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Enchantment, Witchcraft, Trick: on the destiny of Magic in the age of Technology

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for Jonás, so that he continues believing in magic


When comparing concepts like Magic and Technology we immediately perceive a kind of conflict or violent polarization. In most cases, after recognizing a common atmosphere of application in our operative ability regarding all phenomena, we put both of them at irreconcilable extremes of the same continuous line. When we lack a satisfactory explanation regarding a particular phenomenon, either because our level of knowledge still doesn’t embrace its dynamics or because it openly contradicts our perception of the world, we banish it to the domain of magical thought, with the hope that, with the expansion and accumulation of knowledge, it will end up finding its place some day in the constantly expanding domain of scientific knowledge. If doubt persists, if the phenomenon in question resists obeying all known laws that would allow us to domesticate it, then it is simply pushed outside of the paradigm, it is discredited and vilified by those who defend mysticism or obscurantism. In the same way, those who refuse to surrender to triumphant technological power — reinforcing the radical nature of mystery, the impossibility of fundamentals, the inaccessibility of the ‘noumenon,’ or simple and blind faith — in a reactionary way they reject whatever attempts technology makes, with its floodlights and cacophonous machinery, to desecrate the sweet dream of the dawn of prehistory. Spirits can end up becoming argumentative.

Usually this conflict is resolved today within the domain of technology since it is the prevalent ideological paradigm. Technology no longer comprises this entire group of tools and applications that the human uses in his vital praxis, and it has ended up creating an artificial environment outside of which it becomes difficult to imagine human survival, associated with its multiple prosthetics. On the other hand, technology has imposed a unique way of conceiving and confronting the world, characterized by instrumentalization and control, establishing itself everywhere. Consequently, it does not seem strange that in many cases technology is attributed to magic, when not in the quality of cursed territory left in the hands of lunatics or romantics, but as a kind of technology of amazement —  i.e. as a group of technologies capable of producing within the spectator (who does not know them) this rapture, this spiritual perturbation, together with the suspension of criteria that rule our perceptions, which is part of  the phenomena to which the nature of “magic” was traditionally granted.

The assimilation of the term “technology” with the different “techniques” of daily usage, the generalized and indisputable adoption of a “technical way” of dealing with the world, from which the immediate means prioritize the ultimate goals (including the domination of the objects of its comprehensive assimilation), both blind us to the perception of technology as an ideology that has assumed the same functions that magic or religious thought exercised long ago. The problem does not come from combining the different techniques into one single concept so as to consider them generically, but when this generic sense transforms into an autonomous entity and begins to act of its own accord, like a totality completely distinct from the sum of its parts.

Therefore, it is not that this or that technology is going to solve whatever problem, such as the fight against cancer or the speed of my internet browser, but rather that it is technology which extricates us from the aforementioned dilemma. And when it does, it attributes to itself the ability to make miracles, to realize utopias and to “save us.”

The growing prestige that the technological has experienced through shaping the world has considerably reduced the presence or perception of magic or marvelous elements, given that if technology immediately refers us to concrete instruments, processes and things that we naturally experience all the time, then magic projects us into mysterious events, uncertain objects, unrepeatable experiences, which makes them essentially questionable. Technology is evidently precise, whereas magic is uncertain by definition. We give the name of “magic” to whatever rupture with the natural order of things, according to what is known at a given moment, with the intervention of supernatural powers or beings still happening within it, or simply the preparedness of a magician, regardless if it is done with a purpose or not. When a magic event habitually achieves a previously established goal, it ends up becoming a part of it — as a technique or a body of technological knowledge — even when the ultimate reason for why it happened that way cannot be determined.

What immediately makes this concept of magic noteworthy is its dialectical relation to the field of technology, which likewise includes the magic outside of its domain.  Far from denying each other, both spheres are mutually complementary, so that everything which remains unknown or unexplained by science is recognized as ‘magic’, and the field of the latter becomes diminished, to the extent that technology continues to gain ground. A phenomenon ends up being magical or technological according to the perception that I might have of it. There will be facts that my idiosyncratic nature will lead me to interpret as magic, while someone else would impose a scientific explanation of the same facts, however improbable that might seem.

What is certain is that we naturally live within a technological context with a mentality that could be characterized as magical, as if we had just purged it of all capacity for amazement and surprise. In reality, we do not “use technologies,” but that we carry out rituals of guaranteed effect (except when someone gets their wires crossed): the button is the abracadabra, the magic formula that permits action from a distance, the apparition, the beyond. Telephone numbers are secret cabalisms that one must know and combine in order to contact someone. There is a nowhere-place in which I can develop a parallel life without the defects and limitations imposed on me by my body. But few of us would be able to give a satisfactory and comprehensible explanation for whatever is really happening. Furthermore when our “magic objects” malfunction, we feel so vulnerable, and end up consulting a technician, in the same way we would a shaman. No allegory better illustrates this than the “crystal ball”* we sat in front of in our childhood, which was none other than the movie screen that “controls everything,” but which could be attacked at any given moment by gremlins.

In the end, all of this becomes possible because we have developed a “blind faith” in technology. And it is from this confidence in something that has become so familiar to us (but which ultimately remains unknown) that we implore magic to show its cards, to fill in the gaps of its mystery, and to reach, with however much trickery, the solid and calming ground of technology. We live in an age that has relegated the experience of magic to the domain of fiction, when it is not relegated to plain and simple sleight of hand. Magic, conceived as insufficient when compared with the technological, will end up disappearing when technology manages to close the circle of knowledge and action. In reality it has already disappeared, since it has been recognized as a vicarious existence destined for failure, and basically because (although we are not certain how to identify it) we always know that “there is some trick going on.” In the age of technology, nobody ends up so naïve that they are still able to grant a positive existence to magic, no matter how much the standards of magic continue to unquestioningly govern its behavior. And that tendency to automatically obey standards of magic is not declining, but rather increasing, to the extent that technology makes itself more invasive.

There must have been a time where every human situation occurred in an environment that could be characterized as ‘magical.’ The gaze of the child, the way in which he is experiencing and explaining the world to himself, actualizes this very structure. While still not having firm and regular criteria at his disposal to settle the contents of his experience, everything is presented as marvelous before the child’s consciousness, constantly escaping the connection of causality and his fragile configurations. And the explanation of everything always needs to be pursued in the “other” world, since there aren’t even any which serve as an outline. I will define enchantment as this innocent experience which relates to everything, and which does so in a language that needs to be made up along the way, even if we are conscious that not all of its expressions end up being enchanting ones. They can be terrible, since this corresponds to a naked consciousness exposed to such dangers and contradictions without the support of a prior pattern or code. What is characteristic about this type of experience, including its most diabolical expressions, is that it is fundamental and revelatory: fundamental because it bases the encounter of the consciousness with its objects, and revelatory to the extent that it usually illustrates the significance of this encounter, participating in the construction of meaning that still continues being provisional although urgent. On the other hand, an agent that manipulates the phenomena or the consciousness that experiences them does not exist within the enchantment such as we have represented it here. There is no magician or shaman. Everything happens as if chance were taking shape on its own, and simultaneously and permanently adjusting the consciousness of whoever endures it.

When ‘this world’ begins to take shape, to define its limits, to uncover a disenchanted face subdued by rules and resistances, there arises within the subject of the experience the need or the dream of breaking its logic, of transcending it, of producing miracles and marvels in a way that allows him to act on it and dominate it. Behind this type of consciousness resides the idea that whoever has been capable of creating the world from his own experience will also be able to recreate it on a whim. Magic, that innocent opening to the world and its phenomena, is tainted with intent. It is stained white, in the practice of the shamans and the medicine men, in the rituals of fertility and exorcism; it is stained black in the hands of the witches and the emperors, in voodoo rituals or the black mass. Here the figure of the mediator appears, of someone who knows the ‘occult sciences’ or maintains a privileged relationship with beings from another world, regardless if they are gods or magnetic properties. I define witchcraft as that disenchanted kind of magic experience in order to distinguish it from the former term, although the word ‘witchcraft’ is often used synonymously with ‘spell’ or ‘incantation’. This word is also often attributed to a certain state of amorous possession that could fit within this framework. Witchcraft, presently based on diabolical, magnetic or sexual powers, is radically different from enchantment to the extent that it implies a previous knowledge that remains hidden from most people, and to the extent that it seeks to produce a favorable effect on someone’s interests. Its goal is domination, whether it is the ignorant majority being dominated by the initiated minority, or nature that does not yield to my desires.

There exists a certain continuity between the power lust of this disenchanted, magical mentality (determined to force the natural course of things and people) and the realized miracle of technology, to the point where it is possible to say that all of it has absorbed our entire capacity for surprise and belief. The traces of this continuity are already manifested in Modern Europe with the theories and practices of the naturalist magicians from the Rennaisance: Paracelcus, Agrippa, Raymond Lull or Roger Bacon himself, who is recognized as the father of the scientific method. Even though these magicians still believed that their capacity to dominatingly intervene in the events resided in knowledge and their adherence to the laws of nature, they still demanded scientific recognition for their activities: as Della Porta said in his canonical writing Magia Naturalis (1558), magicians did not need to resort to the action of supernatural beings or powers to produce results that, for a modern mind still in its infancy, still would have passed for being marvelous ones.

In reality, they didn’t renounce the mysterious aura of the magician, carrier of knowledge inaccessible to all and of special powers “over the energies and abilities of nature” — an image that recounted a long tradition in line with neoplatonism and which dates back to the pre-Socratics, when the division between the spheres of knowledge and philosophy still hadn’t occurred and the philosopher was simultaneously a mathematician, a physician, a moralist and a transmitter of the founding principle of everything. Such is the case of Empedocles, better known from his time as thaumaturge than as natural philosopher, or of Pythagoras, who besides making definitive contributions to mathematics, developed an entire mystical doctrine about numbers for which he became its main prophet and priest. A thousand years later Newton himself, who established the fundamentals of modern mechanics and claimed the discovery of the laws of gravity, carried out thorough and convincing investigations in such dubious fields like the alchemical transmutation of the elements and the search for the elixir of life. He first gave an animistic explanation of his famous principle of gravity, not unlike that of the previously mentioned Empedocles, who spoke of love and hatred between the celestial bodies as a fundamental driving force of motion, responsible for the consistency of the material world.

For sure, we are referring to a time in which the religious factors that influenced knowledge were still very strong. If science was developing, it was done within the framework of a world image strongly marked by the beliefs of this order, and the temptation to do so outside of this framework was strongly suppressed, as Galileo or Bruno knew very well. Also certain was that modern science had not yet developed a technology of its own. Although technical knowledge existed, a technological ideology had not yet taken shape, which was not to become established as an absolute reference point until well into the twentieth century, once the process of secularization had been completed. It was when science unfolded all of its power during the belligerent confrontations that marked the past century that technology made itself acknowledged as an ideology of our era. But from the start, science as an idea (and accompanied by its methods) made its way through Europe, with the singular purpose of knowing (not of dominating the world), and technical knowledge, as much an application of the scientific method, developed within those pious limits of obedience to the laws of nature, and whenever possible did so without openly colliding with the supernatural world. But in this naturalist vision of magic, and in reference to the occult powers that furnish the initiated, the kernel of science already exists entirely cast within its practical dimension, bound to the self-interested domination of the evolution of things and people.

Technology has become capable of producing effects that our most credible ancestors couldn’t dream of, those who read Jules Verne and who discerned within the project of illustration, extended to all fields, the hope of a coming of age and of a liberation of humankind. Freedom from fear and superstition, from man’s domination of man, from sickness and from the overwhelming immensity of the world. It is doubtful that technology, as a point of reference in which we live, has provided great advances in all of these areas. Like the obsolete gods, not only has it become a source for all hope: also it has been able to instill fear and respect for its definitive capacity for destruction. It has been able to coexist and adapt itself to the way of magical thought based on witchcraft: one can find on the internet programs for consulting the I-Ching or ancient runes, and apocalyptic utopias are cropping up everywhere, now saturated with a science-fiction esthetic. Far from making itself democratic, technology has not ceased to develop innovations that increase its abilities from one year to the next, spreading unequally within different groups as a function of very distinct interests.  And while we are being liberated from the old infections, there are new allergies, immuno-deficiencies, and mysterious illnesses emerging in which many discern the evolutionary transition that is about to occur. The most advanced scientists, required to confront the limits of their specific fields of knowledge, acknowledge fundamental, irresolvable problems that oblige them to limit themselves to a kind of technological behaviorism: we are capable of deducing how things work, but not of defining them, or why they function as they do. As long as the range of our knowledge expands, then so does the field of our ignorance.

Despite this, we continue expecting everything from Technology, from the Holy Trinity shaped according to the sages by Biotechnology, Nanotechnology and Infotechnology, which foretell the future paradigm shift. We dream of being immortal thanks to technology, and there are people who say that this will become possible when we all can keep a small container of stem cells in our freezer. But what’s the point of repairing my cellular damage if anybody can kill me with the latest, ingenious molecular disintegrator in order to steal my wallet? Or if I might die, young and innocent, in a military battle or a terrorist attack carried out thanks to the latest technologies?

Technology, as an ideology that affirms that there won’t be any problem that does not have its technical solution (nor implicitly, any imaginable horror without a feasible expression), has become the depositary of the Gospels and the Final Judgment. But not without our experience having suffered a certain weakening of the illusion for it, ritually relegated to the scenic domain as illusionism, since we understand that basically everything obeys a simple trick. We are able to contemplate without emotion the more amazing spectacles; we trust the Supreme Powers without hesitation and with fake smiles; beauty attacks our senses in waves until losing its meaning; horror, which won’t kill us, instead nourishes us (we do not yet feel such a shiver). And we have avoided hope because we anticipate the future in advance. We have learned to be disappointed rather than getting our hopes up. The marvelous passes before our eyes at full speed, without leaving trace or trail. When everything becomes feasible, when it is sufficient to dream about something just so that commericialism can present it to you in three dimensions, it becomes difficult to linger within the enchantment of discovery.

Magic does not exist, but technology promises much more. But there is something that still stands in the way of this transition from enchantment to witchcraft and from the latter to this trickery, something that we have to search for again within the gaze of the child, or, if we are up to it, within that primal experience that gave shape to our world with its myths and taboos. This is something that still surprises us, as if it were not aware of having been exiled, as uncertainty does, or when for whatever reason it shatters our dreams. Sphinxes along the path that, despite so many concrete answers, still find us naked, improvised and insane. Modernity has triggered the fragmentation of knowledge, the paradigm shifts, the renunciation of metaphysics, and all of its deciphering leaves us within a void of meaning, a complete demotivation. Our experience of the world could be undergoing a process that Walter Benjamin pertinently analyzed regarding the impact of technical reproducibility on the reception of works of art, a kind of deauratization with ambiguous consequences. We would speak, then, of a deauratization of the world, based on the technological experience that we have of it.

Benjamin defines the aura, in connection with contemplating works of art, as “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.”1 Its fall, related to the apparition of increasingly sophisticated techniques of reproducing images, comes to entail the loss of the work of art’s cultural value, of its depth and its setting within tradition (that is, a great part of its meaning), in favor if its mere exhibitory value. Benjamin endeavored to list the positive aspects of the process, given its inevitable character: the autonomy of the work in connection to its context of production, the accessibility to the masses and its consequent democratization, the confirmation of a new social dimension of art that replaced its old, religious and authoritative dimension… But in the end, all of Benjamin’s work constitutes a call for attention around the need for re-enchanting the experience, whether through allegorical strategies that fill the void left by the symbol, or through a kind of profane illumination that doesn’t yet strive for the revelation of a totality, but which instead adapts to the fragmentary and dislocated nature of our modern perception.

What such deauratization would mean in relation with our world experience would be something much more serious. Under the assumption that it could be carried out completely would imply the loss of depth of all experience; it would drag along with it the forces of the imagination and would mean the renunciation of all possible elaboration of meaning that would not come from outside. Restoring the enchantment of our worldly experience becomes a task so much more urgent as much as it appears improbable. Improbable because it cannot overcome a technological way of life that has imposed its norm as a condition of life, and neither can it relapse into a devalued form of witchcraft, whose degraded manifestations are imposed on consciousness as publicity, commercialism or new technologies. Ultimately, it cannot accept any sort of decline, nor live within a stagnation that is definitely threatening it.

The total crisis, announced months ago by the active forces of the economy, and years ago by certain visionaries with radical points of view, can end up manifesting itself as a deeper crisis of consciousness than any cultural change might trigger. Here and there some people know (through applying scientific knowledge or intuition) that it is not about a failure of the system, but about a system-failure. It is not a runaway missile or a maniac on the loose: something is buckling within the building’s foundation. Our concept of the world, the fundamentals of our experience, the value and meaning of all things will have to be revised. While people still do not yet repudiate technological development, which has given on our world the speed which prevents us from stepping out of it, it appears that all of the great problems have their roots in this same development: exhaustion of energy resources, global warming, spreading of explosive devices that turn armies into cynical “missionaries of peace…”

But perhaps we are overcome by a problem with a more radical nature, a fundamental problem that makes it possible for others to appear and which produces impotence when confronting them: the loss of the authenticity of our experience overwhelmed by the flux of simulations, the perfect elimination of a ‘real world’ on which to rest our feet, the devaluation of the marvelous and the predominant rule of the unusual, the fragmentation of the imagination within thousands of recurrent fantasies, without any effective capability, which ends up being very useful when the time comes for classifying frustrations, and the absence of comprehensive discourses that bring meaning to our daily struggle. This is the situation that turns rebellion on the sensible level into a radical issue, and no longer a colorful addendum sustained by peripheral vanguards who are basically satisfied in their role because they are satisfied with everything else.

The demand of the amplification of the experience, of its candid opening to the possible marvelous, still does not rise against the conditioned boredom nor does it take pleasure in its messianic creativity: changing the ways that individuals relate to each other and with the world is a question of life and death. The ignored desire has become a necessity.

Translators’ note: In the 80's, there was a children’s program on TV called “La bola de cristal” that referred to the new Spanish youth of the Movida. The program lyrics were: “Te sientas enfrente, es como el cine, todo lo controla, es un alucine” (You sit in front of it / It's like a movie / It controls everything / It's a delusion)

(Published in Salamandra #17-18, 2008)

 

  • 1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” translated by Harry Zohn, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Schocken Books: New York, 1968, page 222.

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