Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Different Kinds of Magic

As I often find human imagination more interesting than reality checks, I have really enjoyed Peter Lamont's "The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: the biography of a legend", OR "How a Spectacular Hoax Became History".

First of all, he knows of which he speaks. He has trained as a magician (conjuror style), and as a historian, has also worked as a psychic and and he take a parapsychologist's position of careful study of the events and effects perceived by people rather than hasty judgement about the methods / causes.

I found this book enlightening about both human creativity and gullibility. This famous trick, for which most of us have a vivid mental image, appears to have never been performed as described, outside of a theatre. The well-known version started as a newspaper hoax, which picked up accretions of travellers' tales, and legends with similar elements, combined with the hyperbole of Victorian performers, Europe's fascination with 'the mystical East', the competition between unscrupulous newspapers, many humans' delight in self-publicity, some bad historical research, many improbable explanations, and later 'offered rewards' and we ended up with this vivid impression of something that never actually happened.

A throwaway newspaper item written by a man who (by chance) would end up as head of the secret service - although he can hardly have invented any more effective piece of misinformation than this in his whole career (unless he started the UFO thing!)

I remain far more interested in these secular versions of magic, than in the Harry Potter or Aleister Crowley forms, which claim to involve 'real magic'- whatever that means (not to say that yoga and visualisation exercises don't contribute to a healthier functioning bodymind).
Punter: "Did you see the bloke on tv last night, bending spoons with his mind?"
Me: "Yeh, but I've seen a guy working restaurant tables doing the same thing."
Punter: "OK, but that's just a trick. This guy does it for real!"
Me: (sigh)
Still, these books may help:

Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic Simon During
Here's a Review from the Guardian
In Simon During's new study of the history and significance of secular magic, Fawkes is a key figure. It was precisely his insistence - and that of those who followed - that there was nothing supernatural up his sleeve that allowed secular magic to be redefined as entertainment and performance and thus distinguished from "natural" magic on the one hand (what we'd now call science, or proto-science, or alchemy) and "power" or "real" magic on the other (what we might call "Frazerian" magic, the art of manipulating an audience into a set of beliefs and behaviours on the basis - usually - of an appeal to some transcendental construct, whether deity, spirit or ideal).
And here's a slightly more academic one
During does discuss spiritualism and ‘natural’ magic extensively – particularly with regard to their constant exchanges with secular magic (often involving the same performers) - but spiritualism and other forms of magics are only there to give a context for the secular magic that interests him. This stringent drawing out of the secular within magic makes for a very different book to others more concerned with the persistence of magic and superstition within culture (such as Erik Davis’ Techgnosis, David Noble’s The Religion of Technology, or Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media). Taking the path through the secular within magic also enables During to outline a very different cultural power found within magic.
Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition Stuart A. Vyse
Although we live in a technologically advanced society, superstition is as widespread as it has ever been. Far from limited to athletes and actors, superstitious beliefs are common among people of all occupations and every educational and income level. Here, Stuart Vyse investigates our proclivity towards these irrational beliefs. Superstitions, he writes, are the natural result of several well-understood psychological processes, including our human sensitivity to coincidence, a penchant for developing rituals to fill time (to battle nerves, impatience, or both), our efforts to cope with uncertainty, the need for control, and more. Vyse examines current behavioural research to demonstrate how complex and paradoxical human behaviour can be understood through scientific investigation, while he addresses the personality features associated with superstition and the roles of superstitious beliefs in actions. Although superstition is a normal part of human culture, Vyse argues that we must provide alternative methods of coping with life's uncertainties by teaching decision analysis, promoting science education, and challenging ourselves to critically evaluate the sources of our beliefs.
Magic in Theory Peter Lamont & Richard Wiseman
Magic, properly performed, is a complex and skilful art, and is capable of deceiving anyone. One of the reasons why so little information is available to non-magicians interested in the topic is that magicians are understandably relectant to expose conjuring methods. Magic is a secretive business. Psychologists have long recognised that they may have much to learn from the techniques used by magicians to fool their audiences. Parapsychologists are aware that many individuals claiming to be psychic use magic tricks to fabricate paranormal phenomena. Failure to detect such fraud can lead to serious consequences, including loss of funding and negative publicity. Greater theoretical understanding of conjuring and psychic fraud will raise awareness of how vulnerable observers can be. Parapsychologists, psychologists and magicians have all written about the strategems that lie behind successful conjuring. Each has approached the topic from different viewpoints. This book is an attempt to draw together these different theoretical approaches and present them in a way that is accessible to a non-technical readership. It is partly based on interviews conducted with present-day magicians, many of who are internationally recognized by the magical fraternity for their insight into conjuring psychology and theory.
Straight Dope on Rope: Cecil often makes interesting points, and the Skeptics Dictionary has some great material.
As boring old PSICOP sceptics like Martin Gardner may not impress you magickians, and slightly pompous old farts like The Amazing Randi may not entirely convince you that all psychic workers use the methods of confidence tricksters and magicians, I would refer you to Penn and Teller as modern secular magicians who remain truly sceptical.
Penn & Teller in India. They did find an Indian magician who would make a rope stand on end firmly enough for a small boy to climb a few feet up it, but that's all. No disappearance, no dismemberment. Respect for trying. Someone tried to get away with this minimum performance and claim The Magic Circle's reward many years ago, back when 'blacking-up' did not seem offensive and humiliating.

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