In place of fairies

Simon Schaffer

  • Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic by Daniel O’Keefe
    Martin Robertson, 581 pp, £17.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 85520 486 9
  • Scienze, Credenze Occulti, Livelli di Cultura edited by Paola Zambelli
    Leo Olschki, 562 pp, April 1982, ISBN 88 222 3069 8

Daniel O’Keefe’s massive survey of magic not only tells us ‘how to do it’ but gives us some policy recommendations too. His book reads like the transcript of a Royal Commission report on the occult. It is not easy reading, but the effort is worthwhile. His advice extends to such fields as politics, economics and war: this scope gives some clue both to the structure and to the theme of Stolen Lightning. This is not a book that describes magic – Paul Daniels and his friends in the Magic Circle can rest easy. Instead, it is a book that celebrates a kind of magic, the magical arcana of high social science. As the author frequently points out, modern sociology and anthropology have been dominated by the detailed study of primitive ritual, and specifically of magic and its relation with religion. Indeed, these social sciences may be said to have emerged from that study. The classics of modern social science, whether Durkheim, Mauss, Evans-Pritchard or Weber, have all been obsessed by these issues, which they connect more or less closely with the very origins of our own society. Here the origins of social science and the origins of modern society are traced to the same source. Stolen Lightning is much more an examination of these great traditions than of magic itself.

In this respect, as in many others, O’Keefe resembles very closely those great scholars of the Renaissance whose encyclopedic surveys of the Classics were such an important part of the Renaissance ‘occult revival’. In works with titles such as The Occult Philosophy, wise men and magi like Cornelius Agrippa and John Dee outlined in general and axiomatic form the elements of a high and secret knowledge which they claimed to have inherited from the past. This is exactly what O’Keefe has accomplished for his own misty past, instead of Orpheus, Hermes and Simon Magus, we are told of Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew, who, according to Evans-Pritchard, worked expertly on the anthropology of magic ‘without leaving his flat in Paris’ and who rallied the disciples of his sect around expensive dinners in excellent restaurants. ‘Maybe,’ O’Keefe suggests, ‘the classics of sociological theory are sociology’s own theology.’ Instead of the great division into natural, celestial and ceremonial magic which the Renaissance masters outlined, we are presented here with a sociological algebra in three great ‘books’ and one lengthy postscript. This algebra tortuously expresses the great debate of social theory about the relative priority of religion (R), magic (M) and science (S). The algebra is used to express these problems rather than to resolve them. In the early stages of the sociological faith, the dominant theory was that religion grew from magic, and science from religion. Thus the classical formula was M...R...S. O’Keefe’s ‘preliminary descriptive general theory’ claims that the story is to be symbolised by the formula R... M. At points this algebra gets more arcane than the subject which it treats, at times the emergence of magic from religion is substantially modified, and, even more frequently, the arrogance and ambition of this book outclasses even that of Doctor Faustus. Yet it is very fruitful to treat social theory as arcane knowledge of the arcane. The rewards are immense.

One immediate benefit is to see both magic and sociology as simultaneously subversive and intellectually highbrow. The proceedings of the 1981 conference on Renaissance magic, Scienze, Credenze Occulte, Livelli di Cultura, show this strange relationship very clearly. The ‘occult revival’ of that period is interpreted by O’Keefe as a ‘publishing phenomenon’, a consequence of the reorientation of the role of the intellectual. ‘Common folk easily confused learning and magic.’ Indeed, O’Keefe argues that current interest in that earlier revival ‘is in turn part of the 20th-century occult upsurge’. Stolen Lightning may be remembered as one of the most distinguished and ambitious products of this upsurge. Colin Wilson and Arthur Koestler should look to their laurels. At the Florence conference contributors showed how the Renaissance revival could be seen as a ‘discovery’ of active popular culture by the ruling class – and also as a manipulation of that culture for direct political ends Witch-crazes and printing, Reformation and civil war, all benefit from this reinterpretation. Charles Webster analyses the work of the occult master Paracelsus, who drew on his own knowledge of the folklore of German miners to picture gnomes and mountain sprites as offering ‘a code of conduct for the preservation of good order in the expanding proto-capitalistic economy’. Gnomes indicated which mines could be profitably worked, but only those entrepreneurs who dealt fairly with them could succeed and prosper. O’Keefe has identified the Warburg Institute in London as one modern source of respect for the occult, and one of its members, D.P. Walker, shows by contrast that Catholic clergy could use spirit apparitions and demonic possession as weapons against Lutherans, atheists, Jews and subversives. Important papers by Paola Zambelli, Elisabeth Labrousse and Paolo Galluzzi indicate the ways in which propaganda was mixed with scholarship in the Renaissance interest in the occult.

One of the outstanding papers at this conference was that of Peter Burke, who may stand here as a representative of a much wider group of historians now increasingly concerned with the recovery of popular culture. That group is disparate, its motives no less so. The concept of sections of society ‘hidden from history’ is a powerful one, deployed by Thompson in his history of the working class, by many feminist historians, by Carlo Ginzburg and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in their best-selling works on popular culture in Italy and France, and with less publicity by hosts of local historians. Current interest in magic, as exemplified by the work of writers like Alan Macfarlane or Keith Thomas, owes more to this attitude than it does to O’Keefe’s conspiracy of Californian hippies, oriental gurus and sinister denizens of the Warburg. In this conference, for example, Burke shows that the élitist (and confused) notion of ‘acculturation’ (drawn from anthropology) cannot adequately deal with the complexity of magic in popular culture.

So whose side is magic on? Radicals, mystics, rationalists and relativists have all made powerful claims to capture this valuable prize. O’Keefe’s theory is an attempt to seize a bit of the space in this war-torn terrain for a peculiar form of social science; the historians at Florence were rather more relaxed. The theory presented in Stolen Lightning is tightly knit and potentially both populist and arcane. At a mundane level, it displays a few infelicities: the absence of an index, which is grievous; the claim that ‘Saint Max’ in Marx’s German Ideology was Feuerbach (in fact, this was a nickname for Max Stirner); the mis-spelling of Blake’s ‘Urizen’ and other terms; the use of incomprehensible phrases such as ‘phlogiston-like circularity’. In the main, however, the grasp of detail is as impressive as the scope of the theory. The theory is laid out in 13 ‘non-deductive’ postulates. ‘Non-deductive’ presumably indicates a relatively weak relation between successive stages of the argument. Religion is axiomatically taken to be a symbolic representation of the social order: magic, it is argued, steals religious symbols and defends the individual against the overwhelming pressure of society. Religion came first, and in establishing itself it generated the need for and the possibility of magic. But the argument does not end there. The institutions which define and defend each individual, such as law, money and property, were all born in a magical context. Magic sorts out members of a society into individuals and then defines what they can do and how they can fight back. Thus magic is always with us, and always growing. This is convincing but relatively traditional. One of the Renaissance theorists of magic gave over one-third of his book to ‘that part of magic which teaches us to seek and know the laws of religion’. O’Keefe has sought and known to good effect.

Stolen Lightning concentrates on communities. When bands became tribes – O’Keefe dates this to the New Stone Age – magic was born. Ever since, individuals, the true heroes and victims of this story, have fought more or less successfully to Understand and model their tribe, which generates religion and laws, and then even more tenaciously to escape those laws and taboos through the use of magic. This dialectical social theory seems to be a product of O’Keefe’s training at the New School for Social Research in New York, while it may not be fanciful to speculate that his encyclopedic grasp of the Classics might be due to his current employment as Senior Acquisitions Editor for Reader’s Digest. Certainly the policy options which O’Keefe recommends seem to owe more to the latter experience. In politics, O’Keefe seems worried by the very success which the magical act has achieved: ‘one wishes that more often the individual or the group could have saved itself’ without recourse to magic; ‘the victories of magic seem in part to be victories against humanity.’ What could be the alternative? Daniel Defoe, writing at the start of our ‘rational’ age, analysed this puzzle more succinctly: ‘in the first ages, the magicians were wiser than the people; in the second age wickeder than the people; and in our age the people are both wiser and wickeder than the magicians.’ This ‘wickedness’ is a problem for O’Keefe. If only modern citizens did not need all their talismans and amulets to escape from and protest against modern institutions. Still, we need not despair. Shining counter-examples remain: ‘Peoples of great courage create their own social orders by constitutions, as did the Americans in 1787.’ We pass over in silence the links between Thomas Jefferson and the Illuminati. Indeed, magic was often seen as a problem of law and social control long before it came to be treated as a special form of psychic experience. The great Jacobean lawyer John Selden advocated the death penalty for anyone who ‘should profess that by turning his hat thrice and crying “Buz” he could take away a man’s life,’ whether this person was actually able to perform the feat or not. The claim was enough. In 1955 the Parliament of Ghana outlawed magic at elections. ‘Whether magic returns to pull down the world it once helped to build depends mainly,’ for O’Keefe, ‘on whether the political process holds.’ He offers both Nazism and the CIA as examples of political structures which have – or had – an ‘elective affinity for magic’ and ‘world-destabilising dirty tricks’.

Particular criticism is reserved for economics. The notion that the genesis of society is to be sought in economic pressures – or indeed in a sexual coup d’etat – is dismissed as insufficiently general. On the contrary, it turns out that such unmagical and unlovely aspects of the world as law and money emerged from magic. Lawyers wear wigs; coins can cure disease when applied to the body. This is not all, however: O’Keefe draws plentifully on the great Victorian social scientist Sir Henry Maine for many of his ideas about the origins of Roman and traditional law and custom. Money, for example, did not acquire first its potency and then its magic. The power of money can be traced back to primitive magic. This poses quite a problem for contemporary economics from Keynes to Friedman. (O’Keefe admires the former for his theoretical rigour.) ‘Economic theory keeps having to revise itself because it keeps bumping into the magical properties of money which it prematurely excludes.’ There are many examples at hand. ‘Neoclassical economists today still write of abstract markets run by a hidden hand, but American firms know better: they give “gifts” to set up trading partners.’ Alongside this exciting picture of Lockheed and Texaco as the shamans of world capitalism, O’Keefe also refers to a study of the origins of Nato which connects the ‘magical gift-giving’ of Marshall Aid with the ‘mystical’ formation of US Atlantic hegemony. Here the touch is less certain: the desperate need to universalise magic as a cultural form makes theory triumph again and again over plausibility.

But it would be both brutal and irrelevant to ask for more sure-fire evidence. O’Keefe’s theory of individuals and their fate is based on a complex notion of the ego, not on the systematic fact-gathering of well-funded sociology. ‘In coinage,’ for example, ‘states enter into a permanent alliance with individuals.’ This is a message directed against O’Keefe’s fellow social scientists, not to the lesser mortals of the world of getting and spending. The real impact of this book is directed against the current state of American social science, and offers those social scientists a rich prize. In exactly the same way, O’Keefe’s counterpart, Paracelsus, was said to have burnt the Classics in a great bonfire at Basel. The pyromania of Stolen Lightning is reserved particularly for excessively quantitative sociology, which is allowing its potential followers to defect to other faiths: ‘If the sociological imagination collapses into the arid empiricism of chi-square, people will seek new social insight in theology, as so many non-theist people do now. But if, on the contrary, social thought and collective action rediscover the miraculous in our symbolic social universe, we will remain self-constituting and engaged.’ The task for sociology is therefore a tough one: America, in a post-Vietnam depression and in a mood of enthusiasm for ‘increasing financial capitalisation of magic’, may well need the alternative succour of ‘miraculous’ social thought provided here.

Why does Stolen Lightning draw this stark contrast between the ‘desperate and self-defeating’ world of magic and the benevolence of sociology and ‘civic capacity’? John Aubrey once wrote that ‘the divine art of printing and gunpowder have frightened away Robin Goodfellow and the Fayries.’ Daniel O’Keefe shows how printing and gunpowder merely took the place of those fairies. In this way he can claim that society needs more than technology if its soul is to be saved. The argument is complex but its purpose is clear. By showing that all of our culture comes from magic, owes its power to magic, and threatens us the way magic does (black magic, we learn, is ‘a social strain gauge’), he also shows that a particular power must reside in those few learned writers who really understand magic. In other words, Stolen Lightning is a re-creation of Plato’s Republic and the Renaissance Utopias ruled by philosopher-kings. In the Renaissance all systems of magic simultaneously offered their model society: in O’Keefe’s model sociologists of magic ought to be the rulers.

He emerges here as the inheritor of a lengthy tradition. In its more ancient manifestations, sages played up the pervasiveness of the magical in order to justify their own intellectual authority over those who were susceptible to this magic. More recently, modern gurus like R.D. Laing explicitly followed the arguments and even the language of the early sages. Renaissance magi wrote of their ability to ‘show the straight road to the eternal kingdom’ and to command ‘the celestial doctor that he may liberate us with ethics and dialectics like a salutary physician’. Peter Sedgwick showed in his Psychopolitics that Laing wrote about ‘orientation’ as ‘the means to know where the orient is’: Laing told us that ‘among physicians and priests there should be some who are guides who can educt the person from this world and induct him to the other.’ Magic in this sense is alive and well, and serves as O’Keefe’s target throughout his book. He shows very thoroughly why such themes persist. However, he also suggests where a new set of moral Guardians might be found: among the really sympathetic social scientists. O’Keefe is not the only social theorist of recent times to claim so much. We are permanently bombarded with anthropological analyses of modern society which are simultaneously prescriptions for a cure: such anthropologists as Mary Douglas, with her ‘Bog Irish’ love of ritual and her simple schemes of anthropological analysis, have offered equally banal and subjective panaceas for social ills. O’Keefe may not be unique: but by pointing out the fascination of magic along with its evils, he goes some way to giving social science a more exciting, if more bizarre, future.