An Interview with Jay Courtney Fikes By Sandy McIntosh - Part II
Q. Castaneda asserted that he had perhaps failed as an anthropologist because he had crossed the line that divides objective social science reporting from subjective involvement in the culture he had set out to study. He asserted that for anthropologists, who are concerned with arranging and rearranging abstract taxonomies, such subjective participation with one's informants and their culture was abhorrent. You yourself were adopted by a Huichol shaman and, later, became the brother of another one, and you participate in Huichol and NAC religious rites. Has your deep involvement with Native culture distorted your scientific objectivity? Or was Castaneda's understanding of the aims and methods of anthropology flawed?
A. Scientists expect that research findings or knowledge must be verified and verifiable. They depend on an objective and impersonal way of knowing, one that is exemplified by laboratory experiments in which all significant variables can be controlled in order that proximate causes of behavior or disease may be determined. No matter who performs a scientific experiment, the results should be the same. Fraud is a serious misdemeanor.
Cultural Anthropology derives knowledge from interpersonal and intercultural relationships. There are virtually no independent or dependent variables that can be controlled by an anthropologist living in another culture. Much of what passes for anthropological knowledge is only partially verifiable. For example, I can witness the same Huichol harvest ritual (Tatei Neixa) that Robert Zingg saw in 1934 but each of us may report differences in the details of the ritual we observed. Such variation may be due to differences between ceremonial leaders and to regional variation and historical changes. Accurate reporting of observable behavior (as in ritual) is essential to ethnography and cultural anthropology. Accordingly, fieldnotes, tape recordings and film footage of public demonstrations and ritual behavior are of vital importance to anthropologists. Failure to produce such evidence is a serious misdemeanor (which is why I became suspicious about the waterfall jumping episodes described by Castaneda, Furst and Myerhoff). Explanations of the meaning of ritual actions provided by one’s informants (or native teachers) should be meticulously recorded in writing, on audiotape or filmed.
I was also taught the value of carefully distinguishing between my native teachers?beliefs and my own interpretations of ritual. I have concluded that anthropologists feel comfortable focusing on ritual behavior largely because it is publicly observable. Most rituals are repeated annually, or triggered by some recurring natural event, e.g., human illness or death. Doing anthropological research becomes problematic when one’s "informants" insist on secrecy and when one’s explorations under their guidance involve activities that are singular, non-replicable and esoteric. For example, going on a pilgrimage or vision quest to a sacred site may be a once-in-a-lifetime event for an anthropologist. Moreover, perhaps no other anthropologist has or will ever visit that particular place. Most of Castaneda’s dramatic or momentous experiences allegedly involved precisely such singular and esoteric realities. In such cases, when and where verification is difficult if not impossible, we must demand accurate information about the social status of an anthropologist’s informants. Their reputation in the community becomes an index of reliability. Accordingly, if the existence of one’s primary informants can not be verified (e.g., don Juan Matus) then it is blind faith rather than science that leads one to accept their teachings as authentic.
Regardless of whether one is reporting on ritual events and interpreting their meaning or going to a sacred site where no anthropologists have ever been before, building trust or establishing rapport with one’s "informants" is the first step to acquiring reliable information about religious practices of another culture. Obtaining informants who are highly esteemed in their community is also an essential step to gathering accurate data.
My deep personal involvement with Huichol shamans and NAC ceremonies has not altered or distorted my commitment to truthful reporting about the social status of my informants nor the meaning of rituals they perform. On the contrary, my own esoteric and numinous experiences have helped me understand better the "meta-physical" explanations provided by my native teachers. Yet it seems obvious that we are talking about separate realities or ways of knowing. The impersonal aspect of doing scientific research precludes scientific investigation of esoteric teachings. Esoteric truth is simply not accessible to the general public. To gain access to it requires being accepted by a mentor from another culture. For anthropologists who assume truth must be derived scientifically this "subjective" or esoteric realm invites suspicion, if not scorn.
It is difficult to imagine how Franz Boas would react to reports derived from practitioners of esoteric anthropology (a name we might adopt for para-scientific accounts of our experiences with religious practitioners of other cultures). He was trained in the scientific tradition and might have felt uncomfortable evaluating reports by anthropologists doing para-scientific (or esoteric) research. Yet one of his students, Zora Neale Hurston, became an apprentice to a voodoo practitioner. Incidentally, I believe it is she rather than Castaneda who was the first anthropologist to be trained in esoteric lore of another culture. In addition to doing physical anthropology (e.g., measuring the craniums of Native Americans) Boas recorded "myths" which recount singular events in the lives of his Kwakiutl Indian informants. One of my favorites, "A Shaman Called Fool", is reprinted in my book, Step Inside the Sacred Circle. Boas was evidently not concerned in the least with investigating the nature of numinous experiences recited by Kwakiutl shamans. However, he respected them enough to record their extraordinary experiences accurately. That aspect of traditional or Boasian anthropology is something I still value. I also applaud his political activism. I am convinced that attempting to understand less public aspects of other cultures can enhance one’s interpretation of myths and rituals as well as contribute to political advocacy in support of one’s native teachers. I like to imagine that my efforts to investigate experiences that occur outside the purview of the anthropology practiced by Boas might have brought me his praise. [See below for more on Franz Boas.]
Q. By now, almost all anthropologists and even New Age historians accept as inevitable that much, if not all of Castaneda's work is fiction. However, Castaneda himself was not fiction; and his writings, make-believe or otherwise, have exerted a powerful influence during the last three decades. In your book about Castaneda you point out the damage to Native American groups that Castaneda and his contemporaries provoked because of their fallacious depictions of religious rituals, including the ritual uses of peyote. However, Clifford Geertz, David Murray and other writers on anthropology have suggested that Castaneda's books have actually been beneficial to ethnography because, by blurring genre boundaries, they expand its possibilities. On balance, how do you assess Castaneda?
A. I have hinted that the scientific and the esoteric approach in anthropology are non-commensurable. Nevertheless, I believe that they can be complementary ways of understanding religious practitioners and rituals. Of course it can be claimed that Castaneda’s writing helped the esoteric approach in anthropology gain acceptance. Even if that is true, wouldn’t it have been better to have had an authentic account of how an anthropologist learned first-hand from another culture’s ritual specialist? Perhaps Zora Neale Hurston provided such an account long before Castaneda.
Castaneda is a pivotal personality in cultural anthropology. The other celebrity anthropologist whose ethnographic findings have been debunked is Margaret Mead. It turns out that two of Mead’s female adolescent "informants" conspired to perpetrate a fraud about Samoan sexual practices. Mead uncritically accepted their stories as fact. Mead’s debunker, Derek Freeman, has not been well received by anthropologists. In fact, at the 1983 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) there was a symposium in which Freeman’s book, Margaret Mead and Samoa, was condemned. Nor did the symposium organizers invite him to attend their symposium and present a rebuttal. "At the annual business meeting later that day, a motion denouncing my [Freeman’s] refutation as ‘unscientific?was moved, put to the vote, and passed" (Freeman 1997: 66).
If enforcing scientific standards is so important to anthropologists, why hasn’t the AAA passed a similar resolution condemning Castaneda’s "research" with don Juan Matus as unscientific? Probably because professional anthropologists take pains to protect their reputation and to avoid public controversy. Those anthropologists who celebrate positive aspects of Castaneda's writing have not addressed the issue of how Castaneda's writing may have contributed to the influx of non-Indians which has troubled the NAC and the conservative Chapalagana Huichols. In addition to publicly celebrating what they take to be the best in Castaneda’s writing I would be pleased if some of the anthropologists who recognize that most if not all of Castaneda’s work is fiction propose a resolution to be voted upon by the membership of the AAA, a resolution condemning Castaneda’s work as "unscientific". Until they propose such a resolution, I prefer not to join their chorus of praise for Castaneda.
I believe that mainstream anthropologists need to be consistent with their
criticism of "unscientific" work. If they are capable of doing that, I
may join them in looking for the best in Castaneda. After they set the record
straight about Castaneda’s "research" then the discussion can and
should focus on what guidelines are needed for practitioners of esoteric
Franz Boas (1858-1942) has been called the "shaper" of American anthropology. As a six-year-old growing up in Germany near the ocean, Boas had been fascinated by the color of seawater--why it was one color at the shore, another as you waded into the sea; and why it changed depending upon the intensity of the sunlight. Later, this fascination matured into a scholarly concern about the physical nature of perception. He took his doctorate in physics and, with a plan to go into the field to study human perception, he booked passage in 1883 on a ship headed for Baffin Island, near the North Pole. His idea was to live for a year among the Eskimo, who, he reasoned must be a simple people living plainly in their snow-world--unlike the complex and sophisticated people living in Boas' native Berlin. But by the end of his year with the Eskimo, Boas concluded that he had been wrong. The natives of Baffin Island were not such a simple race. In fact, they were as culturally complex as Europeans. "It was with feelings of sorrow and regret," wrote Boas, "that I parted from my Arctic friends. I had seen that they enjoyed life, as we do; that nature is also beautiful to them; that feelings of friendship also root in the Eskimo heart; that ?the Eskimo is a man as we are; his feelings, his virtues and his shortcomings are based on human nature like ours."
Having proved to himself the complexity and, therefore, intelligence of native cultures, Boas realized simultaneously that because of European expansionism, these non-industrialized (thus vulnerable) peoples were being relentlessly destroyed. From that point he dedicated his fieldwork, principally among the Indians of the Northwest, to preserving their vanishing cultures. He lived for years at a time with the groups he studied, especially with the Haida and Kwakiutl Indians. He compiled dictionaries of their languages, translations of their poetry; virtual encyclopedias of their disappearing culture. While he wrote about his personal experiences during his life in the field, his dedication was always to the people he studied. He preserved their histories, and, as testament, brought together most of the significant paintings and carvings that are displayed in the Northwest Indian Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Always wary of theory and speculation concerning the development of the early cultural history of humanity, he emphasized the importance of collecting facts. He felt that the duty of his students (who included Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, and Ruth Benedict) was to do spade work and to help bring together a body of accurate source material upon which the science of anthropology could build.
Copyright 1999, Sandy McIntosh and Jay Courtney Fikes
?1999, 2000 and 2001 Corey Donovan (or
other author, as designated). All rights reserved.