Magic, Mauss and Sunshine: thesis thoughts on chapter five




I re-read A General Theory of Magic in the sun in the backyard today and spent some time penning a Dear Mauss, which began:


Dear Mauss,


I think you may be interested to hear of the similarities and differences between the Yolŋu concept of ‘märr’ and the better-known concept of ‘mana.’

And perhaps also of the way Yolŋu consider issues of causality and responsibility.


I was revisiting A General Theory of Magic with Chapter 5 of my thesis in mind, which explores the way Yolŋu consider issues of blame and responsibility in cases of conflict and disorder. The case studies that comprise the bulk of this chapter were originally part of a much longer chapter entitled From Weaning and Child Socialization to The Social Cause of Illness and Sorcery: a cultural model of causality that foregrounds affect and interpersonal influence. I wrote to Mauss of this, in part, thus:


‘Ganydjarr (‘power, strength, speed’) like ŋayaŋu (‘state of feeling’) is almost always associated with transitive verbs. It is not insignificant either that English speaking Yolŋu draw on English terms associated with emotion in such a way that they ‘become transitive’, e.g. ‘powering’, which is often used interchangeably with ‘empowering’ as in “he or she was powering that person” (i.e. they were inciting or influencing them and are therefore partly responsible).


This reflects the way people consider the relationship between affect, action and effect in interpersonal exchange. As I have written you before, causality and responsibility are as much about affect as they are action in the Yolŋu case – affect effects action and action may then either positively or negatively affect the state of relations among and between people, which is the determining doobiewatsit. It is also the case that affect can effect particular ‘states of feeling’ in the sense of physical health and wellbeing – as the potential to give, take or exchange ganydjarr (‘power, strength, speed’) suggests.’


It has been a rather long day. And here is Mauss himself. The following is an excerpt from A General Theory of Magic (1975) as translated by R. Brain, published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, London:


‘The kind of traditional practices which might be confused with magical activities include legal actions, techniques and religious ritual. Magic has been linked with a system of jural obligations, since in many places there are words and gestures which are binding sanctions. It is true that legal actions may often acquire a ritual character and that contracts, oaths and trials by ordeal are to a certain extend sacramental. Nevertheless, the fact remains that although they contain ritual elements they are not magical rites in themselves. If they assume a special kind of efficacy or if they do more than merely establish contractual relations between persons, they cease to be legal actions and do become magical or religious rites.


Ritual acts, on the contrary, are essentially thought to be able to produce much more than a contract: rites are eminently effective; they are creative; they ‘do’ things. It is through these qualities that magical ritual is recognizable as such. In some cases even, ritual derives its name from a reference to these effective characteristics: in India the word which best corresponds to our word ritual is karman, action; sympathetic magic is the factum, krtya, par excellence. The German word Zauber has the same etymological meaning; in other languages the words for magic contain the root to do.









Filed under Anthropology, Ethnography, Thesis/Yolngu related writing

2 responses to “Magic, Mauss and Sunshine: thesis thoughts on chapter five

  1. Gio

    I think you should submit this to HAU…

  2. Hello my co-evil friend. Thank you, I’m flattered that you should think so. Perhaps I’ll gather my thoughts and notes into a form other than a love letter to Mauss and see what is there. Much of the thesis deals with these concepts and issues actually so it shouldn’t be too difficult. Thanks again for the ^note. I hope the new year has found you well. B.

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