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.

Via the House

Announcements and contributions that have come in via the Psychedelic Press house...

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. cabrogal says:

    Jack Hunter’s work seems pretty interesting from this interview.

    In particular his writings on the cultural contextualisation of the psychedelic experience and other experiences such as sleep paralysis are topics of intense interest to me. I’ve got some pretty odd history in regard to both that I’ve been trying to explain to myself for a long time.

    I would agree that Castaneda’s writings have been of great use to some people too. But as an Australian Aborigine I cannot emphasise enough the damage that can be done when anthropologists and/or New Age gurus appropriate and fictionalise the cultures of indigenous people in order to lend bogus veracity and authority to their own messages (or Phd theses).

    Naturally I cannot speak for the Yaqui, but I can definitely say that Marlo Morgan hurt a lot of people with her ‘Mutant Message Downunder’, which seems to be based on white American romanticisation of Native American spirituality and has nothing to do with Aboriginal culture. When you are a people fighting to maintain your own culture and be heard at all in the public sphere such well publicised misrepresentation is in no way helpful to your plight.

    As it happens, many of my own psychedelic/mystical/psychotic experiences have been contextualised not within Dreaming tradition of my people nor within the dominant Christian tradition of the culture in which I live, but via my limited understanding of Theravada Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Kashmiri Shaivism. However when using these tropes to try to express something that is probably essentially inexpressible anyway I am very careful to make it clear that I do not speak as or for Hindus or Buddhists – or that I even understand their traditions.

    I wish New Age gurus and anthropologists would offer indigenous cultures the same kind of respect.

  2. Robert Forte says:

    mind boggling. carlos castaneda was simply a fraud. a charlatan. he exploited the discipline of anthropology to con people, to make a buck. he led people astray. thousands off in the desert to find someone who didn’t exist except in the distorted mind of carlos. he was a bullshitter, a liar. why on earth would anyone want to revive him? are they so unaware of the many fine scholars who have performed valuable ethnographic studies? he popularized drugs among people who weren’t wise enough to know he was full of shit. there is very good reason to question whether they should even be exposed to psychedelics, since they can’t tell the difference between a con man and a teacher, how can they make sense of visions?

    • PsypressUK says:

      I think what is meant is the approach to ethnography, which may have been fictional in Castaneda’s texts Robert, but has undoubtedly inspired ethnographers and anthropologists to actually perform such analytical work in their studies – where they examine from the inside. Indeed, the history of anthropological investigations with these substances over the last ten years alone have been increasingly geared toward academically, and practically, justifying the subjective approach. I think, perhaps, your mixing up the man with the text. A text, as I’m sure you are aware, can be read in a multitude of ways and, in the case of the Castaneda texts, they describe an interesting research approach. This is not a rehabilitation of a man’s morals.


    • Barry Klein says:

      I agree that Castaneda was a fraud, with good support for that position from deMills and other scholars. But he was not “simply” a fraud, because his ideas are subtle, useful and penetrating. Even after appreciating his mendacity, some 30 years ago, I continued to read and validate his writings, and they actually hold up well with my other studies, which include both Eastern teachings and shamanic practices. One should note that, after the 2nd book (“A Separate Reality”), Castaneda never mentioned psychedelics again, except to point out, in the introduction to “Ixtlan,” that the teachings were not really about psychedelics. From then on, everything was about inner disciplines and manipulation of the attention.

      While I’m at it here, I’d like to acknowledge and appreciate Cabrogal about respecting indigenous cultures.

  3. To those like myself who were experimenting with psychedelics in the 1970s, Castaneda was a major inspirational figure, making us aware of the deeper shamanic and ethnographic dimensions of altered states and pointing the way towards other more legitimate researchers in the field. Castaneda was to us what McKenna was to later generations – a practical self-help guru – as I describe in my memoir The Mad Artist. As regards the suspect nature of his ethnography, he was thoroughly debunked by Richard DeMille as early as 1976, but as Jack says it didn’t really matter because it was his experiential approach to the subject that was important, not the personal fictional experiments he conducted with his material. As for where the line lies between truth and fiction in Castaneda, one can debate endlessly, but look here at what Michael Harner, Castaneda’s friend and a highly respected figure in the field, has to say about the reality of Don Juan (about eight questions down).

  4. BPA says:

    Question this piece raised for me is: what’s the greater significance – of a subculture investing in crass fraud and charlatanry – as if a source of wisdom ‘impeccable?’

    What’s the fallout of trusting readers, seeking something to inform and broaden their horizons intellectually and/or spiritually – getting directed and entrained by con art exploiting native tradition and identity? Nourishing on talk about being ‘impeccable’ and a ‘path with heart’ etc, all that kind of pseudospiritual radiant bull?

    Thank you for the appropriate emphasis of respondents (above) like R. Forte. Well said, and much needed after what struck me as a disturbingly frivolous misrepresentation about the Castaneda factor and what its’ left us with. Same to Cabrogal, thank you for the analogy involving indigenous Australian culture, as detrimentally impacted upon by Morgan’s exploitation thereof. The Yaqui have also borne serious brunt of the Castaneda monkey biz. A good discussion about that, I find, is in W. Churchill’s FANTASIES OF THE MASTER RACE, which has a chapter on Castaneda.

    That Castaneda’s pursuits of personal privilege and power, financial reward etc – via this type thing – strikes me as a lesson that hasn’t gone unheeded in the subculture. More than anyone, he presented a model – for the most unscrupulous elements – of how to win friends and influence people, and cash in the whole way.

    Not that there weren’t predecessors in the counterculture, some real bad ones. But since Castaneda, looking at a string of impressarios soliciting psychedelia since, talking its ‘mind-blowing’ talk, whipping up the sensational – fraud and con art almost seems to have become the exclusive fashion. This stuff has become rampant, and hardly anyone says a thing about it – only play along, keep whistling the happy tune like nothing amiss.

    I’m still amazed at a feature here at psypress not long ago. Talking up James A Dugovic, singing his song as an ‘independent’ (i.e. unqualified amateur) researcher – and faithfully using his alias, James Arthur. Observing his rites, leaving out his last name, true to tradition. Dugovic was a child molester who found – not just easy cover in the pop psychedelic scene, but opportunity. He easily crafted a sham persona, as some ‘researcher’ (“world’s foremost ethnomycologist” google that) – with nobody the wiser as to his criminal history. As ‘James Arthur’ he also made friends – who did know what they were dealing with, and some who had little children. Fresh prey. And when sure enough, he repeat offended – and got caught, again – the truth about who he was, his ‘preferences’ and criminal history, began coming out only then. Rather than face consequences, Dugovic committed suicide in jail. And sure enough, became poster boy of a new defensive propaganda whispering campaign about a ‘mystery’ of his death, very suspicious – the Man murdered him.

    And in the psypress feature about him, his “Mushrooms and Mankind” book – not a word about any of it. As if. Like Castaneda, still and ever-to-be ‘honored’ for his ‘achievements’ and ‘work’ and etc. With the truth kind of turned down, hushed you might say. Seems we’ve cultivated and inherited what now amounts to an entire culture of corruption, in the name of tripping and trippers. I wonder how things might have developed different in psychedelia, its social pattern, without trailblazers like Castaneda (and others as bad), for the ‘inspiration’ and example he provided.

    As is, an awkward ‘elephant in the room’ scene hangs over the entire subcultural pattern. Its not ‘wipe away,’ its impressed deeply with ‘teachings’ like those of Don Carlos. Maybe indelibly, on impression. A pretty serious situation, once concrete sets. Now in pop psychedelia – integrity of character, authentic values, genuine interest in what’s true or valid whether its exciting or not – are pretty much the window. Its a matter of accepted social mores and cultural pattern, as its emerged.

    Tuning into psychedelia’s broadcasts now, anymore – unreal. It mostly seems hallelujahs to guys like Castaneda etc. With ongoing repetition of the storyline, sticking to the script. Affirmation of blatantly false and misleading ‘news and information’ – with ‘moral of the story’ driving the ‘facts’ presented, like a cart in front of a horse. There seems to be no communicating with it either. No more than there is with any type duplicity – it has other business, and considers hailing frequencies as avenues of what it does, on clear intent, with some determination. Little in the way of principle, values, ethos – conscience itself almost gone with the wind. Psypress might take a stronger more ethically clear position on some of this stuff, or, just keep tossing out what the public wants (as PT Barnum advised).

    This BBC documentary on the Castaneda factor (posted here: puts things in nice focus I think. The last part where his son CJ talks about the last time he saw his dad … really something.

    (shakes head)

  5. Jack Hunter says:

    Thank you all for your comments on this interview, they made for very interesting and informative reading. Of course I agree that Castaneda’s work may very well have mis-represented the Yaqui worldview, and I do not condone this at all – ethnographic writing should be as factually representative, not to mention respectful, of the culture under study as possible. I am also aware of other controversies surrounding Castaneda, including some really weird stuff that further brings him into disrepute. I would like to point out, though, that, as Rob said earlier, it is his influence on researchers who have gone on to conduct genuine ethnographic investigations that is most important here. It’s also the writing style, incorporating subjective experience into ethnographic description, that I find particularly interesting.

    The title of the paper that appeared in PsyPress (Vol 2 & 3) was ‘Beyond Castaneda: A Brief History of Psychedelics in Anthropology,’ and the purpose of the paper was to demonstrate that there is more to anthropology’s involvement with psychoactive substances than Carlos Castaneda, who for many (especially in the popular arena), is the be-all and end-all of psychedelic anthropology (which is simply not the case). The title of the interview (‘Rehabilitating Castaneda’), might, therefore, be a little misleading, as I don’t necessarily condone the rehabilitation of Castaneda himself, but rather of a more experientially oriented form of ethnography.

Leave a Reply