What then is the ‘secret’ of the professional magician? An intuitive understanding of human psychology, it would appear; for these performers seem to have stumbled across the significance of the conditioned response, long before Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) and his dogs. In the modern form of the magic show, (a type often credited to Jean Eugène Robert–Houdin (1805–1871), the first magician to perform in evening dress), a stereotypical costume, plus an equally stereotyped set of props tell us to expect one thing, and the opposite duly takes place (Coppa, Hass and Peck 2008). Usually there is a steady stream of distracting banter and sometimes a half-hearted magic spell, but this is only to reinforce the impression that we are participating in an entertainment and when the performance is over, the world will return to its natural state.
Perhaps this explains the lack of urgency surrounding Geller’s spoon bending routine. There was scarcely a sense in which the official recognition of Psychokinesis might compromise the integrity of metal framed buildings, or that aircraft would be grounded to stop them falling out of the sky. So at the heart of Geller’s performance was a dramatic kind of tension, the sort of anticipation that surrounds a sporting event in which one knows the rules, but does not know the final score.
But is this the entire significance of the Geller phenomenon? I might have discussed the quaintness of television formats in the early 1970’s, or become nostalgic for a pre-Internet age in which mass spectacle was still a regular occurrence. I could have said more about the rebranding of the magic profession for television, or the currency of supernatural beliefs in different areas of the media. Geller first appeared on UK TV in November 1973, a month prior to the general release of Robin Hardy’s film The Wicker Man.
But I want to move away from the nostalgia, the cultishness, and the general air of camp that often seems to surround the popular image of the early 1970’s and address a more substantial point. The point that in a more academic type of essay might have provided an introduction: why does Geller’s performance continue to matter?
By this I mean, why is Geller’s metal bending routine still emotionally effective? At the time of writing, his first UK broadcast is readily available on You Tube and it remains compelling. Why?
So far I have alluded to general answers: like the persistence of wonder shows in the modern world. In the 19th century audiences flocked to panoramas, magic lantern displays, and John Pepper’s disappearing ghost illusion (During 2002). Today, we can achieve a similar kind of ‘optical escapism’ in an IMAX cinema, or a digitalised form of virtual reality. Interestingly, while some of these experiences, offer an increasingly immersive version of the ‘real’ world and its orthodox fantasies, like a Golden Age Hollywood movie in which every member of the audience is able to play the star; others, elicit a darker, more troubling set of emotions; the haunted house, the dystopian science fiction, the surrealist dream landscape.
Again this is a generalisation, but there has been a tendency within Western, so-called ‘high culture’ to concentrate on this latter realm. At least since the era of 19th century Romanticism, when genius and creativity became associated with a critical engagement with science, and the rejection of what the sociologist Max Weber famously termed the ‘iron cage’ of capitalism (Weber 1905). From this perspective Uri Geller’s performance might be regarded as subversive, and even a contribution to the avant-garde. Consider, for example, how the Dada and Surrealist movements conducted mock scientific experiments- into the subconscious and the power of chance- in pursuit of irrational forms of creativity. Might Geller’s psychically distorted spoons be compared to the Surrealists’ automatic drawings?
Another aesthetic parallel comes from a technique, and a strand, in high art, that overlaps with commercial showmanship: the fascination with optical illusions, or what in art speak is termed trompe l’oeil. Think of those mesmerising portraits by the 16th century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo that only become recognisable as bundles of fruit, vegetables, fish, etc. on close inspection. Then there are the more cerebral visual puzzles of René Magritte where we are invited to deconstruct the meaning of semiotic codes. The link with Geller stems from the initial trigger: the cognitive dissonance occasioned by unfamiliar juxtapositions. For example Magritte’s most famous work (The Treachery of Images, 1929), a painting of a pipe that declares itself not to be a pipe, but a representation, has parallels with Geller’s spoon, an object that looks like a spoon, but refuses to behave like a spoon.
Overall, I would argue that Geller’s performance is best understood in terms of overlapping frames of reference: Our fascination with optical illusions, the dramatic tension that is created when awaiting an outcome that we think we already know; and the very opposite, the surprise that comes about when that ‘promise’ is broken.
But I am reluctant to loose a sense of the bigger picture. The spoon bending act may not be a contribution to the technological sublime, but it can tell us something about the modern status of enchantment.
This is the territory investigated by the anthropologist Alfred Gell, in the essay that inspired the title of the present article: The enchantment of technology and the technology of enchantment (Gell 1992). Gell is interested in the linkages between cultures, like those in the West, which have a specialised art world, and those where ‘art-like’ objects and practices are present, but are more embedded in everyday life. For instance the Trobriand Islands, or what is now called the Kiriwina Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, as described in a number of the classics of modern anthropology (e.g. Malinowski 1922).
Gell’s bridging concept is enchantment, for this is a sensibility which is as relevant to the Western popular response to a trompe l’oeil painting- I couldn’t possibly do that, it must be the work of a genius!- as to the experience of the Trobriand islander when confronting an elaborately carved ceremonial canoe.
This enchantment is perceptual and visceral, and also cultural in that all parties must be primed to recognise the achievement: they must be familiar with the conventions in order to marvel at the skill of the maker. And this is where the concept of magic, as an active force, is introduced. A preparatory ritual, an incantation enables the maker to conjure up the ‘force’ that enables the apparently impossible to be achieved.
In Western culture we might liken this phenomenon to the power of ‘positive thinking’ as advocated by self-help books, and of course, the craft of the magician, when employing a special phrase like ‘Abracadabra’.
The controversial point is whether the spectacle confirms the presence of a supernatural agent. Are there spirits at work, or are the different kinds of audience, in their respective cultures, behaving like Pavlov’s dogs?
In this article I have been stressing the importance of context. Our excitement over a spoon bending routine on TV does necessitate a belief in spoon bending spirits. The effect can be explained in terms of props, the framing of expectations and the willingness of an audience to suspend its disbelief. It is like the pleasure to be derived from a fight in which nobody gets hurt.
The idea of context or framing is also important to my understanding of the theory of the ‘commodity fetish’. A new car may be regarded as a goddess, or a work of art, but outside the motor show and the dim recollection of how the object was originally presented in a glossy magazine, there are the more nuanced and shifting meanings of everyday life. To adapt Arthur C. Clarke’s overused aphorism: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic… until it breaks down. (Clarke 1962).
So why is Geller’s performance so intriguing? Possibly because it is so difficult to define. And this leaves the suspicion that as soon as one categorises the phenomenon, as a reality or hoax, or in terms of stagecraft or supernatural forces, its interest will pass.
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