“Imperialism tests political strength. The periphery can threaten the centre, destabilizing national identity and undermining confidence. By encapsulating the ‘other’, witches help to ground vague fears and foster unity.” –Malcolm Gaskill, witchcraft historian.
We know what it means: the hysterical and irrational colliding in order to persecute innocent people. And yet, there is something more at work; after all, the hysterical and irrational are always but code-words for something deeper, something more profound in the Lacanian unconscious. In what sense does the social panic of so-called “Witch Hunts” remain in our present post-Enlightenment society? In our rationalist unconscious?
Trying people for witchcraft was a serious affair. In the Middle Ages, various perspectives often clashed together: some magistrates saw witchcraft as nothing but fancy and mental illness, while others yet bemoaned it as part of a demonic conspiracy to undermine Christendom; the gender-dimension, and the changing face of society as it advanced toward capitalism, how many elderly people and orphaned young were dependent on charity and were so susceptible to ‘witchcraft’ as a means to get ahead, changed little opinion, charged as many people were by notions of religious piety (43 Gaskill). Even so, by the late Eighteenth-Century, thanks to scientific and theological advancement, witchcraft had lost its legal potency and was seen as beneath the dignity of courts to try. But prior to this definitive moment, tens-of-thousands of people were tried. Others were executed. Still, hordes of downtrodden masses—unknowable thousands, in all likelihood—were brutalized by vigilante injustice before the secular or ecclesiastical courts could have their way with the victim.
This is a familiar narrative to even us moderns: it is that of the murdered Black child; the murderer a White vigilante whose vague fears of criminal activity are fueled by the institutionalized racism thinly coated as fascistic paranoia (that every non-White is suspect to criminal activity)—this, and the media apologia for White-on-Black violence, legitimates the ‘Accusatory Justice’ of White Supremacists exploiting the poverty of working class People of Color; indeed, the medieval peasant clamoring for witch-trials after an unsuccessful harvest or local disaster, is little different from the contemporary working class White, desperate for answers as to their own poverty, who lash out and demand such anti-Black vigilante pogroms after inflated media spectaculars recounts alleged anti-police, anti-social sentiment on the part of the victim. As Malcolm Gaskill remarks, “perhaps in the aftermath of the attacks in September of 2001, the English-speaking world need[ed] these paranoid myths more than ever, whether they realized it or not.” She continues “Even though the cultural ‘other’ is no longer couched in the precise idiom of the demonologists, we remain vulnerable to fears that secret forces may be working against us” (26 Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction). The difference, of course, is that reactionaries take these myths to heart. Violence, of course, ensues.
All of this relates back to Lacan’s imagining of the Imaginary, Real, and Symbolic.
If modern White Supremacy is an institutionalized ‘metaphysics of presence,’ (the Imaginary) where the White majority can only view them through the relation of absolute non-difference, then the symbolic is the public space where Otherness—non-White, non-cis-hetero—persons come into play; all of which ultimately hints at the social Real—that supposedly unknowable aspect which reactionaries of all stripes try and bury, that obvious fact that society, in whatever form, leads to pluralism.
Just as medieval witch hunts contained within them kernels of class conflict, social ties relating to gender and sexual violence, along with a monotheistic attitude towards sublimation, so do modern witch hunts; hence, the symbolic realm, where poverty is encoded as criminal activity, and summary execution is the preferred method of maintaining the denial of the Real by propping up the Imaginary; the difference is that the mentality of witch hunts can be more than mere counter-revolutionary hoopla. Though it often is such apologia for reactive ideology, witch hunts can also be progressive, revolutionary, even.
Let’s take a trip to Maoist China, circa the Cultural Revolution.
Many bourgeois historians have interpreted this moment of Chinese history as a hysterical communism paranoid about pro-capitalist undermining. Sound familiar? It is the same lackadaisical lens which some historians use to explain away the ‘why’ of witchcraft. Like such lackadaisical explanations, however, the reality of the Cultural Revolution was deeper than many bourgeois academics would like to believe.
A French historian by the name of Jules Michelet repackaged witches “as proto-revolutionary heroines battling feudal oppression” (100). This echoes contemporary historian Drew Smith when he recounts the experience of one such participant of the Cultural Revolution, a young woman who remarked that it was empowering to beat temple priests because they saw her birth as a woman as punishment for something she did in a past life (“Why I Still Defend the Red Guards”). Just as Michelet recast witches as heroic figures, female revolutionaries in the Cultural Revolution were often young; this, too, has connections to the medieval insofar as how “minors [often] became witchfinders” (Gaskill 87). Or, said again, how those ‘Othered’ in the Symbolic came to reject the false safe space of the Imaginary.
In the Symbolic register of reality, the fact that youth were drafted into the service as ‘inquisitors in training’ meant that one some level, society imbued them with a special sense; in the medieval, this was because of their supposed sensitivity to Witches harmful magic [Maleficium]. Youth were seen as extraordinary. Just the same, in contemporary bourgeois society, youth are seen as extraordinary; sometimes derided as freeloaders, other times dreamers, or fetishized as sexual objects for their hormonal fluster, one vision which develops is that of the young person as revolutionary. What stands out in all of these articulations is the reliance on Othering: young people, because of their precarious relation to the means of production and means of subsistence, holds a position of uncertainty in the dialectical chain.
Speaking of dialectics, though, it was unquestionably a dialectical negation when labor laws were passed in order to push the nuclear family into a position of conquest—capitalist reproduction needed a means of maintaining an industrial reserve labor army, and the nuclear family answered. Accordingly, youth were pushed to the sidelines and gradually commoditized and fetishized as their position in the nuclear family became less productively salient.
In both the imperialist centre as well as the periphery, youth fought back. In the U.S we see the emergence of the New Left, while in China we see the Cultural Revolution. In the West, youth were reacting to predatory wars of aggression while in the East it was the need for a learning experience in order to continue the revolution begun by Mao and the Communist Party.
During this period of fighting back, a great deal of politics transpired: on both sides of the equator, youth conducted themselves tirelessly in order to delineate a new politics, one which both broke with the past yet built upon the past for the sake of the future. Part of this practice was an attempt to draw lines of demarcation between the reactionary old world and the communist future; to this end, many youths fought bitterly with rival factions, those who embodied an incorrect practice. Theory demanded that these people conduct self-criticisms. Since not everyone was so keen to conduct such self-criticisms, sometimes force was needed; this is where the bourgeois narrative comes into play—that the cultural revolution was a socialist fiasco in which innocent people were killed and humiliated, driven to suicide because overly rambunctious youth got carried away with their public trials.
This is how we encode such endeavors as witch-trials. But as in the Middle Ages, where witch hunts were often conducted by peasant communities during times where the state had broken down—usually such hunts were to scapegoat economic and class divisions—in our modern articulation of witch hunts, it can possess a (weaker) revolutionary side in addition to the reactionary dominant side; the point should be, rather, that when investigating history, we should remember that there is a difference in resolving differences ‘among the people’ (the revolutionary side of a contradiction, in this case, a witch hunt) and the enemy (the racist reactionary). Just as Gaskill says of the numbers killed in such medieval anti-witch activities, “To respect the dead, you have to tell the truth about them. And unless witch-hunts are precisely quantified, they cannot be precisely explained” (69). All the same, we should apply this remark to not only our study of medieval society but modern social revolutions as well. Otherwise, we are left wondering why such witch-hunts happened without understanding their context; in other words, we risk dooming ourselves to the past and making the same mistakes our forebears did without the ability to change society for the better.
Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: U.P. 2010. Kindle.
Smith, Drew. “Why I still Defend the Red Guards.” Red Guards-Austin. 2016. Blog. < http://redguardsaustin.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/why-i-still-defend-the-red-guards/>
 Such a narrative is also the much talked of ‘Homosexual Panic,’ though today perhaps it is better known as ‘Trans-panic,’ when a cis-heterosexual fears the Queer Other whilst in pursuit of their sexual and gender performance. Indeed, many such oppositions between the oppressed and oppressor can be re-articulated as psychoanalytic terms.