In Religion and Magic in Western Culture, Daniel Dubuisson explores the relation between religion and magic as a crucial component of the genealogy of the Western notion of “religion.” As he states, “magic should be one of the most passionate problems occupying those today who are called…‘historians of religion’” (1). Dubuisson’s work here is driven by two theses: (1) that the pervasively negative Western conception of magic has been deeply shaped by central strands of Christian theology; and (2) that the church used this conception of magic, together with its hostile depictions of paganisms, heresies, atheism, and traditions such as Judaism, as the ideological foundation on which to develop its notion of proper religious piety. The first chapter begins with an exploration of Marcel Mauss’s 1902–1903 A General Theory of Magic (written in collaboration with Henri Hubert). Dubuisson asserts that “no other text imbued with such general and universal theoretical ambition has been published on this theme since then” (with the possible exception, he notes, of Ernesto de Martino’s 1948 The World of Magic) (7). Despite the paradoxes and ambiguities within Mauss’s text, it comes close to “understanding what magic is, effectively” (165). Dubuisson focuses particularly on Mauss’s configuration of the reifying opposition between magic and religion, and then he turns to consider the long Christian theological traditions (found particularly in early modern demonology) that shaped this opposition. As Dubuisson states, “for sociologists, as for theologians, magic and religion are universal institutions that oppose each other everywhere” (19), demonstrating the degree to which the modern social sciences are “subservient in many ways to the broad orientations dictated by Christian culture and anthropology” (22). This leads Dubuisson to what he identifies as his “original proposition,” that the “disfigured and caricatured” Western conception of magic is “a creation of the Christian religion” (29). As he asserts, “the idea of religion was constructed in part by setting itself in opposition to its most maleficent creature-creation. The purified notion of religion was doubtless partially erected upon the negative and demonic image of magic that religion itself built” (30–31). In a pointed turn of phrase, he calls the dynamic shaping of this construction “the religious ideology of religion” (180). “Colonialism, science, a good conscience, theology and rhetoric” have all adopted comparable versions of the fundamental opposition of religion and magic derived from Christian polemics, each using the binary for distinct social objectives (32). The second chapter builds on this theme of the “double mirror construction” (54) of the relation between religion and magic to explore the forms of social power and domination at work in the development and deployment of the Western notion of religion. The modern notion of religion could emerge, Dubuisson argues, only from the “intransigent monotheism” (91) of a Christianity reified in opposition to its magical and demonic foils: “our completely Western idea of religion...is a creation nourished by Christianity” (69). Within the West, the vast cultural apparatus and social dominance of Christianity have pervasively informed notions of the self and the social order. When the Christian notion of religion is deployed in non-Western societies, its purported universality serves as a tool of Western hegemony and ethnocentrism. Dubuisson devotes useful attention to the various ways the application of Western analytical categories disfigure non-Western cultures: “taken out of the Christian, and particularly the Catholic world, the category ‘religion’ shows itself...to be of very little use” (91), serving only to produce a “superficial unification or homogenization” of wildly heterogeneous phenomena (100). Dubuisson argues that most historians of religions have ignored the power dynamics that shaped the Western notion of religion, and he proceeds to trace the converging interests that allowed the modern social sciences, the scholarly study of religion as an academic discipline, colonialism, missionizing, and a general ideology of Western superiority all to partake in a discourse of religion that offered “a way to think, in a unique framework that is homogeneous and uniform, about the diversity of human cultures” (124). The final chapter proposes a new scholarly study of what Dubuisson calls “magisms,” a pluralization he hopes might escape the limitations and stigma that have attached to the word magic. Here he seeks to imagine “magic without religion” (136), the possibility of speaking differently about magic beyond its pervasive negative contrast with religion: “it is by enlarging this distance that magisms will recover their own identity” (138). As he asserts, in moving beyond the biases of Christian Europe, we might see “a universality of magic, or more exactly, of magic processes. To replace the singular, ‘Magic,’ by a plural would often be desired, for this simple act would allow us to avoid all hypostasis of ‘Magic.’...Its truth is found elsewhere and in other forms” (139). So on the one hand, Dubuisson seeks to pluralize our notion of magical processes (to recognize “what most especially characterizes magic—that is, its plasticity, its capacity to adapt to circumstances, and the surprising ambivalence of the entities whose existence it recognizes” (177)). But on the other hand, he also wants to find universality or commonality among magisms, since, he asserts, they appear to be “the fundamental characteristic of a great number of cultures spread out over all continents, indeed of all cultures” (140). Magical processes, in Dubuisson’s formulation, involve rudimentary symbolic action combining words, gestures, and objects in an effort to direct various forms of force (much like Mauss’s conception of mana). Magical cultures, he says, partake of a “living universe” that disregards the binaries and hierarchies shaping the modern West (158). In this light, Dubuisson turns to consider “what problems—not rational but existential—the magisms were responding to...what specific functions they fulfilled” (166). In his view, magisms share a focus on immediate human concerns (misfortune, suffering, death); these fundamental conditions form “the common base...upon which innumerable magic systems were developed” (170). Thus, he asserts, “this common basis offers the possibility of transcultural comparisons because it brings together...what is definitely the most constant and the most profound of human characteristics” (168). Magisms represent for Dubuisson an attempt to respond to the limits of human capacity, a mechanism for protection and defense, and thus he seeks to offer not just “a defense of magisms,” but also their “rehumanization” and “a rehabilitation of their study” (181). There is much that is salutary in this book. The Western construction of religion has depended in significant part on the invocation of magic as a foil through which religion could be given clearer definition. Indeed, over recent decades, a significant community of scholars has recognized how central the study of magic is in the effort to excavate the Western construction of religion and the social effects produced in its deployment. A number of historians, ethnographers, and cultural theorists in Europe and America have considered the complex social effects produced through the triangulation of religion, magic, and science; the concrete dynamics through which magic has been stigmatized and marginalized; the psychological and political potency many practitioners and communities have found in embracing the label of magic for their practices; the complex avenues through which the categories of religion and magic have been deployed and repurposed in various non-Western cultural contexts; and the fundamental—constitutive—role that notions of magic and traditions of esotericism have played in the production of Western modernity itself. Many of these scholarly efforts serve to bolster Dubuisson’s claims here, and his work would have benefitted greatly from engaging with more elements of this literature. Dubuisson asserts that the scholarly study of religion in the first half of the twentieth century was so shaped by the negative formulation of magic that the study of magic “passed to a secondary and even tertiary level, bringing forth no more original works or theories” (34). The complex and multivalent contributions of scholars such as Marcel Mauss are indisputable, but the scholarly exploration of magic has indeed continued to move forward in a number of important directions. For example, Dubuisson’s own effort to rehumanize magisms by focusing on their psychologically and socially adaptive role as a response to human uncertainty and limitation echoes Bronislaw Malinowski’s formulation in his posthumous essay “Magic, Science, and Religion” (1948), and a number of recent historians and ethnographers have explored various ways in which practitioners of magic challenge the binaries, hierarchies, and cultural logics shaping dominant Western culture. Some recent scholars would affirm Dubuisson’s effort to find a non- stigmatizing and non-ethnocentric mode of redefining and redeploying the notion of magic as a productive tool for cross-cultural analysis. Others would question the viability of this strategy, seeing this concept and its cognates as culturally bounded in ways that mirror the Western notion of religion. Instead of seeking a better definition of magic or some type of existential commonality linking culturally disparate practices, these scholars focus their critical attention on the cultural work produced by the rhetoric of magic. Both camps, however, would share Dubuisson’s conviction that the study of magic must be a central component of the scholarly analysis of the genealogy of religion and of the constitution of Western modernity more broadly. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 24, 2018
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