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7 - Conjuring Imposters: The Extraordinary Illusions of Mundanity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2021

Steve Woolgar
Affiliation:
Linköpings universitet, Sweden
Else Vogel
Affiliation:
Linköpings universitet, Sweden
David Moats
Affiliation:
Linköpings universitet, Sweden
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Summary

A conjuror … is an actor playing the part of a magician.

(Robert-Houdin, 2011 [1868]: 43)

Please, consider if you will the intrigues that the figure of the magician holds for thinking about the imposter. Doubtless you appreciate that entertainment magic (aka ‘modern conjuring’) involves reciprocally recognized and monitored deception. While magicians might proffer all sorts of verbal and non-verbal explanations for their feats, audiences are aware that both can function as techniques of subterfuge. Magicians, in turn, craft their performances by anticipating that many eyes and ears are primed to detect tell-tale signs of chicanery. Robert-Houdin's much-quoted characterization of the conjuror suggests still another level of pretence; while the conjuror takes on the guise of a magician, this semblance is only an outward show that obscures the real role: actor.

In what follows, I want to set the performance of magic and the act of impostering next to each other in order to appreciate how they can mutually inform one another. In doing so, my intent is to examine how imposters and their audiences co-constitute each another. I am going to do so from an unconventional tack. Rather than approaching conjuring from the lofty heights of internationally renowned performers – the David Copperfields, Penn & Tellers, David Blaines and so on of this world – my attention is mainly with the stuttering forays of a beginner with little claim to skill. Namely, me. It is from a position of comparative ignorance and inability that I want to voice certain appreciations about co-constitution.

Motley impostures

Let's start with some basics about persona as this can serve as a portal into many other issues. As part of their performance, conjurors frequently adopt a range of guises. Maybe you have seen one play the part of a psychic, mad scientist, clown, streetwise hustler, psychologist or, perhaps the most devilish of all, ‘themselves’. Each of these guises is able to be enacted in ways more or less suggestive that the performer does (or does not) possess extraordinary abilities. Each persona can also more or less serve as a ruse for dissimulation.

Within the history of magic, an extreme example of impostering was realized by the American performer William Robinson.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Imposter as Social Theory
Thinking with Gatecrashers, Cheats and Charlatans
, pp. 147 - 170
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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