The Realization of the Witch in the Human Sciences

Richard Baxstrom

Richard Baxstrom

There is a largely unacknowledged historical tendency and predisposition within the human sciences with roots in much older practices of defining social facts and the discovery, interpretation, and the production of the real itself. In plain language, it emerges from a method that allows the researcher to sense, interpret, and eventually, master forces that appear to be nonsensical and yet are held to be essential to the reality of everyday social life. While such invisible forces have gone by many names, one can track a historical persistence of this epistemological concern with things that cannot be seen or logically interpreted but are nevertheless held to be present.

One way of tracking this problem of the mastery of invisible forces has been offered by the literary scholar Jonathan Strauss, specifically with regard to the notion of the irrational as a privileged space in medical discourses in nineteenth-century Paris. Strauss argues that the role of irrationality and “nonsense” was a “legitimizing force” for medicine in that “the very incomprehensibility of the mad created a mysterious and extra- social language that the rising medical profession could adapt to its own purposes.”

This kind of mastery is, of course, no news to anthropologists, who have claimed a similarly privileged space in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries through their understanding of the “nonsense” of “the native.”

The empirical mastery of domains consigned to the illogical realm of human social life — and in particular life in distant societies — formed the methodological basis that allowed the fieldworker “to see” unknown forces.

From Malinowski forward, ethnology depended on exactly this process, as anthropologists forged a bond with the invisible and irrational as a methodological pillar. Anthropologists thus had to develop a battery of tests that could yield some felicitous information as to the “true” nature of unseen forces and their operations within empirical, real-world contexts. The heart of our argument in this book is that Häxan, in its curiously excessive attempt to produce a nonfiction film about the power of the witch, deploys an analogous approach and relies on very similar conceits for citing evidence of what is empirically “real” in the world.

The attempt to secure evidence of forces felt but unseen is certainly not an invention of the nineteenth-century sciences of life and man. A clear conceptual link exists between the investigative techniques developed by sixteenth-century theologians and Church inquisitors in the face of what was understood to be a vast proliferation of the incredible, unbelievable power of Satan and emergent scientific fieldwork practices in anthropology and other social sciences in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries.

While the systematic, empirical investigation of strange events, singularities, miracles, and other types of staple phenomena in preternatural philosophy predates Francis Bacon’s ‘The Advancement of Learning’ (1605), there is a method that emerges within the ensemble of human sciences proper to the science of man that is unable to expel these direct, necessary engagements with unseen and empirically unprovable forces.

Although the creditable status of such phenomena as real per se has been detached from these disciplines, the status of these phenomena as dark precursors driving the inquiries taken through the signatures of anthropology and science serves as the focus of our engagement here. As such, we argue that anthropology as science is predicated on rationally mastering invisible, irrational forces. Or, perhaps more precisely, anthropology emerges as a distinct human science from the desire to credibly master nonsense. Well versed in anthropological literature regarding witchcraft, possession, and ritual, Benjamin Christensen, too, demonstrates the desire to bring the invisible and nonsensical into view; although Christensen’s medium was cinema rather than more traditional forms of ethnological record, Häxan nevertheless stands as one of the most powerful, unsettling expressions of the aspiration to produce evidence of forces unseen.

Following what George Stocking has termed the “Euhemeristic Myth” of anthropology — that is, a rationalising tendency to interpret mythology as a historical event — we argue that the links between Christensen’s Häxan and Bronislaw Malinowski’s fabled definition of the methodological task of the anthropologist are undeniable. In the ur-text of this myth, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski confidently identifies “the final goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose sight”: This goal is, briefly, to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world. We have to study man, and we must study what concerns him most intimately, that is, the hold which life has on him. In each culture, the values are slightly different; people aspire after different aims, follow different impulses, yearn after a different form of happiness. In each culture, we find different institutions in which man pursues his life- interest, different customs by which he satisfies his aspirations, different codes of law and morality which reward his virtues or punish his defections. To study the institutions, customs, and codes or to study the behaviour and mentality without the subjective desire of feeling by what these people live, of realising the substance of their happiness — is, in my opinion, to miss the greatest reward which we can hope to obtain from the study of man.

Although subjected to rigorous critique in the decades since its original publication in 1922 (the same year Häxan was released), Malinowski’s direct expression of the desirable method and the underlying aspiration grounding this technique has never been definitively overturned within the discipline. To this day the paragraph quoted above serves as the distillation of method and disposition alike when confronted with the deceptively difficult questions “Who are you?” and “What do you do?”

The assertion by anthropologists claiming to have assumed the “point of view” of another, not to mention the resulting ethical disequilibrium, has been rightly subjected to a series of stringent critiques over the years. However, the idea that we should fully dispense with Malinowski’s epistemological aspiration and regard interlocutor others as “Other” remains unthinkable within the discipline as well.

One of two potential displacements have generally resolved this inconsistency: the first proposes that we detect the underlying structures framing “points of view,” while the second aims to appreciate the meaning of social facts as a substitution for Malinowski’s blunt demand to assume the simultaneous position of the “social” scientist and the object of this science.

What grounds Malinowski’s claim that the fieldworker must achieve the cultivated, sensed point of view of another is a privileged relation to the unknown. This privileged relation must emerge through experimentation and through the ability to, in some fashion, test what is asserted to be real; in the anthropology of Malinowski’s vision this test is a series of subjective trials subsumed within the rubric of “fieldwork.” In this way, a discipline such as anthropology can legitimately claim kinship not only with other human sciences but also with the “hard” sciences.

The tie between mastering what Strauss has termed “nonsense” and asserting scientific authority has strong links to transformations that occurred in the course of the “witch craze” in Europe, specifically regarding the terms of evidence within the overlapping institutional domains of science and law, both dominated by theology, to which we will return in the following pages.

Certainly institutions charged with the task of discerning truth from falsehood have shifted dramatically over the centuries, yet the murmurs of this original theology remain audible in Malinowski and Christensen, even today. Häxan exists as a visual amplifier of these persistent murmurs.

Malinowski’s method requires certain presuppositions in order to be effective. First, it presumes that the experiential disposition of the analyst is a legitimate and effective way by which one can begin to form an understanding of a phenomenon otherwise held to be imaginary, fictional, or simply untrue. Second, it turns on the principle that witnessing and testimony can concretely serve as evidence as to the reality of something otherwise beyond the direct experience of the researcher.

In seeking to bring the invisible and nonsensical into the realm of ethnographic fact, Malinowski explicitly recognises the representational nature of this truth; only the testimony of the expert makes belief in such phenomena as real (in any sense) possible.

Dan Sperber has pointed out that most religious beliefs follow the same representational logic. Since Luther’s radical assertion that faith can only be a commitment to the representation of a truth, the explicit nature of this relationship has been a contentious element in Western Christianity’s own efforts to discern truth and the nature of the world.

Malinowski has thus only updated and secularised a much older epistemology dating back to precisely the period Häxan depicts. In the words of Joseph Leo Koerner, “Lutheranism is the original anthropology of ‘apparently irrational beliefs.’”

As we shall see in Häxan (a quite “Protestant” work in many ways), this overriding “conviction in the utterly invisible” is not solely the concern of either theologians or scientists and hardly limited to the time of the Reformation and the subsequent witch craze.

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