Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s much cited quote, “A conjuror is not a juggler; he is an actor playing the part of a magician…” continues to provide inspiration for many. In Secrets of Conjuring and Magic1, Robert-Houdin used this expression to lay out the essential skills of conjurors and to set the aim for magic of working wonders.

As a beginner, questions about what abilities to cultivate and how to think about what I am doing weigh heavily on my mind. As a university academic coming into magic with a professional background in examining how knowledge and skills are acquired, I appreciate the importance of aspirational models in guiding learning.

If treating conjurors as actors can serve as a thought-provoking analogy, might there be other models that help sharpen our awareness of what magic entails and in doing so enable us to re-imagine it?

I want to share a few alterative models that bring to the fore a widely acknowledged matter, but one that receives less attention than the mechanisms for effects’; this is the topic of how we relate to our audiences.

When I hear many present day conjurors speak, I understand them as associating their craft to something like sculpting. Sculpting is a means of creation. Through techniques of carving, casting, and assembling, sculptors bring their visions into existence.

In making this analogy with magic, the audience becomes the base material. Through skills of misdirection and much besides, the skill of the conjuror is the art of shaping audiences’ perceptions and understandings. In this process, the composition of the audience is crucial. Some are rough, some pliable, and some strained. The task then is to hone one’s skills so as to achieve the desired effects against whatever niggles might get in the way.

Thinking of a conjuror as a sculptor treats the audience’s imagination as subject to the magicians’ hands. Dariel Fitzkee wrote in this spirit in Showmanship for Magicians2 in contending that “The intended dupe of the magician’s wiles is, of course, the spectator… In him are combined the formidable barriers the deceiver must breach and the very weaknesses that make him vulnerable. It is the magician’s task to learn how to avoid the barriers and to attack the weak spots”.

The one-sided and now dated language of this quote suggests a potential dark side of sculpting. Attempts to shape experiences can slide into the desire to manipulate, control and fool. The conjuror is envisioned as active, determined, and needing to be in command, while spectators are seen as mere stuff to be molded. Taken to its extremes, the result can be magic that entails domination, humiliation or cruelty. Another analogy therefore might help.

Like sculptors, surfers use skillful techniques to produce extraordinary feats. In surfing, though, there can be little pretense of complete control. Surfers must work with movements and energies that are a lot more potent than them.

As a sociologist with a long term eye turn toward how groups behave, I don’t treat performances of magic as ‘timed out’ from the rest of social life. And social life involves a great deal of work — work that often has become so habitual that it is routinely overlooked even as it is carried out. For instance, group interactions typically involve those present maintaining what has been called a ‘veneer of consensus’ about what is going on. Consensus is not about everyone agreeing on whatever is being discussed, but rather coming to terms with who can speak when, about what, to whom, and in what manner. To put it another way, as we interact we are constantly working out how it is appropriate to be with one another.

To get along in social life then entails a give-and-take in which individuals often put many of their thoughts and reactions to the side, in favor of making the performance that is everyday life go smoothly. That can entail overlooking the dubious actions of others, pretending something did not happen, and remaining silent when wishing to speak.

How this matters for magic is that it suggests that audiences should be regarded as active participants rather than simply spectators. Audiences help make the magic, even if they are just watching a stage show as spectators. Often this takes place through what does not come to the surface. The nemesis presented by the heckler is that of someone who does not subscribe to the ‘veneer of consensus’ towards which conjurors and their audiences typically work together.

An implication of this perspective is that knowing how audiences experience magic is not a straightforward task. Reactions are conditioned by many factors beyond the deftness of one’s hands or the astuteness of one’s patter. Certainly conjurors can seek to influence how a situation gets defined – humor and self-depreciation are among some longstanding means of bringing a lightness to our encounters. But knowing the experiences of others is likely to be tricky.

As the case with surfers, recognizing that there are complex and powerful currents under the surface means that conjurors need to forgo a desire for control. Instead, what are needed are ways of acting that help stay ahead of the breaking points of trouble.

To point to the mix of competitive and collaborative dynamics at play in magic is to understand magic as an activity wherein audiences and magicians are bound up together. As a beginner I have keenly felt how I am dependent on others playing along and vulnerable to their potentially volatile whims. No matter how technically or socially skillful I become, it is hard to see these conditions disappearing completely.

So now to caring. Caring is an activity where recognition of mutual dependency is commonplace. Nurses and patients as well as teachers and students are examples of relations in which the one cared for, and the one caring, realize themselves through each other.

Like conjuring, caring is a practice of selective attention. It means turning one’s emotions, actions and thoughts in certain directions to engage with others at the exclusion of different potential matters for regard.

Like conjuring, caring too can entail considerable asymmetries about who acts and who directs. As a result, the manner in which attentional regard is directed by the carer can easily slip into carelessness. What is critical is to find ways of taking others’ concerns as a basis for action, while also minding one’s own needs.

To imagine the conjuror as a carer suggests the need to cultivate a number of qualities. These include an appreciation of how conjurors and audiences are dependent on one another, an acknowledgement of the importance of looking after those around you, a receptiveness to be moved by them, a regard for how we respond to one another, and a willingness to stay with any resulting troubles for the lessons they might hold.

Actors, sculptors, surfers or carers. Conjurors have many possible alternative models. Thinking about which models are appropriate, and when, are therefore vital undertakings for defining who we are and what we are doing.

[1] Robert-Houdin, R.E. (English translation, 1877) Secrets of Conjuring and Magic: Or How to Become a Wizard. Translated by Louis Hoffmann. Cambridge University Press (reissued, 2011), pp. 400. ISBN: 1108032400, 9781108032407.

[2] Fitzkee, D. (1943) Showmanship for Magicians. Martino Fine Books (facsimile edition, 2017), pp. 187. ISBN: 1684221064, 9781684221066.