Sympathetic Magic and the Substance of Style

I'm reading the entry about sympathetic magic in the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences in preparation for my Etech talk. In it, they talk about the three "laws of sympathetic magic" set down by late 19th and early 20th century researchers. The first law is called the law of similarity, which they define as:

The law of similarity has been summarized as “like produces like,” “like goes with like,” or “the image equals the object.” Likeness is elevated to a basic, often causal principle; the simplest example confounds likeness with identity, hence “appearance equals reality.” The adaptive value of this law is clear: generally speaking, if it looks like a tiger, it is a tiger.


Examples of similarity include burning effigies of persons in order to cause harm to them, or reliance on appearance in judging objects when the appearance is known to be deceiving (e.g., avoidance by educated adults of chocolate shaped to look like feces; or difficulty experienced in throwing darts at a picture of a respected person). In the domain of words, Piaget (1929) described as “nominal realism” the child’s difficulty in understanding the arbitrary relation of word and referent. Similarly, educated people have difficulty disregarding a label on a bottle (e.g., “poison”) that they know does not apply.

Reading this, I thought of Virginia Postrel's Substance of Style. In that book, Postrel summarizes the user experience of the value of design as I like that. I'm like that. That sounds a lot like sympathetic magic to me. We choose the things we choose to decorate ourselves and our lives because those things resemble (in some way) the people we want to be (whether or not we are). In the two universes of Carhartt clothing: the European urban youth version of the brand, invokes the American rural laborer brand, because the laborer brand brings with it some of the values its youth brand buyers want, an aura of authenticity that's impossible to acquire otherwise. That's pure sympathetic magic, and it's interesting how hidden in plain sight it is.

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This page contains a single entry by Mike Kuniavsky published on March 21, 2007 7:42 PM.

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