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Category: Merleau-Ponty

Nakamura: Magic’s Perception and Performance

Bodily Sense: Magic’s Perception and Performance

Mimesis asserts a gesture of expression that “retrieves the world and remakes it” (Merleau-Ponty 1973:78), and I am interested in how the Neo-Assyrian figurine deposits, as such gestures, retrieve and remake a protected world.

Figurines, as miniature bodily forms petrified in clay or stone, are distinct works of wonder; in the way of poetic disclosure, they project an idealized past and more desirable future. Figurines fascinate as they confront our gaze with something familiar in the unfamiliar, real in the counterfeit.

It is not only the object’s form or physicality that we identify and relate to, but something of the mimetic gesture: the faculty to create and explore ourselves, to encounter and become other (Taussig 1993:xiii).

Anterior to the organized knowledge of reflection, there is mimesis: this age-old and rather profound faculty that stands somewhere at the beginning of play, the beginning of language, and the beginning of self-making (Benjamin 1979).

With mimesis, we already have a sense that reality, at some level, is simply a matter of relations. Walter Benjamin conceived of the mimetic faculty as producing “magical correspondences” between persons and things, objects and essences: “a child not only plays at being a grocer or a teacher, but also at being a windmill or a train” (1979:65).

Relations forged through miming reveal remarkable correspondences between the material and immaterial; the copy assumes the power of the original, and a wish is “made real” in the material fabric of the world (Frazer 1957:55; Taussig 1993:47).

The elegance of the mimetic process lies in the way in which it always renders an imperfect copy, and it is this very intervention of imperfection that locates and captures creative force.

If Neo-Assyrian apotropaic magic reenacts a circulation of sense — a reorientation of perceptual and material systems — to disclose the protection of space and being in time, how might we consider a notion of protection constituted in the material gesture of placing numerous figurine deposits under Neo-Assyrian room floors?

Furthermore, what can we make of acts of burial, concealment, and containment in this context? Here, texts and archaeological materials considered together portray a remarkably detailed practice in the choreography of various mimetic acts.

Turning to the texts, we find they recount the exemplary life of these objects from creation to deposition. The ritual production of apotropaic figurines involved certain meaningful places, materials and gestures: one text instructs a practitioner, a high-ranking state āšipu (priest-exorcist) to go to the woods at sunrise to consecrate a cornel tree, recite the incantation “Evil [spirit] in the broad steppe” and then return to the city to make the figurines from the consecrated wood (see Text 1, 28– 44 in Wiggermann 1992).

Carolyn Nakamura, “Mastering matters: magical sense and apotropaic figurine worlds of Neo-Assyria,” Archaeologies of materiality (2005): 28-9.

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.

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