“Radical phantasy begins with the great and uncompromising refusal of conventional wisdom, a refusal that has always identified the countercultural magician, even when (as Agrippa demonstrates) the world believed in magic.”
–William A. Covino

Key Terms: Generative magic, Arresting magic, Phantasy

William Covino’s 1994 work, Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination, offers up a sketch of rhetorical history with an eye toward demonstrating the presence of “magic” as, alternately, either an element of rhetoric or its equivalent. In defining his concept of magic, Covino writes that “magic is and always has been symbolic action (that is to say, magic never occurs apart from language), in the service of individual or social transformation” (12). He borrows much of his initial definition of magic from another work, Daniel Lawrence O’Keefe’s Stolen Lightning: The Social Theory of Magic. Covino makes the case that even science borrows from ritual and magic: “In a nonmagical society, our classification systems are presumed to be scientific and logical, so that their origins in social rituals within a magical epistemology are forgotten” (13). So, if magic is a symbolic performance–even, perhaps, that of the scientific method that invokes trust and credibility–it follows fairly reasonably when Covino raises the idea of “magic rhetoric,” which prefers “a fertile, dynamic, and fluctuant imagination to its opposite” (16).

Many of Covino’s claims about symbolism resonate with the ideas of Kenneth Burke and Joseph Campbell that I have noted in previous entries. He even suggests that canonical ideas and the ability to reference them might serve as a sort of incantation for cultural legitimacy (21). In this discussion of magic, Covino eventually comes to what I consider the key concept of the work: a distinction between “generative magic” and “arresting magic.”

“I have proposed that magic can be generative or arresting, a mode of creating novel possibilities for action or a mode of constraint. Just so, rhetoric can be identified with a play of ambiguities, or with the absolute determination of meaning, by decree” (21).

Arresting magic/rhetoric is authoritarian and reduces or removes ambiguity. Generative magic complicates, inviting new ideas. From this, Covino observes that “What is at issue then is not whether rhetoric is magic, but what sorts of magi/rhetors, under what sorts of conditions, produce what kind of effects” (22). So, the authoritarian, “repressive” arresting magic sets limits and issues commands, yet generative magic offers other possibilities.

Covino likens literacy to this same dichotomy, noting a difference between “arresting literacy,” which “upholds determinate correspondences between signs, meanings, and behaviors,” and “critical literacy,” or “the ability to interrogate, challenge, complicate, transform, redefine, and elaborate ostensibly neutral social and institutional facts” (24-25). This critical literacy becomes associated with what Covino terms “generative literacy,” which he associates with “a dialectical habit of mind: the mind in motion rather than the mind foreclosed” (26). Covino defines this generative literacy “as the capacity to create and entertain a number of intellectual, political, and social positions with reference to any piece of ‘data'” (27 -28). He closes this introductory chapter by confessing “something of a trick” in conflating “magic and the language of social action,” a bit of “sleight-of-definition”; however, nonetheless he argues for the commonality of rhetoric, literacy, and magic (29).

Covino next introduces the idea of “phantasy,” or the capacity for speculative reasoning. Phantasy is associated with invention, with generative magic, and the ideas and concepts of things that reside in what Covino calls the “mind-soul” become “phantasms” (32). It is interesting to note the similarity, here, to Burke’s discussion of the symbol; a pattern of lived experience gives rise to a symbol, much as an object or concept from the real world gives rise to a phantasm. This connection leads to another conclusion–as Covino writes, “With this view, distinctions between literal and figurative identity are impossible to maintain, because everything is both actual and symbolic: a talisman or a word implies a magic power and is that power” (43). Again, this recalls Burke’s ideas about the symbol–a symbol can, all at once, embody, represent, and even trigger a pattern of lived experience.

Returning to his distinctions of magic varieties, Covino distinguishes between “safe” and “dialogic” magic (rather resonating with arresting and generative magic, respectively) to note that dialogic magic is “dangerous”; it may upset the extant order of things (46). In a living universe that lacks mechanical, determinate language and structure, Covino stresses the importance of this magic rhetoric–for ambiguity is a key resource (60). He later draws a direct connection to Burke, in this case to The Philosophy of Literary Form, citing Burke’s “true-correct magic” vs. “false magic.” False magic is mere static incantation, while true magic “is action that creates action, words that create words” (91-92). Further, Covino cites Burke’s claim that “True-correct magic is generative, practiced as constitutive inquiry, or the coercive expansion of the possibilities for human action,” while false magic is “arresting, practiced as enforced doctrine, or the coercive reduction of the possibilities for human action” (93).

I was quite excited to see that Covino also links his ideas to those of Paulo Freire, noting that Freire’s “magic consciousness” refers to the concept of arresting magic, that Freire’s “subject” is a generative force (a “re-creator,” perhaps, as Freire uses the term), while an “object” is arrested by culture (113). This reinforces a connection I’ve long thought about between J. R. R. Tolkien’s notion of “sub-creation” (an act of phantasy) and Freire’s “re-creation”; Tolkien’s “Art,” mythopoeia, may serve as a form of generative magic that may be commanded by Freirean subjects toward serving as the re-creators of their own world. This connection is one I have elaborated on elsewhere (and, of course, I must continue to do so), so I will not belabor it here, but it remains a point of significant interest for me. Nonetheless the connection between Covino and Freire is clear enough; as Covino later concludes, “The generative magic that makes transformation possible is not worked out by the executives of culture, but by those on the margins; or, to place such critique in terms of magic, by those who haunt the ‘hedges’ of culture–the ‘hags,’ the witches” (142).


Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. Albany: State U of New York P, 1994. Print.