In recent years, CSSH has seen a spike in essays that explore the paranormal, extrasensory, and metaphysical. These pieces fall outside the wide range of essays on magic and religion that have filled our pages for decades. They are unlike the ontology essays accumulating everywhere. The authors of this new genre do not look to Amazonia for inspiration, though anthropological ideas are a common thread. Typically, they focus on European and Middle Eastern societies, in modern times, in settings where Abrahamic religions have been dominant historically and Western sciences are now so. In this new approach to occult and magical things, Otherness is not a given, and exoticism is a quality that must be, as it were, conjured up.
To show the creativity of this trend, I have invited four CSSH authors to discuss their work. Alireza Doostdar (58/2: 322-349), who introduced us to seances and spiritualism among elites in Iran, has since produced The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton, 2018), an expansive account that considers spirit possession, jinn beliefs, clairvoyance, and new age ideologies as they are adapted to a predominately Shi‘a society. Graham M. Jones (52/1: 66-99), who related the strange tale of a 19th century French magician sent to Algeria to debunk the miraculous powers of a Sufi brotherhood, expands the argument in Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy (Chicago, 2018), in which he traces the development of ethnography and entertainment magic in alignment with modern notions of science and the rational. Larisa Jasarevic (54/4: 914-941), who analyzed the work of Bosnian curers who diagnose and treat ailments using molten lead, broadens her approach in Health and Wealth on the Bosnian Market: Intimate Debt (Indiana, 2017), which explores indebtedness, well-being, and the local healing traditions that address their mutual effects. Alaina Lemon (51/4: 832-864) showed us how instructors at the Russian Academy for Theatrical Arts teach students to embody the characters they act out, a kind of stage magic that relies on observation-based empathy to create the dramatic equivalents of possession and time travel. Themes of communication, channeling, and psychic influence pervade Technologies for Intuition: Cold War Circles and Telepathic Rays (California, 2018), in which superpower politics and post-Socialist histories are context for Lemon’s deliberations on how humans send and receive messages.
What unifies this array of topics and approaches?
I was happy to discover that my four guests are not quite sure how to answer that question, and they hope this conversation will help them do so!
To get things started, I will map out some of the likeness I see.
First, even though they deal with spiritualism, healing rituals, mind-reading, trance states, and miracles, our authors do not treat their subject matter as an indirect, refracted commentary on something real in the world; nor do they consider it a misdiagnosis of the real. Instead, they portray occult knowledge as a practical way of engaging with the world and revealing how it works, or why it malfunctions. There is, however, a focus on dis/connection in their essays, which makes certainty and authenticity central both to the analysis of metaphysical things and to the making and management of them.
Second, the insights of science and technology studies, actor-network theory, and performance studies loom large in these new approaches. Because the metaphysical is always partly tangible, empiricism and rationality are never far from view. They figure as esteemed values (as the bedrock of craft) and, just as often, they are deployed as weapons against the occult by debunkers and adepts alike.
Third, communication is crucial to the working of the paranormal. Messages are sent and received. One might interact with spirits, with living people who are absent or inaccessible, or with nonhuman powers that operate at a distance. Often, barriers must be passed through to arrive at awareness, knowledge, or health. Secrecy and concealment are as important, it seems, as transparency. Communication with the metaphysical is a gift, or a skill, and often these authors are confronted with claims that it is a fraud.
Finally, these authors link their alternative accounts of connectivity (and causation) to unsettling moods, to heightened affect, to fear and elation. Risk is a common theme, as are sympathy and deception. Even with disenchantment, there is still amazement.
Andrew Shryock: I’d like to start with you, Alireza. Your work is very good at showing the relationship between what Iranians call metafizik, which has a rigor and observational logic all its own, and emotional states, especially those associated with thrilling, wondrous, or terrifying things. That special relationship colors everything you write, and it obviously was a factor in how you interacted with people, and explained yourself, during research. What does this say about the kind of knowledge you are analyzing?
Alireza Doostdar: Thank you, Andrew. The notion of metafizik enfolds several things: a world of entities, forces, and phenomena, a constellation of knowledges and practices by which these are to be approached, and, somewhat less obviously, the effects (emotional and otherwise) that they produce in the humans who encounter them.
Iranians usually understand metafizik in relation to fizik (physics), which is to say, in relation to the material world and the sciences by which this world is known to us. Metafizik lies outside the physical in two senses: the entities and forces in question may be understood to be immaterial, spiritual, psychic, and so on. Or metaphysical phenomena may be understood to elude the grasp of the physical (or natural) sciences at the present moment but might yet enter their ambit sometime in the future, at which point the nature of physics as a science will also have to change. This sense of metafizik as adjacent to but in tension with natural science is very new, probably no older than the twentieth century. Among other things, it is connected to the emergence of modern European esoteric traditions and what Catherine Albanese has called American metaphysical religion.
While metafizik is new in these ways, it is also haunted by historical connections to the occult, a concept that similarly pertains both to a set of forces and entities, and to a centuries-old constellation of sciences through which they are known and manipulated. The English “occult” captures the hidden and esoteric dimension of these sciences, but the term most often used by Iranians—‘olum-e gharibeh—additionally gestures to their quality as unfamiliar, strange, and uncanny.
It’s important to attend to the strange and uncanny qualities of the metaphysical because they reveal something about the ways in which humans are affected when they encounter such phenomena. At its most basic, strangeness is associated with wonder and astonishment: ‘ajab and ta‘ajjob. In the premodern Islamic tradition, wonder was understood as the emotional state that surfaced when one could not understand the cause of something or recognized it to be extraordinary in some way. This inexplicability and extraordinariness could take on myriad forms, from the mysterious complexity of a process to the awesome intricacy of a structure. It could pertain to natural, human-made, as well as occult phenomena: the anatomy of a bee, a talismanic design, an automaton, magnetic forces, astral influences, the workings of jinn, architectural marvels, freaks of nature, and so on. The metaphysical still retains this sense of the wondrous to the extent that it eludes immediate explanation and seems to open on to an extraordinary world.
When I say that metafizik inspires wonder, I do not mean that Iranians necessarily imagine metaphysical phenomena to be radically unknowable. In fact, in the premodern world (and this goes back at least to the ancient Greeks), wonder was understood to be a starting point for knowledge, and therefore an incitement to inquiry and a prod to figuring things out. Astonishment was (and remains) curiosity’s sibling. It was an emotion to be cultivated in order to encourage inquiry into God’s creation, not just for its own sake, but in order ultimately to recognize and marvel at divine majesty. Wonder offered more earthly bounties as well when it occasioned literary delight (as when listening to the fantastic tales of the One Thousand and One Nights) or excitement at the outrageous feats of sorcerers and street performers.
Andrew Shryock: I think this is an important point to stress, that engagement with the metaphysical is not inherently anti-intellectual, and that intellectual engagement, even when it produces what appear to be extremely rational results, is never far from this sense of amazement. A good logical proof can produce it in some of us. The amazement we sometimes feel in the presence of rational(ized) things is, I think, a constant link to the metaphysical.
Alireza Doostdar: Yes. All of this means that the strangeness of metaphysical phenomena is not solely about an effect that overwhelms a passive and helpless observer. People actively seek out and cultivate wonder, both because this can be thrilling and delightful, and perhaps because it also opens up a path to knowledge and a deeper appreciation of larger truths, as for example the grandeur of God. Knowledge and wonder are not opposed here, but intimately bound up with one another.
There is still more to the strangeness of metafizik, however. Sometimes, the metaphysical threatens to completely shatter the boundary between subject and object, the knower and what she seeks to know, the experimenter and the phenomena he encounters. This can be terrifying. At its extreme limit, a metaphysical encounter can unravel the subject and end in madness, bodily violation, or even physical destruction. It is well-known that one of the meanings for junun, the Arabic term for madness (which has traveled to multiple other languages, including Persian), is “jinn-possessed.” The menace of jinn is a hazard with which every occult experimentalist needs to reckon. But metaphysical dangers go still further. Sorcery can backfire in myriad ways, bringing misfortune, disease, and death. Astral projection can expose one’s energetic bodies to harm. Mesmeric and telepathic exertion can deplete one’s powers. Even the marvelous gifts that God grants his elect saintly “friends” may disturb and terrify them, because they reveal truths that may be too much to handle (as, for example, the hideous animal forms of human sinners).
Metaphysical terror, then, can overwhelm, incapacitate, and destroy. But for my interlocutors, these dangers were not so much a deterrent to experimentation as a warning to proceed with caution. This was something I became aware of at the very outset of my research: I realized that I could not engage in my anthropological inquiry into the metaphysical without exercising prudence and care, because without such care, I would expose myself to all kinds of risks – from disrepute and suspicions of sorcery to paranoia and madness. These were cautions that my interlocutors also took, although in different ways, to differing degrees, and with varying results. Some of them abandoned most forms of caution and brought a range of harms upon themselves, but also thereby acquired powers unavailable to the squeamish. Others engaged in various forms of distancing (intellectual, emotional, and others), even as they participated in seances, exorcisms, and other encounters. For these latter experimenters, the space of hesitation between disavowal and full-on participation could itself occasion excitement and wonder precisely as long as it was unresolved.
Andrew Shryock: That notion of “squeamishness” is fascinating. It seems to be an essential, sometimes silent partner in all attempts to deal with the metaphysical, especially when it verges on the occult. It’s obviously a sensibility that varies, across time and space, and those variations are very often picked up on and used to make moral judgments about good and bad magic, smart and crazy metaphysics.
Alireza Doostdar: This reminds me of a fascinating tension that Graham explores in his new book, between appreciation for skillful artifice among the ideal audiences of modern stage magic, and the gullibility that illusionists (and some anthropologists too) attributed to non-western (“primitive”) participants in occult magic. You show that this distinction maps onto a judgment of intellectual ability between the supposed primitive and civilized, but it’s also clearly a matter of the management of emotions and the affective dimensions of magical participation. I wonder if you could unpack this a bit more. I’m especially interested in learning where you think emotions fit into your arguments about analogy-making, whether those of magicians or anthropologists.
Graham Jones: That’s a wonderful question, or rather set of questions. The thrust of my argument very much emphasizes cognitive over emotional processes. This reflects an emphasis on rationality in the intellectual history of the anthropology of magic, an emphasis that I argue modern magic, through its adversarial assault on the occult, helped to shape in the nineteenth century North Atlantic. But as you so rightly point out, the emotions are always intimately implicated in the cultural construction of rationality as somehow affectless.
Modern magicians, who entertain with illusionary tricks, are entirely at home with emotions such as wonder, awe, astonishment and even terror (for instance, as a response to effects depicting violence, death, or the phantasmal) that you associate with Iranian metafizik. As a small parenthesis, I note that when the French Army sent illusionist Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin to demystify Algerian superstition, Arab elites mobilized discourses of wonder stemming from the premodern Islamic tradition you describe. In post-Enlightenment Europe, as entertainment magic became increasingly imbued with scientific associations, these emotional states came to be valued specifically in connection with the pursuit of mechanistic, naturalistic knowledge, almost as a form of metaphysical edification.
Now, there is some debate among cultural historians about interpreting the rise of secular, modern magic as a form of mass entertainment strictly in terms of the “decline” of real magic and the Weberian master narrative of Enlightenment disenchantment. Might it not also function as a prolongation of enchantment or a compensatory form of re-enchantment? In the nineteenth century, thresholds between uncanny effects produced by Western illusionists and mediums were often blurry at best. What attracts my attention as both an ethnographer and historian, however, is the explicit, normative opposition that modern magicians adopt toward contemporaneous occult and esoteric movements, and the kind of boundary-work that they engage in to disqualify alternative ontologies.
Along with modern magic’s sensationalistic inducements of volatile emotions, there is also an expectation of emotional restraint. Wonder should be leavened by skepticism (indeed conjuring tricks don’t work as entertainment unless spectators know both that they are witnessing something impossible and that they are being deceived). Awe should be coupled with reflexivity. Astonishment should provoke careful analysis. This helps explain why spectators sometimes react to modern magic with strongly negative emotions—frustration or anger over their inability to “figure out” the tricks and performers’ unwillingness to disclose their secrets. There are other emotions associated with illusionistic magic that stem more directly from this social psychology of the secret, a central component of the way this genre is culturally constructed: the pleasure of intimating concealed knowledge, the thrill of risking what one has concealed through display, the desire to possess what the other has hidden.
Andrew Shryock: That last set of claims takes us right into the heart of ethnography, or certain traditions of fieldwork. You are offering us an intermingled history of magic and anthropology, which amazes me and makes me feel a bit squeamish. Proceed with this metaphysical effect!
Graham Jones: Essentially, I would argue that it is the exemplification of emotional restraint that contributed to making the model of modern magic an attractive foil for early anthropological theorizations of instrumental magical practices as not just intellectually but also emotionally deviant, characterized by excesses of affect, participation, and cathexis. When Tylor turns his attention to the relationship between primitive magic and modern science, he makes a homologous argument about emotions and analogy. In primitive magic, an excess of strong emotions overwhelms rational thought, making wished-for connections appear real. In science, observed connections are submitted to the dispassionate scrutiny of the scientific method, which effectively filters emotional noise. For Tylor, both magic and science revolve around analogy, but magical analogies, steeped in strong emotion, are never subject to falsification; through emotional restraint, scientists use analogy as a heuristic that they can ultimately transcend to get at relationships as they truly are. In this system, the emotional restraint of the natural scientist served as a model for anthropology: ironically, when it came to occult magic, Tylor would argue that emotional restraint necessitated looking for logical consistency in what were, to him, otherwise abhorrent and patently muddled beliefs.
Andrew Shryock: Interesting. It’s similar to the return to rational aspects, or potentials, within the metaphysical itself that Alireza mentioned.
Graham Jones: When we look at the place of anthropological analogy in the post-Boasian paradigm, there is a somewhat different emphasis grounded in the Verstehen approach: emotional identification/involvement becomes both a method and a product of ethnographic research. When it comes to the anthropology of the occult, such identification yields much more sympathetic representations, but also invites the kind of metaphysical vulnerability or ontological insecurity that Alireza alludes to. In the Verstehen approach, you might say that analogy becomes a mechanism of participation rather than of intellectual distancing, as it seems to be in the Evolutionist paradigm.
In a way, then, Alireza’s question leads us from cognition to affect, and then on to a third term—participation—and with it, sociality. I’m reminded again of Stanley Tambiah’s characterization of science in terms of an insistence on analyzing causality from a perspective of non-participation and magic in terms of experiencing causality form a perspective of participation. In modern magic and modernist anthropology, there is a close connection between norms of emotional restraint and standardized participant frameworks that limit one’s degree of involvement in magical phenomena to spectating from the outside.
This leads me to a question for Larisa, whose superbly evocative ethnography of strava treatments also involves important issues of participation. I’m really intrigued by the connections you draw with capitalism, and the implication that, at least in the setting of post-socialist Bosnia, strava is simultaneously an effective treatment for the severe toll economic precarity takes on people’s health and a mode of resisting the market logic of the biomedical commodity form. I’m wondering if you could say more about the models of relatedness and relationality that emerge through strava, and how they might help us understand this practice of healing as a form of resistance. More broadly, insofar as capitalism and the occult have long intertwining histories, do you think that economic conditions might help us contextualize the recent groundswell of anthropological work on the occult?
Larisa Jasarevic: I’m glad you qualify strava as effective, Graham, since the question of efficacy very much preoccupied me. In response, however, I will reroute us slightly, away from the “resistant” to “remedial” efficacies of strava and the other non-biomedical practices I observed in the new Bosnian market. Resistance has been precious to the Western political imaginary, not least so in the anthropological encounters with non-economic or otherwise economic exchanges. The question of resistance, however, tends to narrow efficacy to evaluations how much or how little an alternative form of exchange eludes, escapes, or opposes the sway of capitalist value instruments. By that logic, healing, and gifting more generally, have had little efficacy in the consistently impoverished, violently privatized post-socialist economy, sustained by remittances of Bosnian diaspora and migrant laborers. But if we recuperate remedial efficacy, not as a consolation prize, but as a generous invitation to track variously consequential achievements, great and small, we open up a whole wide field of unlikely, unruly, convoluted, and diffused mattering.
Consider that strava (and other local therapies) treats both body and capital as radically material domains, radically in the sense that strava denies the many artifices of distance, closure, and separation that underlie formal economic or clinical encounters: doctor and patient are supposed to stay apart throughout the examination as are the parties of a money-mediated commercial or gift exchange. Tit for tat; with doctor and vendors, we are, supposedly, all square. Instead, strava counts on contagious encounters in market and medicine, on ties persisting, unclosed, on affective and speculative surpluses, on dispositions prone to excess, always already undoing attempts at closure via commodity or gift; it anticipates bodies colliding with other bodies — which is to say, with potentially everything else that is extended in space, from sensuous commodities to covetous looks or sticky desires, from debt ledgers to micro-loan timelines to outdated commercial stocks, depreciating fast. Partly because the economy I studied (things are changing) was heavily cash-mediated, capital too was primarily cash, although promissory, deferred, notoriously unstable, or fantastically productive. Such money is potentially infinitely prolific but inseparable from the biographical, embodied circumstances of its comings and goings. Which is to say that the intersection of monies and bodies (or money as yet another body) is a recurrent, etiologically significant motif in everyday life. Hence it shouldn’t surprise that a therapeutic intervention treats both, or either, as well as the implications of their overtight but ever-elastic embrace.
At the same time, it should be obvious that this radical materiality is rather odd; not exactly what is presumed by the new materialisms. It attends to the contiguity and efficacy of potentially everything, including the most mundane things (bills, pills, clothes) and the human faculties (touching, thoughts, gazes). It finds things not simply “vibrant” nor ontologically horizontal, imbued with democratic animacy, but active in different manners and with competing degrees: mobilized and mobilizing, disruptive, discomfiting, or rechargeable. Materiality overflows with subtleties and the intangibles, which inhere in and extend with flesh and cash: various temporalities, uninvited presences, tacit or loud appeals, histories of circulation or dynamics of withdrawal. Nor is this human at home in the humanities, new or old: neither the body-mind amphibian nor the ontologically plural, co-constituted, thoroughly immanent and earthbound. The materiality of this human—čovjek or insan—entails souls, destinies (nafaka), thinking-desiring capacities to draw or drain auspiciousness, and capacious wishes that interrupt or are interrupted by the things of the world.
Andrew Shryock: I recognize much of this worldview from my own fieldwork in Jordan, where similar notions of connectivity shaped almost every assumption about social life, or knowledge of social life. The problem, in this intellectual context, is not contiguity and parallel effects, which are the normal state of affairs, but the possibility of making things separate at all! A great deal of imaginative work goes into this, and it seems that “magic” is a usually a delicate, often deniable and highly problematic, aspect of this work.
Larisa Jasarevic: The local accounts of subtleties vary across practices. Some explicitly reference Islamic sources; others tone them down in favor of a broader appeal across confessional or ethno-national registers; still others forcefully refuse to be pinned down to any system, while themselves generating unstable epistemological translations. This is where magic or metaphysics comes into play. Magic, as your own monograph, Graham, masterfully shows, is a teeming concept, at once troubling and irresistible to anthropologists. And anthropologists’ own, “native” discomforts made certain kinds of (stage) magic analytically unviable or unattractive. The local inflections, however, make “magic” further complicated to use, lest I should offend my interlocutors or translate, indiscriminately, many distinct practices to a single term, which in translation to Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian magija, advertises mostly the commercially available or do-it-yourself occult arts. So, in the monograph, I try to work between the magical – as a quality recognizable and operative beyond the practices traditionally described as magic – and the metaphysical, which is broader in scope insofar as it considers the non-empirical categories, be they subtle or foundational, from presence to God.
Metaphysics then became more available to think than magic, though for different reasons than motivate Alireza. While he picks up the metafizik as an ethnographic category, metaphysics as a more cosmopolitan rubric promised, initially, to at once lift me out of the sheer range of particular practices that often refused comparison and to allow me to take the radical materiality of bodies seriously, indeed, at face value, while trying to think through its working principles.
Andrew Shryock: I think this is what makes your approach anthropological, frankly, and productively different as well. You’re developing an approach that engages fully with the reality of separation and connectivity in social life. That’s harder than it looks.
Larisa Jasarevic: It helped my case that metaphysics is being redeemed in the new social thought. The new metaphysics – which is an imprecise shorthand for all stripes of speculative, non-reductive thinking as of late – lent me a license to rethink what bodies are and how contact is achieved, at a distance. And yet, the new metaphysics treats magic rather reductively (Graham Harman uses the word as a verbal tick, always for what is improbable) or, for that matter, makes no space for God (except the nonexistent yet maybe-one-day god, à la Meillassoux, whom no serious strava therapist would invoke on behalf of her patient). In their eagerness to overcome the old, supposedly stodgy, traditional metaphysics, the new non-reductive inquiry ends up reasserting the precepts of the Western canon, redrawing the comfort zones around the non-negotiable modern values.
So my tactics have been to describe the local worlds of strava and other forms of medicine while also trying to estrange the bodily ways (commodified and carnal) that are taken for granted here, in the academic north. After all, strava and other healers would confidently claim worldwide competence. They would treat an unbelieving, disbelieving, ailing body anywhere, presuming the contiguity to be foundational and the distance to be the medium of contact. This is why, Graham, I’m more interested in the intertwining of capitalism and the homely (which is odd) rather than the occult.
I wish Alaina would carry on the thinking about distance in the performative and material conditions for contact, as they form (or disintegrate) through professional, streetwise, or high-stakes experimental circles that connect Russia to the imperial and post-Cold War circulations of expertise, anxieties, and aspirations. From the CSSH article to the monograph, you assemble dense layers of complex and unexpected, highly imbedded lines and circles of communication, rippling out (or exuding atmospheric influence). Would you think out loud on the materiality of the influences you describe as practiced, staged, or longed for? What fascinates me in your work is the fact that the contact you theorize not only presumes an ontological ambiguity about what things (or people) really are, but it also attends to the real “opacity” surrounding the accessibility and ramification of contact. This seems to reverse the age-old problem of surface and depth, as the cultivated “sensitivity” you describe is an ability to “penetrate that which lies on the surface,” which is the meaning extended with the skin of things. What does it mean to “attempt symmetry and acknowledge difference” from here?
Alaina Lemon: Thank you, Larisa, for inviting me to continue out loud about the materiality of conditions for contacts, communications, or performances. I rarely manage to write about many other subjects, so allow me to extend the question to stress how my work on the whole has attended to the materiality of divisions of labor, to divisions of access to specific tools, bodily skills, and mediating objects. While the book tracks the effects of dividing the sensory labors that “intuit” contact and distance, an early article followed the ways gendered divisions of farm labor built different material worlds for men and women, channeling their paths to objects and substances, to use them or to avoid them. Several chapters in the book take up such differences on a broader and more comparative scale, to ask, for instance: how is it that some humans are blocked from communicating by the rerouting of a bus, or the districting of a neighborhood, while others are channeled by the same material changes into conditions supporting their contact?
It has been difficult to foreground such material questions in part because it has been commonplace to denigrate contact, aka Derridean presence, as a mystification. Surely the ideal communication of full contact communion across vantages is a unicorn. However, to ignore degrees and kinds of contacts and channels (the Facebook poke and IRL handclasp both afford different possibilities for further contact as well as serve as material signs in their own right) is to misdirect from the materiality of communication. (Post)structural approaches performed just such magic when they flattened semiosis to oppositions of information. To be sure, if sentient communication really were merely a matter of activating semantic oppositions (e.g., by treating words as semantic containers for dictionary entries) we really would never cross the “gaps” between signifiers/signifieds, or signs/objects. More robustly three-dimensional models of communication, such as those that underlie pragmatic metaphysics and theory, imply instead that semantic meaning is only one narrow slice of communicative functions across any spacetime. “Nonsense” or “gibberish” can even improve communications that perform functions besides reference (at minimum, for instance, “we are we because we agree that this gibberish is hilarious”).
In many settings, no individual sentient being can alone apprehend all the meanings or functions at play: this is why attention to divisions of communicative and sensory labor is so important. By what magic does one social set learn to laugh in synchrony at the gibberish which fools take as meaningful? To apprehend all the differences, to see what makes them, is not impossible, but simply really difficult, requiring a commitment to look for the material forms and conditions for attempts at intersubjectivity—and its denial. More dauntingly, it requires meta-checking in, finding ways to ask other sentient beings “what is happening here” even as such questions can be taken as profoundly rude or disruptive of social hierarchy. Particular strands of metaphysical commitment to non-contact should also be theorized with reference to historical process—for instance, to Cold War transnational radio broadcast and jamming. You all may have more to add about how the metaphysics of the lab, separating data from static, also buttress social hierarchies and notions of expertise that work through specific material separations and purifications: as long as the right man does the job with the right tool, all is well. Specific material processes divide just so to quarantine scientific magic within the lab.
Andrew Shryock: Again, this persistent desire, and inability, to separate and connect. It produces almost every social bond we value, and it produces anxieties about contact that might be illegitimate, slipping in or out of approved channels.
Alaina Lemon: Cold War-raised Americans are not squeamish about all leaks – latitude may correlate with control over points and kinds and degrees of contact. My first publication quoted a 1980s American dairy farmer who described a single material point of sensory contact, the feeling of butt on metal, as the point where he anchored himself as a self. He was a white man riding his tractor naked, through his own fields, sovereign, no need to explain himself to anyone, no one allowed near enough his property line to see. How very different from the divisions of sensory labor around Roza Kuleshova in the 1960s, when Soviet-era paranormal scientists directed her to sit blindfolded and butt naked on pieces of paper, and to discern their different colors as they monitored. In 1990s Russia, it was instances of Romani and other brown people holding cash (especially US dollar denominations) that troubled people, as if their hands polluted the meanings and purposes of money, itself already a polluting material. Here I think Graham’s work has a lot to tell us: How is it that people who are paid to perform magical fortune-tellings, or to weave musical stage enchantments, are the same people targeted as unfit to wield modern financial tools? Never mind that those same tools’ values are themselves subject to techniques of illusion and distraction.
These days, magical characters multiply as celebrities—and manage to project skills of enchantment while maintaining good credit. Perhaps the 21st century has reframed occult thrills in ways that are not peculiar to Russia. Divisions of sensory labors fold into new performance frames; the kinds of magic (and counter magic, as in displays of skeptical virtuosity) produced within and around them shifts, and their possible affects change. We cannot theorize the changes in politics of contact and communication without attending to material history, to shifting divisions of labor. One question I might turn back to Larisa then is this: If in past Socialist times, the performed avoidance of haptic touch, healing-at-a-distance, ran alongside the infrastructural losses and material shortages across the region since WWII, how now do which potholes in which roads buffer or afford contrasts of bodily with other material mediations of contact?
The Russian theatrical experts I write about do sometimes voice the language of “penetration” and “depth” to describe the sensitivities and intuitions that help them discover means of contact. However, when they speak in detail about how to make stage communications resonate—and when they engage in embodied drills meant to train such methods—they abandon metaphors of surface, line, and penetration. They attune to still other material evidences. They sidestep interpreting discrete visceral surfaces for qualities—say, those of a face, a letter, a gesture, a cough, a shoe—and instead attend to and then join, for instance, the tempo of alternating steps, or the acceleration of a fleeting smile. On stage, to insist upon discrete definitions of signs rather than to react to their tempos is to exhibit “squeamishness” – to take up the risk-avoiding categorical stance that Alireza also notes as anathema to magical action.
Andrew Shryock: You are making me think that squeamishness is bad for ethnography, as method and as mode of representation. That strange commitment we have to separateness and connectivity is built into terms like “participant observation,” and it produces so much trouble we can never fully perceive or define.
Alaina Lemon: Squeamishness is also bad for the magic of performance. Theater people have little use in collective practice for Cartesian metaphysics whereby “thoughts” or “feelings” are stopped by bodies or walls. Their collective practice demonstrates that barriers themselves are resonant material messages, and that thoughts emerge not within a single body, but across, say, a line of many feet that step singing onto broken beer bottles scattered along a proscenium.
I never intended to write about magic in itself because the political economy that grinds the Romani families casts them both as magical charlatans and as magically virtuosic. It seemed more urgent to investigate claims to and attributions of magicality. But now, years with stage workers, actors, directors, and musicians have convinced me that there are forms of magic that require more attention as they cross dominant modern institutions, including the lab, and certainly the stage. The magics of misdirection, for instance, have been well-studied. What worries me more are the everyday magics of performance by which we deny intersubjective recognition and thus contact, and the very possibilities for communication. When, how, along which channels, and by which material arrangements of participation do we allow recognition, of others? By what processes do we allow some people to make the kinds of contact with us that sets our bodies to reverberate – as when a vocal harmony pricks gooseflesh – even as we deny them access to the material mediation or amplification needed to voice their perspectives about such moments of performance magic. On the one hand, such people work a strong phatic magic, contact magic, not only despite material distances and barriers (Iron Curtain, prison wall, stage proscenium, radio static) but because of them, by means of them. Yet on the other hand, their position in the divisions of semiotic and sensory labor reduces their capacities to project meta-magic, to reframe their own experiences of contact when white people sit watching and listening.
Andrew Shryock: This has been an amazing exchange, filled with ‘ajab and ta‘ajjob, but we’ve hit the 6,000 word mark. We’ll have to end here. I thank you all for your insights, which capture so much that is important in this new research. You’ve managed to make me more curious about a topic that already intrigued me. I hope CSSH readers share that feeling and will now want to explore your work more closely. They should do so with a productive sense of risk. After reading your books, they will not be able to think about human contact, our relations with other creatures and things, and the perils and powers of separation, in quite the same way again.
Alireza Doostdar is assistant professor of Islamic Studies and the anthropology of religion at the University of Chicago.
Larisa Jasarevic is senior lecturer in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of Chicago.
Graham M. Jones is associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Alaina Lemon is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.