Making the Strange Familiar

Have you seen The Carbonaro Effect? It’s a TV show where an undercover magician does tricks in settings where people don’t expect to see magic performed, and we get to watch their reaction.

Maybe he’s working at a cash register in a grocery store and finds a live chick in the dozen eggs you’re buying or maybe he’s someone you meet in the break room at work who pulls an incredible amount of food from his little lunch bag, along with cut flowers and a vase — either way, the star of the show is the person with whom he interacts and how they try to make sense of what they’ve just witnessed.

What I find particularly interesting is how the show demonstrates some basic reasoning principles that we all use. For example, consider the episode where, working in a wine store, he not only instantly chills wine that, in the bottle a second ago, was at room temperature, but he actually freezes it solid in the glass, right before the customers’ eyes.

And then he offers the following explanation:

“They make it with grapes that are frozen, and then, once it hits into the oxygen, that chill returns.”

The really interesting moment is when the one woman then replies:

“Oh, like ice wine…?”

For here we have an utterly strange moment (when they’ve seen something that defies many of the assumptions that they normally use in making sense of the world), but inasmuch as they not only witnessed it but were also given some sort of technical-sounding (but completely insufficient) explanation, they have no choice but to make use of their own folk knowledge to deal with what just happened.

And voila, the unknowing accomplice in the trick (as with all magic) are the viewers themselves, who are cognitively set-up, given only just enough of an explanation that then invites them to fill in the gaps for themselves.

Come to think of it, a politician — regardless which political party — refusing to answer a direct question with a direct answer might be doing much the same, no? Relying on the viewers to fill in the gaps and come away feeling like an answer was given.

So how do we make the strange familiar? We become comparativists, of course, by looking for any overlap with how we already see the world and, when we can find it, we may then be content that the new thing, the anomaly, is no longer a puzzle or perhaps a threat.

Coz now it’s just like ice wine.

Of course the gap between the known and the unknown can sometimes be so large, so unimaginably overcome, that you just conclude that “there’s sorcery at play,” as one of these ladies does.



One thought on “Making the Strange Familiar

  1. It’s interesting to see how you can distort sentences to the point where the listener is content. The biggest example in this would be politicians, who often distort and work their away around the question. The importance in this in the modern day political landscape is immense because of how torn people are on so many different pieces of legislation. Because of the Carbanaro Effect, the politicians are more likely to be liked by avoiding all mid line questions possible.