Religion & American politics:

The magic ballot

posted by Arjun Appadurai

Something extraordinary happened on November 4. And even those who did not vote for Barack Obama knew that they had entered a new world after 11.00 PM that night, when he was declared the victor and gave a great, short speech. But there was a problem that became apparent in the minutes and hours since that hour, especially for Americans. It was a problem of language. Words like “awesome,” “historical,” and “extraordinary” were made to work harder than they had ever been intended to. Some of us just gave up on words and moved to tears, laughter, hugs, songs, dances. The TV intelligentsia also trolled for analogies and the big winner in the analogy race, of all things, was the moment when Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon.

And then, on the evening of November 5, David Gregory of MSNBC, grinning from ear to ear because he had just been granted a new name for his own TV hour, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” came close to saying the unsayable. He latched on to the word “transcendent.” Apparently David has not yet visited The Immanent Frame. But I suspect David was not into immanence yesterday. So he went for it: he kept asking his guests whether or not they felt something “transcendent” had happened, beyond partisanship, personality or even politics. Some of his guests were bewildered, but no one objected. They knew what he was struggling to say. And they knew it had nothing to do with the Reverend Wright, or Sarah Palin’s church in Wasilla, or any one of the other issues involving Islam, Christianity, church and congregation that had frequently inflamed the primaries.

But David Gregory knew that he was in the right zone. In referring to transcendence, he had the verb in mind, though he used the adjective. He meant we had somehow transcended religion, transcended party, transcended nation, and since this was a world-shaping election, transcended politics, and even transcended Barack Obama himself. Other words from the vocabulary of religion quickly followed and surrounded this one: redemption came up on in more than one conversation, especially when Jesse Jackson, Dr. King and the other heroes of the Civil Rights movement were invoked. And, of course, sacrifice. The idea of sacrifice had already been massively in play throughout the campaign, because of the kairotic significance attributed by John McCain’s supporters to his Vietnam experience. What McCain eventually learned was that even Isaac and Jesus could only be sacrificed once. You can be born again, but you can only make one Big Sacrifice per lifetime.

Transcendence, redemption, sacrifice: these key words of Western Judeo-Christian thought are surely in play as well as some humbler ones. But one senses that all these words were circling around another one, about which Americans have grown more suspicious, though it is the word for this occasion. The word is MAGIC.  On the night of November 4, it felt as if something magical had happened, and perhaps there were others, like me, who used that word. But it is not the biggest word in current public use and I wish it were more fully available to us now. So let me ask why it is less used and why I wish it could be otherwise.

Sometime in the seventeenth century, in the Protestant West, the word “magic” became the other to the word “religion.” The burning of the witches of Salem in the late seventeenth century surely marked the moment when magic was still credible but already unacceptable. And in Europe the process had begun earlier, with the Inquisition, as Carlo Ginzburg and others have brilliantly shown us. As in other matters, it always takes social science some time to catch up with the cunning of history and starting in the middle of the nineteenth century, magic was officially declared to be the sign of a world we had lost, and good riddance to it. Max Weber was perhaps the key secular social scientist to preside over this linguistic shift, and though he was concerned about the “disenchantment” of the world we were entering (the dreaded “iron cage” of Ultimate Bureaucratic In-Fighting), he was surely not bemoaning the end of magic. He was remarking the end of religion.

Magic, for Weber, was precisely what had held everyone except the Puritans back from profit-making, saving, thrift and enterprise as signs of virtue. Everyone else in the vast historical drama of the world religions had remained mired in some form of magic, which had reduced their capacity to offer their entire lives to this-worldly enterprise of the capitalist sort. Hindus, Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, Catholics all had failed to break out of the web of magical thinking. No question, of course, about the primitives of Anthropology Land, they were not even remotely near the edge of the magical envelope. The closest precursors to the Puritans were the Jews, and they, as Weber sadly noted, remained committed to magical practices, notably the Sacrifice, which prevented them from converting their interest in money into a more ascetical interest in profit. Magic and magicality, for Weber, were fetishes of procedure, irredeemably irrational insofar as they sought ethical ends through technical means, the latter being the best way to define what magic meant for Weber, since he never defined it explicitly or systematically.

I dwell on Max Weber, because he is probably the most important thinker of the last two centuries to try to understand what secularization seemed to mean at the turn of the twentieth century. The rest of the twentieth century proved him wrong, as we now know: religion has come back with the vengeful force of the God of the Old Testament. Intentions be damned, Job is back, even as we moderns dream of jobs. Fire, drought, plagues, floods, and every form of pestilence, with some new ones like derivatives, global warming, nuclear proliferation, genocide and outsourcing, are having their way with the planet. We are indeed insects in the hands of an angry God, as Jonathan Edwards once said, but it is now less clear what he is angry about, other than our presumption that we can yak about  transcendence, redemption and sacrifice without going the whole nine yards.

Others contributed to the diminishment of magic as a force which could contribute to our ways and means as modern world-citizens. Emile Durkheim, who, unlike Weber, understood the joys of collective effervescence and the social rewards of ritual, nevertheless had no real sense that these joys could also do the work of moral order and provide the stuff of the collective conscience in the world of the twentieth century. Marcel Mauss, Durkheim’s nephew and disciple, came closest to seeing that magic and religion did not work on fundamentally different principles, but his elegant essays on gift and sacrifice are now mostly read closely by anthropology graduate students and (occasionally) their teachers. The English, always suspicious of anything metaphysical, went the way of ordinary language philosophy (or Anglican homilies), the Germans went “critical” and became increasingly concerned about communicative rationality, and the French consigned magic to their brilliant lunatic fringe, to thinkers like Bachelard, Bataille, the Surrealists and their many descendants, reserving the high ground for the children of Descartes.

Today, among thinkers like Charles Taylor, Robert Bellah, and a less skeptical Jürgen Habermas, there is a new openness to various forms of the numinous in public life. But the vocabulary of the secular tends to pull them into the space of religion (as secularity’s other) with magic still firmly excluded from the discussion. The consequence, in the public discourse of the United States, is that magic is mostly a pariah word. Voodoo economics, satanic cults, Las Vegas legerdemain by professional illusionists, get-rich-quick schemes, telephone spiritual advisors, these are the contexts in which the word “magic” is most likely to occur in our public discourse. In its benign form, magic appears in the soft focus language of greeting cards, romantic soaps, and sappy self-help talk. But is not a word for serious grown-ups.

So what’s my beef? I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he has already been vanquished by his foes. In the name of hard talk and pragmatism, realistic expectations and balanced judgments, rolling up our sleeves and keen to fix the leaks in the roof and the flood in the basement, we are refusing ourselves the joy of inhabiting what David Gregory called the transcendent, for it is too close to the language of official religion to be acceptable or satisfying for too long.

Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control. Can we deny that the infusion of 700 billion dollars into our banks is a magical act designed to make our banks rain credit again? Has it worked yet? Are we discarding our belief in banks and credit as a result? Magic is a method for deploying modest technical means to address outsize ethical challenges. Human beings have always done this and always will. We might as well have a grown-up word for this set of practices.

But for us moderns, “magicality” is not about techniques and technologies, means and ends. It is the word we use when we see things for which we have no words and whose significance we do not understand, for events which awe us because of their unlikeness or move us because of their uncanny qualities.  In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor character said, with a measure of cynicism, that religion, the Russian Orthodox tradition in particular, was essentially about miracle, mystery and authority. But being a Romantic and something of a conservative, Dostoyevsky was not yet quite ready to ditch magic for religion. But we have moved on and left ourselves without words for the magical in human life. We have given up awe and settled for awesome. We have given up wonder and settled for wow. We have given up mystery, and settled for weird.

In much of the world, magic is not just about miracle and mystery, it is also about questions and answers, means and ends, suffering and healing. It is not just about “what’s up.” It is about “how to.” And magical practice is primarily about the management of risk and uncertainty.

Even anthropologists, experts in the language of ritual, have lost the forest for the trees. Ritual is not primarily about sticks and stones, about making the fields yield grain and women yield children, about making boys and girls into men and women, and about assuring that troubled elders became contented ancestors. It is not just about boundaries and margins, the cycle of the seasons and the passage of human beings through the stages of life. It is about these moments and rhythms, indeed, but it is mostly about risk management. Magic is humanity’s oldest tool for managing the myriad ways in which things can go wrong. We have reduced magic to ritual and ritual to etiquette, to a set of mechanical procedures for lubricating the traffic of social life. Nothing could be a sillier view of magic, which is not about the big things that govern human life. Magic is the set of techniques that human beings have assembled to manage those risks which appear in the zone where the big things meet the little things, and when that meeting goes wrong.

So the election of Barack is a magical thing in two distinct ways. It is awesome, historical, redemptive, and yes, transcendent too. But it is also magical in a much more serious way. It has been performed and produced by voting citizens at a moment when America and the world face risks of an enormous order. We have named these risks frequently in the media and the public sphere in the last few weeks: risks of total financial meltdown, of global warm-up, of war without end and terror without faces and sources. And our existing tools for risk management have failed miserably. Should we be surprised that the American electorate has rediscovered magic without knowing it? And that we have elected someone special to help us manage these risks and reduce our uncertainties?  Religion may well have divided this electorate in familiar demographic ways (fundamentalists versus liberals, Catholic and Jews, versus Protestants and Hindus, preachers versus laymen), but magic has united it.

Yes, the hard work is yet to come and the risks we face will not necessarily yield because we have done the right thing and performed a magical action by electing a brilliant, young, new and black leader against all odds. Magic does not always work. But America has brought magic back into politics, something that organized religion in this country has become too transcendent to do. Americans have voted for magic and we should be proud of that fact.

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12 Responses to “The magic ballot”

  1. avatar Scott Dill says:

    A perhaps too minor point for remark, but Dostoevsky’s character was speaking of his own church, Roman Catholicism. Dostoevsky portrays the power of the Eastern Orthodox and something akin to a magical view of salvation later in the novel, “From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima,” as a better model than that found in Roman Catholicism.

  2. avatar Laura Duane says:

    Jason Kuznicki responds to “The magic ballot” at Cato@Liberty, writing:

    Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

    I know that many believe that priests can perform miracles, at least of certain kinds, but Obama isn’t a priest. Tuesday night did not and could not make him one. It’s superstitious, impious, or both, to think that something as common as a democratic election could endow anyone with magical powers.

    …Some of us, when faced with “uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm” do not resort to magic. We turn to reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift. We also note that the government so often tends to interfere with all of these things.

    Read the full response here.

  3. avatar Tom Spencer says:

    Thank you for this sensitive post. Many Americans feel this same “magic” at the mention of the “founding fathers” or Abraham Lincoln, and I think it is significant that various commentators have spoken of Obama’s election to the White House as the fulfillment of the the founding fathers’ democratic vision. Perhaps mythical time (Eliade’s illo tempore, in this case the founding of the American nation) has broken into secular time, which doesn’t happen every day. There are so few “transcendent” myths we all identify with anymore.

  4. avatar Ainslie Embree says:

    This is splendid – it should be required reading for graduate students, not to mention clergymen and politicians.

  5. avatar John Pfeiffer says:

    What a stretch of the ‘imagicnation’!

    No search of the language, even if carried out under infinitely stretchy academic cloaks, can describe the iconic U.S. election of November 4, 2008. Many may take refuge in cliches, but the event can best remain a vessel in which each us finds our own refreshment. It is true that “the heart has its reasons that the reason knows not of”. Language must be reasonable, if it hopes to communicate. We could call anything magic, but the baggage that comes with a term whose time has passed stands in the way of cogency, and contributes nothing to descriptions, especially of iconic events.

    Thanks for cooking up your descriptive offering, but it is a struggle to imagine, much less follow, the magic recipe.

  6. I would like to ask for clarification of the function of the word “academic” in my father’s comment from 1:12 a.m. this morning. What did you mean, Dad? I fear that your comment serves as an implicit attack on Mr. Appadurai’s profession and writing style. This bothers me, because I can hardly express the extent of my gratitude to Mr. Appadurai for making his thinking so accessible as it is here on the blog.

  7. avatar Lynn J. Brooks says:

    “The burning of the witches of Salem in the late seventeenth century surely marked the moment when magic was still credible but already unacceptable.” Sorry, I thought they were hanged?

  8. I appreciate these responses.

    Ainslee, its good hear from you and I am glad you find these thoughts worthy of use in the classroom!

    Scott Dill is right: I did not go back to this great novel: in fact, there are even more questions about Dostoyevsky’s actual position, which is probably not identical with the one of Zossima or the Grand Inquisitor, but let the Dostoyevsky experts sort that one out.

    The debate between the Pfeiffers (father and son) seems to have merit of creative intra-familial debate so I will leave it alone for now!

    With Lynn Brooks, yes, that’s right and that’s what I meant when I said magical was still credible: credible enough for someone to be hanged for it. I did not mean to equate “credible” and “approved”.

    Jason Kuznicki deserves a fuller response since he clearly disapproves of my views, insofar as he understands them correctly! I will do that in my next comment.

  9. I assume Mr. Kuznicki is sympathetic to the mission of the Cato Institute, whose name can be traced back to Cato the Younger, implacable foe of Julius Caesar. Alas, he sounds a lot more like Cato the Elder, also known as Cato the Censor, famed for his rigid moralizing, his ascetical approach to public spending, and his brutal approach to war against the enemies of Rome.

    Mr. Kuznicki is keen to remind me that the United States is a Lockean republic, that Barack Obama is not a priest or magician, that the Presidency is just a job (presumably like employment at Kinko’s) and that Obama was elected and not crowned. Well, where do I begin? I do know these facts. My essay was an interpretation of what seemed to us (not to Mr. Obama) so special about this election. My comment is primarily about the distinctions between magic and religion in the history of Western social thought since the seventeenth century: alas, these are two sides of the same coin for Mr. Kuznicki (priests and magicians, lightning bolts and toads, theocracies and magic wands). Well, this is a picture based on Harry Potter and not on Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, thinkers who had the gumption to look at the entire history of human efforts to deal with evil, injustice, uncertainty and disaster with a modicum of empirical interest and intellectual sympathy.

    Mr. Kuznicki is the kind of “secular” libertarian to whom the entire world of non-secular feelings, sensations, experiences and actions makes no sense, indeed it makes him sick. Well, in that case, 90% of humanity makes him sick, and perhaps 80% of the American electorate, including those who believe in faith-based philanthropy, religious calls to dialogue between faiths, and I assume the entire family of words from grace and charisma to hope and redemption also makes him sick. I am afraid there is no easy cure for this ailment.

    As an anthropologist, I am interested in those situations in which words defeat us, when events make us feel we are in the presence of special people or events, when either suffering or sudden change make us wonder about what makes the world tick. Mr. Kuznicki knows the answers already and is sure that what makes the world go around are: “reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift.” I assume that when things go wrong, it is due to a deficit of these things. Well, there’s his answer to global warming, the biggest financial meltdown in the world’s wealthiest economy, military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan for the world’s most sophisticated army, not to speak of Avian flu, sudden infant death and Katrina.

    Since I wrote my original comment, Barack Obama has made it amply clear that he understands quite well the scope of the problems we face, the sobriety that our challenges demand, the calm, deliberative style that the world expects and that our skittish markets need. So he is not stirring some new age pot with a nearby coven of liberal witches. But that does not mean that history has no surprises and that our anaemic secular vocabularies are entirely adequate to either the miracles or the disasters which we see around us. The best kind of rationality is the rationality that knows when it’s running on empty. Unless Mr. Kuznicki has already discovered the 100% air-fueled brain.

  10. avatar Josiah Rowe says:

    This essay is fascinating. As a Kantian I appreciate the acknowledgement of the numinous, both as an expression of practical human modesty (even if all things have causes, we can’t, as a practical matter, account for them all) and as a religious statement (if reason has intrinsic limits, then there is room for transcendent ideas). And as an American who voted for Barack Obama I certainly experienced the hard-to-pin-down quality towards which both David Gregory and Arjun Appadurai are gesturing, calling it “transcendent” or “magic”. However, I am cautious about identifying this quality with the power of the numinous, for a couple of reasons. On a philosophical level, I’m reluctant to say anything positive or definitive about that which by its nature is undefinable or unspeakable (compare the “Fourfold Negation” of Buddhist thought). And on a political level, I recognize the power of this mysterious quality and know that this power can be used for good or ill. In my judgment, Barack Obama is most likely to use the power of this “magic” for good (otherwise I wouldn’t have voted for him); but there have also been times in history when leaders have been invested with similar power and used it for great evil.

    Perhaps my second objection isn’t philosophically sound. After all, if we define “magic” as Appadurai does, as a tool for risk management, there’s no reason to assume that the tool can be used solely for moral purposes. (This line of thought could lead one to talk about “white magic” and “black magic”, but those terms would get far too confusing in the context of Barack Obama.)

    Two final questions: how would you relate this concept of “magic” in the national and political sphere to civic religion? Is it appropriate to say that in the context of American civic religion, the election of Barack Obama (not Obama himself, but his election and the “magic” quality surrounding it) is a kind of theophany?

  11. avatar Laura Duane says:

    Jason Kuznicki of Cato@Liberty continues the conversation with Arjun Appadurai, responding to his comments:

    Calling acts of government “magic” gives our political leaders way more credit than they deserve. Our leaders may be intelligent, or charismatic, or honest, or judicious. But even the best of them are not magic. To tell the truth, I hadn’t thought this a controversial idea.

    … It’s a bit silly to think that because I won’t call Barack Obama “magic,” I must have some deep-seated problem with 80% of the American electorate. I’d think, rather, that Christians would be on my side: Obama is a man and a sinner like any other, and all magic — excuse me, all glory — belongs to God.

    In fact, the only thing I object to here is magical or mystical thinking about the government. The government has to serve people of all religious faiths, and of none. It can’t play favorites, and it can’t be some strange mysticism unto itself. If it were, it would alienate much of the public, and make tyrants of the rest. That’s what I object to.

    A government of, by, and for the people is a huge advance over the divine rule of kings, kings who in former ages claimed that they really were magical, and whose touch was said to cure scrofula. Our leaders are human like the rest of us, and they should be open to our criticism, just like the guy at Kinko’s if he ruins our copies. That’s the genius of America: having a government we’re not afraid to criticize.

    Read Kuznicki’s full post here.

  12. In a post at scatterplot, Andrew Perrin responds at length to Arjun Appadurai’s “The magic ballot,” and to Jason Kuznicki’s critical response to Appadurai, in which he suggests that “Barack Obama is an employee“:

    Note the constriction of the social, the transcendent, into the workaday (profane, routine, alltäglich) language of hiring an employee, which is certainly not all we did. Perhaps more importantly, note the elision in which Appadurai’s invocation of the magic of the election becomes, in the hands of the libertarian thinker (I use the word advisedly) a claim about the magic of the person. That’s because it is not only wrong but literally unthinkable in this paradigm that the collective imaginary might be anything more than the collection of individual imaginaries. If there’s magic, it follows, an individual person must be magical.

    Perrin follows this with a reply to Kuznicki’s subsequent suggestion that “for at least a few liberals, when their guy wins, ‘reason’ is out the window, and ‘magic’ is what it’s all about”:

    Not that this position is unique, but it’s hopelessly outdated and frankly empirically indefensible to hold religion and reason to be at odds, or even in a zero-sum competition. But committing this error allows the author to ignore the complexity of the analysis and revert to comfortable, individualistic, and disingenuous claims, entirely without evidence, that the analysis is driven by crass partisanship.

    There’s more. Read Andrew Perrin’s full post here.

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