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Christian Suhr

Associate professor

DESCENDING WITH ANGELS: PSYCHIATRY, EXORCISM, AND ISLAM IN DENMARK (Summary of PhD thesis, defended and accepted on July 3, 2013)

Based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork and collaborative filmmaking, Christian Suhr's PhD thesis compares experiences of illness and healing among Muslims treated within traditions of neo-orthodox Islamic exorcism and Danish psychiatric healthcare.

A number of influential studies in medical anthropology have emphasized a view of healing as the effect of human self-creativity. By contrast both Islamic exorcism and psychiatric healthcare primarily seem often to operate through the annihilation of individual agency in favor of submission to external and essentially invisible healing agents – God or psychotropic medicine, respectively. This PhD thesis asks how such submission is facilitated by two systems of healing that to the naked eye seem highly dissimilar, but on closer inspection are based in surprisingly similar conceptions of the constitution of the human interior.

At a theoretical level the thesis explores the issue of invisibility and its relation to healing and ethnographic film respectively. Practices of healing are explored as particular ways for dealing with the invisible in human life (e.g. the suffering of patients), creating a path into the invisible, and giving it a form and shape, but sometimes also amplifying the experience of uncertainty and invisibility, of being powerless and in need of help. In a similar vein, filmmaking is understood as a practice that despite its visible form essentially has invisible aspects of human life (e.g. experiential and emotional developments within film subjects) as its principal object. The aesthetics of healing and ethnographic filmmaking are analyzed as a ritual and sacrificial oscillation between image-making and image-breaking. The thesis as a whole intervenes in current anthropological debates about agency and ethical self-cultivation. Inspired by theories on cinematic montage, the thesis show how disruptive techniques are used in healing to destabilize individual perceptions and experiences of agency, so as to allow the patient to submit to external powers beyond their own control.

The filmic part of the thesis is conceived not only as a video documentation, but as a form of analysis in its own right, which allows insights into emotional and epistemological dilemmas of patients and healers. In addition, the film acts as a catalyzer of questions that are further elaborated in the written part of the thesis. Thus, the chapters take as their starting point the scenes presented in the film. The thesis as a whole explores the possibilities of juxtaposing academic writing with film material so as to destabilize both textual and cinematic modes of visuality, thereby creating a space for the invisible.


Statement from the PhD committee 

“The text and the film make an important contribution to anthropological scholarship on neo-orthodox Islamic healing practices and beyond that on contemporary Islamic diasporic communities and ethical practices, as well as to fostering a better understanding among those involved in the treatment and management of mental disorders [...] The core questions of the thesis have to do with the nature (and the effectiveness) of neo-orthodox Islamic healing and Danish psychiatry, but also with the task of anthropology, ethnography, and the very notions of alterity, commensuration, and the possibility of intercultural co-habitation: the urgent questions of today’s Denmark, Europe, and the ghettoized and globalized world in which we live. […] This monograph and film constitute a challenging, thought-provoking, and insightful piece of scholarship that reflects an unusually deep engagement with a difficult field of research. Suhr demonstrates convincingly not only his ability to produce and analyze an impressively rich material, often of a highly intimate nature, he also manages to maintain a strong sense of purpose, respect for his subject and collaborators, and overall shows unusual maturity and creativity in his work.”

—Prof. Laura U. Marks (Simon Fraser University), Assoc. Prof. Stefania Pandolfo (UC Berkeley) and Assoc. Prof. Martijn van Beek (Aarhus University), July 2013.