The Power of Fascination

Violence’s Fabled Experiment is an intelligent and stimulating book. It argues against a tendency in contemporary ethnographic film to naturalize violence and trauma in a widespread desire to insist on “humanness in some base form.” Baxstrom and Meyers focus on the films of Werner Herzog, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, paying critical attention to how these directors marginalize analysis, history, and language in order to excavate an obscure, supposedly originary form of violence. Written with verve and presenting numerous convincing arguments, Violence’s Fabled Experiment deserves debate; in a short response like this, however, it is impossible to do to justice to the richness of the text and the complexity of the films. I strongly recommend a reading of the book.

In their first chapter, Baxstrom and Meyers examine Herzog’s propensity to turn history into myth. Possessed by a “mania for origins” (in their gloss), Herzog searches for that obscure and violent moment in which we separated ourselves from nature: our “fall into consciousness.” The authors detect in Herzog a nostalgia for what lies beyond this moment. This is why, for them, the renegade penguin in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) can be said to embody Herzog’s cinematographic project: in this (in)famous long shot we watch penguins waddle toward the sea and their feeding grounds (toward food and life), before the camera focuses on the one penguin that turns its back on the colony (on communication and the social) and instead heads toward certain death in the indistinct, icy landscapes.

Still from Encounters at the End of the World (2007).

I largely agree with this analysis: Herzog’s cinema often is a cinema of the death drive. But, to a greater extent than Baxstrom and Meyers, I value the director’s insistence on our inner renegade penguin. The author of Violence’s Fabled Experiment acknowledge the seductiveness of Herzog’s vision, which they describe as “deeply impressive,” confessing their “affection” for the director’s projects. Nevertheless, they largely resist this vision and their own fascination with it, and that resistance fuels their chapter on Herzog. Elsewhere, I have argued for the ethical and social value of letting art, literature, and film explore this terrain. Drawing on critics such as Félix Guattari, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler, I have tried to tease out how a careful negotiation of this fascination may lead to a conception of subjectivity that is more forgiving of both others and ourselves. I would therefore have liked Baxstrom and Meyers to consider more systematically whether their “affection” for Herzog’s vision holds potential for ethical and political thought.

This remark can be further developed on the basis of pages devoted to Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, and the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Here, Baxstrom and Meyers’s critique partly plays out as a disciplinary debate. Can anthropology host the work of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel, they wonder: “Can the discipline of anthropology take it?” The authors split their answer in two: Sweetgrass (2009) is takeable, they decide, Leviathan (2012) less so. The latter is all immersion, image, and emotion; it eliminates language and human figures (except one), foreclosing an analysis of the world into which spectators are dropped. In Leviathan, “contemplation is futile [. . .] we are immersed, thrown back upon ourselves in the empty self-consciousness of feeling that we may be alive but little more.”

But in the very last pages of their text, Baxstrom and Meyers seem considerably more positive in their evaluation of both Castaing-Taylor and Herzog. Here, they celebrate the “powerful” manner in which “Herzog and Castaing-Taylor remind us to be curious and cautious.” This tribute made me wonder if Baxstrom and Meyers are not, to some extent, taking Leviathan after all. The authors also pay homage to the “openness” of the two directors, their ability to “crack locks not so much because they know what’s inside but simply to let it out.” It seems to me that with this last quotation about letting out the unknown, the authors come close to a vitalism that they otherwise criticize. I do not make this observation to point out inconsistencies (it is possible that I am putting too much emphasis on the idea of letting out the unknown), but rather to suggest that Baxstrom and Meyers’s fascination with Herzog and Castaing-Taylor is a rich and complex attachment that deserves careful analysis. The point is not to invite confessional self-scrutiny, but to ask again whether this fascination might hold ethical and political potential.

Finally, Baxstrom and Meyers are much less seduced by Oppenheimer’s films than those of the other two directors, and so am I. For the sake of debate, I have limited my remarks to the first and third chapters. I nevertheless want to mention that their chapter on Oppenheimer brilliantly clarified some of the confusion and skepticism that Oppenheimer’s films produce in me. I am convinced that Violence’s Fabled Experiment will also stimulate many other readers.