Duality

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Labels, distinctions and classifications are indispensable in making sense of what is taking place around us. Using them involves an ordering of the world, and through ordering it possible to know how to act.

Much of my past research has examined how labels, distinctions and classifications are marshalled as part of attempts to limit warfare. Debates about the wisdom of placing restrictions on cluster bombs, chemical weapons, and biological weapons, for instance, often turn on how distinctions are drawn between what is offensive versus defensive, unintended versus intended, acceptable versus inacceptable, peaceful versus malign, etc.

Entertainment magic provides a vivid example of how attempts to make sense of the world through applying labels can be confounded. A magician, for instance, can perform in front of an audience with a deck of playing cards. For those looking on, the shuffling and cutting of the deck might be regarded as an act of mixing. Through moving the cards this way and that, the deck is brought into a state of disorder. For the magician though, shuffling and cutting are typically acts of ordering.

In this video, students at the University of Exeter and I illustrate the ways in which apparent opposites can be entangled together. The card handling is taken from the ‘Happiness’ effect in the book Verbal Magic by Juan Tamariz (with permission). Before watching the video, please get out a deck of playing cards, because this is one you can do yourself!

If chaos and order are not diametrically opposed, though, then how are they are related to one another? The matter of how to understand the relation between seeming opposites is one I have explored elsewhere in relation to the notions of absence and presence.

How we understand the relation between qualities that might appear as opposites is not an abstract intellectual matter. It can have profound consequences for our daily lives. For instance, in our pursuit of economic and physical peace of mind, it is easy to regard security and insecurity as polar opposites. But if we are obsessed by the need for security in our lives, we are likely to feel very insecure.

In relation to magic, many prominent distinctions are worth careful reflection: concealment and disclosure, magicians and audiences, care and carelessness, etc. The other videos in The Magic of Social Life explore some of these in more detail.

Duality

Previous: Concealment

Next: Vulnerability