16.12, Sunday 9 Jan 2011

Marcel Mauss on magic: In practice, magic differs from religion in desired outcome. Religion seeks to satisfy moral and metaphysical ends, while magic is a functional art which often seeks to accomplish tangible results. In this respect magic resembles technology and science. Belief in each is diffuse, universal, and removed from the origin of the practice. Yet, the similarity between these social phenomena is limited, as science is based in experimentation and development, while magic is an "a priori belief." Mauss concludes that though magical beliefs and rites are most analogous to religion, magic remains a social phenomenon distinct from religion and science with its own characteristic rules, acts and aims.

Mauss provides, in A General Theory of Magic, a look and explanation of the rituals, actors, and lines of power (mana) involved, and magic's place as a collective phenomenon. I find myself particularly attracted to the systems of representation: there is a persistent relationship between a murderer and their victim, for example; there is a spooky action-at-a-distance between a flame and a fire; there are laws of similarity and so on.

There seems to be something really human about these magical associations, something that I share. Like: a stolen object carries bad luck. Or: an object dropped into a clean toilet (to be crude about things!) will always be dirty, dirtier even then a piece of food dropped onto an uncleaned kitchen floor. Or, try this: draw a picture of a friend, then burn the paper. It's difficult to do so, the paper has become sacred.

There are words that Mauss has picked up used to talk about these magical qualities and lines of power. Words like mana and orenda. The cultures in which these words are used understand the concepts completely. There are proscribed ways that mana flows and accumulates, the forms it can take, and the ways in which it interacts.

Mana is as abstract and real as momentum, kinetic energy, and magnetic flux density. These terms from physics aren't important because they let us make predictions about the behaviour of the universe (that's the job of technology), but because they reveal the structure of the universe we inhabit. We observe first and do not judge, and that's science, that's how the deep structure is revealed. Physicists are bloodhounds; Newton's Laws and all the rest are hidden lines of scent. And as with physics, so with magic. Mana is a thing to be observed, felt, not judged -- and then the hidden currents of humans and our place in the universe can be seen. The rich possibility of it all makes me giddy!