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  • Mana and Mystification:Magic and Religion at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
  • Randall Styers (bio)

The modern study of comparative religion emerged as a field of academic inquiry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as European intellectuals began to analyze the mass of new data about ritual and belief from around the globe arriving in the metropole through circuits of trade, conquest, and empire. The founding figures of this new scholarly enterprise listed among their ranks a number of strong, vivid personalities—even some armchair anthropologists constituted minor forces of nature. One of the more overlooked figures in this era, but one who proved quite formidable to her peers, was Lady Frazer, the wife of Sir James George. Sir James was prominent in British intellectual life through the early decades of the twentieth century as one of the important systematizers and popularizers of the new world of human religious diversity. While the specifics of Frazer's theories were challenged even early in his career, up to his death he was lauded by his peers for an encyclopedic knowledge of ethnographic data and affable good cheer.

Lady Frazer was another matter. Like many unsung late-Victorian women, she played a major role in her husband's career, managing important aspects of his speaking schedule, regulating much of his contact with other scholars, even playing an assertive role in supervising the planning and outfitting of various expeditions to collect new ethnographic data (see Fraser 1990; Talbot 1915). Lady Frazer was preoccupied with ensuring that the young ethnographers she and her husband supported took with them the precise sorts of recording equipment that she favored, and she pressed budding anthropologists to make the pilgrimage to Cambridge so that she could personally train them to use the equipment exactly as [End Page 226] she preferred.1 This was no idle preoccupation—control of the equipment meant control over the evidentiary record produced by the equipment, and control of that evidentiary record was essential, in turn, for confirming what Lady Frazer considered to be a proper understanding of primitive culture.

Given her strong personality and the trepidation with which she was commonly greeted, it is little wonder that Lady Frazer and others like her during these decades were greeted with regular comments concerning their personal mana. The notion of mana came into circulation among European intellectuals from ethnographic reports concerning beliefs in impersonal supernatural power among the Melanesians, but the concept quickly made its way into correspondence, toasts, even obituaries, as a jocular commentary on the power of personality.2 This essay explores a basic question: What exactly might we learn about Lady Frazer and her peers—about the scope of their personal power and how this sense of potency was conceived—when we hear of their mana? In answer, I hope to show that while the term serves to mystify many crucial aspects of the operations of social power, this fascination with mana ultimately reveals important fundamental tendencies among early twentieth century scholars of comparative religion, and many of those tendencies continue to shape contemporary understandings of enchantment. Like many of their peers, these early scholars were fascinated—and perturbed—by the workings of power, particularly when that power appeared to exceed the orderly bounds of the natural. The cultural logic of modernity seemed to require that the potency of religion be channeled into very narrow straits, but religion—in both its licit and illicit forms—rarely complied. Scholars searched for a vocabulary to help them recognize this excessive and pervasive potency, and mana materialized as an idiom for comprehending mysterious supernatural powers. Yet the early discussions of mana are marked by an ambiguous reluctance to confront power directly, and that same ambiguity is reflected in our current difficulties in accessing the potency and valence of contemporary enchantment. Mana thus offered an occasion to acknowledge the confluence of agency, power, and enchantment, but it also served as a vehicle for further mystification.

Since the Enlightenment, one of the principal preoccupations of Western political and social theory has been the production of a distinctive type of individual subjectivity—a moral, political, and economic agent conforming to the needs of the liberal social...


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