- Conjuring Science: A History of Scientific Entertainment and Stage Magic in Modern France by Sofie Lachapelle
Focusing primarily on the ferment of Parisian popular culture from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, Conjuring Science links the cresting popularity of entertainment magic, or conjuring, with the popularization and democratization of science. More specifically, Lachapelle examines how French conjurers carved out cultural associations with science, strategically managing sometimes conflicting intertextual relationships with scientific lectures, experiments, and demonstrations, on the one hand, and with pseudo-scientific performances and occult rituals, on the other. She argues that [End Page 278] conjurers’ willingness to embrace scientific marvels led them to become among the earliest adopters and promoters of a technology—the cinema—that would ultimately unsettle the world of magical entertainments they had so carefully fashioned.
The sources for this study are primarily texts produced by conjurers themselves, such as autobiographies, instructional literature, publicity materials, and trade publications (mostly editorials in professional periodicals) addressed to an insider readership. Although Lachapelle also draws on a wide array of contemporaneous texts that reference conjurers’ performances, such as travel guides, theater reviews, and scholarly articles, the nature of the source material privileges conjurers’ own practices of self-fashioning and modes of self-understanding—in which the rhetoric of science looms undeniably large.
Conjuring Science comprises five analytical chapters that follow a loosely chronological arc, with each addressing a different strategy that French magicians used to harness the mounting radiance of science. Chapter 1 explores the establishment of dedicated magic theaters along the newly opened boulevards of nineteenth-century Paris in the wake of theatrical deregulation. These venues allowed conjurers to engage with science by incorporating new technologies into their performances in unprecedented ways and by occupying spaces alongside the scientific popularizers whose style they often emulated (and perhaps, in turn, influenced). In Chapter 2, Lachapelle shows how a variety of developments—expanded public education, increased childhood literacy, a changing publishing industry, the emergence of a bourgeois domestic sphere that promoted edifying play, and the growth of consumer culture fueled by department store merchandizing—helped to make scientific amusements popular childhood pastimes. These amusements often involved conjuring tricks and were sometimes produced and promoted by conjurers themselves.
Returning to the topic of the author’s excellent previous monograph, Investigating the Supernatural (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), Chapter 3 examines how nineteenth-century French conjurers responded to the supernatural claims of performers professing occult powers, especially spiritualist mediums and fakirs specializing in extreme bodily mortifications. Although a number of French conjurers assuming the mantle of scientific rationality decried the deceptions of these allegedly pseudoscientific Others, Lachapelle shows that the reality was more complicated. Like conjurers, mediums and fakirs appealed to the evidentiary standards of science; and, like mediums and fakirs, conjurers incorporated seemingly supernatural feats into their acts, hoping to ride the waves of popular controversy. In addition to debunking superstition, conjurers found other ways to participate in scientific [End Page 279] pursuits, like making their expert skills available to scientists, for instance. Thus, Chapter 4 details the collaboration of five Parisian conjurers with psychologist Alfred Binet’s research on the psychology of perception—a clear precedent for present-day collaborations between conjurers and cognitive scientists. In Chapter 5, Lachapelle argues that the moment of vitality in which the symbolic resonance of science catapulted conjurers to cultural prominence came to an end in the early twentieth century. Science became increasingly professionalized, children’s science kits and magic sets parted ways, and magic theaters began to close. Most importantly, she argues, the cinema—a visual technology that conjurers eagerly appropriated as yet another miraculous modality of scientific illusion to add to their repertoire—eventually subsumed and displaced them.
One figure stands, almost unavoidably, at the center of this study: Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–71), whom Lachapelle describes as both the embodiment (5) and personification (136) of the complex interrelationship between magic and science in nineteenth-century France. Directly or indirectly, Robert-Houdin participated in all the...