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The Magic of Mimesis: A Historically Informed Anthropology of Sympathetic Magic and Contact

 

Raquel Romberg provides an in depth review of magic and mimesis from an anthropological perspective. Drawing on her own exhaustive research into Afro-Latin rituals and Taussig’s “first and second contact”, Romberg turns her post into a reflexive project: a fourth contact that acts as an embodied retelling with its own ethnographic and spiritual ‘power’.

 

MLA citation format:
Romberg, Raquel,
“The Magic of Mimesis:
A Historically Informed Anthropology of Sympathetic Magic and Contact”
Web blog post.Material Religions. 16 March 2016. Web. [date of access]

Mimesis has acquired many meanings and has been related to several theoretical genealogies in the last century. Variously understood as copying, imitation, and replication, mimesis has entered into debates in philosophy, the arts, developmental psychology, cultural studies, consumerism, religion, spirit possession, and magic. Drawing on Aristotle’s notion of mimesis, some have portrayed imitation as a basic human instinct and one of the constitutive elements of poetry and the arts in general (Fergusson 1961:5). Within child-development perspectives, imitation has been theorized as a basic form of learning. Within evolutionist biology, imitation has been characterized as essential to the human condition—the main replicator being the genes. In this line, Dawkins (1976: 192) suggests to call “meme” the new replicator of cultural transmission (because it sounds like gene), and “memetics” the copying of “skills, habits or behaviors from one person to another by imitation work”; memes are, for example, “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches (quoted in Blackmore 2007:2-3). Further, with the recent discovery of “mirror neurons” some psychologists such as V.S. Ramachandran hope to revolutionize our understanding of human behavior and the making of culture. In contrast, socio-cultural approaches to mimesis have foregrounded its relation to human interaction, especially to power relations and cultural difference in situations of (not just colonizing) contact.

Anthropologists and folklorists agree in considering mirroring and mimesis as constitutive of various types of individual and group experiences, from basic personal socialization into a group, the development of a sense of self, the ability to control unknown situations, the management of felt disempowerment, to the acquisition of all sorts of cultural knowledge (Cantwell 1993, Jackson 1998, Taussig 1993). Taussig (1993) develops the notions of first and second contact in this regard in order to historicize the mimetic faculty as a political framework that traces imitation between different groups, and its labor in empowering some and disempowering others. [i] Very briefly, whereas “first contact” refers to the initial mimetically mediated cultural misrecognition between differentially empowered groups, say, aborigines and Europeans, “second or reverse contact” refers to the unsettling recognition that the culture and technology of one group has been imitated by another in creating new practices—such as the creation of a new form of cricket, as in the documentary film Trobriand Cricket (see Taussig 1993, and Kildea 1979). [ii] And of course, all this mimicking and the recognition of this mimicking entails power moves in situations of domination and exploitation. Within anthropological studies of magic and witchcraft, the mimetic faculty acquires additional meanings as the principles of similarity and contact (sympathetic magic, according to Frazer 1960 [1901]) enter the practices and discourses of ritual, the making of magic works, and possession.

As will become clear below, mimetic dramas and the creation of similes inform divination, healing and cleansing rituals as well as magic works performed during consultations at the home altars of Puerto Rican brujos (witch healers) –with whom I worked intensely for more than a year. Based on this research, I argue in Healing Dramas (2009) that such sensorial mimetic dramas could be in themselves healing, for they promote a state of emotional openness among clients (and spirits), necessary to initiate the healing process. That is, when brujos in trance “mimic their clients’ bewitched bodies–and occasionally the evil spirits that had caused them misfortune–unspoken and painful feelings have a chance to surge,” spirits are forcefully cajoled to leave their victims, “making visible (literally) the pain clients feel–and its causes. This mirroring drama is powerful enough to motivate even the most bewitched client (that is, one that has lost even the willpower to heal) to stop being passive and, instead, to engage in some recommended proactive, mending action, such as the performance of a cleansing ritual or retaliatory magic work” (Romberg 2009:154).

Before I move on, I wish to alert readers that rather than being guided by an inclusive (and in my view futile) drive, this essay selectively (and strategically) traces a few analytical frameworks of mimesis, particularly those that have inspired my research about, but not limited to, the practices of modern brujos in Puerto Rico. Crucial to the various directions in which I have elaborated the notion of mimesis through the years has been Michael Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity (1993), especially the enticing ways he has made Walter Benjamin’s “The Mimetic Faculty” (1999) and “The Doctrine of the Similar” (1979) speak to anthropological reserach. Briefly, following Taussig via Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is understood here as the historically determined capacity to produce and recognize similarities: mimesis, as the capacity to copy, draw on the power of the other, and become the other. [iii] For the purpose of mapping some interrelated paths for the study of mimesis, I propose to look at mimesis in relation to colonial and postcolonial encounters, magic and healing rituals, and the technologies of mimesis in relation to ethnographic writing.

A. The Revenge of Mimetic Difference and Desire in Colonial and Postcolonial Contexts.

Mimesis acquires a particular meaning in colonial and postcolonial contexts. Resonating with W. E. B. Du Boisʼs notion of “double consciousness,” some Caribbean researchers of the African diaspora suggest that beyond the devaluation of the language of the colonized, the internalization of the colonizers’ values created a colonial syndrome that made them see themselves through the eyes of the colonizers, and thereby self-deprecate, and negatively evaluate themselves and their behavior. One could argue, following Homi Bhabha, that the imposition of European culture (as part of the colonial project) entailed a double bind: at the same time a colonial mandate to mimic and to interdict mimicking “white culture.” For the menace of mimicry in colonial contexts, as Bhabha suggests, is its “double vision,” which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority (1994:88). Especially intriguing is the social price paid by white and colored Creoles (i.e., born in the colonies) alike for being “like white” but for ever remaining not “quite like white” (Bhabha 1994:86).
In line with this defeatist notion, mimicry signals for a number of postcolonial Caribbean intellectuals (such as V.S. Naipaul) the impossibility of colonial subjects ever engaging in a real transformative action from a place that has not already been colonized. For example, in Naipaul’s Mimic Men (1967), the main character, Ralph Singh, expresses an inappropriate fascination with traits that he always finds in English women, such as an innate imperial predatory greed that actually scares him and makes him feel inadequate and ashamed (Galloway 1996). Acknowledging this, Ralph reflects, “it seemed to me that to attach myself to her was to acquire that protection which she offered, to share some of her quality of being marked, a quality which once was mine but which I had lost” (Naipaul 1967:47). A similarly inappropriate, demeaning fascination with symbols and gestures of power is vividly expressed in a completely different world re-created in Jerzy Kosinskiʼs The Painted Bird (1965:119). The young protagonist, a Jewish boy “who looks like a Gypsy,” manages to escape the Holocaust by hiding in farms. About his frightening encounter with a German SS officer dressed in full military grab, the boy reminisces:
He seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under his peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force. The granite sound of his language was ideally suited to order the death of inferior, forlorn creatures. I was stung by a twinge of envy I had never experienced before, and I admired the glittering deathʼs-head and crossbones that embellished his tall cap. I thought how good it would be to have such a gleaming and hairless skull instead of my Gypsy face which was feared and disliked by decent people.
Rene Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire” could help untangle these apparent irrational dyadic forms of mimetic fascination with the oppressors (Cottet 2000, Livingston 1992), and open the possibilities for a tridimensional framework in which “mimetic desire” could mediate not one but several directions of the cultural encounter. Indeed, as I mentioned elsewhere (Romberg 2014), the sense of difference or exoticism may not only mediate transcultural contact and inform local forms of knowledge about colonial others, but also may feed in essentially witty forms of mimetic possession in which the power of powerful Others is invoked, channeled, and transgressed. For example, we learn from Paul Stoller’s (1995:90) evocative rendition of the reality of possession that the enactment of white colonial agents during Hauka spirit possession rituals are both frightening and funny; they show that via mimesis whiteness could be mastered and thereby its ascribed colonial power could be recruited. Referring to Hauka spirit possession as “horrific comedy,” he further suggests that the embodiment of the Hauka not only evoke the colonial past, but also “manipulate the present, and provoke the future” (p. 7). [iv]
Fritz Kramer’s (1993) discussion of the mutual mimetic fascination of Europeans and non-Europeans, inspire Irene Albers (2008) in portraying “exoticism” as a medium of non-scientific knowledge, as a liberating form of visceral communication between cultures—not unlike the embodiment of Europeans in ecstatic cults of non-Europeans.And yet, even if the mimetic faculty of possession cults might be thought as connecting self and alters by means of the ability to “yield into and become Other” (Taussig 1993: xiii), mimetic forms of transcultural knowledge can also have deadly consequences. They can unleash nightmares of representation and persecution, as illustrated keenly in The Convict and the Colonel (Price 1998). [v] For some critical theorists of colonialism, the colonized forever falls short for producing imperfect copies of the colonizers: they “can never succeed in becoming identified with the colonizer, nor even in copying his role correctly” (Memmi 1965:124). But this ambiguity and impossibility acquire a different meaning within magic, where this imperfection is constitutive of its technologies and excesses or surplus. I take this to be one of the “wicked” sides of mimicry and the magic of imperfect copies.
Elsewhere I develop this idea further, linking the technologies of magic to “ritual piracy” or the strategic, unauthorized appropriation of symbols of power of powerful others for purposes other than those intended by them, and which become empowering because of this very transgression (Romberg 2005, 2011a). Those who persecuted witches, sorcerers, and wild alters must have “known” that magic worked through copies, even imperfect ones. (More on ritual piracy, below.)
 

Figure 1A: ” National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka – Colon doll (military policeman) – Baule people in Ghana – Collected in 1996“, By Yanajin33, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
 

Figure 1B: “Mbari figures of Amadiaoha and his wife (sometimes called Ala, the Earth deity) in the mbari to Ala at Umugote Orishaeze. Artists: Nnaji (left figure) and Ezem (right), 1966”, By Herbert M. Cole, via Univ. of Iowa Museum of Art.
Visibly, Ivory-Coast Baule colon figurines and Nigerian Igbo Mbari figurines mimic European colonists–Europeans have interpreted them as “whimsical representations of themselves” (Saunders and Cornish 2014:93). But for the Baule and Igbo, these figurines represent spirits that embody those attributes of European culture that Baule and Igbo value and wish to channel for themselves. This is what Rouch (1956, 1960, 1971) and Stoller (1995) noted with respect to the Nigerian Hauka pantheon of spirits, some of which mimic and often mock European agents of power during possession. These forms of replication exemplify the fascination with symbols of power and the wish to channel that power via mimesis. Paul Stoller, among others, has insisted on the embodiment of opposition to colonial rule in West Africa. Some of this opposition has taken place overtly by means of the rise of armed oppositions such as the Hauka Movement in Niger; and other has occurred by means of cultural forms of embodied resistance such as Igbo Mbari houses, Yoruba Egungun dancers, and Baule “colonial” sculpture.
The cases mentioned above show that cultural forms of emulation, replication, or mimicry shouldn’t be seen as the product of a childish fascination with powerful others that ends up in submission (as some have suggested), or the sign of a lack of cultural authenticity, sincerity or charisma, as Western individualist ideologies of modernity have assumed (Taylor 1989, 1991). Rather, mimicry might in fact entail forms of cultural appropriation, forms of “symbolic” or “ritual piracy” (Romberg 2005, 2011a).

Mimesis and Ritual Piracy

As vernacular responses to hegemonic forces through time (see Romberg 2003), brujería (witch healing) practices have encompassed dominant symbols and gestures (of the Catholic Church, for instance) often after decades and even centuries they had ceased to be hegemonic. I have written extensively on ritual piracy (2005, 2011a), but I wish to point here to its generative mimetic quality over time. By means of illicit performative mimesis, or the imitation of hegemonic symbols and gestures on the margins, brujos have resisted the exclusionary power of such symbols. Therefore, rather than interpreting these forms of incorporation through imitation as a form of submission (to economic, civil or religious hegemonies), I have characterized them as forms of “ritual piracy” (Romberg 2005). In other words, by means of these forms of vernacular piracy, symbols of power, which had intended to exclude (and often vilify) the practices of brujería, are appropriated and rechanneled via a form of “predatory” (Harney 2003) mimesis in order to serve ritual and spiritual purposes foreign to the purposes driving their imposition by the dominant culture in the first place. In this way, one can say, vernacular religions such as brujería plunder the very powers that these symbols embody, rechanneling them in the preparation of their magic works and rituals. Via a kind of mimetic cunning, then, the spiritual power of the Catholic Church that had been once monopolized by priests has been seized by brujos, showing that those who had been vilified as evil at one-point end up appropriating the very power that was meant to destroy them.

 

 

Figure 2: A magic packet hanging from the cross. Photo by Raquel Romberg.

 

Although I cannot develop the relevance of this proposition here, I wish to note that it transcends the area of vernacular religions and witchcraft–as has become clear from research in the field of cultural studies, anthropology and literary criticism. I am thinking about the work done by scholars who have analyzed the “game of mirroring” (Bhabha 1994:85-92), and investigated mimesis and the mass reproduction and distribution of commodities as essential aspects of the production of cultures of so called “hybridity,” postcolonialism, diaspora and global modernities (see Adams 1997, Kildea 1979, Vann 2006). [vi]

Drawing on Adorno and Horkheimer’s historicization of the notion of mimesis in relation to commodification and capitalist society, Taussig points to the power of equivalences in commoditized societies: “Before, the fetishes were subject to the law of equivalence. Now equivalence itself has become a fetish” (Adorno and Horkheimer quoted in Taussig 1993: 45). Taussig does not reference directly Braudrillard’s “simulacra” but I believe this is the direction some culture-industry social theorists have taken with regard to mimesis, particularly its “yielding” force. Seen as a “repressed presence” that is “used as a hidden force” (Taussig 1993: 45) (to incite consumption, I guess), the yielding force of equivalences (mimesis), which incites to look and feel like those who consume certain commodities, seems to be driving, in this kind of script, Western capitalist consumer societies. With a local cultural twist and equipped with a related “cargo cult” framework, Jonathan Friedman (1994) cogently invites us to examine this neomarxist idea with regard to the Congolese “sapeurs.” Although he does not mention mimesis or equivalences directly, Friedman explores the cosmological/identity significance of local practices of consumption of Parisian brands of haut-couture items, such as those of Armani, that allow “sapeurs” –poor, unemployed youth organized in La SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes–The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People)–to tap into the power (life force), elegance, and prestige that Parisian haute couture garments embody/carry. Unlike magic works, the items have to be “authentic” not copied or faked brands in order to affect their maximum power.

Figure 3: La Sape, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Image Credit

B. Mimetic Chains and Magic

What I wish to argue here, following what I showed in Healing Dramas (2009), is that a persistent mimetic (and contagious) corporeality is readily observable in divination, cleansing, and healing rituals, spirit possession, and magic works; it is recognized in the multiple forms of manifestations of the otherwise concealed world of spirits; it is, in sum, at the basis of the technologies of magic and healing and essential to their ethics, affectivity, and effectiveness. And yet, I warn, if one is to be true as much to the immediacy of ritual experiences (Turner 1992) as to their indeterminacy and corporeality, a deconstruction of these technologies for the purpose of analyzing them might have just the reverse effect: creating the illusion of a neatly coherent system that would, in fact, hinder the very experiential sensing of their ethics and affectivity no less than their effectiveness. This is why, I insist, “something about the multisensorial, intersubjective experience of ritual, as in other fieldwork experiences, is thus disappointingly irrecoverable in spite of one’s best-intended attempts in contextual maneuvering and textual evocation” (Romberg 2009).
It is through the framework of mimetic corporeality and discourse that I have tackled an otherwise incongruous practice found in brujería rituals (as in other recently creolized religions): brujos incorporate the liturgical symbols, words, and paraphernalia of Catholicism and adopt the role and demeanor of priests (see Romberg 2003, 2005, 2011a). This practice suggests, on the one hand, the continual pervasiveness of a Catholic ethos in Puerto Rico; and, on the other, the ambivalent attitude of brujos toward Catholicism. It would be historically naive to gloss over the long-term effect of Catholicism and Christianity in Puerto Rico, as they were used as folk synonyms for personhood and civility. After centuries of persecution by the church and in spite of an essentially antiecclesiastical attitude toward religion, Puerto Rican brujos still find the need to appropriate its symbols and gestures, albeit often for spiritual and healing purposes other than those established by the church. It seems that through the imitation of Catholic gestures and signs brujos can seize on the transcendental powers embodied in the church and transfer them by means of a “rupture and revenge of signification” (Taussig 1987:5) to their own practices (Romberg 2005).

Ironically, by virtue of the very system of imitation that had been in place in accordance with the church’s own devotional teachings, the gates to the realm of miraculous occurrences had been opened wide to an eagerly devout public ever since the earliest days of colonization. I am thinking about practices related to Imitatio Christi (The Imitation of Christ) a fifteenth-century devotional book ascribed to Thomas à Kempis that instructed how to lead a pious life modelled after the life and deeds of Jesus–in line with the religious reform movement of Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion). Influential ever since, it proposes the emulation of the life of Christ as a way to achieve a personal, direct spiritual unity with Christ. The Catholic notion of salvation and sanctity achieved through mimesis has become part and parcel of the ways in which brujos relate to their profession. The idea of sacred mimesis appears in discourse through aphorisms, proverbs, and stories of the life of Christ, as well as in action, through healing performances that emulate those of Jesus and thus are framed as “miraculous” acts of mercy and charity (Romberg 2003). Today one can observe the limitless unintended-effects of this ethos of sacred mimesis in a number of vernacular religious practices, which promote the imitation of the life of Jesus and the spiritual legitimacy that follows from it. [vii] Consider the miracles, apparitions, altars, and sacraments sanctioned by the Catholic Church and all the vernacular replicas of them in private home-altars of healers throughout the Americas (cf. Romberg 2003, 2009).

Figure 4: Haydee praying in a chapel and in her altar room. Photos by Raquel Romberg.

A few ethnographic vignettes will vividly convey this idea further. Bolina, a Puerto Rican bruja (witch healer) living in Loíza (one of the most Afro-Puerto Rican cities in Puerto Rico) told me in our conversations that plastic prostheses had been inserted in both of her knees for more than a decade. The doctor had told her she would have to walk with crutches the rest of her life. Devoting herself and praying to San Lázaro (always depicted on crutches and with a dog licking his wounds), she promised him that if she got better she would remove his crutches, i.e., literally remove the crutches from this santo’s plaster figurine . “Y así fue” (And so it happened), Bolina said. In all the years she had waited to be healed she had “walked barefoot, as a penitent,” everywhere. The trope “I walked barefoot” was used often by several other brujos in order to index the humility and sacrifice involved in their obra espiritual–apparently a collective image that resonates in Puerto Rico with the image of Jesus walking barefoot on his way to be crucified. It is as if, mimetically, by “walking barefoot” Bolina had relived his torment, and connected to the mimetic chains of resemblance that eventually induced such a miraculous outcome. Today she walks without crutches, and the San Lázaro she keeps in her altar stands without his usual crutches. [viii] Another case of sacred mimesis I documented widely is that of Haydée, a bruja, who said “I eat while I heal, like Jesus”–as she ate her lunch while applying compresses over the ulcerated leg of one of her clients (see Romberg 2003: 120-122).

Figure 5: “I eat while I heal, like Jesus”. Photo by Raquel Romberg.
On another occasion, Haydée travelled through the sinuous mountain chain traversing the island from East to West for about three hours in order to heal the aging mother of one of her clients. She persisted driving in spite of a sudden, unusual, and dangerous hailstorm. Drawing a parallel between the teachings and healing journeys of Jesus, Haydée figured her dangerous journey through the mountains as a personal act of charity modelled after Jesus’s deeds, and the hail water she had gathered during the trip as blessed water. Seeing the healing effects of the rituals she had performed with the blessed water in the house of this sad and feeble old woman, Haydée delivered an emotional homily on the duty of offspring to make sacrifices for their aging parents. It was constructed as a mystical moment, infused with layers of religious significance: “as if one of Jesus’s healing miracles had come to life in the present through a mimetic performance” that connected that mythical elsewhere with this healing journey (see Romberg 2003: 122-125).

Spirit Possession and Somatic Mimesis

As mentioned in my piece on spirit possession and discourse (Romberg 2014), some work on spirit possession rituals has taken a challenging perspective on the mimetic moments of colonial encounters, showing the rather dialogic, tridimensional nature of colonial contact. Far from being the exclusive domain of Europeans, the fascination with and fear of Others is seen as reciprocal and reflecting (cf. Fritz Kramer 1993, Michael Taussig 1993, and Paul Stoller 1995).Many have noted the visceral theatricality of possession, particularly the mimetic dramas by means of which colonial generals, medical doctors, and governors, for example, possess the bodies of ritual participants. Undoubtedly, the domination and exploitation of colonial encounters (as well as the desires to possesses and control the power of colonizers) provided the stage and the characters that were enacted in what Paul Stoller aptly characterized as tragic-comic mimetic theaters of possession (Stoller 1995). As a form of practical mimesis, such mimetic dramas offer a glance into an otherwise silenced history from below (Stoller 1997).
Spirit presence during possession rituals may take many forms and meanings. Sometimes the possessing spirit is visibly there in the manner the medium acts and speaks. At other times possession is subtle and is only noticed when the medium conveys the messages the spirits are sending to clients during divination, cleansing, or healing rituals. But recognition of who the possessing spirit is depends on culturally defined mimetic cues, such as the voice, demeanor, personality, and ways of speaking of the spirit.

Being possessed by spirits, especially evil spirits and muertos (spirits of the recently dead), is seen as the ultimate sign of sacrifice and charity of a healer. Brujos always mention the heavy price they pay for this in terms of their health and family relations. In cases of exorcisms, when the medium becomes possessed by the evil spirit that have been sent to harm a client, an unmistakably extreme form of somatic mimesis and sacrifice by proxy on the part of brujos occurs, by means of which the healer’s body intercedes in order to restore the well-being of the victim. A milder form of intervention no less motivated by sacrifice comes about when a healer senses in his or her body the exact pain and location produced by a bewitchment that had been intended for a client. In these cases, by means of somatic mimesis, “healers not only embody the actual pain, suffering, and bewitchments experienced by their clients”; they also mirror their clients’ pain. Healers and clients thereby become connected by means of somatic mimesis, which in this case allows for the materialization of the intangible messages spirits hold for people (see Romberg 2009:198-209). [ix]

For instance, in consultation with Dania, a young woman in her mid-twenties, Haydée began the session stating, “You are not working yet–you haven’t gotten a job yet, right? And what about the woman who was driving you crazy?” And then, while her upper body trembled, Haydée cried, “Uy, I have chills! Your leg hurts you, right? This is how I felt it, like an electric shock (correntazo)–like an electric flow that kicks you backwards. This is how you feel? How long have you felt this way? The woman asserted that indeed she “felt paralyzed for no apparent reason” over the last few days, and this is what drove her to come for a consultation (2009: 200). During the several months I worked with Haydée, she often complained that some of her aches and pains were caused by “the bad energies” that her clients brought with them to the altar-room, noting, “This ache is not mine–it’s [followed by the name of the client]. In these case she would take pills or put ice cubes on her forehead and neck. [x] In general, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when the words of the spirits, voiced but not authored by brujos, replicate the unspoken state of mind and feelings of the victim of bewitchment, a healing, cathartic moment usually follows, for these might have been the exact words and feelings the victim was thinking about. Such visceral ways of having one’s state of mind and mood mimetically revealed might seem to open or “jumpstart” the process of healing, in Desjarlais’ (1996: 160) apt term.

Chains of Correspondences of Similarity and Contact

Most institutionalized religions have ritualized ways of naturalizing the idea of the immateriality of matter. Take, for example, the transubstantiation during mass of the wafer and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. The same holds true, even if it has not been naturalized, for conceiving the cosmic chains of similarity and contact that tie together things with certain attributes and feelings, and names with their effects as in Puerto Rican brujería and similar vernacular religions (Romberg 2009). The following vignettes will illustrate this point.
Tonio, a very old brujo from Loíza I met when he was near ninety, was known as “The Number One Witch Healer of Loíza.” He knew the whereabouts of healing plants and animals in every niche and mound of Puerto Rico. In our conversations he used to recall hundreds of names of families and individuals he had helped out in Loíza, other neighborhoods all over the Island, and in several parts of the U.S. mainland. Such memories elicited other embodied memories of magic works and rituals he used to perform when he was younger and abler. “The recitation of places evokes also the names of specific healing and magical plants that grow only in one of those places–on a certain mountaintop, for instance, or on the bank of a certain river. The names of healing plants trigger, in turn, their effects, the llantén (a broad-leaf plantain, Plantaginaceae), for example, produces llanto (tears). The natural effects of plants anticipate, finally, their spiritual effects: the effervescence of the mabí (soldierwood, colubrinareclinata) produces renewed energy.” This was one of my first lessons in the cosmic chain of mimesis. People, plants, and plants’ desired effects on people–as Sir James Frazer (1960 [1922]) may have phrased it–are magically connected by various types of resemblance and contact. As parts of a whole they are cosmically connected by physical, metaphoric, semantic, and emotional similarity and proximity. “Plants and their healing and magical effects also are connected to humans by the principle of similarity: the degree of resemblance and correspondence between the sounds and meaning of words and their referents, that is, a linguistic similarity semantically connects plants and human emotions. A personal name that is part of a location; a location that contains a plant; and a plant whose signifier and some of its attributes denote its magical effects on human emotions, are all looped in chains of similarity and contact” (Romberg 2009, 2011b).

Imperfect Copies Work

Even imperfect copies, as Taussig (1993:17) reminds us, are effective in acquiring the power of the original, in appropriating the essence of the object represented. That is, resemblance and replication need not be exact (as in realist paintings) for the magic of mimesis to work. Paul Stoller (1997:12-13) tells us that the sorcerer knows that while the arrow he shoots–carrying sickness to a rival–may fall idle on the floor, the “inside arrow” flies, if the sorcerer’s aim is good, above the sky to meet its target. The shooting light that the rationalist Edward Evans-Pritchard (1976 [1937]:11) reported seeing in the middle of the night and interpreted as a bonfire, might have been, Stoller suggests, the “fire” of witchcraft (as the natives later assured Evans-Pritchard), an “emanation” of the witch’s body, dispatched to cause death to an unsuspecting victim in a nearby compound (1997:12-13).That is how magic seems to work: outwardly imperfect copies may carry the inwardly perfect copy (Romberg 2009).
Magic is in the details of correspondences and substitutes, even if imperfectly related. After documenting and following closely the making of trabajos for more than a year, I learned about the various techniques upon which magic depends and the ways in which its purposes are carefully engineered in choosing the materials and the spatial arrangements between them. Like a spoken language, they depend on synonymic, syntagmatic, synecdochic, or more generally metaphoric relations between ingredients and their similes and substitutes. This indeterminate elasticity is fascinating to me. More importantly, this elasticity becomes extremely handy and a way of survival in times of migration. [xi]

In cases of bad luck and extreme poverty this mimetic language is used to expresses the effects of misfortune. Being salá or tumbá (disgraced through black magic) means that everything one touches se vuelve sal y agua (turns to salt and water), one has los pies y las manos atadas (one’s feet and hands tied), one está envuelto (is wrapped) or lo tienen puesto en una caja (has been placed in a coffin). These expressions refer to magic works designed to obstruct or ruin a person by means of tying a string around the extremities and body of a wax or cloth figure representing the victim, throwing an effigy of the victim into the sea after the former has been wrapped with a spool of black thread, or burying the victim’s photograph or effigy in a small replica of a coffin. Following the same mimetic logic, the passivity of the bewitched might be “untied” by the flight of a dove, their minds (mente) “cleared” with mint (menta), and their personal attraction “recharged” with lodestone.

Figure 6: Loadstone is used in magic works to attract or repel people. Photo by Raquel Romberg.
Figure 7: Haydee setting free a dove, Dania’s proxy, to unbewitch her. Photos by Raquel Romberg.

 

Figure 8: Magic work that puts one’s enemies (their proxies) “back to back” to alienate them. Photo by Raquel Romberg.
Figure 9: A “wedding cake” is “cooked” with honey and cinnamon to promote the unity of a couple. Photos by Raquel Romberg.
Various sets of homologies are magically exploited in all these trabajos (magic works). The words menta (mint) and mente (mind) connect mimetically the magic work and its effect. Likewise, the magnetic properties of lodestone, via the mimetic faculty, “attract” or “repel” the people who are the object of the magic work. Thanks to the virtues of magical mimesis–semantic, onomatopoeic, sensual–the sexual energies of estranged spouses as well as relationships with one’s children can be nourished with honey and perfumes, their respective paths “cleared” and reunited after the “doors” that lead to each another have been “unlocked” with the aid of miniature keys. The love between a couple can be “guarded” forever by offering a luscious wedding cake–previously “cooked” by a brujo or bruja–to the deities of love that inhabit the Yunque (Romberg 2009).

C. The Magic of Technologies of Reproduction and Mimetic Representations

 

I wrote the following in the introduction to my book Healing Dramas in order to explain why I took so many photos in the field and why I published such a large amount of them:
“As an anthropologist I knew how powerful photographs might be in magical manipulations, how people often avoided being photographed for fear that sorcerers would steal their images. But now I am also reminded by Michael Taussig’s (1993) masterful relational account of mimesis and alterity, of the fascination of the white man with the fascination of “natives” being photographed and recorded, and I cannot avoid reflecting on my own fascination with Haydée’s fascination, not fear, of being photographed and recorded. Here I was not just allowed but encouraged to play a part in a “mimetological theatre” (Taussig 1993:191) as a reportera, where I was entrusted with the image and voice of the main character played by Haydée because of her own mimetic self-awareness. She knew that being famous means being photographed. This mimetic excess–the result of “second contact,” in Taussig’s (1993b:247) term–engulfed me, as a reportera, in the magic of what may be a “third contact” [this book]. Shooting more pictures than I could ever reproduce, I nonetheless took them. And as with any surplus, I am still puzzled by their secret power as I glance through them, pondering about which will be published and which not.Michael Taussig (1993) has reflected on these issues in Mimesis and Alterity, characterizing ethnography as “Embodied Retelling”: if ethnographies instantiate, or make concrete, they illustrate the magic of mimesis wherein the replication, the copy, acquires the power of the represented. Are readers of these examples thereby “lifted out of [themselves] into these images?” (16). Just as witches and shamans capture and create power by making models (copies) of agents and objects of social power, so do ethnographies when they set to “model” realities in writing. Making an analogy between ethnographic writing and the magician’s art of reproduction with the intention of estranging writing itself, Taussig further puzzles over the ethnographer’s model: “If it works, [the model] gains through its sensuous fidelity something of the power and personality of that of which it is a model,” showing “the capacity of the imagination to be lifted through representational media, such as marks on a page, into other worlds” (16). Comparatively, for shamans and witches the mimetic faculty is used “to capture that very same spirit power” of the original, while for ethnographers it is employed to graph the essence of the ethnos (the group). Yet in the latter form of copying reality, Taussig suggests, “the stakes are no less important” than for the former (17).”
And, by way of conclusion, here is my explanation of why I included this extended quote and fieldwork photos in this post:
“One of the most memorable self-revealing times I shared with Haydée was our looking together at the album of photos I took of her, a reflexive experience comparable only to our listening to the tapes I had recorded of her work. Certain photos attracted her attention more than others and were the object of extensive comments, which she often shared not just with me but also with her friends, kin, and select clients” (2009: 188-189). Looking at the album, she noted, ‘Look, how I’m holding her by the crown!’ –she was referring to the way she held the crown of her patron saint, La Caridad del Cobre, and the way she was spiritually connected to her.”

 

Continuing my fascination with the fascination with mimesis, I offer bits of replicas of past renditions of other replicas as parts of my post here, wondering what could be the ethnographic and spiritual power (if any) of this last “embodied retelling” perhaps as a form of… fourth contact.

Endnotes

  • [i] In this regard, see the historical-folkloric analysis of Roger Abrahams (1995, 2006) of American colonists “playing Indian.”
  • [ii] For more on the mimetic faculty in relation to the senses, see the blog by Mike Mowbray at http://sixthsensereader.org/about-the-book/abcderium-index/mimetic-faculty/
  • [iii] Some of the controversies surrounding this anthropological masterpiece can be found in Jay (1993), Stoller (1994), and Taussig (1994).
  • [iv] For a visual rendition of this “horrific theatre,” see Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1956).
  • [v] I’m inspired by Taussig’s (1993) insightful sections on the notion of imperfect copies and copies that are not copies.
  • [vi] See Taussig’s (1993) analysis of Trobriand Cricket, as an instance of first contact, and the giggling of Western audiences at certain points of the documentary as examples of second contact. In her astute analysis of mimesis and alterity among the Sherpas, Vincanne Adams (1997:89) shows that the Sherpas’ fascination with wearing “Nike hiking boots, Patagonia mountain jackets, and Vuarnet glacier glasses” are markers of their “Sherpaness.” Rather than being the “evidence of commodified subjectivity” and loss of authenticity, this form of mimesis “resonates with Sherpa Buddhism and even shamanism.”
  • [vii] This is also true for Vodou and Candomblé (see Romberg 2005, 2011a).
  • [viii] For more on Bolina and the sacrifices she and other healers make following the idea of sacred mimesis in order to increase their healing powers, see Romberg 2003). On sacred mimesis and the power of brujos to heal, see Romberg (2009).
  • [ix] Somatic mimesis can be identified in situations of medical practices and psychological transference. Drawing on Valentine Daniel’s research of Siddha medicine in South Asia, Csordas notes that physicians coordinate pulses with their patients, “making their own pulse ‘confluent and concordant’ with that of their patients” (1993:143). Some psychotherapeutic schools see counter transference (or the sensing of a patient’s psychological conflicts by the therapist) as a “physical, actual, material, sensual expression in the analyst of something in the patient’s psyche” (Samuels 1985, quoted in Csordas 1993:144) rather than as a pathological reaction of the therapist, as traditional theories of countertransference suggest (145).
  • [x] For more about the way the bodies of brujos act as divination tools, see Romberg (2009).
  • [xi] David Brown (1999), for example, notes that magic works that were meant to be placed by a stream of water by Santeria devotees are now placed in the bathroom near water pipes by devotees living in high rise buildings in the United States.
References
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