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  • The Devil’s Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico
  • Ronda L. Brulotte
The Devil’s Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico. By Benjamin Feinberg. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 272. Illustrations. Map. Table. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00 cloth; $23.95 paper.

Feinberg offers a new paradigm for Oaxacan ethnography with his well written work on Huautla de Jiménez and surrounding communities of the Sierra Mazateca. This region, home to indigenous Mazatecs, is well-known for its hallucinogenic mushrooms and its vast network of subterranean caves that attracts spelunkers from all corners of the world. To be certain, this is neither a book about psychedelic drug use (ceremonial, countercultural, or otherwise), nor is it a treatise on caving culture and locals' reactions to it. Rather, Feinberg examines the ways in which Mazatec identity is continuously produced and refashioned through complex discourses of indigenous history, mushroom use, and a literal and symbolic underworld represented by the caves.

In contrast with traditional anthropological notions of indigenous culture, Feinberg's aim "is not to describe identity in terms of this reputed struggle between local and global identities, but instead in terms of the relationship between different styles of representing identity, localness, and globalness; inside and outside, us and them" (p. 6). He develops a metacultural analysis of Mazatec identity and culture based on Volosinov's distinction between linear and pictorial styles of reported speech. The linear style of reporting is the most familiar way of talking about culture, compartmentalizing it into high versus low, absent or present. It characterizes the official language about the prehispanic [End Page 662] past and culture loss frequently employed by the state and others engaged in heritage preservation. Feinberg instead favors a pictorial style of representing culture, in which the agency of the reporting voice is evidenced by its ability to creatively draw on a range of symbols and narratives to construct individual experience.

Feinberg's ethnography demonstrates that Mazatec culture is not a survival from a prior time. Instead, distinctions between insiders and outsiders are articulated through current narratives, in which speakers travel to and from multiple discursive worlds. In these narratives, hallucinogenic mushrooms and the special knowledge associated with their use serve as a potent master symbol of Mazatec identity both within and outside the region. The import of this mushroom knowledge is manifest in the proliferation of stories by shamans, entrepreneurs, politicians, intellectuals, tourists, and others who all vie to tap the mushrooms' magical properties. Feinberg locates cultural production not only in the interstices of the psychedelic realm of mushrooms; Mazatec identity also pivots around the symbolically charged caves, an underworld where supernatural phenomena abound, and a scripted Mazatec past that continually haunts the present. Using the metaphor of travel, he illustrates how various groups discursively move between local structures of power and global networks of exchange. He suggests that social and economic "power, in the Sierra Mazateca, lies in the space of the intermediary, in the practice of coming and going" (p. 18).

Through both the content of his text and his ethnographic style, Feinberg argues against bounded notions of culture, with easily definable content, which have too often allowed for seamless representations of ethnicity in Oaxaca. This approach renders Mazatec culture a quantifiable entity marked by the perseverance of specific prehispanic traits or "traditions"—here, language, artisanry, cosmology, political organization and agricultural practices—in spite of global incursions. In this regard, Feinberg makes a decided theoretical departure from the large body of scholarly literature on Oaxaca. Rejecting historical depictions of the Sierra as isolated and essentialized discourses about its indigenous inhabitants, he challenges those who would see Mazatec identity as emanating from a reified core of uniquely ethnic traits and values.

The author's elegant prose, at times raw, and peppered with colorful vignettes exposing the many foibles of fieldwork, makes for pleasurable and engaging reading. Perhaps more importantly, Feinberg's work represents a significant theoretical contribution to the study of ethnic identity in Oaxaca, a topic of considerable anthropological narration. It demands a thorough reexamination of the very ways in which we study and write about indigenous "culture...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6247
Print ISSN
0003-1615
Pages
pp. 662-663
Launched on MUSE
2006-05-04
Open Access
No
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