Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic, illustration by Aaron Gach
Originally published in Arthur No. 33 (January, 2013)
“Money always fascinates people, and magic with money is doubly fascinating.”
—J.B. Bobo, Master Magician and author of Modern Coin Magic
You don’t have to be psychic to know that many people who want their fortunes told have concerns about money matters. Indeed, even the name ‘fortuneteller’ implies a talent for making economic predictions. However, the fortunetellers most in demand these days are a different sort of financial forecaster. Bankers, financiers, and investment brokers gaze not into crystal balls but into multiple LCD screens showing real-time and projected financial data used for profitable prophesy. To the unanointed, the machinations of Wall Street mages are masked in a mysterious lexicon; indeed, it takes a bit of translation to understand the esoteric formulas behind high-frequency trading, an investment strategy based on proprietary computer algorithms devised to exploit minute fluctuations in the markets to make numerous trades at lightning speed throughout the day.
High-frequency trading is a bit like a magician’s performance of “The Miser’s Dream” in which the performer makes coins appear out of thin air and drops them into a bucket—except there’s no show; only money and a bucket. Oh, and also market instability that directly impacts the livelihoods of those of us who don’t even want a seat at the show in the first place. One doesn’t need an economics degree to see the Faustian bind produced through the financial industry’s flash crashes, credit default swaps, commodities speculations, scandals, fraudulent practices and whatever other demons are yet to be unleashed by undisciplined and unscrupulous dabblers.
But, dealing with devils isn’t unique to Wall Street, and ultimately, there’s nothing new about the any-means-necessary path to wealth. Through the ages, numerous grimoires have detailed spells and rituals for gaining riches.
Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (August 2013)…
Column: Applied Magic(k) Author: The Center for Tactical Magic Title: “The Deception of Robot Demons” Illustration: Aaron Gach
Seldom used in stage magic today, automata (self-operating mechanical figures) featured prominently among conjuror’s acts before the 1900’s. Skillful craftsmen offered public demonstrations of elaborate clockwork characters that could perform entertaining miracles. Perhaps the most famous automaton of all time was the chess-playing spectacle known as The Turk. From the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s, the turban-topped, robe-wearing, moustachioed machine amazed audiences in Europe and the Americas as he defeated the majority of his opponents, including Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Despite an intense amount of public speculation and scrutiny, the mystery of its inner workings remained a closely guarded secret for many years. Although some correctly suspected that The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that concealed a human chess master, these theories were particularly difficult to prove since The Turk was opened up at the beginning of performances to provide the audience with a view of its interior.
In crafting illusions, it is essential for magicians to deflect suspicion by guiding audience perception. This may occur through misdirection, camouflage, patter—or, in the case of The Turk—a combination of all three presented through a carefully orchestrated sequence of events that gives a false appearance of reality. The final effect in this case was an amusing battle of wits apparently between man and machine that was way ahead of its time. Resonating with some of the earliest fears and hopes of the posthuman condition, it predated Mary Shelley’s techno-angst classic, Frankenstein, by nearly 50 years, and IBM’s Deep Thought chess computer (which lost to chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1989) by more than 200 years.
Somewhere between the horror of Frankenstein and the hubris of Deep Thought a melange of other mechanistic mayhem has emerged with far less entertaining implications. Although Nikola Tesla first conjured the notion of a squadron of remotely piloted warplanes in 1915, it has only been in the past decade that drone warfare has moved from from the shadows into the spotlight. In this “theater of conflict,” we find ourselves once again presented with the illusion of intelligent machinations. As with The Turk, we are often presented with a well-choreographed display intended to subvert our logic through partial truths and deceptive patter.
Drone strikes (particularly when they run afoul) are frequently discussed by government spokespersons as if the machines were making their own decisions, with zero accountability for their human operators, strike teams, or the officers and officials who authorize and oversee these missions from an air farce base outside of Las Vegas. When US missiles kill people in countries that we’re not even at war with, should it even matter if the aircraft had a human being sitting in the cockpit?
Here is the entirety of the “Applied Magic(k)” column by The Center for Tactical Magic in Arthur No. 34/April 2013. The illustration below is by Aaron Gach.
Anarcho-Occultism or, A Society Gets All the Magic(k) It Deserves
Like some digital cauldron, our email was all a-bubble this past month with some particularly savory notes. “Do you believe in occult conspiracies?” “How can I meet others who are interested in magic(k) and aren’t batshit crazy?” And, perhaps our favorite of the bunch: “What’s the relationship between magic(k) and anarchy (or anti-capitalism)?” Any one of these questions is worthy of inspiring a volume in its own right; however, we’re going to use a bit of invisible thread to tie them altogether at once.
First off, there’s not one, single relationship between magic(k) and anarchy, in part because there are many different aspects of anarchism and many, many magic(k)s. As a starting point, let’s use some of the principles of stage magic. Capitalism is an illusion. Or, more properly put, it is a system based on illusory means and ends. In the current economic paradigm, corporations increase their wealth through several illusions: by manufacturing and marketing phantom “needs” (i.e., the magician’s “force”), by the engineering wizardry of planned obsolescence (i.e., the use of gimmicked props), by conjuring commodities out of basic necessities (i.e., misdirection), and by manipulating public policy to ensure that would-be costs are mysteriously transferred to taxpayers via so-called “externalities”, often in the form of weakened labor laws, cut-rate resource extraction, government subsidies, and environmental loopholes, to name but a few (i.e., the use of “dupes”). These sleights are but parts of the capitalist repertoire performed in a much larger theater of conflict. The grand illusion is the one that aims to convince the audience that the status quo is the only show in town.
Vanishing Act by the Center for Tactical Magic from the “Applied Magic(k)” column in Arthur No. 32 (Dec 2008)
One of the oldest themes in magic(k) is that of death and resurrection. Recurring in the origin stories of numerous religions, death and resurrection also played an important role in the initiation ceremonies of early shamans across the globe. By first descending into the depths of sickness, disease, and even death itself a Siberian shaman would make allegiances with spirit allies who could be called upon to help the living. But in order to do so, the shaman would have to survive the ordeal and return to life before s/he could act as an intermediary.
Anthropologists have observed similar tendencies in shamanic initiation throughout geographically divergent cultures. Although the story of Jesus Christ is perhaps our society’s most familiar example, scholars of world religion are quick to point out that many aspects of the Christ story are reflected in earlier religious beliefs surrounding such deities as Osiris, Dionysus, and Mithras to name but a few of the more notable, regional examples. However, the list of dying-and-rising gods numbers well into the dozens and extends across the world map to include the likes of Quetzalcoatl (Aztec), Odin (Norse), Ishtar (Mesopotamia), Julunggul (Aboriginal Australian), and Travolta (Hollywood).
While Tarantino’s resurrection of Travolta might not qualify him as a “god” worthy of the aforementioned pantheon, themes of death and resurrection have long played out on the stages of popular culture and entertainment. Early performers in Native America and in ancient Egypt would amaze audiences by bringing animals back to life. While in India, fakirs performing the famed “basket trick” would stuff a child into a woven container before perforating the basket (and presumably the child) with multiple swords, only to reveal a short moment later that the child was still alive and well. More recently, magicians P.T. Selbit and Horace Goldin might not have the popular name recognition today that they once shared in the 1920’s; however, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t recognize their famed (and misogynistic) illusion: sawing a woman in half.
A resurrection routine in theatrical magic often takes one of several forms: a transposition (in which the assistant disappears from one place and reappears somewhere else), a transformation (in which the assistant appears to change into something or someone else), or a restoration (in which the assistant is returned to normal after first being subjected to some sort of ghoulish sadism). A vanish on the other hand (in which the assistant simply disappears) is seldom used for a resurrection act because the audience is left ill-at-ease wondering what happened to the body after the magician stabbed, shot, burned, or cut it.
More commonly, vanishes are employed as a metaphorical reminder for the ephemeral and illusory nature of life. Coin vanishes are among the more familiar tricks in a conjurer’s repertoire, and audiences seem to have no trouble relating to the disappearance of money even when it happens inexplicably before their very eyes. Thurston, the great Vaudeville magician and master Mason, took the vanishing act a step further by introducing the “the vanishing Arabian steed” followed a few years later by “the vanishing automobile” along with its passengers. More than simply illustrating the technological trajectory of transportation, Thurston’s vanishes demonstrated to his audience that coins, cars, or other symbols of material wealth possess a value that is not lasting. Later magicians failed to recognize the potential for multiple levels of symbolic relevance and focused only on scale as a determining factor for their illusions by vanishing elephants and water buffalo.
However, the same cannot be said for David Copperfield’s famed vanishing of the Statue of Liberty. With 1984 looming and Ronald Reagan busy conjuring his own “voodoo economics” the disappearance of Lady Liberty probably should have spooked audiences more than it did. Clearly more prophetic than Thurston’s vanishing horse, Copperfield’s vanishing Liberty should have been regarded not as prime time entertainment but as a dire warning of politics to come. If treated as an omen, we can at least take comfort in the fact that Copperfield’s illusion is ultimately a restoration and not simply a vanish. If so, and the mystical vision holds true, we can expect the return of our civil liberties, cell phone privacy, and perhaps even the freeing of those who have been disappeared by government contracted “extraordinary rendition” aircraft and in the CIA-operated secret prisons abroad.
In stage magic, vanishes may rely on a range of methods to achieve the desired effect. The use of mirrors, trap doors, secret compartments, and doubles might be used to restore an assistant to a healthy state. While politics also utilizes no short supply of ruses, deceptions, and misdirections, it takes much more to return to a healthy state. Although we witnessed the vanishing of George Bush from the White House in January of 1993, we were left dumbstruck when a second George Bush reappeared in the Oval Office in 2001. Unlike the shamanic ascension from the underworld that affords mysterious new powers for helping treat the ailments of others, this hellish return was accompanied by two wars, an exploding national debt, a devastating economic crash, and mysterious new powers for government surveillance and the executive branch.
Thankfully the curtain call has come for that sad act. The stage has been reset and we are now eagerly awaiting the next Bush vanishing act from the halls of government. Hopefully this time it’s a permanent disappearance. And perhaps when the curtain goes up on this next act we’ll witness the resurrection of the long-dead spirit of democracy that has recently begun haunting our hopes and dreams again.
Undoubtedly, politicians and governments will continue to perform much as they have in the past. Yet, the mass mobilization around the Obama campaign has given the audience new clues in determining the outcome of the show. The close of the Obama/McCain election represented a political shift in more ways than one. For the first time in eight years (if not longer), people poured into the streets not to protest an act of government but to celebrate one. The jubilation went far beyond party politics because the triumph went not only to the Democrats. People could feel their own political power. Whether or not Obama lives up to his campaign promises and our highest expectations remains to be seen; yet, the real victory here is the empowerment of the grassroots to accomplish a major political mission. Hopefully, the next eight years brings the political utopian equivalent of unicorns and demons sharing the last slice of birthday cake under a shimmering rainbow. But if it doesn’t, we now have a road map for organizing that doesn’t just look like another weekend march with placards and puppets in the financial district of a major metropolis. On the contrary, the mobilization around Obama was widespread, sustained, contextual, and media-savvy. It utilized multiple outreach strategies, creative tactics, and a model of fundraising that accumulated millions of small donations into a mega-fund for manifesting a collective vision. And now that we see what we can accomplish, there’s no reason why we should stop there. The show must go on – locally, nationally, globally. Or else we may find ourselves sitting once again in a dark theater awaiting the resurrection of our political nightmares.
In the midst of all the New Age therapy-speak in the comments — e.g. “i was the canvas i was doing the painting on, it was a shamanic abstract x-pressionist personal human sculpture” — “sonofman” jumps in to direct the RSers over here to Arthur to check out some of the Center for Tactical Magic’s contributions. Thanks, sonofman. Here’s a quick digest of the Center’s “Applied Magic(k)” columns, for your consideration:
“Magic(k) works.” This declarative statement was recently hurled in our direction with a cautionary tone rather than a celebratory one. The sender of the warning was concerned that we didn’t take magic(k) seriously enough; that we were advocating its use willy-nilly like some sort of fun, new fad. But fear not. Although we don’t believe that fun and magic(k) are at odds with one another, we are nonetheless advocating its use very pointedly and with much consideration. And we are advocating its use precisely because it works.
As we’ve said in the past, one of the primary reasons why people don’t engage in magic(k) in the first place is out of a sense of dismissal. They dismiss magic(k) because they doubt it will produce results; and, they dismiss magic(k) because they fear it will produce results. Indeed, much of the bullshit that fertilizes the grand magic garden reeks of these airs of dismissal. Occult conspiracy theorists will even tell you that such bullshit is built up to protect the fruit from those who would dare set foot in the garden at all. Layers and layers of foul fluff and rotten rhetoric are woven into a formidable pile of vapid New Age-isms, Hollywood cheese, religious warnings, and occult elitism.
“The Center for Tactical Magic’s Tactical Ice Cream Unit (TICU) rolls through the city in an act of intervention that replaces cold stares with frosty treats and nourishing knowledge. Combining a number of successful activist strategies into one mobile ice cream truck, the TICU is the alter ego of the police force’s mobile command center. Although the TICU appears to be a mild-mannered vending vehicle, it harbors a host of high-tech surveillance devices⎯including a 12-camera video surveillance system, acoustic amplifiers, GPS, satellite internet, and a media transmission studio capable of disseminating live audio/video⎯and of course, ice cream. With every free cone handed out, the sweet-toothed citizenry also receives printed information developed by local progressive groups…”
Encounter the Arthur Magazine “Applied Magic(k)” columnists The Center for Tactical Magic and their Tactical Ice Cream Unit at…
PRESENTED IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE PARK AVENUE ARMORY
*Open from 2 to 10 pm on September 21 and from 12 to 6:30 pm on September 23.
After traveling across the country to glean perspectives from artists and activists on the state of democracy, Creative Time’s year-long program Democracy in America: The National Campaign culminates in the “Convergence Center”: a major exhibition, participatory project space, and meeting hall mounted in New York City’s Park Avenue Armory. The Convergence Center at Park Avenue Armory will provide an activated space to both reflect on and perform democracy and will be punctuated by speeches by leading political thinkers as well as community leaders and activists throughout the run of its program. These orations are organized by Creative Time in collaboration with The Nation Institute. As one of the largest unobstructed spaces in New York, the non-traditional setting of the Armory features interiors—such as its vast drill hall and historic period rooms—that are ideal for artists presenting multifaceted visual and performing arts productions.
Work by more than 40 artists will fill the Armory’s period rooms on the first, second, and fourth floors as well as Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Creative Time will present the four performative national public art commissions made for Democracy in America in the Convergence Center at Park Avenue Armory. Some of the projects featured include giant, silvered surveillance balloons by Jon Kessler; wearable art by dBFoundation; an installation by Critical Art Ensemble and the Institute for Applied Autonomy of the physical artifacts of the 2004 FBI investigation of Steve Kurtz; a 20-foot-tall counter-surveillance tower by Jenny Polak; a nine-foot wooden hobbyhorse sculpture by Allison Smith; and Duke Riley’s functional replica of America’s first submarine. In addition, curator Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy organized the inclusion of work by four international artists that will offer incisive viewpoints on the notion of democracy and some of its core principles: nation building, freedom of speech, and labor rights. Three participatory projects will travel to parks in Queens and Brooklyn in early September before convening at the Convergence Center.
A diverse group of political thinkers, writers, theorists, and activists will be invited to deliver speeches on various subjects—including local city politics, the war on “terror,” the art world, and cultural production. Speeches will occur throughout each day the Convergence Center is open, punctuating the activity of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall’s participatory projects and social space. As speakers approach the front of the hall, they will be invited to select a podium from an array designed by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas—from a modest soapbox to an intimidating rostrum. A 40-foot backdrop by artist Chris Stain will frame the speakers in a social realist scene rendered through the technique of hand-cut stencils. In addition, select artists from the show—including Rachel Mason, and Pia Lindman—will give special performances. Lastly, local activist organizations will be invited to distribute information from tables set up throughout the space. ”
EXHIBITION AND SPEECH SERIES WITH OVER 40 ARTISTS, INCLUDING:
Erick Beltrán, Arthur Magazine “Applied Magic(k)” columnists The Center for Tactical Magic, Critical Art Ensemble and the Institute for Applied Autonomy, Annabel Daou, dBFoundation, Hasan Elahi, Feel Tank, Luca Frei, Chitra Ganesh & Mariam Ghani, Group Material, John Hawke, Sharon Hayes, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, InCUBATE, Magdalena Jitrik, Matt Keegan, Jon Kessler, Olga Koumoundouros & Rodney McMillian, Steve Lambert, Ligorano/Reese, Pia Lindman, Rachel Mason, Carlos Motta, Angel Nevarez & Valerie Tevere, Trevor Paglen, Cornelia Parker, Jenny Polak, Steve Powers, Greta Pratt, Paul Ramírez Jonas, Red76, Duke Riley, Martha Rosler, Dread Scott, Allison Smith, Chris Sollars, Chris Stain, Mark Tribe, United Victorian Workers, Chu Yun, and more.
“What kind of times are they, when talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?” —Bertolt Brecht (To Those Born Later)
Most people have an appreciation for plants and make an effort to occasionally hike among them, repose in their shade or even co-habitate with them. And while it’s safe to say that we recognize plants’ value and usefulness, it’s also a fair assessment to state that the plant kingdom is frequently taken for granted. When we’re not trampling it, cutting it down, or eating it, we’re usually ignoring it altogether.
Perhaps that’s why the vast majority of modern people who encounter the idea of human/plant communication—or “psychobotany,” as we prefer to call it—find it strange. But it’s equally strange that this viewpoint has become normalized. After all, anthropologists largely agree that people have been attempting communication with the plant kingdom for as long as there have been plants and people. So why is it considered “abnormal” to attempt communication with plants today? And what can we hope to accomplish by entering into such a conversation in the first place?
From engendered grudges and evolutionary angst to theological quibbles and accusations of entrapment, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has certainly been fertile ground for all sorts of controversy. But surely there’s an upside. At the very least the Bible has given us a glimpse of Utopia: proto-hippies living blissfully in a magic garden. In one corner of paradise they receive vitality from the Tree of Life; in another they gain consciousness of self after sampling the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Ghosts are unwieldy subjects to contend with. It’s as if their ephemeral nature predisposes them to be barely tangible topics of research. The vast majority of evidence used to support the existence of ghosts is subjective: first-hand reports and eyewitness accounts. Despite the fact that forensic science, cultural geography, physics, and parapsychology all suggest that any given area is inscribed with the residue of that area’s history, the hard data on hauntings remains inconclusive.
To make matters hazier, the definitions of ghosts often swirl together with religious beliefs and philosophical assumptions. For example, if we define ghosts as being the spirits of the departed, we are stating clearly that we believe in life-after-death and some notion that separates body and spirit. Whether this notion is Cartesian dualism, Egyptian ka, Polynesian mana, or the yin-world spirits of Taoism, the assertion is that the individual is not indivisible. At the very least we are forced to accept the idea that the self is multiplicitous.
This shouldn’t be such a leap. At any given moment a person can be characterized by many different activities that s/he engages in: mechanic, musician, anarchist, lover, gardener, cyclist, etc. A person doesn’t think of him/herself as a mechanic when s/he’s in the garden, although s/he also doesn’t stop being a mechanic. We are many things to many people in many spheres of activity – simultaneously. But still we remain ourselves. On the most basic level, we live multiplicitous lives every day.
And when we go to sleep at night, it doesn’t end there. Our dreams continue to embroil us in action-adventures that would surely leave us breathless and exhausted if it weren’t for the simple fact that our bodies barely participate in all of the fun. If there is any sort of universal logic that can be applied as a subjective proof for the insubstantiation of the self, it is the simple fact that we all dream, whether we remember it in the morning or not.
To be clear, dreams don’t prove that ghosts are real. Nor does it prove that ghosts are the spirits of dead people. Rather, the travels we undertake when our eyes are closed simply suggest that a meaningful disembodied existence can occur. Even if we dismiss dreams (and ghosts) as immaterial and inconsequential, anyone who has ever experienced a nightmare won’t deny the fact that these visions can cause acute physical and psychological sensations in our waking lives.
But what are ghosts exactly? The incorporeal dead hanging out amongst the living? Reflected light? Psychosis? Atmospheric anomalies? Holographic messages from the future? Alien lifeforms? Osama’s latest WMD (Weapon of Mental Distortion)? Whatever they are, ghosts, like magic(k), pop up, in one form or another, in nearly every culture on the planet, and have been described in legends, myths, and stories throughout history. A popular Chinese attitude towards ghosts is voiced in the age-old expression, “If you believe it, there will be, but if you don’t, there will not.” According to legend, the saying was penned by a scholar named Zhuxi (Song Dynasty, 960 – 1279). Now Zhuxi was such a strict non-believer that he decided to write an essay about the non-existence of ghosts. But, lo and behold!—a ghost showed up to convince him otherwise. The ghost made such a lucid argument, that Zhuxi was forced to reconsider his thesis. In fact, it’s actually the ghost that is credited with authoring the aforementioned expression, and Zhuxi merely wrote it down.
Whether we believe in ghosts as actual paranormal phenomena, or as manifestations of mass cultural imagination, we can agree on some fundamental characteristics of ghosts. For starters, it’s significant to note that many such manifestations consistently take the form of people, or exhibit seemingly conscious behaviors. This could be similar to looking skyward and seeing faces in the clouds; however, there’s one major exception. When we let our minds drift in the cumulo-nimbus we also tend to see things like bears in bathtubs, and inverted Lay-Z-Boys. And we don’t hear ghastly tales of glowing gaseous forms resembling anything quite so banal, or cute and cartoony. Instead, we are most often presented with accounts of haunting encounters that evoke horror, sorrow, fear, anger, remorse, passion, and purpose. Ghosts emerge from the shadows; from dark corners; from forgotten and abandoned recesses. Regardless of whether or not these phantoms are psychological projections or external paranormal phenomena, it’s clear that our collective response to these apparitions is apprehension, angst, and anxiety.
Generally speaking, there are two dominant types of ghost stories: lost love, and grave injustices. The “lost love” category encompasses all of those apparitions who wait endlessly for lovers to return, or visit their living loved ones for comfort, counsel, and last condolences. In the second category, the vast majority of ghost stories hover around a central theme of grave injustices yet to be rectified. Murder. Torture. Betrayal. The plight of this sort of phantom is one of paradox; it seeks to rest in peace, yet refuses to quit the struggle until things have been set right. While the crimes of the past still linger at the site of a haunting, the ghost’s job is to make sure we, the living, don’t ignore it. Their refusal to let injustices be forgotten manifests in a form of spiritual civil disobedience. From silent vigils to shrieks and moans to outright property destruction, these ghosts are paranormal protestors bearing witness to a world gone woefully awry. In their quest for peace, the phantoms that haunt us defy the laws of the material world in acts of otherworldly anarchism. Offering spiritual resistance to the complicit affairs of everyday life, these insurgent souls have little regard for the rules and boundaries that restrict the world of the living.
They defy even gravity itself. Moving through gates and walls, no barrier restricts their attempts to resolve the inequities that torment them—and consequently us. After all, it is the apathy of the living that drives them to disturb the peace, because they cannot rest until the conflict is, once-and-for-all, addressed and resolved. There is no moving on. Not until unsavory events are properly put to rest.
It’s this kind of dissenting spirit that needs to be channeled today. Even Senator Specter (R-PA), whose position on most policies is rather ghoulish, could not sit idly by when faced with the recent legislation surrounding Guantanamo Bay detainees. Like all hauntings, the degree of uncanniness is quite remarkable. It’s only too fitting that the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee be named Specter. And perhaps even more appropriate that he should take issue with the United States’ recent dissolution of habeas corpus (meaning quite literally “(You should) have the body”). Dating back as far as 1305, and included in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, habeas corpus is one of the oldest and most celebrated guarantees of personal liberty. It grants individuals the right to question their detainment and challenge the government on the legality of their imprisonment. By killing habeas corpus, the clock on civil liberties is set back more than seven centuries to a time when judicial courts were simply a king and his dungeons. No wonder Mr. Specter is voicing his disapproval.
The haunting of society by the ghosts of our collective past resonates within a present that continues to manifest grave injustices. Generation after generation, the abuse of power materializes in a reoccurring nightmare, claiming countless victims—collateral damage in a battle to maintain hegemony. Doomed to repeat the tragedies of the ages, these lost souls insinuate their desires and anxieties into the world of the living. Each step of the way, these energies inform our thoughts, our dreams, our actions—indeed, every aspect of our existence. Ghosts are an unsettling reminder that the crimes of the past have not yet been resolved. Refusing to quietly fade from consciousness, they demand that their howls be heeded. The residues of injustice permeate the physical, psychological, and parapsychological landscape, inscribing the present with desperate warnings and demands for reconciliation.
Perhaps it’s time for the living to start paying attention to the stirring in the shadows. These aberrations in space, time, and freedom remain inscribed in mind, spirit, and social body, awaiting their release through the discovery and recovery of our own self-determining forces. Can the righteous spirits of the past truly join forces with the living to achieve peace and justice? If you believe it, there will be, but if you don’t, there will not.
Through methods of divination, channeling, investigation, experimentation, and active engagement, we can invoke those that seem most experienced in dealing with past inequities—ghosts. Here are a few experiments in magic(k) to get you started. As always, please let us know how it goes by emailing to: goodluck at tacticalmagic dot org
1. Summoning ancestral spirits for guidance and inspiration is an age-old practice re-popularized in the ’70s through Milton Bradley’s mass production of the Ouija board. But you don’t need to jump on eBay to get a piece of the action. Make your own walkie-talkie to the spirit world by covering any smooth surface with the letters of the alphabet, numbers 0-10, and the words, “yes,” “no,” “unclear” and “goodbye.” Use another object that glides easily over the surface as your planchette, or pointer. A shot glass, serving spoon, or cell phone will work okay. A generic board will likely attract a general audience. For the best results, craft your set-up with a righteous spirit in mind using items and symbols that the spirit might find appealing. If, for example, you wanted the counsel of Nathan Hale, draw the board on a copy of the Patriot Act. For Harriet Tubman, try replacing the planchette with a broken handcuff. Grab a few friends, dim the lights, and place your fingertips lightly on the planchette. Then, invite the spirits, and begin your supernatural conspiring.
2. The problem with ghosts is not that they won’t shut up, but rather that it took death to get them to speak up in the first place. Is it fear of death that keeps us from voicing our dissatisfaction with the world of the living? Or fear of life? Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for that last breath to start haunting places. Form your own ghost mob and venture out to haunt sites of known social injustices. Banks, police stations, recruitment centers, and chain stores are but a few potential targets. From large-scale occupations by friends in Halloween gore to quiet insertions of tape recorded whispers and groans, a ghost mob can embody suppressed fears and desires whilst banishing the specters of social control.
3. Encounters with ghosts are said to increase during times of social crises and the post-trauma periods immediately following. Most notably, research suggests that more people see ghosts (or at least report them) in wartime and during post-war transitions. If this assessment is accurate, we should expect a barrage of ghost sightings related to Katrina, Afghanistan and Iraq. We are sincerely interested in studying this trend. If you have had paranormal experiences that you feel are related to social crises, please let us know by emailing us at: socialhauntings at tacticalmagic dot org
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The Center for Tactical Magic is a moderate international think tank dedicated to the research, development and deployment of all types of magic in the service of positive social transformation. To find out more, check out tacticalmagic.org
Cognitive scientists use the term “Magical Thinking” to describe a lack of causal reasoning. According to them, the belief in superstitions, lucky charms, and rain dances often falls into this category. But the term can be applied to any situation where one makes judgments based on a cause-and-effect rationale that wouldn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. Simply put, magical thinking is (from a cogsci perspective) the analytical by-product that occurs when your hopes, fears, desires, prejudices, and beliefs take over your decision-making.
Child psychologists often use the term slightly differently. For a child, magical thinking often refers to conditions in which the cause and the effect are disassociated. For example, the kid sees you grab a remote control from the table and hears the stereo turn on, but doesn’t yet understand that the two actions are related. It is primarily this aspect of magical thinking that stage magicians rely on when performing illusions. In feats of magical reverse engineering, a good magician will think about a desired effect to be produced, and then work backwards to plan the method. The success of the effect is then greatly enhanced by the magician’s ability to conceal the method from the audience. In essence, the magician returns the audience to a state of child-like perception where causes and effects are distant strangers. Some embrace this sense of wonderment while others resent the inflicted feelings of naiveté. Yet, it should be noted that while such magical thinking evokes a child-like sense of the world, it does not limit us to childish behavior.
It would be easy to believe that magical thinking is merely the refuge of children, magic show audiences, and the superstitious; however, we bathe in magical thinking nearly every day. Many of our decisions are based not on scientific rationale but rather on information we receive from a variety of sources – friends, cultural influences, mass media, etc. And many of these sources are in fact assemblages of conflicting truths, traditional bias, and competing agendas. When we enter a theater to watch a magician perform we expect to be deceived. But what are our expectations when we read the paper, watch the news, and listen to politicians?