November 16, 2010 - anthropology / entheogens / ethnometaphysics / experience / metaphysics

Oversoul, Alex Gray, 1997

Oversoul, Alex Gray, 1997

In the Fall 2010 issue of Anthropology of Consciousness, Marc Blainey looks at the “discord in the West between viewing psychoactive substances as either ‘hallucinogens’ or ‘entheogens’,” and makes the case for renewed interest in ethnometaphysics. His article has me thinking more about anthropologists produced by a (mostly) entheophobic culture looking at practices and people who are more entheophilic and the ways in which those biases against certain states of consciousness affect the ethnography.

Synchronistically, I recently wrestled with this issue in my review of  Lee Gilmore’s new ethnography, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. While Gilmore’s book is a beautifully written portrait of her experiences as an insider at the festival, she elected to exclude entheogens from the volume.  In this section of the review, I address one of the reasons Gilmore chose to exclude entheogens, namely that she does not engage in the practice herself:

Gilmore explores areas of inquiry in this ethnography that once fell outside her personal experience, but does not explain why she was unwilling to become a participant observer in the area of ritual entheogen use as she did in other experience-far arenas. In the introduction to this volume, she cites James Clifford in support of her reflexive ethnographic strategy (p. 12). Clifford critiques the authoritative voice of the ethnographer in his analysis of experience as an “effective guarantee of ethnographic authority” (The Predicament of Culture, 1988 & Writing Culture, 1986) and cautions against smoothing over informants’ many voices with the ethnographers own “monophonic authority” as narrator and interpreter. Through much of the ethnography, Gilmore is careful to avoid this problem by regularly quoting festival participants. However, we do not hear from participants on the question of entheogen use, and are instead left only with Gilmore’s voice assuring us that the practice is not relevant. (Oman-Reagan, 2010)

Reading Blainey’s article, I wonder if her choice to exclude entheogens might arise partly from her ethnometaphysical positioning. Perhaps this kind of exclusion of certain practices (almost taboo practices for some in ‘this’ culture) marks the work as closer to the entheophobic side of our culture that perceives psychedelic use as hallucinatory rather than revelatory or entheogenic.  Here’s a relevant section from Blainey:

As an example of the utility of ethnometaphysical analysis, I point to the question of why the earnest ritual ingestion of entheogens (psychoactive plant and chemical substances used as spiritual sacraments [Forte 1997]) is so widespread amongst ideologies that have been categorized (albeit problematically) as “shamanistic”? Following R. Gordon Wasson’s (1980: xv; Winkelman 2000:3) partition of cultures according to their keenness for or aversion to mushrooms (mycophiles and mycophobes respectively), I will term cultures with a dedication to entheogens as entheophilic, while those (like our own) that largely disdain the effects, calling them “hallucinogens,” are classified as entheophobic.

Perhaps the most fruitful classificatory venture with respect to the ethnometaphysical distinctions underlying entheophilic and entheophobic worldviews is the neurophenomenological model, which designates Euroamerican culture as monophasic while recognizing most other cultures as polyphasic (see Laughlin et al. 1992; Winkelman 2000:3). Winkelman (2000:25) identifies the neurophenomenological approach as a “structural monist perspective,” accounting for both physical (matter) and spiritual (mind) extremes, as well as pondering the interaction between them. In identifying the deeply ingrained disinclination of the standard Western enculturation process to esteem atypical forms of consciousness, monophasic logic arguably stems from a foundational view of the observer as merely a passive window looking out unidirectionally on an external materiality. This echoes Charles D. Laughlin’s (1999) characterization of Euroamerican culture as “materialist,” in that it is “primarily concerned with tracking external events while in the waking state.” Such a portrayal is quite similar to Benjamin Whorf’s (1941) model of the Standard Average European (SAE) worldview where the reification of externality relegates internal consciousness to the epiphenomenal domain of the “imaginary.” Regardless of the label used, one need simply consider the legal and religious norms of Western society where the only sanctioned psychoactive substances are coffee, nicotine, alcohol, and painkillers (aimed at lessening both physical and mental discomfort without prompting deep existential reflection). For the average Euroamerican, any suggestion that the external world’s integrity is to some extent reliant on the observer’s observing of it (such as with some esoteric corollaries of quantum mechanics or as is commonly experienced in altered states of consciousness) presents a grave threat to ideological norms. Hence, the popular disapproval of entheogenic experiences as “hallucinatory” invokes accustomed ethnometaphysical beliefs that routinely become defensive whenever the primacy of external reality is questioned in our culture. (Blainey, 2010)

The ethnometaphysical approach, Blainey writes, “avoids partialities towards any one ontological system.”  This strikes me as an approach that can be readily applied productively to ideas of being and consciousness within “our own” culture.  For example, in rave and dance music culture, entheogenic spirituality movements, ayahuasca centered  neo-shamanism and so on.  The ethnometaphysical approach can help to address the bias of the entheophobic culture that Blainey describes so perfectly:

In contrast to the dominance of dualism and physicalist monism in the West, I suggest that what we are dealing with when we consider the various accounts of both Westerners and non-Westerners who claim to have had beneficial experiences with entheogenic intoxication is a fondness for a metaphysics of mystical monism. For instance, the traditional stance of Western science with regard to entheogens has been to identify them as “hallucinogens” and their effects as “hallucinations,”—characterizations that disclose the dualist/physicalist inclinations of Western thought in general. This is furthered by the “objective” portrayals found in pharmacological volumes where the ingestion of “hallucinogenic” mushrooms containing the active compound psilocybin are said to cause “disturbances in thinking, illusions… and impaired ego functioning” (Julien 2005:612 emphasis added). (Blainey, 2010)


Blainey, M., 2010, Special Section: The Future of a Discipline: Considering the Ontological/Methodological Future of the Anthropology of Consciousness, Part II. Anthropology of Consciousness, 21: 113–138.

Oman-Reagan, M.P., 2010, Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. Lee Gilmore. Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review, Volume 1, Number 2, November 2010 , pp. 176-180

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