Guest post shared by Danielle.
All of us who love the tarot are used to various slams against it, from the notion that it’s scientifically nonsense to the claim that it’s linked to the devil.
There are even critiques from the ‘inside’, primarily the acknowledgement that the standard 78-card RWS/Thoth/Visconti tarot has a troubling history of racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism (to name just a few nasty -isms) in terms of imagery. The Little Red Tarot community, for me, is wonderful precisely because of this awareness and the communal intention to critique this framework and explore alternatives.
What is of concern to me here is the structure of the tarot itself: how historically it came to be, and the ways in which that structure might be irrevocably tied to its historical origins (the values of which were patriarchy, hierarchy, racism, and Enlightenment ideals). Can the master’s tools ever be used to dismantle the master’s house? Can the tarot survive the revolution and, perhaps more to the point, why do we spend so much time and energy to ‘fix’ it in the first place?**
**To be clear, I follow the scholarship of Michael Dummett regarding the origin of the tarot, which means I don’t believe that numerology or archetypes (or even suits the way we ascribe the elements to them these days) were aspects the original creators of the cards had in mind, nor was the tarot designed to be anything more than a trump-taking playing card game. I understand and appreciate that many will disagree with this perspective – and a difference of opinion may render some of my points moot in their eyes. However, I believe the main idea of the essay can be food for thought regardless of one’s belief concerning history.
As Marshal MacLuhan declared, “The medium is the message.” That is, we should not merely be critiquing the kinds of messages we send to each other using this or that medium (e.g., “Television show X is sexist”), but rather we should be critiquing the medium itself first (e.g., “What are the values built into the tool of television itself that we necessarily take up when we engage with it?”).
Tools are never value-neutral. They don’t provide us with a blank slate to do whatever we wish, because tools actively shape the way we communicate and understand the world.
In Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus, the Egyptian God of writing, Thoth (the same Thoth of Crowley’s tarot), is put to task for his creation.
Plato’s concern is that writing tricks us into believing that knowledge can be gained by reading, when in reality true wisdom is something that
(1) is deeply contextual, tied to history, place, culture, and time (whereas writing appears to be able to speak to everyone, for all time, as long as one is literate), and
(2) requires one to spend a great deal of time thinking through, internalizing, and living information in order for it to turn into true knowledge and, eventually, wisdom (whereas you open a book and think you’ve learned something immediately after reading the words).
Plato, following his teacher Socrates, also argues that all real knowledge is dialectic: without the back-and-forth of dialogue, conversation and debate, wisdom can never emerge. Books seem to be speaking, but there is never any conversation possible with them.
Contemporary philosopher David Abram goes even further, arguing in The Spell of the Sensuous that the invention of reading and writing led to the silencing of the natural world, as literate cultures grew to believe humans were the only ones who write – and thus think – and were therefore the only creatures that mattered morally in the world.
Thus, not only were the concepts of information and knowledge collapsed into one, but our actual perception of and engagement with the world changed with the invention of literacy. Might the tarot, as a tool, also negatively shape our understanding of the world?
Some believe that the tarot contains universal archetypes that transcend culture and time.
But what appears to be a universal archetype, such as an earth deity, is always actually relative to each specific culture in distinct ways – nearly untranslatable in its complexity, history, place, culture, time, and context. Even if there were something ‘universal’ about the figures in question, once the context that surrounds the archetype changes, the meaning changes and we get an entirely new concept.
Furthermore, the Jungian/Campbell archetype approach is worrisome as well, because some archetypes are themselves morally problematic (reinforcing gender, hierarchy, heteronormativity, etc). Even if we are to champion the concept of the archetype, why does the tarot have the particular archetypes/concepts it does and not others? What is missing? What if some archetypes-as-concepts conflict with other concepts we might wish to include?
For example, as an anarchist, I believe it is dangerous to think that the hierarchical structures we see in the standard tarot cards are essential or important. While our lives do of course concern power struggles, for me it is about understanding that this isn’t normal, natural, or inevitable – just like knowing that while we currently have gender concepts that structure our lives, they aren’t necessarily going to be around forever. But if we take the tarot to contain eternal truths, then representations of hierarchy will make hierarchy seem unavoidable in our lives. Re-naming a few cards will not erase this underlying structure.
Can the assumption of metaphysical universals (such as eternal archetypes) exist alongside an acknowledgment that our identities are specific and radically unique?
We might have to choose. There’s no shame in recognizing that the tarot has its limits, because limits are inevitable and can even be wonderful. Limits make things particular in the world, the way you are you and I am me. Perhaps we need to acknowledge the limits of archetypal concepts and figure out if the particular kinds of limits the tarot has built-in make it impossible for the medium to be a truly moral project in any context.
The tarot can never be divorced from its origins and history – one that is inherently white, male, upper-class, Catholic, heterosexual, and European.
I can change the image of the Emperor, but why am I interested in the concept of an emperor at all? I can alter the way the Fool is portrayed, but this ignores the fact that even the idea of ‘the Fool’s journey’ comes from a particular worldview with a particular agenda – in this case, one that reinforces Liberal ideas of an isolated individual self who must face the world alone. Why is the story of the tarot the story of the Fool and not, say, the journey of a community? Indeed, the neoliberalism built into the tarot shows itself in insidious ways.
The way most of us even approach ‘a tarot reading’ is with this mindset: one single person does the reading for one single ‘customer’ to talk about that one single person’s life. That life will involve moments of overlap with other people – as questions of love, work, health, etc always do. But this overlap is seen as radically individual people coming together for mutual interest with other radically individual people – like the social contract theory that grew out of the European Enlightenment and structures our current political life.
The question then is, even if we find these concepts interesting or helpful when we do readings, are they really the best available, the most important, the most relevant for the particular person for whom we’re reading?
One cannot really give an anarchic communitarian radical-feminist reading, for instance, with the tarot. And it’s not a matter of needing to ‘rehabilitate’ the images or stories. It’s a matter of the structure and history of the tarot itself.
As cultural critic Neil Postman was fond of saying, smoke signals as a communication medium are excellent for conveying certain sorts of ideas and messages, but they cannot be used to write sonnets. It’s not a matter of ‘rehabilitating’ the smoke signal so that it can better express poetry. It’s that the underlying tool itself simply cannot support that sort of discourse.
If it turns out that to be human is not to be a radically isolated individual but to be the point of overlap of all of my communally enmeshed roles and relationships – and if I come to accept this ontology of the self as true – there is no way for me to express this through the tarot. It would be like trying to form an iambic pentameter couplet with smoke.
Renaming cards only does so much if we’re still fundamentally adhering to the RWS/Crowley 78-card format..
..because those histories, specific images, and original names are what the tarot is, and so those images and words are in essence still there, just under the surface, still influencing one’s readings. As Jacques Derrida would say, an erasure necessarily leaves a trace of what has been erased. And this trace is often the part of the text that is most meaningful.
For example, some people today want to repurpose the concept of ‘beauty’ to encompass the dis- or differently-abled, all body shapes and sizes, the queer, etc, which seems at first glance to be a noble task. Perhaps it is.
But perhaps, more importantly, we need first to ask why we are bothering to ‘save’ the concept of beauty at all. Perhaps, since it’s been tied to a history of power used to abuse women and others, it is best simply to stop caring about beauty as a concept at all. While each of us will always find some people and things more attractive or pleasing than others, it is not clear that ‘beauty’ is necessary to describe or explain such experiences. What if we stop attempting to take control of the game of beauty and refuse to play the game altogether? What would we gain and what would we lose by such an act?
Why, when cartomancy can take literally infinite forms, do many of us stick so closely to the tarot? Is there really anything so special about this particular format (especially given that the tarot was originally just a playing card game)? Why have oracle cards never matched the popularity of the Visconti/RWS/Thoth tarot?
So far my line of argument directs us to having to abandon the tarot if we truly want to move forward into a revolutionary, inclusive future.
But let’s give tarot a final fair shake here and speak of the personal. As a (once-Wiccan, now-secular) tarot reader for more than twenty years, I’ve had literally nothing but positive experiences. I’ve seen time and again how helpful the tarot can be to others, how deeply meaningful and insightful a reading can be. It is a constant reminder to me not to judge others as shallow or uninteresting. Everyone has their own life, struggles, and dreams. Tarot reading is fun, too – and a wonderful way to get to know a stranger at a party.
So why haven’t I switched to another kind of card reading? Because I’ve never come across an oracle deck that equals the impact of the tarot – but I also admit I haven’t tried very hard. The arguments I’m making in this essay are more cerebral than deeply emotionally felt; and yet I can’t refute any of them, which strikes me as troubling.
All I can do in the face of such critiques is to clutch my cards hard and exclaim, “But…but.. I LIKE the tarot!!”
Especially for white folks such as myself, there is the issue of having apparently very little culture to hold on to. The tarot’s age and history are partly what draws so many of us to it – the idea that it connects us to a past and to all the other tarot readers that have gone before. Another reason for why we keep the tarot around is that it is, quite simply, there for us to use.
It is really, truly hard to come up with new tools. Culture is not something we can create out of thin air without precedent or influence from what surrounds us, and this is precisely why revolutionary thinking and being in general is so difficult. If we want card reading as part of our lives, how do we forget the only examples we’ve ever had access to and create a brand new approach without any ties to them?
The simple answer is: we can’t. We can’t easily turn our backs on the tarot – or anything in our culture that has seemed to provide insight, meaning, value, help, and connection to others despite the equally real faults that may come along with it. The key is not letting our tastes dictate our ethics.
One thing to consider is whether or not the positive effects of tarot are unique to tarot. Is it impossible to achieve the same or similar results with a different tool? Can there be other, equally satisfying forms of cartomancy (or whatever we use the tarot for) that don’t have the problems of the tarot? What is essential to the tarot to make it tarot – if we want to continue to care about tarot and not just oracles? What are its moral virtues and can they overcome its historical vices?
I honestly don’t know if the tarot survives the revolution.
I think we find out by asking tough questions such as these together, considering – and testing out – the alternatives, and waiting to see how the tarot changes (or doesn’t) when we seek to integrate it into truly serviceable, moral communities. For radicals, there can be no tools or ideas that go unchallenged, even the ones that are closest to our hearts.
The tarot is a tool that might offer help to ourselves and others, but it is not the only tool available to us, and no doubt we can do good work without it. At the very least, being mindful of these issues will help us use the tarot within its limits and help prevent us from thinking it can do more than it really can.
About the author
Danielle is a tarot reader and collector living in Chicago, IL.
Decks featured: William Blake Tarot, Linweave Tarot, The Mythic Tarot, Thoth Tarot, Medieval Tarot, Hermetic Tarot, Rider-Waite-Smith, Earthbound Oracle, and Belline Oracle