As the superstar-magician walks through an urban shanty in the middle of his television special Magic Man (1998), David Blaine’s voiceover explains that he has spent years walking around America doing magic, but that he was “curious how they would respond in Haiti, a culture which is deeply rooted in magic.” He performs some simple sleight-of-hand (multiplying sponge balls) for a child in the street, who responds with suitable delight. Then the scene shifts—lightning flashes and thunder claps—local Haitians are dancing in a dark chamber festooned with ritual iconography, wielding blades, spitting alcohol; Blaine’s voiceover informs us that “in Haiti, magic and voodoo are considered the same thing.” A brief montage transports us out of the city to a rural road in the sunshine, with Blaine walking after a local man, asking him to wait so that he can show him some magic. The man is uncomfortable, reluctant, attempting to flee.

“It’s not—no, no, look. It’s not black magic . . . it’s not bad . . . it’s okay . . . It’s good. It is good,” reassures Blaine, pursuing the man. For the audience, the implication is that the man considers magic and voodoo to be the same, and that voodoo is something to fear; he does not want to participate. Finally the man relents, stops, and turns to Blaine, who repeats his reassurance: “It is good.” But the man counters, “No [it is good] for you, not for me.”

This response clarifies the fear: The performance of magic/voodoo benefits only the magician, not his subject—magic is dangerous. Blaine smiles winningly and gesticulates to express exasperated enthusiasm. “No! It is good for you because it’s fun. Look, look, look,” he insists as children flee down the road. “I’m an entertainer. I entertain. It’s not black magic. I just . . . just entertain.”

At this point, Blaine appears to be performing a relatively uncontroversial position on the difference between modern magic and voodoo magic (or any form of occult magic). For Blaine, magic is good (read: non-voodoo, non-occult, and non-damaging) when it is fun, and when the magician is an entertainer (read: non-bokor, non-houngan or mambo, non-instrumental magic-user). In other words, for Blaine, being fun is a sufficient condition of good magic, although he does not stipulate for whom it should be fun.

The scene cuts. Blaine has succeeded in gathering half a dozen young-adult men to participate in his magic. About half of them hide their faces from the camera, as though fearful they will be identified participating in something dubious. Blaine performs a card-trick in which he apparently reads the mind of one of the young men, predicting a chosen card. The youth looks uncomfortable and anxious but respectful, as though he’s talking with a doctor—Blaine’s apparent access to hidden, exclusive knowledge lifts his status: “Can you look into my mind?” Blaine retreats slightly, “It’s different than you think,” he says, perhaps conscious that he’s in unusual ethical and intercultural territory. This feels different from “walking around America.” It’s not clear that all these guys are having fun—so, is this good magic?

Is it magic?” whispers one of the young men, teetering on the edge of belief. But what a perfect question! Blaine sidesteps, “It’s not what you think it is.” But what is it, and what did he think it was?

In his fascinating and provocative Magic’s Reason, Graham Jones suggests that scenes like this represent attempts by “modern magicians [to] perpetuate projects of purification by actively publicizing invidious comparisons with irrational non-modern Others.” While focused ostensibly on French magicians’ engagements with North African ritual performers, Jones’s argument helps us to situate Blaine within an intricate framework of effective collusion between modern magic and disciplinary anthropology. This framework seeks to “mediate the cosmological values of secular modernity” through the deployment of analogies and disanalogies that establish the “primitive magician [as] less a historical fact than a conceptual trope, a personification of alterity that anthropologists and illusionists collaboratively fleshed out and exploited as an analytic resource.” Taking his lead from the magicians and anthropologists of the so-called Golden Age (around the turn of the twentieth century), Jones argues that “modern magic” defines itself in a web of analogies and disanalogies with “primitive magic,” which arise from a form of “native evolutionism” common to the work of both modern “magicos” and anthropologists.

Jones suggests that one of the crucial disanalogies in this web involves the kind of explanations for magical effects sought by audiences: a modern audience that seeks supernatural explanations for a magical effect would be guilty of “cognitive dissonance” or modern “magical illiteracy.” Instead, a modern audience should appreciate a trick “as a manifestation of the magician’s skill” in mundane techniques that are accessible and comprehensible to all (at least in principle, even if not in practice). An audience that fails to view magic in this way also fails to participate in (or understand) modernity. Rather than relishing this magical illiteracy as an opportunity for entertainment, the genuinely modern magician sees such audiences as “targets for derision,” and they “look mirthfully upon . . . the category confusions they enact.”

In other words, it seems to me that the modern magician (like the primitive magician so identified by Jones) might also profitably be seen as a conceptual trope rather than a historical fact.1 While Jones explains that the modern magician should play “an active role in policing the boundaries between mere entertainment and more perfidious forms of charlatanism or illusionary deceit,” I think we need not assume that all contemporary magicians are “modern” in this sense. Such an assumption appears to be another form of category confusion, reflecting another form of magical illiteracy. It seems to me that a contemporary magician like Blaine does not participate in the category of modern magician thus defined.

For me, one of the intriguing consequences of identifying the possibility of a conceptual distinction between the contemporary and the modern is that it brings questions of ethics into the frame. The category of modern magician has ethical force. Modern magicians should expose and debunk “perfidious forms of charlatanism or illusionary deceit.” The modern magician is an agent engaged in the overcoming of primitivism through (in Jones’s words) “edifying trickery” and “didactic performances,” revealing the primitive magician as their “dangerous double” and the primitive audience as unenlightened. The greatest spell of the modern magician is to “dispel a credulous public’s superstitious beliefs” and to reveal the “allure of occult associations” as “distinctly counter-Enlightenment antics.” Unlike modern magicians, though, it seems to me that contemporary magicians (magicos like Blaine) might be more ambivalent about this ethical mission, deploying “images of primitive sorcery” to reenchant their performances by exploiting (rather than overcoming) the “cognitive dissonance” and “magical illiteracy” of their audiences. Is this perfidiousness and charlatanism? In other words, is calling Blaine “modern” also a category error?

One of the ethical dilemmas the conceptual conflation of modern and contemporary exposes involves the ways in which magicians—and Blaine specifically—perform and manipulate the web of analogies that Jones so effectively reveals. When Blaine travels to Haiti in order to perform his magic, for instance, a central element of his performance arises from his deliberate choice of a cultural environment in which (to use Jones’s terms) the audience is susceptible to “cognitive dissonance” or “magical illiteracy.” In a context of “native evolutionism,” Blaine deploys a form of allochronism—his Haiti is denied coevalness with the modern West. While this is ostensibly performed as a disanalogy to the people of Haiti (i.e., Blaine insists he’s not engaging in “black magic” but in entertainment), the people of Haiti are not actually his audience—they are props in his performance. The discomforted people of Haiti are brought into the service of Blaine’s performance for a television audience back in North America.

In other words, I would suggest that the modern “magical illiteracy” of the Haitians in the film is itself offered as part of the entertainment, enmeshed in a rather unreconstructed evolutionist, colonial politics. Indeed, both Blaine and Jones suggest that Blaine’s trip to Haiti deliberately echoes the visit of Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Algeria as an imperial French magician in 1856. While this echo succeeds in demonstrating the continuous and familiar interplay of analogy and disanalogy in magic and anthropology across more than a century, it also reveals the persistence of colonial violence. So, when a Haitian man argues with Blaine that his magic might be good for Blaine but not good for him, there’s a powerful sense in which he is right, and in which his rightness is instantly crushed by power, in the interests of the “fun” of Blaine and his television audience elsewhere: “No! It is good for you because it’s fun [for me].”

Intriguingly, Blaine himself gets entangled in his own manipulation of this web of analogy and disanalogy, attempting to navigate between the ostensible “primitivity” and “modernity” of his location and his audience in a manner that Jones might describe as “manipulating doubleness.”

As we saw earlier, after his mindreading trick, a Haitian youth asks Blaine “Is it magic?” Given the context (both the cultural context in Haiti and the narrative context in his show) it’s clear what the youth means by this question—he’s asking whether Blaine accomplished his trick using occult or supernatural means (voodoo), and there is genuine fear that this might have been the case. Of course, the answer to the youth’s question is very simple and could have been spoken very clearly: No. For me, for the modern magician, this must be the answer—this is the meaning of “edifying trickery.” But Blaine is also caught in the web of the “allure of occult associations,” seeking to suggest the possibility to his television audience that he is, in fact, a genuine “Magic Man” rather than simply a modern magico or entertainer. So, he prevaricates, “It’s not what you think it is.” With this prevarication, it seems to me that Blaine fails (or refuses) to participate in the identity of a modern magician, including the attendant moral imperatives. To his modern “magically literate” television audience, this reply suggests exactly the contrary of the truth (i.e., it’s not what they think either, so this might have been occult, supernatural magic, after all?).

After Haiti, Magic Man shows Blaine flying over the rainforest of South America to visit the Yanomami tribe, whom his voiceover describes as amongst the “last discovered people on Earth” with no written language and virtually no contact with the “outside world.” He explains that “we were warned by everyone not to visit the Yanomami,” and that previous attempts to visit them resulted in the visitors being attacked with poisoned spears.

For Blaine, the Yanomami people are special because “like the Haitians, their culture is rooted in magic.” We see him with a little group of Yanomami children, for whom he levitates a leaf in between his hands. They stare at him, unsure of how to respond. There is silence. In general, the Yanomami seem confused and sometimes discomforted by Blaine, who draws them into his performance despite their apparent inability to give meaningful consent for their participation. He wants their “cognitive dissonance” as part of the disanalogy with his television audience. But this “dangerous doubling” did not appear to be “fun” for the Yanomami; they were not entertained. In his own terms, this was not “good magic” and I’d suggest that it was not modern magic either.

Jones’s excellent book enables some new critical possibilities in our understanding of magic today as a system of “messy interconnections” with “underlying hybridities” between the (conceptual and historical) categories of modern and primitive (and perhaps I might add contemporary and post-modern, colonial and post-colonial), between the pursuits of illusionism and anthropology, and between myriad cultures. For me, a crucial caution is not to allow the elegance of meta-analogy to obscure the ethical critique of the violence of colonialism. I am left with some concerns, for instance, about the way that the category of “primitive” or “primitive magic,” even when deployed so carefully into a matrix of analogy and disanalogy, risks enabling the persistence of a form of colonial modernism that is sometimes proffered as a critique of anthropology (and, yes, of modern magic too!). We should not allow the graceful, formal charm and dexterity of the meta-analogy to misdirect us from (and perhaps vanish) this important ethical critique.

  1. See “A Theory of Modern Magic” in Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism, and the Making of the Modern World, Chris Goto-Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).