The Poetics of Ayahuasca: Lessons Learned from César Calvo – Elena Andrade

Elena Andrade is a Canadian scholar whose research interests include performance studies, psychedelic literature and space-time perception across cultures. She presented this talk at the 3rd Annual Shaman Woman, Plant Medicine and Psychedelic Salon hosted by WVC in Vancouver, Canada on November 15, 2014.  

The Poetics of Ayahuasca: Lessons Learned from César Calvo

The topic of my talk today is part of a project I’ve been working on lately for my graduate studies at the University of Victoria. I focus on performance studies, which is a field between political science and the arts. Performance studies views politics as a type of performance, as a performative practice. So, for example, performance theorists say that space is not something that pre-exists individuals but rather that the space around us is constituted by performative practices. Similarly, gender identity is also performative, meaning gender is not an intrinsic quality of a body but a continual reiteration of a set of practices that are considered by the culture to be feminine or masculine. In my work, I’m interested in the body as a communicative medium in the sense that the body or its absence reveals something about the way power works in a given context. My definition of the body differs significantly from that of a medical or a scientific definition, although I am interested in the human sensorium but more so in its relation to perception and aesthetics. I see the body as the site where political and social forces materialize and also as the primary site of resistance to domination and colonization. So that’s the lens I look through when I read an image, a text, or a performance.

What brought me to the study of politics as performance was spending time with indigenous anarchists and Zapatistas in Mexico before the drug war exploded in 2006. Already in those years before the official declaration of war against the cartels, the level of fear in Mexico was very high. To me it felt like a low-intensity war. At that point, the country was already militarized in response to the social problems caused by NAFTA, which had a devastating impact on the Mexican people. In Mexico, anti-NAFTA, anti-globalization activism is highly performative and theatrical because in such a repressive authoritarian system, the vast majority of citizens are shut out of the political process. The resources available to them are basically their own bodies and public space. So they develop ways to intervene using what’s available.

For a several months I lived in a small town in southern Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, and during that time I began to notice that the military presence coincided with high levels of drug consumption in the community, and supposedly the military was there to protect the community from the evils of illegal drugs. A high percentage of the men in the town were addicted to cocaine, the community was flooded with it. I would see things in my peripheral vision that made me question if I was seeing correctly. Did I just see men with machine guns duck behind that house? Did I really just see that? I was experiencing the hallucinatory reality of the drug war. What I mean by a hallucinatory reality is a situation where you keep asking yourself if what you’re seeing is actually happening or if you’re imagining it. The anthropologist and performance theorist Michael Taussig calls this zone of hallucinatory reality the “space of death,” a zone where “signifiers are strategically out of joint with what they signify” (5). These are spaces where language hides the truth; it’s a space where armed soldiers are peacekeepers and capitalism equates with development. The mythology that overlays this space of death, Taussig explains, combines European, indigenous, and African figures and narratives with whites occupying a privileged position, whites being the ones who bring “progress” to backwards places and peoples. Taussig wrote a fascinating account of the system of terror in northwestern Amazonia after rubber became an important commodity in the international market. He studied ayahuasca shamanism as a healing practice that attempts to manage the fear and terror caused by the brutality of the rubber companies and capitalism’s advance into Amazonia.

So what’s happened in Mexico is that a massive space of death has opened up with the US-funded drug war. Every time I go back the violence is more horrific, more senseless, closer to home. It would be difficult to find someone who has not been affected by the violence. During the Iraq war, there were some months when more people were dying in Mexico than in Iraq. Basically, the Mexican system is a death machine that systematically targets young, brown-skinned males. It’s not at all about eliminating the drug trade. It’s about perpetuating war because war is a lucrative industry.

So I bring that lived experience of the drug war into my research of performative interventions against authoritarian systems. My own micro-solution to the ethical problem of the witness – for now – has been to engage in the discourse around drugs, and more specifically psychedelics, to frame these substances in a way that challenges the assumptions and fear-mongering of the current order. I especially appreciate Diana Slattery’s definition of psychedelics as a “discourse of the unmentionable by the disreputable about the unspeakable.” Psychedelics are material substances, a discourse, and a visionary aesthetic that represents the phenomenological effects of the drug. By speaking about psychedelics, we are exercising our freedom to describe and set the terms of our own lived experience. Psychedelics is a discourse that challenges the military-big pharma-prison complex.

The work of Peruvian poet Cesar Calvo has provided me with a window for research into psychedelics and the politics of drugs. Both literature and psychedelic drugs are complex material and narrative hybrids, I would argue, whose effects depend on psychosocial context as well as method of consumption. Calvo wrote during the last half of the twentieth century and was active in the revolutionary movements of the 60s and 70s. His work celebrates the African, mestizo, and indigenous cultures of Peru, especially their use of poetry, performance, and music to decolonize body and soul. He wrote Las Tres Mitades de Ino Moxo in 1979 under military dictatorship in a period when tens of thousands of Latin Americans were disappeared by the state as part of Operation Condor. The novel fuses text and performance and represents an aesthetic intervention against a regime that inscribes traumatic memories on both the individual and social body with violence and terror. Calvo draws upon both indigenous and European literary traditions to tell the story of a journey to the house of Ino Moxo who, for Calvo, stands among the great Latin American poets of the past century for his mastery of the ceremonial arts. The story introduces magical notions of conscious plants, interspecies communication, and shape shifting to challenge materialist and mechanistic worldviews. Calvo’s journey from the national capital to northwestern Amazonia to interview Ino Moxo provides the external structure for an interior, metaphorical journey with dimethyltriptamine (DMT), the active ingredient of ayahuasca. So the novel is a container for the transformative process of the writer and has an ayahuasca ceremony inscribed in it. Calvo writes from the space of death, directly confronting its contents to consciously manage its relation to his own life as a source of artistic inspiration. Tres Mitades depicts both Ino Moxo’s and César’s emergence from the space of death as somatic poets whose ritual use of psychoactive plants takes them through alternate realities of extraordinary beauty and terror as they strive to find a space of freedom for themselves in the modern world. Ease with paradox and hybridity characterizes this new psychedelic state of being.

3 thoughts about ayahuasca and drug politics:

Ayahuasca shamanism is a performance.

Ayahuasca ceremonies are a form of performance called “somatic poetry” by ethnographers who study the cultural practices of Amazonian peoples (from The Ecology of the Spoken Word by Michael Uzendoski and Edith Calapucha-Tapuy). Somatic poetry is defined as the “art of ritual healing” and it can be storytelling, plant ceremonies, healing rituals. Seeing shamanism as a kind of performance offers a grounded approach to ayahuasca ceremonies. Realizing that the person conducting the ceremony is a performer and in no way an authority figure, spiritual or otherwise, takes away the mystique around that person. From what I’ve observed, part of the shaman’s performance is to behave as an authority figure. An ayahuasca ceremony then is a form of Amazonian somatic poetry in which plants mediate “a process of textual creation that allows the body not just to create but to become the text” (Uzendoski and Calapucha-Tapuy 24).

By incorporating ayahuasca ceremonies into his writing practice, Calvo’s body and text become sites of aesthetic experimentation, political resistance, and momentary liberation. His writing represents an attempt to undo historical violence materially inscribed on his body through his senses.

Drugs are political technologies.

As the figure of Ino Moxo instructs, psychoactive plants are indispensable tools for investigation of consciousness and the nature of reality. Besides their material effects on the body, drugs produce changes in consciousness that have political and social implications.

Besides their influence on artistic expression, the history of drugs is bound up with multinational capitalism and state policies that make mass addiction profitable. Study of Calvo’s narrative raises critical questions about the uses of drugs as biopolitical technologies to undergird the global capitalist system. Certainly, pharmaceuticals, especially antidepressants, painkillers, and synthetic hormones, are indispensable to the formation of governable subjects in liberal democracies.[1] Drug historians have pointed out that virtually every highly addictive drug, including heroin, amphetamines, and cocaine, was first cooked up in a commercial laboratory then legally marketed with an advertising campaign based on unfounded hype. So with annual sales now in the billions of dollars, the current mode of capitalism ensures physical dependence on economic relations of domination. The medical system is implicated in this dysfunctional system because it is often through medical intervention that bodies are subdued and controlled in this culture.

Heroin is a really interesting example of the connection between capitalism and drugs. It was originally manufactured and sold over the counter in the late nineteenth century by Bayer and was only made illegal after the cost to society of its ravaging effects outweighed the profits to be made from it.

An essential book on this topic is Bruce Alexander’s Globalization of Addiction, where he identifies dislocation is the cause of all addictions. And the cause of dislocation is capitalism. So as long as there’s capitalism, there will be addiction. Until the inequalities built in to our economic systems are addressed, this problem will always be with us.

Interspecies communication.

As one who uses psychoactive plants to voyage into other dimensions or explore the nature of consciousness, Ino Moxo is a liminal figure, a bridge between worlds—the worlds of indigenous and settler, material and spiritual, city and forest. Both Cesar Calvo and Ino Moxo use plants for self-engineering and self-transformation, what Ken Tupper refers to as “phyto-chemical engineering”. Through their aesthetic experiments with plants and somatic poetry Calvo and Ino Moxo become hybrid beings able to communicate with plants to get information that helps them in three dimensional reality. Interestingly, this plant-human hybrid figure also appears in scientific literature in the metaphor of plant teachers. Dennis McKenna goes so far as to describe ayahuasca as “an emissary of trans-species sentience,” which is exactly what Ino Moxo says in Calvo’s novel. The integration of these plants into personal practices raises questions about the limits of the human, and whether interspecies communication represents the next stage of development for our species or the planet. Calvo writes that trees are his accomplices in life and that ayahuasca co-authors his novel. Trees are portrayed as conscious beings and humans are described as having the qualities of plants. The lines between human and plant world get completely blurred. The question of interspecies communication is really an intriguing question because the imprint of psychedelic plants is all over Calvo’s writing from the sentence level to the ordering of space-time. The signature of ayahuasca appears as trinary logic and multidimensional, multiperspectival descriptions of landscapes and events. Fractals are everywhere, especially the tree of life pattern. In this book, the tree is a supernatural figure completely entangled with human history and the forest is a material expression of an underlying energetic matrix. It represents an Amazonian cosmology that locates divinity in the plant world.