Thursday, October 6, 2011

Graham Jones's "Trade of the Tricks"

Graham M. Jones is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He applied “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Trade of the Tricks: Inside the Magician's Craft, and reported the following:
This is a book about secrets. Magicians use secret procedures, concealed maneuvers and veiled intentions to create illusions. A part of the thrill of a magic show is the intense curiosity their hidden skills provoke. Some of magicians’ secrets have been in circulation for hundreds of years, but magic is also a generative system in which new sleight-of-hand techniques or illusionary gimmicks are developed all the time. These new secrets have a special cachet among magicians, who crave cutting-edge illusions and who are fascinated by technical innovation.

Studying the secretive subculture of entertainment magicians in contemporary France as an anthropological fieldworker, I learned just how fragile secrets are. There are no effective legal protections for magicians’ intellectual property, so they secure secrets in other ways. While the circulation of secrets seems confusing and disorganized, there are some basic principles at work beneath the surface.

Page 99 is one of the most exciting pages in the book, because it details a particular instance of a magician revealing a secret to several novices. He cites the name of the person who invented the secret and taught it to him, articulating a lineage of transmission into which the recipients are now inscribed. He authorizes them to use it in performing for non-magicians, but forbids them from showing it to other magicians. Such qualifications restrict the free flow of information, but they also tacitly convey the value of the secret and the moral responsibilities associated with receiving it. Repeatedly participating in interactions like this instills a strong vocational sensibility and inspires a sense of membership.

Magicians I worked with worry about the long-term effects of mass media on the way that secrets circulate. It's now possible to buy or otherwise access secrets over the Internet without ever encountering another magician. Some older magicians are concerned that this kind of depersonalized, commoditized circulation fundamentally changes the significance of secrets by detaching them from social relationships and community norms. In this way, the case of magic offers a surprisingly rich vantage for thinking about the cultural consequences of information technologies.
Learn more about Trade of the Tricks at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue