Magic Without Savages and the Racialization of Ideas

magic and the savage post

Given the way history has unfolded, no matter who you might be, it is difficult, if not impossible to talk about magic without talking about time and temporality. Accordingly, then, to speak of magic is to inevitably invoke the lofty spirit-kings of modernity, rationality, and progress. I just started reading Christopher Bracken’s 2007 book ‘Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy’. Bracken traces the ways Western Enlightenment philosophers and anthropologists have constructed categories of ‘primitive thought’ and how these remain influential today, despite formal disavowals of ethnocentric notions of the savage. He explains his position:

“Why do I insist on the scandalous word “savage”? This is a book about the racialization of ideas. For centuries, but with particular intensity in the later nineteenth century, scholars in the so-called Western tradition have taken it for granted that some concepts are not just culturally but racially superior to others. Do not pretend, then, that the philosophy of language is not a racial project. Prejudice is at work not only in the application but in the production of categories of thought. “When we do philosophy,” says Wittgenstein, “we are like savages [die Wilde], primitive people.”Philosophers are comparable to “savages,” in his view, because they pay too much attention to what words mean and think too little about how they are used. Tylor affirms the opposite. Savage philosophers, by his account, are too preoccupied with how words are used and pay too little attention to what they mean. It does not matter who is right. The point is that a difference between races has been projected onto an enduring scholarly debate about the relation
between signs and things.” (6)

Romantic tropes of the primitive have deeply informed the development of contemporary neo-Paganisms, and magical and witchcraft traditions. The histories of colonialism and scientific revolution in which we find ourselves enmeshed mean that ideas like paganism and magic by their very natures call to mind what has gone before, what has been eradicated, reformed or hidden to ensure progress. In his classic ethnography ‘Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wildman: A Study in Terror and Healing’ anthropologist Mick Taussig shows how colonial histories of terror, violence and de-humanization in Colombia have shaped the healing practices of yagé drinking shamans. In the convoluted political and spiritual cosmologies Taussig unravels, the indigenous savage is for Colombian colonists and their descendants both a figure to be feared and eradicated, and a major source of ritual power and healing.

I wonder, can we today ever talk about – and perhaps more pertinently, PRACTICE magic – without the savage? Is this a tautologous question? If we’re discussing or doing something called ‘magic’ are we already a priori in the thick of a racialization of ideas?

It is quite easy to talk critically about the pull and politics of primitivism in contemporary neo-pagans’ invocations of ancient and ‘wild’ witchcraft. In the 1970s, the publishers of the translation of Italian anthropologist Ernest de Martini’s book on magic and European ‘folk culture’ which you can see in my collage saw fit to decorate the book’s cover with a picture of a Tibetan style ‘tantric’ skull. Given the time-frame and the stubborn legacy of Orientalist representations associated with Tibet, I’m guessing the image was intended to reference the ‘primitive’ side of the book title’s magical equation.

This makes me wonder conversely about internal Tibetan conversations across time about ritual power and magical abilities, and how these might, in contrast with ostensibly ‘Western’ histories of magic, fit with Bracken’s racialization of ideas thesis. Mongol rulers famously and repeatedly employed the ritual services of Tibetan lamas as part of their imperial projects, and today with ‘internal Orientalism’ alive and well in Chinese colonized Tibet, Han Chinese can be just as disposed to painting indigenous Tibetan minorities as noble and magical ‘savages’ as non-native New Agey types often are with Native Americans in settler colonial USA. Prevailing CCP policies about (not so good, according to the state) ‘superstition’ and ‘dangerous cults’ and (not so bad) ‘minority ethnicity folk culture’ also shape the politics of ritual performance and the framing of religio-magical knowledge and power in Tibet currently.

Tibetan Buddhist authorities have historically also contributed in various ways to the ‘Buddhicization’ of non-Buddhist ‘savages’ or ‘barbarians’ inhabiting the peripheries of Tibet’s cultural empire (ཀླ་ཀློ/མཐའ་ཁོབ་ཀྱི་མི). This process has often mirrored Tibet’s own earlier Buddhicization by Indian tantric Buddhist masters, predicated as it was on the ritual taming, subduing, disciplining, conquering, converting or ‘civilizing’ (all meanings contained in the Tibetan word འདུལ་བ dul wa) of not only outlander hearts-and-minds but also of local land-spirits (and by extension local spirit ritual-specialists) who are both understood in somewhat different ways to ‘own’ the regions under dispute. Tibetan and Himalayan histories are also full of tales of Buddhist and non-Buddhist ritual specialists competing in displays of magical prowess (རྫུ་འཕྲུལ་གྱི་འགྲན་སྡུར), a process which continues to a certain extent even today. Tibetan tantric ritual specialists often recognize that their ritual expertise (especially when used for ‘worldly’ aims) overlaps with that other non-Buddhist specialists both in form and function, but they point to an altruistic Bodhisattva motivation/bodhicitta as the things that distinguishes them from these other, pagan practitioners.

Thus, Tibetan Buddhist sorcerers’ activities, even when they are thoroughly this-worldly focused, are framed as being ultimately future/enlightenment orientated. At the same time, the centrality of a philosophy of non-dualism and the doctrines of emptiness and dependent origination to tantric Buddhism means that Tibetan specialists also often stress the ultimate inseparability of inner and outer, subtle and gross, and relative and ultimate levels of being and action. Here the issue hinges less on the fact that other, ‘primitive’ people practice magic and we don’t at all, and more on the fact that our magic is informed by superior moral and epistemological-ontological understandings.

It would seem like virtually every society on earth practices or has practiced something like magic. And if one thing has defined the history of magical traditions it’s sharing – the sharing (or borrowing, selling, stealing, bastardizing, rediscovering and re-applying) of techniques, materials, procedures, vocabularies, cosmologies – of technologies and stories, across geographical, temporal and ethno-cultural boundaries. Scholars of possession and shamanism have examined how the knowledge and power of ritual specialists has developed both within and against histories of colonialism, slavery, and racism. Ritual specialists’ magico-religious expertise can open up new spaces for history and memory, and can provide rich resources for imagining, protesting and dealing with realities of dislocation, disaster and diaspora. The often hybrid and very queer spirit cosmologies of different magical and religious systems, those sprawling and messy ‘folk’ pantheons with their vast and bristling kinship charts of non-human actors sometime seem like they reify categories of the savage and ethnic/cultural exotified other. (Sometimes it can seem like everyone’s always someone else’s Magic Negro and that the most Powerful Magic lurks Forever Faraway at the Periphery, is Always Over And Out There). And yet such sprawling syncretic systems also often seem to provide opportunities to push against neat and essentializing categories of persons and forms of being.

Magical sharing and ‘transactions’ can look like rank and violent appropriation one moment and tender collaboration and mutual respectful engagement the next.

So, my fellow anthropologists, magicians, witches: What do you think? Is Bracken’s racialization of ideas inevitable when it comes to something like magic? When is it and when isn’t it? Can there be magic sans the savage? And if ‘savagery’, wildness and otherness are so often pivotal to magic and magical power, then to what extent can we engage with these ideas without re-affirming horrible and harmful racialized ideas and legacies?

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3 thoughts on “Magic Without Savages and the Racialization of Ideas

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

  2. Pingback: A Feast of Nectar: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Advice for the Rebgong Tantric Community | A Perfumed Skull

  3. Pingback: To See is to Call: Tantric Visualization, Summoning Spirits and the Mind as Petting Zoo | A Perfumed Skull

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