Finally a Definition I Can Swallow!

I’ve been thinking a bit about magic (as a magician should be). What is magic? Is it the ability to perform a trick? Is it the ability to perform? Is it the ability to deceive? Is there an ethical side to magic? Is there some sort of relationship in magic? If so, between whom?

In the January 2013 edition of Genii, Tom Stone defines magic as the following (pg 34):

“At least one human agent presents a dramatic/choreographic scenario designed to successfully and immediately cause an obvious characteristic cognitive dissonance regarding the scenario for at least one observer.”

That is quite a mouthful! So let’s break it down a notch. This article was very interesting and informative and I will try my best to summarise it as best as possible. It is important for magicians to know what magic is and what it is not.

  • At least one human agent

This is referring to a human magician. If there is no human present to perform, the audience will not perceive the work as “magic.” Tricks on the internet or out of a book like Mark Setteducati’s The Magic Show will feel more like puzzles than magic effects.

  • presents

This usually refers to the piece being performed by the onstage agent, however it can also include people who are invisible to the audience or presumed to be regular audience members (namely backstage assistants, stooges, hidden assistances).

  • a dramatic

Fiction is shown to the audience, not reality. This is often confused. If I took a serviette and wrote the word “fire” on it and then put a mug of water over the serviette and the water began to boil without the serviette burning; it is likely not real. If I told the audience about this verbally it will be perceived as a riveting story.  However if I wanted to show this to the audience, I would have to rely on my own expertise. Everything that I do to portray this piece of fiction is part of the drama.

If, however I did in fact cause a chemical reaction to occur in the serviette, and the water boils without the serviette burning, then all that I would have achieved is the probability of winning a Nobel Prize in physics, but I certainly did not perform a magical effect.

  • choreographic

This refers to at least one structured movement, no matter what the movement is. It could be a head turn at a particular point, a covert pinkie finger move, a shift in body towards something or someone.

If you as the magician doubt this, think about it. It is incredibly difficult to find a magical effect where you don’t have to do something physical at a certain point. Even picking a card and replacing it in the deck and then controlling it – the moves are deliberate and has to follow an order.

  • designed

Someone has to have created the effect. The performer can, but does not have to be the creator of the effect that they are performing.

  • to successfully

There is no gray area here. If the effect does not successfully conclude, the desired effect will be lost and the audience will not experience the “magic.”

  • and immediately cause

If the audience have to ponder on the effect and then try to convince themselves that something magical took place, the effect has missed the plot.

  • an obvious

The audience must be able to recognise the point of the effect alone without having to have it pointed out to them. There has to be cognitive dissonance.

  • characteristic cognitive dissonance

This part is a bit tricky. Most definitions can only drive the point so far. If I describe the green – it won’t be long before I’m umming and ahhing and will have to find something green and say “like this!” Music and theatre can only be defined to a certain degree (like our colour example) and you will have to move away from the outside and step into the inside to bridge the gap. People also refer to this by saying “I know it when I see it.”  “I don’t know how to describe Chopin, but I know it when I hear it.”

It is the same for magic. When the spectator sees something, but it somehow goes against reality. That conflict, the acceptance of two opposing and mutually exclusive thoughts is what magic needs to bring forth in the mind of the spectator. It doesn’t have to be a positive and pleasurable experience though.

  • regarding the scenario

To cause the above mentioned “confusion” or “wonderment” outside the framework of the performance is beyond the scope and interest of magic.

  • for at least one observer.

Without someone watching, there will be no desired response.


Well guys, I must say the first time I read the article I turned the page thinking WTF? However reading it again slowly really opened my eyes. What do you think? Do you think this definition can be shortened or is it lacking something? I think it has hit the nail on the head perfectly.

Thanks Genii magazine for a great article!

Reference List:

Stone, T. (2013, January). Seeing the Ontolophaunt. Genii. The Conjurors’ Magazine, 76, 34 – 35.


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