahuasca.  While ancient Incan and Amazonian artifacts from the region clearly show figures having sex in ritualized settings where psychedelics were probably used, and no one knows if such practices are part of existing Indigenous genealogies, yet Western women in many cases have reported being taken advantage of sexually by “neo-shamans.” This is no minimization of such abuses. It is simply that, as Neil Whitehead and others have shown with respect to sorcery, there are Indigenous frames for practices Westerners find abhorrent.

Mestizo “shamans” and western “neo-shamans” have differing motivations but both generally embrace more universalizing views and eclectic introductions of practices like Buddhist meditation or yoga, as the interviews in Rak Razam’s The Ayahuasca Sessions attest, as well as more critically in multiple works by Marlene Dobkin de Rios.

Most writers of books about ayahuasca and researchers are optimistic and supportive of its use, and although this is changing slightly since books like Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar’s 2012 Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond and tracked in their most recent book released earlier this year – The Expanding World Ayahuasca Diaspora– still there is a shortage of critical literature in existence and debates about what “being critical” means often occur.

Being critical will quickly risk being marginalized (or rejected?) from conferences such as Psychedelic Science, put on yearly by MAPS, as Leopardo Yawa Bane has attested from an Indigenous perspective.  Yet MAPS also publishes important books in the field like Labate’s Ayahuasca Religions: A Bibliography & Critical Essays.

Among “neo-shamans” all sorts of ethical abuses have been documented, sexual and otherwise – which leads well-meaning people to seek some sort of regulation or code of ethics among practitioners.  One anthropologist working in the Amazon recently expressed to me her concern over ayahuasca religions having exemptions because of lack of ethical oversight within such communities.  Instances of abusing people who are in highly suggestable states obviously hurt the efforts of those seeking to be allowed to use ayahuasca in various nations.

Beyond heterosexual abuse, Clancy Cavnar’s work on Lesbian, Gay and Transgender users of Ayahuasca is especially intriguing, as she explores in her dissertation and more recently in “Ayahuasca’s Influence on Gay Identity.”  This is because psychedelic therapy (with LSD) in the 1960s and 1970s reported high rates of “curing” homosexuality.  In all the cases she came across, ayahuasca users felt their sexuality was affirmed by their positive experiences with ayahuasca and found it easy to reject heterosexual religious norms in Christianity.

While Cavnar cites a trans member of the Santo Daime church in Brazil, I myself have read online accounts of ex-members of the UDV church in the US who left or were kicked out for (they say) the groups non-acceptance of homosexuality.  The UDV has also released a statement regarding their view that homosexuality “goes against the natural origin of human existence.” Yet the UDV has also been productive in publishing and backing scientific research on the physical effects of ayahuasca, so like MAPS there are some agenda issues even though they both put out useful material.

With respect to spectrum-based gender issues in Amazonian Indigenous contexts, there is also a lack of research, though Glenn Shepard importantly notes that almost all Westerners encounter ayahuasca as female, despite the plant being gendered in different ways by different Indigenous groups. Shepard notes also that in Indigenous groups where there used to be more women practicing as “shamans” many women refuse to drink in mixed settings with Westerners.

And although due to sexual abuse issues, female-centered establishments run by only women “shamans” have popped up in Iquitos, in the forest where so much Western attention is given to ayahuasca “experience” (in the singular) and money is to be made by otherwise extremely poor people, in Indigenous contexts where gender divisions decide what kinds of plants men and women might work with, the over-attention to male shamans who work in cultural contexts where ayahuasca is gendered as masculine comes at the cost of almost all traditional female knowledge.

It’s worth remembering the ways Barbara Alice Mann chastises liberals and New Agers in Spirits of Blood, Spirits of BreathAs both Mann and Tink Tinker have noted, overwhelmingly in indigenous contexts the emphasis is on cosmic balance, whether working individually or as a group.  In almost all ayahuasca research and in my own participant observation in ayahuasca ceremonies all attention is based on individuals’ “experiences” and goal setting.

 Concepts of “integration” and “reintegration” often display prior European therapeutic conceptions. Reintegration often focuses on Freudian models (even when the non-licensed “therapist” / “shamans” running the sessions don’t know that’s the model they’re using!) where people process in group settings their experiences from the night before.  These models were present in psychological discourse as psychedelic therapies were being formed.  Although Michael Pollan’s book is not about ayahuasca, he ends up arguing for Freud for other psychedelic therapies.

All of this is highly ethically suspect for a user, since in many cases one is in a very raw state and put into a group setting where facilitators expect certain kinds of answers. So, groups do matter in the Western context but all the rhetoric is primarily framed as individual experiences.

Of course, both the New Agers and the recognized religions explain universalizing kingdoms of peace and as Alex Polari de Alverga, a current leader of Santo Daime writes in The Religion of Ayahuasca: the Teachings of the Church of Santo Daime, the belief is that the ayahuasca vine is itself the second coming.

Hints of Millerite apocalypticism show up in the midst of a universalizing psychedelic perennial philosophy in the spirit of Aldous Huxley and especially nineteenth century Kardecism and New Thought are the foundational philosophical and theological base.  Although Christ is accepted into a much different cosmos of spiritual entities, Christ is still King, much like the standard white appropriation narrative in films like Avatar.

Marcelo Mercante’s very interesting dissertation as Images of Healing: Spontaneous Mental Imagery and Healing Process tracks the ways Barquinha, a branch of Daime has “cleaned up” the religion in a very short time.  As a researcher, he also had to be a member of the community and leaders pressured him to focus more on his commitment to the religion instead of his academic research.  He notes that there was a kind of “standard script” the community had for researchers. He also notes that while the mixed ethnicity founders used tobacco, the new group was consciously moving away from smoking.

Racial tensions between Urubamba, Candomblé, and the emergent ayahuasca religious have been frequent, although occasional integrated meetings among founders with indigenous practitioners are often celebrated.  Alex Polari describes a visiting “shaman sorcerer” who was allowed to visit and live in the Daime community despite Padrinho Sebastião’s knowing his “ill-intentions.”  The religion ultimately thwarted his designs.

Mercante notes that while Caboclos (spirits of Indigenous slaves, as well as animal deities and non-human / non-animal spirits of the Amazon) are present in the religion, they are lowest in the hierarchy and become converts to “Christ’s army” – so apparently Indigenous People cannot escape evangelism even through death.

Andrew Dawson’s excellent study, Santo Daime: A New World Religion clearly argues that practitioners of recognized religions have for a long time been increasingly urban, middle class, and white.  Stephan Beyer’s Singing to the Plants documents Indigenous “shamans” who now fly spiritual fighter jets and space ships in their shamanic flights.  This interesting phenomenon would be worthy of study alongside observations Aisha M. Beliso-de Jesús makes in Electric Santería about initiates being possessed by orixás through televisions and computer screens far outside of Cuba.

The bottom line is that Indigenous practices are being wiped out despite international attempts of groups to be recognized as “religions.”  That said, the more any kind of official recognition or regulations are imposed onto the poorest and most marginalized people, even seeking to advocate for traditional practices as “religions” already puts Indigenous groups into the deep framing of Western Christianity.  It’s not that there are no possibilities for deep cultural survivance among Indigenous Peoples, it is that after more than 500 years of genocidal colonization we ought to know better.  Concepts like habeas viscus, however, may point us in a better direction.

Thus, we arrive back at Derrida’s insights concerning the struggle of the Pharmakon, as well as Boothroyd’s claim that “theory is itself nothing other than part of ‘culture on drugs.’”  I have attempted here, largely through discourse on ayahuasca and Indigeneity, to evidence more directly what I think folks like Derrida and Boothroyd are getting at.  Please note that The New Polis also has a current call for submissions concerning “Drugs and Capitalism” writ large, and not necessarily only pertaining to psychedelics.


Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.


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