What Future Does the Swallow Portend?

Sylvette Babin
“Words make magic. They change the fabric of the world. Once something is spoken, it starts contaminating reality, or at least people’s minds. Let us remember that spoken words can be incantatory and performative; let us concede that they have power. Now and again we need to take the time to say things the way we want to say them, like spells. By speaking about politics, by speaking about revolt and the sacred, we take our place in the lineage of witches.”1 1  - Marie-Anne Casselot and Valérie Lefebvre-Faucher, Faire partie du monde, réflexions écoféministes (Montréal: Les éditions du 
remue-ménage, 2017), 17 (our translation).
“This does not mean that the word [magic] is absolutely necessary. Similarly, that which gets called Goddess doesn’t require recognition and worship. It’s not a question of joining but of feeling. … And daring to call Goddess that which forces us to think of the present, to resist ‘keeping things at a distance’ also means feeling the extent to which this present, this resistance can challenge our habits, our most entrenched certitudes. Perhaps this is all we need to sustain the order that articulates magic, politics, and empowerment.”2 2  - Isabelle Stengers, “Un autre visage de l’Amérique?” afterword in Starhawk, Rêver l’obscur .  Femmes, magie et politique (Paris: Cambourakis, 2015), 365 − 366 (our translation).
“Earth-based spirituality consists in establishing our strongest values in the living world itself, in the interconnected systems that make our lives livable.”3 3  - Starhawk, “Appendice E,” Rêver l’obscur .  Femmes, magie et politique, 354 (our translation).

For time immemorial, human beings have sought to understand their place in the universe. They have appealed to divinities, to the stars, to animal, vegetal, and mineral nature to interpret the world or foresee the future; they have created symbols to translate their intuitions and discoveries into images and words. And although science has largely discredited spiritual and supernatural beliefs, we have seen a return to the occult in popular culture in recent years, a return that can be understood as a direct reaction to the extreme state of anxiety caused by climate change, health crises, and international conflicts. The art milieu has responded to this mindset in significant ways as well, suggesting that a kind of occult turn has occurred in art. This is reflected first by a renewed interest in artworks that have long been excluded from art history and second by the reappropriation of esotericism by a new generation of artists, both in their daily lives and in their art practices.

Let us right away put aside an excess of scepticism or any other form of judgement that might hinder an open and curious reading of these practices in order to focus on what motivates them and how they are manifested in art. We will see a strong willingness to re-enchant the world, to recognize the agency of materials, and to fight against the destruction of Earth and of all life — but also against the destruction of the ability to think, an effect that philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Philippe Pignarre call capitalist sorcery. In their book of the same title, they write: “Neo-pagan witches have learned that in the first place the technique or the art, the craft that they call magic is not what has to be rediscovered, in the sense of an authentic secret. It is a matter of reclaiming, of reactivating.”4 4 - Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, trans. Andrew Goffey (Houndmills & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 138. Although the word reclaim — used in turn in the sense of healing, reappropriating, relearning, and fighting — does not appear explicitly in the New New Age issue, it underlies each article, like a kind of silent incantation.

At the centre of these processes, the figure of the witch is making a significant comeback. Recovered by feminist and ecofeminist movements, it symbolizes the empowerment of women in patriarchal and neoliberal society. This new generation of witches combines art, science, technology, and magic to reinvent rituals that aim to reconnect with the sacred or “to loosen the old alliance of technoscience and patriarchy, which continues to shape global configurations of power” (Gwynne Fulton). While claiming this power loud and clear, we must not forget, however, that the word “witch” is so burdened with a heavy history of ostracizing women and minorities and that we need to use it carefully.5 5 - See Anna Berrard’s scathing critique of the debasement and appropriation of the which figure in “L’écoféminisme aux abois. Marchandisation, manipulation et récupération d’un mouvement radical,” Revue du crieur 18 (January 2021): 130 47. Chris Gismondi, for example, points out that “the largely white, Eurocentric discourses of (neo)New Age magic and witchcraft… can usurp Indigenous protocols and presence.” There is a dark side to the popular renewal of the new age. Often based on self-healing and personal growth, its therapeutic individualism can contribute to the expansion of forms of human, land, and cultural exploitation that are in turn called spiritual colonialism and spiritual capitalism. Taking a sidelong look at crystal healing and, more specifically, at the underpinnings of mining, Kate Whiteway reminds us: “The refined and spiritual world of healing crystals is indeed wrought through a violent and exploitative relationship with labour and land.”

To counterbalance the dark side of a superficial and consumerist new age, the artists and writers in this issue are interested above all in the luminous and performative aspects of this philosophy and in its rituals. In many cases, the artworks are informed by holistic and benevolent approaches and by a desire for social and environmental justice. Perhaps, what leads us to speak of a “new” new age has to do with a will to separate ourselves from the therapeutic individualism mentioned earlier and the need to reclaim forms of activism that the movement already involves — a collective movement in which human beings have an active role to play in the advent of a new era. We wish for such activists to stop confining themselves to prayer circles or symbolic rituals so that their voices can more concretely reach economic and geopolitical spheres and actually impact decision-makers (often male) who remain invested in the power to own and destroy.

As for the occult forces and magic that the new age invokes, it’s up to each of us to believe or not believe in them. Yet whether we understand it as a divine or magical word or as the logical language of biology, nature tells us of our destiny. Thus, the swallow, a symbol of fertility for the Celts or of the arrival of spring for many since Antiquity, is gradually disappearing due to intensive agriculture and pesticide use. The silence of the swallow is a portent that we should be urgently trying to ward off.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Sylvette Babin
This article also appears in the issue 105 - New New Age

Suggested Reading