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Magical Criticism

The Recourse of Savage Philosophy

During the Enlightenment, Western scholars racialized ideas, deeming knowledge based on reality superior to that based on ideality. Scholars labeled inquiries into ideality, such as animism and soul-migration, “savage philosophy,” a clear indicator of the racism motivating the distinction between the real and the ideal. In their view, the savage philosopher mistakes connections between signs for connections between real objects and believes that discourse can have physical effects—in other words, they believe in magic.

Christopher Bracken’s Magical Criticism brings the unacknowledged history of this racialization to light and shows how, even as we have rejected ethnocentric notions of “the savage,” they remain active today in everything from attacks on postmodernism to Native American land disputes. Here Bracken reveals that many of the most influential Western thinkers dabbled in savage philosophy, from Marx, Nietzsche, and Proust, to Freud, C. S. Peirce, and Walter Benjamin. For Bracken, this recourse to savage philosophy presents an opportunity to reclaim a magical criticism that can explain the very real effects created by the discourse of historians, anthropologists, philosophers, the media, and governments.

256 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2007

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“Christopher Bracken’s Magical Criticism is a superbly original account of the Western invention of “savage” thought. This is sharp, precise, challenging criticism of the highest order.”

John Frow, University of Melbourne

Magical Criticism boldly puts forward an erudite and entertaining argument that ’discursive forces have more-than-discursive consequences.’ Bracken revisits, and reinvests with significance, long-discredited anthropological concepts of ’savage philosophy,’ such as mana, animism, and even magic, and in the process makes the case for the contemporary relevance of nineteenth-century evolutionary anthropology—Tylor, Frazer, Lubbock—and provides stimulating new readings of classic modern discourse theory. This is an exciting, paradigm-challenging work.”

Marc Manganaro, Rutgers University

“Bracken argues that, despite our denial, savage philosophy is very much with us today, and in an extraordinary whirl through many of today’s canonized thinker, he uncovers and explicates its strands. What is quite extraordinary is the depth and breadth of Bracken’s purview—this book will appeal to scholars of literary criticism, anthropology, philosophy, and intellectual history. I was enchanted by it.”

Vincent Crapanzano, CUNY Graduate Center

Table of Contents

Introduction: What Are Savages For?
Chapter One: Discourse Is Now
Chapter Two: The New Barbarism
Chapter Three: The Mana Type
Chapter Four: Commodity Totemism
Chapter Five: Allegories of the Sun, Specters of Excess
Coda: The Solaris Hypothesis

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