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.


 

Foreword to A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred

A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred is the third issue of the Gods&Radicals journal. This is the foreword, by Margaret Killjoy.


These are the moments we’re made for, you and I.

We were not born for easy lives, we were not born for happy lives. We were born to, in the words of Octavia Butler, shape change and be shaped by it in turn. Because God, according to Butler, is Change.

* * *

There’s a scene in a movie I love, a scene I think about far too often. The movie is Edelweisspiraten. It’s about the Edelweiss Pirates, a youth subculture from Weimar Germany that started as a sort of cultural resistance to the authoritarian and patriotic norms of Nazi Germany and transformed into an autonomous guerrilla resistance force as the situation became more dire.

At one point, our heroes—let’s be honest about what they are, heroes—are raiding a Nazi storeroom. One of the Pirates is terrified. He’s freaking out. “C’mon guys, we’ve got enough, it’s time to go.”

That’s me. I’m the scared kid. I’m fucking terrified of what’s to come. I’m fucking terrified because I know I’m going to fight and I know that I’m not constitutionally built for conflict. I know both of these things because of years of experience in fighting for what I believe—sometimes physically—and the years of anxiety and therapy and PTSD that have been the result.

buttonsDespite the toll that fighting has taken on me, I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. These are the lives we were made to live. The work we do, in any field, will slowly destroy our bodies. I wear my trauma like I wear my tattoos and I will not let myself be ashamed of either.

Even if you’re the kid who’s scared shitless, be the kid who’s scared shitless who still throws down.

***

Cultural shifts are the long game of revolution. When I write a novel, my hope is that one day someone will read it, consider my point of view, and adopt the parts of it that make sense to them. Since every action is a spell cast for more the same, writing books is a spell cast for more people to write books. Books are not revolutions. But ideas can spread this way—hopefully less through individual “great” works that influence everyone as much as through many books with many ideas that permeate through numerous iterations by numerous authors and artists of all sorts.

Cultural shifts are the long game, but they are starting to bear fruit. We’re starting to win some major battles. Ideas that only a half a generation ago belonged only to the radical fringe—like a culture of consent or the self-determination of gender—are mainstream.

The rise of reactionary politics—exemplified in the English-speaking West by Brexit and Donald Trump—is just that: a reaction. It is the last, desperate attempt by a dying cultural force. It’s an attempt we need to take seriously. It might still win. But while the reactionaries have been the ones to move the war into the political realm, it was a war we started. We started it by challenging the cultural status quo. We started it by daring to be ourselves, by daring to be free.

Cultural shifts are the long game. It’s time to focus on the short game: politics. Fortunately, the immediacy of the situation removes electoral politics—perhaps the most banal and impotent expression of politics—from our toolbox. When I say politics, I simply mean “the ways in which we organize power within our society.” It’s time to take that power ourselves and spread that power out to others. It’s time to transform our aesthetic cultures in cultures of resistance. It’s time for action.

Every action you take is a spell cast for more of that action. Defend people. Stand up to bigots. Hospitalize bigots if need be, or maybe get hospitalized in the attempt. Spells are often costly. That’s fine. They should be. The work we do might destroy us.

***

For decades now, at least in the Western world, politics have remained locked in place. The status quo was a pin thrust through the heart of our society, sticking us in one spot on the board of possibilities. Elections, then, were like a mob of people gathered around the pin, carefully unsticking it, and shifting it by scant inches before thrusting it firmly back into place.

That pin is unstuck. It can move in any direction, any distance.

It was our enemies—let’s be honest and call them what they are, enemies—who unstuck that pin. But their hold on it isn’t secure. If we act, now, we can take hold of our lives and our culture and make a break with the awful reality of the old status quo, all while fighting those who would turn the bad-dream world we’re used to into a living fucking nightmare.

My metaphor of a pin in a map falls apart pretty quickly, though, because it’s not a single pin. It’s millions, billions of pins: each of us as individuals and communities. As an anarchist, my job isn’t to move every single pin—every single person, every single community—to the position I hope to occupy on the political map. My job is move myself and my community. My job is to help others move themselves to where they hope to be.

An anarchist world isn’t a world in which every living person calls themself an anarchist. An anarchist world is a world of possibilities, in which no institutional power can force communities and individuals into subservience.

***

These coming years probably won’t go well for us, but let’s be real: on a long enough timeline, nothing does.

We’ve been preparing for years and decades. We’ve been laying the seeds of resistance. It’s time to see what we can harvest.

I hope we are ready, because it is time.


Margaret Killjoy

Margaret KilljoyMargaret Killjoy is a gender-deviant author and editor currently based in the Appalachian mountains. Her most recent book is an anarchist utopia called A Country of Ghosts. Her next book, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, is forthcoming from Tor.com in 2017. She blogs at birdsbeforethestorm.net.


A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred is available for pre-order at a discounted rate.

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Left-Sacred: an introduction

A Beautiful Resistance: Left Sacred is the third issue of the Gods&Radicals journal. It will be released on 1 February, and presents the work of 16 writers and 4 visual artists.  It’s currently available for pre-sale.


On the 19th of June, 1937, an exhibition opened in the city of Munich. Called Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst,(1)” it housed paintings, sculptures, and other works carefully curated to warn against the scourge of degenerate art. Amongst the stated goals of the exhibition was the “deliberate and calculated onslaught upon the very essence and survival of art itself,” along with “the common roots of political anarchy and cultural anarchy.” (2)

Included in the collection were works by the Swiss painter Paul Klee. One hundred and two of his paintings had been seized, though a rather famous one survived in the hands of the Marxist mystic philosopher, Walter Benjamin. The piece was called Angelus Novus, and Benjamin would later write about it, without revealing that it was in his possession. Its angular and stark depiction inspired his famous conception of the “Angel of History.”

Before Walter Benjamin’s attempted escape through Spain to the United States, the mystic had entrusted the painting to his friend, the student of the transgressive Sacred, Georges Bataille. The painting itself is transgressive, an incomprehensible Sacred, wishing, as Benjamin wrote, “to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.(3)” But the angel cannot: its wings are caught, it must continue on this new wind, leaving the wreckage of history behind, progressing not towards some great evolutionary goal, but merely away from the ruins of the past.

That the painting was seen as degenerate makes the Angel of History more fascinating. The Fascist current of history, the one which awakens strongly now in our present, cannot abide degeneracy and sees it everywhere. Fallen, fallen are we, decadent pale shadows of our once great glory. Our blood is too mixed, our house too messy, our genders and sex too confused, our borders unfenced, the land crowded with foreigners, our children dirtied by the melanin of others. Make America Great Again, restore the Empire, save Liberal Democracy, uphold the rule of law, return to us an innocence that never was.

Where the Fascists see former glory, the Angel of History, passed hand-to-hand by degenerate leftists, sees only wreckage. Walter Benjamin would not survive the Nazi attempt to restore Germany to its mythic former glory, but the Angelus Novus did. One even suspects the Angel of History did have time to awaken at least some of the dead. Benjamin haunts these pages, as does Bataille’s search for a transgressive Sacred, as does the Angelus Novus itself, all collected in the messy, fierce, resurrection of a degenerate left sacred.

What is a sacred left? What is left of the sacred? What is the left sacred? These are the interweaving themes of this third issue of A Beautiful Resistance, watched over by the Angel of History, its wings forced open by a wind from another world.

  • A goddess of the poor and outcast speaks in Erynn Rowan Laurie’s Brig Ambu.
  • Gods topple off thrones in Rhyd Wildermuth’s Awakening Against What’s Awakened.
  • An office window opens and love awakens in The Necromancer, by Left Eye
  • The wild fights with fang and claw in After Procopius, by Lorna Smithers.
  • Rot is decomposed and grown into new life in Nina George’s Modern Sin-Eaters.
  • Nimue Brown explores a line-less cartography in The Druidry of Mapping.
  • William Hawes sees in pre-linear time the path to the future in The Reawakening of Tribal Consciousness.
  • In Bell Unrung, Lia Hunter mourns the toll of what we do not embrace.
  • Anthony Rella’s Gods of My Ancestors contemplates the messy history of blood and deity.
  • An Angel whispers, a carpet is stained, in Hunter Hall’s Yellow Tape & White Carpet.
  • Chimeras and hybrid monsters lead us to the world outside of fences in Finnchuill’s The Impure Object of The Left Sacred.
  • Revolution smells like swamp rot and rum in Dr. Bones’ Fear & Loathing At The Crossroads.
  • All the beauty of the many-gendered dead sing in Rocket’s Prayer to the Mother(s).
  • A writer scribbles final notes to the future in Yvonne Aburrow’s The Safe House.
  • Sean Donahue dances with the Angel in Against the Winds of History.
  • And in Solidarity Networks, we outline a strategy for all those wondering ‘what next’ as fascism rises in the nations of the world.

This issue was co-edited by Lia Hunter and Rhyd Wildermuth, foreworded by Margaret Killjoy, and also proudly displays the artwork and photography of Lois Cordelia, Marion le Bourhis, Christopher Delange, and Brianna Bliss.

May all that is messy, degenerate, unrestrained, and feral about you awaken, and may you dance in the winds of history.


  • 1 German: Degenerate Art Exhibition
  • 2 From the introduction to the exhibition.
  • 3 Thesis IX of Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History

You will probably love our print and digital publications, including our journal A Beautiful Resistance and Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism! Find out more here.

The Year Of Dark Epiphanies

Greece wasn’t really, technically, on fire. Most of it was just falling apart. This was 2011, and austerity measures had been hard at work for a few years already, gutting the economy, destroying lives, and driving half the population to xenophobia. There were a lot of anarchists in prison there, at that time. Well, always. But I was paying extra attention to it just then because I was on a ferry from Italy, heading to Greece for the first time in my life

It was a year of dark epiphanies, a year during which I wrapped my head around a lot of adult, scary bullshit. It was the year I put the words “anxiety” and “panic” to the demon that’d been plaguing my brain. It was the year I realized that actions have consequences beyond immediate and physical ones like getting arrested or injured or sick. It was the year I started to grapple with the divine, death, and family.

I spent two days and a night on the floor of the deck with the other people who don’t have the money for cabins. I watched the Mediterranean go by and tried not to terrify myself with what the Greek border guards might make of me.

“Fuck,” I said to myself, hopefully sub-vocally, “I wish I believed in God.”

To know the divine is one way to gain the strength to move past fear. It would be a lot easier to have that comfort to fall back on.

I wondered for awhile if it’s possible to wage war without faith. Faith in God is probably the common type, but I bet the hordes of godless communists and anarchists who fought fascism in the 20th century had faith of another sort.

The anarchist martyr August Spies (d. 1887) stood on the gallows and shouted: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” That’s a kind of faith.

He was right, what’s more. The martyrdom of him and his four compatriots spurred a national discussion of labor issues and won a great number of people over to anarchism. His grave in Chicago is, ironically, a federally-recognized landmark.

I do have faith. I believe in anarchism—I believe that freedom is a relationship between people, not something doled out by a state or a church or something that springs forth from our wallets. I believe it’s worth fighting for that freedom, even if it scares the living shit out of me to stand up to cops and jailers and all of their ilk. I believe that these ideals, these relationships of freedom we forge in life, will survive my passing.

But on that ferry, I just wished I believed in God. It seemed a simpler way to accept mortality.

The ferry landed, and I got into the country without a hitch. I stumbled my way through a month or so of trying to be useful to the people I care about and the global movement I love. To be frank I’m not sure I had much success at either.

Tradition is a myth, a story we tell each other. 364 days and 23 hours of the year, I despise Christmas music. When I’m with the family I rarely see, at the darkest time of year with the cold about to set in, I understand it. “We’ve grown a little older, we’ve grown a little colder,” goes one chorus.

My immediate family is getting older without a younger generation taking its place, and my extended family seems to be drifting apart. We’re Catholic—culturally at least—and it’s only at Christmas that I see more than a few of my relatives. Christmas Eve has never been the same since my father’s parents died. We get together at the same house, eat the same food, sing the same songs, and it isn’t the same.

Tradition, in a conservative sense, clings to a fictitious, static way of being. Nothing stays the same in this world. The rapid pace of technological development and population growth in the modern era makes the inevitability of change readily apparent, but I believe with all my heart that the environment and the ways of life we develop to interact with that environment have always shifted from generation to generation. The conservative understanding of tradition is a violent lie we tell one another to force conformity to an illusory ideal.

At its best, tradition is a buoy in the chaotic and metaphorical sea of time. It signals the way to shore or at least gives us something to cling to so as to catch our breath. We are not beholden to tradition. It doesn’t confine us, it doesn’t trap us in the past. I’ll call this the liberatory interpretation of tradition mostly because I like the word liberatory (a word which doesn’t exist even though my friends use it all the damn time).

Since no one has ever had much luck forcing me to conform to anything, I’ve never personally been much affected by the conservative understanding of tradition. I’ve never presumed to do what my family says ought to be done. But it took me until the year of dark epiphanies to appreciate the liberatory version.

Winter holidays are the vain and beautiful attempt to drive back the sorrow of aging.

It doesn’t work, in the end, but of course in the end the dark and the cold come for us all.

The men in my family drift in that liminal space between paganism and Catholicism. One winter, one of them said to me: “the reason I like Catholicism is that it’s essentially polytheistic. We revere the saints, each a different aspect of the divine.” Well, I paraphrase him. The next year, he declared he was a pagan. He calls me on winter solstice, sometimes, to wish me a happy new year’s. It warms my heart.

Another dark year, anxiety was doing its best to destroy me. Chest pains, numbness in my limbs and jaw, headaches, and every morning I was wracked with hot and cold flashes for hours at a go. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I knew I was about to.

“You have a guardian angel,” my family told me.

My grandfather was Catholic, probably wasn’t very pagan. He designed ships for the navy, and once they were built he’d make the captain drive them into the worst storms they could find. Safety testing. He stood out on the deck and let the wind and the rain and the waves try to tear apart these ships he’d designed. According to my family, the same divine creature watches over me as watched over him.

It’s easy to poke holes in this. But when I want to be brave, sometimes I think about my granddad on one of his ships.

People are up in arms about how the word “literally” can now, according to the dictionary, be accurately used to mean “figuratively.” People think this is literally the worst thing ever. This never bothered me, personally. I actually thought it was kind of cool to have an expression of hyperbole so strong it says “this isn’t even hyperbole.”

When I think about a literal understanding of the divine, this ambiguous meaning is perfect. My granddad literally had this invisible dude (not God, a minor dude in the invisible pantheon) watching his back who kept him from drowning. When I say literally, I mean figuratively but he meant literally. But it’s the same word because it’s the same thing, in the end.

It’s a shame about what happens when people take their literal gods too literally of course, and start denying that the other people’s literal gods exist. And for all my newfound acceptance of my upbringing, I think it’s outright monstrous to tell a child that if they don’t behave they’ll be tortured for all eternity. But the evidence against every religion that’s ever held power is clearcut and well-documented, unnecessary to explore herein.

Near the end of that dark year, I developed a faith, of sorts. It’s one of the mix-mashed things that takes a reverence for the universe and throws some metaphorical (literal!) gods on top. I’m old enough now that I’m willing to accept that I’m culturally Catholic, but it would be just as honest to call myself an atheist as a pagan. If religion is a metaphor to help us make sense of the fact that we’re skeletons inhabited by colonies of microbes and stitched together with bloody meat, then I figured I could use one. I’d be a chaos magician who doesn’t believe in magic.

My fabricated faith doesn’t do shit for my anxiety. I tried for awhile. I had this mantra: “I am of the earth. I will return to the earth.” I said it to myself as panic came over me in waves, and to be real, it didn’t work. A darker epiphany still: I gave it all this thought, but religion wasn’t enough.

It’s been mostly the detached, scientific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—and the tools it taught me—that’s gotten me through. As the worst things in my life happen, I go to self-diagnosis mode: how am I feeling, concretely? On an emotional pain scale of 1 to 10, where am I? Where do I think it would appropriate to be? How long does each wave of panic or grief take hold of my mind? How long are the intervals between?

Those are the kinds of questions that work for me. Better than invisible dudes or nature-is-god or even freedom-and-anarchy-are-all-that-matter.

But coming to know the divine, in my own way, has helped me understand the bigger picture. It’s helped me come to terms with the arc of my life, of the role I play as a strand in the woven twine of my family, my movement, and human history. I feel more connected to the earth, I feel more comfortable with the inevitability of my own death.

All light comes from darkness, after all.


Margaret Killjoy

Margaret Killjoyis an author and editor who travels with no fixed home. Margaret’s most recent book is A Country of Ghosts, a utopian novel published by Combustion Books in 2014. Find more of Margaret’s words at Birds Before The Storm.

 


This work was originally published in our first journal, A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.