The Colonialism of Disenchantment: Part 3, Believing in Magic Justified Your Oppression

Some readers may want to object to my linking disenchantment with colonialism. That might strike some as a cheap shot, a way of stigmatizing doubt and disenchantment within progressive Christian circles by making a forced, unwarranted connection.

But disenchantment does have a history with the colonial project. This is the argument made in Magic's Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy by Graham Jones.

For our purposes, Jones makes two arguments.

The first is that the rise of entertainment magic in the West was linked to Enlightenment values. The modern stage magician was no longer viewed as an agent of the occult but was, rather, a skilled illusionist. Magic became "scientific" and "technical." The audience knew what they were witnessing was a "trick." What happened on the stage looked like "magic," but the audience knew better, and that was a part of the delight and fascination. This E/enlightened approach to magic facilitated disenchantment among the masses.

As Graham writes, "modern magical showmen were expected to present tricks as tricks to audiences eager to be deceived, but not so credulous as to mistake illusions for reality. These performers agentively carved out associations with science." Thus, "Western illusionism converged with modern materialist cosmology and empiricist epistemology...[B]y the beginning of the nineteenth century, the illusionist had emerged as 'a powerful symbol of progress' in the West, as a scientific popularizer and debunker of superstitions...The close association of entertainment magic with Enlightenment values of rationality, skepticism, and materialism made it a powerful resource for signifying secular modernity..."

Jones' second observation is that, once the stage magician became an agent of disenchantment, he could be used to expose and create a contrast with "primitive" peoples who still "believed in magic." In contrast to the Western stage magician, the sorcerers, witches, and shamans of ingenious peoples were viewed as cons taking advantage of uneducated savages. The modern stage magician demonstrated how indigenous magic was just "tricks," and anyone who "believed in" these tricks was primitive, childish, and backward. Thus, in "exposing" indigenous magic for what it was, while noting the incredulous nature of the "savages," modern magic fueled the narrative of "progress" that gave birth to the colonial project. Indigenous people who believed in "magic" were "childish" and "primitive," in need of parenting, education, and supervision.

As Jones writes,
The era of colonialism invigorated Enlightenment discourses of progress by dramatizing the dominion of Western European powers over less technologically advanced peoples of the global south. It also provided magicians with a new foil: "primitive"--or, in Weber's parlance, "savage"--magicians reputed to hold sway among colonial populations. More than Europe's fairground quacks and village soothsayers, ritual experts in non-Western traditions came to figure in the literature and lore of entertainment magic as conceptual embodiments of premodern, non-modern, or antimodern approaches to magic. Magic authors drew on a variety of ethnographic representations and erudite commentaries in constructing these discourses, equating the benighted outlook of present-day colonial subjects with the superstitious beliefs of Europe's historical past. 
In short, a disenchanted approach to "magic" supported the colonial project.

Now, if this all strikes you as just an academic theory--linking the modern, disenchanted approach to magic to the colonial project--Jones goes on in Magic's Reason to show how modern magicians were used by colonial powers to discredit indigenous shamans and sorcerers. Jones recounts the case of Robert-Houdin, the Father of Modern of Magic, who was used by the French colonialists to "debunk" and "expose" the "trickery" of the marabouts, popular religious figures in colonial Algeria.

Here in the case of Robert-Houdin we see disenchantment--a refusal to believe in magic--used as an agent of colonial  oppression. A disenchanted approach toward "magic" was associated with progress, advancement, and reason, the attitude that justified the paternalistic posture behind the colonial project to educate backward, childish, savage, and primitive colonial populations. If you believed in magic that, quite literally, justified your oppression.

And that is why I describe this as "the colonialism of disenchantment."

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