A Reinvenção do Uso da Ayahuasca nos centros urbanos [The Reinvention of the use of Ayahuasca in Urban Centers], by Beatriz Caiuby Labate

Publisher: Editora Mercado de Letras, Campinas/SP – Brazil
Tel: 55 + 19 + 3241 7514
ISBN 85-7591-037-X
Format 16 x 23 cm – 536 pp.
Support from the Fapesp (Research Support Foundation of the State of São Paulo)
Price: R$ 82,00 (U$ 46,00 + shipping fee)
ANPOCS (National Post-secondary Association of Social Sciences) Prize for best Master’s Thesis in Social Sciences in 2000.

Maria Filomena Gregori
Professor of Anthropology at IFCH – Unicamp and Researcher with Pagu – Centro de Estudos de Gênero, Unicamp

Translated to English by Brian Anderson

Originally a Masters thesis in Anthropology that was defended in the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) at Unicamp, A Reinvenção do Uso da Ayahuasca nos Centros Urbanos received the award for Best Masters Thesis in the Social Sciences of 2000 from ANPOCS (National Association for Graduate Studies in the Social Sciences).

In order to understand the extensions of the Brazilian ayahuasca universe, the book analyzes these new uses of ayahuasca by investigating the formation and dynamics of groups that use this psychoactive substance in combination with a wide variety of rituals such as Eastern meditation and various forms of corporal and psychological therapies, as well as different modes of artistic production, especially painting, theater and music.

These new modalities of ayahausca consumption that constitute the practices of the neo-ayahausqueiros are at the center of an urban network characterized by the intense circulation of information, knowledge, people and substances – a flux that the author examines with a richness of details and ambitious analysis.  She is ambitious, above all, for opening a brand new field of research and for being able to articulate themes vital to the understanding of contemporary society.

The text is well organized in the way that it relates a certain dimension of the religious universe – more precisely, that which addresses processes of the resignification of rituals and cosmologies of different orientations in new contexts – with the use of entheogens, with the offering of services (in the case of therapists), and with the problematization of the individualism of late modernity, a moment in which inter-subjective social relationships are so labile.

If the map is extensive and full of twists and turns, the study does not get lost, nor does it become watered down.  The ethnography commences with a group led by the holistic therapist Janderson who runs a Therapeutic Center and a movement that revolves around the consumption of ayahuasca, the Caminho do Coração (the Way of the Heart).  The links and connections of this group with the Brazilian ayahuasca scene are deciphered with acuity, starting with the thorough analysis of the biographical trajectories of the group’s central leaders and its “institutional” history, then passing through to the rituals with the Daime, until arriving at how different cosmologies shape the group’s practices (the Daime, psychology, the “New Age” and various Eastern traditions).  Finally, the author presents a panorama of other urban ayahuasqueiro tendencies in order to situate, not only the group under study, but also the larger profile of what she calls the neo-ayahuasqueiros.

The draw of this book, however, does not limit itself to its rich ethnography. In the first place, its analytic strength, with which the new urban uses of ayahuasca, the New Age and other cosmologies and different therapeutic techniques are articulated, calls our attention to certain aspects of modernity, particularly to the tendency for the self of contemporary individual to be turned into a reflexive project.  Secondly, it is brazenly innovative how the author expounds with such clarity her position – which is at the same time personal and that of a professional anthropologist – that she has derived from her own lived experience.  Her stance demands the re-examination of some current day dilemmas and challenges in Anthropology related to what she refers to as the relationship between the subject and object of study and the pretense of neutrality of the observer’s position.

Beatriz Labate assumes the position of the author and she occupies this position as a space of potential richness – by treating this “in between” space exactly as one that makes cultural translation and meditation possible.  This can be seen in her own words:  “The act of translation hinges precisely upon the communication of other ways of understanding the world that does not privilege a rationality in agreement with the reality and reasoning scheme of the rationalist/observer.”  She also avoids running the risks of intellectualism because she is confronting an object that has as one of its modes of investigation the participation in rituals with the use of a plant that radically alters one’s perception of reality.  Observation itself is immersed in an experience that puts into question the rigid frontiers of rationality and objective consciousness.  While conceding that personal experience does not guarantee the quality of the investigation, the author suggests that the consumption of ayahuasca could change the nature of ethnography, and, in this vein, she assumes the stance of an ayahuasca anthropologist.