“The magical turn”

Hey folks, sorry I’ve been a bit scarce on Dial M. Broke muh damn leg.


“The Anderson Silva Special”

Don’t want to write about that, though. I want to write about fads.

If you’re in a band and are looking for a genre identity, you can always just add -core to the end of whatever it is you do. Do you have an accordionist? Call it accordioncore. Does your music sound like shit? Nothing says “it’s supposed to sound like that” better than calling it shitcore. Is your music just kind of normal? Call it normcore and tell the world that you’re being post-ironic. Or something. Regardless, the -core suffix announces that you are part of a larger trend. On your own you’re just a shit band with an accordion; as a shitcordioncore band, though, you claim your small share of world-historical importance.

Humanities academics have their own version of this: we are very fond of “turns.” I was just writing about “the ontological turn,” which joins “the cultural turn,” “the linguistic turn,” “the historical turn,” and a great many others. Humanities academics can apply the “[X] turn” formula to pretty much anything they want to claim as the next big thing. So I predict we’re all going to be be talking about magic pretty soon, and maybe already are. Voilà, “the magical turn.”

Signs and auguries are everywhere. A coolhunting brand-consultancy called K-Hole releases a “Report on Doubt” and announces that all the cool kids will be into Chaos Magick. (Paging Ramsey Dukes!) Vodou vévés are appearing on socks. In a possibly related development, demonic possessions are on the rise, and the Vatican announces a shortage of trained exorcists. And Salon has announced that normcore is out and “‘Mysticore’ is the new norm.” Of course they’re calling it “mysticore.”


Finally, not one but two music-academic journals announcing special issues devoted to magic and the occult. I am editing one of them; the other was recently announced in Popular Music

It’s good that magic, mysticism, “the Weird,” etc., are finally getting an outing in that quiet academic neighborhood where I make my home. Now it is musicology’s turn to grapple with the problems that anthropology and history have puzzled over for decades: what to make of people who believe things that our modern education tells us can never be anything more than illusion. I have written at great length about these issues here on Dial M and to a lesser extent in my book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture. I’m excited about Popular Music‘s planned special issue on popular music and magic, and I encourage anyone with an interest in the topic to start thinking about submitting something right now:

Music and Magic: Call for Articles

This special issue of Popular Music will focus on the intersection of popular music with ‘magic’, however authors may wish to define the term.

Back in 1981, Simon Frith insisted that myths and magic existed insofar as cultural participants believed in them and found them comforting, giving the example of rock songs that conjured up, for those who so desired, a working-class street culture. Eric Weisbard (2005) similarly proposed to focus our academic study on the ‘magic moments’ of musical experiences, insisting that scholars should accept and recognize those instances when rapture, accidents, a sense of vertigo or one’s perplexity (‘the quizzical, not the categorical’) takes centre stage in life, and all thanks to music.

These different interpretations of magic relate to control, with magic offering an illusion of coherence and confidence to artists, consumers and critics, and having the ability to re-enchant an implicitly and excessively rational world –whether this is interpreted as welcome comfort or as political disengagement.

So, when is magic actually mobilised in and around music-making? What does the mobilisation of magic reveal about the values and practices that underpin our contemporary popular music culture? What does the idea of magic bring to music, and to our understanding of the world?

This special issue seeks to explore these issues.

When this CFP came through the musicology listserv, though, something seemed off to me about the wording. I suppose it’s the words “comfort” and “comforting” that bother me. Do academic Marxists, for example, say that they find the idea of a classless society “comforting”? No: comfort is something that silly and sentimental people take from ideas that cleverer folks understand to be problematic. Comfort is “false consciousness:” it’s always something that other people seek. Academics pride themselves on being able to handle the hard truths — in this case, presumably, the truth that magic isn’t real. Which of course invites the question, what do you mean by “real”?, along with all the other threshold questions that we have been entertaining on Dial M for a couple of years now.

What I’m saying is, we’re only beginning to figure this stuff out for ourselves. I’m not blaming Popular Music for a passing awkwardness of CFP wording. It’s unavoidable, given the amount of epistemic heavy lifting that has to happen before this topic even becomes usefully available to academics. Doing serious academic work on magic is playing the game on “hard” mode.

My question is, are we up for it? The vulgarity and hubris of the K-Hole “Report on Doubt,” which reduces magic to “branding,” is easy to see. But intellectuals shouldn’t get too smug. Commodification of magic isn’t that different from strip-mining it for articles and books you can cash in for tenure points.

Wait, have I been doing that? Strip-mining magic for academic currency? Naw, probably not.


The Salon piece ends by quoting Pam Grossman, a real-deal academic humanist and real-deal witch, saying  “Magic is a shape-shifter … It doesn’t care what form it takes. It just wants to flow and be known.” This is profoundly true. But it also never wants to be known too well. It will find odd and circuitous paths into our lives, and yet when it finally gets our attention and excites our curiosity, it also finds ways to vanish just as we are closing our hand around it.

Remember Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street? In the first few years of that show he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend, and every time BB went to get an adult to prove to them that Snuffy existed, he (Snuffy) would wander away by the time the adult showed up. The gag got stale, I guess, so at length the producers decided to let Snuffy join the consensus reality. But I’ve always thought that early Snuffy is a pretty good figure for the tendency of magic to disappear whenever anyone tries to nail it down.

Magic teases you when you don’t pay attention to it, and then when you do, it runs away. Not for nothing is the figure of the magician traditionally that of the Trickster.

Consequently, the history of magic is discontinuous, a series of sudden revivals and equally sudden reversals into infamy and obscurity. Every revival looks a bit different — the 1960s magic revival was conditioned by the wider counterculture, whereas the one we have now is conditioned by the internet* — but they all seem to have the same general boom-bust shape.


A page from a 1960s underground newspaper reprinted in Free Press: Underground and Alternative Publications, 1965-1975, though unfortunately this unsourced excerpt is all we get.

This fragment of an article from a mid-late 1960s Bay Area counterculture rag starts by noting the hipster I-was-into-it-before-it-was-cool attitude that members of a formerly-exclusive scene usually adopt when all the tourists and normies crowding in. The author hopes, however, that the hipster magician’s prediction (“Never fear, these naïve assholes will blow up their friends, freak their minds, and it will all be over in six months”) doesn’t come true. Sadly, it did, though it took more than six months to get there. Stuff like that always seems to happen when enough people get the Trickster by the tail — or think they do.

What always happens with various academic “turns” is what I’ve written about in my piece on “interdisciplinarity.” They start off as unstable zones of risk, experimentation, and excitement, in the cracks between the stabilized positions of conventional academic study; and then they stabilize and crystallize out into the same reified, professionalized forms as the ones they have displaced. Once they start policing their own borders, the fun is over. Now you can’t say anything without checking it against canonical writings in the field and fighting for your own little postage-stamp square of terrain within it. (“Whereas Professor Pastmaster applies a Deleuzo-Latourian lens to understand the gender modalities of Witchcore**, I use a Latouro-Lacanian lens to understand Witchcore’s racial matrices.”)

It may be that humanities academics are beginning to sense the stirrings of new intellectual interest around magic and see in it the possibility of hanging out in one of those fun, not-yet-crystallized, in-between zones. On its own, this is all to the good. I like having people to talk to. But academic mental habits don’t change much, and there’s no reason to suppose that an academic-humanities version of the “mysticore” fad — a “magical turn” — won’t end up trying to normalize magic to some degree, professionalizing it by refracting it through this or that “interpretive lens.” At which point it won’t be magic, but (in Ramsey Dukes’s terms) Religion.

I’m not really worried about that, though. There’s nothing we can do to magic that hasn’t already been tried. The Trickster is always going to be too smart for us. If you piss him/her/it off, though, things have a tendency to go sideways in a gruesome and blackly comic way.



*Technology is a common theme of 1960s and latter-day mysticism, though. For an outstanding (and amazingly prescient) book on this topic, see Erik Davis’s indispensable Techgnosis.

**Just made that genre up, Googled it, and sure enough, it exists.

***Note for those who haven’t read all my other stuff: please don’t think I “really believe” that there is a literal Trickster — some ectoplastic little guy with a cap and bells — much less that such an actually-existing guy broke my leg because I write about magic in a somewhat academicizing way on Dial M. I’m not into “really believing” things. I am into digging things, which is quite different

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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