To Spite The Face: a review of Insurgent Supremacists by Matthew N. Lyons

Reviewed in this essay: Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, by Matthew N. Lyons (Published by PM Press)

Anti-fascism in the United States has two deep problems, neither of which can easily be unraveled. The first problem, which is the foundation of the second, is that it cannot accurately identify precisely who or what a fascist actually is.

This first problem can best be shown from a rather amusing conversation I recently encountered regarding myself and Gods&Radicals Press (where I am the managing editor). It turns out, according to some deeply wise Twitter commentators, that I’m a fascist, or possibly a proto-fascist, or an anarcho-nationalist with white-nationalist leanings.

Their evidence? A recent essay regarding the commons, an essay critiquing racial and gender essentialism, and an anti-imperialist essay.

While it’s tempting to dismiss such a conversation and laugh about the general absurdity of American social media “call outs,” their error points to something much more endemic than mere ignorance or poor reading skills. The essays selectively cited do indeed contain some ideas that could be mistaken as fascist, but not because the ideas themselves are fascist. For instance: the essay on reclaiming the commons from an anti-colonial perspective mentions the word “land” a lot. Some fascists also wish to reclaim land. Likewise, the essay against imperialism shares with some fascist tendencies a disgust for the occupation of peoples by the military. And my critique of social justice essentialism criticizes non-Marxist “feminist” reduction of men to their bodies and genitals.

That is, what the commentators were looking for were signs of fascist ideology, ticking off boxes on a checklist of fascist traits. But unfortunately, opposition to fascism is not as easy as completing a Buzzfeed quiz or reading an Everyday Feminism listicle.

In this error they are hardly alone. American antifascist organizing has faced a much larger difficulty identifying precisely who’s a fascist, or even whether any particular idea is indicative of fascist ideology. This problem leads to all sorts of practical problems, particularly when it comes to organizing against groups and theorists on the far-right who don’t fit into traditional stereotypes of fascism.

Two examples should suffice to show the problem here. First of all, Jack Donovan and the group to which he belongs, The Wolves of Vinland, cannot easily be classified as fascist according to popularly-accepted metrics. Donovan is specifically anti-imperialist, criticizes capitalism and anti-globalisation, rejects racism, and is homosexual. In addition, The Wolves of Vinland might be better described as a Pagan body-cult than a “Fascist counter-cultural tribe” , particularly because they not only do they not participate in demonstrations and have rejected alliances with alt-right groups, but have absolutely no interest in seizing political power or taking control of the state. So any litmus strip we might apply to either Donovan or the Wolves of Vinland in order to determine whether they are fascist will come back completely clean.

Likewise, fascists are at least according to popular understanding supposed to be anti-Black, anti-gay, and most definitely anti-Semitic. So that makes encountering the occasionally violent ideas of Milo Yiannopolous quite difficult: he is homosexual, has a Black man as a lover, and also happens to be Jewish. That is, he isn’t anti-Black, nor anti-gay, nor precisely anti-semitic, yet we still generally see his ideas as fascist.

This nebulous nature of Fascism also means that many leftists find themselves considered fascist because of their adherence to ideas which appear (at least at first glance) to be of fascist provenance. For instance, the anarchist publisher Little Black Cart and its publications have been repeatedly identified as fascist by other anarchists because of their anti-civilizationist and eco-extremist tendencies, both of which appear (under a glance no more attentive than what is needed for a Teen Vogue article) to be identical to some white-nationalist positions.

Similarly, those who use the works of clearly leftist philosophers such as Max Stirner or even Slavoj Zizek are often painted with a fascist brush because of the similarities between both philosophers’ rejection of Liberal Democratic capitalism and the European Nouvelle Droit’s rejections of the same regime.

This inability to distinguish between right-wing (and fascist) critiques of Liberal Democracy leads to the second and more intractable problem within American Anti-fascism. That problem? By mis-identifying Marxist and other far-left opposition to Liberal Democracy as fascist, antifascists end up siding with Capitalist interests and becoming defenders of Liberal Democracy. That is, in an attempt to fight off white supremacists and other far right challenges to the state, antifascists can enable the state to continue its oppression against the very people antifascists claim to defend.

The Revolutionary Right

Thus Matthew N Lyons’ forthcoming book, Insurgent Supremacists: The US Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire, is a deeply needed work.

In the title itself, Lyons begins to unravel inherited, popular misconceptions about the entire political constellation in which we (often clumsily) attempt to locate fascism. Generally (at least within liberal and “progressive” anti-fascist currents), the far right is not considered a threat to Empire, but to be the political foundation of Empire itself. But while to speak of an anti-imperialist far-right seems oxymoronic, Lyons provides an almost overwhelming onslaught of detail as to how much of the Far Right is predicated on a critique of and opposition to liberal democratic imperialism.

Opposition to global capitalism and the international governance organizations which protect it, fierce criticism (sometimes backed by weapons) of oppressive policing and surveillance apparatuses, and moral reprehension at imperialist US foreign policy in the Middle East have all been parts of many movements within the Far Right in the United States. For instance, consider the following words:

When a U.S. plane or cruise missile is used to bring destruction to a foreign people, this nation rewards the bombers with applause and praise. What a convenient way to absolve these killers of any responsibility for the destruction they leave in their wake.

Unfortunately, the morality of killing is not so superficial. The truth is, the use of a truck, a plane or a missile for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction does not alter the nature of the act itself.

These are weapons of mass destruction — and the method of delivery matters little to those on the receiving end of such weapons.

Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City …

These words by Timothy McVeigh (the far-right bomber of a federal building In Oklahoma City that killed 168 people, many of them children) might just as easily have been written by indigenous resistance leaders, the Black Panthers, or other leftist revolutionary groups in the United States. Or as I note in an essay about him,  many of Jack Donovan’s critiques of the police state and of liberal democracy could just as easily have been written by those same groups.

Unlike those leftist revolutionary groups and also unlike Jack Donovan, Timothy McVeigh was a white nationalist, expressing fondness for the white supremacist book The Turner Diaries, as well as selling copies of it at gun shows. And so there is where someone like McVeigh fits into our preconceived notions of what makes a fascist…except as Lyons points out in his book, white supremacist ideas are not a clear indicator of fascism, either.

That difficulty of pinning down precisely what makes someone on the far right a fascist might otherwise plague such a book as his, but Lyons wisely dispenses with the question altogether until the very end (a previously-published essay included as appendix). Rather than attempt to build a catalogue of fascist ideologies and movements in the United States, he instead details all the Far Right movements which intersect with this slippery category.

The first part of Insurgent Supremacists provide a detailed sketch of five ideological movements (Neo-Nazis, Christian Dominionists/Theocrats, The Alt-Right, the Patriot movements, and the LaRouche Network), and at least for the first four groups, readers with only a surface understanding of Right-wing ideology may find themselves surprised to learn how thoroughly different each ideology is from the others. While crossovers absolutely exist, many of the adherents of each group would be just as likely to vehemently oppose the other groups as to claim them as fellow travelers.

In the second section, Lyons then looks at each group again through the lens of their views on gender & sexuality, decentralization, and anti-imperialism, and here again the average anti-fascist may find their original analysis uncomfortably complicated by what Lyons details. Particularly of interest are the problems of anti-imperialism and decentralization (anti-federalist– or in some cases even anti-government–positions ), both of which are critiques autonomous Marxists and anarchists share with many on the far right (albeit for different reasons).

The third section, however, is the most useful and unfortunately the most short. In it, Lyons discusses the complicated relationship that police and the FBI have had with far right groups, as well as the influence the Liberal political structures (especially the Democratic Party) has had on creating the conditions for the rise of these groups as well as increasing police oppression of society at large in the name of fighting them. Returning to McVeigh’s bombing, Lyons points out:

The Clinton administration also used the Oklahoma City bombing to help win passage of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which loosened restrictions on the wiretapping and other surveillance of alleged “terrorists,” expanded the use of secret evidence to deport non- citizens (which means that the defendants have no opportunity to see the evidence being used against them), and, in the words of legal journalist Lincoln Caplan, “gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, which a federal court can use to order the release of someone wrongly imprisoned.” The law made the death penalty more “effective” by making it much more difficult for death row inmates to appeal their sentences, even though a notoriously high proportion of death sentences have been shown to have serious flaws.” (174)

Antifascist Alliances with the Capitalist State

In fact, it’s Lyons’ consistent (but understated) criticism of liberal politics throughout his discussion of the Far Right that makes Insurgent Supremacists most useful. Lyons runs directly counter to most popular antifascist thought by insisting that the Far Right is not made up of idiots without political sensibilities or actual grievances. People like McVeigh were absolutely right to be incensed about the government’s slaughter of innocents in Waco or at Ruby Ridge, just as many of those who supported Trump in the recent election had absolutely legitimate grievances against the Democratic Party’s destructive hyper-capitalist economic policies and imperialist expansionary foreign policy positions.

Of course, such a position runs counter not only to the received wisdom of many antifascists, but stands directly in opposition to Liberal dismissals of the Right as merely ignorant or hateful.   Accepting this Liberal position is how antifascists have gotten to the place they’re in now, finding themselves continuously pulled toward the Democratic Party’s “centrist” positions and thus unable to distinguish a leftist from a fascist.

This is not merely an unfortunate problem of mis-identification, however. As in the case of McVeigh, Lyons points out that antifascism and opposition to far right ideologies have historically sometimes served to increase State violence and power.

Many people think of growing state repression as a trend toward fascism. But these events of the 1930s and ’40s highlight the fact that antifascism can itself serve as a rationale for increasing repression, as Don Hamerquist has pointed out: “when did this country outlaw strikes, ban seditious organizing and speech, intern substantial populations in concentration camps, and develop a totalitarian mobilization of economic, social, and cultural resources for military goals? Obviously it was during WWII, the period of the official capitalist mobilization against fascism, barbarism and for ‘civilization.’” (166)

The particular difficulty here, which Lyons touches on occasionally, is that the political interests of Capital are able to manipulate opposition to far right ideologies, particularly through the Democratic Party. And here many looking for easier answers will likely either dismiss or take offense at his discussion about whether or not Trump (or the US government in general) is fascist or in “process” of becoming fascist.

Each of these claims that the U.S. government or public officials are driving us toward fascism represents a misuse of the term, one that blurs the line between fascism and the more repressive, racist, and militaristic sides of the United States’ liberal- pluralist political system (181)

In particular, Lyons critiques the dogmatic approach to Trump of Alexander Reid Ross (an antifascist writer I’ve criticized before for mis-identifying leftist opposition to capitalism as fascist or fascist-adjacent):

Radical journalist Alexander Reid Ross argued that we should look at fascism “as a ‘process’ rather than an ‘outcome’,” and that “Trumpism” was “part of a process of ‘fascist creep,’ meaning a radicalization of conservative ideology that increasingly includes fascist membership while deploying fascist ideology, strategy, and tactics.” This approach rightly emphasized that many political initiatives occupy a gray area between fascist and conservative politics and that the political character of such initiatives can change over time. But Ross simply assumed that Trump’s campaign—unlike previous right- wing populist candidates such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan—had an inherent tendency to move toward fascism and would not be co- opted by the established political system. (197)

But then, if Trump isn’t fascist and if many of the implementations of oppressive (and often explicitly racist) policies and powers of the United States isn’t fascist either, than what exactly is fascism? In an appendix of the book, Lyons discusses the difficulty of defining fascism and looks at others’ attempts to do so before coming up with a definition that will satisfy very few:

Fascism is a revolutionary form of right- wing populism, inspired by a totalitarian vision of collective rebirth, that challenges capitalist political and cultural power while promoting economic and social hierarchy.

This definition will be unsatisfactory to most because of what it doesn’t explicitly include (white supremacy, misogyny) as well as what it does include (a challenge to capitalist political and cultural power).  With such a definition we are forced to question almost everything we think we know about fascism’s traits, and find none of our checklists or listicles make sense anymore.

That’s a good thing, but with a caveat. Because the culture of constant reaction within America, especially via the reductionist forms of internet “discourse,” makes it very likely that capitalists and the government which serves their interest will continue to summon antifascists to their defense. While the challenge fascism presents to capitalist power is not our challenge, we must avoid making façile concessions to the Liberal Democratic state out of fear that the fascists might win. As Lyons points out in the case of the House UnAmerican Activities Committe during the middle of the last century (which was originally set up to prosecute fascists!), supporting (or even celebrating) government repression of the far right always empowers the state to then turn its weapons on the left.

Antifascists can and must oppose both the capitalist liberal democratic state as well as fascists, and must do so always at the same time. To make alliances with the state against the Far Right which threatens it will also lead the left to abandon their own challenge to the state, cutting off our nose to spite the face.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals and one of its co-editors. He is currently teaching a course on Marxism, and currently lives in Bretagne. Follow his dispatches from other shores here.


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Review of Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries

Review of Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries, edited by Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin (Mystic Productions Press. Scheduled publication date April 2nd).

From Anthony Rella

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Note: This is a review of an advance copy provided to this writer by editor Lee Harrington. This writer has a social acquaintanceship with some of the included contributor and co-editor Tai Fenix Kulystin, as both once sat beside each other in a graduate school class and one day Kulystin observed this writer doodling and said, “Nice Unicursal Hexigram.” This writer is also a member of the same spiritual community as contributor Adrian Moran. It is difficult to be a queer writer interested in magick without some overlap, apparently.)

While the term “queer” has veered closer to being a mainstream catch-all for members of the LGBTQIA+ communities, it continues to retain all the layers of trauma, danger, and transgressive excitement layered into its historical uses. What is queer is that which could not fit into the norms prescribed to us, and thus needed to find its own space to grow: on the edges, in the cracks and corners wherein it could grow unfettered. Queerness exists for itself, and it is medicine that heals and brings wholeness to culture.

Thus queerness is elusive, evolving, pluralistic. So too is the collection of pieces gathered together by editors Lee Harrington and Tai Fenix Kulystin in Queer Magic: Power Beyond Boundaries. They have accomplished an impressive feat, publishing the voices and images produced by a wildly diverse and fascinating array of individuals along the axes of class, gender, race, ability, spiritual tradition, and more.

One significant theme threaded throughout the works is the queer magical power of embodiment. In the essay “Living with Attunement with Sensation Rather than Identity,” Z Griss offers a queer praxis in which the sensory body leads in anchoring and producing the self in all its emerging complexity. Rather than encasing our experiences in labels and identity scripts, Griss shows a productive arc in which the body teaches and reveals mysteries of the self. Yin Q’s “Blood, Body, Birth, and Emptiness: Queer Magic in my Life and Work” articulates power and possibility within stigmatized experiences around cutting and BDSM, transforming her experiences of cutting into “rituals that affirmed life, whereas in prior years, [she] had focused on the thrill of annihilation.” In “The Endlessly Unfolding Mirror: An Introduction to the Queer Sex Magic of Traditional Witchcraft,” Troll Huldren offers body acceptance and eroticizing the Abject as a path to magical power.

Another queer theme emerges as the multiplicity of identity and porousness of self. M.C. MoHagani Magnetek’s “thaMind-Sol Lady’s Revenge” tells of an experience of duality between the speaker and an alter-ego, in which both strive to seek effective strategies to maintain dignity in the face of transphobia. The Reverend Teri D. Ciacchi articulates an experience of self as multiplicity, using the pronoun “we” “to express my internal experience of being a collective
of beings, a multiverse of personas, an individual embedded in an ecological web of relatedness.” Ade Kola and Aaron Oberon in their respective essays explore the fluidity and multiplicity of identity through experiences of ritual possession, articulating ways in which deity contact becomes an unexpected site of queer transformations.

In an anthology of so many gifts, one of the highlights are the interviews of wolfie, who brings in the perspectives of First Nations queer elders Clyde Hall and Blackberri. wolfie’s “chapter 23: the plague years” speaks to their own history and experience of living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Kulystin and Harrington dedicate this anthology “to our queer ancestors and magical forebears,” and reverence for those who came before permeates the work, particularly in pieces such as Pavini Moray’s “The Glitterheart Path of Connecting with Transcestors.”

Tradition and authority are particularly charged topics in any tradition, and for queer folks who have been marginalized by ancestral traditions, we have needed multiple strategies to mine a healing and empowering spiritual practice for ourselves.

These writers show several paths forward—even if one does not adopt their practices and beliefs, one can see practices of queering existing traditions, of redefining and reinterpreting the past in a liberating way, such as Yvonne Aburrow’s “Inclusive Wicca Manifesto,” Ivo Dominguez Jr.’s “Redefining and Repurposing Polarity,” Steve Dee’s “The Queer Gods of Alchemy,” Sam ‘Eyrie’ Ward’s “The Maypole and the Labyrinth: Reimagining the Great Rite,” and Steve Kenson’s “The Queer Journey of the Wheel.”

Other writers reveal paths of blazing bold new trails, or taking pieces from multiple sources and quilting them into a queer-affirming path, such as in Jay Logan’s “Hunting Lions and Slaying Serpents: An Execration Rite,” Adrian Moran’s “The Magic of the Eight Queer Deities,” and Thista Minai’s “Sharing a Sacred Meal.”

It would be remiss not to mention the inclusion of potent art and sigil work provided by Inés Ixierda, Laura Tempest Zakroff, Adare, Papacon, and Cazemba Abena. These artists show images of magic beyond binary identity, the interstitial spaces of power.


 

Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School and a member of the Fellowship of the Phoenix. Anthony has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.


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The Burning Crown: Reading “Dismantling The Tower”

“The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers?”

 From Ramon Elani

“…along with the other animals, the stones, the trees, and the clouds, we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us, participants within the vast imagination, or Dreaming, of the world.”—David Abram

“Devil’s Club is about structure, and the way each person interacts with the structures in their lives is very different. Devil’s Club builds and it demolishes. It creates and it destroys.”—Casandra Johns

The Tower, the House of God, the Burning Crown. Structure collapsed. Shattering. Fragmentation. Catastrophe. Is this the age of the Tower? Do we, already, stand among the ruins? The ashes falling around us, silent as midwinter snow.

The word “catastrophe” means “to overturn.” Like compost. As Donna Haraway writes “we are all compost.” The lines of demarcation between the human and the non-human have never been as rigid as we like to pretend. The soul of the world is an assemblage, an endless interpenetration. Boundaries are shifting, permeable. Borders can never be enforced. For Haraway, this present age of collapse and catastrophe is defined by the dwindling availability of sites of refuge. Human and non-human alike. And if there is any refuge to be left for any of us, it can only be found in the interstices between human and non-human, between being and non-being. Spaces that allow refuge for the human alone will guarantee the desolation of all else. And such refuge will not last long on its own.

There is discourse and kinship between beings, even between being and non-being. Liminality, the state of being in between, is the condition of reality. We are the hooded figure haunting the crossroads. We forever stand between consciousness and the spark of the world soul. The winds of history blow through our hair. We see the desert of ruins both before and behind us. The sleep of the world is broken by nightmares. And the depth of our souls are peopled by innumerable spirits and entities that we do not know.

For Carl Jung, this murky swamp realm contains the drowned, submerged consciousness of all life on earth. The dreams of the thunder lizards, the feeling of light shining down on titanic palms in primordial jungles, the desires of the mammoths wandering across endless fields of ice. The memories of all things swim in the dark flooded basement of our souls. Without light, they become twisted and unrecognizable. But this essence, this spark of the universe inside of us can still be felt. It is felt in the uncanny familiarity that one finds among the trees and stones. It is the reflection we see when we gaze in the mirror and find something other. But a cosmos full of meaning and depth has been replaced by a cold, mechanistic model. Being and non-being is forced into narrow categories. Modernity taught us that the plants do not speak, the stones do not dream, the trees have nothing to teach us. What better way to understand the humankind’s annihilation of life on earth than in terms of a resentful child who imagines that his parents no longer care for him? If you do not love me, I will destroy everything. The path of the soul and the path of the world are one. If the soul is denied, or thought to be self-constituted, then all will perish. We are never alone.


Towers are born to fall. The edifice cannot stand for long. Like another tower that stabbed at the heavens, the towers fell. And when they came down, the world and its dreams changed. Dismantling the Tower, the second volume of Casandra Johns’ Numen Naturae, an ambitious series on the intersection between tarot and herbalism, meditates upon the tower card and Devil’s Club. As Jenn Zahrt writes in her foreword, “the first image that came to me was the crisp Tuesday morning in Manhattan the day the Twin Towers fell.” Creation cannot occur without destruction, though this, of course, does not lessen the trauma it causes. Furthermore, the creation that it engenders may not be easily perceived. If we return to the notion of “catastrophe,” to overturn the soil is a violent process, though one that creates growth and birth. Its violence cannot be denied, nor can its necessity to life. Thus we begin to approach the world of Numen Naturae, a world in which the human and non-human are in dialogue. One in which the language of symbol and dream bring us into conversation with the vibrant noumenal world. Destruction in the wild world is never experienced merely as such. It is always a moment and opportunity for growth and creation. Humanity, locked in the grips of a modernity that suffocates us with its fantasy of linear time, struggles to grasp the cycles of death and rebirth.

And what of the other tower? The first tower? The tower build by the hands of promethean man to reach god and attain his kingdom. The tower that he threw down to punish that prideful endeavor. What does it say about that god that multiplicity is his punishment upon the world. But as Jacques Derrida writes “The ‘tower of Babel’ does not merely figure the irreducible multiplicity of tongues; it exhibits an incompletion, the impossibility of finishing, of totalizing, of saturating, of completing something on the order of edification, architectural construction, system, and architectonics.” Every tower contains a germ of this. The tower is a fragment, momentarily restrained. It is a symbol of an impossible quest to dominate the consciousness of the world. The edifice points to its own annihilation. Creation, construction in the purest sense, is not possible, which is to say that it is inseparable from its opposite.

For Casandra Johns, Numen Naturae was born out of a discomfort with the ways in which contemporary herbalism emphasizes the human uses of plants. Are planets, in other words, merely another resource to be consumed and exploited by human beings with no reciprocity, no dialogue? When we name something we gain power over it. I name this plant and its uses and thus its power becomes my tool. When we study a plant as such and identify its force, we deny its uniqueness and its being. By asserting Devil’s Club as a protective entity, we disregard the destructiveness that lies latent within it. And furthermore, we lose our way in understanding the nature of protection. Perhaps it is that protection and destruction are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps, as we have suggested above, destruction cannot be understood as purely negative. And most importantly, if we identify a being in our own terms we deny its agency. Johns suggests that perhaps Devil’s Club determines the nature of protection we require. Throughout Dismantling the Tower, the authors investigate this notion of Devil’s Club as an agent, a being in its own right. And the card of the tower as a symbol that resists a simple negative reading. As Jung writes, “the secret is that only that which can destroy itself is truly alive.”

The unconscious mind cannot be trained like a monkey or a parrot, to endlessly babble our own words back to us. The unconscious mind speaks to us in the language of the world soul and this language is heard loudest in the realm of dreams. The essays in Dismantling the Tower ask what do plants dream? What secrets do they share with us in that forgotten language of sighs and whispers? Contributor Elisa Finos writes of a voice that came to them, wandering through their dreams. The spirit of Devil’s Club spoke to them and directed them toward the resting place of its ancestors. As one of the first essays in the book, this piece sets the tone for what is to come. Devil’s Club is a character in these pages. For Finos, Devil’s Club appears to them and offers the protection that they need. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the particular protective healing that one receives from Devil’s Club may not be what one imagines they need, or want. The notion of human conscious as a self-sufficient entity does not find much to stand upon in the dark, mossy depths of primeval forests. Finos observes that the protection offered by Devil’s Club is a dialogue, revealing ourselves to ourselves, and the other. When we gain protection, it welcomes us to reflect upon our wounds and their sources. Protection and trauma are twins that walk beside us. One cannot experience trauma without summoning protection and healing. And one cannot be healed without first being wounded.


This idea of Devil’s Club and the symbol of the Tower as a force that appears to guide and teach recurs throughout Dismantling the Tower. As Sean Donahue writes, “I can barricade the door and Devil’s Club will break through and I will have pieces of door and pieces of furniture scattered everywhere, and then Devil’s Club will be my support among those ruins.” Our assumptions about protection, healing, and teaching are inherently born out of beliefs about the nature of structure. Thus the Tower and Devil’s Club imply each other. Devil’s Club, as the Tower, may stimulate collapse in order to bring about healing and rebuilding. The forces we resist come back to us all the stronger for our resistance. Again, in order to re-awaken ourselves to the noumenal world, we must revise the nature of our relationship with that world.

The universe of non-human forces has not disappeared because we deny is existence. But if we seek dialogue, healing, or guidance from those forces, we must speak to them once again. As David Abram puts it, “if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us– and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.” As techno-industrial humanity continues to turn away from the forces and the spirits, their voices become harder and harder to hear. However, as Donahue observes above, the consequences of separating ourselves from the non-human world will eventually lead us back to it. Structure, collapse, and rebuilding. The fragment contains both its past and its future.

Donahue brings us back to the Twin Towers. To return to our earlier point about the collapse of the tower(s) engendering multiplicity, we can ask: what was created by the destruction of the Towers? For Donahue, like the ruins that Devil’s Club both creates and rebuilds, 9/11 created a mirror image of the outside world, which decades of American imperial policy had constructed. This reality, obscured by the shimmering edifice of neoliberalism, was made plain by this act of brutality. Baghdad becomes Manhattan and vice versa. As the Middle East had been burning for decades, now America was burning as well. Of course, this moment of reflection, this opportunity for genuine dialogue, was neglected and obfuscated. As Donahue puts it, “rather than gazing into that mirror and recognizing what we ourselves had brought into the world and seeking to build something new on a different foundation, there was an attempt to quickly gather things up and build a more rigid foundation.” The Tower and Devil’s Club bring revelation. And the more we ignore these lessons, the more of these lessons we will inevitably receive.

In Casandra John’s powerful essay on the Tower and its relation to the goddess Hekate, whom she aptly situates as being primarily a deity of the crossroads, we continue to see the expansion of the theme of dualism(s), unity, and opposition. The transitional, liminal nature of the crossroads is an illuminating variation on this theme. The crossroads establish boundaries and points of contact. This sacred space also penetrates boundaries, while it creates them. It opens up moments and opportunities. It exists both within and without, as a property of the soul and as a landscape. The one-dimensional binaries of modernity fade away in the mists of the crossroads: things are not what they seem, they are both familiar and uncanny, we recognize shapes but they are unmistakably other. Comfortable categories of fear and love dissipate in the pale light of the moon. And we come face to face with the unthinkable truth, which we have secretly always known. It both is, and is not. Neither is obliterated by the other in compromise. Neither does one encompass the other, gaining ascendancy. It is not a unity of differences. It is not a sum of parts. It is simply an other form of structure. It is, to borrow an overused phrase, rhizomatic. It is, to return to Haraway, compost. Composed. Composite.

Johns leads us through gnostic passageways. Dusty Alexandrine archives. The laboratories of mad alchemists. Hekate, transplanted from her typical role of haunting crossroads, becomes the embodiment of the World Soul. No longer shepherding the souls of the dead, this Hekate guides the Idea from the Cosmic Ether into the Material Realm. She is the middle category, analogous to the mysterious mechanism in Hegel’s dialectic that causes the gears of that industrial consciousness to turn. Hekate, thusly conceived, is the host through which divinity passes into our world. And the divine Idea, here, is symbolized by the lightning bolt. Shattering the world. A catastrophe is no less catastrophic because it brings revelation. Nor is it any less of a creative force though it brings the world to its knees. The Idea can break worlds. In fact, perhaps we can say that only the Idea can sunder the rigid structures of modernity. And the patriarchal techno-industrial world would do well to remember that it is the Feminine that gives birth to the Idea. Hekate’s hand guides the thunderbolt, not Jove.

The time is coming (has come) when our towers will no longer offer us even the illusion of stability. Our condition has never been amenable to that. The Wild God of the World and She Whom He Serves live in endless cycles of repetition and recurrence. Bloody death and verdant life. Annihilation and cosmic birth. Putrid decay and vigorous pride. The symbol of the Tower reminds us of this. All our monuments are destined for dust. And Devil’s Club stands in the shadows, waiting.

Numen Naturae: Dismantling The Tower can be ordered here.


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was published with the wrong pronoun for one of the writers- correction made January 13th 2018.


Ramon Elani

Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England

More of his writing can be found here. You can also support him on Patreon.


“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Is Revolutionary Agitprop

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Credit: starwars.com

We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.

Poe Dameron in The Last Jedi

Star Wars has always had a reactionary streak.

George Lucas mythologizes an eternal struggle between Good and Evil, expressed primarily through physical combat. While his protagonists wrestle with temptation, fall from grace, and find redemption, Lucas’s main interest is elite individual heroics from both Good and Evil leaders. He’s fascinated with the sacred Skywalker family bloodline, and while the overarching plot is ostensibly political (will the galaxy be a republic? Will it be an empire?), his battles aren’t decided by armies. They’re won by lightsaber duels and space dogfights between Skywalker family members – and by the refusal of his heroes to succumb to (even righteous) anger.

Lucas’s imaginary history is driven by individuals, not by masses of people. He shows crowds cheering when the Emperor is killed, but they play no part in either his rise to power or his overthrow. Star Wars embraces the conservative “Great Man” theory: history is a series of extraordinary individuals, imposing their will on basically passive populations.

This conservatism finds itself mirrored in the broader social dynamics of the Star Wars fandom. Geek culture self-consciously embraces commercialism, its participants gaining social capital by accumulating games, toys, and collectibles. Star Wars, of course, was always designed for toy merchandising, but its core fans aren’t children. Instead, they’re (largely male) adults who grew up playing with Star Wars toys and want to buy some nostalgia.

When JJ Abrams made The Force Awakens in 2015, he knew his audience. Nearly every scene re-staged something from one of the previous movies, to the point that he literally hired the same actors, 40 years later, to reprise their action-hero roles. As The Force Awakens ends (with Luke Skywalker making his entrance), Abrams sets up the plot to continue in the same vein for as long as the audience is willing to pay.

But that’s not what The Last Jedi delivers.

In every corner of the galaxy, the downtrodden and oppressed know our symbol, and they put their hope in it. We are the spark that will light the fire that will restore the Republic. That spark, this Resistance, must survive.

Vice Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi

What’s the heart of revolutionary politics?

It isn’t liberalism’s nominal commitment to tolerance (otherwise, every HR manager would call themselves a revolutionary). It isn’t simply hostility towards capitalism, either (after all, plenty of fascists share that attitude).

Instead, to be a revolutionary means to “trust the masses.” Revolutionaries believe that the people make history themselves, without needing “Great Men” (or benevolent warrior-priests!).

The Last Jedi is radical because it uses reactionary source material to say “trust the masses.” Its main plotline follows the outnumbered remnants of the Resistance on a “long march” through space, pursued by their enemy, the First Order. Chafing under what they call a “cowardly” strategy, three characters (Finn and Poe Dameron from The Force Awakens and a new character, a mechanic named Rose) hatch a clandestine plan to sabotage the First Order’s flagship and allow the Resistance to escape. It’s the kind of long-shot heroism that, in another Star Wars movie, would have saved the day. In The Last Jedi, though, it fails – and when it does, it allows the First Order to discover and subvert the Resistance’s patient, unglamorous, and fundamentally sound escape strategy.

In parallel, Rey (from The Force Awakens) persuades a reluctant Luke Skywalker to give her Jedi training as she prepares to confront the main antagonist, Kylo Ren. Communicating telepathically, Ren convinces her that he knows who her long-lost parents are. But when she faces him in person, The Last Jedi gives them an exchange that no other Star Wars film could:

Kylo Ren : Do you know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known? You’ve just hidden it away. Say it.

Rey : [in tears]  They were nobody.

Kylo Ren : They were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead in a pauper’s grave in the Jakku desert. You come from nothing.

Although Rey has been characterised as Ren’s “equal in the Light,” she isn’t a Skywalker. The Last Jedi repudiates the sacred bloodline. Rey has no aristocratic lineage or ancient prophecy about her birth, but for the first time in a Star Wars film, that doesn’t matter.

The saying, “A single spark can start a prairie fire,” is an apt description of how the current situation will develop. We need only look at the strikes by the workers, the uprisings by the peasants, the mutinies of soldiers and the strikes of students which are developing in many places to see that it cannot be long before a “spark” kindles “a prairie fire.”

Mao Zedong

As a film, The Last Jedi sometimes finds itself in an awkward middle ground. On the one hand, it has to maintain continuity with The Force Awakens (and the franchise in general). On the other, though, it offers an incompatible ethical and political sensibility. Staying true to the source material while turning it on its head doesn’t always lend itself to elegance, and at its weakest The Last Jedi makes unfortunate concessions. While it never reaches the depth of pandering of The Force Awakens, it still wastes too much screentime on “Easter eggs” and sequences rehashed from earlier Star Wars movies. Plus, since JJ Abrams is writing and directing the sequel trilogy’s third installment, The Last Jedi‘s innovations will likely be scrapped. Star Wars 9 seems likely to be another fan-pleasing, boilerplate nostalgia trip.

However, The Last Jedi has still pulled off something special. As the film ends, a group of enslaved children (who had earlier assisted Rose and Finn on their mission) tell each other about the survival of the Resistance. But the hope they draw from that isn’t a passive desire for rescue. The guerrillas of the Resistance depend on them, not the other way around. History belongs to the people.

That’s what The Last Jedi brings to Star Wars. That’s what we should let it teach us.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon.

Reacting to Reactions to Reactions: a review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies

While social justice activists have gotten quite good at shaming those with subtly different views from their own, all their internet crusades combined will never match what the alt-right has shown that it can do–and is more than willing to do–to its chosen enemies.

From Rhyd Wildermuth, a review of Kill All Normies, by Angela Nagle


The other morning, just before starting my morning tea, I looked at my phone. I once made a practice of not looking at my phone for the first hour after waking, but I’ve let that habit slip because my lover often sends me texts in the morning, and I miss him a lot. He lives in Ireland, we don’t see each other often enough–those messages kinda get me through, you know?

So groggy, before tea, I looked at my phone, and saw I had a message from someone I didn’t know:

I’m the editor of an anti-capitalist website and publisher. I get hate mail all the time, and I generally have a rather thick skin. But for some reason, this message was harder to deal with than the ten or so others I get a week. That same day I’d also gotten accused of being the ‘real’ fascist by someone who themselves actually is one, a ‘mansplaining’ message about how I obviously don’t understand capitalism, and some others I really don’t want to recount here.

Precisely why it bothered me, though, wasn’t clear until the next day when I was engaged with a commenter whose last message to me ended with this:

“This is the clearest indication of what a trans antagonistic POS you are and completely unable to take responsibility for the harm that you cause. Really, you’re nothing but a spiritual bypassing fuck.”

In case anyone is tempted to ask the social justice version of “but what was she wearing?” suggesting I may have deserved that statement, I’ll briefly explain myself. The latter was in a post where I’d criticised Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist (TERF) ideology, saying it didn’t belong in Anarchist thought. And I’ve some history of being attacked by TERFs: photos and misquotes of me have been used by actual trans-hating people to attack me as a ‘threat to women.’ I and the other co-founder of Gods&Radicals were both attacked last year for our anti-TERF stances (she got the worst of it, getting banned from Facebook by a notorious TERF lawyer). Previously I have also been threatened with a libel suit for revealing how someone tried to prevent myself and other writers at another site from writing anything critical of anti-trans ideology.

So perhaps ‘trans antagonistic POS’ is not precisely accurate.

Getting harassed from people on both sides of an argument is always a bit perplexing. I now get as much hate mail from would-be fascists as I do from the social justice ‘left,’ and by the time I saw that last comment I had reached what felt like critical mass. There’s only so much online ire that one can comfortably digest before you just feel over-full, nauseated, and sort of done with it all.

But these last two statements rattled me deeply, and not just because I try very hard to be supportive of trans folk and also not to be an “oppressive reductionist mansplaining misogynist.” What shook me about them (besides the fact they both came from people I do not know, one anonymously), was that I recognised the attacks from somewhere.

Last year, we published a piece that cast light upon the influence of the New/Alt-Right within Paganism. For months afterwards my inbox was full of threatening emails attacking my character, calling me a fascist, a racist (against whites), a “Marxist Demagogue,” a liar, a misogynist (because I’d criticized a woman who called for the return of a ‘conservative monarchy,’) and many more things. I also lost my writing position at a Pagan site, someone bought URL’s of my name and created an attack site against me, and I still haven’t fully lived down rumors that I have collaborated with the government and the FBI.

Going back and reading some of those messages I began to understand precisely why I recognized these newer attacks. They follow the same form, the same logic, despite having different moral content. On the one hand I’m a cultural marxist feminist out to harm anyone who I don’t agree with, and on the other hand I’m a ‘mansplaining misogynist’ and ‘trans antagonistic POS’ who causes harm to strangers.

Online Markets of Virtue

No doubt most will feel a little uncomfortable drawing equivalency between alt-right types and social justice warriors. One wants fascism, the other wants tolerance, and I generally agree with that assessment. But undoubtedly, they use the same tactics, and the question remains: why do they act the same way? Published this summer, Irish author Angela Nagle’s recent book, Kill All Normies, comes closer to the answer to that question than many will find comfortable.

Kill All Normies is first and foremost a cultural history of the alt-right and of internet political culture in general, focusing primarily on the last five years.  Yet its fiercest criticisms have come not from the far-right, but from the social justice ‘left,’ because like any good historian, Nagle refuses to narrate the social and cultural forces which birthed the alt-right in terms of good and evil, guilty and innocent, or righteous and barbaric.

Nagle opens her book with a discussion of an event few reading this could possibly have missed: the first explosively viral internet phenomenon, Kony 2012. If perhaps you were living in a forest and were not one of the 100 million people to have seen it, Kony 2010 was a short film produced by Jason Russell for a Christian children’s ministry to drum up support for a campaign to catch or kill the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.

Seemingly overnight, everyone with an internet connection knew about the video. And then, not long after, everyone with an internet connection knew about another one, too:

Angela Nagle correctly sees this event as a significant shift in mediated cultural and political consciousness. Suddenly, millions of people knew about a social injustice in Africa about which few had previously cared. Similarly, all those people also learned that the immense cultural and social capital accumulated by a single person could be completely wiped out just as suddenly, and by the very same mechanism by which they accumulated it.

Like the markets of capital, internet social markets giveth and taketh away, and we are now all subject to invisible hands clicking ‘like’ or ‘retweet.’

This point, unfortunately, is an only minor thread of her rather profound book. She weaves it in and out of her primary narrative deftly, and it is more than enough to stitch the entire book together, but readers unfamiliar with the applications of Marxist thought to social phenomena can be forgiven for overlooking it. However, no such leniency should be granted some of the critical reviewers of her work, who rely instead upon the very same dogmatic social justice tropes which Nagle criticises.

Because Kill All Normies isn’t just about the alt-right, but also about the social justice left. In fact, the story of the rise of Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos and the social pogroms they employ against women and oppressed people cannot be told without examining the mechanisms of those crusades themselves. But to do so, those mechanism have to be looked at without their aesthetic-moral content, and that leads to some very uncomfortable questions for the new breed of online social justice advocates who have arisen from internet culture.

We are unaccustomed to viewing violent tactics from a materialist standpoint, temporarily suspending our feelings and personal allegiances to look at the act itself. A case in point would be the complete failure of the American left to regard Obama’s war tactics (and particularly the use of drone assassinations) with the same scrutiny with which they viewed Bush’s employment of those tactics. Obviously, we generally liked Obama–he was charismatic, POC, and somewhat ‘on our side,’ so we were happy to overlook his expansions of the security state and extra-judicial slaughter of American ‘enemies.’

That same inconsistency occurs when we regard other political tactics. When an alt-right troll publishes the personal information about a feminist activist (doxxing) causing her to lose her job, have to leave her home, and fear for her life, we are certainly right to see that as a violent tactic. However, when the same doxxing occurs to people in attendance at the public fascist rallies which have swept through the United States recently, our criticism falls silent. If anything, collecting and publishing the names, phone numbers, employers, and home addresses of alt-right members became a celebrated social justice cause itself.

Tumblr-Liberalism, Virtue Scarcity, and the Employment of Shame

To view the tactics as-themselves. without their moral/aesthetic content (who the target is, why it felt justified, who was using it), doesn’t necessarily lead to moral equivalency. When I receive harassing emails from TERF’s or social justice ‘leftists,’ I do not then automatically see them as ‘just as bad’ as the threats I receive from white nationalists. From such a vantage, however, I am able to note that the weapons are the same, similar to how  the gun in the hands of a domestic abuse victim and the gun in the hands of a bank robber are both guns. If one decides that doxxing is ‘bad’ in the hands of 4chan trolls but ‘good’ in the hands of social justice activists, we can no longer say doxxing itself has any moral content.

So to note that the tactics employed by social justice activists and by the alt-right are the same then begs a more important question: how did they both become so common?

Nagle’s book answers this very well by presenting a cultural history of online communities, tracing the growth of ideas and narratives through both 4chan and its social justice (and let’s not forget–porn) twin, Tumblr.  Particularly of note for her is the explosion of new gender identities birthed in the alembic of Tumblr’s virtue-market, paralleling 4chan and the ‘manosphere’s’ obsession with misogyny.

While gender non-conformism is nothing new, and has certainly been ever more mainstream since the beginning of the sexual revolution and the gay liberation movement, this is part of the creation of an online quasi-political culture that has had a huge and unexpected level of influence. Other similar niche online subcultures in this milieu, which were always given by the emerging online right as evidence of Western decline, also include adults who identify as babies and able-bodied people who identify as disabled people to such an extent that they seek medical assistance in blinding, amputating or otherwise injuring themselves to become the disabled person they identify as.

You may question the motivations of the right’s fixation on these relatively niche subcultures, but the liberal fixation on relatively niche sections of the new online right that emerged from small online subcultures is similar in scale – that is, the influence of Tumblr on shaping strange new political sensibilities is probably equally important to what emerged from rightist chan culture.

As she points out, not conforming to the gender binary is hardly a new thing. What is new is how we talk about gender variations, how we argue about them, and what sort of recognition they require. While sites like Tumblr (founded only ten years ago) are not the only place people have discussed new ideas about gender, there is an extra capitalist mechanism at play which mediates those discussions.

That mechanism? Attention, distributed through the accumulation and appropriation of virtue.

At the beginning of the last decade, if I wanted to express my gender in a way that did not fit in with the dominant modes in my community, the amount of work I would have to do in order to convince people would be quite extensive. I might have personal friends who were supportive, might even be able to meet people who felt in similar ways, but merely saying that I was an “ambigender Otherkin” wouldn’t really get me far. Through Tumblr we are now able to find hundreds of people around the world who feel exactly the same way, or read our account and ‘discover’ that they, too, are also an Otherkin ambigender.

Upon discovery of kindred Otherkin ambigenders, a sense of community is created around which each person with similar experiences can share their joy and sorrow and especially their struggles against a world that doesn’t embrace, understand, or (likely most painful of all) has never heard about Otherkin ambigenders (!!!). From such communities can then arise political narratives which explain the oppression that one might experience when others refuse to acknowledge your identity.

Demands for better recognition, for protection, and collective actions against those who erase or dismiss your existence are now much easier to organise through such mediums, so much so that Tumblr can be said to have significantly contributed to the liberation of ambigender Otherkin.

Whether you as a reader find such discussions a bit ridiculous or truly liberatory, a more important question arises. How, then, do we judge the oppression of peoples? What moral frameworks should we use to prioritize in whom we will invest our limited political attention and energies? Is the struggle for disability recognition, the protection of women’s access to contraception and abortion, liberating Black men from the prisons, and bathroom access for trans people all equal to the needs of the Otherkin ambigender community? And can an intersectional social justice framework hashed out through social media by means of listicles on Everyday Feminism and Teen Vogue really help us answer that question?

Rather than answering that question in any meaningful way, Tumblr-Liberalism (Nagle’s description, and apt one) has provided us instead with a playbook to get attention for our cause, to get our concerns heard. To do so, we must accumulate virtue through a highly-ritualized social process invoking the demonic spirits of ‘shame’ and ‘privilege’ to coerce others into action on behalf of each individual cause.  And when virtue is too equally distributed and its ‘buying power’ lessened by inflation, we must then appropriate the virtue of others by showing them no longer worthy of it (the social justice ‘call out’).

This playbook works because very few of us want to appear like assholes, and invoking virtue is a way to make others feel like they have wronged someone and should make amends. So if while reading my explanation of the oppressions faced by Otherkin you smirked or rolled your eyes, you just engaged in Otherkin-shaming. You showed your privilege as someone who is not Otherkin. And no–it’s not up to ambigender Otherkin to educate you on their oppression. And because you likely do not want to be a bad person, or at least do not want to appear as a bad person, such accusations may shame you into being more willing to listen to the concerns of ambigender Otherkin, help them raise awareness, ‘call-in’ your friends whose actions are obviously antagonistic micro-aggressions against ambigender Otherkin, etc..

Nagle asserts that virtue is the core capital of social media interactions. I want to appear virtuous, to appear as if I care about people (because I do). So I express things which show my virtue on the internet, and that grants me virtue capital. But when I do something un-virtuous, I can lose that very quickly as others seize the opportunity to accumulate the virtue I have forfeited by saying something ‘oppressive’ on-line. And even if I have not said something oppressive, it can be enough for virtue competitors to convince others that I have by changing the rules on what is oppressive or not, redefining oppression in a way that benefits the virtue competitor.

Rejecting the cumbersome and solipsistic nature of these closed systems of virtue has given great strength to the alt-right. The popularity of charismatic figures like Milo Yiannopoulos derives precisely from his boldly-stated rejections of the economies of virtue. But what the alt-right (especially 4chan denizens) do to political enemies (particularly women) operates on the very same mechanism. Women have had to flee their homes and people have actually killed themselves because of the social media campaigns against them, but whereas with Tumblr-liberalism the stakes are your social status, with the alt-right it is that and also your physical safety.

Shame is the core weapon in both political tendencies, the goal in both cases to ‘ruin’ the transgressor, and though the consequences of such ruin are different, the processes are so similar that we cannot help but wonder why they got that way.

This is another place where Angela Nagle’s book feels a little too short. One wishes it were not just a cultural history but a psycho-analytical study unraveling why both the alt-right and social justice left act like schoolyard bullies, the latter banishing transgressors from the popular group and the former kicking them in the shins and stealing their lunch money.

Misogynist Masculinists and Anti-male Feminists

To attempt such an analysis, however, would make the book even more uncomfortable, because underlying the two tendencies is the unspoken matter of gender-difference itself. The “manosphere,” 4chan and all other related subcultural/political milieu are overwhelmingly male, while their victims are primarily female. On the other hand, while Tumblr users are only slightly more often female than male, the social justice left sees maleness to be the most oppressive of the hundreds of genders existing on Tumblr.

While it may seem too simplistic or reductive to re-insert the gender binary here as a political tool, Nagle comes to the same conclusion as I previously outlined in my series on Jack Donovan (someone she briefly mentions in her book).  That is, the anti-feminist “Manosphere” cannot be talked about without also speaking to the flaws in feminist thought to which they react.

This crop of forum dwelling-obsessives would be horrified to learn that the original men’s movement grew out of and alongside the feminist movement and the sexual liberation movement as a critique of rigid traditional sex roles, according to masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel. Men’s liberation later grew apart from the feminist movement as second-wave feminism became increasingly antagonistic towards men, criticizing men as a whole in its rhetoric around rape and domestic violence. Splits and tendencies developed as the question of men’s experience of their societal role took different thinkers and factions in radically different directions. It was by the 90s that the men’s movement became primarily focused on institutions in which men were excluded or discriminated against. [emphasis mine]

“Criticizing men as a whole” is basically essentialism, ascribing to all men traits and behaviors which oppress women, and it is this which actually opens up territory for the very oppression feminism attempts to fight. To quote my essay on Donovan:

Jean Baudrillard expanded Walter Benjamin’s work on aesthetics by noting how, now that we only have reproduction of art, we now also only have reproduction of politics. The ‘real’ we imagine is always a copy, a simulation of the real. Those copies and simulations become how we determine what is real, affecting our behaviour and the construction of our identities.

Whereas once the aesthetic was the visual representation of a way of being, the aesthetic is now our only blueprint. We do not know what it is like to be masculine except by the representation of the masculine, anymore than we know what it is to be anti-modern without representations of the anti-modern.

More dangerous, however, is that the negatives of images reproduce themselves as well. The aesthetic of hyper-masculinity from which Donovan and Waggener build their politics is produced from the negative space of liberal feminist critiques which reduce men to enemy, alpha-oppressor, toxic, and dangerous.

It will not seem surprising that it is on this point which Nagle has received the most ire from social justice/leftist critics, who have accused her variously of blaming feminists, trans people, and social justice advocates for being worse than the alt-right. But on the contrary, if there is anywhere that Nagle could be accused of moralizing, it’s in her accounts of what the alt-right has done to women. Her history of the harassment of women during “Gamer Gate” is harrowing and she spares no details, and particularly her criticisms of Milo and the “manosphere” are everything but gentle or sympathetic

Kill All Normies is just as much an indictment of the social justice left as it is a warning about the alt-right, but it is not completely without flaws. Much attention already has been given to one particular aspect of the book, so much so that I was told to read the book was to side with the enemy. “She hates trans people,” I was informed, because of her sympathetic discussion of the incidents surrounding Germaine Greer and her rejection of no-platform tactics.

These aspects deserve further attention. Germaine Greer is a feminist thinker in the United Kingdom who has been no-platformed by trans-activists for her public rejection (15 years ago) of trans identity. Her feminism is indeed trans-exclusive, and while Nagle makes clear she herself supports trans issues, her sympathetic treatment of Greer has led some to claim the opposite.

First, the entire section in question:

These dynamics, which began in subcultural obscurity online, later spilled over into the campus wars over free speech, trigger warnings, the Western canon and safe spaces. Trigger warnings had to be issued in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder. They claimed to be ‘triggered’ by mention of anything distressing, a claim with no scientific basis and including everything from great works of classical literature to expressions of pretty mainstream non-liberal opinion, like the idea that there are only two genders.

At the height of all this Germaine Greer was announced to speak at Cardiff University about ‘Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century’. The women’s officer at Cardiff University Students’ Union, Rachael Melhuish, decided that Greer’s presence would be ‘harmful’. In her petition calling for the event’s cancellation, she claimed:

Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views towards trans women, including continually misgendering trans women and denying the existence of transphobia altogether… Universities should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses, not invite speakers who seek to further marginalise them. We urge Cardiff University to cancel this event.

The petition was signed by over 2,000 people and Greer was transformed overnight from a leading veteran figure who worked for her entire life for the cause of women’s liberation to a forbidden and toxic TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), whose name was dragged through the dirt. As far as this new generation of campus feminists was concerned, Greer may as well have been on the far right. Greer had not published any comment about transgenderism for over 15 years, which was ‘not my issue’, she later told Newsnight. In response to the controversy, Cardiff University’s vice-chancellor pandered to those attacking Greer, saying: ‘discriminatory comments of any kind’ and how it ‘work(s) hard to provide a positive and welcoming space for LGBT+ people’.

Not satisfied with the attacks on Greer thus far, online activist Payton Quinn, identifying as ‘non binary’ and a ‘trans feminist activist and all round ethereal being’ penned an angry public letter suggesting Greer’s actions were criminal in an article titled ‘Entitled to Free Speech But Not Above the Law’.

Greer’s feminism undoubtedly falls into what most would describe as Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism, and though it is not up to me to decide whether Greer deserves a platform to speak, Greer’s no-platforming seem neither the social justice victory trans activists believe it to be, nor does it seems nearly the great loss which Angela Nagle suggests.

Nagle’s reason for bringing Germaine Greer up at all is not to defend her brand of trans-exclusive feminism, but rather to elucidate how no-platforming and Tumblr-liberalism has led to the left having no coherent intellectual discourse against the alt-right. Few theorists or intellectuals can accumulate enough virtue capital to withstand the friendly-fire long enough to iterate a coherent political and cultural ideology that can weaken the alt-right’s position. But here she makes a rare intellectual error herself, because Greer’s feminism is precisely the sort that hobbles the efforts to cultivate  something that can oppose the core brilliance of alt-right fascism.

Greer’s feminism is actually not much different from the feminism we see in Tumblr-liberalism; both heavily rely on the notion that men are the alpha-oppressors of women, and merely differ on whether trans women are part of that oppressor class or part of the sacred oppressed. For a TERF, the answer is the former: male socialization and/or the possession of a penis at some point in ones life makes you part of the privileged male oppressor class no matter what surgery or life experiences might make you feel otherwise. But the social justice position on trans women (they are no longer men, maybe never were men, are just as oppressed and even more so than women) is no more radical. It keeps the same basic article of faith (men are bad) and only disagrees with TERF ideology on whether or not maleness can ever be mediated.

While both sides resort to harassment, no-platforming, doxxing, and even direct violence against each other, the alt-right continues to build support from men (who are after all the alpha-oppressors with no chance ever of undoing their patriarchal male privilege, so why not embrace it?). No one on the left could possibly articulate a way out of that anti-masculinist deadlock–to even question such articles of faith is to risk all your virtue capital, if you are even listened to at all. And so while social justice activists have gotten quite good at shaming those with subtly different views from their own, all their internet crusades combined will never match what the alt-right has shown that it can–and is more than willing–to do to its chosen enemies.

At the end of Kill All Normies, Nagle ends with an understandably bitter indictment of the feminist social justice left after the death of Mark Fisher:

During the period examined in this book, Mark Fisher stood out as one of the few voices not on the right who had spoken out against the anti-intellectual, unhinged culture of group hysteria that gripped the cultural left in the years preceding the reactive rise of the new far right online. In January 2017, when news broke that Fisher had committed suicide, those in the same online milieu that had slandered and smeared him for years responded as you might expect—by gloating.

Stavvers (aka Another Angry Woman), an influential Twitter figure among what the alt-right call SJWs, had already written ‘Vampires Castle’ sarcastically down as her Twitter location and responded to the news of his death by tweeting: ‘Just because Mark Fisher is dead, doesn’t make him right about “sour-faced identitarians”. If only left misogyny would die with him,’ with the follow-up: ‘*dons vampire cape, flies off into the night*,’ This response is a fairly typical example of precisely the sour-faced identitarians who undoubtedly drove so many young people to the right during these vicious culture wars. The left’s best critic of this disease of the left had just died and dancing on his grave was a woman who once blogged about baking bread using her own vaginal yeast as a feminist act.

While a tragic tale, reading it made me feel a little less alone. While I am hardly excited about the onslaught of anonymous messages from TERFs calling me a “oppressive reductionist mansplaining misogynist,” or angry comments from trans people calling me a “spiritual bypassing fuck” that this review will elicit, the very fact that Angela Nagle wrote this book at all gives me hope.

Perhaps this will all change soon. Perhaps enough people will read her book and decide to opt-out of the 4chan/Tumblr outrage machine, holding the line against the absurdity with thoughtful critique and actual organizing. Because the people who actually benefit from the call outs and doxxing and harrassment are neither the victims nor the perpetrators themselves. It’s the capitalist machines profiting from every click and retweet, every social justice crusade and manosphere pogrom–not us.


 

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth is a spiritual bypassing fuck an anarchist, bard, and  co-founder of Gods&Radicals, as well as its managing editor. His work can be also be found at his blog, Paganarch. And you can also call him out for his micro-aggressions against ambigender Otherkin support him on Patreon.


Hey! Can you help us pay our writers next year? Here’s the link to our fundraiser. And thanks!

Margaret Killjoy’s Fantastic Aesthetic Anarcho-Fun Heresy

Olympia is one of those towns subject to a relentless misdirection spell. No magician or witch cast it, though–it arose organically in the alembic of poor urban planning confronting wily land spirits and chthonic forces who will never quite care where you intended to go because they want you to show you something…or someone.

So my best friend and I were suddenly headed north through downtown Olympia, though we’d meant to go south. For the third time.

“Fuck,” she moaned, trying to steer the van into a turn lane. “Again?”

“It’s like something’s fucking with us,” I started, and then saw a figure crossing the street in front of us. I had no time to finish the sentence. The light was about to change, and the person would be gone.

“HeyI’llberightbackIhavetogosayhitosomeone” I blurted out, jumping out of the van.

“What? Where are you? Okay, I’ll park.”

Among heretics, few words are necessary. When something happens to one, the other just knows. My best friend can stare suddenly down an alley mid-sentence and I don’t need to ask what she is seeing. I can jump out of a van in the middle of traffic and she knows something’s about to happen.

I ran down the sidewalk, then suddenly slowed, remembering that I looked like a 200 lb shaved-head man chasing a long-haired steam-goth down the street. That looked bad. Besides, my target seemed happily oblivious, lost in thought, so jumping up from behind her like that seemed really rather rude.

“Hey,” I called, really clumsily. “Are you…? We’ve never met but you’re my hero.”

That was the best I could come up with. I don’t really have heroes, let alone get a chance to meet the ones I do have. So I don’t really know how to talk to them, and I’m anyway awkward as fuck. But a few seconds later, my companion was behind me. “Holy fuck, Magpie?”

Of course my companion knew them, too. Among heretics, there are no chance meetings.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Killjoy, you’ve probably already encountered her anyway. There are a few humans who do things that make it so that other humans do things which then inspires others to do things. Like grandmothers, but not old enough to have grandchildren so they’re grandmothers to ideas and art and movements and ways of living. Margaret’s one of those people.

This is supposed to be a review of her new book, and it will be, I promise. But there’s that weird thing where reviewers are supposed to be objective and to disclose any relationship to the author they have, and that’s a really complicated thing to do here because I have to tell you some stories.

Stories like the one I began with, where I’m driving in a van with my best friend, who’s one of those people who also grandmothers existence into being, and then I see Margaret Killjoy crossing the street and jump out of the van and then my best friend comes up behind us and it turns out they know each other too, hadn’t seen or heard anything of each other for ten years and had been just as inspired by her as I was.

And there’s other stories, like maybe 15 years ago or more when I was trying to figure out how my anarchism and my Paganism fit together when all the anarchists around me were atheist and all the Pagans around me were bourgeois Wiccans. And then I read the introduction by Alan Moore to Steampunk Magazine (Margaret Killjoy was its editor), and then I realise that there are anarchists and occultists and they’re the same people. But I also realised there were anarchists who are into steampunk, not just into it because it was a cool aesthetic but because…well, because stories.

And myth.

And magic.

Because here’s why Margaret Killjoy was my hero for so fucking long (still is, actually). What she saw about an aesthetic built on fantasy and an alternative vision born of the industrial age is what every really good fantasist, but also every good theorist and mystic, sees: the world not only could have been different, it still can be. And not only can it be, but the certain sorts of people who give way too much time thinking about how it still can be different are the ones who have the potential to make it different.

Because steampunk ultimately was about what might have happened if all the clockworks and steam engines and airships didn’t go away just because the capitalist industrialists realized they were inefficient. We could still have had machines that made sense, whose workings you could watch, alien as they were to the peasants and townsfolk of Europe and its colonies. You could open up a clock and see how it worked, and because you saw how it worked you could have power over it. You could turn a valve that ran a factory and make the factory stop, or you could rig up your own brazier and basket and ask your geeky seamstress friends to stitch together a big canvas for you and next thing you know? You’re floating over the city with your friends.

Now? Now everything’s gotta be bought, even steampunk shit. The capitalists ruin everything.

Steampunk Magazine was an anarcho-anti-capitalist fantasy that felt just as true, just as possible as all the downtowns full of skyscrapers and stores full of credit card machines that ‘actually exist.’ There was something about the way it presented fantasy that made it feel less fantastic while making everything else around you seem like pure fiction. Why couldn’t the Luddites have destroyed the factories and replaced them with clockwork automatons so we all had time to build cool goggles and cobble together houses from machine parts or clothing from scraps, and then adorn it all in gilded Anarchy symbols made with cogs?

If humans can come up with the internet, Walmart, or nuclear waste, we humans ought to be capable of prettier shit, too.

That’s what I learned from Margaret Killjoy, back when I was a wee anarchist lad living in a crumbling two-story witch-house, planting sacred trees and hanging runes and sigils made from clock pieces and broken glass from their branches. Everything was possible, everything else was possible, and it could be beautiful and absurd and fantastic and fun and as anarchist as we wanted it to be.

Towards that end, Margaret put together a pretty awesome book, too. Mythmakers and Lawbreakers, a collection of interviews with and writing about anarchist fiction.  For that book Margaret interviewed one of my other heroes, and even cooler got to stand next to that other hero and talk to people:

Because Ursula K Le Guin is another one of those people who tell you that it’s possible to have and be something else if you just convince others that they can also do it too, at which point there are enough of you to make that world.

That’s fiction. But it’s also myth. And more than anything, that’s what magic has always been.

So, oh. This is supposed to be a book review and not a slobbering fanboy propaganda piece (but it’s that too). Because Margaret’s got a new book out, published by that swanky fantasy publisher TOR.

The book’s called The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, and I think you should read it. You should read it if you’re an anarchist or a witch, and definitely if you’re an anarchist and a witch. And also you should read it if you aren’t, because it’s damn good.

It’s a novella, so I shouldn’t tell you too much about the plot. Except that it’s about squatted land in the middle of nowhere inhabited by people who decided to stop caring about gender or the State or buying and selling, and maybe also decided to summon a land spirit to protect their community against the police and people who might want to take over their utopia. And that goes wrong, just like many other utopias go wrong.

You get to read about some cops getting gored.

You get to read what it might be like to live in a world where gender and sexuality isn’t a thing people even think about at all.

And by reading it you’ll get to see what it might be like to live in a world where people write things like that, things that make you feel like even more things are possible, and that maybe one day we can live in a world where everything that we think of now as fiction becomes more true than what everyone else tells us is real. Because we’re already living in that world, in no small part thanks to Margaret Killjoy’s fantastic aesthetic anarcho-fun heresy.

The book comes out August 15th, but you can pre-order it from Red Emma’s. While you’re waiting you can read the first chapter here, and also read this short story by Margaret on Tor’s online site.

And check out everything else Margaret has done–it’s amazing, and maybe you’ll get as inspired as I’ve been.


Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is the managing editor and a co-founder of Gods&Radicals. He is a poet, a writer, a theorist, and a pretty decent chef. He can be supported on Patreon, and his other work can be found at Paganarch.

He lives in Bretagne.


 

Old Time Religion: On American Gods

The following passage from Marx’s Grundrisse could serve as a fairly accurate pitch meeting for American Gods: 

Let us take e.g. the relation of Greek art and then of Shakespeare to the present time. It is well known that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek art but also its foundation. Is the view of nature and of social relations on which the Greek imagination and hence Greek [mythology] is based possible with self-acting mule spindles and railways and locomotives and electrical telegraphs? What chance has Vulcan against Roberts and Co., Jupiter against the lightning-rod and Hermes against the Crédit Mobilier? All mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination; it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them…

From another side: is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine? Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer’s bar, hence do not the necessary conditions of epic poetry vanish?

The show, which is based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, concerns the conflict between the “old gods” and the “new gods.” The old gods are the gods of disparate pagan traditions from Odin to Anansi, all brought to this country on slave ships and with indentured servants and immigrants, all in decline, forgotten by the people who once brought them to these shores. The new gods, at least the ones we meet, are Media, World (globalization), and Technology, the new forces that people look to in their despair and aspire to in their desires. As Odin, or Mr. Wednesday as more commonly known as, puts it in Neil Gaiman’s novel, “There are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.”

The explanation of the existence of Gods and their conflict is more Feuerbach than Marx, as the novel makes clear. The gods’ thrive on belief, on prayer, and sacrifice,

“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

American Gods is a literary formulation of the paradox of alienation, to use the term familiar to both Marx and Feuerbach: what people create, what people believe, ends up controlling them. Or, to use a different name for this same process, one closer to the realm of narrative, it is what Yves Citton calls “immanent transcendence,” what is entirely immanent to human existence, desire, fear, and imagination, produces as an effect an image of transcendence, of some instance standing above society, God, the sovereign, the state. The effect then becomes a cause (or what Deleuze and Guattari call a quasi-cause) dictating actions, desires, and beliefs. There is no real surprise as to why writers are drawn to this idea, the notion that stories have power but only if people believe in them has been going on long before Tinkerbell drank the potion, it is an occupational hazard the way the same way that philosophers believe in the power of ideas and architects believe in built structures. Triangles imagine triangular gods and dogs dream of dog gods. This multiplicity, the presence of the immanence in the transcendence, is not something the novel is silent on.

“Have you thought about what it means to be a god? … It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.”

It is at this point that the differences between the novel and the series become relevant. The series sticks to the first few plot points of the novel, the first two episodes are mapped neatly onto the first few chapters of the book. A few episodes in, however, the two diverge, the series is set in the world of the novel but is not an adaptation of its plot, at least word for word. There is an interesting formal question here: the adaptation of novel for film used to be a paring down of extraneous elements, as plots and characters are dropped to fit into a film, but now with television displacing film it becomes a matter of stretching out the premise into something that can sustain indefinite variations. Novels, films, and television series are predicated on different economies of desire and belief, doling out their satisfactions and frustrations differently. The change of form cannot but affect content.

The series greatest departure, at least so far, is how it presents the conflict between the old and the new. In the series the old gods are not just forgotten they are also transformed. As Mad Sweeney, the leprechaun puts it. “I was a king once. Then they made me a bird. Then mother church came along and turned us all into saints and trolls and fairies. General Mills did the rest.” A history not so much of being forgotten but of being retrofitted and reinterpreted. “Whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed and redirected by some power superior to it..” Pop-Nietzscheanism rather than pop-Feuerbach. Ostara lives in a home with dozens of Jesuses (Jesi?) of multiple races and denominations, bunnies, and plates covered with plates and jelly beans.

Along these lines, the new gods do not just want to wipe the old ones out, they want to rebrand them, take some of their power, their name and put it onto new platforms. A goddess of desire is offered a second life on tindr. This is illustrated  most clearly in the case of Vulcan, an old god who has sold out to the new gods. He has gone from the god of fire to firearms, ruling over a company town where cartridges are manufactured.

“You are what you worship. God of the volcano. Those who worship hold a volcano in the palm of their hand. It’s filled with prayers in my name. The power of fire is fire power. Not god, but godlike. And they believe. It fills their spirits every time they pull the trigger. They feel my heat on their hip and it keeps them warm at night.”

As a god of fireams Vulcan is well placed to understand the circularity of belief generating belief, of effects become causes and vice versa. As he explains, “Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.” Worship of guns generates worship of guns. The worship and adoration of firearms is an unstable combination of fear and security that seems to partake of something very ancient, even old testament.

It is then appropriate that the title American Gods is indeterminate, suggesting both the melting pot of diverse deities and demigods and the slick new gods of fame and fortune. The novel and series also invoke the heteronomy of americana, of road side attractions and other wayward beliefs, but underneath this plurality there is still the struggle for dominance and hegemony.

I am not going to oversell American Gods, it is yet another entry in the increasing pantheon to which we sacrifice our time, but it does offer an interesting illustration of not so much the paradox of immanent transcendence, but of a temporality in which America appears as  “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed,” to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari. The pagan, the monotheistic, and the modern coexist and transform each other. It is not a matter of some metanarrative of progress or decline but temporal overdetermination, of constant reinvention and transformation with the added caveat that reinvention is sometimes just a way for the oldest superstitions to live on.

I will let 3 play us out. It is a good song and I can’t find any decent American Gods clips on Youtube.


Jason Read is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine. He is the author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present (SUNY 2003) and The Politics of Transindividuality (Brill 2015/Haymarket 2016). He has published essays on Spinoza, Deleuze, Balibar, Althusser, and The Wire. He blogs at unemployednegativity.com.

A Pagan Tarot: Review of “The Game of Saturn” by Peter Mark Adams

The story told by The Game of Saturn, written by Peter Mark Adams and published by Scarlet Imprint, is more of a historical thriller – a demonic mystery – than anything else. In fact, placed into a narrative rather than purely historical structure it would make an amazing Hollywood movie. Renaissance espionage amongst rich and powerful northern Italian aristocrats, secret magical cults and surviving worship of dark forgotten pagan gods, human sacrifice and shocking sexual secrets; the story has it all. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interesting in the Tarot, occult history, or paganism. I also highly recommend the book, for reasons I will discuss at the end of this review, for anyone interested in the use of magic and the occult for revolutionary political and social purposes.

The Game of Saturn is the first full historical investigations of one of the earliest, and certainly the most enigmatic, Tarot decks. The Sola-Busca Tarot is, in fact, the oldest Tarot deck for which we have a complete set of cards. Beyond this there are several particularly interesting aspects of the deck that set it off from amongst its contemporary competitors. Most notable is the fact that it provides full illustrations for what would later come to be called the Minor Arcana while other decks of the time, and for some time thereafter, offered rather generic illustrations for the “pip” cards of the Minor Arcana. Consider the following examples of the “Seven of Disks (or Coins)” from what is commonly considered the oldest Tarot deck, the Visconti-Sforza deck, on the left and the Sola-Busca deck on the right.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect that sets the Sola-Busca apart from other decks, however, is the extremely enigmatic nature of the deck’s pictures. In order to expand upon this point I will lay out a bit of the likely history of Tarot.

Tarot’s History and Origins

Visconti-Sforza Tarot
One of the original Visconti-Sforza decks I visited in person when it was on display at the MET Cloisters in New York. Forgive the mediocre quality of the image.

(In discussing the history of the Tarot I will be drawing both on general common knowledge, material covered in The Game of Saturn, and the excellent book The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination by Robert M. Place.)

The mythological history of the Tarot largely derives from the 1781 work of the French author Antoine Court de Gebelin. His creative speculations then influenced the creation of what we might call the first modern Tarot deck by the French occultist Etteilla in 1789. The work of Court de Gebelin and Etteilla combined to form the standard story offered by the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi in the 1850s in which the Tarot originates from the ancient wisdom of Egypt, with its twenty-two cards of the Major Arcana corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, and the entire meaning of the cards deriving from Hermetic and Qabalistic teachings along with further elemental and astrological correspondences.

The British Order of the Golden Dawn extensively adopted the ideas of Levi, Etteilla, and Gebelin in its teachings in the late 19th and early 20th century which, in turn, led to the creation of the Smith-Waite Tarot of 1910 (both Smith and Waite having been members of the Golden Dawn). The Smith-Waite Tarot forms the basis of almost all decks constructed after it with most of the exceptions to this rule being decks derived, instead, directly from the Golden Dawn’s original designs and teachings (Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot deck and his text The Book of Thoth, for example, would be a major alternative influence on modern decks except that Crowley is largely presenting the Golden Dawn understanding of the Tarot – upon which Waite too draws – with a few key alterations that, within the Qabalistic framework, are very important but within the larger history of Tarot are rather minor).

As interesting, and useful, as the mythological history derived from 18th Century France and the meanings of the cards which derive from this history is, it is almost entirely false. Most scholars agree that the Tarot originates from sometime between 1410-1430 in Northern Italy with the first deck likely being that designed by the astrologer Marziano de Tortona for Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. This deck would later be the basis of the surviving fifteen fragmentary decks all formed in the 1450s that constitute what is called the Visconti-Sforza deck.

Playing cards long predate these and similar decks, and the main distinction that scholars make between any deck of cards and a deck of Tarot is the inclusion of a fifth suit over and beyond the four suits we commonly find in playing cards to this day. The four standard suits came to be called the Minor Arcana much later, and the added suit to be called the Major Arcana, but originally the added suit was made up of cards called “Triumphs” or “Trumps”. Indeed, the deck designed by Marziano de Tortona was first called carte da trionfi or “deck of cards with triumphs (i.e. trumps) added”.

When asking about the origin of Tarot, then, we can put aside the so-called Minor Arcana which derive from the standard complicated and fascinating history of playing cards come down to use from both Asian and Arabic origins. Instead, we must ask about the origin of the fifth suit, the Triumphs or Trumps of the so-called Major Arcana. There are useful proposals for the origins of the Trumps, for example there is likely some influence (though rather minor) from Alchemical diagrams (we see this a bit in the Sola-Busca in particular but it is largely missing from most other decks of the time) and perhaps some heritage derived from Church passion plays. But the clearest origin for the Trumps ties into their name. During the Renaissance there was a popular type of parade, called a Triumph, in which each character appearing in the parade triumphs, or beats, the next. These were largely organized in terms of a hierarchy of powers, from worldly power in the hands of the Emperor and Empress, religio-worldly power of the Papess and Pope, to Cosmic power found in such figures as Death, Fame, Fate, and Eternity. Such a parade is presented, for example, in the poem “I Trionfi” by Petrarch in the 14th Century. Sometimes the figures mentioned also include various virtues, or are organized according to the traditional two tier distinction within the seven virtues common in Catholic theology (the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity and the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage).

Death Tarot
The “Death” card in the Visconti-Sforza deck, my own picture from the MET Cloisters.

To summarize the points I just made, the unique aspect that makes a deck a Tarot deck likely derives from Catholic cultural and literary influences meant to teach both various virtues and the basic social and metaphysical hierarchy of the Catholic worldview. There is nothing of Egypt here, and very little if anything of Hermeticism, Qabalah, Astrology, or even Alchemy. The Catholic poetry of Petrarch and Dante are better guides to these early decks than more esoteric works. Early decks also contained, at times, more or less than the twenty-two cards so important for the Qabalistic interpretation of the Major Arcana and the order of the Triumphs was very changeable from one deck to the next. Historically, then, we have neither a standard order or number, nor a standard collection of Triumphs or Trumps.

The Exception

9 of disks
“9 of Disks” Sola-Busca Tarot

The mythological history I have worked hard to deflate above is, interestingly, rather more useful when we consider the Sola-Busca deck. Indeed, what is true of most Tarot decks throughout history is not true of the Sola-Busca deck. There is no overt Christian or Catholic symbolism in the deck. There are, however, references to ancient religious and occult practices, as well as alchemy. There are no Trumps that share the names of what would later become the standard Trumps. Instead the names capture historical and literary references such as those to Alexander the Great and his family, the Roman Emperor Nero, and the famous Biblical Nebuchadnezzar. These references are not usually the of the noble nature one would expect. Ultimately, Adams’ points out, “in its depiction of the heroic past the Sola-Busca excels in assembling a cast containing some of the most despicable tyrants and traitors known to classical scholarship.” (p. 19)

Even in imagery we can likely, at best, only find two or three cards that resemble later standard Trumps. We have, perhaps, something like the Tower:

Sola_Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 20, “Nenbroto”

and, perhaps, something like the Hermit:

Ipeo_Sola_Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 17, “Ipeo”

and, finally, the Fool as Trump 0:

Sola-Busca 0
Sola-Busca Trump 0, “Mato”

Other than these cards, however, both the Minor Arcana and the Trumps are far more mysterious and identified with unlike historical and literary references. Take, for example, the King of Swords who is identified as “Alexandro M.” or Alexander the Great:

Alexandro-Sola-Busca
Sola-Busca King of Swords, “Alexandro M.”

Or Trump 4, “Mario”:

Mario-Sola-Busca
Sola-Busca Trump 4, “Mario”

Or the strange religious and, at times, disturbing imagery of Trumps 15, 8, and 21, “Metelo”, “Nerone”, and “Nabuchodenasor”:

Sola-Busca-3
Sola-Busca Trump 15, “Metelo”, and 8, “Nerone”

 

Sola-Busca 21
Sola-Busca Trump 21, “Nabuchodenasor”

The Story of the Sola-Busca

We should, at this point, have a sense of what the Sola-Busca Deck is, and a bit of what it is like. We don’t, however, have any clue as to what it means and why it takes the form it does. We don’t have the traditional meanings to appeal to, we don’t have the underlying structure of the Triumph parades, we are adrift in learning what stories these cards have to tell us. It is, for this reason, well past time to dwell more fully on Adams’ excellent investigation.

Without external props to support our interpretation of the cards themselves, such as those provided by what would become the Tarot tradition, we are left needing to draw upon the literary and historical references contained in the names of the cards, the details and symbolic clues of the images depicted, and a careful evaluation of the social and historical context out of which the cards appear. Who, for example, made this deck and for whom was it made? To what purpose was it made?

Adams’ proposed answer is that the deck was made by the ruling aristocratic d’Este family of the city of Ferrara for a secretly gay bibliophile, Marin Sanudo, in the city of Venice following a disastrous defeat of Ferrara at the hands of Venice. Sanudo was in a position to influence negotiations which the rulers of Ferrara hoped would help them re-establish their power following their defeat. The deck itself was likely commissioned by the rulers of Ferrara for both the use of the d’Este family themselves and for their secret ally, Sanudo. The man likely hired to do this work was the family’s court astrologer, archivist, and librarian Pellegrino Prisciani. All of these historical conclusions are powerfully and convincingly argued for by Adams’.

These historical details are interesting and important, but far more fascinating is the challenging question of the deck’s meaning and what this tells us about the aristocratic families of Italy in general and Ferrara specifically – to say nothing of the further aristocratic families to which the deck made its way in France and England.

There are several keys granting access to the meaning of the deck. First is understanding the role of a Neo-pagan and Platonic revival that was occurring in both Italy and Constantinople at the time. Central to this revival was Gemistus Plethon, a Byzantine philosopher whose mission was the use of Platonic philosophy to restructure political and social organization and, more dramatically, to instantiate a return to paganism within the aristocratic classes. Plethon himself, though unnamed, is clearly depicted within the deck in the Ten of Cups.

Benozzo_Gozzoli,_Pletone,_Cappella_dei_Magi
Plethon, depicted on the wall of the Chapel of the Magi in Florence.

Plethon’s thinking largely offers Neoplatonic gnosticism, and fits neatly into pre-existing traditions of gnosticism and Platonic Theurgy that Adams’ covers well. But while this will provide the general context for the creation of the deck, the actual religious and occult insights captured in the deck represent a striking inversion of the Platonic Theurgical theology.

The inversion Adams’ uncovers represents a rejection of the gnostic dream of escape from a “fallen” material realm and ascension to a higher level of truth and divinity. Where various forms of gnosticism and theurgy aim at rising to the level of the true highest non-worldly divinity while rejecting the world around us and the deceptive lesser divine demiurge that masquerades as its god, Adams shows that the Sola-Busca deck instead identifies itself with the demiurge and represents something of a pact with this lower divinity in rebellion against the transcendental highest god.

The demiurge – variously identified with Baal-Hammon (the patron god of Carthage which was Rome’s ancient enemy), Kronos-Saturn, and the Serpent-Dragon –  is the source of worldly riches and power in contrast to the higher goal of transcendence beyond worldly concerns. Conjoined with the Neo-Platonic belief in reincarnation, the pact with the Demiurge the d’Este family maintained seeks continued reincarnation in ever stronger and richer social positions from generation to generation. Rather than escape the world of matter so despised by most gnosticism, the pact with Saturn aims instead at continued existence and power within the world. It is a choice for power rather than transcendent salvation.

This counter-theology and hidden cult of Saturn is well attested to in the symbols, forms, and figures within the deck. Consider, for example, the strange image of the “hermit” in the Ipeo card presented earlier. There we have a praying figure in monkish robes but with bat or dragon-like wings wearing a crown of worldly power. We need not even mention the strangely sinister angel-like head to which the monk prays.

Other details include references to the “toys of Dionysus”, the human sacrifice practiced in worship of Baal-Hammon in Carthage, “Hekate’s Top,” and other ritual technologies and procedures. Ultimately, Adams’ convincingly reveals that the deck is a grimoire for a secret cult of Saturn – a grimoire for the achievement and maintenance of worldly power through an alliance with the gods of the world rather than those of spiritual escape:

“The heavily encrypted cosmology, theurgical and ritual practices that constitute the Sola-Busca tarocchi form a veritable grimoire of elite magical praxis. At the core of the deck’s heretical cosmology stands the demiurge in his most archaic and violent form, that of the hypercosmic Ammon-Saturn, the lord of time and the cycles of creation and destruction… The inevitable consequence of this chain of logic was that ‘true religion’ involved the worship of the hypercosmic demiurge in his most archaic – and thus purest – guise: as the sun behind the sun, the hypercosmic Saturn – whether known as Mithras Helios, Sol Invictus, Phanes, Lucifer, or Ammon.” (p. 250)

Why review this book?

Sola-Busca ace
Sola-Busca Ace of Swords

In some quarters I was met with surprise when expressing an interest in reviewing this book for Gods and Radicals. The surprise is not, in fact, at all surprising. The story of the Sola-Busca Tarot is of a wealthy, elite, privileged, politically powerful and ruthless family using pagan worship and magical operations to maintain their own social, economic, and political dominance. While this understanding of the deck is historically accurate, it fails to fully appreciate the promise of the deck and the decks’ cosmology and anti-theurgical practice.

Allow me to re-present, in an undoubtedly selective manner, the nature of the deck and the magical practice it contains. At a time when the Roman Catholic Church dominated with repressive force and opposition to any pagan survivals we find a Tarot deck identifying with the anti-Roman power of pagan Carthage, the pagan Greek empire of Alexander the Great, and the most heretical of Rome’s own emperors. This deck includes homosexual implications and was intended for a gay man whose own path to power was largely blocked by religio-political opposition to his sexuality. Essentially, even if its aristocratic audience failed to appreciate it, the deck embodies a revolutionary force opposed to key figures of political tyranny and repression.

There is a deeper level at which the Sola-Busca is a useful and promisingly revolutionary force, one contained in its refreshingly worldly and anti-transcendental theology. I must confess to having worked rather a lot with the Greek Kronos and related forms of Saturn. One reason I am drawn to these divinities is because they represent an existing force that naturally opposes currently established physical and metaphysical hierarchies. Zeus, the cosmic king of the Greeks, achieved his throne by overthrowing Kronos, his father. As ancient occult practices attest, worldly change was often provoked through magicians threatening to form, or actually forming, alliances with Kronos against Zeus and the worldly kings and political structures Zeus blessed and maintained.

More than this, however, Platonism and Theurgy tend to embrace both a singular source for all political and metaphysical power (i.e. cosmic tyrannies underlying worldly ones) and rejections of the world that were to inform the Christian rejection of the body and the earth in general. The seemingly diabolical pact with the demiurge, when taken seriously rather than just as an inversion of a pre-existing Platonism, instead represents a rejection of the world-denying body-hating transcendence that has plagued Western culture for millennia. If we reject the existence of the transcendental god, we arrive at a pluralism of demiurges – a truly pagan and polytheist perspective that actually pre-exists Platonism – that this deck can be united with. Given the choice, I will side with an embrace of this world and an attempt to achieve change here and now over the rejection of the world in favor of some transcendental world-hating “gnosis” every time. Ultimately, I would argue, the Sola-Busca deck holds the potential to undermine the very elitism and class from which it arose.

Whether or not you are convinced by my gestures towards a revolutionary theological and political interpretation of the Sola-Busca Tarot deck, the historical work performed by Peter Mark Adams in The Game of Saturn is fascinating, enjoyable, and remains important for pagans. This is not least of all because the Sola-Busca is a sincerely pagan Tarot deck – undoubtedly the first such and still possibly the best such deck. The clarity with which Adams allows us to see this, and the depth with which we can appreciate it following reading his amazing and beautiful book, reveals an importantly pagan foundation for the tradition of Tarot generally.

To clarify this point, consider that though the official interpretation and theories that underly the Smith-Waite Tarot deck derive from Waite’s Golden Dawn understanding of Tarot, nonetheless Pamela Smith closely studied the Sola-Busca deck in order to inform her illustrations of the previously simple Minor Arcana pip cards. The Minor Arcana of the Smith-Waite Tarot, and the countless decks that have since derived from it, is fully “infected” by the Sola-Busca to its great benefit.

Please consider checking out The Game of Saturn at Scarlet Imprint. Scarlet Imprint is also planning to release their own edition of the Sola-Busca Tarot Deck which I anxiously await and cannot wait to have.


Kadmus

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on Facebook or twitter at @starandsystem.


30 June is the last day for the pre-sale of Dr. Bones’ new book. Get it here.

Stepping in It: A Critical Response to The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Robert Jensen

Reviewed in this essay: The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men by Robert Jensen (Spinifex Press, 2017)


One of the strengths of the alt-right has been simply providing moral justification for men to embrace patriarchal oppression. Without a way out, without an identity of maleness and masculinity that is liberatory and egalitarian, men seem faced only with the identity of being the oppressor. Thus I was intrigued when I saw Robert Jensen’s The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.

Robert Jensen writes from thirty years of study and teaching radical feminism, as well as a liberal Christian perspective, both of which deeply inform his perspective and contextualize some of my disagreements as a Pagan man. His book begins in a way recognizable to the witch: acknowledging the wisdom of his body which responded to radical feminism when his mind wanted to reject it.

In his first chapters, he outlines the problem of human inequality as beginning with agriculture, when patriarchal norms turned women into property and normalized male dominance and exploitation. Capitalist exploitation, then, is a consequence of patriarchy in his view, an outgrowth of the economic exploitation and objectification of the female body and the earth itself. Jensen applies this position to critique three contentious issues, listed here according to his chapter titles: “Rape and Rape Culture,” “Prostitution and Pornography,” and “Transgenderism.”

What I appreciate about this book is that his radical feminist perspective draws attention toward the larger socio-cultural factors that influence and constrain our choices. “Rape culture,” for example, provides a foundational argument that sexualized dominance reinforces patriarchal control: the threat of rape implicitly oppresses all women and frames sexual relations between women and men. He then teases apart the gray areas of sexual coercion that are not legally identified as sexual assault but nevertheless influence the choices of women.He accurately describes the normalization of sexual violence in culture.

While I do not believe he would be an advocate of the kind of sexual liberation I want, he argues well that we must be united in rejection of rape and sexual coercion to experience true sexual liberation, where all feel free to choose whom they share sex with.

The chapter, “Prostitution and Pornography,” starts from his core objection to sex work: that sexuality is expressed most fully in intimacy, and turning that intimate act into a site of commodified service degrades those who participate in it. This stance makes sense as both an outgrowth from his previous argument and an extension of his liberal Christian theology. It also speaks to the centralization of heterosexuality in his critique, for his formulation of patriarchy does not seem to extend to male sex workers and pornography made and exchanged between queer people. It is hard to make the same argument that I am engaging in patriarchal exploitation by watching gay porn, though exploitation may indeed be happening.

From my view of sex, it is a wonderful and sacred gift, and also one that is mine to wield as I see fit. My friends who are sex priestesses, erotic coaches, and sacred intimates engage in the exchange of money and sex in their own ways, bringing richness and healing to their clients. One key difference is their capacity to set the conditions of their labor, a capacity denied to sex workers who have been trafficked and enslaved, or who work for an exploitative pornography studio.

In the chapter on “Transgenderism,” his core question is whether “the transgender movement provides a politically productive route to challenging patriarchy.” In this, he raises questions about the ecological costs of transition, the medicalization of transgender identity, and the normalization of cosmetic surgery as trans care.

While reading this, some complicating questions came up for me. First of which is—who does Jensen imagine his audience to be? From the framing of the book, and knowing the historical relationship between radical feminists and transgender people, I assumed Jensen’s primary audience would be non-trans men. So discussing trans issues seems a strange direction, space that I wish had been used discussing how patriarchy contributes to ecocide or violence between men. The questions he raises about the ecological and social costs of gender-affirming surgery, including interventions that would be considered cosmetic for non-trans people, are questions that we must be confronting as a society about our medical practices as a whole.

The other complicating factor is that Jensen seems unconvinced that trans people should exist in a gender liberated world. If he does intend to engage trans people in good faith—when referencing trans people, he uses their pronouns and names with respect—then this makes his message unworkable. It is akin to anti-homosexual Christian activists who reach out to “lovingly” bring gay people back in the fold. No matter how much they couch their message in love and acceptance, the bedrock assumption is that you as a queer person should not exist, which makes them an adversary.

This adversarial stance arises from Jensen’s formulation of sex and gender. For him, the primary significance of sexual difference is reproductive capacity, with a recognition of intersex people. Other physiological differences between sexes, he argues, are largely overstated and unknowable given our current science. In his post-patriarchy world, we would be free to express our gender however we wish without the need to modify our sexual characteristics; thus, he sees genderqueer identity as unnecessary and the practice of transition as an alignment with patriarchy.

Dylan Ce/Curius Creature of The Alchemist’s Closet offers a contrary perspective from the lens of a genderqueer feminist in his article “Multiple Perspectives: Patriarchy and Genderqueer Identity”. He in some ways agrees that the expectation of sexual transition within the binary gender system collude with patriarchy:

“As a young genderqueer person, I believed that my only option was to identify as unequivocally male, especially in a public sense. Though I was femme in some ways, I focused on a core identity as a man and clung to it fiercely.”

Encountering and embracing genderqueer identity allowed Creature to move beyond the binary while still transitioning their embodiment.

The experience of being in a body that is “wrong” and needs change is itself a kind of bodily knowing, of the kind Jensen celebrates, but framing it as such troubles his theoretical minimization of sexual difference. People who engage in hormone therapy reveal the mutability of the body, how it is able to change its expression of secondary sex characteristics, and contribute to subtle but personally significant changes in personality, sexuality, sex drive, and emotional experience. Jensen talks of medical transition as a kind of violence to the body, but any surgical intervention is a form of violence. One does not gently coax cancer away, yet we do not pathologize people for their desire to have their cancer removed.

Overall, I disagreed with how Jensen framed his concerns as problems of “transgenderism” and not as problems arising from trans people attempting to survive under capitalist patriarchy. There is a problem of patriarchy imposing its beauty norms and binary gender expectations on trans people, compelling trans folk to engage in the pathologizing narratives and medicalization of their bodies and identities to be afforded the measure of dignity and autonomy that should be their birthright. Trans feminine people, furthermore, experience misogyny, sexual objectification, sexual violence, and constrained economic opportunities. Framing his argument in this way might have afforded a real opportunity to invite trans people into an alignment against patriarchy.

In the end, however, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men helped me sharpen and clarify my values against those of radical feminism. Thanks to Jensen’s definition of patriarchy, I better understand the strengths and limitations of that framing in building self-determination and liberatory community. Self-determination in body, sexuality, and labor within community are values I support. This book reminds us that radical feminism has something to offer that liberatory project, while unfortunately highlighting the tendencies that still alienate many


Anthony Rella

09LowResAnthony Rella is a witch, writer, and psychotherapist living in Seattle, Washington. Anthony is a student and mentor of Morningstar Mystery School, and has studied and practiced witchcraft since starting in the Reclaiming tradition in 2005. More on his work is available at his website.