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Category: Harrison

Nakamura: Magic Enchants Us with the Possible Made Real

Conclusion

“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.

Two Kusarikku, or "bull-men," holding a sacred palm tree surmounted by the eight-pointed star of Ištar.  Note the horned headdresses, indicative of divinity.  From Eshnunna (Tell Asmar near Baghdad,Iraq). Early 2nd millennium BCE. Louvre, AO 12446

Two Kusarikku, or “bull-men,” holding a sacred palm tree surmounted by the eight-pointed star of Ištar.
Note the horned headdresses, indicative of divinity.
From Eshnunna (Tell Asmar near Baghdad,Iraq). Early 2nd millennium BCE.
Louvre, AO 12446

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).

A pantheon.

A pantheon.

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.

Nakamura: the āšipu was Master of the Figurines

The Buried and Enclosed

“The multiple layers of concealment in this Neo-Assyrian figurine ritual suggest a play on the hiding and receiving powers of the earth.

In Mesopotamia, burial constituted a pervasive and important ritual idiom; people buried valuables, sacrifices, foundation offerings, caches of various materials, and their dead.

Nakamura: "By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order."

Nakamura: “By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order.”

Such diverse practices surely supported an equally diverse range of meanings. But in a basic sense, burial can mean to store, preserve, and put the past on hold (Harrison 2003:xi). This concept of burial holds purchase in the way in which protection relates to memory.

By burying figurines of powerful beings, the āšipu preserves an expressed belief in a present reality of supernatural power, mythological origin and divine order.

Burial keeps things hidden and protected such that preservation binds memory to a specific locality, from which it can be retrieved in the future as a given past. And this preservation of the future configures protection as survival.

It is interesting to mention here a temporal particularity in the Akkadian language that designates the “past” as lying before and the “future” as lying behind (Maul 1997:109), a stark reversal of our modern notions.

Mythology also seems to corroborate the notion that Mesopotamians “proceeded with their backs to the future,” as it were. Berossos’ Babyloniaka presents the primordial sage Oannes as having taught humans all the arts of domestic and cultural life.

Other myths regard this knowledge of the civilized arts as a gift from the god Enki (Ea). What is striking in both of these accounts is that the Mesopotamians believed that all cultural achievements — be they architecture, writing, healing, metalwork, carpentry, et cetera — were endowed to humans at the beginning of time, and this notion locates the ideal image of society in a primordial and mythological past rather than in a hopeful future (Maul 1997:109).

Furthermore, the figurines were not only buried, but also placed appropriately under the earth, in the space of the Netherworld and the apsû, the primordial freshwater ocean.

A depiction of the underworld.  Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.  In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.  The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.  The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.  Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.  The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

A depiction of the underworld.
Nergal appears at the top, leering over a top register which contains the eight-pointed star of Ishtar and the inverted half-moon crescent of the Moon God Sin.
In the second register, seven demons appear to support the heavens.
The middle register depicts the burial rites for new arrivals in the underworld, presided over by two fish-apkallū.
The lower register depicts the goddess Allat, or Ereshkigal, sister of Ishtar, who reigns in the underworld. She kneels upon a horse, which appears to be oppressed by her burden, in a boat which floats upon the waters of life. Note the lion pups suckling at her breast.
Drawn by Faucher-Gudin, from a bronze plaque of which an engraving was published by Clermont-Ganneau.
The original, which belonged to M. Péretié, is now in the collection of M. de Clercq.
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17323/17323-h/17323-h.htm#linkBimage-0039

Numerous sources locate the underworld in the ground, beneath the surface of the earth (Black and Green 1992:180; Bottéro 1992:273–275). This idea follows from a traditional Mesopotamian conception of a vertical and bipolar universe where the earth, inhabited by living humans, separated the Heavens (šamû) from the Netherworld (ersętu) (Bottéro 1992:273).

And the borders of these domains were permeable, as entry to the Netherworld could be gained by way of a stairway leading down to the gate, while spirits could access the human world through cracks and holes in earth’s surface.

But importantly, the prevailing worldview of this time held that every being occupied a proper space in the world, with the lower hemisphere, symmetrical to the upper heavens, providing a discrete space and residence for the dead and other supernatural beings.

In this context, the burial of figurines of creatures from the underworld and apsû might constitute a mimetic gesture of placing or commanding such beings to their proper place in the world. This ritual practice not only reflects but reenacts the notion of an underworld located underground.

Furthermore, the strategic placement of the figurine deposits under certain architectural and household features may act to channel and focus the protective power of the beings, since they dwell in their “proper” realm.

The fact that the figurines were encased in boxes is also evocative of the important gesture of providing a “house” for the deities, and there could be no greater service rendered to a divine being than the building of his or her house (Frankfort 1978:267).

Additionally, the “immateriality” of a buried geography as an invisible, powerful presence is itself provocative.

The figurines, so installed, become effectively removed from the sensuous sphere of human–object relations. In this register of experience, they are “completed,” no longer engaging in processes of mutual constitution and becoming.

But the materiality of the figurine deposit endures and is powerful in this capacity to survive, virtually unmolested, performing its original duty; cut off from human relations, mute, blind, and restrained, they no longer strike back at human subjects, but can only direct their force to fighting off evil spirits in the Netherworld, as instructed by the āšipu.

There is a sense here of Derrida’s (1994) autonomous automaton, the animate puppet with a will of its own that yet obeys some predetermined program. By containing, concealing, and hiding these magical figures, the priest has made his mastery of their power complete.”

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 36-8.

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.

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