Monday, April 13, 2009


#9: or

Many many years ago I found myself in the magic section of my local library. Upon opening an musty old volume on the dark arts of false card shuffles, a small strip of yellowing paper fluttered onto the carpeted floor which had been typewritten with a local telephone number and the words 'MAGIC CIRCLE'. My curiosity getting the better of me (as usual), I called the number and, in hushed tones, was sworn to secrecy while invited to the weekly meeting of their mysterious cabal. It took place in an appositely gothic building in Edinburgh, in a place that you wouldn't think existed unless you were shown it, and there I was introduced to the 'membership', an odd collection of mostly elderly unexceptionally looking gentlemen far removed from the Harry Potter paradigm.

The reason I mention this is that it was where I first embarked upon the journey in the active study and use of metalanguage, specifically after learning there of the use of the so-called Magician's Choice technique - alternatively known as equivocation - in effects (I also learnt at the Magic Circle that magicians dislike the term 'tricks') - and, by extension, the potential of deliberate use of language designed with dual reality (an overt conscious meaning, combined with a second covert, or implied, unconscious meaning).

Equivocation uses language and misdirection to create the illusion that a muggle or spectator has in fact made a voluntary selection from a group of items, when in fact the magician forces a predetermined choice. For example, when asked if you would like to choose the envelope on the left or on the right, your 'choice' will either be the one picked up or the one discarded. In other words, not really a choice at all.

The more sophisticated performers may then follow this up with a question along the lines of, 'did you choose that one because it was nearer or because you just had a good feeling about it?' Through presupposition this reinforces in the spectator's mind the idea that a fair choice has been made through the use of an imperative (or question) that directs their conscious mind. Also, sleight of mouth can be employed through asking the spectator if they are sure of their 'choice', that they can still change their mind if they wish.

Then there's the classic double bind component, 'shall I come and pick you up at 8 or 8.30?' presupposing that the object of your desire wishes to even go out with you. Shrewd mothers pull this trick on their infants all the time, 'do you want peas or spinach with your chicken?'. A further example of the double bind is the notional one of whether you are a theist or an atheist, a believer or a non-believer, a liberal or a conservative, and so on.

This is all clearly an enormous area of interest, and it's the use of or that concerns me most here. Such a tiny little word that, even in written language, seems to transcend any particular emphasis, but in spoken language passes by so fast as to almost be imperceptible. You might have had entire lessons in schools, colleges, and universities about onomatopoeia or transgender - but that's easy stuff, and comparatively speaking, fairly useless knowledge.

I'll be brief while I still have your attention or your interest: to hear the word or is for me to question the presupposition, to question how genuine the choice is, and to determine what invisible domains inevitably exist beyond the double bind.


the mullah said...

a great piece. I also have eerily (maybe not) similar interests and the consequences thereof in and from the "magic" area(s). what was always surprising to me (and isn't today) that others involved in such practices don't extrapolate in the same way - that is, the wider ramifications and applications of "sleight of (X)", and how language (and action in the world in general) can be considered in the same way as a rabbit being pulled out of a hat (to considerably labour a metaphor).

pelao said...

fit-fat doublespeak

Mark said...

So was this magic circle a secret society of supposed initiates to a mystic tradition, or a circle of theatrical magicians willing to share their secrets with other theatrical magicians?

If it was the former, I'm gonna head down to my city library right now and go snooping for scribbled pieces of paper. Been really interested of late in the idea of secret societies and their unspoken rituals

William Bennett said...

ostensibly the latter, but with distinct elements of the former...