Organ grinding is unskilled labour. The organ grinder cranks a handle. The tune repeats itself. The only prerequisite is an approximate sense of time.
This maligned street spectacle is depicted by Honoré Daumier in an ink and wash picture from around 1860.1 The mechanical operation is obscured, at the back of the organ. The man who carries it out wears a heavy smock. In this picture, unlike in another version of the same composition, his face is smudged out, an inchoate blur with a dark recess for his mouth, which is open in song. The focus of the entertainment is his wife, who leans a robust arm on top of the organ box. She sings heartily from a songbook, rocking forward with her chest raised, her expression solemn and utterly assured.
The performers make no attempt to engage with onlookers. There is no self-promotion, no attention-grabbing, no interaction. The singing seems almost as routine and deadpan as the turning of the handle. Both are actions on display. The performance appeals to passers by through the fact of its presence. It is, at one level, something rather than nothing on this street corner. Accordingly, there is no cheering or clapping. On reflection the audience is the most remarkable aspect of the picture. They show at most a mild curiosity. On the whole they just look (rather than stare), vacantly. Their tattered figures line up behind the organ, as though passively assuming a place in the spectacle. Several have their hands in their pockets. Their eyes have no shine, either all black or left white.
If the performance is pure presence, it is noted in the audience's steady, unsmiling look. That is all it requires: gather round and look. This is something that happened in the vicinity that day. An organ grinder and his wife passed through. There is a slightness to the whole event. At the same time, both the passivity of the crowd and the solemnity of the performance seem to acknowledge that something grave is at work – perhaps the fact that those who have to perform on the streets end up performing for those who have nothing to do and nowhere else to be.
The picture encapsulates street entertainment's low-level genius. The pyramid of performance is inverted. The attraction itself recedes, whilst the audience enters the frame and constitutes the bulk of the presence. Attention wanders from the spectacle to their sombre faces and back again. They crowd close to the organ, but not antagonistically. They are content to merge with the spectacle, as though they and the performers form part of the same mass, the same people. The main protagonist meanwhile has his face blotted out. (The picture could of course be unfinished, though this label is often problematic in relation to Daumier.)
The spectacle is muted. It is presence in a sea of presence, marked out only by providing a middling distraction. The core of the performance is hollow and automated, its personality erased. It is a single mechanism repeated. It relies on embellishment by the woman's singing. The effect of the mechanism is intrinsically limited. It repeats the same tune. Once that effect is exhausted, the onlookers will move on; once the locality tires of hearing the tune, so will the organ grinder and his wife.
What does magic have to say? What distinguishes magic as a form of performance? Magic theorist and businessman Nevil Maskelyne supplied an answer a century ago in his definition of the genre: “Magic consists in creating, by misdirection of the senses, the mental impression of supernatural agency at work.”2
To most, this may sound like somewhat laboured common sense. To a magician, though, it may smack of orthodoxy. It succinctly outlines something like a micro-ideology of modern conjuring. Two dominant strands can be picked out. Firstly, a high bar is set for magical effects. They must convey no less than “supernatural agency at work”. The experience of magic should transcend the everyday, should be miraculous, unfathomable, spell-binding. The response it elicits should accordingly be amazement, awe, wonder, suspension of disbelief.
The second can be detected in the way the term ‘supernatural’ is positioned at the end of the sentence (as though held with a pair of tweezers). Notice the frigid empiricism of the phrasing. Magic deals in sense data; not just the impression of supernatural agency, but the “mental impression”. This, for Maskelyne, is what characterises modern magic: a strict contract between rationalism and supernatural aura. Whilst the effect is unfathomable and otherworldly, it receives an overall rationalist framing.
These notions, of course, are paired. The more cleanly rationality and superstition are cleaved apart, the more tightly they fit together in the figure of theatrical magic. Magic allows an enlightened audience a temporary means of escape from a secular world, a moment of flight, whilst the magician’s understanding of scientific principles allows him or her to appear to contravene them. Modern magic’s rationalist underpinning projects a mirror image of pure fantasy.
Such a contract, of course, is there to be broken, but it takes the insight of Simon During, whose Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic made a first attempt at a general academic theorisation of performance magic history, to show how radically magic breaks it left, right and centre. Even setting aside magic’s rationalist posture, it is worth remembering that magic performances elicit a wide range of responses besides wonder and astonishment:
For one thing, they are too interactive. Members of the audience are called upon to choose under which cup the ball is now, or to think of a person whose name will be discovered - impossibly - written on a piece of paper in the magician’s locked cabinet. They are also invited (at least implicitly) to unmask the trickwork: to figure out how a routine is really put together. Since audiences often succeed in figuring out a show’s secrets and tricks, this discomforting success is part of the fun. Spectators of magic are also prepared to enjoy a performer’s unexpected failures, which are common enough for patter-books to advise how to pass off mishaps. Audiences are often invited to enjoy their own discomfort too: the humiliation of seeing one’s watch (apparently) smashed to pieces or one’s shirt (really) wafted from one’s body can be part of the show. Finally, magic shows can be deliberately ridiculous. They are comic in the sense that they are often recognizably silly and openly trivial; like failed tricks, this can be funny too. In sum, entertainment-magic audiences seek experiences which are not merely surrogates for supernaturalism. They engage with performances through secular and heterogeneous skills and pleasures […].3
The home of this amalgam of experiences is what During calls the ‘magic assemblage’. The term is intended to capture magic’s idiosyncratic but influential place in the development of early-modern and modern culture. It invites us to think of magic as a historically evolving cluster of leisure enterprises, itself clustered with other kinds of attraction. Belonging within the magic assemblage are attractions as diverse as spirit-raising, ventriloquism, inhaling laughing gas, plate spinning, fortune-telling and early cinema. It is an inherently disparate construct, which gains definition only through historical work.
Furthermore, as the quote suggests, the magic assemblage is characterised by a complex set of audience competencies and modes of reception: not only amazement and awe but “surprise, wonder, anxiety, horror, laughter, scorn, curiosity, skepticism, technical expertise, complacency”, even boredom.4 These, as much as the techniques and technology used to engage them, are embedded in the fabric of modern entertainment industries.
There is room, within this motley collection of responses and experiences, for a tussle between secularity and supernaturalism, and between enchantment and disenchantment. As During suggests, these distinctions can be worked out moment by moment within actual performances. The way a joke is told, the way a climax reached, slight shades of irony and self-deprecation, and the rapport between magician and audience, can be decisive.
Moreover, in some forms of magic, particularly magic performed to small audiences in intimate settings known as ‘close-up magic’, we have to rely on action, manner and gesture. Verbal content is minimal. Where there is content, it tends to be traditional or borrowed. To a large extent, magic can be understood as a niche gesture language. Its specialism is the movement of the hands. Outside the parameters of this language, it may have little to say.
How can the movement of hands and the shifting of small objects over a tabletop determine the enchantment or disenchantment of the world? To answer such a question, we have to look (beyond Maskelyne) for theories of modern movement that can pinpoint how magic conjoins other movements; how it flashes like a sign, disdains the frenetic pace of vaudeville, jolts like a railway carriage, or mimics machines.
There is a video online entitled 'A Few Minutes With Del Ray'. A man in a suit and tie sits behind a table. Around the table sit more men, also in suits and ties. They follow his every move. He handles a deck of cards as though he has been at it for years. He shuffles with a wild flourish. The cards split into two fans which splice into one another like the blades of a propeller. “Don't ever do this in a game - arouse suspicion.”5
His tricks are instantaneous. Ten of spades here, five of hearts there. Where's the five of hearts? There? No that's the ten of spades. Momentary confusion. His genius, though, is in the off-beat. Almost as an afterthought, he drops the deck on the table and fishes the five of hearts from his breast pocket. “Beautiful card”, he mutters as he flicks it back into the deck. We are given no time at all to appreciate the precision of this last action - sailing a spinning playing card almost from chin height through the air neatly into a cut deck on the table. He does it without comment, and carries on.
There is a fifty-dollar bill in front of the cards. Anyone there could have it in his pocket, Del Ray says, if he guesses correctly. The crowd seems rustled up, drawn to the table by a latent competitive streak. Cards leap from place to place. The men chase with their guesswork, and always guess wrong. Occasionally, as if to prove the point, Del Ray drops the deck on the table, and again flicks the card they have been chasing deftly from his pocket.
The performance is closer to a game than a series of illusions. Del Ray seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for play, as though he really stood to win money. (The video lasts five minutes; apparently he could go on like that for hours on the trot.6) His manner is practiced to the point of seeming automated. His motions, accompanied by a non-stop, fast-talking patter, coalesce into repetitive sequences, as though years of experience have taught him which combinations of words and actions best attract suckers and passers-by. Once on to a good trick, he does it again and again. The pace and patter block coherent sequences of thought.
The scene brings to mind a street hustle, perhaps a game of three-card monte in a train carriage, or thimblerigging by a race course. We are drawn into a mesh of misdirection, looking where we are supposed to look, pointing where we are supposed to point. A few minutes later, we may just walk away in a daze with our wallets a little lighter. Although close-up magic like this is most often performed at private parties, corporate events, clubs, magic conventions and street stalls, Del Ray’s performance is redolent of more nefarious practices from more disreputable contexts: con-games used on hapless tourists, crooked fairground wagers and, of course, the techniques of card sharpers practiced in gambling dens and casinos. These are its mise-en-scene.
The suggestion of criminality is only an undertone, though, implicit in Del Ray's manner and motivations. It creates a dramatic relation. Here, we sense, is an individual with one foot in another world, a world of low-level fraud, who has the know-how to navigate it. What he displays, then, is not supernatural ability but secular technique, a worldly trade.
Whilst some magic tricks work by making their mechanism imperceptible (invisible thread is useless if only partially invisible), others allow technique to protrude on the surface. Repeated tropes signal that what we see is technique, a way of doing things, rather than a miracle. Whilst an optical illusion seals its secret from view, technique unfolds itself. Rather than focusing attention on a single, impossible point, it mesmerises through repetition. This is how it draws in passers by and extracts their money. As the motions of a technique are repeated, their secrets seem to edge nearer. Perhaps we begin to see a method. But what we see is what we are supposed to see: a technique at work. Del Ray neatly summarises the process in an aside: “Closer you watch the less you see. The less you see, the better for me.”
At one level, this mesmeric motion is often displayed by someone working in public – spreading pancakes, rolling flatbreads or cracking eggs, say – when their manner is ingrained by repetition, and particularly when they work in front of hungry crowds at a street stall or behind a food counter. Del Ray’s actions have the same surety and precision. They emit the charisma of a habitual tradesman, of someone possessed of trade secrets.
Walter Benjamin's writings are not short of allusions to the magic assemblage, but it isn’t clear that, for him, magic was on the prevailing side of history. In One-way Street, published in 1928, he describes a collection of mechanical models shown at Lucca's fair dating from 1862. He describes, that is, and does nothing else. The prose is distinctly banal:
The exhibition is held in an extended tent, symmetrically divided. Several steps lead up to it. The sign shows a table with a number of motionless dolls. Visitors enter the tent through the right-hand opening, leave it by the left. […] A magician, facing two barrel-like containers. The one on the right opens and out pops the upper body of a woman. She sinks back. The one on the left opens and a male torso rises up.7
And so on, until: "Then the show begins all over again."8 If this passage describes a faded relic, then it also betrays Benjamin's fascination with a commercial formula. The exhibit is described as routine commerce. The language is untouched by its fantasy.
At the same time, mass commercial culture had, for Benjamin, an intrinsic ingredient of psychological compulsion. Overleaf, Benjamin attributes to advertising something like a magician’s ability to manipulate and misdirect:
The name of the most intrinsic quality today, the mercantile look penetrating to the heart of things, is advertising. Advertising eliminates the free leeway of consideration, bringing things dangerously close, right in our face, the way a car, in the cinema, hugely increasing in size on the screen, comes quivering towards us.9
If not by name, this is Benjamin's theory of distraction. The primary application of this theory, elaborated later in his writings, is to architecture and film. Here though it is applied to the way advertising strikes a pedestrian. Distraction is a morphology of experience. Its essence is the synchronicity of diverse encounters within modern urban life. Already we see some of its features: it has, initially, a bald economic function, a “mercantile look”, which operates through a lunging, penetrating motion, “bringing things dangerously close”, the way a sign seems to come at us in the street, demanding to be read.
Distraction, in this sense, differs sharply from the ‘misdirection of the senses’ advocated by Nevil Maskelyne in his definition of theatrical magic. The phrase comes from Our Magic, co-authored in 1911 with David Devant. Here distraction is understood, more straightforwardly, as the wholesale displacement of one experience by another:
The art of magic essentially depends for its success upon the skilful manoeuvring which enables a performer to subdue the critical and observant faculties of his audiences. […] After that comes the process of suggestion, whereby his audiences are led to adopt the particular attitude of mind he wishes them to assume at any moment.10
There is one action to distract attention away from, which should be invisible. There is another to distract attention to: this should have sole claim to the audience's concentration. The result is a hermetic illusion, the mechanism rendered imperceptible whilst the attention is controlled absolutely.
In contrast, for Benjamin, there is no distraction from and distraction to. Distraction for him does not, in other words, amount to deception. Rather, it is a mode of awareness instilled by constant exposure to mass-produced imagery and the patterns of urban experience. It is as much a form of consciousness as a lack of it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, when Benjamin explains how distraction displaces the aura of the unique work of art, the magician takes the side of art. Distraction meanwhile is represented by the surgeon:
The stance of the magician healing an invalid by laying-on of hands differs from that of the surgeon performing an operation on that invalid. The magician maintains the natural distance between himself and the patient; to be precise, he reduces it only slightly (by virtue of a laying-on of hands) while increasing it (by virtue of his authority) hugely. The surgeon does the opposite: he reduces the distance between him and the patient a great deal (by actually going inside the latter) and increases it only a little (through the care with which his hand moves among the patient's organs). In short, unlike the magician […] the surgeon abstains at the crucial moment from facing his invalid person to person, invading him surgically instead.11
Whereas distraction in Devant and Maskelyne’s sense splits experience and actuality apart, distraction for Benjamin is a singular process. One experience is not simply displaced by another; the substance of experience changes. Distraction is represented as bodily penetration. The distance between the surgeon (the image) and the patient (the viewer) is eliminated. The composure of the viewer is dissolved, broken up, eradicated. The associated motion is a lunging, an invasive incision, or a rapid looming, almost as though the image enters and physically manipulates the eyeball. Distraction results from the absorption of haptic blows to the body and sensory organs, which break apart linear trains of thought.
The magician has no share in this form of experience because of the distance he maintains from the patient. (Benjamin does not have performance magic in mind here, but the passage occurs in a discussion of theatre: this distance is also a theatrical distance.) Other possibilities emerge though when we consider magic's proximity to gambling, an economic rather than theatrical exchange. For Benjamin, the actions of gamblers dealing, casting chips and burning cards, evoke the figure - parallel to distraction - of shock.
Shock, whilst it can result in distraction, is a less galvanising force. One who has mastered distraction through habit is uniquely attuned to the sensory pressures of the city and can assimilate them by nature. For Benjamin, this is something the masses have in their favour. There is a part of shock though that cannot be mastered. This is the force that batters the factory worker operating a machine. It stuns and alienates by blows, a violence to the body that cannot be rationalised, just as a station on a production line does not disclose an end product. It is a driver of alienation, severing the worker from their past and future. In this respect, work is psychologically and existentially equivalent to gambling:
Gambling even contains the workman's gesture that is produced by the automatic operation, for there can be no game without the quick movement of the hand by which the stake is put down or a card is picked up. The jolt in the movement of a machine is like the so-called coup in a game of chance. The manipulation of the worker at the machine has no connection with the proceeding operation for the very reason that it is its exact repetition. Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the proceeding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that proceeded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler.12
Here we can add to the lunging and penetration of distraction the jolt and repetition of shock. If there is a form of magic that draws on this vein of modern experience, it is closer to the drudgery of the gambler than the aura of the sorcerer. It favours repetition over narrative, force over persuasion, disorientation rather than deception, proximity rather than distance, the dexterity of the surgeon’s hands rather than high authority, technical skill over art. In other words, it is precisely the opposite of modern magic as understood by Devant and Maskelyne.
Our Magic was the founding work of magic theory. Its authors were at the centre of magic's mainstream theatrical culture. At the time it was published, Devant was likely the best-known magician in Britain. He was both performer and business partner in London's premier magic theatre, St George's Hall. The Maskelyne family, with whom he co-ran the venture, had operated such a venue since 1873. Nevil Maskelyne's claim to expertise was less his performing experience than his long exposure to the illusion business. At the time Our Magic was written the Devant-Maskelyne brand was well established, as was Devant's independent career which pulled him away from St George's Hall to fill top slots on music hall bills.
Our Magic therefore was written from a position of cultural strength. At the same time, that position was being challenged. Its allegiances were largely to a conception of theatrical magic developed in the mid-nineteenth century, which involved presenting a series of grand illusions over the course of a full-length evening show. The magician would have space to discourse on a theme, build suspense and character, and construct a narrative around each illusion. The Maskelyne-Devant variation extended this theatrical form in its use of complex dramatic plots, or short plays, involving multiple disappearances and reappearances of characters.13
Whilst Devant to some extent departed from this tradition, he did so in favour of the palatable 'society conjuring' which was to have such an impact on twentieth century close-up magic. In other words, his commitment to a self-consciously high culture, which would attract both an audience and performers of a high social calibre, remained firm. Amongst magicians Our Magic became, as During notes, a "widely read manifesto for middle-class conjuring".14 This is a function it wears on its on its sleeve:
Undoubtedly, we must admit that great progress in the art has been made during recent years. Both in artistry and in social standing the modern magician stands upon a place far higher than that occupied by his predecessors of two or three generations ago. The average magician of today has been educated at a public school and is, socially, qualified to rank with members of any other profession. He knows some Latin and, perhaps, a trifle of Greek; and, on occasion, can speak French without giving his audience the cold shivers.15
The book's main theoretical claim is that magic should be ranked as an art. Art, though, is associated with entirely conservative hallmarks: refinement, artistry, intellect, correctness. The text makes no great engagement with aesthetic theory. The first, theoretical half was written by Maskelyne. In it he decides that the criterion of art is originality, and that magic achieves the status by how thoroughly it rejects imitation. The claim that magic is an art – a historical milestone for magic – turns out to be more significant than the way the claim is justified.
The main point of contrast to Maskelyne and Devant's conception of modern magic was variety theatre, or music hall in Britain. This had become the primary terrain of jobbing magicians, and had different stylistic requirements: short acts, niche specialisation, brazen humour and immediate impact. It was the first mass entertainment for the working class, though by 1911 its 'moral reform' was well advanced. Our Magic, therefore, should be understood as a partisan intervention. Its outer ring of defences consisted of magic's claim to high theatrical culture; failing that it attempted to preserve magic's middle-class integrity.
In this way, Devant and Maskelyne joined in the moral and aesthetic squeamishness towards music hall that lay behind calls to reform it. This implicitly positioned Our Magic towards the prudish end of even middle-class opinion, which had latterly begun to embrace the halls as bastions of national character.16 There are passages where we sense variety theatre pressing in on all sides. For instance, on the subject of artificially combining magic and drama in the same production:
Procedure such as this contravenes every essential rule of artistic unity. It degrades magic to the level of mere padding, as music and poetry have been degraded so frequently in modern plays of the vaudeville order. The simple truth is that the artistic combination of various arts can only be achieved by subjugating those arts, one and all, to the general requirements of artistic unity. They must not each be called upon to provide isolated 'turns,' one down and t'other come on.17
Likewise, there are moments betraying an anxiety over the diversification of modern audiences:
A true appreciation of meritorious work in magic will not, probably, become general just yet. The public, especially among its lower grades, has too few opportunities for comparing good work with bad. And, even among the higher strata of society, magicians have every need to maintain their representations at as high a level as possible.18
What aesthetic virtues were thought appropriate to art? The first section of the book, by Maskelyne, contains a complete theory of dramatic gesture. His theorisation is wearyingly rule-bound. Idle sentences prop up its causal structure:
We may conclude our remarks upon justification by summarising the rational conclusions to be deduced from the facts stated.19
As a point of departure, we may refer to a fact, not generally recognised, but amply demonstrated by experience.20
This is not a mere foible. It underlines a sense that all of magic's stagecraft - the very motions of the performer - should be governed by a perspicuous rationality. There is even a chapter on deciding when exceptions to rules can be permitted. In this way, the text upholds magic's rationalist tradition, but in stylistic form. Manner, patter, pacing, narrative and effect are covered exhaustively; all should be trammeled by a set of laws.
An early chapter deals with the principle of 'unity'. Whatever variation is allowable in the effects a magician performs, each must have internal coherence. Maskeyne’s preference throughout is for balance, moderation, consistency, and harmonious composition. Here, for instance, are rules three and six:
Avoid complexity of procedure, and never tax either the patience or the memory of an audience.21
Let every accessory and incidental detail be kept well 'within the picture' and in harmony with the general impression which is intended to be conveyed.22
Above all, a magic trick must be distinct. It should focus the attention of the audience upon an exact spot, harnessing their undivided concentration: "in order to avoid anti-climax, we must leave nothing to be explained after the climax has occurred, and must introduce no subsequent matter of interest relating thereto."23 This requirement is elaborated in the terms of a scientific experiment. Rule seven:
Let nothing occur without an apparently substantial cause, and let every potential cause produce some apparently-consequential effect.24
Distinctness, lucidity, finality, rational construction: if these features amount to a style of movement, then it is not one intended to draw attention to the body. The ultimate effect of a magic trick is to be brought about in the spectator's mind, an event which itself requires the intellectual rigour of the performer. The magician's body is to be the vehicle of a rational intellect, totally in synchrony with its judgments.
Whilst this style was undoubtedly intended to contrast the overt display of niche skill in variety acts, it also raises wider questions about what magic is and why people perform it. Why assert that magic is an art? Because it is also work. For non-amateur magicians, it is a means of earning a living. As such, it develops in response to practicality, economic exigency and public reception. In this sense magic can equally be considered a trade or craft.
A tension between art and labour runs through Our Magic. Maskelyne is at his most convoluted when dealing with the pressure of 'exigency'. Is it permissible to deviate from the laws of magical performance if doing so produces the same effect on an audience as not? Under what circumstances is 'good enough for the public' a justification?25 Although Maskelyne's answers vary, the pragmatic contract between performer and audience, whereby the performer gauges expectations and does what is required for an hourly rate, is consistently presented as a pitiable compromise. "To an artist, 'good enough' is never good enough. His work must be correct; or, failing that, as nearly correct as circumstances permit."26 Moreover the kind of labour magic represents is never in question. Not mechanical, manual, or unskilled. As an art, magic is founded on the intellect:
Due recognition of the artistic claims of magic and magicians can only be brought about by proving that those who practise magic are something more than common jugglers, on the one hand, or common mechanical tinkers, on the other hand. Illusionists, prestidigitateurs, and general practitioners alike, must give proof of their artistic qualifications. This they can only do by realizing that magic is essentially an intellectual pursuit, and treating it as a true art - not merely as an embodiment of more or less intelligent skill.27
Whilst the bodies of Benjamin’s gamblers reverberate with the senseless jolts of machinery, the gestures of the magician, for Maskelyne, provide a window onto a lucid intellect. For Maskelyne, modern magic downplays its physical operation, acting as a conduit for the mind, and favouring an aesthetic of balance, proportion and clarity. For Benjamin, the modern subject is ceaselessly penetrated and broken apart, in a continual state of distraction. Against the opaque action of mechanical labour, Maskelyne dictates a style of performance in which the very movements of the body are bound to a rational architecture. Every motion must be seamless, the effect totally intelligible from beginning to end. This style depends on an unbroken connection between action and thought, between conception and execution. Its adversary is the populist reflex of variety theatre. Its antithesis is alienated labour.
What is his expression? Bitter, certainly. The clown stares right at us. He addresses us, quizzes us, quietly and seriously. His head is cocked slightly to one side. His stare seems directed not just at us but at our conscience. Who are you to look at me as you do? Bitter, almost disdainful, but not alien. Daumier has drawn the clown with a deep sympathy. He rebukes us silently, but he is not demonised in return.28
The clown, or sambaltique, stands in front of a roll-down drape showing a fat lady. Slung round his neck is a drum, which he beats with a pair of sticks. To his left is a jester standing on a chair, holding his body rigid like a plank of wood. To his right is an opening through which we can see, at some distance, a crowd milling about in front of a stage. On the stage is strong man, gesticulating with one arm raised in the air.
The crowd and the frenzy of the performance in the background are sketched in outline, a hazy suggestion of figures and movement. They enter the edge of the frame like a distant noise, off-setting the scene in the foreground which is solid, severe, almost static but for the tremor of the drum sticks.
The sambaltique, jester and fat lady are on display. They function as so many signs erected outside the entrance to a country fair ground, or whatever is going on in the distance. They are there to drum up an audience, to pull in passers by. They fulfil this role through their brute physical attributes - the clown's costume, the jester's contorted posture, the fat lady's fatness. But whilst they are there to be seen, they are also there to be neglected, seen in passing on the way to the stage, overlooked.
The jester does not look us in the eye. He has an expression beyond comprehension, a mixture of terror and extreme awkwardness, as though he is trying to avoid detection by pretending in fact to be a sign or a piece of scenery. The face of the clown, on the other hand, stares out from his costume. It is very much a portrait. We cannot look past him.
The sambaltiques pictures take up a centre ground in Daumier's stylistic repertoire. Many are drawings layered with areas of thin paint. Their crayon and ink work retains the wiry exaction of his caricatures; but they are not so quick; they are given depth and colour with gouache wash, and formally resolved. In this way they reflect Daumier's position as both painter and caricaturist. The figures in his paintings have mass and substantiality, as well as a certain principled idealism or even dreaminess, as though their faltering shapes were summoned through a remote, heroic effort. His lithographs by contrast have facility and precision. They were his daily toil and were done for mass-production. The sambaltiques have both the solidity of his painting and the acuity of his lithographs, accomplished in both form and line. In this way, they distil Daumier’s double role as both artist and worker - an artisan.
This, for T. J. Clarke, is exactly the source of Daumier's sympathy for the sambaltiques. The terrain of this stylistic centre ground is popular entertainment, performance and spectacle. Its subject is a class of itinerants, performers with precarious livelihoods travelling between towns and country fairs. Their trade, like Daumier's, is both art and labour. They belong to a diminishing class, marginalised with the advance of industrialisation. The drummer is an old man. Clarke unearths an exact context for this sympathy: a campaign of persecution against the sambaltiques peaking in the early 1850s. Through a combination of legal restrictions on the hours they could perform and permit requirements, the livelihood of the sambaltiques was criminalised.29
The same clown appears in a second picture.30 This time he is not in the country but in a city street. He is still at the periphery of the spectacle. Behind him is a conjurer's table on which are laid out cups, balls and a box. His drumming, though, appears to be entirely unsuccessful at rustling up a crowd. Figures pass in shadow in the background, remote and indifferent. Only a young boy looks on as though waiting for something to happen, idling with his hands in his pockets.
Everything in this picture is slightly grimmer than in the first. It is not possible to identify for sure which was done later, but the street scene appears to be later in the life of the sambaltique. His posture is identical, but the contours of his face are deeper, the skin of the drum more indented where he beats it.
There is also a shift, between the two pictures, in the way he drums. In the country, the sambaltique holds the left stick under his index finger, allowing it to bounce briskly off the drum; the stick in his right hand is held lightly between finger and thumb, the rest of the fingers splayed. In the city, the gesture has hardened. The drumsticks are gripped in clenched fists, passing under both his index and middle fingers. His thumbs press down on his fingertips.
The latter gesture is more timeworn. It is the action of drumming endlessly repeated. Work is relieved from the fingers by the thumbs, which clamp the fingers in place. The gesture is exact: it is a technique for drumming, when that drumming is done every day, for hours at a time. What matters is its durability. The fingers must not tire unbearably; the knuckles must weather the cold. The gesture must bear constant repetition.
Against the hardened, rationalist-auratic position represented by Our Magic, the cacophony of registers and modes of reception that During finds in the magic assemblage appears like a sort of democracy of sensation.31 It is tempting to look further, though, for an alternative or counter-narrative. Is there a vein of magic, or a mode of performance, that can be pitted against this mould of conjuring? It is not difficult to guess how to start looking. We have to change our orientation from high to low, from elitist to 'popular'. Benjamin’s theory of distraction suggests a method. It opposes any attempt to elevate, dignify or secure magic's cultural capital (just as Benjamin was so scathing of attempts to do the same for photography and film). Instead it embraces magic's non-qualities: lightness, inanity, repetitiousness, arbitrariness, one-offness, automation.
Moreover the theory of distraction suggests, in formal terms, what a counter-narrative may look like, and in doing so positions magic within a quintessential modernist frame. If aura is posited on a coherent subject, then distraction breaks apart the subject. If aura depends on distance, distraction operates through penetration and proximity. If aura surrounds a discreet object of contemplation, distraction jabs out, disorients our consciousness, jolts us into an acute, agitated state of awareness. Just as distraction belongs to an alienated world but also energises, agitates and arms, magic darts between enchantment and disenchantment. Crucially though the parameters of this interplay have shifted from a polarised rational-supernatural dichotomy to a more politicised and more interpenetrating pair: the potential both to alienate and to galvanise. But often magic winds up squarely on the side of disenchantment, either through deliberate secularisation or irony, or through sheer banality.
More specifically, the notion of distraction refuses to divorce culture from its modes of production and consumption. It is a register at home in advertising, and its rhythms echo the impact of machines on the bodies of workers. This throws into relief an obvious fact: magic often has a self-reflexive relation to the economic transactions it represents. Money is pulled from thin air, multiplied or transferred through a table. The audience is invited to make bets, lend banknotes or volunteer a valuable item such as a ring or watch.
In magic, the interconnection between culture and commerce – central to Benjaminian modernism – appears in a bald, literal form. For the viewer, it is entertainment; but for the magician, it is work, the act of making money through pedestrian deception. In magic, this dual function becomes unusually explicit. The spectacle becomes the obscure skill-set of the magician’s trade. Work becomes entertainment; entertainment, work. Magic appears, in this light, as a kind of spectacular commerce. The act of money changing hands is spun out into entertainment. To illustrate, and to suggest where this vein of magic may belong historically, it is worth outlining magic’s dramatisation of a form of commerce traditionally associated with it: crime, in particular theft, crooked gambling and fraud.
Criminality is one of the key ideological fault lines running through magic. A suggestion of its modern form can be found in an anecdote in the autobiography of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the celebrated 'father of modern magic', who was one of the central figures to establish magic as a reputable art form for middle-class theatregoers (he is all over the pages of Our Magic). The first magician that Robert-Houdin set eyes on as a child – a street performer passing through his home town of Blois in the mid-1820s – was both conjurer and criminal.32
The performer, called Dr. Carlosbach, did a lively version of the cups and balls, the signature item in a street magician's repertoire. For balls he used nutmegs, which disappeared, reappeared, passed through the cups, through the table, jumped to an onlooker's pocket, and were plucked from a child's nose. The child, perturbed, "half killed himself with sneezing, to see whether a few more spice balls might not be left in his brain".33 Next, Dr Carlosbach gave a lengthy speech on his prestigious scientific career and invited the crowd to try his miracle cure for parasitic infection. Before they had the chance, though, he broke into laughter, revealing his story as a pack of lies. Instead of giving away his medicine, he sold a how-to conjuring pamphlet.
From the outset, Robert-Houdin marks Dr Carlosbatch out as a charlatan. He does so initially, not on the basis of any crime, but because he mimics a class to which he does not belong. Robert-Houdin notes the jewel on his ring, which "a millionaire would not have disdained - had it not unfortunately been paste”.34 Likewise, he points out that Dr Carlosbach’s cups are "so well polished that they might have been taken for silver".35 These observations confer a certain connoisseurship on Robert-Houdin; even as a child he could distinguish real wealth and prestige from cheap imitation. When the pamphlet Dr Carlosbach sells turns out to be useless, and when, the following morning, he scarpers the tavern where he has been lodging without paying, the reader’s suspicions are confirmed.
Two key strands of magic’s modern thematic of crime can already be made out: firstly, a class-based condescension, which allowed magicians to distance themselves from the criminal connotations of their profession; secondly, their claim to a special knowledge of criminals’ means of deception (at this point Robert-Houdin’s knowledge is social rather than technical). These are the underpinning assumptions of a minor sub-literature among magicians' writings, which evolved in the mid-nineteenth century, in which magicians documented, categorised and chastised techniques used for cheating at cards, thievery and fraud. Hence criminality – once ascribed routinely to magic – began to be ascribed by magicians as experts. Held firmly at arm’s reach, crime emerged as a domain of knowledge within magic, which magicians could disclose and exploit in their performances.
A pivotal work in this respect is Robert-Houdin's Card-Sharpers: Their Tricks Exposed or The Art of Always Winning.36 The first and larger part of the book is a string of anecdotes chronicling Robert-Houdin's encounters with the criminal underworld of Paris. He recounts a visit to an infamous sharper who tries to rob him at knifepoint, a ball during which he scuppers a card cheat in the act, and the adventures and misadventures of his acquaintance Monsieur Raymond. The text contains a definite streak of moralism and a categorisation of criminal types, in which we can easily detect the notion of 'criminal' or 'dangerous' classes. The second half is technical, revealing card manipulations used by sharpers and illustrating them with diagrams. This part is more familiar from subsequent magicians' exposés, which tend to focus on the workings of criminals' sleights and ruses; but usually a rationalising, moralistic social agenda still underpins them. Prominent magicians such as John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Houdini have made contributions to this exposé literature of varying levels of technical detail and moral condescension; the tradition has continued up to the present in works by crooked gambling experts such as Darwin Ortiz and Frank Garcia.37
A further thread, though, can be drawn out of Robert-Houdin’s encounter with Dr Carlosbach. After the performance Robert-Houdin returns home with his head "full of a world of unknown sensations".38 What were these sensations? They were, at one level, the exoticism of another world and another class to that inhabited by the son of a middle-class watchmaker with secure prospects in his father's profession. But it was above all technique, Dr Carlosbach’s worldly ability, that had got under his skin. Robert-Houdin began learning magic surreptitiously - at dinner, on errands, at work - practicing sleight of hand in his pockets. Magic first took hold as an instinct that was repetitive and private, a secret, visceral impulse. In the first instance, the transmission from the criminal underworld to Robert-Houdin’s private world was almost mechanical, an obsessive, amoral reflex.
Magicians have exploited the fascination of criminal technique, which introduces a moral and social ambiguity into the contract between audience and performer. Spectators are positioned alternately as victims of a scam and those in the know, insiders and outsiders, dupes and confederates, whilst the magician treads a line between demonstrating criminal methods and becoming implicated in them, between knowing and seeming to know too much. Of acts which have made crime a central theme, Harry Houdini’s escapes from handcuffs and straightjackets (and, off-stage, from jail cells) are the most well known, and Charles Morritt’s optical stage illusions among the most inventive.39 Around the turn of the century, vaudeville and music hall stages were home to an intense exploration and development of this theme. Aside from a boom in escapology acts, the later part of this period saw the first stage pickpockets during the 1910s and '20s. Several magicians adopted the (historically predictable) figure of the 'gentleman pickpocket', 'gentleman thief' or something similar, upholding magic's traditional class-based superiority from real-world criminals. At a formal level, stage pickpocketing allows a particularly thoroughgoing form of theatrical exposé, in which magicians explain their exact procedures even as they steal the volunteer's watch, tie, glasses and so on.
In the twentieth century, these ingredients – theatrical exposé, criminal sleight of hand, bookish fascination with nuances of technique – found a narrow but constant home in close-up magic. Their most obvious manifestation is the gambling demonstration, in which the magician demonstrates the techniques of crooked card-play. Dai Vernon, who did much to consolidate the parameters and repertoire of close-up magic, combined the function of society conjurer with a passionate obsession with the techniques of advantage play with cards. His pilgrimages across the United States in search of cardsharps are the stuff of magic folklore. More importantly, though, Vernon established a pedagogical link between close-up magic and crooked gambling. His bible was an obscure text by the pseudonymous card sharp S. W. Erdnase from 1902 which treats of both areas.40 The cultural significance of this link, though, is less technical than thematic. The evocation of petty criminality, and particularly a shady milieu of card cheats, became an integral part of the drama of close-up. It has obvious exemplars: the pea and shell game, three-card monte, magician vs gambler routines.
Criminality undermines any attempt to interpret magic as supernatural fiction: it is an entirely secular theme. Not only that, it is relentlessly secular, an embodiment of worldly activity. Its implicit purpose is almost invariably economic: to make money or steal. The practices of criminals may not be disclosed to us, but there is no question that those practices are entirely earthly ones. The sketch above suggests a markedly secularised vein of magic, running from itinerant magic through variety theatre to close-up magic, which, in the push and pull of objects and people, conveys illicit, practical knowledge rather than supernatural ability. Such knowledge is both withheld and disclosed, creating a shifting configuration of insiders and outsiders. One moment the weave of the performance is loose and transparent, the next tight and opaque. One moment we are newly street-wise, equipped to defend ourselves against scams and hustles, the next we are lost in a big city. In dramatising crime, magic conveys a partially visible micro-economy, shifting in and out of view, flashing money at us, drawing our eyes through a mixture of scepticism, innocence and greed.
Danny Sylvester has the disquieting habit of taking his jokes too far. He is best known for his stage act as a cartoon, 'Sylvester the Jester'. He sidles on in a baggy purple suit and oversized top hat. His body obeys a cartoon logic. Wacky sounds emanate from him, in time with his actions: whooshes, twangs and clunks. His flesh is as pliable as a cartoon's. He sees the audience for the first time and his eyeballs shoot out ten inches from his skull. He grabs the sides of his mouth and stretches it a foot wide revealing all his gums and teeth. He sees an attractive woman and his tongue drops to the floor. But these things are not allowed outside the cartoon world. Clichés turn to carnage and hideous fixations, a terrible familiarity beyond the uncanny. He is a classic ‘toon who has stumbled into the world of gravity, where animated violence turns menacingly literal.
If on stage we are relieved by his remoteness, there is no such comfort in his close-up act. Here he seems to drop the conceit (“today I'm just being normal normal me”).41 But Danny Sylvester the human seems no less depraved. The look in his eye is unmistakably demonic, the look of an addict on a high. To introduce himself he removes and reattaches his fingers one by one, each time letting out a mocking, blood-curdling scream. For a moment afterwards, he seems not to know what to do. He shifts nervously on the spot, as though searching for something to occupy him. “So what do you wanna do now? I'm playing requests basically... It's all the good shit now.” His hands retract nervously to his pockets, arms ready to spring.
“Everybody loves money tricks right? Well how about that?” He reaches forward and pulls a silver dollar from behind the ear of someone in the front row. He reaches again and fetches another. Then another, and another, again and again. The motion - reach forward for the dollar, flick into the other hand and deposit in the pocket - becomes circular. It repeats like a loop, insistently probing, invading the spectator's personal space. The joke turns aggressive. He won't stop. Single coins turn to stacks that pour from his fist. Then a jumbo coin, plucked from the cartoon world. And then, out of nowhere, springs a colossal metal nut, an improbable heft of metal, which could have been taken from an industrial digger or an oil tanker.
For a cartoon, a chunk of metal – whether a nut or anvil – means punishment, a weight that crushes its body flat, or produces an elongated bump on its head. It is just revenge for a moment of folly or greedy rampage. If the flow of coins is cartoon capital feeding itself, capital generating more capital in a self-perpetuating cycle, then the nut is its comeuppance, the bubble bursting: boom followed by cartoon bust. Alternatively, it could be that the repetitive plucking of coins from the air mimics a production line. Coins are magically mass-produced. It is no longer a question of how a coin appears, but how a cyclic mechanism generates them endlessly. Singular effect becomes semi-automatic motion. The appearance of the nut is the mechanism breaking down, the nut snatched from the production line, leaving chaos in its wake.
To close his routine, he puts on an Italian accent. On the table are several fake tomatoes made of red sponge. Hushing his voice, he says “if you eat a tomato, don't eat the seed. What happens, is that the tomato plant start to grow in your stomach. Pretty soon you got forty, fifty, sixty, hundred tomatoes making their way from your stomach through your throat up to your mouth.” He eats a tomato. Bouncing sounds emanate from his belly. He shakes his shoulders as though he is having a fit. His cheeks bulge. A tomato appears in his mouth. He takes it out, and another immediately replaces it. Again he removes it, but they keep coming. Every time a tomato appears, his face goes blank with the stunned expression of someone who has just been sick.
We lose count. He vomits twenty or thirty tomatoes. Every time he seems to be getting the swing of it, another one takes him unawares and a morbid, queasy look returns to his face. He becomes weary, his eyebrows raised in resignation. The tomatoes get bigger. Two giant ones balloon from his mouth. This should be the climax, but another one comes up. It hangs in his mouth for a moment, his jaw slack, his features expressionless now, his eyes deadened. The mechanism of mass-production has jammed. There is a wrench in the works. It isn't funny anymore. The cycle has turned against him and defeated him. His technique has become a bodily spasm, a contraction of the diaphragm, a wretch. Skill has become an involuntary affliction. It brands him, stamps him physically. He is trapped in a spate of convulsions just as he is trapped in his own persona. He is stuck in a loop. His skill, his body, his personality, his fate, are one.
Moneyboxes adopt tactics to encourage their usage. A pedestrian may be more inclined to donate a coin if the moneybox assumes the shape of an animal or figurine. The slot can be strategically placed, offering the succinct pleasure of inserting a coin through a mouth or hat. In some models, the coin is inserted into a moneybox held by a teddy bear. (The box and the bear being one, the coin lands in the bear’s feet.)
In the entrance halls of museums and public galleries, we find moneyboxes in the form of prismatic glass cubes like giant designer perfume bottles with slots set into metal plaques. Their more complex strategy is to place the money you donate on display, alongside money previously given. They may recommend high donations, and reveal, in their icy chambers, furls of foreign banknotes scattered like flotsam and jetsam over a bed of coins. In a further variation, these transparent boxes can be extended upwards and flattened. Coins entered through slots at the top fall between two walls of glass, ricocheting off angled panels.
The latter type introduces a new principle. The incentive to donate a coin is now enhanced by the experience of watching its journey from the slot to the bottom of the box. This variable is full of potential. Perspex bars or runs can be positioned to draw out the coin's descent, to disrupt it, or to create multiple courses of gravity. Similarly, in a variation available in magic catalogues and toy shops, an angled mirror makes the coin disappear the moment it enters the slot.
Perhaps the ultimate model, typically stationed outside supermarkets, consists of a conical chute narrowing to a small hole, below which lies a hidden chamber of coins. The chute is patterned with stripes running in a spiral, and covered by a clear plastic dome. The slot is angled along the upper rim, such that a coin, pushed slightly, will roll around the chute along the line of the stripes. If the coin is introduced too hesitantly, it will clatter down the slope into the box below. With a little practice though it will complete several turns of the cone before reaching the dark opening at the centre where it drops from view.
The coin pays for the sight of what happens to it. The mechanism by which the coin falls out of your possession is worth the losing of it. There is a direct equation, aided by gravity, between what you put in and what you get out. The coin itself is the raw material of the attraction, which automatically replays to you the transaction you have just made in mesmeric form. At the same time, the flipside of this effect is a note of disappointment. The descent lasts only a few seconds, after which the coin abruptly disappears. The excitement is short lived and never peaks. The promise is greater than the result, the whole slightly less than the sum of its parts. (In slot machines this outcome is mathematically pre-determined, and not just at an experiential level: the casino must make a net income.)
Artefacts of the magic assemblage are scattered throughout Benjamin’s writings. Most iconically, in the opening aphorism of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, he pictures historical materialism as a chess-playing automaton, controlled secretly by a hunchback concealed in its base.42 Such an allusion, at one level, instances Benjamin’s broader interest in antique mechanical junk and outmoded spectacles from earlier phases of modernity – merry-go-rounds, clocks, fun-mirrors, flipbooks, the mechanical models at Lucca’s fair, the Daguerreotype. What was it that made such artefacts such suggestive raw material?
In One-way Street a sign flashes past our field of vision: KAISERPANORAMA.43 Was this fragment drawn from observation – that is, could Benjamin have seen it on the streets of 1920s Berlin – or was it drawn from a childhood memory? The Kaiserpanorama was a giant drum-shaped structure studded with a ring of viewing holes. Seated round the drum on stools the audience could peer through the holes, which revealed a regular succession of stereoscopic views. Elsewhere, Benjamin notes that this device immediately prefigured cinema’s mode of reception: not only were its images viewed collectively by an assembled audience, they were “already no longer unmoving,” foreshadowing the moving image.44 At the same time, this invention “gave particularly clear expression to a dialectics of development”:
Shortly before film turned the viewing of images into a collective experience, in front of the stereoscopes of these rapidly obsolete establishments image-viewing by the individual once again acquired the same power as had formerly attached to the priest’s contemplation of the divine image in the cella.45
Such contraptions, for Benjamin, were subtly imbued with the dialectics of modernity. He identifies a split resonance: one portion of the object is elongated, protruding into the future, whilst another recoils, looping back into the past. He had a deep sensitivity to the torn, overlapping lifeworlds of these objects, as for example when he recalls visiting a Kaiserpanorama as a child: “The art forms that survived here all died out with the coming of the twentieth century. At its inception, they found their last audience in children.”46
The magic assemblage, then, may have appealed to the cultural dialectician in Benjamin. One face of the artefact looks backwards into the past, the other looks into the future. The vital difference in the case of the distractions of his own time, exemplified in cinema and advertising, is that both faces have turned forwards, only onto very different futures. Furthermore those futures are foreshortened and totally uncertain. The dialectic is compacted in the moment rather than elongated. The prevalent mode of reception – collective viewing, distraction, shock – proceeds at a pace and with an energy that leaves only fragments. This energy though may coalesce, just as it may continue to fragment. It teeters perilously between two images of the future, projected at close range: one of ever-deepening alienation, the other of revolt.
Against this, the intimations of modernity in objects such as the Kaiserpanorama appear relatively self-contained. They preserve some of their aura. Their dialectic is more crystalline, more open to the approaches of contemplation. In One-way Street this dialectic appears in a slightly different form again. In one aphorism, for instance, Benjamin describes a rifle range. A single, compact paragraph enumerates fifteen or so mechanical scenes which, activated by a well-aimed gunshot, perform some action. A criminal is decapitated, two men turn a wheel, a bear dances.
Sleeping Beauty, too, could be roused by a shot, Snow White rescued from the apple through a shot, Red Riding Hood think herself saved as a result of a shot. A hit, like a magic wand, brings a healing force into the lives of these dolls that, by beheading the monsters, reveals them as princesses.47
The appeal of the attraction, whilst undeniably quaint, is also its mechanical profusion. There is a slender irony in the way Benjamin abuts the language of enchantment and causality; the way a doll representing Red Riding Hood, at the tail end of a list, can “think herself saved” because she is mechanically induced to (“as a result of”) by an action which could just as easily rouse Snow White. This is a form of enchantment which is always threatening to fall flat. Another doll, a ‘Moor’
seems to be leaning forward slightly. He proffers a golden salver, on which lie three apples. The first opens, it contains a tiny person, bowing low. In the second, two equally tiny dolls pirouette. (The third did not open.)48
If one face of the artefact here is turned towards the past, then the world it looks at is obscured. The spectacle is flattened, drained of illusion; and when it packs up, there is no great disappointment (“The third did not open”). Its other face, turned to the future, addresses us as a fragmented remnant, inane, jittery and automated. The attraction, stripped of depth, its aura banished, reduced to a surface of perfunctory reflexes, appears as a kind of proto-distraction. Its illusion undone or faded, we are left with the insistence of its mechanism and motion.
This may be where a Benjaminian conception of magic settles: as a form of proto-distraction. One face looks to the future, a premonition written in miniature in its features. The other is dumb and expressionless, or frozen in some contorted grin, and drained of aura. On the one hand this magic is infected with a modern animus. It intimates distraction proper in its patterns of motion (lunging, penetration, repetition) and in its bald commercialism. It also leaves something of distraction’s psychological imprint, namely the fragmentation and dissolution of the rational subject. On the other hand, it always threatens to collapse into an inert state. The illusion has no depth. Where it does not maintain a state of hectic, repetitious motion, it immediately flattens out. Just as a flashing sign is either on or off, or a switch is either up or down, it jumps between frenetic animation and banal anachronism, between disquiet and defeat.
If a moneybox illustrates this kind of magic at its most banal and most pure – the intrigue of the coin racing over the stripes ending abruptly when the coin reaches the bottom of the spiral – then in Del Ray’s performances it appears in a more frenzied form. Even so, Del Ray is not averse to a kind of banality. Some of his routines are semi-automated. In one, a mechanical songbird predicts a roll of dice by chirping. A volunteer tips the dice down a Perspex chute with angled shelves. They clatter from one shelf to the next and land in a glass bowl. Every time, the bird divines their value. The performance is framed as a game (the omnipresent banknote is laid by the bird), only here the volunteer cedes control to a piece of plastic paraphernalia, and the magician to an inane automaton.49
When Del Ray slaps a fifty-dollar bill on the table during a card routine, he instantaneously sets up the coordinates of a drama.50 These coordinates form a triangle. They are: the magician, the audience and something to be lost or gained (the banknote). The bill is placed between the cards and the spectators, in easy reaching distance but never theirs. There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between the magician and audience via the bill. This triangular dynamic resembles a sales pitch. The question is no longer what is known but how much a guess is worth. Del Ray talks as though he is selling us something: the language of a street vendor, the same haste and persuasiveness. Money is a degrading third term, a soft spot, a constant reference point; spatially, it is a point on the table off which, angled correctly, Del Ray’s pitch ricochets into the eyes of onlookers.
A pitch is a lunging, forward motion. It is something thrown down (pitched). It is bait to catch the eye of a passer by and a hook to reel them in. Benjamin writes of the "telepathy of the coachman, whose cry first alerts us to the fact that we are not averse to taking a drive, of the skinflint trader who extracts from his heap of junk the only chain or cameo that might conceivably catch our fancy".51 Del Ray has this secular telepathy. He keeps an eye on the expressions of his spectators. He knows the looks of intrigue and boredom in their faces. He knows when to milk an effect further and the exact moment to skip to the next. He is responsive to the sparks of recognition that fly in precious milliseconds from one stall to the next, or in a long-angle glance from the other side of the room. His gestures have the effect of street calls.
There is an undertone here of magic’s exposé tradition. The promise of exposure is written into Del Ray's very actions. Their speed, their brashness and above all their repetitiousness hint at a piecemeal revelation of technique. Whatever can be grasped, it is clear that he operates by secular technique, holding out the promise of secular understanding. The more you watch the more you hope to see; if you don't catch him this time, you might the next. This is his street call, his pitch. The tendency towards exposure is the tilt that inclines us, as though down a familiar path, to his table top.
But it remains a tendency. This is true not only because we do not, finally, discover any secrets. (This much is commonplace in exposé routines.) The inexorable pace of effects creates a permanent suspension, a stubborn middle-ground between misdirection and exposure. Something compelling happens to cause and effect. They are not presented sequentially, confounding cause with impossible effect. They are out of step, but never head to head. Did he really put the card on the table, or was I not watching closely enough? Next time, I'll watch closer. Effects have a short lifespan, or half-life. They function in the moment, for a moment, keeping the audience one step behind, but not completely in the dark. They are riddles to be solved, but there is not enough time to solve them. Hence the importance of speed. No point is laboured, or final. The logic of the performance is antagonistic, rather than contradictory.
In fact, it would be more accurate not to speak in terms of effects at all. If effects are discreet, impossible occurrences, then there are no effects (either that or a multitude of half-effects). Rather, there is an effect, singular: a charismatic style of movement, a consistency, a tension, an incline. We are neither brought closer to an understanding nor left at a complete loss. We feel we might understand more, if only we could slow the movement down. The experience is nonlinear, like being caught in the gears of a mechanism.
Hence, whilst this is a secular tendency, it is not a rationalising one. It is the perpetual motion of spectacular commerce. We experience it as an animal caught in a machine. Del Ray performs neither miracles nor science; he defers neither to aura nor objectivity. The movement of his hands over the table has the pace and rhythm of goods moving over a counter: “the mercantile look penetrating to the heart of things”.52 The whole motion cannot be grasped at once, nor can it be dissected. Its trick is a trick of the look, a mean switch. It cuts across our concentration, and cannot be held still in the mind’s eye.
1. Royal Academy of Arts, Daumier: Visions of Paris (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2013), p. 104.
2. Nevil Maskelyne, ‘The Theory of Magic’ in David Devant and Nevil Maskelyne, Our Magic: The Art in Magic, The Theory of Magic, The Practice of Magic (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1911), p. 176. His italics.
3. Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 63-4.
4. ibid. pp. 63. During explores magic’s boredom-inducing potential via a Franz Kafka story, in which the audience’s behaviour is of as much if not more interest than the performance (pp. 60-1). Magic’s “nullity” is an important facet of the magic assemblage, and is noted throughout the book (see e.g. p. 194).
5. The footage is said to have been filmed in a “Country Club in the early 1980’s”. ‘A Few Minutes With Del Ray : Part 1’, [video] MAGIC NEWSWIRE TV, 6 September 2010, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSHW6gZQD6U> [accessed 26 August 2014]. Del Ray had a successful career as a close-up and nightclub magician from the early 1950s to the late 1990s. See Del Ray: America’s Foremost, The Magician for His Time (David M. Baldwin, Robert A. Escher, William E. Spooner, 2010). Extracts available at <http://johnmoehring.com/pdf/Del_Ray_excerpts.pdf> [accessed 2 September 2014].
6. Ken Weber, Maximum Entertainment: Director’s Notes for Magicians and Mentalists (New York: Ken Weber Productions, 2003), p. 117.
7. Walter Benjamin, ‘One-way Street’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, trans. J. A. Underwood (London: Penguin, 2008), pp. 94-6.
8. Ibid. p. 96.
9. Ibid. p. 97
10. Nevil Maskelyne, 'The Art in Magic' in Our Magic, pp. 83-4.
11. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, p. 248.
12. Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn (London: Pimlico, 1999 ), p. 173.
13. Edwin A. Dawes, The Great Illusionists (Newton Abbot; London: David & Charles, 1979), p. 159.
14. During, p. 157.
15. Devant and Maskelyne, Our Magic, p. viii.
16. Barry J. Faulk, Music Hall and Modernity: The Late Victorian Discovery of Popular Culture (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2004).
17. Maskelyne, ‘The Art in Magic’ in Our Magic, p. 94.
18. Ibid. p. 40.
19. Ibid. p. 64.
20. Ibid. p. 92.
21. Ibid. p. 33.
22. Ibid. p. 46.
23. Ibid. p. 90.
24. Ibid. p. 53.
25. Ibid. pp. 59-60.
26. Ibid. p. 64.
27. Ibid. pp. 165-6.
28. Royal Academy of Arts, p. 162.
29. T. J. Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999 ), pp. 120-1.
30. Royal Academy of Arts, p. 163.
31. Here it is worth pointing out that Our Magic broadly followed the lead of previous classics of conjuring literature. To cite one example, C. Lang Neil writes that “[c]onjuring consists in the performer’s audience being led to believe that certain definite actions have been carried out before them, while they presently discover that the results of those actions are something directly contrary to any natural law. […] It is thus the mind of the spectator which must be deceived.” See C. Lang Neil, The Modern Conjurer and Drawing-Room Entertainer (London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd., 1903), pp. 19-20.
32. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjuror, trans. Lascelles Wraxall (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860).
33. Ibid. p. 10.
34. Ibid. p. 9.
35. Ibid. p. 10.
36. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Card-Sharpers: Their Tricks Exposed or The Art of Always Winning, trans. Joseph Forster (London: Spencer Blackett, 1891).
37. See John Nevil Maskelyne, 'Sharps and Flats': A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill (London, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894). Harry Houdini, The Right Way to Do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful Criminals (New York: Cosimo, 2007 ). Darwin Ortiz, Gambling Scams: How They Work: How to Detect Them: How to Protect Yourself (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984). Frank Garcia, How to Detect Crooked Gambling: Marked Cards and Loaded Dice (New York: Arco Publishing Company, Inc., 1977 ). See also e.g. Walter B. Gibson, The Bunco Book: An Amazing Adventure into the Methods of the Bunco Man, From the Carnival Worker With His So-Called Games of Chance to the Sharpers, Confidence Men and Schemers of the Get-Rich-Quick Variety, A Complete Exposé Designed as a Protection Against the Unscrupulous (Holyoke, Mass.: Sidney H. Radner, 1946).
38. Robert-Houdin, Memoirs, p. 12.
39. Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learnt to Disappear (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), pp. 122-4.
40. S. W. Erdnase, Artifice Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table: A Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards (Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Co., 1902).
41. ‘Danny Sylvester performing in the Close-Up parlor at the Magic Castle’, [video] Tom Frank, 26 February 2013 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZXVJd-mnOs> [accessed 26 August 2014].
42. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses On The Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, p.245. This invention dating from the late 18th century was echoed in the automata of George Cooke and John Nevil Maskelyne, Nevil Maskelyne’s father (See Dawes, p.163). The first thesis of Benjamin’s essay forms a symmetrical pair with the last in which he attributes something of the historical materialist’s conception of time to the soothsayer. There is clearly a sense in which a dialectical understanding of history is prefigured – if not embodied – by trickwork and sham prophecy.
43. Benjamin, ‘One-way Street’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, p. 57.
44. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, p. 278.
45. Ibid. p. 278.
46. Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood around 1900, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 43-44.
47. Benjamin, ‘One-way Street’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, p. 93.
48. Ibid. p. 93.
49. ‘Del Ray's Dice Baffle Dick Cavett’, [video] MAGIC NEWSWIRE TV, 15 August 2010, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk0LbHg-8Es> [accessed 26 August 2014]. Del Ray was known for his deployment of electronics in magic. Another model of automaton he used was a drinking bear by the name of Butch. See Moehring, p. 10.
50. ‘A Few Minutes With Del Ray : Part 1’.
51. Benjamin, ‘One-way Street’ in One-way Street and Other Writings, p. 113.
52. Ibid. p. 97.