Tom Stone's Definition of Magic

Discuss the views of your favorite Genii columnists.

Postby Matthew Field » 02/01/13 09:49 AM

I was surprised to see no discussion of Tom Stone's definition of magic in his January column, or of anyone taking up his challenge to come up with an alternative.

So here goes.

Magic: a performance in which the audience experiences a result inconsistent with the expectations their knowledge has led them to anticipate.

Tom's column, and all of his writings, are among my favorites in magic.

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Postby JHostler » 02/01/13 10:57 AM

Tom's definition rests on the broad concept of cognitive dissonance. Accordingly, the Grateful Dead following "Scarlet Begonias" with "Dire Wolf" - rather than "Fire on the Mountain" - circa 1989 would qualify as magic. [The Heads would be simultaneously delighted to hear DW, long for the Fire, second-guess their chemically altered ears, etc. etc.] I'd alter and simplify his text as follows:

"A dramatic/choreographic presentation that intentionally and successfully evokes a sense of astonishment by apparently violating all known scientific and natural law."
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Postby Tom Stone » 02/01/13 11:03 AM

Will Houstoun emailed me some rather astute observations on my piece. I'm still pondering over them.

Matt, your attempt, can you point out how it includes Out of this world, but excludes the 1995 movie "The Usual Suspects"?
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Postby Tom Stone » 02/01/13 11:09 AM

John, I don't know Grateful Dead, but I like your approach. :)

However, violating natural law... There are plenty of effects where natural laws aren't broken. Finding a chosen card by the sense of smell would be within natural law for many mammals, and not an unreasonable thought that a human might be able to do the same thing. :)
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Postby JHostler » 02/01/13 11:13 AM

Tom Stone wrote:John, I don't know Grateful Dead, but I like your approach. :)

However, violating natural law... There are plenty of effects where natural laws aren't broken. Finding a chosen card by the sense of smell would be within natural law for many mammals, and not an unreasonable thought that a human might be able to do the same thing. :)


Glad you brought that up: I'm drawing a line between "magic" and "demonstrations of skill." Performances scripted as the latter might be entertaining (even astonishing), but magic begone!

There's an inherent paradox for folks marketing themselves as magicians. While we might consider such skill-related "patter" (gawd I hate that term!) clever and/or theatrical, it can actually detract from who/what we claim to be. Are we puzzlemeisters, gambling experts, jugglers, or biological anomalies... or are we magicians?
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Postby mrgoat » 02/01/13 11:17 AM

Magic: When you make someone feel, even for a split second, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/01/13 11:48 AM

mrgoat wrote:Magic: When you make someone feel, even for a split second, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve.


That approach just renames the elephant and puts it in a different imaginary context. Unnecessary multicplication of undefineds IMHO.

Have you ever picked up a your coffee and sipped it when you were thinking about your orange juice?
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Postby Matthew Field » 02/01/13 12:13 PM

Tom -- Good point. Back to the drawing board.

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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/01/13 12:22 PM

Damian, I like your definition. A lot.
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Postby JHostler » 02/01/13 12:31 PM

mrgoat wrote:Magic: When you make someone feel, even for a split second, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve.


Not to split hairs (though I will): I totally "get" this notion, but maybe this is what defines "magical" versus "magic." Love him or hate him, Doug Henning was all about "magical" and the sense of childlike wonder. Paul Harris tackled the same notion in his AoA essays ("pieces of strange" etc.). Gambling demonstrations, for example, might be magical in the sense of requiring nearly inhuman skill - but wouldn't necessarily qualify as "magic." In my own little body of work, I've tried to differentiate between the two and script accordingly. A great example stems from Simon Aronson's Shuffle-bored, which many performers have wriggled into a massive prediction piece. From a structural standpoint, the thing has always functioned [IMO] much better as a demonstration of pure skill - hence my personal variation with a borrowed deck. Magical, maybe, but not magic.
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Postby mrgoat » 02/01/13 12:43 PM

Yes, you are right. However, I don't think anyone leaves a gambling demo feeling magical or that they have seen magic. They've seen a display of skill.
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Postby Matthew Field » 02/01/13 12:46 PM

Problem with Damian's def is that if I give you a surprise party, or a gift of that DVD set I know you were hankering for, you fell like that 6 year old kid. It ain't magic -- well maybe it's magic of a different sort.

What about Bizarre Magick? Does that fit Damian's def? A gambling demo?

How about the Linking Rings. 6 year old on Christmas eve? I think not.

Mebbe none of those are, in Damian's view, magic.

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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/01/13 12:47 PM

mrgoat wrote:Yes, you are right. However, I don't think anyone leaves a gambling demo feeling magical or that they have seen magic. They've seen a display of skill.


if you can get to the point where they feel sure you are not using skill...
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Postby Ian Kendall » 02/01/13 01:05 PM

I've never seen a gambling demo where the performer alludes to supernatural methods. That's the point; it is a display of skill, supposedly used at a gaming table. Unless you are playing Gandalf in the Middle Earth Hold'Em Invitational, it's going to be a moot distinction.
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Postby Glenn Bishop » 02/01/13 01:21 PM

Ian Kendall wrote:I've never seen a gambling demo where the performer alludes to supernatural methods.

Oh I have. And on top of that the audience walked away feeling that they witnessed someone with skill that could not be explained other than supernatural.

And in my opinion that is what magic is partly about. The how did "he or she" do that? And then have the audience feel that the performer could not do that in any other way - other than "It's Magic".

Poker deals and gambling demo's are often explained as a show of skill - I agree but that is only a very small part of the performance.

Shows of skill that go on to long often get boring for an audience of lay people. As a performance there needs to be a lot more to it than just a show of skill (In my opinion).

I remember Jack Pyle telling me this story. He spent a lot of money on gambling equipment, holdouts, dice, etc. And put together a lecture act. The first few shows he used all that he bombed big time. The reason was that his lecture - a show of skill and education - was boring to the audience.

So he re-did his lecture into an act. Added card magic and humor, plus his show of skill - and his kicker his bridge deal and his act became bookable and he was successful.

Just a few thoughts and opinion.
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Postby mrgoat » 02/01/13 01:37 PM

Matthew Field wrote:Problem with Damian's def is that if I give you a surprise party, or a gift of that DVD set I know you were hankering for, you fell like that 6 year old kid. It ain't magic -- well maybe it's magic of a different sort.


Oh I think that is exactly the same kind of magic, in a way. Well, the same feeling I strive to create.

Matthew Field wrote:What about Bizarre Magick? Does that fit Damian's def? A gambling demo?


I don't think gambling demos are magic or magical. They are a display of skill. They are awesome, but not magic, to me.

I've seen so little Bizarre stuff I can't really say. But I think Eugene will create a magical feeling in his audience.


Matthew Field wrote:How about the Linking Rings. 6 year old on Christmas eve? I think not.


I've got a video clip somewhere of me doing linking rings and the girl's face when she blows on the last two, inches in front of her eyes, and they separate is EXACTLY magic. I'll look for it over the weekend.

Of course, as ever, imho.
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Postby mrgoat » 02/01/13 01:38 PM

Glenn Bishop wrote:
Ian Kendall wrote:I've never seen a gambling demo where the performer alludes to supernatural methods.

Oh I have.


Really? You have seen gambling demos where the performer says he is using supernatural methods to achieve what he is doing?

Who did that?
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Postby Glenn Bishop » 02/01/13 02:01 PM

mrgoat wrote:
Ian Kendall wrote:I've never seen a gambling demo where the performer alludes to supernatural methods.

Glenn Bishop wrote:Oh I have.

mrgoat wrote:Really? You have seen gambling demos where the performer says he is using supernatural methods to achieve what he is doing?

Yes and it was part of a mental act that used gambling expo and the way he explained it was mentalism.
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Postby Tom Stone » 02/01/13 02:01 PM

mrgoat wrote:Magic: When you make someone feel, even for a split second, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve.

Depressed?
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Postby mrgoat » 02/01/13 02:02 PM

Tom Stone wrote:
mrgoat wrote:Magic: When you make someone feel, even for a split second, like a 6 year old on Christmas Eve.

Depressed?


Oh, you've seen my act?
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Postby Glenn Bishop » 02/01/13 02:07 PM

mrgoat wrote:
I don't think gambling demos are magic or magical. They are a display of skill. They are awesome, but not magic, to me.


Well, I have seen a lot of different kind of performers do gambling expo acts. And I have seen some that are very magical but I guess that depends on the person doing it and their presentation.

Magician cheats by magic.

Harry Lorayne's Magician VS. The Gambler is a trick that starts off as a gambling cutting to a four of a kind that has a magical ending.

I used that same idea for a punch poker deal called the magician VS the Card Sharp (Or Cheat). It was published in my book about the punch deal and it is on my first Punch Deal DVD.

Magician cheats by magic.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/01/13 02:14 PM

Tom, I feel for all you poor Swedes. I was never depressed on Chrismas Eve--even today, aside from Halloween, it's my favorite day of the year.
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 02/01/13 02:48 PM

DEFINING MAGIC IS VEXINGLY DEFYING

The five-lettered word magic immerses us in an engulfing sea of definitions, meanings, and interpretations (including this banal metaphor). Several years ago I discovered STOLEN LIGHTNING, The Social Theory of Magic by Daniel Lawrence O'Keefe. This 581-pager will give you lots to chew on, mull over, and parse to its bones. It is a sprawl of themes and in its own fascinating, often incoherent way, reveals just how expansive its subject is. For example, here is a snippet:
''The symbolic action of magic differs from other action and speech in the use of rigid scripts. These are borrowed from the sacred dramas of religion, where they give a core of certainty to collective experience, and then are used by magic to help the individual speak, act and think. The most powerful symbols of all are those that are most fixed - the 'categories' of human thought, which were forged in the sacred dramas. They provide logical operators enabling individual minds to work with spontaneity on collective representations. And both religion and magic remember better than science does that these categories were sacred creations which can be altered tomorrow to disintegrate the conventional frame of reference and produce miraculous effects.''
This book of 400,000 words, pointing to at least 1000 sources builds its case by revising ideas of Marcel Mauss, J. G. Frazer, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and others. You can feast on his 13 postulates.
I doubt if most magicians care to delve this deeply into what magic may be as a theory, art, or numbing-your-skull hobby? Meanwhile its great fun to blow hardily and tap dance on our cracker barrels.
Keep it going.
Its great accompaniment to practicing the Diagonal Palm Shift or the Anaconda Flourish.

Onward
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Postby Mark Collier » 02/01/13 03:00 PM

Trying to come up with a universal definition of magic is a worthwhile exercise in futility. It causes us to think about what we do, why we do it and what were trying to accomplish but no definition will ever be sufficient.

This reminds me of the time I was at a magic convention and a couple of Mystery School grads were gushing about their experience with it. I made a comment and they asked me what I thought about the Mystery School. I said, Thank God they have it and thank God not everybody goes.

I think we need the variety to keep magic interesting and while I think it useful to discuss, I think its self-defeating to try and come up with an all-encompassing definition. Do we really need a definition that will put Cardini, Martin Nash, Shimada, Tom Mullica, Jeff McBride, Tommy Cooper, Juan Tamariz and the Buck Twins all in the same group?

I have a hard time even limiting the definition to my own magic. Im not looking for just one response. Admiration of skill does not preclude a sense of wonder. Im fine with showing obvious skill and then doing a hands-off miracle.

Performers are different. Audiences are different. Definitions will vary.
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Postby Tom Frame » 02/01/13 07:11 PM

This definition might be somewhere in the ballpark.

"The performance of seemingly impossible acts for the purpose of entertainment."
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 02/01/13 10:30 PM

At a distance looking for a path to the the ballpark:
magic* is something that exists in stories.
They might have been to a magic show if their story sounds like that kind of story.

*note - lower case m magic - distinguishing "the otherwise impossible unless attributed to supernatural causes" and our clearly framed performances which avoid any serious claim to cause or attribution beyond trickery at the show.
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Postby Max Maven » 02/02/13 04:11 AM

Over the years, the best definition of magic that I have managed to build is:

The aesthetic exploration of mystery.
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Postby Tom Stone » 02/02/13 07:11 AM

An interesting experiment would be to take something that *isn't* magic, and then modify it iota by iota until it becomes magic, just to find out where the boundaries are.
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Postby Edward Pungot » 02/02/13 12:09 PM

Using words to describe magic is like using a screwdriver to cut roast beef. -Tom Robbins

The effect magic has on an audience is essentially an emotional one.
Primal emotion subverts the intellect because the intellect has nowhere else to go.
Magic is a feeling that has to be experienced in order to be appreciated.
If we could properly explain it away, it would no longer be magic, but a science.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. --Arthur C. Clarke
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Postby Glenn Bishop » 02/02/13 12:52 PM

In my opinion Magic as a craft and perhaps as a performing art is unexplained science plus theater.

My dad the late Billy Bishop used to say Magic was "Grown up show and tell".
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Postby Tom Stone » 02/02/13 06:58 PM

Max Maven wrote:Over the years, the best definition of magic that I have managed to build is:

The aesthetic exploration of mystery.

It is beautiful, but I think it need to be more narrow. Because it does not exclude the works of, let's say, John Dickson Carr. :)
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Postby Pete McCabe » 02/02/13 08:04 PM

It is indeed a beautiful and entirely accurate description of magic. But Max, shouldn't a definition include some form of the word performance?
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Postby Max Maven » 02/02/13 08:36 PM

Edward: Perhaps the response is emotional, but it's routed through the intellect.

Tom: I acknowledge your emoticon, but just to be clear, in English the word "mystery" has a very different meaning when applied to someone like Camilla Lackberg. Actually, when rendered in print, my definition might improve if the word was capitalized.

Pete: I do not believe that magic is produced only via performance. Most of the time it is, but I've seen works by such as Escher and Fukuda that, for me, qualify as magic.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 02/02/13 09:22 PM

Max is quite right: some paintings are certainly magical, but they're not just illusion-based. A realistic painting can create a magical effect because of a certain emotional quality it creates within the viewer. And by that I am not limiting this to emotional effects within the viewer, but magical effects.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 02/02/13 09:39 PM

Max: I can see how Escher and Fukuda produce illusionary results. That's a very interesting way to look at "Belvedere" or "Waterfall," or "Dirty White Trash."

But I still think Tom has a point. There are many examples of writing which explore the subject of mystery aesthetically, which I doubt you would include as Magic.

I think we might need the word illusion in there, or something to the effect of "presenting something seemingly impossible."
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Postby Ted M » 02/02/13 09:56 PM

Max Maven wrote:Pete: I do not believe that magic is produced only via performance. Most of the time it is, but I've seen works by such as Escher and Fukuda that, for me, qualify as magic.

An Escher print like "Waterfall" could arguably be considered a performative object.
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Postby JHostler » 02/02/13 10:46 PM

So... are we defining magic (and/or magical - ref previous posts) in terms of execution or perception? These are very different things, with very different characteristics, attributes, and implications.
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Postby Max Maven » 02/03/13 04:41 AM

Pete McCabe wrote:I think we might need the word illusion in there, or something to the effect of "presenting something seemingly impossible."


I do not agree. There can be magic without illusion, and even without impossibility.

If I put a playing card on the table, you name a card, then turn over the tabled card and it is the one you named, that will be experienced as magic. But, it's not necessarily an illusion. And, it is not at all impossible -- just improbable.
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Postby Bill Mullins » 02/03/13 11:17 AM

Max Maven wrote:If I put a playing card on the table, you name a card, then turn over the tabled card and it is the one you named, that will be experienced as magic. But, it's not necessarily an illusion. And, it is not at all impossible -- just improbable.


For me, for this to be magic, it has to be presented in such a way as to convey that the performer _knows_ what the card is, and isn't merely a lucky guesser. That capability of unknown knowledge, otherwise impossible to obtain, is what turns the revelation into magic.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 02/03/13 01:16 PM

Max,

That's a valid point, but I'm not sure the audience experiences it that way.

The effect described may be improbable, but it is impossible that you could do something so improbable on command. Out of this World is not literally impossible, but it is impossible that something that unlikelyhundreds of quadrillions to onecould happen in the real world. It's not literally impossible, but it is emotionally impossible. The spectator knows and experiences it as impossible that you could beat such odds. Even if you were just lucky, that would be a supernatural force at work that qualifies as magic.

And I think there is an illusion -- the illusion that I knew what card you would say, or the illusion that the spectator made 48 (in most versions) 50-50 choices in a row and got them all correct. It is the illusion that something impossibly unlikely happened.

Regardless of whether you agree, this subject certainly allows for some interesting presentations. My first line for OOTW is "This next trick is not actually impossible. That's why you're going to do it."
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