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The Devil's Book of Culture: History, Mushrooms, and Caves in Southern Mexico [Paperback]

by Benjamin Feinberg
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 1, 2003 029270190X 978-0292701908

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.

Editorial Reviews


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. (Ronda L. Brulotte The Americas 2006-01-00)

About the Author

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

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press (December 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 029270190X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0292701908
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,986,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Devil's Book of Culture November 12, 2004
I've been interested in the Sierra Mazateca for years-- after spending time there, I read the handful of books written about it, yet felt that there was much more to be said. I was thrilled to discover that last year, someone finally wrote a well-researched ethnography about it. Feinberg's book is packed with fascinating observations and reflections on the way people in the Sierra Mazateca understand and talk about their lives, history, and "culture." I would recommend this book to anyone with a background in anthropology or a similar field who is interested in cultural identity negotiation and "indigenous-ness," Oaxaca, sacred mushrooms, and folklore about devils and caves.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This book more than any I've yet read has captivated my attention and informed my thinking in a variety of ways. It is not a book about "culture," where ideas and meaning are fixed according to implied moral distinctions, but rather "meta-culture," where the creation of space is changing according to the global and local evolving of discourses about time, place, and identity. He is not just a person writing about his magic mushroom experience, he is writing about the impact the Idea of mushrooms has had on people, their representation and meaning, as well as reporting the psychoactive effects and how they relate to this different way of conceptualization. I've had two classes with my academic advisor Ben Feinberg, and he is as intelligent, witty, and strange as this book, with new depth in each turn of the page and eye. I've probably read this book in full five times, as well as referencing parts of it consistently in conversations. That he met the Devil who offered him a book of culture (and has offered European-descent people similar kinds of intellectual riches) is vivifying to the central theme that ideas shape our world, often moreso than actions.
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6 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
I know for a fact that Ben Feinberg has watched over one hundred hours of "I Dream of Jeanie."
But if that's not enough to convince you to buy his book, you might consider the actual subject matter. How do people in small places not overcome by the hegemony of time and space most people reading this website live with conceive of time and space? Feinberg looks at this, dealing with different categories of time and such from the perspective of the Sierra Mazteca. How do you get to Oaxaca de Juarez from Juatla? Where is the United States, and who are these weird tourists?
Read the book for the answers to these questions and more.
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6 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dresses make me feel pretty! January 3, 2004
His analysis is brilliant. If you are unsatisfied after reading through once, then I suggest you purchase another copy and read it over again.
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