Friday, March 16, 2007

Anatomy of an Illusion

In the recent film "The Prestige" (based on the Christopher Priest novel of the same name), the narrator explains the structure of a standard magic trick. Every illusion, we are told, has three parts:
First, there is the setup, or the "pledge," in which the magician shows us something that appears ordinary but is probably not, making use of misdirection. (Example: a magician shows a dove.) Second, there is the performance or the trick, known as the "turn," in which the magician makes the ordinary extraordinary. (The bird disappears.) Lastly, there is the "prestige" where the effect of the illusion is produced. (The bird reappears.)
The idea driving the film is that every illusion needs the prestige. No one claps when the bird disappears because, as the film suggests, it isn't enough just to make something disappear. You have to make it come back. The "prestige" is what makes us wonder to ourselves: how did he do that? was that a trick? or was it really magic?
Now, for some people (like Hugh Jackman's character in the film) the prestige is both wonder-producing and maddening. We want to figure it out-- or to believe that it can be figured out--and for some of us the "mystery" will nag us and drive us obsessively toward uncovering the mystery that has stymied our understanding.
So, here's my suggestion: philosophers, in particular, need the prestige. Maybe philosophy is the prestige.... the presentation of the illusion that something--perhaps everything--can be known.


Trott said...

I saw The Prestige this weekend. Like I said before, there is no prestige. JK -- I can't remember what I meant by that. As I see it, the one lives his life as a magic trick, the other lives his life in search of the secret. Perhaps these could be two ways of living a philosophical life. But I'm still not exactly sure why you think philosophy needs the prestige. The prestige is the revelation of a secret, but what it really reveals is that there is no magic. The trick of the magician is to show that something is hidden (a secret), not that there is magic (that there is no secret). If the secret is that there is no secret than we are slightly annoyed and won't pay to see it again. Does this make the Prestige contra-Derridian?

LEIGH said...

No! The "prestige" is the presentation that there MIGHT be a secret! Or, more importantly, that the "secret" MIGHT be knowable... or it might not be knowable...

This, it seems to me, is the "prestige" that drives philosophers. MAYBE there is a secret that can be figured out, and MAYBE it's really a secret (magical or miraculous).


You'll remember that one character in the film discovers that the "trick" that he had been trying to figure out for most of his life WAS, in fact, a "trick"... but he only figured that out by actually making it a "miracle." (Hugh Jackman's character actually DOES the thing that Christian Bale's character can only do as an "illusion.") So, Jackman's obsessive inquiry is never sated, as the "sleight of hand" turns out to be REALLY magical!

This is TOTALLY Derridean! We want to believe that there is a "secret"... but we`also must recognize that (maybe) there is no secret. Maybe the secret is that "there is no secret." But maybe the secret is that "the secret is really (metaphysically, epistemologically) a secret."

LEIGH said...

the prestige IS the "undecidable."