Claire Fontaine

Towards a Theory of Magic Materialism

Date de parution : 04.12.2019


In Caliban and the Witch Silvia Federici deploys a splendid analysis of why magic can’t coexist with the rhythms and the values of industrial productivity. The attack against witchcraft is found to be as essential to the formation of modern capitalism as the enclosures. According to Federici, what happened with the witch hunt was an attack against the magical view of the world. “At the basis of magic”, she writes, “was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in ‘sympathetic’ relation with the rest. In this perspective, where nature was viewed as a universe of signs and signatures, marking invisible affinities that had to be deciphered […], every element – herbs, plants, metals, and most of all the human body – hid virtues and powers peculiar to it. Thus a variety of practices were designed to appropriate the secrets of nature, and bend its power to the human will. ]…] Eradicating these practices was a condition for the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared an illicit form of power and an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work, that is a refusal of work in action. ‘Magic kills industry’, lamented Francis Bacon.” 1

This idea of magic as the enemy of the industrial revolution acquires a specific importance in our time, in which the industrial development has been exposed as unsustainable, potentially leading the planet to destruction.

We have created the concept of “magic materialism” as a way of addressing both the necessity of acknowledging, in the digital era, the major importance of the material aspect of our physical surroundings and the fact that our perception is shaped by an instrumental and mechanized world, where the attention to what is alive and what keeps us alive isn’t greater than the one towards objects.

Magic materialism is what Foucault would have described as a “subjected knowledge”, whose insurrection he preached: it’s a set of competences that allows its possessors to escape the grip of power. It’s a materialism that is able to read and value reproductive as much as productive work, that sees the body as a site of possibility for revolutionary processes and as a battleground. It’s also a materialism that takes its distances from the debate about the scientific character of Marxism. It involves different types of categories and processes from the ones used by science; for example it doesn’t work with objectifying processes. It therefore derives from feminism its principal aim of restoring subjectivity where it has been objectified by patriarchy: women, gender-non-conforming persons, people of colour, children and the natural world. As a paradigm for this concept (and method) we used Romano Alquati’s conricerca (literally co-research, communal research), as formulated in his book Per fare conricerca2 in 1993. The method was born in opposition to the schools of sociology that used objectifying and dehumanizing methods that already incorporated an institutional approach.

In conricerca the researcher making an inchiesta operaia (working-class enquiry) through interviews and conversations works with the full awareness of the Heisenberg principle: the very presence of the interviewer changes the answers and reactions of the people interviewed. As these researchers come from the political community they are researching, they see the lack of distance and their social and political closeness with the people as a resource.

The aim was to obtain a result that wasn’t aseptic and useful for a dishonest power. The work wasn’t done to further submission, but to understand more clearly the needs and potential for struggle of a certain type of community, mobilising categories and knowledge normally excluded from sociological investigations. The others are subjects as much as the “bare-footed researcher”; they are producers, providers of knowledge about themselves and the enquirer through their very interaction.

In the idea of magic materialism there isn’t only the ambition to resist objectification, even regarding nature and the inanimate world, but an attempt, as Ernesto De Martino puts it, to understand the chain of causes and effects in a way that allows us to explain what remains unexplained. In times of humanly irrational choices made by governments in the name of profit, magic materialism can help us read, for example, how economic logic is at odds with life and potentially self-destructive. In The World of Magic De Martino writes that as soon as it is raised, the problem of the reality of magic throws our very concept of reality into a crisis (and perhaps expands it); therefore the investigation involves not only “the subject of the judgement (the magic powers) but [also] the actual category of judgement (the concept of reality)”.3

Whether we seek to explain why the feet of Fiji’s natives don’t burn on the fire pits or why in democratic countries we end up voting for totalitarian candidates, we need to consider the blind spots of our epistemic models.

We call this method “materialist” in reference to the wonder, thaumazein,4 experienced by the early Greek philosophers, who observed nature with an emotionally scientific approach, looking for resemblances and connection between every form of life but keeping close to the phenomena they studied.

We call it “magic” because we believe that this term will help us fight the intellectual and perceptive ravages of a capitalist vision of the world, helping us rediscover the power of the living and the cultural investment of the inanimate. In Mute Speech Jacques Rancière, the author of The Partition of the Sensible, writes: “Any configuration of sensible properties can be assimilated to an arrangement of signs, and thus to a manifestation of language in its primary poetical state. And such a doubling can be applied to any object. […] This power of language, immanent in every object, can be interpreted in a mystical way, as it was by the young German philosophers or poets, who endlessly repeated Kant’s sentence about nature as a ‘poem written in ciphered language’ and, like Novalis, assimilated the study of materials to the old ‘science of signatures’. But it can also be rationalized and seen as the testimony that mute things bear to human activity.”5

Becoming the translator rather than the careless exploiter of nature might be the adventure of humankind in the years to come, for this the value of indigenous knowledge, which in many places was disregarded or destroyed, is now being rediscovered. A vast reading room could already be filled with books written to refresh our memory on how to plant and cultivate land, how to harvest and hunt without depleting a territory, how to behave towards natural sources, mountains and trees the way it was done prior to colonisation.

Agriculture is undergoing new processes of legibility; the focus is shifting towards how to listen to the plants in order to obtain a better fruit, a more effortless and healthier produce.

“The last diffuse pruning of my vine dates back to 1999 – Lorenzo Mocchiuti explains – it was a moment when the absolute majority of the winegrowers from Friuli was persuaded that it was a compulsory step […] then progressively we have understood that the pruning favours an imbalance within the process in which the plant is ripening the grapes […] if we remove the grapes from a plant, even when it has a lot of them, we give it a message of growth: it reacts to the pruning by producing new leaves that aren’t needed […] next to the soil there is the sky, the aerial part of the plant. Neither the sun nor the sky are sufficient in themselves. Plants needs to express themselves at their best, and that’s the way excellence will flourish.”6 Magic materialism is first of all the intuition and the institution of a temporality that breaks as much with Fordist as with post-Fordist time. It inaugurates the time that allows us to listen to a plant and understand whether it reacts to our actions, without just measuring its growth and productivity.

Its contexts are the soil and the sky that lies just upon it, touched by the leaves and with which the plant has a dialogue that the pruning didn’t take any notice of. Lorigliola describes a Copernican revolution of agricultural habits: “There is no refusal a priori of technology and mechanical appliances. On the contrary, there is an inversion of factors: the vineyard mustn’t be planned departing from technology, in its centre is the vine, its environment, the agricultural context and the landscape. Everything else must be taken into account only if necessary and always departing from that.”7

Magic materialism calls into question the Marxian idea of the re-appropriation of the means of production as a revolutionary project. If reproduction is as neglected and depoliticised as an issue, it’s because production was always problematic and unsustainable. Socializing factories and infrastructures wouldn’t help us to secure a better future at a time of the most severe environment crisis that history has witnessed.

What might have looked like a nostalgic or reactionary regret for a disappearing world in literature and art across the twentieth century was a warning about the structural and perceptive change induced by the industrial world within natural history and the history of humankind as a species.

Everything that surrounds us now in the urban space and elsewhere awakens the awareness of the violence of the economy on the body. In 1925 Rilke wrote to Witold von Hulewics: “Even for our grandparents a ‘house’, a ‘well’, familiar tower, their very clothes, their coat were infinitely more, infinitely more ; almost everything a vessel in which they found the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, sham things, dummy life … A house, in the American sense, an American apple or a grapevine over there, has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which went the hopes and reflections of our forefathers … Live things, things lived and conscient of us are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last still to have known such things.”8

Rather ironically, a year after these lines had been written and read, the first ready-made was created, along with its paradoxical status. It was an ordinary, soulless object escaping its status and joining the art world, thereby acquiring the aura that it had been denied on account of its use-value.

In an interview with Katharine Kuh in 1961, Duchamp declared: “The curious thing about the Ready-Made is that I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition or explanation that fully satisfies me … There is still magic in the idea, so I’d rather keep it that way than try to be exoteric about it.”9

Nowadays the sensitive is disused and misused, as all colonized lands are. Landscapes and bodies are undergoing a process of dematerialization, constantly facing the threat of digital de-contextualization under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras and of every single smartphone.

The Instagrammable is a variant of the picturesque indeed, but its paratactic structure and its circulation potential have turned it into an enormously powerful device, with no equivalent in the history of images. Unlike the panels of Warburg’s Mnemosyne atlas,10 the page filled with squares that is displayed on our screen holds no compressed historical power whatsoever. There is nothing electrifying to breathe life into the thin space between one picture and another. It is a morgue of past moments whose intensity is merely functional to, and seems to serve no other purpose than their visual capture.

From a materialist standpoint, what we can neither perceive nor understand in the picture that is sent electronically or stored alongside other heterogeneous data is its connection to its original context, to history, to the fabric of the real from which it derives, or which has been used merely for production purposes as an inconsequential backdrop. Likewise, reality may be a vague model for advertising, but the opposite will never be true.

The article “The Instagrammable Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, by Daniel Penny, opens with the following anecdote: “While touring England’s Lake District, poet Thomas Gray suffered […] a selfie-induced injury. While looking more intently at the reflection of the setting sun in his outstretched hand than at the ground beneath his feet, Gray reports, ‘I fell down on my back across a dirty lane . . . but broke only my knuckles.’ […] Gray adds that he ‘stay’d nevertheless, & saw the sun set in all its glory.’ Although Gray’s injury took place in 1769, during the rise of the picturesque, his accident resonates in the age of Instagram – a time when clickbait articles regularly report people falling off cliffs, stepping into traffic, and crashing into precarious artworks, all in pursuit of that perfectly Instagrammable moment.”11

The emphasis that magical cultures place on the theft of pictures and on the consequences that this may have for the soul should be understood in the light of a passion for immanence that is unknown to us. In the process of building up one’s self-representation on social networks and elsewhere – a crucial stage in the anti-magical conception of the bourgeois individual whose legacy we have inherited – the inorganic elements, whose aggregation is meant to coalesce into a legible singularity, are given prominence. We are valued as separate entities, as hoarders of pictures and objects that are linked to us, and yet we enjoy no more of a living relation to our present than the leaves of a herbarium would to some plant growing in the street.

The beauty retrieved from a landscape, a body, an animal and linked to a “profile” is still a form of exploitation, arguably of the most insidious kind, because it is re-circulated and electronically “added” to its sender, with no need for him or her to have actually produced it, exactly as if it were virtual, helpless prey. The context that generates beautiful things, framed and sent from screen to screen, is not called into question, and the modes of production and circulation of such beauty are equally irrelevant.

The world is always already photographed, so much that its sensitive reality and its powers over our bodies have been pushed into the background, to the extent that they have even become dangerous, much like the car that knocks us down while we are taking our dream picture.

Moreover, the logic of accumulation, whether applied to the physical or the digital, is a major threat to life, which we can no longer afford to ignore.

Offering an interpretive framework for the real in which the living, be it micro-organic, plant, animal or human life, takes precedence, seems the only way out of the psycho-pathological apocalypse in which we are caught.


1 S. Federici, Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Autonomedia, New York, 2004, pp. 141–142. | 2 R. Alquati, Per fare conricerca, Calusca, Pado-va, 1993. | 3 E . De Martino, The World of Magic, Pyramid Communications, 1972. | 4 See J. Llewelyn, “On the saying that philosophy begins in thaumazein”, in Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 4, 2001, pp. 48–57. | 5 Jacques Rancière, La parole muette : essai sur les contradictions de la littérature, Paris, Hachette Littératures, 1998, p. 41. | 6 S. Lorigliola, È un vino paesaggio. Pratiche e teorie di un vignaiolo planetario in Friuli, Derive Approdi, Roma, 2016 (translated by the author). | 7 Ibid. | Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, vol. 2, 1910–1926, trans. J. Bannard Green and M. D. Herter Norton, New York, Norton, 1969, pp. 374–375. | 8 Duchamp quoted in Katharine Kuh, The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, Harper & Row, 1962, p. 90. | 9 Aby Warburg, L’Atlas Mnémosyne, Paris, L’Ecarquillé and INHA, 2012. | 10 Daniel Penny, “The Insta-grammable Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Boston Review, 17 November 2017:

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Claire Fontaine

Claire Fontaine est une artiste collective, active depuis 2004 et basée à Paris. Entre référence au célèbre fabricant français d’articles de papeterie, connu pour ses cahiers scolaires, et hommage à Fountain, 1917 de Marcel Duchamp, Claire Fontaine s’est autodéclarée « artiste ready-made », élaborant une version d’art néo-conceptuel utilisant aussi bien le néon et la vidéo que la sculpture, la peinture et l’écriture. Un nouveau livre de Claire Fontaine paraîtra fin 2019 : La grève humaine et l'art de créer la liberté.
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