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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring
  • Edmund Lingan
Michael Mangan . Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books, 2007. Pp. 252.

Michael Mangan's Performing Dark Arts is a lively study of "the way in which the meanings of magic change in relation to the society in which the magic is produced" (p. 172). With the word "conjuring," Mangan refers to theatrical magic, of the sort that most Americans associate with David Copperfield and Harry Houdini. A skillful blend of magic history and theoretical performance analysis unifies Performing Dark Arts. Mangan exhibits a keen ability to discuss the relationship between "magic as entertainment" and "magic as [spiritual] efficacy" throughout the time periods he explores. [End Page 218] What is perhaps most successful about the book is that Mangan manages to write about some highly complex concepts relating to the history of magic and performance theory in clear, illuminating language that is accessible to readers who are neither historians of magic nor performance theorists.

The book is structured chronologically, examining the practice of magic from the time of the earliest records to the postmodern era. Chapter 1 looks at the earliest legends and records of magic and examines "the vexed questions of roots and origins" (p. xxii). Chapter 2 explores the complex relationship between biblical miracle stories and the reinterpretation and presentation of these miracles by magicians. It also examines the tense relationship between the performing magician and Christian orthodoxy, as well as secular governmental authorities, from late antiquity until the beginning of the early modern period. Chapter 3 discusses the early modern European conjurer's intentional and necessary negotiation of two identities: namely, the magician who performs tricks for entertainment and the magician who possesses actual occult powers. Chapter 4 examines the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century image of the conjurer as "trickster" (p. xxiii) who preys upon the gullibility of uneducated rubes who believe in supernatural powers and have not embraced the more objective worldview that began to emerge during the early modern period and bloomed during the Enlightenment. Interconnections between advances in mechanical technology and magical performance in the eighteenth century are the subject of Chapter 5, and Chapter 6 gives a historical overview of Robert Houdin's work, focusing on the postcolonial implications of his performance in front of the Marabouts in Algeria, which he gave at the request of the French government. Chapter 7 continues the exploration of the intertwining paths of magic and technology by focusing on early film technology—especially editing—as a new tool for magical performance. A historical overview and gender analysis of Harry Houdini's work comprises Chapter 8, and Chapter 9 examines the relationship between entertaining conjurers, such as Houdini, and the spiritualist mediums who appeared during the occult revival that began in the late 1840s. Chapter 10 discusses magic in the age of postmodernism, and it explores the work of magicians such as David Blaine, whose work continues a long-standing tradition of performance magic: the act of rejecting traditional "hierarchies and categories" and collapsing "the real and the imaginary . . . into each other" (p. xxv). Mangan's chronological structure contributes to his overall literary purpose, because it simultaneously enables the novice reader to gain a simple historical overview of the history and traditions of theatrical magic, and it also enables the author to make theoretical statements that can be applied to what is learned in both previous and later chapters. [End Page 219]

Mangan's text is more than a historical overview of magic, and it is also more than a performance-theory analysis of entertainment conjuring. It offers insight into the way that religious and spiritual thought and practice have transformed throughout the ages, and how the "skeptical" and "paranormal" interpretations of magic tricks—performed by either entertainment magicians or efficacious magicians—can offer insight into how magic serves both secular and spiritual purposes in the present era (pp. 194–95). Mangan fights the Western bias that assumes that "magical thinking" is something that is associated primarily with so-called "primitive" or "pre-literate" peoples (p. 195), and he argues that magical thinking is "by no means incompatible with an...


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