Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 2

[This is the second part of my longish review of Otto and Stausberg's Defining Magic: A Reader. This part focuses on the introductory chapter. For part one of the review, focusing on the selection of texts, please go here.]



Patterns of Magicity: A Review of Defining Magic (part 2)

2. The introduction

The selection of readings for Defining Magic suffered, as discussed in the previous post, under some artificial constraints. In the face of such obstacles, the editors have done a formidable job in making use of the material available to them and presenting it in a form that takes maximal advantage of each text. Stausberg and Otto’s introduction to the volume is an excellent example of this productive work. More than just an introduction to the various texts of the book, this piece is itself an original contribution to the ongoing discussion about what to do with the troubling term “magic”.

A magician?


This contribution consists, to begin with, of an effort to systematise the definitions that are out there. For example, Otto and Stausberg present a catalogue of frequent denotations of the term “magic” as encountered in both practical and scholarly literature, consisting of thirty-five bullet points (9-10). Across the literature, magic is said to be coercive, manipulative, immune to falsification, a non-legitimate way of dealing with the supernatural, egocentric and antisocial, lacking institutional structures, a label for marginalizing outsiders, an illocutionary or performative speech act, or an art of creating illusions – to name but a few of the examples.



What to do with this bewildering set of features? It is of course possible to divide and classify them in various ways, propose a loosely defined polythetic family-resemblance definition, or try to force some key features into an ideal- or prototypical structure in order to reconstruct an etic category of “magic”. There are serious problems with all of these approaches, however, and the sheer breadth of the semantic field of magic is only the first and most practical challenge. If we factor in the various ideological, ethnocentric and theological implications involved with most available previous definitions, there is little wonder why an increasing number of scholars over the past few decades have opted for eliminating the category altogether: “magic” does not exist as a stable phenomenon in the world, and should therefore not exist as a category either.

Thankfully, Stausberg and Otto do not settle for anything quite so simple. They do not appeal to prototypes, do not suggest a family-resemblance definition, yet are  not  straight-forward eliminativists either. Their suggestion is in fact quite novel:

‘Instead of instinctively interpreting the occurrence of a limited number of features from our catalogue as evidence for the existence of a family-like concept, we suggest splitting the extended tribal family into a number of nuclear families. Instead of instances of “magic”, we suggest speaking of patterns of magicity.’ (10; my emphasis).



What does this shift imply? Essentially, it is a shift away from the endeavour of producing a new definition that would add to the dozens of existing ones, towards a systematic effort of classifying what various people writing about magic have in fact been interested in when using this concept. This seems to me a much needed effort that may provide a better ground for future work. More importantly, it may solve the problematic disconnect between eliminativists coming at “magic” from a discursive perspective interested in plays of power and authority, and those historians, ethnographers and comparativists who wish to employ the term to study specific features of human behaviour. In the words of the editors:

’One might argue that abandoning the term “magic” only risks silencing us by depriving scholars of ways of addressing these persistent observations; after all, amulets, curses, healing procedures and other such things exist and it is easy enough to find practices that can be characterized as manipulative or that are typically performed on critical occasions… In other words, should we stop speaking of “magic” even when we cannot help observing perceived evidence for it?’ (10-11).

There is “something there”; but is “magic”, given its troubled history and semantic fuzziness, the best term to use? Otto and Stausberg think not, and this is precisely where “patterns of magicity” come to the rescue as an alternative way to construe the debate:

‘Our point is that even if such phenomena impose themselves on observers … , as scholars we should, indeed, stop treating these observations as evidence for “MAGIC”. Instead, we should either just speak of amulets, curses, etc., or of private rites (rather than intuitively and unreflectingly allocate them to a single overarching macro-category). … “Patterns of magicity” do not automatically involve “MAGIC” (as the supreme meta-category), nor are they “magic” (as referring to ontological features), but they are a way of dealing with cross-culturally attested observations. “Magicity” acknowledges the fact that they were traditionally assigned to the overall category “MAGIC” in which we have stopped believing. As we see it, based on a meta-analysis of definitions and theories of “magic”, and the catalogue of objects to which that category is applied, future work should seek to model such patterns.’ (11).

For now, Otto and Stausberg propose coding and classifying different senses of “magic”, using some short-hand subscripts to distinguish for example the concept of “magic as word efficacy”(Mwor) from “magic as signs” (Msig) and “magic as harmful rituals” (Mhar). We could probably add “magic as production of illusions” (Mill) and “magic as extraordinary achievement” (Mach), in order to incorporate the very frequent use of the term for stage magic and achievements in sports, business, or any other area of life – from a purely discursive level probably a lot more common associations of the term today than summoning spirits at the graveyard.

With such coding one could identify basic ascriptions and look at their combinations in various real-life constellations as well as in various scholar definitions of “magic”. I see significant overlaps here with the “building-block approach” that Ann Taves has recently been developing for tackling complex cultural concepts in general and for “religion” in particular (e.g. Taves 2009, 2014). Approaches like these may help us organise existing research in contested areas like “magic” and “religion”, and gain valuable precision when developing new projects.

[Go to part 3]

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This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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  1. […] scholars of "magic". Follow hyperlinks to read part one (focusing on the selection of texts) and part two (focusing on the editors' introduction) of the […]

  2. […] are looking for something citeable, I’d advise using the pdf instead of the three original blog […]

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