Le pouvoir magique des mots
De Malinowski (1935) à Stanley Tambiah (1968)

10 décembre 2014

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942), Coral Gardens and their Magic. A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands, Two Volumes, London, Allen & Unwin, 1935. Il existe une traduction française: Bronislaw Malinowski, Les Jardins de corail, Traduction Pierre Clinquart, Paris, La Découverte, (1974) 2002. Mais, sans que ces coupures drastiques soient signalées, les deux volumes de l'édition originale ont été réunis en un seul, et près du tiers du Volume I et plus de la moitié du Volume II n'ont pas été traduits, ce qui défigure cette traduction et limite fortement son utilité.

La magie comme actes de parole

Stanley J. Tambiah présentait en 1968 une interprétation de Coral Gardens à la fois neuve — à tout le moins pour les anthropologues de tradition européenne — et nuancée dans son éloge du pragmatisme chez Malinowski: percée scientifique dans son rapport au langage, mais incapacité de croiser entre eux les différents systèmes symboliques à l'œuvre aux Trobriand.

Stanley J. Tambiah, The Magical Power of Words, Man, New Series, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jun., 1968), pp. 175-208; repr. in Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah [1929–2014], Culture, Thought and Social Action. An Anthropological Perspective, Harvard, Harvard UP, 1985, pp. 17–59. The Malinowski Memorial Lecture, delivered at the London School of Economics and Political Science on 20 February 1968. La pagination indiquée par Tambiah dans Coral Gardens renvoie à l'édition anglaise de 1935. J'indique entre crochets les pages correspondantes, quand elles existent, dans la traduction française. Par exemple une référence ci-dessous à Coral Gardens, volume II, sera sous la forme (Coral Gardens, Vol. 2: 49 [287]).

(Tambiah, 175) "Malinowski argued that the potency of Trobriand magic was felt by the Trobrianders to lie in words (spells). In many of his works, particularly in Volume 2 of Coral gardens and their magic, he provided an unusual amount of supporting linguistic data. This evidence has had some influence on linguists, notably J.R. Firth, but it has never been critically examined by anthropologists.

Although Malinowski's immediate successors who worked in the same or nearby regions confirmed that the verbal component in ritual was important (Fortune 1963; R. Firth 1967), the orthodox anthropological approach devalued the role of words in ritual which was seen as stereotyped behaviour consisting of a sequence of non-verbal acts and manipulation of objects. However, recent literature has again shown appreciation of the role of words and no-one today I think will dispute this statement by Leach (1966 [Ritualization in man]: 407): "Ritual as one observes it in primitive communities is a complex of words and actions ... it is not the case that words are one thing and the rite another. The uttering of the words itself is a ritual."

Incantation et prière, magie et religion

Tambiah montre que la première rupture épistémologique opérée par Malinowski, en interprétant la magie comme un rituel fondé sur la croyance au pouvoir magique des mots, fut de libérer l'anthropologie de la dichotomie entre magie et religion inventée par Frazer. Le mérite d'une interprétation des formules magiques comme actes de parole est de faire disparaître définitivement la distinction que faisait Frazer entre l'incantation (qui agirait mécaniquement) et la prière (qui serait une interlocution), puisque l'une et l'autre sont des actes de parole produisant des effets illocutoires. L'interprétation de la magie comme parole avant tout rend définitivement absurdes la thèse de Frazer selon laquelle la moitié de l'humanité serait victime d'une confusion entre magie et religion et l'adjectif composé «magico-religieux» qui traduisait cette confusion.

(Tambiah, 176) Rituals exploit a number of verbal forms which we loosely refer to as prayers, songs, spells, addresses, blessings, etc. It is necessary to study whether a ritual is composed of such recognised categories and to analyse their distinctive features in terms of their internal form and their sequence. The fact that such a battery of verbal devices may appear in a single rite should not only give us insights into the art of ritual but also dispel any lingering traces of a Frazerian hangover. Some of us have operated with the concept of 'magic' as something different from 'religion'; we have thought of 'spell' as acting mechanically and as being intrinsically associated with magic; we have opposed 'spell' to 'prayer' which was thought to connote a different kind of communication with the divine. Frazer carried this thinking to an extreme by asserting that magic was thoroughly opposed to religion and in the interest of preserving this distinction dismissed half the globe as victims of the 'confusion of magic with religion'.

Le pragmatisme de Malinowski

(184) If our definition of ritual is that it is a complex of words and actions (including the manipulation of objects) then it remains to be shown what precisely is the interconnexion between the words and the actions. This I shall attempt to show in respect of the Trobriand magical system, paying particular attention to the verbal component. Before I can do this, it is necessary to clear the /185/ decks by critically reviewing both the theory of language which Malinowski himself propounded to explain Trobriand magic, and also certain other attempts by philosophers and linguists to account for the belief in verbal magic.

Malinowski's views on language can be roughly divided into two related theories, one pertaining to what he called an 'ethnographic theory of language' in general, and the other to the language of magic in particular.

The chief feature of his general theory was the pragmatic character of language. Language was not so much a vehicle for expressing ideas, concepts or categories, as for achieving practical effects. We recognise in this stand a self-conscious attack on the mentalistic theories of language current in his time, such as those held by Sweet and Sapir ([in Language,] 1921). Malinowski's approach to language corresponded with his approach to myth and magic: anti-intellectualistic, non-explanatory, seeing them simply as hard-worked tools for practical living.

Malinowski made no distinction between 'langue' and 'parole', language and speech. His analysis was specifically related to the speech context. Speech was a part of concerted activity, like gesture and motion, 'an adjunct to bodily activities'. Words were a part of action and were equivalents to actions (CG, Vol. 2: 9 [243]). It is from this perspective that he developed his 'contextual theory of meaning' and the notion of the 'pragmatic setting of utterances'. The role of language could only be understood in relation to other activities; language regulated concerted work, transmitted knowledge and set in motion a series of tribal activities, and 'the effective force of such verbal acts lies in directly reproducing their consequences' (Coral Gardens, Vol. 2: 49 [287]).

His definition of 'meaning' was a logical derivative from his pragmatic perspective: 'Meaning is the effect of words on human minds and bodies and through these on the environmental reality as created or conceived in a given culture' (Coral Gardens, Vol. 2: 53 [292]). Compare this formulation with that of structural linguistics for which the speaker and the listener are contingent and belong to 'la parole', whereas meaning is the relation between sign and the thing signified, between 'significant' and 'signifié', which belong to the engraphic system of 'la langue'.

[…] It was his passion for viewing words as a part of action that made Malinowski argue with excessive flourish that words had no existence and that texts divorced from context were meaningless. These arguments were directly contravened by him because his exposition in Coral gardens and their magic was in terms of a word for word translation and a commentary on recorded texts. It was the same histrionic talent that led him to dwell on the problem of meaningless words and the 'coefficient of weirdness' in magical language. In fact his translation was excellent and he concluded that the 'coefficient of intelligibility' in the spells was high. His strategy of teasing the credulous reader and taking him on a circuitous and repetitious route, strewn with his sins of commission and omission, was adopted so that a dramatic answer could be produced in the end, which was that magical language was eminently intelligible. And he graciously conceded that the untranslatable words were untranslatable because he failed to get the services of a 'competent commentator'.