Archive for the ‘magic’ Category

Academic Magic comes to life!

Yesterday I had the honour and privilege of performing my show Then and Now as part of the alumni weekend and launch of the 50th Anniversary of the University of Essex.

I performed twice yesterday for a total audience of 400 people in the magnificent Lakeside Theatre. The show was designed around the idea of highlights of our academic strengths over the last 50 years, including politics, mathematics, memories, history, literature, human rights, and philosophy. The show covered a wide terrain of ideas reminiscent of times at university, as well as enduring themes and concepts that have importance in our everyday lives.

then-now-stage-set

The audiences comprised Essex alumni from the last 50 years, staff and colleagues (current and past) and current students. We had wonderful interactions, laughter, surprises, uncanny demonstrations of mind reading and precognition, and downright magic which will be hard to repeat. The atmosphere was electric and filled with what has become known as The Essex Spirit.

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By combining academic thinking with magical performance I have sought to challenge convention, create a platform for metaphysical plurality and bring edutainment into the lives of the Essex community. It was superb to learn of people’s experiences at Essex, the subjects they studied, their friends and their favourite professors and lecturers.

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I have been at Essex since 1993 and it has been a wonderful foundation and steady firmament for an academic career that has taken me all over the world. The University was founded as an experiment with ‘fierce’ architecture filled with open squares, tall towers, and a research mindset that provides an extraordinary educational experience for all our students.

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We continue to expand and improve the University (with the highest recruitment to date) while strengthening our commitment to excellence in eduction and excellence in research.

I am grateful for our newfound confidence and the popularity of our offer to students. Celebrating our history through magic gave me a great opportunity to reflect on my time at Essex (42% of its history as I mused last night) and look forward to a very bright future indeed!

I know it will be bright, I am a mentalist after all!

Then and Now: A Magical Celebration of Essex University at 50!

 

 

Then and NowThe University of Essex is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. The year launches on our Alumni Weekend 12-14 September 2014.

As part of the celebrations I have been honoured to develop a magical celebration of our history in a dedicated stage show with music, visual images, and a wide range of uncanny demonstrations of coincidence, synchronicity, precognition, predictions, and direct mind reading.

The show explores topics such as politics, math, history, and philosophy which are wrapped in a magic carpet ride of highly interactive fun. The show runs from 4pm to 5pm (public show) and again from 6pm to 7pm (for alumni). It will also be staged again in December.

The University’s Lakeside Theatre is the perfect venue for the show as it allows raked seating, a huge performance area, and state of the art audio visual equipment.

This potted history of such a special University is serious fun with an academic twist and enjoyable for all. Tickets are FREE and can be booked by clicking HERE.

From Oz to Suffolk: Blog Hop on The Writing Process

Today’s blog is the result of a wonderful invitation from science writer, spider expert, and magicienne Lynne Kelly, who among many fantastic offerings, wrote an intriguing essay called ‘Feminine Magic’ for my book, The Magiculum. We had the good fortune of spending a day together in Suffolk England last year when she visited the UK from Australia. We met virtually years before through a magic forum and have corresponded ever since.

Lynne’s invitation is for me to reflect on the writing process, share my blog and invite others to make a similar submission.

So, here goes!

What are you working on?

This year I finished several articles, a critical response to human rights book for Amnesty International, a book chapter on social science methods and human rights, and a paper on an experiment we ran at the University of Essex that addressed questions of framing, human rights advocacy, and the trial of General Efrain Ríos Montt in Guatemala, which will be presented in Washington DC next week at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.

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This summer I am writing the Fourth Edition of Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics for Routledge. The book was first published in 2000, then 2003, and then 2008. It has been translated into German and Spanish, and the the new edition updates the content and provides more insight into and contemporary examples for the methods that are outlined and discussed.

I am also writing an unusual book that is part auto-biography, part novel and part magic manual for magicians, mentalists and mystery entertainers who perform what has been called ‘theatrical mentalism’. The project is exciting and will be an exclusive offering to the magic community in early 2015. Until then, its contents remain top secret!

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Over the past twenty years or so, I have sought to bring the study of human rights into the discipline of political science and to bring the theories and methods of political and social science into the world of human rights. My work differs in the sense that it is problem-based and focusses on large normative and value-based questions, but uses systematic methods of inquiry and analysis to address the problems. I have worked on social mobilisation and rights demands under conditions of authoritarian rule, transitions to democracy, development and democracy, democracy and human rights, measuring human rights, the growth and effectiveness of the international human rights regime, and the application of phronetic social science to real world problems.

Throughout this period of work I have tried to remain open minded and to embrace a plurality of methods while remaining committed to the link between evidence and inference. I am keen to undertake research that collects and analyses evidence in the fairest and most intellectually honest way possible to take account of the natural uncertainty that comes with the scientific process of discovery. This approach has taken my around the world to work with scholars, advocates, partitioners, and policy makers in over 35 countries ranging from Peru to Mongolia.

The substance of my work has had an uneasy reception in political science (i.e. mixing normative and empirical approaches) and human rights (mixing statistics and law); however, students and participants in my classes, seminars, and workshops have taken value from my approach and enjoyed my blend of theory, philosophy, method, and activism.

Like my academic work, my magical writing has sought to bring the world of magic into academia and the world of academia into magic. My shows are grounded in a certain sense of metaphysical plurality, where different accounts of what is being experienced in the theatre are equally plausible. My current show is entitled ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which tips its hat to the work of John Rawls, but explores a wide range of philosophical concepts and topics through the genre of mentalism and bizarre magic. In this way, I see a synergy between my academic work and my magical work.

Why do you write what you do?

I had a number of formative experiences growing up that made me turn my attention to the politics of authoritarianism, democracy and human rights. We had frequent visitors to our house in the 1970s and 1980s from Latin America, which turned my attention to the politics of the region while a student at the University of Pennsylvania (1984-1988).

In late 1989, I was working in the photographic laboratory in the Lauinger Library at Georgetown University when a Jesuit Priest arrived one morning with a roll of film that he wanted us to develop. He asked that we make ten copies of the pictures on the roll. In these pre-digital days, my boss and I stood in the darkroom shaking the can, drying the film, and then printing the pictures. We were not prepared for what we were about to see.

The pictures had been smuggled out of El Salvador and were of the scene at the Pastoral Centre of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) where six Jesuit priests along with a maid and her daughter were killed.[1] The images that confronted us were not what was reported in the mainstream press (i.e. that they were shot). Rather, we saw the brutal end results not only of a ‘simple’ set of extra-judicial killings, but the result of a manner of killing that has left an indelible mark on me ever since.

The official truth commission in El Salvador strong evidence that not only had the military had given the orders to carry out the murders but that the officers involved also engaged in cover up.[2] The facts of the case and the images that I developed those many years ago illustrate a basic point about the capacity of human beings to horrible things to one another, which lead to a deontological conclusion that what I saw was morally wrong and which has galvanised my commitment to a lifetime of human rights research.

My magical writing has been much more free and open to creativity, but also contains attention to theory and method. I have been inspired by the great magicians from the past, and have sought to carve out a personal pathway for my own style of performance that uses magic as a medium to explore larger questions and problems confronting humanity, including the persecution of women during the witch hunting period in Europe, the social injustice of Victorian mental asylums, the foundations for human rights, motivations for people to act justly, the instability of language, the power of family history and inheritance, and psychological profiling and alienism, among many others.

How does your writing process work?

As a problem-based researcher, I respond to the developments in global politics and human rights with an open mind and explore different ways in which I might study a problem and provide answers to particular questions. I read widely and formulate plausible explanations for what I observe that suggest ways in which such explanations may or may not be supported by evidence. Substantive research projects have ancillary subjects around methods and measurement about which I have written many books and articles.
Thus, I am inspired to write about contemporary problems in the world as well as the ways in which such problems can be studied. I begin with a problem or theme, work out the structure of how I will address them, and then write in ways that populates the structure with content and the development of a well grounded argument. If I see holes in the argument I continue to read and research until I feel satisfied that a particular area has been covered comprehensively. For larger research projects that rely on the collection and analysis of primary and secondary data, I have a meta strategy that structures the project, imagines the types of evidence that will need to be collected and analysed, and the type of outputs that will be made possible.
I am currently working on a project that seeks to measure values in organisations both from the personal importance individuals place on values and the ways in which they think their organisation demonstrates those values through day to day practices. The meta structure sees the need for defining values, operationalising values, collecting data from different organisations, analysing the data, and then planning a number of different outputs based on that analysis. My project team has developed the measurement tool and carried out a pilot study which is allowing us to refine the tool and map out the kinds of things we would like to publish.
For my magic writing I settle on meta themes that I want to explore through magic and then I script and design stage shows around these themes using props, slides, music and the methods of performance magic. My stage shows have included ‘An Evening of Metaphysical Magic’, ‘An Evening of Enchantment’, ‘Edge of the Unknown’, ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, and my latest creation ‘Then and Now’, a magical celebration of 50 years of the history of the University of Essex.
I hope I have addressed the questions adequately and that readers take value from what I have shared. I am pleased to pass the baton to Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold working in Brazil.


[1] The victims included Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; Amando López, Joaquin López and Juan Ramón Moreno (teachers at UCA) and Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos. See Vanity Fair (1990) ‘Letter from El Salvador,’ Vanity Fair, November 1990: 110, 115-116, 118, 120, 123.

[2] United States Institute for Peace, Truth Commissions: Reports: El Salvador.

 

 

 

Sentiments of the Solstice

 

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Regardless of your set of beliefs or metaphysical disposition, it is undeniable that the winter solstice period is a time to pause, take stock, and reflect on one’s life, as well as look forward to what might be in store for the new year. These past few days I have been able to do just this, spending time with those members of my family who could be here with us, while connecting with those who could not. The time for reflection is not necessarily happy, but more contemplative, slightly melancholic, and  at the same time, energising. The intentional shutting down of work related activity, focus on family, and rediscovery of things I really enjoy (magic, music, reading fiction, and long walks) brings new attention to things that have either been neglected or have gone unnoticed for far too long.

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The solstice has allowed me to  re-engage with the local area and appreciate the sheer beauty of the English countryside. There is a calmness, serenity and a strong sense of permanence that comes from the deep history of this marvellous country. I have always felt very much at home from the moment I arrived over 20 years ago. My family roots are partly in Europe, as my father came from the Netherlands and only moved to the United States in 1955. Coming to England has always felt like a journey home, unfinished perhaps, but a move in the right direction.

East End, East Bergholt

The wintery sunsets behind trees are indeed quite magical and leave one in quiet contemplation as the cold bite sets in for the night. These silhouettes are reminders of nature’s power and the cycle of the seasons. Our beautiful old trees line pathways through the landscape with well-trodden routes, and each day’s walk never fails to bring new surprises through sights, sounds, and small discoveries. The birdlife is rich, and if I am really lucky I see the occasional deer. My feet are comforted by the soft ground beneath them as I traverse the fields and breathe in the crisp wintery air.

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I learned about the local area by riding my bicycle through the lanes and following the churches. Each village has a stone church in a prominent position like cairns leading me across the green and rolling terrain. Our area has been home to Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General and when walking the fields, I imagine him riding from town to town and village to village collecting rent on the apprehension and transportation of suspected witches. The ‘cunning folk’ from our village were lucky enough to avoid his capture, but the suspected witches were tried through torturous means and imprisoned on the basis of the most illogically obtained ‘evidence’. Their burden is here with me as I wander through the village.

St Mary's Church, East Bergholt

More than 200 years before Matthew Hopkins, our village and the surrounding towns of Hadleigh and Ipswich were home to some of the Marian Persecutions. The ‘Martyrs of Suffolk’ were devout Protestants who were hung, drawn, and quartered by orders of Queen Mary for the brief return of the Roman Catholic Church as the official Church in England. Across the road from St Mary’s Church (now Church of England) is the site of a Catholic monastery, which has been there since the publication of the first Doomesday book in 1086. Protestants and Catholics living and praying across from one another for hundreds of years. Now, the monastery is a shared community that was set up in the 1970s. Walking through the Churchyard and noting the gravestones (there is one for the famous painter John Constable) I am once again humbled by the long history on display before my eyes, while the tower from the monastery watches over its rival with a staid look and cool silence.

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Beyond all this history, mystery and intrigue, our village is a welcoming place with many generations living alongside one another. I leave you with a beautiful image of the shopkeeper’s house. His shop is the centre of our community with all one needs to make it through a gentle weekend and a natural place for villagers to congregate. Every year, the shopkeeper decorates his house for Christmas, and after a quick stop the other day, I took this picture. The air was cold, the village was quiet, and the serenity of the lights was another touching reminder of why I love it here so much.

house lights

As 2014 approaches, I hope that many of you have also had the chance to take time out and appreciate the little things that make life so worth living. I realise that I am fortunate living in such a charming place, but I also know that so many of my friends and colleagues live in equally charming places. Regardless of where we are, however, this time of year is a special one. In one week, the pressures of work and professional life will return, but for now, I breathe deep, keep still, and enjoy this current phase of life’s rich tapestry.

 

 

 

 

2013: An Intense Year

kiev-2Last year in December I was in Kiev working with a citizen group wishing to improve the quality of democracy in Ukraine. The members of the group were very motivated, energetic, and excited about the prospects of making a difference in the future of their country, as well as the prospects of Ukraine making closer ties with the European Union. This December, the Government of Ukraine has turned its back on Europe, which has provoked popular outcry and unrest from pro-European groups. Many see any gains from the Orange Revolution as being finally extinguished.

The trip to Kiev was part of my work as the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex, which I maintained until 1 August when I became the new Executive Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. The new role has meant an expanded set of responsibilities, deeper engagement with campus life across all aspects of the academic endeavour: education, research, finance and people. I work with superb team in the Faculty and other colleagues who make the job exciting, engaging and rewarding.

The higher education sector is going through profound and unprecedented change at the moment here in the UK. The government rolled out a liberalization process that has culminated in expanding the student market during this recruitment cycle by 30,000 and then by opening up the market completely from 2015.

fss-1My work involves creating the kind of value proposition for our students that is attractive, competitive and meaningful. Our strategies are geared toward achieving excellence in education (‘a transformational educational experience’) and excellence in research (maximise our performance in the research excellence framework 2014 and beyond). The Faculty of Social Sciences features top social science departments in the United Kingdom with a critical mass of academic staff carrying out cutting edge research that is data rich, methodologically rigorous, and practically applicable across many different policy sectors.

The early part of the year involved work on The Westminster Consortium for Strengthening Parliaments and Democracy, and other projects associated with the IDCR, including the wonderful joint project with the Mackman Group, Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Mexico), Human Rights Centre and ESRC: The Human Rights Atlas. The Atlas work involved a wonderful visit to FLACSO-Mexico for a workshop on measuring human rights, as well as a visit to the Circle of Mexican Magicians!

After Mexico, I found myself in Brussels for a series of meetings with the EU’s External Action Service with some of my colleagues from Kiev. I also had the opportunity of a lifetime to finally go visit Christian Chelman, one of the world’s most foremost bizarre magicians at his famous Surnateum.

 

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In April I went to San Francisco for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association and spent a great day with Christian Cagigal, a bay area bizarre magician who showed me the Mission area and the Castro. I saw my friend and colleague Edzia Carvalho marry Sam Mansell in Sheffield. I also had the honour of lecturing to the MA in Sustainable Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

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In May I got the new job and started with the preparations almost immediately. I also made my annual sojourn to Whitby for the Doomsday bizarre magic convention where I had the honour of performing in the Gala show and running a workshop on the final day. June and July were spent getting up to speed on all matters in the faculty.

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After a lovely visit from my amazing mother, I had the pleasure of presenting a full day workshop on democracy for staff at the EU’s External Action Service in Brussels, where we looked at stylised facts, concepts and definitions, theories and explanations, and implications for EU policies in the area of democracy building.

On 22 July, I was delighted to host an evening of mentalism at the prestigious Magic Circle in London, which featured many of the talented members of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers. We had mind reading, memory stunts, tests of suggestibility, and a packed house with over 70 people.

In September I was delighted to publish my new book Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals with Bloomsbury. The book charts developments in democracy and human rights over the last 60 years, and reflects on my last 20 years working with democracy assessment, human rights measurement, and capacity building around the world.

The month also saw the roll out of an experiment run in our Essex Lab, which tested over 150 respondents on their attitudes to transitional justice through direct reference to the trial of Rios Montt in Guatemala. The results are promising and will be written up in 2014, and preliminary results presented in a talk at the University of Dundee in February.

This year saw the debut of my new stage show ‘Lifting Veil of Ignorance’, which is a show inspired by John Rawls and includes an exploration of deep philosophical questions through the medium of mind reading. I did parts of the show in Whitby in May, and then the whole show in Bath in September, Wivenhoe House and University of Huddersfield in October, and Southend in December.

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At the November Tabula Mentis meeting of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers I was presented with the Chancellor of Mystery award by the membership for service to organisation as one of its founders and the main organiser for 14 Tabula Mentae meetings since 2007.

In research terms, I was awarded two new grants, one from the Economic and Social Research Council for the extension of our Human Rights Atlas project and one from the Technology Strategy Board for a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Glowinkowski International.

As an exciting year closes out, I am really looking forward to 2014. My academic work continues at Essex with the Faculty and with new research endeavours on authoritarianism and human rights, while in the magical world, I am pleased to announce the forthcoming book The Magiculum, which will be published by EyeCorner Press. The book is a wonderful collection of essays from lifelong magicians reflecting on the different ways in which magic has been part of their lives.

Finally, I wish to thank my lovely family Melissa, Sophia, Oliver, Briony, and all our furry friends for making home life so wonderful, full of love, and never short of surprises. This is where the true magic lies.

 

 

In the Comfort of Books

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I am the first to adopt all sorts of new technology and have benefited greatly from working on-line, with large and complex data sets, on the iPad, the iPhone, and any other piece of time saving technology available; however, I have a lifelong love and commitment to books. Their sheer physicality can never be replaced with technology. They have history, a special smell, a feel, and each one is associated with a different moment in my life.

I particularly like old books. There is something about the way books were produced 100 years ago that makes them more attractive than anything that is on the market today. I grew up with Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Alan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Roald Dahl (especially James and the Giant Peach), and the Hardy Boys. Now, I am more prone to dip in an out of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes (the nice, small and natty Everyman editions), as well as some intriguing fiction.

My office is jam packed with books (even after a very painful purging) and my little monastic cell at home has a few hundred more tomes about everything from politics and philosophy to mathematics and magic.

This holiday season, I shall be delving into books on oligarchy, authoritarianism and human rights, along with some escapism through some fiction that is still sitting on the shelf, and even Dalrymple’s monumental Return of the King (funny how history repeats itself).

Nothing beats the satisfaction of holding an old book and appreciating the wafer thin pages, font, look, feel, and size as you curl up with your favourite hot beverage (mine’s a large cup of strong Lavazza) and lose yourself in the words.

I will also be writing and editing a new book called The Magiculum, which is an new exciting project that brings together lifelong magicians from all over the world, who are reflecting on what magic means to them. The essays are all fascinating and all different. Thanks to Enrique Enriquez and Camelia Elias, this book will come to fruition in 2014 from EyeCorner Press!

I also gravitate toward bookshops, especially second hand shops or those that value the magic of books. Wooden floors, shelves bursting with unusual titles, and the sumptuous smell of coffee wafting in the air. These are increasingly rare venues these days, but I hang on to the ones left and approach each new one I find with anticipation and excitement, like Shakespeare and Company in Paris, WatkinsDavid Drummond, Foyles and Skoob in London, Kramer Books in Washington DC, The Bookworm in Beijing, and many more.

As time slows down a bit this season, I hope we all get a chance to pick up a book and get lost for a while. I know I will…

 

In Praise of Christian Cagigal

He bustled into the chamber in his coat, hat, and scarf and carrying his tattered leather case. Evocative of the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, he scurries about muttering about being late and begins to take things out of his case and setting them out on what is available in the room. Two small table cloths are draped over some furniture, a metronome is set out and turned on, a sand timer is positioned carefully on a small table, and an antique stereoscope is taken out and set on another table.

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So begins the enchanting and emotional one-man show from renowned San Francisco magician Christian Cagigal. Entitled ‘Now and at the Hour’, the show explores a wide range of themes around time, deja vu, and our inability to achieve resolution and closure with our parents. The show combines inexplicable moments of magic and mindreading with deep reflection on a childhood growing up with a father deeply affected by the Vietnam War.

The staging of the show took place in Hitchin Priory in Hertfordshire as part of the 14th Tabula Mentis meeting of Psycrets: The British Society of Mystery Entertainers, an international association I helped co-found in 2007.

I met Christian on-line and then spent a day with him in San Francisco in April 2013, when I invited him to come to the UK to share his performance with us. The room was transfixed as Christian made us gasp, laugh, sigh, and fall silent into a deeper and perhaps darker moment of contemplation. This is the kind of magic that moves us, where the ‘tricks’ are a fantastic medium for a much larger narrative. This is no holds barred stuff.

The show is exactly one hour, and when the last grain of sand fells from the top to the bottom of the timer, Christian jumps up, gathers his things back into his case, puts on his coat, hat and scarf and leaves in a nervous bluster once again.

The show is a must see and has won a number of accolades across the US at various fringe festivals and theatres.

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It was a true honour and a privilege to witness such artistry, and in my view, a quintessential exemplar of the new wave of performance magic that is making its way into the public.

Exploring the Outer Edges of the Mind

I had the good fortune last week of working with the School of Music, Humanities and Drama at the University of Huddersfield last weekend. The event is part of my role as a Visiting Professor of Performance Magic, which involves contributions to the Journal of Performance Magic, working with drama students, and performing my own material in evening shows.

This year, I worked with Nik Taylor and David Wainwright (FRSA) during the day with drama students in filming four short videos that explored a little known syncretic religion from Mexico, the medieval symbolism of the Tarot, the power of history through inherited objects, and the magical morality of Plato’s Ring of Gyges.

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La Flaquita explores the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte through offerings, transformations, and yielding to important messages. I had been exposed to this phenomena while in Mexico last January and became further intrigued after reading Andrew Chesnut’s fascinating Devoted To Death. I arranged for Andrew to give a talk on his book at Treadwell’s bookshop this summer and developed my own magical exploration as a result. A connection is made through the use of a pendulum, a coin mysteriously vanishes, tobacco transforms into wine, a prayer disappears over a candle to leave an uncanny message, and concerns of a young woman are revealed through direct  communication with La Flaquita.

The true origins of the Tarot are unknown, but many believe that the cards evolved from a game of the court to a set of medieval archetypal images that represent different phases in our development (the Major Arcana), accompanied by ongoing forces relevant to our daily lives (travel, health, romance, adventure, material wealth, etc. as articulated through the Minor Arcana). My own exploration of these ideas involved two young people, free choices and contemplation, which made themselves known to me, perhaps from the shared community of human minds. In the event, a the radiance of The Sun and the compassion of the Queen of Wands were revealed in a truly inexplicable fashion.

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I explored the power of history through a set of inherited objects: a small book, a silver coin, a key, a ring, and a gold watch. These objects are introduced in the context of my grandfather from Leiden and accompanied by his photograph and letter. The letter explains that each object has a deeper set of meanings that transcend their immediate physicality. The book is a miniature version of The Tempest and signifies knowledge and magic, the silver coin is a Morgan dollar and signifies material wealth, the key signifies secrets, the ring symbolises trust and commitment, and the watch stands for time, order and progress. My helpful participant ordered them thus: watch, key,  coin, ring and book. He was keen to focus on the orderly aspects of life before using the key to unlock opportunities, before looking at issues of wealth, trust and commitment, and the hidden world of knowledge that awaits him. Other participants made hidden selections which were divined, and the final selection was predicted in the letter, but nonetheless chosen by our final participant.

ring of gyges

Deep within the pages of Plato’s Republic is a thought experiment on morality called the Ring of Gyges. The ring is found within the belly of a bronze horse and renders its wearer invisible. The question for Plato centres the kinds of immoral acts one would commit while invisible and the temptation to wear the ring knowing the immoral acts that are possible under such circumstances. Two participants were given the choice to put the ring on (out of sight) or to leave it in the box (and shut), while my own powers of perception divined their true intentions.

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The day was capped off with a performance of my show Lifting the Veil of ignorance. The Milton Theatre was full for an evening of magical exploration of fundamental ideas such that concern us all: epistemology, morality, justice, human rights, language, the nature of the modern state, and the role of practical wisdom. The evening was hugely enjoyable with many wonderful surprises from the audience as they made choices, imagined outcomes, and engaged with my mind games with a view to delivering a serious message about what constitutes the good life.

 

Transformational Education

This week I was asked to speak to our first year business students about what a transformational education means at the University of Essex. This was both an honour and a privilege as I have always believed that a University education is truly transformational and is one of the most incredible times in your life. My own time at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1980s was unbelievably good. The professors, the campus, the extracurricular activities, and the dense social relationships all combined into four years of learning, living, and lucidity that have been a great foundation for all that I have done ever since.

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In preparing my comments for our new students, I reflected on my time at Penn with great fondness and thought back on all the changes I experienced. I also reflected on the word transformation and its different meanings. For the talk, I made reference to the natural world and included images of the life cycle for a butterfly and a frog. I then reflected on the Aristotelian notion of telos accompanied by an image of an acorn and an oak tree. Inside all of us (acorns) is an oak tree waiting to get out.

As a magician, I had of course to reflect on alchemy and the scholar magicians of the 16th century, who were interested in the conversion of base metal into gold, as well as the process of spiritual development. For me, the notion of the vessel from alchemy was important for my talk. Inside the vessel, all sorts of changes happen. The vessel as a metaphor was useful for my point about education at Essex.

We take our base material (the students), put them in a vessel (library and classrooms), ferment the students (books, lectures, knowledge, skills, relationships, learning environment), and distillation (the newly formed graduate), the result of which is a person ready to take on the world.

I shared my own personal transformation from an idyllic childhood in rural Pennsylvania to an Academic Magician living in England. To cap off the event, I performed a quick demonstration using a Rubik’s Cube and a mind reading experiment using Thomas Hobbes classic tome Leviathan.Wivenhoe House

I like the openness of the University of Essex to these kinds of ideas. It is a University that has been challenging convention since its founding in 1964 and this week was ranked among the top 100 in the world for the social sciences. It has been my professional home since 1993 and a base from where I have been able to explore the world.

Next week, the Edge Hotel School, the first of its kind in the UK for work based learning in the newly refurbished Wivenhoe House Hotel, will host my new show ‘Lifting the Veil of Ignorance’, which explores many foundational philosophical ideas through the medium of magic and mentalism.

Like the lecture, the show offers a different opportunity for transformational education, which for me, is something that is ongoing and never really reaches an end…

Philosophy and Magic

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This week I had the opportunity to be engaged in an examination of a doctoral thesis at Oxford University and was once again seduced by the sheer magical qualities of the city. The venue for the examination was within easy walking distance from the train station, but far enough away for me to get a real sense of the city, with its spires, yellow buildings, quirky doorways, and delightful streets, shops, and greens.

Beyond enjoying the examination and catching up with colleagues and friends, I also had the good fortune of walking to the station the next morning and passing by the Bodelian Library. I walked through the gates, which are part of a high fence topped by the heads of ancient philosophers with their imposing and slightly menacing gazes.

As I wandered through the squares and courtyards in the early hours of the morning, I was struck by two things. On one side of the square was a doorway marked Schola Metaphysicae and on the other, there was a small sign advertising a special exhibition called Magical Books.

What better place on planet earth for the Academic Magician to find himself!

Here, bracketed within a square that has been on this site for hundreds of years over which the footsteps of thousands of scholars have passed, I was standing and taking in the majesty of this space and the ideas that it communicated.

The exhibition featured the great works of magical fiction inspired by Oxford, such as the works of  C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman, as well as ‘books and manuscripts that contain the myths, legends, and magical practices on which these Oxford-educated authors freely drew for inspiration.’

How wonderful to acknowledge the magical traditions at Oxford and inspired by Oxford. The city is also home to Deborah Harkness’ Discovery of Witches, part of the All Souls Trilogy; itself a tale of mystery, fantasy and intrigue based on a magical manuscript entitled Ashmole 782.

This framing of the square was important to me, since the Schola Metaphysicae symbolises thousands of years of philosophical investigation into all matters that lie ‘above’ (or perhaps beyond) the physical world (Aristotle first wrote the Physics and then the Metaphysics) and the exhibition celebrated all things magical that continue to inspire wonder in our minds.

My own work on philosophy and magic finds solace in this space that was inadvertently framed for me on Tuesday morning. I thought about the imaginary worlds of Tolkien and Lewis that fascinated me as a young reader, but also the imaginary worlds of Plato (The Republic), Machiavelli (The Prince), More (Utopia), Dante (Inferno), Hobbes (The State of Nature) and Rawls (The Veil of Ignorance) that have been so influential in my academic work as well as my own version of performance magic.

Magic, wonder and thought can come together through performance in ways that address fundamental questions about how we know what we know and why what we know matters for the pursuit of the good life. Performance magic can disrupt our sense of what we know and provide alternative pathways to understanding the human condition, and in my own performances such a perspective allows me to address the sources of knowledge, the world of ideas, the nature of the state and human motivation, free will, morality, justice, human rights, and practical wisdom.

Some say the moment on Tuesday morning was pure chance; the product of a few extra minutes on the way to the train station. But the magician in me thinks otherwise.