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April 18, 2024
Social Justice

The figure of the witch exists because her power and knowledge are dangerous and need to be contained

The voice of Giulia Paganelli, interviewed by Chiara Pedrocchi e Michela Grasso

Interview with Giulia Paganelli (@evastaizitta), anthropologist and author of the books Maleficae, Corpi ribelli, and the podcast Herbariae.

Q: Hi, could you tell us who you are and what you do in life?

A: I am an anthropologist specializing in the anthropology of the body and cognition. In university, I was taught by Barbara Pinelli, a researcher at Milan-Bicocca. Thanks to her and a lecture on Aihwa Ong, a Cambodian anthropologist, I discovered the possibility of investigating the body as a system of culturally rooted symbols. Reading "From Refugees to Citizens," her ethnography, activated a connection in me with women's bodies during witchcraft trials.

I have a degree in history, and I have always believed that social and humanistic disciplines should communicate with each other. So I decided to apply anthropology to historiography. Then I moved to Prague, where I stayed for two years analyzing documents from witch trials in North Moravia. Among the most brutal in the Habsburg Empire. So I became interested in how signs and marks are imbued with cultural meaning, and bodies cease to be purely biological. In my opinion, bodies are predominantly cultural.

Q: Why do you call yourself Evastaizitta on social media?

A: In 2019, I was giving a conference at Harvard, and I thought it would be useful to bring the concepts we were discussing out of academic environments, to allow people to collectively build reasoning. I was told that at that point, we academics would become useless. Between late 2020 and early 2021, I returned to my studies. I wondered what the point of what we do and study is if we don't share it.

Eve was the first person in Christian cosmogony to be reproached for eating when in reality, hers was an act of accessibility: she wanted access to the knowledge of good and evil, and was immediately silenced. Knowledge had to be exclusive and inaccessible, and food was a way to control people.

When I started Evastaizitta and began talking about fatphobia and fat bodies, I realized I would have needed this channel when I was 15. My project is not for me, as I already know what I'm talking about; it's for others. If even just one person constructs reasoning by what I say, dismantling this sense of oppression, then it's worth it. I am for collective conversations: that's why Corpi ribelli is not an essay written alone but also an anthology.

Q: What does it mean to have a feminist approach to history?

A: The historicity of feminism is necessary. We can only investigate general dynamics if we have a clear historical dynamic; otherwise, we just put many separate moments together. 

Between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, feminisms entered universities. There was a cultural turn, a total change. Feminisms took over the human and social sciences and realized that there were no women in the social and humanistic disciplines, so the history we had studied up to that point was made and told only by men. No one had ever worried about who stayed at home: it was them, women, who built the historical dynamic, not those who fought. The socio-cultural fabric and the way history unfolds day by day were built by women. When we introduced women's studies first and then gender studies, we realized that we had had such a partial and fragmented view that it was as if we knew nothing. 

The feminist movement puts us in front of the centuries, makes us look again at what happened and review the stories that have come down to us, which does not mean erasing them but means expanding them, opening up a space and seeing what is beyond what we know. This also changes a lot about our present.

Q: You said you worked on witches before. If you had to identify witches today, who would they be?

A: When people take on the role of modern witches, I am hesitant. When I see signs saying "we are the daughters of the burned women," for example. This perspective is part of my historical framework. That blood cannot be cleansed, and we must remember that. The blood of burned women indicates a situation that is not confined to time and space but is a general dynamic that constantly repeats itself, always identical to itself. I am hesitant when we embody witches today or attribute ourselves to that category, sugar-coating all the atrocity associated with that figure. Certainly, there are practices that are passed down, mainly matrilineally. I'm not sure I can categorize them under the witch's hat, but there are points of contact, for example, with women who practice the signing of ankles for St. Anthony's fire. We also have a tradition of tarantism and women who know and use herbs for healing, even now.

I am convinced that anything to do with female self-determination always concerns collective practice. There are great scholars who, for example, work a lot on cartomancy, and many who work on astrology. I think all these disciplines can fall under the umbrella of disciplines that were once attributed to the cultural figure of the witch. But that cultural figure exists precisely because these disciplines were considered second-rate or very dangerous, so they had to be somehow contained.

Q: What is "the land of bodies nobody wants," and where is it?

A: I would like to answer that it is an imaginary place, but I don't think it is. I believe it is all the shadow part where bodies that do not conform to a canonical aesthetic model are silenced and made invisible. It is a land recognized by everyone because towards those bodies, we think we don't have to be considerate, take care, or even be curious. We take it for granted that it is right for them to be silent, that no one looks at them, that they are never included in social conversations, but while some discriminations manage to regain some ground and therefore move away from the land of bodies nobody wants, for other discriminations, the journey is still very long.

Certainly, there is everything that does not fit into the desires of the male gaze. And then there is everything that does not fit into power dynamics.

Q: What does it mean that "our cultural system tends to invent new monsters to absorb the blows of dissident women"?

A: When I started studying female bodies during witchcraft trials, it immediately became clear to me that the witch was a kind of smokescreen behind which to hide something completely different. The scholar Silvia Federici says that behind this veil, there are many power dynamics. Women accused of witchcraft were primarily midwives, healers, female figures who, within their communities, performed two tasks. They cared for the bodies of pregnant women, and therefore had in their hands the practical knowledge of the uterus and the reproduction of the species, which is the most terrifying thing for the patriarchal system because it lacks this practical knowledge. In addition, healers were reference figures within the community; often, doctors were far from urban and rural areas, so those who knew how to heal others became central and apex figures in society, not only for herbs and healing. They also had a say on larger issues. In the historical moment of the great war of universities against these figures, medical knowledge was internalized within academic walls and there was institutionalization mainly in a religious context: doctors were priests who studied not on bodies but on Galen's treaties and tables. When these people went into communities to heal someone, on the other side was the figure of the healer who instead had practical knowledge and knew what to do. The priest, who knew only bloodletting, used it to cure everything, causing deaths as well, and found someone on the other side who disagreed. A power contrast developed, so the healer always won because she was in the everyday life of the community.

At some point, masks are built on the bodies of these women: the result of layers of beliefs, papal bulls, manuals. There was an entire theoretical framework that contributed to the creation of this narrative. There was always the figure of a monstrous woman, a counter-power, who must be stopped by any means possible. The masks reserved for women have nothing to do with aesthetics but with the creation of an army of docile bodies. When there is something powerful enough to frighten the power system, a monster is created. People can't wait to have monsters because by contrast, they feel good. Creating a monster also means legitimizing the thirst for violence that one becomes authorized to exercise. It is exercised by reproaching people because they do not fit into an aesthetic model, but also by excluding them and moving them further and further towards the margins, accusing them and bringing them to trial. All this tells us nothing about the monster but tells us how we try to maintain control over society as it is predetermined.

Q: How do you choose the stories you use as examples when you write?

A: My parents watched a lot of movies, and they never had qualms about what I could or couldn't watch. My mother, then, put the first books in my hands very early. So over the years, I've accumulated a good series of stories. Through stories, we transmit cultural dynamics, worldviews, and words. Free peoples are those who have many words to describe things, have the possibility to choose, and can invent others. Sometimes there is a need to stop using words that may have been colonized to avoid perpetuating that dynamic. 

It works a bit like a loom, it is a continuous concatenation, so a single one is worth nothing but in the end, all the stories mix, and the great magic comes when there are intersections and common spaces. That's where continuity is felt. From discontinuities, on the other hand, we learn something we didn't know until then. The collective dimension is necessary to put stories together. With stories, people can find answers to questions they have been asking for a long time, or they can raise doubts. We never own the stories: stories own themselves, and we at most navigate them. Some write stories, but as soon as these stories leave the pen or keyboard and reach another person, they stop being ours and become everyone's. This is why they need to be handled with care.

Q: How can one be intersectional without leaving anyone behind?

A: I would start by asking how we can be intersectional. At this moment, I find it a bit difficult to perceive intersections. I find it hard to see how various reasonings can intersect in a collective discourse. Intersectionality is also a practice for me. It means making spaces available, creating other spaces, trying to do things together, bringing together knowledge to throw it out. I wonder if intersectionality is a real space, or if at some point there is a limit where we can say we are satisfied with the intersectionality we have reached. I wonder if intersectionality is a usable space or if it is only an idea in a platonic sense, which in its concreteness can only and inevitably be imperfect.

Q: What resources would you recommend on these topics?

A: Everything by Michel Foucault. Michel de Certeau's The Writing of the Other, all of Bourdieu, and then Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Csordas with the concept of embodiment, Merleau-Ponty. So much literature: all women writers talk about bodies without saying it. 

Today we have Sabrina Strings with Fatphobia, which tells the racist matrix of fatphobia, there has been Simone de Beauvoir, there are Vera Gheno, Carlotta Vagnoli, Jennifer Guerra. I also recommend Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth and Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch. 

And finally, I recommend being amazed by what you encounter on your way. I never would have thought that a Cambodian anthropologist could bring me here. Paths are made of details, accidents, and chance. It is important to start from the theoretical bases, but then experiment a lot.

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