I thought this was an interesting development, given pockets of academic interest in conjuring and magic are beginning to emerge (see my blog post on this here). Magic needs to be studied and analysed more, especially outside of the insular world of magicians and magic conventions.
There is also the issue of a fundamental disparity between the public’s perception of conjuring (trivial trickery), and what is actually a very intricate, old and specialised activity. There is an incredible wealth of magic literature (though mainly by and for magicians), and the ways in which magicians learn and develop sleights and psychological misdirection - sometimes over decades of study and practice - deserves serious study.
Searching the web about the Carleton post, however, I quickly came across a scathing dismissal of the scheme. In a short piece called ‘Get serious, Carleton’, a senior fellow at the University criticises the post, largely on the basis of allowing wealthy philanthropists to dictate the direction of universities (this is a fair point, a problem the UK is perhaps going to see more of, sadly). In the context of cuts to humanities subjects (classics, English, literature, etc), the author sees the Chair in Conjuring as a way of further trivialising serious university study. He writes:
‘Those of us who believe that universities need to […] promote higher learning and research in a broad range of sciences, engineering, arts and the humanities, should make sure they remain focused on serious pursuits. Let’s forget the magic tricks.’
And thus the article ends.
It got me thinking of something I often mull over: that the presumed triviality of magic, as frustrating as it might be to hear about for many ‘serious’ magicians, might in fact be a strange kind of asset.
Let me try to qualify this.
Of course for those serious magicians out there, triviality is a badge of shame, something to fight against daily. We all want recognition for the hard work, as well as public appreciation. And the possibility of earning a livelihood wouldn’t go amiss.
Also, I’m not suggesting magicians should be happy with the public’s misperception of the form. In fact, the only reason I’m currently back into magic, after over a decade of pursuing other performance activities, is because I’m curious about how magic can meet and dialogue with other performing art forms (contemporary theatre, performance art, alternative comedy, etc). In other words, magic ‘seriously’ needs to up the game and challenge itself, to not remain anachronistic and trivial.
However, part of the appeal of magic, to me, is its cultural invisibility, its perception as mere trivial trickery.
Here’s why I think triviality is an asset to embrace and work with:
1. Triviality offers a perfect disguise of sorts for magic. How better to conceal its depth, than by having people believe it’s ‘just a trick’? What better misdirection could we ask for?
2. Triviality offers a great angle from which to play with the audience’s expectations. Rational people will always dismiss the unusual or the impossible (and this dismissal is probably also why magic is on the bottom rung: it’s just guys pretending to do impossible things, isn’t it?). Therefore, we have an ideal situation for maximising on the build up, from the trivial all the way to a sense of genuine mystery and awe. Whereas a visitor at an art gallery might (might) come with a pre-established taste for paintings, rarely do audiences come to magic (when they do) with a pre-established taste for card tricks. What a perfect starting point for taking the audience on a journey (it's harder for painters to do this, as so much is already known, analysed, studied, etc)
3. This is a weird idea, but hear me out: I think it’s currently quite ‘easy’, or at least possible, to do something artistically interesting with magic, simply because from the audience’s viewpoint magic is just tricks. Magic’s awkward clichés (top hat, rabbits) are in fact extremely easy to brush off nowadays. So how else can magic be presented? When a Penn & Teller perform their signature cups and balls trick, where they effectively disclose the method, yet where the performed explanation is so well and quickly executed that it ends up being baffling nevertheless, for an audience something genuinely exciting and new is happening (and they are right: no one did this before Penn & Teller). Magic’s triviality means it’s actually ripe for experimentation, for trying out new approaches, for carving out an original artistic path.
In other words:
Magicians! Let’s embrace the perception of triviality, and let’s get on with creating new contexts for developing the presentation of magic for new audiences; let’s challenge magic by experimenting with new forms; let’s write books that expand upon our understandings of magic, and that dialogue with other fields, ideas and histories.
Only then might a university post on conjuring not strike other academics as an aberration.