Recent Comments

Joe Culpepper

Ha! Bringing up Benjamin, in regards to the authenticity of hand-made ice cream, is perfectly appropriate for thinking about the intimacy of this theatrical exchange. The labor of the sleight-of-hand performance attracts and then refuses. It gives, takes away, and then gives more to increase the consumer’s desire of the ice cream (that treat that we probably should not have, but want all the same). And, yes, all the while the dazzling, magical properties of maraş dondurmasi are being dangled before the buyer’s eyes. Therefore, what is desired, unconsciously perhaps, is both the excess of the dessert (that delicious transgression of consumption) as well as the secret knowledge that might be revealed by tasting it. On one level, tasting maraş dondurmasi first-hand might be akin to eating frozen fruit from the forbidden tree. One learns more about its tactile qualities. At the same time, the knowledge gained from this first experience is most likely partial. Learning the names of the salep and mastic ingredients would require more research. I wonder if these ice cream chefs tend to guard or to give away their secret recipes? Either way, the desire to know more and to eat more most likely leads to another exchange of currency for ice cream.

Christopher Lirette

What a wild ice cream trick.

At the end of your comment, you hint towards the economics of maraş dondurmasi, how each gesture adds “value” to the “commodity” of highly doctored ice cream. I think this might have an interesting relevance to commodity culture writ large, a type of reaching back towards what Benjamin (and assorted neopagans) might call “aura.” The work of the body touching steel and cream, physically present in the moment of exchange, indeed the spectacle of exchange, gives this kind of event a weird intimacy, one, as you say, that is culturally specific. Turning towards the rise of increasing “boutique” goods (farmer’s markets, popup restaurants, etsy, etc), this is also the kind of magic that makes those things sell, albeit without the physical presence of the person. Instead, we imagine the hands as they screenpress an ironic t-shirt or sharpen a locavore pencil.

But I wonder of the occult magic of companies like Apple who decidedly do not market themselves as handbuilt, where to take apart one of their products to know is an act that destroys them. Here, the value-added component is precisely that we can’t know the labor involved, that we imagine them appearing parthenogenically.

Part of what makes the Turkish ice cream performance, as well, is that we don’t know the secret, that the ice cream is extra thick with gum arabic and has a high melting point. In a way, we have the presence and aura competing with the secret of what we shouldn’t know (if we are to be dazzled).

Joe Culpepper

Right after making this comment on your piece, Barney Stinson followed me on Twitter. I think this means that he’s hitting on me.

Joe Culpepper

Thank you, in particular, for raising what is an extremely important question: does “social magic” exist?

Because I am currently researching intersections between magic and circus as performing arts, I chose to run a quick Google search experiment this morning in response the question posed. The number one hit produced by a search for “social magic” returns the LinkiedIn profile of a guerilla marketing firm that employs the iconography of magic to sell their services as a social media publicity firm. In contrast, the number one hit produced when searching for “social circus” returns a Wikipedia article that clearly that term as a contemporary social movement. Other hits, of fairly legitimate organizations dedicated to using circus as a means for social change follow that web search result for “social circus.”

These two, albeit brief searches, encapsulate one of the challenges that I see facing magic as a performing art when it comes to helping others and engaging in sustained social work: the obstacle of the individual performer as the traditional source of the magic. The fact that, traditionally, magic shows have focused on the performances of one individual and his (more often than her) seemingly supernatural achievements makes it very difficult to place the focus of even the best intentioned community service work onto the community rather than the individual performer.

I can think of exceptional organizations that overcome this difficulty in my personal experience. Magicana (a Toronto-based charity organization) runs “My Magic Hands,” which teaches magic to local at-risk youth. The Conjuring Arts Research Centre in New York organizes a similar program called the Hocus Pocus Project. Project Magic, a program designed by David Copperfield to pair magicians and occupational therapists in California to improve patients’ recovery time, is another example. All of these instances of social circus, however, are dedicated to teaching the community members involved sleight-of-hand as a means of self-empowerment. The focus is on the community members becoming magicians.

The Social Circus programs that I have encountered tend to have an easier time involving a larger number of community participants in social work, because circus traditionally forefronts performance as a team over the performance of the individual. Hand-to-hand, human pyramids, multi-person juggling acts, and musical acts are all integrated into a performance in which solo performances are included, but are not focused on as the individuals whose importance trumps the value of the teamwork required for a full circus show. There are very few solo, evening-length circus shows. I suspect that this greater emphasis on teamwork as a performance necessity is what has led to various Arab-Jewish youth circus programs in Jerusalem (working toward peace through cross-cultural teamwork) and the Tohu, La Cité des artes du cirque in Montéal (whose mandate includes environmental sustainability and economic growth in a local, low-income neighborhood).

Social magic is an exciting possibility and has the potential to liberate magicians from their self-aggrandizing tendencies. Many efforts made to create it, however, seem to celebrate the individual performer at the head of such a project rather than the community participants of the social project in question. Perhaps that is why it is currently appears to be less successful as a cohesive movement than social circus does.

Grant Morrison screaming at DisinfoCon in 1999.
Christopher Lirette

Thanks for your comment, Joe. I could be wrong, but I think our earliest written records were often sigils. Runes and ruinic magic for instance. Where we get the most “theory” sigil working is in the European medieval period, specifically in the Ars Goetia, part of the Lesser Key of Solomon, which indexes “seals” to bind demons. I confess I don’t know much about runes, but it seems that the shift in sigil theory from goetic forms of magic to chaos magic sigil-working is that in the medieval grimoires, the images were used to summon or ward against supernatural forces where as chaos magic intends to make the person working the sigil into a supernatural force.

In the sense Morrison is using, we can trace it to Austin Osman Spare (an early- mid-twentieth century artist) and, of course Aleister Crowley. If we take this to be the context, it falls right in line with High Modernism, the subjectivation of selves through the rise of medical psychology, normalization, the traumas of war and colonialism, and capital. Chaos magic’s origins and contexts are more or less the same as poststructuralism (European 1960s–80s), and as I’ve tried to show here, concerns itself with many of the same tropes: a breakdown of the self-same self, emphasis on limit experiences and states of subjectivity (I probably could have done this whole thing just on Lacan’s lectures on mystical experience and jouissance and chaos magic, or Foucault’s idea of limit experiences), and syncretic textuality. And it does not necessarily radically break from the older system of sigils: one still summons, one still binds.

Grant Morrison screaming at DisinfoCon in 1999.
Joe Culpepper

Thank you for sharing this, Christopher. It is the first of this week’s posts to focus on a broader, cultural definition of magic that does not require the presence of sleight-of-hand.

What is our earliest written record of sigil use? I wonder which specific cultural and historical moment that earliest record might highlight for us. How has this kind of magic, as a form of taking control of one’s own subjecthood (of how one is defined by nation, capital, and society) changed in response to different economic orders?

Joe Culpepper

Thank you, Charlie, for adding NPH and the concept of intertextuality to this week’s conversation about magic. Your suggestion that the writers of How I Met Your Mother might be using intertextual sleight-of-hand — i.e. references to Neil Patrick Harris’ likeable status as a celebrity who loves magic — as a way of rendering the bro-ish, misogyny of the character Barney Stinson more appealing is food for thought. What about viewers who still fail to forgive the actions of Barney, despite NPH’s cool magic effects?

In the reception experience of these viewers, I wonder if the intertextual connections that dominate are ones made to people like the real-world pickup artist named Mystery (from Neil Strauss’s book The Game). Mystery is documented by Strauss as using magic effects in a way similar to Barney. This might cause some viewers to link their reception of HIMYM to the reality TV show The Pickup Artist, which is perhaps the most lamentable dating show of all time. On a brighter note, it might also link them to an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia called “The D.E.N.N.I.S. Stystem,” which critically parodies the entire subculture of pickup artistry quite well. So, of course, does Tom Cruise’s performance as Frank Mackey in the film Magnolia.

Kathleen Battles

Thanks for you comments, Melanie and Jeff. I was really struck by the way the scenes were framed and filmed. It was hard to say much in 400 words! Melanie and Jeff, as I read your posts earlier I was excited to see how much they echoed each other. Like Jeff, the scene with Julia Roberts reminded me a lot of the clip from And the Band Played On. The scene with the closing elevator door further cemented her and Ned’s prophet role.

I agree, that the film/play really does acknowledge the world of pleasure. It does not shy away from this fact at all - and the speeches of the other characters provide an array of viewpoints on the crisis - even, if course, they are framed as wrongheaded, they are there to witness.

Melanie, I agree, that it is at this moment (the mid 1980s) that we see the disarticulation of sex from gay identity. I had more to say about this, but, of course, ran out of space. I was working toward the point that it is precisely this normalization of monogamous committed sex as good and other sex as bad that continues to shape contemporary discourses, not just for gay men, but for women as well.

Its sort of interesting to see The Normal Heart in post Sex and the City age - which queered heterosexual sex, and the in rise of hook-up apps. Our whole discourse around sex remans so convoluted.

Captain Planet and HIV/AIDS by Taylor Cole Miller
Kathleen Battles

Like Jeff, I couldn’t help thinking of Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe. The discourse surrounding Johnson, in particular, was marked by a strong pedagogical air as basketball was considered a “contact” sport.

What I think is interesting here is that the two “issue” films of the week all end up in some way creating clear lines between acceptable/unacceptable, moral/immoral, etc. But in this case, the “issue/disease” of the week texts - the one off episode of an established series, or the made for TV move - end up far more equivocal in their “messages” about AIDS.

Jeffrey Bennett

Like Melanie, I was really struck by your observation about the dream-like nature of the sex scene. Brilliant close reading! Kramer’s recollections are not always so dreamy and your post really has me thinking through the politics of crafting his stark realism as more formally fantastic. Of course, the visual appeal of this makes plenty of sense in the televisual context. One thing that I’ll give The Normal Heart, that is not as readily transparent in a film like And the Band Played On, is that one really gets a sense of the centrality of pleasure and desire at the time, even in the face of a politically fraught and complicated world.