Technology and Magic

As counterintuitive as it may now seem, there are links between the ethos and the history of technology and magic. A few weeks ago, I posted some observations by Lewis Mumford and C. S. Lewis to that effect (although Lewis speaks more generally of science rather than technology). In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul makes a series of similar observations regarding magic and technique. Technique, for Ellul, encompasses not only material technology, but also the extension of machine logic into social and personal spheres. “Technique,” Ellul explains, “integrates the machine into society.” It amounts to the conditioning of man for a world of machines. More generally, it is a mentality that privileges efficiency and rationalization.

According to Ellul, “technique has evolved along two distinct paths.” The “concrete technique of homo faber [man the maker]” and “the technique, of a more or less spiritual order, which we call magic.”

Citing the work of sociologist Marcel Mauss, Ellul describes the affinities between magic and technique:

“Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures which, once established, do not vary. Strict adherence to form is one of he characteristics of magic: forms and rituals, masks whichever vary, the same kind of prayer wheels, the same ingredients for mystical drugs, for formulae for divination, and so on.”

And a little later on he writes,

“Every magical means, in the eyes of the person who uses it, is the most efficient one. In the spiritual realm, magic displays all the characteristics of a technique. It is a mediator between man and ‘the higher powers,’ just as other techniques mediate between man and matter. It leads to efficacy because it subordinates the power of the gods to men, and it secures a predetermined result. It affirms human power in that it seeks to subordinate the gods to men, just as technique serves to cause nature to obey.”

This latter observation also recalls Walter Benjamin’s observation that “technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and man.”

Regarding magic’s relationship to technology, Mumford explained that “magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

What technology and magic, then, have in common is the effort to manipulate relationships through techniques that are an extension and empowerment of the human will. Manipulate tends to have rather pejorative connotations, but I use it nonetheless because of its suggestive etymology which is linked to a method for mining iron ore, a pharmacist’s measure, and, of course, the hand. This etymology felicitously evokes both technology and the body.  The pejorative connotations, however, are not entirely misplaced.

Historians of science have linked the rise of modern science in the West with theological and philosophical developments in the late medieval period. During this time, Aristotelianism was displaced by a voluntarist account of God’s action. The voluntarists so emphasized God’s power and freedom, they concluded there was nothing at all necessary, and thus subject to rational deduction, about the world as it exists. It could have been otherwise in every detail. It would not do, then, to merely reason about the way the world must necessarily be assuming certain rational propositions, rather the world must be investigated in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of its nature.

Magic, science, and technology all initially flourished in this cultural climate oriented toward the will, and this orientation became a part of their DNA as it were. The freedom of the divine will imagined by the voluntarists appears eventually to have become the freedom of the human will. Unfettered from the constraints of either Aristotelian form or telos, and later from notions of a normative moral and natural order, the human will is liberated to manipulate reality as it sees fit.

Technology, in Western contexts, was anchored in this emphasis on the unfettered will and the activist vision of Francis Bacon, who did more than any other individual to shape Western attitudes toward technology in the early modern period. It is little wonder then that we are generally unwilling to abide non-technological constraints on technology. We are generally unwilling to abide such constraints on our own will and we have long since understood technology, as we once did magic, as an accouterment of the will.

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