No. 105: New New Age
Deadline January 10, 2022
Like mischievous ghosts or intractable supernatural forces, occult beliefs—witchcraft, fortune-telling, astrology, magic, alchemy—have constantly resurfaced from time to time to haunt the history of humanity. Figuring, in turn, as the enemy of Christianity, a stumbling block for Kantian logic, or a clear threat to the patriarchy (witches being powerful “evil” figures largely appropriated by feminists), this sporadic infatuation with the mystical and its countless varieties seems to be a tangible symptom of gnawing fatigue with the established order and hegemonic thought systems. Again today, a renewed interest in mysticism and the parallel forms of agency and power that it suggests reflect a general political inertia. From “homemade” hormonal concoctions to anti-speciesist animist practices, the many strategies offered by this “new New Age,” as we might be tempted to label it in homage to the Western countercultural movement of the 1970s, responds to the pressing need to move beyond the neoliberalism that is killing, inch by inch, our planet and the relationalities that play out in it. But more than a simple esoteric response, the existence of occult—or theoretically inexplicable—forces now seems to be endorsed by science itself, as borne out by the recent discovery of quantum mechanics and almost “magical” states of matter, throwing the door wide open to quantum mysticism! If the occult is both attractive and frightening, it is because it cannot be subjugated, because it constantly evades common sense.
Women, Indigenous peoples, racialized communities, persons with disabilities, and sexual minorities have always been persecuted for their supposed “spontaneous” mystical devotion, in a world that nevertheless constantly appropriates their spiritual practices and material culture. Thanks to their knowledge, or to their otherwise sensitive interpretations of the world, they can apprehend—and not master—alternative forms of living together that evade capture by welfare and “personal growth” capitalism. Mobilizing fertile and innovative exchanges between ancestral knowledge and technologies, between nature and culture, between living and non-living, these “heretics” enable us today to respond appropriately—or at least to respond in other ways—to social, climatic, or economic crises by trading rigidity and the general status quo for a reparative and benevolent holistic approach capable of re-enchanting the world.
Artists are far from impervious to this bewitching appeal, and they also propose alternative ways (discursive, formal, political, technical) to come into contact with reality (or realities), conjuring invisible and evanescent forces with which to grab onto and understand experiences that are otherwise quite tangible. The disciplinary hybridity of this new New Age, which encompasses philosophy, psychology, science, ecology, religion, and the arts, brings to the surface an ardent desire for connection with—love for and from—the world and the many entities (bacteria, spores, hormones, water, stars, materials) that inhabit and exemplify it.
A fundamental figure in these interdisciplinary meldings and a consummate iconoclastic icon for many of today’s artists, the witch is also an essential source of inspiration. Healer, shaman, alchemist, herbalist, magician, and sibyl, the witch calls for decolonialization of knowledge and spirituality, the shattering of patriarchy and capitalism, a close affinity with nature and the cosmos, and the blending of arts and crafts, of politics and magic. Far from being the only avatar for the new New Age, the witch is accompanied by a multitude of real and imaginary entities, queer methodologies, anti-speciesist positions, and hybrid forms of creation that are always expanding the frontiers of art. In light of the perspectives opened by the new New Age, this thematic section explores how multifarious approaches to the occult and spirituality 2.0 intersect with contemporary art practices.
No. 106: Pain
Deadline April 1st, 2022
In recent years, the question of pain, whether physical or psychological, has become a hot topic in media and scientific discourses, as if awareness of its prevalence in the population, particularly among women and trans, non-binary, and marginalized people, has finally dawned. Many public figures (including Lena Dunham and Lady Gaga) have spoken openly about their chronic pain, destigmatizing an issue that affects millions throughout the world. Although the subject of pain is finally getting some media attention, a number of visual artists have made it their central focus for decades. From Frida Kahlo’s paintings to performance artist Gina Pane’s body scarifications and Bob Flanagan’s transgressive sadomasochistic practice, these artists’ works are a testament to the extreme suffering that living with pain and illness entails on a daily basis.
Chronic pain, which differs from acute pain in that it persists over time, often has no known cause and has certain effects on the body and the psyche, is of interest to many feminist researchers across various fields (notably sociology and health sciences). Western history has tended to show the act of caregiving as essentially the prerogative of women (from daily care to “alternative” treatments such as witchcraft, doula services, and herbalism), whereas medical and healthcare institutions generally have a masculine face. As authors and militant feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English note, science and its discursive and technical mechanisms—masculine—are often set in opposition to the supposedly feminine world of superstition, legend, and perceptiveness. More broadly, this opposition underlies the fact that credibility is given to men’s words and pain, whereas those of women, seen as intrinsically linked to intuition and therefore scientifically unfounded, are questioned.
Furthermore, trans, intersexual, homosexual, and bisexual people are likely to have their chronic pain inadequately treated by the medical establishment. Similarly, in a medical context, in which the white male body represents a sort of neutral or universal entity, racialized patients are often treated and cared for differently. Therefore, the issue is not only the treatment of pain but its very recognition, especially when it is persistent pain—pain that is impervious to traditional medical treatment and must be explored in light of the notions of resistance, revolt, even survival. And then there are other forms of suffering that are discredited because they are intertwined with multiple systems of oppression—the pain of those in the labouring class who go to work with bruised hands or a broken back to make life easier for the privileged, sometimes even caring for them at the cost of their own pain. The social and historical suffering of these workers has been normalized by centuries of injustice, such that they are often without the simple luxury of a diagnosis. It is phantom pain, like the symptom of an intersectional domination that is always in their path. Added to this, finally, is the question of analgesics, meant to soothe pain, and particularly the issue of opioids, produced by a multi-billion-dollar industry responsible for an unprecedented epidemic of overdoses in Canada and the United States. The Sackler family, a major patron of the arts, is now facing heavy criticism for its role in the opioid crisis as owner of Purdue Pharma (which manufactures OxyContin) and the opprobrium of artists and of cultural institutions, which are turning down its donations.
So, the questions that arise are: what forms of resistance, what measures, are available to people who are suffering? Can art be one of these measures, a possible form of resistance? Hesitant to speak of the therapeutic role of art or of sketching out the possibility of a catharsis, art history has featured multiple portrayals of pain without necessarily making it the object of an ethical engagement. Perhaps this is where contemporary art stakes its claim, by producing shapes and images of suffering that don’t forget the care, don’t ignore the trauma, and take the affects of the aesthetic relationship into account. In contemporary art production, it’s as if the necessary work of bringing systematically discredited pain to light goes hand in hand with a dream for reparation, an attempt to heal the violence of colonization or the psychological distress associated with real or symbolic imprisonment.
In collaboration with author Martine Delvaux, whose research is focused on chronic pain among women, this issue of Esse arts + opinions invites authors to reflect on the question of pain in art. How do artists react to pain and its many tributaries, including mental health, ableism, and eco-anxiety? Can pain be represented, communicated, or shared through art? If we say that pain is indescribable, impossible to express in words, can it be conveyed through images, objects, artistic gestures? What works deal with pain intersectionally, at the crossroads of gender, sex, class, and culture? Within which parameters can pain be shown or represented without being swept up in turn by capitalism? Can art be therapeutic? Can it be the expression of resistance in the sense of a re-subjectivation that occurs through a reconfiguration or reinvention of the suffering body?