Magic, a microcosm of modern culture

Many MIT professors were in a classroom or lab when they first encountered the subjects they now study. Not anthropologist Graham Jones. He found his life’s work in a New York City magic store.

The year was 2001, and Jones was a graduate student. A class he was taking on the transmission of knowledge in society assigned students to videotape people who teach skills to apprentices. So Jones, literally looking around the streets of Manhattan for ideas, wound up in a magic shop, inspired and relieved: At least he would have enough material to complete the assignment.

What Jones didn’t realize was that he had encountered the subject that would fuel his academic career — all the way to MIT, where he received tenure earlier this year.

“I had a powerful feeling that magic is a beautiful thing: It’s fun, and I’m interested in it and excited by it, so I’m just going to run with it,” Jones recalls.

Run with it, Jones has. He wrote his dissertation — which became his first book — about the secretive world of French magicians, studying how a small band of practitioners keeps their tricks tightly guarded while passing along enough knowledge to help the craft flourish.

Jones’ second book, to be published this fall, broadens the lens and looks at the way early anthropologists used the notion of “magic” to understand the systems of belief they encountered in distant, non-Western cultures. While retracing the history of his own discipline, Jones discovered that anthropologists, when interpreting the ritual practices of shamans and other holy figures, often drew comparisons with the trickery of stage magicians in their own societies.

As Jones is quick to note, watching a magician perform tricks and consulting a shaman for medical help represent two very different scenarios involving magic. By lumping them together, Jones argues, anthropologists developed influential theories about the supposed cultural difference between “modern” people who…

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