[NB] Similarity and Contagion

So way back in the early twentieth century, James Frazer drew a distinction between two sorts of ‘spurious’ causality that animated magical thought. Interestingly, despite Frazer’s clear argument that these forms of causality are spurious, the concepts were broadly adopted by the mid-twentieth century revival of magic in Europe, inflecting the theory of magic.

I want to revisit Frazer’s use of these distinctions and think through them a bit. I want to keep in sight his underlying presupposition that he is describing superstition (i.e., a special kind of cognitive error), but I obviously don’t plan to ignore the potential utility of these concepts to genuine occult work.


IF we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic.—Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1)

Let’s start by paying attention to what superstition is on this account. It is the application of a pattern of thought, common to people in diverse place and times, without an appropriately rigorous (i.e., scientific) examination of its efficacy.

Tellingly, a lot of magic that follows in these footsteps gets fixated on miming science in answer to this. There is much talk about results and record books, latching onto an image of science that is decidedly unsophisticated and Romantic. Magic as a sort of gentlemanly science.

The statistical and experimental apparatus that sits at the base of most contemporary results-driven science? Eh, nowhere to be seen. Talk of clarity and honest self-reflection? Check and check, despite the fact that most results-based science operates by excluding these variables as fully as possible because a good bit of psychological research shows we are pretty crap at both when it comes to evaluating results.

(I am reminded of a New Yorker article reviewing scientific research regarding NLP-style interrogator education programs. Contrary to expectation, folks educated to recognize tells were less able to distinguish truth-telling from lie-telling and more likely to cling to their own mistaken identification in the face of contrary evidence.)

The idea that we lie to ourselves because we like comfortable lies rather than hard truths is only a small part of this. The larger part is that our sensory system is basically a make-do affair designed for running and poking, not achieving a deep and profound understanding of the nature of existence. We just process things in a way that leave us with a lot of blind spots, literal and figurative, which get filled in according to all kinds of criteria.

Frazer’s kind of approach explains why superstition is so alluring and for Frazer provides a basis for the broad structural similarities that tend to crop up around myths the world over. Still, for Frazer and his ilk, these similarities are the proverbial emperor’s clothes. Strip away the pomp and it is the same naked man strutting foolishly. Culture is less important on this account, because it is often just a fancy animality.

What Frazer’s approach does not explain is why these forms of thinking are part of our animality. With Darwin behind him, Frazer ought at least consider how these two patterns of spurious causality could be adaptive enough to be fairly basic to the human being. Can we do this and still preserve Frazer’s basic sense that these two forms of magic are pseudo-scientific?

Let’s see.

To preserve the basic criticism Frazer has, we need to identify what forms of scientific thinking perfect / correct these sorts of errors and then ask whether their ‘superstitious’ expression might still provide some adaptive value.

The principle of contagion seems to have an obvious value. Rooted in an awareness of the causal influence of things in proximity to each other, it could have numerous adaptive benefits in a pre-scientific world. The notion, for example, that something close to someone who has been sick might cause sickness? Well, that might help a lot even if the false identification leads to people being overcautious.

Okay, so similarity. That seems like the root of a lot of contemporary science, too. The emphasis of modern day science on providing models for phenomena is a sophisticated sort of identifying similarities. Noting common patterns (mathematical, mechanical, biological) provides the basis for developing solutions that apply across several spheres of activity.

Magical model building may not be so far from this. Even where magical model building has no direct causal efficacy (per Frazer), the process of building models educates superstitious intellect to observe and react to patterns. Like play, it may improve cognitive functionality generally and provide the means to develop cooperative habits that serve a social animal well. In turn, finding this sort of thing enjoyable might be perfectly adaptive, a happy accident reinforced by selective pressure.

Starting to bump back up against that Adorno territory again. Without repeating myself overmuch, the examination of Frazer provides us with a parallel avenue of consideration in which magic and science can be seen as entangled without necessarily competing with each other. We don’t need to follow the habit of many twentieth century magicians to frame magic and science as parallel avenues toward practical results. We can separate them and examine the way in which ‘magical’ operations possess a field of operation distinct from the scientific, that they can be understood as having a relationship in their divergence from the common root of similarity and contagion.

Here is where I am going to go weird.

Henri Bergson argued that it was hard, maybe impossible, to prove a strictly materialist account of consciousness. Even where we could observe that certain expressions of consciousness depended upon a certain sort of material basis (i.e., that our specific consciousness depended on our body with its complex nervous system), there was no way to demonstrate whether consciousness itself was dependent on the material that embodied it or merely elaborated itself within it. In a striking image, he compared consciousness to a jacket and the body to a nail; take away the nail and the coat might fall to the floor in an amorphous heap, but it still existed.

To get at how our consciousness develops, we need to attend to the structure of our cognitions. Structuralism provides us with a model for consciousness and language that depends upon the binary operation of metaphor and metonymy, resemblance and association. Notice that this parallels the principles of contagion and similarity. Frazer’s ‘magical thinking’ can be repositioned as the basis of thinking in general and the division into superstitious and scientific thinking rethought. While there is a problematic application of magical thinking which runs counter to proper scientific thought and tends to produce erroneous notions, there is also a kind of magical thinking that is distinct from science and coherent on its own terms.

We can group, on the one hand, metaphor, concept, similarity, and sense, and metonym, association, contagion, and reference on the other. A magical working applies these distinctions to material things. In the subtlest of exercise, it is the simple manipulation of our own thinking, our own nervous system, but in gross operations we see all kinds of things put in order, plants and animals, symbols and images, tools and bodies.

This is something akin to fashioning a crude nail onto which spiritual consciousness can hang, a zone of interaction between asymmetric forms of existence. The organization of the world in a ritual context is an effort to set the world in a pattern in which specific kinds of spiritual consciousness can elaborate themselves (including by the manipulation of its material substrate–much like we are able to alter our brain by thinking, so too these spirits can alter the hunks of the world by their conscious operation).

The comparison of spiritual action in the world with our own capacity for reflection and self-discipline also provides us with a way to think through the limits of spiritual action. Just as our own brain, our own nervous system, can resist our efforts to change, so too can the world itself resist and complicate spiritual action. Like our own material existence, this provides the basis for a spirit to develop a character, a way of interacting with the resistance that gives shape to its manifest consciousness.

With character comes ethics and ethos, and with that there is quite a lot to consider, including the spiritualist concern with the ‘reformation’ of certain kinds of spirits. Also, consider this in light of a previous notebook consideration of organism and the transformation/terraforming of material existence.

(All of this also makes the term ‘consciousness’ something of a placeholder term, but that is probably a discussion for another post.)

2 thoughts on “[NB] Similarity and Contagion

  1. Pingback: [NB] Symbols and Signs of Decline: Fin-de-siecle France | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: The Opening Statement – Disrupt & Repair

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