Quite a lot, as I was surprised to discover in reading philosopher Brian Massumi, in his essay on how animals actually show capacities for ‘thinking’ in action, for language, for sophisticated play: in other words, activities that we tend to reserve for ourselves, the special human beings that we are (not).
It turns out that cubs have particular ways of ‘exaggerating’ the gestures of fighting, and therefore signalling to the their siblings “Look, this is as if we were fighting”. They are constantly ‘telling’ each other that what they are doing isn’t real: it’s a kind of theatrical version of the real thing. This ‘telling’ happens precisely through the exaggerated mannerism, which is what tells the other “This is a game”.
To quote the philosopher:
‘The play statement “this is a game” is far from a simple act of designation. It is the staging of a paradox. A wolf cub who bites its litter mate in play “says”, in the manner in which it bites, “this is not a bite”.’ (p.4)
The “this is not a bite” is what turns it into play. The “this is not a bite” sweeps up both litter mates in an act of play. Finally, observe this striking passage that uses words like ‘misdirection’ and ‘flourish’, words straight from magic’s vocabulary:
‘The [play] gesture is performed with a mischievous air, with an impish exaggeration or misdirection, or on the more nuanced end of the spectrum, a flourish, or even a certain understated grace modestly calling attention to the spirit in which the gesture is proffered.’ p.9
What better ways of describing theatrical magic?
Of course audiences at a magic show in a theatre already know from the billing that what they are going to see is “not real”. The title already does the job. This is perhaps another reason why I deliberately titled my current show This is not a magic show: to consciously bring attention to the way titles ‘perform’ certain functions.
Apart from the titling, consider the magician's gestures themselves - the handling of the cards, which might be bombastic or more ‘nuanced’ as Massumi writes: it is the physicality that "tells" the spectator “look, this is playing, this is not the real thing”. And both parties are swept up in this act of play.
With the added paradox: that the thing ‘referred’ to in magic, the miracle or impossible feat, is by definition unreal, it will never manifest. Unlike the cub’s play fight, which refers to the 'real fight', with magicians and their audiences the ultimate ‘referent’ is nowhere to be found: magic remains gloriously, mysteriously, and irresolvably, absent.
FYI: The book is What Animals Teach Us About Politics, by Brian Massumi.