Anthropology, art, evidence: Benjamin Christensen's Häxan and the mastery of the invisible in the human sciences
(University of Edinburgh)
Paper short abstract:
Irrationality constituted a “legitimizing force” in 19th century human sciences via a purported ability to understand the seeming “nonsense” of “the native” or “the Other.” This claim will be demonstrated via an engagement with the cinematic account of the witch craze in 16th century Europe - Häxan.
Paper long abstract:
Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (1922) stands as a singular film within the history of cinema. Christensen's "visual thesis" is straightforward: in light of innovations in psychoanalysis and the human and biological sciences, the appearance of witchcraft in Europe during the late Medieval and early modern periods was actually due to undiagnosed manifestations of clinical hysteria and nervous illness. Häxan addresses the empirical mastery of domains such as these consigned to the illogical realm of human social life, a concern that resonates with anthropological concerns regarding non-Western ritual and belief and an empirical method based on experience that would allow field-workers to "see" unknown or irrational forces. I will outline the precursors of these figures as seen in the problem of evidence within the investigation of witchcraft in 16th century Europe, arguing that the problem of establishing proof in reference to the invisible forces that Häxan depicts has durably shaped our modes of investigating human social and cultural life ever since. In short, I argue that the film Häxan, simultaneously a creative and empirical work, must be understood in relation to the fact that from the 19th century forward, human scientists (particularly anthropologists) have privileged the mastery of invisible and irrational forces as a methodological pillar, all the while disavowing the explicitly nonsensical characteristics of the forces under study.
Anthropologies of art