Understandings of "Transformation"
of "Transformation" floats indiscriminately within
and between the worlds of art, magic, and politics. It is a
doppelganger concept, a shape-shifting notion, that abandons
the rhetoric of hybridity and syncretism in favor of chameleonic
residentialism - occupation of all terrain, familiar and alien,
foreign and domestic, temporal and enduring. But unlike the
chameleon which can be easily identified as a chameleon regardless
of its coloration, the doppelganger may never reveal a 'natural
state' or appearance, yet it remains, always, a doppelganger.
Like the survival strategies of Gypsy nomads, "transformation"
assumes varying appearances which allow for easy passage, decreased
resistance, expanded acceptance, and access to resources. Excited
by the paradoxes that too often lend themselves to moments of
mutual exclusion, "transformation" seeks to eliminate
the inevitable breaches of integrity and conviction by operating
wholly in multiple spheres. With its occult origins, revolutionary
insinuations, and magical permutations, our understanding of
"transformation" possesses the potential to manifest
as a unifying strategy capable of truly transforming our rhetoric
understands "transformation" to mean a shift in form;
a change from one thing into another. Yet, the implications
are radically different depending on the sphere of usage. Strictly
speaking, "transformation" occupies the stage magician's
mind as a change in any combination of shape, color, size, weight,
or overall essence, achieved through any of a variety of methods
- but always illusionistic. Whether we are confronted by a method
of substitution or of disguise, the effect is the same: one
thing appears to have become another. On the contrary, the traditional
shaman may employ some of the same illusionistic tricks as the
magician; however, it is the process of transformation, and
not the outcome, which dictates the magical moment, the mysterious
reality which permeates all reality. For those engaged in politics,
"transformation" is the reformative or revolutionary
remedy sought to resolve a desperate state of affairs - a reality
wrought with illusions. In such a context one attempts to uncover
the means behind the manifestation; to reveal or unmask the
power and thereby change the prevailing conditions. And finally
there is art - an illusion unto itself, so frequently deceived
by its own conjurations; yet still we see the potency of "transformation"
not as "the magic of art" nor as "the art of
magic" but as a magical art which is representative and
therefore evocative of emotion, evoking of set purpose some
emotions rather than others in order to discharge them into
the affairs of practical life.
It is difficult
entering into a discussion about "transformation"
without invoking one of the most illustrious transformers of
space, condition, and perception - the great escape artist,
Houdini. Here it is important to distinguish between escapology
and escapism: while 'escapology' is the study and practice of
escape methods, self-releases, and liberation strategies, 'escapism'
denotes flights of fancy, the diversions of entertainment, and
departures from the constraints of reality. Houdini was an escapologist;
yet, his grand appeal to audiences everywhere was inextricably
tied to our own compulsions towards escapism. His self-releases
from a wealth of snares and traps were as much about his own
mastery over the material bonds which held him as they were
about his audience's desire for liberation from individual and
collective holds, whether they be physical or otherwise. In
one of his more famous advertising posters, he is billed "The
World's Handcuff King & Prison Breaker" and we are
informed that "nothing on earth can hold Houdini a prisoner."
Why should one care that a man can free himself from penal confines
and the tools of authoritarian restriction? To both the criminal-minded
and the law-abiding citizenry these acts are representative
of weaknesses and vulnerabilities within the institutional structure.
Security, fear, strength, weakness, potentiality, liberation,
and restriction are the spectres invoked by Houdini to haunt
the subjective collective mindspring of his audience. While
many of his escapes were enacted as part of elaborate prop-ridden
stageshows, the prison escapes, handcuff releases, and especially
his open public challenges drew strength from the quotidian
confines of our constructed society and its corresponding psychological
ecology. There could be no better illustration of Foucault's
assertion that ours is a disciplinary society comprised of a
network of enclosures and spaces of control. When Houdini responded
to public challenges, he was relying on peoples' ability to
identify the restrictions within their own lived environments
as well as their desire to witness an escape from such controls.
Sailor's ropes, a carpenter's ladder, a clinician's gurney,
a milk jug or a mail bag - these are the materials of daily
existence; the products of what Deleuze refers to as "a
generalized crisis in relation to all environments of enclosure
- prison, hospital, factory, school, family."
the social controls have expanded in a multitude of directions
- pharmaceutical, molecular, genetic, digital as well as fiscal,
ideological, and juridicial. One can hardly imagine Houdini
possessing the same level of success within our contemporary
social fortress. Even the contemporary televised hype surrounding
David Blaine's 3-day encasement in a block of ice barely scratches
the surface of our group catharsis. What does ice have to do
with our current situation? Where's our entry point beyond mere
the shaman might employ various conjuring techniques (illusionistic
tricks), anthropologists inform us that there is no discrimination
in shamanism between the 'fact' and the 'work of art.' Although
contemporary Western civilization is largely devoid of a magical
world-view which assumes "everything is real magic"
the blurred milieu of media, mediated experience, and the social
imaginary equally fails to discriminate between the 'fact' and
the 'work of art.' In much the same way that linear perspective
was an historical invention which transformed the eye into a
technology through which all experience could be rationalized,
recorded and described, our contemporary mass media has had
a neutralizing effect on our other senses. But instead of "magic,"
we are offered the Baudrilliardian world of simulation, a world
where "vision cannot distinguish between what is seen and
the mediation of that scene." Indeed then, this is no different
than the shaman's worldview - this is real magic... or so we
are led to believe.
To quote the mime, Marcel Marceau, "When the man in the
street forgets his dream the theater becomes a myth and a dispenser
of signs." Although the vast majority of creative expressions
of liberation are manifested within the fantasy world of Hollywood,
we already understand that Hollywood is unreal even if its effects
may thoroughly permeate our reality. Despite critics' antagonisms
that "Experience is not real unless it is recorded and
validated through the media" millions of New Yorkers didn't
need CNN to tell them that the skyline had been dramatically
redrawn on September 11th
even if the rest of us did.
Admittedly, mass media possesses some of the capabilities to
redirect those imaginative forces that help determine our view
of "reality" but clearly they lack the great shamanistic
abilities unleashed through more physical means of mediation.
Prior to this tragedy there was no escape artist, magician,
shaman, or movie capable of illustrating, with the same efficiency,
the intrinsic weaknesses within our society of control. Instead,
we faced the beast itself. Our subjective collective congregated
in one transactive locale to bear witness to the horrors of
entrapment and the precluded dangers inherent within the illusion
of a maximum security state.
attack on the World Trade Center brought Americans to consider
their humanity and their mortality in ways that Hollywood never
could, it has also led to a widescale analysis of all points
of physical vulnerability. All government buildings, skyscrapers,
financial institutions, airlines and other modes of transportation,
bridges, tunnels, and even amusement parks were placed on alert.
Even though the risk may in fact be real, much of the response
appears to be little more than patter to enhance the illusion.
A couple of National Guardsmen on the (SF) Bay Bridge or the
threefold i.d. check at airports is hardly enough to deter a
determined terrorist. If we acknowledge that such actions are
lacking in their prescribed functionality, we thereby recognize
that they serve a symbolic or illusionistic function; an illusion
of safety, as it were.
The difference (one of them, anyway) between this type of illusionistic
gesture and those of the traditional shamans is that the primary
role of the shaman was to promote healing rather than simply
persuade the patient that s/he wasn't indeed ailing. The argument
can be made that the aforementioned gestures of security are
intended to promote the recovery of the nation, but one must
wonder if the nation is not simply being nursed back into a
state of malaise by remedying shock and depression with painkillers
and sedatives. Furthermore, a shaman would frequently accomplish
this feat by dramatically sharing the experience of transformation
by passing into sickness and back to health. Instead, we have
largely been witness to behavior more analogous to that of the
magician: the moments of distraction are employed as misdirection,
allowing government officials to consolidate power under the
guise of "protecting freedom." Although many of the
methods may be obscured, the effects are ever-present.
In the articulations
of cognitive scientists we are told, "Children blur the
border between thinking and doing, between the inner space of
imagination and the outer space of objectivity. The young child
confuses the volitional act of willing with causality."
How familiar is this terrain to the "adults" within
our society? Is there not a similar confusion between thinking
and doing expressed in the hypocrisy of those Americans who
heed religious doctrines which champion the virtues of charity,
tolerance, and austerity while they lead lifestyles quite to
the contrary? Too often is this childlike condition equally
expressed by those "progressive"-minded members of
the public (liberals, leftists, etc) who believe that shifting
one's consciousness is, in and of itself, a political act which
will lead to significant change. Unfortunately, power maintains
itself quite nicely when people are content to simply 'think'
about an alternative realty. Perhaps that is why both Dante
and Zen Buddhists claim that the lowest "hell" is
reserved for those who can do 'good' but choose to do nothing.
Such are the fecund conditions nourishing the insidiousness
of the Commodity and the modus operandi of Debord's "spectacle":
"So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophizes
reality, and turns the material life of everyone into a universe
of speculation." On the contrary, change and effect come
to bear only when philosophy is a subjective proposition, desire
and praxis that are applied to the event. In this way "magical
thinking" drops its cloak of transcendental escapism and
materializes as a political counterperception - an alternative
worldview that summons the creative and prophetic power of the
multitude and necessitates acts of conviction in order to realize
of the Times
such language could easily apply to the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
While there is no desire to champion the terrorists' actions,
there is much to gain by examining the transformative nature
of acts of sabotage. Depicted on the eerily prophetic album
cover of the Oakland-based hip-hop group, The Coup, is the detonation
of the Twin Towers emphatically orchestrated by the performers
themselves. We can save the topic of mysterious coincidence
and prophetic vision for another conversation; for now, let's
reflect for a moment on why such an image would have been considered
a successful enough marketing strategy to be considered in the
first place. Indeed, Hip-hop music and culture has certainly
maintained a healthy attitude of anti-authoritarianism and non-conformity
despite its often hypocritical whinings to be validated by the
corporate establishment. And the notions of storming the castles
of might and money, of overwhelming the powerhouses and control
centers of the elite, are by no means restricted to the fanatical
dreamings of fundamentalist terrorists, Islamic, Christian or
otherwise. The recent wave of antiglobalization protests has
certainly proven its effectiveness in employing lo-tech tactics
which have highlighted the physical presence and consequent
vulnerability of global capitalism which is so frequently perceived
as mere ethereal pulses of electroplasm. It should therefore
come as little surprise that a musical group with a strong record
of community involvement around issues of social justice would
look to sabotage as an appropriate metaphor for toppling today's
to the point, sabotage is imbued with a sense of contestational
inequities. On an unleveled playing field, the improvised strategies
of the saboteur offer the rare hope of victory to the underdog.
Whether employed by a group of small, fuzzy Ewoks, an indigent
A-Team, or a perplexed MacGuyver, sabotage is largely considered
the weapon of the powerless, the oppressed. It lends itself
accordingly to the worker who despises the labor but requires
the paycheck. Just as a wrench can be used to maintain the workings
of the factory, so too can it be tossed into the gears, perturbing
production and easing the machine to a creaky incompletion.
Sabotage is transformation - the maker becomes the breaker,
changing a tool into an obstacle; a smack to the masters; a
paling in profits. As suggested in a CIA sabotage manual, one
can blow a fuse "by putting a small coin between the lightbulb
and the socket". Thus, the smallest monetary denomination
can be used to wreak greater fiscal havoc. Can we even imagine
a greater metaphor for poor over rich; proletariat over factory-owner?
Although indicative of a sorry state of affairs, we should scarcely
be shocked by the accounts of powder-stuffed envelopes which
hoaxster-employees have sent to their workplaces in the hopes
of finagling a few days off.
Good, the Bad, and the Transformative
thinking" of a child enables a shifting understanding of
the objects around him in a manner which determines use based
on needs and desires: an orange is only an orange if he is hungry,
otherwise it is a ball; a toy; an experiment waiting to happen.
Similarly, sabotage is a creative redress of use-value, redefining
prescribed usages in a manner which converts the currency of
material meaning and cavorts with the cohorts of agency and
alienation. Eco-defenders defeat bulldozers by introducing dirt
into the oil filters and crankcases thereby destroying the earthmover
with earth rather than the other way around. Such transformative
inversions of power relationships highlight not only the creative
appropriation of seemingly innocuous elements but a greater
inclination toward the elaborate integration of all things related;
an almost magical perspective that, far from being limited to
the child's experience, sees nonapparent links and connections
amidst the chaotic distrust of stagnating states of ordered
(d)efficiency. Moving stealthily between method and effect,
it becomes unclear where the borders lie. One no longer sees
the fence, but the opening; not the matrix, but the code. Here
then, is the magical art: Such an art may be good or bad when
judged by aesthetic standards, but that kind of goodness or
badness has little, if any, connection with its efficacy in
its own proper work. The measure of magical prowess is then
seen to be determined by the ruler of affect. The overall stageshow,
séance, exhibit, or protest shapeshifts in our minds
as we attempt to tie it to our expectations and resolve it within
predetermined categories. In the end, we are left wondering
what has changed and how. The borders are still present - very
much so. But somehow we find ourselves on the other side.
Return to Magic
And so we
see that we have escaped into the realm of magic. Such is not
the conjuror's trick of transformation - since things have not
really changed - rather what we are witnessing is a bizarre
transposition, a switching of places, a changing of names. This
is Houdini's "Metamorphosis" - a feat which is not
at all a change of form but of predicament, wherein Houdini
is handcuffed, bagged, and placed in a locker only to switch
places with his wife, Bess, who has drawn a curtain around the
locker only three seconds prior to Houdini's reappearance. On
the surface, the conditions have indeed changed, yet the big
picture remains the same (one person is free, the other is not).
Of course the shift is quite significant depending on whether
or not you are the one gaining or losing your freedom.
effect is indeed dizzying, disorienting, and barely fathomable.
But in a diasporic world where geopolitical borders, military
might, and natural resources move about like staircases in Harry
Potter's magic academy, rapid and dramatic shifts are hardly
strangers. In magic, in art, in politics, in life, how these
shifts effect us is determined by our affect in multiple spheres.
And while clairvoyance and precognition might provide glimpses
of the unknown, true revelation comes through a thorough analysis
and activation of forces. Only then can we transform a spellbound
present into a charmed future.