Much of the impetus behind ‘Learning Magic’ stemmed from my desire to extend out the study of how concealment and disclosure can mix together by complementing my previous study of statecraft with the study of a different kind of performance. Yet what came to the fore very soon was a preoccupation with how we act towards one another. ‘Ethics’ is one label for this concern, but only a broad sense of ethics as encompassing the habits, affects, dispositions, preconceptions, constraints, stakes and more associated with being with others.

The highs and lows experienced over hours and hours of practice also repeatedly brought another topic to the fore in my mind. Namely: Why keep doing this?

This entry elaborates some of the entanglements with why and how one learns magic in order to think through the choices available.

Getting swept up versus swept away

Wonder, puzzlement, surprise, doubt, joy, and fascination are just some of the experiences associated with partaking in magic. While certain types of performances might be highly intellectual exercises — akin trying to solve crossword puzzles, — displays of magic often evoke affective responses. Indeed, it does not seem too far off the mark to suggest magic typically matters to the extent it stirs us. We get swept up in what we witness. The manner in which magicians try to hide the mechanisms of a trick, often through the very content of what is displayed, can entice onlookers to eagerly seek to uncover what is really going on.

Being swept up can easily turn to being ‘swept away’. I use this term to signal when our stirrings might be deemed to have gone ‘too far’. As Simon During among others has pointed out, in modern times entertainment conjurers have had a tangled relation with their “dangerous doubles” — psychics, clairvoyants, con artists and others, that use principles and techniques associated with magic to profit from or promote what are regarded by others as dubious beliefs. Even if magicians aren’t actively promoting faith in some sort of ‘-ism’, the drama of magic can (at least for a time) sway audiences into believing in magicians’ powers. Indeed for some writers, like Henning Nelms, this is the central aim for entertainment magic. What it might mean for the enchantments of magic to go ‘too far’ though seems a question worth asking.

With regard to my own limited experience to date, I have not sought to convince audiences that I possess supernatural mind reading powers and the like. Yet, this experience has still suggested ways in which powers can be placed at the fingers of magicians. In my case that took the form of audiences believing I could ‘body read’, a possibility some reported as disconcerting (and I found such beliefs disconcerting). Less dramatic, many thought I possessed highly refined and dextrous body movement skills — this when I could barely shuffle cards. When others invest you with abilities you don’t hold, the prospects for engaging in self-aggrandizing are never too far removed. So too are the prospects for revelling in fooling others.

In terms of my overall orientation to magic, I suppose I am not really interested in it as a way to take people off into a world of fantasy. Instead I want to use it to develop an appreciation for the extraordinarily in the ordinary. So rather than just affectively sweeping people away, my thinking is to find ways to bring them back: back to the wonder of how we as humans interact, back to the alluring power that gets invested in secrets, back to how we make sense of the world, etc. Magic, in other words, is a way of getting to know ourselves better. To do this it is necessary to find ways of staying with the kinds of difficulties mentioned in the previous paragraphs rather than just treating magic as a way of entertaining others or applauding oneself.

Paying attention or not

The matter of how attention gets directed ‘here and there’ is another area of tension. Let me elaborate this first in relation to the solo practicing of card manipulations. After gaining a base level proficiency with a sleight — for instance, learning to lift two cards as one, — it is often possible to undertake it while doing other activities: watching TV, walking down the street, reading a book, etc. This kind of ‘multi-tasking’ is essential because performing magic requires undertaking sleights while doing lots more besides: providing an accompanying patter, speaking with your audience, moving around, etc. Unsurprisingly perhaps, what I have noticed though is that during such ‘multi-tasking’ I can become absent-minded. I am often not paying attention to the finer details of my actions with the cards and, as a result, precision suffers.

A similar dynamic of balancing focused concentration with a kind of ‘subconscious’ learning gained through repetition takes place across varying levels of proficiency. Trying to hone a sleight can involve applying a delicate balance of pressure, for instance, one that requires getting a feel for the cards rather than consciously figuring out what needs to be done. When automaticity slides into thoughtlessness though is not often easy to discern. Or, at least, it has not been for me…

When it comes to performing in front of people, the questions about attention multiply because what is at stake is not just moving between concentration and automaticity with the cards, but instead findings ways of relating to those around you as well as the cards. On a day in which I feel good about my performance, I make lots of eye contact, adopt a relaxed pace through the tricks, considerately listen to what individuals are saying, and pose back questions responsive to their verbal and non-verbal actions. Even if I don’t get everything ‘right’ — tricks don’t always work out as intended, and sometimes this is even noticed! — if I am able to be with what is unfolding, I can take away a sense of satisfaction. Conversely, even if I technically get the moves and patter correct, my efforts don’t feel very satisfying if I cannot find a way of being with and being receptive to others. Apt descriptions for my inner state here would likely include ‘lost’ or ‘frantic’. Too, if I am not feeling comfortable, I assume this impacts on the experiences of others. Certainly professional magicians frequently warn novices that their audiences can often pick up on the subtle ‘vibes’ of magicians.

Consider a related tension. As a beginner, a couple things have struck me. On the one hand, I have been surprised people don’t spot things I think should have been obvious: like when I have rearranged the cards right in front of them, when I have struggled to manipulate the cards correctly and need to re-adjust my fingers, etc. On the other hand, people tend to give a great deal of meaning to subtle things: hesitations, when I tense up, etc. – some of which are and some of which aren’t connected to the trick’s mechanisms. So this experience has unsettled the idea that I can easily imagine what audiences see. A question I am left with is this: How can you try to see with the eyes of your audience when you have reason to believe they are not making sense of what is taking place in the manner you do?

What might be done?

How then to think about a way into and through these and other tensions associated with learning magic?

As a narrow answer, in many respects, I have sought to strike something of a middle way. When I practice now, I deliberately attempt to move between paying attention to my physical and affective states and rendering my manoeuvres automatic. Attention though has different varieties that are worth noting. At times, I adopt a kind of ‘open awareness’, a disposition in which I am with whatever is arising for me as physical sensations and affective states from moment to moment. This is a way of checking in with where I am. At other times, I direct attention at specific visual and tactile senses critical to the manipulation of cards. This is a way of focusing towards certain sensations.

How to blend, switch between, and shift from concentration, open awareness, automaticity are recurring demands in my learning. These dynamics are echoed elsewhere. For instance, in Did you Spot the Gorilla?, Richard Wiseman suggests creative problem solving is supported by combining focused attention with ways of being open to the unexpected. The trick, of course, is getting the balance right. At this stage, I do not feel confident I know where this balances rests, or even how I would be able to know if I got it right (or what ‘right’ would need to mean).

While finding a sense of balance is thorny enough in relation to the fairly simple situation of solo practice, the complications take on additional dimensions elsewhere. Within the banter and merriment of performances, for instance, it is much more difficult to stay with what is physically and affectively arising. Attention to doing, it might be said, crowds out attention to being. I found much the same was the case for audience members. As part of my initial self-working card trick sessions, for instance, I asked what was coming up for people by way of bodily experiences. Despite speaking with academics, some of whom had intellectual interests that touched on the theme of ‘embodiment’, they found it difficult/near to impossible to recount their lived experiences beyond highly coarse general descriptions.

Likewise in relation to affective charges, I have sought in my performances to stir audiences through the tricks, but also to counterbalance this with questions that make a space for reflecting on what is taking place in our interactions. Again, how to appropriately blend both is tricky.

In these ways, then, cultivating discussion about the fascinations and aversions associated with magic has proved highly challenging. Purposefully adopting some pathway seems necessary, but which?

Being Available

Magic, of course, it not the only emotionally charged activity in which questions figure prominently about how we relate to our ongoing experiences in meeting one another. Within activities of caring, for instance, how it is possible to be both moved by others and to be responsive to their needs is a longstanding concern. In his research on clowning within dementia care, for instance, Ruud Hendriks detailed how ‘learning to clown’ entails using one’s body both to try to ‘tune in’ with the unknown ways patients are experiencing the world, but also giving those with dementia space to direct the encounters. This though is no straightforward task.

I have not yet found a rationale or training technique within magic on a par with what Hendriks outlined for clowning. One related starting guide that has provided inspiration though is Christopher Johns’ approach to ‘availability’ in nursing, outlined in his book Becoming a Reflexive Practitioner. Availability here refers to how carers attempt to enable patients to find meaning with their conditions (and thereby how carers can find meaning in their own practice). Within a therapeutic setting, paraphrasing Johns, a person’s ability to be available for another is influenced by:

  • Adopting and seeking to realize a vision for one’s practice;
  • Knowing patients and the meaning they give to health;
  • The extent of concern for patients;
  • The ability to understand situations and respond with appropriate skilful action;
  • The extent a practitioner knows and manages self within relations;
  • The extent to which the practitioner can create and sustain an environment where it is possible to work toward a shared vision and act to secure the resources necessary for caring.

What I am attempting to do now is to ask how these six influences and other such guides can be useful to address some of the challenges associated with magic as a form of interaction.