Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Notes Toward a Sympathetic Approach

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. [...] Both [principles] assume that things act on each other at a distance through a secret sympathy, the impulse being transmitted from one to the other by means of what we may conceive as a kind of invisible ether.

-Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough

Why do I find it beneficial to invoke—within the context of a group of artists, writers and curators assembled to consider issues surrounding speech acts and their documentation—a Scottish anthropologist’s theorization of magical practice dating from the early 20th century? First of all, I want to say that my intention here is not to simply replace the word “magic” with the word “art” as a kind of analog for the agency of the art object (although, when considered as a kind of materialist practice, Frazer’s notion of “sympathetic magic” preserves the agency of individual actors within a broader system of exchange). Nor do I wish to substitute the word “artist” for “magician,” thereby reproducing notions of artist-as-shaman, possessed though some inexplicable power by the secrets of the natural world. This kind of mystification would be extremely dubious, especially given the collective work of the Speech and What Archive. Instead, I want to invoke sympathetic magic as a potential way to reconsider the hierarchies that we have inherited from narratives that set the truth of reality against the falsity of its representations.

Frazer’s theorization of sympathetic magic thinks a world in which images/objects do not represent the things they depict, but rather are understood to be valences of them, distributed through a spatiotemporal network of sympathy and contagion. In other words, rather than reduced to a false image or a “mere” representation, the sympathetic image/object (in its life as material and image), is thought to contain something of the thing itself. It seems to me that this is how sympathetic magic can be productive with respect to discussions of documentation. Because, although it accepts causal relations, it resists a strictly ontological understanding. That is, it does not privilege reality over its image, nor the original event over its documentation. Instead, it prefers to concern itself with processes of transmission and translation, material contexts, embodiment and affective response. It is in precisely this way that the notion of sympathetic magic can provide an alternative to the document’s evidentiary capacities and internal problematics of truth/falsity, past/present and subject/object. The same kind of operation can be described with regard to the archive’s function as a representative totality. Instead of exhibiting the anxious drive to record, represent and preserve the way something really was (whether it be a person, an event or an epoch), a sympathetic approach in fact anticipates a fundamental instability, contradiction and loss. Nothing is true, everything is real. As part of a shared space of not-knowing, it becomes a generative framework, relying on the continued articulation of a collective memory, a contagious and excited state of fragmentation and contact. 
Matthew Rana