In this article I suggest a reading of the magic trick from a politico-ideological perspective, using Slavoj Žižek’s critique of ideology, and in particular, the aspect of cynicism as a part of the functioning of a certain ideology by keeping a distance towards it at the same time. The structure of the magic trick – from the classic sleight of hand up to levitation in front of a live television (TV) audience – can be useful in understanding how politics and ideology function today, and perhaps more importantly, how the critique of ideology can paradoxically help rehabilitate the notion of ‘illusion’. The crucial question to be posed here, based on this theory, is one of the status of the illusion and the search for truth ‘behind the curtain’, in the ideological sense and the age of social media.
The magic trick has two sides to it: what the audiences are supposed to see from one certain point of view, and the mechanics of the trick behind it, which are known only to the magician. The job of the magician is then to perform the trick in such a way that audiences, even if they know it is only a trick, still remain in awe of the mastery, and perhaps for a moment start to believe in ‘pure’ magic.
Magicians or illusionists have traditionally guarded their secrets – not only for the trick to work but also to preserve the belief in something more than the banal reality. The once-famous illusionist and TV star David Copperfield considers this essential for magicians and what they represent:
and all of them … share a common trait – they keep their secrets, hoarding them with the fervour of a miser, not because they represent wealth or personal prestige, but because divulging them to the uninitiated breaks the spell, ruins the fun, and tells the child inside us all not to dream.
As some cognitive scientists have pointed out (see Pailhès and Kuhn), magicians also tend to influence the spectators/participants on an unconscious level, in card tricks, for example, by evoking (verbally or visually) certain images, shapes or colours in order for the participants to pick the right card. My argument is that even when we know how the trick works and that we are being manipulated, we can still believe in magic.
The magic trick falls apart only if the performance itself fails and the spectators witness a fatal mistake that suddenly reveals the hidden wires (as it were): “no magician is allowed to miss a trick and escape that moment when applause turns to derision” (Copperfield). This might also be true for politicians: the mistake caught as it happens might spell doom for the not-so-skilled (ideological) illusionist. At the same time, what if any revelation after the fact still cannot break the illusion?
Illusion and the Functioning of Ideology
Revelation is the basic premise of Žižek’s definition of ideology today: it works even when we very well know that it is ideology. Based on his reading of Marx and Freud through Lacan, Žižek attempts to show the workings and pitfalls of ideology today and relies partly on Marx’s analysis of “commodity fetishism” in his Capital. Our attitude towards ideology is therefore “fetishistic” and is best displayed in the example of commodities. As soon as some product of labour becomes a commodity, it seems endowed with special powers, with “mystery, magic and necromancy” (Marx 47), it abounds in “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Marx 42). There is a certain something ‘more’, which has nothing to do with an object like a chair or table when they are outside of the marketplace.
Based on this reading, Žižek paraphrases Marx’s formula of ideology: “they do not know it, but they are doing it”, and proposes a new approach: “they know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know” (Žižek, Sublime 30). Just like, for example, the foot fetishist who at the same time knows that the foot is ‘just’ a foot and something more at the same time – an object of their desire – we deal with money and commodities. Money is either paper or a number on a screen which can be worth something or suddenly lose its value, and become worthless, depending on social circumstances.
The truth of commodity fetishism, and analogous to that also ideology, is therefore in the “doing”: we know very well that perhaps an idea of “freedom is masking a particular form of exploitation” (Žižek, Sublime 30), but we still believe in this idea of freedom, in our practical life we ‘stick to it’ – we are therefore ‘fetishists’ or cynics in practice. We also know very well that the late capitalist, ‘neoliberal’ system is in itself problematic, that it has “inherent contradictions” which produce its countless crises, but we still behave as if there is no alternative: “cynical distance is just one way – one of many ways – to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy, even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them” (Žižek, Sublime 30, emphasis in original).
The ideological trick, the deceiving character of the image is something that is connected to our perception of reality and is pertinent to understanding ideology. But it is simply not enough to disconnect the illusion from reality as a separate entity. The everyday notion of ‘illusion’ stands in the way of grasping the way ideology works and the way the critique of ideology could be truly effective. In Žižek’s view thus, ideology
is not a dreamlike illusion that we build to escape insupportable reality; in its basic dimension, it is a fantasy-construction which serves as a support for our ‛reality’ itself: an ‛illusion’ which structures our effective, real social relations and thereby masks some insupportable, real, impossible kernel. (Sublime 45)
This approach to ideology goes beyond ‘meta-narratives’, it stresses the subject's position within the network of social relations – to change one’s point of view might therefore lead to the disintegrating of an ideological edifice. Yet at the same time, this shift is not the move from the ideological illusion to reality itself; it is important to note here that ideologies, from organised religions to Nazism and antisemitism, from totalitarian socialist regimes to neoliberalism, all build substantially on certain facts, however distorted. To then simply confront an ideology with such facts is not ‘automatically’ a way out of its grasp.
The Truth behind the Veil
To sum up, there is magic and transcendence in our secular and ‘enlightened’ world even though we pretend to be pragmatics, all the while actually being fetishists in our actions who believe in otherworldly properties of money and commodities. It is therefore useless to simply look at the reality ‘as it is’, to turn to statistics, for instance, and to expect that the “veil of ideology” will then be lifted. Whether it is far-right extremism or the belief in neoliberal individualism, ideologies are rooted in reality and cannot be confronted or debunked by merely stating facts, however true and convincing they might be. The veil itself is the ruse.
Žižek often quotes the classic Greek tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasios (as told by Jacques Lacan), two painters who competed in painting the more realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes that attracted birds who wanted to pick at them. Parrhasios simply painted a (very realistic) veil on a wall. Zeuxis, upon seeing the veil, asked Parrhasios to lift the veil and show him what he painted. Lacan draws from this the conclusion that: “the … example of Parrhasios makes it clear that if one wishes to deceive a man, what one presents to him is the painting of a veil, that is to say, something that incites him to ask what is behind it” (Lacan 112, emphasis added).
The veil, therefore, captures our imagination and desire, the idea that there must be something behind it, the desire to know what goes on behind the scenes, and exactly here, we as spectators/political subjects fall into the ideological trap. Whether in wildest conspiracy theories or in fact-based investigative journalism, the same underlying mechanism is at play. The point therefore is not only that we are deceived by the surface, but we are also deceived by our own desire for the knowledge of what might be behind it.
As previously mentioned, politicians as magicians have power as long as their ‘trick’ works in real-time. Afterwards, the revelations of crimes or corruption end up being futile and the ideological spell remains intact. This can be witnessed in many cases ranging from Nazism and Adolf Hitler to the “reactionary neoliberalism” (Fraser) of Donald Trump, as well as with other similarly nefarious figures and pernicious ideologies that persist even long after the facts about their crimes have been revealed. It is, therefore, being repeatedly contended across the media that we live in a so-called “post-truth” era (Harari), and it appears that in liberal democratic societies, the exposing of truth in the media has become, in a way, neutralised: no matter how often the ‘dirty tricks’ of corrupt politicians are publicised, they, as illusionists of our time par excellence, somehow manage to perform their tricks time and again and get away with it.
Does then the shift that has been taking place for some time within the media, from television and film to social media and streaming, with its tendency for ‘revealing truths’, from reality shows to Hollywood making-of promotional videos, enable us, simply put, to see more or less?
Magic in the Social Media Age
YouTube and other social media platforms abound with the ‘making-of videos’ of Hollywood films as well as endless content that supposedly debunks diverse mysteries and illusions. Instead of keeping their craft (whatever it may be) a secret to protect the trade, it has become a part of the social media business to show ‘how things are done’, to intrigue us with a look behind the scenes.
Fig. 1: Sean performing magic tricks and making tutorials on YouTube in 2023 (@SeanDoesMagic)
Magicians have of course also discovered the potential of social media. One example is the young magician Sean (@SeanDoesMagic, fig. 1), with six million subscribers and yearly earnings estimated at up to US$150,000 (as of September 2023, see Socialblade). He combines performing magic tricks and showing how they work, creating tutorials, and short explanations of some basic magic tricks. This ostensible paradox of doing magic and explaining the trick is at the core of how social media work: they conceal and reveal at the same time. Again, we witness here that the trick can still work even when we know how it is done.
The conceptual approach of many YouTubers, in general, can be read along the lines of Žižek’s definition of ideology and cynical distance – bloopers and mistakes often stay in, there is a meta-approach of commenting on oneself, not taking oneself seriously, thereby creating a counter-concept to the mainstream media’s professionalism. The social media magicians themselves are not immersed in their own world anymore, jealously guarding their secrets. This approach keeps them relevant in today’s social media culture.
From David Copperfield’s ‘classic’ style of magic to the ‘postmodern’ social media magicians, a parallel could be drawn between the trajectory of the development of capitalist societies in the last forty years and the evolution of the magician as an entrepreneur, as well as the adaption of the capitalist system to cultural and economic changes. In a way, the ‘social media magic’ becomes the ‘magic of social media’: something inconceivable in the past – magicians revealing their magic tricks – is now part of the job of the social media magician as a content creator. The social media magician can profit from explaining the trick, making it the show of their ultimate power as magician (the social media presence of magicians is also seen by some as the “democratisation of the magic industry”; see Ryssdal and Hollenhorst).
To show the workings, the mechanics of a magic trick is not ‘disillusionment’ – the trick still works even if we know how it is made. Does this mean that the illusion is stronger than reality, or does it simply imply that we can never truly disentangle the illusion from reality?
This approach can also be taken in regard to politics proper: despite our knowledge of the systemic corruption and inherent flaws of capitalism, we still believe in the system by simply ‘doing it’, by not truly accepting the possibility of a true alternative. We know how money and finance work; we know very well that the capitalist system produces its financial crises and inequalities in society. Still, we act as if there cannot be any alternative to the current state of things. What seemingly prevents us from ‘ideological illusions’ (such as ‘communism’ or ‘socialism’ in their many iterations) simply produces another ideological illusion: the belief in the sole prospect that the world will end up being saved by the ‘magic’ of the finance market or ‘wizardry’ and humanism of Big Tech billionaires.
The Real Magic of Politics
What connects social media and the functioning of ideology in Žižek’s sense is therefore the desire to know what hides behind the curtain, which may have made the classic magician as a celebrity obsolete – we are seemingly no longer interested in ‘parlour tricks’, but in ‘the truth’, the ‘real thing’.
Fig. 2: David Copperfield flying on live television in 1992 (CBS)
We can thus oppose the decline of Copperfield’s magic TV shows (fig. 2) to the rise of the reality shows of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The spectacle of magic gave way to the spectacle of the “hyperreal” (Baudrillard) – from MTV’s Real World (1992) to Big Brother (1999) and many others. Someone like Copperfield, a household name during the 1980s and 1990s, could appear almost ridiculous and outdated in today’s social media-dominated world. The result is that instead of a few ‘greats’ like Kellar, Houdini, or Copperfield, there are a myriad of small content creators that can profit from the emerging new post-neoliberal order that Varoufakis calls the “techno-feudalism” of the new digital capitalism of Internet platforms, or, in Zuboff’s analysis, “surveillance capitalism” with its primary goal of collecting and selling user data for profit.
Meanwhile, the magic tricks of financialised capitalism dominate – creating money out of thin air being the most popular one. Still, it is not sufficient to simply ‘debunk’ or expose this, however thoroughly or engagingly. We have witnessed attempts of this in popular culture: it is not enough to show us the dealings and debauchery behind the scenes, as in films like The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) or The Big Short (2015). When we watch the Wall Street brokers ‘work their magic’ it remains fascinating, the tricks still work and the illusion that perhaps ‘I also can still somehow make it’ persists.
Paradoxically, in the age of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ perhaps only illusions can save the day, but those of the ‘right kind’: the illusions of Greta Thunberg that planet Earth can actually be saved from the climate catastrophe, and the illusions of voters still believing in democracy and in a possibility of a transnational, class/gender/race-defying solidarity.
In a way, for a society to work, a form of illusion is needed, and we should not fall into the trap of revealing the workings behind the scenes as being the solution, but accept the power of the illusion as such. The rift between the surface of the illusion and the truth is necessary, but it is the fetishising of ‘what lies beneath’ that is the ‘wrong’ illusion: what Žižek calls the ‘illusion of the real’. Instead, what is needed is the “real of the illusion” (Žižek, Lacan 59) – the truth that emerges from the trick itself, from the realisation that our reality is already structured by fantasy, that if we lose fantasy, we lose reality itself.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006), two rival magicians are ready to sacrifice everything in order to discover each other’s secrets, to outplay one another, and create the ultimate illusion on stage. One of them even deploys science, ‘real magic’, to achieve the impossible. In the end, it is the same magician who summarises what magic is about and what it means to him:
the audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special. You really don’t know? It was... it was the look on their faces. (Prestige)
It is clear that the audience knows what is going on, that they want to be fooled, and that the magician wants to capture their gaze. The ideological fantasy also thrives on this desire, and simply directing that gaze to look ‘behind the scenes’ does not break the illusion but opens up an abyss: coping with the “miserable world” by finding scapegoats (Jews, refugees, women, trans persons) to make the inconsistent and troubled system whole, which can only lead to a catastrophe.
The belief that the late capitalist system will go on forever and that the manifold crises will somehow get resolved by themselves is a dangerous dream after the disastrous financial crisis of 2008, the COVID crisis, and the ongoing Ukraine war, as well as the looming environmental catastrophe. Here it would be necessary to remain on the side of ‘true’ magic: not the ideological belief that the (already shaken) status quo will go on forever, but the conviction that things need to change: and at the moment, this is proclaimed unrealistic, and fantasy comes into play – the ‘real of the illusion’ which might provide an opening for a true and significant change.
Fig. 3: Harry Houdini performing the Handcuff Escape in 1907 (David Folender)
Perhaps Harry Houdini’s (fig. 3) legendary contempt for the “spiritualists” of his time (Tompkins 93), and his fight to expose them, can help us understand politics and ideology today through magic: we are in dire need of true magicians against those who simply try to deceive us by painting the veil that hides nothing.
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