Rhienna Renée Guedry is the creator of The Violet Ascension Tarot, available from microcosm.pub.
Devin Smith is a Full Stop editor.
For the image-based zine version of this article, Click Here.
hey there from oregon, again we’re on the news (or maybe not!?) for being a metaphoric and literal apocalypse, but we’re trying to survive out here. i’ll reply in thread so we can keep the dialogue going. see below in line.
You Will See Yourself.
Devin: I picked up Lisa Sterle’s. Modern Witches deck, a close reworking of the Waite-Smith, enabled by the viral success of its 10S. In the accompanying text, Vita Ayala comments that “you will find yourself represented as the complex, powerful beings that you are…” Meaning the humans in this deck are a bouquet of skin colors & body types; but they are exclusively women- & nb-presenting. As a cishet man, this is an interesting space to enter: Do I see myself “represented” in these images? I’ve been reading with this deck lately, so something obviously clicked. Your deck is primarily animals, with some objects in the major arcana. Why?
Rhienna: ah, yeah this is something I think about a lot, and was definitely part of my creative process while designing the deck. I feel like there’s three (?) categories of decks in this regard:
1. decks that are anchored super hard in the traditional Waite-Smith imagery (Aquarian Tarot, etc)
2. decks that seek to represent experiences by showing an intentionally diverse variety of human bodies (favorite example of this hands down is The Collective Tarot, but Sun and Moon by Vanessa Decort, Slow Holler, and Delta Enduring all come to mind)
3. decks that vary strongly from the traditional graphic elements and/or do not include humans (mine obvs, but others like Sakki-Sakki, Wild Unknown, etc)
as to “why” my deck is primarily animals + objects: because i can also “see myself” in most of the decks mentioned above, even ones with human bodies that don’t mirror my exact physical self or lived experience. i wanted to draw something that felt universally vast/full of possibilities and personal interpretation, rather than that of a wider but still specific lens. simply put: do these colors resonate? Does this animal or object impart a message to you? and i wanted the symbols to be both direct (a fox biting/chasing its tail for The Devil, for example), but also remain open to a personal connection.
all that said, representation matters, so i’m not trying to pit the examples “two” and “three” against one another.
i have a picture somewhere from my early R&D phase before i started sketching the violet ascension tarot–i lined up several of the decks i mentioned above along with a pretty traditional one or two (i think the aquarian tarot, which is basically an art deco but also 70s looking raider-waite?) to see how the symbolism stacked up, suite by suite, card by card.
[ed. note: she looked, for many many hours, for this image, and couldn’t find it.]
back to the non-human figures and what “representation” might look like. i’ve been watching summer camp island (cartoon network/HBO), which got me thinking (about this conversation). I’m not ordinarily much of an animation person (comics/cartoons etc), but it’s felt really good during a pandemic/revolution/trash fire to let a little 12-minute magical creature storylines brighten my day.
i love how the characters are not only animals (real and imagined) and anthropomorphized objects (talking pajamas and marshmallows), but they also are subtly queer, gender non-confirming, etc. I’m not super far through the show, but already there’s been they/them pronouns, an entire planet of gender ambiguous creatures, etc. i appreciate that i might “see myself represented” as a bookish monster, a pre-pubescent yeti, or ghost toast. The show is doing something that I was trying to express with the violet ascension, although a magical island is more fun 🙂
First off: it hadn’t occurred to me until I sat down to write that you’re in Portland. Are you okay? Are you involved in the protests? What is happening? Feel free to let this drift if you’re too in the middle of things.
my reply when you sent this and now would be somewhat different, but also more of the same. we have an incredible activist scene here, and protestors have been met with incredibly autocratic force–trump delighting in making an example out of portland (aka little beruit by daddy bush; this is not a new thing).
so briefly: we had our fucked-up proud-boy friendly cop force + the feds, who made headlines when they left. locally, we didn’t see a huge difference before/after–PPD were behaving like brutes the entire time. our mayor (a real wet blanket of a democrat) finally banned tear gas after 100 days of it pouring into residential neighborhoods and waterways. the protests and marches are still happening, and there’s a ton of organization here–snack vans, medics, witches dropping off goods, you name it.
It never ceases to baffle me how people in positions to decide stuff like *whether-or-not to ban tear gas during racial justice protests* don’t seem to ask themselves, “How will history look back on this?” You know those B&W photos from the ‘60s of cops siccing attack dogs on protesters? Congratulations! That’s you in 50 years.
fast forward to the state being on fire–and portland’s neighboring county at various stages of evacuation–and a lot of BLM folks are pivoting to make sure unhoused folks have respirators and food and water. it looks like the end of the world out here (AQI is worst in the world–super cool).
overall portlanders are a mixed bag of resiliency and exhaustion. right now i’m sitting in a room with a make-shift HEPA filtration system, trying to think about what creative projects might distract me enough to stay off Twitter and refreshing AQI/fire acreage. it’s a wild time.
Apologies for any incoherency, which will hopefully not make it to any final article 😉
In Michelle Tea’s “Modern Tarot,” she recommends practicing your readings by replacing the minor arcana with standard playing cards; first abstracting the esoteric/hermetic meaning from the imagery, then working your way back to a visual deck with your fundamentals in place.
I was thinking today about representation in, like, the system of tarot. (The Golden Dawn/Hermetic/Kabbalistic symbology, numerology, etc. etc etc) People who’ve learned this occult knowledge can navigate the system, and understand, via each deck’s unique deviations, what the author felt was so important that the system must be bent. How far can you alter the system before a deck is no longer a Tarot deck?
And What is it about Tarot’s legibility that feels so universal? That keeps us coming back time & again? The roundedness of its numeric configuration; the beauty of its narrative arcs?
Some questions you’ve got me noodling: is there less ‘noise’ in a reading by removing barriers of distraction (e.g., The Wild Unknown Tarot s entirely in greyscale + animals)? And to that end: how might using a Waite-Smith deck feel after years of all these gorgeous, unique indie and alternative decks?
Your impulse to move beyond violence in your deck is fascinating.
Is it that the Golden Dawn system is reflecting a present where warfare was still a common part of the white experience (1909)? WWI hadn’t even happened yet. The number of Americans in the military in 2020 is under 0.5%, and only a part of those engage in combat.
i can say that, at the time of early research, nonviolent communication was on my mind, as was toxic masculinity as it relates to guns/cars/war, and so forth. i noticed (again, in that line-them-up image of all the decks) how many had images of weaponry, and i wasn’t interested in rotely reproducing them. (chaser: i just started reading conflict is not abuse, kind of continuing the NVC thread and taking it to a more actionable place, which is fascinating).
Summer Camp Island
I had been mulling over Summer Camp Island / talking pizzas — & thinking about legibility. (1970s hanky codes, S/D belt keyring sides, etc.) Maybe SCI is pointing to an education in post-gender legibility; replacing the impulse to “figure someone out” with some different mode of interaction. Hanky codes are occult knowledge — SCI points to a more expansive mode; a big hug, come on in!
yes. i think there’s something to this. but there’s also a softness, a sense that we all (including cis hetero folks) are learning to see all kinds of representation out there, and the characters that resonate may surprise you! so it’s both “i want to see me on screen” and “show me something totally different”–the latter is sometimes delightful to find out how differences stack up, but also how many human similarities may run deeper than you’d expect. [a possible tangent to come back to: world travel taps into that feel good vibe too; i love when travel writers get real specific about how important this is].
Summer Camp Island is all middle ground: learn to operate in this new way. No longer signal your intentions (drum fills) — instead grow new antennas. Emergent strategy.
you know, i see-saw here, but one of the things i come back to a lot is about identity and developmental phases, which may also (if you add another layer into the mix), evolve and look different every decade or so. for me, a 41-year old queer woman (who IDs very lightly as agender while being totally fine with being read as a woman; maybe i’ll come back to this even), i did my first round of coming out in the year 2000, and even then, a lot of the available labels (bisexual, in particular, though lesbian secondly) didn’t feel super great for me. i was a love-the-person gay kinda goth weirdo who found the specificity of the labels a little stiffling (but some of this may have also been: internalized homophobia!). ‘queer’ as a descriptor came into parlance a little later, and once it did, i fell safely under that umbrella.
all that said, being out and around so many different expressions of gayness in the 90s/00s was a wild ride: people were, by and large, very legible. butch/femme couples, top/bottom identified gay men. looking back there were a few genderqueer/non-conforming folks, too, but it was much easier to be bucketed up by Type. my florida gay world operated in absolutes.
something i came to love about queerness and the progression of time is how things have felt less fixed, less binary. i think for older folks (meaning older than me), a lot of this is uncomfortable. it’s why cis gay men of a certain age think a bio-queen can’t compete as a drag queen, and how TERFs somehow have justified their fucked up POVs.
but back to SCI. does the post-gender legibility appeal to me most because i’ve come that two-decade journey? when I was looking for legibility i received very different information from the world, e.g., at that point the “T” wasn’t even in the acronym GLBTQ (my college student union was GLB–it centered ‘gay’ as in ‘gay men’, then lesbians, then <big sigh> Bisexuals, we guess! circa 1998). and for folks who are, let’s say 22, non-binary, queer and questioning: does SCI not reflect back to them what they very much deserve to see on screen and in media? i’m not sure! but i’m excited to keep talking about it with you.
Like many cismen, during the last few years, I realized that I had never really engaged with my Capital-I-Identity in a serious, meaningful way.
One (of several) things for me, personally, was the Kavanaugh confirmation really fucked me up. It was as if someone had plunged into the darkest corner of male id, and, from the dripping gristle and feted peat at the very bottom, fashioned a neatly-coiffed nightmare golem, frothing at the mouth, ugly crying hot tears because the world denied him his cookie, unable but moreso unwilling to care that somewhere down the line, he might have caused a fellow human being a lasting injury. I was disgusted & enraged — because somewhere in there I recognized parts of myself.
i’ve come back to this a couple times since i received this email and you’ve spoken so succinctly about a kind of vulnerability that is critical to growth — for men to lock eyes with whatever monsters are in the mirror, and make the active choice to dismantle and/or disarm them. as a person who is surrounded by many tender, feminist, radical, tremendous men, it continues to feel significant to know this kind of analysis is taking place. to speak plainly, it gives me hope.
I was raised in Blue California in the late-80s. In my 20s, I sometimes performed wearing women’s clothing, wrote songs intended for female singers, worked with LGBTQ ppl, etc. — so this non-engagement was perniciously subtle. Being the “default identity” in our society, you can just kinda slide on by — a great idiom I heard recently is “A fish doesn’t see the water it’s swimming in.” A straight person never needs to come out, to declare himself.
I started 9-5ing at a bookshop, so I’ve been reading around it — and found the material which resonated best with my experience came from transmen; In particular, McBee’s “Amateur” really nailed it.
There’s a scene where he describes how, in his previous Butch Lesbian body, his swagger was phenomal: His slick confidence a potent catnip for ~the ladies~ on the bar scene. But, after transitioning, this same swagger was now tingled with [paraphrasing here] the whole poisonous history of men & women; he was now just another cocky jerk hitting on women. He began to retreat inward, confused, ashamed, second-guessing himself; he was beginning to see the world of men as one of them rather than an outsider.
I’ve been experiencing something similar: Material about embracing one’s Identity is often framed through claiming one’s power and agency — but cismale power & agency is so fraught that even our pronouns are etymologically toxic. It’s honestly still uncomfortable to engage with, even in correspondence.
About a year ago, I started leaning into Trad Male Aesthetics. I’m shooting for Brando in Streetcar. It’s parodic, in a way; theatrical; in some ways an obvious gender performance (& a little queer in that sense?) — but maybe that’s the point? I’m acting consciously. I’ve realized that I get to decide how to dress, how to act, how to move forward, how to be in the world.
I get to be the man I want to be. And that can mean anything, really.
what a utopic world to think about: where kids growing into being whomever they were going to be had equal access to narratives across a spectrum of narratives, from cis to trans, and not as a mulitple-choice option, but as a blended breadth of compassionate and nuanced discource of lived experiences. (also adding McBee’s “Amateur” to my wishlist).
interestingly, i’ve only recently seen (or revisited, with limited memory) streetcar! i’m from louisiana and am a year into a historical fiction work that has….well, just too many inputs right now, but thinking about brando’s machismo in a specific moment in time that correlates to my WIP, well, it was definitely instrumental. if it weren’t for the assumption that brando’s unapologetic brooding means he, uh, is also a rapist he’s got something going on there that’s really performative and fascinating. (worth noting here, though you may already know, is this delightful brando quote)–if vivian, marlon, and hell, tennessee williams himself all could live in “our time” who knows what kind of leaps this story could take (though i’ll settle for thinking about cate blanchett as blanche)!
ok, ok, so i have a tangent here that probably won’t make the final piece, but feels super anecdotal here. Lately, in these freelance spaces, cis white straight male ally-aligned humans who are altogether wonderful have started using two pieces of language that, a decade ago, would’ve been queercoded.
one, they are calling their wives and girlfriends, “partner.” and two, they are reinforcing (though occasionally policing) pronoun clarity usage, in email signatures, slack profiles, etc.
are we in a post-SCI world? or in it? in this specific space, it’s become completely casual and normal to have made these subtle linguistic changes. when i overthink them, they do the following:
- make me very very happy, because work is work and personal life is personal life and i don’t need to know on a client call the gender of your partner
- comfort around more neutral/inclusive language make a safer workplace for all kinds of other people
- create a commonplace energy around things that probably even 3 years ago felt radical/confusing (see: gender reveal parties are still happening) etc
but devil’s advocate (typical.) here: straight married men calling their wives partners… are you taking away visibility or space from queer or otherwise non-heteronormative folks? like, for ten years i’d say “partner” and people would just assume my spouse was a woman (and then the follow-up could be wildly unprofessional). Or saying “partner” even in passing to a rando could make you…unsafe or vulnerable.
what if post-SCI still means we need signaling, flagging, or something else to be seen? what about those who don’t want visibility? what about those who do? and those who feel like they’ve lost it? for those who pass and for whom “partner” felt radical: what is next to signal, to say, to own? and who will receive it?
(we’ll never answer all this, of course.)
If You Got The Money, Honey, I Got The Thyme
but i want to play my own devil’s advocate here. i work in marketing/tech as a freelance producer, which means i’m usually on an agency’s creative team helping shepherd client work that’s usually related to products, new releases, rebranding, communications, launches, that kind of thing.
a project i’m working on [which NDA, blah blah can’t talk about] for a brand everyone has heard of is looking at how to reconceptualize their visual components using art and illustrations. because the visual system will eventually have a need to have a human stand-in for the product, as you can imagine, there’s a thousand ways that could go. so, do we create a SCI world of animals? anthropomorphize a cactus? make fucked up looking humans that don’t look like anyone we know? draw very human-like figures but everyone is purple?
the question we have as creatives and the client also has is: what represents them best? and you know, it’s kind of the opposite of a SCI world. by making it a kooky fox-like character with a punk haircut and glasses, it is very much NOT a real person; by making it a blonde thin young white woman, it’s also a choice too. it started to feel important to go towards diverse representation instead of an abstraction, for many reasons. and so thinking about that–let’s say a purple human instead of a BIPOC, that’s a choice.
A few weeks after you sent this, I was unpacking a box at the shop, and came across a MadLibs with a Purple family celebrating Kwanzaa.
maybe this is different because, after all, we’re talking about the system of capitalism; we’re talking about advertising and marketing working to sell things or provide confidence, and maybe in 2020 that may be a strategy [to convey wokeness]. sister to this is all the rainbow-washing of major brands during the summer, so there’s of course a motivation behind making your campaign figurehead or new visual components feel relevant.
I worked from 2005 to 2010ish making music for TV ads. Everything from muscle cars to cosmetics; cute ukulele to hard-ass rap beats. Cultural appropriation wasn’t even really on the table; This was how I was paying my rent. If the ad creatives wanted to target the “urban demographic”, I made the tracks they requested. No music, no rent.
There is a ruthlessness required of working artists (The term “Free Lancer” deriving from mercenaries).
Representation is so much more troublesomely direct in visual art than music. Musicians can “represent” Black people with Black aesthetics (808s, gospel piano, etc), but of course there’s that disconnect between what you’re hearing and the hands that made it. [Eg. Adele is the only woman credited on “25”].
overall i guess the difference here is for profit vs. for art. but representation will of course factor into both! and this conversation was about representation in tarot decks, which one could argue are both operating in a capitalistic marketplace AND as a work of art. most of the tarot decks i own are independently made and marketed–lots of kickstarters, small presses, etc.
[sidenote: i’ve done some work in the major commercial tarot space, and the decks and products that were part of that distribution channel were traditional, white/heteronormative and stuck very deeply in where the money was: middle-aged white women who spend money on divination. diversity didn’t figure into any of those conversations, money did.]
certainly some folks made the decks they wanted to see in the world (dust ii onyx, delta enduring) and others collaborated to create a deck with diverse voices (collective tarot and slow holler). all are very cool and honestly gorgeous decks that i love.
This is gonna sound dumb, but I actually hadn’t really considered the demographics of divination commerce. When I was first getting into tarot, I certainly noticed the authors were mostly women, but I hadn’t considered the spending aspect.
But why is it that white middle-aged women specifically are so interested in knowing the future? That they’ll work and use their money to learn it? Why are middle-aged white men uninterested in divination? Is it that we prefer to think of ourselves as shaping/creating the future rather than simply experiencing it?
i mean, i’m kinda tired and inclined to just reference/evoke/blame stevie nicks — but of course it goes deeper than that. (i’m speaking as a grown-ass woman with a sibling whose parents named us BOTH after fleetwood mac songs). there’s that whole venn diagram between crystals and new mexico where white women with money who aren’t church-y dabble.
I look to the tarot more for reflection than divination, but of course I’m not gonna lie & tell you I never tread carefully if I pulled the 9S in a past-present-future 3-card spread. I mean, you’d have to be a total dummy not to.
ok i have to tell you: i got this email when i was on my first-since-quarantine cabin vacation in the cute little town of gold bar, washington (illustrious filming location of harry and the hendersons). i can’t remember if it was before or after but me, my partner, and a bestie (all pod-people blah blah blah) did three-card tarot spreads with the wild holler deck i’m obsessed with and i felt actual fear to receive several cards for present/future positionings in a way i have never, ever felt. talk about that ‘did i leave the oven on’ anxiety just SEEPING INTO EVERYTHING. ugh. but i had reread this email around the time and thought, how funny and apt.
and in case you’re wondering, my past-present-future spread (first saturday in october) was: fortuna (10), awakening (20), the alchemist (14). oh, and my fun party trick is i 70% always pull major arcana cards in multi-card spreads. :-/
what is time?
i thought i received this a couple weeks ago, but it’s been a month, and with election day tomorrow, i know if i don’t send something now, who knows what state i’ll be in to reply and when. i also am doing some rituals tonight, and in doing so i realized they were worth sharing the story. humor me.
first, i selected a deck to do a daily draw this week (?) for additional… support? clarity? i’m not actually used to doing this kind of tarot pull for myself, so it felt intuitive and important that i pulled the wild unknown deck from my little cache. (it’s similar to my own deck in terms of symbols and lack of human forms.) i pulled the seven of swords tonight, which, in this reading, particularly stung (from carrie mallon):
This card reminds you that sometimes it is useful to find cognitive distance from a situation.
There are times when your best approach is to sneak away and watch out for yourself.
on a night before an election in a state where our governor has had to call in the national guard (again) pre-emptive to election violence, the message feels resoundingly heavy. A fox peeks out with one eye from her curled up perch atop a sword. pay attention
so on my mind are/were the following things:
- the fox, her sword(s)
- anhoni’s music video for “i will survive” which near brought me to tears (released a couple days ago)
- waiting (for political decisions) on an election year
last week i attended a tarot salon / haunted book launch w/ emily carr and others who are more woo-y and savvy than i, but i thought of this piece/tarot-as-an-invitation and a lot of what we’ve been discussing in this thread (recording is here). her book of poetry, “Name Your Bird Without A Gun: A Tarot Romance” also felt relevant to what we’re getting at here though maybe i’m too braindead to connect specific threads directly.
i’m going to do a quick in-line reply to a few places before daylight savings ruin sets in, but i wanted to say, thanks again for the dialog.