8 - strength
Updated: May 4, 2021
8 – strength
vulnerability, interconnection, care
coven opening needs ritual
When rehearsal officially begins, Stage Manager Ali Butts invites Coven witches to turn their cameras off and turn their microphones on. We breathe, stretch, and shake away the stressors of the before-rehearsal day. When someone is called to do so, they speak their need aloud. The Coven responds by speaking the witch’s name (active listening skills required) and speaking their need as a spell: by speaking their desire in present-tense, The Witch calls it into existence. The ritual continues, each of us speaking our needs as we are called to do so. When needs have been met, we take whatever final breaths or stretches are necessary, turn our cameras on, and begin rehearsal in sacred space.
Witch: I need time.
Coven: Witch has time… Witch has time… Witch has time…
Witch: I need joy.
Coven: Witch has joy... Witch is joyful... Witch is joyful...
Witch: I need to get over this cough.
Coven: Witch has gotten over their cough... We banish coughs...
Witch: I need motivation.
Coven: Witch has motivation… Witch is motivated... Witch is motivated...
Eventually, Ali asks us to be brave, turn our cameras on, and enter Coven space.
Vulnerability is baked into Coven practice. It is the core of our Opening Needs Ritual, but it is also in our permission to “come as you are”: wear what you need to wear; eat when you need to eat; engage via chat, speech, or video; listen to your body and speak your needs so that they can be met. Vulnerability is the simple act of being openly human in the company of others. Enacting this humanness through ritual and space-sharing is a joyfully affective experience, particularly given how unhuman we are required to act in most academic Zoom spaces. underneath this liberating practice, however, is a reckoning with our collective precariousness; It is an acknowledgment of vulnus, the Latin root of vulnerability: wound. We enter coven space each night having been harmed by the world, and we speak our needs because they have not been met elsewhere. This essay is an attempt to reconcile the grief, interconnectedness, and healing that are simultaneously bound up in the act of vulnerability. Why, in utopic process (see sun card), must we be openly, brokenly human?
Vulnerability is central in Judith Butler’s many-essay/article/booked quest to establish pathways of thinking that lead to just modes of living on a global scale. Vulnerability in this context is not only a state of precarious being, but also a force that can be mobilized in resistance to oppressive systems. On an existential level, it is the universal human thread that renders us dependent on each other for survival, a key to ethically moving through the world and seeing Us and Them as bound up in each other’s survival. Our precariousness, the constant knowing that we are little more than skin sacks filled with bone and sinew, is a reminder of our eternal dependency on others, not only to survive physically, but to exist subjectively. Acknowledging our vulnerability requires seeing one’s frailty through the eyes of another, equally frail being, a process of being individually reconstituted through collective relationality: “As a way of being related to what is not me and not fully masterable, vulnerability is a kind of relationship that belongs to that ambiguous region in which receptivity and responsiveness are not clearly separable” (26). In knowing another, we lose who we are; intimacy is the practice of transformation, of being remade and unmade all over again.
Rehearsal begins in anonymous darkness. On the zoom screen, no one is distinguishable from another. Then, we offer a need in exchange for a chorus of our name: we need other witches in the darkness, calling our personhoods into existence.
We all enter sacred space needing something that we cannot receive elsewhere, and by echoing our needs back to each other, we are not only enacting community care: we are also allowing ourselves to be defined in relation to other. On a more global scale, we are seeing this kind of relational re-making emerge in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic, when communities of solidarity materialize in unexpected corners of the Internet, when we commiserate with near-strangers about isolation, fear, and the undeniable shittiness of 2020-21.
Of course, this vulnerability of interconnectedness is not to be taken for granted. The United States is proof that showing one’s needs is not enough to have them met, or even seen. Butler’s ethics of vulnerability seems almost Pollyanna-ish in the face of anti-maskers and -vaxers. Relational vulnerability implies that, in a time of immense, mortal crisis, when even the air we breathe is potentially toxic, individuals would constantly see their own susceptibility reflected back at them – in social media death announcements, public urges from medical professionals, even in the now-terrifying experience of grocery shopping. But instead of collective care, we are met with individualist greed. It seems, then, that vulnerability holds universalizing, empathetic potential, but it is a potential that must be enacted if it is to become an ethical mode of living. Butler’s existentialist vulnerability is a kind of latent magick, an inheritance we receive upon birth that is forgotten as we become entrenched in an individualist, capital-driven modern world. We lose our ability to speak our wounds, thereby losing our ability to heal.
But inasmuch as vulnerability is a constant existential loop of expressing needs to have needs met, of being in relation to others to know the self, it is also not universal in the least. Vulnerability is as equalizing as it is fundamentally unequal. Butler stresses the historical and political situatedness (see hermit card) of precarity. Athena Athanasiou considers this differentiated vulnerability in relation to the uneven distribution of breath, “especially imperiled and exacerbated breathing under political duress”: “Vulnerability, in this regard, is about pervasive, (un)exceptional assemblages of power relations which manage life and expose to death by means of producing dispensable bodies. Within this purview of vulnerability, resources are differently and unevenly distributed among different bodies – differently economized, racialized, and gendered bodies” (20). Breath is an unevenly distributed commodity, bound up in systems of devaluation. So, in a pandemic world, we are reminded of our shared precariousness as even the air we breathe is rendered dangerous; we are in variously dangerous states of precarity, however, depending on how worthy our lives are rendered by the capitalist state. Despite early rhetoric that this pandemic would be “the great equalizer,” Black and Brown communities, the incarcerated, immunocompromised, and aging – all are disproportionately at risk. Witches in the Coven, united as we are by our open, broken humanness, are also distanced by our varying access to breath. We are variously Brown, trans, femme, Jewish, neuraotypical, financially unstable – the needs that we show in ritual are inextricably connected to our personal precarities.