A Few Words on Magic… and Advertising.
Han and I took a trip to the North coast of Cornwall and finally made it to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle. What an incredible place, full of all sorts of weird and wonderful artifacts. There was also a small exhibition of the art of Jos A. Smith from the book ‘Witches’, which was very special. If you get the chance take the time to visit.
In the West we make the assumption that science can provide a rational explanation for any phenomena. Magic, on the other hand, is perceived as an irrational belief system. Anthropologist Susan Greenwood has studied magic in Western culture; “magic poses problems for many anthropologists; this is due to the fact that its spiritual nature conflicts with Western notions of rationality…” (2009:129)
Perhaps it would be more useful to view magic as an alternative way of understanding reality, no less credible than the Western use of science, which informs and constructs the reality experienced by Western culture.
Evans-Pritchard (1937) believed that magic and witchcraft was a rational way of explaining events given the context of the way the Azande ordered their society. He identified three elements — magic, witchcraft and oracles that form three sides of a triangle, a rational framework of beliefs and knowledge that informs the Azande’s reality. These are entrenched into the very fabric of their social life.
Susan Greenwood (2009) uses Evans-Pritchard’s infamous example of the collapse of the Granary to explain a magical explanation. To shade from the hot sun people sit beneath the granary. It’s well known that termites eat through the supports, which can result in the collapse of the granary causing an injury to someone who is sat beneath. The question is why did it collapse at a specific moment on a specific person? Western science turns to causality and coincidence as an explanation. Gregory Bateson (1972:39) talks of “an explanatory principle […] a conventional agreement between scientists to stop trying to explain things at a certain point”. Coincidence could be seen as an explanatory principle. A magical explanation still acknowledges the reason why the granary collapses (termites). However it uses magic and witchcraft as opposed to coincidence, to explain why it happened at a specific time when a specific person was shading from the sun. There is a magical interconnection. One has to question whether magic is any more or less empirical or scientific than the concept of coincidence?
On a final note I want to dispute the notion that the West replaced magic with science in its quest for rationality, which began with the Age of Enlightenment. I reject this notion wholeheartedly as I believe that there is and has been for some time now, black magic at work all around us. I refer, of course to capitalism and its vanguard, the advertising industry. As Welsh academic Raymond Williams elucidated over 30 years ago, advertising is a system of magic (1980, 170–195). It is not enough for a material item or a service to be purely functional, a false mystique has to be created around the object or service. This mystique promises happiness, increased sexual allure, fame and fortune etc. This is achieved by the use of words and images (semiotics) to create magical spells that persuade and seduce … the selling of a falsehood. These irrational promises have been swallowed wholesale and continue to cast their spell. The magic is also evident in the way that celebrities (princes and princesses, politicians and sports personalities, musicians and entrepreneurs) are sold to the paying public as some kind of higher beings.
I do not believe in genius.
Why is this black magic? What I believe the ‘consumer’ really desires is the actual gifts and values that the mystique promises and yet never delivers in any meaningful way. This leaves an emptiness, a void, to be satiated again and again, briefly, by the act of consuming… profiting the few by exploiting the many…
I do not want to be a consumer of falsehood anymore. I am not a customer, I am co-creator of a another world … as are you if you so desire...
Bateson, G. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. London. Intertext Books
Evans-Pritchard, E. 1976. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford. Clarendon
Greenwood, S. .2009. The Anthropology of Magic. Oxford. Berg
Williams, R. 1980. Problems in Materialism and Culture. London. Verso