- Magic in the Modern World: Strategies of Repression and Legitimization ed. by Edward Bever and Randall Styers
Edward Bever, Randall Styers, Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm, Magic, Modernity, Modernism, Anthropology, Sociology, Esotericism, Supernaturalism, Rationalism, Selfhood, Repression, Legitimization
Contemporary scholars often have difficulty explaining the presence of magic in the modern world. A number of foundational theorists posited that belief in magic would eventually decline and then vanish. They suggested that modernity was almost definitionally disenchanted. The issue is that those of us who work on magic know differently; countless scholarly studies (reviewed in this journal and elsewhere) have traced influential magical movements and occult revivals across the nineteenth century and down to the present day. Long after magic was supposed to have vanished, by some measures at least, it seems to be flourishing.
The essays collected in this volume attempt to get at this issue of magic in [End Page 299] a disenchanted world in two different ways. The essays in the first part of the volume focus on various historical efforts to suppress magic. Those in the second part ask how magic survived persecution in modernity.
The repression of magic is best highlighted in two chapters that begin and end the first portion of the book—Randall Styers's "Bad Habits, or How Superstition Disappeared in the Modern World" and Adam Jortner's "Witches as Liars: Witchcraft and Civilization in the Early American Republic." Taken together these two chapters provide an account of how European and American notions of "superstition," "magic," and "witchcraft" emerged in a Christian theological context to describe diabolical powers, but eventually came to refer to errors in thinking. In that respect, "superstition" was displaced from theology to psychology. Thus, in an extension of this logic, in nineteenth-century America, belief in witches came to be seen as a dangerous sign of irrationality incompatible with democracy. These two chapters complement each other quite well and, in that respect, do an excellent job of setting up the rest of the volume.
Also in the first half of the volume is an essay by Edward Bever, "Descartes's Dreams, the Neuropsychology of Disbelief, and the Making of the Modern Self," which focuses on a set of Descartes's dreams as a foundational moment in the history of modern thought. It is followed by what is perhaps the single best chapter in the volume, Benedek Láng's "Why Magic Cannot Be Falsified by Experiments." Láng's chapter is an outlier in the first half insofar as it addresses one of the reasons disenchantment failed—namely the problem of falsifiability. It shows how a simplistic notion of "science" as falsifiable and medieval "magic" as irrational falls flat. Skeptical readers often think that magicians either must have been very irrational or must have noticed that their spells did not work. But as Láng notes, interpreting the failure of a spell is not so simple. In that respect he takes the Duhem-Quine thesis to the study of magic, noting that a particular experiment or magical rite never appears in isolation. Thus, it is always possible to adjust a background theory in the face of a seemingly failed trial. This is equally true of science and magic. If a spell to topple a tower or an experiment to test a cannonball's velocity does not produce the result the theory predicts, one can always explain the failure by adjusting auxiliary hypotheses (e.g. the weakness of demons or the strength of air resistance) without considering the grand theory to have been refuted. In this respect, no single scientific experiment or magic spell is ever crucial to proving or disproving a theory.
The second half of the volume builds on Olav Hammer's notion that contemporary esoteric movements deploy three main strategies to assert their [End Page 300] legitimacy—"claiming of tradition, an appropriation of the rhetoric of scientific method and verification, and a reliance on the evidence of experience" (4)—and looks at these kinds of legitimization strategies in four...