This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The next time you’re listening to your economics professor explain (again) the difference between gross national product and gross domestic product, consider this: You could be at Carleton University studying magic instead.
Carleton is currently accepting applications for its new Allan Slaight Chair for the Study of the Conjuring Arts. The announcement, predictably, provoked a lot of snark on Twitter and in the halls of more traditional academic departments. As a way of filling your arts electives, it seems hard to deny that a course on magic would be, objectively speaking, awesome. But the job advertisement says that “the study of the conjuring arts is an evolving area that represents a respected and growing academic area of study.” VICE spoke with some experts to find out if this is true.
Catherine Tosenberger, a professor of English literature and cultural studies at the University of Winnipeg who specializes in folklore, and who practices traditional folk magic herself, confirms that it is. “Magical studies is a hot happening area of research,” she says. As she explained, there are several different areas that might be encompassed by “the conjuring arts.”
First of all, there is stage magic, of the sort practiced by Darcy Oake and GOB Bluth. Though there is now a school in India dedicated to it, stage magic is not often studied by academics at the moment. However, it could be incorporated into the curriculum as part of either the study of popular culture or the study of performance, both of which are already taught at many universities. Then there are the forms of magic and witchcraft that have been part of European culture since classical times, and that are studied as part of cultural history. There is a large and growing body of scholarship on magic of this sort, and there are academic programs, for instance at the University of Exeter and the University of Amsterdam, devoted to it. Finally, as Sabina Magliocco from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Anthropology told us, anthropologists study the role of magic and magical thinking in the worldviews of cultures around the world, both Western and non-Western.
So what approach will the new chair take? “The conjuring arts” is not a term used by experts in the field, and the job’s terms of reference are somewhat vague. Alastair Summerlee, the president of Carleton—he has a great wizard name and actually looks extremely wizard-like—told CTV News that the scope of the job is “incredibly broad.” He says that the university is open to candidates from a variety of backgrounds, and would, in addition, like to find someone who will “use magic as an entrée into the world of perception and deception.” This would include studying the techniques of persuasion used in politics and the media. So you might finally be able to get credit for your essay comparing every Trump administration official to a Harry Potter villain. But also, as Professor Magliocco points out, it could help us understand “how large groups of people come to believe things that are impossible and even dangerous.” She says this is of real value in an era when fake news is rampant and when thoughts and prayers are offered as the solution to school shootings.
The chair is named after Allan Slaight, one of Canada’s richest people, whose family foundation put up $2 million [$1.5 million USD] for it. (Carleton matched that sum from its own budget.) Before he sold out over a decade ago, Slaight was the owner of a broadcasting empire that included dozens of radio stations, a couple of television stations, and, at one point, the Toronto Raptors. Slaight spent several years when he was young touring the prairies as a performing magician, and he has remained obsessed with stage magic. He has edited and published two huge books on legendary Canadian magician Stewart James, which one reviewer has described as “the biggest books in the history of magic literature.”
If academic opinion is divided over the new chair, the practicing magicians VICE spoke to were, perhaps not surprisingly, all enthusiastic—although one of them admitted he initially thought the Slaight family had donated an actual magic chair, which would have, let’s face it, been even cooler. Along with the money, the family has donated a large collection of magic books to the university, and the chair’s occupant will help oversee the collection. Yan Markson, a Toronto-based magician and mentalist who grew up in a Russian circus, points out that books on magic are incredibly hard to find, and many people nowadays learn through videos instead. However, he says the videos mostly just teach superficial gimmicks, and as a result, the fundamental principles of magic, which are found in the best texts on the subject, are in danger of being lost. The new archive could play a role in preserving them.
But another Toronto magician, Christyrious, may have put it best when he told VICE that the chair is a great idea because “it’s in magic and magic is amazing.”
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Neil McArthur is the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at University of Manitoba, where his work focuses on sexual ethics and the philosophy of sexuality. Follow him on Twitter.