The phrase ‘Knowledge is power’ speaks to enduring beliefs about the potential of information.
These beliefs inform the world of modern conjuring. Magicians’ understanding of the methods for effects, for instance, is said to give them a power over audiences (see Relations).
However, recent times have witnessed renewed concern across many academic disciplines to the complex and intertwined relation between knowledge and ignorance. Ignorance — for instance, about the health effects of smoking or the number of civilians that die in war — can help divert, displace and deny responsibility.
Too, a sense of what is unknown, not-yet-known, not-possible-to-know, not-possible-to-know-with-certainty and so on can help shape identities and hierarchies.
My research into magic has itself been based on the value of ignorance. I began as a novice with no knowledge of the methods for effects. In the spirit of Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, my aim in doing so was to approach magic with a ‘beginner’s mind’. The hope was that this would enable me to question what might otherwise be taken for granted or discounted. In other words, my inexperience was positioned as a strength.
Ignorance was not just a starting point for my research, but a conclusion derived from my experience. For instance, learning magic entailed a process of refining my visual motor skills through learning how to spread, cut, lift and so on playing cards. But it also entailed appreciating (again and again) that human perception and cognition are highly fallible. As a result of my practice, I came to know, to realize I did not know, to wonder what I could know, and to doubt what I had thought I knew.
These themes are taken up in the Perception video held through the Secrecy, Power and Ignorance Network.
As I have come to understand it then, a trick in learning magic is skillfully acting in-between certainty and uncertainty, as well as the possibilities for affirmation.
The Ignorance video explores yet another aspect of ignorance relevant to magic: the will not to know.
A common assumption in discussions about magic is that audiences will want to know how magic effects are achieved. Magicians thus need to undertake considerable precautions to evade the scrutiny of others.
Yet, when I have asked whether participants to my shows want to know the methods for the tricks, a diverse array of responses have been offered. Whether and what participants want to know turns on whether the affective value of trickery would be enhanced by knowing, whether they might be more at ease with the comfort of ignorance, and even whether I could be trusted to provide a true explanation after all of the deception at play.
Notes: The handling of the cards in the second effect derives from my teacher Dani DaOrtiz.