Freaks first, witches second

So this one time in middle school I was waterboarded.  I was being forced to participate in one of those terribly ineffective car-washing fundraisers at my prep school summer day camp (where workaholic rich people leave their kids during school breaks) and a pack of high school boys decided it would be loads of fun to pin me to the ground by my arms and legs and dump buckets of water and containers of soap over my face while I sputtered and choked.  We didn’t yet have Facebook to occupy us, you see.

It probably says something about my subsequent life experiences and character development (whatever that is) that I can look back on my childhood (particularly in light of all of the hoo-ha about online bullying) and sort of chuckle about this (admittedly, drink in hand).  Ah, youth.  I bring it up here because there’s often a lot of discussion about whether or not witchcraft is a platform for the marginalized to construct an identity that garners some kind of social capital.  Many of us are very invested in demonstrating that WITCHES ARE JUST LIKE REGULAR PEOPLE, JEEZ GUYS.  We get pissed when Fox News calls us out on our Dungeons & Dragons campaigning, or when school counselors worry that we’re just socially retarded, or when the military doesn’t respect us, or when people assume that we’ve just watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  We practice witchcraft because we need to feel like we have some control, like we’re special.  That’s what people say.  And then the Community freaks out and we have to parade out our most normal-looking members as evidence that WE’RE JUST LIKE YOU LOOK AT OUR SENSIBLE SLACKS AND COLLEGE DEGREES.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past occupying that camp myself.  But lately I’ve been evaluating my own life and thinking, “No, actually I think maybe we are witches because we’re freaks.”  I think it’s too easy to make arguments about marginalization (there seems to be more agency implied than I’m comfortable with), and I’m not prepared to make sweeping statements about entire groups of people, but I am prepared to say that witchcraft has given me a place and a voice that I wouldn’t have otherwise.  (Thanks for the insight, I.M. Lewis et al.)  I don’t think I would be a witch were it not for the alienating experiences I had growing up and subsequent marginalization endured as an adult.  I also think that it’s those experiences of marginality that lend power to my witchcraft.  I could not do what I do if I were overly concerned with fitting in with more conventional social groups.  Being an outsider (in particular contexts, obviously) gives me the space to experiment.  If people don’t like you anyway, why not engage in magical practices that involve draping yourself in dead animal parts and smelly ointments?

Lots of people calling themselves “traditional witches” (and we could say loads here about social capital and constructions of authenticity) complain about the “whitewashing” of witchcraft, blaming it on Wicca (which is not “real witchcraft”), Neo-Paganism, the New Age, etc.  And while I think there are some pretty hilarious flaws in most of these folks’ individual arguments, I agree with the overall sentiment.  The figure of the witch is different depending on time and place (I’m being very broad here), but one thing that’s fairly consistent is this: the witch is not someone you should want to hang out with.  And I think there’s still something to that.

And now I must pet Oliver.

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3 thoughts on “Freaks first, witches second

  1. naturaltruth

    “there’s often a lot of discussion about whether or not witchcraft is a platform for the marginalized to construct an identity that garners some kind of social capital.”

    How about this: First off, I’m assuming that “marginal” means just what it sounds like — a subset group ‘on the margins’ of a larger (sub)culture. Second, I’m assuming that the innovation of new forms of capital always occurs on the margins, where scarcity makes it a necessity (as opposed to the possessors of capital, who are engaged in defending and entrenching its ‘traditional’ value). The Haves want to preserve scarcity while the Have-Nots look for ways to subvert that scarcity but are motivated by the same ‘values’ as the culture-setting Haves. I think this these two basic assumptions would be fairly easy to defend given any number of examples — the most fascinating recently would be entrenched youth subcultures creating the pejorative ‘hipster’ to embody, among other things, someone who displays symbols / capital that they haven’t ‘earned’ — poseurs who lack depth or authenticity… a way to make capital such as clothes that are easy to obtain somehow more scarce by attaching non-tangible qualities to them.

    If those assumptions are true, then *any* new religious movement is going to be a platform for the marginalized to construct identity. Also, it means that the culture-setters who control the definition of who is “normal” and who is “a freak” are always going to assign pejorative labels to the subversive new groups. As for witches trying to be “normal” — code switching? Could explain why a desire to be normal is only something emphasized by witches in very specific situations (while being misrepresented in wider media), while in other contexts (festivals) being normal is a liability, or at least not as likely to garner capital.

    The way you talk about “freak” here is interesting… it has that maddening “not real” quality. But it is socially real in any given context. A moving target. If I had time or a better memory, I could blab about some labeling theory crap that I read once, but BORING

    I guess here’s where it’s interesting to me: You choose whether to code switch or not, right? Don’t all witches? And unlike an embodied status, you can effectively switch from the bone-adorned witch to the blazer-wearing academe with little effort. Is it a rational strategy about accruing social capital? What do you gain from wearing a fox tail to work? What do you lose? What difference does it make? And do you think it relates to an intrinsic and permanent self?

    I’m curious how you relate your adolescent social status with your status as a witch. On the face of it, middle schoolers assigned you a label that you can easily choose not to identify with at this stage in your life. Right? Why or why not?

    Reply
  2. Ali

    I am not sure I have much more to add to this, given my own personal issues of identity. I think the best I can claim is agnostic pagan, and would like to identity as a witch. However, I don’t feel right fully identifying as an academic and also as a witch, given my inner confusion. I’m not entirely sure if this is because I see the stigma of the practitioner-academic and wish to disassociate of it, or because I don’t feel I have suffered enough through dedication to qualify as a witch. I am typing this between taking notes on Weber and Nietzsche, so sorry if I am prattling.

    By the by, you are missed on Instagram.
    Ali (dreamsolidarity)
    PS: I need another way to contact you, in case I need to ask questions or send you love notes. Or trinkets of fun. Don’t ask specifics, I have things in mind.

    Reply
  3. Davin Raincloud

    Thorn,
    Hi, I’ve been following your blog. Love it.

    I read something that I wanted to share in context of this whole ‘purging’ or Wicca: “The irony of a critique is that the object being critiqued has to continue to exist for the critique to be relevant.”

    Cheers

    D

    Reply

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