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  • Writer's pictureMaegan Clearwood

4 - emperor

Updated: May 4, 2021

4 - emperor

stability; hierarchy; authority; discipline; domination; power-over

Given a world based on power-over, we must remake the world.


In my search for power theories, the model that offered the most stimulating ideas came, appropriately, from a witch. In Truth of Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery, Starhawk identifies three distinct power types that circulate throughout our universe:

Power-over is linked to domination and control; power-from-within is linked to the mysteries that awaken our deepest abilities and potential. Power-with is social power, the influence we wield among equals (9).

Although the lines separating these three categories are perhaps blurrier than Starhawk describes throughout her book, her conception of power intervenes with my own in two important ways: it situates power-over (or power as domination) and power-from-within/with (or empowerment) as being in historically contingent relation to each other; and because of this relational proximity, the witch is held accountable to a world constantly under siege from power-over.

Starhawk resists seeing power-over as being either-or: either a thing that is owned/distributed or an action in which oppressors participate; source of the world’s most violent troubles or the key to liberation. Rather, Starhawk’s three powers exist simultaneously, constantly resisting and transforming each other. Power is not a finite resource (although power-over rhetoric relies on metaphors of having/giving power): when a witch uses her power-from-within, a CEO does not automatically lose his power-over. The witch and the CEO are, instead, linked by nature of their dual existence in a world dominated by power-over, not in asocial or ahistorical isolation: the oppressive powers of capitalism and patriarchy exist in the same universe as the restorative powers of spirituality and community, and it is therefore the witch’s responsibility to situate her magick in orientation with the dominating forces at play around her. Starhawk is “on the side of the power that emerges from within, that is inherent in us as the power to grow is inherent in seed… in a society based on power-over, that [power-from-within] work must inevitably conflict with the forces of domination, for we cannot bear our own true fruit when we are under another’s control” (8). I see a more fluid relationship between these types of power than the one-on-one combat that Starhawk describes, but by theorizing a world in which both destructive and healing powers coexist, she shows that power is a relational, historically contingent force that can, and in a witch’s case should, be enacted. "In a world built on power-over," she says, "we must remake the world" (8).

Of course, power-over reigns supreme. For thousands of years, it has retained dominance over the earth, through colonialist violences and claimings, through capitalist exploitation and dehumanization (see hierophant card). It is a system of devaluation: power-over only works if there is someone under. But for the purposes of understanding Coven space, I am less interested in what power-over is than in how it operates, which is everywhere and silently. Power-over can express itself in explicitly dominating ways: an example from my morning NPR tune-in is voter suppression tactics that state representatives are overtly attempting to write into law. But more insidiously, power-over manifests in quotidian, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ways -- say, misgendering a trans witch, listening less intently to femmes in generative spaces, or casually dismissing a Brown artist-collaborator’s concerns. Born into a world of devaluation, we are automatically and always entangled in overs and unders, such that we rarely need to consciously enact powers of domination. Power-over has a terrifying life of its own.

Early in Coven process, I insisted on an abstractly utopian dissolving of power-over. My thesis proposal (appendix) is full of vague plans for non-hierarchical models of collaborative devising -- visionary intentions are worth striving for, of course, and worth naming in order to imagine pathways towards them. But missing from my dreamy proposal aspirations was any acknowledgment of power-over. In fact, I did not directly address “power” in the entire15-page proposal, hoping that if I closed my eyes to power, it would disappear of its own accord. What I neglected to see, however, were the ways that power-over was already functioning, automatically, unconsciously, and passively. I look back at the auditions blurb that I wrote, for instance, and see I unintentionally centered white, Eurocentric norms, with culturally specific knowledge as the other.

Who we’re looking for: Witches of all practices! We welcome pagans, Wiccans, kitchen witches, techno witches, eclectic witches, astrology nerds, psychics -- however you manifest your magicks, you are invited to audition for the Coven. If you practice a traditional form of witchcraft that’s embedded in your own cultural history or ancestry, we would also love to have you join us, provided you are comfortable sharing your practices with a Coven of secular witches (we will be mindful of cultural appropriation, which has such a pervasive and ugly presence in many witchy circles, throughout this process).

I am assuming here that incoming witches practice Western-derived magicks: pagans and Wiccans are welcome, but “traditional form[s] of witchcraft embedded in…cultural history or ancestry” is a presumably the less likely event. There is no physical violence here, no doors being closed in anyone’s face: there is, however, a violence of othering, a presumption that whiteness is neutral and therefore central. Auditions have not begun, and already I am orienting my whiteness as over: I am replicating power as domination, despite a commitment to non-hierarchical process.

I cannot speak to the invariably myriad ways that I enacted power-over in Coven space, nor to the ways that power-over stretched its invisible tentacles throughout the collective. To pull from feminist standpoint theory (see hermit card), my epistemic view is limited because of my from-above positionality – and like it or not, I am absolutely in a from-above role in Coven space. I am a producer and facilitator; I am analyzing everything that the Coven does as part of my thesis work; I am also white, cisgender, a decade older than certain Coven witches, and an instructor in the theatre department – I cannot see how power operates, because it is mostly invisible to me. The members of the Coven who are positioned in subjugated ways, meanwhile, are witnesses to the naturalized, otherwise unseen violences that are inevitably enacted each rehearsal. And for all the efforts that the producing team put forth in order for grievances to be voiced (appendix), I can never expect the more vulnerable witches to speak up: airing grievances is emotionally taxing, and fear of repercussion is ever-present. The Coven is a predominately white, cis space, and I cannot fathom how much brilliant knowledge went unvoiced because of unconscious circulations of power-over.

Importantly, thankfully, power-over is not the only form at play in the Coven. Power-from-within-, power-with, power-to -- these are the forces that we play with the most, through ritual, vulnerability, and art-making. These are the horizon-seeking powers that we need to reach for better-worlds. Perhaps the most belabored thought-in-progress that I'm discovering through this thesis is that power can be subverted and disseminated in utopic ways -- but only when intentionally mapped and situated: what are is start and end-points? Or, where is it coming from and to what ends (or horizons) is it being used for? Hierarchies are still not my favorite form of power structure, but there's something to be said for using power-from-above to build better-worlds -- worlds that hopefully render these very hierarchies extinct.

Coven Ritual: Shadow Work

Shadow work is the practice of figuring out what needs to be fixed. It's the finding of hidden wounds and inherited poisons. For the Coven this spring, it was asking questions that would be easier left unasked:

- How do we engage in cultural appropriation?

- How is racism at play, as individual witches and in the Coven?

- How do we decenter whiteness? How do we do so in a predominately white coven?

- What harms are we enacting?

- How do we reduce harm? How do we work against capitalist time? How do we make space for grief and pain?

I will not divulge any details about how we conducted this Shadow Work, but I will say that it was imperfect. It did not feel magickal. In fact, it felt utterly and unsatisfyingly mundane. (Well, Coven witch Helen Rahman made it magickal by weaving in love, opened and closed with transcendence at least). But our precariousness feels a bit more situated now; a bit more historicized and grounded -- so I hope that our vulnerable magicks will feel that much deeper as well. And perhaps we can recognize Power-Over more often, even when we can't eradicate it.

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