There’s a trick to it

by Collin Lysford

Pete Holmes has a bit where he talks disparagingly about people going to magic shows trying to disprove them. Yeah, you did it. You proved what none of us were trying to prove: the boy on stage is not actually a wizard”. He’s not making fun of people who know exactly what the trick is, but instead the midwit who has to chime in like something something mirror” or something something magnets”. Because yeah, it’s definitely something something [word you understand] and not something something [brand new word] or it’d be on the news and not in the show, but that specific knowledge of what something something boils down to is the whole point. There’s no prize for knowing the vague neighborhood of the trick.

But a bad way to watch a magic show is a good way to watch the world. Why are earthquakes more common in California than Minnesota? Something something plate tectonics. It definitely involves density somehow, and the word subduction”, and I’m supposed to do a little hand sign where my left hand slides over my right hand. If I really needed to know exactly what’s going on, I could figure it out, but my vague halo of knowledge is enough for now. There’s a prize for knowing the general neighborhood of the trick.

Why’s this spirit of vague understanding suddenly gauche at a magic show? The world is infinitely detailed and you always have the chance to pull up a new pattern. Even the wispiest of mental containers to pour the pattern into might be enough to let you catch it. But a magic show is like a game, a thing of hard edges and guarantees. There’s a point to knowing exactly what’s happening, but not much point to knowing that it could be made legible, because duh, of course it can be made legible, the wizard knows what they’re doing. It’s fun to know exactly what’s happening, but just loudly insisting I think there’s a trick to it” makes you a tiresome bore as an audience member. And yet: that same sentence, said thoughtfully while looking at a quirk of nature, is how every discovery gets started.