Published in  
August 7, 2016

A plea for magic

M. C. Escher once said that, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.”

(This is a chapter of In Praise of Scaling Down edited by Manish Jain, Shikshantar Institute/Swaraj University, India; 2016)

Today, I watched as Alethea painted seashells. Her tiny fingers blithely pandered to the lithic bodies, easing over them with flippant brushstrokes of orange and yellowed blue. A meeting of fascinating lifescapes: the young beating heart of a two-year old Afro-Asian girl and the haunted cornrows of a once sea-bound elder.

There was nothing more to it, so to speak. It wasn’t a grand art project. It wasn’t homework (Alethea doesn’t go to school, and most probably won’t). There was no learning objective. She wasn’t trying to save the world. It was a small anonymous moment – unburdened by numbers and the anxiety of being ‘represented’, and yet sophisticated in its innocence.

I had a series of thoughts as she played with those little bits of petrified music. What would our unschooled Alethea be when she grows up? Will she take to painting rocks and shells? Will she somehow fend for herself in this way? Or will she fit neatly into those cookie-cutter jobs many colleges and universities in India now offer exclusive (and highly extortionate) program seats for?

When I was younger, grownups asked that question a lot. You might recall it yourself: what do you want to be when you grow up? Teachers, parents and strange adults would lean over, pinching our cheeks, while asking us the question. In answering, there was a ‘list of adult stuff’ we learned to refer to: it included the stoic ‘engineer’, the farfetched ‘astronaut’, the smart ‘banker’ and the imaginative ‘president’. We were rewarded with head-rubs and back-pats if our answers cohered with the realities of the adult world, and playfully ridiculed if we said silly things like ‘batman’ or (as I still remember saying) a ‘comb’. The grownups might have enjoyed humming to Doris Day’s famous ‘Que Sera Sera (Whatever will be, will be)’, but they meant anything but that! The whole world had a logic, and it was a child’s duty to gradually put away childish things and become invested in that logic. End of story.

So we more or less learned to say the right things, at home and at school. And in those sneaky moments, the politics of adulthood recruited us away from a world with eternal afternoons, where becoming a comb was possible, where things were porous and triviality was serious.

It was with tired adult eyes I observed Alethea’s play, wondering how I had become part of a big vacuous world of scarce grace and elusive relevance. Is a child’s capacity to thrive in smallness merely an innocent lack of sophistication? A want of developmental complexity, gained only by growing up? Are children really second-rate citizens, and is childhood merely a preparation for adulthood, or do children have a politicity of their own? Is the world truly as bereft of enchantment as it seems? Or were J. M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll trying to tell us something different when they penned their stories of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland?

Alethea stood up from the laid out newspaper pages we had placed on the tiled floor to protect it from her Pollockian mess, stretching her small body. I looked at her face again. Her smile spoke stories of sensuous worlds I had lost – worlds I could only recall in heightened moments of dangerous abandon.          


In the opening paragraph of her book, Subversive Spiritualities – How Rituals Enact the World, Frederique Apffel-Marglin writes about our modern condition – a story of loss and longing:

We modern cosmopolitans, heirs to the scientific revolution and to the enlightenment, are like abandoned children. We have lost the safety net of a web of extended relations and human community and find ourselves increasingly on our own, competing with others like us for the social space and the rewards that make us feel like we really belong, really exist, really matter. These feelings are no longer our birth right; increasingly they must be won through tough, solitary elbowing. This social aloneness, however, does not begin to match vaster, deeper, and more radical abandonment.

The abandonment she speaks of owes its potency and staying power to the ideas of the 17th century philosopher, Rene Descartes. His thoughts more or less created the most austere rift in the world – a deep chasm in the lay of the land so influential that today’s western culture is ‘founded’ on the islands of those inaugural moments.

Descartes’ aim was ambitious: to give philosophy sturdier grounds to operate from. With an intellectual exactitude that still resonates today, Descartes – in his Meditations (published 1641) – worked to find ontological and epistemological foundations by which all thought could be governed – a metric of Truth in a swirling mass of uncertainty and heresy. By doubting everything else, Descartes hoped to happen upon that which could not be doubted – an irresistible kernel of certainty that pressed itself upon his consciousness. Erasing the world, its ambivalent mountaintops, its mangled ecosystems, and vibrant symbiotic alliances, Descartes valorized the mind over the material world – thus formalizing the fundamental division between the mind and the world ‘outside’ of it. He concluded: the only thing that could not be doubted was that he was doubting in the first place – and that seemed self-evident and incontrovertible. Cogito ergo sum. ‘I think, therefore I exist.’

Helped by the Copernican revolution and its ‘transferral…of many astronomical functions previously attributed to the earth to the sun’[1], Descartes’ work contributed to the notion of a thinking mind outside of the material world – producing a binary in which human relationships were superior to, and independent of, a now mechanized nature. Humans ‘became’ the animated centre of the universe – in control of a dead machinery the so-called hard sciences (like physics and chemistry) now strive to understand from an eminent, unbridgeable distance.

However, this blanket demotion of nature to the secondary role of glorified resource base has not been without its cost:

A superior sphere of reason was constructed over a sphere of inferiority; the former was a privileged domain of the master, while the latter, which formed a category of nature, comprised a field of multiple exclusions created by racism, colonialism and sexism. Racial, ethnic and sexual difference were cast as closer to the animal and the body, a lesser form of humanity lacking full rationality or culture.
– Susan Greenwood, ‘The Nature of Magic’

The Cartesian premise spawned/co-emerged with a legion other binaries, bequeathing modernity with exclusions that fixed women, animals, non-white peoples, the nonhuman world, matter, and – yes – children, into inferior roles, thus legitimizing colonialism, slavery, extractive development, mass schooling (which, one may argue, is a form of depoliticization of children) and patriarchy.

A ‘new’ order of Reason, comorbid with the growing techno-nautical prowess of the time and an ethics of expansionism, stretched from sea to shiny sea, urging white men to take the promise of those Cartesian givens into heathen lands.

This order, a layered mass of managerial hierarchies, each one more valuable than its preceding fold, was a leap to escape the muteness of the material world – a now inferior, pathologized realm requiring disciplined intervention. ‘Nature’ became the instrument of our blossoming – serving human temporalities. Instead of seeing ourselves as what nature is doing, we relegated ‘nature’ to the cosmetic view outside our windows – visiting it once in a while, and then returning to the serious business of living outside of it. The world had been stripped of its significance and its divinity; all that remained was a pagan licentiousness and anonymous smallness that had become so distasteful to the enterprise of heliocentricity.

Today, this urgency and quest for bigness, this desire to sail nearer and nearer to the sun like Icarus, marks our lives and relationships in indelible ways. In a global economy denominated by hyper-consumerism, the imperative of growth and the increasing fetishization of technology as a vehicle for social ascension (or as a symbol of status), what this means is that we are more and more at odds with ‘little’ things: with trees, with rivers, with stones, with seashells, with bees and mountains. With spirits. With children.

No less affected by this ‘flight from smallness’ is contemporary activism, where the language of ‘scaling up’ is a tacit admission that real power, real significance, is scarce and exclusive. To make a powerful dent on the shape of things, it is argued, we need more people, more funding, more exposure. We need to take our arguments to the mainstream where voices are valorized – otherwise we risk talking to the birds.

While the logic is sincere, what ‘scaling up’ betrays is that same Cartesian distrust of the world and the exclusive investment of anthropocentric politics with all the agency that is diffractively dispersed in a web of life. Enacting the superiority of the human above the nonhuman, language above reality, mind above matter, and bigness above the little, we have sustained a blindness to the vibrancy and response-ability of the world. What has followed as a result is the gentrification of political action: the insistence on linear trajectories to power at the expense of participation in other spaces of power. This is perhaps the equivalent of reading parenthesized words as if they were the entire sentence.

But are there wilds beyond our fences? If we are not to lunge at the sun, is there virtue in this loamy dirt beneath our feet? If a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it fall, is it still a significant event? Are there tools to dismantle (or at least meaningfully engage with) an exploitative system other than the master’s tools? What haunts our vacuous quests for onto-epistemological security that is ravishingly embodied by the ‘little’? By the world we supposedly left behind?


The world is magical.  

For many people, saying this rings many alarm bells. We are used to thinking of the world as a rational-mechanical contraption, perfectly delineated by articulable laws. Perfectly intelligible and therefore potentially controllable. To speak of magic is to deny the hard-won victories the regime of the Enlightenment and its crusaders snatched away from the unshorn jaws of barbarians. Those who guard the gates of what is real and what isn’t insist that any talk about ‘magic’ is a surrender to stupidity: we shouldn’t allow counterproductive flights of fancy where serious conversations could happen. Magic is therefore inappropriate – except on projected screens or in cinematic moments when the suspense of belief is essential to meaningful participation.

But a case for magic is still not only compelling, but necessary – and it doesn’t swing on accepting the magic-as-useless-flights-of-fancy theory. We do not have to subscribe to unicorns dancing on rainbows to see that enchantment is not in short supply. Neither do we have to believe that everything we can think of is possible to see how critically limited and compromised our present ways of seeing are. Magic is noticing how sensuous the world is – so sensuous (perhaps coquettish!) that our usual cause-effect trajectories and givens cannot adequately account for its aliveness. However, ‘moderns’ are so given to quid pro quo equations, and habitually frame the nonhuman world in terms of its instrumentality to anthropocentricity that we fail to notice its response-ability – it’s agential vibrancy, its ability to disrupt our familiar notions of scale and import, and its power to repartition the sensible.

I write of diffractive realities. Contrary to our old billiard ball model of the universe, with its Newtonian relationships and formulas, we live in a world where the familiar idea of causality (wherein cause precedes effect) no longer pans out. To account for C, one must come to terms with causative factors of A and B. In scientific experiments today, we still enact a Cartesian process of elimination in an attempt to single out the true causal factor(s) of a phenomenon. We are instructed to keep our distance so that our biases do not taint the outcomes of our interventions – so that we can see reality clearly.

Descartes’ contribution to our understanding of the world invited us to see it as fundamentally divided into ‘things’, predetermined and pre-relational. His philosophy enshrined the doctrine of separation, ennobling the idea of objectivity in scientific practice. ‘Distance is the condition of objectivity’[2]. Today’s advances into the quantum world however disturb that serene picture. Authors like Karen Barad and Donna Haraway have taken great pains to show how we live in a world that is intra-actional, rather than interactional. By ‘intra-actional’, Barad especially seeks to bring our attention to the ways relationships precede things (and not the other way round). The world is not composed of things, it is composed of relationships. There is no distance[3].

Magic is the dissolution of distance.  

Magic is not when the unexpected happens, puncturing the regular drip-drop of mechanical reality; it is an ontology of the unexpected – an ongoing ethical engagement with intersection points where a world dances in and out of virtualities. Magic is not so much about permitting the bizarre as it is about recognizing that even the littlest thing is significant in ways that preclude our compensatory attempts to scale up, to get bigger, to become more noticed – as if, only then, we start to matter.

Perhaps this is why the Yoruba shaman-priests I spoke with some years ago, while exploring indigenous healing systems, laughed at the ‘white man’s’ tendencies to reduce and atomize the world into causal bits and resulting effects. “They miss the big picture when they insist that madness can be ‘treated’ with pills and pills and more pills”, one priest said to me. “They do not see how an uprooted eyelash stepped on in the wrong moment could make a young man lose his head.”

What would activism look like if trees mattered – not merely in terms of their metaphoricity or their usefulness to our economies, but as political beings? How would the discourse on climate change be altered if, instead of seeing the weather as something external and dumb, we saw ourselves as part of its unfolding – our bodies as weathering events?

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One might protest that all of this is farfetched and crucially beside the point. Today, the world is falling apart: the carcasses of whales are filling our shores, their stomachs lined with plastic debris; in the town of Karachi in Pakistan, drinkable water is so rare that people often line up for days to access enough; the rich are getting richer, their stupendous wealth reinforced by lobbied legislations and deals such as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), which allow corporations unfettered access to reconfigure entire nations to fit their profit imperatives; and, on my own continent, Africa, as with most other places, civil liberties are being trampled upon by governments elected to protect them.

Surely, this is a time to stand together, to march on the streets in unprecedented numbers as helicopters hover overhead, beaming pixelated images of a ‘revolution’ to television screens. Surely, this is a time to recruit more activists, to channel money to service our attempts to fashion a more just world. This is a time to think big.    

Except that we’ve been doing this for a long time – and it now feels counterproductive to maintain that the future hinges on our ability to keep doing what we’ve always done. The more assiduously we have tried to insist on a solution to climate change, for instance, the more – it seems – we have summoned measures like ‘cap and trade’, which end up deepening the disconnect between humans and the nonhuman world.

Today, what we need to do to meet a world in crisis is looking less and less like the ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ thing to do. I cannot help but feel that a politics represented by long snaking lines leading to a voting booth or to a grand Summit is too thin, too anorexic, and too inadequate to address the haunting spirits at the edges. We need thicker enactments of justice. We might very well need stranger dalliances with mountains and stones, with the nonhuman, transhuman, and posthuman. And we might begin to feel this more when we see that the lines that promise closure, the certitude of winning, the contours of a messiah, all too often end abruptly and despairingly at the place they began.

One of the many reasons why we must turn to the ‘little’ instead of focusing solely on scaling up is that we are noticing how we are – ourselves – ‘little’. I do not mean that in terms of size; I mean that in terms of porosity: we are not self-contained, predetermined, independent creatures situated in the environment. We are mutually entangled with the environment, and part of its ongoing articulation. To be fully ‘human’, we must come to terms with the ‘nonhuman’; we must come to acknowledge the inescapable materiality we once tried to disconnect from when we fashioned the creed of the disembodied soul/self.

We must ‘meet the universe halfway’. In so doing, in coming to see the world as emergence, we do away with the finality of solutions, the convenience of enemies, and the necessity of scaling up. Our rage against magic is how we stealthily maintain a world of exclusive grace, a world where ‘things’ matter only as they fit or come to fit within an already predetermined regime of the sensible, a world without its orgasmic sensuousness. Denying magic is the war on small things.

A plea for magic is therefore a politics disrupting the naturalized arrangement of bodies, relationships and meaning; it is getting rid of the metric system that assigns value to ‘things’, when in fact the world is not a collection of things but a festival of relationships. It is sitting with the trouble of our cobecoming – noticing how the world is not deprived of significance but inescapably entangled with it.

Our commitments to scale preserve the ancient quests for heights and convenient closure – captured in the Babelian imperative to escape a world purged of life and colour by an antediluvian flood. In recognizing that we are not in the world, but what the world is doing, that there is always something new under the sun (including the sun!), we can turn to the ‘little’. We can lean into the politics of the inappropriate. We can disinvest ourselves of the imperative to pierce the sky to be ‘noticed’ or ‘represented’ by broadening the spectrum of power.


The danger of scaling up is that we lose sight of our wideness or an abundance of spaces and ethical positions that may help us make sense of our troubles. We perpetuate the old Cartesian promulgation of disconnection, and impose our temporalities on ‘nature’ – as if we are above ‘it’. But, what can we do differently today? How are we being called to smallness?

What if we stretched NGO-ized activism from its current fixation with numbers and professionalism, so that we started to treat play seriously? What does a politics of many streams, instead of the mainstream, look like? What if hugging were just as much a response to crisis as marching on the streets? What about photographing stones, reading stories to trees, planting one’s own food, unschooling one’s child, painting seashells in unabashedly bright colours, or taking a walk barefooted? What if we gave room for the genius of grief to mature – instead of truncating its logic with hammer blows of contrived positivity? An activism of grief, of touching, of sighing, of grandmothers telling stories, and of singing pollination songs with bees?

Does any of this make sense in a world suffering the feverish spasms of exterminations and exclusions? No. Then again, what makes ‘sense’, or what feels appropriate, is already tied to our embodied visions of what justice ‘is’, and the material world is always an ethical interruption of our neurotic quests for closure. Different ‘senses’ and sensibilities, different ethical possibilities, haunt us from the edges – inviting us to deepen our partnership with a world that is not dead and mute; with our shadows – which are allies in more ways than we can articulate; and, with our children, who are more than small adults awaiting cultivation, and who seem to recognize – rather fluently – that one need not be big to matter.


[1] Susan Greenwood, ‘The Nature of Magic’

[2]Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers” – Interview with Karen Barad

[3] I would invite the reader to explore the fascinatingly queer story of the famous ‘which-slit’ experiments, designed to determine the true nature of light. Researchers found that light could either be a particle or a wave, depending on the measuring apparatus which included the presence or absence of an observer! Barad has written extensively about this, showing that the world is really a mangled knot that entangles ‘observers’ and ‘the observed’ in a Gordian knot – a view that contrasts sharply with Descartes’ conclusion that observers are fundamentally distinct from what they observe.