Maya Deren on technological sorcery

15 07 2010

Indeed, the best condition for magical action is not the primitive community with its collective emphasis, but the modern community, with its individualistic emphasis, and it is here that one may experience the pre-eminent spectacle of the magician at work. He conceives his plans in almost solitary secrecy, or with a few cohorts; he is feverishly protective of the exclusive right to exploit the power of his discovery or invention; he is frequently concerned with an almost occult effort to divine that special twist of public taste which makes for a hit or a best-seller; he is devoted to the idea of a magic combination of words in a certain just-so order, which is a catchy slogan; he labors to create a skillfully obsessive image of material or sexual seduction, and is not above accomplishing this with a maximum of artifice and connotative sleight of hand; he is involved in a complex and formal series of cabbla-like manipulations involving “contacts”, publicity incantations, and even what might be accurately termed the cocktail libation. Moreover, this is all pursued in the interests of personal aggrandizement and entirely irrespective, in a profound sense, of the public welfare. The hexes, elixirs and fetishes of primitive magicians are paltry achievements compared to the vast powers of such modern magicians.

-from The Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti

AG and I watched the above film, and it reminded me of this quote. Of course, Deren writes this to get the point across to here Christian and post-Christian readers that the society of Haitian voudou (in which sorcery is actually something looked down upon) has nothing on modern society, where manipulation is not just accepted, but is a way of life. This is not a new observation: Giordano Bruno’s real sympathetic magic has more to do with modern advertising and social propaganda than Neoplatonic theurgy. “The bond of all bonds is love,” according to Bruno, but that love can be used to make people do what you want.

I look into some pretty questionable things: folk Catholic prayers, botanicas, white magic, black magic, and so forth. But I really do think Deren is right. We look to those systems like voudou and santeria and see the hand of the devil. But our society manipulates desire all of the time, convinces people to go into debt to buy things they really don’t need, and transports images that present us with things that we shouldn’t really enjoy, but we don’t see the “sorcery” behind this. Who then are the poorly catechized ones? The real “Christo-pagans”?


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6 responses

16 07 2010
Jason C.

It’s funny that you post about this topic, because I was reading an opinion piece in the newspaper the other day. The piece was about schools, and the opening paragraph was a purple-prosey defense of schooling depicting the classroom was a “magical” place where children are challenged challenged to some supposed heights.

As Ivan Illich argued in his famous book “Deschooling Society,” schooling is a modern “myth-making ritual.” Contemporary men believe in schooling (and similar institutions) in the same way that Indians believed in rain dances. If there’s no rain, then the assumption isn’t that the ritual is false…the assumption is that they didn’t dance hard enough! To question schooling is as blasphemous to contemporary men as questioning the rain dance ritual would be to Indians.

15 07 2010
walt

Our society cannot see the sorcery, the casting of spells, that is behind modern advertising, and marketing. This is a point the late sci-fi writer Robert Anton Wilson made in his fiction and several of his non-fiction essays. As a Catholic,I don’t agree with a lot RAW’s ideas at all but that point I can agree with him.

15 07 2010
Henry Karlson

Yes, this is something many people do not realize: modern technology is following the drive for manipulation that made the Church condemn magic.
This is a theme I like to deal with from time to time — probably my most recent post was this one, based upon the works of the Inklings:

http://vox-nova.com/2010/03/29/the-magic-of-technology-in-the-thoughts-of-the-inklings/

15 07 2010
xoanwahn

Very interesting post, with a very good point! Traditional societies tend to focus very little on individual needs and desires. People are expected to sacrifice for the survival of the tribe/village/family. It’s the society as a whole that is seen as important. Naturally, sorcery, which is usually seen as a dangerous, selfish manipulation of the powers that keep the society thriving, is looked down upon. In the modern world, however, sorcery fits in perfectly and is used often, though not in the traditional sense.

@Visibilium – I agree completely. In Spanish, we call this “el qué dirá”, which is basically the “what will (he/she) say” effect. It is really common, despite the fact that it too is looked down upon. I know people who are actually reluctant to buy a new car or fix up their house because they are afraid their neighbors will get jealous and start a competition of sorts to one-up each other! On the other hand, a lot of people live beyond their means just so others will envy them!

15 07 2010
Stephen

Very interesting point. I’ve often thought that for many people today science and technology are the new magic because of their ability to provide material goods. Now I’ll have to add public relations and advertising to that list because of their ability to change people’s very desires.

15 07 2010
Visibilium

The cure for solitary sorcery is solitary nay-saying. People wouldn’t be so easily duped if they didn’t care so much about what their neighbors thought or what the salespersons thought about them. “I wanna be liked” is the battle cry of the screwed-over.

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