Materiality and Magic: A magical system can totally be based on words, actually

A frog hovering between two trees holding a wand and holding a book.
Frogs and magic.

It's been a hot minute since I've done a Wednesday post but I'm back and trying to stitch together a lot of very disparate ideas I've been having around the idea of sound as a physical material. Two reasons for this, one of which I'll try to cover in this post. From about the midpoint of my PhD, I got interested in the idea of sound—well, specifically words—as physical materials that contribute to magical practice in the ancient world. At the time, I figured I was being a bit weird and possibly wildly off-base, but it seems like maybe I wasn't.

Reason One

The first reason I'm curious about sound as a physical material is because back when I was reading and researching Babel by R F Kuang, I came across a specific review that was especially critical of magic based on words. Most of the criticism came from the concept of words as initiators of a magical effect. I don't want to quote from the boy wizard because I'm allergic to it, but that is a form of magic almost entirely based on the idea of speaking magical effects into occurring. It's pretty much the archetypal example, but there is also the iconic scene in Lord of the Rings at the doors of Moria and "speak 'friend' and enter."

That reviewer couldn't have known that somebody who studies and works on ancient magical objects and procedures would see that review and think, "Hey, wait a minute. There are very good reasons why words are essential to magic." Magical words are everywhere in the procedures I've been working on, either instructions to supernatural agents, or grand, non-language words that have no meaning but are meant to either signify magical power or are just powerful, evocative sounds.

For some reason, I really only encountered the work of Timothy Morton (who I think I've quoted in previous posts), after I finished the PhD. I wish I'd known about his books about hyperobjects and object oriented ontology before, because it would've made the argument that speech acts are critical materials, not just in terms of the presence of the practitioner's body, but the materiality of the sound itself, so much easier.

Therefore, here is my argument about how magical words aren't "dumb", and that magical systems like the one in Babel that are based around the agency of words are in fact very clever. The TL;DR goes like this: words are physical materials. Physical materials have a kind of non-sentient agency, which means that when somebody speaks a specific word, that word is a material functioning in a magical space to create an effect.

Stage One: Words and sounds as physical materials.

Sounds are physical and have physical effects in the world. We tend to compartmentalise, when thinking about sensory inputs, so we forget that a sound is created by a physical process between a noise source, the mechanics of our ears, and the air in between. There's a fantastic moment at the beginning of the podcast The Sound, about the possible causes of Havana Syndrome (which I'll come back to later), which describes how sound is a physical material:

"Our relationship with sound is both aural and physical—think of the Inception soundtrack's waaaahhh that skips the ears and cuts right through to our hindbrain... A soundwave is a moving wall of compressed air. You don't just hear it, you feel it in your whole body."

I began listening to this podcast a week ago, and binged it immediately. A sound causing physical symptoms made complete sense to me because I'm autistic and extremely sensitive to sounds. Even small noises can make me irrationally angry or upset, and others will cause migraines.

The course of The Sound details how hearing a noise can have physical, psychological, and psychogenic effects, before moving on to other possible causes of Havana Syndrome. So although a sound, or a word, cannot be held in the same way that other objects can, it does have a physical manifestation in the world. If you're willing to stretch a tiny bit, you can envision sounds as part of a wider material landscape that can create a physical, or even magical, effect in the world.

Stage Two: Objects and agency.

I've written briefly about this elsewhere. A core idea behind some of the work I've done on ancient magic comes from the theories of Alfred Gell and object with agency. This isn't the same as saying that objects think and make choices, but using the term "agency" to recognise the power and force objects and materials have over each other and us. I believe I covered some of this in an early discussion referencing the work of Tim Ingold and his book, Materiality, when I talked about Beskar steel as a material agent.

Because I've written this before, I won't rehash the same arguments about how materials and objects have agency. But you can see where I'm going here. If sounds can be conceived of as materials and materials have agency, then sounds can... do things. Which means, sounds can have magical agency.

Stage Three: Magical systems that depend on words.

To investigate a magical system that does rely on words, I'm going to make use of one of those more obscure areas of academic discourse: Object Oriented Ontology. In particular, a great deal of what I'm going to discuss here comes from the work of Timothy Morton, Tim Ingold, and others in the "ooo" space. And can I just say, I adore that Morton especially keeps referring to it as "ooo", because I keep hearing that as ooOOOOOoooo. And I love that for us.

I won't go into details here, but Object Oriented Ontology deals with the confusing, complex, and often contradictory world of physical objects. In the wider world, we tend to think of "objects" as occupying a specific category with easily identifiable boundaries. Spend a bit of time with an ooo academic (see what I mean), and you realise that nothing is as it seems. Object oriented ontology is quantum theory for the arts and humanities.

Now I've taken you around a few blocks, I'll explain what I mean about magical words with the help of Timothy Morton and some frogs. Words spoken can be thought of as objects. Indeed, any sound can be conceived of as an object.

In Magic Realism, Timothy Morton explains how the sound of a frog begins as vibrations in the frog's throat. These then create further vibrations in the mouth, in the molecules of the air, and then in the ears (or hearing organs) of any listening creature.

Air was forced into an elastic sac at the bottom of a frog’s mouth. The lungs pushed and the sac inflated, and when released out came the croak. The air was modulated by frog tissues, sampled briefly and repackaged, returning to the ambient atmosphere as a low rasp with high harmonics (Morton 2013: 111)

Morton also has something to say about the nature of translation, a key feature of Babel and its story. The sound of frogs is translated, he says, into onomatopoeiaic words and phrases on the page. He considers this a "rift" between the material as it is and the material as humans attempt to understand it and put it into words:

Somehow these nonhuman sounds made it into human language, altered but reasonably unscathed. A new translation has appeared. A fresh Rift has opened up between appearance and essence. An object is born. (Ibid: 110)

This is where things get really exciting. We can blur the boundaries between words, sounds, and their physical existence in the world:

A single sound wave of a certain amplitude and frequency rode the air molecules inside the frog’s mouth. The wave was inaudible to a mosquito flying right past the frog’s lips, but sensed instead as a fluctuation in the air. The wave carried information about the size and elasticity of the frog’s mouth, the size of his lungs, his youth and vigor. The wave spread out like a ripple, becoming fainter and fainter as it delivered its message further and further into the surrounding air. ... Reaching the ears of a nearby female frog, however, the sound wave was soon translated into hormones that told her that a young stud frog was close by. The wall of croaking caused the grasses in the pavement next to the pond to vibrate slightly (Ibid: 111).

This is why we should be hesitant to consider a magical system based on words being spoken aloud as somehow "stupid" (I'm really not going to let that go). When you think of words like this, speaking a word out loud suddenly becomes a vital, exciting basis for a magical system.

Speaking words aloud is a critical part of a lot of magical systems in the real world. Speech acts are frequently described or invoked in exactly the manner Kuang describes in Babel. Not only that, but a deep and profound understanding of the language is required.

In the real-world magical systems I've studied have a similar kind of requirement. Words must often be spoken aloud in order for an object to become "activated". In the system of Roman and Late Antique Egypt, this could vary between saying only a few quotes to speech acts that had to be repeated over the course of days.

In Babel, we do not see the direct intercession of a supernatural agent to ensure the object will function as required. Instead, the human speaks the match-pair and this vocalisation "activates" the silver bar. It is not merely a matter of speech, or that would mean anyone who knew the words could say the words. The individual must have a deeper and more fundamental knowledge of the language, as I've already stated. Knowledge is also physical, because it creates a specific framework in the brain on a neurological level. Therefore, I find it perfectly reasonable that magic could be based on speech.

Now you might notice that this three-stage adventure through the world of sound and magic is only the first reason why I've been interested in sound as a physical material lately. Unfortunately, I'm now at over 1500 words for this blog post so I'm going to leave you with a dramatic cliffhanger. I will be coming back to The Sound podcast and exploring some research I want to do on weaponising sound next time. It doesn't relate so directly to magic, but to some other ideas I've had for Amnar, and what happened after listening to that podcast.