Queer / Inarticulability

Part 1

Mithras and the Bull: fresco from the mithraeum at Marino, Italy (third century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I need to get better and I’m out of ideas. I arrange the candles, and I pray.
— Elissa Washuta, “White Magic” (12)

I’ve been thinking about why we need magic.

People say that they believe in science, but science isn’t something one believes in; science is meant to be fact, hard and pure. Science produces facts. Magic is something one believes in because it cannot be proven. Magic isn’t physical and doesn’t show itself, so we can’t rely on it for vaccines or procedures that keep our bodies alive. Magic keeps our imaginations alive, and if there is a soul, that, too. Magic requires our belief: “if the community does not believe in the efficacy of a group of actions, they cannot be magical” (Mauss, 23).

Magic is what we might think of as an inarticulate power in reference to the mainstream or the system. Inarticulate is not as simple as the inability to speak. An inarticulate poetics might imply the intentional evasion of clarity, not incapability. To embrace the inarticulate is to allow abstraction and the fluid or semiotic to rule. “All margins are dangerous,” writes anthropologist Mary Douglas, “if they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins” (145, formatting preserved). The margins, the sublime gap, the space between dream and waking, in-transit, all of these spatial boundaries are dangerous and, thus, potent.

I mean inarticulate in the sense that Mary Douglas uses the word to describe the power of the sorcerer in reference to the rest of the group. In her 1966 Purity and Danger, which remains an essential text for describing magic and social power in relation to social constructs, Douglas writes: “the articulate, conscious points in the social structure are armed with articulate, conscious powers to protect the system,” the system being both oppressive and utilitarian; “the inarticulate, unstructured areas emanate unconscious powers which provoke others to demand that ambiguity be reduced” (123). 

The sorcerer figure flirts with the boundaries of the tribe, in Douglas’s colonial anthropological terms, and the sorcerer, as one on the outskirts, has access to an otherness. This otherness, a power of the boundary itself, a power of transgression, is an alterity that cannot be exactly described. It is inarticulate. This is the point of the sorcerer figure; as a “between,” that person is inarticulable. Even their name is inaccurate. The sorcerer’s reach is infinite because it is not contained, by definition, in the sense that the tribe can contain or understand it. The sorcerer inspires fear and awe because of this transgressive, translational power, much the same as the sublime leap of there-and-back-again inspires shock and awe. 

By possessing the capacity to weave in and out of categorization, the sorcerer opposes definition itself. Definition is the power that systems of organization use to grasp control from others, but if the sorcerer cannot be defined, they have evaded some capacity to be controlled. This is true only in a limited sense, of course; the sorcerer, like the witch, can still be killed. As H.D. writes in “The Walls Do Not Fall,” part one of Trilogy:

they were angry when we were so hungry
for the nourishment, God;

they snatched off our amulets,
charms are not, they said, grace;

but gods always face two-ways (...) (5)

In some of my writing, I’ve tried to approach a theory of magic and queerness as similar powers because of their similarly transgressive capacity. Queer, in a literal sense, is off. Off-beat. Perhaps the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and others have become understandable, articulate in the sense of the greater pantheon of identity categories, but the same is not true of queer or trans. To be trans is to cross, and to be queer is to be off, inarticulable, from a central hegemonic vantage. One is off or queer in comparison to something else which must be articulated. 

I consider these words, queer and trans, similar to the way we might consider the word cult in reference to religious ritual. Oc-cult refers to hidden mysteries, practices which flirt with the unknown and the shadow. A cult practice is a sidebar practice to religious ritual; the cult of Mithras that flourished underground in Ancient Rome could coexist with other pagan practices, in a sense, but offered different insight and blessings of knowledge through initiation in the not fully understood. Occult practice is only truly “wrong” from the viewpoint of a different organized religious or spiritual practice, generally speaking, though it can be frightening in a more general sense because of its flirtation with the unknown. 

Marcel Mauss defines “magical rites” as “any rite which does not play a part in organized cults — it is private, secret, mysterious and approaches the limit of a prohibited rite” (30, formatting preserved). Organized cults, by my own expanded notion, include religious and spiritual practices with known bounds. Mauss’s definition is useful to me because it implies that magic become less and less magical the more it becomes understood. To approach articulation, to become known, is to lose magical power — which is why an inarticulate queerness is inherently, to me, magical and powerful.

To flirt with the unknown or inarticulate is frightening. This is why I am interested in using “queer” to describe myself in some contexts; perhaps “gay” more accurately describes my sexuality, but “queer” describes a worldview and a sexuality that I ascribe to. Queer is an evasion of definition and allows fluidity that gay cannot. Queer is the god between H.D.’s “two-ways” and cannot be determined by polarity. 

This distinction of mine is so semantic that I think many people see it as an overdetermination, while others find it almost offensive because of the implication that some LGBTQIA+ identity groups may be more effective categories to hold liminal power over the center from than others. However, I see this semantic differentiation as a type of magical self-styling, an alchemical identitarian politic. Queerness without further definition is, I think, a challenge to definition itself. If you check the box “queer” on a survey, how can we definitely say you have defined yourself? Do you apply queerness to your sexuality? your sex? your gender? your politics? your expression? There is an infinite spectrum of queerness because every action, in theory, can be queer, and differently so than every other action. 

It is possible to make dangerous one’s identity. Perhaps this is why queer maneuvers are powerful and magical and uncomfortable; they flirt with the chaos of the unknowable, because it is un-languageable, because it is inarticulate. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism declares that feminism of the “speculative, an evolution of feminism away from overdetermined, identitarian categories, is an “unbecoming” of categories themselves (xiii–xiv). “If the problem is too much acceptance and resignation,” Halberstam writes, “then the answer must be loud and ferocious refusal” (xv).

— Eric