From Transformation Magic:
Escapism & Escapology
It is difficult entering into a discussion about "transformation" without invoking one of the most illustrious transformers of space, condition, and perception - the great escape artist, Houdini. Here it is important to distinguish between escapology and escapism: while 'escapology' is the study and practice of escape methods, self-releases, and liberation strategies, 'escapism' denotes flights of fancy, the diversions of entertainment, and departures from the constraints of reality. Houdini was an escapologist; yet, his grand appeal to audiences everywhere was inextricably tied to our own compulsions towards escapism. His self-releases from a wealth of snares and traps were as much about his own mastery over the material bonds which held him as they were about his audience's desire for liberation from individual and collective holds, whether they be physical or otherwise. In one of his more famous advertising posters, he is billed "The World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker" and we are informed that "nothing on earth can hold Houdini a prisoner." Why should one care that a man can free himself from penal confines and the tools of authoritarian restriction? To both the criminal-minded and the law-abiding citizenry these acts are representative of weaknesses and vulnerabilities within the institutional structure. Security, fear, strength, weakness, potentiality, liberation, and restriction are the spectres invoked by Houdini to haunt the subjective collective mindspring of his audience. While many of his escapes were enacted as part of elaborate prop-ridden stageshows, the prison escapes, handcuff releases, and especially his open public challenges drew strength from the quotidian confines of our constructed society and its corresponding psychological ecology. There could be no better illustration of Foucault's assertion that ours is a disciplinary society comprised of a network of enclosures and spaces of control. When Houdini responded to public challenges, he was relying on peoples' ability to identify the restrictions within their own lived environments as well as their desire to witness an escape from such controls. Sailor's ropes, a carpenter's ladder, a clinician's gurney, a milk jug or a mail bag - these are the materials of daily existence; the products of what Deleuze refers to as "a generalized crisis in relation to all environments of enclosure - prison, hospital, factory, school, family."
Real Magic/Reel Magic
But today the social controls have expanded in a multitude of directions - pharmaceutical, molecular, genetic, digital as well as fiscal, ideological, and juridicial. One can hardly imagine Houdini possessing the same level of success within our contemporary social fortress. Even the contemporary televised hype surrounding David Blaine's 3-day encasement in a block of ice barely scratches the surface of our group catharsis. What does ice have to do with our current situation? Where's our entry point beyond mere entertainment? While the shaman might employ various conjuring techniques (illusionistic tricks), anthropologists inform us that there is no discrimination in shamanism between the 'fact' and the 'work of art.' Although contemporary Western civilization is largely devoid of a magical world-view which assumes "everything is real magic" the blurred milieu of media, mediated experience, and the social imaginary equally fails to discriminate between the 'fact' and the 'work of art.' In much the same way that linear perspective was an historical invention which transformed the eye into a technology through which all experience could be rationalized, recorded and described, our contemporary mass media has had a neutralizing effect on our other senses. But instead of "magic," we are offered the Baudrilliardian world of simulation, a world where "vision cannot distinguish between what is seen and the mediation of that scene." Indeed then, this is no different than the shaman's worldview - this is real magic... or so we are led to believe.
To quote the mime, Marcel Marceau, "When the man in the street forgets his dream the theater becomes a myth and a dispenser of signs." Although the vast majority of creative expressions of liberation are manifested within the fantasy world of Hollywood, we already understand that Hollywood is unreal even if its effects may thoroughly permeate our reality. Despite critics' antagonisms that "Experience is not real unless it is recorded and validated through the media" millions of New Yorkers didn't need CNN to tell them that the skyline had been dramatically redrawn on September 11th …even if the rest of us did. Admittedly, mass media possesses some of the capabilities to redirect those imaginative forces that help determine our view of "reality" but clearly they lack the great shamanistic abilities unleashed through more physical means of mediation. Prior to this tragedy there was no escape artist, magician, shaman, or movie capable of illustrating, with the same efficiency, the intrinsic weaknesses within our society of control. Instead, we faced the beast itself. Our subjective collective congregated in one transactive locale to bear witness to the horrors of entrapment and the precluded dangers inherent within the illusion of a maximum security state.
In the articulations of cognitive scientists we are told, "Children blur the border between thinking and doing, between the inner space of imagination and the outer space of objectivity. The young child confuses the volitional act of willing with causality." How familiar is this terrain to the "adults" within our society? Is there not a similar confusion between thinking and doing expressed in the hypocrisy of those Americans who heed religious doctrines which champion the virtues of charity, tolerance, and austerity while they lead lifestyles quite to the contrary? Too often is this childlike condition equally expressed by those "progressive"-minded members of the public (liberals, leftists, etc) who believe that shifting one's consciousness is, in and of itself, a political act which will lead to significant change. Unfortunately, power maintains itself quite nicely when people are content to simply 'think' about an alternative realty. Perhaps that is why both Dante and Zen Buddhists claim that the lowest "hell" is reserved for those who can do 'good' but choose to do nothing. Such are the fecund conditions nourishing the insidiousness of the Commodity and the modus operandi of Debord's "spectacle": "So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe of speculation." On the contrary, change and effect come to bear only when philosophy is a subjective proposition, desire and praxis that are applied to the event. In this way "magical thinking" drops its cloak of transcendental escapism and materializes as a political counterperception - an alternative worldview that summons the creative and prophetic power of the multitude and necessitates acts of conviction in order to realize transformation.
The Good, the Bad, and the Transformative
The "magical thinking" of a child enables a shifting understanding of the objects around him in a manner which determines use based on needs and desires: an orange is only an orange if he is hungry, otherwise it is a ball; a toy; an experiment waiting to happen. Similarly, sabotage is a creative redress of use-value, redefining prescribed usages in a manner which converts the currency of material meaning and cavorts with the cohorts of agency and alienation. Eco-defenders defeat bulldozers by introducing dirt into the oil filters and crankcases thereby destroying the earthmover with earth rather than the other way around. Such transformative inversions of power relationships highlight not only the creative appropriation of seemingly innocuous elements but a greater inclination toward the elaborate integration of all things related; an almost magical perspective that, far from being limited to the child's experience, sees nonapparent links and connections amidst the chaotic distrust of stagnating states of ordered (d)efficiency. Moving stealthily between method and effect, it becomes unclear where the borders lie. One no longer sees the fence, but the opening; not the matrix, but the code. Here then, is the magical art: Such an art may be good or bad when judged by aesthetic standards, but that kind of goodness or badness has little, if any, connection with its efficacy in its own proper work. The measure of magical prowess is then seen to be determined by the ruler of affect. The overall stageshow, séance, exhibit, or protest shapeshifts in our minds as we attempt to tie it to our expectations and resolve it within predetermined categories. In the end, we are left wondering what has changed and how. The borders are still present - very much so. But somehow we find ourselves on the other side.
Entire Text of "Transformation Magic"