Graham Jones is a social anthropologist with a background in linguistic anthropology who received his PhD in anthropology from New York University in 2007. A Haarlow-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow here at Princeton, Jones currently teaches ANT 433: Initiation, Education and Apprenticeship, and will be starting work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology next fall. He is currently writing a book about the dynamics of concealment and revelation in the secretive subculture of entertainment magic, based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in France, which is the primary focus of this interview. [This bibliographical information was found on the Princeton Society of Fellow’s website. For more information, visit
Nassau Weekly: There’s a huge community of magicians in Paris. How do they distinguish themselves? Do they pick a look? Do they have individual styles?
Graham Jones: Well, that’s a vast question. You know, there are different subgenres of magic, so already in terms of the type of performance they choose, they already kind of classify themselves. They classify themselves according to the style of performance that they choose. So, one of the basic distinctions concerns the scale on which they perform. So they sit there—stage magicians, close-up magicians— that’s the basic dichotomy. And there are kind of increments between them—so, like, parlor magicians, salon magicians— but the basic distinction is between stage and close-up. So a close-up magician does tricks right in front of an audience, in direct conversation with an audience, whereas a stage magician is separated by the stage itself.
NW: They might ask for a volunteer?
GJ: They might ask for a volunteer, but the audience is not as active a participant in creating, in determining the flow of events.
NW: Does that mean—I’m sure this is another really complicated question—but does that mean it requires a certain degree of skill to be interacting so intensely?
GJ: It requires a huge degree of skill [laughs], yeah. There are perpetual quarrels between stage magicians and close-up magicians about whose work demands more artistry, whose work demands more talent. Because a stage magician has to master all of the skills of acting, of theatrical presentation, of movement; many take courses in dance and pantomime, and they have music and costumes; and it’s a different kind of choreography—it’s a show. So they liken what they do to more theatrical forms of entertainment. Close-up magicians, while they have to think about all those things—their clothing, their body language—really focus overwhelmingly on their hands, things they do between their hands. So it demands, in many ways, more dexterity, more virtuosic skill than, say, the kind of dexterity it required to make a woman disappear from a box. The box does the work, and the woman in the box does the work! The magician just points at the box, let’s be clear. And there’s a whole kind of Marxian analysis you can do about the mystification of women’s labor in magic. But, the thing that close-up magicians really have to think about is, as you insightfully point out, they have to think about how to successfully interact with a public that may or may not be interested in seeing magic in the first place. Because whereas a stage magician is performing in a situation where people have come to a theater or a cabaret, to see him or her perform—close-up magicians mainly do what they call table hopping, which means they’re in a restaurant or at a bar or a special event, and they’re just walking around, they’re perambulating around, and doing performances for small groups of people, or tables, and those people aren’t necessarily expecting a magician to come, and they may be talking about something else, they may be fighting, they may be having a break-up, someone is proposing marriage—you never know what people are going to be doing! Magicians have all these horrible situations that they walk into, unwittingly, or horrible things that they say by accident, unwittingly! This is what I’m writing about this morning, actually, which is why I’m feeling very inclined to talk about it. There are all these strategies that they use to establish what I would call a frame of play, a comedic frame, a frame of play that allows, that makes people well-disposed to engaging in this experience of mystery and imagination. But it’s hard, too—interactionally—because basically what a magician is doing is displaying skills, or displaying abili- ties, that are incomprehensible by design. And so basically what they’re doing is showing a secret to people, and saying, implicitly, “I know this and you don’t”—there can always be a combination of power or competition. So particularly when you’re just cutting into a group of people that aren’t expecting it, you have to be very savvy about defusing the potential for antagonism or competition or hostility.
NW: Right, I can see that.
GJ: And I think that that’s one of the reasons, historically, in terms of the psychology of it, that magic is such a masculine, a male-dominated practice, with so much masculine symbolism. I mean, obviously there are historical reasons for that and you can look at the history of the evolution of the art, but whereas many other performing traditions, you know, have much more gender parity now, magic remains overwhelming male-dominated. And I think a part of it is precisely because of the attractiveness of these themes of competition and aggression, not just to men, but particularly to adolescent boys. [Laughs.]
NW: Have you seen the show Arrested Development?
GJ: No, no.
NW: Do you get this question a lot?
GJ: You know, I have a little sticky note on my bulletin board to see it, because of the magician, yeah—I mean the boy.
NW: I think it would be very interesting for you. I mean it’s a great show besides that, and like the funniest characters.
GJ: I should—I’ll do it this summer, I’ll watch it this summer.
NW: That’s a great time to do it! So, are we [the students of ANT 433] right in thinking you’re working right now with Christian magicians? Did you mention something about that?
GJ: So this project on magic kind of exploded in all these different directions because what I found in doing research on magic, is that [it] really is a topic that scholars have shunned in a way, because I think there’s an assumption that it’s culturally trivial, that it’s something that doesn’t merit sustained
NW: You mentioned that, with being in France, with your little notebook.
GJ: Yeah, Paris. There it’s especially bad, I mean, people just—other academics made fun of me all the time.
NW: [Laughs.] So you’re used to this bullying?
GJ:That’s worse! So one of the things that’s a challenge for me is that. I think that’s changing; there is some interesting stuff that’s come out now. But there’s still a lot of work to be done, and one of the things that I’ve been trying to do in things that I’ve written about magic, is to show precisely that it’s not culturally trivial at all. One of the magicians that I worked with said something that I thought was brilliant: he compared magic and opera. And he said, “Opera is a high art that deals with trivial matters. Magic is a trivial art that deals with matters of the highest importance.” Which I think is true! You know, it’s really about a kind of dancing on the threshold of illusion and reality, what is real and what is not. What could be more profound metaphysically than that? [Laughs.] So I’m trying to do this, write this book about entertainment magicians in France. What they’re doing is entertaining. They’re not necessarily thinking about these profound questions about the nature of reality. I mean, that’s not really their job, and so that’s not really a part of that book, but I think that to be able to write about the subject, I had to kind of examine some of these questions in greater detail. And so that pursuit led me to look at areas where the meaning of magic gets very blurry. Entertainment magicians, sometimes they kind of toy around with esoteric imagery, or supernatural themes. You know, you might see an iconic poster of a magician with a little devil on his shoulder or something like that.
NW: Is it spooky?
GJ: Oh yes, spooky! You know, it’s a joke, it’s a trick that’s kind of nominally about a ghost. But, in reality, they’re operating within a cultural frame in which there’s absolutely no expectation that audiences will attribute any supernatural significance whatsoever to what they’re doing. If there were, they couldn’t really do that as a form of entertainment! But I think that one thing I wanted to do—I’m sorry this is a very roundabout answer! One thing that I’ve wanted to do is look at the way that that relatively safe and unproblematic framework in which entertainment magicians operate has been culturally constructed over time. How it’s an historical accomplishment. So one of the things I’ve looked at is encounters between Western travelers—explorers, missionaries, colonists, merchants—with non-Western indigenous traditions of slight of hand performance.
NW: Looking at other people’s ethnographies, this kind of thing?
GJ: Looking at old ethnographies, you know, things from the 1600s through 1900s. And one of the things that you find is Western observers often make very invidious comparisons. They say, “Well, look, these people have tricksters just like we do, but the difference is that they believe it’s real, and we know that it’s false,” which generally when you look at the reality of things, it’s much, much more complicated than that. Generally I would say that those kind of imputations of credulity to non-Western peoples are almost always wrong. The reality is almost always much more complicated. But what’s interesting to me, given what I’m doing, is the reflex that these Western observers have to attribute credulity to other people, and incredulity to themselves. And that’s where you see it, that Western magic is something that really is connected in a deep way with assumptions about modernity, what it means to be modern, and what it means to think like a modern person.
NW: Rationality . . .
GJ: Rationality! It’s connected with the story of rationality and the disenchantment of the world. So when you see a magician perform, there’s the subtext of disenchantment or rationalization that makes it all possible. So the thing with Christian magicians that I got really interested in was the way—insofar as entertainment magic as most people know it today is predicated on a kind of distinction between magic and religion, that they’re doing something very different from religion—I was interested in the way that Christian performers, who have a supernatural message or religious message to convey, could use this medium that has a problematic relationship to the supernatural; either because it is so closely associated with secularism or disenchantment or rationality, or because it’s so closely associated with the miraculous and performance as miraculous. The thing that I’m interested in is how they use magic as a form, a medium of communication, but are very careful to distinguish it from forms of paranormal occurrences that they believe are real: miracles. The miracles of the Bible.
NW: They’re not claiming to—?
GJ: Not at all. And they’re very careful to frame what they’re doing as fundamentally different from Biblical miracles.
NW: Kind of just hinting, though? Do they, in their magic, provide some sort of watered-down depictions of what could be possible with the Lord?
GJ: Yes and no. Everything they do is metaphorical. They use the imagery of magic metaphorically, and they remind audiences that it is only metaphorical. So they would never, except for someone who was really inexpert, really clumsy— all of the ones that know what they’re doing, which is most of them, systematically avoid doing anything that resembles Biblical miracles. So they would never, say, produce loaves of bread or turn water into wine. They would—so for instance, they’ll turn water into blood, to symbolize the blood of Christ, but they would never turn water into wine. It could be the same trick, right? It’s the same visual illusion, but they’ll always do something on the theme of blood—turning water into blood—they would never say water into wine, because basically what that would suggest—and they’re very perspicacious on this point—what that would suggest, is either that Jesus was a magician and that the Biblical miracles were just tricks, or that they themselves were charlatans, trying to usurp the divine prerogative of producing miracles. So either way, they have to steer totally clear of that kind of stuff. So that’s very interesting to me, is how they, in the course of performance, manage this very precarious symbolism of what they’re doing. They have to be very savvy about it. So it’s cool!
NW: That sounds super interesting. I’m kind of curious about what courses you would teach ideally, if you could do anything. Besides this one [ANT 433], of course.
GJ: Well, this course is one of my ideal courses. You know, this is my first time teaching it and I’m really happy with how it’s going. There are some things I would do differently, some things that I didn’t do quite right. In terms of the content of the course, I’m really happy and I feel like, I mean, I can’t speak for the students but I feel like everyone is really engaged with the material and people are doing the reading. So I think it’s very exciting. I’ll be, you know, next year I’m starting a job at MIT.
NW: I didn’t know!
GJ: I’m just on a post-doc here. So I’m starting a job at MIT and actually there I can teach whatever I want: because there are no anthropology majors! [Laughs.] So there are no requirements. So I’m kind of teaching the things that I want to teach. So I’m teaching, my first year I’m teaching a course on language and technology, looking at the interaction between communicative practices, practices of communication, and forms of mediation, from literacy to chatroulette, from writing to chatroulette. And so I’m really excited about that, because it’s an area that—the thing that’s great about teaching if you do it well, and you know, I’m a neophyte, I’m just starting to hit my stride, but when I look at my own professors, I see that the best teachers are the ones whose classes are very open-ended, and who continuously learn from their students; so that they’re driven by a spirit of curiosity, where you’re not just regurgitating things again and again, year after to year, to a nest full of baby birds. But there’s really some kind of back and forth where it’s the engagement of the student that keeps the subject interesting to you. So that’s what I really want: my courses to all be open-ended in a way.
NW: To continue your process of life-long learning.
GJ: Exactly. Pedagogically, I’m still trying to figure out how to do that, how to make a course that both imparts an established body of knowledge but remains open-ended to the unknown, remains amenable to encounters with the unknown. So that’s why in this class you guys are doing these projects that apply a kind of relatively stable body of literature to the understanding of something totally unprecedented. And I’m excited to see what you do. So I’m teaching this course on language and technology, and then I’m teaching a course called “Fun and Games,” on the anthropology of playing in a cross-cultural perspective. But partially, I just wanted it to say on people’s syllabi, “Fun and Games.” I mean not on people’s syllabi, on people’s transcripts! “Fun and Games.” It just looks so bad, you know. [Laughs.] It’s good to foster a playful spirit in students. Here, too, especially, I think people take themselves too seriously. [Laughs.] And it can be stultify- ing, for students to take themselves too seriously.
NW: Well, thank you! This was fun.
GJ: Thank you.
The following is an excerpt from the interview, in which the Nassau Weekly and Professor Jones discuss the culinary and academic cultures in France, the horrors of vegetarian- ism abroad, the disillusionment inherent to graduate school, eating out at Princeton, and undergraduate indulgences.
Nassau Weekly: I want to talk a little bit about France.
Graham Jones: Okay. [Laughs.] I know a little bit about France.
NW: A little bit! How long did you spend there?
GJ: I spent probably off and on, probably something like two or three years there. But I’ve been, I mean, I’ve been going back and forth for—
NW: Visiting—visiting friends?
GJ: Yeah, since I was eighteen.
NW: Oh my gosh, okay.
GJ: So . . . that means ten, six, sixteen years? Fourteen years.
NW: Fourteen years.
GJ: No! Sixteen years, sixteen years. [Pause.] Because I’m thirty-four.
NW: In what part of France did you study, with the magicians?
NW: Paris. That sounds great!
GJ: Yeah, France is such a centralized country. Per capita I wouldn’t say there’s any more magicians than here, but it would be like if you took all the magicians of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, New York and LA and put them in one place. Everything is really concentrated there. It’s the same in academia. Academia is crazy there because it’s, like, so focused on Paris that everything happens by personal connections and a few people in power wield so much patriarchal influence—a few people of influence wield so much patriarchal power that everybody is kind of neurotic.
NW: You see them at a party, or something and—
GJ: You just see them around, you know? It’s not like here. I mean here, you know, you see people, like, “Oh! It’s Cornel West.” Or you know? [Laughs.] But, the United States is big enough that people have room—
NW: There are different spheres.
GJ: Different spheres of influence. So there’s a kind of—and it’s the same in magic, you know. Paris is funny, because it’s simultaneously this immensely dynamic place but that dynamism is also kind of constrained by the kind of neurotic sense of competition [laughs] that people have with each other. It’s, like, very cliquish, you know.
NW: There’s almost a neurotic sense of competition here on campus, sometimes.
GJ: Oh yeah!
NW: For sure. How is it different?
GJ: You mean among students?
NW: I mean among students, yeah, definitely.
GJ: I mean that’s a fundamental part of human nature.
NW: I guess so…
GJ: But certain environments amplify it.
NW: I think Princeton might be one of those.
GJ: I, yeah, Princeton is a little bit perverse in that regard, because of—I don’t want to say anything that I’ll regret. [Laughs.]
NW: No need! You went to NYU, is that right? How is it different from NYU?
GJ: Princeton? Well, oh god, I really have to be careful about what I say. [Laughs.] Have you ever seen the show The Comeback?
GJ: It’s a really good show about—what’s her name. Do you remember that show Friends?
NW: Yeah, definitely.
GJ: Lisa Kudrow on that show. Right after, I think in about 2005, she did the show on HBO, about this washed-up sitcom actress, who makes a comeback, and it’s kind of like a reality show, like The Office, but she’s just so awful, so awful, in a really painful way. And she looks like she’s going to cry in every scene and you just feel… And she always goes like this, time out, time out—so she can say things off the record. But it’s obviously inefficacious. But NYU, you know, NYU is an interesting place. I found it disappointed my expectations in some ways about what grad school should be. But I think that grad school is inherently very disillusioning, because most of the people who go to grad school have a liberal arts education—I mean grad school obviously in the humanities and social sciences—come from liberal arts colleges, have a liberal arts background. And you kind of imagine, you fantasize that it’s going to be a kind of apotheosis of the liberal arts model and that it’s going to really be about the love of ideas, but it’s just trade school. You know, you’re really slogging along. But NYU is, you know, it doesn’t really have a campus. Life in the city just kind of merges indistinguishably with the life of the campus, which is kind of cool in a way. I mean it keeps you on your toes. You don’t get lulled into the ivory towers. Princeton is the paradigmatic ivory tower, the quintessential ivory tower, the quintessence of the ivory tower.
NW: Yeah, just looking around . . .
GJ: So that was a shock to my system, to come here. And it’s good, I mean it has its advantages. It has its drawbacks, too.
NW: What did you think were the main differences, just in terms of living, in Paris and New York for instance?
GJ: In Paris and New York? The food is much better in New York—so much better. Especially, I’m a vegetarian, and France is a nightmare for vegetarians. It’s really, it’s really slim pickings, and people are really dismissive of the idea of vegetarianism. Really so dismissive in fact that some menus, many menus, almost all menus, they don’t even always specify if there’s meat in certain dishes, so you might order a salad that says green salad with eggs, and it’s just covered with bits of ham. It’s disgusting! And people are really prejudiced against vegetarians, too. My advisor was visiting and we were going to go out to dinner with a friend of hers, and she said, “Oh yeah, my friend,” she told the person, “my friend is a vegetarian, we need to go someplace where [he can eat].” And the woman said, “What’s wrong with him? Is he gay?” Like, what is the connection there?
NW: What a line!
GJ: There’s not, even! Their thinking is a little backwards about some things. But there are some kinds of food there that are amazing. I mean the baked goods, for instance, the cheeses—
GJ: —the wines, the open-air markets are great; you get great produce, you know, direct farm, direct produce, but, for vegetarians, New York is much, much better; and restaurants are much cheaper in New York. I mainly have to eat all Indian food there, which is fine, but… I mean when I ate out, which was a lot. Although, Princeton is weaning me of my restaurant addiction.
GJ: Well there’s just not that many options. And I don’t have a care.
NW: Carol Zanka [department manager for Anthropology] was talking about how she’s lived in Princeton for, like, I don’t know how many years, and they used to have that one—
GJ: I know.
NW: —that one little joint, where everyone ate.
GJ: It’s not that—it’s pretty, it’s pretty good now.
NW: It’s expanded. I’m surprised actually about how many sushi places we have, and like new ones popping up all over. Now the quality, I don’t know. I don’t eat out all that often.
GJ: I got food poisoning.
GJ: Yeah, but I won’t say which one.
NW: Maybe you can tell me afterwards, just for my own personal knowledge.
GJ: I can’t believe the number of frozen yogurt places. I mean it’s all these kind of indulgences for undergrads but it’s not really—
NW: For living?
GJ: For living! It could be better.