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MAGIC IN THEORY by Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman. Hatfield, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: University of Hertfordshire Press, and Seattle, WA: Hermetic Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 175. [pound]18.99 (hardcover). ISBN 0-900458-93-3.

Much has been said and written about the role of the conjuror in parapsychological research. Magicians have been consulted by researchers for both the purpose of looking at specific research methodologies and to provide consultation with regard to testing self-professed psychic claimants. Sessions at the annual meetings of the Parapsychological Association have occasionally included magicians and in-the-know researchers providing an overview of the knowledge of conjuring one might need for research and field investigation.

The authors of Magic in Theory underscore a point made by many magicians in the past: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many researchers and many magicians have fallen victim to the belief that understanding some of the methods of the conjuring effect, especially those that can be applied by the pseudo-psychic, can ensure their abilities to catch frauds at their work. Although it is true that knowing methods can help, new effects, new applications of methods, and even new methods are constantly being developed by magicians. Even magicians can be, and are, deceived by unfamiliar methods and effects again and again.

For the researcher, learning the theory behind why the methods deceive can be of greater assistance in considering what other than psi might be responsible for a given event than learning specific methods, although one shouldn't ignore the latter.

The literature on conjuring is massive and uneven in scope and level of expertise. Trying to wade through it is a daunting task, even for magicians. There are a number of books dealing with the theory of magic and the psychology of deception published within the conjuring literature, but these may be too dense for many psi researchers and psychologists alike, generally because of the depth of conjuring knowledge that is taken for granted. Books and articles on the subject written for parapsychologists or psychologists make similar assumptions about the knowledge level of their audiences yet often leave out much of conjuring theory as it is applied to actual magic effects. As Lamont and Wiseman state in their introduction, "most of this literature has been written by, and intended for, these rather specialized audiences" (p. x).

Magic in Theory is, as stated by the authors, "the first attempt to draw together these different theoretical approaches and present them in a way that is accessible to a non-technical readership." Furthermore, the authors went to the trouble of interviewing several professional performers who are recognized for their knowledge and "insight into conjuring psychology and theory" (p. x): Max Maven, Michael Weber, Mac King, Darwin Ortiz, Lance Burton, and Tommy Wonder. Comments from these experts truly add to the book.

Lamont and Wiseman make one other major point in the introduction: "The purpose of this book is to present the theoretical and psychological elements of magic as understood by magicians" (p. x).

Lamont and Wiseman, both of whom are performing magicians in their own right, do provide extensive discussion and breakdown of basic theory behind many conjuring methods and effects, although the emphasis is more heavily on sleights than on gimmicks. For the parapsychologist reader, this is generally a better focus.

The book is composed of an introduction, six chapters; the last of which is a bibliography; and an appendix. The first chapter, titled "Magic Tricks and How They Are Done: An Elementary Framework of Conjuring Effects and Methods," provides a very good breakdown of the kinds of effects based on what happens within them, although the classification would be considered by some performers to be incomplete.

For the parapsychological researcher who might observe a claimed psychic demonstration, this classification by effect--in essence, what the audience perceives ("what happens")--is a way to look for possible conjuring methods once one defines and outlines the events in that demonstration. It is important to note that one must often use a little creativity to apply the categories to demonstrations. Is there a vanish, a transposition, or a transformation? A penetration or restoration? Psychokinesis is listed with its own category and is defined to relate to "movement of objects" (p. 6), including levitation. The definition would exclude metal bending (which could be placed in the category of transformation), and a stage illusionist rarely, if ever, would consider a floating illusion to be labeled as psychokinesis. However, the authors do take note of this later in the chapter in their discussion of methods.

In Chapter 1 Lamont and Wiseman go on to explain some of the strategies behind the effects, further breaking them down to note some specific methods that would create the appropriate perception in the audience. This is a solid introduction to thinking in terms of different methods that might produce the same effect for both the nonmagician audience and readers who are just getting into conjuring. It is important to note that there are variations on and expansions of the methods that are noted as used by magicians. Magicians fooled by other magicians often are at the mercy of limiting their thinking to specific methods they assume are being used. On the plus side, I was pleased to see a brief discussion of the limitations of the authors' outline included at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 2 deals with "misdirection" as central to the performance of magic. However, as the authors note, there is "some disagreement as to what misdirection is" (p. 28). In this chapter Lamont and Wiseman attempt to define misdirection and then break it down into different types--physical and psychological--and specific means of directing the attention of the audience. Novices in the field of conjuring may be surprised at the diversity of ways one might misdirect attention. I found this chapter to be well thought out and extremely applicable to the observation of possible pseudo-psychics.

Misdirection is, in some respects, the act of diverting attention from the method within an effect. Magicians learn early on that pointing, with natural hand, body, and eye movements, is an excellent way to control attention. According to the authors, this, most commonly thought of as misdirection--that is, using physical cues to direct where the audience looks--can further be broken down into both active and passive diversion. Active means include the above-mentioned techniques, the use of the voice, and other sources of attention getting (e.g., a loud noise offstage, the skimpy outfits of the magician's assistant, etc.). "Passive diversion is the use of natural conditions of primary and secondary interest" (p. 40), including novelty, movement, and contrast.

Timing is an important factor in the presentation of an effect. The authors point to physical misdirection as also directing the timing of the spectators' attention. There are a number of effects that rely on either increasing or reducing attention at the moment the method is put into play, and mentalists take full advantage of this. This is a lesson that must be learned by anyone observing a self-professed psychic.

Lamont and Wiseman segue from their discussion of psychological misdirection to the topic of dealing with the reduction or diversion of the suspicion in the spectators' minds. In learning sleight of hand, it is stressed that natural movements and gestures are extremely important in allaying suspicion. Holding one's hand in an unnatural position (such as can occur when palming a coin or other object) is a red flag that draws unwanted attention. The discussion of ways of reducing suspicion through the performer's behavior and of diverting it by providing false expectations or solutions is a very good one.

An understanding of misdirection is essential when looking at potential pseudo-psychic activity, and it is very important to recognize that it is notjust where one looks, but when one looks. Considering how a participant may manipulate the observers through both physical and psychological misdirection requires an understanding of the principles.

In Chapter 3, "Reconstruction," the authors discuss how a spectator or observer might mentally reconstruct an event he or she has seen. We all like to think we as trained scientists are excellent observers, but reconstructing a conjuring effect to get at the method is often a difficult thing. In this chapter Lamont and Wiseman make some excellent points regarding how a spectator might consider--and reject--different methods, how a lack of either conjuring or scientific knowledge can affect such considerations, and how recall (memory) plays a hand in this. One important point made is that magicians may repeat an effect a number of times, using a different method each time. This further confounds an accurate reconstruction of what happened.

If a performer is a good one, and makes good use of principles of misdirection and presentation, then the spectator may not be able to accurately recall and reconstruct what he or she observed. When that happens, the method is safe. In addition, some methods might be seen as too implausible to consider, based on the context in which the effect is presented.

In Chapter 4 the authors discuss the question "What's the difference between a magician and a pseudo-psychic?" This chapter provides further discussion of ways that a pseudo-psychic might misdirect suspicion. One focus is on the presentation of a persona on the part of the performer, in that a pseudo-psychic would generally not want to be seen as a performer at all. The magician is a deceiver--although for entertainment purposes, whereas the pseudo-psychic feels he or she must not be seen in this way. The pseudo-psychic takes advantage of the beliefs of the spectators, whereas the magician might hope for suspension of disbelief while performing.

In this chapter Lamont and Wiseman discuss a variety of factors involved in the presentation of the pseudo-psychic persona and "abilities," from a consideration of how the effect is framed (presentation context, claims, etc.) to the exploitation of the conditions (physical conditions and environment of the location) under which the demonstrations are conducted. Pseudo-psychics may be better equipped to improvise, and they certainly have an "out" when it comes to failure. As we all know, a magic trick is supposed to succeed, or else the magician is possibly incompetent, whereas psi is not something on which one can rely.

Although Lamont and Wiseman briefly touch on the difference between mentalists and magicians in the book, this chapter would have been more complete if there were further discussion of how mentalists, also known as psychic entertainers, differ from magicians and from pseudo-psychics. The performance of mentalists may be closer to that of the pseudo-psychics than to magicians. There is a clear difference in the way an audience perceives and reconstructs events when one compares a magic trick and a demonstration of psychic entertainment. A bit of mentalism could be real psi, but a conjuring effect is just a trick, an illusion. The framing of an effect can clearly, as the authors note, change the way the audience members consider what they observed. A card trick with a deck of playing cards is just a trick. A card trick performed with tarot cards is something different and often unexplainable. Even magicians can fall prey to this.

In Chapter 5 the authors attempt to put conjuring theory into perspective by "discussing the function of conjuring theory and exploring some of the disagreements within it" (p. 135). They attempt to put magic theory into the context of performance. Knowing theory does not mean one will be able to go out and perform an effect. Knowing theory does not mean one will be able to observe an effect and understand its method. However, knowing conjuring theory can aid one in considering how to make an effect work better with regard to audience perceptions. Knowing theory can allow one to better consider alternatives when trying to reconstruct methods.

I applaud the authors for discussing some of the theoretical disagreements among magicians. It shows that there is no unified front even within the field of conjuring and that personal biases can affect the theory and, therefore, the understanding of methods. It also shows that the very language--for example, what one means by misdirection, or how one describes specific methods--may differ from magician to magician.

The final chapter, 6, is "a bibliography of conjuring psychology and theory." The bibliography is broken into three parts. The first, "books by magicians and articles in non-magic journals" will absolutely lead the reader to sources that can provide much richer material with more depth and breadth dealing with the psychology of conjuring. Although some of these publications will be in the personal libraries of many magicians, most people who identify themselves as magicians will be unaware of the tides or, if they are aware, will not have read most of them.

The nonmagic journals will, of course, be more easily accessible to the nonmagician. Although libraries often have magic books on their shelves, trying to find most of these books will be difficult unless one goes through a magic dealer. Fortunately for interested researchers--and perhaps unfortunately for the conjuring field trying to keep methods close--there is an explosion of dealers on the World Wide Web that list many of these tides.

The second part of the bibliography, "magic books containing theoretical essays, and magic journals," contains some excellent references from within the conjuring literature. Again, the books will be generally available only through magic dealers, and the journals will be hard to find anywhere, unless they have been published in a compilation edition.

The references cited in the text are compiled in the first two parts of the bibliography. Unfortunately, the separation of the two lists makes it a bit tedious to try to find the titles to which the references connect. I often found myself having to refer to both lists looking for a particular author's work or for a specific volume by an author. There is no attempt in the references within the first five chapters to point the reader to specific parts of the bibliography.

The third part of the bibliography lists "references not in the bibliography." I found this list useful in that it provides references to several other magic books of note, although more for the references to the literature of mentalism and some relevant citations to parapsychological publications.

Finally, the authors include an appendix that reviews "methodological devices for conjuring effects." Relating this back to Chapter 1, the Appendix provides a brief overview of methods to accomplish certain conjuring strategies. The authors introduce further conjuring jargon that does help in conceptualizing how some of the basic strategies can be performed. On the other hand, it seems to present a bit of an afterthought to the book. I had a hard time understanding why the material in the Appendix was included separately rather than integrated into the first chapter.

Overall, I would say this book can provide some interesting insight into the thinking behind many forms of conjuring methods and effects. For the parapsychologist, this should be considered a useful introduction to the workings of the mind of a creative thinker in the field of conjuring. In addition, it provides a much-needed understanding of the workings of various forms of misdirection and of the relevance of framing, conditions, and setting to the success of both magic and pseudo-psychic effects.

However, that the authors are magicians rather than mentalists did come through quite strongly in this book. There is much more to consider from the mentalist's perspective than the brief discussion they present. As I mentioned above, the presentation of mentalism is often closer to that of a pseudo-psychic than to that of a magician. There has been much written within the community of psychic entertainers dealing with the theory behind such presentation and achieving believability with the audience. Magic in Theory would have benefited from further discussion of mentalism and psychic entertainment.

For the psychologist interested in the psychology of deception, I can see this book being very useful as a way into the minds of magicians and audience perceptions.

For the magician, this book has mixed appeal. The magician interested in understanding why his or her magic works at all can certainly benefit. The magician working on creating new effects will also benefit from the authors' presentation of theoretical considerations for effects.

However, the focus on sleight of hand and close-up magic, coupled with the seemingly excruciating level of detail, may turn off a large number of performers interested in platform or stage magic or who are more concerned with the "how" rather than the "why." The book might have been best described to magicians as giving them a handle as to why their effects work and why they might not. Of course, such magicians will probably never pick up a book with the word theory in the title.

In addition, magicians who are well versed or even somewhat acquainted with conjuring theory and psychology might find the book overly simplistic yet still a good reference book because of its simplicity.

Finally, the availability of the book ought to be mentioned. Although it is published by a university press in the United Kingdom, here in the United States it is published by Hermetic Press, a publisher of excellent magic and mentalism volumes. What that means, however, is that the book will generally be available only through magic dealers, and because of that the price may vary. Parapsychologists who are interested in purchasing this book and do not have access to a local magic shop should consider ordering a copy from one of the on-line magic dealers.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Journal of Parapsychology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000

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