4. Accounting for separate realities

“Language speaks.”

Martin Heidegger

“The word in language is half someone else’s.”

Mikhail Bakhtin

Whilst most of us know of Don Juan/Juan Matus only through the account of him – and not least of his words – given by Castaneda himself, it appears to have required his fiercest critic and would-be debunker (Richard de Mille) to have begun to recognise not only these words but also some of the key practices supposedly taught to Castaneda by Juan Matus as “half someone else’s”. By far the chief ‘someone else’ (and in this sense also Castaneda’s first and principal teacher) was his academic mentor Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel in turn was connected to an entire lineage of European thinkers that can be traced, through the phenomenological sociologist Alfred Schütz, to the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. The voice of these thinkers too speaks clearly through the language of Juan Matus. For though supposedly a translation from Castaneda’s Spanish ‘field notes’, the language of this ‘translation’ is clearly overlayed and pervaded with language and pithy utterances a huge number of which clearly echo, speak for and deeply resonate with the thinking of all these ‘someone elses’. Together I call them Castaneda’s ‘second lineage’ - the first being his account – through the voice of Juan Matus – of an ancient Amerindian lineage of Toltec seers and sorcerers. For Agehandanda Bharati “the glaring sign of don Juan’s illegitimacy is his intercontintental eclecticism” (The Don Juan Papers p. 148). To me, and I believe also to Castaneda himself, the way in which his account of an Amerindian shamanic lineage gives fresh and novel expression to a ‘second lineage’ of profound European thinkers is the most “glaring sign” of his genius. Let us begin with the last in the long chain of this second lineage, and the one with the most direct influence on Castaneda - Harold Garfinkel.

De Mille’s own dim view of Garfinkel and German philosophy is evident from the following snide remarks, all remarkably similar to a description of Castaneda’s Juan Matus, as well as to the most vehement attacks on Martin Heidegger:

“Anthony F.C. Wallace said Garfinkel’s verbal compactions ought to be read as inspirational literature rather than technical prose, that they were ‘like a very bad interlinear translation of an obscure German philosopher. Serious graduate students, Wallace added, ‘may waste hours searching for the meaning of such seemingly oracular non-sentences.’ The oddest thing about Garfinkel’s style, however, is not its incomprehensible unreadability; many an obscure German philosopher can supply that. The oddest thing is that Garfinkel is that he is quite capable of writing clear, straightforward sentences when he wants to. He just didn’t want to most of the time. Why didn’t he want to? I should guess it was because however much a thinker and teacher he may have been he was more a guru or magus, a charismatic presence that inspired, mystified, enthralled, that initiated a few worthy disciples and drove the rest away. Inscrutable scriptures were the first barrier to stop unworthy postulants. Anyone smart enough, tireless enough and obedient enough to slog through Garkinkel’s semantic swamp deserved admittance to the separate social-science reality hidden at its center, where further, more exacting tests of devotion awaited … Having defected long before from  the One True Church, Castaneda was not about to submit to any lesser authority.” (ibid.)

The above citation is from Richard de Mille essay’s entitled  Ethnomethodallegory – the title being a swipe at the new discipline known as ‘Ethnomethodology’ founded and practiced by Harold Garfinkel. Richard de Mille describes Ethnomethodology as follows:

“Beginning as a critique of sociological practice, Garfinkel’s creation developed into something more or less independent of sociology, whether one would call it a discipline, a specialty, a cult, a rebellion, or a conspiracy to destroy social science from within. The central idea of ethnomethodology was that every kind of reality was a subjective, or at least ‘intersubjective’, way of talking about things … Before completing his graduate work at Harvard, Garfinkel had visited the New School of Social Research to study with Alfred Schutz, who thereby became the conceptual grandfather of ethnomethodology. Schutz defined “intersubjective” reality as a “world of the We”, a world not private though subjective, a world constituted in face to face exchanges between people who lived in the same physical and social environment. So situated, this shared subjective world could be constantly corrected by new readings of the environment, which it kept stable and dependable. Other realities were possible if the normal assumptions were suspended … but most people returned to and depended on the normal world of the We, the common-sense realities of everyday life.” (ibid.)

As for Garfinkel himself, his definition of ethnomethodology is in essence much simpler and more pithy. In the preface to ‘Studies in Ethnomethodology’ he begins by emphasising that all that is taken for granted  as the ‘real world’ or ‘the objective reality of social facts’ is not a given but a reference to the “organised activities of everyday life” - and in particular a result of “the methods for making those same activities visibly-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical-purposes, i.e. “accountable”…”

In Chapter One he goes straight to an even more radical and central thesis, by introducing the concept of ‘members’ – individuals sharing a common institutional or everyday settings for their activities – and a common language through which they account for or document what is taken as ‘real’ within it.  His key thesis reads as follows:

“… the activities whereby members produce and manage settings of organised everday affairs are identical with members’ procedures for making those settings ‘account-able’.” [my stress]

He goes on to write that the “… recognisable sense or fact, or methodic character or impersonality of accounts are not independent of the socially organised occasions of their use.”

Instead: “Their rational features consist of what members do with, what they ‘make of’ the accounts in the socially organised actual occasions of their use. Members’ accounts are reflexively and essentially tied for their rational features to the socially organised occasions of their use, for they are features of the socially organised occasions of their use.”

What Garfinkel is claiming here is not that propositions belonging to ‘rational’ modes of inferences and deduction are ‘invalid’ in themselves, but that their meaning and ‘rationale’ is principally  determined by the use and meaning made of them in organised institutional or everyday settings, rather than by their purely propositional character.

The thesis is grounded in Garfinkel’s emphasis on the fundamentally context-bound use or ‘indexical’ character of all utterances, proposition or ‘accounts’ of reality. Yet since no complete or total account can ever be given of the context or setting in which an assertion or judgement is made or an account constructed, this context is instead simply ‘glossed over’ and tacitly assumed. In other words, no ‘text’ – whether in the form of a statement or proposition, utterance or judgement, document, account or report – can ever give full expression to its context of use, but serves purely pragmatic or illocutionary purposes within that context.  An example is the investigation of suicides by coroners, who will tend to focus on the most common forms of evidence in disregard of specific contexts and the other possible conclusions they may lead to. The resulting document claiming a specific cause of death will then be taken as ‘fact’ and be ranked as more ‘objective’ evidence in other contexts (for example a court of law) and settings than any evidence ignored for the practical purposes of producing the document itself (Cuff et al., 1990, 179).

For Garfinkel, all that in general and “for practical purposes” tends to be glossed over in the socially organised production of oral or documentary accounts of reality in particular settings is tacitly assumed as given, whereas its ‘reality’ comes instead to be identified with accounts of it.

'Ethnomethodology' then, was not so much an independent scientific method applied to sociology but an explication of the unspoken methods by which ‘ordinary realities’ are accounted for - not only inter-subjectively created but also given a seemingly ‘objective’ or ‘factual’ nature. The method is paradoxical – for its secret lies in the ways by which ‘facts’ and ‘reality’ are reduced to accounts constructed of them – to ways of speaking about and documenting them.  Garfinkel’s insight into how not only our understanding of ‘ordinary reality’ but that very reality itself is shaped by accounts constructed of it plays a huge and decisive role in the Castaneda literature, in which he describes how a tacitly agreed understanding of reality is the result of an ‘ordinary consensus’:

“By ordinary consensus I mean the tacit or implicit agreement on the component elements of everyday life which fellow men give to one another in various ways.”

“In Don Juan’s teachings, special consensus meant tacit or implicit agreement on the component elements of non-ordinary reality, which he, in his capacity as teacher, gave me as the apprentice of his knowledge.”

These teaching were above all to do with  a different type of ‘ethnomethodology’ – specifically with methods of undermining ordinary accounts of reality and this “ordinary consensus” to such a degree that not only does an entirely new conception of reality result – aided and reinforced by an alternate language or ‘inventory’ of terms – but also an entirely new perception of reality. This goes together with a capacity not just to metaphysically postulate but to actually perceive what Castaneda calls “non-ordinary realities” in a way that is no less capable of being inter-subjectively shared and validated than ordinary ones.  

“This room is a gloss.”
For Castaneda ‘ordinary reality’ is essentially a ‘gloss’ - both in the Ethnomethodological sense and more - being a perceptual gloss and not just a linguistic one. I understand this as meaning that our ordinary consciousness of a room – or of any space or place – is not one that allows each and every individual component of it to stand out to the same degree and with the same vividness as every other.  Instead our awareness shifts from one focus or ‘foreground’ component to another – each time rendering invisible or peripheral the larger background field or luminous space of awareness within which all things stand out or ‘ex-ist’. In contrast, seeing or ‘beholding’ non-ordinary realities involved identifying with that illuminating spacious field itself – thus allowing us to perceive all ‘component realities’ within it in its vivifying and translucent light.  This would explain why, for Castaneda, what characterised non-ordinary realities was the way in which not only their every component, but every detail of their every component, constituted a ‘singularity’ that stood out in a most stable, intense and ‘lucid’ way - allowing one to come to a halt and literally fix or ‘be-hold’ them in awareness for “what appeared to be an indefinite length of time” – like a most lucid and transfixing work of art.

Further quotations from Castaneda:

"The aim of sorcerers is to reach a state of total awareness in order to experience all the possibilities of perception available to man. This state of awareness even implies an alternative way of dying."

"The first truth about awareness is that the world out there is not really as we think it is. We think it is a world of objects and it's not."

"Human awareness is like an immense haunted house. The awareness of everyday life is like being sealed in one room of that immense house for life. We enter the room through a magical opening: birth. And we exit through another such magical opening: death. Sorcerers, however, are capable of finding still another opening and can leave that sealed room while still alive.  A superb attainment. But their astounding accomplishment is that when they escape from that sealed room they choose freedom. They choose to leave that immense, haunted house entirely instead of getting lost in other parts of it."


De Mille, Richard The Don Juan Papers – further Castaneda controversies Ross-Erikson, 1980

Garfinkel, Harold Studies in Ethnomethodology Polity Press, 1967

Roberts, Jane Seth Speaks and other of her SETH books, New World Library

Silverman, David Reading Castaneda – a Prologue to the Social Sciences Routledge, 1975


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