Transformation Magic

Transforming Understandings of "Transformation"

The language of "Transformation" floats indiscriminately within and between the worlds of art, magic, and politics. It is a doppelganger concept, a shape-shifting notion, that abandons the rhetoric of hybridity and syncretism in favor of chameleonic residentialism - occupation of all terrain, familiar and alien, foreign and domestic, temporal and enduring. But unlike the chameleon which can be easily identified as a chameleon regardless of its coloration, the doppelganger may never reveal a 'natural state' or appearance, yet it remains, always, a doppelganger. Like the survival strategies of Gypsy nomads, "transformation" assumes varying appearances which allow for easy passage, decreased resistance, expanded acceptance, and access to resources. Excited by the paradoxes that too often lend themselves to moments of mutual exclusion, "transformation" seeks to eliminate the inevitable breaches of integrity and conviction by operating wholly in multiple spheres. With its occult origins, revolutionary insinuations, and magical permutations, our understanding of "transformation" possesses the potential to manifest as a unifying strategy capable of truly transforming our rhetoric into reality.


One generally understands "transformation" to mean a shift in form; a change from one thing into another. Yet, the implications are radically different depending on the sphere of usage. Strictly speaking, "transformation" occupies the stage magician's mind as a change in any combination of shape, color, size, weight, or overall essence, achieved through any of a variety of methods - but always illusionistic. Whether we are confronted by a method of substitution or of disguise, the effect is the same: one thing appears to have become another. On the contrary, the traditional shaman may employ some of the same illusionistic tricks as the magician; however, it is the process of transformation, and not the outcome, which dictates the magical moment, the mysterious reality which permeates all reality. For those engaged in politics, "transformation" is the reformative or revolutionary remedy sought to resolve a desperate state of affairs - a reality wrought with illusions. In such a context one attempts to uncover the means behind the manifestation; to reveal or unmask the power and thereby change the prevailing conditions. And finally there is art - an illusion unto itself, so frequently deceived by its own conjurations; yet still we see the potency of "transformation" not as "the magic of art" nor as "the art of magic" but as a magical art which is representative and therefore evocative of emotion, evoking of set purpose some emotions rather than others in order to discharge them into the affairs of practical life.

Escapism & Escapology

It is difficult entering into a discussion about "transformation" without invoking one of the most illustrious transformers of space, condition, and perception - the great escape artist, Houdini. Here it is important to distinguish between escapology and escapism: while 'escapology' is the study and practice of escape methods, self-releases, and liberation strategies, 'escapism' denotes flights of fancy, the diversions of entertainment, and departures from the constraints of reality. Houdini was an escapologist; yet, his grand appeal to audiences everywhere was inextricably tied to our own compulsions towards escapism. His self-releases from a wealth of snares and traps were as much about his own mastery over the material bonds which held him as they were about his audience's desire for liberation from individual and collective holds, whether they be physical or otherwise. In one of his more famous advertising posters, he is billed "The World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker" and we are informed that "nothing on earth can hold Houdini a prisoner." Why should one care that a man can free himself from penal confines and the tools of authoritarian restriction? To both the criminal-minded and the law-abiding citizenry these acts are representative of weaknesses and vulnerabilities within the institutional structure. Security, fear, strength, weakness, potentiality, liberation, and restriction are the spectres invoked by Houdini to haunt the subjective collective mindspring of his audience. While many of his escapes were enacted as part of elaborate prop-ridden stageshows, the prison escapes, handcuff releases, and especially his open public challenges drew strength from the quotidian confines of our constructed society and its corresponding psychological ecology. There could be no better illustration of Foucault's assertion that ours is a disciplinary society comprised of a network of enclosures and spaces of control. When Houdini responded to public challenges, he was relying on peoples' ability to identify the restrictions within their own lived environments as well as their desire to witness an escape from such controls. Sailor's ropes, a carpenter's ladder, a clinician's gurney, a milk jug or a mail bag - these are the materials of daily existence; the products of what Deleuze refers to as "a generalized crisis in relation to all environments of enclosure - prison, hospital, factory, school, family."

Real Magic/Reel Magic

But today the social controls have expanded in a multitude of directions - pharmaceutical, molecular, genetic, digital as well as fiscal, ideological, and juridicial. One can hardly imagine Houdini possessing the same level of success within our contemporary social fortress. Even the contemporary televised hype surrounding David Blaine's 3-day encasement in a block of ice barely scratches the surface of our group catharsis. What does ice have to do with our current situation? Where's our entry point beyond mere entertainment? While the shaman might employ various conjuring techniques (illusionistic tricks), anthropologists inform us that there is no discrimination in shamanism between the 'fact' and the 'work of art.' Although contemporary Western civilization is largely devoid of a magical world-view which assumes "everything is real magic" the blurred milieu of media, mediated experience, and the social imaginary equally fails to discriminate between the 'fact' and the 'work of art.' In much the same way that linear perspective was an historical invention which transformed the eye into a technology through which all experience could be rationalized, recorded and described, our contemporary mass media has had a neutralizing effect on our other senses. But instead of "magic," we are offered the Baudrilliardian world of simulation, a world where "vision cannot distinguish between what is seen and the mediation of that scene." Indeed then, this is no different than the shaman's worldview - this is real magic... or so we are led to believe.
To quote the mime, Marcel Marceau, "When the man in the street forgets his dream the theater becomes a myth and a dispenser of signs." Although the vast majority of creative expressions of liberation are manifested within the fantasy world of Hollywood, we already understand that Hollywood is unreal even if its effects may thoroughly permeate our reality. Despite critics' antagonisms that "Experience is not real unless it is recorded and validated through the media" millions of New Yorkers didn't need CNN to tell them that the skyline had been dramatically redrawn on September 11th …even if the rest of us did. Admittedly, mass media possesses some of the capabilities to redirect those imaginative forces that help determine our view of "reality" but clearly they lack the great shamanistic abilities unleashed through more physical means of mediation. Prior to this tragedy there was no escape artist, magician, shaman, or movie capable of illustrating, with the same efficiency, the intrinsic weaknesses within our society of control. Instead, we faced the beast itself. Our subjective collective congregated in one transactive locale to bear witness to the horrors of entrapment and the precluded dangers inherent within the illusion of a maximum security state.

Transformative Malpractice

While the attack on the World Trade Center brought Americans to consider their humanity and their mortality in ways that Hollywood never could, it has also led to a widescale analysis of all points of physical vulnerability. All government buildings, skyscrapers, financial institutions, airlines and other modes of transportation, bridges, tunnels, and even amusement parks were placed on alert. Even though the risk may in fact be real, much of the response appears to be little more than patter to enhance the illusion. A couple of National Guardsmen on the (SF) Bay Bridge or the threefold i.d. check at airports is hardly enough to deter a determined terrorist. If we acknowledge that such actions are lacking in their prescribed functionality, we thereby recognize that they serve a symbolic or illusionistic function; an illusion of safety, as it were.
The difference (one of them, anyway) between this type of illusionistic gesture and those of the traditional shamans is that the primary role of the shaman was to promote healing rather than simply persuade the patient that s/he wasn't indeed ailing. The argument can be made that the aforementioned gestures of security are intended to promote the recovery of the nation, but one must wonder if the nation is not simply being nursed back into a state of malaise by remedying shock and depression with painkillers and sedatives. Furthermore, a shaman would frequently accomplish this feat by dramatically sharing the experience of transformation by passing into sickness and back to health. Instead, we have largely been witness to behavior more analogous to that of the magician: the moments of distraction are employed as misdirection, allowing government officials to consolidate power under the guise of "protecting freedom." Although many of the methods may be obscured, the effects are ever-present.

Magical Thinking

In the articulations of cognitive scientists we are told, "Children blur the border between thinking and doing, between the inner space of imagination and the outer space of objectivity. The young child confuses the volitional act of willing with causality." How familiar is this terrain to the "adults" within our society? Is there not a similar confusion between thinking and doing expressed in the hypocrisy of those Americans who heed religious doctrines which champion the virtues of charity, tolerance, and austerity while they lead lifestyles quite to the contrary? Too often is this childlike condition equally expressed by those "progressive"-minded members of the public (liberals, leftists, etc) who believe that shifting one's consciousness is, in and of itself, a political act which will lead to significant change. Unfortunately, power maintains itself quite nicely when people are content to simply 'think' about an alternative realty. Perhaps that is why both Dante and Zen Buddhists claim that the lowest "hell" is reserved for those who can do 'good' but choose to do nothing. Such are the fecund conditions nourishing the insidiousness of the Commodity and the modus operandi of Debord's "spectacle": "So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe of speculation." On the contrary, change and effect come to bear only when philosophy is a subjective proposition, desire and praxis that are applied to the event. In this way "magical thinking" drops its cloak of transcendental escapism and materializes as a political counterperception - an alternative worldview that summons the creative and prophetic power of the multitude and necessitates acts of conviction in order to realize transformation.

Signs of the Times

Clearly, such language could easily apply to the 9-11 terrorist attacks. While there is no desire to champion the terrorists' actions, there is much to gain by examining the transformative nature of acts of sabotage. Depicted on the eerily prophetic album cover of the Oakland-based hip-hop group, The Coup, is the detonation of the Twin Towers emphatically orchestrated by the performers themselves. We can save the topic of mysterious coincidence and prophetic vision for another conversation; for now, let's reflect for a moment on why such an image would have been considered a successful enough marketing strategy to be considered in the first place. Indeed, Hip-hop music and culture has certainly maintained a healthy attitude of anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity despite its often hypocritical whinings to be validated by the corporate establishment. And the notions of storming the castles of might and money, of overwhelming the powerhouses and control centers of the elite, are by no means restricted to the fanatical dreamings of fundamentalist terrorists, Islamic, Christian or otherwise. The recent wave of antiglobalization protests has certainly proven its effectiveness in employing lo-tech tactics which have highlighted the physical presence and consequent vulnerability of global capitalism which is so frequently perceived as mere ethereal pulses of electroplasm. It should therefore come as little surprise that a musical group with a strong record of community involvement around issues of social justice would look to sabotage as an appropriate metaphor for toppling today's giants.

Sabotage as Transformation

But more to the point, sabotage is imbued with a sense of contestational inequities. On an unleveled playing field, the improvised strategies of the saboteur offer the rare hope of victory to the underdog. Whether employed by a group of small, fuzzy Ewoks, an indigent A-Team, or a perplexed MacGuyver, sabotage is largely considered the weapon of the powerless, the oppressed. It lends itself accordingly to the worker who despises the labor but requires the paycheck. Just as a wrench can be used to maintain the workings of the factory, so too can it be tossed into the gears, perturbing production and easing the machine to a creaky incompletion. Sabotage is transformation - the maker becomes the breaker, changing a tool into an obstacle; a smack to the masters; a paling in profits. As suggested in a CIA sabotage manual, one can blow a fuse "by putting a small coin between the lightbulb and the socket". Thus, the smallest monetary denomination can be used to wreak greater fiscal havoc. Can we even imagine a greater metaphor for poor over rich; proletariat over factory-owner? Although indicative of a sorry state of affairs, we should scarcely be shocked by the accounts of powder-stuffed envelopes which hoaxster-employees have sent to their workplaces in the hopes of finagling a few days off.

The Good, the Bad, and the Transformative

The "magical thinking" of a child enables a shifting understanding of the objects around him in a manner which determines use based on needs and desires: an orange is only an orange if he is hungry, otherwise it is a ball; a toy; an experiment waiting to happen. Similarly, sabotage is a creative redress of use-value, redefining prescribed usages in a manner which converts the currency of material meaning and cavorts with the cohorts of agency and alienation. Eco-defenders defeat bulldozers by introducing dirt into the oil filters and crankcases thereby destroying the earthmover with earth rather than the other way around. Such transformative inversions of power relationships highlight not only the creative appropriation of seemingly innocuous elements but a greater inclination toward the elaborate integration of all things related; an almost magical perspective that, far from being limited to the child's experience, sees nonapparent links and connections amidst the chaotic distrust of stagnating states of ordered (d)efficiency. Moving stealthily between method and effect, it becomes unclear where the borders lie. One no longer sees the fence, but the opening; not the matrix, but the code. Here then, is the magical art: Such an art may be good or bad when judged by aesthetic standards, but that kind of goodness or badness has little, if any, connection with its efficacy in its own proper work. The measure of magical prowess is then seen to be determined by the ruler of affect. The overall stageshow, séance, exhibit, or protest shapeshifts in our minds as we attempt to tie it to our expectations and resolve it within predetermined categories. In the end, we are left wondering what has changed and how. The borders are still present - very much so. But somehow we find ourselves on the other side.

A Return to Magic

And so we see that we have escaped into the realm of magic. Such is not the conjuror's trick of transformation - since things have not really changed - rather what we are witnessing is a bizarre transposition, a switching of places, a changing of names. This is Houdini's "Metamorphosis" - a feat which is not at all a change of form but of predicament, wherein Houdini is handcuffed, bagged, and placed in a locker only to switch places with his wife, Bess, who has drawn a curtain around the locker only three seconds prior to Houdini's reappearance. On the surface, the conditions have indeed changed, yet the big picture remains the same (one person is free, the other is not). Of course the shift is quite significant depending on whether or not you are the one gaining or losing your freedom.

The Metamorphosis effect is indeed dizzying, disorienting, and barely fathomable. But in a diasporic world where geopolitical borders, military might, and natural resources move about like staircases in Harry Potter's magic academy, rapid and dramatic shifts are hardly strangers. In magic, in art, in politics, in life, how these shifts effect us is determined by our affect in multiple spheres. And while clairvoyance and precognition might provide glimpses of the unknown, true revelation comes through a thorough analysis and activation of forces. Only then can we transform a spellbound present into a charmed future.