Recommended Reading For The Resistance

Many people are expressing shock and dismay that a fascist government has taken over the USA, and at the rising tide of xenophobia in Broken Brexit Britain. However, if you are at all familiar with the rise of the Third Reich and the operation of oppressive systems such as the British Empire, the signs have been writ large for some time. If you need a crash course in recognising the oppressive atmosphere for what it is, then here’s a crash course. Why have I chosen mostly novels? Because novels try to describe how it feel to be in the situation, and to provoke empathy. And empathy for the persecuted is what we need more of right now.

Continue reading

Triple Goddesses

Most people, when “the Triple Goddess” is mentioned, probably think of the Maiden, Mother, Crone archetype. However, this archetype can be very limiting, and there are many other triple goddesses who are worth exploring: goddesses of the land and sovereignty, goddesses with many skills and roles, goddesses who are women in their own right, not merely roles in relation to a man.

Continue reading

The Blogging Ecosystem

The beautiful thing about blogging is that people can self-publish their work, and they own it, flaws and all. It generally rises and falls in the internet ecosystem on its own merits. Patheos attempted to give certain blogs an evolutionary advantage… but now they want to genetically modify them as well. That crosses a line for me.

Continue reading

Review of Queer Paganism by Jo Green

Queer Paganism by Jo Green

Queer Paganism by Jo Green

I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement throughout most of this book. The author’s sensible and down-to-earth approach to magic and Paganism was very much in tune with my way of thinking. They [1] also have an exceptionally clear style of writing, which makes the book a pleasure to read.

The book’s subtitle is “A spirituality that embraces all identities” and the author has done their best to include everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community and heterosexuals too. This book would definitely be of interest to queer Pagans and open-minded heterosexuals. It is not only about queer Paganism, but is about inclusive practice. It is very Wicca-flavoured though, so if Wicca isn’t your thing, you might not like it.

Exploring Queer Paganism

The first chapter explores the meanings of Queer and Paganism. It explains that Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft are distinct but overlapping. The second chapter looks at how the standard binary thinking of many Pagans (male/female, light/dark, etc) doesn’t include those of us who don’t fit neatly into a cisgender and heterosexual view of the world. Each section of the discussion unfolds clearly and neatly from the previous section of the discussion. This could be very helpful for those people who still haven’t understood why many (perhaps most) queer people have an issue with the deification of the “masculine and feminine principles”. The next chapter goes on to explore concepts of deity and energy, and how these fit together in a worldview that is not based on the idea of a “masculine principle” interacting with a “feminine principle”.

Queer Magic

The second part of the book deals with Magic, and includes an excellent chapter on how magic works (again, very similar to my own ideas on the topic). It also looks at how magic and science interact.  The section on the Hermetic principles as described in The Kybalion, which explains how they relate to a queer worldview, is outstanding. This is followed by a chapter on ethics, which was excellent on the topic of magical ethics, but would have been better if it explored the Pagan ethics of life in general.

Living as a Pagan

The third section of the book deals with Pagan life, including living as a Pagan, the importance of balance, how to choose a magical name, and relationships with deities. The chapter on the festivals was disappointing, as it was mainly about the view of the Sabbats as the unfolding story of “the Goddess and the God” which I personally find unhelpful from a queer point of view. It does cover the folk customs associated with the festivals though, so you could build out from these to develop something more inclusive. It explains how to adapt the festivals for use in the Southern Hemisphere, which is good. It also mentions that you can choose to celebrate them on the day when the appropriate seasonal vegetation comes into flower, which I liked. I would have liked to see more information on how to adapt the festivals to be more inclusive of other sexualities (but I have covered this in my book, if you’re interested).  The chapter on the esbats and the phases of the Moon was helpful, though.

Meditation and Visualisation

The fourth part of the book covers meditation and visualisation.  This includes a technique which the author says is helpful for easing body dysphoria. I have seen this meditation before (and it’s the only technique that I find actually helps me to relax) but I didn’t know it was good for dysphoria, so that’s really useful to know. The section on building an astral temple is also excellent, as it points out that an astral temple doesn’t have to be a building, and can be a grove of trees. I had always assumed that it was supposed to be a building of some kind, and had terrible difficulty building one. I do however, have a grove of trees on the astral, and a rather nice stone circle, either of which could be my astral temple. So that section cleared up a longstanding difficulty for me! The chapter on the chakras is very good (and uses the proper Sanskrit names) but draws on the Western idea of the chakras, which is somewhat different from the Buddhist view of them.

Queer Correspondences

The next section explores magical correspondences, including deities, non-binary deities, queer deities, moon phases and the menstrual cycle (but described in an inclusive [2] way), orgasm mysteries, the four elements, days of the week, colours, and magical tools. This provides the basis of a system of magic that is properly queer-inclusive. I particularly liked the section on colour symbolism. This section also explains the difference between widdershins and deosil, and why they are different in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.

Queer Ritual

The section on ritual was very helpful, as it goes through how to set up the circle, cleansing the space, calling the quarters, and consecrating the tools and the participants. One caveat on this section though: the author mentions that the high priestess and high priest have absolute authority in the circle (p. 128). I wouldn’t go that far, as they do not have the right to ask you to do something that the vast majority of people would be uncomfortable with, such as French kissing, sex with other people in the circle, or anything massively humiliating. Some of the things that ritual involves may be slightly outside your comfort zone, but that’s why it is a really good idea to have a quick chat beforehand about what is going to happen in the ritual. Other than that, this section is really great and has lots of excellent ideas like having three ritual leaders, one for the God, one for the Goddess, and one for non-binary deity (the Universal, as the author refers to it).

Divination

The final section of the book deals with divination, including gematria (finding the magical number of your name), Tarot, runes, scrying, and palmistry. This section was also very good, especially the section on the magical meaning of numbers.

An excellent addition to your Queer Pagan bookshelf

All in all, a very enjoyable read. The book is well-thought-out, and it is very easy to find things again when you want to use it as a how-to guide for magical practice. There were a few typographical errors here and there, but they didn’t detract from my enjoyment or understanding of the book, and they were more than made up for by the exceptionally clear writing style. The author’s lovely drawings also grace the text, and help to explain the magical concepts being discussed.

The book is an excellent contribution to the literature on inclusive and queer Paganism and witchcraft, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in making their practice more inclusive and welcoming to LGBTQIA+ Pagans.

Where to get the book:


Notes

  1. The author’s preferred pronoun is they [Back]
  2. The male brain also has cycles governed by the hypothalamus [Back]

I was not sent this book for review. I bought it myself and reviewed it of my own free will and accord. Please do not send me books for review, as I generally dislike writing book reviews, and only reviewed this book because I thought it was important and worth drawing attention to.

 

Imagining Other Possible Worlds

Science fiction, particularly the writings of Ursula le Guin, explores hypothetical alternative societies, cultures, futures, and histories. I am currently watching Babylon 5 again on DVD, and would highly recommend it as an exploration of what happens when a totalitarian and xenophobic government takes over, and how people come together to resist.

Alternative visions of the world

Both fantasy and SF present alternative visions of the world. Some of these visions are helpful, and others are not. Some are dystopian, some are utopian. Some are hierarchical, some are egalitarian. Some have individual heroes, others have resistance movements. Some inspired whole Pagan movements, such as the Church of All Worlds, inspired by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Can you grok that? There are a surprising number of parallels between Paganism and SF, and a lot of Pagans who read SF, too.

The other day, I saw this tweet, and it set me thinking. Would people who said they’d follow the MockingJay, or fight in Dumbledore’s army, actually resist fascism? Would they be able to relate the fantasy world resistance to the real thing?

In order to answer that question, which of these genres provides better models for resisting a slide into fascism, we have to take a step back to another question.

What’s the difference between fantasy and SF?

Science fiction usually offers an explanation (however tenuous or inferred) of how the world, and the technology in it, came to be the way it is. Science fiction can include alternative histories, what-if scenarios, extrapolations into the future, utopias, and dystopias. It has many sub-genres. There’s hard science fiction, which mainly deals with the effects of technology on society; soft science fiction, which looks at things from a social science perspective (anthropology or sociology, sometimes linguistics or psychology). There’s steampunk, where the technology is mostly steam-driven, with lots of cogs and brass (this emerged out of the alternative history sub-genre). SF is sometimes called speculative fiction.

In fantasy, the underlying technology is generally magic. Fantasy also has several sub-genres. There’s the sword and sorcery tale. There’s space opera (which is basically fantasy masquerading as SF). A lot of fantasy seems to be set in a very hierarchical medieval or feudal world, and often in a magic kingdom which is reached by a magic door (or wardrobe, or mirror). There are many interesting and classic fantasy novels, but in many ways the genre was put out of joint by the sheer weight of The Lord of the Rings, which has had many imitators, most of them bad (I really like LoTR, but for goodness’ sake, get your own plot, fantasy authors). And quite frankly, the Harry Potter books are basically a school story with magic in it (though I heartily approve of the egalitarian behaviour of “Dumbledore’s Army”, and of the brilliant caricature of OFSTED in the person of Dolores Umbridge). A marvellous exception to all of this is Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy, which is deeply anti-authoritarian, and has quite a lot of crossover with science fiction, with parallel worlds, and even a slight steampunk feel to some of the worlds in it. And of course there’s Terry Pratchett’s brilliantly insightful Discworld novels, which are arguably Pagan theology at its finest.

Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is set in our reality, into which fantastic elements emerge, and it uses these to comment on things in our world. Examples include most of Neil Gaiman‘s oeuvre, Seanan McGuire’s hilarious InCryptid series, which is about the adventures of a family of cryptozoologists, the Storm trilogy by R A Smith, and The Last Changeling by F R Maher.

Models for resistance and change in SF and fantasy

In fantasy novels, when someone resists the encroachment of evil, the evil is usually fairly obvious, and frequently relies on a supernatural source of power. It’s a Dark Lord (Voldemort, Sauron, etc). Better quality fantasy novels have more subtle tyrants, like Saruman, who started out trying to resist Sauron, but because he tried to use Sauron’s power to do so, ended up becoming like Sauron himself. Another example of a subtly-drawn tyrant is Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials, who works for the Magisterium, and indeed Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who is something of an ambivalent character. The protagonist of these novels is usually especially gifted with magical powers to resist the evil (the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising; Harry Potter; even Lyra), or has been fated to be the one to resist since the beginning of time, or since their birth. One of the clever things about The Lord of the Rings is that there’s nothing all that special about Frodo Baggins, except perhaps the ordinariness of hobbits. As Tolkien himself pointed out, it is Frodo’s vulnerability and smallness that fitted him for the task.

In science fiction novels and dramas, the evil or oppression to be resisted is often systemic, and identifiable as a human construct, the outcome of a complex web of causality (though sometimes, as in Isaac Asimov’s story The Caves of Steel, it’s the consequence of the environment). Because the evil or oppression is usually systemic, the means of resisting it is usually co-operative and collaborative; not led by one single hero, but requiring the input of many people working together. In Babylon 5, for example, although Sheridan is important as a leader of the resistance, he couldn’t have done it without Delenn, Ivanova, Garibaldi, Franklin, the resistance on Mars, the co-operation of the security people who didn’t collaborate with the regime, and so on. In Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge, the resistance consists of many different individuals coming together to bring about change.

Bertolt Brecht, Darko Suvin, and cognitive estrangement

In his ground-breaking essay, Estrangement and Cognition (1968, 1979, 2014), where he analyses the difference between SF and fantasy, Darko Suvin, a Croatian-Canadian literary critic, wrote that science fiction engages in ‘cognitive estrangement’. Suvin says that fantasy and myth is estranged from everyday reality, but it does not ask us to think about why; we accept the magic door, and other magical effects, as a priori necessities in the fantastical universe. Literary fiction, set in our universe, is not estranged, though it may be cognitive and require us to think about cause and effect. Science fiction, on  the other hand, is set in an alternative world, but it is one we are required to think about, and to actively construct in our imaginations by looking for clues in the text about how the world, and its technology, works; how the society of the SF novel came to be the way it is.

Suvin based his interpretation on the Russian theatre technique of ostranenie, a term coined by the playwright Shklovsky, and meaning ‘making the familiar strange’. This is similar to Bertolt Brecht’s use of Verfremdungseffekte (often translated as ‘alienation effects’, but Suvin’s translation, ‘estrangement effects’, gets the idea across much better). It’s possible that Brecht was told about the technique on a visit to Moscow in 1935. Brecht created his plays and poetry to get people thinking, and to do that, he didn’t want them to identify with the characters and achieve a cathartic effect or a discharge of emotion. Instead, he wanted people to think about what they would do in a similar situation, or about the causes of the situation. Why does Mother Courage go round and round in circles, getting poorer and more miserable? Why do the characters of The Threepenny Opera have such terrible lives? Brecht wants us to analyse the underlying causes, as well as having a general solidarity or empathy with the characters.

Analysing systems

The beauty of the science fictional setting, of course, is that it is already strange, and so it makes the reader think about what is happening, so that they can piece together how this fictional world works. In his essay on science fiction in Speculations on Speculation, Samuel R Delaney quotes a sentence, “I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap” (from Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants). As Delaney points out, this single sentence lets you know that there is a water shortage in this world, because there is only a trickle from the fresh water tap, and the fact that it is labelled fresh tells you that there’s another tap with non-fresh water. This leads the reader to ask, why is there a water shortage? Has there been an environmental catastrophe, or is it a desert world?

Fantasy, on the other hand, does expect the reader to identify with the characters, and to achieve an emotional catharsis through the dramatic journey that they experience. Readers of fantasy, however, know that the hero will restore the proper order in the end, and defeat the evil tyrant, because that’s how fantasy works. They also know that it’s the job of the pre-destined hero with the special powers to defeat the evil tyrant. And of course they know that in the real world, the odds may be stacked against the hero. Fantasy doesn’t provide much of a road-map for defeating a whole system of tyranny. It’s very good on overthrowing the Dark Lord with a magic sword, but what if the Dark Lord has loads of minions waiting in the wings who are just as obnoxious as he is?

Science fiction, on the other hand, is set in ostensibly the same universe as the one we live in, with the same physical properties, and the same sort of people (barring the occasional telepath). Because it deals with whole systems of oppression or flourishing, it is much better placed to provide us with road-maps for change. Of course there are exceptions to the picture I am painting here, but it’s mostly true.

Change is systemic and collective

Resistance is collective. Yes, there are those who dare to dream bigger and better, and actually do something, and they are extremely important as catalysts – but a catalyst is no good unless it is followed by a reaction. In order to bring about change, we need to create a mass movement of people who are tired of racism, tired of homophobia, tired of misogyny, tired of austerity, tired of exploitation, globalisation, putting profits before people, and the widening wealth gap. We need to inspire them to dream something different. And we need to show them the blueprints for change, not just tell them that it is possible.

As Ursula le Guin said at the National Book Awards in 2014,

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

And she went on to add,

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Most fantasy merely provides an excursion from the normal order of things, in the same way that carnival and Saturnalia were an inversion of the normal order, a letting-off of steam in order to facilitate a return to business-as-usual. It would be good to see more fantasy that challenges the usual tropes of fantasy – which is why urban fantasy is such a refreshing change.

Science fiction, on the other hand, provides a blueprint for other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of feeling. It puts the characters in a hypothetical situation and asks what the human reaction to that situation would be; not the superhero reaction, but the human one. It can posit whole different ways of organising society, or gender, or sexuality, or the economy, and explore in depth how they would work, and how people would flourish or struggle in that environment.

Valencia, Spain. [CC0 Public Domain] Pixabay

Valencia, Spain. [CC0 Public Domain] Pixabay

Recommended reading – fiction

  • The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
  • City of Refuge – Starhawk
  • The Dispossessed – Ursula Le Guin
  • Always Coming Home – Ursula Le Guin
  • Empire of Bones – Liz Williams
  • The Ghost Sister – Liz Williams

Recommended reading – non-fiction

  • Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, eds James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria
  • The Anarres Project for alternative futures

You say you want a revolution? (Review)

Review: You say you want a revolution? At the V&A, London.

The title of the newest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London comes from the Beatles song, Revolution. The exhibition tells the story of social change in the sixties through music, fashion, posters, propaganda, a very grainy video of the Moon landings, a piece of Moon rock, and much more. It includes album covers, clothes, furniture, a Wiccan sword, a goat head mask made by Arnold Crowther, The Lord of the Rings memorabilia, music, design, and architecture. They even have Woody Guthrie’s diary, open at the page where he wrote that he had painted ‘This machine kills fascists’ on his guitar.

The exhibition is on until 26 February 2017. As you enter, you are given a headset with sixties music on it, which adds a musical accompaniment to the different areas of the exhibition.

What struck me about the exhibition, and about the decade as a whole, was just how contemporary it all is, and what a radical transformation it represented. The sixties was a time of resisting authority, protest against the Vietnam war, the sexual revolution, gay and lesbian rights, the Black Panthers, and an end to deference. One of the exhibits was the ten-point list of demands from the Black Panthers, which were entirely reasonable, as they included the right of Black communities to police themselves, to get the reparations they were promised after slavery ended, to have decent housing, and to get jobs.

The exhibition also showed the attempts of authoritarianism to push back against all this revolutionary change: the imprisonment of Angela Davis, the murder of Che Guevara, the suppression of the May 1968 uprising in Paris by the CRS (a special unit of the police with a reputation for brutality).

Ang

USA activist Angela Davis graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes. Photo by thierry ehrmannon Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Perhaps we no longer appreciate just how radical a shift the sixties represented. I remember Doreen Valiente’s speech at the Pagan Federation conference in 1997, when she recalled how repressive the 1950s were:

People today have no conception of how uptight and repressive society was back in the 1950s when Old Gerald first opened up the subject of witchcraft as a surviving old religion. You could not go into a shop then and buy a pack of Tarot cards or a book on the occult without getting curious looks and usually a denial that they stocked any such things. There were no paperback books on the occult, except such things as Old Moore’s Almanac and very popular stuff such as how to read tea leaves. Serious books on the subject were only obtainable second hand at very high prices. The mentality of the period was perfectly illustrated by the by the famous enquiry made by a distinguished lawyer in the course of the trial about the publication of DH Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when he quite seriously asked the jury, “Would you allow your servants to read this book?” There was a built in assumption that ordinary people were not entitled to read what they liked, or to think what they liked, and still less to do what they liked.

Before the 1960s, universities had rules in place where students were not allowed to have a member of the other sex in their rooms, and there was a curfew in place. In 1966, a woman could be refused a bank account if she didn’t have her husband’s permission to open one. Younger people were expected to defer to their ‘elders and betters’.

The sixties changed all that. We thought they had changed it forever, but perhaps each generation has to claim its rights anew. This exhibition is a timely reminder of the freedoms that the sixties revolution won for us, and how they were won through struggle and resistance, not through ‘natural progression’ from the old order. The young were the future, and the revolution had taken place in the minds of the young. Everything was in flux, and subject to change. You can see the excitement and optimism about the future in sixties design and writings.

The sixties was the decade that the Pagan revival really took off. This was reflected in the exhibition in a variety of ways – the Wiccan sword and goat mask, and the general atmosphere of a return to Nature, festival culture, the beginnings of rave culture, and a new-found reverence for the Goddess and for women.

There was a widespread fascination with the occult in the sixties too, and this was emphasised by the displays being interspersed with Tarot cards from the Hexen 2.0 Tarot by Suzanne Treister, which explores ideas ranging from computers, surveillance, the Whole Earth Catalog, Thoreau’s Walden, cybersecurity, ArpaNet, and cryptography:

HEXEN 2.0 looks into histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. HEXEN 2.0 charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of diverse scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased intelligence gathering, and the implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society. … The project simultaneously looks at diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to advances in technology including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traces precursory ideas such as those of Thoreau, Warren, Heidegger and Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film. … HEXEN 2.0 offers a space where one may use the works as a tool to envision possible alternative futures.

Somewhere along the way, the general optimism of the sixties turned into the ‘business as usual’ of the seventies. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry still stalked the streets. Much of sixties utopianism was blown away in a puff of marijuana smoke, or so it seemed. We realised that the dark side of the sexual revolution was the notion that women must be sexually available at all times. The counterculture still existed, but it hadn’t completely transformed the over-culture. The seventies were a decade of nostalgia, labour unrest, terrible fashion, and a realisation of the dark side of sixties counterculture. The eighties came in with Thatcherism, and the grim battles between striking miners and the repressive police state. In the USA there was Reagan and Reaganomics, Star Wars, and more neoliberal austerity. The UK Labour Party lost its way and succumbed to free-market economics and the doctrine that public spending is bad.

The You say you want a revolution? exhibition offers an immersive trip into the sixties, both counterculture and mainstream, and asks what we gained and what we lost. It’s like a happening, a sixties event where people would be immersed in mind-blowing imagery and music and ideas. Given the current pushing back of the civil rights of minorities under the paltry excuse of anti-terrorism, this is a very timely retrospective.