The Imperial Mission of a Magician

MIT’s scholarly book illuminates how magic became a tool for Western “reason” – and helped shape the field of anthropology.

Peter Dizikes

In 1856, the famous French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin set out on an unlikely government mission: a trip to Algeria, which France was colonizing. Among other things, Robert-Houdin studied rituals in which the Morabios, local religious figures, performed conjuring tricks and dazzled the public by displaying seemingly supernatural powers.

Robert-Houdin then wrote dismissive of these performances to the French public, calling the Morabites “false prophets” who were “igniting the fanaticism of their coreligious with the aid of conjuring tricks as primitive as the public for which they are performed. Robert-Houdin was unable to understand the religious significance of these rituals, but his writing helped instill in public life an image of Algerians as irrational people, fit for subjugation.

Why was Robert-Houdin filling the unusual role of cultural interpreter? For one thing, he was a celebrity who helped turn magical performances into mass entertainment. (“Harry Houdini,” the stage name of the American magician Erich Weiss, was a reference to Robert-Houdin.)

But more specifically, Robert-Houdin achieved his fame by defending himself as a skeptical rationalist, someone whose craftsmanship was based on logic and skill, and who could expose the tricks of mediums, shamans, seers, and others.

“Robert-Houdin built his reputation as the founding father of modern magic precisely by distancing himself from the ruse he made of the explicit reference to the occult or supernatural,” says MIT anthropologist Graham Jones. “For him, magic was entertainment fully aligned with a scientific and mechanical vision of the world, and hostile to the kinds of supernatural meanings he saw in Algerian rituals.”

Prominent magicians since then have often been cast as defenders of rationalism as well. But as Jones shows in his new book, “The Reason for Magic,” published by the University of Chicago Press, Robert-Houdin did more than just influence his profession or serve the French Empire: his ideas bled into the discipline embryonic anthropology too.

Early anthropologists, as Jones makes clear, often focused on religious figures, whose ceremonies resembled the deceptive tricks of acts of magic. In fact, both Robert-Houdin and founding British anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor even wrote about some of the same artists. And Tylor, who called the belief in magic “one of the most pernicious delusions that has ever bothered humanity”, was also an ardent champion of what he saw as the superiority of European rationalism.

“Robert-Houdin and Tylor actively contributed to the ideological apparatus of Western imperialism, helping to articulate a foundation for colonialism in terms of the cognitive supremacy of rational and modern Euro-Americans whom they compared to the irrational, other non-modern, “Jones writes in” the reason for the magic. ”

As such, Jones’s book is many things at once: a new look at the golden age of magical entertainment, an intellectual history of European thought at a pinnacle of Empire building, and a challenge to anthropologists, asking Today’s scholars to think critically about the origins of their discipline.

These interconnected elements join the central point that magic is one of the most important concepts in anthropology. It is not as prominent as the encompassing notion of “culture,” but time and time again, anthropologists have used the puzzle of why people believe in shamans, fortune tellers, priestly figures, and others who claim to offer magical abilities such as magic. key to understanding culture. In doing so, scholars assert a special ability to decipher the beliefs of others.

“Magic as a worldview has been a major concern for anthropologists,” says Jones. “Magic as a way of thinking, and here we are talking about a specific type of magic: hidden magic, instrumental magic, magic as a supernatural form.”

And Tylor, author of the influential 1871 book “Primitive Culture,” was not only making cross-cultural comparisons when he examined magic, but continually asserting that European culture had advanced further than the backward, magic-infused societies on other continents. The belief in magic, Tylor wrote, belonged to “the lowest known stages of civilization, and the lowest races.”

Both Robert-Houdin and Tylor wrote about a duo of American magicians, the Davenport brothers, who toured Europe in the 1860s giving quasispiritual performances that were a hybrid of magical acts and Spiritism sessions. Robert-Houdin wrote an article from 1865 discrediting his act; Tylor, in “primitive culture,” compared the brothers to the shamans, and wrote that their act was like a “trick performed among savages” in distant lands.

This overlap was not just a coincidence, says Jones; it was crucial to the formation of anthropological thought.

“The ways of discrediting supernatural beliefs that stage magicians pioneered and enacted were not only complementary to the disdainful attitudes anthropology exhibited toward the supernatural, but I believe they provided a basis for the ways in which anthropologists reasoned about the magic and, by extension, of culture, ”says Jones.

That connection remained intact for subsequent generations of magicians and anthropologists, Jones suggests, making it even more important to understand the roots of the intellectual relationship. Magicians and anthropologists, Jones adds, were lengthy “embedded in this broader cultural environment,” in which they were “asserting authority in the context of colonial projects by claiming mastery of the magic of colonized peoples.”

Jones’s book is his second. The first, “the job of the tricks”, from 2011, explored the current world of Parisian magicians from an anthropological point of view. For that book, Jones developed his own act, immersed himself in the magical scene of Paris, and the friendly magicians, for whom the likes of Robert-Houdin still loom large.

In fact, as Jones saw first-hand, contemporary artists are still often seen as bearers of rational thought and unbunkers of the irrational. That posture empowers magicians to fight charlatans and other evil deceivers. However, he adds, it is important to think about the many ways that self-proclaimed “rational” thinkers are going to apply the label of “irrational”, particularly to other cultures.

And if readers learn some of the history about the many links between magic, anthropology, and the claims of cultural superiority, Jones says, his book will have been successful.

“By looking at the history of the concept of magic, we can see how cultural assumptions have complex and potentially insidious ways of engaging in scientific ideas that anthropologists, and others, use,” says Jones.

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