Conjuring Asia

Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World

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Chris Goto-Jones
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , July
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the introduction to this original and informative book, Chris Goto-Jones states that “in the early stages of this project, I was encouraged to write with only minimal footnotes so that the book would appear to be as accessible as possible to non-academic readers” (9). He quickly abandoned this idea, noting that among his “non-academic readers” would presumably be many professional magicians, who are more than a little obsessive about the details and history of their craft. Ultimately, the book becomes something of a magic trick itself, breaking new scholarly ground in the academic study of modern stage magic while also offering an account that will appeal to a non-academic readership as well. It succeeds fairly well in both regards, although perhaps inevitably there is some cost to trying to accomplish two more or less discrete tasks at once.

The first part of Conjuring Asia, somewhat counterintuitively, deals entirely with modern Western Europe and North America. Goto-Jones does not focus on the whole of the modern period, but rather mainly on what he terms the “golden age” of Western stage magic, which runs from roughly the middle of the 19th century through the early 20th. The framing figures are the magicians Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) and Houdini (1874-1926). The point is not to offer anything like a straightforward introduction or encapsulated history of this period, however. Rather, Goto-Jones wants to set these magicians in the context of modernity.

Although magical tricks, prestidigitation, performative illusion, and so forth have a long history as a form of entertainment, the stage magic that developed in the 19th century was in many ways distinctly modern. Magicians eagerly appropriated any kind of new technology or science that aided them in their performances. Perhaps even more tellingly, stage magicians affiliated themselves with scientific reason and set themselves in stark opposition to 19th century spiritualists, Theosophists, occultists, and ritual magicians (think Aleister Crowley—although of course he rose to prominence in the early 20th century). Such people were frauds and con men, in the view of professional magicians, who on many occasions set out to debunk and disprove the occultists’ claims to possess “real” magical powers. In this regard, professional stage magicians functioned as agents of putatively “disenchanted” modernity.

Of course, modernity was never really disenchanted, in the full Weberian sense, and this is also a point Goto-Jones drives home. He draws on much of the appropriate scholarship on modernity and disenchantment, but he might have benefited from the very recent, focused work done on this issue by Egil Asprem (The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse 1900-1939 [Brill, 2014]) or Jason Josephson-Storm (The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences [University of Chicago Press, 2017]). Goto-Jones adds his own interesting twist to the complex tensions between modernity and disenchantment, however, when he points out that magicians of the “golden age,” although agents of scientific rationalism in one sense, also shared in the 19th century West’s fascination with the “mysterious” and “occult” Orient.

Studies of modern occultism have long focused on how Theosophists and ritual magicians were drawn to what they imagined to be ancient Eastern rites or sources of hidden wisdom. Professional stage-magicians made similar moves, although in more complicated ways. They saw Eastern traditions (which here means those of India, China, and Japan) as sources of new (to Western audiences) tricks and mechanisms of performance. Some also adopted the performative trappings of Oriental magicians, which they felt would more effectively convey a sense of mystery, wonder, and “magic” to audiences who were at this point accustomed to seeing performers attired in what had become the Western magician’s uniform: formal wear with top hat and tails. A few even went so far as to adopt an Oriental persona in their lives as well as in their performances. Goto-Jones repeatedly returns to the moral quandaries presented by this kind of blatant appropriation (and mangling) of Eastern cultures.

Many questions, both historical and theoretical, to say nothing of ethical, are opened up by this fascinating study. Few are resolved, and of course some never can be. Goto-Jones’s analysis often turns to the topic of Orientalism but rarely moves beyond citations of Said and a few others. Neither does he go very deep into the vast corpus of post-colonial or subaltern studies that could be brought to bear on his subject. He acknowledges these areas of academic inquiry, along with performance studies, but his purpose is not to add to them per se. Rather, he wants to present golden age (and some subsequent) magicians’ own writing and theorizing about their craft. This is an intriguing and informative move.

Professional magicians thought (and think) a lot about their craft, although obviously not in the same ways that academics do. They tended (and still tend) to be more comfortable with a certain degree of murkiness in what they do and even how they think about what they do. As much as magicians carefully plan their tricks and continually work to refine them, a good magical performance is nevertheless meant to be slightly mysterious, ephemeral, and wondrous. In analyzing magicians’ own thinking about their craft, Goto-Jones brings these tensions to the fore, and by adding their voices to the analytical mix, he has increased and complicated our understanding of both magic and the modern world. Focusing on stage magic, he says relatively little about magic’s relationship to religion in modernity, although his chapter on “Indian Magic” includes an interesting discussion about how Westerners associated it with South-Asian asceticism, while Chinese and Japanese magic, although exotic, was seen as more straightforwardly performative, as was Western stage magic itself. The points he makes about performance and related issues of authenticity and belief, however, might well be extended to broader analysis of religious rituals.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael D. Bailey is Professor of History at Iowa State University.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Chris Goto-Jones was educated at the Universities of Cambridge, Keio, and Oxford. He is the Inaugural Chair Professor of Comparative Philosophy and Political Thought at Universiteit Leiden, Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He was previously Professor of Modern Japan Studies, Director of the Modern East Asia Research Centre, Leiden, and Founding Dean of Leiden University College, The Hague. In addition, he is an Associate of the Inner Magic Circle. He is co-founder of the 'Political and Philosophical Arts Initiative' and a 'VICI' laureate of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO). He has published widely in the fields of political thought, comparative philosophy, and Asian studies; in terms of popularizing publications, he is author of A Very Short Introduction to Modern Japan (2009), which has been translated into many languages worldwide.



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