II. Tarot, Transformation, and the Death Drive

Last week, I overwhelmed my readers by tossing out a long-winded, mega-heavy article on the mystical nature of democracy – Oh yes, I know!  And I’m also keenly aware that I screwed up the title…  What can I say?  It was as it is.  And what is more, it’s something of a performative of what’s been going down in the lives of so many.  It’s an era of errors!  Hence, three weeks of scary Swords cards.  But, in all earnestness, that’s not really such a bad thing.  Indeed, it could be quite fortuitous if one has previously been succeeding in not so wise endeavors.

While I was in grad school, I coined two phrases to describe a person’s most fundamental choice as to how they would engage the life process, which most definitely includes politics (as every living thing is born from another and more than one being is always political.)  I figured you could either choose to be the dead articulation of life or strive to be the living articulation of death.  And that’s what last week’s article was about, those two phrases being the nondescript “autoimmunity“ of Derrida and Bataille’s “die-like-a-dog,” respectively.

In last week’s article, I revealed how these two methods of engagement manifest in democratic politics.  I also pointed out that democratic practice and Tarot practice are very similar to the extent that both await their own meaning.  There’s nothing given in either, as both are anticipatory practices that are endlessly deferred and, thereby, endlessly becoming.

Now, I’ll make these two methods of engagement explicit in their relation to Tarot practice.  There’s two ways to consider a card reading:

1)      As an invocation (dead articulation of life).

2)      As an indication (living articulation of death).

You know how so many Tarot readers will tell you not to get a Tarot reading when you’re under extreme duress?  Well, it’s not that your mood will magically influence the cards so much as you’re probably not in a position to actually listen and be receptive.  Chances are that you’re seeking a Tarot reading to invoke a desired outcome, and if you can get the cards to present you with the story that suits you, then all will be well since the cards will cause your desired outcome to manifest at a later date.  This is the impetus for “clarifying cards” when there is nothing whatsoever to clarify in a reading.  And if you’re wondering: Does it ever work?  The answer is: No, never.  You’re quite literally stacking the deck.

This is one type of magical thinking that you can witness in politics all the time.  Where, you ask?  Most obviously in legislation; the idea that if a society illegalizes something, someone, or some act, it will magically cease to exist.  In politics as in Tarot, it is never efficacious.

The above is invocation, decree, the manipulation of a tiny world in the hopes that the larger world will fall into line.  It is both ridiculously irrational and depressingly common.

Here’s why – The querent or legislator in these instances is not really asking any questions.  They already know the answer, so they’re not engaging so much as attempting to impose their will, which is sadly humorous precisely because the failure rate in such instances is exceedingly high.

It is one articulation of the death drive, called individual fantasy, wherein the subject overinvests in the very symbolic that they wish to destroy.  Sound hyper-psychological?  It is.  But its meaning is very simple as relates to Tarot practice – A querent asks the Tarot a question about a situation, project, or relationship that is causing them great pain.  The Tarot reflects the impossibility of the situation, thereby validating the querent’s distress.  The querent is unable to accept this news and wants further cards.

To the extent that this perverse wish is the continuation of an untenable or unhappy situation, it is living.  It is the continuation of something known (a symbolic), and this continuity makes it living.  To the extent that it is harmful to the querent, and the querent wishes to, in fact, affix this situation as an immutable, unchanging future, it is very much a manifestation of the death drive.  The goal is not to change, but rather maintain a trauma…. forever!

So what’s the alternative?

Well, you sort of need to flip the death drive on its head and go towards the unknown, which can’t really be imagined without the figure of death.   Legislatively, this would be a genuine town hall meeting wherein no one yet has a solution, nor even two or three solutions that foreclose all others.  Quite literally anything could happen.  And if you think this is a wild, anarchist pipedream that could never function, consider Athenian democracy and what that might look like if it were instituted now, for instance: barring slavery, with modern tech, etc.  From a psychoanalytic standpoint, this sort of problem solving is called group fantasy.

Group fantasy is messianic without being redemptive, for it expresses a yearning for a new form of life that cannot be imagined by the subject in terms of its “self” or symbolized within the existing collective: even in its most singular and idiosyncratic forms […], it anticipates “a new earth and a new people that does not yet exist.”  — Scott Durham, Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism, 165.

This is the living articulation of death, as it is all that is unknown and un-experienced.  The Tarot card that best represents it, so far as I know, is the Death card in the Thoth deck.


The skeleton dances with life towards a chain of being that is in perpetual flux, and the three incarnations of Scorpio are shown (Scorpion, Snake, and Eagle) indicating a complete and total transformation (so thorough, it’s another species!), as well as the death of any notion of the “self.”  The Tower card represents this energy, as well.

If such a conception seems extreme, then consider what might constitute a life well lived.  Is it a life wherein you can clearly imagine where, what, and who you will be in 20 years?  Or is it one wherein you continuously surprise yourself and could never have imagined… (blank)?

With the indicative approach, the Tarot invites you to step into the latter.  It requires that the querent accept the cards as necessary signposts to get from the present point to an unknown point that is not necessarily represented by the Tarot, but instead bridged by it.  The Tarot is then a means to a future, never the future, itself.  Considering where, what, and who you were 20 years ago, I think you’ll find that it’s the most prudent, realistic, and rational of the two approaches towards the art of living.  I mean, you didn’t even know what a blog was back then, and look at you reading one now! ;)


**Further reading for the curious: Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? and Anti-Oedipus, and Scott Durham’s Phantom Communities: The Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism.  Questions?  Just ask!

Related Posts:

To the Left: Mysticism, Evolution, and Politics, part 1 — Mysticism, Democracy, and the Self-Same

To the Left: Mysticism, Evolution, and Politics, part 3 — “God,” Non-Savoir, and the Figure of Christ

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