September 29th, 2010


The Magic of Anthropology. (84)

The Anthropology of Magic by Susan Greenwood.

The King in the Wood:
sword in hand! Walk the dark path.
Sounds in the thickets!

This is more a polemic than an academic survey of the subject; the back cover says it "updates a classical anthropological debate," & I'd say that is a pretty accurate summary. Greenwood comes out upfront with her biases in the Introduction-- along with being an anthropologist, she is a practitioner of magic. This positions both her & the book in a certain way that makes it difficult to discuss without entering into a debate. So-- while much of what I'm going to say is going to be critical, I think it is critique that the book invites & in fact demands. In fact, the first chapter is framed as a dialogue between E. E. Evans-Pritchard & Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, & I think admirably accomplishes its purpose-- to redeem Lévy-Bruhl's ideas on the "primitive" & the "civilized" mind. That sets the tone-- both for argument & discussion, & for (look, I'm going to criticize already!) the use of false dichotomies. I have a lot of disagreements with Greenwood, but that is because we're approaching a subject from the same level, but from different angles.

Greenwood discusses Jonathan Raban & the concept of the magic city, which is one of the strongest moments of the book, but one the text shies away from (35). Raban discusses the use of personal significance & taboo forming a secret map of the city-- he "...mark[s] [his] boundries with graveyards, terminal transportation points & wildernesses[,]" such as "a black-fronted bookshop in Southe Kensington, a line of gothic balconies on the Cromwell Road." I think this is immediately intuitive as true; the map of a human beings territory is often arbitrary but never the less meaningful. This point is lost, but I tie it strongly to something Greenwood discusses in chapter five- "A Mythological Language of Magic," where Greenwood falls back on the use of dichotomies again-- mythos versus logos (77). Logic versus magic is no more a polar opposition than "civilized" & "primitive." The term "mythopoeic" is thrown out a few times, but never comes into focus.

Greenwood talks about association, of sympathetic & contagious magic, but doesn't delve into the creation of abstracts; she brings up metaphor without getting into the hard of why they matter, how they lie at the heart of functional magic (45, 147). She addresses the connection between science & magic, the use of magic in the formation of protoscience but argues the science abandoned magic in doing so (134). At the same time, she points to the similarities between psychology & shamanistic healing-- I'd argue they aren't similar so much as the same, personally-- but stops at the simple comparison (120). Greenwood talks about Durkheim's teleological arguments that magic becomes religion becomes science & presents them as a contrast to Lévy-Bruhl-- more with the false dichotomy (153)! In fact, she even bares the semantic arguments at work, the loaded terms & the power of analogy, citing Frazer & Tambiah & using words like "persuasive" but again-- leaving that direction of discussion lying fallow after bringing it up (52, 53).

I think the key to my differences with Greenwood lie in the dualism she esposes-- by which I don't mean Cartesian dualism, which she also sets up in a binary with monism-- but in the fundamental argument of opposition (136). I would claim that the root of Greenwood's argument is causation versus participation, logic versus analogic (41). Her solution is outlined in chapter nine, "'Not Only but Also': A New Attitude Toward Science," in which she outlines arguments for multimodal, dynamic thinking, for changing gears, for abduction. I think that she misses the point. Dogmatic science isn't good science, & science already contains the tools of introspection-- the discussion of abstracts is not alien to science. A great example of this is the use of descriptive metaphor in scientific abstracts. Consider the atom! It is ultimately unknowable to the human brain; the ape-meat just isn't capable of groking it. Ah, but we wrap it up in words, in mythopoeic specifics. The Newtonian atomic model is still taught! Not because it is true, but despite the fact that it is false. The nucleus with an orbiting electron is descriptively of value, but is utterly untrue.

I don't think I am on the same page as Greenwood when it comes to being a practical magician, either-- her retelling of Odin & Freyja, for instance, comes off as very Regency YA, if you ask me (84). To banal & laden with conventional genderpolitik, stripped of any deeper reading besides the obvious fertility death & rebirth. & I think her use of reason in the Wild Hunt-- "I had to overcome my social conditioning that woods are indeed a dangerous place to be at night"-- pops the bubble of immersion & participation (41). When you go to confront Fear & the Huntsman, the Hounds & the Dead? You don't get to say "well, there isn't really anything to be afraid of, anyhow," & still count it as a mystic experience. Then again, I guess I am much more interested in the theory & practice of people like Grant Morrison, which says something about me, doesn't it? There is a lot of dismissive statements about "Westerners" which are patently false-- that Westerners think the brain is the seat of self, not the heart, or that Westerners don't believe in spirits-- statements that overlook the vast use of the heart as symbolic of feeling, that overlook prayer & religion & mediums & a host of examples that contract her statements, which to her credit she almost immediately redacts to "social scientists versed in rationalistic discourses & theories" (48, 133). This is Evans-Pritchard & Lévy-Bruhl again, isn't it?

To her vast credit, Greenwood has a quote (which she ultimately attributes to Stanislav Grof) that describes magic very well, I think, & is maybe the best statement in the book-- "If a martian were to explore an earthling's television set, it could construct a complex list of its components but would not discover anything about how to watch the programmes or what they mean to its viewers" (140). Yes, there, that. In a nutshell, I agree with Greenwood when she dismisses the question "is it 'just' imagination" (141)? It is in that, in the abstract, in the information that isn't encoded into matter but rather into language & into thoughts, where I say to look for magic. Greenwood quotes Geoffrey Samuel: "man is an animal suspended in the webs of significance he himself has spun" (147). As I said above, my review may sound negative, but I don't mean it to be. I simply think the best way to dialogue about the work as it is presented is to go at it hammer & tongs. To pry off the bark & pluck out the worms-- to pluck out Odin's eye, ultimately.