On Weird Cultural Beliefs, Anthropologists’ Wizard-envy, and the Skeptical Native

graeber wizard envy ontology

“Apparently there’s virtually nothing, no matter how obviously crazy, a contemporary academic can’t get away with if they find some way to attribute it to Gilles Deleuze. (And in this case the authors themselves admit the link is fairly tenuous.)”

So, I finally got around to reading anarchist theorist, anthropologist, and public intellectual David Graeber’s recent piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, that looks at one of the sexiest, most trending topics in Cultural Anthropology right now, the ‘Ontological Turn’, and specifically how this trend has influenced debates about how anthropologists should go about studying and interpreting magic.

When I first came across OT theories as an anthropology student in Cape Town in 2007/2008, I happened to be conducting fieldwork on neo-Pagans and their understandings of what it meant to identify as ‘witches’ in South Africa, where not everybody thinks of witchcraft as a benign revival of pre-Christian nature-worship. When I read cutting-edge OT theory, I thought to myself, “Wait, but this just sounds like a more obscurely, academically written, less upfront and less applied version of the ’emic’ theories of ritual magicians and Western occultists I’ve been reading for years!” These people all just want to be wizards, right? To say magic is real and get away with their academic credibility intact!” As a teenager, I’d read about how the magician should recreate the ‘cult’ of some pagan deity from a particular cultural context in as faithful and as minute a way as possible, then spend months, years developing a connection with this being until the practitioner was absolutely persuaded that communion had been achieved and the being was capable of manipulating reality, AAAAND then, quite possibly, do it all over again with a wholly distinct deity, all the while keeping detailed fieldnotes of one’s experiments in devotion and pantheon/ontological world-switching in as rigorous and scientifically precise a fashion as possible. I’d read works by chaos magicians written in the 1970s and 80s, who, drunk on science fiction and post-structuralism, laid out exercises in ‘applied paradigm-shifting’ as part of a technology of magic meant to allow Western moderns to manipulate reality, to leap from one ontology to the next. Reading Graeber’s piece and realizing that major OT theorists are actually citing the same sources as occultists (controversial paedophile ontological anarchist Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey, for example) my earlier feelings that some contemporary anthropologists have wizard-envy feel sort of confirmed.

Graeber’s piece is long, but quite good, so I summarize it here, both because I think some of my non-anthro friends will find it interesting, and because many of Graeber’s conclusions resonate with my own fieldwork in Tibetan Buddhist contexts, where tantric ‘magical’ practices are being circulated via the Internet and crossing all sorts of ethnic, cultural and national boundaries. In his piece, Graeber responds to leading OT theorist Viveiros de Castros, who accuses Graeber of committing an ‘illegal move’ as an anthropologist by claiming that the magical charms of his Malagasy informants ‘couldn’t really work’. To show how de Castros has missed his larger argument about the nature of cultural practice, social politics, and reality, Graeber reflects on some of the main assumptions of the Ontological Turn. Briefly, some of the OT’s arguments go something like this:

The Cartesian split in Western philosophy has produced a situation where we have on the one hand ‘Nature’ with a capital N, a materialist, unitary empirical reality that is the province of the hard sciences, and a multiplicity of representations of that reality which belong to different cultural groups (and social scientists), on the other. (Who this ‘we’ is or should be is controversial as Graeber shows, but it basically often ends up meaning ‘modern Westerns’, the generic-not-so generic ‘WEIRD’ (Westernized, Educated, from an Industrualized, Rich, Democratic country) test subject of so many cognitive and social psychology experiments about the ‘human’ mind). OT-ers take issue with the relegation of ‘alternative’ worlds to the lower status of mere ‘cultural belief’. Drawing on studies of non-Cartesian, animist worldviews, OT-ers want to upset this scheme of one Nature, many cultures, this divide between representation and reality. Where previously the work of the anthropologist was epistemological (studying the native Other’s seemingly bizarre beliefs, worldviews about reality, seeing them as alternative logics or representations of the world etc) OT adherents have called for anthropologists to take a different, ontological approach to radical alterity, i.e. the challenging otherness of ‘irrational’ ideas like witchcraft, magic, and spirits that have sat at the core of the anthropological enterprise since its inception as a formal discipline. Ultimately, the OT seems to propose that in moving away from knowledge-systems and representation (epistemology) to ontology (being in the/a world) we should think of the native Other as living in a wholly other world, in which things like witches and spirits should be thought of as real, at least within the compass of that alternative world (this starts sounding like a juiced up version of Cultural Relativism, even if OTers see what they’re doing as being opposed to cultural relativism, as Graeber explains).

While Graeber appreciates the OT as a methodology, as a creative way for anthropologists to engage as scholars with alternative possibilities of being, he points out some of the OT’s troubling implications. By dissolving the gap between concept and reality, and by suggesting that each cultural group’s discourses create a totally separate reality for them, not only do OT theorists start sounding like hardcore Idealists/chaos magicians, but they also end up having to promote a really superficial, ethnographically shallow picture of ‘cultures’ and social practice. The OT approach seems to be saying, ‘whatever unusual, difficult-to-accept-as-true claim the native informant gives – ‘rocks are alive’, ‘there are witches that eat souls’ etc – we must accept that claim as part of the intrinsic, undeniable fabric of the other-world of these natives. Graeber’s response is that this, as all good anthropological fieldworkers know, glosses over the lived complexities of daily life on the ground, leaves no room for looking at the social politics of knowledge and experience. Not every member of a society has the same kinds of experiences, relationships, knowledge or opinions on emic, cultural things like spirits, or really anything. ‘Natives’ are natural skeptics – this is not the product merely of ‘Western education’ or ‘modernization’ – the spirits are typically as radically other and paradoxical for the ‘native’ as for the anthropologist. And how exactly do we define where the boundaries of one ‘society’, ‘culture’ and its supposed corresponding ‘world’ begins or ends, especially when magical practice and theory has so often been transnational and so thoroughly syncretic and cosmopolitan? Graeber pulls from his fieldwork in Madagascar to drive home these points, and ends up arguing that a big part of our shared humanity lies in our common experience of the ultimate unpredictability and unknowability of the world. Drawing on critical realist arguments, he suggests that reality can be thought of as not only unknowable in its entirety (whether by shamans or scientists) but as actually MEANING that which cannot be fully encompassed by prevailing forms of knowledge and knowledge production, ‘scientific’ or otherwise. In this way, ‘radical alterity’ becomes simply another term for reality as a whole, and rather than different cultural groups being ghetto-cized in their inviolable ontological bubbles or some sort of reality ‘reservation’ or Bantustan (or ‘tunnels’ as psychedelic wizard and conspiracy connoisseur Robert Anton Wilson had it), we are all instead fumbling our way through equally, living out the contradictions of our multiple, layered, mixed up and differently valued realities together. Graeber concludes his piece by explaining that his saying as an anthropologist – like his informants themselves said – that certain spirit-charms probably didn’t work, actually allows for the possibility that other charms might do so. Skepticism about magic is thus a necessary part of its possibility, and we actually take the ‘radically other’ possibilities of our research participants’ worlds more seriously when we recognize that they are often just as hard-to-swallow, inconclusive, weird or paradoxical for our research participants themselves.

Graeber’s piece got me thinking about issues of social consensus, skepticism and belief (some of which come up in this other post here), and about the fact that a number of contemporary Pagans and magicians are now reading and citing OT literature to legitimate their own practices, both points I am continuing to investigate. Anyway, Graeber’s piece is fairly long, and definitely complex, but ends up being quite incisive, and lays out arguments to-date with admirable clarity. Well worth the read.



4 thoughts on “On Weird Cultural Beliefs, Anthropologists’ Wizard-envy, and the Skeptical Native

  1. Found this via Graeber’s Twitter feed. Your post and the topic is interesting. I really like the idea of doing an anthropological study of people reading and using anthropological literature about themselves. Have you written more about that, or do you know of literature about it? (The link in your final paragraph doesn’t work.)


  2. Hi Christian – I certainly intend to write more about it in the future. The preponderance of scholar-practitioners in Western esoteric/Pagan studies, and the intimate relationship between anthropology, ethnography and contemporary neo-pagan and magical traditions alone is reason to do so.

    I have fixed the link at the end – let me know if it still doesn’t work!


  3. Pingback: Embodying Healing: Tantric Ritual Short-hand and the Training of Anthropological Attention | A Perfumed Skull

  4. Pingback: Illuminati Penis Enlargement: Foreigness and Cross-cultural Healing in the South African Magical Market-place | A Perfumed Skull

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