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XXIX.4 July - August 2022
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Tarot as a technology of care

Caitlin Lustig, Hong-An Wu

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In March 2022, we met for an interview over Zoom. We got in touch earlier in the year about our shared interest in tarot, a deck of playing cards used for divination practices that traces back to the 15th century. We approach tarot as an evocative technology to think with and through in our respective scholarship. Our written correspondence led to this synchronous video interview about Ann's recent work around tarot. Against the backdrop that emerging digital objects are often privileged in discussions concerning technology, Ann centers contemporary technological innovations around tarot among QTBIPOC (queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color) communities to complicate dominant imaginings of who benefits from technological progress, what counts as technological literacy, and what is worthy of attention as a technology. By engaging with tarot as a playful technology to practice care, she troubles the logic underlying the media objects we give care to in the context of media and arts education, as well as game studies. In the following, we invite you into selected segments of our conversation.


Caitie Lustig: First of all, thank you so much for meeting with me. I am really interested in learning more about what first interested you about tarot, both on a personal level and as a research topic.

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Tarot is a technology of care, particularly for people or communities who are considered illegitimate under the hegemonic gaze.
Tarot decks are being remixed to center different knowledge traditions and challenge Western ones.
Tarot raises questions about which interpretive practices and literacies are considered legitimate and objective.

Hong-An (Ann) Wu: Thank you for holding this space! To be honest, I never would have thought that my professional life, in terms of research, and my personal life, which tarot and other divinatory practices have been a significant part of, would intersect. But now that it happened, it kind of made a lot of sense. With the way my work engages with feminist science and technology studies, media and arts education, and game studies, tarot seems like a perfect object that sits at the center of this intersection. But growing up, and coming to the U.S., there was always this sense of recognition that, "Oh, this is illegitimate," or that these practices are not, you know, "proper."

To back up a little about how I got into tarot, it wasn't a conscious choice. It was just so much part of the popular culture for girls in Taipei, Taiwan, that I grew up in. My friends and I were surrounded by these magazines filled with pop psychological tests that also dispersed information about sun sign astrology and tarot. These kinds of media texts were easily accessible and encouraged, in contrast to digital games, which we were quite alienated from but which I oriented toward in my dissertation. In Taipei back then, gaming mostly happened in Internet cafés, which are very masculine spaces, where when a body like mine walks inside, people will just stop and stare. My family was also very against me partaking in activities in that space. But they didn't mind magazines, I guess because "It's great, it's a book!" We were supposed to be studious, so I was encouraged to read. When my friends and I got older, we often engaged in divinatory practices when we were at intersections in life and had questions. Divination is almost institutional, as it was part of my cultural upbringing. But my family is not committed or devoted to one tradition. We will go to the doctors, we will go to the temple, we will go to the church. Basically, we will go to whichever tradition or practices that avail themselves to us at that moment of need. And tarot was among the available practices, just like going to temples to decipher sortileges (籤) about my future. But tarot, in that particular point in time in Taipei, felt like a Western thing. So it had a lot of cachet, and it had a lot of—what's it called—mysteriousness, and that was part of what drew me to it.

As a Taiwanese, I was heavily influenced by the West, with Taiwan being implicitly a subcolony of the U.S. empire after World War II. Going to the U.S., or Europe or Australia, meant progress, meant opportunities, economic or otherwise. It is a legitimated trajectory in Taiwan. And so, here I am, as part of that cliché and violence that I didn't fully recognize until I was here. I finished my dissertation and started my current job related to teaching about and critiquing games. I came face-to-face with a lot of the inner workings of how digital games are the paradigmatic manifestation of Western hegemony, white supremacy, and misogyny in my classroom encounters, and I was going through a lot of upheaval, a lot of transition, and self-doubt was boiling up that I had just pushed down when I was in graduate school. I think I was doing the whole immigrant mentality of being like, "Just shove it down, just do it. Just don't address it. Don't think about it, don't look at it." And then on this job I got to a point in which I couldn't do it anymore. It was part of that moment I just had to soothe myself, and I kept going back to these divinatory practices. I kept pulling tarot cards, and I kept using tarot to explain to myself.

When I first started trying to get into tarot I came across the Smith-Rider-Waite deck, and I thought, This seems really cool. Then, I read the booklet that came with it. And I was so turned off because it was so gender normative. — CAITIE LUSTIG

Around the same time, my close interlocutor Meadow Jones introduced me to a range of reskinned tarot, such as the Collective Tarot and the Next World Tarot. I also went to the Allied Media Conference a couple of times and witnessed how there were a lot of activists working on and through various kinds of divinatory practices, including tarot and astrology. I was introduced to new formations of tarot that were beyond the Smith-Rider-Waite deck I knew when I was in Taiwan, and learned about how social justice activists were using these media technologies to project and practice a better world. It was through those encounters I started recognizing how and why I separated these two things. The very fact that I automatically want to separate them—like this is my professional life and this is my personal life—speaks to how I have previously compartmentalized my different ways of being in the world. I think I'm trying to reconcile these different parts through tarot.

CL: I also felt some anxiety when I was starting to do research on tarot, because I was like, "Is this going to be taken seriously? Is this unprofessional somehow? Or am I getting too personal with what I'm sharing in the writing?"

H-AW: Yeah! It's like during graduate school when I was doing the writing, I didn't even know where that idea about professional writing came from. It was just so normalized when doing academic writing. While I did read some feminist scholarship and recognized that there is a way in which the personal can become the grounds from which you position your writing, I just never got the formal training in doing that. So I tried to pass to stay safe for a period of time, until it just broke. While being in a position of publish or perish, for a long period of time I couldn't write because I felt like whatever I wrote, it didn't feel… I felt like I was faking. Obviously imposter syndrome is real, but this was a little different level of faking in that I felt like I was actively producing harm if I just kept not engaging with the ways in which I'm seeing these things. That's partly why I decided to think about tarot, specifically in the context of media and art education. Because discourses of technology as social progress affect media and art education deeply, and often discussion of tech is rooted only in emerging technologies. Instead, I hoped for us to rethink this fetishization of new tech through analog technologies, and through it connect with contemporary discourses on social justice movements. And tarot as a technology seems like a really opportune focal point to introduce all those intersections.

CL: I love how you talk about tarot as a technology, particularly as a technology of care. I want to know more about what that means to you and how you came to think about tarot as a technology of care.

H-AW: There's two ways I came to think about it through care. The first is primarily inspired by tarot and astrology practitioners, such as Cristy Road and Alice Sparkly Kat. The way that Cristy described Next World Tarot… I just felt seen and cared for while I was interfacing with it. And also how I even came into the orbit of that deck was out of acts of care. A friend introduced it and gave it to me because she felt like I needed that deck at that moment to care for myself. Simultaneously, there's a couple of astrology writers—specifically Alice Sparkly Kat—who talk and write about how they reclaim astrology as a way to practice communities of care and caring for ourselves. Particularly, caring for those who are deemed illegitimate under the hegemonic gaze, whichever that deviance may be. I was really inspired by how they're framing care and practicing it through these technologies, through the use of astrology, through the use of tarot, through the use of whatever is available to them, and taking it seriously and playing with it. And so that's one reason why I thought about it through this lens of a technology of care.

Three cards from the Next World Tarot deck by Cristy C. Road. The cards are titled 0 The FOOL, 1 THE MAGICIAN, 2 THE HIGH PRIESTESS. Cards from the Next World Tarot deck by Cristy C. Road.

Another trajectory was that I've been thinking about technological failure for a while. In my dissertation, I did an action research of my teaching practice in the library after-school program. At the time, I was really interested in thinking about how we can teach digital games critically to engage in them for social transformation. Afterward, and thinking about it over the years, I realized that the moment in which social transformation happens or doesn't happen, or the ways in which society reproduces itself, was in these precise moments in which technologies fail, in which technologies do not get systematically maintained. And then that work, that labor of caring for technologies gets passed on to those who are present: the teachers, the students—you are the ones responsible for coming up with the skills to care for these technologies. So I was thinking about care through that lens of caring for technologies, and I was reading literature on care, like Joan Tronto's Moral Boundaries and María Puig de la Bellacasa's Matters of Care. And more traditionally in education, through Nel Noddings's Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education.

While I was thinking about care with those texts in relation to technological failure, care seemed relevant to foreground when I was writing the article "Tarot as a Technology," as it is a technology that people are using to care for themselves and it is a technology actively being cared for. It felt very different from the kind of care I was thinking about when I was being demanded to care for emerging digital technologies. There's this flow of energy—the orientation—that is interesting to me, in which anybody can pick up a deck and it feels like there is less of a literacy barrier. Even though, if you think about it, there are many literacy barriers in terms of the historical traditions for tarot and what the knowledge means, such as what does the 2 mean, instead of 3, instead of 4… But the access to it seems less extensive and expensive than a digital object (for people like me). And that's what got my attention and thinking about, Well, how do we think about care in these instances where care is being demanded, and what can these technologies do for us in caring for ourselves?

CL: When I first started trying to get into tarot I came across the Smith-Rider-Waite deck, and I thought, This seems really cool. Then, I read the booklet that came with it. And I was so turned off because it was so gender normative. There were a lot of colorist things in there too. It was like, "If you have a darker complexion, then you have this sort of disposition." And so I was very turned off until I found decks that were more queer-focused and/or BIPOC-focused. I've been thinking a lot about how it comes out of this Eurocentric Western tradition. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the question: How has it become this tool for social justice, given this problematic history?

H-AW: That's a great question, and one I've also grappled with. I was like, "Oh, this history is really questionable." And questionable is a generous word [laughs]. But I came to hold this position or understand this a little bit better after reading Alice Sparkly Kat's writings and her book Postcolonial Astrology, which positions the use of Western astrology as a way to talk about and make explicit the position of the West as being from somewhere as opposed to everywhere and thus universal. But one way to think about it, perhaps, is that tarot and astrology are being taken up as tools and as technologies for social justice because they're available. As mass or popular culture, they're readily available and somewhat legible here. I remember my colleague Josef Nguyen and I discussing how racialization and gendering takes flight as specific kinds of divination practices become privileged. For example, why tarot instead of I Ching? Since I have been introduced to Chinese and its traditions in my upbringing, I started thinking about I Ching and studying it more after that conversation. But then I started to notice that, yes, while it is useful, there are so many barriers to understanding it in the first place. It necessitates literacy in Chinese and the broader Han Chinese epistemology (and dominance with its own violence and problems), because I Ching ultimately is a series of interpretations, with multiple scholars adding interpretations onto previous interpretations. And so there is a lot of… orienting.

All that is to try to say that tarot, here and now, is relatively accessible in the U.S. Even if people don't know what it is exactly or are actively against it, people have heard about it. And people have vague connotations of it as a divinatory thing, as for fortune-telling, as nonserious. So there's already an introduction to it, versus if I tell people, for example, we practice 農曆 (the agricultural lunar calendar) and there's sexagenary cycles, people will look at me with question marks of, "How do you spell that?" And I didn't even know how to spell it in English; I had to look it up so that I could communicate it. So there's something about translation. There's something about the fact that this object is already so connected to existing ways of being in the West that even though it's illegitimate, delegitimized, there's still conversions so that it becomes accessible, or at least the barriers to access are low.

This is where this one deck, Kapwa Tarot by Jana Lynne (JL) Umipig, is super interesting. Umipig reskinned tarot to center her Philippine diaspora heritage. For example, the first card, 0, is no longer the Fool but Tao. It's like using the logic of tarot and its number system but projecting a different knowledge tradition—it's remixing to center a different knowledge tradition. And it's doing something in terms of challenging us to recognize and rethink why is it that the Fool looks like this, why is this the first card, and why is it called the Fool? I think that's one reason, perhaps, why tarot is taken up. It allows for people to play with it more readily and easily. In Postcolonial Astrology, Alice Sparkly Kat mentions that they are a product of the West while they are also part of a diaspora. And so they're using astrology as one among other practices to rewrite what the West is and what the West means. And through the tracing of Western astrology, they showed how astrology was rooted in race, and the earlier formations of race even without actually naming it as such. So, yeah, perhaps we can't deny that the West is dominant in the way that its knowledge tradition is constantly erasing a lot of things, but then what does it mean if we use something from the West to talk to the West?

I just cannot accept how the world could be reduced to numbers, and that numbers represent fixed meaning. That was part of my interest in thinking about tarot, in that it's not proclaiming itself as a fixed, absolute meaning. — HONG-AN WU

CL: I would love to hear more about how you came up with the game Troubleshooting with Tarot and using tarot for critique.

H-AW: I mentioned earlier that I was thinking about caring for technologies in the context of a classroom and how, in the moment and plurality of teaching, a temporal order is being created through the constant demand to troubleshoot digital technologies in which we have no literacy, or at least where we're demanded to acquire that literacy. In the world that's being created, in my mind I see this picture of a ladder that we're supposed to constantly climb. And as soon as we climb here, the frontier is constantly pushed further. So I was feeling this despair and this confusion. And at the same time, I was teaching game studies, in my own classroom. A lot of times, I noticed there were students who were really interested, including myself sometimes, in making an idea of a game or creating a digital game, particularly using the medium to think through something, think through an idea. But the technological barriers would become so grave that most of your time was dedicated to learning that technology or learning how to use a specific game engine, or learning how to incorporate that particular product or game engine into a webpage. There's just such a steep learning curve. I noticed a lot of my students were discouraged if they weren't already in the circle of that orbit. And so I made that experimental game, in part to help myself think through the parallels between the literacy of tarot and digital devices. I wanted to think through how digital objects, particularly digital games, and the kind of digital machine that they operate upon, contain invisibilized literacy that is normalized and expected, and privileged. It's situated somewhere; the development of it is situated somewhere.

But oftentimes we don't even question that and the default is to accept it, to try to use it. So, in the context of daily life, technology breaks, and when it breaks, we just try to troubleshoot it or take it to IT. Like, why is it that IT is the magical person that will know how to touch this thing? As I delved into the literature on maintenance work and started looking at when IT workers do that work, they were just interpreting lines of code, or plugging in different holes, or touching buttons on and off again. It's not that unlike the various divinatory practices I have been exposed to, but perhaps is "seen" with more rigor and as universalizing.

So I was trying to mimic that practice, or thinking about how that practice is similar to the practice of tarot reading, like there's a lot of deciphering of the unknown and you're actually just experimenting with interpreting what's happening. But in order to interpret it in the first place, as with literacy, you have to have a sense of understanding in the more traditional tarot that there is a distinction between Major Arcana and Minor Arcana. And you have to have a knowledge or some kind of understanding of suits, such as feathers or coins—what does that element distinction mean, what is it metaphorically trying to gesture toward? So there is that kind of knowledge. The game was a cheeky way for me to play with questioning why it is that we assumed we should all have this normalized technological literacy to engage with digital technologies and how that bar is being moved ahead, ahead, constantly ahead. And what happens if we switch this world and think about it through the lens of tarot, which is not so expected. While there's a kind of joking, satirical quality in which people will not take it seriously, how, actually, is it not the same? The deciphering of something is dependent upon a community of practitioners who share that interpretation, share that knowledge, who create that knowledge, and practice that knowledge. I was trying to draw that parallel to, for one, critique this literacy of digital technologies as normalized, but then, on the other end, to center and rethink why is it that we ridicule these divination practices so readily?

CL: I love that you pointed out there's all these acts of interpretation that go into developing technology, so it's like, "Yeah, why is that privileged? Why is that type of interpretation privileged over something like tarot?"

Three cards from the Kapwa Tarot deck by Jana Lynne Umipig. The cards are titled 0-TAO, I-MOMBAKI, II-BABAYLAN. Cards from the Kapwa Tarot deck by Jana Lynne Umipig.

H-AW: And it's seen as objective. I'm sure we have all heard people say, "Oh, code is objective, code is neutral, code is, you know, it's just numbers!" And I'm like, "What do you mean? Numbers are interpretive!" I just cannot accept how the world could be reduced to numbers, and that numbers somehow represent fixed meaning. That was part of my interest in thinking about tarot, in that it's not proclaiming itself as a fixed, absolute meaning, at least for the practitioners that I am oriented toward. Instead, they do consider it and position it as an invitation into co-creating a world through the use of these technologies to care for ourselves and the people who are represented.

CL: Right. That has so much in common with so many traditions of qualitative methods.

H-AW: I was trained in sociology in my undergrad. I understood in my undergrad that there was this distinction between qualitative and quantitative research. I didn't really understand the distance back then; I just thought that with qualitative you're working with words, and with quantitative you're working with numbers. I think there was also some positivist imprint on me when I was in my undergrad and doing qualitative research. It wasn't until later, doing more research, that I started having that moment of realizing, "OMG, a pen is not only a pen, like a pen could be multiple." And having that realization, and like you said, the embracing of interpretation actually opens a lot of possibilities. But it is also terrifying once you transition suddenly from this idea of a world where there's an absolute into the possibility of openness. It is about recognizing the multiplicity that exists simultaneously.

CL: I gravitated toward how you phrase that. I wrote it down: "the possibility of openness." Something that struck me with your work and Marcelitte Failla's work is that both of your writings embrace tarot as prefigurative. I love that you talk about that as opening possibilities for the world we want to see. I find tarot a useful tool to reflect on what I hope the future is like, or what my anxieties are for the future. For me, this is how I operate; I don't think it tells me the future, but I think it can help me figure out what I'm thinking and feeling about the future.

H-AW: In each moment the interpretation changes. If I'm actively thinking about a scenario when I'm interacting and interpreting with the picture, then I'm projecting onto the picture, "Oh, this is what this person means. This is actually what is happening." But that might change in another reading. In each reading, I'm giving physical form to something I already am low-key processing. Perhaps I'm low-key processing because I don't want to or cannot see and recognize it. But the pictures and language provide a way in which I can face something that perhaps I'm too afraid to look at. And in doing that, there's something that can happen once we give those feelings material form—in this context, a card—so that then we can release that feeling. That's the best way I can describe it, and it's like you said, it's not even that it tells us the future, but by that moment of encountering it, we come to encounter our thoughts and our feelings through our interpretation of the cards with the guidance of the tarot makers. We're just bringing things we already are thinking or feeling into being and then interacting with them, which shapes what kind of futures we make together.

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Caitlin (Caitie) Lustig is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington. Lustig's work focuses on critically examining the effects of AI/ML in multiple sociotechnical domains, including healthcare and well-being. [email protected]

Hong-An (Ann) Wu is an interdisciplinary arts educator, media artist, and researcher who seeks critical, playful, and careful pedagogical approaches with and through technologies for social justice. She's an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas, a codirector of the Studio for Mediating Play, and a codirector of Situated Critical Race and Media. [email protected]

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