This article examines Andrew Lang’s anthropological writings on magic and religion in relation to a broader network of literary and sociological discourses. Lang’s work, along with that of others, highlights the labors nineteenth-century anthropologists expended to segregate magic from science, religion, and utilitarian action in the capitalist public sphere. Despite such efforts at segregation, however, nineteenth-century anthropological writings expose the genealogical continuities between magic, science, religion, and self-interest. These continuities, the essay contends, also surface in anthropology’s sibling discourses: literature and political economy. Lang’s contemporaries, such as H. Rider Haggard and Thomas Hardy, drew on anthropological findings in their fictional representations of magical rites and beliefs either in rural Britain or at the colonial periphery. Magic’s proximity to science, religion, and capitalist self-interest also undergirds Herbert Spencer’s systems theories and reverberates in the political economists that drew on Spencer’s work. The essay thus demonstrates not only how Lang functions as a node within a broad disciplinary network, but also how the concept of magic traverses numerous discursive fields.
The global recession that followed the stock market crash of 2008 caused many to revise their assumptions about the capitalist free market. It is now difficult to argue with the same confidence as Milton Friedman once did that political freedom goes hand in hand with economic freedom, or that government need simply be an “umpire” who blows the whistle and enforces “the ‘rules of the game’” when necessary (15). The recent economic crisis led even Chicago School economists such as Richard Posner to criticize government deregulation policies and free-market ideology (242-243, 259-260). This ideology, namely that an unregulated economy yields positive gains for all participants, results in a naïve belief in what George Soros calls “the magic of the marketplace” (Crisis xx, 33)—a belief that Soros compares with “primitive societies” in which “people fail to distinguish between their own thoughts and the world to which those thoughts relate” (Open 5). It is precisely in this gap between theories of the marketplace and its actual functioning where, Soros claims, elements of “alchemy and other forms of magic” emerge and skew our rational perceptions of the market (Crisis 41).
Soros’s comments would seem to have little bearing on a nineteenth-century writer and intellectual like Andrew Lang, but his contention that notions of magic mediate conceptions of the marketplace can be traced to nineteenth-century anthropology, to which Lang and many of his contemporaries contributed. Lang’s anthropological writings on magic, along with those by E.B. Tylor, James Frazer, and William Robertson Smith, participated in a broader disciplinary effort to segregate science, capitalism, and religion from magic even as they revealed the ineluctable overlap between these categories. Thus in contrast to Weber’s thesis that progressive rationalization results in the “disenchantment” (Entzauberung), or loss of magic, in the modern world (“Science” 155), the anthropological discourse on magic in fact suggests that seemingly pre-modern notions of magic continue to structure capitalist self-interest and utilitarian action in the public sphere.
The uneven segregation of magic from modern scientific rationalism and capitalist self-interest is apparent not only in Victorian anthropology, but also in the broader disciplinary network to which it belongs. Since Christopher Herbert’s Culture and Anomie (1991), it has become possible to situate anthropology, political economy, and literature within a reticulated network of discourses. Or as Catherine Gallagher phrases it, one can consider political economy, anthropology, and literature as “fellow travelers” (185)—interrelated discourses whose shared intellectual preoccupations were progressively parceled out into distinct domains of disciplinary inquiry as anthropology and political economy sought to legitimize themselves as social sciences. Lang’s own career (anthropologist, folklorist, novelist, poet, literary critic) is a testament to the cross-fertilization of ideas that was still possible during the nineteenth century before disciplinary boundaries became rigidly codified.
More to the point, Lang’s interdisciplinarity enables us to trace how the concept of magic itself traverses those sibling discourses from which anthropology now appears estranged: literature and political economy. As I will argue in this essay, although anthropologists from Tylor to Marcel Mauss repeatedly invoke magic to distinguish primitive from modern capitalist societies, true science and religion from its profane (magical) forms, magic plays the role of a “dangerous supplement” within these binary formulations (Derrida 149). On the one hand, the exclusion of magic as what constitutes the profane or as illegitimate science is the precondition for defining true religion, the sacred, and science; yet on the other hand, magic’s supplementarity threatens to replace these categories and transgress the binary oppositions on which they depend. The continuities that emerge in anthropological writings between magic, science, religion, and self-interested utilitarianism also surface in nineteenth-century political economy, sociology, and literature. In what follows, I first delineate these continuities in anthropological and literary texts before showing how they reverberate in the work of late nineteenth-century sociologists and economists such as Herbert Spencer, Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, and Alfred Marshall. The economic theories of Edgeworth and Marshall make clear that Soros’s twenty-first-century observation that notions of magic mediate representations of the market and conceal inherent instabilities is not a new one. To cite “the magic of the marketplace” is not to revert to primitive thinking so much as to make visible a disciplinary inheritance that has been disavowed through the very distinctions between primitive and modern that categories like magic police.
I Genealogies of Magic
John Zammito has argued that anthropological discourse, from its eighteenth-century roots in German philosophy to its nineteenth-century evolutionary models, emerged through the convergence of multiple discursive fields: psychology, biology, medicine, conjectural history, and the “literary anthropology” epitomized by such genres as the travelogue or novel (222; emphasis original). Following Zammito, we can not only see genres such as the novel as what shaped anthropology’s investigation into human nature and sociality, but we can also see the novel as a genre that drew on anthropological findings in its own representations of human nature, cultural practices, freedoms, and rights. Such mutually implicating lines of influence are particularly relevant for the circle of nineteenth-century writers and intellectuals with whom Lang interacted, from the imperial fiction of Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard to Thomas Hardy’s depictions of Wessex. These novelists were particularly drawn to Tylor’s notion of primitive “survivals”—vestiges of primitive practices and beliefs that persist into the present but no longer carry the utilitarian purpose that they once did. The presence of these primitive “survivals” was variously interpreted as either a fascinating but threatening specter that shadowed modernity (Kipling), as what could reanimate an enervated British culture (Haggard), or as remnants of past cultural formations that the realist novel can salvage if only as nostalgic memory (Hardy).
With respect to Hardy, for example, critics have noted how his Wessex novels drew heavily from his readings on evolutionary biology and comparative anthropology.  In relation to my broader thesis on magic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886/1912) in particular serves as a useful anecdotal example of how novels explored the proximity between primitive magic and modern capitalism. Set in the fictionalized town of Casterbridge during the 1820s and 30s when it was still “untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism” (27), Hardy’s novel depicts the problematic shift into modernity through the sudden economic rise and fall of the novel’s central character, Michael Henchard. Henchard occupies a central position in this tragic tale of transition because his pre-capitalist, pre-modern business practices all but assure his economic obsolescence. Henchard’s decision, for example, to consult the “weather-prophet” in order to predict the next harvest rather than employ the more successful capitalist practices of Farfrae, his economic rival in the novel, is but one of many examples the novel supplies of Henchard’s “fetichistic” and “superstitious” tendencies (18, 173). The continued belief that Henchard and other farmers place in the weather-prophet would seem to provide a classic example of Tylorian “survivals.” But Hardy’s example of the weather-prophet’s magic powers, far from indicating a pre-modern, pre-capitalist value system, casts the weather-prophet’s prophecy as a type of labor that, like any other labor within a capitalist system, must be recompensed monetarily. When Henchard asks him whether he can “Forecast the weather,” he replies “With labour and time” (174). Henchard then offers in exchange for his labor and time “a crown piece” as payment (174). The weather-prophet’s magical powers are here not antithetical or prior to capitalism, but are quantified through a rudimentary version of the labor theory of value: the exchange value of the weather-prophet’s services is determined by its labor-time and Hardy elsewhere describes time itself as “the magician” (32).
The overlap between capitalist theories of value and “pre-capitalist” structures of belief in Hardy’s portrayal of the weather-prophet is not peculiar to his novel but points to a constitutive feature in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theories of magic. Hardy’s novel highlights a fault line in anthropological theories of magic that runs from Tylor, Frazer, Robertson Smith and Lang into twentieth-century accounts by Émile Durkheim and Mauss. These anthropological theories segregate magic from religion, the sacred, science, and capitalism even as they render magic genealogically continuous with science and those self-interested, purposive acts that characterize economic agency in the public sphere. In Primitive Culture (1870), for example, Tylor defines religion as “the belief in Spiritual Beings” that manifests itself “in some kind of active worship” (2: 8, 11); magic, by contrast, constitutes a “pseudo-science,” a “fallacious system of philosophy” that explains phenomena in the material world in order to exert control over them through rites and spells (1:134). The magician is “a man in power” who traffics in witchcraft or statecraft and maintains his position of dominance by evincing specious control over the forces of nature (134). Despite these invidious comparisons between magic, religion, and science, Tylor’s distinctions remain highly unstable. Tylor’s analysis of religious rituals of gift-sacrifice, for example, shows these rites to be invested in an economizing logic whereby worshippers propitiate gods in order, much like magic, to achieve practical, self-interested ends. And however much he regards magic as a “pseudo-science,” he nevertheless considers it an expression of human reason and a precursor to the emergence of modern science and its accurate understanding of causal laws.
Following Tylor’s lead, Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915) narrowly differentiates religion from magic based on the way in which worshippers exhibit their self-interested motives, that is, whether they address deities through propitiation (religion) or coercion (magic). In contrast to religious rites and prayers, which induce the gods to intervene in our favor through “propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man” (57-58), magic “constrains or coerces” impersonal forces by performing the appropriate rites, incantations, and spells to achieve the magician’s ends (59). Yet in emphasizing magic’s tendency to manipulate forces, Frazer also renders it science’s genealogical precursor. Unlike religion, which assumes an “elasticity or variability” in nature, magic expresses in its nascent form the general scientific principle that the natural world is governed by “a necessary and invariable sequence of cause and effect, independent of personal will” (106). In order to delimit this proximity between science and magic, Frazer asserts that while both magic and science comprehend cause and effect according to immutable laws, “magic is always an art, never a science” because it misapplies the laws of association (13). Magic erroneously infers cause and effect by assuming either that “an effect resembles its cause” or that “things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance” (12). Thus, however much magic may be science’s “next of kin,” it is nevertheless its “bastard sister” (57). At the very moment that Frazer delineates a close relationship between magic and science through the use of familial metaphors, he deploys these very metaphors to demarcate difference.
Lang’s theories of religion and magic in such works as Myth, Ritual, and Religion (1887) and Magic and Religion (1901) both recapitulate and revise the arguments made by Tylor and Frazer. Magic remains in Lang’s account, as it was in Frazer, a bastard sibling of scientific thinking and the product of erroneous analogic or causal reasoning. But if Lang retains the distinctions that Tylor and Frazer posit between magic and science, he nevertheless exposes as artificial the boundaries these anthropologists draw in their efforts to quarantine magic from religion. Lang rejects Tylor’s thesis that savages lack religion, citing evidence that savages also express belief in a spiritual being as creator—a belief that constitutes the core of Tylor’s definition of religion (Myth vii; 1-2). In arguing for the presence of religion among savages, Lang also contests the universality of Frazer’s thesis that magic everywhere precedes religion (Magic 55-6, 60). Frazer’s definition of religion as a practice in which deities are “propitiated . . . for selfish ends” (68) is, Lang claims, frequently indistinguishable from, or operates alongside, what Frazer defines as magic.
Tylor and Frazer’s arguments on magic relied on a particularly utilitarian, positivist, and evolutionary intellectual framework. While Lang’s thinking on magic was clearly shaped by this argumentative strain in anthropology, he also drew on an alternate model of magic advanced by the Scottish anthropologist William Robertson Smith. In Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1888-1891), Robertson Smith rejects Tylor and Frazer’s utilitarian model of religious belief and practice in favor of a communitarian definition of religion that excludes all acts that convey private desire to the gods as examples of magic. Using Semitic culture as his primary example, Robertson Smith argues that insofar as ancient Semites used magic to satisfy self-interested, private desires in opposition to the public and communal duties demanded by religion, they engaged in “illicit,” socially deviant acts that profane rather than consecrate the social order (264). Lang makes plain how Robertson Smith’s theorizations of magic strategically deploy models of deviance in order to cast magic as a counter-institutional force that threatens the established social and economic order. As Lang succinctly states, “It is the unofficial practitioner who is a witch, just as the unqualified medical practitioner is a quack” (Magic 47). The primary difference between magic and religion is that religion achieves its self-interested aims with respect to deities through institutionally-sanctioned forms of worship whereas magic does not. Magic is considered threatening precisely because those who possess knowledge over the forces of nature can deploy it towards their own self-interest, thereby amassing the social and political power that, as Lang contends, form the “basis of rank” (Myth 114). Lang’s friend and collaborator, Rider Haggard, alludes to the latter conjunction between social power and instrumental knowledge in his portrayal of Ayesha in She (1887), where Ayesha’s domination over the Amhagger tribes stems from her magical powers—powers she states are not magical at all but simply knowledge about the secrets of nature turned to a specific end: “Have I not told thee that there is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as understanding and applying the forces which are in Nature?” (176).
The notion that magic constitutes a rebellious, counter-institutional social force that derives its power through knowledge and manipulation of nature is, as Randall Styers argues, a recurring feature in theories of magic from the nineteenth century and onwards. Styers claims that magic is repeatedly conceived as deviant, individualistic, self-interested, utilitarian, antisocial, power-seeking, and rooted in a materialistic conception of the world, whereas religion is understood to be communal, public, moral, orderly, disinterested, and oriented toward a transcendent rather than materialized deity (9-12 and passim). Styers suggests that magic poses a threat to organized religion not only because it represents a rebellious force associated with marginal, deviant groups, but also because it poses a threat to capitalism. Magic is dangerous to the extent that it represents a rebellious and socially deviant variant of self-interested individualism that challenges the institutionalized individualism of capitalism and its segregation of public and private spheres: “Only deterritorialized, disruptive forms of individualism are problematic, a disruption emblematized by the magical invocation of supernatural power to threaten the regularity of the natural order and economic relations” (115).
But magic does not just disrupt the realms of science and economic relations; it too closely resembles them. This is particularly apparent in the functionalist arguments by Mauss, Henri Hubert, and Durkheim, whose writings shifted away from an evolutionary framework and instead emphasized how cultural norms and practices facilitated social cohesion. In contrast to Tylor and Frazer, Mauss and Hubert do not define magic as the precursor to religion and science but instead assert that magic, in contradistinction to religion, derives its powers from mana rather than the sacred.Mana is both “supernatural and natural” (Mauss 137), a transcendent “force” that nevertheless manifests itself in the material world (133). While in all these things mana resembles the sacred, Mauss and Hubert assert that, unlike the sacred, magic’s “sole promoters are individuals” who have “appropriated to themselves the collective forces of society” (111); it represents an aberrant form of individualism “outside the normal world and normal practices” that profanes the social order (147). Magic, like science and technology, is a techne that is “concerned with understanding nature” and, as a consequence, much of modern science (e.g. medicine, alchemy, chemistry, industry) owes a debt to magic (176). It is not just modern science, I would argue, but also the domain of productive labor and labor’s pivotal role within early capitalist economics that owes a debt to magic. As Mauss and Hubert state, “Magic is the domain of pure production, ex nihilo. With words and gestures it does what techniques achieve by labour” (175). Here the primary difference between magic and capitalist production is that the latter makes labor central to accomplishing aims similar to that of magic. We can thus interpret Hardy’s description of the weather-prophet’s prophecy as a form of labor not as an aberrant “survival” of magic into modernity but as identifying the genealogical continuities between magic and capitalist models of labor that modernity narratives suppress. In this regard, Frazer’s earlier use of familial metaphors lays bare magic’s supplemental relationship to notions of self-interest, science, religion, or the sacred: as both “kin” and “bastard,” magic is both what is disavowed and yet remains intertwined with modern scientific rationalism.
II An Economy of Magical Forces
The representation of magic as a profane, disruptive force opposed to the sacred force that stabilizes the social and economic order instantiates a set of binaries that structure social scientific inquiry in areas seemingly removed from nineteenth-century research on primitive religion. The cross-disciplinary trajectory of magic, as I mentioned in the introduction, is symptomatic of the broader disciplinary network to which anthropology belongs. While the previous section traced conceptualizations of magic through anthropological and literary texts, in this section I concentrate on how notions of magic surface in theorizations of the economy, from the early systems theories of Spencer to the political economic writings of Edgeworth and Marshall.
We can best understand how magic traverses a variety of social scientific arguments by examining the notion of “force,” or energy, which was vital both to Victorian scientific materialism and to anthropological understandings of the supernatural forces that underpin religious beliefs and practices. This conjunction of supernatural and materialist conceptions of force is largely because, as Gillian Beer writes, “Victorian scientific materialism never quite relinquished the transcendental” (xv). Spencer’s theory of force, for example, conceives of force neither solely in its materiality nor as an expression of the transcendental but as their synthesis. Spencer imagines force to be an invisible, primordial energy that animates all matter and what causes change and evolution in the material world. The latter conception of force is central not only to scientific discourses such as modern physics but also to accounts of primitive animism—what Tylor refers to as “the belief in the animation of all nature” (1: 285). Spencer was not ignorant of these implications. He asserts in the third volume of the Principles of Sociology (1876-1896), for example, that the scientific conception “of a Universe everywhere alive” (172) with forces “gives rather a spiritualistic than a materialistic aspect to the Universe”; force, in this account, is the means by which science, rather than displacing religion, comes to “transfigure” and supplement it (173).
Durkheim, Hubert, and Mauss would posit an even more direct relationship between scientific notions of force and the supernatural by linking force to the concept of mana. At the conclusion of A General Theory of Magic (1902), Mauss and Hubert write that “notions of force, causation, effect and substance could be traced back to the old habits of mind in which magic was born” (178). As Durkheim states, “mana is the notion of force in its earliest form” and is therefore central to both the history of religious and scientific thought (151). Mana, like the Sioux concept of wakan, “is the cause of all movements in the universe” and expresses “the modern idea that the world is a system of forces that limit, check, and balance each other” (151). Here Durkheim relates mana to scientific conceptions of force and, more significantly, to nineteenth-century systems theorists such as Spencer, who explicitly theorized the evolution of organic or inorganic formations as the balance of forces.
Spencer’s systems theory conceives any system, whether social or biological, as subject to the opposing forces of evolution and dissolution, complex integration and disintegration. All systems tend toward a balance, but any balance they establish is provisional because the constant infusion and diffusion of forces disturbs the system’s internal equilibrium. Spencer terms this dynamic balancing of opposing forces a “dependent moving equilibrium” and employs the steam engine as his first and illustrative example: “Here the force from moment to moment dissipated in overcoming the resistance of the machinery driven, is from moment to moment replaced from the fuel; and the balance of the two is maintained by a raising or lowering of the expenditure according to the variation of the supply” (First Principles 1: 487; emphasis original). In the analogy of the steam engine, steam embodies force’s magical nature. As Spencer mentions in the chapter “On Idol-Worship and Fetich-Worship” from the Principles of Sociology, the primitive association between a person’s spirit and her breath persists in the contemporary use of the word “spirit” for the “steam which distils from a thing” (1: 318; emphasis original). In this context, Spencer’s systems theory as the balance of quasi-magical forces recasts a particular duality that I earlier identified in anthropological theories of magic. In these accounts, magic is represented as an aberrant form of self-interested, utilitarian, and individualistic behavior that threatens to destabilize the capitalist social order and is thus contrasted to the sacred and institutionally sanctioned forms of religion. Spencer transposes this binary logic of the sacred and profane into his characterization of force, whose dual nature possesses either the power to advance and consecrate the social/economic order or to destabilize it.
The dynamic balancing of forces in the steam engine and the interchange between the “supply” and “expenditure” of fuel provides Spencer with a corollary to economic processes in which “The production and distribution of a commodity,” as well as their price, entail an adjustment of forces (First Principles 1: 508). Like the steam engine, the economy must continuously adapt to the presence of conflicting forces in order to reestablish its equilibrium and progress. Advanced capitalist societies are ever tending toward an ideal social state in which they not only balance supply and demand, but also balance “those tendencies to seek self-satisfaction regardless of injury to other beings” with the opposing force of what Spencer calls “the general sympathy of man for man” (1: 511). Spencer’s representation of an ideally functioning industrialized economy that balances self-interest and sympathy—analogous to an engine balancing the magical forces of steam—exemplifies the conjunctions between technology, capitalism, and magic.
Spencer’s First Principles had a significant impact on late-nineteenth century neoclassical economists like Edgeworth and Marshall, particularly their application of energetics to the economy’s balancing of utilities (Mirowski Heat 266). According to Philip Mirowski, economists like William Stanley Jevons and Edgeworth essentially applied the concept of energy conservation in physics to economic exchange and, given their background in engineering, were attracted to mechanical analogies (Heat 196; 264). Spencer’s analogy of the steam engine, in particular, became crucial to Edgeworth’s image of the marketplace as a social utopia where individuals maximize the “pleasure” or happiness of society just as a machine’s highly integrated individual parts maximize energy. As in Spencer’s discussion of force, Edgeworth’s Mathematical Psychics (1881) attributes a mystical quality to pleasure. Pleasure is “a fluent form, a Fairy Queen guiding a most complicated chariot” that guides the twin horses of self-interest and self-sacrifice towards an ideal state of social and economic equilibrium. Economics, as the science of pleasure, studies “The attractions between the charioteer forces, the collisions and compacts between the chariots” (Edgeworth 15). Despite such quixotic language, Edgeworth assumes that the science of pleasure is akin to physics: while physics measures units of energy and takes “maximum energy” as its object of study, economics measures “Atoms of pleasure” as individuals maximize energy and achieve a sympathy of interests—a state that Edgeworth compares to Spencer’s evolutionary integration (8, 9, 12; emphasis original).
Although Edgeworth attributes transcendent qualities to pleasure/energy, his analogic use of the steam engine initially downplays the dual nature of force. Rather than a dynamic system in which force may function either as the magical force that disrupts society or the sacred force that stabilizes it, force for Edgeworth establishes the heightened coordination and cooperation of parts working towards a unified, optimal goal. Hence Edgeworth compares the maximization of pleasure by agents in society to a cosmic machine composed of “all manner of wheels, pistons, parts, connections” in which each part subordinates its individual energy to that of the “complex whole” (9, 10). Edgeworth thus theorizes a metaphorical utopia in which human “pleasure machine[s]” operate like steam engines (15), subordinating the desires of the part to achieve “maximum” energy for the whole (14, 15; emphasis original). In this context, equilibrium occurs when the total energy (pleasure) of those parties involved in exchange achieves a relative maximum (24).
The economic problems that Edgeworth later theorizes, however, complicate the hodgepodge of idealized mechanical analogies and acknowledge force’s capacity to generate instability and competitive antagonism.Mathematical Psychics ultimately demonstrates that the market does not automatically self-adjust to achieve an equilibrium in which all parties maximize happiness (24-29). Instead, Edgeworth shows how exchange in the economy is “indeterminate” and subject to renegotiation (19-20). This indeterminacy in the market leads to imperfections—deadlock, unfair bargaining practices, and monopolies—since “the pleasure-forces of the contractors are mutually antagonistic” (29). Such indeterminacy and unfair competition decreases, according to Edgeworth, as the number of agents in the market nears infinity, realizing the conditions of “perfect competition” and equilibrium such that demand meets supply (31). But the thrust of Edgeworth’s argument in Mathematical Psychics is precisely that this state of perfect competition never occurs in reality. The pursuit of individual self-interest does not stabilize an ideal economy that maximizes happiness for all, but rather results in those aberrant, imperfect forms of self-interested competition associated with the magical. The transcendent energies of pleasure that he initially rhapsodized are the very energies that create unrest and inequality in the economy.
Edgeworth was mentored in his early career by Jevons and, most significantly, by Marshall—an association that has led economic historians to align his theories with Marshallian economics. Marshall’s Principles of Economics (1890) effectively displaced John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy (1848) as the central textbook of economics and dominated British economic orthodoxy for decades. Like Mill, Marshall’s Principles returns to Adam Smith’s methodology by incorporating real world facts and history alongside theoretical exposition. Marshall’s pragmatism led him to supplement the mechanical analogies that had so dominated theories of economic equilibrium with contemporary theories of biological evolution. By combining mechanical and biological analogies, Marshall sought to rescue the normative ideal of equilibrium even as he attended to the very inequalities, imperfect competition, and dynamic oscillations that self-interested individualism generates. Marshall’s Principles of Economics appears free of the quixotic language seen in Edgeworth’s discussion of utility as a type of energy. The dual and supra-empirical nature of force, however, nevertheless surfaces in the competing biological and mechanical analogies that Marshall presents for an economy that tends toward equilibrium or disequilibrium. In his essay “Mechanical and Biological Analogies in Economics” (1898), Marshall claims that while theories of static equilibrium offered a starting point for economic theorization, “in the later stages of economics, when we are approaching nearly to the conditions of life, biological analogies are to be preferred to mechanical” (317). Marshall echoes similar sentiments throughout the Principles and draws on his readings of both Darwin and Spencer to explore the relevance of biological analogies for advanced economic processes, incorporating an element of realism into economic theorizations.
Spencer’s writings, in particular, were integral to Marshall’s thinking on biological models of the economic system. As Camille Limoges and Claude Ménard state, Marshall applied Spencer’s evolutionary theories of differentiation and integration to describe an advanced, complex economy: “In economics, differentiation means division of labor, and integration means coordination” (342). But the economy not only advances toward complex coordination, it also experiences the oscillating forces of life and death in which one organism arises only to be later overtaken by another. Drawing again on Spencer, Marshall explores this cycle of growth and decay as an analogue for economic monopolies in his famous example of the tree in the forest (Principles 315). While only a few “young trees of the forest” survive and “with every increase of their height . . . tower above their neighbours,” Marshall claims “One tree” will eventually tower over all its rivals though even this tree will eventually give way and “lose vitality” (315-316). The market, according to this analogy, will inevitably produce monopoly prices determined by large firms. To direct attention away from such problems, Marshall repeatedly shifts from biological to mechanical models of the economy. Hence, when he analyzes the equilibrium of supply and demand prices, Marshall claims economics must begin with the simpler model of mechanical equilibrium in which the relation of supply and demand prices is expressed as the “balancing of forces” (323). In both Edgeworth and Marshall, the dual nature of force results in competing models of the economic system: the normative ideal of the economy at equilibrium remains at odds with a dynamic model of competition in which the economy’s progress hinges on strategic advantages that generate disequilibrium.
Closing this essay with a discussion of how Spencer’s systems theories unfold in theories of the economy as a self-enclosed system allows us to reconsider, from a specific disciplinary vantage point, Lang’s mediating role in the formation of various cultural systems. In tracing how Lang as a figure links numerous disciplinary lines of inquiry and displays the network in which they participate, this essay has also considered how magic as a conceptual node cannot be disembedded from the cross-disciplinary, relational matrix in which it achieves its full articulation and effects. I have shown how, insofar as magic refuses its conceptual containers, it also refuses disciplinary boundaries, infiltrating fields such as political economy and sociology at the very moment of their secularization. In this regard, we can read Lang’s polymathic tendencies and magic’s theoretical instability as symptomatic of a larger methodological problem in which their role within intellectual history cannot be posed without problematizing the notion of disciplinarity itself. Yet the edges of these disciplinary networks, as the comments by Soros make clear, stretch into our contemporary moment. Rethinking how magic has been theorized in the nineteenth and twentieth century not only displays the disciplinary networks that the concept of magic traverses, but also directs us to the ethical and political obligations that are potentially elided when we trust unreflectively in “the magic of the marketplace.”
Supritha Rajan is currently an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. She has recently completed a manuscript entitled, A Tale of Two Capitalisms: Sacred Economics in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Her scholarly work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Nineteenth-Century Prose and Victorian Literature and Culture.
Bernard Harcourt claims that although the 2008 recession shook belief in the free market’s self-regulating powers, this was temporary and the call for Keynesian-style economics quickly receded from view once the crisis passed (9).
For a related application of Zammito’s argument to literature, see Gagnier “Literary.”
Luckhurst discusses how Kipling’s early stories explore notions of magic at the colonial periphery that seemingly denounce native superstition but in fact expose how British thought is imbricated in similar assumptions (177).
See Gerald Monsman for the influence of anthropology on Haggard (86-87).
While he does not explicitly link this tendency to anthropology, Michael Valdez-Moses makes a persuasive argument for how Hardy’s fiction takes a nostalgic stance toward the cultural past.
For accounts of Hardy’s relationship to Victorian anthropology, see Zeitler and Radford.
Tylor was not always so clear in his distinction between magic and religion. Wouter Hanegraff argues that Tylor’s theory of primitive animism made it difficult to demarcate the difference between religion and magic since they both fell under the rubric of animism. This ambiguity between religion and magic is most clearly seen, he contends, in Tylor’s analysis of idols.
Similarly, Weber states in The Sociology of Religion (1922) that sacrifice has its roots in magic even though he initially classifies it as a form of religious worship. Just as sacrifice’s do ut des economy and calculated model of trading performs “a magical instrumentality” (Economy 26), other categories also quickly shade into magic. Thus while Weber differentiates religion (cult) from sorcery (magic) by claiming that the latter coerces “‘demons’” through charisma whereas the former worships gods (28), he admits it is difficult to distinguish between their various facets (e.g. religious and magical priests).
Referring to Frazer’s categorical separation of magic from religion as his “oil-and-water theory,” R.R. Marett claims that Frazer’s view of magic as “a mechanical ‘natural science’ utterly alien in its inward essential nature to all religion” (66) obscures the instability of these categories. Marett’s key example is the kinship between spells and prayer. In this regard, he agrees with Lang’s claim in Myth, Ritual, and Religion that gods were initially “conceived as exercising their power precisely as a magician does” (51).
Frank Byron Jevons makes this anti-social aspect of magic key to his analysis of magic—an analysis that that then serves as a guide for missionaries striving to root out primitive religion. Jevons disagrees with Frazer that magic everywhere precedes religion and that its analogic reasoning points to its kinship with science and religion (93-94). Instead, magic and religion emerge simultaneously in a community. But whereas religion promotes communal interests, magic is engaged in “nefarious,” anti-social purposes that religion seeks to push out (95).
Even later anthropologists, like Ruth Benedict, recapitulate these early perceptions of magic. Benedict claims, for example, that “[m]agic is technological and mechanistic” (“Magic” 40) and the magician is one who follows “routine procedures” to assert ambitious ends (41). Benedict reaffirms magic’s “devious,” “mechanical,” and impersonal nature (43). Following Frazer, she claims that magic resembles science and unlike religion “does not involve submission, petition, conciliation, consecration” (“Religion” 637).
My understanding of magic is indebted to Styers’s fine study.
The Melanesian concept of mana was first theorized by the nineteenth-century missionary and anthropologist, Robert Codrington, who defines mana as a supernatural and ubiquitous force that manifests itself physically in the material world or in expressions of human power (118-119, 191). In contrast to Mauss and Hubert, Bronislaw Malinowski would reject the supposition that magic derives from forces that are everywhere in nature (i.e. mana), but is something only in men (56-58). Magic concerns itself with human activities and, unlike religion, is “a body of purely practical acts, performed as a means to an end” (51). While Malinowski interprets both magic and religion as providing psychological solace, he grades their value differently. The practical procedures of magic are exclusionary, concerned with advancing human power, and fill in gaps in our knowledge/control of the world, whereas religion is communal, concerned with transcendent powers, and furthers social harmony and tradition (66-69).
The continuities between technology, science, and magic in anthropological theory, as Tylor was well aware, had their contemporary corollary in Victorian spiritualism. Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell argue that Victorian interest in occult practices such as mesmerism, séances, and telepathy relied on notions of the supernatural that stress its invisibility and protean nature, a tendency that led Victorian spiritualists to attribute supernatural qualities to invisible forms of energy (e.g. electricity) (7-9).
For a related discussion of this passage, see Herbert Relativity 54.
I am relying on the 1950 edition of A General Theory of Magic, which was republished in Sociologie et anthropologie (1950) by Mauss; it was based on the original publication by Mauss and Hubert that was published in Anné Sociologique (1902).
The binary yet mutual implication of the sacred and profane can be traced to nineteenth-century theorizations of taboo. As Talal Asad remarks, it was nineteenth-century anthropologists who first introduced the universal opposition of the sacred and profane as the essence of religion (31-32). Nineteenth-century anthropologists, he writes, conceived the sacred as a transcendental power opposed to the everyday realm of the profane (36). This emphasis on the mundane is, as seen in my argument, also often associated with magic’s orientation toward human activities.
Theodore Porter claims that engineering and economics overlap at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in analogies such as the steam engine and electricity (141).
This element of persistent inequality was elsewhere a constitutive feature of Edgeworth’s anti-egalitarian thinking, particularly where he incorporated Darwinian evolutionary models to measure the greatest happiness not of all but of the advanced few who exhibited the most evolved capacity for pleasure (e.g. Europeans and men). See Gagnier, Insatiability 103-104 and Mirowski, Edgeworth 15.
While denigrated for being “eccentric,” later economists and game theorists would apply this solution for indeterminacy in the market (e.g. “the core”), as well as Edgeworth’s insights on monopoly and oligopoly (Mirowski, Edgeworth 2; Niehans 279, 282, 284).
Mirowski contends, for example, that Edgeworth disputed claims central to orthodox Marshallian economics such as the relationship between supply and demand (Edgeworth 54).
Critics have debated whether Marshall was influenced by Spencer or Darwin. See, for example, Limoges and Ménard (343) and Margaret Schabas “Greyhound” 325. Marshall’s Principles contains references to both though Spencer seems to predominate (Principles 50, 136, 240, 252, 136, 726, 770).
As Neil Hart argues, Marshall’s organic approach “was a framework that came to be challenged . . . when confronted with the burden of accommodating ‘equilibrium’ configurations that somehow accord with a process of continuous change” (1149). Marshall’s concept of the “representative firm” intended to address this problem.
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