One thing that makes Marcel Mauss hard to read, if you actually do bother to read him at all, is the fact that he writes with a density reminiscent of that of the virtually impenetrable Immanuel Kant. This should not surprise us, since the French anthropologist admits to being deeply influenced by the illustrious German philosopher.
Mauss’s method is dialectical. Such method assumes each of the various perspectives, or acts out the roles, of diametrically opposed positions within a given debate. Kant, who in the “Dialectic of Pure Reason” section of his Critique of Pure Reason calls these polarize positions “antinomies”, endeavors to how show such opposed arguments eventually cancel one another out, leaving an irreducible ambiguity, or point of radical contingency, where once a firm reality (God, World, Substance Soul, Freedom – or the definitive absence of any of these) was thought to exist.
Mauss, adopting this method, presses each opposed position forward to the farthest possible extreme, at which he encounters a rational dead end. What once looked possible, even probable, now appears patently absurd. Once Mauss has exhausted all possible explanations of a phenomenon, he will assert that all seem to fail at the same place. This scandal in the explanatory scene, according to Kant, will be filling in automatically by what he calls a “natural dialectic”, or a “transcendental illusion”. The term Mauss uses instead is irrational “residue”. In other words, something external must be imported into the argument in order to make it work. The point Mauss wants to make is that these failures are in no way random, but rather they necessarily take the form of a clear and demonstrable pattern of structural failure. And it’s only once we discover where various failure failed answers converge that we are in a position to begin to ask ourselves how to rethink the entire question correctly, which is to say not in positive but rather negative terms: Magic is that force which manifests itself despite the patent unbelief, ineptitude and immorality of all external agents and the failure of all external causes.
In the first part of his General Theory of Magic, Mauss addresses the issue of the magician’s credulity. Are magicians the most believing or the least believing members of a community? Some schools of thought say yes while others say no. Mauss, in a way which is very close to Kant and Steinberg, says neither is true. Magicians, like artists, neither believe all the time nor disbelieve all the time. Rather they oscillate between extremes of belief and disbelief, elation and depression, as they participate in a larger society which does consistently believe in the power of Magic. In a word, social roles, including gender roles, are more real, or at least more powerful, than the bodies which (temporarily) perform them. Amen to the illusion of perfect individual sovereignty.
Mauss asserts that neither ritual formulas, spiritual powers or magic properties can be thought to cause magic’s operation. Each time we attempt to reduce magic to an effect motivated by one of these means, we inevitably run into a block. At this point the irrational “residue” appears. For example, even though I might believe that properties of a particular root are really what causes me to fall under a sleep spell, it is nevertheless incumbent upon the magician to pronounce certain words while giving me the potion. The same is true of verbal and manual gestures and commands. Even though I believe it is the words or waves of the wand which heal me, the magician nevertheless feels a pressing and irresistable need to give me medicine, or to invoke invisible spirits. No matter how we add up the various parts out of which magic is made, we never seem to arrive at a functioning whole. Consequently, we must, if we truly want to understand magic from the inside, not proceed, in Cartesian fashion, from the parts to the whole, but rather from the whole to the parts.
To put it most succinctly, Magic is a view of the world in which effects precede causes, indeed cause causes. None of the objects, prayers and spirits invoked by the magician are what cause his spells to work. In fact, the magician himself is not the cause of the magic. Rather, magic is the cause of the magician. Because magic wants to happen, it will cause, or call, a body to act the role of magician. By way of extension, Magic will also call the various formulae, objects and spirits into being and action as well – pull these words, involuntarily, from the magician’s mouth. Consequently, we are able to see each of these events as an external expression of an impersonal power (prior to any gods, since personalities already begin to transform pure magic into religion) which simply executes its own inscrutable and ineluctable will. Mana simply manas. When a storm wants suddenly to appear, for instance, it is not the magician who creates the storm by first creating smoke. But rather the storm which, in its imminent appearance causes the magician to go thrown a series of actions expressive of impending rain. The more we can see all these actions happening simultaneously, the more we begin to adopt the “magic world view”. From this perspective, any “event” is the word is a manifestation of Mana. And all the various objects, actions and powers associated with that event as said to be full of mana. For that reason Mauss is able to say that Mana functions as a noun and a verb and an adjective. Wherever we find a gap in the series of linear and progressive series of causes and events, we can be sure that the primitive believer will assert that here Mana is in operation.
Again, so basic is Magic, for Mauss, to the human understanding of the world that it is even anterior to the oldest religions. Religion, according to Mauss, is in fact a degenerate kind of Magic, one in which rather than seeing events as happening in perfect simultaneity and simply for their own sake, instead compromises the integrity of the whole by imputing events to spiritual powers called gods. In other words, Religion associates cause, in a linguistic sense, with the subject of a sentence. For Mauss, however, the crucial insight is not to see the element as causing the whole, the words causing the sentence, but rather the whole sentence gathering itself together, in the form of a sequence of words, into the form of a meaningful pronouncement. This is where Mauss makes the strongest appeal to Kant, invoking the German philosopher’s highly important notion of “synthetic unity a priori. The ability to intuit the whole as existing, indeed preexisting the parts of which it is composed.
Of course science, at least Cartesian science, works in exactly the opposite fashion, beginning from parts and attempting to construct wholes. Think, for instance, of Darwin’s argument that the human eye was nothing planned or envisioned in advance but simply came into being through blind chance, or natural selection. For Mauss there’s nothing wrong with this way of viewing the world. Obviously, it explains quite a bit to us. Nevertheless, even within modern science, there inevitably arise moments in which such a posterior analytic inductions run into blocks, gaps and absurdities. And it is precisely at this point that scientists are forced, and not simply to for intellectual but indeed for collective social reasons, to return to a primitive belief in Magic. This is precisely what Kant in arguing in his Critique of (The Power) of Judgment, which respect to “free beauties” in natural, which seem to exist according to an intention though for no particular reason; as well as human fabrications which seem to be the products of an inexplicable creative power and thus achieve the status of art. In each we see an example of nature operating “as if” according to some secret technique known only to itself. Consequently, we discover that Magic is not simply anterior to Religion and Science with respect to the history of the human species, but indeed it is prior to them in terms of the cognition of the individual human being. Science, for Mauss, can do what it does, and do it as well as it does, specifically because it is contained within a larger circle of Religion, which in turn is contained within a larger circle of Magic.
Kant: “Concepts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind.”
Einstein: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
Baudelaire: “Genius is childhood recalled at will.”
Like it or not, true atheism, or better, total demystification (Cartesian or otherwise), is virtually impossible. Each one of us, according to Mauss, at some fundamental level, simply believes.