Transgression, Ageing and Schopenhauer!

Henrik Hvenegaard Mikkelsen


The one issue that ties together my research is the relationship between masculinity and transgression. I have explored this relationship in different ethnographic settings, ranging from gay sex clubs in Montreal, via former headhunting communities in Northern Philippines, to socially isolated elderly men in rural Denmark.

Recently, I have been trying to develop a “pessimistic anthropology”. Taking my cue from Arthur Schopenhauer, I suggest that radical passivity—a wasting away stripped of agency or intentionality—involves a nihil negativum: an inconceivable nothingness. Any attempt to address passivity by Danish health professionals gives way to optimistic flickers of hope and renewed attempts to explore the citizen’s potentials for pleasure. A similar optimism can be traced within anthropology where passivity typically indexes different types of social resistance of the subaltern. But to what extent is it possible to imagine passivity without agency or eventual reanimation? This, I argue, is analogous to imagining death without rebirth and separation without reintegration. It seems that when trying to grasp the curiously interrelated concepts of detachment and expiration—the darkest undersides of cosmology—we inevitably leave open spaces for new beginnings or reattachment. The idea is that there is an underlying optimism hidden within (much) anthropology, and I am interested in exploring, on the one hand, how this form of optimism produces a particular and constrained form of critique and, on the other, how a deeply pessimistic approach (not to confuse with merely a skeptical approach) would enable us to generate new forms of critique.

While ageing in Denmark currently take up most of my work, I have just finished the monograph “Cutting Cosmos: Masculinity and Spectacular Events among the Bugkalot’, which will be published at Berghahn. The book explores issues as diverse as cosmology, egalitarianism and ritual killing.