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The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology

by Alfred Gell

Last tended to November 28, 2020

Gell, Alfred, and Eric Hirsch. ‘The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology’, 159–86, 2020.

Anthropology is anti-art, because art is inherently ethnocentric. Being caught up in the aesthetic beauty of objects gets in the way of being able to culturally analyse them. The anthropology of art needs to demystify the art the same way anthropology does for religion, economics, kinship, politics, gender, etc

Compares aesthetic art to a religion. We are indoctrinated to believe certain visual qualities are Good and others are Bad. The high priests of art chairs in the churches of art museums tell us so.

Gell considers art a component of technology. Artists use technical tools and processes to create art - painting, sculpting, crafting, filming.

This process is what Gell calls "the technology of enchantment" the creation of art that is essential to human societies. The way we follow an individual desire to create, and end up with an object that becomes meaningful in the collective community.

"The power of art objects stems from the technical processes they objectively embody: the technology of enchantment is founded on the enchantment of technology." 44

Technical processes cast a spell over us and make us see the real world in an enchanted form. The process of arranging paint on a canvas into a series of cultural symbols that evoke aesthetic beauty, is a process of enchantment

"The enchantment of technology is the power that technological processes have of casting a spell over us so that we see the real world in an enchanted form"

Historically, art has been used as a "technology of enchantment"

Art objects are used as psychological signalling of power and prestige. Elaborately carved prows on Kula boats were meant to dazzle, hypnotise, and impress others as visitors arrived from another island.

"an impressive canoe-board is a physical token of Magical prowess on the part of the owner of the canoe which is important, as is the fact that he has access to the services of a carver whose artistic prowess IS also the result of his access to superior carving Magic." 46

Artistic objects are enchanting because they are created through a sophisticated technical process.

We are more enchanted by the creation process than the object itself. The technological artistry is the spell binding part.

One theory of value suggests that we value objects relative to how difficult we imagine it would be to make them ourselves.

Simmer in the Philsophy of Money argues that we value objects relative to how difficult we think it will be to obtain them. The harder it is to get, the more we want and value it.

Valuable objects come with "a halo-effect of resistance". Feeling that resistance is why we perceive them as valuable.

This aligns with the valuables of the kula ring

But with works of art, we are often entranced by their aesthetics without wanting to own them. We value them without any desire to obtain them.

We instead value art for the symbolic process it evokes within us. The feelings that emerge from thinking with them.

Gell suggests we might think of artists as "occult technicians" Evergreen/ Technologists are portrayed as magicians

There are plenty of classical paintings depicting only banal Domestic scenes coat racks , cups, fruit, tablecloths. Things we don't consider inherently beautiful and aesthetic. And yet finely crafted paintings of them have a power to them - we marvel at the technical miracle of creating an illusion. How the artist transformed paint and canvas into vivid scenes is both mystifying and yet still believably human. Part of the Magic is in the fact human craftsman, rather than some mystical outside forces, created it. The ability to do so feels Magical because it's beyond the ability of the audience, and yet within the realm of human abilities.

We do not marvel at photographers for producing vividly realistic photographs of those same scenes. The alchemy of photography is not mysterious to us - you press buttons and out pops an imagine. But the process of a realistic painting is so shrouded in mystery it looks like Magic.

"When confronted with some masterpiece, we are fascinated because we're essentially at a loss to explain how such an object comes to exist in the world"

However in cultures unfamiliar with the technology of photography, visiting anthropologists with cameras are treated as though they have special occult power. Which extends to having control over the souls of people they take pictures of - we see this same dynamic playing out today in quantum computing, data science, and AI/ML engineering.

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Maggie Appleton © 2021