SORAAAD BookNotes with the Bulletin: Randall Styers, Making Magic

This week’s book note looks at another discussion of magic, Randall Styers’ Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). Styers is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he teaches courses in religion and culture, modern Western religious thought, contemporary critical thought, religion and law, and gender theory. Whereas Allison Courdet (discussed in last week’s post), argues that what we in the 21st century confidently identify as the discrete domains of magic, science, and religion were, as late as the early 18th century, “all of one piece,” Styers takes as his primary data not magical texts, doctrines, practices, and the historical figures associated with them, but rather the “long and complicated history” of Western attempts to theorize magic/religion/science distinctions.

Making Magic engages in two over-arching projects. Firstly, it offers a detailed survey of Western understandings of magic since medieval times. Until about 1400, what we would identify as magic was largely tolerated or even ignored by ecclesiastical and political authorities alike (indeed, it was intimately bound up with popular Christian practices of the day). With the coming of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, however, as Protestant reformers accused Catholics of dabbling in magic, and Catholics imagined the Reformation as rooted in demonic inspiration, these profound cultural turns had real-world consequences , as witch-trials and executions (actually uncommon in medieval times) reached their peak between 1560-1660. The vast majority of Styers’ survey of theories of magic, though, arrives in later chapters, examining the ways in which philosophers (e.g., Spinoza, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel), theologians (e.g., Schleiermacher), and anthropologists, philologists, and social scientists, work to tease out what they took to represent the defining features of religion and science, with magic ubiquitously employed as a foil against which such notions and norms gradually came into focus.

This brings us to Styers’ second primary task, unearthing the many ways in which dominant scholarly theories of magic have helped to create, sustain, and even extend, a certain subjectivity, namely, that required of citizens living in highly centralized, liberal, capitalist, nation states. Crucial to this subjectivity are proper religion, proper rationality, and proper desire, each of which is define in relation to its alter or Other, magic. “Proper religion” means submission to and supplication of a transcendent divinity, and piety rooted in interiority (whereas magic involves the coercion and constraint of otherworldly powers in order to achieve selfish and worldly ends). “Proper rationality” is grounded in reliance upon institutionalized science and a sense of the world as governed by immutable natural laws, whether such laws regulate the movement of natural bodies or liberalized economic markets (whereas magic holds sway among stubbornly primitive, and thus justifiably colonized, Others who irrationally attribute causal significance to mere words, empty rituals, and inanimate objects). “Proper desire” has to do with the inscription of human aspirations and efforts within the narrow circles of free-market capitalism and social conformity, that is, those that do not threaten the prevailing social order and (ideally) can be readily commodified, to the advantage of ruling and mercantile classes (whereas magic provokes all sorts of socially chaotic desires that refuse the status quo).

Theorizing magic, Styers concludes, performs far more cultural work than merely providing intellectual frameworks for rarefied scholarly analyses. Indeed, it performs an ideological magic of its own. To me, this book represents a nearly ideal hybrid of scholars such as Eric J. Sharpe and Michel Foucault, a pains-taking history of theory that, at the same time, explores the ways in which such theorizing disciplines modern subjectivity. There is even the suggestion that, if we wish to challenge the constraints of modern forms of consciousness, magic might prove particularly useful in so doing, especially if we look to those who practice (rather than merely theorize) magic for themselves.

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