Rehabilitating Castaneda: An interview with anthropologist Jack Hunter

Jack Hunter

Jack Hunter

The third of our interview series with contributors to the newly published Psychedelic Press UK: Anthology of Pharmacography 2013 Vol.2 (just £5 +p&p) – Jack Hunter. Jack is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol. His research takes the form of an ethnographic study of contemporary trance and physical mediumship in Bristol, focusing on themes of personhood, performance, altered states of consciousness and anomalous experience. In 2010 he established Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, as a means to promote an interdisciplinary dialogue on issues relating to paranormal beliefs, experiences and phenomena. In 2010 he was awarded the Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship by the Parapsychology Foundation, and in 2011 he received the Gertrude Schmeidler Award from the Parapsychological Association.

PPUK: Hi Jack, thank you very much for your contribution to PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2, and for agreeing to answer a few of our questions. In your two-part article, Beyond Castaneda, you look at the history of anthropological research with psychedelics. Obviously, the author Carlos Castaneda has been panned academically, while still retaining a popular following for his texts on Yaqui shamanism. What kind of impact do you think he has had on researchers working today?

JACK HUNTER: Carlos Castaneda has undoubtedly had a huge impact on many researchers investigating the traditional use of psychedelic substances. Of course there has been a great deal of controversy over Castaneda’s books, with critics questioning the veracity of his claims, but regardless of whether his books are works of fiction or accurate ethnographic description, they have inspired people to take an experiential approach to investigating the use of psychoactive substances. In many ways, Castaneda’s books represent a turning point in anthropology: a movement towards a more reflexive ethnographic method that takes not only the experiences of informants seriously, but also the ethnographer’s own experiences. It’s interesting that you ask this question, as I recently discussed this matter with Dr. Alberto Groisman at Breaking Convention at the University of Greenwich (where I presented a version of my paper). Groisman queried the title of my paper (‘Beyond Castaneda’), and told me that he wanted to start a campaign for the academic rehabilitation of Castaneda, and to an extent I agree with him. Castaneda’s writing points towards an interesting ethnographic method that merges subjective and objective observations to present a participatory picture of a particular world-view.

PPUK: Your e-book Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic has recently been published. Could you tell us a little bit about this work, and why you think it is a necessary time to examine people’s belief in such discarnate entities?

JH: Why People Believe in Spirits, Gods and Magic is basically a beginner’s introduction to the anthropology of the supernatural. The introductory chapters give an overview of general anthropological theories of the supernatural from the Nineteenth Century to the present day, from the intellectualist theories of E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer, through the functionalist approaches of Emile Durkheim, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski, the cognitive theories of Stuart Guthrie and Pascal Boyer, to the more experientially oriented approaches of scholars like Edith Turner, David J. Hufford and Fiona Bowie. The chapters that follow on from it then look at specific phenomena, including Shamanism and Spirit Possession, Witchcraft and Magic, and Ghosts, Spirits, and Gods, looking at different ethnographic examples and the various anthropological theories developed to account for them. The final two chapters explore the paranormal experiences of ethnographers themselves while engaged in fieldwork, and the intersections between anthropology and parapsychology. Rather than presenting a unified explanation, the book aims to present a variety of different perspectives, all of which shed interesting light on these often confusing topics. Through emphasising this kind of pluralistic approach, and above all taking people’s experiences of the ‘paranormal’ seriously, the book seeks to foster an open-minded, and respectful, approach to the study of systems of supernatural belief. It is this respectful approach that I think is particularly important at this time.

PPUK: Psychedelics and the paranormal appear to have a long, entwined history, especially in regard to the visions people purportedly have. Also, the visionary aspect usually appears to be quite culturally-contingent – depending on the period and culture one examines – to what extent, do you think, is the study of the perceived symbology examining either the culture in which they are perceived, or a universal phenomenon contingent to the experience itself?

JH: This is an interesting question, and it’s one that has been pondered by anthropologists, folklorists, and others, for many years. David J. Hufford’s book The Terror that Comes in the Night (1982) explored these themes in the context of the old-hag tradition of Newfoundland, and more widely in beliefs about nocturnal encounters with malicious entities during episodes of sleep paralysis around the world. Hufford came to the conclusion that the global spread of old-hag beliefs is best understood using what he called ‘the experiential source hypothesis,’ which suggests that certain supernatural beliefs arise from specific types of experience that occur cross-culturally. This conclusion ran counter to the usually accepted ‘cultural source hypothesis’ which holds that the cross-cultural similarities arise from a combination of cultural diffusion and cultural expectation on the behalf of the experiencer. I think the truth of the matter is more complicated than either the cultural source hypothesis or experiential source hypothesis alone. Cultural expectation undoubtedly has an influence on the way we interpret experiences, but I also feel that there are specific types of experience that suggest particular interpretations across the board. Many people report, for example, encounters with a feminine presence with Salvia Divinorum and Ayahuasca, and there is something about the sleep paralysis experience that frequently suggests a malicious presence.

ParathropologyPPUK: You’re currently working towards gaining you PhD. Can you tell us about what your research is concerned with? And perhaps offer any advice to people who may wish to conduct such research themselves?

JH: The research for my PhD takes the form of ethnographic participant observation at a contemporary non-denominational spiritualist home-circle called the Bristol Spirit Lodge. The Lodge was established in 2006 specifically for the development of trance and physical mediumship, and I have been investigating the group since 2009. The main focus of my research is on personhood (exploring the way in which experiences with mediumship inform the way that members of the Lodge think about the nature of the person, consciousness and its relation to the body), performance (examining the way in which the body is used to experience and express the presence of non-physical spirits), and anomalous experience (exploring how anomalous experiences are interpreted and incorporated into the world-view of Lodge members). The best route for people who want to pursue such research in academia, is to find a supervisor who is interested in similar topics and get in touch with them to discuss possibilities.

PPUK: Finally, you run the journal Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal. In today’s academic climate, what are the difficulties in concentrating on such an area? And do you find that wider academia is accepting of these approaches?

JH: The paranormal might seem like a fringe subject area from the perspective of mainstream academia, but for a great many people paranormal experiences are important aspects of everyday life, and as such it is surely incumbent upon scholars to take the paranormal seriously. Indeed, there is a growing community of academics interested in taking the paranormal seriously and subjecting it to the same rigorous standards as any other area of academic inquiry. Along with well established research societies like the Society for Psychical Research and the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) in the UK, and the Parapsychological Association, Parapsychology Foundation and Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness in the US, new groups such as Exploring the Extraordinary (based in York), and the Afterlife Research Centre (based at the University of Bristol) are making it easier for scholars interested in studying the paranormal to connect with one another. Paranthropology serves a similar purpose through providing a platform for researchers with overlapping interests to share ideas. There is, then, a large community of academics interested in these issues, and in developing different modes of investigating them.

To read Jack’s article,  you can order  a copy of PsypressUK 2013 Vol.2 for just £5 (+p&p) here.


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