This Era’s Love Affair with Oppression

On Witchcraft and Getting Caught

Spell-caster's notebook, 2nd half of the 19th century - 1st quarter of the 20th century, Haute-Saône. Photo credit: Musées départementaux de la Haute-Saône

 “When total war is being waged with words, one must make up one’s mind to engage in another kind of ethnography.” 

—Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (1977)

One of the best studies of the power of language and its relationship to violence is Jeanne Favret-Saada’s Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (1977). In this groundbreaking ethnography, Favret-Saada discusses how witchcraft employs language to gain power and catch the subject within a web of words. For Favret-Saada, the ethnographer is the unwitcher who lets herself become entangled within a network of power in which words create spells. She calls this being “caught.” For “those who haven't been caught” spells simply “don’t exist” (15). 

Similar to Favret-Saada’s work on witchcraft in France, today’s cultural-political economy is immersed in another politicisation of language. This time the catching of subjects, government and institutions is happening in the public sphere under the guise of linguistically codifying identity. All this necessarily relies upon a previous “bewitching” of subjects who are willing to recycle the language of the magical spells despite the absence of evidence.

In witchcraft, language becomes the contested space that Favret-Saada rightfully notes as having taken hostage the very premise of communication, writing, “[I]t is no longer truth or error that is in question, but the possibility of communicating.” Addressing those who have been caught within the spell of language—the bewitched and the suffering—Favret-Saada asks: 

In what way are the bewitched right when they say they are suffering? And the unwitchers, when they say they “take it all” on themselves? (And what of the alleged witches, who remain obstinately silent, or claim they do not believe in spells?) What, then, is at stake when such a discourse is being used? These questions led to other, more fundamental ones, about the effect of spoken words and the very rationale of this discourse: why is talking in this way so like the most effective kind of act? How do words kill as surely as a bullet? Why do people talk rather than fight or die, why do they use precisely these terms? And why this kind of language rather than another? If one talks in terms of witchcraft, it must be that the same things cannot be said any other way. (13)

Although Favret-Saada asks these questions about rural Normandy of the 1970s and the role of the ethnographer in studying her own culture, we can easily expand upon Favret-Saada’s premise here. For as she posits in the Bocage that one need not believe in sorcery, there is an accounting that takes place by virtue of the group’s symbolic code where “you have to be caught to believe” and where those who haven’t been “caught” have no place speaking about spells. Favret-Saada poses this question to herself: “What ultimate authority could I invoke, in talking about spells to a bewitched person or an unwitcher?” Does being an insider lend to the currency of language and belief such that any interaction with an outsider necessarily invokes a turf war over space, bodies and language?

For Favret-Saada, words do not merely represent or communicate beliefs—they have noticeable effects on the vitality and well-being of both the bewitched and the dewitcher. Where her work examines how words “kill” and “heal,” today we are in the throes of a culture war where the claim—contrary to fact—of words causing death, of words being “literal violence” are now thrust to the fore. Indeed, words are laden with such potential for “violence” today that many think twice before speaking or writing. The mere accusation of violence has become the negative reinforcement of a movement that has been allowed to make up facts, statistics and now even the very non-reality of violence.

If we are to move forward through the current debates over gender, race, and various other orbiting identities whose moral framework rests almost uniquely upon claims of victimhood, often in direct opposition to material fact, we must return to some of the primal tenets of reason posed during the Enlightenment. We are in the throes of a society caught within a hall of mirrors—many of which are firmly and uniquely fixed within the virtual world of social media—where the narcissistic output is unparalleled even by a three-year-old having a strop on the playground. Where words are “violence” and opinions akin to “murder,” we are witnessing the conflicts created when a direct antagonism between perceived identity and material reality is met on the social stage. 

In order to understand what is driving this culture of identifying with oppression—often feigning oppression—our task must be to address those who claim to be suffering. While the subjects caught in the spell of words have been at the centre of media and political attention in recent years, these communities rely upon the language “witchcraft” to divorce themselves even further from ontological and empirical reality while surrendering themselves to a language that holds no resemblance to the material world. There is something to be said for the punishing efforts of these lobbies which seek to project phobias and other -isms into any thoughtful debate or prose on issues of “race” and gender. 

Favret-Saada noted that those who resist the language of sorcery will be made to suffer. Today, we must ask ourselves if those fighting for the recognition of their identities even if the older remedies of psychiatry or religion have failed:

The priest and the doctor have faded out long ago when the unwitcher is called. The unwitcher’s task is first to authenticate his patient’s sufferings and his feeling of being threatened in the flesh; second, it is to locate, by close examination, the patient’s vulnerable spots. It is as if his own body and those of his family, his land and all his possessions make up a single surface full of holes, through which the witch’s violence might break in at any moment. (8)

This study considers how the aporia left by the fading grip of religion and medicine has been filled by outside forces coming to confirm the subject: the suffering subject. Having worked with those who were caught up in a spell, the dewitchers and the wives and families affected by witchcraft, Favret-Saada notes how suffering forms the core of how witchcraft is exercised in this community and she explores the reasons for this suffering.

Today, suffering is undergoing a cultural redefinition in the west through the recycling of historical tropes of violence and oppression injected throughout identity politics. Unlike the distant witchcraft of Favret-Saada's fieldwork, historical atrocities cannot simply be cut and paste into a present-day reality in order to rejuvenate a fresh violent act of suffering through which the subject identifies. Where Favret-Saada shows how working with the bewitched and their unwitchers implicates the constant manoeuvring of “good and evil," she claims that all unwitching "is impossible to cure without switching to a position of indirect violence.” Violence is a discursive marker for Favret-Saada where "he who does not attack automatically becomes the victim."

To understand the political forces that revive discourses of racism and sexism today by those claiming victimhood, we must ask those suffering why they suffer. Then, we must also ask why the spell involves converting others to their ideology so that the subject might suffer less. The symptom of suffering that we see by those claiming to have a gender identity, for instance, is inextricably linked to their need for others to mirror their self-image through language. This is similar to what Favret-Saada claims about dewitching, “a technique that neutralizes and exteriorizes venomous self-doubt." There are clear ideological manoeuvres meant to inscribe healing through fiat.

We need to understand how people weaponise emotionally-laden discourse today. The public shaming of those who do not confirm the suffering or pronouns of another seems to be part of a larger network of “sorcery” where the current structural functioning of our society rewards those individuals who engage in the aforementioned language games while punishing those who refuse. 

Favret-Saada’s identification of power as the primary element in the effectiveness of ritual forms is a crucial contribution to our understanding of such rituals. Still, we can see the pitfalls of reducing the language of witchcraft to a tidy binary of the subject who suffers and the dewitcher who does violence. Where “the sufferer can choose to interpret his ills in the language of witchcraft,” it is also the case that those who do not claim to suffer are deemed de facto oppressors. 

Where oppression is a historical and current-day fact, the truly oppressed subject is mostly not heard. What time has the underpaid or economically destitute worker to chime in on Twitter or to write her local politician? We are captured within a political field where segments of the population use words like “literal violence” to refer to another group whose push back on their notion of oppression. Those who use the stage of oppression in order to be heard are as numerous as is their narcissism expansive. When the media prints that something is “oppression” or “murder” today, we can pretty much bet that what is being communicated is invariably the opposite. In a world where narratives of oppression have taken hold of democratic processes with fury and where the mere claim to victimhood is tantamount to fact, we must concede that we are living in a post-truth era. 

Emotions are given enormous weight over facts in media today and all it takes for one to be considered oppressed is to use the “magical spell” of language. The only way out of this chasm between truth and narcissism is to revert to the institutions of science, philosophy, journalism and law. Let us not forget that long before smartphones it was possible—even pleasant—to have heated discussions over a meal with friends and strangers, everyone chiming in with their thoughts and disagreement. 

We must reject illogical, illiberal hokum being fed us as the "new progressive" language of the day and instead we should return to the table of dinnertime debate where facts outweigh feelings and where individuals are held accountable for good-faith debate. I have often wondered if the current popular authoritarianism would have ever taken hold without the cloaked anonymity that social media affords. Still, I am quite certain that the current stifling of free speech, academic debate and the media's drive of anti-science narratives are all directly linked to the fact that politicians are not held to account for their performances that have zero political vaue. From AOC's sporting her "tax the rich" dress at the Met Gala for which attendees paid $35,000 to attend to David Lammy who claims that males have cervixes, the left is in dire straits with a political class of professional liars who use words to bewitch us all.

I suspect that were the online debate moved to the salon or dining room, we would all be able to see the ruffian sulking silently in the corner, angrily seething because his arguments were unconvincing. His fist banging on the table evidence his every iteration as less rational and credible than the one before. As he struggles to bully all those in disagreement around him, his turbulent behaviour reveals him to be fundamentally an irritable prig who harbours deep-seated misogyny and homophobia. 

Real-life interactions are part of the remedy to the addiction-addled cycles of social media use. We cannot replace the vacuum left by religion's demise with political or ideological orthodoxy any more than we can unwitch the possessed who identify with their fictional oppressions. 

One of the options we have at our disposal is to unplug and go outside. I’m heading there now. Come join me.