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Thursday 20 January 2022 at 4.00-6.00pm (GMT)

This webinar will be held on Zoom. Please register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_7B7mapF5QOaHFoWtSvNU5A

Magic’s Reason: an Anthropology of Analogy 


The Royal Anthropological Institute is pleased to present ‘Reviewer meets Reviewed’, a discussion between author Professor Graham Jones  (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and reviewer Dr Katherine Swancutt  (Kings College London).

In Magic’s Reason, Graham M. Jones tells the entwined stories of anthropology and entertainment magic. The two areas are not as separate as they may at first seem. As Jones shows, the endeavors not only matured around the same time, but they also shared stances towards modernity and rationality that fed into each other. As stage magic established for itself a circumscribed realm of suspension of disbelief, colonial ethnographers drew on the language of that realm in describing native ritual performers as charlatans, hoodwinking gullible people into believing their sleight of hand was divine. Using French magicians’ engagements with North African ritual performers as a case study, Jones shows how their concept of magic became enshrined in anthropological practice. Ultimately, Jones argues, anthropologists should not dispense with the concept of magic, but, rather, they should think more sharply about it, acknowledging the residue of its colonial origins. Through this radical reassessment of classic anthropological ideas, Magic’s Reason develops a new perspective on the promise and peril of cross-cultural comparisons



The review

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 27, issue 2. June 2021, pp. 444-445

Katherine Swancutt

Like a set of Chinese linking rings, Magic’s reason invites readers to unpack an important intellectual puzzle of modern thought, namely how the anthropology of magic and the art of entertainment magic have mutually shaped what counts as ‘reason’. As Graham M. Jones shows in this marvellous book, anthropologists have a long history of separating their study of magic from the performances of illusionists; yet comparing the ethnographer’s and the entertainer’s magic is anthropologically profitable and should not be dismissed out of hand.

With a brief nod to his ethnographic fieldwork among French illusionists, who call themselves magicos, Jones sets out to offer up a predominantly historical approach to the influence of early anthropologists and their magico peers upon anthropological thinking about magic, rationality, and (dis)enchantment. Throughout this lively and accessible book, Jones presents vibrant studies of magic-making from the nineteenth century to the present, which, he admits, only became his focus of inquiry when he took seriously his research partners’ own ‘interest in analogizing the modern magic they perform with primitive magic as known to them mostly via ethnographic representations’ (p. 141). Jones shows that illusionists and anthropologists hold in common an intellectual heritage built upon the analogies they have jointly crafted between so-called ‘primitive’ magic, which (at least ostensibly) accomplishes genuinely extraordinary feats, and ‘modern’ magic, which invites spectators to uncover the techniques for clever tricks. He furthermore suggests that the primitive/modern dyad was conceptualized and popularized by an even fuller cast, which includes Euro-American magicos (self-styled as rational and reflexive illusionists); members of the Spiritualist movement, who presented their séances as genuine magical contact with spirits; Algerian ‘Isawa entertainment magicians, whose feats of bodily mortification in European performance contexts were either rejected as illusionary tricks or accepted as genuine magic enabled by spirits or the devil; novel acts such as those of the Davenport Brothers, who blended the techniques of illusionists and Spiritualists in order to capitalize upon the uncertainty surrounding which, if any, acts could showcase genuine magic; early anthropologists, who were uncomfortable that their studies of primitive magic from across the globe might resonate with the beliefs of their peers in Spiritualist encounters, thus upsetting the social evolutionary assumption that enlightened Euro-American rationalists are at the pinnacle of the world’s civilizations; and, finally, audiences and members of the general public, who eagerly consumed the works of these rival performers, magicians, and scholars. According to Jones, each of these players mobilized ‘a representational feedback loop linking the entertainment industry and anthropological scholarship in parallel efforts to define magic’ (p. 7).

What Magic’s reason adds to the familiar picture of early anthropology’s influence upon contemporary studies of magic is a model of concept-building grounded in recursive dialectics. Jones proposes that anthropological distinctions between primitive and modern, rational or irrational, enchanted versus disenchanted, and so forth, operate in ways that pit any given analogy against its disanalogy ‘for the purposes of contrastive comparison’ (pp. 55-6). Offering diagrams that illustrate how contrastive comparisons climb an ‘analogical ladder’ (p. 128), Jones suggests that anthropological theories are always initially rooted in concepts – or ‘prefigurations’ in Fitz John Porter Poole’s sense of the term – such that they do not arise from an ethnographic case per se (p. 130). Starting with the proverbial concept, then, Jones moves the reader stepwise up his analogical ladder to the proverbial ethnographic case, from which he suggests that another novel concept is sourced. This ladder-like ascent (perhaps unwittingly) echoes the upward movement that readers, primed by Jones’s historical and ethnographic findings, will likely equate with social evolutionism. However, Jones wants to go further by suggesting that analogical ladders are the products of an ‘ethnohistorically reflexive theoretical development’ (p. 144) that ineluctably feeds past histories of concepts – shaped as they are by illusionists, other performers, anthropologists, and their audiences – into current theory-making processes. There appears to be a dash of chaos theory in this mix of anthropology, although Jones does not invoke the term.

To my eye, Jones’s model of theory-making would be most aptly presented not as a stepwise ladder, but in the form of a spiral, which would more closely capture the ‘dynamic of interillumination’ (p. 159) that anthropologists, their research partners, and audiences have co-produced through recursive assemblages of concepts and ethnography. More engagement with the anthropology of ontology would have been valuable too. Still, this excellent book is a must-have read for specialists of magic and entrance-level undergraduates alike with an interest in the history and ongoing metamorphosis of one of anthropology’s classic concepts.



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