A Reply

THANK YOU to Richard Baxstrom, Nancy Rose Hunt, Tanya Luhrmann, and Pamela Reynolds, for taking the trouble to read and to comment on The Anti-Witch. I felt great pleasure in the idea that Matthew Carey had managed to recreate for you not only my work, but also life in the Bocage, with its tragedies, its flavor, and sometimes its humor. Your texts made me realize my naïveté: I thought I had contributed to “universal science,” yet without knowing it, I had written for a French public, speaking to the implicit assumptions of that audience. I will therefore try to appeal to those of you who have astonished me the most.

In The Anti-Witch, I do not intend to proclaim a new method for anthropology–or for an anthropology of therapy, or even to that of witchcraft–nor to stick to one possibility, to bury all others, and to allow the miraculous power of affect to replace everything that my predecessors have ever attempted. I’m just trying, starting from the very particular problems that I faced in the field, to say how I resolved to consider the methodology of our discipline, and to highlight some dimensions that our discipline massively ignores.

I dealt with a very particular system of magic, and through its access, was subjected to drastic conditions–accepted “being caught”–which had hitherto discouraged French specialists of witchcraft, no doubt as it would have been necessary to derogate from the intellectual status of the Enlightenment. My predecessors had thoroughly expounded on the erroneous beliefs of these peasants, and some of them had even mentioned a few un-witchers (désorceleurs), glimpsing them from a distance, inevitably alcoholics and marked by primitiveness. None of them had suspected that the Bocage (as all regions of France where witchcraft occurs) was actually dotted with the nuclei of sociability of a very particular kind–individual un-witchers and their clients, who attempt to manage certain perils of agrarian life.

After several months of presence in the field, trying to enter relationships with people who themselves struggled with witchcraft, and familiarizing myself with the language specific to these situations, someone previously bewitched decided that I, too, was “caught,” and sent me to his own un-witcher, Madam Flora. After I accepted this situation without knowing where it would lead me, my “scientific” field activity consisted of carefully noting events, day after day, allowing situations to develop outside of my control. The three books I wrote later on Bocage witchcraft are from these field journals.

Ernest Gellner and his British colleagues introduced me to anthropology, and I had great respect for them. (Lévi-Strauss, the figure of the great scientist for our generation, had directed us each month to read two thousand pages of Anglo-American anthropology, in order to think about things.) However, when I compared their work on witchcraft with the realities that I met in the field, and when I spoke directly with Evans-Pritchard and Lucy Mair, I was amazed to see that in their eyes, this Bocage witchcraft simply could not exist.

Thus are my reflections, which seem to have you beaten, and sometimes scandalized, in The Anti-Witch. Several reported that since the 1970s, the anthropology of sorcery, particularly in Africa, has changed considerably, and I quite agree: Ashforth’s work, Geschiere, Taliani, Beneduce, and also Reynolds and others, are known to me and I do not place them within the scope of this critique. Similarly, to my questioning of “participant observation”: I just wanted to highlight the fact that this term actually confuses two operations of knowledge, incompatible with each other at the same time, and that the reader of an ethnography has the right to know precisely in what the researcher has “participated,” or what she has “seen,” and what else she did–whatever name we give to this activity. Now, in ethnographies, the report of “participation” is rarely exhaustive (for fear of deviating from the ideal of “objective science”), and it tends to disappear in favor of a vague and agreed reference to “observation.”

In short, I’m just trying to reflect on the operations I performed in the field, by comparing them with those that my colleagues were attempting to accomplish. And I do not attribute to mine, chère Pamela Reynolds, the virtue to “understand” the spirit of my Bocage interlocutors with a depth that no ethnographer could have ever reached with her interviewees: I use the term in its common meaning–a routine (banale) ability for me to represent their possible mental states (contenus mentaux) through my relationship with them. Simply, the experience in question has the peculiarity that I have “been caught”: it does not render me particularly intelligent, nor particularly truthful, it is just another point of view from which I speak.

Similarly, some of you seem to consider my remarks on the epistemic modality of “being affected” as to remove and to replace old ethnographies of representations. Of course not, if only for one reason: to think thus would equivalently renew a dualism between affect and representation that, for my part, I never cease to challenge, even when I encounter such considerable authors as Freud or Lévi-Strauss. In this regard, I was amazed (stupéfaite) when Tanya Luhrmann writes that Levi-Strauss, in “The Efficacy of Symbols,” would lay down “the standard anthropological model of symbolic healing.” How can an ethnographer and therapist as fine as Luhrmann imagine such a thing?

Reread the text: Levi-Strauss did not attend the cure of which he speaks. Moreover, it is not said that the informant, Cuna–whose text the French ethnologist analyzes long later–himself ever attended a cure of this kind: he merely transcribes a shamanic song. For Levi-Strauss, since the song ends with an episode of healing the sick, the conclusion is simple: the shaman cured the body of the sick. What optimism! But how then could a text that so obviously contravenes the rules of the scientific method (causality affirmed without proof), become a classic of the social sciences? To me it is because he says with extraordinary aplomb exactly what the amateur psychoanalysis buff imagines to be a psychic cure: an external, “symbolic”, word which calls to order a mind-body shaken by inarticulable affects. Read it and you will see that Levi-Strauss is content to assert the supremacy of speech/of representation/of the symbolic/of order/of bodily harmony/of affect/of non-representable pain/of disorder. Somehow, Tanya Luhrmann thinks exactly as Lévi-Strauss : see her opposition of an internal register (the individual psyche, agitated by messy emotions), and an external register mobilized by the therapist (from symbols that may reorder the patient’s emotions). While I do not doubt the effectiveness of therapeutic practice of Luhrmann (I read her texts on the subject, which are very convincing), I note that she explains the subject in the way Molière’s doctor spoke of the “sleepy virtue of opium” (vertu dormitive de l’opium).

Finally. No, Richard Baxstrom, I am not shocked or even surprised at the idea that my book can contribute to an ethical debate. Frequenting the bewitched and their un-witchers means speaking about good and evil all the day long (since it is impossible to cure without switching to a position of indirect violence); and this is also the case when we speak of peasant witchcraft with people who are not “caught,” whether Bocage residents or Parisians (their moral judgment being always adverse on those bewitched who accuse innocent people). I have not stressed this in my book precisely because it was the only question that my readers had in mind: those bewitched, who clutch with such energy the violence that Madame Flora puts at their disposal, are they good, are they villainous?

At the end of my time in the field, I substituted this question with another, inspired by the overall logic of the institution of witchcraft. In fact, in the Bocage, nobody ever casts spells on somebody, but some are accused of having done it. So, at any time in the area, you can find a number of people who are accused of being sorcerers, and know they are accused, since the accusers behave in a very coded manner. These “sorcerers” can choose between two strategies. Either they refuse sorcery outright, and take their accuser for a fool or backwards, but it is better for them that their words should be confirmed by the sustainable, bio-economic welfare of their farm. Or, if they give credence to witchcraft, they can think they themselves are victims of a miscarriage of justice. Provided they experience repeated misfortunes, they will find it urgent to divert the effects of this unjust accusation (in particular the fact that they could be attacked by a un-witcher). Some people panic and collapse mentally and physically–but I have just encountered a single case that could be interpreted in that sense. Most take a long-term strategy, which I have provided examples in Deadly Words: they wait enough time in repeated misfortunes and they seek un-witching, carefully concealing that they have been previously accused. Since the magician knows as well as I the structural constraints of the system, he is not fooled by this concealing, but he prefers to take the consultant as it presents (an unfortunate plagued by repeated misfortunes), and he is careful not to push the investigation to a probable previous charge.

The injustice of accusing the innocent then appears less revolting because it is evenly distributed throughout the Bocage. Being accused of witchcraft becomes the equivalent of a mundane misfortune that can strike anyone, as would a traffic accident, or being struck by an inevitable infirmary (born lame or blind). Thanks to the existence of un-witcher, anybody eventually finds a way to get by.


Translated from the French by Todd Meyers (NYU-Shanghai).

Jeanne Favret-Saada is an anthropologist and author of Les Mots, la mort, les sorts. La sorcellerie dans le Bocage (1977, Gallimard; English translation, Deadly words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, translated by Catherine Cullen, Cambridge University Press, 1980) and Corps pour corps. Enquête sur la sorcellerie dans le Bocage (1981, Gallimard, co-authored with Josée Contreras). She has since pub-lished numerous other works, including Le Christianisme et ses juifs: 1800-2000 (Le Seuil, 2004), once more in collaboration with Josée Contreras, Algérie 1962-1964: essais d‘anthropologie politique (Bouchene, 2005), Désorceler (Editions de L‘Olivier, 2009) and Jeux d‘ombres sur la scène de l‘ONU. Droits humains et laïcité (Editions de L‘Olivier, 2010).

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  1. Pingback: Book Forum–Jeanne Favret-Saada’s The Anti-Witch by Eugene Raikhel - Bioethics Research Library

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