Molly Hankwitz on Thu, 9 Dec 2021 18:31:17 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The Dawn of Everything (very short review)

Thank you
I spotted this review yesterday

and now look forward to the LSE seminars and more! 


Sent from my iPhone

On Dec 9, 2021, at 8:33 AM, Ted Byfield <> wrote:

So, basically, magic is indistinguishable from any sufficiently advanced technology. I mean, if we can't distinguish the two, then the observation should cut both ways, right? But Arthur C. Clarke's formulation, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," is the only one we ever hear, and that bias makes its function clear: "mystifying" technology.

My mentor, the ancient histirian Morton Smith known for his controversial discovery of an allegedly 'secret' gospel and his popularizing book _Jesus the Magician_, had a brutally succinct definition of religion: "pretentious magic." It isn't sufficient, but it's a useful starting point. When you set aside the magical claims of a religion, you're left with human ~institutions like (and, like all institutions, also unlike) any other, and you can begin to analyze them not in terms of (and on the terrain of) their purported truths but, rather, in terms of of their observable activities, functions, and effects. As science and tech have become *literally* all-consuming, they have, ironically, opened up new spaces — and many would say needs – to think about ~religion and ~magic. We're now seeing more and more that their seemingly naive wholism maybe wasn't so naive after all.

In a similar vein, the best definition of I've run across was by Dennis Flanagan, an editor whose work is known far more than his name: he turned Scientific American from a mediocre intellectual property into a powerhouse that was, AFAIK, entirely new: a mass magazine whose mission was to enable scientists to explain complex research directly to popular audiences. The impact of SA cannot be overstated, imo. He said: "science is what scientists do." Far from a tautology, it's a fantastically open-ended formula akin to Smith's model of religion: an invitation to look at a self-privileging human institution in terms of its observable activities, functions, and effects — externalities included. Religion and magic have become, in large part, the only available ~space for critiques of scientism and its effects. I think for many the function of the truths religion claims is less that they're true than that they retain an aura of legitimacy. What other semi-solid ground could there be for a critique of scientism or technocratic culture? Oh, right: 👉🏼 opinion 👈🏼. Welcome to QAnon.

Dispensing with the truth is often the best way to get a little closer to it. As Lacan put it, more obscurely (but of course!) than either Smith or Flanagan: "I always speak the truth. Not the whole truth, because there's no way, to say it all. Saying it all is literally impossible: words fail. Yet it's through this very impossibility that the truth holds onto the real." Most debates about religion 'vs' science boil down to not much more than partisans claiming their model of truth is sufficient and therefore exclusive — boundary policing writ large or, less politely mystification.


On 9 Dec 2021, at 10:00, mp wrote:

On 09/12/2021 06:59, Michael Goldhaber wrote:
As a one-time theoretical physicist, I find this quote from Gosden to
be  out-dated, overly reductive, and incorrect, at least as far as
the most thoughtful scientists go.

Scientific understanding doesn’t “derive from abstraction,” but
rather the other way round. It doesn’t separate humans from the world
, but rather emphasizes our total embededness in it. It is no
coincidence that almost all aspects of the current environmental
movement, whether against the destruction of species , the concerns
about global warming, the dire effects of plastics, etc.,  come from
scientific observations. Nor is it  any coincidence that scientists
for the most part are instigators and fervent supporters of that

Darwin, after all, is generally considered a scientist, yet the most
basic and originally shocking point of evolutionary theory is that we
are related to all other living things.  Ethologists constantly
emphasize how close we are in behavior to other animals , etc., etc.,
etc. And, by the way, since Einstein physicists have agreed that
matter and energy are the same.

That view of science is a central part of Gosden's narrative and
arguments, he is not in any possible way pushing science down or away.
Quite the contrary.

"....No choice is needed between magic, science or religion. They each
stress and develop varied aspects of human action and belief, working
best when complementary...." (2020: 10)

He is expressly celebrating the advances of science and showing how
quantum mechanics (appearing on pp: 31, 354, 397, 403, 415, 423, 424),
plantneurobiology (and intelligence of plants on pp: 32, 420–21, 421,
429) ecology, etc. reveal elements of the nature of reality that
tendentially align with the animist, magical understanding of the world
(to show science in relation with magic on pp: 1, 4–5, 11–16, 18, 31–3,
70, 269, 283, 354, 355–6, 378–80, 412–13, 415, 432). He writes:

"...An exciting new picture is emerging in many areas of the scientific
world of what it means to be human: to be human is to be connected...."
(2020: 12)

I don't think he is outdated, he's quite 'avant-gardist' with regards to

What is meant by "participation" - whether an animist performing magic;
or a liberation theologist participating in community struggle; or a
concerned scientist communicating their results about melting glaciers
to the public - is not about participating, or not, in "the community"
or in "the public debate" or contributing to enlightening the "public

Think of the term "participation" here rather as a particular mode of
inquiry, as a methodology involving a particular arrangement of neurons,
a deliberate and paradigmatically different calibration of the psyche in
the moment of action.

Magic, like science, can be explained and performed in myriad ways. I
cannot justly explain it here, just make gestures. Try the book, it is
very informative.


PS: - here's a few gestures for what it is worth:

A scientist who, as you say, communicates about "...the destruction of
species, the concerns about global warming, the dire effects of
plastics, etc..." is concerned with causes and effects, right? They are
making an observation of the world through certain methods and they are
supposed to do their best to remain outside of that method, at a safe
distance from the observed, to keep the data clean. The "science" is
supposed to speak for itself, its performance involves aiming for a
certain degree of objectivity precisely by (attempting to be) keeping
the performer out of the equation.

Obviously that is a little difficult, which is why what some might call
pseudo-scientists, such as political ecologists and various flavours of
anthropologists, have grasped the nettle and declared that their
methodology is 'participatory action research': they insert themselves
right into the subject matter in the realisation that they will
inevitably be part of the equation. The do not pretend to hear the sound
of a tree falling in a far away forest, they go to it and they hug it,
to paraphrase an old philosophical chestnut. Yet, what they do is not
magic, it's just another form of science. Less detached.

Conversely, the scientist cannot really keep themselves out of the
equation and methodologies are probably rather difficult to design
entirely without confirmation bias creeping in here and there. But good
scientists try, and they claim to try, and their results gain value from
doing so; indeed, their results can be laughed out of the peer-review
room if they clearly didn't.

Climate scientists might be - and hopefully often are - concerned about
the environment, but they are in a sense not terribly close to the
glacier and its outer layer of microbial life forms when they send a
drone to film its shrinkage and then calculate the shrinking rate
acceleration. They are engaging through instruments, techniques,
algorithms, equations, abstractions, etc., that are 'de facto
distance-makers' between them, the observer, and the observed.

Poetry is perhaps a bit more like magic than science, so when Coleridge

"What power divine, Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?" back in 1828
he didn't need objective, detached data. He'd been there, he knew, he'd
literally smelled it:

"...I counted two and seventy stenches..".


"When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last
stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money", as they
said long before Rachel Carson was born...

...In this game, science is a late-comer, but very welcome [! though the
drones, the computer modelling, etc., come at a tremendous environmental
cost to confirm what we already knew?!)

Magic is a way of making meaning and a way of influencing the world that
is paradigmatically different from science and religion, though there
are overlaps. In order to understand something that might be alien or
which we have been schooled to reject, a little suspension of disbelief
is required. A little engagement is necessary. Gosden's book is helpful
for that. It is of course fine to reject it out hand, we should each
freely choose the limits our intellectual horizons, but then the
conversation just stops.

I'll leave you with another quote:

"...I am sure many readers are rightly sceptical about the existence and
efficacy of magic.  An initial counter to a radical scepticism is that
magic does not derive from strange whims or deliberate irrationality.
Much effort has gone into the construction of a mechanistic universe in
Western thought, in which planets or atoms are moved by forces, and
living things are characterized by biochemical reactions or sometimes
the firing of neurons. Equal effort in other cultures has gone into
denying differences between the animate and the inanimate, the living
and non-living, the human and non-human. In everyday life in the Western
world such distinctions also break down, and many of us find ourselves
talking to the cat or swearing at the printer when it doesn't work.
Beneath the rationalist rhetoric of our culture exist everyday
encounters with small forms of magic: numbers and days can be favourable
or not, black cats cross our paths and sportspeople can take magic
almost as seriously as their training. Small advantages are sought
through what we often decry as irrational means, often hard to take
totally seriously but also difficult to ignore. The broad distinction
made in Western thought between the categories of nature – where the
laws of science apply – and culture – where economic, political,
emotional or aesthetic conditions hold sway – makes no sense to many.
All modes of life make distinctions between categories of things but
also posit similarities. Where the lines of difference or connection are
drawn is variable, but they are always logical and meaningful to those
drawing the lines..." (2020: 4).



And for those concerned about other-than-human, as an off-list response
expressed,  that's what it's all about, and I paste from the off-list

Inclusion of the other-than-human is precisely the point Gosden makes
with references to quantum mechanics, plantneurobiology, ecology, etc..
He is a few steps ahead there, as animism of course also involves the
potential sentience of rocks and rivers and so on.

For instance:

"...An exciting new picture is emerging in many areas of the scientific
world of what it means to be human: to be human is to be connected.
Human bodies develop their intelligence with and through artefacts,
houses or landscapes, which means that our understanding of the world
grows out of a partnership with things. Without doubt the living world
constitutes a network of intelligences. Webs of communication, memory
and action cover the whole globe, as various species of plants and
animals interact, each in its own way. People are part of such webs.
Despite some delusions to the contrary, humans are rarely in charge of
these innumerable connections, especially as we are unaware of most of
them. Many of us have become existentially lonely by failing to grasp
how much the living world recognizes, remembers, learns and acts. A
sense of kinship and connection with the urban and rural landscapes in
which we live, as well as the plants and animals in those landscapes,
would help to make us all feel more at home in the world, more willing
to engage in reciprocal and equal ways with all the things around us..."

"...Humans live in sensate ecologies. The world is encircled by
connected communities of microbes, insects, plants and animals, each
making sense of the world in its own way, while also contributing to
broader flows of materials and information. An explosion of literature
is occurring that explores the intelligence of many living things,
taking in everything from plants (especially trees) to octopuses to
cows. Although such work comes out of the scientific practices of
ecology, it finds common cause with theological traditions across the
world, as well as with magical beliefs, helping to give the triple helix
of human practices new shape and connection..."

"...Much work is being carried out on the intelligence of plants. Plants
lack central nervous systems but are able to sense their worlds and
interact with them in subtle and varied ways. Plants produce and
exchange chemicals to communicate with themselves and with others.
Plants can sense in many of the same modalities as animals, although
often without specialized organs of sense. Leaves are sensitive to
light: a plant will elongate buds, shoots and leaves in areas regularly
exposed to sunlight and shed those in the shade. Plants require carbon
dioxide, water and other mineral nutrients that they locate through
chemical receptors in their roots and leaves. They can distinguish their
own roots from those of other plants, giving them some sense of self.
Plants also register gravity: shoots grow up and roots grow down. More
interestingly and controversially, plants are able to sense sound
through movements of leaves and hairs. Some species may emit bursts of
pollen when they feel the buzzing of bees. Chemicals known as volatiles,
which can have strong smells, attract animals and insects, but their
presence is sensed by other plants. The best known of these is the smell
of newly cut grass, which can alert other plants to the danger that
herbivores are in the vicinity. Plants that have not yet been eaten
could then produce chemicals that make them less palatable. This works
less well with lawnmowers..."

"...Many plants, including trees, form alliances with each other. Roots
strike up alliances with mycorrhizal fungi (Figure 10.4) that benefit
both parties but that also allow plants to communicate with each other.
Somewhat inevitably, mycorrhizal networks have been dubbed the Wood-Wide
Web. Mycorrhizal fungi help trees communicate, move nutrients, and
supply and move defensive chemicals, enabling individual plants to share
water and nutrients; in addition, they send chemical messages that allow
other trees to prepare for fungal attack. Such messages pass most often
between trees where one is the offspring of the other. A growing
realization of the importance of these networks and other forms of
connection is shifting attention away from attempts to understand single
plants in competition with each other to an emphasis on whole
communities that cooperate. Vital relationships are also formed between
plants and insects and other animals – work on cows, for instance, shows
that they know which plants to eat when sick. The living world is alive
to the possibilities, threats and capacities of other parts of the
ecosystem, with an ebb and flow of action and interaction in a sensitive
and responsive manner.

"...Much could also be said about the intelligence of animals. We have
all made our own observations of the animals with which we live in close
proximity. Recent research has shown that cows, for example, have long
social memories, bearing grudges or forming alliances lasting many
years, showing complex emotions. They can learn to open gates. Octopuses
also remember other individuals or situations. They learn by
observation: after watching other octopuses manipulate coloured objects,
they can imitate them. They can also learn to transport things like
coconut shells over distances to construct a shelter. Examples of plant
and animal memory; unexpected forms of communication; learning novel
actions; and tool use – our knowledge of all these skills and
capabilities is now multiplying rapidly as researchers come to realize
that the living world as a whole is a great mosaic of intelligent forms
linked through many networks..."

And so on.
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