Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Do You Believe in Magic (Part 1)

I'll tell you about the magic, and it'll free your soul,
But it's like tryin' to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll. – John Sebastian

     For a weekly blog detailing the relationship between rhetorical theory and the paranormal, I can't think of a better way to get things rolling than with the topic of magic. Practically everything I'd like to say about “how language creates reality as much as reality creates language” can be brought into focus by considering various and miscellaneous aspects of magic. To ponder the question “Is magic real?” is to meditate as well upon its twin question, “Is reality magical?” As soon as we pause to wonder if something is (or isn't) real, we find ourselves in a very complicated hall of mirrors constructed of conflicting impressions and contradictory pathways. To find your way through this funhouse, you have to rely on both your eyes to show you what's up ahead and your ears to tell you what the others ahead of you are saying they have already learned about the path you're about to find. Unfortunately, because it's a maze built of illusions, distortions, and misperceptions, your eyes and your ears may be deceived.

     Sometimes the only way to talk about complicated rhetorical ideas is to use enormous, obscure, or technical terminology. In this week's post, for example, in order to appreciate the complexity of magical principles, I am going to use the words “epistemology,” “ontology,” and “doxa.” If the vocabulary of rhetorical theory seems at first intimidating or nearly incomprehensible, do not let that deter you from taking this beautifully strange journey with me. When I was in graduate school studying some of these very ideas I'll be discussing below, I often had to come across a term a dozen times (or more) before it started to sink in what the theorists were actually talking about. Over the next year, this blog is going to cover dozens of interesting and esoteric rhetorical terms (as well as dozens of exotic and peculiar paranormal topics), and as your guide through this virtual Museum of the Weird and Unusual, I promise not to speed too quickly by either the academic language or the two-headed sheep. Please feel free to ask questions in the comment box below the post. (I'm getting really poor reception on my Ouija board.)

     Ontology is the branch of philosophy that contemplates the existence and nature of reality. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that ponders the limits and accuracy of knowledge. Doxa is an especially obscure rhetorical term that I find very useful in describing the ideas that seem so commonplace that no one bothers to question their underlying assumptions; think of doxa (at least the way I will be using the term) as a sibling to “common sense” and “popular opinion.” Thus, the questions “Is magic real?” and “Does magic exist?” are ontological because they originate from concerns of being and existence; “If magic does exist, would it still exist if there were no humans left to experience it?” is also an ontological question. “How do you know magic is real?” is more epistemological than ontological because the focus of the question sifts from the existence of magic to the knowledge that someone else might claim to have about its existence. “How do people learn magic?” and “What are the limits to magical knowledge?” are epistemic (a synonym for epistemological) because these questions are centered on understanding what can be known about magic. 

      A statement such as “The type of magic David Copperfield performs on stage in Las Vegas is not at all the same type of magic Gandalf performs in the Mines of Moria,” is doxastic because people generally assume that stage magic is a result of an illusion created through practiced misdirection and wizardry employs supernatural means to produce otherwise impossible results. If I argue “The real magic of the Harry Potter series isn't the wizardry the characters use upon each other, but the intoxicating spells J.K. Rowling casts upon her readers,” then it's necessary to be able to distinguish between the “supernatural magic” of the story and the “literary magic” of the author before a critic can accurately challenge the intention of what I'm trying to say. Too often, politicians and pundits deliberately ignore or confuse the context of their rivals words when commenting upon “what their opponent has said” in order to upend entirely their adversary's original message.

     Doxa, by the way, which the ancient Greeks used as the term to argue what at the time they considered common knowledge, is the root for the word “paradox.” Here the prefix para means “beyond or distinct from” and since doxa refers to “what is commonly understood”, we can see how “paradox” literally means “beyond what can be commonly understood.” Although there are many ways to define paradox, the essential quality of paradox is the contradiction that arises from trying to assert two mutually exclusive truths simultaneously. For example, if I assert that “I lie about everything” and it turns out to be true, that I actually do lie about everything, then I must be lying about the assertion that I lie about everything and so the only way the assertion can be true is if it's a lie.

     Paradoxes create problems with ordinary logic because they refer to themselves in ways that undermine the truths they supposedly support. My favorite paradox comes from a writer named Perry Weddle who wrote about one of the most awesome ideas I ever heard; Weddle suggested teaching a parrot to say, “I don't know what I'm saying” so that every time the bird repeated the phrase, it would be telling the truth about what it was saying, but it wouldn't know it was telling the truth. Now check this out: what the parrot says is paradoxical; our expectation that the bird is most likely incapable of understanding what it's saying is doxastic; questions regarding the extent to which the bird can know what it is saying are epistemological; and if we are wondering if somewhere in the world there's actually a bird that's been taught to say, “I don't know what I'm saying,” that speculation is ontological. See? You don't need to waste money on illicit drugs to mess with your state of consciousness; you can do it legally for free just by thinking too much about the relationship between meaning and reality. Did you ever wonder who came up with the idea of stuffing pimentos into olives? Me neither.

     This, finally, leads us to the paradoxes of the principles of magical beliefs. In order to keep these blog posts to an internet-friendly length, I will in the future discus each of these principles in more depth in future posts. But, to get us started, here are a few of the most common assumptions that, historically, magic users (shamans and pythoness rather than stage performers) have shared in their quests to achieve supernatural results upon earthly and mundane circumstances.
  • The Principle of Naming – is the idea if you know the name of something, you can have power over it which may lead to controlling it. The corollary idea is that if you don't know the name of something you are dealing with, you will be powerless before it.
  • The Principle of Contagion – contends that two things that were once connected continue to exert influence upon each other once separated. (This is why you sometimes need a lock of hair to put a spell on someone).
  • The Principle of Similarity – holds that by acting upon something that is similar to something else, you can produce results on that something else. (For example, the pounding of a drum that sounds like thunder can make it rain.)
  • The Principle of Personification – maintains that if you treat an inanimate object like a sentient creature then it can respond like a sentient creature.
  • The Principle of Polarity – which explains that sometimes understanding (and thus, having power over) something requirements knowing what it is not. (If you want to gain power over hatred, explore boundaries of love.)
     As a rhetorical theorist, I am fascinated by the mechanics of belief (by which I mean, the explanations that people offer for supporting what they suppose to be true). The paradigms of science and magic operate under entirely different cognitive schemes of justification so I think it will be interesting to juxtapose the foundational ontological, epistemological, and doxastic expectations of their supporters. I expect in the weeks to come that it is inevitable readers and critics will try to identify my own bias in regards to what I believe or disbelieve in regards to the numerous paranormal topics covered in this blog. My goal, however, is to be as vague and coy as possible about my own prejudices regarding the arguments that either scientists or sorcerers use to defend their understanding of reality. The Germans have a word, Weltanschauung, that roughly translates to “worldview”, and I would like to define mine as “agnostic” meaning “I don't know” or “I'm not disposed to make up my mind.” My official position, then, is to try to be a neutral umpire of the game without overtly rooting for any particular team.

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