Healing Encounters: Ayahuasca and the Politics of Knowledge
This paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork with healers and ritual communities in Brazil who are innovating new ritual practices around ayahuasca. These groups have boomed in urban Brazilian centers raising questions about the legitimacy of the myriad practices emerging on the fringe of formal instituted religious practice. Such spaces, while not strictly Western (when viewed from the USA or Europe), break deeply with the Amazonian ontologies that initially gave rise to the knowledge and practice of ritual ayahuasca use. They are profoundly hybrid, informed by a dense series of postcolonial reinscriptions, appropriations and transformations. The paper explores how the contingent, fragile yet potent efficacy of ayahuasca’s wildness is being enfolded into instituted legal and scientific forms. How is the Other of science made recognizable within its frame and what is at stake for both science and its other in this process? At stake here is a tension between a praxis of healing that is highly context-dependent and one in which knowledge of efficacy is abstracted and by necessity de-contextualised. At stake also, is the capacity of ayahuasca’s (like other traditional remedies brought into the purview of biomedicine) wildness to survive. Indeed many practitioners of ayahuasca healing state that what is interesting about ayahuasca is that it is alive. Drinking ayahuasca is opening to the sentience of another living being, a process often explained in terms of cultivating a relation with another consciousness. The paper asks what kinds of resilient instituting practices can sustain the translation of ayahuasca through its apparently ineluctable globalization, without killing it.
Emilia Sanabria is an anthropologist working at the Ecole normale supérieure, Lyon (France) and the Amsterdam’s Institute for Social Science Research (Netherlands). She has carried out fieldwork in Peru and Brazil for the last 16 years and is currently involved in a collaborative research programme Chemical Youth: What chemicals do in everyday lives which examines the pragmatic regimes of use and experimentation of youth and pharmacologists with diverse il/legal substances and medicines from a medical anthropology and science and technology approach. Her monograph, Plastic Bodies examines gendered experiences of embodiment in Brazil and traces the social life of sex hormones through diverse worlds. Emilia is interested in the political forces at work in the structuring the field of scientific evidence as it relates to public health policy. Her current work builds on her sustained interest in anthropological theories of the body and materiality to examine the multiple understandings of efficacy and healing that surround psychedelic substances as they are transmuted into medicines.