Ritual Practices


Deborah Root

The following text is excerpted from FUSE Magazine 34.4 (September 2011). In order to read the full text, you can purchase the article below.

Let’s say I love you from afar, so I visit a magician who places our photographs in a bowl with (perhaps) pieces of paper with our names written on them and several spoonfuls of honey. Candles are lit, words are said, and it is done. You and I are together in a bowl, cemented with sticky sweetness. At the level of appearance, we are together, even if events in the world have yet to catch up with events in the bowl. In this sense the desired effect has already happened: the appearance of our union has been made to exist in the world and I have witnessed the materiality of the ritual that has brought us together.

Or another scenario: let’s say there’s a bad political situation, and arts grants are being cut right and left. Bureaucrats gather together in a room, and certain names are written on a piece of paper and placed in a file. The names represent the people who will lose their funding. The same day, the government erects billboards with the image of its leader, and arranges rallies where its supporters can be photographed. Is this magic? Both the magician and the bad government are attempting to construct a map of real life, and both are manipulating appearances to create effects in the world. Both are ritualizing their actions, explicitly so in the first example. The difference is that government councils think that their actions only happen in this world, whereas by creating another world in the bowl the magician recognizes that different realities can coexist simultaneously. One system of thought is static, the other flexible.

Why turn to magic instead of dealing with power head-on? Is magic, as is claimed in social science textbooks, the last refuge of the dispossessed, a consolation for people who can’t make things happen in the real world? I would argue that magic is about transformation, and if I were to generalize, I would say that magical practices are concerned with the permeability of borders, of collapsing the boundaries between fixed categories of “now” and “later,” life and death, male and female, animal and human. Rather than insisting on a firm distinction between the real and the unreal (and where do you draw the line?), magic reminds us that there are different planes of the real, each of which produces its own effects, each of which has materiality. For example, ritual art tends to show how something is able to become something else, or is something other than it appears on the surface. This is based on a particular understanding of reality; the boundaries between the phenomena exist for the sake of convenience, in that they make description easier, but they do break down once you look closely at things. What is powerful about magic it its ability to disrupt categories of thought.

Magic can make people uneasy because it utilizes what is to many an unfamiliar conceptual language. Accordingly, magic (or practices explicitly named as such) is not yet integrated into urban life in late-twentieth-century North America. We have art instead. In the performance piece Border Brujo (1991), Guillermo Gómez-Peña speaks of the border as the place where brujos become performance artists, but what is the border? He is referring to the border between the United States and Mexico, but also to the different histories and symbolic systems these entities express. How come “they” got the magic and “we” got the art? It seems like a raw deal. Is it part of an operation of containment, a mechanism of capitalism that makes things that cannot be easily explained more manageable and, in the end, more saleable?


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Image: Guillermo Gómez-Peña in the performance/installation work The Tropic of Confessions, by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, 1996. Photo: Monica Naranjo

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