Materialist Magic / Magical Materialism

I watched a video that YouTube recommended like a cat dragging a dead mouse onto my front porch. I don't usually watch videos like these, and I knew that I would especially dislike this one, but I watched it out of a morbid curiosity about what Reddit-core world-builders have in their brains lately. Today was a rough day at work. You know it.

The basic thrust of the video was that medieval stasis is the necessary result of a magical society, one which pursues arcane rather than technological development, and is aided by the extensive lifespans of fantasy races like elves who can dedicate even more continuous time to their pursuits of progress ("What if da Vinci survived another 100 years and invented flight before the Wright Brothers?")—although they might be limited by individual shortsightedness and a lack of willingness to adapt to changing times, compared to younger contemporaries. The narrator describes a potential social conflict between an arcane establishment and a technological counter-movement, motivating the former to politically suppress the latter to maintain their privileged position in society. However, in general, his approach is superficial and hypothetical. He focuses on what problems that specific uses of magic could solve, and how arcane institutions could be challenged by an external threat of technology. He describes certain limitations of a magical society, mostly incidental; but he does not scrutinize his own assumption that such a civilization, like Hegel says, contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Sort of building off of that—but not really—I wanted to suggest a basic outline of a magical civilization's development, following from the assumptions that magic cannot be studied or practiced without a vast investment (personal and social) of time and resources. If this is true, then there must be a social division of labor which enables individuals to specialize in arcane labor, who are supported by other social divisions which produce the things necessary for themselves and others to survive. These social divisions could be cooperative, and that could be what that society's ideology or religion supposes, but more likely these divisions constitute oppositional classes whose organization is the product of coercion or force. In a feudal context, it is probably the clerical class who performs magic, securing the power of the gentry and sharing the products of the serfs. In a capitalist context, the magicians would have the same responsibilities as bureaucrats, engineers, and doctors; they could be bourgeois proper, or they could be part of a labor aristocracy (or waged bourgeoisie) which manages the production of commodities and the flow of capital. In either context, and in other contexts not considered, magic does not have a consistent application but is molded by the demands of the society in which it is employed.

Besides being a useful metaphor for political power or potential, this also contextualizes how magic emerges as a mythic element in various religious systems as a fetish of social relations. What is fantasy but the crystallization of such relations, taking them for granted and supposing a world of ideas which they incarnate into our nasty material world? However, we could take this even further. If class society implies class struggle, that does not change whether society has magic or not. Magic becomes just another realm of social production, regulation, and suppression. Its basic contradiction is that because it contains unfettered potential, it may render obsolete the matrix of social relations which engenders it (if it falls into the hands of those who didn't previously have access to it or its effects). Magic may be used to enable industrial production or make it more efficient, but this has the same impact as mundane automation in our society: labor decreases in value; more people become unemployed; and society's products remain (and/or become increasingly) inaccessible. This robs magic of its fantastic mystique, but also explodes it with social possibilities: what if magic was used to directly fulfill people's needs, rather than optimizing capital investment or securing an institution's power? Who stands in the way and how?


  1. Props to you for have the fortitude to sit through one of those videos, I start breaking out in hives when they show up in the sidebar.

    I would really love to know how they think "a wizard can tell the rocket equation to go fuck itself" means you end up with medieval stasis instead of a space opera.

  2. This reminds me of my own worldbuilding thing. My “magical society” is a feudal system (it is thaumatocracy, ruled by a Witch Queen, so mages are a kind of labour aristocracy here) - but it uses a different magic system from D&D (it’s GURPS, the supplement Urban Magics actually covers a modern city built on magic pretty well) so the dynamics of it all operates changes a bit. For one thing, non-mages can contribute much more to spellcasting via ceremonies and certain meta-magic spells (to the point where mages are fairly dependent on them to maintain civic infrastructure and there are “batteries” for storing magic fuel harvested from wherever, which makes their “serfs” or “workers” position a bit more interesting. “Paying taxes” in this society, for both mages and non-mages, can take the form of hooking yourself up to a “battery” and feeding FP into the thing. A team of “skilled labourers” can consist of one mage backed up by a group of non-mages, who do their work by linking hands and having the one mage cast the actual spell while the non-mages share their FP with him to pay the cost. A mage’s position/status in this society is semi-connected to how many non-mage assistants work ceremonies with him.

  3. Makes me think of Eberron! The setting actualizes many of the hypotheticals you mention here.

  4. Very good post.

    "What is fantasy but the crystallization of such relations, taking them for granted and supposing a world of ideas which they incarnate into our nasty material world?" - I like when there are a number of different systems of relations crystallized into a fantasy world - like Glorantha, or with regard to magic a magic which requires negotiating with the spirits of things small and large will split different than like D&D's heritable sorcery.

    Have had similar thoughts about D&D-style gods & worship & suchlike - both base pulp pastiche stuff and more recent stuff by Goblin Punch and others which try to fit it closer to real historical religions miss for me - don't think world with active supernatural entities with empirical control over afterlives and suchlike would resemble our own very much culturally, almost have to start from first principles/ecological standpoint.

  5. Wasn't there a Pathfinder variant (Starfinder?) that combined magic and spacefaring cultures?

    Anyway, I've recently stumbled on your blog and really appreciate your analyses and musings.


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