The symbolic is not opposed to the physical or the material. In human life symbols are materially real and have physical power. Ideas, interpretations, beliefs, and values become materially real when they inform action. Since the human world is built from natural substances worked over by human action, and human action is guided by ideas (symbolic representations), the symbolic representations which guide our actions are a material force in the human ordering of things.
The material reality of the symbolic in human life has long been known to mythical thought, where it underlies the idea of magic. In the mythical imagination, the power of magic has always been linked to the power of words. In order to unlock the occult forces of the heavens that bestow the capacity to conjure events, to change natural forms to suit one’s will, and to attain such power as to make one invulnerable, the mythic magician needs to know secret words and incantations in exotic languages.
But ordinary words can be magical, capable of turning things into their opposites, true philosophers’ stones conferring transformative power over unmediated material reality. No esoteric knowledge is needed to utilise this magic, no spells are required, and its effects are not tricks or illusions. Knowledge of this magic requires nothing more than knowledge of how to classify and convince people of the truth of the classifications. Things and people are what they are by their internal structure, and they are what they are according to the classifications imposed upon them. Things can remain what they are by their internal structure and be made into something entirely different, without that internal structure changing, when they have a certain classification imposed upon them. Their nature changes, without their (internal) nature changing. Magic.
Trayvon Martin was the victim of this form of magic.
Material Reality 1: A teenager is walking down the street dressed as many teenagers do, talking on a cell phone as many teenagers do, going to the store to buy junk food as many teenagers do.
Magical Material Reality 2: Fearful and suspicious eyes observe an unfamiliar figure. That which is unfamiliar is threatening, that which is threatening must be eliminated. But what is this figure, what words define its nature? “Young black man,” “potential criminal,” “suspicious behaviour.” “Young black” conjures “potential criminal” “conjures “suspicious behaviour.” The words in the mind of the neighbourhood watch captain determine the material reality confronting him. The magical material reality he confronts seems to him to call for action. He phones 911. They tell him to stop following the suspect and wait for police to arrive. He does not listen. He is duty-bound to protect this place. The gates surrounding it are not sufficient, its security requires his unswerving commitment. He stalks the threat, a confrontation is provoked, a gun is pulled, a shot is fired.
What has happened?
Material Reality 1: Trayvon Martin is murdered by a man driven by racist fear of black youth as threats to community safety.
Magical Material Reality 2: A source of danger has been eliminated; a concerned citizen acting in self-defence has done his job.
Zimmerman the neighbourhood watch captain is disciplined and committed to his task. A zealot. He cannot distinguish his identity from his role, he cannot separate his role from suspicion towards black outsiders, he cannot separate his suspicion towards black outsiders from the need to aggressively intervene, he cannot separate his need to aggressively intervene from his right to use his gun, he justifies his right to use his gun by his right to defend himself. Like all zealots, he believes his self extends to include the things he is sworn to protect. Like all zealots he believes that everything hinges on his personal response to demanding situations. The bullet hole is the proof of his commitment to the safety of the neighbourhood and, more importantly, proof the strength of his own character. He was up to the job.
By magic a young man talking to his friend on his cell phone while walking to the store to by candy becomes “black,” which becomes “suspicious;” which becomes “threat” which signals to Zimmerman the need to ”confront,” which is justified by “right to self-defence” which leads to the killing on an unarmed young (black) man (potential criminal).
Trayvon Martin was who he was– a seventeen year old out for a walk. Without ceasing to be that which he was, he became something entirely different.
Magic would not be real if its effects existed only in the mind of the magician. It must also convince others by getting them to accept that reality is as things are classified to be, and not as they are by their internal structure.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, the courtroom is the scene of his metamorphosis. Aggressor becomes victim, shooter becomes sympathetic hero. Innocent stroll becomes sinister surveillance, unprovoked aggressive confrontation becomes self-defence. By the power of words the material reality becomes its opposite and this opposite takes the form of the truth. The reality of the transubstantiation is confirmed by the jury’s verdict.
That really is magic. By its internal nature, defence is always and necessarily a response to an offence. But Zimmerman was the offense. He stalked, he confronted, he pulled the trigger. Martin was the defence.
No matter, because the power of classification is superior to the power of mere things as such. Magical material reality– material because it has real effects, magic because contrary to reality’s internal structure– is superior to the power of unmediated material reality. Hence, unprovoked armed attack becomes defensive response. Zimmerman’s story is believed by the jury. Zimmerman is acquitted. Trayvon Martin remains dead, not a victim of fear-engendered racist gun violence, but the magic of words to construct the realities the powerful require to remain invulnerable.