Sunday, March 4, 2018

A "Conjuring Arts" Chair

A university in Canada is looking to fill a new "conjuring arts" chair. I was excited for two reasons when I came across the story. First, for just a minute, I thought that the article was talking about Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I attended Saint Olaf College just across town from Carleton, and I have to say, it really is about time that Carleton College assembled an Aleister Crowley collection even half as good as Saint Olaf's - which, unlike Carleton, is ironically a Christian (ELCA Lutheran) college. Second, before I read it I thought that the university might be trying to a curriculum in Western Esotericism, like only a handful of schools around the world have done. But I was disappointed on both counts. Carleton University is in Canada, and it sounds like "conjuring arts" in this context has nothing to do with, well, actual conjuring.

So what approach will the new chair take? “The conjuring arts” is not a term used by experts in the field, and the job’s terms of reference are somewhat vague. The president of Carleton, Alastair Summerlee, who has a great wizard name and actually looks extremely wizard-like, told CTV News that the scope of the job is “incredibly broad.” He says that the university is open to candidates from a variety of backgrounds, and would, in addition, like to find someone who will “use magic as entrĂ©e into the world of perception and deception.” This would include studying the techniques of persuasion used in politics and the media. So you might finally be able to get credit for your essay comparing every Trump administration official to a Harry Potter villain. But also, as Professor Magliocco points out, it could help us understand “how large groups of people come to believe things that are impossible and even dangerous.” She says this is of real value in an era when fake news is rampant and when thoughts and prayers are offered as the solution to school shootings.

The chair is named after Allan Slaight, one of Canada’s richest people, whose family foundation put up $2 million for it. (Carleton matched that sum from its own budget.) Before he sold out over a decade ago, Slaight was the owner of a broadcasting empire that included dozens of radio stations, a couple of television stations, and, at one point, the Toronto Raptors. Slaight spent several years when he was young touring the prairies as a performing magician, and he has remained obsessed with stage magic. He has edited and published two massive books on legendary Canadian magician Stewart James, which one reviewer has described as “the biggest books in the history of magic literature.” If academic opinion is divided over the new chair, the practicing magicians VICE spoke to were, perhaps not surprisingly, all enthusiastic — although one of them admitted he initially thought the Slaight family had donated an actual magic chair, which would have, let’s face it, been even cooler.

Along with the money, the family has donated a large collection of magic books to the university, and the chair’s occupant will help oversee the collection. Yan Markson, a Toronto-based magician and mentalist who grew up in a Russian circus, points out that books on magic are incredibly hard to find, and many people nowadays learn through videos instead. However, he says the videos mostly just teach superficial gimmicks, and as a result the fundamental principles of magic, which are found in the best texts on the subject, are in danger of being lost. The new archive could play a role in preserving them.

So basically, this is chair for teaching stage magic and possibly the party-line skeptic position on esotericism. That sounds positively boring - but there is one case where I could see something like this being of use. Back in the 1980's when James Randi first was ramping up CSICOP, he got a lot of press teaching a couple of students all sorts of basic mentalism stuff and then sent them off to fool psychic researchers into thinking they had real abilities. He succeeded, and immediately revealed his objectives. When scientists came forward and asked him to teach them the stage magic he had taught his students, he refused - insisting that since stage magic was all trade secrets, the only way he could help is if they hired him or one of his associates at "consulting rates" for all of their experiments. Naturally, the scientists showed him the door. At the time, stage magic was dying as entertainment and it became clear that all he was really looking for was a new gravy train.

A chair like this with an extensive collection of books on stage magic techniques at its disposal could help. I have no problem whatsoever with psychic researchers training themselves in stage magic and designing their experiments accordingly. If Randi and his crew had not been so annoying about it back in the 1980's, we could have been doing research like that everywhere for the last thirty years. To be fair, some researchers have gone out and learned stage magic on their own, but having a university chair specifically dedicated to it, anywhere in the world, might prove helpful to paranormal researchers trying to construct rigorous experiments. Here's hoping that it does.

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