Thinking With Witchbody

Reviewing Witchbody
by Sabrina Scott

The subtitle of “a rambling and poetic autoethnography of western occult magic as a pathway for environmental learning and advocacy” certainly caught my attention. Plus, it was a graphic novel with beautiful black and white images–as you can see in the header image. It promised to not be a dry academic paper that left me bewildered, digesting its dense suppositions over the months to come in my already crowded head-space.

In short, it didn’t prove to be any of the things I assumed it to be above, except maybe full of glorious black and white art. That is not to say it was bad. Such a book is a much needed adaptation of the philosophical “corpus” in combination with “western occult” magical leanings. A useful education to any modern witch who wishes to dig deeper into their practice, and maybe already has a Bachelor’s degree.

Required, Before You Start

I suppose my biggest stumbling block to full enjoyment of this material, which is absolutely deserves, is the same ol’ block I keep encountering in the deeper waters of modern thought. That is, namely, the verbosity of language and convolution of ideas. To illustrate, I have displayed two different styles in the previous two sentences: everyday language versus brisk jargon. Witchbody was heavy on the latter, at times making me stop over a text bubble and reread just to halfway parse things out.

Perhaps that speaks to my lack of familiarity with the topic, or even a lack of keeping up with the intellectual demands of the subject and times. Perhaps, it is rather lazy of me to expect great ideas to be made explicit without some use of jargon. But, having read the works of other great academic/scientific communicators, I know it is entirely possible to explain difficult concepts in engaging ways that do not bewilder the reader.

This is exactly what I am referring to. To start with, Haraway has a very specific way with language, so simply adopting her “thinking with” requires some explanation. An unfamiliar reader might simply gloss over the terms, leaving it to worm its way into their consciousness. Scott could have done the service of briefly elucidating, much as she does with “contact zones” and without losing any steam in her writing. After that we’re left to work through “trans-species entanglement” and “agencies” and “other-than-humans” and “material difference.” What does any of those terms mean? There is a danger the reader might miss out on the rich texture of thought and creativity at work here, diminishing Scott’s affect.

The second issue is the presentation of the text itself. Apparently done by hand–a commendable thing, given the medium/message–the writing is at times difficult to physically make out. This is not the structured type of most graphic novels, aiming at readability, but nearly verging on mad scribbles. Once again, I “get” the aesthetic aimed for, but I keep wondering what an older witch with bad eyesight and little patience might think. How long before they put it down in favor of their eyesight and a Facebook post?

Dubious Positioning

One of the most salient messages in Witchbody is how, in an urge to locate nature as “out there” and “pristine” we’ve cut away our interactions with the everyday objects that make up our modern lives. Thus, we disregard what becomes of single-use plastics–to use a current hot-button topic–and the carbon footprint of concrete. By ignoring these relationships because they’re outside of the realm of the natural, we can ignore their negative impact and their positive aspects. Modern magic happens in the city, after all, more often than it happens in the country. We’re prone to consigning nature to a far-away realm inhabited only in our imaginations.

My problem with this thesis–that I happen to agree with, to some extent–is how it is presented. That is, with a certain degree of animosity and contempt, but also without any real suggestions about how fostering relationships with the everyday might transform the worlds we inhabit and the worlds beyond. In other words, it stays too close with the suggestion that magic is about “sensing” and forming new relationships and forgets that there are steps beyond that.

Sure, the author stresses the importance of reciprocity, but they gives no concrete suggestions or examples, even when those might make excellent “pedagogy” to illustrate Scott’s point. How does a rusty nail, used in a witch jar, receive the favors we must do in return for its service? How might it be “apprehended” by the witch? How do they navigate the complex socio-political and socio-economic factors that make the use of said nail in their magic? Does the witch then consider industrial mining, the labor of human “bodies” needed to extract and refine and shape the nail, the global market that makes the product available, the carbon released into the atmosphere in order to ship it here and there–in short, the classes of “beings/lives/bodies” the existence of this nail affect, including itself?

It is not enough to postulate grand ideas, with little explanation for readers, if practical examples are not brought in. What stories the life of a nail might carry with its mere existence, before its use in magic, and its eventual fate in the landfill, would have made such excellent work on Scott’s part! But, sadly, it is not there. This inability to step beyond theory keeps Witchbody from achieving its full transformative potential.

To reply, if I may: The environmental movement and various advocacy organizations center the “untouched/untamed” nature of the “wilderness” not because it is philosophically salient, but because it is in need of protection. For more than twelve-thousand years, but much more specifically in the last thousand, human beings have been dangerously encroaching on the actual bodies of natural lands. Deforestation and the contamination–through pollution, pesticides, insecticides, etc–of the so-called natural world is proceeding at such a great pace, that North American flocks of birds might be extinct by century’s end. Meanwhile, every major rainforest remaining on Earth, bearing every fifth breath into our lungs, has burned at considerably higher rates than before this summer.

Perhaps, if we enter into reciprocal relationships with all more-than-human agencies in our everyday life we can begin to comprehend the devastating effect of our globalized neoliberal ultracapitalistic society. Perhaps our understanding will make it around to animal and plant beings being exterminated throughout the world–though not by ignoring them, it won’t! But what concrete steps should the witch take in this respect? How does knowledge of the more-than-human worlds around us become the sort of radical action necessary to topple an empire of death?

I look forward to reading about that in Scott’s next installment.

(By the way, all the terms in quotations are actually used within this graphic treatment of a eco-magi-philosophical treatise. I do not doubt them. I only doubt Sabrina Scott’s use of their association with meaning.)

The Solitude of Being

For a final quibble, I would like to note the palpable loneliness in every panel. Not only does the art present a lone female witch at all times, but there is absolutely no mention of other humans in the entire text. For all I know, the entire quest for this deeper magical philosophy is supposed to happen alone or so deeply within the imagination that it excludes others of the same kind/species. For a “graphic novel” centered around the relationships possible between beings of all sorts, this felt odd.

I object to such a portrayal because the search for meaning should never be undertaken alone, regardless of the need for solitude and self-reflection. Magic works best in groups of the like-minded and similarly-oriented. It corrects cognitive errors that might emerge, it encourages a broader and sunnier outlook, and it fulfills the basic needs for companionship inherent in all social beings. Healthy relationships with others is a good model for healthy relationships with nails and snails and creatures with tails. The presence of other human beings pushes the narrative of magic by demanding the practice of all these lofty philosophical concepts.

Moreover, the much needed action to enact magic on a world-shifting scale requires the masses. Any individual witch might be completely enlightened, but remain entirely ineffectual. I think this is the greatest lesson of all. For all of Scott’s mention of pedagogy and reciprocity, there is only ever one consumer of the magical exchange–the witch–and the world remains little more than the obligatory provider of the experience. It is not materially altered for its benefit except in their witch’s mind.

Caveat

I actually do respect Witchbody and the work that Sabrina Scott has attempted to do within its pages. It is a worthwhile read despite all these criticisms. But, perhaps, as the author suggests in the Introduction, let it find you mysteriously, rather than participating in the global economic system that destroys the environment it seeks to protect.

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