Nakamura: Magic Enchants Us with the Possible Made Real
“An obscure memory of cosmic perturbations in the distant past and the dim thought of future catastrophes form the very basis of human thought, speech and images.”
M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
“This obscure memory and dim thought of humankind vividly inhabited Neo-Assyrian mythologies, religious values, and social practices.
In Mesopotamian thought, dichotomies did not provide a fundamental way of organizing experience. Rational thought was neither dominant nor lacking in their system of knowledge; the medical use of plants, social ordinances and laws, city planning, and other cultural forms certainly exhibited strains of deductive reasoning.
But Mesopotamian thought also embraced the various shadows, symmetries, torsions, syncopations, ruptures, and reversals that punctuate the rich texture of human experience.
Magic traces a mode of thinking that is layered, reticular, and corporeal, rather than linear and abstract, and this mode provided the ground for Mesopotamian social and religious life in both its logical and sensory depth. Magic, then and now, enchants us not with the truth, but with the possible made real.
Neo-Assyrian magical figurine work conjures and materializes a primordial secret: if apotropaic magic names that which wards off and turns away evil, then evil is nothing other than the insidious reality that humans themselves create their own creators and make their own world.
But the exposure of this secret, which would seem to threaten the very dissolution of the religious belief and tradition at the core of Assyrian social life, instead serves to preserve these beliefs and traditions (cf. Taussig 1999).
In this way, the apotropaic device recalls that perverse disposition of the supplement: “a terrifying menace, the supplement is also the first and surest protection against that very menace” (Derrida 1974:153).
Figurine deposits secure the protection of the present by giving a future to the mythological past, a past in which the gods and spirits ground the condition for human social life.
This mimetic production does not reproduce the same, but discloses a new life through the figures of repetition, transfiguration, and burial; as such, it constitutes the processual enactment of a memorial gesture whereby a particular Neo-Assyrian mythohistory preserves its future in the material memory of itself.
The gods and spirits, like the dead, become our guardians, “we give them a future so that they may give us a past. We help them live on so they may help us go forward” (Harrison 2003:158).
As an art of doing, magic capitalizes on this strife between meaning and matter, life and death, past and future, and in it, grounds the authority of a desired social order.”
Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 38-9.