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The Devil's Book of Culture

The Devil's Book of Culture
History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico

In this highly original ethnography, Benjamin Feinberg investigates how different understandings of Mazatec identity and culture emerge through talk that circulates within and among various groups, including Mazatec-speaking businessmen, curers, peasants, intellectuals, anthropologists, bureaucrats, cavers, and mushroom-seeking tourists.

December 2003
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
288 pages | 6 x 9 | 20 b&w photos, 1 map, 1 chart |

Since the 1950s, the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico, has drawn a strange assortment of visitors and pilgrims—schoolteachers and government workers, North American and European spelunkers exploring the region's vast cave system, and counterculturalists from hippies (John Lennon and other celebrities supposedly among them) to New Age seekers, all chasing a firsthand experience of transcendence and otherness through the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms "in context" with a Mazatec shaman. Over time, this steady incursion of the outside world has significantly influenced the Mazatec sense of identity, giving rise to an ongoing discourse about what it means to be "us" and "them."

In this highly original ethnography, Benjamin Feinberg investigates how different understandings of Mazatec identity and culture emerge through talk that circulates within and among various groups, including Mazatec-speaking businessmen, curers, peasants, intellectuals, anthropologists, bureaucrats, cavers, and mushroom-seeking tourists. Specifically, he traces how these groups express their sense of culture and identity through narratives about three nearby yet strange discursive "worlds"—the "magic world" of psychedelic mushrooms and shamanic practices, the underground world of caves and its associated folklore of supernatural beings and magical wealth, and the world of the past or the past/present relationship. Feinberg's research refutes the notion of a static Mazatec identity now changed by contact with the outside world, showing instead that identity forms at the intersection of multiple transnational discourses.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction: A Toyota in Huautla
  • 2. Historical and Geographical Overview: The Master Narrative of the Past
  • 3. From Indians to Hillbillies: Explicit Stories about the Mazatec Past
  • 4. "Like Rock, but Mazatec": Fiestas in Huautla
  • 5. The Secret Past
  • 6. "¿Quiere Hierba? ¿Quiere Hongo?" Mushrooms, Culture, Experts, and Drugs
  • 7. The Underground World
  • 8. Conclusion: The Devil's Book
  • Notes
  • Bibliography

Benjamin Feinberg is Professor of Anthropology at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.


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The Sierra Mazateca came to international attention in the 1960s as North American youth came to the region to experience the magical primitive in the form of hallucinogenic mushrooms, at the same time that anthropology classes were being horrified by the violent primitive nature of Venezuelan Indians and a few years before television audiences would thrill to harmonious primitive nature in the form of the "Stone Age" Tasaday in the Philippines. The Sierra became the sort of place where something valuable could be discovered--something secret that the rest of the world had lost, something that required a quest into a dense geographical and psychedelic space. The mushroom seekers and others who came to the Sierra did not notice, but the inhabitants of the strange world they encountered were already participating in discourses that used terms like "primitive" and "modern"--and these worldly natives incorporated the input of their new visitors to refashion their sense of identity, to continuously adapt their own varied concepts of culture and secrecy, which sometimes mirrored those of their visitors.

Late one gray evening in early 1994 in Huautla de Jiménez, a mysterious stranger offered me a key to Mazatec culture and history in the form of what he called a "book"--really a sheaf of papers. What does it mean that "culture" in the present, or "history" as a component of that culture, becomes objectified as a material item that can be transferred between individuals? And what does it mean that the materialized culture does not take just any old shape but assumes the form of a book? And why is this book not openly read and distributed, but transferred in the dark, under the signs of secrecy, betrayal, an evil stranger, and sexual indiscretion? My interpretation of this incident expanded in complexity when Mazatec friends confirmed to me that the mysterious stranger was much like El Chato, a supernatural figure who provides wealth in exchange for male fertility and who is sometimes glossed as "the Devil."

I did not accept El Chato's offer, but decided instead to turn my investigation away from "culture"--that nebulous object of traditional ethnographic inquiry--and toward the discursive practices and exchanges through which culture takes on a life of its own. In this case, culture is not Tylor's "complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (1958 [1871]:1), exchanged at night between a supernatural villain who lives in a cave and a foreign student who stepped into a late-night taco joint--a wealth-generating thing passed from one mediator to another.

My own book, in Tylor's terms, makes few claims or assumptions about actually or historically existing Mazatec culture--after all, I refused the Devil's book. Instead, I search out the spaces where discourses of "culture" and identity have been elaborated in a process of conversation and negotiation between differently situated inhabitants of the Sierra, and also between them and a whole stream of outsiders who bring their own attitudes about identity--missionaries, educators, bureaucrats, anthropologists, cavers, and mushroom-seeking tourists, among others. The people of the Sierra Mazateca contribute to the construction of their identity by responding to and participating in discourses that may have originated elsewhere.

This book is not a traditional ethnography in that it does not try to reproduce El Chato's book of Mazatec culture, entering into the depths of this magical, possibly imaginary entity, usurping the authority that can be gained only through collaboration with dark forces; instead, it traces the surface manifestations of that aspect of culture that is about culture and that helps to reproduce culture.

Specifically, this book looks at the different voices that enter into three broad, multivocal arenas of talk and attempts to draw out the relationships between these voices and different conceptions of "culture." My assumption is that "culture" emerges through the dialogue between the different kinds of discourses that inhabit these arenas--from the everyday, unplanned conversations in houses and on street corners to relatively formalized genres like storytelling and shamanic chants, and from academic articles to popular culture texts like postcards, tabloids, and websites. These discourses may be explicitly about culture or implicitly metacultural, but they are not just external descriptions of culture--they provide the frameworks through which individuals negotiate their identities and create a lived world.

The first area is history. Chapters 2 through 5 focus on how different voices articulate the place of Mazatec history within the nation. Chapter 2 sets the scene with a "straight" version of the Mazatec past, derived from oral histories and secondary sources, that shows how the relationships between the Sierra and the outside world have been refashioned and renewed in different historical periods. Chapter 3 looks at explicit talk about history, first examining the narratives of selected "outsiders" about Huautla's past and how these stories create a certain kind of conventional relationship between "before" and "now." For differing reasons, indigenista Mexican anthropologists, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and tourists have created a sharp delineation between these two periods that leaves most Mazatec residents in a residual, degenerate category--that of the cultureless "hillbilly." Mazatec schoolteachers and other intellectuals have begun to claim the right to create their own historical narratives and not simply act as the passive objects of outsiders' knowledge; their versions of the past exist in a creative dialogue with those of "outsider" authorities. This chapter closes by examining other Mazatec versions of the past-present relationship that challenge the models of the experts.

Town fiestas are holidays filled with colorful ritual that seems to define community identity and construct continuity with the past. Chapter 4 looks closely at the talk--not the ritual--surrounding Huautla's fiestas and how this talk reproduces particular images of the relationship between the present and the past. Chapter 5 examines versions of the relationship between the past and present told in more marginal spaces, including the folktales of peasants and the rumors exchanged by subcultural visitors. Stories about a "secret past" both manipulate and undermine the neat oppositions between epochs that are laid out in hegemonic and intellectual versions of history and challenge the dominant construction of identity as "ethnicity."

Chapter 6 examines the role of hallucinogenic mushrooms in different constructions of Mazatec identity. For most Mexicans and for smaller numbers of foreigners, Huautla is synonymous with hallucinogenic mushrooms and the great mushroom priestess, María Sabina, who died in 1985. Since the late 1950s, when the banker, self-styled "ethnomycologist," and all-around Renaissance man (or quack) R. Gordon Wasson put Huautla on the map with a sensationalist Life magazine article describing a shamanic ceremony, outsiders have journeyed to this remote and forbidding place. Today these pilgrimages continue--with most visitors searching for the opportunity to ingest the more powerful varieties of ndixito (little ones who spring forth), especially the derrumbes, or "landslide" mushrooms, in the context of a "traditional" curing ceremony overseen by a Mazatec man or woman curer who often traces a lineage back to María Sabina herself.

Mazatecs and outsiders may debate the meaning of mushroom practice, but few would deny that the discourse about mushrooms dominates cultural representation in the Sierra; the fungus is the engine of the Mazatec mimetic machinery that spins out different models of identity. Chapter 6 describes the various popular discourses about expertise and "drugs" that flow from talk about mushrooms in the Sierra Mazateca. The chapter then examines the careers of three Mazatec curers, looking at how both the actual mushroom rituals and the practices surrounding these rituals construct a travel-based model of power and identity. This model, I will show, stands in contrast with the discourses about shamanism that are voiced by tourists, New Age writers, teachers, and intellectuals--discourses that are not as distinct as the opposition between insider and outsider may make it appear. Mushroom discourse, which is also discourse about culture, emerges from conversations across group boundaries.

While the "magic world" of mushroom discourse is the most visible arena in which different cultural representations sprout forth, and the remembered past is an important arena for the construction and contestation of hegemonic poles of identification, the geography of the Sierra provides another privileged site for the elaboration of different conceptions of culture and identity. Chapter 7 examines the underground world of the Sistema Huautla, one of the deepest and most extensive cave systems in the world, a dark and empty void that plays a central role in Mazatec culture making. This chapter discusses the thirty-year experience of North American cave explorers in the region. From there, I will follow the stories about dealings with underground spirit-owners and devils and show how the meanings of these stories differ for peasants, Huautecos of the commercial class, and intellectuals, thus forming another site for metacultural contestation.

Mazatec talk and action about culture and identity produce, in each of three spaces--history, mushrooms, and caves--a tension between a view of culture as bounded and objectified and another view that locates culture precisely at moments of mediation and exchange. While one view positions history, mushrooms, and caves as essential attributes of a Mazatec identity, the other sees each area as a discursive space in which culture is continuously being generated and mediated in ways that may be dangerous or lucrative to the individual actor. Neither of these views of Mazatec identity is necessarily prior to the other, and both can and do coexist. I hope to demonstrate how my strange encounter with the Devil mediates these different views of culture and expresses a contradictory construction of identity that borrows from the mysterious past, the mushroom, and the cave.

But first I must introduce my own voyage into the Sierra Mazateca, and there is no better way to do that than by describing myself as I am often seen in Huautla--not as a "gringo," "American," or "anthropologist," but as the vehicle that continually crossed over from lowlands into highlands and from Mexico back to the United States. So I will begin by talking about my truck.

I bought the truck in the first week of July 1993, using a good chunk of the first installment of my Fulbright grant and a little extra borrowed from relatives. I was so excited. It was my first truck, the truck of my dreams, a silver 1987 4-wheel drive Toyota pickup with an extended cab and black stripes on the sides. Doug, the previous owner, showed it to me in the parking lot of the store where he worked selling customized golf equipment in Round Rock, Texas.

Doug took me to his home, a brick, ranch-style house on a quiet dead-end. His two little girls ran out to greet him, eagerly asking permission to eat at a friend's house. Doug apologized for the messy condition of his garage, but I could not see even a speck of dust. Everything seemed perfect. My eye lingered on a bumper sticker on one of the inside walls of the garage, above the neatly stacked boxes. "Don't blame me," it said. "I voted for Bush."

The next day I had a mechanic from LemonBusters inspect the truck. "What a relief," he told me when he was done. "After a day filled with clunkers, to check out a machine like this." He told me that he had never seen an engine with that many miles (125,000--all of them, according to Doug, on the highway) that looked so good and so clean. It seemed almost like new, he told me. I bought the truck then and there. The advertisement had asked for $6,500, which seemed very steep, so I decided to bargain and offered $5,900. "Sure," he said, without hesitation. For a moment I felt like Homer Simpson, realizing too late that I could have offered him far less. "Doh!"

A TV Show

A few weeks later, as I settled into the lovely, rainy town of Huautla de Jiménez in the highlands of Oaxaca's Sierra Mazateca, I was reminded of an old British television show, The Prisoner, which originally aired in 1967, just as the wave of hippies in Huautla was cresting. In those first days in Huautla as I tried to get my bearings--both as a traveler and as an anthropologist--various aspects of this TV show floated into my consciousness. Later I would realize that The Prisoner was an apt metaphor for my situation.

You may remember the basic plot of the show: in the opening credits, the secret agent, played by Patrick McGoohan (who was also the show's producer), angrily resigns from his job, and then, while he is sleeping, he is gassed and taken away from his London apartment. After the credits, in every show, he wakes up in his room in "the village." McGoohan has been renamed Number 6, and the person in charge is Number 2. "Who are you?" "You are Number 6." "I am not a number; I am a free man." Maniacal laughter. The village is Bentham's panopticon taken to its technological extreme. Every inch is monitored by hidden cameras, bugs, and other, even more insidious devices. But Number 6 seems to be the only occupant who is consciously aware that he is living in a prison. Every week, Number 2 and his (or her) cronies try to break the mind, will, and spirit of Number 6 through elaborate mind games, most of which seek to confuse his sense of his own identity. They want "Information. Information. Information." Number 6 resists: "You won't get it." "By hook or by crook, we will." He never breaks, and usually mind-games Number 2 right back, but he never is able to escape or discover who or what Number 1 is. Number 2's failures always result in his or her replacement, so each episode features a Number 2 with a different face, voice, and style. Number 2 always observed; Number 6 was always the object of that observation. As an anthropologist, I thought, I should identify with Number 2, the one who observes, the one who sees, the possessor of the gaze. So why did I feel like Number 6?

I kept thinking of the representation of space in the show. The best and scariest scene in the whole series occurred in the first episode. Number 6 enters a store and tries to buy a map. The salesman shows him several maps, all exactly the same but drawn to different scales. All show a community called "the village," surrounded by "the mountains" on one side and "the beach" and "the ocean" on the other three, with no hint of an outside world beyond the map's edges.

This terrifying rendering of the map as something that reinforces one's sense of incarceration and confusion instead of giving one a vantage point from which to see and by which to escape triggered ruminations about how meaning and power are inscribed in space. The map of "the village" is not like the world map, with its named, clearly bordered societies, each marked by its national hue (Anderson 1983; Gellner 1983; Gupta and Ferguson 1992:6). The village's representation of its geography is something else, just as the definition of the meaning of space, in the Sierra Mazateca, often upsets expectations in its juxtaposition of generic and specific terms.

The emphasis on information was another thread that tied my disoriented consciousness to The Prisoner. Information: That's what Number 2 wanted so desperately, and Number 6 as well. Number 2 was always seeking information about Number 6. Number 6 was always trying to figure out not only where he was but also what Number 2 was after--and why. I was an anthropologist doing fieldwork, so I too was looking for information. What was it they wanted? Foucault (1980:155) has described power as an eye, an inspecting gaze that finally ends with the interiorization of the overseeing function. The goal of collecting information, in the worlds of Foucault and McGoohan, is linked not so much to the actual data retrieved, but rather to the process of knowing, gazing, classifying, and thus to creating subjects as objects of knowledge. It is part of "a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power" or what their motive might be (Foucault 1977:202). It also doesn't really matter, for Number 2, what kind of information he collects, as long as it is yielded up willingly and the individuals confess their personal truth.

When I arrived in Huautla, I too sought information, but as a clumsy and novice field-worker, I was not entirely sure what that meant. So I turned to the people around me, my Huauteco friends and acquaintances, to see what they thought I was doing. It seemed to me, after reflecting on their versions of my job, that they fetishized information as much as Number 2 did--whatever it was, it was spatially located in hidden places (spy headquarters, museums, remote villages) and controlled by specialists (spymasters, scientists, elders, anthropologists). Within this discourse, the information I would want would be found in categories with labels like "the customs" and "the way things were before." But what was this information that people talked about but never detailed? "Information" seemed to function more as a sheer simulacrum than as a symbol or an icon; its meaning was understood but it referred to nothing. So we can imagine the anthropologist puzzling over the question of how "information" is constructed in his universe and flashing back to a television program that presented a particular version of what it means to collect data.

The focus on identity was another aspect of The Prisoner that seemed relevant to my plight as a fledging anthropologist. In the show, identity is a major site in the battle between the powerful and the weak. The Number 2s continually try to fashion and confuse the identities of their subjects, especially Number 6--giving them numbers instead of names, for one (obvious) example, but also creating identities that, from Number 6's perspective, are patently false. For Number 6, the "community" of the villagers is really a mask for a prison of guards and prisoners.

For social scientists, the categories of perceptual evaluation that create groups and identities are "the crucial stakes of political struggle which is a struggle to impose the legitimate principle of vision and division" (Bourdieu 1990:134). From my perspective on the problem of how identities--national, community, region, class, faction--come into being and are affirmed or challenged, The Prisoner serves as a model of the clear links that always exist between the struggle for and against power and ways of identifying the self and the other. Are indigenous villages best described as "closed corporate communities" (Wolf 1957)? Scholars have described the cultural makeup of these communities in relationship to a bigger world in various ways: as a "little tradition" that differs from the "great tradition" of the cities (Redfield 1930), as isolated "survivals" of a pre-Columbian indigenous tradition (Vogt 1970), as units that have imposed a cultural homogeneity as a form of self-defense against the Spanish Empire and the Mexican state (Gossen 1986). But if we look at communities as "total institutions" like those studied by Goffman or represented in The Prisoner, we may be led toward another model. "Total institutions," he writes, "do not really look for cultural victory. They create and sustain a particular kind of tension between the home world and the institutional world and use this persistent tension as strategic leverage for the management of men" (Goffman 1961:13).

Recent work has debunked the notion of the isolated Mexican village forever re-creating its traditional, dysfunctional, or oppositional heritage in a remote space where the rest of the world relates only as a threatening outside force. This debunking suggests more links with the village of The Prisoner. Both types of village appear as traditional, autonomous units. Yet both, in reality, are closely tied to outside spaces--prisoners and guards come to the village from all over Europe while Huautecos go everywhere--to California, Mexico City, and around the world in the kitchens of cruise ships. All sorts of people come in to Huautla and the Sierra as well--New Age tourists and mushroom eaters, bureaucrats and construction workers, missionaries, educators, anthropologists. Many more alien voices arrive in television signals that bounce off of satellites and land even in the remotest reaches of the jungle.

Oaxaca's indigenous people fully participate in a transnational economy and mass culture (Cohen 2000; Kearney 1995; Nagengast and Kearney 1990; Stephen 1991), just as McGoohan's villagers clearly participate in an international economy of espionage. Yet both units define themselves through the tropes of "autochthony" and "isolation." Both communities highlight the idea that apparent spatial isolation or marginality is a trope that is used deliberately for ends that relate to power: McGoohan's village is somewhere in a generic European periphery; one episode suggests Portugal, another the eastern Baltic, though the program was really filmed in Wales. And Huautla is a lost corner of "Mexico Desconocido."

Finally, I was reminded of The Prisoner by the music. In the program, there are always men parading around town playing musical instruments, horns and drums and the like. They always seem engrossed in their work. It is hard to tell why they do it or what they are doing. Are they invoking some sort of strange carnivalesque resistance to the lie they are living, or are they celebrating the power of their rulers? Or are they just bleating the dumb noise of the silent majority, the masses who "absorb all radiation from the outlying constellations of State, History, Culture, Meaning" (Baudrillard 1983:2) but radiate nothing but constant background noise?

In Huautla, there is always music. After someone dies, there are processions after three days, ten days, twenty days, and forty days. Still more remembrances follow on anniversaries, sometimes up to seven years after the death of the finado (dearly departed). And there are other processions for saints and weddings, so always there are big throngs of people plodding through the often muddy streets. The women walk first, carrying umbrellas for rain or excessive sun, and the men follow under hats, stoically braving the elements and staring into space. In between the two groups are the musicians, squawking out the eerily upbeat music called banda or else making the mariachi noise. A priest, before a wedding in Santa Rosa, is annoyed by the mariachis of the father of the bride as they play just outside the church doors while he tries to lead hymns inside, but there isn't much he can do. It is all around him, this constant ruckus that occasionally condescends to let him play too, whatever that means. The father of the bride is wasted, even though it is barely noon. "Ándale, cabrones!" he shouts ("Let's go, bastards!"), and the musicians and his half of the wedding party stagger into the church, where they will sit in bored silence for almost an hour.

Meanwhile, the music continues, suggesting gaps in all authoritative understandings, including the priest's and the anthropologist's, and infiltrating consciousness like my unbidden memories of The Prisoner while I was working at creating a serious ethnographic account of life in southern Mexico. The music reminded me that there were other ways of forming and commenting upon reality than those of the expert. These other ways, though, may take forms that, at first, appear to be nothing more than background noise.

The purpose of this book is not (merely) to argue against a clearly flawed construction of the notion of culture, space, and cultural difference. Instead, my aim is to explore and analyze the constructions of culture, space, and cultural difference that are actually deployed in a particular Mexican discursive space (or constellation of spaces) that I will for simplicity's sake call the Sierra Mazateca. My purpose will not be served by conjecturing whether or not one of these metacultural styles is more accurate or appropriate than another. I will follow them (and use them) as they create, transform, and move through different worlds and different types of metacultural terrain.

This approach differs from most of the literature about identity and ethnicity, which typically depicts these phenomena as a complex struggle between different identifications. In this literature, the twentieth-century processes of nation building and globalization are seen as threatening preexisting lower levels of identity through forced or voluntary acculturation. Recently, researchers have demonstrated that many of these lower level identifications have survived this assault and even become increasingly important, often political, poles of attraction. My approach, in this book, 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. Thus the story I tell is not about the encroachment of national, capitalist, or hegemonic culture against an Indian culture determined to defend itself; it is instead a story about the ongoing relationship between styles of representing culture in a marginal place where the noise of mourners and revelers and rumormongers challenges or complements the authoritative blasts from loudspeakers and church podiums. This is the shift from culture to metaculture.

Culture, Metaculture, and Space

Anthropology is the discipline that has explicitly formulated and debated the notion of "culture," which is usually taken as its object of study. Anthropologists may or may not have invented this concept, but they have certainly tried to usurp the right to discuss this topic as "experts" and scientists. Our notions of culture have evolved, both through our explicit arguments about its nature and through the practices that organize our work and provide us with financial support. Malinowski is a great hero because he went out there to find data, showing that culture has an empirical existence in the "field," and his work showed up the earlier armchair anthropologists and forever revamped the concept. Culture has usually been thought of as a thing that exists in certain places (the more remote, the better the chances of finding it). It is something to be found, written down in a notebook, and, like the shards collected by archaeologists, brought back to the lab for analysis.

But the term "culture" is not sufficiently complex (unlike, say, "quantum mechanics") that it can be kept out of the hands of the people without education. Before anthropologists appeared on the scene, people used ideas like "culture" in various ways. Even the Yanomamö of introductory anthropology classes organize their allegedly fierce existence through a notion like this, separating the spheres of "things of the village" (glossed by Chagnon as Culture) and "things of the forest" (Nature) (Chagnon 1992). The Yanomamö, until quite recently, lived and died in almost complete isolation from the discourses of "culture" that we recognize and participate in. But in this purported isolation, they are unique. Other people, including those less "savage" Indians of the Sierra Mazateca of southern Mexico, have defined culture and identity as part of an ongoing conversation with discourses that circulate throughout the entire human world (and perhaps part of the nonhuman world as well).

The practice of self-documentation is not restricted to the first world, nor is it limited to the "postmodern" period of the late twentieth century, although our current historical epoch has seen the emergence of new styles of indigenous ethnographic self-representation. Scholars working in Oaxaca, Yucatán, and Guatemala have shown how important indigenous ways of understanding and representing notions of "culture" are in Zapotec, Mixtec, and Maya communities from Tehuantepec to California. Their studies situate the importance of "the crisis of representation of concepts such as culture, language, and ethnicity" not at the level of the production of ethnographic texts for academic American audiences but instead at the level of "how and why ethnicity and culture are constructed in specific historical and political contexts, in which there is a profound difference in power relations" (Stephen 1989:259). Ideas about culture emerge in local contexts; they are not simply applied by authoritative outsiders.

This book will treat Huautla and the Sierra Mazateca in much the same way that John Dorst treats Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania: as a Site, "an idea, an image, a matrix of ideological discourses" (Dorst 1989:10). These metacultural discourses, which deal with the identity of people related to this particular place, are deployed by actors all over the world; but I will simplify their production, at this moment in the study, in order to make a strategic point. The most important difference in the production of discourses about "culture" in the Sierra Mazateca involves the separation of three groups of people. The first consists of outsiders: visitors, tourists, mushroom eaters, representatives of the state, anthropologists, and missionaries. In the second group we find Mazateco campesinos (peasants) and other relatively powerless types. The third group consists of "middlemen": local intellectuals, businessmen, curanderos (curers), teachers, and politicians. Much of this work will focus on the third group, both because these were the people most eager and ready to share their views with an American anthropology student and because of the interesting dialectic between the intermediary-border and core-center positions that emerges in Mazatec metacultural discourse. This classification will inevitably be undermined in the course of my analysis, as actors often speak in ways that show that they are not fixed in any of these often blurred and interpenetrating groups. Nonetheless, I believe that these distinctions are useful; many studies in the past have naively accepted the metacultural statements of middlemen as transparent representations of the feelings of the group. What I describe as a distinct metacultural style, they take for a higher level of articulateness and consciousness (Benítez 1964; Bernard and Pedraza 1989; Hernández 1990; Inchaústegui 1994; Neiburg 1988).

The switch in register from an anthropological inquiry into a particular culture to an investigation of metacultural discourses implies several things. It implies, first of all, that the anthropologist cannot accept culture and identity as given categories, but must search for the ways in which these concepts are produced and deployed by the players in the ethnographic situation. The goal is to discover the content and form of metacultural ethnotheories, and the sites in which these are produced, elaborated, and contested, instead of assuming that these must correspond to our own notions about culture. Through the active articulation of their lives with metacultural discourse, individuals and groups propel culture through time (Urban 2001).

Second, talking about metacultural discourses, instead of culture, may help us solve the problem posed by the title of Jean Jackson's (1989) article "Is There a Way to Talk about Making Culture without Making Enemies?" Jackson discusses how the shared use of the word "culture" by anthropologists and members in movements that promote the preservation of "Indian culture" can result in these two groups' unwittingly colluding to misrepresent the situation. In these cases, both groups use the notion of culture to pose "continuities between the past and present, in cases warranting a more sophisticated analysis because such continuities may in fact exist only superficially, the underlying meanings being radically different" (Jackson 1989:127). Since culture is usually considered to be something that is given to individuals and is beyond their capacity to alter, Jackson argues that "when we do speak of people as political actors who are changing culture, we run the risk of seeming to speak of them in negative terms, the implication being that the culture resulting from these operations is not really authentic" (Jackson 1989:127). By describing metacultural discourses rather than culture itself, we can avoid this troublesome confusion about "authentic" and "invented" culture, and the moral judgments these distinctions imply.

Third, in searching for these ethnotheories about culture, we must be prepared to recognize the places where our investigation is influenced by the assumptions and tropes stemming from the metacultural theories we bring with us from our immersion in both academic and popular discourses about culture. Perhaps the most important trope that we--both anthropologists the people we study, it turns out--use to discuss and categorize culture is space.

The usual conception of cultural geography, which dominates most of the social sciences, treats space as "a kind of neutral grid on which cultural difference, historical memory, and societal organization are inscribed" (Gupta and Ferguson 1992:7). As Gupta and Ferguson point out, this vision emphasizes images of rupture; different spaces are clearly demarcated from each other, and across these borders we find the indwelling entities to be different from each other in every way, isomorphically. Space equals place equals culture, and culture equals language (Clifford 1992:99). The perceptual map of the social sciences takes the political map of nation states as its model; just as solid lines separate administrative units, so do other solid lines separate geographically distinct, natural, and culturally unitary groups of Croats, Serbs, Mazatecs, or whatever. These groups are free to fight over the location of the boundaries, but not the principle of the map.

Since culture, in this model, is found in autonomous, culturally unified territories, cultural specialists typically sought out locations that seemed to most closely fit that description. These formed the mines from which that precious entity, a valuable noun-thing like guano or gold, could be extracted. Rural villages seemed like the closest fit, and so the village (or "closed corporate community," as social scientists chose to call it in Mexico [Wolf 1957]), became the privileged site of fieldwork for anthropologists. Collecting culture became a sedentary process of dwelling, as the researcher, ignoring the constant comings and goings of the natives and the products and discourses they consumed, set down roots in a village and slowly expanded until he had absorbed the culture, not just of the inhabitants, but of the place. As Clifford writes, despite the recent emigration of anthropologists out of literal villages, fieldwork still is a "special kind of localized dwelling" (Clifford 1992:98).

The work of Bakhtin on "metalinguistics" has assaulted the naturalizing isomorphism between language and culture that this dominant perception depends upon, as well. His critique of the essentialized notion of "language" parallels the critique of "culture" that the stress on "metaculture" implies. For Bakhtin, language is an inherently mutable entity; it never exists in a pure state but always in an encounter with an other, foreign language. It is not a single code or genre that speakers learn, but rather multiple, intersecting codes (spoken by different professions, ages, etc.) that no native speaker could ever master. Language is creolized at its point of origin; what matters is not the language as it exists in a clearly marked home territory, but the constant interpenetration across the numerous linguistic borders that occurs with every utterance (Bakhtin 1981, 1986; S. Stewart 1983). Thus, even if one accepts the common analogy between language and culture, Bakhtin's work shows that one cannot use this analogy to support the traditional social scientific map that divides the world into different cultures, clearly separated from each other.

Furthermore, different spaces and cultures have always been hierarchically interconnected, and not naturally disconnected; thus instead of describing change in terms of the articulation of previously isolated cultures, the task of the anthropologist is to "rethink . . . difference through connection" (Gupta and Ferguson 1992:8). A corollary of this view of culture is that it cannot be taken as a thing, a noun that belongs to a particular group; rather, it is a process of managing the interconnections among differently construed groups, or metaculture. So the situation in the Sierra Mazateca can be recast from the way it is conventionally told, as a battle between cultures--Indian and mestizo, capitalist and peasant--and transformed into an account of the relationship between different styles of imagining and representing how identity works.

In Huautla, everyone loved the Toyota and everyone used it. When I lived up at the Socorros', they cleared a space on the roof for it and lovingly covered it with a tarp. Mani and Junior would wash it for me and sit inside the cab for hours, just hanging out. Sometimes I let them listen to the radio or to cassettes, until Junior played music in there all night and killed the battery. He spent several nights in the truck, even though it seemed like an uncomfortable place to sleep. The little girls also liked to sit in the cab and bring along the baby. Once, somebody let all the air out of one of my tires. Mani said that it was one of the two kids from a neighbor family who often stared sullenly at me and said incomprehensible things. They were bad kids from a bad family, said Junior. The father didn't know things, he had tons of children and didn't buy them clothes or send them to school, so they just wandered around all the time, getting into trouble. They denied being the culprits, or each blamed the other, but Dani said that their father beat the shit out of them for doing it.

When I moved into an apartment in the lower barrio, next to the Restaurant Rosita, I left the truck parked on the street. It was locked, so nobody sat in the cab, but everyone used the bed. They would put the dirty little wild child, Eudelia, in there like it was some sort of pen. And the teenagers would sit in there and look cool and smoke cigarettes. And at night, Gloria, the nineteen-year-old sexpot from Guerrero who worked at the restaurant, would make out for hours with her boyfriend, always leaning against my Toyota.

Linear and Pictorial Metacultural Styles

The different "theoretical perspectives" that are debated by scholars bear a remarkable similarity to the "metacultural styles" that are employed in the "real world" by peasants and organic intellectuals and storekeepers and bureaucrats and tourists and college professors. As Gudeman and Rivera argue, the border between the practices at the periphery and the theories of the core can be understood as conversation rather than a gulf, as "practice and text, voices 'on the ground' and 'in the air,' and dominant and subordinate texts are appropriated and transformed, become intertwined, and play themselves out in long and ever-thicker conversations" (1990:162). By abandoning or "writing against" (Abu-Lughod 1991) culture as a concept that freezes difference and subordinates it to the expert's explication, hopefully we can narrow the chasm between authors who speak about and informants who represent a preexisting culture so that the individuals sometimes trapped in these categories can converse with each other in a less encumbered manner.

I am borrowing the terms that Volosinov uses to describe and classify various types of reported speech to describe different metacultural styles which are used both by scholars and by differently situated actors "on the ground" in places like the Sierra Mazateca. Reported speech was a particularly important area of concern for Volosinov and Bakhtin, since their view of language held that "all speech is reported speech, for all speech carries with it a history of use and interpretation by which it achieves both identity and difference. It is within this rather remarkable capacity for making present the past that speech acquires its social meaning" (S. Stewart 1983:277). Explicitly reported speech is more common in some places or speech genres than others. In the Sierra Mazateca, people are always saying "they say" or "he says" or "I say" or "some say," until they almost reach the level of the Cuna, who are said to talk almost entirely in direct quotations (Taussig 1993:109). But even utterances not prefaced with "they say" can be seen as implicit quotations, as the speaker quotes some sort of preexisting "I" upon which the I of the moment is temporarily modeled.

This line of reasoning can also be applied to culture: all culture is reported culture; all instances of cultural behavior evoke previous cultural performances and the differences and similarities that those performances were used to create. The representation of culture as reported culture problematizes the links between the present and the past (tradition, education, etc.) by stressing the agency of the reporter, who ceases to be a passive vehicle of a culture. The idea of reported culture also establishes the interconnectedness of culture; every instance of cultural "reporting" establishes a kind of link between separate entities, the reporter and the reported. An utterance of reported culture is a sign that "represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside itself"; it is not a reflection of an interior essence, a culture, as the term is conventionally used (Volosinov 1986:9). When we view cultural utterances as reported culture, the style in which the reported voice, or culture, is incorporated into the voice of the reporter becomes as important, semiotically, at least, as the content of the utterance. The style in which reported cultural utterances are incorporated fundamentally distinguishes disparate ways of using difference and similarity to put the world together.

Volosinov distinguished between two different styles of reported speech, or instances when a speaker incorporates another's utterance into his own. The linear style establishes "clear-cut, external contours for reported speech, whose own internal individuality is minimized" (Volosinov 1986:119). The author and all his characters speak the same language, or style; the borders that separate them from each other are impermeable.

When applied to culture, the linear style maps neatly on to the most familiar ways of representing the world. One way to describe this style is to draw on the image of the Olympic Games, the modern world's preeminent ritual representation of itself to itself. Each nation is clearly distinguished from all the others--they all wear different colored uniforms and have different national anthems. As soon as an athlete appears on the television screen, the viewer knows his or her nationality. But the very traits that distinguish them also unite them. Athletes and nations are differentiated in the same style: through different uniforms, anthems, colors, flags, and the three letters that always appear after an athlete's name--a standardized abbreviation of his or her country. As on the standard map of the world, with its color-coded nation-states, the apparent heteroglossia on the level of content is contained within a homogeneous style; it just sounds like heteroglossia. National difference is absolute yet uniform--it is in every case represented as a nation-state, a set of borders, a color, and a name. There is no place for identities that reject this common style, or idea of a difference not expressed through the unifying Olympic goals of athletic excellence and the competitive pursuit of shiny metals.

The rise of nationalism firmly entrenched the linear style of reporting culture as the legitimate and official way of conceiving the world; using images of the unchanging past to build for a new future, paradoxically making "an argument for the uniqueness of different cultures that is couched in a style common now to all parts of the world" (Spencer 1990:285). As in a painting by Modigliani, Ernest Gellner writes,

there is very little shading; neat flat surfaces are clearly separated from each other, it is generally plain where one begins and another ends, and there is little if any ambiguity or overlap. Shifting from the map to the reality mapped, this is a map of states, each identified with one culture and style, supervised by an educational system and a state that monopolizes legitimate culture as it does legitimate violence. (1983:140)


Increasingly in the twentieth century, difference within nation-states came to be seen as ethnic difference. In one view, different ethnic groups are seen as mini-nations--different "peoples" within a nation, each of which possesses its own language or dialect, culture, and territorial base.

The proliferation of linearly imagined "ethnic groups" within a nation may sometimes threaten the state's authority during periods of stress, but that challenge is often deflected as nations use ethnicity to create a national unity out of difference. Ethnicity, when properly managed, can, like strongly developed regional identities, serve as a microlevel model for patriotism. The linear style of imagining ethnicity obscures the power relationships that connect its elements through the imposition of hard borders, which makes it a more attractive means of composing a nation than certain other possibilities, such as class. It also naturalizes relations of power through the use of culture--markers of poverty can be read as tradition, exploitation as an immutable way of life handed down from our ancestors. While many nations tried to annihilate signs of internal cultural difference in the early twentieth century, many now find spaces to celebrate that difference, as long as it is linear difference reported identically--through different commodities to sell to tourists, different forms of dress associated with different territories, different clan tartans and village huipiles, different fields to elaborate and sell expertise. As Stuart Hall writes, capital, in this phase of globalization, wants not to obliterate difference but to operate through it under a single overarching framework. "It is trying to constitute a world in which things are different. And that is the pleasure of it but the differences do not matter" (Hall 1991:33). The beauty pageant has proved to be a model space for the elaboration of national unity through uniform pleasurable difference in countries from Guatemala to Indonesia, as each region is represented through typical clothes, dances, beautiful women, and competition. In Oaxaca, the yearly Guelaguetza brings together Indians from all over the state to perform "traditional" dances in a contest in front of appreciative crowds. The Tuxtepec pineapple dance always wins.

The linear imagination of the nation can take various forms besides the common metaphor of the contest or beauty pageant. Sports, museums, beauty pageants, advertisements, and ritual feasts--all can serve to create a surface homogeneity out of heterogeneous, possibly conflictive representations.

Vision, division, and expertise are the primary tropes of the linear style of reporting culture and of the decontamination of cultural representation. Bourdieu associates these words--vision and division--with the act of achieving symbolic power by carving up social space into different groups. Those with the power to create these groups (members of an implicit, unmarked, superior group) do so by seeing the lines between them; the act of seeing distinctions, which in our language seems like such a passive, objective non-action, is transformed into an act of aggression, even violence, as the sickle-lidded eyes of power stand or hover above the pulpy, butterlike social world and carve it up until its appropriate form is "revealed."

The linearly reported world is a seen phenomenon, and that sight must derive from the "overview"--the privileged space in the heavens, or the center, that is made by this act of powerful seeing. The overview denies its own role in the creation of the groups it sees; it portrays itself as a place of objective, neutral vision. The space of the overview becomes the home of the licensed expert, classifying from above becomes the practice of the expert, licensing experts becomes the practice of the state, and experts proliferate.

These experts do not always agree; they may struggle over competing visions of the borders between groups or different labels for categories: Are the inhabitants of a given region Quebecois or Canadian, Breton or French, European or Oriental, Indian or Mexican? But the struggles over identity are not confined to this level of the disputes between experts over the borders between linearly reported and visually divided cultural groups. There is another style of imagining and reporting cultural identity and difference that coexists with the linear style, but it makes very different use of the eyes and the expert.

The pictorial style of reporting culture is much harder to imagine and describe that its linear counterpart. Volosinov tells us that pictorially reported speech obliterates the precise borders between the various reported voices, as well as between them and the reporting voice. At the same time, it individualizes the reported speech. "This time," he says, "the reception includes not only the referential meaning of the utterance, the statement it makes, but also all the linguistic peculiarities of its verbal implementation" (Volosinov 1986:121).

So, to apply this concept to culture, we could say that in a pictorially reported universe, the borders between groups are vague and unclear, but, unlike the linear model represented by the Olympics, the way in which these groups are allowed to express their identity is not uniform. Pictorially reported culture is slippery and elusive; it is "given to digression, deflection, displacement, deferral, and difference. Culture in this 'model,' if we can call it that, resides in states of latency, immanence, and excess and is literally 'hard to grasp'" (K. Stewart 1996:5).

Borders become places of heightened importance. Instead of mere lines or walls separating distinct groups whose identity and meaning are seen as inhering essentially from within (from the cultural core, or the past, or another deep, inward part), the borders become complex places where identities are generated:

Rather than thinking of the border as the furthermost extension of an essential identity spreading out from a core, this makes us think instead of the border itself as that core. In other words, identity acquires its satisfying solidity because of the effervescence of the continuously sexualized border, because of the turbulent forces, sexual and spiritual, that the border not so much contains as emits. (Taussig 1993:150-151)

It is harder to conceptualize the pictorial view of culture because it does not model itself on the familiar map, or even the familiar use of vision. Richard Handler comments that "it is almost impossible to translate nonreifying accounts of culture and identity into terms that institutional powers can understand" (quoted in Spencer 1990:291). Gellner contrasts the pictorial view of culture with the linear view in terms of different painting styles. If the linear view is like a painting by Modigliani, with its sharply delineated borders, this other map, he writes,

resembles a painting by Kokoschka. The riot of diverse points of color is such that no clear pattern can be discerned in any detail, though the picture as a whole does have one. A great diversity and plurality and complexity characterizes all distinct parts of the whole: the minute social groups, which are the atoms of which the picture is composed, have complex and ambiguous and multiple relations to many cultures; some through speech, others through their dominant faith, another through a variant faith or set of practices, a fourth through administrative loyalty, and so forth. (1983:139)

The stress on interconnections in the pictorial mode makes it harder to conceptualize than the linear style. The practice of expressing this style also complicates its representation, since it is not based on the clear, privileged, site of vision--the overview. The linear style, presupposing the overview and its alleged uncontaminated distance from the objects it arranges, can authoritatively explain the objects of its gaze at will; it can use its language of expertise to tell its audience where one culture ends and another begins, it can map itself onto sites modeled after itself. Museums, for example. Each culture can be represented, separately, in different marked cases that are to be looked at, not touched. The organization of the museum and the lack of contamination of the exhibits mimics the authenticity of the represented others and promotes a form of distanced, reasoned judgment.

The pictorial style of viewing culture also mimics the cultural landscape it purports to depict. For one thing, difference and power come from making connections, crossing borders--not simply standing above them and looking down. The borders are not explicitly mapped out, but are embedded in narratives about nearby, magically real lands, such as the magic world of the mushrooms and the demonic world of the underground in the Sierra Mazateca.

Power, in the Sierra Mazateca, lies in the space of the intermediary, in the practice of coming and going. The pictorial style of representing culture in the Sierra Mazateca locates the generation of identity and power in that fluid practice, not in a cultural core of identity that experts--organic and otherwise--describe as "Mazatec," "Indian," or "Prehispanic." For the linearly reporting experts, stories and other cultural traits function as tokens of a separate, authentic, Mazatec world with deep roots in the ancient past. In the pictorial style, those same stories and traits mimic and perform their view of culture and power by traveling back and forth across the border between here and there. And instead of being seen clearly from the privileged space of the expert on high, these borders are felt in journeys across dark, dangerous, and mysterious spaces: mushroom hallucinations and underground tunnels and caves, even the oddly textured terrain between past and present.

The pictorial style also draws from the linear style, with its stress on vision and expertise. It too produces versions of the overview and the expert, but these are changed from those forms that we find more familiar. The power of the overview is fetishized and made into magic--the shaman becomes an expert by magically seeing across distances. But, as I shall argue in a later chapter, this version of sight is more tactile than the other--it emphasizes the contact and agency involved in vision that the official experts deny. While the shaman flies like an eagle, she also traces and follows footsteps like a possum; her power comes from traveling to and from outside places during the velada, and also from drawing patients and clients from distant places to see her, reproducing the same sort of power derived from movement across space.

The pictorial style of reporting culture puts more emphasis on the agency of the reporting voice. Individual utterances are not read as mere instantiations of a prior, self-evident reported culture. Differences between the reported cultures are not seen as self-evident, and attention must be paid to the details of the reporting voice in selectively incorporating elements from multiple, shifting "cultures," sometimes in order to reestablish an image of a bounded cultural totality. Pictorially reported culture asserts each individual's ability to construct his or her own, authoritative metaculture; it thus attacks the privileged authority of the linear expert.

The pictorial view of space and culture resonates with descriptions of globalization, which, according to Kearney, "entails a shift from two-dimensional Euclidean space with its centers and peripheries and sharp boundaries, to a multidimensional global space with unbounded, often discontinuous and interpenetrating sub-spaces" (1995:549). However, unlike many theorists of globalization and postmodernity, I do not propose that the pictorial view of culture is typical of a particular age or stage of development, as is suggested by temporally essentializing terms like "postmodernity" and by sentences like: "The binary absoluteness of cultural areas and identities is giving way to models of border areas as places of interpenetrating spaces and more complex, non-unitary identities" (Kearney 1995:557). Changes in fashionable theoretical styles of describing the world should not be misinterpreted as changes in the world itself. Rather than engaging each other through the process of progressive replacement, these styles coexist in a political dialogue, and probably always have.

I do not want to muddle my presentation by asserting that the pictorial style of representing culture is necessarily a form of resistance to the dominant linear style. However, it does seem to be an alternative form of multiculturalism that may serve to question some of the power that is based on the linear style of reporting culture. In contemporary Mexican society, it is clear that metacultural discourse based on what I have called the linear style of reporting culture is most associated with power and the state. The pictorial style, on the other hand, may prove to be characteristic, if not of resistance, at least of marginality.

High and Low Culture, or Culture and Not Culture

The linear style of representing culture depends upon another critical metacultural technique--the distinction between the high and the low. Stallybrass and White (1986:3) suggest that, since the early modern period, this high/low "opposition in each of our four symbolic domains--psychic forms, the human body, geographical space and the social order--is a fundamental basis to mechanisms of ordering and sense-making in European cultures." This technique not only distinguishes between the cosmopolitan high culture and the various low "Others" that are seen and labeled by experts; it also enables experts to determine what aspects of any particular "culture" qualify as authentic or valid, and which are markers of acultural deviation or backwardness.

This may seem paradoxical. After all, I have argued that the linear view represents all of its "cultures" in the same style, and this would seem to eliminate a hierarchy between horizontally related, non-overlapping units. But the distinction that is made in the linear metacultural discourse is not so much between higher and lower ranked cultures, but between that which qualifies as "culture" and that which does not. Returning to the example of the Olympics, few people can achieve the high standards required to make the team or to be fully "cultural"; behaviors, languages, and groups that do not qualify are written off as backward, contaminated, impure. Following Anna Tsing's example, I am using the word "hillbilly" to stand for this trope of the noncultural. In Mexico, for example, "hillbilly" is the most common meaning for the word "indio."

The concept of the hillbilly--as a type, not as a specific group of people--forms the linear way of creating a bounded label for problematic exceptions to its view of rooted identities, in situations where border crossings play a central role and identities are blurred. Unlike the pristine "primitive"--the authentic member of a disappearing enclosed culture--the disturbing hillbillies "confuse boundaries of 'us' and 'them,' and they muddle universalizing standards of propriety, deference, and power" (Tsing 1993:7). This contaminating and contaminated mass must be purged from any relationship to the cultural except subservience. They must be continually taught what they lack, but always with the hopeless, resigned understanding that they will never regain what was lost.

Most of contemporary life is presented as acultural; the real "culture" must be represented as belonging to the past, something that isn't quite dead yet but exists only in scraps and traces. It is the task of experts to uncover the valid culture and separate it from its contaminating surroundings, a form of distinction that the hillbillies lack the ability to execute. The cultural worlds of linearly defined cultures are divided into opposing lists of traits, one associated with the "real old ways" and the other with impurity and backwardness. Thus, early twentieth-century "cultural workers" evoked the true folk culture of Appalachia with such signs as "dulcimer," "ballads," "our racial heritage," "pre-modern," "100% American," "Elizabethan," and "old Southern aristocracy" at the same time that they talked about a corrupt, penetrated nonculture characterized by "the banjo," "chewing tobacco," "feud songs," "the radio," and "bad taste" (Whisnant 1983). In the Sierra Mazateca, different categories of experts have made different lists emphasizing different traits, but the "true culture" is indelibly linked to the idea of the "Prehispanic." Other valorized "old ways" include a stringed instrument that is virtually extinct, a pure form of the Mazatec language, huipiles and calzones, hallucinogenic mushrooms consumed in a noncommercial context, and a political system based on consensus. These cultural artifacts are opposed to an actual acultural state marked by television, radio, popular music, a version of Mazatec heavily marked with Spanish influences, Western clothing, drugs and the commercialized trade in mushrooms, and political parties. Cultureless hillbillies are always described, in Huautla as in Tennessee, as "backward," "ignorant," "aimless," "tasteless," and "indecent."

The word "indio" is interesting because it can refer to a full-fledged member of the idealized culture as well as (and more typically) to "hillbilly." Sometimes the word "indígena" is substituted for "indio" when the first meaning is intended. The Huauteco businessman and intellectual Renato García Dorantes refers to "our brothers, humble indígenas, in their calzones and huipiles." Another man says that a curandero who does not show up for a scheduled appointment is "very indio. He doesn't know anything." Sometimes the same traits that mark real indígenas, such as calzones, can also, in other conversations, index a degraded indio state. Gente de rancho, or people who live in small, isolated settlements, are said to preserve the customs better than the inhabitants of Huautla, but they are also frequently derided as ignorant and without culture.

In practical usage, the people who on the surface would seem like the closest approximations to the real, just about extinct culture are the ones who are most typically described as hillbillies, while the more "westernized"-appearing Huautecos are not. If the true Mazatec culture can only be found in the past, then contemporary approximations of it are read as degenerate. Two impossible but distinct cultures are presented before people who cannot hope to achieve respectability within either grouping. Inevitably, those who seem the farthest from membership in the national "Mexican" culture become voiceless, cultureless hillbillies. The experts who speak for these cultural groups claim to view culture in terms of categories such as clothing, language, music, ritual, and religion. In fact, they use these categories as the raw material to construct a new type of ethnicity based on another level of categories--art, photography, academics; the reporting media of a transcultural expert class.

On my first trip to the Sierra Mazateca in 1987, a friend and I hiked for several days from the lowlands up to Huautla. It was our first extended trip into an indigenous region of Mexico. When we saw particularly exotic or poor people in villages like Ayautla, we would not use the word "Indian" to describe them. "Look at that Okie," we would say. "No, that guy over there is a real Okie."

Because of the need to push valid culture into the past, linear metacultural discourse seems obsessed with the representation of history and the past-present relationship. But pictorially reported culture lacks this dependence on history, and the past plays a smaller and different role in this metacultural style, which is less obsessed with the need to separate genuine and spurious cultural attributes.

On my two trips back and forth between Huautla and Texas in my Toyota truck and on several other trips between Huautla and places like Oaxaca, I was pulled over by the police at least five times. On almost all of these occasions, the police treated me politely, with the utmost professionalism and respect. They just wanted to check my papers, never implying that I had committed any violations, except for once. The pages of documents that came courtesy of my Fulbright, including special permissions signed by the secretary of interior, seemed to work wonders, as I was able to explain that I was in the country with a grant from the Mexican government.

Once, the police officer told me that I looked nervous. In fact, I was nervous, and still startled by the sudden appearance of the flashing lights in my rearview mirror, which interrupted an exciting daydream. He searched the truck, telling me that he thought I was carrying something, since I was so nervous. But he remained courteous throughout. On another occasion I was rear-ended while negotiating my way through the nightmare urban traffic in the state of Mexico just north of Mexico City, by far the worst traffic situation I have ever experienced. A cop appeared right away, and he instantly told me that the accident was not my fault. He asked me to look at the damage to my vehicle to see if I needed reparations. I was exhausted and just wanted to get the hell out of there despite the dents, so I said it was fine and drove off.

Only one traffic cop tried to screw me, and that was in the northern port city of Tampico, the reputed hometown of Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN. I was driving through town, lost, searching for the highway south. A cop on foot pulled me over. I had no idea why. He asked me for something, which I eventually figured out was my receipt. Receipt for what? For the bridge. Oh yeah, I had paid a toll to cross the bridge to get into the city, but I had been given no receipt. I told him this, but he did not believe me. You must have gone into the city on the bridge, he told me, and if you have no receipt it means that you did not pay. That is a crime, he said. I tried to understand how it would be possible to cross the bridge without paying the toll. He did not help me. It is a crime, he said, pulling out some kind of police pad, presumably to write down my offense and scare me into paying some sort of fine or bribe. I was frustrated. I don't agree with you, I said. Huh, he said. I don't agree with you. It is not a crime. Oh, he said. It's not. Take off. And I drove away to resume my search for the highway south.


“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" by looking at how Mazatec identity is constructed through a host of intersecting metacultural discourses, including those of its ethnographers. While based on regionally specific ethnographic material, I highly recommend Feinberg's book not only to anthropologists, but also historians and others interested in critical theory and identity formation, as well as cultural and historical representation.”
The Americas

“...Feinberg's insights are penetrating and he makes important contributions to theoretical critiques of the concept of culture.”
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“This book looks at the Sierra Mazateca and its inhabitants in a fresh, engaging, intelligent, and interesting way. . . . It will be useful to readers in various fields who are interested in ethnicity, identity, history, and/or ethnography.”
Brian Stross, Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin


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