(Written on 19 February 2018)

This project is an opening up to the potential of limits — limits to what can and should be communicated.

The kinds of limits engaged with are many, varied, and overlapping:

This project seeks to document how a novice learns magic. The novice aspect of the previous sentence needs to be stressed. Other than the distant memory of largely childhood tricks, beginning this effort in the closing weeks of 2017, I had almost no familiarity with how to undertake tricks.

More than this though, since the initial inspiration to undertake this line of research in 2002, I have deliberately sought to stay away from watching magic, reading academic articles on the subject, and certainly from performing tricks. The plan I formulated back in 2002 was to approach learning magic in the kind of concerted phased manner one would bring to other topics of research. It just took me a long time to get on with doing so!

Being a novice means not only having little knowledge about a topic, but also not knowing what questions to ask about it. While I have set of background interests largely informed by my research on concealment and disclosure in diplomatic statecraft, I am also seeking to develop an understanding of what interesting questions can be asked about magic tricks and what relevance magic has for other activities.

This then is not a project that conceived of as looking down from the highest summits of a craft in order to cast a knowing gaze over the terrain below. Instead, it is thought of as an examination of what it means to climb, one whose edges are formed in the interactions between people and their environments.

While this kind of open-ended path hazards to drift into a meandering clamber, the promise of a beginner’s mind is to be able to question what might otherwise be taken for granted or learned to be discounted. Another promise is following what seems hopeful rather than being set on a path from the start.

One of the demands of seeking to document how skill is acquired is charting the ongoing process of learning. In these web pages, I seek to provide a reflection on what learning is taking place, as it is taking place.

As Shunryu Suzuki has encouraged, the beginner’s mind need not just be a starting orientation, but a goal of our practice. In the spirit of his words “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few”, in this project I want to consider how mystery and wonder associated with magic can be substantiated as the basis for tricks are learned.

Whether you are a beginner or world-renowned expert, reading or watching others is not the same thing as doing it yourself. In many scholarly fields (philosophy, sociology, law, anthropology...), the distinction between depictions of action — reports, instruction manuals, photographs, and the like, — and concrete action is a recurring theme. One set of reasons is that instructions cannot possibly take account of all the possible situational circumstances. Another can be that a specialized type of bodily ‘know-how’ is required. You cannot learn to ride a bike, for instance, merely by watching others or browsing YouTube videos. Something more is needed.

Whatever the varied reasons, work is required to move from depictions into lived action. In this project I want to compare the possibilities, demands, and limitations of textual, audio-visual, and face-to-face training instructions.

Hopefully this will eventually lead me to speak with magicians, both for personal training but as well to assess how they approach learning. The starting point though is inevitably my own practice: as with anyone else, this conditions what I can and cannot appreciate.

This was brought home to me at an early stage. My initial plan was to start by reading the life reflections of prominent magicians such as Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. I wanted to gauge what I thought they were and were not disclosing. Then, years from now with experience in hand, I would re-read with a view to asking what changed in my understanding. Wally Smith, a magician and academic, instead advised me instead to start performing tricks as without that familiarity “nothing will make much sense”. And so, this is where I have begun.

The previous points about the distinction between depictions and actions don’t just apply to ‘How to…’ guides or the memoirs of the giants of modern conjuring. They apply to anything thing I might offer in these pages too. The written word serves as the main form of communication employed for this web site, and as such, what this medium enables and occults for showing needs attention.

What can be included in this project is itself subject to restrictions. For instance, in these pages I want to include extended quotes from magicians, including the basis for certain tricks.

Just how much such material can be reproduced is subject to legal considerations surrounding copyright. The restrictions are negotiated in relation to other notions of what counts as ‘fair use’ (or ‘fair dealing’).

Fair use allows the reproduction of some copyrighted work for certain purposes that bring public benefit. What counts as ‘some’, ‘certain’, ‘purposes’, etc. though varies. In the US, for example, fair use is defined through considerations including:

  • What is the purpose and character of the use (including for whether it is for commercial or non-profit)?
  • What is the nature of the copyrighted work (for instance factual or artistic)?
  • Is the amount and significance of the quoted text in relation to the entire work?
  • What will be the effect upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work?

Just as instructions don’t apply themselves in particular cases, such criteria or related principles don’t test themselves. What counts as ‘fair’ needs to be assessed in relation to specific instances — and not everyone might agree.

In relation to magic though, besides the general intellectual property rights considerations that apply, community specific norms bear on what counts as an acceptable disclosure. The tension in need of reconciliation is how to, on the one hand, prevent the mechanism for tricks being widely known while, on the other hand, also enabling people to enter into magic. Informal codes and oaths varyingly stipulate that magicians should not reveal the basis for tricks to non-magicians. In some instances, such prohibitions are policed as part of membership organizations, such as Rule 13 of the British Magic Circle.

As Edwin Dawes has detailed, even experienced magicians can fundamentally disagree over the interpretation of disclosure codes. When the Magic Circle’s first President, David Devant, published a popular article near the end of his life in 1936, he neither thought of the information as revealing the essential secrets of his magic nor as an act that would stand against his profession. The Circle decided it disagreed, and forced him to resign.

Today formal and informal standards for acceptable disclosure are enacted in the context of the mass on-line availability of information and imagery without distinction regarding who views (or buys) it.

While ‘no-disclosure’ oaths protect trade secrets and thus serve the interests of professionals, within magic they are also justified as serving audiences. Giving away the basis for trickery, whatever that might amount to in practice, would deflate magic of some of its mystery and allure. As in many other walks of life, ignorance can be bliss.

The varied points above related to “Writing with Magic” suggest prominence should be given to an umbrella term that did not initially figure prominently in my early planning: ethics. Magic is about inter-relations between a magician and audience, a magician and other magicians, as well as magicians and the public at large. An academic project on magic then adds onto these parallel inter-relations associated with social researchers.

The multiple, intersecting and not necessarily aligned responsibilities and obligations associated with each of these relations suggest the importance of attending to how notions of the ‘ethical’ are formed within and between communities. One of my responses to the importance of community is to seek to develop a compact with you the viewer. For instance, while these pages recount my attempts at performing tricks, and thus specify the mechanism for (certain) tricks, I do so by asking you to agree to a condition. You need to undertake the tricks yourself and through this enter into the community of amateur magicians.

This request is not just ethically motivated. Given everything I said elsewhere about the limitations of abstract instructions and my abstract writing, you are not going to be able to make that much sense of what I am offering without having rolled up your sleeves, so to speak…

The potential for multiple, intersecting and not necessarily aligned responsibilities and obligations suggests the need for an ethical sensitivity that is highly sensitive to context.

But to simply say ethics need to be context-sensitive is not enough. As in the case of David Devant’s fall from grace, the existence of a standard is not the end point of deciding what is ‘ethical’, rather is the first step in understanding how norms and standards are used in accounting for and giving meaning to actions and contexts. Context therefore cannot be treated as a stable and pre-given thing we can specify in advance. My approach takes inspiration from those lines of social analysis that treat adherence to community norms as not something that does or does not take place, but as a phenomenon in-the-making in specific situated interactions. As this is a project of self-development, I want to chart how my understanding of what magician do and the contexts in which they do it evolves.

While each of these limits in some sense hampers doing and researching magic tricks, it is through holding them together and opening to what they help make aware that I seek to learn about magic, magicians and audiences.