On 30 August 2021 I had the pleasure to perform Tales from the Magiculum for the Annual General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR). This event was a hybrid performance with 60 virtual guests primarily from the United States and Europe, combined with live and socially-distanced guests in my own Magiculum in the historic Park Estate in Nottingham, United Kingdom, the home of Robin Hood!
It was really nice for a career political scientist to perform magic for other political scientists from around the world. I set the scene for the performance with an array of books, artifacts, and magical objects from my collection, along with suitable 21st Century technology and historical furniture, props, lighting, and ephemera.
Through my magical feats and inexplicable demonstrations, I wanted to explore common themes and topics relevant to the political world broadly understood. I opened the performance with an exploration of the separation between mind and body made most famous by the great French philosopher René Descartes through his idea of cogito ergo sum ('I think therefore I am').
This was followed by an exploration of Plato's 'Ring of Gyges' thought experiment in The Republic and Wittgenstein's 'Beetle' thought experiment in his Philosophical Investigations.
Plato asks us to imagine a ring of invisibility and whether in the possession of such a ring, would we be tempted to commit 'unjust acts.' Through calibration with choices made by an Italian political scientist and expert in business and human rights, we used a series of choices to craft an ideal government, the design for which I had already predicted and sealed in an envelope!
Wittgenstein asks us to imagine a world in which everyone is given a box in which there is a beetle. My audience watched as many different kinds of beetles were extracted from an otherwise empty box. The lesson of the thought experiment is that in the absence of seeing into each other's boxes, we may never truly know what a beetle is. In other words, only the use of language as a social and relational activity can we establish the meanings for words we use. Surprisingly for my audience, all the beetles were put back in the back and subsequently vanished!
These magical excursions into mind-body dualism, temptation and the design of government, and the social dimensions of language allowed us to consider the concept of psychological profiling developed by Swiss Psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, famous for his Ink Blot Test. Working with free choices made by our virtual guests in Dublin and Baltimore, and our live guests in Nottingham, we achieved an astonishing feat of mind reading, premonition, and with the help of little statistics, the correct identification of a murder victim.
I closed the performance with a set of 'boundary objects' collected in a small travel case belonging to Roderick, a young boy of the age of ten, whose school diary and favourite trinkets provided an uncanny pathway for a deeper understanding of his own experience of existentialism during the outbreak of World War II in 1940 in the city of Leeds.
The hybrid model of performance worked well, as my virtual guests were invited into The Magiculum to sit alongside my live guests, while we collectively considered deep concepts through the medium of magic. Feedback and testimonials for the performance include:
Dr Richard McNeill-Willson, European University Institute
'The social science magician @DrToddLandman was absolutely fantastic at #ecprgc21 (and his marvelous assistants too!) The bar has been raised and magic should be a base requirement for all future conferences. Encore!'
'Yes, and he @DrToddLandman was very good (helped, of course, by some wonderful assistants!)'Professor David Farrell, University College Dublin
'Just wanted to say thank you so much for joining us yesterday. We have had lots of really great feedback about the show and I think everyone is hopeful to someday see you perform at a live event!'Órlaith Donnelly, ECPR Events Coordinator.
Perhaps in the world of politics right now, we could all benefit from a little magical thinking!
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