Magic & Images/ Images & Magic

This was an opening paper for a conference at Princeton University, “Magic and the American Avant-Garde Cinema,” Saturday, March 11, 2006, organized by P. Adams Sitney and sponsored by the program in Visual Arts and the David A. Gardner ‘69 Magic Project. Other participants included Robert Kelly, Tom Gunning, Renata Jackson, Rani Singh, William Breeze, and Karen Beckman. Stan Brakhage, who died two days ago (in 2003), said this in 1955, at age 22: “This is to introduce myself. I am young and I believe in magic.”1 This was how he began a combination manifesto and letter of withdrawal from Dartmouth in March 1955, in order to devote his life to making films. In a later statement/manifesto for a poetry reading at San Francisco State University in 1963, Robert Duncan said “I have more of being in the magic of the language and in the dreams of poets than I have in my personal existence. . . . The Art, the Way, the threshold, then, is a Theurgy, a Magic.”2

Kiu Yi, “Untitled” 2006.

One of the many things Brakhage and Duncan shared was a propensity for false (and fruitful) etymologies. In a letter to Bruce Elder in 1998, toward the end of his life, Brakhage wrote, “The word ‘image’ has, for me (i.e., this is personal) the immediate connotation of the three wise men—the ‘mages’ so to speak, plus the intrusion of ‘I’ (that greek pillar we each all share so personally). . . .”3

Our word “magic” comes from the Old Persian, through the Greeks. The Greeks borrowed the word, µαγεια, to refer to the science and religion of the “Magians”—Zoroastrian “Wise Men” of Persia and Media (now part of Bush/Cheney’s “Axis of Evil”), and the Greeks had enormous respect for their special powers, beginning with the interpretation of dreams. These magical practices were distinguished from γοητεια (necromancy) and φαρµακεια (the use of drugs).

The Indo-European root of the word means “to be able, to have power”—very basic, in our “may” and “might.” Really a verb of basic action and agency. Through the Doric Greek, we get to makhos, meaning “device,” and this becomes our modern “machine” and “mechanism,” like the magic lantern, or the cinematograph.

[Do you know that “cinema” is not in the O.E.D.? Resisting the Gallicism, they insist on the Greek “k” of kinema, “a motion,” or movement, including a political movement (from kinein, to move), and the kinematograph, writing motion, “A contrivance (invented by Messrs. Lumière of Paris) by which a series of instantaneous photographs taken in rapid succession can be projected on a screen with similar rapidity, so as to give a life-like reproduction of the original moving scene.”]

Fundamental to magic is the law of sympathy, whereby things act on one another at a distance through invisible links. The manipulation of such linkages is known as binding. The magic in Homer’s Odyssey has mostly to do with bonds and binding, and Giordano Bruno’s fundamental text on magic is De vinculis in genere (A General Account of Bonding). “There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and mind or imagination. If it happens that someone passes through all three of these gates, he binds most powerfully and ties down most tightly.”4

Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss advanced the most complete modern sociological theory of magic, and they concluded that, in order to be magical, an act or belief must be common to the whole of a society. Magic is essentially traditional and social—if most people in the society don’t believe it, it won’t work. “We held,” wrote Mauss in his General Theory of Magic, “that sacred things, involved in sacrifice, did not constitute a system of propagated illusions, but were social, consequently real.”5 This lays the groundwork for thinking about the relation of magic to technology and media today.

Our “image” is straight from the Latin “imago,” related through the root to imitari, “to imitate,” so an image is an imitation, copy, likeness, statue, picture, phantom, conception, thought, idea, similitude, semblance, appearance, shadow . . . .The Greek eidolon survives only as a shadow of itself, as “an unsubstantial image, specter, or phantom,” Lovecraft’s “putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation.”

The root is eidos, “form or shape,” which goes to eidesis, “knowledge,” and eidetikos, “relating to images or knowledge,” which survives in the eidetic image. This is from Gustav Hartlaub’s entry on magic in the Encyclopedia of World Art:

The magician, or magical type of man (homo magus), and the visionary or seer (homo divinans) are often eidetic types in the sense described by E. R. Jaensch, who has shown that even today, among children and among some artists, evidence of subjective visual images can be found, and that perceptions of things which have happened, or even only been imagined, can be projected as if they were optically visible. The eidetic type has a tendency to visions and hallucinations and takes his dream life for reality, often even a higher reality. This tendency is linked with an inclination toward autosuggestion or mass suggestion and hypnotic phenomena that accompany them.6

Unknown Artists, circa 1950s, Collection of the Brooklyn Rail

So we’ll imagine this eidetic link between two foundlings, orphans, both Capricorns, one born in 1919 (Duncan) and one in 1933 (Brakhage), who both became “magical types” and visionaries.

I was set off in this inquiry first 25 years ago, by Robert Duncan and Diane di Prima, who I studied with in the short-lived Poetics Program at New College in San Francisco, from 1980 to 1983. Duncan conceived of poetics in its largest sense, as the study of how things are made, so the curriculum included the secret history of creative events. Diane di Prima taught a cycle of courses called “Hidden Religion,” where I first read Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and Marcilio Ficino, at the same time that we were reading (with Duncan) Saussure, Jakobson, Barthes, Kristeva, and Jameson.

[I should also mention here that a complement to the Poetics Program in those years was Steve Anker’s tenure at the San Francisco Cinematheque, where I was introduced to the films of Brakhage, Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Larry Jordan, etc. Steve participated in the Homer Club and other parts of the Poetics Program, and later married the poet Susan Thackrey, who was an important student in the program and a close friend of Duncan’s.]

The book I’m writing now, Images & Belief, is an inquiry into how and why we believe photographic images, technical images, the way we do, and how this credulity allows us to be manipulated by images. Seeing is believing, but something changed with the invention of technical images to make us more subject to this equation. And I believe something changed again with September 11th—the most “imaged” event in history—to solidify and deepen these effects.

When I began to think and write about this, I realized that to understand our current belief in images, I would have to look into the past, long before the invention of technical images 170 years ago, because it was clear that when technical images were invented, old image-beliefs were transferred onto them, projected onto them. These old image-beliefs came from the time before the era of “art,” when images were seen to be, not representations, but emanations. This pre-art legacy of the acheiropoetic image (images “not made by hand”) was picked up by technical images. Even as they lost their Benjaminian “aura,” they gained another, the aura of belief. Even though photographs inherited the a-cheiro-poetic, and people generally want to think of photographs as being more “real” and more believable than images made by hand (paintings and drawings), photographs are and always have been more fiction than fact. At their most believable (and most highly manipulated), they project what Robert Duncan called, in another context, “fictive certainties.”

Ronald Reagan stumbled onto something when he said “Facts are stupid things,” for facts are, in fact, stunning (from the Latin stuporatus) in their priority, whereas fiction (fictio, a making, from fingere, to touch, form, or model) is generative—of form and content, and of meaning.

So I’ve been looking at the history of Byzantine icons and the iconoclasts, and the Renaissance science of images, especially in the work of Giordano Bruno, who developed a coherent theory of the effects of images on masses of people. This is the world that Renaissance magic foresaw—the world we now live inside of.

I just want to recall here that P. Adams Sitney, in Visionary Film, recounts a “hilariously aggressive lecture” that Harry Smith gave at Yale in 1965, in which Harry spoke of Giordano Bruno as the inventor of cinema,7 and I now think that’s about right.

I began this book Images & Belief by triangulating three secondary sources: Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983), Ioan P. Couliano’s Eros & Magic in the Renaissance (1984-1987), and Hans Belting’s Likeness & Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art (1994).

Flusser’s book is a phenomenological approach to technical images—an attempt to understand what these things are and how they operate. He sets out the stakes in such an attempt right away: “This book,” he writes, “is based on the hypothesis that two fundamental turning points can be observed in human culture since its inception. The first, around the middle of the second millennium BC, can be summed up under the heading ‘the invention of linear writing’; the second, the one we are currently experiencing, could be called ‘the invention of technical images.’ This hypothesis contains the suspicion that the structure of culture—and therefore existence itself—is undergoing a fundamental change.”8

Flusser calls “the space and time peculiar to the image . . . the world of magic,” and he sets up an opposition between magic and history: the world of magic is “a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context,” whereas the linear world of history is a world in which “nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences.” And he says “the significance of images is magical,” and that technical images were invented in the nineteenth century, during a crisis of texts, “in order to make texts comprehensible again, to put them under a magic spell—to overcome the crisis of history.”

Nothing can resist the force of this current of technical images—there is no artistic, scientific, or political activity which is not aimed at it, there is no everyday activity which does not aspire to be photographed, filmed, videotaped. For there is a general desire to be endlessly remembered and endlessly repeatable. All events are nowadays aimed at the television screen, the cinema screen, the photograph, in order to be translated into a state of things. In this way, however, every action simultaneously loses its historical character and turns into a magic ritual and an endlessly repeatable movement.

And later on he defines the photograph as “an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, an image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion.”

Couliano defines magic as “a science of the imaginary.” “At its greatest degree of development, reached in the work of Giordano Bruno, magic is a means of control over the individual and the masses based on deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses. . . . The magician of the Renaissance is both psychoanalyst and prophet as well as the precursor of modern professions such as director of public relations, propagandist, spy, politician, censor, director of mass communication media, and publicity agent.”9

Couliano believes that the shift from a society dominated by magic to one dominated by science is primarily “a change in the imaginary,” and that the European scientific revolution that led to the annihilation of the Renaissance sciences was “caused by religious factors which have nothing to do with the sciences themselves.” “Because magic relied upon the use of images, and images were repressed and banned in the Reformation and subsequent history, magic was replaced by exact science and modern technology and eventually forgotten.”

Hans Belting, in his thoroughly useful history of the image, writes that when old images were destroyed by the iconoclasts in the Reformation, “images of a new kind began to fill the art collections which were just then being formed.” Thus began the era of art, which continues to this day. Belting writes a history of the image before the era of art, when sacred icons and other cult images were not thought to be the work of artists, but were believed to be either “of heavenly origin or produced by mechanical impression during the lifetime of the model.”10 It is the latter type of a-cheiro-poetic image that I believe is the progenitor of technical images.

Both Flusser and Couliano are writing into what they see as a social crisis, and both raise cries of alarm. Flusser believes that the ultimate effect of “the photographic universe and all apparatus-based universes” is to “robotize the human being and society,” and to “act as a magic feedback mechanism,” to reprogram people into functionaries. He calls for a criticism of apparatuses, “to analyze this restructuring of experience, knowledge, evaluation, and action into a mosaic of clear and distinct elements in every single cultural phenomenon,” and “create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses.” Flusser also calls on artists and image-makers to “play against the camera,” to “place within the image something that is not in its program,” and to “address the question of freedom in the context of apparatus in general.”

Couliano’s book “examines changes at the level of the imaginary rather than at the level of scientific discoveries,” and finds that “Nowadays, if we can boast of having at our disposal scientific knowledge and technology that used to exist only in the phantasies of magicians [including “manipulation through picture and speech” that has “reached an unprecedented level owing to mass communication”], we must allow that, since the Renaissance, our capacity to work directly with our own phantasms, if not with those of others, has diminished. The relationship between the conscious and the unconscious has been deeply altered and our ability to control our own processes of imagination reduced to nothing” [emphasis added]. To Couliano, the historical record is clear: “The revolution in spirit and customs brought about by the Reformation led to the total destruction of Renaissance ideals. The Renaissance conceived of the natural and social world as a spiritual organism in which perpetual exchanges of phantasmic messages occurred. That was the principle of magic and of Eros, Eros itself being a form of magic.” Couliano sees this not as a “mere curiosity of history, but illuminating proof that our civilization continues to die in the trenches dug by the Reformation and by the political events that followed it. The modern West—as Nietzsche foresaw—is assuming the character of a fatal result of the Reformation. But is it also the final result, its lines of development fixed, once and for all, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?”

On that question Couliano’s book closes, as he says, “without daring to express too clearly a hope that may be utopian: that a new Renaissance, a rebirth of the world, may overcome all our neuroses, all conflicts, and all divisions existing between us. For such a Renaissance to appear a new Reformation must arise, effecting once again a profound modification of the human imagination in order to impress on it other paths and other goals.”

Ultimately, I’m interested in the ways we respond to and are manipulated by technical images, and I am more and more convinced that the key to this is magical, both in Flusser’s sense of “a form of existence corresponding to the eternal recurrence of the same,” Couliano’s sense of magic as “a science of the imaginary,” and Bruno’s as “a means of control over the individual and the masses based on deep knowledge of personal and collective erotic impulses.”


David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). To Dare Imagining: Rojava Revolution, edited by Michael Taussig, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Dilar Dirik, and Strauss, appeared in 2016.