Video by Douglas McBride
Part 3. Contagion
Now we get into the core of my argument. I already quoted from Mauss’s definition of magic as follows - ‘..if the whole community does not believe in the efficacy of a group of actions, they cannot be magical’ (p23).This doesn’t mean that anything we believe in is magical but it does invite further examination if we consider degrees of proximity or distance, correspondences and transformations between real life and representations such as sound recordings and photographs.
Before that discussion we might digress to consider the debatable notion of artist-as-magician in the context of art, and the presentation of works of sonic art, acknowledging the importance of the rite. Mauss (p10) speaks of ritual’s basic idea as that of ‘the sacred’. We consistently find rituals of listening to recorded sound, in the conventions and conditions of framing the listening as part and parcel of the artistic mode. We find a measure of sanctity - look, listen but don’t come too close and don’t touch. The conditions of the rites of magic demand that the time and place is strictly prescribed, as we find in the art world.
Mauss holds that magic can be seen as ‘a world of ideas which imbues ritual movements and gestures with a special kind of effectiveness, quite different from their mechanical effectiveness (p25). ‘Act and actor are shrouded in mystery (p29). For more understanding of the artist-as-magician I invite the reader to examine chapter 3 of Mauss’s volume and make the often humorous connections - what artists wear, often as group, the belief held by some that artists are a class apart, the forming of secret or exclusive clubs and cliques (often with manifestos).
Returning to the main argument Mauss argues that words, gestures and thoughts are forces in themselves. ‘He (the magician) is to be found in many places at once’ (p42). This is where we discover the powers of the microphone, recording device, playback system and associated paraphernalia, in their ability for example to replicate the artist’s voice, utterance, actions or abstractions thereof.
With socially approved ritual come deontic powers attributed to the artist. As with the magician, we hand over various powers to the artist under the terms of an unspoken contract. This is exploited in various ways using different degrees of force and power. Mauss (p60) speaks of the requirement of ‘special mental states’ - ‘you must have faith, the whole thing must be traced with the utmost seriousness’.
We might also consider the materials of the magician and the artist - useless leftover objects from places of the dead or where spiritual resonance exists in the mind of the artist - ‘anything which is usually thrown away or considered useless’. For more on this I urge you to explore sonic pursuits related to Arte Povera.
My main point converges on sympathetic magic and the three principal laws (contiguity, similarity and opposition). ‘Things in contact are and remain the same - like produces like - opposites work on opposites’ (p79). It’s here that I believe we must examine closely the nature of this ‘contact’ between real-life event and the representation that sound recording affords. This would help us unpick the somewhat mysterious and counter-intuitive notion that ‘the fortuitous connection between thoughts is equivalent to the causal connection between things’ (p79). Contiguity identifies the part with the whole. A street recording can represent that whole place at all times. Temporal and spatial separation are overcome.
Everything that has come into contact with a ‘being’, or by extension a place, is relevant (to the magician). These conjure up the very person or place. From this magical continuity arises the idea of contagion in which all manner of attributes are transmitted along a sympathetic chain. It takes but a small step to see similarities with the recording chain. ‘Contagion is limited to those properties which the magician detaches and abstracts from the whole’. In other words through selective transformation and editing the material is reworked. ‘Sentiments are also transferred’ (p84). I don’t have data on this but I have heard many people talk of the spirit or the emotional impact of a recording, sentimentalising the place represented, transferring the assumed sentiment inherent in the environment of the original experience (felt if at all of course by the recordist/artist) to the new detached and dislocated playback space of the recording. It is evidently important for anyone interested in these matters to examine the nature or degrees of similarity between reality and representation, then perhaps in the domain of value we might ask to what extent, if at all, a recording is a poor substitute like a cheap doll, depending on the specifics of mechanics and engineering?
Like produces like - we relive the spaces, places people and events in a recording and are guided to aspects ostensibly of the artist’s choosing. The recording stimulates the memories and subjective impacts of real events, dominating in its new role as representative, as an ambassador of the real.
Magic is believed and not perceived
Part 2. Belief