Digital Magic, Cybernetic Sorcery: On the Politics of Fascination and Fear

Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies

Digital Magic, Cybernetic Sorcery:

On the Politics of Fascination and Fear

Nowadays the magician busies himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, sociological surveys, publicity, information, counterinformation and misinformation…. [S]cience has … substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dream and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane and computer have carried into effect the promises first formulated by magic … to produce light, move instantaneously from one point to another, to fly through the air, to have infallible memory at one’s disposal.

— Ioan P. Couliano [1]


Maybe it’s the magnetic allure of the screen or the enchantment of some half-forgotten ad. But either way, there is magic in the feedback loops by which we spin meaning together in the world. Today much of this magic is digital. This is the magic of cybernetic forms. While commonly imagined as a data-driven mode of communicative rationality, cybernetics also operates in a decidedly more occult manner. Of particular importance is cybernetics’ capacity to magically command attention through mesmerizing technologies of coded fascination and fear.

The magic of cybernetics is double and casts its spell like an enchanted two-way mirror. On one side, we find dominant uses of cybernetics as a commanding tool of power. Here, high-speed digital technologies wash over the imaginations of those they enchant, suggestively altering our senses and captivating our networked minds. But while capable of reshaping memory and even the contours of perception, digital sorcery of this sort is not cybernetics’ sole or sealed destiny. On the other side of its magical mirror lies cybernetics’ potential as a multifaceted pathway for life-sustaining connections, resonance, healing, requisite variation, and transformative change.

This two-sided tale of digital magic directs attention to the modern historical suppression of once flourishing analog communicative codes and their simulated (or virtual) resurrection in the sensorial feedback loops of contemporary digital culture. This represents a form of code drift — the suspension of clear and distinct boundaries between our modern selves and the world; and the replacement of such boundaries by ghostly streams of digitalized contact between beings in natural magical communication with each other. At issue here is the technological transmission of fascinating streams of affect and connection, vibrant streams of contact once banished to the subterranean haunts, deviant margins, and delirious poetic dreamscapes of modernity.

Simulating enchanted contact with the world, digital pathways of fascination and fear function as a new global technology of power. [2] Digital pathways of this sort also provide psychic benefits to those most privileged by power, enabling them to avoid reckoning with the suffering that power’s circuitry demands of others. Mesmerizing distractions induced by fascination can also dull power’s pain. This is because digital magical technologies allow us to suspend attention to haunting differences between what is real (and really complex) about our relations to each other and what we simply fantasize or wish to be real. This endows cybernetic technologies with both a dream-like quality and a decidedly serpentine edge — an ability to shed contact with history like a snake slithers free of its skin.

But serpentine fascination is only one of digital magic’s poles. Fear is another. In cybernetic culture quick jolts of fascination oscillate with magnetic waves of fear. In this, fixed codes of modern power transmute into fluid fields of ultramodern force. The result is an amplification, rather than attenuation, of a wide array of modern historical inequalities and social injustices. Here, all things solid may appear to melt into electronics, but ghosts in the unconscious machinery of power remain. This begets a panicky oscillation between pleasure and terror, security and risk. The reason for this is magical: rather than simply repressing what they banish to the shadows of power (as was the case throughout modernity), cybernetic forms of power capture attention by simulating the uncanny resurrection of what they themselves exclude.

Sanitized copies of what is simulated are then fed back into power’s own circuitous flow, modulating collective transmissions of memory, affect, and imagination. But by magically channeling power beyond modernity’s guilty circuits, simulations of a cybernetic sort also escalate the global perils of power. To interact with magical simulations is, after all, to stray from the complexities of history’s (actual) pathways and enter a phantasmatic (virtual) forest of signs. This poses multiple challenges for the enterprise of critical digital studies. This essay meditates upon key aspects of both the perils, and opportunities, presented by digital magic. It begins with a short sociological story of separation perfected.

Separation Perfected

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence, … illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is … enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
— Feuerbach, Preface to the Second Edition of The Essence of Christianity. [3]


“The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” [4] Today things are different. Maybe things are worse. The whole life of those societies in which ultramodern conditions of engineered consumption prevail presents itself as an immense cybernetic network of magical fascinations and fears. All that was once directly lived, then indirectly represented as the stuff of modern history, is today becoming pre-modeled and data-banked, simulated and sold back to us as mesmerizing imaginary connections to what’s real. This involves a virtual suspension of haunting contradictions and a collective disavowal of our complicity with complex global matrices of domination and the injustices they beget.


“Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost …” [5] Lost that is from collective consciousness, but never completely forgotten; at least not in those unconscious zones of bodily and emotional life where what is real dances energetically with what is imagined. Positioned at the crossroads of lived biographical experience and historically structured formations of power, the unconscious hovers like a ghostly electromagnetic charge, sparking fascinations and making us afraid. Within the atmospheric wavelengths of what has become collectively unconscious, rapid-fire technological networks of command, control, and communications mix it up with a multilayered field of dreams. At times, the effect of this magical commingling — this mesmerizing transference between otherwise distinct realms — can be alluring, even erotic. At other times, the mix may feel repulsive, burdened by the ugliness of anxiety and acknowledged guilt.

Either way, the effects are likely to be uncanny — the sense that things are both familiar and strange at the same time, “an enchanted encounter in a disenchanted world.” [6] Perhaps this is because, despite being deeply personal and secret, unconscious matters are at all times also natural historical matters, collective matters that exceed egoistic experience. Unconscious matters carry us beyond the magical boundaries of that nation-state we call the self. Or, maybe things seem both familiar and strange because no matter how private our experience, neither it, nor we — in all our complexities, dissociations, and contradictions — are ever truly independent of the unfolding material exigencies of life (and death).

Reflexive attention to connections and resonances between what is personal and what we share energetically in the flesh with all others is particularly important in trying to discern wise courses of action in today’s cybernetic world. This world is conjured into existence by complex global networks of power. These magical networks enable us to hook up with some people in some ways but not others, channeling our attention along power-charged pathways of connection in ways that structurally block or distort contact with others. These networks of power find a convergent genealogy in the communicative electricity of fast capitalism, militarized forms of masculinity, and the racialized fascinations and fears of five centuries of global coloniality. In these high-speed networks, dreams and nightmares, alluring phantasms and terrifying technological simulacra, pulsate electronically together. At times everything seems mesmerizing and totally connected. At other times it’s like separation perfected.


“What exactly is it that we are separated from?” asked Rada Rada. “I am curious red, blue, black and yellow. I am curious and perplexed, wondering about everything and eager for a gift of words.”

To this, the Black Madonna replied at length. It had been a long time since she had been on the same page as Rada and she was not about to waste the opportunity to remind her protégé of matters they had in common. [7]

“As Marx tirelessly insisted,” declared the Black Madonna, “in capitalist society we are separated from each other, from the products of our labor, and from the wealth this labor produces for those who own and control the organization of our global economic survival. These are keys aspects of the alienation and separation anxiety we experience daily. But there is more to separation than this. We are also separated from the ecological throes of living energetic matter and from that which provides us with sustenance, meaning, and pleasure. We are separated from the general economy of life itself and from what is most sacred to all living beings — Mother Nature in all “her” nuanced complexity and unfolding movement. This too is an aspect of fast cybernetic capitalism — the technological amplification of an alien force that drives a wedge between our flesh and the natural history in which we all participate.


For most of history we human animals have imagined ourselves as participating in nature’s sacred dance. We envisioned ourselves as co-participants in nature’s evolving ecology and structure, its shape-shifting metamorphosis and spiraling movement through time. Through symbols and ritual activities we recognized ourselves as material and spiritual communicants in nature’s rhythmic alternation between change and stasis; motion and rest; life, death and regeneration. But for those perched at the commanding heights of European modernity, conscious attention to our co-participation in the unfolding dynamics of nature perilously faded from mind. This was also true for those shaped most fiercely by modernity’s restrictive economic rituals and rules, regardless of whether this shaping took place inside territories controlled by those of European descent or elsewhere.

This was also true, if never exactly in the same way, for people so thoroughly screened by modern institutions of power that they possess (or are possessed by) a simplistic and memory-poor vision of themselves and their society as a triumphant force for good in the world. This involves social amnesia and a suspension of attention to the complex ways in which we are complicit with global historical regimes of unequal economic, social and cultural expressions of power. At issue here is the ritual construction of selective memories and forgetting, the shaping of collective consciousness and what that consciousness expels, forbids, or renders unconscious. On the other hand, rituals that remind us of our participation in the relational complexities of both history and nature have long been condemned by modernity as magical and dismissed — in much the same way as modern Man categorically dismisses women and racialized others — as if childish, primitive, hysterical, or demonic.

Magical relations are communicative relations, relations of vibrant sympathy and mutual correspondence. Magic makes binding (analogical) connections between things that appear otherwise (digitally) separated in time, space, and body. Magic brings seemingly distinct things into overflowing contact with each other, dissolving boundaries and drawing matters set apart into enchanted relations of mimesis and identification. Magic binds people and things in ways that precede and typically defy all but the most poetic of languages. This is why magic repeatedly challenges both orthodox religion and positivist science. Magic enables people and things to participate together in a world to which they are commonly bound. The magical world is a fascinating world, a world where nothing is truly separate from anything else. Everything is linked, connected, and hooked-up. This includes the knower and the known. In magic everything participates in the life of everything else, and all things are understood as bound together in communicative relations of sympathy and antipathy, attraction and repulsion.

Until the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Europe was a magical world. The performance of magical rituals bound pre-modern Europeans together in material-energetic, imaginary, and symbolic relational webs — animating webs of bodily resonance, psychic identification, and shared social meaning. The material and imaginary effects of such rituals were not unlike those imagined by Jacques Derrida when enigmatically evoking the inscriptive material or structuring force of writing. But modern formations of power were quick to declare magical rites superstitious and suspect. As such, modernity imagined itself as having evolved beyond magic, viewing enchanted relations to the world as not real but imaginary.

The discourses of modern science, religion, and governance each used the term magic when referring to the supposed “primitive” mentality of people-the-globe-over who Europe had conquered and/or converted. Young children, the insane, weak willed individuals, and women were stereotypically pictured as more susceptible to magic than modern men. This was because each appeared in modern men’s eyes as less able than they to erect, maintain, and defend clear boundaries between themselves, others, and the world. Hocus Pocus: magic was to be rubbed out or transformed into a mesmerizing spectacle of mystery and entertainment — an exotic object of fun and fascination, an alluring object belonging of the anthropology of others, but certainly not of our selves.


Magical correspondences begin not as one-to-one relations of measured similitude between existing things but in rituals of call and response between a mother and her child. Magic, in other words, is with us since birth. Our mother is the immediate source of the gift of life we receive. As infants we cry out in aching sound and mimetic gesture, demanding nurture when our mother’s attention turns elsewhere. This is inevitable because as close as a child may be to its mother, outside of the womb her attention is rarely ours alone. “[T]his is not ‘bad’; the real issue is whether this … occurs in a context that is loving or hostile.” [8] But one way or another, when made anxious by separation from our mother’s living energetic attention, we magically mime our mother’s power. We hallucinate the fulfillment of a wish to again be in undifferentiated flows of intimate material contact with our mother. This is to substitute an imaginary realm of experience for what is real, to tattoo the flesh with phantasm and magically transform our mother as we imagine her from the source of life to a resource for our emerging self. This is to misrecognize both our mother and our self by identifying with our mother and imagining her power as our own.

Misrecognition of this sort makes magic a material aspect of what Teresa Brennan describes as a communicative miming of “nature’s logic” — the “original logic of the flesh.” This original logic is a lively, mobile, and “fleshy logic” of connection, a logic composed of a multitude of intersecting pathways and rooted in a fluid in utero economy of interactive energy. This logic involves a complex system of fleshy communications between two less than fully differentiated parties (mother and embryo), each a participant in the same dynamic network of life. A conduit for the earliest transmission of affects and the embryonic physical basis for the subsequent development of language, in this logic “message and the response are communicated in biochemical codes which are meaningful precisely because they are interactive.” [9] Separated from the immediacy of this most primal of communicative forms, as infants we hallucinate the fulfillment of a wish to be reunited with our mother. This is the beginning of magic — a calling out to our mother from an imagined locus of power that is never strictly our own, pleading our case, demanding that our mother respond to our needs.

The figuration of mother in this short sociological story has at least two dimensions: first, the flesh and blood mother who gives birth to us; and second, Mother Nature, a poetic trope for the dynamic ecology of living energetic matter that envelops and provides sustenance for both our mother and our self. Magic begins when we call out in response to disjunctions in our energetic relations to our mother in nature. Magic comes in different forms, but it always shares something elemental — a communicative identification with an imagined other to whom we are bound. We imitate and make relational demands on this other and become subject to the other’s demands in return.

Magical rituals of this sort — call and response rituals between our selves and others — were a constitutive aspect of pre-modern European culture. Over the course of modernity such rituals have been repressed, emptied of collective meaning, or driven underground. As a result, while fascinating, magic is today typically thought of as decidedly primitive; and those who imagine themselves as religious participants in the unfolding of nature are accused of the errors of animism — belief that the natural world is energetically alive, that humans are active participants in this world, and that this world is sacred.


Everything begins magically in the electricity of communication. The sky crackles with lightning and the atmosphere changes. Oxygen bonds with hydrogen and tears stream down my cheeks. I get e-mail from you and my brain ignites. You keyboard your imagination in the direction of my mind and my spine tingles. Text messages spark suggestive ritual pathways between us as our genes tumble together, magnetized by the rhythms of a time belonging to neither of us alone. We toss and turn in waves of affect, intense but uncertain about what might happen next. Then, when trying to say what any of this really means, even our best words fall face down and flat.

Energetic transmissions loop between us, then reverse rhythm; first layering, then switch tracking, then again back to the flow. In this way we communicate, not by discursive language with all its grandeur and lack, but by synaptic pulsation and a rhythmic oscillation between what fascinates us and what makes us afraid. Here things are actualized in magical rituals of “song, tone, key, rhythm, timing, intonation, loudness, silence, color, odor, taste, touch, shape, gesture, facial expression, body posture, movement, displays, dance, drumming, clicks, whistles, sighs, cries, screams, mimicry, and play.” [10]

Elsewhere, bodies pile up the globe over but many fail to notice. Memory poor and plagued by catastrophic waves of fast fear, we flee our relational bodies and the movement of time, piloting fast forward from the ecology of mind in which we are all communicants. Attention becomes distracted and our ethics are lulled to sleep as wave after wave of channeled transmissions penetrate us, enchant us, and make us afraid. This involves ritual magic, the casting of a collective spell under which it becomes increasingly difficult to glimpse the complexity of our situation. When this happens, history floats suspended like a somnambulant signifier adrift on a sea of screened memories and power-charged forgetting.

Energized by the flow of everything into everything else, many of us are also increasingly troubled by a prescient sense that things are fast falling apart. Phantasmatic objects consume our attention then burst into flames. We bounce screen-to-screen, enmeshed in a fast-moving web of ever-changing information, diffracting through dynamic fields of opto-electronic mutations in the logistics of perception. Here, there are few — if any — borders between our selves and the high-speed digital network technologies to which we are hooked-up. Oscillating between desire and dread, we are cut by anxiety and consumed by an endless waging of war.

The communicative magic of new global media technologies casts a powerful collective spell, making us alternatively emboldened and afraid. First manic, then depressed, then manic again: this is the new digital cultural logic of cybernetic capitalism — a ritual orchestration of bi-polarized disorder. Waves of worry push against dreamy hopes for reconnection with each other and the wider world to which we belong. In the whirling center of the network — which is really not a center at all, but simply a node between linked force fields of information and energized matter — the animated screen into which we gaze suddenly mutates into a dynamic last wall; not a wall of stone, mortar, wood, steel, or brick, but a transparent wall of glass and high-density fiber-optics; a wall of interactive feedback signaling the real-time “disappearance of matter.” [11] In this dynamic wall of images the boundary separating what is real from what is imaginary becomes little but another screened memory; and the screen upon which that memory is projected is fast imploding. Imploding screened memories — this, perhaps, is an apt metaphor for the weave of magic and mesmerism that today operate at the helm of fast global capitalist forms of cybernetic social control. I am writing to you out from within this global technological weave. Are my transmissions getting through?

We dart, you and I, screen to screen, traveling in phantasms across an ever-changing horizon of virtual futures morphing in both the material and imaginary realms into what comes next in history. All we can grasp are relations, not individuals or atoms, but relations. These relations are, at once, local and global, sympathetic and symptomatic. As sympathetic relations they vibrate together. As symptomatic relations they bear ghostly traces of what is sacrificed to make certain types of sympathies — but not others — circulate the globe over. All we can grasp are natural historical relations, complex systemic relations — human animal mineral vegetable relations spiraling together in networks. We are in awe.

You pitch your voice in my direction, communicating a command.

“Okay cowboy, okay parasite,” you call out, syncopating each syllable, underscoring each beat. “Now is as good a time as any to show me what you’ve got. Let me see that dis-autobiographical dance you are always writing about. Let me see your power-reflexive striptease. Remove the ridiculous mask. Unzip your persona. Step out of your everyday rituals, professional habits, and armor. Step suggestively out of your self. Expose yourself to the tragic lens of history without hiding from the dark; or, what would be worse yet, without projecting the dark that you fear upon me. Let me see you naked and doubling back upon yourself. Strip away the phony nudity and make me laugh. Remove your cultured costume and phallic pretense. Situate your knowledge in the flesh and in the global currents of the natural history that binds us together with others.”

I begin to laugh, remembering again that everything begins in the electricity of communication. I know this more from the sound, cadence, timbre, and tone of your voice as it vibrates (analogically) within me and through me than from the meaning I make (digitally) of what you say. While cognitively I imagine that you mean this but not that, the affective intensities spiraling between us are more magical and complex — more ambivalent and open-ended. These intensities are, at once, imaginary and real; constituted mimetically in relation to one another, these intensities pierce my skin, bringing flesh to thought. The sensate technological transmission of affects in this way is truly something new — the stuff of recent history.

Governed by centuries of ritual adherence to positivist scientific precepts, a headstrong culture of sublime abstraction, and a white masculine militarized will to colonial forms of power, those at the communicative helm of Northwestern modernity have long dreamt of making all things digital — of converting the open-ended fuzziness of analog transmissions into fixed entities that can be harvested for profit — clear and distinct entities with objectified boundaries, discrete entities controlled meaningfully by binary codes. This modern pursuit of digital distinctness results in a distortion of communicative complexity. This is because relations that vibrate together analogically in continuous (but never entirely determinant) ways have, throughout modernity been pushed aside, suppressed, or rendered unconscious.

Today this appears to be changing. This is because the latest generation of digital technology seems capable, not simply of suppressing the analog realm, but of resurrecting it in a pre-modeled or simulated form. This is a central tendency of profit-driven cybernetic forms of power — the restrictive economic deployment of communicative technologies that market the appearance of streaming degrees of “more or less” continuity between things that remain separate and price-tagged accordingly. Boundaries burst between what has long been imagined as private and that which circulates for sale in the global marketplace.

Boundary breaking of this sort may partially assuage what was suppressed (but never entirely eliminated) from Northwestern modernity — a sensuous desire for streaming analogical contact with the wonders of the natural historical world to which we belong. But in addition to carving new pathways for profit, renewed contact with analog communication may also engender resonant experiences of a less controlling, wilder, and potentially more life-enhancing sort. In other words, renewed contact — perhaps even simulated contact — with the analog realm may result in a contagious dance between otherwise distinct beings in communication — a spiraling, unsettling, and even dizzying dance, an oscillating back-and-forth movement between intensified control and boundary-relaxing relief. In this sense, alongside virulent dreams of economic dominance and military superiority, new global technologies of power also unleash something more arcane, playful, and open-ended — digitally enhanced dreams of analog connectedness. This is an important aspect of the magical allure and mesmerizing seductions of cybernetic culture — a promise of sensuous cosmic reconnection.


Everywhere I turn magic follows me like a cybernetic feedback loop announcing miracles. The magic of Disney, the magic of Macy’s, the magic of this or that new gadget, new YouTube video, new diet, new machine, new look, new bra, new designer perfume, or hot new Hollywood star; the magic of style, the magic of life governed by image-intensive technologies, market-place technologies that charm the body and colonize the mind. Magical cybernetic technologies — most of them digital — blur differences between embodied experience and the refractory play of screened memories. This changes everything. These technologies first enchant then suspend the boundary between what is real and what is imaginary. Under the spell of such magical technologies everyday life can feel like a dream (or nightmare) as the basic exigencies of our psychic and bodily existence spin together in a fast moving matrix of fiery social phantasms and hypnotic vectors of affect.

Magic affects both body and mind. It can artfully arouse the senses and send goose bumps down the spine. Magic can mesmerize and intoxicate. It can also freeze us on the spot. It can quicken the heart or make blood pressure drop. Magic fires the imagination and sparks thoughts that work like dreams. Magic lowers the threshold separating animated bodily existence from what appears as if captured by consciousness. Steeped in wonder, awe, sensuousness, and Eros, magic seduces us and leads us astray from what is habitual and graced by common sense. Magic unsettles taken-for-granted polarities between what appears as if real and what is real. Magic is in the air.

When ritualized, regularized, or made into a coded habit, the magnetic loops of fluid electronic information in which I find myself adrift often feel like second nature and their suggestive effects like some kind of high-tech hypnotic sorcery. I am energetically shaped by these magical technologies and I suspect you are as well, although probably not in exactly the same ways. These new technologies of enchantment and control are brought into being by a powerful amalgam of historical forces. These include intensifications in the phallic management of perpetual warfare and global economic initiatives aimed at converting vast portions of the planet into a digitally enchanted shopping mall.

Digital magical forms are also today manifest in the world of banking, where money is set in motion by viral phantasms at play in the global marketplace of finance and triaged derivatives. This magic involves the transubstantiation of embodied economic activity into papered-over versions of itself, virtual economies that are bundled together as “securities,” then sold as a risk-be-damned bet against bad futures. Ramped up surveillance technologies and the mass-mediated management of fear, along with unprecedented experiments with global policing and pharmaceutical agents of all sorts are also aspects of magic’s recent history. But sparked by wildly popular (and sometimes populist) human-animal yearnings for the sensuous enchantment and heart-felt communion with other people and things, the magic of cybernetic capitalism is even more complex. Cybernetic capitalism parasites off such yearnings, tempting us with simulated connections that are always just one click away.

The social basis for widespread contemporary yearnings for magic is important to understand, as the magic of cybernetics today constitutes a new global technology of power and a mesmerizing vector of cultural exchange, particularly for those whose lives are situated within the vast electronic marketplace of Northwestern society.

This way of life is marked by an endless succession of material objects, yet it is a life that curiously seems to float beyond the terms of the real world. This is essential to the magic of style, its fascination and enchantment. Part of the promise of style is that it will lift us out of the dreariness of necessity . . . lift the viewer out of his or her own life and place him or her in a utopian netherworld where there are no conflicts, no needs unmet; where the ordinary is — extraordinary. [12]

This is a short sociological story about the historical construction, bodily and psychic resonances, and magnetic channeling of high-speed technologies of magical cybernetic social control. These technologies of control are orchestrated around vibrant loops of mesmerizing feedback between people and machines. As magical social forms, information technologies captivate attention and create mimetic correspondence between what is above us and what appears below. Magical rituals of information-based feedback set our social and psychic geographies in motion. This undoes our grounding in the here and now, putting us in touch with undreamt of pasts and previously unimaginable futures. As such, magical technologies of the digital sort can radically change our understandings of time and space and reshape our senses of self and other.

This is to picture magic as a communicative technology that shapes both society and the self — a ritual modeling of secret signs, words, gestures, sounds, vibrations, and resonant poetic images. This enchanting technology is not secret simply because first-hand knowledge of magic is prohibited, although this may sometimes be the case. For example, societies governed by monotheistic religious beliefs have long been virulent in their attempts to suppress magical rites. Magical rites are also secret because they offer fluid material and imaginary pathways out of what is damned (or dammed up) in the collective consciousness of a given culture. Magical rites, in other words, promise soulful energetic connections with the complex system of living energetic matters to which we belong and within which we play our part.

New global technologies of cybernetic magic put the visible outsides of life in secret contact with that which lies hidden within the recesses of the conscious mind. In this, the magic of cybernetics may be costumed in mysterious feeling-tones and hieroglyphic codes, accessible only to initiates baptized by streaming technological vectors of simulation and affect. This is an information-based mode of social control. It revels in real-time transmissions of both fascination and fear. It also creates magical links or “sympathies” between flows of macro-economic force and microscopic realms of social-psychic meaning and bodily experience. This enacts what is perhaps the oldest of magic’s principles: as above, so it is below. Under the spell of such magic, like attracts like, while repulsing that which deviates or differs. This mode of social control is steeped in arcane technologies of prestige and illusion, technologies that manage the imagination.

Magical social technologies enchant us with sensuous swells of pleasure. They also mesmerize us with paranoiac phantasms of terror. Fire-up your LCD screen or plasma. Turn-on your digital smart phone, MP3 player, and GPS and pilot through a digital archetypal maze of tweets, texts, games, and blogs. Turn-on yourself. Since each of these magical technologies is capable of transmitting high-density wavelengths of fascination and fear, it is important to ask who is best served by these new modes of communication and power? Whose attention do they most captivate, command, and control? Whose desires do they realize most expressively and whose desires do they repress, push aside, or defer? What futures are made possible by these new occult technologies and what other ritual pathways are denied, foreclosed, or pushed to the margins? It may seem odd to ask questions such as these at a moment in history when dominant institutions at the helm of Northwestern society can appear to be more rational and calculating than ever. But alongside dreams of techno-scientific mastery and the transfer of profit from periphery to core, the shimmering surfaces of contemporary capitalist society are also aflame with powerful and seductive forms of enchantment.

Digital enchantment is, in part, a simulated resurrection of earlier modes of magic, the technological reappearance of communicative forms thought to have been left behind or banished to the peripheries and subterranean haunts of the modern capitalist/ colonial world system. Today, in the technological rituals of overdeveloped societies such magic is at play nearly everywhere. Powerful, digital magic commands our attention in ways that distract us from the sleep-disturbing cruelties of the current global order, lulling many of us into denial, forgetfulness, and collective somnambulism. This is because the sensuous distractions of digital magic provide partial compensation for a long-standing modern cultural flight from the body, and for Northwestern modernity’s loss of resonant energetic contact with the animating stuff of this world. Magical distractions of this sort enable the archetypal subject of digital culture to become the fast-mutating subject of neo-liberal capitalism. Fleeing the haunts of a guilt-ridden modern history of Ego-driven conquest, neurosis, and boredom, the modal subject of cybernetics is today suspended midstream — swept away by the ultramodern currents of liquid life, while flailing for breath amidst whirlpools of liquid fear. Such magical suspensions of subjectivity are today a daily occurrence, the effect of having parasitic vectors of capital penetrate the innermost reaches of subjectivity, turning inner life outward, while streaming outer currents within.

But making connections with aspects of the world kept secret from wide-awake forms of modern consciousness is not magic’s only function. Other forms of magic modulate our relations to others in different ways. Magic may, for instance, help secure distinctions that safeguard the self, anchoring individuals within collective waves of thought, affect and judgment. Indeed, when performed in an attentive, discerning, and ritually reflexive manner, magic may provide equilibrium for individuals within culture, protecting those it enchants from being engulfed in the undifferentiated night of dark matter or from being chaotically dispersed like fractured moon beams burnt by the morning’s sun. [13]

This is to suggest that the magical subject of cybernetics is neither one-dimensional nor homogeneous. Indeed, how people are affected by the allures of magic is determined in significant measure by the social positions they inhabit and the social psychic and historically material technologies to which they have access. As such, those at the commanding heights of social power are likely to experience things quite differently than those at the bottom, while we in the middle may oscillate compulsively between fast jolts of enchantment and quick time immersion in anxiety and fear. Schooled in the corporate “acceptance of disorientation, immunity to vertigo, adaptation to dizziness, and absence of itinerary,” those at power’s cybernetic helm may be given plenty of opportunities to magically master “the art of ‘liquid life.'” [14] These are the corporate magicians and warriors who use information technologies to manipulate consumption and deploy ever more intense strategies of coercion and killing. For the rest of us, life may hover “uneasily between the joys of consumption and the horrors of the rubbish heap.” [15]

Adrift between advertisements for a purchasable heaven and the soul-maiming insecurities of a marketplace hell, social life enters liquidity and loses form. In this, things may move so quickly that the complexities of life and history can appear to be forgotten in advance. When this happens, people and commodities trade places, as people become more like things and things become more animate. For those most disadvantaged by this new modality of social control this can be particularly dangerous, as they “may be cast most of the time particularly near the commodities’ pole — but no consumer can be fully and truly insured against falling into its close, too close for comfort, proximity. Only as commodities … can consumers gain access to consuming life. In liquid life, the distinction between consumers and objects of consumption is all too momentary and ephemeral, and always conditional.” [16]

With these concerns in mind, this essay invites you to make historical connections between the recent technological resurrection of magic, global capitalism, and cybernetic control processes. I hope these connections enable you to become better attuned to the magic that surrounds you; and to use this attunement to reflexively discern, subvert and critically transform — rather than simply amplify — the networked sorcery of global capitalism in its information-based or cybernetic form.


On first impression, a return to magical social forms appears anachronistic. We are, after all, in the throes of a global capitalist system dominated by instrumental rationality and the calculative pursuit of profit. Indeed, since the dawn of modernity dominant forms of modern Northwestern power and knowledge have long labored to break magical human connections with nature, and to establish proper scientific and moral distance from the natural world they seek to classify, measure, and master. Think only of the Protestant Reformation with its virulent attacks against the supposed magical rituals of Catholicism; or of the “witch craze” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, targeting the supposed demonic magic of lingering European animism. Religiously inspired campaigns of conversion and violence directed against the magic of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Asia, and Africa were even more deadly.

Throughout modernity dominant sectors of European society have become increasingly separated from the rhythms of the natural historical world by an amalgam of next-worldly spirituality, profit-driven calculation, narcissistic self-interest, and an obsessive masculine objectification of nearly everything that moves. This gave Europeans a sense of standing at a distance from the world. This sense of separation from the world strode arm in arm with racialized campaigns aimed at bringing Christian civilization to so-called primitive pagan peoples the globe over. People revering the sacredness of Earth as their mother were presented with a stark and deadly choice. Kneel before the cross or be slain by the sword!

Positioned at a spectator’s distance from the world and fired-up by militarized approaches to geopolitical conflict, the men at the helm of modern Europe demanded the same of those they conquered. I see. I fly. I desktop command drones, scanning for heat, firing missiles, dropping bombs and closing my senses to a wide range of other ways of being in the world. Rather than experiencing an intimate material continuity with natural energetic forces, dominant masculine forms of modern Northwestern subjectivity feed-off delusional images of a self-contained and competitive individuality. This provides a somewhat paranoiac vision of human beings separated from the nature they ravage, looking upon “her” from outside and above. Vanquished in the process was the real magic of reverent natural historical and psychic social participation in the ebbs and flows of nature itself.

For those at the helm of Northwestern modernity, participation in the evolutionary movement of living energetic matter was replaced by the top-down passions of rational calculation, risk assessment, and modern scientific conquest. These are the passions of a capitalist/colonialist will to power, methodical passions rooted in (masculine) fantasies of cutting the body of nature into discrete units so as to operate upon “her” and see what happens. These are world-changing passions, passions spurred by emotionally distanced observation, quantitative measurement, and the pursuit of analytic mastery. Together they represent a historically specific form of mastery. In the restrictive economic realm, this manifests itself as a ceaseless drive for accumulative advantage. In the realm of pleasure the term sadism comes to mind.

The unrelenting force of this methodical drive for power transforms the ecology of human animal participation within the throes of living matter into a virtual obsession with buying and selling nature as if “she” were nothing but a marketable commodity. This transforms an earlier cultural imagination of nature as the source of all life — the sacredness of “Mother Earth” — into an exploitable resource. Taking possession of this (feminized) resource — whether by the capitalization of matter or the strategic deployment of military force — also functioned as a redemptive (religious) sign of modern Man’s transcendental moral worth. “She” after all was a temptress, closer to nature than he and had led him astray. With new technologies of conquest and capital, modern Man imagined blasting free of nature, defying gravity and time, and reversing his fall.

This is not to suggest that the magic of human participation in the unfolding dynamics of nature disappears entirely. It has not. In laboring to suppress reciprocal energetic contact with other humans and nature, those who steered the destiny of modern Europe were also haunted by the unequal sacrifices they demanded of others. This is a decidedly material aspect of what Avery Gordon calls ghostly matters — social psychic matters that bear haunting traces of the ways we have exploited each other and the natural world. Haunting of this sort is “a constituent element of modern social life” and being haunted “draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically into a structure of feeling” where we sense the “seething presence” of “invisible things” that “are not necessarily not there.” [17] In situations of structured inequality and disregard for the ecology of life, haunting may profoundly unsettle the dynamics of power by drawing attention to matters of exploitation that have been disavowed or rendered unconscious. This may provoke defensive reactions on the part of those most blessed by power and vitriolic crusades aimed at stamping out magical reminders of lingering inequities brought to history’s surface by ghosts.

But fear and paranoiac retaliation are not the only effects produced by the magic of ghostly social forms. Sometimes the ghosts of futures foreclosed present themselves in a more inviting manner. Sometimes they herald what Walter Benjamin imagined as a kind of profane illumination and mobilize actions aimed at the realization of social justice. Benjamin was inspired, in part, by Jewish mysticism and the magical poetics of Parisian surrealists who sought to artfully cross-wire the dream world with the world of everyday life. Surrealists sought to spark desires for marvelous forms of collective life, mesmerizing ritual practices that would free people from the spirit-crushing anxieties of capitalist culture and the perpetual shadows of imperialist war.

“In their efforts to ‘win the energies of intoxication for the revolution,’ the surrealists hoped to bring…to the point of explosion…the immense forces of atmosphere” concealed in everyday things. [18] When this happens, the doors of previously closed systems may burst asunder, enabling a reckoning with the shadows of past injustices and the possibility of forging more reciprocal and life-sustaining forms of sociality. Most modern manifestations of magic have been far more restrictive — instrumental uses of enchantment aimed at manipulating social and psychic life. Indeed, magic transmitted by the electronic media — including omnipresent advertising media — typically crackles more with affect than cognition, suspending guilt-ridden memory while stimulating the senses. [19] Here, magic assumes a baroque and nostalgic form, drenching the anxious, bored, and isolated modern Ego with swells of sensuous electronic imagery. Streaming imagery of this sort is a key to the most successful forms of popular entertainment — their thrills and chills a reminder of a bygone world of reciprocal ritual enchantment. [20] This involves “Imagineering” — the “corporate colonization” of embodied consciousness by a “baroque arcana of logos, brand names, and … [digital] sigils.” [21]

Other more subversive forms of magic — forms that threaten to abreact collective awareness of the traumatic historical origins of modernity as a guilt-ridden social form — are driven underground, dressed-up in baroque cultural garb, or pushed to the outside of legitimate society altogether. For this reason, throughout modernity magic has often been imagined as a stereotypical characteristic of the “thinking” of so-called primitive peoples, children, hysterics, and those struck by the lightning of love. Magical modes of experience have also long been associated with stereotypes concerning the seductiveness of women, the irrationality of lower class culture, and the exotic allure of those othered by a continuing coloniality of power.

To get a feel for the web of magical vibrations spun by global capitalism you don’t have to go far. This is because in digital culture magic is but a click away. This is the magic of life mediated by wave after wave of electronic signaling between machines of all sorts and ourselves. This is the magic of being turned on by, or tuned into, complex computational rhythms and random flash memories mixing web-based audio with the enchantments of high-density video: sonic vibrations and pictures that make dreams go wireless and our imaginations go on-line. Piloting through multiple channels of data and contagious viral contact makes many of us in digital culture feel as if we are everywhere and nowhere at exactly the same time. Tweet after tweet, My Space morphs into your Facebook, then Linkedin and Twitter, before bifurcating into a vast data-banked network of bodies drenched in an uneasy mix of algorithm, desire, marketing, and boredom.

In digital culture we are exposed and expose our selves to real-time computational enchantments and the oscillating pleasures and anxieties of wave-after-wave of streaming sounds, iconic images, and emotionally charged magical landscapes of persuasion, info-entertainment, news, polling, fashion, surveillance, war, business, and gossip without end. In digital culture we all also become data for other communicant’s roving eyes/’I’s as each mesmerizing loop of feedback is followed quickly by another. Girls, we are informed, go virtually wild, while guys go wildly virtual. Caught up in the flow, surfing past the foreseeable future atop vast waves of new media, our actual bodies and minds cross circuits with the virtual bodies and minds of machines. This happens a lot. When is this not happening?

All this is to suggest that the power of magic is today making a big time come back in the dense and high-speed cybernetic feedback loops of contemporary digital culture. This is an intensely tactile and market-driven form of magic. It fascinates us, but it also makes us afraid. It is “akin to an older love and beauty magic,” but in today’s fast global capitalism this kind of techno-magic seems “destined to spirit money from our pockets” with “artful spells of mimetic sentience.” [22] We are hooked-up to this magic in the rituals of wired flesh, mesmerized by its “power to summon.” This represents a new form of social control, a magical social form that depends less (and less) on inducing cognitive belief in particular ideologies, and more (and more) on the power of fascination and a suggestive force akin to that of hypnosis. Under the ultramodern spell of this magic the “body itself begins to evanesce, just as in those folk tales where the shaman’s body-parts were scattered to the wind and reassembled.” [23]


In closing this meditation on the magic of cybernetics as a world-changing technology of power, it is important to compare several interconnected social practices — religion and science, magic and technology. In framing these practices in sociological terms, Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss likened the work of religion to that of science and the operations of magic to technology. [24] Religion, like science, was viewed as more fundamental. Classifications produced by religion and science enable humans to orient our selves in time and space and to establish meaningful relations with each other and the world. But meaning produced by religion and science is artificial (or socially constructed) and comes with a price. While ordering things linguistically in a logical manner, religion and science inevitably reduce the material complexity of natural relations and forces to what appears believable from a particular human vantage point in history.

This is to suggest that both religion and science involve sacrifice. This is why Durkheim suggested that humans live a doubled existence (homo duplex). On one hand, we participate organically in the movement of living energetic nature in its entirety; on the other, we make sense of things from the restrictive economic perspective of our own ritually constructed situation in time. In this, religion — a prototype for later scientific forms of classification — and science are essentially the same. The only difference — and it is an important one — is that science must turn a critical eye on the epistemological rites by which its knowledge is constructed. For religion, on the other hand, truths are ritually accepted as if supernaturally ordained or god-given. In either case, a gap exists between what is real in all its complexity and what is reductively (or existentially) imagined as real from humanity’s partial perspective within nature.

The gap between what is real and what is socially imagined to be real haunts the institutions of religion and science. Magic attempts to compensate for this gap by transgressing virtual boundaries erected by religion and science between themselves and the world. This puts humans back in streaming energetic contact with what is real. This is why Marcel Mauss, and later Geza Roheim, imagined magic as a ritual form of wish fulfillment where “desires and images can be realized immediately.” [25] It is also why Durkheim and Mauss suggested that traditional forms of religion typically oppose or condemn magic.

But about this matter Durkheim and Mauss were inconsistent, often citing examples where magic reinforces, rather than relaxes, religious boundaries separating humans from the rest of nature. [26] Technology, which shares etymological roots with magic (both being derivations of the Greek term, tecknê), operates in a similar manner in relation to science. Sometimes technology reinforces the purity of scientific logic, supporting the veracity of science’s classificatory separation of the material world into discrete entities. At other times, technology operates in a less pure manner, deviating from discrete categories established by science by putting humans in resonant contact with matters that are vibrantly real but unable to be precisely defined.

In the language of contemporary communications theory, religion and science separate things into discrete categories and represent them in digital (either/or) terms. Magic and technology, on the other hand, enable humans to participate in the world in a more fluid manner, interacting with the world in an analogical (both/and) mode. In this sense, magic and technology promise resonant connections with matters that lie beyond discrete linguistic distinction. The essay you are reading suggests that magic follows analogically in the wake of religion, just as technology follows — and often compensates for — digital divisions of the world enacted by science. But when science becomes a religion and technology magic, things double up and become trickier. Techno-magic enters stage right and we are lured into a fast mutating forest of signs, wondering what’s become of the trees. This forest is magical and seeded with computational fascinations and fear, code drift, and electric waves of affect. It is within this enchanted forest that we today experiment with a multiplicity of imaginative pathways for critical digital studies.


[1] Ioan P. Coulinao, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, trans. Margaret Cook (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) p, 104.

[2] See also, Stephen Pfohl, “New Global Technologies of Power: Cybernetic Capitalism and Social Inequality,” in Mary Romero and Eric Margolis, eds., The Blackwell Companion for Social Inequalities, (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005) pp. 246-592.

[3] Both the title of this section and the passage from Hegel are taken from the opening section of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. This essay is intended as a kind of updating of Debord’s critical concerns in an era of digital cultural power.

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1994) p. 12, paragraph 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 12, paragraph 2.

[6] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 55.

[7] The Black Modern Durkheim and Rada Rada are allegorical figures that appear in my book Death at the Parasite Café: Social Science (Fictions) and the Postmodern, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[8] Morris Berman, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West, (New York: Bantom Books, 1990) p. 26.

[9] Teresa Brennan, History After Lacan, (New York: Routledge, 1993) pp. 86, 109. See also, Teresa Brennan, The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity, (New York: Routledge, 1992) especially pp. 83-134.

[10] Anthony Wilden, The Rules are No Game: The Structure of Communication, (New York: Routledge, 1987) p. 138.

[11] Paul Virilio, “Architecture in the Age of Virtual Disappearance,” 1993 interview, excerpted in Anne Friedberg, The Virtual World: from Alberti to Microsoft, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) p. 183.

[12] Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: the Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, (New York: Basic Books, 1988) p. 14.

[13] See, for instance, Daniel Lawrence O’Keefe, Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic, (New York: Vintage Books, 1982).

[14] Zigmunt Bauman, Liquid Life, (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006) p. 3.

[15] Ibid., p. 9.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters, pp. 17, 8.

[18] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zophn, ed. Hannah Arendt, (New York: Schocken, 1969) pp. 189, 182, as framed and cited in Gordon, Ghostly Matters, p. 204. Gordon continues, “It was this emphasis on [the surreality of] phenomenal forms, our habitual relation to them, and their capacity upon contact, to shatter habit…that motivated Benjamin to become himself a most astute and unusual ethnographer of …profane illumination, to make out of it a whole dialectics of seeing replete with an optical unconscious.”

[19] See, for instance, Richard Stivers, Technology as Magic: the Triumph of the Irrational, (New York: Continuum, 1999).

[20] See, for instance, Philip A. Mellor and Chris Shilling, Reforming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity, (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publications, 1997). Mellor and Shilling argue that sensuous magical sensibilities have long been a subterranean or baroque aspect of the modern world, and that new technological forms of communication are today enabling an amplification of “sensuous solidarities” with each other and the world as an important vector of postmodern social forms.

[21] Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. (New York: Harmony Books, 2004) p. 211.

[22] Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: a Particular History of the Senses, (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 212.

[23] Sol Yurik, Behold Metatron, the Recording Angel, (New York, Semiotext(e), 1985), p. 13.

[24] Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Karen Fields, trans. (New York: Free Press, 1995 [1912]) pp. 360-373; 431-448; Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, trans. Robert Brain (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1972) pp. 19-20.

[25] Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, p. 107; Geza Roheim, Magic and Schizophrenia, (Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press: 1955).

[26] For a further discussion of this matter see, Christopher I. Lehrich, The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice, (Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 2007) pp. 155-164.

Stephen Pfohl is a Professor in the Sociology Department at Boston College where he teaches courses on social theory, deviance and social control, postmodernity, social psychoanalysis, and the sociology of technology, art, and culture. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Images of Deviance and Social Control (McGraw Hill, 1994), Death at the Parasite Café (St. Martin’s Press, 1992), and Left Behind: Religion, Technology and Flight from the Flesh (NWP/CTheory Books, 2008). He is the co-editor of Culture, Power and History: Studies in Critical Sociology (Brill Publishers, 2006) and author of the forthcoming Venus in Video: Cybernetics and Ultramodern Power. Stephen is also a past president of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, a video maker and performing artist, member of the editorial board of the journal CTheory, and founding member of the Boston-based Sit-Com International.