For magic

Against method

Authored by: Claire Fanger

The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781472447302
eBook ISBN: 9781315613192
Adobe ISBN:


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In religious studies, it has become increasingly common to shy away from the use of “magic” as an analytical term in scholarly discourse. In his landmark essay, “Trading Places,” Jonathan Z. Smith suggests that magic is a word without content, defined only privatively, i.e. in terms of what it is “deprived of” – what it is not. “Magic”, he says, marks a “shadow reality known only by looking at the reflection of its opposite (‘religion’, ‘science’) in a distorting fun-house mirror”. 1 In a similar vein, in recent studies of magic in a modern context, scholars have noted that what magic shadows is often the modern itself, so that in some writings “magic” almost becomes a shorthand for a particular haunting of the modern – its inverse, a marker for all that is non-modern. 2 If the word was in legitimate use in premodern cultures or modern countercultures, in contemporary academia, “magic” is treated by many as wholly off limits for use in discourses of scholarship, theory or methodology.

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