[urban interfaces] Blogs
guest blogpost: Sara Brunello – What magic can do
For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme The Magic City (2021-2022), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.
Below is the blogpost for week 1, written by Sara Brunello
Sara Brunello is a Media, Art and Performance student at Utrecht University. Her research centres around hydrofeminism, ecosexuality, and new materialisms. She is currently exploring the subversive potential of witchcraft in relation to neoliberal capitalism.
What magic can do
by Sara Brunello
“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspective deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
Italo Calvino, The Invisible Cities
What is to say that everything imaginable can be dreamed, if we are robbed of the faculty of imagination? Silvia Federici writes:
The battle against magic has always accompanied the development of capitalism, to this very day. Magic is premised on the belief that the world is animated, unpredictable, and that there is a force in all things […]. [I]n the eyes of the new capitalist class, this anarchic, molecular conception of the diffusion of power in the world was an anathema. Aiming at controlling nature, the capitalist organization of work must refuse the unpredictability implicit in the practice of magic […]. Above all, magic seemed a form of refusal of work, of insubordination, and an instrument of grassroots resistance to power. The world had to be “disenchanted” in order to be dominated.
Killing off magic served the dominant system in that it closed off potential pathways people could find to get out of it. To kill off magic is to rob people of the capacity to imagine – of the faculty of imagination.
To act to make another world, one first must believe – truly – that another world is possible. To kill off magic is to rob people of the capacity to truly believe that another world is possible – and thus, of the fire that may fuel the action that is needed to bring it into being.
A world devoid of magic is a world fully known – or better, it is a world framed as if it was fully known. In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Martin Heidegger speaks of the essence of modern technics as a particular form of ‘revealing’. Modern technology reveals everything as “standing-reserve”: everything – nature above all – is framed as a reservoir of energy ready or to be made ready to be exploited for yield.
Yet this “enframing,” writes Heidegger, is but one form of revealing: it is but one way of knowing the world. In the worlds of artists and poets, a river is never just a potential source of hydroelectrical energy: it is always more, and the artists and poets are the ones who are called to reveal it as such.
And yet, however one may frame the world – be it as resource or as anything else – we will never be able to fully contain it: something will always escape our grasp. That which escapes – which cannot be grasped by human understanding or language – is what Federico Campagna names as “the ineffable” that which cannot be named.
Magic is nothing other than a system which poses the ineffable – that which cannot be grasped – at the centre of the world. To believe in magic is not only to refuse the framing of the world as ‘standing-reserve’: above all, it is to refuse the notion that the world can be fully known.
To recognize that something ‘ineffable’ exist in the world – something which cannot be known, described, understood, grasped – is to believe in something which by its nature is infused with the power of possibility in its most open sense.
So, to believe in magic is to believe – truly – that another world is possible: it is to own the faculty of imagination, and to be fuelled with that which may give us the motivation to fight for a different world.
Magic can very well be about, as Silvia Federici writes, “a use of space and time contrary to the […] capitalist work-discipline.” So, to move differently, with intention, can be an act of magic: an act of believing in magic, which is an act of believing – truly – in the possibility of bringing into being another world.
I ask myself: what kind of uses of space and time can we imagine and enact that may make possible another world? What can believing in the possibility of another world – truly – mean in our daily lives? What can it mean for the ways we move through the world – and if we are thinking about cities, through cities? How do we walk, where, how do we deal with the (human and nonhuman) strangers that cross our path? Where and when do we move; what do we do at night time, at dusk or dawn? Do we walk from point A to point B, or do we wander? Do we wonder?
Maybe wandering can re-ignite our capacity to wonder, of feeling how that ineffable thing that Campagna speaks of breathes through the city, always there.
A ‘magic city’ is then nothing but a city lived differently – looked at, thought of, and moved through in another way. If ‘the ineffable’ exists in everything, at all times, that is also true in cities: it is there to (not) be found.
I imagine a wander through a ‘magic city’ as a game of hide and seek, in which one sets out to find something which does not want to be found. Such wandering would entail reaching out a hand to grasp something which will always escape – perhaps around a corner, as if it was running away, always one step ahead.
Maybe getting lost is key to feeling the city as an entity through which the ineffable breathes – as something which is always more than what we are made to believe it is. And if in getting lost we can begin again to wonder, maybe we can re-learn to truly believe in the possibility of playing with the ineffable – which is, I believe, the core of magic.
If magic can make another world possible, as Campagna writes, it is by giving us back the capacity to imagine – which is the most precious thing, as it may fuel resistance and give us the strength to fight to make possible another world.
And one simply has to start believing in magic, for magic to start working in one’s world. Yet one also must stay very open, as the ineffable is often to be found in tiny things, those which often go unnoticed and thus are lost.
To find magic, one has to cultivate what Isabelle Stengers calls “the art of paying attention”: we have to get back to the habit of noticing things, and listen to how they speak to us aside of the meaning which they might be assigned to by something or someone else.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972.
Campagna, Federico. Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2014.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Basic Writing, edited by David Farrell Krell, 307-41. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008.
Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press, 2015.
 Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2014), 173-174.
 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Basic Writing, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 322.
 Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 324.
 Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 10.
 Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 177.
 Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (Open Humanities Press, 2015), 61.