Friday, February 26, 2010

Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is a process which has not so much left us as left our conscious sphere. Though Frazier's work in many ways has been invalidated in the years since, his basic definition of sympathetic magic and magical thinking is still useful. As defined by Frazier, magic depends on two principles: the law of similarity (between effect and cause) and the law of contagion (things which effect each other continue to effect one another even when taken out of contact.) Throughout anthropological literature this definition is more or less the same: magical thinking is the assumption that events or items that are thematically or otherwise experientially linked with one another can therefor effect one another. Though there are more possibilities than the ones Frazier outlined, all of them come down to how we determine causality from the events of our lives, and interpreting the meaning that we attribute to this causal web. It is the latter aspect which we will be focusing on now.
    With a grasp of the ground we've already covered, it should be clear enough that any absolute certainty in regards to causality, or the nature of reality, is impossible. This is doubly true when such apparent truths are represented. Our lives are full of myths based on assumptions of causality based on spatial or temporal association, and essentially it boils down more regularly to our feelings about events than any thoroughgoing rational analysis of causal links. As Gilbert Lewis says, "habit is unthinking," and much of our thinking about reality is habitual.
    However, the magical thinking we arrive at need not be that of the schizophrenic or bushman who misappropriates cause. Instead, we can recognize our participation in the process of determining the meaning of everything we experience. Magical thinking as a general concept assumes that causality works "both ways," that is, if things are linked they can have an effect on one another. Though this often may not be the case in an external sense, it is generally the case in an internal one. So, though some may go so far as to call it a participation in the creation of reality, I have personally seen people turn into Humpty Dumpty just because of the slight difference between these two statements. (Participation in the process of attributing meaning vs. participation in the process of creating reality.)
    The following quotation cuts to the heart of this distinction,

There is the story of the American in the train who saw another American carrying a basket of unusual shape. 
His curiosity mastered him, and he leaned across and said: “Say, stranger, what you got in that bag?” 
The other, lantern-jawed and taciturn, replied: “mongoose”. 
The first man was rather baffled, as he had never heard of a mongoose. After a pause he pursued, at the risk of a rebuff: “But say, what is a Mongoose?” 
“Mongoose eats snakes”, replied the other. 
This was another poser, but he pursued: “What in hell do you want a Mongoose for?” 
”Well, you see”, said the second man (in a confidential whisper) “my brother sees snakes”. 
The first man was more puzzled than ever; but after a long think, he continued rather pathetically: “But say, them ain’t real snakes”. 
”Sure”, said the man with the basket, “but this Mongoose ain’t real either”. (Aleister Crowley, Magick In Theory & Practice.)
Believing in the reality of those snakes will likely lead to a misappropriation of cause. You think the imaginary snakes are real. In common parlance, you've lost your fucking marbles. If you become too sure in your beliefs, whatever they may be, you will likely find yourself falling prey to the same sort of superstition which is easily identified in tribal and aboriginal cultures throughout the world. Many similar logical fallacies can be found in some New Age publications, and health stores. Feynman has talk that you can track down on the internet called Cargo Cult science that deals with many elements of psuedoscience and how some of what we might consider science can fall into this category as well.
    If a person spends days or even years working to bring about a certain end result, they will attribute a successful result with their prior efforts. It is altogether possible, if not even probable, that success had little or nothing to do with the operation, though the operation may have set them in motion. If the results are not what they were hoping for, the magical belief structure generally allows for "intrusions" of various kinds, such as another shaman operating at cross purposes, or some other more subtle force which waylaid the operation. (“It wasn't God's will,” “I sinned in some way,” “my magic wasn't strong enough,” etc.) The terminology would shift for a religious believer or psychologist, but the underlying premise remains the same.
    Consider this hypothetical: suppose that during the middle ages, a meteor falls to earth, which a young farm boy discovers. This meteorite is placed in a church, and considered a holy relic. The local despot, who is preparing for war, takes this as a sign from God, and leads his army to victory. The historians of the time attribute his victory to the meteorite, thus further increasing its "magical power."
    Now, there's nothing to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the meteorite wasn't a sign from God that he should ride to battle and certain victory, but Occam's razor would certainly point to the confluence of other factors, from the skill and number of his troops and the weather on that particular day to the location that they fought, and so on. However, at the same time, such factors cannot account for the correlation of those events, (defined by Carl Jung as “synchronicity”), or the fact that the falling meteorite was the galvanizing cause, without which the success would not, and therefor could not, have occurred. So, in this sense it is true to say that the attributed meaning (“the meteorite is a sign from God that we will be victorious on this day”) was correct, if only because that meaning was attributed, and led them to a successful outcome.
    This distinction can be the difference between a creative human being and a raving lunatic, set adrift in a terrifying world of portent and symbol. Some of those wayfaring souls eventually come back to solid ground stronger for the experience, and others do not. This is not to actually imply that there's anything other than a cultural distinction between the two, in many cases. From the perspective of their own culture, surely countless artists are often channels or seers more than architects. Even those who lived more in the world of symbol more than the empirical world, like Antonin Artaud, can contribute something strangely worthwhile for the rest of us. The term "insane" is about as bigoted a blanket term as any racial epithet. Each "insanity" is unique, and some have unusual side effects, a specific capacity that is a natural part of their total state of being. The same is commonly observed in individuals otherwise labelled as "disabled."
    So let's give ourselves the license to be insane in this sense, hopefully without smearing the surrounding walls with shit. The meaning we give to experiences and sensations, even something as simple as a color, lies in our hands. This process is primarily automatic or subconscious, but also not entirely outside our influence. Meaning isn't attributed consciously. At some point, on some level, we have to choose what the pieces of our personal history mean. Something with a lot of emotional attached to it, like a divorce, can mean so many things. We write a lot of that story in our heads. Like it or not, as time goes on, our memories get overwritten with that internal story - that internal myth. Without being too academic for a moment, that's a part of what I mean when I talk about "living myth."  Whether we take it the next step and build literal creative myths out of our experiences and dreams is probably as much a matter of personal inclination as anything else. The root mythological impulse is in all of us, even if the capacity to render it in such a way that it is an effective tool or even entertaining past time for others is another matter entirely.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. when I lived at the M.I.O.F., there was a man that left and came back during my 90 days. The first time he was discharged. He was rolled in the bathroom shortly after smearing his feces on the walls sometime around 2 or 4 am. He proceeded to grab a fire-extinguisher, and it eventually made its way out of a window--causing a near "escape".
    That just reminded me.

  3. I'm happy to have brought you such fond memories.



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