Sleight of Hand: A Model of secrecy in public

Curator's Note

The card tricks performed by the legendary Ricky Jay are fantastic feats of sleight of hand.  In a dramatic performance of what is clearly a refined set of skills, Jay takes his audience through a series of complicated moves that require not only talent on his part but a specific set of actions from the audience. Namely, as the video demonstrates, Jay’s tricks require close examination. Selecting members from the audience, Jay asks that he be watched very closely while he shuffles the cards in his hand. While under the close scrutiny of his audience, Jay performs several unique feats that appear to be impossible.  This video demonstrates more than just a set of impressive card handling tricks; Jay’s performance provides an opening for rethinking forms of social relations in our current moment of late liberalism, a moment where social relations are subjected to a constant force of liberal scrutiny.

Sleight of hand can be conceptualized as a form of relation between the performer and the viewer. Best understood as a relation indebted to secrecy, we can use it as the foundation for a secret public. The secret public is a relational public where secrecy and the promise of revelation structure the bounds of the relation.  The demand by Jay to focus on his hands creates the possibility that we will be subsumed into a world where the artistry of the performance is laid bare and rendered legible for us. This promise of revelation functions as the limit for this secret sphere. Our desire to know the secret binds us to the relation while at the same time altering the horizon of possibilities. This relation does not take place in dark alleys or in private; instead, it happens in public. It is a relation that takes shape in plain sight and assumes a state of visibility or more accurately demands recognition of its visibility.

This structure of relation presents us with an opportunity for rethinking the formation of the public.  Following Jack Bratich’s theorization of the public secret sphere, this secret relation and the public formation that may result from it allow us to reclaim the power of secrecy as an important tool of democratic dissent.


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