Response to Chris Goto-Jones’ response

[Dear reader,

this text has not been checked by a native English speaker. In case of any confusion or strange English, please refer to the original French version. Comments are welcome (but will be filtered)]

I recently wrote a severe review of Chris Goto-Jones, Conjuring Asia. Magic, Orientalism, and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 2016) for the website

Two days ago I noticed that Goto-Jones wrote a response to my review: Because the website editor did not warn me about this addition, and because this response is almost 3000 words long while the publisher guideline imposed a cap of 1400 words to the review, I do not feel welcome to write back at, and I will answer here.

I will first summarize my criticism of the book, and then, for the mots interested and patient readers, answer to some details in Goto-Jones’ response. I cannot recommend the book because Goto-Jones has tried to write a historical study of a group of magicians, their practices and their relation with orientalism without trying to use all available evidence, without studying the reception of their spectacles, and without analyzing the material and social context of their performances. His topic required a multiplicity of point-of-views, but he focused on the writings of the performers. Such research premises, according to me, cannot lead to satisfactory results, to a good historical research.

I regret that Goto-Jones has not made much use of any library or archives digital collection. Worldwide small and larger institutions have made tremendous efforts to digitize newspapers and other documents. It has revolutionized historical research. Readers of Goto-Jones’ book would not know about the progress it has brought and the opportunity for discovering new sources it offers.

This response allows me to add another source left unexploited by Goto-Jones: pictures and images. There are 14 figures in his book, but these images are not discussed nor analyzed as a source material; they are just decorative images. (for my attempts at using images on this blog, see here and here, for instance)

All above criticism concerns the second part of the book; Goto-Jones is correct in his response that I was more interested in that part of the book than in its first, hence more disappointed by it. As for the first part of the book, my only criticism was that I found it unnecessary long for reaching the conclusion « magic = illusion + glamour ».

Goto-Jones blames me for « being slightly inattentive » and he rightly points out that this formula was not written by him. Allow me to quote the final paragraph of the first part of the book (p. 98):

In sum, as its base, good modern magic is the artistic and nonharmful performance of apparent counter-physical supernatural causation, resting on the honesty of its pretence amidst a shared complicity in the denial of that pretence. This is not a million miles from Sam Sharpe’s concise definition: magic = illusion + glamour.

I find it funny that Goto-Jones criticizes me for repeating his own rhetorics. The absence of quotation marks, and the strategic position of the phrase at the end of his chapter show that he made Sharpe’s words his own. Apparently in my review rather than writing « it [is] not rewarding to read more than 90 strenuous pages to reach the conclusion that ‘modern magic = illusion + glamour’ », for the sake of accuracy, I should have written « it [is] not rewarding to read more than 90 strenuous pages to reach the conclusion that « modern magic = illusion + glamour », a conclusion already expressed more than 40 years ago by Sam Sharpe’ ».

Minor remarks
  1. According to me, Goto-Jones has not been entirely fair in his response to several passages of my review. I let the reader judge about this with this comparative table:
D’Hautcourt’s review Goto-Jones’ answer
The first part of the work consists of a long and repetitive attempt at offering a ‘theory of modern magic’, and this reviewer hopes that he will be forgiven for thinking it not rewarding to read more than 90 strenuous pages to reach the conclusion that ‘modern magic = illusion + glamour’. 20 pages should have been more than enough. Instead, he (=D’Hautcourt) glosses these chapters with the suggestion that my conclusion is that modern ‘magic = illusion + glamour’ (p. 98), noting that he finds this conclusion uninteresting.
It is possible that the review in Le Figaro was a paid advertisement in the guise of a critic but this French article, easily available on the French National Library’s website, Gallica,[i] proves beyond doubt that Soo presented himself successfully from the start as an authentic Chinese person, contrary to what Goto-Jones thinks. Quite correctly, D’Hautcourt then casts doubt on the reliability of the review that he found (noting that performers often placed their own paid reviews in newspapers to boster ticket sales), but then claims that this doubtful review ‘proves beyond doubt’ that Robinson’s performance was a success.
He writes that ‘Aside from the formal delegations, state-sanctioned troupes of performers left Japan in the 1860s’ (Goto-Jones misrepresents the results Frederik Schodt presented in his beautiful book Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2012). Nothing can be further from the truth: before the Meiji reform, the magician/ jugglers were hinin, members of a pariah class, and, for years, Japanese officials did their utmost to distance themselves and the official image of Japan from these migrant artists. Concretely, he asserts that ‘nothing can be further from the truth’ than my contention that Japanese magicians travelled to Europe and North America and performed there on formal occasions in the 1860s, hence representing ‘Japanese magic’ to Western audiences.

Goto-Jones has misread what I wrote about Japan; I do not see how I can answer his criticism.

2. As Goto-Jones does not seem to understand why I am not happy with his quote of Schodts’s book, here is what he wrote (p. 271-272):

As it happens, Japan was fully aware that its image in the west was somewhat confused, after centuries of relative isolation. Hence, during the second half of the nineteenth century it engaged in a concerted effort to (re)build its national identity through cultural exchange. Aside from the formal delegations, state-sanctioned troups of performers left Japan in the 1860s. Perhaps the most famous of these were the Imperial Japanese Troupe, which set off east to the United States, and the japanese Troupe, which travelled west to Europe in 1867, followed [/272] by the Royal Tycoon Troupe, which headed into Asian and Oceania. [[18]]

[[footnote 18]] The story of the Imperial Japanese Troupe is recounted in great detail by Frederik Schodt, Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2012

The problem is that these performer troupes had no contact with Japanese public authorities. It is wrong to call them « state-sanctioned ». On the contrary, as Schodt has shown in his book, it had been very difficult for the first troupe’s members to obtain a passport to leave Japan, because Japanese public servants did not want them to , in their mind, « taint » Japan’s public image. The names « Imperial Troupe » or « Royal Troupe » were managers inventions, not a sign for public authorities’ support. Later in the 19th century, ambassadors and other Japanese public servants abroad will at all cost try to avoid any contact with Japanese entertainers.


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