First to be hanged, and then to confess; I tremble at it.
– Shakespeare, Othello (IV i, 38-39)
Stanley Cavell ends The Claim to Reason on an impassioned note with a brief discussion of Othello and of the witch. For a book ostensibly concerned with Wittgenstein’s theories of ordinary language, skepticism, and ethical life, Cavell’s sudden veer into such dangerous territory may seem shocking and out of place. This is decidedly not so. Cavell’s desire is to propose an ethics in spite of all and in the face of the “horror” felt in our “lack of certain access to other minds.” In fact, proposing an ethics shorn of the “crazed logic” stoking Othello’s “rage for proof” when confronted with an Other quite logically leads us to the witch as a kind of “limit-case” (495-496). Cavell implies that, if we can accept even the witch into the fold, we have some slim shot at overcoming our “poisonous” skepticism of others and can live better as a result.
Easier said than done.
Jeanne Favret-Saada’s The Anti-Witch powerfully suggests skepticism in ordinary life exists as a pharmakon rather than as a simple poison. The Anti-Witch details the occult work of dewitchers within farm communities in the Bocage region of rural northwest France. At the time of her fieldwork (1969-1972) life here remained marked by the existence of a mysterious force that “moves along ordinary channels of human communication” (16) and was held to be “inconceivable,” resisting all attempts to name or speak it. This force, however, could be possessed and it was primarily witches who possessed it. “Bewitching is the enactment of this inconceivable force,” Favret-Saada writes, with the witch and dewitcher accessing this same inconceivable force within their deadly struggle (16).
The work of the dewitcher in Favret-Saada’s account must be understood in relation to farming as a form of life. In this context, only the (male) heads of the household are targeted in attacks, mirroring their status as the sole legal subject associated with a farm who is clearly marked. It is therefore always a loss or gain of force in reference to the farm itself, conflated with the head of household, that provided evidence of an attack. Mimicking their ambiguous and structurally silent positions in ordinary life, the other members of a farm family were neither the targets of bewitchings nor directly able to combat the witch themselves. And yet it was the wife who most often drove the counterattack. In collaboration with a dewitcher such as Madame Flora, the “star” of Favret-Saada’s narrative, it is the structurally silent wife who first suspects, and eventually speaks, the name of the witch that sets the counterattack in motion. Using a verbal technique via the reading of tarot cards that the author designates as “the violence shifter” (5), the dewitcher generates the possibility of this naming and provides “collective family therapy” (10) in identifying and combating the witch. This dewitching, a technique that neutralizes and exteriorizes venomous self-doubt, in turn allows the farm to continue as a form of life in the face of violence, isolation, and the structural silence faced by the wives and other family members.
Notice here, notwithstanding Madame Flora’s complex ritual discourse with the cards, that the poisonous skepticism of others pales in comparison with the impossible demand to openly discharge the poison within what we know of ourselves. Favret-Saada makes it clear that self-knowledge in this instance is impossible to face as knowledge and demonstrates how Madame Flora’s violence shifting tarot techniques generate a necessary “rage for proof” that displaces self-suspicion on to a dangerous, occult other. It is for this reason that Favret-Saada deems the techniques of the dewitcher as therapeutic.
So, yes, it is possible to meet an aspect of Cavell’s challenge – even without welcome, the witch can be brought into the fold. In fact, just as the witches of the sixteenth century ultimately served as a strong proof of an otherwise absent God’s existence, so too do the witches of the Bocage provide the farmers with evidence fundamental to their being that they require. Having proof of witches confirmed the (displaced) suspicions of the victims, allowed them to counterattack, and ultimately enabled Favret-Saada’s interlocutors to make “a life” within the broader form of life available to them.
Understood in this way, The Anti-Witch strikes me above all as an important contribution to an ethical debate. Given the text’s own silences and criticisms, I am undoubtedly aware that Prof Favret-Saada may likely be surprised by, or even object to, this association. Such are the workings of our own violence shifters in the course of their deployments.
Richard Baxstrom’s research interests include art, cinema, and popular culture, everyday life in urban settings, Malaysia and Southeast Asia, the history of ideas in anthropology and the human sciences, and the anthropology of Native American art, objects, and markets in the Southwestern region of the United States. His first book, Houses in Motion: The Experience of Place and the Problem of Belief in Urban Malaysia was published by Stanford University Press in 2008. Richard also co-edited with Todd Meyers (New York University – Shanghai) a volume and DVD entitled anthropologies that was released the same year. His latest book, written with Todd Meyers, Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible, was published by Fordham University Press in 2016 and concerns Benjamin Christensen’s notorious 1922 film Häxan. Richard is also co-editor of the Routledge journal Visual Culture in Britain.