Articulate / Inarticulability

Part 2

Renée Stout, ‘The Rootworker’s Table,’ 2011, Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Photo by Eric Shoemaker.

Mary Douglas reminds us that sorcery and witchcraft, which she identifies as “pollution powers” (not toxins, but powers viewed systemically as problematic because of their transgressive nature) occur “where the lines of structure, cosmic or social, are clearly defined” (136). Queerness, as a construct, is made possible by the not-queer. The bipolar spectrum of sexuality and gender — man and woman — recognized for centuries by mainstream, white hegemony has made possible an articulation of the interstices between. Without the poles, in this example, transgression would not be possible in the same way. This is true of magical power, as well. When magic becomes mainstream, we might begin to see it lose its capacity to surprise, to frighten, to intoxicate, to produce the power that we need it to produce. 

It seems odd to say this as someone who advocates for others to read poetry, but we might consider that poetry also claims power that thrives off this same opposition to the mainstream. Or so it has in some ways, and not in others. Some poets claim more mainstream, articulate power, and poetry is capable of harnessing articulation and its rejection.

People in the mainstream are registering and taking advantage of magical practice in ways that magic has never been captured before. Bundles of sage have overtaken self-help books as a natural path to cleansing, and sage, a sacred plant for many, has been co-opted and reclaimed variously as both sacred and mundane. In 2021’s White Magic, Elissa Washuta explores this phenomenon: 

As a Native woman and an occult enthusiast, I had an opinion. I had an opinion about a Macklemore video interview in which a non-Native astrologer teaches him to burn white sage, a traditional medicine for California Native peoples; in the wild, it’s threatened by non-Native overharvesting. (4)

I don’t need to come down on one side of the ethical quandary to claim that even the ubiquity of sage burning is proof that magical ritual practices that were once esoteric and occult, hidden, are now clearly lined up in plastic boxes in the light of day. 

People are buying magic, it is “sold as self-help,” as Washuta continues (5). Without having read the book, one may assume so far from my quotes that Washuta is vehemently opposed to this commodification and spread of magic, but instead of landing squarely on the side of traditionalism, her essays are far more nuanced and explain that magic’s travel beyond the occult has made it possible for many, like her, to explore or embrace new practices of help.

People continue learning magic from other people both in their own cultural groups and beyond as an act of sharing power for healing. Take Dr. Rev. Aaron Davis, for instance, a culture worker who amalgamates Orisha and ancestor worship with hoodoo, rootwork, and Christianity in his work; listen to his interview on the Glitch Bottle podcast to hear him explain his work as a personal nexus of discoveries over time. Davis is a product of multiple ritual and spiritual traditions, echoing today’s multinational, transdiasporic culture of spiritual praxes. Lines are not clearly visible among camps. Nations do not separate the internet; neither can we, very effectively, maintain cogent boundaries to protect traditions and communities’ spiritual practices from global creep. Preserving heritage, in the sense of a cryo-freeze, can be done in books and photographs, but can it be accomplished by keeping people and curiosity out? Is that a thing we want?

Later in her essay, Elissa Washuta claims, “really, I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder,” as do I, “but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left” (5). Magic has always, always been between boundaries, inarticulate, and is often the product of accretion and syncretism of cultures. From the syncretism of Greek and Egyptian magical practices, we got the Greco-Egyptian Magical Papyri. Greece was colonizing Egypt at the time, we must remember, and whiteness is colonizing Native practice in Washuta’s estimation — not only of sage. What is the balance of border-crossing that we want to encourage, in our own capacity and in that of others’?

People come to magic by many routes, one of the most consistent being desperation. “I cannot control this world,” Washuta writes of a certain moment in her life (8). Magic solves problems that, in the systems and structures humans have established, or in our own personal capacities, are insurmountable. Poetry, too, is magic for the inarticulable. Just think of every burial invoking a poem, or every wedding recitation of a psalm. As Peter O’Leary writes of Robert Duncan’s poetry in Gnostic Contagion, we find in words both our illness, the contagion of language-magic, and its cure. Knowledge, which is relation and which is from the Word, according to our antihero Aleister Crowley in the opening to The Book of Lies, is what kills and also cures Gnostics and alchemists (10). Magical poems reflect on themselves and reflect themselves, and us, back in order to show us the truth. 

Magic, believed in, can do anything because it is, scientifically, impossible. So can we, do we want to, keep those in need or those desperate for help, out?

— Eric