The Enchantments of Cultural History

A Review of Simon During’s Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic

by Andrew Murphie

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Much in the manner of a charmed but sceptical spectator at a sideshow, this book is convincing in some large claims – ‘that magic has helped shape modern culture’ (1) – because it possesses the simultaneous virtues of both affectionate and temperate observation. It is decidedly not a book attempting to re-write cultural history. Like secular magic itself, the book has too deft a touch for that. Yet, precisely because of the muted nature of its claims, Modern Enchantments may prove to be a significant contribution to cultural history. The first major academic work on secular magic – magic that makes no claim to the supernatural – the book concentrates on the three hundred years leading up to the early years of the cinema. During’s stated aim is to bring ‘into focus … obscured oeuvres, audiences, and entertainment sites …hidden relations between different cultural sectors …neglected analytical methods for understanding them’ (2).

During does discuss spiritualism and ‘natural’ magic extensively – particularly with regard to their constant exchanges with secular magic (often involving the same performers) – but spiritualism and other forms of magics are only there to give a context for the secular magic that interests him. This stringent drawing out of the secular within magic makes for a very different book to others more concerned with the persistence of magic and superstition within culture (such as Erik Davis’ Techgnosis, David Noble’s The Religion of Technology, or Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media). Taking the path through the secular within magic also enables During to outline a very different cultural power found within magic. For secular magic was involved with the development of many aspects of culture we take for granted but seldom study with this kind of academic rigour.

Indeed, During makes many of the links we should have perhaps made before, but interesting enough in the terms of the book, have not. He convincingly demonstrates, without over-stating the claims involved, the cultural importance of secular magicians, conjuring ‘tricks’, spectacles and special effects, not only to the development of the machinery of the ‘show’ itself, but in the development of the marketability and cultural dealings with the ‘show’. For During, secular magicians have always understood something important but neglected about culture – that fascination is often with the knowledge that there is nothing behind the curtain and, moreover, that the fact that there is nothing mystical behind the curtain is not the end of complex cultural engagements. As such, secular magics and related aspects of cultural were important not only to show business but to literature (from George Eliot to Raymond Roussel, who for During is the most successfully secular of all those he discusses, and who may have helped push Duchamp towards a rigorously secular art practice). Secular magics and technical spectacles also perhaps influenced the writing of Mary Shelley’s now foundational novel, Frankenstein. Magics were also obviously important to the birth of film (particularly but not only George Méliès’ – who was himself an accomplished magician, and who held himself rigorously to the morality of framing tricks as tricks within film). During also accounts for the struggles between secular magics and those less secular within pre-cinematic optical technologies. Here the context was that of a struggle over ‘moral’ and less ‘moral’ uses of optics (or simply put, of the lens). A moral use of optics within this struggle meant the use of the telescope and microscope to further our insight into the mysteries of nature; an immoral use referred to the ‘dark, somewhat Gothic arts’ of the magic lantern show which among others things, seemed a matter of ‘pure’ and, moreover, death-obsessed ‘entertainment’. In these accounts, the historical research is outstanding, while presented in an entertaining, indeed quite charming, manner.

Yet Modern Enchantments is not only a pleasurable account of perhaps forgotten histories. Neither is it only a qualified assertion of the importance of secular magic history to cultural. During also sustains a complex and interesting series of arguments that involve rather more than the question of whether secular magic is important or not. In fact, the whole notion of cultural importance, of metaphysical significance, even a metaphysical significance of the ‘immanent’ or material rather than transcendent or spiritual kind, is questioned not only by During but, by implication, within secular magic itself. During uses secular magics and their audiences to profoundly problematise assumptions that, without the guidance of the academy, general culture does not have a plurality of modes of engaging with quite sophisticated nihilisms, materialisms, depths and depthlessnesses of a non-spiritual kind. This problematisation of the relations between intellectuals, technological development and audiences is found throughout the book but is most explicitly detailed in the chapter that closes the book.

In this final chapter, on ‘Spinozism’, spiritualism and secularism in the nineteenth century deployment of optical technologies, During targets Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer as an example of this kind of academic elitism (one that at times, according to During at least, even blinds Crary to history). During suggests that this is a symptom found throughout many recent analyses of the development of media technologies and culture (one of the many services performed by secular magics is their secular negotiation of technics). During is particularly dismissive of those who tend to claim that popular audiences are swept up in a technical narcissism/nihilism which they have no means of comprehending – or even negotiating. Such critics obviously include those who pose a culture that is ideologically deluded in some way, but would also include those such as Baudrillard or Virilio who could be seen to pose the end of Marxian or spiritualist cultures as meaning that culture is unable to negotiate technological change in any meaningful way. Of course, During – and, we could add, secular magic – might also be sceptical of the more utopian claims often found accompanying the development of new technologies.

Yet there is one thing that During, sometimes criticised in the past as a somewhat nihilist cultural critic, is not sceptical about. This is cultural power itself. I have not read a clearer – or, in what could have been a very dispassionate book, heartfelt – case for what During himself calls ‘the spread of a radical and post-Spinozist secularity’ (286).

A lovely example of the beginnings of this spread of radical – and culturally powerful – secularity is found in During’s account of a description of Cox’s Museum in Fanny Burney’s Evelina ( [1778] 242ff). Cox’s Museum, installed in the Great Room, Spring Gardens in 1772 by the jeweller and watchmaker James Cox, was an elaborate tourist attraction filled with spectacular mechanical amusements such as a ‘Swan as Large as Life … made of silver’ that ‘turns its neck in all directions …as if feathering itself …seated upon artificial water …reflected by mirrors’ (237). During points out that the fascination with such constructions as this swan was not with their beauty, or even the hidden mechanisms involved. Rather it was with a ‘doubleness’ that made it ‘magical’ in a most secular manner. It was ‘so surprisingly and magically lifelike precisely because it was so artificial’ (238). It is perhaps unsurprising that Cox’s Museum presented a challenge to cultural critics of the time, one that was part philosophical, but also more directly political (the political debate attended the luxurious nature of the investments in such spectaculars of mechanism). In Burney’s novel, however, it is the heroine Evelina who, upon visiting Cox’s Museum with some companions, is the only one who can muster a response that is neither rejection nor simplistic admiration. Like the wiser contemporary cultural critic, she is not so quick to reject the aestheticism of the mechanics involved, nor is she too hasty in rejecting a pleasure when she is ‘not sure how it is produced’ (245). At the same time, she is well aware of the cultural difficulties of being ‘pleased at the expence of … understanding’ – difficulties that lie at the heart of all writing about popular entertainments.

What During seems to so admire in Evelina’s response, however, and this is perhaps to be taken into contemporary understandings of secular culture, is that Evelina demonstrated a ‘fineness of judgement as a consumer of attractions, at least in comparison with her companions’. It is precisely because Modern Enchantments itself demonstrates such a fineness that it is exemplary as cultural history.

Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic, by Simon During, was published by Harvard University Press in 2002.

Andrew Murphie is a senior lecturer in the School of Media and Communications, University of New South Wales, Sydney.


Jonathan Crary Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA:MIT, 1990)

Erik Davis Techgnosis:myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information (New York:Three Rivers, 1998)

David Noble Religion and Technology: the divinity of man and the spirit of invention (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1997)

Jeffrey Sconce Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham:Duke University Press, 2000)

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