Oral Presentation Session - Invited Status Awarded
Invited by: Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists
Primary Theme: Immigration/Migration/Citizenship
Secondary Theme: Ethics
In a global context of forced mobility, growing inequality, and economic restructuring and austerity, actors in the social domain face an expanding sphere of intervention and, often, shrinking material resources to address it. Working through "relationality" to generate cohesion or "solidarity", within and between citizens (Muehlebach 2011), these actors are tasked to give concrete shape to elusive ideals of a healed, revitalized social. Moreover, in contrast to those bureaucratically distributing or controlling benefits and access to citizenship (Auyero 2012, Dubois 2010, Ticktin 2011), they do so with little means to enforce or elicit citizens' participation or compliance. In a context in which the impact of their work is fragile and hard to gauge, yet felt to be ethically urgent, how do actors (professionals, civil servants, volunteers) understand their own interventions into the social fabric? Building on recent approaches to bureaucratic work as inscribed in utopian aspirations to produce the public good (Bear and Mathmur 2015), we suggest that the practical work of conjuring a new social requires a particular modality of wishful thinking-cum-acting that can be usefully understood as analogous to magic and witchcraft, in the classic anthropological sense of the terms.
Bureaucratic acts and artefacts are similar to witchcraft rituals in that they generate resources through an opaque, invisible transformative power (Herzfeld 1992), leading in some cases to rumors of bureaucracies as occult economies (Aretxaga 2003; James 2012; Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). We want to expand this approach by emphasizing a different aspect of magic that is more fitting to the work of social actors who precisely want to move away from 'cold' bureaucratic procedures. Magic functions not only as a vessel or idiom of power, but also as "a pragmatic attitude, built up of reason, feeling and will alike" (Malinowksi 1982 : 24), allowing for meaningful action within and upon "chains of causation" (Evans-Pritchard 1976: 21) that are too complex to control or fully grasp. 'Magic' thus provides an analytical lens that allows to ask how clients perceive and try to 'work' social services and bureaucracies, as well as to ask how social actors themselves try to 'work' the social despite the limited realities of their work. Through what means do social actors infuse their actions and relations, which are often small and modest in scale, with a potency for influencing the social? What philosophies about the travelling of acts through the social body underpin their practices? How do they relate their own forms of "magical" thinking and tinkering of the social to the bureaucratic powers of state administrations?
Drawing upon ethnographically grounded papers that examine diverse aspirations and projects to reshape and heal the social across several regions (Europe, Japan, Latin America), this panel aims to offer an analytical perspective for exploring the magical modalities embedded in the conjuring of a new social, in a time in which global politics and everyday experience seem increasingly under the specter of magic, secrecy and the occult (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002).