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Nakamura: Magic as Mimesis in Mesopotamia

“Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) notion of intertwining or chiasm between interior and exterior experience might provide a helpful ontological frame here.

This bare movement of perception posits the emergence of various social worlds from the sensuous interchange between interior and exterior phenomena, namely, nodes of self-organization (perception) and the “chaos” of indeterminacy (being).

There exists a necessary separation and continuum between the former and the latter as the very condition for perception, such that perceptual faith becomes a “strange attractor in the circulation of sense, in the interweaving of perceptual and material systems” (Mazis 1999:233).

And Merleau-Ponty (1968) conceives of the bare notion of flesh as providing the substrate or condition for this movement. Flesh posits a world of indeterminate being connected by an essential openness to becoming completed by the world, things, others, qualities and interrelations (Grosz 1999:151).

Such transactions are never “completed” per se, but rather engage in continuous exchange, in an ongoing process of becoming. This unity, therefore, conditions perception as “a communication or communion, the taking up or completion by us of some extraneous intention or, . . . the complete expression outside ourselves of our perceptual powers and coition, so to speak, of our body with things” (Merleau-Ponty 1962).

The notion of an original unity seems to inhabit a Mesopotamian worldview in which dreams, visions, abnormal events, internal organs, and entrails provided an “empirical” basis for reality. In this reality, interior events and natural and social phenomena were intimately and specifically related.

One could argue that this worldview maintained a certain interpenetration or continuity between the interiority of the mind and the exteriority of the world. This notion is supported in the polysemic and polyphonic character of the Mesopotamian writing systems.

According to Asher-Grève and Asher (1998:39), the Sumerian language and vocabulary offers no evidence for the radical bifurcation of mind and body that is so fundamental to Western intellectual thought.

They find support for this notion in the Sumerian word, Šà, a holistic term that denotes the mind, body, and heart; the body and heart are the seat of the will, “it thinks, feels, has power over the limbs and is open to the influence of the deities” (1998:39).

Moreover, they see the body as providing a fundamental point of reference in early Mesopotamia; Sumerians see the body as the total being, confirmed by the absence of a distinct Sumerian word for brain/mind (1998:40).

In later times, ancient scribes and scholars exploited the flexibility of the Akkadian language evidenced in plays and puns on words (see Alster 2002). It is notable that the formation and development of the cuneiform script (created by Mesopotamians for Sumerian and adapted also to Akkadian), always allowed for a number of permutations and ambiguities to intervene, on the level of things indicated as well as on the level of signifying words (Bottéro 1992:94).

This capacity for linguistic signs and phonemes to hold multiple and freely interchangeable values reveals an indeterminacy built into what Bottéro calls the concrete and polysemic character of a “script of things” (Bottéro 1992:100). In other words, linguistic thought also supports a material logic of correspondence.

Although Mesopotamians certainly made distinctions between various concrete and intangible phenomena — the supernatural and natural worlds were connected through a notion of divinity, but were not seen as the same — perhaps it was the potential for their connection or conflation that was significant in the context of magic.

The reorientation of classical mind–matter, subject–object divisions within a relation of continuity and mutual implication sets up an ontological frame that might better approach an ancient Neo-Assyrian worldview (following Meskell 1999; 2002; 2004).

Such a frame not only situates magic in a pre-discursive world of relations, but also grounds it in an aesthetics that discloses a powerful process of enacting correspondence.

It should come as no surprise, then, to find mimetic work as a principle technique of magic, since the recovery of the world in its pre-differentiated unity provides the condition for the mimetic process of getting into the skin of an other (cf. Taussig 1993), that way of making which is the occasion of magic.

If this unity becomes obscured by the habitual, purifying movements of social process, then magic seeks its recovery in secrecy, through the concrete work of mimesis.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 26-7.

Nakamura: Magic Produces Wonder

The Sensuous Metaphysics of Magic: Mutual Constitution and Correspondence

“The representation of a wish is, eo ipso, the representation of its fulfillment. Magic, however, brings a wish to life; it manifests a wish.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (Miles and Rhees 1971)

“Implicit in Wittgenstein’s aphorism that magic “manifests a wish” is the notion that magic requires concrete demonstration: the fulfillment of the wish made real.

At first glance, magic as both the manifestation of a wish and its fulfillment seems to pose a contradiction in this act of making real. But magic is an exchange that seeks synthesis, and such exchange, “as in any other form of communication, surmounts the contradiction inherent in it” (Levi-Strauss 1987:58).

Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) surmised, “to be means to communicate” (287). And the movement of such exchange presumes a sensuous intimacy between the outside world and ourselves: “to be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself. A person has no internal sovereign territory, he is wholly and always on the boundary; looking inside himself, he looks into the eyes of another or with the eyes of another” (Bakhtin 1984:287).

This is the human orientation of being amidst the constant flux of the world that provokes our fear as much as desire, and discloses the condition for a way of knowing directly and sensuously.

Giambattista Vico (1999[1744] ), a forward-thinking but marginalized philosopher of his time, implicated bodily sense in a critique of the Cartesian principle of Cogito; in response to the reductive logic of geometric certainty, he formulated the axiom: man can only know what he himself has made — “verum et factum convertuntur” — and to make is to transform oneself by becoming other (Vico 1999[1744]:160).

The implication of this premise posits that human knowledge cannot be exhausted by rationality; it is also sensory and imaginative. Although Vico’s project poses three progressive historical eras of man: the first ruled by the senses, the second by imagination, and the third by reflective reason, we now recognize that all three modalities of knowledge exist throughout human history albeit at different scales and intensities.

From this perspective, magic, which embraces bodily imitation and play, is better viewed as a poetic reinterpretation of the concrete reality of human action rather than the discovery of an objective reality that presumes to regulate it (Böhm 1995:117).

Indeed it is our sensory faculties and not our rational faculties that better apprehend certain complexities of the magical realm: we know when we feel.

In encounters with magic, we apprehend the apparent trickery of bodies, substances, and things. Our reaction to such events often betrays delight, horror, fear, disgust, attraction, and fascination simultaneously, and such disorientation is desired.

Magic produces wonder, and in doing so returns us to a state of apprehending the world that short-circuits those automatic processes of intellection that discipline the senses. And wonder is central to a mode of understanding that is “capable of grasping what, in ourselves and in others precedes and exceeds reason” (Pettigrew 1999:66).

Bodily sense is key here, since it can know something more than words express. The “trick” of magic, then, lies in attaining the unknown by disorganizing all the senses; in effect, it acts to deregulate relationships that are rigorously regulated by normative cultural forms.

The aesthetic experience of magic seeks the recovery of correspondences between people, things, and places in their pre-differentiated unity, a unity that becomes obscured through “habitual modes of perception” (Harrison 1993:180).

In this way, magic aims at the perceptual movements that continually render meaning rather than at meaning itself. In this intercalary register of experience, magic presumes a certain direct engagement with the world; specifically, it recalls a pre-differentiated world as an open possibility of interrelations constantly in flux.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 24-6.

Nakamura: More on Magic and Archeology

Magic Presents More Than It Represents

“The magical object is nothing less than confounding; like Marx’s table, it is “an apparition of a strange creature: at the same time Life, Thing, Beast, Object, Commodity, Automaton — in a word, specter” (Derrida 1994:152). Like that other odd Table-thing, the magical object presents:

the contradiction of automatic autonomy, mechanical freedom, technical life. Like every thing, from the moment it comes onto the stage of a market, the table resembles a prosthesis of itself.

Autonomy and automatism, but automatism of this wooden table that spontaneously puts itself into motion, to be sure, and seems thus to animate, animalize, spiritualize, spiritize itself, but while remaining an artifactual body, a sort of automaton, a puppet, a stiff and mechanical doll whose dance obeys the technical rigidity of a program. (Derrida 1994:153)

Derrida’s lucid description of the commodity provides an uncanny account of the magical object and its tendency toward unintelligibility. This opacity or resistance to meaning seems to extend from some perverse quality of thingness that precedes and exceeds reason and defies any empirical or semantic basis.

While a magical work gathers meaning from the specific context of its production, it also produces a material intervention in the world that asserts a new force — like mana — that “always and everywhere, . . . somewhat like algebraic symbols, occurs to represent an indeterminate value of signification, in itself devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (Levi-Strauss 1987:55).

The condition of such opacity finds its origin not in a peculiar mental state as Levi-Strauss would have it, but in the promiscuous materiality of the work — the way in which it accommodates every relation it enters into, becoming spirit, idol, toy, or clay fabric G4 — such that it seems to defer and proliferate meaning.

There is something unsettling in the way things simply survive, through and beyond meaningful human signification, by continual deferral and deference. This is the strange life of things, animated and constrained by invisible relations and yet defiantly autonomous in their discrete physicality.

The allure of the thing lies in the way in which it can never be completed, never be fully or perfectly discovered; and it is always set in motion, propelled by human relations. In this way, the thing always exceeds its own narration.

And such authority in contingency, indeterminacy, and excess reveals an extra-semantic function of the magical object as the disclosure of powerful force in encounters of meaning and matter, life and death.

In this way, the magical object does not merely represent. It presents. This presentation, as not a reproducing or inventing but a capturing (Deleuze 2003:48), conjures a force that exceeds the totality of the complex relations and ideas that produce it.

Specifically, the magical event renders that which is not given over to meaning. Rather it vacillates between processes of signifier formation and the bare material potential of the world that is “superabundant beyond all understanding” (Menke 1998:69).

In seeking the concrete, magic captures the intractable power of things that is forever inaccessible to human mastery: things in their capacity for such excess and autonomy present a possibility — if not a guarantee — of life in death since pure matter, as an energy unbounded and unqualified by organic life, asserts the force of an existence that can never be destroyed, only conserved.

The obligation of death provides the very ground of life (Harrison 2003:70). And magic, as an event that disrupts the consensus (and what more final consensus can there be than death?), finds power in the bare possibility of presenting life as death, and meaning as matter.

This is the power of a radical materialism that lies beyond rational or linguistic analysis and suspends an “irresolvable dialectic,” a state of indeterminacy in the play between meaning and matter. These human–thing transactions trace an economy of the present in the sense that they do not seek a reconciliation of opposites, but rather a preserving of disjunction (Spivak 1974:xlii).

Within this ongoing movement, magic finds kinship with art and memory, unleashing a force as inscrutable to reason as it is captivating in our desire to control it.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 22-4.

Nakamura–Rimbaud’s Derangement of All the Senses, Magic, and Archeology

“Curiously, archaeological research has not fully exploited the evocative cooperation between text, iconography, material, and deposition in this apotropaic practice. Rather, it has been the art historical and Assyriological traditions that have provided the most thorough deliberations on the ritual.

Iconographic analyses present detailed visual descriptions of the figurines (Klengel-Brandt 1968; Rittig 1977; Van Buren 1931), and trace out a visual typology of apotropaic images (Green 1993; Wiggermann 1993), while textual analysis investigates the symbolic logic of apotropaic prescription and the mythological identities of the figures (Wiggermann 1992).

Two long-awaited volumes no doubt will provide further analyses of particular site assemblages (Green forthcoming) and the apotropaic figurines in general (Ellis forthcoming). Despite the richness of textual and archaeological data, an anthropological perspective is distinctly lacking; however, such research would considerably enrich our views of this remarkable ancient practice.

Regrettably, studies of previously excavated materials have not exploited the diverse range of approaches afforded by modern social sciences. While previously excavated sites and materials admittedly do not often lend themselves to the analytical and interpretive techniques most favored by archaeologists, such data should not be omitted from modern reconsideration and inquiry simply because they present a special challenge for substantive interpretation (see Meskell 1999).

There is, in fact, adequate data to perform detailed contextual and spatial analyses of the apotropaic practice at certain Neo-Assyrian sites. Furthermore, I would argue that conventional interpretations in archaeology — still oriented toward explanation and meaning — fail to get at the most compelling aspects of ancient magic, exactly that which makes it magical.

Magic surely presents something beyond the reach of representational or functional interpretations and thus demands a different perspective. What is required is an evocation of magic that aims directly at the caesura between meaning and matter and delves into the shadowy processes of materializing experience, belief, and value.

Perhaps it is not surprising that archaeology, with only material traces of human activity to work with, has left the critical study of magic to other disciplines. It is revealing that “magic” is generally invoked as an explanation for those slippery things, processes, and occurrences that our rational and linguistic varieties of logic can’t quite master.

From this vantage, magic has become something more suitable for explaining than for being explained. But as Mauss (1972) decisively observed in A General Theory of Magic, magic is as much a way of doing as a way of thinking.

We should consider, then, not a logic but an aesthetics of magical practice, as a particular way of making sense (Gosden 2001). And this way of doing engages a radical materiality that not only enacts the mutual constitution of subjects and objects, but provides the condition for such discursive practices.

A consideration of materiality vis-à-vis magic, then, does not presume and continue the anthropological pursuit of finding meaning in matter, the well-rehearsed terrain of discovering how various cultures construct and inscribe meaning in their artifacts.

What is magical or forceful in certain artifacts evades such fixed and flattened analyses since processes of abstraction do not account for the “untranscended materiality” or “plastic power” of the object that derives from the thing’s materialness itself (Pels 1998:101).

Impoverished attempts to discover the meaning or social context of a magical artifact, as it were, fall short not only because of an opacity of things, but also because our habituated ways of apprehending and constructing meaning threaten a veritable non-recognition of the things themselves.

This purifying analytical gaze effectively eviscerates matter of its very materiality — its innate capacity to continuously engage and enter into new relations. But recovering a recognition of things simply requires embracing the thingness of matter, namely, that insistent sensuousness of things that compels a confrontation with humans.

This move does not return us to problematic theories of materialism, but rather engages a notion of materiality as a dialectic and supplemental aesthetic of relating to.

Humans mime the animate in the inanimate, and the ideal in the real, to create and transform the world around them, only to be created and transformed right back. Such is the reality of matter: it “strikes back” (Pels 1998:91).

Within this framework I suggest that apotropaic figurine magic encompasses a process that enacts both a distinct mode of perception and a material event that renders a protected reality.

This discussion converges specifically on two aspects of magic: first, how magic capitalizes on a tension between the social construction of meaning and the radical autonomy of matter, and second, how magical perception, in the way of poetic action, masters the unknown by recovering and performing a “derangement of all the senses.” (Rimbaud 1967:302 and Deleuze 1993).

From such a viewpoint, Mesopotamian magic neither constitutes nor opposes a “rational” mode of knowing the world, but rather moves alongside in tandem, as counterpoint in a polyphonic system of knowledge. From this perspective, magic engages a sensuous metaphysics and grounds the possibility of a distinct socio-religious worldview.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 19-22.

Carolyn Nakamura on the Figurines

Mastering Matters: Magical Sense and Apoptropaic Figurine Worlds of Neo-Assyria

Introduction: Magical Figures from the Past

“When contemplating certain deposits unearthed during the excavations at Nimrud in the 1950s, Max Mallowan remarked, “this magical practice had an immensely long survival, as witness the nursery rhyme:

Four corners to my bed,
Four angels round my head,
One to watch and one to pray,
And two to bear my soul away.” (1966:226)

Mallowan’s commentary, rather typical of his time, concerned the discovery of numerous brick boxes encasing figurines made of sun-dried clay, found buried underneath the corners, thresholds, and central spaces of room floors, possibly where a bed once stood.

Excavations during the late 1800s to mid 1900s located such deposits in residences, palaces, and temples at important political and religious capitals of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, including Nimrud, Assur, Nineveh, Khorsabad and at Ur in Babylonia under Assyrian rule; they first appeared during the reign of Shalmaneser III and generally persisted up through the reign of Sin-shar-ishkun (ca. 858–612 B.C.).

One can imagine an excavator’s delight in finding such deposits, and there was apparently considerable competition and excitement surrounding their discovery and unveiling (Oates and Oates 2001:253–254).

But, locating such boxes did not always promise the discovery of figurines. Numerous “empty” brick boxes contained nothing more than a thick layer of sandy material, possibly remnants of decomposed organic matter such as wood or food.

Deposits from Ur contained offerings of animal bones, remnants of grain and a pottery sherd along with the clay figures (Woolley 1926:692). And at Assur, some of the buried boxes entombed miniature bronze weapons (Rittig 1977).

But perhaps the most curious finds were the figurines of “warrior” men, mythological fish- and bird-apkallū sages, human-beast hybrids, horned snakes, and other fantastical beings (Figure 2.1).

Apotropaic figurine deposit found in room S57 of Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud. Adapted from Curtis and Read (1995:112).

Apotropaic figurine deposit found in room S57 of Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud. Adapted from Curtis and Read (1995:112).

Generally, such deposits comprised one, two, or seven figurines standing “at attention” in boxes facing in toward the center of the room.

These deposits, not simply buried but concealed and contained, amounted to the discovery within a discovery, the revelation of an ancient secret or desire that had remained hidden for thousands of years.

Other archaeological findings, however, had already anticipated these discoveries: ancient texts preserved instructions for an apotropaic ritual involving the burial of clay and wood figurines under room floors quite in the manner described above (Gurney 1935; Smith 1926; Wiggermann 1992).

The name of one text explicitly pronounced its purpose: šēp lemutti ina bīt amēli parāsu, “to block the entry of the enemy in someone’s house” (Wiggermann 1992:1); and the first twenty lines named the “enemy” to be almost any evil imaginable, from spirits, gods, and ancestors to disease, misfortune, Fate, and Death.

The text guided a priest-exorcist through a choreography of very specific and often protracted ceremonies involving various objects, gestures, substances, and locations, leading up to the final installation of the magically protective figures entombed underground.

Notably, another related text fragment, KAR 298, specifically detailed the making, function, character, number, and placement of the figurines (Smith 1926). The archaeological evidence proved to be remarkably consistent with these texts in terms of form and details of surface treatment, and to some extent, position and grouping of the figures.

So the Neo-Assyrians themselves revealed the secret of the figurine deposits: they were magically powerful deposits that protected the individual and his house from sickness and evil. The protective figures served to “watch,” “pray,” and “bear souls away,” as it were.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 18-19.

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