Reading Roundup: 5 September 2012

Marvin Meyer, a scholar whose work I encountered last year & has deeply influenced my understanding of magic & religion, has recently passed away. The only work of his I’m particularly familiar with was an accidental find at a library booksale, Ancient Christian Magic.

Humanist pagans on the rise? If paganism isn’t about polytheism, what IS it about? Humanist pagans pose an issue for a lot of scholars of modern paganism.

This strange, rambling essay is about this author’s belief that esoteric beliefs fuels fanaticism, particularly racial fanaticism. His belief that the belief in a literal esoteric cosmology populated with spirits of any kind results in a delusional belief in conspiracies is… well, not particularly well-articulated here. Part of the larger, ongoing belief that “enlightened” people live in a disenchanted universe, and people who believe in an enchanted universe engage in “magical thinking” according to psychological boundaries and need help before they hurt someone. On the other hand, what might be seen as validating his argument is that in my own life there are people who have decided their (self-generated, clearly result-of-bad-choices) problems are all my fault because I’ve cursed them. And yet in many societies, an active belief in evil spirits and malicious magic-workers is an important part of constructing social boundaries and maintaining social control — are we to consign all such people as delusional? Spiritual healing in many communities is understood to stem from spiritual issues caused by interactions with non-physical but malicious entities impacting the physical body. Is it only insanity when white people in the West do it, or is the whole non-Western world actually deranged? Suffice to say, I have some issues with his premise.

This ancient charms are thought to have been a form of sympathetic magic to gain control over animals. If true, this might qualify this kind of magic  as one of the oldest in the books.

This is one of the more interesting discussions of “animism” I’ve seen recently. It gets at part of what is problematic about the schema of “animism” as a “worldview” which is neatly and categorically ordered into a hierarchy of spirits with discrete and universally agreed upon traits. I am reminded a bit of Karen McCarthy Brown’s discussion of the Lwa has having agreed-upon traits and definitions in a single community. You know who is speaking based on which traits the participants agrees they recognize, but should a performance feature traits not expected or fail to deliver traits come to be felt as familiar, markers of identity might shift if a spirit is otherwise positively identified. Likewise there seems to be an implication that there is a lot of fluidity about how spirits are understood, and people are content not to ask too many questions until something arises in which thinking about how spirits organize themselves, what rituals are efficacious for which purposes, and so on, become important.

Hmm. Do we forget that religious rituals and beliefs, when integrated into daily life, become invisible to us, the same way that we don’t put much thought into the deeper meaning of making dinner or brushing our teeth?

Animism apparently cannot be defined within modern terminology without applying to it a set of unquestioned assumptions that are the fundaments of modernity, and in whose matrix we necessarily operate as long as we assume that the question is one of determining the “correct” distinction between life and non-life, self and world. These assumptions are already manifest when it is described, in a seemingly neutral terms, as the belief of some cultures that nature is populated by spirits or souls. The very meaning these terms carry within modernity imply that such belief is at worst mistaken—that is, failing to account for how things really are—or at best symbolic representations of social relations projected onto a natural environment that is indifferent to them. When we use the term animism, we have thus already entered into the narrative structure and self-mythologies of modernity. And these narratives cannot but deny reality to what they construct as modernity’s other. Mobilizing the grounds would require that we question the very meaning of terms such as “belief,” “spirits,” ”souls,” “projection,” “fiction,” and even “life,” as well as the historical role they have played in Western modernity as part of a disciplinary system of divisions that organize a modern “reality principle,” ghettoizing modernity’s discontents as “fiction,” “aesthetics,” or “primitive animism.”

These incredibly dense notes on an exhibition about animism, challenging both animism as a category of interpretation and the worldview that leads to such a category, is… well, incredible. But dense. I spent 3 days chewing on the contents of these exhibition notes, trying to decide what to say about them. Challenging the worldview that creates a divide between “animism” and “rationalism”, otherizes animistic beliefs as “primitive” or “premodern” and pathologizes belief in an animated, aware universe that shapes us in return to being shaped by us,  the exhibition asks the question of what dismantling this division might mean for western society, art, psychology, and political engagement.

The exhibitation notes aren’t the only thing from the e-flux issue dedicated to animism worth a serious look. A lot of it isn’t in my fields of interest and can go over my head (I confess!) but it’s still a serious, rigorous collection, including scholars I’ve been told to keep an eye on, like Michael Taussig. You may see more of my notes on this issue of e-flux in days to come.

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