Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mary Douglas and Witchcraft

I was told "you wont meet a magician in Wandsworth" (in London), "but you might hear of people operating New Age psychic phone lines". Pah.

"I once met a 5th degree Magus from the O.T.O" I said. Blank looks. "Oh, and I've done a few rituals here and there, mostly on my own, but once with some of the leading abassadors of the Native American tradition in this culture. Apparently". Blank looks.

One of my assessments is to review a book called "Purity and Danger" written by famous anthropologist Mary Douglas (R.I.G.), and I thought I'd share my final piece (which is for me quite refreshing in its absence of references, the material being sufficiently internalized).

The original, inferior, version of this aritcle is here: http://theatreovdiscontent.blogspot.com/2008/04/douglas-witchcraft-amended.html

The all singing, all dancing version is here:


Mary Douglas begins “Purity and Danger” with an overview of the legacies of Robertson-Smith and Sir James Frazer. She challenges their belief that what made a culture primitive was its inability, collectively and individually, to distinguish between the ‘sacred and profane’, in the words of Robertson-Smith, or between the ‘subjective and objective’, as Sir James Frazer put it. Douglas then introduces the model of logical vs. mystical mentalities proposed by Levy-Bruhl, one assumes, as a superior model when it came to categorising and analysing the difference between primitive and modern culture. The greatest criticism of Levy-Bruhls’ model was that it was based on a rigid dichotomy that required the exaggeration of logical thinking in modern culture, and the exaggeration of mystical thinking in primitive culture, in order to make the differences apparent. These differences in mentalities were too stark and their mutual exclusivity led to contradiction. Nevertheless, it is Levy-Bruhls model that has the greatest influence on Douglas’s book, despite the weakness in the model that she attempts to overcome through some very feeble means. Essentially, Mary Douglas seeks to duck beneath the radar of previous criticism by a less-than-cunning substitution of psychological definitions (“logical” vs. “mystical”) with sociological definitions (“technological” vs. “magical”), simply changing the focus from mentality to institution. Douglas delves into the rabbit hole towards a sociology of ritual, and it is in search of a sociology of ritual that Douglas encounters witchcraft and magic in primitive culture, no doubt wearing top hats and drinking tea, offering, perhaps, a dubious invitation to the na├»ve catholic girl who forgot the mysteries of her own culture, and who, like a very naught catholic girl, attempts the uninspiring hubris of defining a prayer to god as analogous to writing a letter to a friend, in chapter four. May she rest in ignorance, and may her reply be swift and painless.

On Magic:

Mary Douglas’s approach is a sociological one. It is not spiritual, it is not psychological, it is not magical. This to me, in my wayward anthro-ignorance, seems like a piecemeal analysis of culture. However, her insights into the sociology of ritual are exceptional, with one exception. Malinowski had already said most of what she had to say about magic, and one wonders why he is barely mentioned. Again, perhaps it is because Malinowski’s approach, like Levy-Bruhls, was based on a model of individual psychology and Douglas was interested in sociology. However, I suspect deeper-rooted biases perpetuated by the mutual exclusivity of sociological and psychological disciplines, enflamed through the irritant of functionalist vs. structuralist discord, that causes Douglas to omit reference to Malinowski’s contribution. I guess they didn’t want to play with each other any more.

The sum of Douglas’s understanding of magic in primitive culture resonates within her exegesis of the significance of the Trickster myth of the Winnebago Indians. In this story is described the process of developing awareness and mastery of the self as it relates to its environment. The Trickster starts life as an amorphous bag of emotions and desires, and slowly refines its body into human proportions and its minds into, well, modern proportions, in which it is at last capable of discernment between person and thing – between subjective and objective. Despite Douglas’s superb parrying of Frazer’s “undisguised contempt” for primitive people in her elucidation of primitive peoples ability not only to discern between subject and object, but also to discern when the this discernment is actually useful, her understanding of the Trickster myth as it relates to sociology reflects the same attitude as Frazer, but with a more politically correct flourish. To summarise: Douglas uses the Trickster myth as a metaphor for technological progress. In her model, with advances in technology, magic becomes mundane (clearly she was not an initiate). Perhaps this is verifiable where institutions are concerned, but then the focus is clearly on institutions per se and not magic specifically, a distinction that might be easily overlooked if ones cultural orientation valued group dynamics universally over magical dynamics specifically.

It is the lack of distinction on the part of Douglas between the general and the specific that leads her into error. In describing prayer as analogous to writing a letter, and in – fatally! – describing money as ritual, Douglas exhibits the same confusion between subject and object that she so superbly falsifies in the interpretations of Frazer and Robertson-Smith. Money, for example, is not a ritual, any more than a wand is a ritual. It is a tool used in ritual ways, depending upon ones ontology and paradigm, and viewed as such this distinction makes Douglas’s ‘Durkheimian’ model of technological progress – where it is assumed that magic becomes mundane – unequivocally unfounded. Through a sociological exploration of magic as a pre-literate judiciary and economic system, where accusations of witchcraft enforce social cohesion and the perceived power to bless or curse maintains authority, Douglas makes a subtle yet crucial error. She makes such erroneous comparisons between ‘primitive ritual’ and ‘modern economics’ because, for whatever reason, she denied the existence of magic in her own culture, and denied it on a deep level. I suspect, however, that this denial is not simply caused by a superiority bias, in which she thinks her culture is superior to cultures with magic (something she makes clear several times throughout the book) but out of an implicit desire to invent a control group for her research, to contrast a culture ‘with magic’ (theirs) to a culture ‘without magic’ (ours). And this is that elusively subtle yet confounding and pertinent error that looks as if it could make anthropology boring for everyone.

What She Should Have Done:

Her explicit and repeated intention is to show how rules around pollution work in other cultures through an understanding of how they are similar and different to our own rules of pollution. So she contrasts secular politics with magical ritual – a bit like contrasting an apple with a spoon, but useful if one is only interested in the form and not the content. Had Douglas contrasted the secular politics of magical ritual in another culture with the secular politics of magical ritual in our culture, I would not take issue. Her mistake is that she saw magical ritual as political in essence. One look at the hollow rituals of the Catholic Church and it’s easy to see how she made this mistake, although her inability to see that her own analysis is piecemeal is beyond being dignified with rational thought.

Although I doubt the term “Folk Devil” entered into common parlance until the release of Cohens book in the seventies, Cohen himself points out that this phenomena has been particularly apparent since the WORLD WARS, and it is clearly this phenomena that Douglas is concerned with in “Purity and Danger” when she talks about the ‘interstitial roles’ and ‘failure bias’ in magical practice. In the case of Nazi Germany, for example, an economic crisis lead to the Great Jewish Witch Hunt, in which Jewish people became vilified as the source of social dissolution due to their assumed Economic Sorcery. Satire of the time even shows Nazi leaders dressed in Shamanic clothing, and the presence of both mystical mentalities and institutions was evident in propaganda about the ‘Rule of a 1000 Years’ and in a disrespectful and rudimentary grasp of the philosophy of the ‘Ubermensch’.

Douglas uses witchcraft to demonstrate the sociological processes and effects of magical activity, but she seems confused about what she is doing even herself, for she frequently confuses the politics of magic with magic itself. This is the cause of my suspicion that “Purity and Danger” is too contaminated by the politics of our indigenous institutions to see the woods for the trees when attempting the ever-so-slightly deluded exercise of understanding a culture ‘not in piecemeal’, as Douglas says, or ‘in its totality’ as Malinowski said. Both mistake the map for the territory, but Malinowski at least attempted something innovative. Something so innovative, in fact, it turned out to be a taboo in this culture, and was commonly construed to be an outdated approach simply because it had never been tried. It was Malinowski’s intent to show that magic was an institution in its own right, and was not the forerunner of science, as Durkheim and Douglas understood it. I believe he even campaigned when he could after the WORLD WARS to bring to public awareness the similarities between ‘magical thinking’ and Nazism. Douglas neglects to mention this. She also neglects to mention that Malinowski was perhaps the first anthropologist to apply the principles of social drama to ritual, which is an approach Douglas profits from enormously in her book, particularly through her references to the work of Turner. What she doesn’t neglect is the time honoured ritual of making things up when your weak ego confounds your intellect, and she invents her quote about the Dinka Maleria Ceremony, in which she claims that ‘even’ the witchdoctor ‘urged’ people to visit the western medical centre. I don’t need to analyse this really, since it’s a fiction.

In Conclusion:

Draw your own, and respect yourself enough to admit that you do so.

Mary Douglas - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article1805952.ece

Levy-Bruhl - http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9048002/Lucien-Levy-BruhlJames

Frazer - Not interest until anthropologists apply his insights to our own culture (see Dr. C. S. Hyatts work for an idea).


Bogus Magus said...

It amuses me when Catholics deny other people effective rituals, or the effectiveness of ritual.

Have you ever attended one of theirs? To me it looked awful like the magick I had heard of, with sunlight streaming through the stained glass, and light flickering across the incense trails, the drone and echo of the choir, the yoga of standing, sitting and kneeling, the robes and gestures, etc.

And the bread really does become flesh to eat, and the wine turns into blood to drink - not just pretend, it really happens.

So they tell me.
(but "it's a miracle", not magic, apparently).

BeN tR0VaT0. said...

Ah, Bogus, I love you.

I'm still improving the article. I'll put the triple distilled copy up in a day or so :)

Bogus Magus said...

I noticed a few formatting problems, so I went in and tidied them away. (I assume they weren't there for artistic effect).

They may have something to do with PC / Mac differences, maybe?

I've seen them at MLA on a self-directed course (accessing on my PC).

One comment from my partner (as she offered to lend me the Douglas book from her own shelves) was that she found it hard reading a lot of words in white on black.

I see what she means, and extended pieces do probably look better as they would in MQ.

I still like our dark style, but try to enliven it with colour (color) and pictures, etc.

BeN tR0VaT0. said...

Thanks for the feedback Bogus - man, knowing that someone else has the book makes me want to write it again. Hard juggling a sense of humour with academia sometimes!

I like the darker style to - i find a lot of online stuff hard to read though. I print everything!


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