Witch Hunt


Thomas Jacob


In 1989, Dominick LaCapra, History Professor at Cornell University released a novel entitled Soundings in Critical Theory. This work focused on the psychoanalytic theory of historiography through poststructuralist spectrum (meaning individual notions were implemented into larger social groups). LaCapra’s main point was the importance of transference between psychiatrist and patient or a historian and student. This captivating connection, LaCapra argued, was perhaps the most fundamentally important method of studying and analyzing history. This somewhat radical take, however, was met with a trio of problems and inconsistencies. Firstly, when one looks at a society, they are immediately predisposed to compare its norms to his or her society, effectively skewing the interpretation. Secondly, as such, any critique of a society would come from the historian’s society, not from the society under scrutiny, as it should be. Finally, the basic idea of transference when associated with the past is practically nullified, as a historian’s patients are all dead. However, if it were possible to practice transference with historical patients, Dominick LaCapra’s theory of psychoanalytic history would prove to be the most fundamental form of historiography.

            Luckily enough, the time has come to put LaCapra’s methods to the test. By an incredible stroke of luck (and some scientific ingenuity), today’s top physicists have discovered a way to project oneself into the past. Yes! Time travel! What better way to christen this glorious What's New breakthrough than by proving Dominick LaCapra’s point that transference is indeed the most fundamental method of studying history?

            LaCapra had always been fascinated with the witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts. And who hasn’t? There’s something vaguely romantic (at least by modern Salem’s interpretation) about the murdering of neighbors under false pretenses. For LaCapra, the witch trials could serve as the perfect experiment to test his theory. Most people’s interpretation of the witch trials is derived from modern day Salem, a society quite unlike its colonial ancestor. Also, of course, the available records of the events are haphazard and secondary at best. LaCapra thought, “What if I were able to have a conversation with a woman being accused of witchcraft? It could take place in her hometown, right in the middle of the event taking place.”

            LaCapra decided that it was time to prove his theory of psychoanalytic history. He made the long trek to India, where the first and only time machine had been built and housed. After several preliminary, cautionary measures (and a quick explanation by LaCapra of his intent), the adventure was about to begin.

            As LaCapra boarded the vessel (a tall and slender machine, comparative to a small rocket ship or very large telephone booth, warped slightly), he began to ponder the consequences and possible of effects of his venture. If he were able to prove his theory correct, history would almost surely have to be rewritten from the ground up. With the ability to observe a historical subject’s culture, society, political framework, and consciousness, much less in the subject’s natural habitat, all other interpretive history would be rendered suddenly obsolete. LaCapra thought of Sigmund Freud, one of his mentors, and what he had said regarding psychoanalysis:

            “It may thus be said that the theory of psycho-analysis is an attempt to account for two striking and unexpected facts of observation which emerge whenever an attempt is made to trace the symptoms of a neurotic back to their sources in past life: the facts of transference and resistance.”[1]

            For LaCapra, it wasn’t quite enough to know the facts (themselves open to interpretation and discussion) associated with a history. What made history important and, indeed, interesting, were the personal reasons behind what happened in the past. Some critics are convinced that everything is politically motivated, while others believe that fate is pre-determined, completely negating any influence of one’s own thoughts and actions. Yet LaCapra insisted that it was this personal context that gave great stories weight. The transference between two individuals, psychiatrist and patient, is a universal phenomenon and the axis upon which history turns.

            It would be useless to describe the sensation LaCapra felt as he was whisked back in time a few hundred years, as words have not been invented to accurately describe what one feels as they transcend scientific logic. But this story is not focused on the act of time travel but instead the far-reaching effects of its institution.

            LaCapra found himself in the heart of Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, smack in the middle of the growing witchcraft problem. He had taken great care to dress himself properly before he left as to not commit anachronism. LaCapra was initially quite hesitant to continue his research; surely his mannerisms, his thoughts, feelings, and actions were all unique to his particular society and culture; despite being thrust directly into the society he was studying, would these preconceptions effect his interpretation?

            LaCapra wandered around town eloquently and quietly to avoid attention. He headed in the direction of the only place he kWhat's New he’d fine convicted witches: the city jail. As he walked along the cobblestone path and breathed in the delicious What's New England air, he began to reminisce about an anthropologist he had once encountered named James Clifford. In the book Routes: Travel and Translation in the Twentieth Century, Clifford explains the importance of “context history,” or complete immersion in a foreign culture, and its fundamental necessity regarding historical discourse. LaCapra remembered one tale in particular, wherein Clifford spent time at Fort Ross, once a melting pot of Russians, Americans, Eskimos, and Indians, and relayed a cultural history of the area based almost exclusively on secondary sources derived from every individual culture that once made up the colony. This specific kind of anthropological fieldwork, Clifford proposed, was essential to proper and significant historical discourse.[2]

            LaCapra was convinced that his immersion into the culture of late 17th century Salem was necessary to understand his won theory of psychoanalysis; his adventure, then, contained a juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated fields (anthropology and psychoanalysis) to reach a common goal: to discover the most fundamental form of historical discourse.

            Back to the story.

            LaCapra entered the town jail. The day was getting late, and the streets and shops were strangely and uncomfortably devoid of life. The jail was a small, ramshackle building removed slightly from the town center. Yet here LaCapra finally found some life in the sleepy town. The various inmates looked upon LaCapra with faint amusement and interest. Some jeered, others balked, and still others recoiled into the recesses of their cells. Any mystery person parading around the jail was cause for alarm.

            “Who here has been accused of witchcraft?” LaCapra stated openly and firmly. The various persons were silent. LaCapra hesitated. Then, in the back corner, a lone woman raised her hand. LaCapra sauntered over to her cell as the other inmates went back to minding their own businesses.

            LaCapra stood outside the cell bars and gazed at the woman inside. Her hair was long, grey, and stringy; the cloak she wore was ragged, torn, and much too big; and her face was plastered with warts, moles, and various sundry blemishes.

            “I’d like to talk to you about your life,” said LaCapra.


                        *                      *                      *                      *                      *


            LaCapra returned to present day India a mere second after he had left. The fortunate side effect of time travel was the insignificant passage of time in the present while one was stationed in the past. Yet, LaCapra felt uneasy. Surely, everything he had learned from and about the woman was staggeringly important; he now understood perfectly the events which transpired before the witch trials and the political and economic facets embedded within the system, that made it prone to such an obscure outbreak. He also learned of all this by actually participating in the society he was studying, an unquestionable privilege. But LaCapra remained concerned, for he had tampered with the past ever so slightly for his own gain. Was it unethical to inquire such personal recollections from persons in a completely foreign world? Perhaps, though LaCapra, the reason why history is so captivating and intriguing is its openness to interpretation and representation. Knowing all the facts and the reasons behind the facts in a way ruins the story.

            Ethical considerations aside, LaCapra unflinchingly proved his theory. His understanding of the witch trials of Salem had increased exponentially with his What's Newfound knowledge of just one person’s involvement; his head swum at the thought of interviewing the entire town’s populace. By immersing himself into the culture and society of a bygone era (or practicing context history through fieldwork, as Clifford would have explained it), LaCapra was able to grasp the political, economic, and religious undertones to the Salem witch trials. With this What's New ability to research the past directly, historical discourse could be forever changed, and it was LaCapra’s theory of psychoanalytic history that paved the way for such a departure, proving that given the proper circumstance, it effectively becomes the most fundamental theory of history.



[1] From Soundings in Critical Theory by Dominick LaCapra, page 30

[2] I understand that I am guilty of anachronism here. LaCapra’s Soundings in Critical Theory was released many years before Clifford’s Routes.