Marcel Mauss and Henry Petroski – The Persistence of Magic in Modern Science

Mauss, in Magic as well as Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, very clearly shows how magic ritual can in fact be poetically anatomized—quite like Aristotelian drama–into component parts: plot, character, idea, diction, spectacle and music. Yet Mauss distinguishes himself from prior writers by insisting that this critical analysis of magic ritual must inevitably terminate when it reaches an unsymbolizable “residue”, some nonsensical formula, or unsymbolizable abstract force which is the bearer of mystical power, Mana.

–Brian Kubarycz, “Idiot Square: Empire and Its Double,” in Reading Negri: Marxism in the Age of Empire (Creative Marxism), Open Court Books, 2011

As a study of magic in ‘primitive’ societies and its survival today in our thoughts and social actions, it represents what Claude Lévi-Strauss called, in an introduction to that edition, the astonishing modernity of the mind of one of the century’s greatest thinkers.

Petroski also looks at the prehistoric and ancient roots of many modern designs. The historical record, especially as embodied in failures, reveals patterns of human social behavior that have implications for large structures like bridges and vast organizations like NASA.

With the rise of science, we moderns believe, the world changed irrevocably, separating us forever from our primitive, premodern ancestors. But if we were to let go of this fond conviction, Bruno Latour asks, what would the world look like? His book, an anthropology of science, shows us how much of modernity is actually a matter of faith.

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