April 10, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science, politics and magic

A couple of years ago, prompted by an article by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, I wrote a blog post about ‘responsible innovation’ as a buzzword. About a year ago, I tried to understand the appeal of another buzzword, namely ‘co-production’. Yesterday, I cleared out some files and happened to come across some thirty-year-old notes on the magical power of words and ritualistic language. I had mused about these things when writing my PhD and then two books on the history of semantics and pragmatics.

Words and phrases like ‘responsible innovation’, ‘co-production’, ‘public engagement’, ‘sustainability’ and so on are used in rather ritualistic ways in science and technology studies, policy circles and social movements. So I asked myself: Are these words perhaps ‘magical words’ and what would that mean?

The magical power of words

The magical power of words was studied intensively at the beginning of the 20th century by anthropologists such Bronislaw Malinowski and Stanley J. Tambiah, but of course also by better known scholars such as Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin – and many more…. A few of these thinkers were involved in developing what Malinowski called “a more fully sociological and pragmatic treatment of language” (1935, vol. 2, xi).

Malinowski is best known for his anthropological and ethnographic work on the languages and cultures of the Trobriand Islands (in then British New Guinea). He published his best known book in 1935, entitled Coral Gardens and their Magic, but a 1925 essay “Magic, Science and Religion” is also of interest here. He coined the term ‘ethno-linguistics’ and was one of the founders of a pragmatic theory of language, according to which the meaning of a word lies in its use in a particular context. For him, language can only be understood as a mode of action in a situation, and words uttered as part of magic rituals were of particular interest to him.

In Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski defines ‘magic’ as “an instrument serving special purposes, intended for the exercise of man’s specific power over things, and its meaning, giving this word a wider sense, can be understood only in correlation to this aim” (1922: 432). For pragmatists like Malinowski and Austin, language is not primarily there to transmit thoughts, but to achieve practical ends. Take the example of what Austin, author of How to do Things with Words, called an explicit performative speech act, such as “I now pronounce you man and wife”: When a person invested with some authority says these words to two people, these people then are man and wife – magical!

Magical language proper goes beyond such performativity. Those using magical language believe that the words they utter have power over nature and reality; indeed, that they have super-natural effects. As Tambiah explains: “The very basis of verbal magic was the ‘creative metaphor of magic’, which suggestive phrase he [Malinowski] interpreted as ‘the belief that the repetitive statement of certain words is believed to produce the reality stated’” (1968: 186).

After re-reading some of this anthropological work, I started to look at words and phrases like ‘co-production’, ‘responsible innovation’, ‘public engagement’, and ‘sustainability’ differently. People using such words probably believe that they work a bit like ‘performatives’ or performative speech acts (‘I now pronounce you man and wife’). They believe and hope that the more they use these words (rather ritualistically), the more the meaning encapsulated in them will unfold.

However, I am starting to think that instead of being performatives (that is, acts of speech which only work within a well-established social, political, legal, ethical context), these words are, so far, much more like ‘magical words’. People want to believe that they bring about change, but without a supportive political, social etc. context, they will just remain ‘magic’ – they won’t be ‘performative’.

As with words used in magic rituals, there seems to be a pervasive belief in the effectiveness of these sacred words and in the authority of those who utter them, despite the fact that their power to change the world is quite minimal.

Sacred words

Sacred words used in magic and religious rituals are thought to possess a special kind of power not normally associated with ordinary language. Sacred languages are often exclusive and different from secular or profane languages. As Tambiah points out: “The role of language in ritual immediately confronts problems if placed in relation to a primary function of language which is that it is a vehicle of communication between persons. By definition, the persons in communication must understand one another. In ritual, language appears to be used in ways that violate the communication function.” (Tambiah, 1968: 179)

A sacred language, using words of magic, draws – in large parts – its authority from not being understood by ordinary people, non-experts or what we now call ‘publics’. Malinowski was puzzled by the meaningless words used in some magic and even talked about a “coefficient of weirdness” (see Tambiah, 1968: 185). This made me think again about magical words, such as ‘responsible innovation’, ‘co-production’, ‘public engagement’ or ‘sustainability’. In the case of our prototype performative phrase (‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’), we all know what it means and how it’s ‘magic’ works. By contrast, in the case of ‘co-production’, ‘responsible innovation’, ‘sustainability’ and so on, we actually don’t really (yet) know what these phrases mean.

And still, these words are sacred to certain communities, be they STS scholars, environmentalists, or policy makers. They all promise better worlds, more inclusive, more sustainable, more responsible worlds, worlds where we live and work together in harmony, and so on. These are buzzwords, which according to Bensaude-Vincent have some of their roots in marketing and are “hollow terms, with more hype than substance” (2014: p. 3), or as the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, they are terms “used more to impress than to inform” (OED). They have what Malinowski called a quite high ‘weirdness coefficient’. Interestingly, Malinowski mused about the power of marketing and advertising: “The subtle and witty analysis of verbal magic by Miss Dorothy Sayers in her detective story Murder Must Advertise would supply ample material for a doctor’s thesis written by one who is also professionally connected with the avertising business” and could be suitably compared “with the formulae of Trobriand beauty magic” (1935: 237).

This then led me to ask: Are the words discussed in this blog post perhaps just used, as Steven Pinker (quoted in an article on ‘word sorcery’!), puts it, to “bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook”, a magical gobbledygook spoken by ‘intellectual gurus’ (see Dan Sperber’s work on the ‘guru effect’), but not really understood by ordinary people/publics?

That is partly the case, I think. However, these words are also used for another more positive reason which one might call inspirational or aspirational. Given that we still don’t live in a world with the right economic, political, social, ethical etc. context in which these words might ‘really’ work their magic, their ritualistic repetition by certain gurus is meant to bring this world into existence. However, we need to be careful, as a perception of such words as highfaluting gobbledygook might blind people/publics to this more positive side. We need to not only say the words, but we also need to be able to show their positive and practical effectiveness.

Performing magic

It seems that we have a real dilemma when it comes to the magical words I have mentioned in this blog post. At the moment it seems that they are still mostly ‘just’ magic words, i.e. relatively incomprehensible incantations which however, like many magical words, have no discernable performative power. They don’t really create the reality they are intended to create. These words can only become effective and performative once they are uttered in the right socio-economic, political, cultural etc. context, that is, a context they actually are intended to create. However, for that context to materialise, we need political will and power rather than the power of magical words. A bit of a chicken and egg problem.

In the meantime, we should perhaps not throw out these words of magic altogether. As Malinowski said about such words used in gardening by the Trobriand Islanders – they do have an important function: “Our magical formulae in Trobriand gardening produce fertility, ward off pests, guarantee the successful sprouting and growth of plants, make harvest plentiful and prevent yams from being eaten up too rapidly. All this would be simply regarded as imaginary. What, however, is very real about the words of magic is that they consolidate the morale of the gardeners, give authority to the garden magician, and thus are the main elements in integrating the whole process.” (p. 54)

Image: Malinowski in the Trobriands – Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Languagepublic engagement with scienceReligionresponsible innovation