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date: 25 March 2023

Magical Practicefree

Magical Practicefree

  • Timothy de Waal MalefytTimothy de Waal MalefytGabelli School of Business - Fordham University


The word “magic” refers to a broad range of beliefs and practices that include animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamour, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, taboos, trickery, and witchcraft.

Magic―once thought a core feature of “primitive societies,” abandoned by more rational, bureaucratic and progressive beliefs―is, in fact, thriving in contemporary life, and central to practices of capitalism as well as to everyday behaviors. Magic is practiced in fields of finance, government, law, medicine and health, technology, advertising, marketing, sports, the gaming industry, and theatrical performances, among other institutions. When situations allow for the assemblage of a “magician,” “rite,” and “representation” within these complex social networks and when professional skills, ideas, conditions, contexts, media, and meanings align, magic acts as an agent of change.

Magic is also practiced in everyday situations in which people need to feel a sense of control in circumstances where it’s lacking, such as performing well under competitive conditions or during times of crisis with indefinite outcomes. Consequently, they rely on magical thinking—in the forms of superstitions, wishful thinking, and taboo avoidance—which is often accompanied by charms, amulets, or acts of faith to guide them through uncertainty. Conjuring terms such as “fate” and “luck” to ward off illness or improve one’s chances at getting a hit in baseball, are, in fact, ways of expressing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another.

Magic structured in institutions and practiced in everyday situations is a prime example of contradiction in contemporary life. Objective knowledge of facts is increasingly understood as contingent rather than permanent, leaving room for uncertainty, mystery, the unknown, and seemingly nonrational alternatives. Scientific evidence becomes as valid as alternative facts. Documenting recent developments, it is suggested that rationality and magic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, rational behaviors and practices are suffused with magic. Magical beliefs and specific rituals complement practical knowledge so as to enhance knowledge as a way to secure success. All of these ways of thinking and social practices have something at stake, in that risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity of outcome are prevalent, and hence call on magical practices to bring about change.


  • Applied Anthropology
  • Linguistic Anthropology
  • Sociocultural Anthropology

Magic, whether as a belief or practice, is enacted in a number of forms, including animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamour, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, trickery, and witchcraft. In this respect, it is “society casting spells on itself” (Taussig 1980, 136). It is also a simple superlative (Davies 2012, 1) and one of the oldest subjects of discussion and theorizing in anthropology. Despite Edward Burnett Tyler’s (1929, 111) assertion that magic is “one of the most pernicious delusions that ever vexed mankind,” anthropologists as well as scholars from other disciplines have suggested that magical practices are alive and well in contemporary life. Fields such as finance and trade, government, the law, medicine and health, technology, advertising, art, fashion, film, literature, music, performing arts, as well as in the world of sports, the competitive gaming industry, gambling, casinos, and video games all employ magical practices of some sort.1

In addition to its practice in a variety of institutions, magic is also evident in everyday situations when people are faced with competitive conditions or confront crises with indefinite outcomes and seek a sense of control in situations where its lacking (Vyse 2020). People often turn to magical thinking – in the forms of superstition, luck, wishful thinking, and taboo avoidance – along with the use of charms, amulets, talismans or acts of faith and other magical practices, to mitigate uncertainty, dispel ambiguity, and precipitate change. Invocating “fate” or “luck” to ward off illness or improve one’s chances in acing a school exam, are, indeed, ways of expressing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another. As to how and why magic proliferates in modern society in its many forms is the subject matter of this article.

The focus here is on magical beliefs and practices that take place in a variety of modern institutions and everyday activities, discussing what enables their success. As Meyer and Pels (2003) argue, magic is rooted in modernism. Yet, following Michael Taussig (2003, 273), magic works and becomes powerful in contemporary society because it does not just skillfully conceal, but “skilfully reveals its skilful concealment.” Magic in its instrumental and illusionist forms (Jones 2017) often juxtaposes “belief” with theatrics of “show” to become transformative and effect change.

Normally, “magic” and “modernity,” are not referenced together, if only because anthropologists have long declared that magic serves only the most primitive societies and their functions. As a result, magic and modernity have been radically opposed.2 Yet Pels (2003) and Latour (2010) argue that the two have always existed together, and that what passes for the modern has never existed free from the shadow of the magical. At the same time, however, they also suggest the more controversial inverse, that magic never exists outside of modernity, which is evident in the following quotation from the UK edition of Marie Claire in December 2015:

We’re spellbound by Scarlett Johansson, bewitched by the opulence of vintage florals and drawn to the dark side of black party pieces. Welcome to the season of magic and sparkle.

In other words, that which is cast as “close, present and transformative,” in which “possibility arises” and “fate is overcome”― how Latour (2010, 103) describes religion―also describes the working of the magical. Indeed, the magical and the modern are not opposed because, as a construction and version of reality, each is a “synonym” for the other (Latour 2010, 24).

This view suggests an alternative vision of a disenchanted world that Weber (1948) ascribed to magic, with a world that has been re-enchanted. The contemporary world is no less mysterious, rational, knowable, predictable, and thus ultimately manipulable, than the premodern world. Magic has not been replaced by science, bureaucracy, law, and power. Rather, modern societies thrive on glamour, deception, illusory feats, ritual, symbolism, drama, theatricality, fake news, and tweets that reveal “a state where ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ modes of thought coexist and continuously make contesting claims for definitions of reality” (Jöhncke and Steffen 2015, 10). Modern societies, then, are characterized by opposing tendencies, themes, and forces of rationality and irrationality (Jenkins 2000; see also Greenwood 2009). As the “‘objective knowledges’ of western science are becoming increasingly understood at best as contingent rather than permanent varieties” (Latour, quoted in Jenkins 2000, 17), there is increasing room for uncertainty, mystery, the unknown, and seemingly nonrational alternatives.

This paradox of juxtaposing apparent tendencies affirms that magic may appear more legitimate and effective when cast in an aura of political or scientific authority. For instance, President Donald J. Trump of the United States promised magical assurance at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in February 2020, when he insisted, “it’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” (Gusterson 2020). He later co-opted the scientific language of medical research to tout the “magical” benefits of taking the antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine: “It’s worked unbelievably . . . and there are signs that it works on coronavirus, some very strong signs . . . the invisible enemy, we call it” (Facher 2020, in Gusterson 2020). Facing an uncertain future from the onslaught of this “invisible enemy,” even simple symbolic gestures when conjoined with empirical measures, such as “touching one’s heart after washing one’s hands,” become maximally efficacious, and “can be seen as a form of sympathetic magic,” claims Jane Risen, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago (Trebay 2020). Such examples affirm that magic is not opposed to modernity, but rather provides an alternative form of reality within contemporary society to overcome feelings of uncertainty. The workings of magic are revealed here in two realms of practice: magic that takes place in institutionalized social networks as an agent of change; and magic that occurs in superstitions, wishful thinking, taboo avoidance, and in the use of charms, amulets, and other objects that assuage the hopes or mitigate anxieties in everyday situations.

Magical Networks and Institutional Magic

Anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard believed magic was closely aligned with institutions. In fact, he felt magic could only be “intelligible when it is viewed not only in relation to empirical activities, but also in relation to other beliefs, as part of a system of thought . . . the system itself making sense only in relation to other institutional systems, as part of a wider set of relations” (1965, 112). Yet because anthropologists, like Evans-Pritchard, have discussed magical practices in different parts of the world, there is little consensus about what, exactly, constitutes a magical system (Wax and Wax 1963). Two of modern anthropology’s founders—Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss—argued, in fact, that magical practices in institutional form can be identified as a system of actors, actions, and language. A more porous and flexible definition than system, argues instead for a network of specific materials, professional skills, ideas, habits, conditions, media, and meanings, which together constitute an assemblage of magical practices and beliefs that reassociate and reassemble the social (Latour 2005). In this regard, magic as a network is institutionalized in a range of capitalistic practices when certain conditions are met.

Mauss (1972) argued that all magical systems required three elements to conjoin with one another: magician, magical representation, and magical rite. Malinowski (1922, 403) similarly developed a tripartite schema which focused on the condition of the performer, thereby suggesting magic as an embodied and emergent process: a continual becoming of the social and the material:

Magic all the world over . . . represents three essential aspects. In its performance there enter always some words spoken or chanted, some actions carried out and there are always the minister or ministers of the ceremony. In analysing the concrete details of magical performances, therefore, we have to distinguish between the formula, the rite and the condition of the performer.

Mauss’s delineation of magician, rite, and representation is most useful in examining magic at work in contemporary institutions. First, magicians are experts that possess certain qualities because of their dexterity and outstanding knowledge that lay persons do not. Whether a successful inventor or investor, fashion designer or financial trader, spin doctor or neurosurgeon, barrister or business leader, “it is their profession which sets them apart from the common run of mortals and it is this separateness which endows them with magical power” (Mauss 1972, 29). Because, like Orson Welles, they “prevail over uncertainty,” they are widely recognized by society as able to accomplish things beyond the power of normal human beings (Moeran 2015, 64).

What, then, are the factors by which a “magician” becomes recognized, and on what grounds? Clearly, public opinion “makes the magician and creates the power he wields” (Mauss 1972, 43). But, does pertinent skill (eloquence in a politician, for example, or creativity in an advertising copywriter), or an ability to manipulate personal networks persuade a public already primed by the nature of his profession to believe in the magician? Indeed, recognition takes place initially within a particular social world―of politics, finance, advertising, film production, and so on. But in modern societies, the public at large is in most part created and sustained by various media, which act as intermediaries between magicians and their audiences. Therefore, modern media and their attendant vehicles (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) are essential to spreading recognition and gaining attention for the magician, which ultimately generate word of mouth and social media buzz.

A second element necessary for institutionalized magic to be practiced is the magical rite. Every magical network includes one or more central operations in which the magician acts. An economic summit, a trading floor, an operating theatre, a film set, a court of law, a television talk show―such magical rites are often “precisely those which, at first glance, seem to be imbued with the least amount of sacred power” (Mauss 1972, 9), which are designed to configure and “consecrate” a particular field (of art, fashion, culture, literature, film, and music) by means of magical performances (Bourdieu 1993, 120–125; Mauss 1972, 47). To be effective, creative, and to do things (Mauss 1972, 19), such events take place in specially qualified places (like art galleries, law courts, [operating] theatres, concert halls, stock exchanges, and television studios) (Mauss 1972, 46), where other conditions, professional skills, habits, ideas, and meanings are brought to bear.

Magical rites are designed to effect transformations (in share prices, in a patient’s health, in defining “fashion,” in the interpretation of a political event or criminal act) and tend to be strictly prescribed in terms of time and location. They are performed regularly at particular times of the year (e.g., fashion “weeks,” annual awards ceremonies, biennales) or, if daily, within strictly controlled time limits (e.g., the opening and closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange—see figure 1). Magical rites, like ritual in general, make use of, or themselves are, a form of language, which translates ideas and their representations to display magic’s effect (e.g., a Bank of Japan risk balance chart forecasting real GDP growth [cf. Holmes 2014, 22]). Almost invariably, the part identifies the whole in a metonymic form of contiguous magic (i.e., a risk balance chart represents the [future] economy).

Figure 1. Opening/closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange (Public Domain).

Finally, Mauss’s application of magical representation―that of similarity or mimesis―reveals how “like” both produces and acts upon “like” so that an object (a risk balance chart or perfume ad) represents the whole (the economy or gender relations) while also acting on it to make it happen. An image assumes the nature of a symbol: a good economy signals financial security, political acceptance, employment, even family contentment. For the economy to become real, the magician selects a single quality like GDP, which then is set against another selected quality like inflation and the part reflects the whole in a magical transformation.

Many forms of representation used in magical rites are verbal. Indeed, uttering words in the form of a spell is itself a ritual, which progresses from word to thought, to power, and finally to deed (Tambiah 1968). Malinowski (1922, 408) regards the “virtue, the force, the effective principle of magic” as lying in the representation of the uttered spell. Whether listening to a provocative beauty advertisement tag line, reading a fashion magazine, or watching a Bloomberg news video, the strength of language as an artificial construct is such

that its form owes nothing to external reality: it thus enjoys the power to invoke images and comparisons, refer to time past and future and relate events which cannot be represented in action . . . Words excel in expressive enlargement, physical actions in realistic representation

(Tambiah 1968, 202).

An example of magician, rite, and formula assembling to effect transformation is evident in the advertising industry. Malefyt (2018b) posits that in order for an advertised brand campaign to exert a powerful influence over a consumer, three elements are needed in its development—a magician, rite, and formula. Ad campaigns begin as loose ephemeral ideas, which under the alchemy of enigmatic creatives (the venerated magicians) are reformulated into branded “big ideas,” which then are consecrated in client agency meetings (rites), and then distributed through precise media placement (the formula) in consumer time and spaces, such as in social media sites, on billboards, in magazines, or on TV, where ordinary products are transformed into aspirational brands. This is how Kleenex, an ordinary paper byproduct and generic term, with help of J. Walter Thompson advertising and Ketchum public relations (two powerful American advertising agencies), transformed into a powerful emotional facilitator. Its successful “Let it out” brand campaign idea in 2008, employed a nationwide tour of a “traveling couch” situated in public spaces, inviting ordinary people to sit and vent their problems with a therapist (see figure 2). With Kleenex tissues placed strategically nearby as a “good listener,” people could blow their noses and wipe their tears (all video recorded) to express their emotions and feel better. A branded story thus emerged, converting the ordinary into the extraordinary. Yet even as formulaic as this process appears, advertising ideas develop from the principle of uncertainty. Since many ads fail to connect with consumers, advertising, like other forms of cultural production, relies on principles of magic to confer a sense of assurance in an uncertain world.

Figure 2. Kleenex “Let it out” campaign” (Public Domain).

Magic in Cultural Production

Fashion, like advertising, is also described in terms of magic and the industry itself operates according to magical thinking (Moeran 2015). Designers like ad creatives are “magicians” or “shamans” who are “muses”; their collections are “magical” as they play with fantasy and reality; and fashion itself is all about “glamour”―an old Scottish word meaning “enchantment.”

The uncertainty of cultural production―referring to the processes by which advertising, art, fashion, film, literature, music, performing arts, and video games are conceived, created, distributed, and sold―is first and foremost financial, since demand is uncertain and “nobody knows” (Caves 2000, 3) whether any creative product is going to be a “hit” or a “miss” (Bielby and Bielby 1994). Financial uncertainty is accompanied by another condition: magazine editors, stylists, photographers, fashion designers, and other creative personnel can rarely―if ever―be pinned down beforehand about aesthetic choices that go into structuring a fashion magazine issue, shooting a fashion spread well, and selecting a model, among other decisions. They may try to stage things beforehand but are in fact looking for what fashion photographer Mario Testino has referred to as “unpremeditated magic” to make things happen.3 Since nobody is ever quite sure how an inner vision will materialize during the creation of a product, nor how an audience will react to it, both aesthetic and financial uncertainty add to the finished product’s perceived magical quality upon arrival. Yet within such frameworks of uncertainties, fashion, film, music, media, art, anime, and other cultural industries regularly perform tasks which, because of their creative inputs, are often referred to as “magical.”

Modern Capitalism and Uncertainty

Magic has often been explained by anthropologists by the principle of uncertainty. Magicians, magical rites, and magical representations, together with their accompanying skills and habits, work together to overcome uncertainty. According to Malinowski, the broader use of magic is associated with “the domain of the unaccountable and adverse influences, as well as the great unearned increment of fortunate coincidence” (1954, 29). In other words, magic deals with the uncertainty of people’s knowledge of the world (Gell 1992, 57)―whether in open sea fishing (Malinowski 1954, 31), economic forecasting (Holmes 2014), profit-making activity (Appadurai 2015), or the outcome of different forms of cultural production (Moeran 2015). Like applied science, magic is thought to offer control over such events.

Examples of people turning to magic in the face of uncertainty is evident in their varied responses to the coronavirus pandemic. An article by anthropologist Gusterson (2020) reveals the range of people’s superstitious behaviors that supposedly avert the spread of the virus or protect against illness: in Sri Lanka, only white handkerchiefs are thought to protect people from Covid-19; in the Philippines, volcanic ash is said to kill the virus; in China, it’s saltwater; in India, cow dung and urine. Even successful business people have been seen to demonstrate superstitious behaviors, such as a female owner of a PR agency, who lives in Hawaii, who now carries with her a casino chip from Macao that she rubs to bestow luck on her family and to invoke the guardianship of her Chinese ancestors (see figure 3).

Figure 3. Good luck casino chip from Macao (Public Domain).

Nevertheless, the “uncertainty principle,” cannot explain the underpinnings of magic completely. While it appears to explain the apparent dynamics of magical practices, Lévi-Strauss (1962, 66–67) claimed years ago that everything in life involves uncertainty and risk, including risk of failure. Therefore, analysis needs to ascertain which undertakings with uncertain outcomes are accompanied by “magical” practices and which are not (Wax and Wax 1963, 498), and in what ways such activities draw on magical practices under conditions of capitalism.

Capitalism itself is an uncertain prospect and has, of course, many forms: notably Anglo-American stock market capitalism, on the one hand; and welfare capitalism, practiced by Japan, Germany, and the Nordic countries, on the other (see Dore 2000). Thrift (2005, 2) contends that capitalism (or capitalisms) does not consist of neat whole systems of “unities and totalities,” but rather is highly unstable, “unfinished,” in constant flux, and continuously changing in form and practice, as it is uncertain about the future and yet depends upon it. Similarly, corporations are comprised of malleable fields and shifting networks, which are only “partly in control” as “constantly mutating entities” (Thrift 2005, 4). This new take on capitalist ideology is also evident in Çalişkan and Callon’s (2009, 370) examination of economization, a term applied to the experiments and new configurations that denote “the processes that constitute the behaviors, organizations, institutions and, more generally, the objects in a particular society which are tentatively and often controversially qualified by social scientists and market actors as ‘economic.’”

Magical conditions would therefore seem to align with conditions of capitalism, since both are practiced under tenuous circumstances and, through many of their forms, use particular kinds of practices and ideology to deal with ambiguity and unpredictability while initiating processes of change. At the same time, the various worlds of different forms of capitalism resemble less a rational or intellectual world of proper checks and balances, and more an “imaginary of the medieval world of dark superstitions and religious bliss than we fondly choose to believe” (Thrift 2005, 2). Is magic then the specter of capitalism, always present but never fully affirmed?

Latour’s book title (1993) reminds us that “We have never been modern,” since so-called “moderns” fetishize facts as much as fabricate fetishes and treat both fact and fetish as one and the same, as “factish” (2010, 22). The modern capitalistic world Latour refers to consists of advertising creatives, bankers, businessmen, doctors, fashion designers, lawyers, marketers, politicians, and others, who invest what they do with a power that extends beyond them, as they unselfconsciously “pass back and forth every day, at all hours, between . . . artificial construction and . . . precise truth” (Latour 2010, 23). In this sense might a “magical world view” address Latour’s modern dynamic better, which perhaps, is about power? (Wax and Wax 1963, 501).

A magical world view, suggested by anthropologists Wax and Wax (1963), is one ordered by pragmatic relationships, causal formulations, and practical magic. The dynamic that regulates these relations is power. Power exists in many varieties: some beings claim to have more power than others, which might have been acquired via gift or loan, fraud or theft, or by formal exchange, depending on social norms. Social rites may help re-establish proper relationships between people for a more favorable balance of power, or contrarily, be used to enhance status positions, such as in Annette Weiner’s Inalienable Possessions (1992), where the keeping-while-giving of gifts among Trobriand Islanders in the Kula exchange increases one’s power. In these cases, power is an intrinsic feature of the natural order of things, and is evidenced “in a bountiful harvest, a successful hunt. . .” or today, success in the stock market, a business deal, or an effective advertising campaign, which is predicated on the possession of power; conversely, people who “fail in their activities and suffer misfortunes, lack power” (Wax and Wax 1963, 501–502). This perspective of a magical world eschews explanations of magic as supernatural, irrational, or immoral, and instead, elevates magic as a “sensible, coherent system of thought and action employed by practical and intelligent people” (Wax and Wax 1963).

Performing Magic: Magical Words

Another critical element in the performance of magic in institutions is the use of language in spells, the power of which stems from being uttered in a special context. Stanley Tambiah (1985, 18–22) exemplifies a Sinhalese healing ritual to show how sacred words, and the sequence in which they are uttered, possess a special kind of power not normally associated with everyday speech. Another contemporary capitalist activity in which the magic of sacred words takes place is advertising (Williams 1980; McCreery 1995). Moeran (2010) shows how beauty advertisements progress from word to thought, to power, and finally to deed, by appropriating an identical linguistic sequence of phrases when creating a magical aura around cosmetics products (with closing mantras like L’Oréal’s Because you’re worth it).

Beauty advertisements typically isolate and accentuate various parts of a woman’s body—her eyes, hair, lashes, lips, nails, skin, bust (Rocha 2013), and then make a metonymic transfer of brand to consumer, which enables the part to become the whole, and women to become dazzling, healthy, luscious, kissable, soft, and natural. Advertising in capitalist societies applies a heightened use of language that aims to combine word, image, and deed (i.e., the persuasion to purchase and use a product) by using spells especially constructed to affect a magical transfer. Words are thus perceived to have attributes and values which “give meaning to and act on the encounters that individuals have with each other” (Weiner 1983, 692). Like participants at Davos (Garsten and Sörbom 2016), everyone is projecting talk (in the form of magical spells disguised as “talk”) into everyone else’s space. Success or failure depends on the soundbites used—on how strong the “teeth” are in the words employed. In these examples, magical words used by politicians, businessmen, advertisers, and others, have practical ends: they affect their will over their publics (see Austin 1975).

Modern magicians also make use of material substances to perform their spells, for “in the substance lies the mystical power which produces the desired end” (Evans-Pritchard 1937, 441). In Tambiah’s Sinhalese rituals, verbal formulas are often accompanied by the manipulation of objects, which then become charged with special magical potency. As Gell (1977, 25) remarks, “there is a complementarity between (standardized, formulaic) spells and magical substances.” In her discussion of magic and the nature of words and things in the Trobriand Islands, Weiner (1983, 702) claims that the actions of spells used by people are ineffective unless spoken into a material form that “will transfer knowledge from one domain to the other.” In other words, “it is the object, rather than the spell, that is the active carrier of intention and desire. Even with magic, the object is weightier than words” (Weiner 1983, 704). Again, the role of the media in contemporary magical practices is instrumental, since the various forms of media transmit interesting ideas outside the magician’s domain to a potential public. Politicians, businessmen, celebrities, and others interviewed by the mass media literally speak their magical words into an object: the microphone, or tweet through a handheld device. Moreover, the audience receives the transfer through a device, typically a smart phone. Media thus transfers knowledge and power from one domain (of politics, business, or fashion) to another (public spaces like restaurants and bars, and the privacy of home) via objects and creates “buzz.”

The fact that magical performances are increasingly presented to various publics by media is, perhaps, what differentiates contemporary magic from magic in “primitive” societies. Especially social media acts as a mouthpiece of magical transference for magicians—be they politicians, celebrities, influencers, artists, or even terrorists. Social media amplifies the impact of the magician on consumers through direct relatability, since most messages are received on mobile devices, the most portable and personal of platforms (Pierucci 2018). Furthermore, speaking in sound bites instead of long reasoned arguments, adds urgency and presence to the message. So, magic, like religion, can be a “truth generator” when performed on social media (Moeran and Malefyt 2018, 16), which brings reality into “close and present” proximity to “transform the listener” (Latour 2010, 105). For example, President Trump is known as the “Twitter president” since he has made over eleven thousand tweets, by tweeting almost daily over the course of his presidency, has a following of over eighty million people, and is said to offer an alternative or “parallel political reality” to his viewers (Shear et al. 2019). Twitter, rather than live debate, conference, or TV broadcast, has allowed Trump to be close, present, and transformative, and to spread controversial theories, alternative facts, and charged political content in ways that energize his political base.

Magical Charms, Luck, and Superstition in Everyday Life

Magic is practiced and formalized in institutions by the coordinated efforts of the magician, rite, and representation. Magic is also practiced in ordinary everyday situations and used in forms of possessing charms, amulets, or in muttering incantations, avoidance of certain acts, and other means of acquiring luck. An article in the New York Times (McGinn 2017) describes how people in competitive situations, from college students to athletes, believe “luck” helps them to perform better under stressful and challenging conditions. College campuses are indeed rife with good luck charms. Stuart Vyse, a former Connecticut College professor, conducted informal campus surveys where he discovered that 62 percent of students have their “lucky pens,” or wear lucky jewelry or clothing to exams; 54 percent attempt to sit in the same seat for tests; and 38 percent listened to their favorite pre-exam song―all various behaviors enlisted to influence luck.

The same New York Times article further notes that when business professor Lauren Block of Baruch College in New York City was an undergraduate, she wore a lucky pair of Nike sneakers to exams. Since she performed so well in them, her roommate asked to borrow them to wear to tests and also scored well. Convinced that shared academic success was due to a “magical transfer of intelligence through sneakers,” she and another co-author later published a journal article, claiming “a ritual that lasted for the next 2 years was born” (Kramer and Block 2014, 215).

Malinowski (1954) affirms that magical beliefs and specific rituals, in fact, support practical knowledge, or―as in this last example―enhance knowledge as a way to secure success. He found that, while Trobrianders were skilled gardeners who clearly demonstrated great knowledge of plants, soil types, and garden care, they also performed magical ceremonies over their gardens to ensure success (Malinowski 1935). Belief in luck, therefore, is not mere wishful thinking, but has tangible effects: it can improve one’s performance in a specific skilled activity (Vyse 2013). Magical thinking may be viewed as a coping mechanism for everyday practices, which “works to restore the experience of interconnectedness in situations where this experience has been broken” (St. James, Handelman, and Taylor 2011, 633).

This phenomenon of magical thinking has also been observed in sports. George Gmelch, himself once a professional baseball player, has described the various rituals a pitcher goes through (touching the letters of his uniform; straightening his cap after every pitch; washing his hands at the end of every inning in which he has given up a run). A batter will go through very much the same sort of mannerisms (like tapping the home plate three times before batting). Both pitcher and batter practice daily routines to overcome the fact that pitching and batting are ruled by luck and uncertainty (Gmelch 1990).

Belief in luck has been further tested by researchers who found that participants performed better at sinking golf balls when they were first told that their ball “had been lucky that day,” as opposed to merely being handed a ball (Vyse 2013, xi). In another golf study (Vyse 2013), researchers asked participants to perform putts from a prescribed distance. Just before carrying out the putt, half the golfers were told the club they were wielding had previously been owned by a professional golfer (even though it hadn’t), while the others were told nothing. The golfers who thought they were holding a professional’s club sank 32 percent more putts.

Frazer’s principle of contagion is evident in these instances, when people believe a professional’s skills have “rubbed off” on a piece of equipment and helped them perform better when using it. David Graeber affirms that terms such as “fate” and “luck” are, in fact, ways of revealing ambiguities and dealing with conflicts of temporal existence that all humans face in one form or another. Performativity, fate, luck, and chance—whether applied to “markets, genders, or scientific theories”—are not only socially constructed labels but must also be “constantly produced” and continually “maintained by human action” (Graeber 2012, 32). Luck, it seems, is one such enchanted social construct whose deployment offers a magical means towards material ends.

Similarity, Contagion, and the Magic of Branding

Writing on magical charms, Sir James Frazer (1922) argued that there were two principal types of thought: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle he called the Law of Similarity, where the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it, known as homoeopathic magic. The second principle outlined by Frazer is the Law of Contagion, where the magician infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not, known as contagious magic.

Frazer’s system of magical classification distinguished by the principles of contagion and similarity, also illuminates the principles of indexicality (based on space-time contiguity) and iconicity (based on similarity). To reference the former putting example, the putter supposedly used by the pro, exemplifies the principle of contagion, since the putter had ostensibly been in the pro’s hands. However, the magical transfer would also indicate the principle of similarity if, as typically happens, a consumer buys a putter that is the same name brand as the one a famous golfer uses, even though the golfer had never actually touched that particular club. This similarly occurs with the effects of branding for the Nike sneakers.

Branding efforts by marketers, in fact, rely on the principles of indexicality and iconicity for the effective magical transference of contagion and similarity to consumers. Retail locations, “pop-up” stores, and strategic branded events are venues in which consumers come into spatial-temporal contact with consumer goods, indexing the advertised brand’s power through contagious proximity. Apple retail stores famously tilt all laptop screens at 70 degrees, which encourages consumers to adjust the screen to the ideal viewing angle, thus beginning their touch, play, listen “multisensory experience” manufactured into every store experience (Gallo 2012). The advertised image of the brand further suggests to consumers a magical transfer of likeness, or iconicity, based on similarity such that “the magical power of replication, the image affecting what it is an image of, wherein the representation shares in or takes power from the represented” (Taussig 1993, 2). This instils in the consumer a copy of something through mimesis, of “the character and power of the original,” and “the power of the represented” (Taussig 1993, xviii). Thus, the brand image affects “the original to such a degree that the representation shares in or acquires the properties of the represented” (Taussig 1993, 47–48). So for instance, TaylorMade© golfing irons, promoted by Tiger Woods in a 2019 commercial, not only claim they are “Engineered to make everybody faster” but actually do so by relying on what Marx (1974) describes as the fetishized commodity image, which treats the commodity as if value inhered in the objects themselves confers the socio-natural properties of the thing to the user. Consumers do become “faster” at golfing for using the same brand as Tiger does (See figure 4).

Figure 4. TaylorMade© clubs and Tiger Woods (Public Domain).

In other words, brands transfer magical power to consumers by extending “surplus value” (Nakassis 2013) to them in semiotic form, adaptable materials, and sensual qualities. The principles of similarity and contagion promote this surplus value through advertised image and touch-point contact, creating a quality of “openness” to (re)signification (Nakassis 2013). This means brands can appropriately “stand in” for various forms of human sociality and consumer attachment, affording marketers an ideal “magical” transfer mechanism in which to build relationships with consumers in advertising, fashion merchandizing, and other consumer-facing interactions. The transfer of brand value can be molded to the contingencies of marketplace, shifts in consumer demand, and emerging trends, such that brands encompass a whole network of modern economic, social, and political relations (Malefyt 2018a).

Examples of brands extending artificial relations of sociality and attachment include objects presented in specific kinds of exchange, like the Kula in the Trobriand Islands, since they “‘speak’ a language of negotiation and appraisal” (Weiner 1983, 696). They also “express a range of emotions” (Weiner 1983, 697) and are seen to be part of oneself. Revlon’s series of cosmetic products similarly may appeal to consumers by naming users’ desires, Dazzling Eyes, Smashing Lashes, and Drop-Dead Nails, or by making statements of their potential for transformation, as in Dior Skin Star’s promise of “lasting flawless protection.” In these instances, the “mystical character” (Marx 1974, 163) of the commodity is assumed to enhance relations between people and among things and is disguised as “the magical matrix of things” (Taussig 1980, 32). Branding practices are what gives marketers such pervasive influence among consumers today.

Technology or Enchantment of Things

In February 2016, an American tourist in Iceland, Noel Santillon, directed the global positioning system (GPS) unit in his rental car to guide him from Keflavik International Airport to a hotel in nearby Reykjavik. Many hours and over 250 miles later, he pulled over in Siglufjordur, a fishing village on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle. Although he had “an inkling that something might be wrong” from signs showing Reykjavik in the other direction—he later said that he had “put his faith in the GPS.” Although his error was initially one of spelling, Mr. Santillon is not the only person to place magical faith in GPS technology. A group of Japanese tourists in Western Australia wound up in the middle of Moreton Bay at high tide, when they insisted on following their car’s GPS instructions to turn onto a submerged causeway (only visible and passable at low tide) rather than drive across a bridge (visible at all times) to their island destination. Other drivers have ended up in a swamp, a river, a pile of sand, and a cherry tree by obeying their GPS. Also, in February 2016, a court case involving the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) required Apple to enable the FBI to unlock an iPhone 5C recovered from one of the shooters involved in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California. While Apple argued for the greater ideal of maintaining human rights by keeping personal devices encrypted and therefore locked, the US government sought legal access to the terrorist’s phone by claiming national security protection. Apple refused to provide the government with the code needed to unlock the phone. The proposed solution to resolve the stalemate was through the use of magic. The Washington Post editorial board suggested that “with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant.”

The examples here suggest that technological advances themselves have a magical aura which enchants their users (something Walter Benjamin [1969] recognized in the aura of original art). According to Alfred Gell (1988, 1992), human beings distinguish themselves from other species by their technological capabilities. Technical means are used to form a bridge between a set of “given” elements and a goal desired, by making use of these givens (the achievement of beauty, the perfection of alchemy, or saving the rain forest). The technology of enchantment, to Gell, is probably the most sophisticated psychological weapon used to exert control over the thoughts and actions of other human beings, because it “exploits innate or derived psychological biases to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favourable to the social interests of the enchanter” (Gell 1988, 7).

Clearly, technology enchants; it has the power to cast a spell over people (Gell 1992, 163). In this respect, there is no basis for an opposition between the technical and the magical (Gell 1988, 6) for all the car drivers following their GPS instructions were enchanted by it to perceive reality the way in which their GPS wanted them to perceive it (Gell 1988, 7). At the same time, the symbolic media commentary on their mishaps can border on magical thinking (“inkling,” “faith,” “blindly followed,” “distracted”). In this way, technology, together with its media reporting, sustains magic (Gell 1988, 9).

The enchantment of technology also plays a widespread social role today, affecting consumer attitudes, market trends, and audience preferences through conjuring imaginative ideals (Gell 1992). If technology like that employed in GPS or iPhones is used on an individual level through personal devices, then data analytics―including Big Data, digital technology, and other large data-based applications―is another technology produced, maintained, and distributed in society through marketing, political efforts, and other forms of mass data collection. Data analytics thrives, not for its unimaginable calculative abilities over quantifiable numbers, but for the way it transforms objective numbers into attractive subjectivities (boyd and Crawford 2011). It brings meaning out of chaos, tells compelling stories, and helps magically forecast events. It inspires hope for solving any issue, even the most intractable problems, through its promise of generating unlimited possibilities and infinite solutions.

As a meta-discourse for progress and innovation, digital technology and other forms of data analytics become a “catchall for novelty” (Miller and Horst 2012, 5). Microsoft anthropologists danah boyd and Kate Crawford affirm that Big Data are impressive, not for the size of facts collected or their ability to conjure golden keys, but for their ability to reveal still other data and people. Digital data are far more than mere expressions of human intention; they comprise socialites, subjectivities, and practices (Miller and Horst 2012). In other words, they are “highly social even if the illusion of science is intellectual” (boyd and Crawford 2011, 1). Like magic, Big Data’s value comes from “seeing” social patterns that are derived through making empirical connections between other data, groups of people, or simply from the structure of information itself.

Big Data’s highly social quality also reveals how even “sure-fire” predictions, such as the winner of the US presidential election in November 2016, can fail due to subjective bias. Political data collection aimed at places where liberally inclined voters were clustered, in major cities and close suburbs, and ignored more vague data clusters in rural regions. So, while the data were correct, they missed smaller, diffuse aggregates of people that added up to larger voting constituents (Allen and Parnes 2017).

Mauss, as well as Bourdieu, were aware of magic’s social influence and ability to misinform. In the words of Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 81) paraphrasing Mauss’s observations:

The problem with magic is not so much to know what are the specific properties of the magician, or even of the magical operations and representations, but rather to discover the bases of the collective belief or, more precisely, the collective misrecognition, collectively produced and maintained, which is the source of power the magician appropriates.

In other words, Bourdieu continues, “it is impossible to understand magic without the magic group . . . because the magician’s power . . . is a valid imposture . . . collectively misrecognized and so recognized” (Bourdieu 1993). The widespread imagined power of technology and its technical wizards (e.g., formerly Steve Jobs, now Jeff Bezos, according to Warren Buffett) is modern magic’s conduit for disseminating social beliefs, sentiments, and social persuasion, among others. Technical science as a magical network, then, exists as a form of cultural production relative to other social systems, in a “field of forces” and “position-takings” (Bourdieu 1993, 30). A change in the way one is talked about has a knock-on effect on how the other is considered.

Ironically, following Latour, rational science (technical or otherwise) and mystical magic appear to have inverted their relative positions. While science increasingly “reaches the invisible world of beyond,” dealing with unseen viruses, wave-particle theories, and Big Data analytics, magic deals with life’s practicalities: how people navigate the “local, objective, visible, mundane, non-miraculous, repetitive, obstinate and sturdy” (Latour 2010, 36). Their entanglement ultimately reminds us of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous aphorism: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”


Transformation, perhaps, is what magic is all about. One of the qualities of magic is how it transforms time, space, and the materialities associated with it. In some ways this view provides an alternative to the notion that magic is only about controlling uncertainty. This distinction is important and applies to both institutionalized and noninstitutionalized practices of magic. Ritual itself, in both institutionalized and noninstitutionalized forms―in the opening and closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange, as well as in everyday situations, such as washing hands and donning personal protective gear during the coronavirus pandemic―reformulates experience out of sensory qualities and symbolic meaning to recreate time and place for participants (Malefyt 2015, 12; Schechner 2002).

But further, magical qualities that transform experience follow Latour’s description of the ways religious and magical space is “inhabited” materially, and that time has a certain “altered flow” to it (2010, 103). The power of transforming time and space affirms what Shove, Trentmann, and Wilk (2009, 2) claim, that “time is about coordination and rhythm, but also involves material, emotional, moral and political dimensions.” Mauss (1972, 132) describes transformed time and space as possessing liminal qualities, in Turner’s sense of the word, distinct from the normal world:

In this mysterious milieu, things no longer happen in the way they do in our world of the senses. Distance does not prevent contact. Desires and images can be immediately realized. It is the spiritual world and the world of spirits at the same time.

Malinowski similarly observes “magic and religion . . . both exist in the atmosphere of the miraculous, in a constant revelation of their wonder-working power” (1954, 87–88). Participants’ inhabited and miraculous experience of rituals not only “suppresses linear time,” as a type of “time machine” (Miller 2009, 165–166), but also redirects their attention from the “far away,” to the “close and present” where transformation occurs. In this experience-near version of space and time, “possibility arises; fate is overcome; you breathe; you feel enabled; you hope; you move” (Latour 2010, 103).

Miracles thus occur because the performance of magic dramatically alters the temporal and material dimensions of experience itself for participants. Jon Mitchell (2015) discusses the emergent, contingent, and transformative quality of religious ritual as a type of mimesis in which participants relate embodied practices of magic to outcomes of transformation that occur as a result of their practice. Performing mimesis then is not copying, as in reproducing a particular “likeness or image,” but rather produces new entities in a “feedback loop” between performance and the nature it represents. The magic of mimetic transformation in performance then has the capacity, as Mitchell posits, “to create a new presence . . . and to transform subject, object, space, time, and society . . . in short, it is generative, rather than merely representational” (2015, 14). This generative aspect of transformative experience is evident, for example, in Marleen de Witte’s (2011) descriptions of religious events in Ghanaian Pentecostalism, where two forms of participant experience, the cognitive and the embodied, conjoin so that inner and outer transformation is achieved. The ritual “outer” collective practice of celebrants and cognitive discourse of sermons, joins “inner” feelings of spiritual forces at work in their bodies. Spiritual conversion does not magically precede a new sense of self; rather it is produced in and through the experience of ritual enactment. The performative role of magic thus has a “sensational form” extending the sensorium (Howes 2015, 155), so that body, environment, and social world are culturally transformed.

The transformative effect of magic thus creates an emergent “presence” carved out of materials, time, space, and social relations, and so is practiced in the range of magical enactments of advertising, fashion, and law that are highly dependent on occasion, context, uttered words, performance skill, and feelings of change. The generativity of action in the mimetic performance of magicians, rites, and formulas then moves the analysis of magic from being a mere form of repetition―or regaining a sense of control over uncertainty―to magic as generative of creativity and innovation, which “produces new entities” (Bull and Mitchell 2015, 8). For Taussig (1993, 78), mimesis is creatively transformative in that it joins copy and contact in the “space between” sameness and otherness so that copying isn’t imitation, but rather purposeful appropriation which empowers the appropriator, and hence produces the “actual presence.” Bourdieu’s discussion of habitus likewise asserts, not an act of copying but of generating anew, so that “the body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorize the past, it enacts the past, bringing it back to life” (Bourdieu 1990, 72). Magical transformation, it seems, is not mere representational enactment, but rather generates ontological versions of reality in its own right.

By drawing on theoretical tangents and real-life examples, this article has sought to reveal the apparent and hidden forces of magic at work in contemporary capitalist societies on two levels:

Their proliferation in a range of contemporary industries which occasion the use of magical networks of magicians, rites, and representations in which professional skills, ideas, conditions, contexts, media, and meanings align to effect change.

Their use in everyday scenarios, when ordinary people seek to feel a sense of control over circumstances where it’s lacking, such as performing well under competitive conditions or during times of crisis with indefinite outcomes.

In either case, magic is transformative when it alters for participants the experience of time, space, and social relations, generating its own new reality.

Future studies might explore differences in practice and belief between individual and collective forms of magic and their creative outlets, and their impact on gender differences in genres such as sports, religion, or art. For instance, contemporary women’s college softball reveals the ways individual roles and idiosyncratic traits among team players not only influence the dynamics of developing personal superstitious rites, but that such actions are deeply embedded in the overall organization of social relations and team dynamics of the game (Malefyt and Johnson 2020). In these situations what are the gender differences in magic between individual and collective rituals and beliefs, and the implications for genres in which they take shape? Studies might further explore the ways in which individual and collective practices build on or borrow past traditions, or creatively carve out new rituals, practices, and discourses that inspire change. In all such instances, magical beliefs and practices are alive and well, and are shown to be an essential component of contemporary society that inspire transformation and effect change.

Further Reading

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