Consensual illusion

I’ve been thinking about how much of life is consensual illusion. I mean “illusion” in the sense of an invitation to make-believe.

When an illusion is well done, we don’t even think about it. In a good production of “Hamlet”, we don’t sit there thinking “this is all obviously fake”. We know it’s all fake, but we don’t care. The players have invited us into a make-believe world, and we gladly enter that world. We are deeply moved when Hamlet dies, even though we know it’s all a chimera created out of words and greasepaint.

If someone were to simply announce “Here is he death scene from Hamlet” and then flatly recite Shakespeare’s lines, we would be unmoved. And if an actual death transpired on-stage, most of us would be horrified, and perhaps deeply scarred by the experience. But that strange liminal space of consensual illusion, of willing suspension of disbelief, creates a safe conduit for the sharing of all sorts of deep and intense emotional experiences.

A great magician does not merely perform tricks, but rather creates an invitation for us to enter an entire illusory world. Similarly, J.K. Rowling never claims that Hogwarts actually exists. We know it doesn’t exist, and that gives us permission to happily go there and experience its reality. These invitations to enter the magic circle of shared illusion are so deeply woven into human nature that even small children immediately understand and accept them.

This principle also pertains in places where we might not think to look for it. For example, I would argue that that the business of Apple Computer these days is, precisely, creating and marketing consensual illusion. Other companies that find themselves unable to compete with Apple for consumer mind-share don’t seem to realize that this is what Apple is really up to. These rival companies appear to be under the impression that it’s all about technology.

Which of course it is not. Like most things that make people desperate to part with their money, it’s really about conjuring an irresistible world of magic.

8 thoughts on “Consensual illusion”

  1. This reminds me of a story that NPR recently did about blues dancing ( A blues dance is very much a consensual illusion (of romance, flirtation) for the duration of a song. After listening to the story I looked up blues dancing videos, and those made me really want to try it. I just got back from my second ever blues dancing evening. Make believe is really fun! 😉

  2. It’s just Apple Inc. now, they dropped “Computer” as part of the name when they announced the iPhone in 2007.

  3. I’ve been reading a book called _Modern Enchantments_ which argues that what he calls “secular magic,” i.e. staged magic shows, helped to separate wonder from belief, establishing a space for fiction and advertising. If you don’t mind the occasional jargon for the love of jargon that characterizes postmodern analysis, its a pretty interesting read.
    This interview with the author about the book is a good way to see if you’re interested:

  4. Ken, to your point about Apple, this would be very consistent with their famous desire to maintain tight control over their products. If you let people change things up too much or develop any kinds of apps they want it becomes more difficult to maintain the illusion.

  5. Frode: Ah, the change from “Apple Computer to “Apple, Inc.” makes sense now. It sounds kind of like Heinlein’s “Magic Incorporated”. 🙂

    Doug: Thanks for the pointer to “Modern Enchantments”. The interview alone is fascinating!

    Sharon: Yes, I agree. The same sort of tight control over its products is exerted by the Walt Disney Company — another notable purveyor of consensual illusion.

  6. The interview Doug mentions says: “Enchantment, glamour, and fascination are just a few of the words in the English language that derive from the vocabulary of sorcery.” I never realized that “glamour” and “fascination” had that origin. Charming! 🙂

  7. Consider also the genre of gonzo journalism, where you write a fictional story which contains more truth than you could write as fact.

    I think also that we only care for such ‘illusion’ as far as it contains a narrative.

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