Magic in the Modern World
Strategies of Repression and Legitimization
Edited by Edward Bever and Randall Styers
Magic in the Modern World
Strategies of Repression and Legitimization
Edited by Edward Bever and Randall Styers
“A powerful collection that succeeds in connecting history, science, and psychology, and will be relevant to scholars of each.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Taking a two-track approach, this book explores the complex dynamics of the construction of the modern self and its relation to the modern preoccupation with magic. Essays examine how modern “rational” consciousness is generated and maintained and how proponents of both magical and scientific traditions rationalize evidence to fit accepted orthodoxy. This book also describes how people unsatisfied with the norms of modern subjectivity embrace various forms of magic—and the methods these modern practitioners use to legitimate magic in the modern world.
A compelling assessment of magic from the early modern period to today, Magic in the Modern World shows how, despite the dominant culture’s emphatic denial of their validity, older forms of magic persist and develop while new forms of magic continue to emerge.
In addition to the editors, contributors include Egil Asprem, Erik Davis, Megan Goodwin, Dan Harms, Adam Jortner, and Benedek Láng.
“A powerful collection that succeeds in connecting history, science, and psychology, and will be relevant to scholars of each.”
“Hopefully, this book will be read both by historians of magic and scholars of contemporary magic in the fields of anthropology and sociology. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the interdisciplinary study of magic; such interdisciplinary engagement is especially important when dealing with as elusive and controverted a concept as magic.”
“Magic in the Modern World stands out among other edited volumes in the quality of its contributions and the erudition of its contributors. . . . I anticipate returning to my copy again and again to draw fresh insights into my research and pedagogy in the field.”
“Ever since the nineteenth century, it has been a staple of the discourse on modern society that magic and supernaturalism were on their way out. The contributors to this splendid volume explain why this idea has been so persuasive, and why it is utterly wrong.”
“Most readers of this review surely would say that magic has long passed its prime, surviving in the modern Western world only in the enfeebled state of sleight of hand. But Magic in the Modern World . . . is determined to prove them wrong.”
“Well-conceived and thought-provoking.”
Edward Bever is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Old Westbury and the author of The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition, and Everyday Life.
Randall Styers is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World.
Introduction, Edward Bever and Randall Styers
Magic and the Making of Modernity
Chapter 1, “Bad Habits, or, How Superstition Disappeared in the Modern World,” Randall Styers
Chapter 2, “Descartes’ Dreams, the Neuropsychology of Disbelief, and the Making of the Modern Self,” Edward Bever
Chapter 3, “Why Magic Cannot Be Falsified by Experiments,” Benedek Láng
Chapter 4, “Witches as Liars: Witchcraft and Civilization in the Early American Republic,” Adam Jortner
Magic in Modernity
Chapter 5, “Loagaeth, q consibra a caosg: The Contested Arena of Modern Enochian Angel Magic,” Egil Asprem
Chapter 6, “Babalon Launching: Jack Parsons, Rocketry, and the ‘Method of Science,’” Erik Davis
Chapter 7, “Manning the High Seat: Seidr as Self-Making in Contemporary NorseNeopaganisms,” Megan Goodwin
Chapter 8, “Reviving Dead Names: Strategies of Legitimization in the Necronomicon of Simon and the Dark Aesthetic,” Dan Harms
List of Contributors
Edward Bever and Randall Styers
The place of magic in the modern world has long been a source of anxiety and confusion for intellectuals and social theorists. Since the rise of the modern social sciences in the nineteenth century, scholars of various sorts have formulated theories of social evolution that have assumed the inexorable decline of all forms of magical supernaturalism. In the early twentieth century, Max Weber offered a definitive formulation of the “disenchantment” of modernity (Entzauberung—in a literal translation, “getting the magic out”), arguing that capitalist rationalization entailed a decline in all forms of supernaturalism.1 Theories of secularization and rationalization asserted that if religion could survive at all, its role in the modern social order would be only as a thin source of personal inspiration and moral guidance. But, these theories assumed, magic and other alternative forms of supernaturalism would surely shrivel and fade, brought low by their primitive irrationalism and unredeemable ignorance.
Yet reports of magic’s imminent demise have proved to be greatly exaggerated. Edward B. Tylor, the founding figure of modern anthropology, offered a social typology that by its very structure indicated that modern culture was moving away from superstition and magical thinking. But at the same time, Tylor was compelled by facts on the ground to explain magic’s stubborn persistence, styling it as a cultural survival. Even as he charted a course of social evolution that directed society away from supernaturalism of all types, Tylor lamented that these earlier forms of thought persisted in the contemporary world with alarming tenacity. As Tylor explained, magic “belongs in its main principle to the lowest known stages of civilization, and the lower races, who have not partaken largely of the education of the world, still maintain it in vigour.”2 Despite his conviction that modernity would expel the demons that had heretofore bedeviled humankind, he recognized that magical beliefs persisted and could be found even in modern nations, where not only did older practices survive but new superstitions continued to evolve.
Like Tylor, the other leading British intellectualist anthropologist, James George Frazer, was also distressed by the florescence of the turn-of-the-century spiritualist subculture in England. Fraser described in stark and vivid terms the deep “menace to civilization” he saw in the persistence of magical thinking, pointing to
a solid stratum of intellectual agreement among the dull, the weak, the ignorant, and the superstitious, who constitute, unfortunately, the vast majority of mankind. . . . It is beneath our feet—and not very far beneath them—here in Europe at the present day. . . . This universal faith, this truly Catholic creed, is a belief in the efficacy of magic. . . . We seem to move on a thin crust which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below. From time to time a hollow murmur underground or a sudden spurt of flame into the air tells of what is going on beneath our feet.3
Despite the fervent hopes of these and other scholars that this “subterranean” force would gradually fade away, magic and supernaturalism seem even stronger today than they did in the late nineteenth century. Not only do supernatural heroes and villains pervade literature, film, and other forms of popular entertainment, but esoteric traditions also inform the daily lives of a significant portion of the population. Wiccans and other Pagans meet to celebrate and exploit the occult powers they believe permeate nature. Many communities have storefront “readers” and “advisers,” while almost every bookstore has a thriving “New Age” section. The Internet has fostered the formation and spread of supernaturalist communities and subcultures around the globe. Much of this supernaturalism is explicitly fictional, a benign mechanism to envision alternative ways of being in the world to compensate for the drab, rationalized routines of modern life. But there are also many who take supernaturalism much more seriously, finding in their beliefs, practices, and communities a vital sense of identity and meaning that forms a potent alternative understanding of the nature of the self and its relationship to the broader world.
In sharp contrast to the optimistic naturalism of modernist intellectuals, recent scholars have rejected the entire notion of the disenchantment and secularization of modern society. Recognizing that just as religion continues to adapt and thrive in the modern world, so, too, magic and supernaturalism of all sorts not only survive but prosper in modernity, a range of important thinkers including Bruno Latour and Michael Taussig have challenged the ideologies and self-presentations shaping modernity. Such scholars have moved from viewing the persistence of magic in modernity as a dilemma to be resolved to recognizing that “magic belongs to modernity.”4
Peter Pels, for example, has recently affirmed the deep inter-implication of magic and the modern—their surprising symbiosis—arguing for “the supplementarity of magic and modernity, that is, the way in which many modern discourses position magic as their antithesis, reinventing it in the process. Thus, if modern discourse reconstructs magic in terms that distinguish it from the modern, this at the same time creates the correspondences and nostalgias by which magic can come to haunt modernity.” The very effort to expel or repress magic makes it essential to the formulation of the modern. In this vein, it is impossible to understand the nature of modernity without taking into account its magical foil. In addition, Pels identifies specific mechanisms through which modernity itself has been structured by its own distinctive forms of magic, “those enchantments that are produced by practices culturally specific to modern states, economies, and societies—practices labeled as representation, commodification, and discipline.”5 Far from moving beyond magic, the modern world is fueled by complexly ambiguous flows of power very much like the ones it has sought so eagerly to disclaim. Magic is not alien to modernity, because without magic there could be no modernity.
This volume charts a different course, exploring a complex double gesture at the heart of modernity.6 One set of essays examines the dynamics through which modernity has sought to expunge or repress magic, and in that process illustrates central aspects of the constructive labor required for moderns to maintain the fiction of a new mode of disenchanted rationality. These essays explore such topics as the neurocognitive mechanisms through which modern “rational” consciousness is generated and maintained, the intellectual process by which proponents of both magical and scientific traditions rationalize evidence to fit with accepted orthodoxy, and the cultural process by which superstition was pathologized as a cognitive lapse in order to serve the emergent social and political order. The second group of essays here examines the remarkable cultural ingenuity demonstrated by modern proponents of magic. Many denizens of the modern world deeply dissatisfied with the thin and sterile norms of modern subjectivity have opted for an overt embrace of various forms of magic, and these evolving forms of esotericism, supernaturalism, and magic often demonstrate extremely complex cultural creativity as they draw on strands of history, alternative epistemologies, and novel interpretations of experience. But given the stigma attached to magic, its proponents have regularly confronted deep questions concerning the legitimacy of their practices. Olav Hammer has identified three basic strategies employed by modern esoteric movements in their quest for legitimacy: a claiming of tradition, the appropriation of the rhetoric of scientific method and verification, and a reliance on the evidence of experience.7 Essays in this volume examine proponents of magic who claim the support of tradition by redeploying John Dee’s “Enochian” angel magic in novel fashion, invoking various forms of ancient Norse mythology, or simply assembling—Dan Harms’s phrase—“a bricolage of mysticism, religion, history, and fiction.” With the rise of modern science, particularly the forms it assumed over the course of the nineteenth century, the stigma surrounding magic intensified, and in response, other proponents of magic have engaged in complex negotiations with the methods and rhetoric of science or invoked identity and experience in innovative ways to support their magical worldviews.
Underlying both aspects of this double gesture is the need to come to terms with experiences that seem magical, whether to drive them away by denying their reality or to embrace them and affirm their validity. At the heart of this modern preoccupation with magic are complex dynamics concerning the construction of the modern self. In its many forms, magic explicitly foregrounds questions concerning the nature of the self and its boundaries, the capacities of the will, and the relation of the self to external powers. When magic is suppressed, the self is conceived and performed largely as physically isolated and internally directed; the self is constrained into narrow modes of agency and power. When magic is embraced, the self is seen in far more expansive terms as organically interconnected with—and permeated by—various aspects of the external world; the capacities of the self are understood as participating in a broad network of material and spiritual forces. The choice between suppressing and embracing magic turns on fundamentally different understandings of the nature of the self, its boundaries, and its powers.
The two sets of essays in this volume are divided not only thematically but roughly chronologically. The first four form a section titled “Magic and the Making of Modernity” because they focus primarily on the process by which early modern people defined their modernity in explicit opposition to magic and superstition. The last four, in contrast, focus more on the ways in which later modern proponents of magic have attempted to negotiate the relationship between their beliefs, traditions, and modernity, and this section is consequently titled “Magic in Modernity.”
In the first essay, Randall Styers traces the way in which the notion of “superstition” was redefined from the medieval to the modern period. From antiquity through the Middle Ages, superstition was most commonly understood as a mode of excessive or misdirected religiosity. But through the theological debates of the Reformation and also in debates concerning the persecution of witches, superstition was framed in increasingly psychological, rather than theological, terms. Superstition was seen as a delusion, one that needed to be explained in purely cognitive terms.
By the twentieth century, psychological theorists were invoking magic in order to promote psychological and social maturity. Superstition and magic were attributed to a familiar set of causes: faulty observation and analysis, overinvestment of subjective desires, sublimated and projected desires, lapses in causal thinking, and errors in determining probability. For the majority of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists, superstition and magical thinking posed a serious threat to the good order of society, a theme that persists in numerous texts by more recent behavioral and cognitive psychologists.
The three other essays in this section explore specific instances of the general processes Styers surveys. In the second essay, Edward Bever examines a famous set of dreams that René Descartes experienced on the evening of November 10, 1619, in the midst of his efforts to formulate a new system of knowledge. Bever’s analysis of these dreams leads him to conclude that they are particularly significant because of the light they shed on the psycho-cultural stigmatization of magic in the modern world. Bever argues that the practice of magic generally centers on a manipulation of the nervous system and that magical beliefs can be understood as rational (or verbal) representations of associational-imagic processes and their products. In this light, the renunciation of magic serves to exclude these representations from the conscious formulation of deliberate action and to inhibit their function as mental mediating structures.
The study of Descartes’s dreams thus illuminates both the central role of his philosophy in fostering broader rationalizing cultural changes and also the mechanisms through which the repression of magic was implemented on the psycho-physiological level. As Bever asserts, Descartes’s dreams, and his responses to them, demonstrate the considerable effort required to constitute “modern” rational consciousness, a process that requires the masking or repression of imagination, intuition, and feeling—all modes of cognition central to magical mechanisms for manipulating the nervous system. Thus the repression of magic actually requires a type of manipulation of the nervous system quite similar to that involved in the practice of magic—the types of rationality formalized by Descartes offer modern selves techniques that foster the fiction of an autonomous consciousness isolated from materiality. Descartes’s dreams demonstrate that the very effort to repress magic has the unintended effect of making more magic.
Turning from the psychological to the physical aspects of magical beliefs, Benedek Láng explores an issue central to our understanding of the empirical claims of both magic and science, the issue of falsification. Numerous medieval and early modern texts prescribed specific methods and procedures to achieve specific practical effects, and these texts were circulated by a range of educated practitioners. Yet even though it seems to modern eyes that many of these mechanisms were obviously false, the scribes and compilers did not seem to recognize this failure. Láng argues that it is productive for contemporary scholars to ask why medieval and early modern claims seemed so immune to falsification, and he seeks to understand how historical actors might have resolved the discrepancy between their expectations and the actual results of their procedures.
With this task clarified, Láng considers the various factors that could allow both magical and naturalistic claims to resist falsification. He then turns to consider the ways in which the notion of an experimentum crucis—a decisive experiment with the power to demonstrate the falsity of a theory—is a myth not only in the history of magic but also in the history of science. Prior convictions can influence perception, and detailed prescriptions cannot ensure that an experiment will always be performed in an identical fashion. Experiments are deemed decisive only in retrospect, only after a choice has already been made among competing theoretical explanations. So, Láng concludes, the question of why theories persist even when experiments fail to confirm them is a proper inquiry not only for the history of magic but also for the history of science. His essay thus illuminates not only the resistance of premodern intellectuals to falsification of their beliefs, but also the veneration by modern intellectuals of sweeping ontological claims based on fragmentary and frequently ad hoc experimental evidence.
In the last of the essays in the first section, Adam Jortner looks at the interpretation of witchcraft and magic that permeated early nineteenth-century America. This understanding of magic appeared in a large number of genres—sermons, tracts, lectures and speeches, and popular entertainments such as novels, theater, traveling exhibitions, and stage magic. Jortner argues that the way of understanding magic and related topics—nature, human freedom, and the divine—conveyed in these sources contributed to the creation of the social and political structures of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian United States, as it linked philosophical and religious issues of epistemology to the social and political anxieties aroused by the process of democratization. Opinion leaders in the new Republic shared an Enlightenment-inspired dogma that magic was antithetical to reason and a great social threat, since reason was seen as the essential basis of republican citizenship.
Jortner’s essay offers a fertile case study in the ways in which modern notions of rationality are linked to issues of social order and authority. Jeffersonian opponents of superstition and supernaturalism felt compelled to use invective because so many of their peers—particularly those on the margins of social power, like women, slaves, native peoples, and unschooled immigrants—seemed rather less strictly wedded to a newly narrowed notion of rationality. The assault on magic and witchcraft was framed as a key component of the defense of freedom and civilization against tyranny and savagery—magic was seen as the enemy of liberty. Healthy intellectual habits needed to be instilled in the populace in order to produce a well-regulated citizenry. But the very process of seeking to expunge magic had the inadvertent consequence of making magic a prevalent theme both in cultural debates and in the popular imagination.
The first of the four essays in the “Magic in Modernity” section, by Egil Asprem, explores the dynamics of change in modern occultism. Asprem focuses particularly on the ways in which magical concepts of the Elizabethan natural philosopher John Dee and his collaborator Edward Kelly were transformed into modern “Enochian” angel magic. Dee recorded an intricate magical system and a version of the “language of Adam,” and since the seventeenth century his magical diaries have inspired new and evolving fields of ritual magic. Asprem first details the key components of the magical materials that Dee claimed to have received in communications with the archangels Michael and Gabriel, a body of material formed before mathematics was seen as key to reading the book of nature and before the rise of mechanistic philosophy. Asprem then explores the reception and reinterpretation of Dee’s magical corpus by various later magical communities, a process shaped by the contingencies of partial transmission and culminating, by the end of the nineteenth century, in a new occult system developed by the Order of the Golden Dawn, a system of “Enochian” magic that dramatically reworked the meaning of Dee’s original materials.
Throughout the twentieth century, Enochian ritual magic continued to evolve in the hands of figures such as Aleister Crowley, Anton LaVey, and later New Age thinkers. Asprem argues that the persistence of ritual magic in modern culture can most profitably be understood by exploring the ways in which its practitioners seek various forms of cultural legitimacy by translating esoteric concepts into secular terms. As he explains, both disenchanted and reenchanted perspectives are in play within modern occult milieus, and both can serve as discursive strategies to help in the negotiation of various domains of culture. To this end, Asprem focuses on the struggles over the authenticity of Enochian magic that played out over the twentieth century, as the gap between the Enochian magic of the Golden Dawn and the original system of John Dee became increasingly apparent. Particularly in examining recent debates among practitioners concerning the metaphysical status of the supernatural entities with whom the Enochian rituals seek to interact, Asprem argues that modern occultism is neither a simple reaction against secularized rational culture nor merely a practice that has accommodated itself to that culture. Instead, he concludes that a central factor in magic’s survival in modernity is its demonstrable cultural flexibility. Modern magicians are adept at improvising and at creating meaning with a vast array of cultural materials.
Erik Davis explores the interplay between magic and science in modernity in his biographical study of Jack Parsons (1914–1952), a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose discoveries helped launch the U.S. space program. Parsons was also an enthusiastic follower of Aleister Crowley’s “magickal religion of Thelema.” In exploring Parsons’s complex career—and particularly the ways in which Parsons negotiated the relationship between his scientific endeavors and his occultism—Davis examines the distinctively modern relationship between technology and the occult. Jack Parsons offers Davis a potent example of the interplay between modern rationality and the mystical aspects of modern occultism. While Parsons claimed to keep his science and his occultism distinct, the two endeavors did not remain cleanly separated, and Davis charts numerous complex interchanges between these two aspects of Parsons’s life. In fact, Davis argues, magic finds its place in modernity as a boundary condition, “as this very code switching itself—a pragmatic, relativistic, and in some ways naturalist fluctuation between science and the holy.”
Parsons’s life exemplifies this magical flicker between science and the supernatural. Davis explores the ways in which Aleister Crowley himself adapted certain aspects of “scientific” method in the Thelemic system (particularly in his focus on quantification and his skeptical reluctance to make ontological claims about the existence of astral and other spiritual phenomena) and Crowley’s insistence on a mode of pragmatic relativism that emphasized practice, experience, and results. Deeply influenced by the principles of Thelema, Parsons sometimes insisted on the difference between his scientific and his magical endeavors, but sometimes he mixed the two. Thus, Davis asserts, we can understand Parsons’s magic only if we understand his science. Just as Parsons’s scientific work was characterized by an extremely imaginative or intuitive experimental method, so also his occultism was characterized by a critical analysis of its experiential results. As Davis explains, Parsons found a practical resonance between his scientific investigations and his occult practice, a resonance that highlights the constructed—and constructive—nature of the modern divide between the scientific and the spiritual.
Megan Goodwin also discusses the relationship between modern practitioners and the premodern tradition that inspires them in her essay on contemporary Norse Neopaganism. Seiðcraft, Norse magical practice, originated in a culture deeply invested in the performance of a hypervirile masculinity, and the practice of seiðr was deeply gendered: the majority of practitioners were women, and it was considered unmanly for men to engage in it. Contemporary Norse Neopagan groups have emerged in the shadow of these traditions, and the practice of seiðr remains contested in these communities. Some more conservative (or orthodox) Neopagans discourage or forbid men from engaging in the practice, viewing seiðr as effeminate, while more moderate groups accept male practitioners. As Goodwin argues, it is impossible to understand the cultural dynamics at play in the practice of seiðr without attending to the gendered genealogy of the practice. Seiðr has offered an opportunity for the deliberate performance of unmanliness, requiring its practitioners to negotiate cultural expectations for masculinity and offering space for reimagining fundamental aspects of personal identity within Norse Neopaganism.
For some practitioners, that transgression of expected gender norms has become a spiritual end in itself. Goodwin focuses particularly on Northern Tradition Paganism, a northern European Neopagan group founded by female-to-male transgender and intersex activist Raven Kaldera. Kaldera deploys the practice of seiðr in order to celebrate unmanliness as a religious vocation. He sees a deep link between his religious identity as a shaman and his bodily identity as transgender, and in both he works to challenge dominate understandings of sex and gender—unmanliness is an end in itself. Both in Kaldera’s practice and in the other Neopagan permutations of the practice of seiðr, Goodwin demonstrates that the performance of gender and the performance of magic are both radically creative and culturally constrained.
Like Asprem’s and Goodwin’s essays, Dan Harms’s discussion of the grimoire titled The Necronomicon explores the interplay between modern occultism and premodern traditions. Yet while Asprem’s and Goodwin’s subjects were based in actual historical traditions (regardless of the degree to which more recent practitioners may have refashioned them for their own purposes), Harms’s topic involves what appears to be an ancient tradition that was invented out of whole cloth to legitimize a contemporary fabrication. The Necronomicon was first published in New York in 1977 and is perhaps the most popular modern exemplar of the genre. In an era in which magical texts could no longer be easily legitimized by attribution to past figures of spiritual authority or through a type of scientism, the author of the Necronomicon (identified only as Simon) used multiple strategies to establish the text’s cultural authority. In a postmodern spiritual marketplace, older tactics of cultural legitimization give way to a broad array of new strategies in the text and its promotion.
The Necronomicon enlists horror fiction, a number of religious traditions, archaeology, and various portrayals of Satan in popular culture to support its claim to legitimacy. The author of the text draws connections to earlier grimoires, in both its ritual procedures and the iconography of its illustrations, and its initial marketing also made these parallels explicit. The text draws on the fictional work of H. P. Lovecraft, who first coined the term necronomicon in 1924 to designate an important collection of arcane knowledge, and the author repeatedly invokes Aleister Crowley’s ceremonial magic and diverse Wiccan and Pagan tropes both ancient and modern. The Necronomicon also exploits the “dark aesthetic” that circulated in popular media in the 1970s. As Harms explains it, these various strategies of legitimization contributed to the text’s positive reception in popular culture but simultaneously created barriers to its influence in more traditionalist occult circles. The Necronomicon represents a clear example of postmodern cultural construction; its appeal rests not so much on any particular belief system but on its ability to exploit a range of cultural symbols, anxieties, and desires.
While a collection of such diverse essays naturally presents an array of foci, approaches, and interpretations, certain common themes can be discerned, even if the contributors would not necessarily agree on all of them. In The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780–1914, the historian Karl Bell has offered a critical overview of current scholarly perspectives on magic and modernity, and Bell’s framework offers a useful template for drawing together the themes of this set of essays. Bell argues that the modern magical imagination should be understood in Lévi-Strauss’s broad sense of the term bricolage, “a ‘creative, associational . . . mode of thought,’ a mentality defined by its acquisitive nature and adaptive capacity to fuse disparate elements . . . into a heterogeneous but somehow comprehensible system of its own.”8 The essays in this volume clearly reflect this aspect of modern magic. Davis’s discussion of Parsons and Goodwin’s discussion of Kaldera are perhaps the most vivid examples of this sense of bricolage, but it is also reflected in Asprem’s and Harms’s portrayals of their subjects.
Consequently, as Bell argues and as the essays collected here attest, modern magic can most profitably be understood not simply as false belief, anachronism, or make-believe, but as a potent resource conferring a sense of meaning and agency that, suitably adapted, can be as attractive amid the uncertainties of modern urban life as it is in more traditional or rural settings.9 Magic’s appeal stems not just from its offer of an illusion of control. Instead, even in the modern world, it exerts a powerful capacity to mobilize deep and complex mental processes and modes of making meaning, including not just fantastical but also pragmatic meaning. Its remarkable adaptive capability and deep roots in human cognitive processing allow magic to persist and flourish, defying, as both Bell and the present volume attest, the Whiggish interpretation of disenchantment running from the nineteenth-century intellectualists, through Weber, and on to Keith Thomas’s 1971 Religion and the Decline of Magic. It has become increasingly clear that it is impossible to comprehend the nature of modernity without actively exploring the active magical undercurrents that permeate the contemporary world.
Following Joshua Landy and Michael Saler’s Re-Enchantment of the World, Bell outlines three different interpretive approaches to the relationship between magic and modernity.10 The first, the traditional “binary” approach, views magic and modernity as incompatible, so that the rise of modernity necessarily involves the suppression of magic, and any survival or resurgence of magic necessarily represents a repudiation of modernity. The second, “dialectic” approach (exemplified by a number of the essays included in Birgit Meyer and Peter Pels’s 2003 Magic and Modernity) sees modernity as creating its own substitutes for traditional magic—namely, consumerism, advertising, mass entertainment, demagogic political movements, and spectator sports. The third approach, which Landy and Saler call “antinomial,” builds on the recognition that “modernity embraces seeming contraries.”11 This perspective, they explain, recognizes
that modernity is characterized by fruitful tensions between seemingly irreconcilable forces and ideas. Modernity is defined less by binaries arranged in an implicit hierarchy, or by the dialectical transformation of one term into its opposite, than by contradictions, oppositions, and antinomies: modernity is messy. . . . There is a growing awareness . . . that there are forms of enchantment entirely compatible with, and indeed at times dependent upon, those features of modernity usually seen as disenchanting the world.12
So, they argue, new forms of enchantment can be found in the mystery and wonder produced by modern science, the self-reflexivity and imaginative fantasy of modern literature, and the intensities produced in mass culture, spectator sports, and even ordinary language.13 Like Landy and Saler, Bell favors this third perspective, arguing that it “liberates us from the binary notions of continuity and decline, dominance and marginalization, while at the same time it appreciates a more complicated interpretation of enchantment and modernity than that offered by dialectical transformation.”14
It must surely be acknowledged that belief and disbelief coexist not only in modern culture but also within the psyche of most modern people—the psychologist Eugene Subbotsky has shown that even those who explicitly profess disbelief in magic often manifest belief implicitly through their actions.15 As Bell puts it, various forms of modern occultism serve as “an intrinsic element in constructing and negotiating a sense of the modern ‘self,’ a way of reconciling the rational and the numinous in a more secular age.”16 Much of the most exciting recent historical and theoretical work on modern magic has aimed to explore the complex and vibrant inter-implication of magic and modernity—the unexpected ways in which modernity has fueled various new forms of enchantment and the culturally productive effects of these enchantments for modernity itself. Many of the essays in this volume richly reflect the insights of this new perspective.
It is at this point, however, that the present volume parts company with Bell, for its contributions suggest that the different approaches in Landy and Saler’s typology are not as clearly separable or mutually exclusive as they first appear. Even as the essays collected here illustrate the inter-implication of magic and modernity, many of them also reaffirm the importance of focusing on the difference between cultural dominance and cultural marginalization, a central theme of the “binary” approach. Modern magic is constructed, legitimized, and practiced in a very different cultural context from earlier forms of magic. As the essays in the first section of this volume detail, the suppression of magic was an explicit goal of self-conscious modernizers, taken over from theologians and pursued through social, cultural, and psychological means for centuries. The results of this campaign are clearly evident in the more recent circumstances discussed in the second section: both in the struggle for legitimization of the Enochian magicians discussed by Asprem and also in Jack Parsons’s split identity and institutional difficulties in the early twentieth century.
These essays certainly attest to the persistence of magic in modernity that so troubled Tylor and Frazer, and to the rich complexity of its relationship with various aspects of the modern social order emphasized by Pels, Landy and Saler, and Bell. Nevertheless, however much evidence we can find for magic’s deep roots in the human psyche and its tenacious ability to emerge in creative new forms in modern contexts, the scene is framed, as it has been for centuries, by the pervasive and systematic campaign of dominant cultural elites, the guardians of official religious and intellectual truth, to marginalize magic by relegating it to the realms of fiction and delusion. This campaign has been sustained by continued religious opposition to marginal practices, the organizational needs of bureaucratic government and mass society, and the epistemological constraints of a knowledge system based on the consensus of printed sources and the idolization of dispassionate observation. Efforts to suppress magic serve to produce a population of predictable, rational workers and citizens who conform to the needs of the capitalist marketplace and the modern bureaucratic social structure.
The essays in this volume demonstrate that magic plays a crucial role in modernity, even as the dominant culture emphatically denies its validity. Despite the systematic and sustained employment of social and cultural power to promote officially sanctioned modes of knowledge, older forms of magic continue to develop, and new forms continue to emerge. Since modern rationality has been constructed in explicit contrast to magic, the efforts by proponents of magic to claim legitimacy in “scientific terms”—to legitimize their magic by recourse to a rhetoric of science and rationality that is the very source of their marginalization—are self-contradictory. Magic as a system posits an interconnection between the psyche and the physical world that is incompatible with controlled experimentation, and the moment individual magical phenomena are validated scientifically, they cease to be seen as magic and become part of the corpus of modern science. Similarly, modern historicism and information technologies render increasingly untenable the claim that contemporary magical subcultures are derived directly from age-old traditions.
Yet despite these difficulties in seeking to ground or legitimize modern magic, modernity itself remains inherently unstable. The modern concept of a rational, autonomous self is deeply artificial and constraining; it ignores vital realms of the human psyche, and it denies central dimensions of human interconnectedness. These fissures guarantee that alternative systems of knowledge will continually emerge, regardless of their official acceptability or historical validity. This dynamic illustrates both the power of modern culture and the poverty of the modern notion of the self.
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