This work has its origins in a public talk I attended in 2002. As part of a Café Scientifique series designed to promote interest in science, a local pub in Nottingham hosted a seasoned magician who spoke on his efforts to debunk psychics. The magician began by announcing that, right before our very eyes, he would perform various ‘feats of the mind’ – bending spoons with the slightest of touches, reading audience members’ minds, adding numbers faster than a calculator, etc. As these deeds were done, he recounted how those with malicious aims used such acts to prey on the gullible and vulnerable. Once finished, the magician then meticulously revealed, one-by-one, how each of the tricks had been undertaken.

The conclusion of this demonstration was plain: no special powers were necessary to undertake apparently extraordinary acts.

An intermission followed. Drinks and nibbles purchased. Travel fare donations sought.

After the break, the speaker came back to disclose that, actually, he had not performed the tricks as indicated. He then went on to meticulously show, one-by-one, how each had really been done. Without driving the point home in a manner that might make the audience of academics, technical professionals, and scientifically inclined types squirm uncomfortably, the conclusion seemed plain enough: anyone can be fooled, you included.

What stayed with me after the event was not the explanations of the tricks themselves; their details are now notably hazy. Instead the lasting impression was the effect of the shift enacted, the manner in which the audience was moved from being spectators-turned-confidants to shared but still hidden truths, to instead being spectators-turned-played dupes.

As might be said, the tricks themselves gave way to something much more profound: the play of trickery. But what ‘trickery’ consisted of was hard to neatly pin down.

The effect of the Café Scientifique performance was lasting and also contagious. Shortly after the talk a doubt creeped into my head: had we, after all, really been shown how the bending of spoons, the reading the minds, etc., had been done in the second act? Were, perhaps, the revelations behind the revelations just another staged con?

As I continued to reflect, details of the event came to mind that were difficult to square with the idea that all the cards had been put on the table. For instance, the magician announced the presence of a member of the Magic Circle, purportedly to ensure secrets of the profession were not unduly disclosed. But hadn’t quite a bit been shown to non-magicians? Then again, though, was the person pointed to even in the Magic Circle? Was that suggestion too just part of the witnessed performance?

Once the doubting started, its end proved difficult to halt. What, if anything, in the show was ‘real’? And yet, did the answer to such a question actually matter either?

In this work I seek to document how a novice learns magic. The goal is not to reveal how tricks are done, but relate how the ability to appreciate and accomplish trickery is learnt. Specific questions include: what skills and reasoning are required to practice magic? What is concealed and revealed through different forms of magic instruction and performances? How are audiences and magicians constructed through the negotiated disclosure of information? What can(not) and should(not) be disclosed about the craft of magic?