Saturday, July 14, 2007

Magic and Metadiscourse

A ventriloquist lost his job when a local nightclub went out of business, so to make ends meet he began working as a "spirit medium." He had a talking skull on the table and people would come to him to talk to their dead relatives. The ventriloquist could secretly move the skull's mouth and make it seem as though the skull itself was talking.

One day, a very wealthy society matron came to talk to her dead husband. The woman was so impressed with the contact from beyond that she said to the "medium:"

"Young man, you have an extraordinary gift. If I pay you a thousand dollars can I come back next week to talk to my husband for a few hours?"

The ventriloquist "medium" responded, "Lady, for a thousand bucks you can even talk to him while I drink a glass of water!"

When Good Magicians Go Bad

Here are a couple of stories about two of my good friends in magic, each making a critical mistake.

1) A very talented kid I know was frying some laypeople with his rubber band magic. He did a beautiful version of Crazy Man's Handcuffs, a classic effect in which one rubber band seems to simply melt through another. My friend knows how to sell this type of thing. He brought the attention in close, created a very tight frame around the action, and slowed down the moment of the magic. When that band melted through, the spectators gasped.

Hold that moment. The effect is over but the ramifications are still building in the spectators' minds. Then... friend started talking about the trick. "I usually do that as a 3-phase routine, but I've started eliminating the last part..."

2) Another friend, a talented magician with the look, dress, and demeanor of a wizard, performed Anniversary Waltz for about 60 people. In Anniversary Waltz, a couple each select a card and sign the face. After some magical incantations, the two cards fuse together into a single, double-faced card each side of which is one of the signed, selected cards. Symbolically, the fused card represents the fusion of the two people, their link and their bond.

Picture the scene. My friend, looking like a cross between a magician and a high priest, is standing between the two spectators like a minister officiating at a wedding. He has fused the cards, and he gives it to them as a memento. Beautiful framing, magical moment.

Then he says, "You'll definitely want to hold on to that card, because when you leave here everyone in the audience will want to pounce on it and examine it from top to bottom to see that it is, indeed, a single card."

What Happened?

I've caught good magicians doing this type of thing before, but I have only recently learned the name for it: metadiscourse. In writing, metadiscourse is essentially writing about the act of writing itself. More specifically, we use metadiscourse when we refer to the act of writing whatever it is we're writing at the time. In Technical Writing, metadiscourse is generally a no no; you're not supposed to say, "This guide covers" or "Later, I will discuss..." because those are of no interest to your reader, who only cares about the information, not the form of the information or the process in which it was written.

I've struggled to define the term accurately for you and the best I can come up with is this; this whole sentence is metadiscourse. Of course, metadiscouse can be wonderful. Blogs, for instance, thrive on metadiscourse, since they are often channels for bloggers to work through their own thinking on various issues in a public way. In the future, I might have more to say about the role of metadiscourse in our modern wired society (think Twitter). But that's enough metadiscourse for now.

Magic and Metadiscourse

In the examples above, the magicians killed the moment by talking about the tricks after they happened. The young fellow took an impressive effect, a rubber band passing through another, and turned it in the eyes of the audience into a routine, a studied series of moves and sections. The wizard took a beautiful effect about a sacred union and turned it back into a puzzle. Metadiscourse doth slay the mystery.

Metadiscourse can play an important role in magic. When David Blaine talks about how Houdini inspired him, or when Criss Angel channels David Blaine to talk about how Houdini inspired him--that's metadiscourse. Much of the metadiscourse in magic can be banal, like stories about "the first trick my Grandpa showed me when I was a boy," or the perennial "I learned this trick in the Orient many years ago...." It can also be deep; Ricky Jay is a master of metadiscourse, and his entire 52 Assistants show is as much a tribute to the history and practice of card magic as it is about the magic itself.

For the most part, however, too much metadiscourse is death to magic. To create a sense of jaw-dropping astonishment, you almost by definition have to take your spectator outside the province of magical technique and history and put them in a pure, unfiltered now. David Blaine is smart enough to put all his metadiscourse, his setup, up front. You'll never see Blaine create a miracle and then talk afterward about the process. Blaine is comfortable enough with the visceral notion of wonder that he allows his spectators to remain in the state for as long as possible.

But many magicians are uncomfortable with actual wonder, and their own power to create it. So they reflexively move to kill the moment of wonder by cracking wise, or talking about the trick. Rather than allowing the spectator to simply be in the experience, they feel the need to fill the "void" with mindless chatter.

I've become very sensitive to the issue of metadiscourse, especially as it applies to magicians who appreciate and strive to create deep wonder. In the examples above, I was able to call my friends' attention to the phenomenon and point out how much stronger their material would be if they eliminated all post-effect metadiscourse. Being gentlemen of taste and discrimination, and excellent magicians both, they understood and will certainly be more conscious about not stepping on their own effects in the future.

"Technical Metadiscourse" in Magic

I've always loved the joke that opens this post, but I think it's particularly funny for magicians, for whom there's a lot of truth in the ventriloquist's retort. Magicians are often so in love with their technique they create extra proof of innocence where none is required. For instance, another very talented magician friend (I'm extremely lucky to have such an amazing community of magicians around me) sent me an email about an idea he saw posted on the Magic Cafe. The idea is a "subtlety" added to Bob Sheets' Hang 'Em High, a rope through body effect I've been doing for years.

In this new "improved" version, before you pull the rope through your body you attach a sticker with the name of your two spectators to the center of the rope. Then, when the rope passes through you the audience sees the sticker still on the rope. In other words, you have just "proved" something that didn't need proving, that the rope that passed through your body is the same rope you started with.

I've coined a term for such types of technical solutions to what are often non-existent problems: technical metadiscourse. Technical metadiscourse comes about when magicians create extra presentational points to cover what they see as a weakness or potential hole in their secret methodology. Such tools can be important in magic. Having a spectator sign a card is an example of useful, overt technical metadiscourse. The signature is openly intended to preclude an obvious method (duplicate cards) from entering the spectator's mind and ruining the effect.

On the other hand, magicians often have no feel for when such "over-proving" is necessary or even prudent. The common magical aphorism covering this situation is Don't run when you're not being chased. At one of our local magic contests, yet another talented magician won by causing a borrowed bill to vanish and reappear under impossible conditions in a selected lemon. Many of the other "magicians" were surprised the trick played so well. Someone asked one of the spectators, "Did he have you sign the bill?"

Spectator (puzzled): "The bill was inside the lemon!"

Skeptic: "But, did he tear off one corner so you could identify the bill later?"

Spectator (patiently, as to a child): "But that was my bill, and it was in the fucking lemon!"

Examine your magic for unnecessary metadiscourse, both technical and verbal. Eliminate if possible. Be fierce with yourself.

Why Magicians Use Inappropriate Metadiscourse

I have several theories about why magicians often feel the need to add metadiscourse both during and after an effect.

My first theory states that magicians often add technical metadiscourse as a way to assuage their guilt. Here's a classic example every beginner is taught to avoid, "This is an ordinary deck of cards." Saying such a thing only arouses suspicion; why wouldn't it be an ordinary deck? Even though magicians very rarely make such a silly mistake, they often create similar situations. For instance, I can't tell you how many times I've seen magicians performing coin and card effects spasmodically "proving" that their hands contain only cards. Or magicians doing the Silk from Empty Hand trick pointing their hands, fingers towards the audience, for waaay to long just to "prove" that their hands are really, really empty.

Sometimes, we just do it because we can. Even when we shouldn't.

Another pet peeve, which I see all the time during performances of Professor's Nightmare (in which three unequal lengths ropes become all the same length): "Now I have one...two...three lengths of rope, all the same length." Those familiar with Professor's Nightmare will know the count I'm referring to. Unless you're working a nursery school, you don't need to explain that three ropes are counted one...two...three. And you don't need to tell people what they can already see, that the ropes are now the same length.

I don't object to the technique, by the way, just the pointless counting. When I used to do Professor's Nightmare table-hopping, I would always do the display count as a convincer, but I would say, "Once again, here's the short rope, here's the middle-length rope, and...Oh, wait, that's the short one, this is the medium-length one...and I guess this is the long one." In other words, I use the display as a setup for a gag. The gag not only gives me a reason to do the count, it also reinforces that they are all identical in a fun way and it gives me a rhythm to move through the count and cover any dirty work I might wish to accomplish.

The whole display is technical metadiscourse, designed to point away from the method. Done right, it's very convincing; done badly, it makes you look guilty. Don't feel guilty fooling people. Your job is to create wonder, and you have the tacit permission of your audience to lie or cheat however you like (as long as no one gets hurt) to create the illusion of impossibility.

Magicians are Friendly

My other theory about why we magicians often add needless metadiscourse is that we all want to be friendly and communitarian. Fooling someone, creating deep astonishment, inevitably creates a wall between us and the audience, between us who "know" and those who have no idea what just happened. We want to soften the blow, to comfort the audience that it's all in fun, that it's all a trick, that it's all "entertainment."

So we say, "That's something new I've been practicing." Or, "That's a cool Paul Harris routine." These are metadiscourse; they mean a lot to a magicians but only serve to puncture the wonder bubble for your spectators.

Please don't make this mistake. Keep your magic occult, hidden, secret. I don't mean you should take full credit for every trick you do, but when people ask "Where did you learn all this stuff?" they don't really want to hear, "I got a book from the library, then hung out at the magic club meeting at the local church...." They don't want to hear, "Well, the original idea was in Frank Garcia's Million Dollar Card Secrets, but then Racherbaumer did some work with it...."

Here's an idea: Script your answers to common questions.
Q. "Where do you learn this stuff?"
A. "I'm part of a small group of magicians who meet and work together to bend space and time and create miracles."

That's a gag answer, in a way, but it's also relatively true without being mundane. When people ask that question, here's what they secretly hope you'll say (and mean):

"Gypsies stole me as a child and I was trained in the dark arts."
"I was kidnapped by men in black and my power grew in a secret underground laboratory in the Rocky Mountains."
"After the lightening struck my skull, I began to see and understand things others could not."

I'm not suggesting you use these lines (although feel free to, especially if they're true). I'm only saying people want mystery and romance, not prosaic explanations. When you demystify the art you're not doing anyone a favor. Not your audience or yourself.


The Conjurer said...

Great post! Well done!

Many thanks!

escherwolf said...

Very Cool article.

Gordon said...

A fun post, thanks for putting this up.

Dan said...

I've found this a little late, but I'm glad I did.

A great post and relevant to almost every magician. All the great magicians avoid this mistake, not by chance but by working on their performance and script as much as their technique.

PeaceLove said...

Thanks Dan, and the rest of you!

Sean Cudeck said...

Very thoughtful, practical post. I'm going to start monitering myself to make sure I'm not doing this without realizing it.

Sean Phillips, professional entertainer, Minneapolis, Minnesota