SHAKE THAT STICK!: A word on magic(k) wands (Arthur, 2008)

Shake that Stick! (A Word on Magic(k) Wands)

Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic

Illustration by M. Wartella

Originally published in Arthur No. 28 (March 2008)

Shorty don’t believe me? 

Then come with me tonight

And I’ll show you magic

(What? What?) Magic (uh huh uh huh)

I got the magic stick

– 50 Cent

It doesn’t matter whether you survey stage magicians, witches, or a screaming horde of pre-pubescent Harry Potter fans, the magic wand is perhaps the most encompassing symbol of magic. Equally at home in the white glove of a dapper, tuxedo-wrapped conjuror or in the clenched fist of a cackling old crone, the magic wand immediately summons a magical mood. While such depictions are still commonplace in pop culture, most folks are of the opinion that magic wands are vestiges of a bygone era.

It’s certainly true that magic wands have been around for a long, long time. Some of the earliest known examples belong to Egyptian magicians and priests from the 2nd Century B.C.—more than four thousand years ago.But for anyone who’s sat around a campfire and raised the glowing tip of a fire-kissed stick into the night sky, it’s not hard to imagine that our ancestors have been waving magic wands through the air for a good many millennia.

Over the years, wands have played a variety of roles: instruments for measurement, props for illusions, scepters for governance, and, as 50 Cent can attest, as phallic symbols noted for their procreative ability. As tools for healing we see their continued use in the hands of Reiki practitioners; however, the connection to the healing arts goes way back. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the rod of Asclepius (featuring a snake coiled around a stick) to represent medicine; a tradition still carried on by today’s medical professionals.  Ironically, the rod of Asclepius is often substituted with Mercury’s wand (two snakes forming a double helix around a winged staff), which traditionally represented both commerce and thievery, two traits often associated with the contemporary medical establishment. 

Performing magicians have employed wands in their performances for at least the last few hundred years. Waved over top hats and ornamented boxes, wands have frequently added an air of mysterious theatrics while assisting the magician in feats of misdirection. Similarly, wands in the form of scepters have also appeared in the hands of governing leaders. In this case, they can be seen either as symbols of constituent power or as fancy, but ultimately useless baubles that will never yield the positive results one hopes for. And the same could be said of the scepters.

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Mobilizing Vehicles for Change: “Applied Magic(k)” column by the Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2007)

Mobilizing Vehicles for Change

Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 2007)

Much of magic(k) is an attempt to augment our natural abilities; to provide us with a supernatural physicality to overcome the obstacles of the material world. Nowhere is this more evident than in our efforts to move our bodies and our belongings from one place to another. Even some of the most famous illusions in stage magic have focused audience attention on bewildering levitations and miraculous transpositions. From the ingenuity of our ancestors who recognized the unique properties of rolling discs and floating hulls, to more mystical means of mobility such as broomsticks and flying carpets, we often underestimate the magic(k) of re-location. The banality of modern transportation not only distances us from our point of departure but also from the journey itself. Too easily we forget that vehicles are equally the means of conveyance and the agents of transmission. 

Let’s face it. Rarely do automobiles function like ordinary tools used to simply accomplish the task at hand. Quite the contrary. Low-riders, hot rods, and pimped out SUV’s merely begin to scratch the enamel that glosses over our collective obsession with the means of transportation. Beyond the mods and custom accessories, motor vehicles themselves become points of departure, rather than the mere carriers of goods and bodies.  With names like Cougar and Jaguar, Bronco and Mustang, Thunderbird and Skylark, cars and trucks are transformed from mere technologies into totemic objects imbued with a sense of power and identity. The Cherokee and Navajo are equally stripped of any real identity as a people and forced to participate in a fetishistic masquerade. Mercury and Saturn are likewise invoked. Even Mazda shares a name with Zoroaster’s divine King of Light, the likely religious precedent for benevolent monotheism (Persia, 7th Century BC). If we look beyond the gods and planets, we see the Astro, Aerostar, and Nova (which translates in Spanish to “doesn’t go”). And let us not forget American Motor Company’s subcompact Gremlin which scratched its way into 1970s obscurity along with its ’80s offspring the Spirit. Indeed, the magic(k) of transportation lies buried deep in a veritable scrap yard of consumer manipulation, hollow fantasy and a lost sense of adventure. But we can salvage something of worth from amidst the rot.

Just as the introduction of the great iron horse changed the way travelers perceived time and distance, so too are our senses manipulated by contemporary forms of locomotion. No one can deny that we experience the world differently when we ride in a glammed-out gas-guzzling behemoth, a compact beater, or on a two-wheeled dream machine powered by our own two legs. And fewer are denying the material effects of our choices as well. Even the vestigial cynics of global warming—folks like G.W. Bush and some CEOs in Detroit—are finally acknowledging the links between climate change and fuel consumption. Perhaps this has something to do with an unpopular war that consumes nearly 400,000 barrels of oil per day just for military usage alone (approx. 144 MILLION barrels a year). Or maybe, when automakers like Ford post record losses (nearly $12.7 BILLION) they’re finally forced to reckon with the dissatisfaction and/or guilt of the consuming citizenry. Either way, we seem to be moving in the right direction, although we’ve still got a long way to go.

Technological innovations can carry us into a future either golden or grim depending on how they shape our realities. We trust enough in the laws of physics and the intelligence of engineers to ensure our confidence in the ability of a great hulking chunk of metal to float speedily though the clouds and deliver us to our chosen destinations. And rarely do we account for the great paradox of travel: our simultaneous conveyance across thousands of miles of sky while cramped practically motionless in the same small airplane seat wedged between two snoring salesmen. With the exception of the occasional trip to the toilet, we go absolutely nowhere. Yet, when we disembark several hours later we find ourselves in another land far from home. Logically, of course we understand how this happens. However, for all intents and purposes it wouldn’t really matter if the airplane were actually a sci-fi teleporter that took five hours to program once you were inside of it. In fact, it’s almost too easy to imagine a futuristic teleportation station where travelers get crammed into small seats in stuffy cabins with meager entertainment options and crappy snacks as they wait for hours for the operators to adjust all the right settings to get everyone to the proper destination.

Fortunately, we’ll probably never have to endure that bleak future. According to a de-commissioned research document funded by the US Air Force in 2004, the possibilities for teleportation are limited and fairly undeveloped. (see “Teleportation Physics Study” by Eric Davis, Federation of American Scientists) Limited, mind you; not “impossible,” “improbable” or even “non-existent.” Although the report does rule out Star Trek-style teleporters as an option, it suggests the need for additional research in psychic teleportation, worm-hole manipulation, quantum entanglement and extra-dimensional travel. It also cites Chinese studies claiming that children have been used in double-blind and triple-blind laboratory tests to successfully teleport a variety of small objects including radio transmitters, chemically-sensitive paper and live insects. Sound too weird to be true? Maybe. But the fact that the USAF actually funded the research is not the least bit in doubt since their spokesmen have publicly commented on the study in major news media. But before you get too excited, experts largely agree that we’re a long ways away from any practical applications of such theoretical physics. Still feeling a bit eager? If so, ask yourself if a teleporter truly existed, would the auto industry or Big Oil welcome it with open arms? Would it be turned into public transportation, or would it be restricted to those who could afford it at a premium? Would it be a public domain technology or would it be limited to the military for covert use long before the public was even informed?

Don’t misunderstand. Our aim here is not to promote a conspiracy theory about the secret existence of bizarre military technology. After all, why wander down a murky alley of speculation when we can cruise a stretch of established fact. Take for instance the Pentagon’s newly released “Active Denial System (ADS).” If the strangeness of the aforementioned teleportation study caused you a minor meltdown, this one’ll really fry your brain. Literally. The ADS is a giant heat-ray mounted on a military Hummer that is intended for use as mobile crowd control by beaming out a silent, invisible wave that heats up people’s skin up to half a kilometer away. This futuristic sci-fi vehicle is already developed and ready for deployment in situations where people might ordinarily be subjected to water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and/or rubber bullets. If you thought Hummers were repulsive before, just wait until they start showing up at your local peace rally. Like most military technologies that eventually steer their way into the consumer marketplace, Raytheon is also manufacturing a commercial model they call the “Silent Guardian.” Care to invoke a “Silent Guardian” for your next birthday party, BBQ or bar mitzvah? We called Raytheon to inquire about the purchase price (in dollars, not souls) but their “business relations development associate” has yet to give us a fixed number.

The illusion of technological neutrality is left stranded by the wayside when we consider how the vehicle so often predetermines the nature of the voyage. Just as a train is limited to travel only where the tracks lead, so too can we predetermine some of the future destinations of society based on its machinations. While technology and magic(k) enhance our abilities to navigate a variety of terrain, they are not always free to embark on the path of our choosing. As such, it’s important to develop the right vehicle for the right journey, both literally and metaphorically. 

A vehicle for change does not need to be complicated. All that is required is a bit of consideration regarding where you want to go and how you might go about getting there. Obviously if you’re trying to get to a city 300 miles away, riding a tricycle isn’t the easiest way to go. Hitchhiking, jumping a train, driving, riding, or flying generally tends to be more expedient. But if the destination is less concrete, then the mode of transportation may not be so obvious. Look for existing forces that are already flowing in the direction you want to go, and harness them for the ride. The right vehicle for the right journey might just be a remote-controlled car, a smokescreen, a bicycle-repair clinic, or the rolling thunder. But it probably isn’t a giant heat-ray mounted on a Hummer.

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MAGIC(K) CALLS: Applied Magic(K) column by Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2006)

Psychic Surveillance: Hi-tech wizardry and ESP come together at this mystic parlor in Stockton, CA. How can you augment your powers of perception?

Applied Magic(k): Magic(k) Calls
by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August 2006).

The ancient oracles of Greece, which served as messaging centers between the gods and the mortals, did not shy away from associating metaphysical affairs with technological wizardry. Visitors to the oracles marveled as doors opened, fountains poured forth, and lights flickered all of the their own accord, thanks to an innovative use of hydraulics, pneumatics, levers, weights and balances. Such high-tech engineering (for the times, anyway) not only served to set an appropriate magical tone, but also held the potential to assist in conveying messages from the gods. Although more than 2,000 years old, this blend of magic(k) and tech stands in stark contrast to many of today’s expressions of magic(k). What is it about technology and magic(k) that leaves so many magic(k) practitioners hiding in the folds of their anachronistic robes and tuxedos?

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the inventor credited with the notion of global satellite communications, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” At the surface, such an assertion may seem simple enough; however, there are a few layers to excavate here. Some interpret this to mean we have reached an age where we are quite impressed by our own inventions. The workings of our gadgets have become increasingly imperceptible, if not due to sheer miniaturized size of the parts, then surely due to the veils of specialized knowledge. In the end, we don’t know how a given technology, a cell phone for instance, even works nor do we particularly care so long as we can talk on it when we need to. We take it for granted that there is a technical logic behind the engineering of a cell phone.

For some, that brief insignificant moment of faith in technology is comparable to magic(k)—after all, many (if not most) magic tricks are successfully performed along these very lines. Any enchantment whatsoever is overpowered by the puzzle that remains to be solved. The audience does not wonder if it is “real” magic(k); they wonder at how it is accomplished. While the overall effect may still be enough to satisfy and entertain, the method remains cloaked in secrecy and illusion. Likewise, when a technology performs its prescribed function, we tend not to ask any questions, and thus the mysteries of its inner workings are obscured to all but those with specialized knowledge. This certainly has some parallels with the way some view magic(k), equally in the realms of the occult, entertainment, and perhaps politics as well.

However, the magic(k) of a “sufficiently advanced technology” is not simply manifested solely by its ability to perform its prescribed function without one’s understanding of how it works. Magic(k) teases questions of “what?” and “why” just as much as “how?” Aside from the general mystery of its inner workings, a cell phone appears to be no more magical than a wristwatch or a solar-powered calculator largely because of our familiarity with it and the banal circumstances under which it is used. But when we take a moment to really consider what a cell phone does, we begin to scrape away at another layer of meaning. We act like it’s nothing, but when we use cell phones, our disembodied voices are transmitted invisibly via remote towers networked to celestial satellites (invented by Arthur C. Clarke, remember) floating somewhere in the heavens, before bouncing back to earth to be received by another living person located perhaps thousands of miles away. And this all happens in “real-time.” Is it becoming more difficult to distinguish between technology and magic(k) yet? Well, let’s keep going…

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“Applied Magic(k)” – a column by the Center for Tactical Magic

from Arthur Magazine No. 29/May 2008


“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.

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