Starting from late December 2017, I began undertaking card magic tricks derived from the book Self-Working Card Tricks (1), first in very rough fashion for family members and then in the form of an act for academic colleagues. As initial public performances of a craft, these sessions involved a steep learning curve. As elaborated in Three Tricks: Reflections, instructions cannot exhaustively specify how to act. As such, putting on a performance necessarily entails making choices about what and what not to do. And the descriptions in Self-Working Card Tricks also alluded to the central importance of what remained outside the instructions; namely, developing ‘presentation’, ‘style’, and the like in successfully performing magic.

The question addressed as part of this entry is this: How to go on with a show?

As elsewhere in these web pages, for better and for worse, what is recounted here is a personal journey of how I learnt to go on. It is a story based on iterative cycles of dialogue, action and reflection that aimed to produce a practical know-how: in this specific case the ability to offer a nine-card magic trick performance based on identifying and predicting chosen cards.

What follows below is a necessarily partial recounting of the overall shifting rationale for the performances. In the entry Becoming a Magician, Becoming an Audience, I go into some of the prominent emerging themes as of early 2018.

Style as Method

Magicians can take a wide range of aims for their acts. That might be just to get a laugh. Others might seek to impress the audience with their deft skill. Still others might want to convince spectators that they possess supernatural powers. A ‘style’ can be fashioned to express such aims. That might mean adopting a playful engagement with the audience, putting on a flashy display that places the magician centre stage, or cultivating a persona of exceptionality.

As a social research project, a principal aim of mine has been to use my performances to ask the question “What is taking place in magic?”. More specifically, the question has been “How do magicians and their audiences come together to do magic?”. Along these lines, my early thinking was this: On the face of it, magic as activity seems to disturb many everyday conventions of social life. When we drive down the street or buy a cup of coffee, we don’t as a rule do so with a starting doubt about the basis of our actions. We also have an accumulated history of experiences that provide a guide for how to go on and how to notice when people are not acting in accordance with what is expected of them. To the extent that magic confounds individuals’ ordinary expectations, it calls into question our habitual routines and ways of sense making.

Therefore, what I have been seeking are ways of interacting with other people that, in the performance of tricks, also engage them in reflection on the question “What is going on here?” — for them individually and between everyone present. Stated in other words, I have wanted to take what we were doing together as a topic for analysis. In this way, ‘style’ is at the service of inquiry.

Or, at least this is a gloss that I am able to give at the moment. In what follows I discuss how my ideas about the overall presentation have changed over the course of performing a few pilot ‘trick sessions’, as well as 10 recorded card sessions with 23 different participants in January and February 2018, each of which lasted between seventy minutes to two hours.

Act 0 — Against Mentalism

Taking off from my inspiration to learn magic (see Background), my initial thinking in December 2017 was to offer a session which would playfully debunk the notion that I or other magicians accomplished tricks through some extranormal, paranormal, psychic, etc. powers of the mind.

Mental magic is a well-established genre. The contention that tricks are based on special powers of the mind possessed by certain individuals has a very long history. Karl Fulves, whose card trick instructions served as the source for my first magic act, for instance, also wrote Self-Working Mental Magic (2). This book contains detailed suggestions about how to delude audiences into believing ‘real magic’ is afoot.

As a child of the modern world, for me, practicing this type of magic rings as ethically dubious. Whether or not magicians use the claim to such powers to garner personal gain, it inflates their abilities in ways that are unwarranted and threatens to provide unfounded beliefs in the paranormal.

Given my particular intellectual interests, though, there is another set of reasons to question positioning mental powers as the fond of magic: doing so abstracts away from the very social conditions that make it possible in the first place. Magic, I want to emphasize, is constituted by how magicians and their audiences interact together. Even if it involves doing tricks aimed at deceiving the audience, the fact that skillful deception is at play offers an invitation for the audience to question how magic is being accomplished before their eyes. In contrast, positing magicians with extranormal powers squarely places the conditions that enable magic outside interactions between magicians and their audiences.

In short, mental magic is bad ethics and bad sociology.

My initial plan, then, was to offer a card trick act derived from Self-Working Card Tricks that proffered all sorts of claims to being based on mental powers. While such a pretense might have got me burnt for witchcraft in the sixteenth century, I was under the expectation that none of the colleagues I planned to perform with would harbor any illusions I possessed extra-ordinary mental abilities. The disjuncture between what was said and what would be believed was planned as the basis for prompting discussion at the end of the act about how the tricks were physically and interactionally accomplished.

Act 1 — Embodied Magic

Even before doing initial pilot sessions with family members, it became apparent that my initial idea would not hold. I judged that a central limitation with an anti-mentalist act was it did not provide many ‘hooks’ for participants, this because few participant would even be willing to entertain the notion that I gained supernatural powers overnight. The mentalistic ‘blah, blah, blah’ was an imposed façade, one that would quickly tire for me and others.

The next iteration of the act turned the narration around. Against the wide-spread contention that magic is based on ‘mind reading’, I framed the act as an exercise in ‘body reading’; specifically my reading their subtle body movements in order to identify chosen cards. That is to say, the narration drew attention to magic as an embodied undertaking. Why embodiment? As a widespread notion in the social sciences and humanities, the term points towards the importance of acknowledging that sense making is not an abstracted process taking place in some corner of the brain. Instead how we think, what we experience, and how we interact must be understood through appealing to the rest of the body as well. And yet, between and within fields such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology, ways of thinking about embodiment vary considerably. It is just this dual status — notions of embodiment have a widespread currency for participants, but are flexibly open to different interpretations — that I sought to harness.

During the act I explicitly claimed that I was performing the tricks on the basis of reading individuals’ facial expressions, postures, eye movements, voice, and the like. Participants were asked to look in certain directions, say certain kinds of things (for instance, call off cards), etc., and I proposed I could detect their cards through closely attending to these physical actions.

As I refined the sessions, the place of body language became more pronounced. I surveyed academic and popular publications on how to read body language and related notions such as ‘mirroring’, and then referred to their conclusions within the act as part of the explanation for the magic. Tricks were pitched as ‘experiments’ for testing how to read others’ bodies through different sensory modalities (voice, eye gaze, posture, and so on). Method almost became style at this stage, because I contemplated dressing up for the sessions in a white science lab coat and dubbing myself as ‘The Experi-mentalist’ in order to signal how I sought to counter mentalist explanations for magic by displaying the proper ‘scientific’ explanation for them.

(As I shortly thereafter discovered while reading Simon During’s Modern Enchantments, the move I undertook from mentalism to body reading had its historical parallel. In the late 19th century, ‘mind reading’ magic emerged. Its practitioners neither claimed to be based on contact with spirits or sleight of hand. Instead, as with hypnotists, minder readers claimed to accomplish all sorts of feats on the basis of, as yet, poorly understood mind-body processes that were coming to light through the then emerging of a new field of science called ‘psychology’).

With this newly formed rationale, the act was based on a similar mis-direction as my initial conception of the Mental Magic act; this insomuch as I was not achieving the effect of identifying cards on the bases I stated (see the Three Tricks: A Reading entries). Yet, I imagined participants would still recognize that their facial expressions, postures, eye movements, voice, and the like were relevant to what we were doing together. Rather than leaving questions at the end, I interspersed questions to participants about their emotional and bodily reactions to the tricks within the performance.

The intent of the somewhat ironic disjuncture between the professed importance of embodied interaction for identifying cards and its residual importance for accomplishing magic was to generate curiosity about what was taking place in magic. What were we doing as individuals and as a group through our expressions and movements that enabled the magic? Quite a bit. I certainly attended to facial expressions, postures, eye movements, voice, and the like as an integral part of executing the tricks — just not in the way explicitly stated. These signals never provided the basis for identifying cards. I wanted to make the alternative relevances of ‘body reading’ into a matter for discussion.

Act 2 — Playing the Edge

Whatever the intent of the Embodied Magic act, the result tended to be expressed confusion by participants about what kind of discussion I was seeking to promote and what orientation was being taken toward embodiment. Another reason for revision was that the act was just too full: the preamble given about the body reading, the ‘body’ glosses to each card trick, the interspersed questions, and ironic overtones taken together meant the performance was saturated.

In terms of participants’ responses, there tended to be two kinds. One the one hand, at many junctures people expressed scepticism or downright disbelief at the suggestion that body reading had anything at all to do with how I identified cards. On occasions, it was explicitly stated that because I said I was reading people’s body, the mechanics of the trick must lie elsewhere. On the other hand, to my horror and (I admit) also to my fascination, participants did state that they believed cards were being identified through what I claimed in my accompanying patter: i.e., by detecting micro-changes in their expressions, deciphering their posture, hearing alterations in their voice, etc. In this I had effectively assumed the status of 19th century ‘mind readers’.

Over the course of the few sessions then, the act changed into something much more simplified and suggestive. Instead of trick glosses which directly spoke about the importance of body reading, I asked people to do certain things: watch the cards carefully as I showed them, call them out as I flipped them over, etc., but without giving a reason for these requests. The purpose then was to see what connections participants would make, based on my verbal and bodily cuing. Instead of an extended preamble about body reading, the act began simply with a statement that its intent was to promote reflection of what we were doing together as part of doing magic. The overall open-ended orientation was meant to emphasise/underscore the relevance of certain aspects of what was taking place (and thus distracting from others), but without providing a definite overlay about why they mattered.

On the positive side, what this minimal format did was create space around the tricks for discussion. The interspersed questions I posed were narrowed to address only two issues: what sort of bodily reactions participants had to the tricks, and how participants were helping me accomplish the magic. Whatever the replies, the strategy was to follow-up on them as the session unfolded. If someone thought bodily gestures provided the basis for identifying cards, for instance, I asked them about this subsequently as additional tricks were performed.

In this way, the aim was to work through how we could come together to do magic. This was not done in order to find some ‘ideal-type’, abstracted qualities of magicians and audiences, but rather to examine how in specific settings we were constituting card manipulations as magic tricks through our moment-to-moment interactions together, including in this case through the unfolding discussion about those interactions.

The place of narration in this proved thorny. Some people expressed the desire for a kind of ‘spiel’ about embodiment that would have amounted to a return to the Embodied magic act, others not. Since the narration served as an overt fault line between what was being said and what was being done, its make-up often figured as a basis for commentary. The general approach adopted was to try to fine tune the narration to balance explicitness with suggestion about embodiment. Despite (or maybe better, through the) diminished narration, at times contentions were forwarded that the cards were being identified through body reading.

Act 3 — Topicalising Co-production

Another matter that proved thorny throughout the sessions was engaging participants in questions about how magic was being accomplished. Nearly invariably, when I asked people how magic was being done, attention was cast on the presumed hidden mechanisms at play. That might have been some undetected sleight of hand, physical markers on the cards, detection of eye movements, etc. Exceedingly rare were unprompted comments pointing toward any active role of the audience. Rather than attending to “How do magicians and their audiences come together to do magic?”, the participants’ attention was squarely on magicians and their concealed arts. It other words, the trick was something down to me rather than us. In response, in the final acts I did I overtly explained that a purpose of doing this research on magic was to determine how tricks are co-produced by magicians and audiences. In addition, I repeatedly and directly asked participants what role they were playing in the accomplishment of magic.

As another revision, with my growing unease about how, at least at times, people thought I was identifying cards on the basis of body reading, at the end of the act I included a declaration that this was never the case. After all the tricks and the patter though, not everyone believed this disclosure…

[1] Fulves, K. (1976) Self-Working Card Tricks. Dover publications, pp. 128. ISBN: 9780486233345.

[2] Fulves, K. (1979) Self-Working Mental Magic. Dover publications, pp. 144. ISBN: 9780486238067.