Mar 31, 2010

The work of transgression

Magic tricks, today, are transgressive. They have to be: that's how they work.

Note how they solicit disbelief, rather than belief. With the claim of a miracle, for a counter example, the public is asked not to try to understand, encouraged to accept and told to attempt to believe rather than figure out how it could have happened, since God, the argument goes, can do anything. In this way, the violation of normal, of the the way the world works, the apparent rupture, is smoothed over again. Magicians and magic, on the other hand, ask you to attempt to understand and the trick can only work if you try. There's a pretense of empiricism, as the audience is asked to examine the apparatuses involved in the trick, and the public is encouraged not to believe, but to try and fail to understand, to demand an explanation that will not be given.

A magic trick would completely fail if the audience responded by accepting what they'd seen as normal.

The transgression works in two ways, though, and it's ultimately the instability of each transgression and the way a viewer oscillates between the two that makes an act interesting. First -- "seeing is believing" -- an act seems to defy laws of nature, defy the reasonableness of the universe (e.g., it is not possible for a woman to be sawed in half and live). Second -- "a magician never explains a trick" -- the reasonableness of the universe reasserts itself in the viewer's mind, yet the trick still seems unexplainable, i.e., to be a trick, and thus defies and seems to violate the viewer's sense of the viewer's own reasonableness. Each site of irrationality, here, contains within itself the proof of the other and the disproof of itself (following the form of vicious circularity, as in, "The next sentence is false. The previous sentence is true").

This makes it interesting that the two most popular magicians in America today are so different, stylistically.

David Blaine is laconic. He acts like an accountant on his day off. Almost not caring, always calming the viewer down to preform his next trick, he is mellow and casual, stating with his demeanor and style that this is normal, which means 1) the audience's reaction stands out in relief against his own (sometimes with the audience seeming to freak out for him) and 2) the transgression of the act is heightened in contrast to his normalness.

Criss Angel is the opposite. He fully takes on the style of transgression, which actually serves to undermine the transgressiveness of his acts. He dresses like a rock star, with the piercings and tattoos and the trappings of "freaky," and sometimes screams close-up into the camera, or does his own schtick of being shocked, which actually functions to allow the audience not to react, since Angel is reacting for them. One of his shows was called "Mindfreak," another, "Believe." His prologues and set-ups often involve invocations of the weirdness of things, the unknown, whereas Blaine is more likely to spend his time explaining things that aren't tricks at all, emphasizing the complete reasonableness and understandability of what he's done. Angel emphasizes his own transgressiveness, but the audience readily grants this, and it was never really the question, thus the violation and violent oscillation caused by a trick disappears.

The form of transgression replaces the substance. The magic is displaced by the magician. There is, here, as with some of the new atheists, a juvenile need to be transgressive, which weakens the whole thing.

The work should disturb for itself.