Monday, 19 October 2009

Anthropology and Magic - an interview with Susan Greenwood

Susan Greenwood is the author of The Nature of Magic: An Anthropology of Consciousness, Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld: An Anthropology, and a new book, The Anthropology of Magic. She is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Community Engagement at the University of Sussex.

Pagans for Archaeology interviewed her about her new book.

PfA: What prompted you to write your new book?

When Berg first invited me to write a book on anthropology and magic I didn't initially think much about it as a project, but after a while I realized that as an undergraduate, and as a postgraduate doctoral student, I'd really struggled to find anything that tackled the issue of the experience of magic. Since childhood, I had always felt a sense of magic - the thrill of a thunderstorm, the fascination with being in nature, and the 'make-believe' of creating stories in my head. When I was older I had explored witchcraft and went to university as a mature student to find out more about my magical experiences. During a final year anthropology and sociology project on women's spirituality I realized that I wanted to explore magic through PhD research (this ended up as Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld). During my time of studying I found books that were helpful in some ways but nothing that really dealt with the issues of studying the experience of magic. I wrote The Anthropology of Magic in the hope that it might help students and others to think about magic as an aspect of consciousness - it was the book that I'd wanted when I first started studying anthropology.

PfA: How does it differ from your two previous books?

In my two previous books - Magic, Witchcraft and the Otherworld, and The Nature of Magic - I took an experiential methodological position regarding magic. In other words, I used myself as part of my research and explored my own magical experiences. This proved to be quite challenging to anthropology due to the preferred position of not 'going native' and maintaining a more distanced approach. My argument was that we are all natives in this type of magical thought - all humans are potentially capable of having magical consciousness and therefore it's appropriate for the fieldworker to have experiences, and write about them too.

In this new book I have taken that argument further and related it to a classical anthropological debate on mystical mentality; and I have also explored the nature of reality in relation to an inspirited world, developing a new methodology of magic from my own experiences, as well as those of others. In the final chapter I have looked to a new attitude towards science as an encompassing framework that can include magic as a legitimate source of knowledge of this inspirited world, rather than reducing it to individual psychology or social effects, as has been common in the past. My aim has always been to stimulate discussion. I hope that it will encourage people to explore magic, as an aspect of their own consciousness.

PfA. What sort of feedback have you had from anthropologists on your "insider" approach to fieldwork?

Initially, it was more difficult. The more rationally-inclined thought that I wasn't distanced enough, or that I hadn't 'returned' properly from the field, or even that I wasn't a 'proper' anthropologist, but I've had overwhelming support from others who have welcomed a more open perspective and have encouraged my work. I think things in academia are changing.

PfA. What sort of feedback have you had from magical practitioners on your "insider" approach to fieldwork? Is there still a "Luhrmann effect"?

I've had very positive feedback from magical practitioners. As an anthropologist rather than an advocate of any particular practice, I've tried to take a critically sympathetic approach and I think that most have recognized that I've tried to create a bridge of understanding between a magical worldview and the rationalizing social science disciplines. When I first started my research in the early 1990s there was a definite 'Luhrmann effect' and it was difficult gaining trust with 'informants', but things have got easier as more people realize what I've been trying to do. I consider myself to be a magical practitioner, and some of my dearest friends are magical practitioners. I see myself as someone who writes about magical consciousness from 'inside' and 'outside'.

PfA. How do you see the "otherworld" in relation to the material world?

For me - and this is a matter of personal opinion - the 'otherworld' is a spirit dimension of the material world. Some would place much more emphasis on a 'supernatural' understanding and the importance of various deities. I value, and work closely with gods and goddesses in my own magical practice, but ultimately I view them as differing manifestations of nature - we are all nature, an inspirited nature. I choose to understand and explain this through the Anglo-Saxon notion of Wyrd, the pulse of spirit that runs through all life. Ultimately, I don't think it matters too much what we call it or how we structure it through our conceptualizations, it's how we feel it that counts. There are many paths that lead to similar human experiences.

PfA. What do you think are the social effects of practising magic?

Well, that depends on what type of magic you are practising. Magic, as an aspect of consciousness, is amoral - it can be employed in many different ways. I would like to think that the effects of people becoming more aware of themselves through 'thinking with the heart', an aspect of magical consciousness, would have a good effect socially. This can have a major effect on how we see ourselves, how we relate to the world around us. I think that developing magical consciousness can help feelings of social alienation by helping us relate to who we are, the places where we live - making connections with a particular tree down the road, or the birds or other wild animals that might visit a garden, or perhaps a particular local landscape. Opening the heart to feel a connection with others might not stop wars initially, but it's a good place to start.

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