Invidious Comparison

Graham M. Jones

Magic’s Reason: An Anthropology of Analogy

University of Chicago Press, 2017

240 pp., 25 halftones, notes, bibl., index

Editor’s note: This essay was originally developed for another publication in 2018, shortly after Magic’s Reason was published. HAR received the essay in 2022 and is pleased to publish it as a joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. Although Magic’s Reason is now a few years old, as Golub argues here, the conversations it animates on anthropological theory and the history of anthropology are well worth continuing.

What does it mean to “compare” two things? For Graham Jones, the answer to this question can be found in a magic show performed in Algeria in October 1856. The performer was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the “father of modern magic” (Jones 2017, 12), and his goal was to demonstrate the superiority of European civilization by surpassing the mystic feats performed by the Sufi orders then popular in Algeria. And not only that: Robert-Houdin’s magic would demonstrate his superiority not just over the Sufis, but their followers as well. Algerians’ inability to distinguish entertainment magic from “real” magic would prove the superiority of French rationality over Algerian superstition. This, at least, was what Robert-Houdin thought would happen.

In this excellent book, Jones uses Robert-Houdin’s invidious comparison between French technique and Algerian gullibility as a leaping off point for a history of the relationship between entertainment magic, anthropological theory, and colonized people in the late nineteenth century. Comparison, or, more precisely, “analogy” is the master idea in Jones’s work, and he uses it to untangle the complex relationship between anthropology, secular entertainment magic, colonized people, and religious Europeans. Stage magicians demonstrated their modern, secular sophistication by stressing their difference from Christian Europeans and colonized North Africans, both of whom these magicians viewed as “irrational” and “premodern.” Anthropologists, Jones argued, took a similar position at roughly the same time. Despite anthropological claims to a unique and scientific form of knowledge, Jones shows, there are deep and unexpected continuities between the history of the anthropology of magic and the history of the show business industry.

Many of us are familiar with ordinary analogy: a comparison of two things on the basis of their similarity. But Jones notes that comparison on the basis of shared traits makes possible both analogies (comparisons which highlight similarity) and disanalogies (comparisons which highlight difference). Any comparison, Jones notes, contains the potential for both. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 monochromatic painting Red Import is like a gala apple in that they are both red. But it is unlike a gala apple in that it does not produce a delicious juice when pressed. Jones uses these concepts of analogy and disanalogy to describe the relationship between “entertainment magic” (the theatrical performance of tricks) and “magic” (beliefs and rites which give credence to the supernatural). History, he shows us, is the process by which people draw analogies.

Robert-Houdin’s life work, for instance, was to create and sustain a disanalogy between entertainment magic and the performances he describes using the marvelous and apparently pejorative term “jugglery.” In the first chapter of Magic’s Reason, Jones shows how entertainment magic legitimated itself by illegitimating unenlightened Europeans through disanalogy. Entertainment magic and jugglery are analogous because they share something in common: a legerdemain that produces amazing effects. But Robert-Houdin wanted his audience to notice how their similarity highlighted their differences. Robert-Houdin’s entertainment magic was sophisticated and cultivated. He was, for instance, one of the great popularizers of wearing formal dress during performance—the man who gave us the tuxedoed illusionist. This was, he would claim, in direct contrast with the grubby carnivalesque tricks of the charlatans he intended to replace. Robert-Houdin was an exponent of enlightenment, rationality, and progress, and his sophisticated and cynical audiences sought merely to be amused by his performance. In contrast, Robert-Houdin saw the rural audiences entertained by jugglery as credulous dupes overawed by supernatural powers. This was a classic case of what Simon Harrison called “mimetic conflict,” the conflict between two groups for a single identity (Harrison 2006). In these situations, Harrison notes, power is the ability “to define what counts as an imitation or representation of oneself, and to enlarge the sphere of things deemed by others to be one’s semblances” (Harrison 2006, 35). In sum, Robert-Houdin’s comparison was invidious.

In the second chapter of the book, Jones shows us how French colonialism in Algeria also involved an invidious comparison: the civilized French over the barbaric Arab. Not surprisingly, many Algerians did not appreciate this view, and resistance to France’s civilizing project was multifaceted. One facet was the Sufi brotherhood known as the ‘Isawiyya. Who were they? There was nothing quite like the brotherhood in France, and so the French had to engage in analogy to understand this new phenomenon: Were they a political movement? A religious one? Were they tribal elders? Charlatans? Saints? A holy order? A form of primitive medicine? Robert-Houdin analogised ‘Isawa rituals to jugglery, and his performance in 1856 was designed to show the followers of the ‘Isawiyya that their vaunted magical powers were mere artifice and, in doing so, delegitimate them.

Robert-Houdin was not alone in drawing an analogy between entertainment magic and ‘Isawa ritual. In the third chapter of the book Jones shows us that the last days of the Second Empire and the early days of the Third Republic witnessed the birth of popular entertainments and spectacles such as fairs, exhibitions, and museums. ‘Isawa were featured at the world fair of 1867 and continued to perform in France in the years following.  French audiences who witnessed these performances saw them not just as religious, but as a form of spectacle. Sufis in France adapted their performances to the expectations of the audience, and the shows became so popular that French tourists visiting North Africa would attend ‘Isawa rites. There was, according to Jones, something ironic about the Third Republic’s commitment to secular universalism: It was rooted in a sustained disanalogy between France and its colonies, a disanalogy which valorized the metropole and stigmatized the subaltern.

The fourth chapter of the book further explores the role of analogy in France’s internal cultural politics as well as colonial encounters. The late nineteenth century was not only a period of deepening French involvement in North Africa, it was also the time when Spiritualism arrived in France. A strongly American movement, Spiritualists sought to prove the existence of supernatural forces and secure a place for the spiritual in a world of enlightenment that offered science but gave little guidance on meaning and purpose. They and their allies were opposed to Robert-Houdin’s disenchanted rationalism and so they suggested a different analogy of the ‘Isawiyya: Their rites were efficacious, like other spiritual rites, and their mystic achievements proof that scientists had only barely begun to grasp the awesome reality of the occult realm. For French Spiritualists, ‘Isawa became analogical allies because both spiritualism and Sufism shared a common enemy: a project of modernity which reduced the colonized to backward primitives and robbed spiritual metropolitans of their religion and mystery.

Chapters five and six bring anthropology into the dialogue. Jones shows us convincingly that early ethnologists, similar to French colonial officials, struggled to find analogies between the European world they grew up in and the indigenous cosmologies they encountered.  Early British ethnologists such as E. B. Tylor and Andrew Lang, like Robert-Houdin, saw indigenous cultural practices as, in essence, jugglery. They also assumed that shamans and other cultural practitioners knowingly duped their audience. This fact helped explain how all humans had evolved with the same mental abilities even as “primitive” people held backwards and inaccurate ideas about the universe. They were being duped by their magicians. Invidious comparison was at work again: A moral evaluation was an essential part of the reason/magic distinction, a distinction that assured Tylor his modernity at the price of labelling “primitives” superstitious.

But does not Jones’s description of anthropology indict his own practice? Most certainly. Jones calls Magic’s Reason an “essay in ethnohistorical reflexivity” (Jones 2017, 141) and his interest in the topic of nineteenth century magic grew directly out of his own experience conducting research in the present, which is the topic of the seventh chapter. Jones is an ethnographer of French entertainment magicians, or “magicos,” who he has studied in order to better understand “how people use language and other media to enact expertise in practice, performance, and interaction.”[1]“MIT Anthropology Faculty: Graham M. Jones,” accessed 9 August, 2018, Many of the magicos he studied with did not originally grasp this point. When introducing himself to potential research subjects as an ethnologist who wanted to study magic, they suggested he read Marcel Mauss or René Girard. It did not occur to them that he would study them! Surely the “magic” studied by ethnologists was the jugglery of primitives, not the entertaining craft of sophisticated moderns such as themselves.

In Magic’s Reason, Jones confesses his discomfort at the inadvertently invidious comparison drawn between himself and his predecessors. He “did not want to approach modern magic as in any way an analogue to the kind of instrumental magic enshrined in anthropological literature” (Jones 2017, 139). Doing so would make him part of a tradition which, like entertainment magic, “found in the primitive magician a figure of irrational alterity, a foundational Other” (Jones 2017, 158). And that, he says rather delicately, “seemed far too problematic… for reasons which should now be clear enough given the foregoing chapters” (Jones 2017, 139). Although he originally hoped his own work would be free from the patronizing racism he described in the first half of the book, his fieldwork ultimately guided him into a project of “ethnohistorical reflexivity” (Jones 2017:141) which sought to understand the relationship of anthropology to magic. Magic’s Reason is in fact his attempt to describe that relationship, and the genealogy of magic that Jones traces in this book is in fact his own. Michel-Rolph Trouillot famously argued that when anthropologists attempt to make the term “culture” their own technical term, they fool themselves into believing that they have somehow escaped a connection to the way the term is used in popular discourse (Trouillot 2003). Jones shows that the same is true of “magic”: no matter how much anthropologists attempt to make this word a specialized term purified of its reference to its earlier moral and colonial baggage, its connotations persist within their own theory. The magicos, Jones realized, “were telling me something vitally important about the culture constitution of their expressive practice and its vexed association with European modernity” (2017, 141).

In Jones’s capable hands, the history of magical metaphors becomes an intervention into anthropological theory itself. Decades of study have shown us that the clichés about science being objective, making progress to a goal of universal generalizable knowledge, and so forth are more often honored in the breach than in the observance. Jones’s book provides us with a history “magic” which shows that anthropology has struggled to develop a coherent account of this concept. As Jones points out, “magic” is one of those founding concepts which, like “culture” or “politics,” is of surprisingly little theoretical use once you attempt to analyze its content or apply it cross-culturally.

Magic’s Reason is deeply researched, clearly (if technically) written, and, above all, well-told. Jones achieves the goal that every ethnographer dreams of: to describe complexity with clarity, to analyze complex relations into their constituent pieces, and to then build them back up so that we can appreciate their interrelation. Anthropology is—sometimes to the distress of other disciplines—a craft which values ethnography as an end in itself and has never stopped experimenting with new styles and genres to tell its stories. But how does Magic’s Reason advance our understanding of human conduct? Is its use of the concepts of analogy and disanalogy innovative?

Jones draws his concepts of analogy from several contemporary authors, including Cameron Shelley, a philosopher of design and technology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. But analogy and its close cousin metaphor are long-standing concepts in anthropology. Today when we think of the human sciences in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many think of the rise of leftist, interdisciplinary perspectives. For instance, 1975 was the year that Sylvère Lotringer brought Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault for the famous “Schizo-Culture” conference that was seminal in the creation of critical theory in the United States. 1975 was also the year that Paul Ricoeur published La Métaphore Vive, a much staider examination of language which showed that human meaning-making involved “living” metaphors—applying old understandings to new situations. This work was part of a less political but still-influential strand of thought which featured “blurred genres” (Geertz 1980) in which anthropologists encountered literary criticism, cognitive psychology, and semiotics. This tradition lends itself to several comparisons to Jones’s work that deserve to be highlighted.

Only two years before Ricouer’s book was released, Claude Lévi-Strauss had been elected to the Academie Française. Lévi-Strauss was hardly a soixante-huitard and is well known for arguing that the products of the human mind are a series of analogies which undergo complex structural transformations. In anthropology, these and other developments led to an interest in how humans took inherited categories of thought and creatively applied them in their lives. We can see this in the literary and poetic anthropologies adopted by authors such as James Fernandez, the late Paul Friedrich, and others. At roughly the same time, anthropologists began studying history, often under the influence of Fernand Braudel and other members of the “second generation” of the Annales school. The question here was how systems of thought changed over time and accommodated the novel circumstances that history inevitably forces people to confront. Perhaps the most well-known example of this work in anthropology was Marshall Sahlins’s research on the arrival of Captain Cook in Hawai‘i in the late eighteenth century. Hawaiians meeting a European for the first time had to make an analogy between the strange new visitor and more familiar things they had encountered in the past. Was Cook a divine being? A normal human? Nobility? A commoner? Sahlins emphasizes that such analogy-making was always interested, since who Cook was would decide how he could influence local politics. Sahlins’s account of how categories change as they classify new things was justifiably famous for developing an account that reconciles structure and agency, history and culture.

In many ways, Magic’s Reason reads like a piece of historical anthropology from the late eighties or early nineties: the colonial encounter forces both parties in the encounter to stretch their categories in new ways. Jones, like Sahlins, insists that analogy-making is not a purely formal or aesthetic cognitive process. It is a political and moral one. The analogical framing of issues is a key concern for players in a political game. Jones’s thinking here resembles George Lakoff’s in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, or Lempert and Silverstein’s in their Creatures of Politics, in showing the importance of metaphorical framing to political competition. In fact, while Sahlins insists that political and social position influence analogizing, Jones does a much better job pointing out the fundamental inequities of colonial processes—processes whose elision in Sahlins’s account has long been pointed out (Trask 1985).

Another product of anthropology’s 1970s interest in metaphor was Roy Wagner. While Sahlins sees the metaphorical glass as half-full, Wagner sees it as half empty. That is to say, Sahlins considers analogy a source of dynamic continuity, a way for categories to endure by changing and accommodating themselves to new circumstances. Wagner, on the other hand, was focused on innovation: for him analogy “obviated” the things in the past, replacing them with novel content. For him disanalogy was king, and metaphor was how people discarded the old to make way for the new. Wagner’s work is often gnostic and inscrutable, but it has also been influential. When applied to concept formation in the human sciences, Wagner’s ideas suggest an image not of the progressive improvement of concepts, but the continual displacement of old ideas with new ones which have been elicited by exposure to novel circumstances. Jones’s vision of social life as a continual process of displacing old analogies with new ones shares more than a passing similarity to Wagner’s work, as Jones himself notes.

But Jones is not just interested in describing the process of analogy in French society—his great insight is that theoretical concepts are themselves part of this process. He is indebted here to Roy Wagner’s partner in thought, Marilyn Strathern. Like Magic’s Reason, her genre-defying masterpiece The Gender of the Gift asks what it means to compare. Strathern’s goal was to compare different Melanesian societies with Western society, and in the course of doing so she demonstrated that the project is misconceived. Analogizing one society to another presumes that there is a general type of thing called a “society” of which “the West” and “Melanesians” are particular instances. But “specific forms come not from generalised ones but from other specific forms” (Strathern 1988, 342)there are no bright and clearly bounded ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea who can be units of comparison, only endless processes of analogy (specific forms generating other specific forms) that have ramified across a diverse population. Any attempt to analogize ‘groups’ to each other in Melanesia must ignore so much about the realities of social process that the comparison is of very limited utility indeed.

This, Jones says, is what happened to “magic” as a concept. It is not really a general category which we use to subsume actually existing particular instances in the world. It is an “essentially contested concept,” to use a term from an essay which prefigures much of this discussion (Gallie 1956). It is a “living metaphor” in Ricoeur’s sense, or an “ideal type” in Weber’s: a concept whose openness facilitates comparison, an idea that allows us to make analogies. Ultimately, Jones’s vision of anthropology is quite attractive. He sees the discipline as one which grows increasingly rich and nuanced, but which ultimately does not really seek (or attain) pure objective or generalizable knowledge. It’s a humble, realistic, and gracious understanding of the discipline which many readers will appreciate.

While Jones’s description of French colonialism in North Africa may grate on the ears of those enamored with France’s civilizing mission, his use of the concept of analogy helps show us how anthropological theorization of magic was concretely related to colonial processes. Anthropology’s entanglement with the less savory aspects of colonialism has been widely criticized, beginning with classic texts such as Leiris’s “L’ethnographe devant le colonialism (The ethnographer faced with colonialism)” in 1950 and swelling into a torrent of criticism in the 1970s, epitomized by edited volumes such as Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter in 1973. Today, careful scholars consider condemnations of anthropology as the “handmaiden of colonialism” to be too simple. All anthropologists everywhere have not always been completely guilty of directly facilitating the worst aspects of colonialism in every situation. A more sober analysis demonstrates two things: On the one hand, there is a growing literature on the biographies of anthropologists who did things that were unethical and illegal, both by the standards of their time and those of today. On the other hand, there is a large literature pointing out that anthropology as a discipline was structurally connected with colonialism, a connection which meant that anthropology contributed in indirect but cumulative ways to injustice. How can we theorize this undeniable association in a way that is more nuanced than an unnuanced insistence of guilt by association?

This is where Jones’s book provides a great service. We have known since Gadamer’s Truth and Method (whose English translation appeared in 1975) that understanding a text means realizing the effect that the text has had on you before you read it. But while Gadamer’s account of historically effected consciousness is free from concrete sociological analysis, Jones puts anthropological theories of magic back in their social context. In untangling the skein of analogies that surrounded magic in the nineteenth century, Jones’s model of analogy does a better job of connecting anthropology to its milieu than merely describing colonialism as a “context” for anthropology. E. B. Tylor was part of the same universe of discourse that Robert-Houdin was part of and drew on similar metaphors as part of a project which was in some ways (but not all) analogous to Robert-Houdin’s. Magic’s Reason is precisely the sort of account of the relationship between academic anthropology and its broader context that we desire: It can explain our intuition that anthropology is both related to but separate from other contemporaneous discourses.

In conclusion, Magic’s Reason must be commended for succeeding on many levels: It tells a complicated story well; takes classic themes in anthropological theory and gives them a fresh new feel; helps clarify the relationship between anthropology and colonialism; and offers a view of theory formation which is appealing for its optimism about anthropology’s potential to grow even as it is realistic about its long odds for achieving Pure Omniscience. Less a symphony than a suite of dances, the individual chapters hang together less because of thematic development and more because of Jones’s great skill with intellectual counterpoint. This small gem of a book tacks between ethnographic detail and big questions in a way that is very satisfying indeed.

Works Cited

Gallie, W. B. 1956. “Essentially Contested Concepts.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (56): 167-198.

Geertz, Clifford. 1980. “Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought.” The American Scholar 49 (2): 165-179.

Harrison, Simon. 2006. Fracturing Resemblances: Identity and Mimetic Conflict in Melanesia and the West. New York: Berghahn Books.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems of Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Trask, Haunani-Kay. 1985. “Review of Islands of History by Marshall Sahlins.” American Ethnologist 12 (4): 784-787.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2003. “Adieu, Culture: A New Duty Arises.” In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, 97-116. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


1 “MIT Anthropology Faculty: Graham M. Jones,” accessed 9 August, 2018,
Alex Golub: contributions / / Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa


  1. Raymond U Scupin

    April 18, 2023 at 12:39 pm

    Excellent informative review Alex.

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