We often invoke the “magic” of mass media to describe seductive advertising or charismatic politicians. In The Mana of Mass Society, William Mazzarella asks what happens to social theory if we take that idea seriously. How would it change our understanding of publicity, propaganda, love, and power? Mazzarella reconsiders the concept of “mana,” which served in early anthropology as a troubled bridge between “primitive” ritual and the fascination of mass media. Thinking about mana, Mazzarella shows, means rethinking some of our most fundamental questions: What powers authority? What in us responds to it? Is the mana that animates an Aboriginal ritual the same as the mana that energizes a revolutionary crowd, a consumer public, or an art encounter? At the intersection of anthropology and critical theory, The Mana of Mass Society brings recent conversations around affect, sovereignty, and emergence into creative contact with classic debates on religion, charisma, ideology, and aesthetics.
About the Author
William Mazzarella is the Neukom Family Professor of Anthropology and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago.
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Mana beyond the Empiricist Settlement
We go on great journeys to see the things that we do not favour with our attention at home.
A century ago, social scientists and scholars of comparative religion identified mana as a force powering the affirmation of collective ideals in religious ritual, the pursuit of instrumental ends in magical practice — and the blandishments of mass publicity. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Émile Durkheim asked how the potential of mana, as harnessed in "primitive" ritual, might similarly be derived, on a much wider scale, from the energies of urban crowds. Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert had already left an important clue when they described ritual specialists as protopublicists, mana workers who draw on "the collective forces of society." "It is public opinion," Mauss and Hubert wrote, "which makes the magician and creates the power he wields. Thanks to public opinion he knows everything and can do anything." It fell to the inventor of modern fieldwork-based anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski, to close the circle by directly comparing "primitive" magic to "modern" advertising.
In Coral Gardens and Their Magic, Malinowski calls advertising "the richest field of modern verbal magic" and remarks that "the advertisements of modern beauty specialists, especially of the magnitude of my countrywoman Helena Rubinstein, or of her rival, Elizabeth Arden, would make interesting reading if collated with the formulae of Trobriand beauty magic." Notably, the comparison is not intended to flatter anyone; Malinowski imagines the comparative research project that someone might undertake on these matters as an inquiry into "parallels between modern and primitive savagery." His distaste for what he implicitly renders as atavistic survivals in modern mass publicity is entirely conventional, albeit also understandable given the European political climate at the time. He renders the magical dimensions of mass communication as tools of mass hypnosis energized by mob frenzy and, as such, as inherently inimical to the flourishing of liberal democracy:
Modern political oratory would probably yield a rich harvest of purely magical elements. Some of the least desirable of modern pseudo-statesmen or gigantic politicanti have earned the titles of wizards or spell-binders. The great leaders such as Hitler or Mussolini have achieved their influence primarily by the power of speech, coupled with the power of action which is always given to those who know how to raise the prejudices and the passions of the mob. Moreover, the modern socialistic state, whether it be painted red, black or brown, has developed the powers of advertisement to an extraordinary extent. Political propaganda, as it is called, has become a gigantic advertising agency, in which merely verbal statements are destined to hypnotize foreigner and citizen alike into the belief that something really great has been achieved.
I will have occasion to reflect in a moment on the ambiguous parallels between "the prejudices and the passions of the mob" as a persistent pejorative preoccupation and the generative, vitalizing, and sustaining power of "collective effervescence" in Durkheim's work. Malinowski acknowledges (and generally disparages) the importance of collective energies. Their effect is for Malinowski entirely a function of a kind of language use he calls "mystical" or "magical" and which might today be called performative: bringing about a state of affairs by invoking it in speech. For Malinowski, the use of such magical techniques in modern mass publicity is regressive in that it reconfuses the "magical" and "pragmatic" functions of language that the long march from savagery to civilization was supposed to have separated. This is, of course, a normative discourse that is still widespread today: the assumption that the affective and mimetic dimensions of mass communication are, if not actually savage, then certainly incompatible with mature and responsible citizenship. But are there nonprejudicial ways of thinking magic and mass publicity together?
In his study of eros and magic in the European Renaissance, the historian of religion Ioan Couliano writes: "we would tend to say that ... the actual magician and the prophet have now vanished. More probably, however, they have simply been camouflaged in sober and legal guises. ... Nowadays the magician busies himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, sociological surveys, publicity, information, counterinformation and misinformation, censorship, espionage, and even cryptography — a science which in the sixteenth century was a branch of magic." Like the ancient and Renaissance magicians, Couliano suggests, the modern publicity professional requires an exquisite understanding of the potentials for creating erotic resonances and bonds between people, images, and things that dwell in the form of potentially constitutive resonances in any social world.
Two points need to be made here. First, Couliano is suggesting that the work of a publicity professional, like that of a magician, consists in identifying latent potentials that are immanent to relations between people, images, and things. These are the potentials that, when activated, can trigger desire and identification — a process of actualizing encounter that, in the introduction, I called, following Peter Sloterdijk, constitutive resonance. The idea of constitutive resonance touches closely on what anthropologists during the mana moment identified, often prejudicially, as a tendency among primitive peoples to think in terms of concrete and sensuous participation rather than in terms of abstract and conceptual representation.
Second, being attentive to potentials for constitutive resonance is not at all the same thing as what more recent generations of anthropologists, some of whom have been able to translate their expertise into more or less profitable jobs in the publicity sector, would understand by the phrase "knowing the culture" of the individuals or the groups addressed by the magic spell, the State of the Union address, or the advertisement. Much remains to be clarified about the deep elective affinity — some would say the complicity — between culturalist anthropology, particularly in its 1970s structuralist mode, and the marketing science of positioning. For now, I will only hint at one of the most important outcomes of this elective affinity — namely, the paradoxical way in which it has obscured the decisive importance of, precisely, elective affinity to the mana work of both producing culture and making markets. For what are elective affinities? Max Weber adapted the phrase from Goethe to capture not preestablished equivalences or linear cause-effect relations but rather contingent yet germinal sympathies that, in an emergent way, allow both parties to the resonant relationship to become themselves via each other in a way that only retroactively creates the impression of a preexisting "pattern of culture." Goethe borrowed the phrase from eighteenth-century chemistry. But the chemists were in turn adapting and "scientizing" long-standing esoteric traditions of attending to cosmic correspondences.
By invoking constitutive resonance as a way of thinking elective affinity, I want to stress, in particular, the constitutive face of the encounter. Some usages of the phrase "elective affinity" might imply two preexisting entities, whole unto themselves, which, by combining or existing in vibrant proximity to each other, contribute to each other's flourishing. By contrast, insisting on the constitutive dimension means that what we retroactively understand as separate elements that have entered into a relation of affinity could not, in fact, have become themselves without that resonant relation. So to reinterpret Weber's classic example along these lines, it is not that puritanism and capitalism each arrive fully formed in the world and then happen to find conveniently vitalizing support in the other. Rather, certain virtual potentials in a socially and historically locatable mimetic archive encounter and pro-voke each other so as to actualize as the formations that we will later recognize as "puritanism" and "capitalism." A relation of constitutive resonance involves, then, a striking combination of contingency and overdetermination.
Couliano notes that while the development of modern natural science has largely, and, he thinks, rightly, overtaken magical attempts to control the nonhuman world, "nothing has replaced magic on its own terrain, that of intersubjective relationships." The wouldbe sciences of this terrain of constitutive resonance, particularly as they apply to persuasion on a mass-mediated level — socioeconomic categorization, psychographic classification, and so on — remain woefully crude and approximate compared to the minutely elaborated esoteric prescriptions of ancient and early modern magicians. And yet this is where social scientific explorations during the mana moment open up tantalizing possibilities. As R. R. Marett wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century, one of the meanings of mana is "the man who can exercise the magic of persuasion."
"Communication" did not, as John Durham Peters has shown, take on its modern meaning until the last two decades of the nineteenth century — in other words, at the same time as mana was becoming a major scholarly preoccupation and the uneasy doubling of political and commercial engagement that we now know as mass publicity was moving into place. The concept of communication, linked as it is to notions of communion and community, carries into its contemporary semantic space a dense archive of mystical and magical resonances. Peters notes that in the seventeenth century, "communication" commonly referred to what the Scholastic philosophers called actio in distans, a key problem in natural philosophy: how one body can influence another without touching it. This is how Mauss describes magical action: "Distance does not preclude contact. Desires and images can be immediately realized." Such, too, are the dreams of close distance that thrive at the heart of mass communication: "evangelist Oral Roberts asked his listeners to place their hands on their radio sets as they listened from afar in their parlors to pray with him and receive a special blessing which he would send by touching the microphone through which he broadcast his sermon."
Malinowski may have been the first to make a direct connection between "primitive" magic and "civilized" advertising. But it was also the triumph of Malinowski's empiricist ethnographic paradigm that helped to foreclose the speculative development of these early hints regarding the mana of mass society. Indeed, Malinowski specifically singled out mana — what he contemptuously dismissed as "the thin, fluid, ubiquitous mana" — as the kind of fuzzy speculative concept that a properly grounded, properly empirical anthropological practice would have to reject.
Against this empiricist settlement, my task in this chapter is as follows: to follow up on these early intimations of vital resonances between "primitive" and "civilized" media of persuasion. I will do so by means of a genealogy of the mana concept that will allow me to refuse both of the canonical methods that anthropology has bequeathed: on the one hand, the kind of speculative universalizing discourse in which a concept like mana is made, in an unmediated way, to subsume all kinds of human practices from all kinds of unconnected locations; on the other hand, the empiricist insistence that a concept like mana may only be discussed in the context of those (Melanesian and Polynesian) societies in which it is a "native" term and in relation to which one may empirically specify "native" uses. The first method proliferates grand but ungrounded generalities. The second tends to amount to little more than "varied stories about how people in different places see and do things differently."
My strategy, by contrast, is to interpret mana as a symptom of a series of encounters that had their roots in the historically simultaneous rise of mass-mediated societies in the Global North and the consolidation of colonial rule in the Global South. As a symptom, mana insists and obtrudes; it points to a problem of constitutive resonance that, for reasons at once political and intellectual, had at once to be acknowledged and disavowed.
And since mana is the symptom, the red thread, the lure, I might as well start there. So: what is, or was, mana?
What Was Mana?
One might be forgiven for retorting "what wasn't mana?" Mana, it seems, was all things to everyone. A kind of efficacious force, sometimes sacred, sometimes profane, that infused all things, ensuring not only fertility and life but also the prestige of the powerful and success in ventures ranging from farming to warfare. But even putting it this way is controversial. For every suggestion that mana was a force, expressible as a noun, others would claim that mana was something closer to a condition. A person, place, situation, or object might not so much have mana as be in a state of mana-ness. Mana was notoriously mobile; it had to be ritually accumulated; it might be transmitted — either deliberately or by (sometimes violent) accident — and it could be altogether lost. A subtle substance, if that is what it was, mana was invisible but palpable. Its presence and its action had to be inferred from its exceptional effects.
Mana quickly gained the status of a general concept. Among several other notions of supernatural efficacy with which it was often connected — for instance, American Indian terms like orenda,wakan, and manitou — mana became a name for the class of which it was at the same time a member. At the most general level, mana was "the ever present actuating force in things," a physical as well as a moral force, a "divine psychic potency," "a state of efficacy, success, truth, potency, blessing, luck, realization" — or maybe just the difference between the gardener who gets the bumper crop after using exactly the same inputs and techniques as his neighbor who does not: "Having done the part humans must do to win wars, catch fish, grow taro, give successful feasts, cure the sick, and conduct divinations, they waited to see whether the gods and spirits had done what they must do — the invisible complement of what humans do. ... The stone or potion that 'works' magically looks the same as an ordinary stone or potion. The difference is invisible, a potentiation by the spirits."
The missionary ethnologist Robert Codrington, who introduced mana into the ethnographic corpus toward the end of the nineteenth century, presented it as a Melanesian name for a kind of omnipresent, supernatural efficacy that might be embodied in people and things, and could be recognized by results that would otherwise be inexplicable:
The Melanesian mind is entirely possessed by the belief in a supernatural power or influence, called almost universally mana. This is what works to effect everything which is beyond the ordinary power of men, outside the common processes of nature; it is present in the atmosphere of life, attaches itself to persons or things, and is manifested by results which can only be ascribed to its operation. When one has got it he can use it and direct it, but its force may break forth at some new point; the presence of it is ascertained by proof.
By the time Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert published their General Theory of Magic in 1902–3, mana was not only the force powering religion as well as magic (Codrington had already described mana as "the active force in all [the Melanesians] do and believe to be done in magic, white or black") — it was a kind of universal vital substance, dwelling immanently in everything.
This extraneous substance is invisible, marvelous, spiritual — in fact, it is the spirit which contains all efficacy and all life. It cannot be experienced, since it truly absorbs all experience. The rite adds it to things, and it is of the same nature as the rite. Codrington thought he could call it the supernatural, but then he more correctly says that it is only supernatural "in a way," that is to say, that mana is both supernatural and natural, since it is spread throughout the tangible world where it is both heterogeneous and ever immanent.
A decade on from Mauss, Émile Durkheim described mana as the palpable expression of social energy tout court. In a passage at once more concise and, if possible, even more maximal, Durkheim wrote of mana that "enumeration cannot exhaust this infinitely complex notion. It is not a defined or definable power, the power to do this or that; it is Power in the absolute, without qualification or limitation of any kind."
Excerpted from "The Mana of Mass Society"
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Table of Contents
A Certain Rush of Energy,
Part I: The Social in the Subject,
Chapter 1: Modern Savagery Mana beyond the Empiricist Settlement,
Chapter 2: Ecstatic Life and Social Form Collective Effervescence and the Primitive Settlement,
Part II: The Subject in the Social,
Chapter 3: Anxious Autonomy The Agony of Perfect Addressability and the Aesthetic Settlement,
Chapter 4: Are You Talking to Me? Eros and Nomos in the Mimetic Archive,