words were originally magic

Solution-focused therapist Steve de Shazer tells us that 'words were originally magic'. He himself is quoting Freud who, in both the Question of Lay Analysis, and in his Introductory Lectures, discusses in passing the idea that

Nothing takes place in a psycho-analytic treatment but an interchange of words between the patient and the analyst. The patient talks, tells of his past experiences and present impressions, complains, confesses to his wishes and his emotional impulses. The doctor listens, tries to direct the patient’s processes of thought, exhorts, forces his attention in certain directions, gives him explanations and observes the reactions of understanding or rejection which he in this way provokes in him. The uninstructed relatives of our patients, who are only impressed by visible and tangible things ... never fail to express their doubts whether ‘anything can be done about the illness by mere talking’. That, of course, is both a short-sighted and an inconsistent line of thought. These are the same people who are so certain that patients are ‘simply imagining’ their symptoms. Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgements and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient.

But what does this mean: 'words were originally magic, and to this day have retained much of their magical power'? Is it really to be understood simply in terms of the idea that words 'provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men'? Or was Freud here trying to unpack an intution or insight using a theoretical framework which could not possibly contain it?

That, at any rate, is my conjecture, and in this post I want to explore what it might mean to still want (as I do) to describe words as somehow 'magical' if we eschew any idea that they have (or have been believed to have) any astonishing causal powers. Along the way I shall touch on Freud, Frazer, Adorno and Wittgenstein. The aim is to develop (clear the conceptual space for) an idea, rather than to achieve ultimate demonstration of the validity of the case being offered.

So, to reiterate: The sense of 'magical' that I am after here is not one which accrues only to extraordinary uses of words (in spells, say). The traditional notion of the spell (although even here we must be careful in our anthropology, as Wittgensteinian readers of Pagan faiths remind us) would appear to be one of 'action at a distance'. And this causal notion is precisely not what I am going to be articulating. Words are to be understood as magical, it might be said, in their suchness, and not in their causally functioning as talismans.

The topic most naturally invites a Heideggarian analysis, but it has also received consideration by the Frankfurt School scholars Horkheimer & Adorno in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, and a Wittgensteinian treatment from the intriguing philosopher Viktor J. Krebs in his papers Mind, Soul, Language in Wittgenstein - and The Subtle Body of Language and the Lost Sense of Philosophy.

Here is my first stab at an outline.

Words have both expressive and descriptive functions. Yet we are constantly tempted to construe the expressive as the descriptive (for example, treating our avowals of our feelings as if they were descriptions of what a putative faculty of introspection finds within).

Furthermore, we all too readily fall pray to a phantasy of having, or of attempting to achieve, a purely descriptive discourse. (Adorno and Horkheimer are particularly good - albeit in their stylistically atrocious manner - at expounding the ways in which unconscious (fascist) desires get smuggled into a discourse which presents itself as merely reportative, and which thereby covers over the appalling values it embeds and expresses.) But our grasp of language 'bottoms out' not in a mythically self-interpreting, nor alternatively in a hopelessly infinite regress of, rule and representation - but in the diverse range of our instincts embedded in the diverse range of our language games.

Language, we might say, is always 'driven by and embeds desire', and if we attempt to cover this over, we all-too-readily just disguise from ourselves our own (ethical, political) desires or values, imposing them uncritically onto the structure of the social world.

Finally, what drives our blindness to the magical (in the 'good' sense) quality of words, and what drives the view that our sense of the magical must be explicated in terms of the talismanic, is our alienation from our own life-with-language and the allegedly obligatory pseudo-explanatory agendas which that alienation births. (It is also true that the appearance of any genuine content to the (my) philosophical notion that words are magical (in the 'suchness' sense) is itself an illusion - a kind of residual shock surprise and an associative residual post-enlightenment carry-over-disposition-to-say-that that things can be just as they are - surprise that (vacuously) they 'just are' as they are - a residual shock amazement that we are not in fact called on to entertain the explanatory agendas which the alienated stance seemed to promote as an intellectual necessity for any responsible philosopher.

Cioffi on Freud  and FrazerHere is Frazer and Freud's idea of what magic is: When the 'primitive' person, dominated by a mythic consciousness, acts mimetically in behaviour or speech, they are allegedly trying to effect a causal impact on the world merely using their mind. But here's Adorno or Wittgenstein's riposte: rituals are not (always) best thought of as superstitious attempts at instrumental control of the world through the power of thought. Krebs' example of a modern parallel is kissing our lover's photograph: we don't typically do so on the basis of a belief in the causal power of our action. The kiss is, rather, expressive of my desire, it is part of its 'body'.

Wittgenstein notes that ritual practices cannot be understood in [Frazer's] way, for their purpose is none other than the spontaneous expression of an inner need that is as important as it is different from intellectual articulation. [Krebs, MSLW, p. 1]
What is 'magical' can, I believe, best be brought out by an investigation of common, unhelpful, alienated, Augustinian, phantasies of language learning and language production. Such phantasies invite us to take it that when we articulate our responses to what we see or hear, or when we articulate our feelings ("Here's my brother coming back home!"; "I feel exhausted!"; "That is a lovely, yet haunting, tune you are playing!") then what we do is, say, pick the best description of what is encountered in experience. Visual avowal, then, becomes thought of as predicated on matching or representing. I represent something in the world, or represent something in my mind, in my language. Perhaps the matching procedure, which is thought to ground my sense of what is apt to say on some or other occasion, is said to be a function of my grasp of some rule. I apply the rule, and so see whether or not the description is or is not apt in some situation.

The fallacy is obvious: The person who is performing this putative 'matching' or 'representing' must know how to wield these representations or rules. But what does my grasp that this X word is an apt representation for that X object or that X thought consist in? And what grounds it? Are we to allow that it is intuitive, and also that it is groundless? If not, then must we posit a further rule which guides the interpretation of the first? Yet if so, then why cannot the same be said of our bald articulation of our affects, thoughts, and perceptual experience? So: What if I am simply voicing my desires - if my verbal articulations of them are no more representations of desires than my pre-verbal expressive behaviour (grunts, groans, sighs) - themselves? The sound the bow makes when drawn over the string does not report on the tone which it voices, nor report on the state of the violin.

Here we are, talking together. I 'speak', you 'understand'. You take up the phrase where I left off. We laugh together, share a moment. An image drifts through the conversation, structuring it for a while, only to be replaced by another. Then there is a short hiatus when something happens which we call 'misunderstanding'. At least one of us cannot feel our way into the language of the other. At such times perhaps we retreat to common, agreed, shared, uncontroversial terms - perhaps we try to work our way reflectively out from these - via what we call 'definitions' or 'rules for the use of words'. Yet this reflective, descriptive, form of discourse, in which some distance opens up between our intentions and our inflections, is hardly to be taken up as the prototype. It is recognisable as an aberration, as what it is against the backdrop of the norm in which there is no such separation between thought and speech.

"Are you just saying that words are magic, then, because of the immanence of thought within discourse?" Well, that is a very thin way of putting it. It captures litle of the magic. The magic is in the fact that not only are my words immanent within my discourse, but that I am immanent in it too - and so too are the worldly situations ("That's one big mansion house", "You remember yesterday when George fell over getting out of his car? Well he could hardly...") my words articulate. Magic here is not: using thought to affect reality. The magic is rather: here where there is no room for thought to insert itself between reality and my expressive comportment. It is the immediacy, the shared spontaneity of the conversation: that is what is magical.

Sometimes at the start of a clinical session I may ask the client "Well, I'm wondering how you're feeling; what's been on your mind; what the week's held for you". And then what I often get is a report, of little therapeutic value or use in itself. But soon the real conversation gets going, and now my client is not reporting their thoughts, but rather unfolding them. Felt senses give birth to meanings, meanings that are themselves unfolded with back and forth gestures between the feeling and its articulation. All of this is witnessed by myself, the interlocutor. Thoughts of the correctness of what is said do not yet arrive on the scene. Truth and meaning have not yet gone their separate ways - and so there is no substantial opportunity here for the meaningful articulation of propositions which then may or may not be correct. Where we are at is, rather, at the site of the birth of personal meaning (or of what Christopher Bollas calls 'idiom'), the site where the self becomes itself.

Words were originally magic. But: they still are magic, although their magic quality is constantly disguised from us by the representational fantasies that thought throws up when it reflects upon itself. The sheer fact of (what Frederick Olafson, in Heideggerian vein calls) presence is lost upon us - tacitly and illicitly assumed for our relation to inner representations, utterly disguised in our perceptual relations to outer entities which now appear merely causal.

The patient talks ...The doctor listens. ... By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgements and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient.

The temptation is to think that the 'magic' aspect of words consists in their ability to conjur up for us what is not present, or in the power of mere sounds to alter how the other feels, to exert an influence on us. But this is not the kind of 'magic' about words which entrances myself, nor the kind which fascinated Heidegger and caused him to endlessly try to articulate it, nor the form which attracted Wittgenstein but which he found tramelled over by the barbaric culture of the twentieth century. Or - it is a shallow articulation of what they found 'magical' about discourse. We might as well say that it is the lack of any need for any such conjuration which marks out language as magical. It is the lack of the need for language to evoke images or objects 'in or to the mind' - the lack of the operation of any such mind - which best captures its magical quality. You speak, I listen and in listening understand - without the need for mental intermediaries. That is the magical.

Perception is certainly no less magical for the presence of the real object before the perceiver. What is magic is the sheer presence of the object to the perceiver. Representational theories attempt to dispel this magic by 'explaining' the perceptual act. The irony of its ultimate reduplication, and hence the preservation of the putative mystery, is typically lost on them. But in any case, magic and this mystery are two quite separate things. This 'mystery' stems not from our being confronted with an explanandum in search of an adequate explanans, but from our having, first, simply missed the fact of presence.

The magic of words is, then, not to be found in their capacity to 'exert an influence' on us. That very way of putting things covers over what is of real interest - which is that in which in the influence consists. It is not that 'mere words' somehow make way for understanding - as if the process of listening with understanding had to be understood in terms of the taking up of the mere outer sounds into an inner domain of comprehension. That words influence our feelings is no more surprising than that any other act or occurrence should influence our feelings. What is magical about words-in-use is simply their partaking of presence, their embodiment of comprehension.

The patient talks ...The doctor listens.

Hasn't enough been said already?


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