By Brian Anderson, written especially to this site
1 May 2009
Earlier last month, two small academic conferences were held to promote the study of consciousness, culture and different means of affecting these realms, including the consumption of drugs. The conferences were the 2009 Spring Meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness (Portland, Oregon, April 1-5) and Self & Substance: Drugs, Culture and Society (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, April 10-11). I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at both of these conferences and this report is a summary of the impressions I gathered from these two intriguing gatherings of academics from across the USA and other countries.
The Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness is a section of the American Anthropological Association known for its countercultural ties and unorthodox methods. Their meeting ran under the theme of ‘Bridging Nature and Human Nature’ and, appropriately, featured several presentations on Eco-psychology and related fields by Stanley Krippner, Alan Drengson, Robert Greenway and Mark Schroll, as well as a preview of a documentary on Gregory Bateson’s life made by his daughter Nora Bateson. Several presentations were made on different forms of altered states of consciousness, including an initial report from a study on experiences of trauma amongst Tibetan refuges, an ethnographic study of the positive effects reported by medicinal marijuana users in California, and a study of humanoid figurines thought to have been used in shamanic practices in ancient Honduras. Several presentations focused specifically on drug-induced consciousness-alteration – of note was a paper presented by D. C. A. Hillman based on his controversial book about psychoactive drug use in Ancient Greece, entitled The Chemical Muse: Drug Use and the Roots of Western Civilization. Several presentations focused specifically on the use of psychedelic drugs, and there was even a whole panel devoted to “Sacred Brews” which featured papers on the Amazonian brew ayahuasca and the fabled mushroom Amanita muscaria.
Many of the people at the meeting had been regular attendees of SAC meetings for a decade of more, which gave the 60-something person conference a familial feel and filled the air with a nostalgia for previous years’ meetings when the radical temperaments of many of the Society’s long-time members apparently manifested themselves in less didactic and more experiential explorations of culture and consciousness. [For more information on the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, see www.sacaaa.org]
The “Sacred Brews” Panel (from left: Kevin Feeney, Susan Bustos, Brian Anderson, Stephen Trichter, Evgenia Fotiou). Photo by Daniel Zielske.
Evgenia Fotiou, Chair of the “Sacred Brews” Panel. Photo by Lyla Johnston.
Even though the second conference, Self & Substance, was explicitly about the use of drugs (mostly illicit, psychoactive ones), it had more of a traditional, sober academic feel to it than did the SAC meeting. I attribute this in part to the fact that, unlike the SAC meeting, Self & Substance was not held at a resort where guests were encouraged to carry around pints of locally-brewed beer as they went about their day’s activities. The professional and friendly tone of the conference was also due, however, to deft manner by which the organizers ran this gathering of roughly forty academics from around the country. The conference was the first put together by a team of five current and former University of Illinois graduate students whose fields of study ranged from English to Entomology. The program of the conference was equally interdisciplinary, featuring presentations on, among other topics, the historical study of American drug literature, a critique of drug ‘intoxication’ as a possibly adaptive form of dissociation, and a comparison of the roles that private military forces play in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. My own presentation was an anthropological analysis of various groups that use ayahuasca to treat substance dependence. The key note address was given by Professor Curtis Marez of USC on the relationship between drug representations and the “New Media and the Problem of Disposable People.”
One of the highlights of the conference was certainly the panel entitled “Teaching Drugs – A Pedagogy Roundtable” in which a handful of scholars with substantial experience teaching about drugs at the university level led a discussion of the challenges and rewards of handling this contentious and sometimes taboo subject in academia. Echoing what was said in the rest of the conference, these educators emphasized the necessity of having their students learn to recognize and analyze how society shapes our ideas of what drugs are and how they affect our bodies, families and communities.
With luck, the conference will return for a second round next year. The intimate size of Self & Substance made for a very open dialogue amongst attendees on how North American society represents, creates and deals with many serious issues related to drug use and abuse – such as inner-city violence and the de-humanizing stigma placed on illicit drug users. Hopefully, this sort of dialogue will continue to find it way out of academic conferences like this one and into the minds of the public who stands to lose and gain the most from engaging with it. [No website is available for the Self & Substance conference.]
Self & Substance conference organizers (from left: Nick Naeger, Allan Borst, Daniel Larson and Will Morris) and key note speaker Curtis Marez (second from right). Photo by Brian Anderson.