A Companion

by Katharina Rein (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection XIV, 328 Pages


What is Magic?
Magic has been present throughout human cultures in history, proving equally constant and mutable. Defined as supernatural powers, an explanatory belief system or a form of entertainment, magic persists to this day in new kinds of magical thinking in our highly technical, digitized environment.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, magic has enjoyed a growing visibility in popular culture and scholarship. Contributing to this field, this volume illuminates the multi-faceted topic from a variety of perspectives. The chapters collected here investigate diverse aspects and shapes of magic to uncover its manifold material and immaterial appearances in past and present cultures. While offering a broad overview, this book also provides close readings and in-depth analyses of specialist examples, including magical talismans and amulets, magic of the stage and screen (e.g. Black Panther, Shape of Water), historical magicians and their representations (e.g. Harry Houdini) and contemporary queer and feminist witchcraft (e.g. #MagicResistance).
By tracing magic’s strong interrelation with colonial discourses, politics, the economy and the arts, magic’s role is shown to go well beyond its traditional definition. Magic can be a political act, a means of empowerment and protest, an economic metaphor, and an instrument of oppression and liberation alike. This broad spectrum of magic discourses and their permeation into different aspects of cultures in history, present day and fiction is analysed by the more than thirty contributors to this volume in short, accessible essays.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: Magical Thinking/Thinking the Magical (Roger Luckhurst)
  • Introduction (Katharina Rein)
  • Part I Magic Beliefs in History and Today
  • Demon Amulets and Christian Crosses – Magic in Byzantium (Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie)
  • Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) – Renaissance Magic (Thibaut Rioult)
  • Lucky Charms in the First World War – Industrialized Magic (Leo Ruickbie)
  • Unseen Forces (1920) – Spiritualism in American Cinema (Murray Leeder)
  • Part II Magic across Cultures
  • Veneno para las hadas (Poison for Fairies, 1984) – Magic in Mexican Cinema (Enrique Ajuria Ibarra)
  • Representations of Magic in Thai Cinema – Khmer Magic (Katarzyna Ancuta)
  • The Beauty and the Beast in The Shape of Water (2017) – Magical Realism (Álvaro Martín Sanz)
  • The Colour Purple as a Signifier of Shamanism in Black Panther (2018) – Magic in Afrofuturism (Josephine Diecke and Noemi Daugaard)
  • Part III Stage Magic in Its Golden Age
  • The Magician Autobiography – Magic Lives (Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott)
  • The Bullet Catch – Magic at War (Christopher Pittard)
  • Women in Stage Magic around 1900 – Female Conjuring (Katharina Rein)
  • ‘The Suspension Ethéréenne’ under the Photographer’s Lens – Magic Tricks Photographed (Frédéric Tabet and Pierre Taillefer)
  • Part IV Magic Crossing Media Boundaries
  • The Féerie – Magic between Stage and Screen (Frank Kessler)
  • Georges Méliès’ Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin (1896) – The Materiality of Film Magic (Matthew Solomon)
  • Conjuring on the Small Screen – Broadcasting Magic (Jamy Ian Swiss)
  • ‘My Friend the Witch Doctor’ (1958) – Magic as a Pop-Cultural Trope (Roswitha Schuller)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. I (2010) – Magic and the Blockbuster (Michael Wedel)
  • The Dragon Age Series (2009–2014) – Videogame Magic (Sarah Faber)
  • Part V Magic and the Body
  • Salvator Rosa’s La Strega (1647–1650) – The Witch’s Body (Hannah Segrave)
  • Disability in Magic Performances – Magic and Disability (Anna Grebe)
  • Disney Films – Magic and Labour (Jasmin Kathöfer and Jens Schröter)
  • Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Illustrated Man’ (1950) – Magical Tattoos (Stephanie Weber)
  • Charles Foster’s Being a Beast (2016) – Shamanism and Shapeshifting (Dunja Haufe)
  • Part VI Magic and Resistance
  • J. W. Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle (1886) – The Sorceress and Victorian Gender Roles (Marie Barras)
  • Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams (1907) – Magic and Decadence (Jessica Gossling)
  • Coil’s LP Scatology (1984) as a Queer Grimoire – Magic against Homophobia (Hayes Hampton)
  • Queer Feminist Witchcraft and Embodied Reason – Magic and Queer Feminism (Luce deLire)
  • #MagicResistance: Witchcraft on Social Media as Political Activism – Magic against Trump (Daniela Lazoroska)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

←viii | ix→

Roger Luckhurst

Magical Thinking/Thinking the Magical

The shadow of developmental thought hangs heavy over the field (or fields?) of magic. Magical thinking was something to eliminate, a survival of an earlier, primitive mode of thought to Edward Tylor, Oxford University’s first anthropologist, in his Primitive Culture (1871). In nineteenth-century developmental thought ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; that is, the individual restages the passage of the species from earliest to latest, from simple to complex and so from primitive magical to modern rational thought. This idea underpins everything from J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890–1902), that vast synthesis of the place of magic in primitive culture, to Sigmund Freud’s new-fangled psychoanalysis, where the child’s fantasy of omnipotence and control over the world is a form of magical thinking to which the rational adult might fall back at any moment. In ‘The Uncanny’ Freud wrote: ‘All supposedly educated people have ceased to believe that the dead can become visible as spirits’, yet it took only one uncanny moment to slide back aeons and find ‘almost all of us think as savages do on this topic’.1

The developmental disparagement of magic continues long into the twentieth century. It haunts Weber’s disenchantment thesis in ‘Science as a Vocation’. It is critical to Jean Piaget’s model in The Child’s Conception of the World (1929), which sees magical misconceptions of cause and effect universally ironed out by the age of 9 or 10, leaving belief in magic as intrinsically childish. Some of Theodor Adorno’s funniest explosions of bad-temper are about ‘the metaphysic of dunces’ he ascribes for all modes of occult theory and practice.2 The logic ←ix | x→of ideological demystification in this mode of Marxian critique shares much with the spirit of Weber’s Entzauberung der Welt, which Thibaut Rioult early on in this books suggests is best translated as ‘the demagification of the world’. Modernity is meant to steadily erase magical thinking, and academia has long aligned with this project.

One of the pleasures of this collection is the ambition to reassess the compacted negative associations of magical thinking, and instead reanimate different ways of apprehending magic: to rethink the magical. This is done with gloriously eclectic verve in chapters that move fast from Byzantine amulets to Indian rope tricks, the Harry Potter franchise, Thai cinema, or the memoirs of Robert-Houdin. Katharina Rein’s collection is thus part of a wider project to interrogate the limits of the disenchantment thesis to explore instead a more complex rhythm in modernity where disenchantment is always accompanied by a symbiotic counter-effect of re-enchantment. Sources here might range from Charles Taylor’s interrogation of secularization in his magnum opus, A Secular Age to Alex Owen’s resituating of occult thought not as a retreat or evasion of modernity, but as thoroughly entangled with it in her Place of Enchantment.3 This has been central to cultural and literary scholars such as Marina Warner, from her Inner Eye catalogue to her recent works, Stranger Magic and Forms of Enchantment, or the work of Gauri Viswanathan or Joshua Landy and Michael Saler.4 And an equivalent body of work has come out of the academic network The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, which emerges from the study of the occult and hermetic traditions, syncretic theology and New Religious Movements.5 The attempt to rethink the revival ←x | xi→of the supernatural and the occult in the nineteenth century has long abandoned the urge to decode or demystify spiritualism or psychical research as the result of mistake, illusion or self-delusion and instead to explore them in more sympathetic frameworks derived from the history of science, whether as ‘fringe sciences’, or (in Michel Foucault’s term) ‘subjugated knowledges’ that have been edged out of orthodoxy but still have historical value in evidencing the modalities by which institutional discourses police legitimacy. The work of Pamela Thurschwell or Christine Ferguson or Richard Noakes are exemplary here.6

In the same vein, the history of technology or media archaeology has taken its steer from Arthur C. Clarke’s famous ‘Third Law’ that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.7 In the early years of the Second Industrial Revolution, the electronic one, nineteenth-century men of science and engineers produced a stream of seemingly magical devices that collapsed space and time. They were intrinsically intertwined with magical thinking, not just in popular wonderment, but by the engineers themselves. One of the earliest spiritualist newspapers was called the Spiritual Telegraph; Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson, who received the first telephone call, was also a psychic medium, who listened to the crackles on the line for messages from the dead; the gramophone was built to capture and preserve the voice after death; the eminent physicist Oliver Lodge detected invisible ‘ethereal’ waves (soon after named for Heinrich Hertz) in the midst of experiments to determine the physics underpinning telepathy, making radio waves intrinsically uncanny. A host of studies over the last twenty years have examined ‘haunted media’, and both Simon During and Simone Natale have ←xi | xii→sought to explicate the media technologies intertwined with the golden age of performance magic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.8

There is also a lot of recent work on the pan-European modernist movement and its entanglements with the occult. Christopher Partridge’s two-volume study, The Re-Enchantment of the West has brought this almost up to date.9 Partridge introduced the expansive concept of ‘occulture’ to attest to the blurring of many cultural arenas in this hybrid and multi-disciplinary field.

It’s also important to acknowledge that psychologists have explicitly tackled the negative conceptualization of magical thinking as a mode solely of cognitive error. In several studies at the turn of the millennium, magical thinking was reconceived more sympathetically as a potentially highly adaptive mode, a useful cognitive frame that can order the world meaningfully in times of change or stress. Freud and Piaget’s developmental models were displaced here for much more complex and nuanced conceptions.10←xii | xiii→

I want to evoke these ever-widening frameworks, multiplying far beyond my merely indicative footnotes, to situate the work undertaken by this collection. Rethinking the magical requires not only an expansive conception of ‘magic’ in the supernatural or secular senses invoked by Simon During, but also a dynamic grasp of interlocking fields of study, from philosophy, psychology and theology to film and performance studies to literary and cultural history. ‘Magic’, as Jessica Gossling says in her essay here on Arthur Machen, ‘is a liminal practice’, and it requires hovering on the edges of many magic circles.

However, being on the scuffed edge of a magic circle, as any apprentice magus or mere consumer of modern horror films could tell you, is not always the safest place to be. Demonic forces swirl there. I think it is quite right to insist that the blurred space of magic in modernity falls into the curious realm of disavowal – that conflicted position that both knows magic is trick or illusion yet harbours that hesitancy in which a little voice whispers … but what if, all the same, it was true? Disavowal explains how we can believe and disbelieve simultaneously, that ‘half-belief’ invoked by the sociologist Colin Campbell.11 This allows a form of enchantment to survive within a routinized and disenchanted world; indeed, it allows us to explain how a fervent desire of dogged materialists to stamp on superstition or religious belief as ‘false’ actively produces whole cultures of belief in a symbiotic counter-reaction and imbues them with the glamour of refusal or resistance.

In the recent Wellcome Trust exhibition in London, The Spectacle of Illusion, the thrust was to expose the psychological conditions that create ‘magical’ (mis)perceptions, but there was also a sympathetic understanding of the power of illusion that holds us enchanted nevertheless.12 To navigate these tricky tides requires sophisticated models for rethinking the magical that neither debunk with a cruel materialist pleasure nor effectively erase the distinction between true and false in the rush to gloss subjugated knowledge as inherently subversive. Both tactics seem important to avoid in the twenty-first century, where magical thinking is at its most intense in political conspiracy theories fostered by new digital technologies that see occulted forces everywhere, ←xiii | xiv→conjure up Satanic enemies, render all systems of thought equivalent and do their damnedest to undercut rational democratic discourse. Re-thinking the magical does not have to contribute to this collapse. Instead, as the contributions to this collection display across a bewildering array of cultural locations suggest, there are many productive ways to unpick the knot that continues to bind modernity and magic together.


XIV, 328
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (June)
magic and magical practices performance magic magic and media Magic Katharina Rein Magic discourses Magical thinking Popular culture
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XIV, 328 pp., 29 fig. col., 17 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Katharina Rein (Volume editor)

Katharina Rein holds a PhD in the History and Theory of Culture from Humboldt University of Berlin. Her PhD thesis, on the media and cultural history of stage magic in the late nineteenth century, won the Anniversary Prize for Young Researchers at the Buechner Publishing House and was published in 2020. Currently a lecturer in the Arts and Media Department of the University of Potsdam, she previously worked at the International Research Institute for Cultural Techniques and Media Philosophy (IKKM) and in the Department of Media Studies at Bauhaus University Weimar. She was also a member of the international, interdisciplinary research project Les Arts Trompeurs. Machines, Magie, Médias (Paris, 2015–18). She is the author of three monographs and of numerous academic essays that have appeared in four languages.


Title: Magic
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344 pages