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Tales from the Land of Magic Plants: Textual Ideologies and Fetishes of Indigeneity in Mexico's Sierra Mazateca

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 June 2015

Paja Faudree*
Brown University


Anthropology and other disciplines are engaged in an extended conversation about how to understand the dynamics of global interconnection. One dominant approach stresses political economies of global markets, exploring how commodity chains structure social relations and vice versa. I propose instead an emphasis on how semiotic mediation, specifically textual representation, shapes the circulation of material goods and surrounding social relations. I draw on ethnographic and archival research concerning the Mazatec region of Oaxaca, where psychedelic plants that local people have long used ritually have more recently become the subject of intense, socially violent consumer interest. I examine recent histories of interest in the region through texts written by outsiders, first “mushroom seekers,” and then Protestant missionary-linguists. Applying Keane's (2003) concept of “semiotic ideologies” to ideas about texts, I suggest that competing textual ideologies undergird conflicts between how outsiders have written about the region and local people have responded to their accounts. The nearly century-deep corpus of writings about the region tends to depict its people through reference to its hallucinogenic plants, a form of “semiotic collapse” wherein the commodities become fetishized proxies for people. Local people, particularly Mazatec authors, react by trying to manage this “representational hangover” from the history of outsider depictions. They adopt strategies to undo the power of the fetish by re-socializing the plants and re-embedding them in local social relations. This analysis offers a fruitful entry point for ethnographies of global connection while furthering the interdisciplinary project of attending jointly to materiality and semiotic representations.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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