- Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic
The first sentence of Simon During's Modern Enchantments announces: "This book is devoted to the deceptively simple proposition that magic has helped shape modern culture" (1). This sentence points toward both the outstanding achievements and the sometimes tantalizing argument of During's undertaking. Modern Enchantments is indeed a remarkable study of magic since the 18th century in England and France, and to a lesser degree other parts of the world. During's book contains fascinating discussions of intellectual history, of early cinema, and of a range of literary figures from Poe to Raymond Roussel. Foremost, however, Modern Enchantments is an important addition to the history of popular entertainment and mass culture. Its focus falls on a central feature of urban—especially London's—entertainment culture from the 18th century to the advent of film: the magic show. [End Page 192]
Modern Enchantments makes large claims for this largely neglected collection of performance practices that During dubs the "magic assemblage." A simple question arises from During's opening sentence and its claim that magic has helped shape modern culture: How? To answer this question, During must distinguish between his "secular magic" and that other magic that preceded it. Modern Enchantments begins, then, with a compact history of occidental magic. The erudition of this discussion is especially compelling because these earlier millennia of magical practices form only a background to what most interests During: the development, which he dates to about 1700, of magic performances divested of claims to supernatural efficacy. This divorce of entertainment magic from the supernatural is the real subject of Modern Enchantments. The book's animating claim is that the public demonstration of this separation of magic from the supernatural in a set of shows, performances, and works of literature anticipates and helps to shape modern culture's conception of itself as secular.
In what is at first a rather tentative form, During makes something like the following argument for secular magic: starting in about 1700, the apparently trivial art of entertainment magic produced the first truly secular cultural form in the West. Magic seems trivial and empty because we still look for seriousness and fullness through lenses that spot such things only where there is some glimmer of the transcendental or spiritual. Secular magic "helped shape" modern culture, then, by being the popular, show business avantgarde of secularization itself. If film, to which During assigns a massive secularizing power, is the apotheosis of the magic assemblage, literature, aside from exceptional figures such as Roussel, is something like its doppelganger, the old magic's residual emissary to the modern world. During argues that popular performance, in its most important form in the two centuries before the advent of film, the "magic assemblage," is a central agent in the work of secularization.
During's secular magic repeatedly returns as popular culture's antidote to literature's high cultural poison. At times, he provides a rather suspect (suspect because too precisely analogous) prehistory to the simplifying arguments of the present where mass culture happily undoes the ponderous malevolence of high culture's literary hegemony. So, for instance, he briskly criticizes Adorno:
Modernist art is not essentially an "outrage" to society in being an "afterimage" of old magics. Instead, it is a sanctified mode of cultural production, which calls upon a more restricted if also more specialized and "profound" range of receptive competencies than those stimulated by show-business wonders, illusions, and magic—which it sometimes appropriates, and sometimes contests.(66)
I am not sure what conception of "sanctity" adheres here; I am certain, however, that it will take more than this kind of reversal to prove Adorno wrong. The last chapter, for instance, charts "optical technology's victory over Spinozism" (277). In short, film defeats metaphysics. Film renders Spinozism, During's name for the folding of the supernatural back into nature, "increasingly futile" (262). In doing this, film carries on the secularizing work of the magic assemblage. It...