Thursday, March 8, 2012

An Historical Moment at Which Magic Defines Us

Dr. Amy Wygant suggests that the nature of magic "is to be powerful precisely because it eludes and exceeds definition." So much for dictionaries of magic words (blush), but Wygant makes an informed point. She explains: "In our own time, it seems that an all-pervasive and undefined recourse to the notion of magic has invaded mass-market media. Without needing to bother with definitions, indeed while itself becoming a definition of the most unlikely objects and activities, 'magic' has become a central paradigm in our speaking, writing, and thinking, our representations of ourselves and our souls, our ways of acquiring knowledge, the process of creation, and our connection to the universe. Magic has become a hermeneutic tool and provides, in all of its powerful, hieratic indefinability a general model of interpretation." Wygant offers examples from a random Sunday newspaper: mentions of a "magical" tourist destination, "magical" lighting for interior decorators, an author whose life is as "magical" as her children's bestsellers, a multi-millionaire musician who has lost his "magic touch," chefs who "prestidigitate" in the kitchen, and so on. Wygant suggests that one might claim that "Ours is a magical age," since "The cosmos, it seems, has been generally enchanted. Far from allowing us to define magic, however, this general enchantment seems to have produces an historical moment at which magic defines us" (Medea, Magic, and Modernity in France, 2007, p. 27).

Wygant allows that we may very well ask why magic seems to be everywhere, when the eminent historian of magic J. G. Frazer declared that the Age of Science (preceded by the Age of Religion) had wiped out the Age of Magic. Rather than define "magic," Wygant suggests focusing on the "everywhere" that magic seems to inhabit. "This 'everywhere' is the Greek cosmos, which inhabits a semantic field that includes 'glamour,' 'charisma,' and 'makeup,' as well as cosmetics, and whose members always seek to name a paradoxical situation. That is, cosmos is world, but this cosmos is nothing but ornament, cosmetics, the variable arranging of our bodies as a function of changing fashion in order that they might embellish, decorate, and inspire desire. Our makeup is our character, our constitution, the set of qualities that composes us, and yet it is at the same time the paint that conceals rather than elucidates truth. Charisma is not essentially a political quality, yet no politician can be elected without it, nor may any teacher, the magus, actually teach. In a line that runs from cosmos to cosmetics, then, there is in the first place this magic as a general poetics of appearance that we have just been looking into, 'glamour.' But when this logic of cosmetics is pushed to the socio-political, there is, secondly, a magic of culture that seeks to ensure that our 'everywhere' will be broadcast to everywhere else" (pp. 27-28).

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