Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 3

[The third and final part of my review of Otto and Stausberg's Defining Magic. This part discusses the five final essays of the book, all of which are new contributions written by contemporary 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 review.]

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto

3. Contemporary voices

That we need a systematic approach along the lines of what Stausberg and Otto suggest (or alternatively along the lines of building blocks) is confirmed by looking at the five contemporary pieces representing the current state of the debate. The five authors represent anything but a consensus. Through a broader framework of “patterns of magicity” we might nevertheless be able to put them in a fruitful dialogue.

Susan Greenwood's The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness

Susan Greenwood’s The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness was published with Berg in 2005.

Among the five contributions, Susan Greenwood’s chapter on what she calls “magical consciousness” stands out the most from the rest. Drawing on her experience as both an anthropologist and a contemporary practitioner of magic, Greenwood offers a view on magic as a mode of consciousness, a ‘specific and intrinsic mode of mind’ that is universally human (198) and, well, allows one to communicate with spirits (208-210). Connecting ‘magical thinking’ to imagination and defining it as ‘creative thinking that goes beyond the immediately apparent’ Greenwood has an extremely broad definition, which at times nods to Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of “participation”. Ultimately, however, the view is derived from a subset of contemporary magicians’ self-understanding of what magic is all about and how it works. Somewhat embarrassingly, Greenwood also borrows the old neuro-myth that the two hemispheres of the brain are connected with two distinct styles of thought, one “imaginative” the other “analytic” (203-204, 209-210) – apparently nailing “magical consciousness” to the right hemisphere. This view is still popular among some contemporary pagans, but as an academic one would expect Greenwood to know that it has little to do with current science of the mind (Wikipedia’s entry on lateralization is informative enough for starting to correct this mistake).

In the end, Greenwood’s essay moves from defining and theorising “magic” to showing how magic is, in her words, a ‘legitimate source of knowledge’ (208). After an obligatory overview of the bad “Cartesian” dualistic split that we are allegedly still suffering from, she draws on Gregory Bateson to make a surprisingly dualizing point about how “spirits are real” when you are in right-brained magical consciousness, even though they are not when you use your left-brained analytical thinking. Two separate worlds, both ontologically real, accessible through separate forms of consciousness.

If we follow the patterns of magicity approach, Greenwood’s views on magic appears much closer related to those of (some) contemporary Wiccans than those of her colleagues. I say this with some reservation, however, for Greenwood is certainly not alone among academics in deriving her framework from contemporary magicians. Rather, she represents a small subculture of scholars that openly advocate the integration of scholarship and (magical) practice, often under the banner of “pagan studies” (on this, see Davidsen 2012). Nevertheless, this raises the question of whether Greenwood’s essay has been misplaced, fitting better with the source texts of Part I. At least, this is an example of how difficult it is to separate emic from etic, insider from outsider in the contemporary study of magic.

Lehrich's The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Lehrich’s The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Christopher I. Lehrich, known for his work on renaissance magic in books such as The Language of Demons and Angels (2003) and The Occult Mind (2007), takes us back into the thicket of theoretical problems involved with establishing sound definitions in the academic study of anything. While no definition of magic emerges from his discussion, the key point is that we have to continue trying. The definitional pursuit is a process, and challenges do not mean we should stop (obviously). Thus, borrowing the format of Clifford Geertz’ influential definition of religion, Lehrich points rather to five criteria that should, in his opinion, be met by definitions of magic. Perhaps the most valuable among these is the point that the conflict over whether magic is particular or universal is misguided: instead, definitions of magic should aim to be generalizable, which is something else than universality. They should furthermore be generalizable from historic and ethnographic sources. This requires working inductively on some level. But at the same time, sound generalizations can only be achieved against the backdrop of a theoretical framework that directs the empirical effort according to set methodological principles. If not, the endeavour becomes a game of unfixed associations and correspondences – much like what some would call “magical thinking”. This tendency was, indeed, a central focus in Lehrich’s Occult Mind.

Kimberly Stratton's Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World (Columbia University Press, 2007)-

Kimberly Stratton’s Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World (Columbia University Press, 2007).

Kimberly B. Stratton is known for her Foucauldian and largely gender-focused research on discourses on magic and witchcraft in antiquity (e.g. Naming the Witch, 2007). In keeping with her previous work, Stratton is primarily interested in labelling practices as they take shape in discursive formations that create structures of alterity with real-life social implications. “Magic” for her has nothing to do with practices, rituals, ways of thinking, special objects, special powers, or anything of the sort. At best, it is a social discourse about some such practices – whether real or imagined. There is however some ambiguity about whether or not there is an object fixing these discourses. One place she writes that magic denotes ‘culturally specific ideas about illegitimate and dangerous access to numinous powers’ (245).  This seems to suggest that we are talking about discourses fixed by a notion of “illegitimate and dangerous access to numinous power”. But on the following page, the proposal seems more radical: ‘What gets labelled magic is arbitrary and depends upon the society in question’ (246; my emphasis)? These two claims are at odds with each other, for if it is about discourses on access to numinous power, then the application of “magic” is not arbitrary.

The source of this ambiguity is, perhaps, found in Stratton’s aim to strike a balance between two dominant present-day approaches to magic: those who want to ditch the overarching second-order concept while focusing solely on emic categories, and those who wish to create a better second-order category that can be employed for useful comparative research. The agenda of bridging these two trends is entirely in keeping with the aims of the volume at large. In practice, however Stratton leans much closer to the first of these two trends. One could, for example, conceivably use Stratton’s framework to do comparisons that focus on discursive formations generating alterity across different cultures and historical periods, but even this will need a lot more refining before getting to a manageable level. As Stratton writes after emphasising the particularity of the Western, European, Mediterranean discourse on magic:

‘This is not to say that non-European cultures do not have similar discourses of alterity which resemble magic; but it is important to clarify that those discursive formations have their own history, social dynamics and local variations that are essential to comprehending them as cultural products.’ (248).

Instead of comparative research on “magic”, we could envision parallel histories of alterity across particular cultures, where “magic” would be one such discourse in “the West”.

Interestingly, towards the end of Stratton’s article it becomes apparent that she cannot do without a consideration of ‘what people actually did’ in order to make her most important point: that the discursive formation of “magic” in antiquity shifted considerably, whereas the practices remained stable:

‘In all these cases, from curses to amulets, the practice of magic … was amazingly consistent across the Mediterranean world … Significantly, despite this consistency in the material remains of magic, representations of magic from different times and places diverge in an extraordinary way from the material record …’ (254; my emphasis).

The argument rests on an operative distinction between the practice of magic and its material remains on the one hand, and representations of magic on the other. The distinction seems intuitive and useful. But it also means that Stratton hasn’t exorcised the old ghost just yet, despite the occasional statement suggesting otherwise.

Randall Styers, Making Magic:Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Randall Styers, Making Magic:Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Randall Styers’ contribution continues the focus from Stratton’s article. Styers is well known for his 2004 book Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World. It made a persuasive and influential argument that the category “magic” reflects most of all the struggle of moderns to purify the concepts with which they describe themselves (e.g. “science”, “reason”, proper “religion”). Thus magic is inseparably connected to Reformation, Enlightenment, Imperialist, and colonialist projects of identity formation and ultimately of domination. Styers’ essay in the present collection is a crash-course in this by now rather familiar view. Styers is the most direct eliminativist among the theoreticians of this volume, and as such it may be valuable to quote one passage that again highlights the tension between eliminativism and those who seek to do something new with the term. Styers writes:

‘it appears that there is little value in attempting to formulate a definition of magic as some type of stable object of study. The term is too amorphous and shape shifting – and its deployment too polemical – ever to offer up any meaningful conceptual clarity, particularly in any type of trans-cultural or trans-historical fashion.’ (258; emphasis added).

The key here, I suggest, is “stable object of study”. We have to agree with Styers that the concept of “magic” taken at face value is useless for comparative research. We also agree that it may be inappropriate, if not impossible from a logical point of view, to try and stabilise the concept through stipulated definition. If we insist on seeing all usages of the term throughout history together, there is no doubt that the word is amorphous and shape shifting (few terms wouldn’t be). But singular uses of the term within this broad semantic field may very well point to stable objects of study on their own. This is precisely what the “patterns of magicity” approach would seem to suggest. We could, for example, argue that “manipulative ritual practices” constitutes a stable object, analytically construed, that can be studied cross-culturally and cross-historically. Whether or not we want to call such rituals “magic”, of course, is another question.

Jesper Sørensen's A Cognitive Theory of Magic, published by AltaMira Press in 2007.

Jesper Sørensen’s A Cognitive Theory of Magic, published by AltaMira Press in 2007.

It seems appropriate to end with some reflections on the one essay that does argue for a new, stable definition of the concept that enables broad-scale comparisons. Jesper Sørensen is notable for the book A Cognitive Theory of Magic (2007), which was based on his doctoral dissertation. His contribution to Defining Magic recapitulates the key points of that work, updated with some new experimental results and conceptual developments.

Sørensen provides a useful contrast to both Stratton and Styers: while their focus were on discourses that construe certain practices (of others), Sørensen’s is on how to theorize certain stable, pan-human features of ritual behaviour. Thus we have moved from the ‘representations of magic’ to the ‘practices of magic’, to use Stratton’s perhaps unintentionally apt distinction.

Sørensen approaches ritual by drawing on tools from the cognitive sciences, especially theories on metaphors and conceptual blending coming out of cognitive linguistics (e.g. Fauconnier and Turner 2002; Lakoff and Johnson 1980). He attempts to refine what he considers to be the prototype of “magic” (that is, its most central features and examples), identify cognitive elements required for its operation and thus turn the category into a set of scientifically testable propositions about ritual actions and agent-level interpretations of ritual efficacy.  On these grounds he is able to make distinctions between different types of rituals, and even make some predictions about the relation between ritual form and notions of efficacy (235-239). This work should be seen in context of the ongoing endeavour within the cognitive science of religion to theorise ritual forms (e.g. Lawson and McCauley 1993; Whitehouse 2004).

While I am sympathetic to the general thrust of this approach, there are problems also here. First of all: why continue insisting on a difference between religious and magical rituals? Would it not be less confusing to treat “ritual” on its own, and delineate various types based on fine-grained analysis of bottom-up cognitive processes that may account for universal differences, without invoking these higher-level cultural concepts when classifying them? It is clear that Sørensen recognizes the problem here, for he spends the last few pages of his essay in an apologetic mode (239-241). His proposed solution is to abandon classification of rituals as magical or religious, in favour of a focus on magic as ‘an interpretive strategy towards ritual actions utilized by individuals in particular situations’ (240). But does this resolve the problem? Indeed, does Sørensen even need the term “magic” to do the work that he wants to do? Doesn’t the labelling and juxtaposition of these two interpretive strategies to rituals just continue to create unnecessary confusion and false disagreement with the important discursive-level analyses that occupy scholars such as Stratton and Styers? It seems we could avoid getting into equivocation issues by dropping the terminology.

This is precisely the sort of problem that Stausberg and Otto’s “patterns of magicity” approach (and Taves’ somewhat related building block approach) might help us resolve. Sørensen’s cognitive theory could be construed as being specifically about ritual efficacy (Reff?) rather than “MAGIC”. This, it seems to me, would enable us to do several forms of important and complementary work in parallel, without getting into misguided disputes over who has figured out the right way to study “MAGIC”. Suggesting a framework that enables future students and scholars to see the compatibility of different approaches to “magic”, and a language in which they can specify the level they are working on, is Defining Magic’s greatest achievement.

Book reviewed:

Otto, Bernd-Christian and Michael Stausberg (eds.). Defining Magic: A Reader. Sheffield: Equinox Publishing Ltd., 2013.



Asprem, Egil. 2012. Arguing with Angels: Enochian Magic and Modern Occulture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Davidsen, Markus Altena. 2012. ‘What Is Wrong With Pagan Studies?’ Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24: 183-199.

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. 2002. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexity. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Greenwood, Susan. 2005. The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness. Oxford: Berg.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2000. ‘Sympathy or the Devil: Renaissance Magic and the Ambivalence of Idols’. Esoterica 2: 1-44.

Klaassen, Frank. 2013. The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lawson, E. Thomas and Robert N. McCauley. Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lehrich, Christopher I. 2007. The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Stratton, Kimberly. 2007. Naming the Witch: Magic, Ideology, and Stereotype in the Ancient World. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Styers, Randall. 2004. Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Sørensen, Jesper. 2007. A Cognitive Theory of Magic. London and New York: AltaMira Press.

Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press,.

Taves, Ann. 2014, forthcoming. ‘Reverse Engineering Complex Concepts: Identifying Building Blocks of “Religion”’. Journal of Cognition and Culture 14.3-4.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Oxford: Altamira Press, 2004.

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  1. […] As a couple hundred people apparently discovered already, I uploaded a pdf of the full review article on Defining Magic to my Academia page a few days ago. There are a few minor edits in it too. If you are looking for something citeable, I’d advise using the pdf instead of the three original blog posts. […]

  2. […] Read the full review […]

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