Global Magicby Alf Hornborg
Released March 23rd 2016
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
Buy on Amazon
From Professor Hornborg’s Introduction to Global Magic:
Magic is not merely a practice constrained by the absence of objectively efficacious knowledge but a particular kind of social strategy for achieving specific ends. As defined here, magic hinges on the attribution to certain objects of an agency that is actually contingent on human perceptions rather than on the physical properties of the objects themselves, but to humans appears to be independent of their perceptions.
Put another way, Charlie Brown and Linus look at clouds. Linus sees in them the tale of Nebuchadnezzur and the stoning of St. Stephen. Charlie Brown sees a ducky and a horsey. A climatologist however sees clouds.
Put yet another way, among the rubble on my coffee table right now is a bottle cap and a 20p British coin. Which is more valuable? Both are designed metal objects of roughly the same size. Your instinct is likely that the coin has value whereas the bottle cap is garbage; the coin can be used for a market transaction whereas the cap has filled its purpose. Except there’s a slight problem there. As I live in Ireland that 20p coin cannot be used to purchase anything, much as I found when I lived in England and attempted to change a bag of euro coins I had brought with me only to be told that no shop, bank or currency exchange outlet would take them. Out of their context, those coins had lost their magic as it were.
While Global Magic is a challenging book engaged in explicating the complicated relationships between and among culture, industry, finance and ecology, at its heart the book seeks to simplify. Taking these intensely studied and analyzed subjects back to their radical root what we have are systems built to sustain values built on what Karl Marx referred to as fetishism.
Ah! Now that made you sit up and take notice. Well, sorry to disappoint but we’re not off to the dungeon where Haughty Felice waits with her cat o’ nine tails. Rather, what we are looking at here is the concentration on one object or activity while ignoring or at very least paying short shrift to the larger picture. On the personal level you go and buy a new phone for $500. You might even consider that to be good ‘value’ whereas I definitely would not; however if we start analyzing the reasons behind consumer taste we’ll be here all night. Regardless, you have your phone. To whatever degree you considered that phone’s context you likely did so by comparing it to other phones; it would be the rare purchaser indeed who pondered the metals used in its framework, the labour and energy used to build it, or the financial instruments at play behind the credit card you handed to the shop clerk when you bought the blasted thing. That is fetishism in a nutshell – what’s important to you is the phone and we’ll think about labour, or ecology or finance when their times (note the plural) come.
That is something with which Professor Hornborg takes to task both academics and other professionals. For instance, economists don’t really like to deal much with the planet’s environment because that’s not their fetish field of study; go ask an ecologist if you want to know about that. Even the Marxists focused on the disproportionate value of the rewards given to labour versus the rewards gained by the owner/employers. Marx, Engels and their descendants tended to gloss over the notion of what value is in the first place.
Hornborg argues that anthropology, the study of human cultures and their development, is well-suited to a holistic view of value, its distribution and its naturally occurring entropy. Well on the one hand he would, he’s an anthropologist by trade, Professor of Human Ecology at Sweden’s Lund University. Even acknowledging that certain self-interest on the author’s part, he makes an excellent case. The whole business of endowing value to artifacts – whether those artifacts are tools, temples or coins – is a uniquely human activity. Squirrels indeed stash away nuts, but they don’t indulge in commerce with other squirrels, dealing pecans for peanuts.
If I am as indeed I hope correct in summarizing Professor Hornborg’s argument it is that the dissonances we have in present-day civilization – poverty, famine, climate change, resource wars – are based upon the problem of entropy as identified by the second law of thermodynamics. In case you’ve forgotten that one, any interaction will cause a certain amount of entropy or decay. I want to eat tomatoes so I plant tomatoes. However, that requires me to expend a certain amount of energy to dig the earth and plant the seeds. Th earth itself gives up some of its energy to the plants and so becomes tired. Well, let’s get some fertilizer then. No problem, except that it requires energy to gather the guano and transport it, plus now the land where the guano came from has had its environment altered, etc. and so forth. The source demand – that would be me with my fetish interest in tomato salad – must always gain equal or more from these transactions or what the hell’s the point anyway?
I have only described the merest surface of Professor’s Alf Hornborg’s Global Magic. There is so much there to be found, including discussions and analyses of past Empires, the purposeful opacity of post-Bretton Woods financial systems, and an intriguing suggestion regarding the establishment of currencies based on individual activities rather than on the larger interests of nations or banks. I’m not sure if the latter model as described will work, as a currency or scrip for transactions within a town would not be of much use for a tourist or newcomer, however it is an idea worth further study and discussion. Indeed, the notion of carbon trading among industries or nations has been floated as one (to me again imperfect) method of easing transition away from destructive carbon energy.
If you the reader approach Global Magic with the view that you will take your time with it, allow yourself to ponder the implications of each chapter, and then view your own community’s life within its theories you will find that time to have been immensely … valuable.
Be seeing you.