From the Series: Book Forum: Violence’s Fabled Experiment
We are grateful for the serious and thoughtful engagement with our book from Nikolaj Lübecker, Catherine Russell, Aidan Seale-Feldman, and Christopher Wright, with special thanks to Andrés Romero for his tenacity and enthusiasm in organizing this forum. When we set out to write Violence’s Fabled Experiment, we imagined it to be a very different book than our previous work together, Realizing the Witch (Baxstrom and Meyers 2016). Realizing the Witch is an obsessive, exhaustive study of one film, Häxan (1922), which is itself an exhaustive and obsessive study of the early modern witch craze in Europe and Scandinavia and its links to then-contemporary practices of psychiatry and neurology. But, as Violence’s Fabled Experiment began to take shape, we found ourselves guided back to a set of concerns that have insistently gnawed at us about anthropology and the human sciences more generally: how is evidence shaped through the image and where are claims about the world founded, especially when buried in the human psyche or tangled in a contest with forces felt but unseen?
Violence’s Fabled Experiment is an essay in three parts, published by the visionary German imprint August Verlag as part of their small volume series (aptly named Kleine Editions). The book is by no means the final word on nonfiction film, or on the work of the three filmmakers under examination, or on anything at all, really. Rather, as Aidan Seale-Feldman suggests, it is an invitation to pose questions in instances where agreement might be taken for granted and answers are more or less secured. We concur (if we are reading Seale-Feldman correctly) that if nonfiction film is a site for experimentation and ethical transformation, then it is imperative to ask what direction and in what form these transformations occur (or are at least intended, as evidenced on the screen). We make no judgment about the “lack of scientific method” in these films, as Catherine Russell suggests; nevertheless, the films we discuss demand some testing of the worlds they inhabit, which includes mapping the routes that lead them to certain conclusions. There are many possible tests to which one could subject these films, and our attunement to what Seale-Feldman calls an “uncomfortable cinematic experience” is essential to that purpose.
Each of the responses in this forum, in one way or another, remarks upon the seeming ambivalence in our engagement with the films under discussion. Indeed, we are ambivalent about what these films and filmmakers offer and what the films are doing. It is difficult to articulate any credible analytic finding or ethical position on the films that is not shot through with an ambivalence sitting at the very center of a violence that seems to come to us as us, yet is simultaneously an uncanny force from the outside. Christopher Wright worries that this has all become a bit too Freudian (yes, we worried about this too, Chris!), and while we do not simply adopt Sigmund Freud’s views when we discuss him in the book, it is clear that the terms of engagement as expressed in the films at least invites the specter of Freud (and E. B. Tylor, to a lesser extent) in their articulation. For better or worse, the dual character of ambivalence as both an unspoken aspect of the films and a spoken element of our engagement with them has been consciously retained in our text.
For us, avowing the ambivalence at the heart of these films enables us to stake out an ethical position within our argument, one that is often tense and messy in the text. It is a position that explicitly challenges the idea that one can simply “choose” (in Russell’s words) to be “content to witness the varieties of violence that humans have enacted, experienced, and perpetrated on one another,” as well as the assumption that this form of spectating would qualify as meaningful witnessing in a social or political context. “Thinking alongside” the films, which is what we aspired to do, means seeking to retain the active power of witnessing that a discipline like anthropology assumes while at the same time acknowledging the danger that any active witness incurs and often subjects others to. Again, ambivalence guides us. As the commentaries point out, we offer quite strong judgments about who has expressed this in a complex and productive way and who has not. We are pretty clear that any satisfaction from cross-referencing our interior traumas with those displayed on screen is misplaced, undermining the active power of witnessing and the ethically mobile form of active practice that filmmaking at its best enacts.
Russell asks whether the two of us can be ”in both places at once,” thinking both from within and alongside. Wright begins to answer the question when he evokes Maya Deren, suggesting that cinema possesses us, rides us, perhaps without warning. But we should be clear: art and cinema do not hold dominion over interior worlds, no more so than anthropology does (although anthropologists’ access to something called “inner experience” seems to be getting a pass these days). Much of this is suggested but unsettled in the text. Readers will likely agree with Russell that we fail to provide a glossary of terms. But this is a different project. Perhaps we are not fully appreciating Russell’s critique, but it does make us wonder if there are moments when film penetrates us, bringing with it a form of companionship, critical or otherwise. We suppose this is the kind of openness we are trying to grasp in the films of Werner Herzog and of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and his collaborators. We do wonder about Russell’s final critique; if it is in fact possible, what kind of labor is required to inoculate oneself from violence? We find it remarkable (even enviable) that one could simply speak oneself outside of violence (what assumptions of immersion and immunity do we find here?) but, even if such a stance were possible, this would still require specification and exposure, elements that we argue are untenable and unresolved in Joshua Oppenheimer’s projects.
Openness invites danger. Nikolaj Lübecker writes:
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.
But maybe Lübecker lets us off the hook too easily: who knows? We also find ourselves hammering away out of a commitment to unknowing, which is not the same as unthinking, and so maybe our attempt to think alongside these films is also to pick at them for reasons we cannot ourselves discern. One thing that is certain is our effort to move the conversation about these films into a field of disagreement rather than consensus, to hold obdurately to an idea that images are doing something for and within anthropology and that this doing should be held to account, so as (if nothing else) to call out cheap moralisms and wild universalisms. In the end, we trust that when the book gets to be too much, its small size make injuries unlikely when it is hurled across the room.
Baxstrom, Richard, and Todd Meyers. 2016. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. New York: Fordham University Press.