On Opacity, through Sallies

The tone is charming. So are the tarot cards. A chapter with historical comparisons illuminates, as do the many perceptive gender and household readings. Mischievous is the endeavor as a whole. After all, it seeks to remake anthropologies of witchcraft and popular religion almost as much as ethnographies of mental health and therapeutic process. Favret-Saada goes far toward defining a new field in The Anti-Witch: an anthropology of therapies highlighting methods required with an openness to affect. She denigrates participant observation and empathy (as distance) along with their attention to representations and ritual, while instead promoting an ethnographic practice that involves digging in, merging with, and accepting forms of unknowing.

The perspective on Africanist witchcraft studies provided here may be dated, though in a felicitous way, reflecting back on how her work first began in relation to a detour toward this more “primitive” fold as opposed to a France where witchcraft was supposed to be long dead. Many Africanists have moved, of course, beyond witchcraft accusations alone, while being busy sensing the politics, secrecies, and psychic suffering involved among Africans in Africa and among Africans as immigrants in Europe and beyond. Consider the work of Adam Ashforth, Peter Geschiere, Simona Taliani, Roberto Beneduce. The list could go on and on.

What is most compelling about this book and its methodological reflections? The ways all ends with opacity: with what the anthropologist cannot know, perhaps only sense and feel, because enwrapped in affects impervious to one and all. The Western counterpart is the unconscious. Invoking this psychoanalytic word, Favret-Saada makes explicit in her final paragraphs a parallel that bubbles to the surface more than once in this book’s pages. Fascinating is how throughout her proposal—the urgency of new anthropologies of therapeutic process—she repeatedly suggests that de-witching and psychoanalysis constitute a fruitful pair, one that she lived (and felt, sensed?) as akin to each other during the time of her Bocage fieldwork.

I would love to read her ethnography of the other side of this double. Instead (or until), let’s ask: What are implications of this suggested therapeutic counterpoint, one that bundles together opacity and inarticulable affects for ethnographies of therapy elsewhere, whether in Europe, Africa, or beyond? Favret-Saada suggests several methodological dimensions: key is total immersion in an affective practice, an absorption that does not try to reveal or represent but rather senses and works through images and the visceral.

Arresting in her writing is the bucolic wit and playful tonality, referencing sallies of diverse sorts. That these strokes are mixed with identifying housework as a key modality by which gender relations are worked out not only in everyday life but also in imaginations social and psychic, all this makes the book an invaluable detour for gender historians of 20th century lives. That they will find witchcraft and nightmares beside farming will surprise few anthropologists of religion and psychiatry. Those scholars who are over-invested in the legibilities of the affective may be those who stand to learn the most from this book’s exquisite registers of opacity.


Nancy Rose Hunt is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. A specialist of history and anthropology in Africa, she focuses on matters medical, therapeutic, and gender, while paying attention to material objects, everyday technologies, visual culture, and violence. Her first book, an ethnographic history set in the Belgian Congo and then Zaire, A Colonial Lexicon: Of Birth Work, Medicalization, and Mobility (Duke, 1999), received the Herskovits Book Prize in 2000. A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo (Duke, forthcoming) analyses two intertwined domains–the securitization of therapeutic insurgency, and the medicalization of infertility–in a part of the Belgian Congo (1908-60), which became iconic as a zone of rubber extraction, war, and horrific violence in the period when Congo was King Leopold’s Free State (1885-1908).

One Response to On Opacity, through Sallies

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

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