Virtual Roundtable on “The Mana of Mass Society”

Many of anthropology’s terms of art are taken from afar. Especially in the half century after 1870 ...

Many of anthropology’s terms of art are taken from afar. Especially in the half century after 1870, as anthropology expanded along the lineaments of empire, work took shape in relation not only to such concepts as “culture,” “society,” and “kinship,” but also to “mana,” “tapu,” and “hau.” Mana: “a certain rush of energy,” as Émile Durkheim put it. For William Mazzarella, in his new book, The Mana of Mass Society, Durkheim’s formulation holds both promise and peril. Where are the thrills of life, and what are the moments in which they bubble up, or over? How might we stitch together outdated fascinations with “primitive ritual” and current interrogations of politics and marketing? What connects the Aboriginal corroboree to the allure of today’s pomade president?

Mazzarella’s troupe is unusually irregular, combining figures passé (Durkheim), niche (Ioan Couliano), and neglected (Robert Codrington) with those enjoying more prominent positions within contemporary academe. In doing so, he brings to light new constellations (mana-festations?) of thought, and news ways of thinking through the thorny matters of magic, collective effervescence, sovereignty, affect, and presence. This Virtual Roundtable is based on an event held at Brown University in the autumn of 2017, organized by Bhrigupati Singh and Leela Gandhi. It showcases a certain rush of energy within the discipline, around a book worth taking note of.


• Jean Comaroff: To the Mana Born

• Leela Gandhi: Hide Your Demons

• Michael Taussig: Mana on Mana

• Bhrigupati Singh: The Spell of Theory

• Aarti Sethi: The Pyre and the Stove

• William Mazzarella: Between Interpretation and Activation

To the Mana Born

Jean Comaroff


One of the pleasures of this immensely suggestive text is its author’s keen awareness of its multiple intellectual resonances. In returning us to the Durkheim of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Mazzarella seeks to retrieve important things that were “almost said” in that book—the irony, for instance, that the very power of the social to conjure us as subjects is often disavowed by those on whom it works its magic. Mazzarella returns us to the enduring enigma of our interpolation as social beings: the summons that seems to acknowledge our unique selfhood with preternatural cunning.

It is a cunning abetted—these days—by ever smarter, algorithmically enhanced weapons of mass seduction. In fact, as I began to pursue echoes of Mazzarella’s text online, it worked its own mana on me: uncannily, the top result from a search for “resonance” led me to “Concerts, protests and blizzards all have one thing in common; it’s called collective effervescence, and you have definitively felt it.” There is no escaping the impress of society. Mazzarella develops his own dialectical understanding of the ways in which this happens; the ways we are conjured as subjects in the interplay of affect and order, interior and outer worlds, self-understanding and external norms.

The Mana of Mass Society is both provocative and capacious. At a time when theory-making in the human sciences has given way to concept-branding, and “the social” has been ever more displaced into other modalities—the ethical, the ontological, the technicist, the biopsychological—Mazzarella finds untapped theoretical possibilities in “the social sui generis”: in the promise of an integrated understanding of collective, affective, and psychic being. His text takes advantage of a fold in time: the strange synchrony between our current moment of institutional, populist unsettlement and an earlier era of upheaval, what he calls the “mana moment,” between 1870 and 1920.

It was then that mana first became “good to think with,” as new colonial frontiers inspired reassessment of a European “civilization” torn apart by its own savagery. We return, in this circumstance, to Durkheim’s primal scene of sociogenesis, the Arunta corroboree—an Australian Aboriginal dance ceremony that may take the form of a sacred ritual or an informal gathering—in Elementary Forms, thus to recapture the adventurousness—the hubris and innocence—that prompted him to forsake the axioms of liberal humanism to ponder anew the vital energy of collective coexistence.

Durkheim used mana, a Polynesian term, to refer to that vital energy; not just to the sacredness conjured by ceremonial communion, but to the miracle that transformed collective experience into “society” as sublime object. In his day, mana was one of a clutch of concepts (tapu, hau, charisma, collective effervescence, elective affinity) that invoked the occult and the primitive: the “dark matter” of existence, epitomized in ritual, magic, and also the electric vitality of urban crowds, phenomena irreducible to instrumental action, consciousness, or rationalist world-making.

Like Marx’s fetishism, then, Durkheim’s mana invokes the misrecognition and reification that is at work in all social experience. This magic, Mazzarella argues, is largely suppressed in the modernist social sciences, which regard its contemporary manifestations as atavistic, erotic, emotive. In our times, those gifted with the power to evoke such collective arousal—populist politicians, preachers, commodity peddlers, artists of various kinds—are suspected of manipulative, nefarious intentions. In short, while on the face of it mana might appear easily understood, it is a very queer thing.

Inherent in the power of mana to forge moral order is an impulse toward the opposite, toward unconstrained excess.

Mazzarrella, like Michael Taussig before him, sees Durkheim’s account of mana as “a primer in the origins of fetishism,” in which the social, as human fabrication, comes to life in sacred signs and objects. For Durkheim, Mazzarella insists, the fetishism is a form of “misrecognition” that is necessary not only for social life itself, but for an awareness of meaning and value—in contrast to Marx, who trades his usual dialectical approach for a “crude” reflectionism when it comes to his vision of the fetish. It does seem, though, that engagement with more dynamic readings of fetishism might have added value to Mazzarella’s enterprise—as evident in his own earlier writing on the dialectical life of commodity images. With the work of William Pietz, for instance, especially as rendered by Rosalind Morris and Daniel Leonard in The Returns of Fetishism (2017), which sees Marx’s treatment of the phenomenon as both “dialectical” and “chiasmic.” I do not mean to wax Talmudic here; merely to suggest that a more permissive reading of the psychic life of fetishism in Marx, Freud, and beyond might have further animated this already exhilarating text.

To be fair, Mazzarella’s main concern is elsewhere: to recover the “splendidly subversive” potential of Durkheim’s theory of ritual for a dialectical vision of affect, desire, normativity. This is a redemptive task, because Elementary Forms also spawned many undialectical legacies—like the provocative but essentially functionalist anthropology of the British School that transformed the exuberance of African ritual into the labor of social reproduction, collective effervescence into “all-purpose social glue.”

Mazzarella, by contrast, gets Elementary Forms to resonate with the dialectical impetus of the Frankfurt School. For inherent in the power of mana to forge moral order is an impulse toward the opposite, toward unconstrained excess. Herein lies the unsettling potential of the affective, the charismatic, the sublime—the threatening free radicals at the heart of liberal reason and social science. For Mazzarella, it is the fitful interplay of order and effervescence, nomos and eros, that enables the making and unmaking of social worlds. It is an interplay that takes place in the myriad everyday encounters that call social subjects into being. And ritual is only one medium through which mimetic exuberance endlessly constitutes and destroys the sensual memory that shapes lived experience.

Against vitalists such as Deleuze and Guattari, who seek to liberate existence from order, Mazzarella insists on the counterpoint of force and form, and of immanence and transcendence. This dynamic drives the power of those who wield mana—a power that “brings things into the world and makes them ‘work.’” And does so in ways that resonate with people’s sense of who they are and what they want. Those desires, he notes, are not always of the affirmatory, unifying sort that Durkheim stressed. Yet we hear little of these dystopic urges from Mazzarella himself: about aversion, phobia, violence, or the conflict that drives cruelty, racism, witch hunts. The text seems haunted, nonetheless, by the immanence of authoritarian populism, past and present; by the illiberal and the oligarchic inherent in capitalist modernity itself.

Mazzarella has long argued that determinations are never absolute. He resists the reflex of critical theory to pit freedom against ideological capture, the autonomous individual against the totalizing grip of government or market. He seeks, rather, to hold together two faces of the subject: its openness to the sensuous world and its susceptibly to the force of dogma. In all this, there is no outside of mana. But therein lies a form of hope: eros is always working to puncture piety, to destabilize totalitarian ambition. There is “chocolate,” as Peter Sloterdijk puts it, in every form of power.1 In this sense, rationalist critique fails to grasp the queerness of all force—and the comfort to be gained from knowing that power itself does not seem to realize this. Or to grasp that passion screws with determinations of any and every sort.


Atheists in the Pantheon

By Joseph Blankholm

Who would not be beguiled by such a dazzling analysis? It stirs many thoughts, but I limit myself here to one, concerning “history.” Mazzarella works ingeniously to turn Elementary Forms into a social theory for our times. In my reading of Durkheim, his functionalism and epistemological realism were of a piece with the obsession of his times, concerning the precariousness of social order and cohesion. Mazzarella rejects that functionalism, along with all vulgar determinations. But must it be all-or-none? What, beyond the contingency of the encounter, accounts for larger-scale “settlements,” that is to say, the transcendent formations, presumed in this vision of a social universe? How and where do those formations enter into everyday practices of world-making? This returns us to fetishism, dialectically understood.

At one telling point in his text, Mazzarella identifies a key quality of the subject as addressable being, responsive to seductive calls from beyond the self: our relations with significant others, he says, bear a sense of “sacred and particular ‘fatedness’” that makes them seem at once generic and contingent, prefigured, and yet unprecedented. This is a prescient insight. But do these same qualities not color our emotions more generally—as visible, for instance, in the desire for new commodities that are also what we have always wanted? This paradox suggests a more abiding structure of the senses in our advanced capitalist times than Mazzarella acknowledges: the perception of the dual quality, the generic and the contingent, inherent in the commodity form itself that—queer as it might be—imposes durable shape on the fortuity of experience unfolding.


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella

Hide Your Demons

Leela Gandhi


In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt clarifies her thoughts on political community with two references to the ancient figure of the daimon. Greek religion speaks of a daimon who accompanies us in life and is our unique identity, she writes. Yet it’s hidden from us. It sits somewhere behind our shoulder (Arendt doesn’t specify which one, though that tells a lot about a daimon’s provenance). And it’s clearly visible—in fact, only visible—to those we encounter in the world. Thus our true self, or the well-being of our daimon (our eudaemonia, in the Aristotelian sense), is revealed only in relation with others, within community.2 Good life, in this reading, depends on whether we can find a sticking place in our time and milieu.

In plain terms this means we become ourselves in common coexistence. It also means there’s something cardinally public about communality. When we find ourselves with others we’re on show, which is to say, revealed, disclosed, recognized.

Arendt takes an important cue for such ideas from Heidegger’s ontology, or science of Being. Being discloses what is already out there, including the matter of who we are. But you have to be in tune with everything, self-forgetful and free from the fangs of will, to witness the spectacle of Being. The daimon—by which Heidegger means the presence of the extraordinary in everyday life (the passing of a cloud, a fit of passion)—is a sign of such attunement. It makes Being (interconnected and organic life) visible to each of us and points the way to it. We could say it publicizes Being as our true element.3 Thinking of this order turns ontology into a type of daemonology, with politics, if Arendt is to be believed, as its perfected form.

This argument is championed by recent political ontologists, such as Chantal Mouffe, Jacques Rancière, William Connolly, and Alain Badiou. These neo-Arendtian and neo-Heideggerean thinkers stress the importance of collectivity for self-actualization. They suggest that when discrete subjects are one with the multitude, say, in the fight for universal goods and rights, something very like a daimonic, or public, form of selfhood comes into view.

William Mazzarella’s The Mana of Mass Society is a breakthrough intervention in this field of thought that takes disciplinary prompts from the ontological and post-secular turns in anthropology. His eloquent riff on a discredited moment in the history of anthropology, between 1870 and 1920, and concerning the emergence of a peculiar consensus on magic and public life, brings a novel archive to bear on pertinent debates.

Mazzarella explains how early Western anthropologists like Mauss, Hubert, Durkheim, and Malinowski agreed that the magician of allegedly primitive Polynesian societies was a sort of proto-publicist. They argued that magical power was comparable to an advertiser’s skill in modern commercial societies. The magician was simply someone who could tap into public opinion. This insight, Mazzarella claims, also explains the enduring secret, or mana, of mass society, especially as it pertains to questions of authenticity and identity.

We become ourselves in common coexistence. When we find ourselves with others we’re on show, which is to say, revealed, disclosed, recognized.

There’s something colloquially magical about finding ourselves extimately—to borrow Lacan’s term, favored by Mazzarella—in the desires of the crowd; or, as he puts it, in “a field of collectively infolded experience and potential in which we participate.” In like instances, he adds, “I can experience a situation as ‘just what I always wanted’ (even though I didn’t know I wanted it until that moment) and, by the same token, experience my new feeling of myself as ‘who I really was all along’ (even though this is the first time I encounter myself in this light).”

I have two questions and a comment for Mazzarella, all in the context of the genealogy concerning the self-authenticating publicness of common life that I’ve sketched above.

First, what if you’re at odds with your own context—a misfit or deviant—and the crowd really can’t see your daimon (or reflect your mana)? This is the predicament of the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He can’t be seen at all because he is black. Second, what if this feeling of dissonance makes you want to hide your daimon from view, or break from the circuits of prevailing mana, and resist your own appearance (in the knotty ontological sense of that term) within a given historical setting?

Let me turn to a non-ontological daemonology for traction. In Plato’s Apology Socrates hints at the qualities of his personal daimon at the end, before the condemnation. It speaks but is hidden from view. But this quality of hiddenness makes it occult and sacred. The daimon is oppositional and curmudgeonly. It always says no to Socrates. It stops him from completing the smallest trifles and keeps him in a state of imperfection. But being thwarted in this way—from actualization—makes a life good, in Socrates’s estimation. The daimon forbids him to enter public life and become a politician. But this leaves Socrates free to struggle against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, and in the multitude as well.4

There’s another apt anecdote from the transnational history of the transmission of this text. Around 1908 M. K. Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujarati and published it in pamphlet form. He claimed the work was a resource for nonviolent struggles against all authoritarianism, whether imperial, militaristic, or familial. The pamphlet was banned by the imperial British Government in India on grounds of sedition. Socrates was often on Gandhi’s mind thereafter. Years hence, when at the helm of the freedom struggle in India, Gandhi wrote an autobiography so as to make his life fully public and bring it into the open. A preface to this work, though, introduces a daimonic qualification. Not everything can or should be shown completely, Gandhi declares. A portion of our experience and intimations is “clearly incommunicable.” This must be held in reserve and suspended, even with regard to causes for which we are willing to give our lives.5


Plato’s Republic in the Age of Ultron?

By Benjamin Eldon Stevens

Invisibility, imperfection, and a minimal renunciation of customary life, then, are among the complicated genera of Socratic daimonic possession. They point to a lifestyle guided by something Foucault might call critique, or the art of not being governed. For the practice of such arts, Socrates’s jury charged him with magic and put him to death for dealings with spirits.

This all leads on to the comment. It’s tricky to mix up histories of spiritual and public life (daimon/democracy, mana / mass society), unless we attend to mutations in both terms and the historically variable relationship between them. There are as many discourses on magic and spirit as on public life, and the picture changes accordingly. In this discussion, for example, I’ve tried to distinguish normalizing and infractional variants of magical thinking. Normalizing magic (Arendt, Heidegger, Mauss, and maybe Mazzarella) tends toward public life more readily, and is caught up with securing the coordinates—historical, commercial, and ontological—of our true desires and identity, so called. By contrast, infractional magic (Socrates, Gandhi, Foucault) ensures that one all-important quandary is never settled once and for all (i.e., within a particular time, community, or philosophy). Derrida puts it well: “But as for me, who am I …”?6


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella

Mana on Mana

Michael Taussig


Mana comes with its own mana. Left brooding in the wilderness for more than a century, trashed by Claude Lévi-Strauss as nothing more (and nothing less) than the joker-in-the-pack he called the “floating signifier,” it now returns, redeemed, we might say, thanks to William Mazzarella gaming certain poststructuralist and Frankfurt School insights, notably Walter Benjamin’s 1933 idea of the mimetic faculty, one taken up with gusto by Adorno but generally embarrassing, I think, for later Frankfurt School mandarins in Germany and the United States. Mimesis is really something the cat dragged in as far as they are concerned. Therein lies its charm. It slashes across habits of cause and effect, chronology, structure, and the separation of mind from matter.

In Mazzarella’s rendering the mimetic faculty comes to challenge and create anew almost everything one thought about culture and the commodity and—let’s not be cheap here—anthropology too, taking it back to its hau roots and therewith challenging the orthodoxies that derailed the gamut of possibilities anthropology once had, as manifest, for example, in the Collège de Sociologie (1937–39) in Paris, in which Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, and others drew on Durkheim, Mauss, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and ethnography to surreal effect. It was the Collège’s belief that so-called primitive society, as studied through Durkheim and Mauss, was mightily relevant to what they called “sacred sociology,” as called forth by surrealism and then by fascism spreading deep into Europe.7 Mazzarella’s book can be seen as picking up this baton almost a century later (see also James Clifford’s “On Ethnographic Surrealism” and Derek Sayer’s just-published Making Trouble).8

The Mana of Mass Society is a radical book, wonderfully amusing on account of the author’s splendid wit, panache, and intellectual brilliance. Encyclopedic and deft with his knowledge of anthropology, what Mazzarella does is veer away by circling back to the discipline’s earlier epochs in a studied encounter of Mauss and Durkheim with Benjamin and Adorno. Long overdue.

A new paradigm thus emerges in which social energy and mimetic resonance between people, as much as between people and objects/commodities, takes center stage.9 “Culture,” for instance, becomes estranged and renewed as “the mimetic archive.” Mana is everywhere alive and well, a force, an aether, a milieu, the shuddering shock, but also as an analytic tool (blessed be the term).

An irreducible force in its own right, mana/magic is something we all practice.

Things talk to things. Bodies connive and coalesce like raindrops on a car windscreen. Crowds surge and break loose like Canetti’s fields of corn and desert sands in the wind. Eros is allowed into the paralyzed libido of social science as “dialectical vitalism” calls the shots. All the stuff old Durkheim went on about to the distress of Anglo scholars (and Lévi-Strauss), such as collective effervescence, collective consciousness, and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts—all is here reincorporated just as Durkheim incorporated indigenous Australian ritual (through Spencer and Gillen) into his new science of sociology and the study of modern European society. How marvelous! How fantastic!

Society is a voltaic cell. The social bond pulls you out of yourself. This is disturbing. Yes! It’s all a social construction! You knew that, but did you really get it? In this paradigm magic-as-mana exists therefore not as something to be explained (which usually means explained away) but as that which explains and does so in part by deconstructing our social sciences. An irreducible force in its own right, mana/magic is something we all practice (while denying it), especially us academics. (Time to pay up, folks. It’s been a while.)

Durkheim took the word and interpretation of mana from Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, who took it from R. H. Codrington’s writing on Melanesia (just as Marx took the fetish from stories Europeans told about West African medicines); Durkheim took it because in its sense as an abstract and diffuse force magically informing flows of power and mystery it fitted in beautifully with the theory of sociology that the Année sociologique group was creating.

For Mauss and Hubert, mana provided a superior explanation of magic than those prevailing because magic seemed to them more than what was covered by laws of sympathy, spirits, or demons, and was not reducible to utilitarianism. The authors asked readers to focus not on “an individual’s intellectualist psychology,” but rather on “a non-intellectualist psychology of man as a community.”10 Right there we see the enormous difference that crossing the English Channel can achieve. This request has proved well-nigh impossible to follow.

Mazzarella reminds us that mana has a crucial place in Durkheim’s focus on the noncontractual element of contract, implying that utility itself requires a nonutilitarian basis (we might recall that The Gift began life as a study by Mauss and Georges Davy of Roman contract).

We might also take note of this school’s aversion to Marxism and to the mana of revolution that, to take one instance, came to lie at the heart of the idea of myth and the general strike advocated by their countryman, the engineer Georges Sorel, and taken up by Benjamin in his essay “Critique of Violence.”11

This opens a can of worms. Mana is as intrinsic to revolution and counterrevolution as it is to power itself, very much including bio-power. Imagine living in the devastation of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Lots of mana to spare there. All of which raises the fear of society being torn apart, like today, in spades. In this regard, Mazzarella’s reworking of mana through the concept of mimesis or its synonym, “constitutive resonance,” provides a social science equal to the phenomena it studies (as Nietzsche demanded in the opening lines of his book on history). And what is the art and act of critique, the reason for our existence, after all?

Mauss and Hubert drew attention to the role of fraud in the magician’s performance as a necessary component of mana. Sleight of hand and conjuring are essential to shamanism, for example, yet faith remains strong, as does skepticism. This insoluble contradiction is what gives mana its force, I feel, as if the performance depends on the art of skilled revelation of skilled concealment continuously weaving its spell in figure eight circuitry. This adds torque to mimesis, that’s for sure. We can say that “constitutive resonance” is built around this conflict within itself. Is this the nervous-system energy of the social?

We can thus see critique as an art form mimetically in synch with the art forms sustaining politics in the age of late capitalist, global, digital reproduction. Critique is not the leveling of one fact against an “alternative fact” so much as mana activity usefully mired in the figure eight circuitry of skilled revelation of skilled concealment. Discourse, ideology, habitus, fetishism—call it what you will in this age of Twitter and social media—are insanely powerful mana waves of artistic production that are best fought against and indeed can only be fought against by swaths of counter-mimeses rerouting the mana of mass society.


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella

The Spell of Theory

Bhrigupati Singh


A Frenchman lifts a word from the Pacific Islands and founds a social theory. A circle of Germans with shared and contending judgments found critical theory. The circle widens and then shrinks. Is theory a kind of spell? What makes some spells more contagious than others? And when the spell breaks, is it a sign of illness, or of health? In his new book, William Mazzarella poses these questions, not as a demonstration of an orderly or Oedipal shift of paradigms, but, rather, as a mystery.

Let us consider the mystery of “vitalism,” not as a fully formed theory, but as an experiment in thinking about the unseen yet variably felt energies that animate our human and nonhuman lives. Without a doubt, energy is a dimension of experience, like time and space. As an object of investigation, however, it is by definition ephemeral, and apt to vanish under more “rational” scrutiny.

Take a parable on the vulnerability of vitalist thought: Henry James’s The Sacred Fount, written in 1901, at the peak of what Mazzarella calls “the mana moment.” The Sacred Fount is designed, as James’s novels often are, as a ghostly experiment with intimacy, a weekend visit to a country home said to house some 40 guests. An unnamed narrator remains our medium throughout, undertaking what he calls a “theoretical investigation.” The narrator’s theory is this: for every vital, charismatic, enhanced human we encounter, there is a spouse or a lover who concomitantly wanes. “One of the pair,” says the narrator, “has to pay for the other.”12

The object of investigation in The Sacred Fount is the opposite of a murder: the mystery of enhanced, vital life. Other guests are slowly roped into the narrator’s theory by his Socratic method, through which he makes them examine one another’s secrets. The climax of the novel consists of an extended showdown between the theory-building narrator and the lead female character, Grace Brissenden, one of the two subjects embodying enhanced life, who inspires the investigation and in the course of the novel becomes a coinvestigator.

In the concluding chapter, in a finely conducted argument lasting 40 pages, she withdraws from their intellectual complicity and expresses her repulsion at such “nonsensical speculation” that there could be any mysterious “force” emanating from anyone. For the narrator, Grace Brissenden’s argument further proves his theory. Still, he escapes the country home, having lost, as he puts it, “not a battle of reason but one of force.”13

The Sacred Fount was widely panned and lampooned. As the literary critic Dame Rebecca West wrote, in 1902, James’s theoretical flight is “not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.”14 James did not include The Sacred Fount in the 24-volume canonical edition of his writings. Sometimes, a metaphysical concept casts a brief spell. But after the spell dissipates, we are left with a feeling of doubt and annoyance. Did the thing exist? Why did we spend so much energy on it?

Is theory a kind of spell? What makes some spells more contagious than others?

James’s “failed” masterpiece presents and falls prey to a peculiar pattern; we might call it a relation between vitalism and skepticism. Mazzarella, in his own book, also senses this relation. Each time a concept of life gains potency in the world of letters, a backlash arises. In some cases this dynamic resides within a single (or seemingly single) figure.

For instance, Émile Durkheim. Never forgotten or hated. But how is he remembered? Usually, as a relatively conservative proponent of social solidarity and continuity—not as a thinker of currents and fluctuations, which are central, as Mazzarella shows us, to his entire oeuvre. The mystery of the pattern, not quite a “history” of thought, that we might discern here is a kind of rhythmic relation between concepts of life (vitalism, animism, claims on ontology) and their skeptical eclipse, in a form of repulsion of the kind expressed by Grace Brissenden, or in the work of Bronisław Malinowski, as Mazzarella describes it, in which to think, to be “real” again, takes the form of curing oneself of a metaphysical seduction.

Theories may be reborn. If the reincarnation is distinct enough we call it a new idea. So instead of a threadbare “culture” concept—worn thin in anthropology—The Mana of Mass Society offers the idea of the “mimetic archive.” A combative student asked in class: How is the “mimetic archive” different from culture? Isn’t this just old wine in new bottles? “Remember the film Ratatouille?” I asked? Pixar renews, perhaps matures, Disney’s magically global reach. “When the rat chef has his final test with the world-famous critic?” Contrary to expectations, the rat makes ratatouille. And the critic melts, momentarily thrown into reminiscences of his country childhood. This isn’t “culture” exactly. The mana-working rat “activates virtualities.” He taps the mimetic archive.

This inhabiting of Disney has quite a different feel than what you get from Dorfman and Mattelart’s 1971 classic, How to Read Donald Duck.15 That was critical theory, a fierce exposé of capitalist propaganda. So what do we do now? Are we exposed? Should we resist the bewitchments of these animated figures?

Consider a different question: do ducks have feelings? Some ontologists, animists, and other well-wishers might say yes. But they wouldn’t go so far as to say that Donald Duck has feelings. And why not? Do animated beings not have feelings? Do we have feelings? What are feelings? What is it to be moved? Mazzarella’s answer is simple: a relation of energy. But then we are asking what kind of an energy critical theory is. It was a jolt, at least to those who thought that capitalism meant freedom. The jolt may fade, of course, as we get used to that kind of shock. What kinds of jolts can we offer today? Mazzarella seeks distance from Adorno and Horkheimer’s “paranoid style in mass cultural analysis.” If we have outgrown that kind of paranoia, then what kind of awakening can we hope for? Or are we as awake as can be, plagued not by fetishism or trance but, rather, insomnia, the inability to rest?


Sleep and Synchronicity

By David Henkin

Mazzarella finds a place of rest in his 2016 edition of the Collected Poems of K. D. Katrak (1936–2007), which I read as a companion project to Mana. Katrak was part of a generation of Bombay poets who are by and large well anthologized globally as representatives of modern Indian English poetry. Katrak is almost never anthologized. “He never quite got his due as a poet.” How come? Mazzarella: “Mass publicity got in the way.”16 Katrak was also an adman, the flamboyant founder and head of MCM, the most happening advertising agency in Bombay from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Think of Don Draper as a poet. Could such a man have respectable feelings?

Mazzarella traces an arc of Katrak’s poetry over decades, from the height of MCM’s success through to the company’s crash, after which Katrak spent four years in an ashram, writing poetry “to keep sane,” as the poet Adil Jussawala put it.17 Then he returned to Bombay and began working in advertising again, but with a significant shift in energy. “Friends remember his last years as a time of equanimity,” Mazzarella writes, “with Katrak finding satisfaction in mentoring, and beginning an agency with his daughter Maia.”18 A slightly different but perhaps related form of renunciation also marks this period of equanimity. For the last 22 years of his life, Katrak published no new poems.

Mazzarella chooses the following self-authored epitaph for Katrak: “Able at last to love / Dispossessed at last of waste ambition, art and poetry. Coming home one evening through the usual door: I found it open.” We might read Katrak, the poet who stops writing poetry, as a companion for the critical theorist who stops being critical. Not out of loss, but through the realization that perhaps such ambitions, such visions of a redeemed world, were also bewitchments. What, then, do we have to search for? Mazzarella gives us the answer: new sources of energy.


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella

The Pyre and the Stove

Aarti Sethi

On September 4, 1987, an 18-year-old woman, Roop Kanwar, was burned alive on the funeral pyre of her husband before several hundred people in Deorala village, Rajasthan. Some in the crowds claimed she had been drugged and dragged onto the wood by her husband’s brothers. This assertion was repeated in the police reports and the court depositions, which noted that it was because the murder was planned that so many had arrived expecting it. Others present asserted that she had ascended the pyre of her own will, her figure lit by an inner sat, a luminescent radiance.

As women’s groups and private citizens took to the streets of Indian cities to protest the barbaric murder of a young woman, hundreds thronged to the village to be proximate to the sat of the sati (self-immolation by widows; also, a woman burned to death in this way), while still others installed her photographs in shrines and marched in procession behind portraits of the woman. Uneasy at what they may have been transmitting, state officials, on the orders of the Supreme Court of India, destroyed hundreds of shrines to the sati Roop Kanwar. This was done under the provisions of the Sati Prevention Act 1987, which proscribes any actions (building a temple, creating a religious trust, making offerings at shrines, etc.) that seek to promote sati as practice, or sacralize the figure of the sati. Forty-five people, including politicians, state functionaries, and members of her marital family and clan, were charged for her murder and the subsequent glorification of her death. All were eventually acquitted.

The burning alive of Roop Kanwar was a watershed and a dark portent of forces that were to radically change the terms of public and private life in India, crystallized three decades later in the current BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government in the seat of state power. In 2018 Indian public space was saturated with images of a materialization—in a man and a biography—of a resonant encounter that has indeed produced a world of the mana that radiated from Kanwar’s death in 1987. In the mediatic figure of Narendra Modi and the hundreds of sati shrines—the figure of the politician mana worker and the radiating sat of something we cannot even quite grasp—we see here the mana of mass society, a more frightening face than that depicted in Mazzarella’s book.

Sati has sat at the center of postcolonial feminist theory in something like the way mana has nestled in social anthropology.

The sacralized figure of the woman who burns herself on her husband’s pyre and the practice of sati are, like Mazzarella’s conception of mana, both epistemological and material problems. To ask whether and how the sati “exists,” and what this figure may signify outside of her appearance within colonial knowledge/power, is to ask something like the question he asks about mana. The sati is real; she is an intimate, material, and historically laden figure for and in South Asia.

However, this “reality” of the sati, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Lata Mani show us, cannot be apprehended outside of what sati has been made to signify: what, in Mazzarella’s schema, could be called a “representation” (of colonial benevolence, nationalist reform, feminist recovery, critical enquiry, and so on).19 Sati has sat at the center of postcolonial feminist theory in something like the way mana has nestled in social anthropology. In their modern incarnation as images and figures given by colonialism, which can only be seen, as Mazzarella shows, through the funhouse mirror of the discourses that both produce and trap it, mana and sati are co-emergent terms.

Let me clarify why I turn to this event to methodologically excavate Mazzarella’s conception of the mimetic archive: I want to suggest that the image of Roop Kanwar as the figure of “Sati” was potentized in 1987 not only in relation to the sati of the colonial ban, Hindu scripture, popular devotion, right-wing assertion, and postcolonial theory, but materially in relation to the woman on fire from a kerosene stove in a kitchen. The figure of Kanwar aflame on her husband’s pyre circulated in a heightened political and mediatized climate of images of young, newly wedded girls burnt alive for dowry by in-laws and husbands.

In the 1980s, Indian women’s movements led mass demonstrations in urban spaces against an ideology of upper-caste Hindu patriarchy, represented in public political life by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), BJP, and allied organizations, which valorized the ascension of women onto pyres. These demonstrations were extensions of the marches and depositions against the burnt bodies of women killed for dowry. The fat red-bellied kerosene stove, a fixture in poor and middle-class urban kitchens at a time when the supply of cooking gas was state-controlled and otherwise impossible to access, and the spangled nylon saris of the sort made in Rajasthan that Kanwar wore, which melted and stuck to the limbs because the poor could no longer afford cotton, had with her death come in the public imagination to signify the intimate pyres on which the women of India burned.

In their anti-dowry agitations the marchers of the women’s movement had asserted an intimate control of women over fire in the home to make a claim for their strength and autonomy. Marching against the burning of women in the 1980s, the women’s movement proclaimed, “Hum Bharat ki nari hain, phool nahin, chingari hain” (We are the women of India; we are sparks, not flowers). In 1987, in ferocious nationwide mobilizations in praise of the figure of sati, organized by a newly powerful Hindu Right, the women marchers heard their own slogan echoed back in monstrous form. “We are the women of India; we are sparks, not flowers,” here chanted by women members of the Rani Sati Sarva Sangh, an organization that valorized the strength of Hindu womanhood, claiming that because women were flames they ascended pyres to die on their husbands.


Can There Be a Feminist World?

By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

This protracted event-space of Roop Kanwar’s immolation, which moves through material objects and discourses (the pyre, the kerosene stove, the sari, the slogan, the newspaper report), and is relayed through the channels of mass publicity and affect, also then finds its mana workers. We have only to see the long dark that then began, in the 1990s, with the encroachment of the ideologies and discourses of the Hindu Right into Indian private, social, and public life. But the strange energies that Kanwar’s death released also attached to all kinds of partial objects, entering the dream images of ordinary Indians to return in more and more terrifyingly accentuated forms in the decades to come.

There is no way to establish direct causality between Kanwar’s immolation, the burnt bodies of women killed for dowry, the mutilated bodies of Muslim women thrown onto burning pyres by Hindu mobs in Gujarat in 2002, and the garlanding with burning tires of Sikh men in 1984 in New Delhi. It is possible, however, this book suggests, to trace transmissions: the resonances of the re-signified slogans about burning women, the kerosene stove that returned magnified as gas cylinders weaponized for mass arson in Gujarat in 2002, the nylon sari that then permeated televisual aesthetics of Hindu middle-class prosperity and womanly domesticity in the daughter-in-law/mother-in-law serials—precisely because these things are felt quite palpably by Indians who are old enough to remember them. Like Mazzarella’s conception of the mimetic archive, these fragments are potentized as relational entities because something in the present configuration of the world resonates with those who are specifically attuned to listening for their echoes.


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella

Between Interpretation and Activation:
A Response to My Interlocutors

William Mazzarella


Publishing a book is a bit like sending a child off into the world. That The Mana of Mass Society should have been received so tenderly and so thoughtfully by my interlocutors is for me a source of great gratitude. Each of them greeted the book as one might hail a fully grown adult: in complete readiness to respond to the ethos of the book itself—an ethos of immanent critique. In immanent critique, the internal tensions of a text become the most productive sites of intervention, the places where the book can be realized by forcing it to confront its own impasses. As an author who has learned so much from my interlocutors over many years, I could not have wished for a greater honor.

One of the basic claims of my book is that anthropology and critical theory took form and developed in parallel through a series of “settlements” that kept them at once adjacent and alien to each other. By “settlement” I mean the conceptual stabilization of a symptomatic contradiction that—as symptoms do—nevertheless continues to insist and obtrude. It’s entirely appropriate, then, that several of the responses here probe places in my book where certain questions won’t settle down, despite and perhaps against the explicit argument.

Near the beginning of Mana, I invoke, as a kind of ambient circumstance of my writing, the political arc running from the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring to the risible, not quite resistible, rise of Trump. But nowhere in the book do I return to an analysis of these events in light of the ideas that I develop in the book. If, as I like to think—and despite my own occasional claims—Mana is a method book before it’s a theory book, then am I not shortchanging the reader by playing such an apparently esoteric game? Here I feel moved to quote Lauren Berlant: “You can know something at high speeds; you can learn something at slow ones.”20 Amid the prescriptive din of the exoteric social sciences, it seems all the more important to slow down and reconsider those often-hidden insides of the things that we imagine as “social” and “political.” That’s the work that Mana sets out to do: to look again at the vital conditions of possibility of the basic units of social theory.

Jean Comaroff observes that I’m careful not to buy into Émile Durkheim’s generally upbeat assessment of mana, or, as he called its palpable effect, collective effervescence. She notes quite rightly that my text is “haunted … by the immanence of authoritarian populism, past and present; by the illiberal and the oligarchic inherent in capitalist modernity itself.” But does the framework that I set out allow me to distinguish between light and dark energies, between good and bad mana, between transformative solidarity and mob madness? Here I intend my book as a corrective to that powerful intellectual heritage that, in advance, confidently but also prejudicially, always assumes precisely that normative distinction between crowd frenzy and the magnificence of the multitude. In fact, Durkheim already knew that mana is inherently two-faced. It’s a social pharmakon. Its two aspects, vitalizing and vicious, may be distinguished empirically but not, I think, ontologically.

On that note, Michael Taussig neatly observes in his commentary that “Mana is as intrinsic to revolution and counterrevolution as it is to power itself.” And Aarti Sethi, in a sensitive application of my argument to an infamous murder dressed up as ritual, demonstrates exactly this. To discern the play of light vs. dark, the analyst must, in the singularity of a given phenomenon, “trace transmissions.” She must track, through a particular event-constellation, those unpredictable resonances across space and time by which an affirmation of hope can, through a twist and a swerve, bounce back as a message of violence. If I invoke a mimetic archive as a kind of resource ground for all meaning that matters, then it’s precisely because mimesis is transformative and translational rather than merely duplicative. This is one of the many lessons I’ve learned from Taussig, who observes of the uncanny mimetic activation of historical potentialities: “It slashes across habits of cause and effect, chronology, structure, and the separation of mind from matter.”

Resonance may be oppressive and overwhelming, but no less constitutive for all that.

But amid the vital density of all these ricocheting resonances, Leela Gandhi introduces a note of doubt. What if you don’t resonate? What if the world in which you’re expected to flourish renders you invisible, unrecognized? It’s true that my language, even as the specter of darkness is never far away, tends to conjure an apparently affirmative mood in which subjectivity and society are, by definition, based on, in Peter Sloterdijk’s phrase, constitutive resonance. What about dissonance? What about refusal? I would begin by noting that the antonym of dissonance is harmony rather than resonance. Resonance may be oppressive and overwhelming, but no less constitutive for all that—especially when what it constitutes is the conflict or perhaps the impasse between normative interpellation and alienation.

Although my rethinking of interpellation theory mobilizes ostensibly celebratory phrases like “just what I always wanted!,” it does so ironically, stressing the anxiety and the panic that grow alongside the prospect of being perfectly addressed as “exactly who I am” (the biggest ideological fantasy of all). Dissonance, then, is inherent to the resonances that interpellate—although surely in more devastating ways for those who cannot, will not, or are not allowed to thrive within the prevailing normative order. By the terms of my argument, then, what Gandhi distinguishes as “normalizing” and “infractional” magics are always ambiguously bound up with each other—especially given, as Comaroff notes, my argument about the “queerness of all force—and the comfort to be gained from the fact that power itself does not seem to realize this.”

In a wonderfully provocative move, Gandhi invokes the ancient Greek figure of the daimon, a lifelong double that embodies our unique identity, but one that, because of its position behind our shoulder, remains visible only to others. Would it make sense to think the daimon together with the symptom? The daimon-symptom as that which is most intimately ours but over which we nevertheless have very little control; whose workings are more obvious to others than they are to us; which “speaks us,” as it were, from behind our backs; whose recognition requires an articulation through the shared symbolic field of language? But this would also, perhaps, imply that whatever public recognition the daimon-symptom enjoys is a provisional (albeit perhaps therapeutic) translation, or—to put it in my terms—a settlement. The daimon-symptom insists and obtrudes until it finds recognition in a common idiom. But even then it is always, and constitutively, “missed.”

So it is with mana. On the penultimate page of the book, I write: “If I have in some sense been able to ‘redeem’ mana, then, by the same token, I should now be ready to let go of it. Because mana was only ever a symptom, a key, a sign of potentialities to be uncovered in a shared mimetic archive.” The sentiment of those sentences still rings true to me. But I think I got one thing wrong. Mana itself was never the symptom. Rather, mana was the word—“a key, a sign,” for sure—that kept appearing in the vicinity and as a kind of uneasy translation of the symptom. It’s a privileged key/sign for me because of its persistent proximity to the settlements that structured the conceptual fields of anthropology and critical theory.

But for all its mana—because of all its mana—I never wanted “mana” to become something like an ontologically solid substance or a thing in my own thinking. This is the inherent risk implied in Taussig’s opening observation: “Mana comes with its own mana.” Bhrigupati Singh demands, not without reason: “Did the thing exist?” Faced with his question, and feeling just a tad guilty, I turn for relief to Eduardo Kohn’s beautifully precise formulation when, during a conversation about the book, he characterized mana as “the non-thing that it is.” These days, I sometimes wish that I had titled the book The [Mana] of Mass Society.


The Trouble with “Modernity”

By Christopher Nealon

The temptation is always to reify the term that appears to allow our daimon-symptom to speak, to come into “its own”—to render visible and palpable that which remains structurally invisible to us, and yet feels constitutively intimate. Attuned to that temptation, Singh asks, “Is theory a kind of spell?” and proceeds to place critical theory in the past tense. Certainly, critical theory—like any other kind of theory—dies as soon as the villains and their crimes are known before the analysis has even started.

Against that kind of inertia, my book attempts what I would like to call an esoteric renewal of critique. Critique, at least since Immanuel Kant, has meant an inquiry into the conditions of possibility of a given phenomenon. And I invoke the esoteric here not so much in any spirit of mystery as to signal a turn toward the secrets that hide in plain sight within the commonplaces of social theory: fetishism, ideology, subjectivity, authority, and others from long ago; more recently affect, emergence, sovereignty, and such. Here, I think the theorist can learn something from the magician, whose art Taussig so aptly describes as the “skilled revelation of skilled concealment.”

Working on this book, I followed mana down some long and winding roads. The point was to follow this luminous lure without knowing where I was going. Along the way I often felt that mana embodied that curious doubleness once attributed to secrets by Leo Strauss, a conservative thinker highly attuned to the politics of the esoteric. “Secret,” Strauss wrote, “may refer to the secret hidden by a parable or word, but it also may mean the parable or word itself which hides a secret.”21 In which case the challenge shifts from one of interpretation to one of activation. If, as Singh generously proposes, my book raises “new sources of energy” at the intersection of anthropology and critical theory, then this can only be by means of, as Walter Benjamin might have put it, the redemption of some very old energies. Energies embedded in a shared mimetic archive that has too often been overlooked as self-evident. This is, by definition, a collective and infinite task. And I am, again, so very grateful to my interlocutors for their rigorous collaboration.


Jump to: Jean Comaroff, Leela Gandhi, Michael Taussig, Bhrigupati Singh, Aarti Sethi, William Mazzarella


This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke. icon

  1. Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 147; cited in Mazzarella, p. 166.
  2. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958; University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 179–180, 192–193.
  3. Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, translated from the German by André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 99–110.
  4. Plato, Apology, in Plato: Complete Works, translated from the Greek by G. M. A. Grube and edited by John M. Cooper (Hackett, 1997), pp. 29, 35.
  5. Mohandas K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai (1948; Beacon, 1993), p. xxvii. Gandhi and Socrates are often compared in 20th-century pacifist subcultures. The noted American conscientious objector Norman Thomas—who ran for president six times—praises both figures (alongside Paine and Galileo) as nonconformists who broke with custom. See his Great Dissenters (Norton, 1961).
  6. Jacques Derrida, “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow),” translated from the French by David Wills, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002), p. 418.
  7. Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois, “Sacred Sociology and the Relationships between ‘Society,’ ‘Organism,’ and ‘Being’” (1937), in The College of Sociology, 1937–39, edited by Denis Hollier and translated from the French by Betsy Wing (University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
  8. James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism” (1981), in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Harvard University Press, 1988); Derek Sayer, Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences (Prickly Paradigm, 2017).
  9. For “new paradigm,” see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).
  10. Marcel Mauss, with Henri Hubert, A General Theory of Magic, translated from the French by Robert Brain (1902; Routledge Classics, 2001), p. 133.
  11. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, translated from the German by Edmund Jephcott (Harcourt Brace, 1978), pp. 277–300.
  12. Henry James, The Sacred Fount (1901; Library of America, 2006), pp. 18, 19.
  13. Ibid., pp. 176, 193.
  14. Cited in Marcus Klein, “Henry James’s Sacred Fount: The Theory, The Theorist and The Lady,” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 3 (Autumn 2006), p. 87.
  15. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, translated from the Spanish by David Kunzle (International General, 1975).
  16. K. D. Katrak, Collected Poems, edited and with an introduction by William Mazzarella (Poetrywala, 2016), pp. xi, xii.
  17. Ibid., p. xxii.
  18. Ibid., p. lxviii.
  19. Gayatri Chakravorthy Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988); Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (University of California Press, 1998).
  20. Lauren Berlant, “The Predator and the Jokester,” New Inquiry, December 13, 2017.
  21. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952; University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 41. Emphasis added.
Featured image: Shiny (2018). Photograph by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash