Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Malinowski on magic, chance

What do American baseball and pre-modern Southeast Asian warfare have in common?

They both used or use magic to cope with chance.

"Baseball Magic" by George J. Gmelch suggests applications of Malinowski's theory of magic to the pre-modern technologies and practice of warfare in Southeast Asia. Dr. Charney's recent volume: Michael W. Charney (2004) Southeast Asian Warfare, 1300-1900. Leiden: Brill. [See my review of his book in this document on page 16]

Malinowski held that "magic is most likely to be used in important situations that are unpredictable, where chance or uncertainty are part of the condition," chance being one of Clausewitz's three causal factors in warfare: violence, chance, and political objectives.

As Dr. Charney points out, in the pre-modern period Southeast Asian states accumulated a motley collection of firearms and artillery that they had to control as best as they could. Propitiations were often made to firearms as they would be to deities. Combatants often relied on talismans, amulets, tattoos, and chemical substances such as oil to achieve "invulnerability". The role of chance in some aspects of this warfare may have beeen correlated with the use of magic by combatants as it is in baseball:

"If Malinowski's hypothesis is correct, we should find magic associated with hitting and pitching, but none with fielding. Let us take the evidence by category-ritual, taboo and fetish…"

"After each pitch, ex-major leaguer Lou Skeins used to reach into his back pocket to touch a crucifix, straighten his cap and clutch his genitals. Detroit Tiger infielder Tim Maring wore the same clothes and put them on exactly in the same order each day during a batting streak. Baseball rituals are almost infinitely various. After all, the ballplayer can ritualize any activity he considers necessary for a successful performance, from the type of cereal he cats in the morning to the streets he drives home on…Usually, rituals grow out of exceptionally good performances. When the player does well he cannot really attribute his success to skill alone" (Source)

Here’s some more on Malinowski’s theory:

"Malinowski's most important theoretical contribution to the study of religion is his 1925 essay Magic, Science and Religion . Magic, for Malinowski, is always utilitarian, whereas religion lacks all utility. Religion, he contends, must be seen as an end in-and-of-itself. Another distinguishing factor is that while magic can be amoral, religion is essentially moral. Although Malinowski's specific ethnographic examples have been criticized, he was effective in demonstrating that ritual activities are most often performed whenever the outcome of a human undertaking is uncertain. All rituals are performed in times of emotional distress, but—unlike magical rites—religious rituals are not expected to bring about clearly definable or direct results. He cites the example of death rituals, which do not bring about immortality but serve mainly to comfort the bereaved" (Source).

Some more comments on Malinowski’s theory:

"Malinowski, in Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays, pointed out that Trobriand islanders—far from living in a perpetual fog of magical thought—hunted and gardened with empirically-honed skill; they only turned to magic when they reached the limits of their practical knowledge…"

"If anthropologists have backstaged these issues in recent decades, today they are more than ripe for revisiting and reworking. The context for revisiting these issues now is different…"

"Walter Benjamin once argued, famously, that technology demystifies the world by robbing objects of their aura. In the contemporary US the reverse seems to be true. Technology itself has an aura of infallibility that makes it an instrument of magic."

Finaly also see Wikipedia:Magical_thinking.