On Magic
by Anthony Discenza
Since before the dawn of industrialization, there’s been a longstanding prejudice against most things magical in the west, at least in regards to magic as a legitimate sphere of human activity. The perennial popularity of fictional sorcerers like Harry Potter and the “Charmed” sisters aside, actual magic has, beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing on through the Enlightenment, acquired a reputation as something frivolous at best and grounds for grievous bodily persecution at worst—certainly something unworthy of consideration by the serious mind, and perhaps most egregious of all, ineffectual, at least in the view of modern values.

Those of you already nervously eyeing the exits can relax; it’s not the intention to make a case here for or against the possible efficacy of magic with a capital M. One wonders, however, if the inveterate distaste of contemporary rationalists (which in some ways includes all of us, if only by default) for an enterprise like magic might have something to do with the discipline’s traditionally poor showing in the area of repeatability (by which of course we mean reliability of consistent outcomes), a value much prized by the many among us possessing a more bottom-line-oriented mindset.

Accordingly, we’ve gradually grown accustomed to framing magic and technology as oppositional modalities, when in fact magic, from the very beginning, has always been a form of technology (perhaps even its earliest), albeit one that tends to be more unreliable and idiosyncratic, and thus difficult to scale for the market. But magic and technology have always shared an essentially identical teleology: the imposition of human will and desire onto external realities—hopefully, with as much efficiency and as little work as possible. What is a spell if not a kind of cheat code intended to override some feature of the reality game engine, a fragment of the logos that gives all things form?

Magic and technology also share something else: a long habit of trying to hide their efforts, shunting expenditures of energy, labor, and resources offstage and out of sight. (This is especially true of technology under capitalism.) We say something happens “as if by magic” to express an apparent absence of friction between intention and outcome. An occurrence mediated by magic supposedly requires virtually no effort beyond the expression of a desire that it should occur. On the classic TV series “Bewitched,” everyone’s favorite suburban sorceress Samantha merely needed to wrinkle her nose to bend recalcitrant reality to her will; over on the competing show I Dream of Jeannie, Jeannie had to work a bit harder to get things done, being required to cross her arms and blink simultaneously (beware of drunk wish-granting!). Wizards wave wands; witches cast spells. It all looks so easy.

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s endlessly-quoted observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” reflects this deeply inscribed conception of magic as an essentially frictionless enterprise. And certainly modern technology continually (and increasingly vocally) strives for this appearance of frictionlessness, at least at the user level. Today’s product and UI design seems to want to make us all feel like our own eldritch mages, wielding glowing talismans that respond to our desires at a single touch or spoken command (and soon, possibly by thought alone.)

The truth is less appealing, as truths usually are, which is that magic, like pretty much everything else, involves an enormous amount of hard, tedious work. Anyone who has ever performed even a cursory investigation of magic as a discipline—whether in the provinces of fiction or as an actual human practice extending back over thousands of years—soon realizes that behind that wave of the wand lie years of arduous training: of the will, of the body, and especially of the mind, which must be crammed full of knowledge regarding the mystical properties of thousands of substances—everything from plain old rosemary to such dire objects as the Hand of Glory. The memory must be stuffed to bursting with countless incantations and spells, along with the knowledge of exactly where to place what stresses on which syllables—lest a spell for turning water into wine instead wind up summoning an unpleasant relative back from the grave.

On close examination, it turns out that, even in the realms of the Occult, there’s still no such thing as a free lunch.

Similarly, today’s gleaming devices hide almost inconceivably vast systems of production and exploitation behind slick their UIs. Dig down into the actual systems and materials in your phone, your computer, your flat screen, or even your toaster, and you will begin to discover layer upon layer of patents going back over decades, complex webs of licensing involving dozens of different companies, and networks of material extraction and fabrication that reach into every corner of the globe, and which almost always involve the brutal extraction of both human labor and natural resources at multiple nodes.

The increasing sophistication of today’s software conceals layers of code of which, at this point, no single human individual can claim complete knowledge. Beneath the Photoshop clone stamp that miraculously zaps away a blemish on the face of Rihanna lies tens of thousands of hours of laborious coding. Meanwhile, the seemingly effortless gesture of sending a text, the invisible backing up of your phone’s photos to the cloud—increasingly the work of various AI systems, modernity’s answer to Prospero’s Caliban and Ariel—all involve very real expenditures of energy and resources that, conveniently for our consciences, take place far away from our immediate awareness or consideration.

In light of this, it’s worthwhile to briefly reconsider the word occult, which really just means hidden or secret. In its most fundamental sense then, the term would seem to apply as much to the intrinsic conditions of current technology as it would to the colorful practices outlined in classic grimoires such as The Lesser Key of Solomon—rendering the abilities and activities of entities like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg no less arcane, in their essence, than those of a Voldemort or Sauron (and possibly far more so when you think about it, given that Sauron’s data-collection system was pretty much limited to one big floating eyeball.)

In the end, the absence of friction is always an illusion. But of course, the production of illusions has always one of the most potent and useful forms of magic. And what is denial if not a particularly obdurate type of illusion?

In the form of occult practice known as Ceremonial Magic, which involves the summoning up of various mid-level demonic beings to do one’s bidding, the practitioner learns early on that there is always a price to be paid for any transaction—a price whose full extent may not be revealed until much later. This is summed up in one of magic’s most basic edicts, which is always ignored at one’s peril: Never summon what you cannot put down.

In other words, beware of hidden costs.


Anthony Discenza is an artist living and working in Oakland. Fueled by an interest in systems of image production and consumption as well as a love of speculative fiction, his practice frequently invokes fragmentary or unreliable narratives. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum, Objectif Exhibitions, V-A-C Foundation, and the Wattis Institute and is included in the collections of Kadist Foundation, SFMOMA, and the Berkeley Art Museum, among others.