Laura Dev – 2016
Final Paper – Townsend Seminar: The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene
Looking through the lens of the “Anthropocene” encourages us to call into question what it means to be human. One way that we could define humanity is through our encounters with other-than-humans, in which case it is arguably our connections within a multi-species web, and as symbiotic beings that make humans human at all. The word “Anthropocene” simultaneously highlights our dependence on and existence within this multi-species web, and yet also sets us apart from that web, allowing humans to somehow act upon it from a removed position, while still being situated within it. This brings into relief the inequalities that allow some earthlings, and some humans, to gaze from a seemingly removed position, as agentive, and others to be objectified and acted upon. I specifically focus on how plants fit into this web.
Shall we define the time period of the Anthropocene by the denial of our human connections with other-than-humans in a self-fulfilling act of human exceptionalist isolation? According to the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Amazonian cosmology that he terms “perspectivism”, all beings consider themselves to be essentially human from their own subjective experiences, even though each type of being may experience different and perhaps only partially-overlapping worlds. I think it’s worthwhile to question our own humanity and who is bestowed with this distinction. It has been part of various power plays to dominate through the denial of humanity to certain subjugated groups, or to dehumanize the other (e.g. through colonial encounters with “others” in which humanity was structured within racialized hierarchies). Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about the act of “humanizing” as the antidote to oppression, which is intrinsically dehumanizing. This is accomplished through relating in a human way— that is, forming non-oppressive relationships through dialogue. Freire distinctly does not include other-than-human beings in his humanizing project, but I believe the same concepts can be applied. However, when I apply the word “humanize” in the context of other-than-humans, (in this case, plants), I do not mean “anthropomorphize”, but rather to allow for agency, for selfhood, and to be recognized in their worlding capacities –creating their own worlds of experience. It would be fair to describe the Anthropocene as a time when “othered” humans and other-than-humans have been globally oppressed by human hierarchies.
I use Donna Haraway’s term “Chthulucene” as an alternate lens to the Anthropocene, which situates us as part of a multi-species assemblage, and challenges human exceptionalism. If the Anthropocene is seen as something that we need to escape from, Haraway views the Chthulucene as the “multi-species muddle” that we must move more deeply into. The Chthulu is a mythical or science fiction creature, and it also comes from the worth chthonic, which implies the subterranean, the earth, the underworld, the soil. So in this way it seems an appropriate lens for how plants might understand these times. I explore in this paper what it might be like to form relationships with specific plants that strive to be less objectifying, less oppressive, and more collaborative and reciprocal. I call this striving “healing”. I am going to discuss a way of conceptualizing healing that integrates humanity as and within an ecology of selves – comprised of human and other-than-human beings. I borrow the term “ecology of selves” from Eduardo Kohn, who describes this as the many voices and agencies that occupy our inner and outer landscapes and that we are always becoming with.
The first main objective of this paper is to explore the concept of healing as an ethical stance that orients us as we are coming into being, and “becoming with”, that is useful in guiding us through the Chthulucene. In order to do this, I focus on Amazonian healing and particularly Shipibo concepts of health and healing rituals. I will also explore the potential for “humanizing” plants to disrupt animacy hierarchies, through de-objectification, opening the possibility of more interesting, less hierarchical, and less oppressive multi-species assemblages. Particularly, I am going to focus on ways of relating with, learning from, and understanding plants that I am learning from Shipibo healers in the Peruvian Amazon. Learning from plants subverts hierarchies of animacy, allows us to exist in a world that is alive and not objectified. I argue that forging tighter multispecies connections may mean that through collective imaginaries, we allow ourselves to become sensitive to the collective web that we exist within.
The Objectification of Plants and the Fate of the Amazon in the Anthropocene
It takes about nine hours by slow boat to get to my field site, a Shipibo-Conibo native community downriver from Pucallpa, near the fork of the Rio Pisqui, in the Peruvian Amazon. The Ucayali River, a main tributary of the Amazon, is home to many indigenous groups, the most populous of which is the Shipibo-Conibo (Shipibo hereafter), with about 45,000 people. The Shipibo historically lived in small settlements along the Ucayali and its tributaries, but along with continuing deforestation in the region, many Shipibo people have now migrated to Pucallpa to seek employment. The first time I visited this community, I had imagined that I was heading into “the jungle” but upon arriving, I found my imagined jungle notably missing. However, about an hour away, in the surrounding secondary forest, down a logging road, there are a small number of very old trees — some of the only old-growth trees I had seen – master teacher trees, which have been protected by my maestro (teacher) and his family, because they use the bark and resins of these trees for healing and learning.
There are complex dynamics unfolding between Amazonian native communities and logging operations. There are competing claims over rights to harvest trees, as well as access and control over forested lands. This is also a conflict over worlds and identities. Trees and humans are continually co-constituted and reconstituted in a web of social and ecological relations. These relations, however, exist within a colonial legacy of racialized violence associated with the extraction of forest resources, which has given rise to contested landscapes, which represent struggles over meaning and conceptions of the world.
The objectification of plants and other-than-human-beings has led to many anthropocenic symptoms. I’m going to focus on logging and deforestation, a result of the objectification of trees as timber. There is an ontological tension in how trees are understood— Shipibo healers view certain trees and other plants as having the capacity to teach, heal, sing, and embody human form; at other times, trees are objectified as timber – already dead, a commodity to be harvested and sold. The social and ecological outcomes of timber extraction in the Peruvian Amazon have mainly affected indigenous forest users. It’s unfortunately a common narrative that modern development is associated with the loss of livelihoods, dispossession, or cultural genocide for indigenous groups, along with ecological degradation. This goes with the discourse of improvement, and inevitable progress.
Peru has the second largest area of natural forest in South America, and the forest in the Amazon Basin is considered a global biodiversity and endemism hotspot. James Lovelock, author of the “Gaia hypothesis”, has called the rainforests of the Amazon basin “the lungs of the earth” because of the plants’ contribution to transforming CO2 into O2. Lovelock hypothesized that high rates of deforestation in the Amazon would be a threat to Gaia’s regulatory capacity. Nonetheless, there has been ever-increasing logging in the Amazon over the last century, and changes in the landscape of the Ucayali region have become dramatic. Pucallpa, the region’s largest city, is also the country’s largest lumber processing site, which can be attributed to a road connecting it to Lima, which was built in 1943. However, logging remained at relatively low intensity until the last several decades, with increasingly industrial and mechanized operations enabling new access points and more aggressive extraction. Timber production continues to be a major economic driver in the Peruvian Amazon, with the Ucayali Region producing around 21.8% of the country’s timber (as of 2009). This is also an important source of regional employment, with an estimated 40-65% of the economically active population in Ucayali working in the logging industry, including many indigenous people11.
The story of deforestation in the Amazon portrays a typical Anthropocenic scene of humans destroying nature, with nature and indigenous peoples as the hapless victims of modernity, lacking agency in the process. This is linked with what Christophe Bonneuil calls the “naturalist narrative”, which views (colonizing) humans as agentive, without recognizing the humanity/agency of indigenous peoples or other-than-humans, thereby positioning colonizers as the necessary saviors as well, for an earth that needs rescuing. Bonneuil argues that a plurality of narratives and voices are needed in order to get a more nuanced understanding of the Anthropocene. Therefore, I would like to complicate this scene by noting that humans have been shaping the structure of tropical forests of Peru for millennia, and there is ample evidence that humans actually co-created the forests.
Agricultural mounds exist throughout the Amazon region, which date to pre-Columbian times. It is thought that they allowed for improved soil for crops in areas that flood seasonally, as well as potentially fish cultivation in the trenches during the flooding season. Interestingly, these earthworks were not revealed until the area had been deforested. Yet, just as these humans left an imprint on their environment, and also left other artifacts like remnants of pottery, the plants also left imprints. The mounds were co-created by plant crops and humans, and these plants also left their own artifacts in the mounds, and on the pottery remnants in the form of phytoliths, which are tiny silica formations in the leaves of the plants, whose functions are not well understood, but which have specific, identifiable formations for different plant species.
Plants are easy to objectify, because they are typically seen as being relatively low in the animacy hierarchy, which, according to Mel Chen’s model, is a hierarchy of matter, indicating the relative level of aliveness something is perceived to possess. In most science-based cosmologies, plants are seen generally as responding to external forces via chemical and physical processes, but not as having their own agency or subjectivity. This is partly a result of what my advisor Carolyn Merchant describes in The Death of Nature, as the historical process by which natural beings were rendered passive, rather than autonomous, and could therefore be dominated by science, technology, and capitalist production. However, the Shipibo worldview, along with many indigenous worldviews, consider plants to be animate, and capable of communicating with, teaching, and healing humans.
I use the term “plant spirit” or “plant spirit master” to refer to the Shipibo ibo, which in Spanish is sometimes called the dueño, espíritu or madre of the plant, translating as its owner/master, spirit, or mother. Each type of teacher plant has a distinct ibo, though not all plants have the power to heal or teach. This is distinct from the materiality of the plant itself, or from a plant as an individual specimen. Material plant specimens can be viewed as individual manifestations of the plant spirit master of the species, which is how Fernando Santos-Granero describes the idea of spirit masters for the Yanesha. Eduardo Kohn describes the existence of animal spirit masters of the Runa in Ecuador as the beings who own and care for the animals of the forest, and live in the spirit realm. This is analogous to the Shipibo conception of ibo. They are said to live in an unchanging spirit realm, and have the capacity to influence the material world and heal human bodies. The Shipibo language has seven different past-tenses depending on how far in the past an event occurred. There is also a spirit world that exists in mythological time, which is unchanging. This time is understood as a “distant present”, and can be far away in time, space, past or future, or in other worlds, and can be accessed through dreams and visions. In this world, there is no past and no future, but only memory. This world is seen as perhaps more true than and also as giving rise to our ordinary experiences.
Healing with medicinal plants
I view healing as a way in which we come into relation within an animate, multi-species ecology of selves. Healing offers a pathway out of an Anthropocene, in which humans are destroying themselves within a mostly-dead world, and into the Chthulucene, a world that is always already alive and inhabited by other selves. Healing has the potential to reach across boundaries of the skin, blur distinctions between self and other, and allow for both transpersonal and trans-species reconciliation. It integrates the body within the community, and with other beings in an ecology of selves. As I mentioned before, I conceptualize healing as a type of embodied ethical stance that orients us as we are becoming with.
Although I do not have the authority to speak on behalf of the Shipibo as a people or as a community, this understanding of healing comes from what I have learned from my own experiences with Shipibo healing rituals, as well as from a series of interviews I conducted in 2015 with over twenty Shipibo healers (these interviews were conducted partially in collaboration with my colleague Paul Roberts at the non-profit organization Alianza Arkana). In order to illustrate how healing can work to bring us into being within a multi-species assemblage, I draw on Shipibo concepts of health, which link social, ecological, and bodily health, and healing rituals bridge communication across species lines through the performance of songs and the personification of plants. According to Shipibo healers, discord within our relationships can result in disease in the body.
A system of “dieting” plants is the method by which Shipibo healers learn from a teacher plant spirit. By making the body a very quiet and empty place, and engaging through dreams and visions, the healer learns to communicate with and personify the plant spirit they are dieting. This is a process that Viveiros de Castro calls an “abduction of agency”, in which a human being is able to occupy the perspective of the plant spirit. Healing and communication with plant spirits is often aided by the consumption of an entheogenic tea commonly known as ayahuasca or yagé. The plants used to make the tea are considered to be master plants, which facilitate communication with other plants. Ayahuasca is typically made from two plants: a vine (Banisteriopsis caapi; called nixi in Shipibo), and a shrub, called chacruna (Psychotria viridis).
The healing powers of these plants are becoming famous globally, and stories about ayahuasca have been circulating with growing frequency in mainstream media outlets (e.g. National Geographic, CNN, and Vanity Fair). This international attention is due largely to the popularity of healing rituals for “spiritual tourists” in South America. The popularity of ayahuasca, and the reputation of Shipibo healers, have led to an influx of these spiritual tourists all along the stretch of the Ucayali River between Pucallpa and Iquitos. This goes part way to explaining my presence there, and the growing number of other foreigners (mostly European and North American), some of which find their way to my teacher’s house to experience Shipibo healing rituals and the use of psychoactive medicinal plants. However, it is unclear how the presence of tourists and the commoditization of healing rituals should be understood within the context of this small community.
These plants have been in relationship with humans for a long time. In Amazonian thought, plants and animals tell stories about people, and these stories help to construct their own identities and histories as well as our own. This begs the question of the role of other-than-humans in producing discourses and imaginaries about humans. In the stories that plants tell me, they claim that they helped to create us, as we consume them. In many ways, plants make human existence possible. Roots, leaves, stems, and fruit are somehow metabolized and alchemized into animal human flesh. In a very material way, all the carbon in our bodies has at some point in time passed through the chloroplast of a plant, as they fix carbon from its atmospheric form with the energy supplied from the sun. Indeed, plants figure prominently in creation stories for many peoples. The plants also have shown me that each type of plant, or each plant spirit, (as well as each people, each animal, each mountain, and each glacier), constitutes its own world, its own ontology. Our ability to experience these worlds depends on our ability to expand our sense of self to incorporate other earthlings into our inner ecology of selves.
The animation of plants through voice and ritual
In thinking about my work with Shipibo healers, and how to come to terms with appropriating their voices and the voices of plants, I use the concept of multi-voicedness, developed by Voloshinov. There is no single voice or singular narrative that is making meaning of my existence. Indeed, I cannot even seem to see myself as a single self. I am more like a collection of voices, contributing to the discourse of myself as a self. An individual uses different voices to find a way of both constructing oneself and communicating to another self. This simultaneously constructs both the speaker and the listener, with speech forming a bridge between the two. Mikhail Bakhtin described the multiplicity of inner speech as a conversation among many voices and between separate characters, which arise in a social process of appropriating others’ voices. During this process, it is important to question who is allowed to speak from the collection of voices that makes up one’s identity. We use narratives and voice to construct our own sense of identity and history, and a way of making meaning of raw experience. In a sense, narrative is used to weave together reality and memory.
The colonial process usually imposes a singular understanding of the world onto its subjects. This is the story of the hegemonic narrative becoming dominant and drowning out other songs and voices. The dominant narrative has become self-referential, impervious to the voices of plants, of glaciers, of indigenous peoples, of any dissenting human subjects, except for those which bolster its own agenda. This is the dehumanizing that I mentioned earlier. This is again related to what Merchant describes, when she talks about the process by which other-than-human beings and their human allies, were silenced, and a mechanistic worldview came into dominance in which the earth was seen as a dead machine.
There is an asymmetry between the entextualized history and the ecology of selves that are no longer given voice or names. This is part of the modern narrative that leaves out the stories of violence that were left in its wake. According to Marisol de la Cadena, it is precisely this silencing of subjugated voices that has allowed for the persistence of ideas of race and racism, as well as the elimination of “nature” from the political sphere.
The sonic and sensual features of voice are central to Amazonian conceptions of power and healing. In Shipibo healing rituals, an integral part of the process is performing ikaros, which are songs used specifically for the purpose of healing. These songs are co-produced during communication between the healer and the plant spirit, aided by the consumption of ayahuasca. The plant sings a song to the healer, and the healer must then translate that song as directly as possible into the material world through their own body and the sonic features of their voice. This mimetic process that is being enacted by the healer is precisely what Michael Taussig describes as one way in which to become the “other”.
Rituals are present in all societies, and serve as a structured and symbolic process involving the performance of culture and reproduction of the lifeworld. Developed by Habermas, a lifeworld describes shared understandings, meanings, and values that are constructed socially over time and are transmitted culturally. These lifeworlds require constant reaffirmation, and the colonization of a lifeworld by system can result in a crisis accompanied by a loss of cultural meaning, solidarity and sense of community. I argue that the colonization of lifeworlds associated with logging undermines multi-species relationality and the animacy of plants. It is a case of material production destroying symbolic reproduction at the lifeworld level. Indigenous psyches and bodies are also colonized as trees become timber, and meaning patterns about trees change. The challenge posed to Shipibo lifeworlds by logging, then, is both material and symbolic.
The commoditization of healing rituals is one way local communities have responded to the conditions of globalization and global capital. The performance of Shipibo healing rituals for outsiders can be seen as a way of reproducing the Shipibo lifeworld, and resisting threats to the material and symbolic basis for healing practices. These rituals also facilitate direct, unmediated connection with other-than-human beings, which disrupt what Mel Chen refers to as the “radical segregation of self and world”. These ritual boundary crossings offer powerful challenges to any hierarchical social system.
According to Gramsci, within marginalized bodies, two opposing conceptions of the world exist simultaneously. One belongs to the dominant class, and the other to the marginalized class. Voloshinov called these the official, and unofficial ideologies. These are related to Freud’s conceptions of the conscious and the repressed unconscious. I view the body as a site of struggle between multiple voices and multiple worlds. The least articulate part of the consciousness corresponds to the voices that are most silenced. Through articulation, the unconscious may be made conscious and given voice, essentially allowing its presence in the social world. This articulation can be seen as a healing process, which was described by Freud in psychotherapy as the “talking cure”.
I conceptualize Shipibo healing rituals as organized processes by which more of the selves in the ecology of selves are given voice, and thereby more matter within the body (or ecosystem) becomes animated. These rituals confuse the boundaries between human and plant, self and other, blurring hierarchies of animacy, and bridging material and spirit realms. These plants are then included in the social process of subject formation, involving listening, mimicry, and exchange. The healing process operates on all scales of selves – including the voices within the body, including the embodied self in relation to the other selves in the ecosystem – traversing perceived divisions. Internal relations among various selves interpenetrate with external relations through voice. This is a mattering of worlds, a process which is never complete and is always becoming.
We can also view the consumption of these medicinal plants as a subversive colonization of human bodies by the agencies of the plants – or again, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro terms it, an abduction of agency. Learning from these plants also offers a form of semiotic resistance to ideological domination and hierarchies of animacy through the blurring of boundaries between plant and person and the proliferation of plant-based knowledge and lifeworlds. By semiotic resistance, I mean resisting the material and symbolic restructuring of nature.
However, it is not the burden of indigenous peoples to overcome European-based hierarchies. Healing is an individual process, and it is also about establishing solidarity and humanizing our relations. There is a common narrative among spiritual tourists and new age media that ayahuasca is the cure for modernity’s ills, and therefore indigenous people have what the westerners need to heal. Michael Taussig addresses this narrative, talking about hierarchies created with the racial division of spiritual labor, and the construction of the magical other as possessing something of desire. This is also the narrative that sells – and what tourists buy into, and it’s produced in collaboration among healers, tourists, and the plants themselves. As Taussig makes clear, it is necessary to understand the hierarchies that are reinforced by this narrative, and to recognize that healing and magic also have the potential to be bought and co-opted.
Research as ritual
As a white woman from North America working in indigenous communities in Peru, I have struggled a lot with what my role is as a researcher, and how I can conduct my work in a way that is not simply a form of neo-colonialism, and does not perpetuate racialized colonial hierarchies. This is probably going to be an ongoing struggle. Getting away from the imperialist type of research requires moving our attentions toward embodied, affective, experiential learning, similar to how one learns in Shipibo knowledge systems. This type of knowing is in contrast with a mythical “objective” stance. Amazonian concepts of knowledge, described by Cecilia McCallum, (about the Cashinaua, another Amazonian group) identify the body as an accumulation and representation of both material and spiritual knowledge. In this way, all knowledge is viewed as embodied, and the body is seen as constructed by others (both human and non-human) in a social process, through the transfer of knowledge. The full “Cashinaua body” is described by McCallum as as a web of connections between exterior matter, speech, and knowledge in the body, as well as the manifestation of that knowledge expressed externally as action.
As I prepare for my extended fieldwork, I am exploring the idea of using ritual as a framework for approaching research as a potential decolonial methodology. Research, like ritual, is a repeatable and mimetic process, whose structure is taught to initiates. I believe that viewing academic practices as rituals can be useful in situating them in our own cultural context, rather than universalizing them. Likewise, in being inducted into Shipibo ways of knowing, it feels important to me to do it in a ritual context, which is under the guidance of Shipibo healers and plant teachers, and not necessarily on my own terms. I think it is important to understand the rituals we are performing, and to enact them very consciously, delicately, and intentionally, with full awareness of the hierarchies and social structures that we may or may not be reproducing.
Specifically, I am addressing the relationship between researcher and researched as subject and object relationship. Indigenous scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith have been focusing on the need for decolonial research methodologies that unseat the hierarchy between the researcher and the researched in indigenous communities. I suggest that by focusing research as a ritual boundary crossing, there is a potential for an emancipatory move from a research system that is linked to a long and violent history of imperialism and colonialism. If we approach our research rituals, and our boundary crossings, with the ethical stance of healing, we can bring ourselves into relationship in a felt way within an ecology of other selves, and permeate binaries and hierarchies. I believe this is particularly important when working with earthlings (human and other-than-human beings) whose subjugated voices we may wish to bring into the political arena. When researchers turn beings into objects of research, we strangle the very thing that we wish to know.
I suggest that it becomes the ethnographic researcher’s role not to attain any sort of authoritative understanding of reality, but to listen. To allow other voices to speak and be heard, and to allow their sounds to expand one’s own identity enough to encompass multiple narratives, perhaps without the need to offer interpretation. Perhaps understanding that they may never be understood, but that these voices can still transform us. This is partly my own story of learning how to listen to plants, of excavating the multitude of voices that speak through this body.
The ontological tension that I brought up in the beginning of this paper was between multiple ways of understanding the existence of a tree: as animate, a teacher with its own social relations, or as timber – an objectified resource commodity. Shipibo healers and trees are coming into being at an intersection of plural and partially overlapping understandings of the world that are in places antagonistic to each other. Struggles over meanings and worlds play out in the physical sphere. Networks between humans and other-than-human beings emerge, seeking the preservation of indigenous semiotic systems and relationality.
I explored healing as a way of moving into new types of relationships that are not based in oppression and objectification, a way of orienting ourselves in the Chthulucene, and I explored direct, unmediated, multi-species relationships, achieved through ritual boundary-crossings, as a form of resistance to hierarchies of objecthood, humanity, and animacy. Strengthening our connections within a multi-species ecology of selves, and becoming integrated into the life and death cycles of nature seem to be key in ensuring the future of our ecosystems, by way of entwining our human fates more closely with the fates of other-than-human earthlings.
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