High Priests and Gorgon Brutalism: Notes from the 33 Thomas Exorcism

April 16, 2017

There was going to be more here, about witches.town and oulipo and intentionally making weird witching circles and creative space as radical act, but I also kind of just wanted to get some thoughts about this down and in the world sooner than later.

On a clear and sunny Saturday before Easter, I went down to the Financial District to attend an exorcism. The exorcism was for 33 Thomas, a brutalist masterpiece of a building notable for its role in the NSA’s ongoing collaboration with AT&T to intercept phone and network communications. An exorcism on Easter weekend had some obvious resonances; this weekend in particular was interesting as it coincided with another sort of mass exorcism ritual, a nationwide series of protests demanding Trump release his tax returns.

I did not go empty-handed, approaching the edge of the ritual circle (defined, naturally, with NYPD barricades and protected with the ritual magic of a National Lawyer’s Guild observer) bearing an assortment of enchanted stones (quartz, tourmaline, and citrine), a traditional pocket scrying mirror (I remain deeply disappointed that we call them “phones”), and a cloud of questions that were ready to transform into a hex upon the exorcism itself. Despite (or maybe because of) my own interests in the overlaps of magic with the political economies and cultural baggage of technology, I came to the ceremony apprehensive. Some of this was a matter of making broad, maybe unfair assumptions–namely, that because the most publicly visible organizers of the exorcism were two white men (the event as a whole was credited to the editors of The Quiet American, a Ridgewood zine that reads as gonzo literary journalism from people with degrees in Comparative Literature from well-regarded four-year universities) the event would be full of problematic appropriation and lack in a spiritual gravity. By default I’m not inclined to trust most men, and definitely not white men, especially if they’re doing anything adjacent or related to surveillance culture.

This distrust mostly emerges from years of observation of what Allison has previously called “cop art” and what I tend to call “Spy vs. Spy” culture. It’s a rhetorical move that is both critical of surveillance and that maintains a perverse admiration of its technical aptitude, astonishing scale, and power to the point that it seems more like the surveillance critic is simply upset that they don’t have that kind of power themselves. These are people who, if certain small shifts had been made in their life stories, would more likely have been gladly recruited into the intelligence community rather than giving talks at hacker conferences about subverting it.

As far as acts of subversion against the tech-driven surveillance state (or tech culture at large) go, magic and ritual are compelling in part because they push beyond its anodyne fetish culture into the genuinely weird and unknowable. There’s echos of occultism throughout tech (the hoodied hacker-bro high priests of big data commanding and controlling the future, the cargo cult of the IC as manifested in things like Paglen’s patch collection, Burning Man), but capitalist norms demand it maintain an appearance of secular normalcy. As far as I know, no one at the Facebook headquarters literally wears a druid robe and we rarely see spy agency heads actually devouring raw animal organs during ritual Congressional testimony (jury’s out on Burning Man). When they’re done well, magic rituals against corporate and state surveillance puckishly dare power to acknowledge its own weird irrational occultisms by refusing to operate within the bounds of technocratic solutionist discourse.

By all appearances, this was the aim of the 33 Thomas exorcism. Against the daunting backdrop of 33 Thomas’ 550 feet of windowless concrete, the obvious cheap flimsiness of the ritual organizer’s costumes and signs became almost charming. Participants wore enormous pointed tinfoil hats and tinsel-heavy costumes that bore more of a resemblance to a theatrical adaptation of Harry Nilsson’s The Point than traditional conspiracy theorist couture or even really any specific cult aesthetic. Some wore makeup that suggested appropriation of maybe ancient Egyptian makeup choices and maybe Mad Max: Fury Road.

Mostly the tone seemed to be avoiding over-explicitly referencing or inhabiting any single form of magic ritual. There was sage burning, yes–but also kazoos, narrative comparisons to Greek mythology, and an invocation chant that declared the day’s exorcism to be in the name of a laundry list of occult and non-occult figures including Loki the Trickster, Gandhi, Ella Baker, and (I’m probably misremembering this one and just want it to be true) Stevie Nicks. If the ritual had any obvious reference points, it was the 1960s and 1970s–in an interview, exorcism co-organizer Noah Harley mentioned the 1967 Yippie attempt to levitate the Pentagon. (An original song sung by an older gentleman at the end of the ritual titled “Fuckin’ NSA”, which included painfully dated and rhetorically tone-deaf jokes including one about “she-males” added to, and demonstrated the shortcomings of, that 1967 throwback vibe.) Harley also mentioned a passing knowledge of tarot as an “amateur [dabbler] in the arcane arts.” But that amateur status didn’t suggest a lot of reverence for magic or ritual practices, and Harley awkwardly contradicts himself in the interview when he states “To be frank with you, we’re walking some fine line where it’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but we’re not doing it in an ironic way.”

This kitchen-sink, literal-but-not-serious (or is it serious-but-not-literal?) approach to occultism is well-aligned with chaos magic, a genre of ritual practice that for better or worse is mostly associated with Aleister “Actually The Worst” Crowley and that achieved a certain degree of contemporary notoriety following the 2016 election through meme magic. Chaos magic enthusiasts tend to argue with me about this, but I’ve always read it sort of as a cross between “power of positive thinking” self-help and animist ritual, which is another way of saying that it’s obviously appealing to artists, libertarians, and wannabe cult leaders (which, in retrospect, also describes a good cross-section of surveillance techbros). It’s unclear which, if any, of these three categories our exorcism master of ceremonies was going for, but there was a lot of chanting.

At one point during the exorcism, two of the tinfoil-clad ritual practicioners unfurled a canvas painting that placed 33 Thomas alongside a portrait of the Gorgon Medusa. They read a short text drawing comparisons of the building to the mythical creature, imagining our ritual actors as Perseus defiantly shining a light that might turn the Gorgon to stone. As a woman whose gaze has been known to destroy feeble men who fuck with my space, I found this comparison disconcerting. I wondered if the organizers of this exorcism had considered that the real villains of 33 Thomas Street might actually be the high priests who wished to control unknowable magic, that perhaps rather than casting out demons the ritual could free those demons from servitude to the arcane order of telecoms and spy agencies.

On the scrying smartphone I’d brought with me to the ritual, my homescreen features a page from the Yerbamala Collective’s WITCHES VS FASCISTS, an anonymously produced PDF of spells rendered as Jenny Holzeresque invocations in all-caps 60-point Arial Bold. Since its release earlier this year, I’ve printed and taped up pages from the PDF throughout my apartment and debated getting one of them as a tattoo. Yerbamala is an anonymous collective whose spells and communiques often explicitly reference Yoruba and indigenous South American magical practices. There’s zero irony in their Arial Bold spells, which are not merely against the technological surveillance state but the white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist, patriarchal ideology behind it.

This is maybe was I so immediately taken by Yerbamala and so immediately skeptical of the 33 Thomas exorcism–for me, magic practices are powerful as a lens for engaging with and critiquing institutions of power precisely because magic has a longstanding history of being the domain of the marginalized. To me, grounding magic practice (whether it’s a practice of absurd poetic silliness or one of deeply held faith and historically resonant ritual) in refiguring or redistributing power dynamics is just so much more interesting and necessary than focusing on transferring power from one entity’s monolith to your preferred monolith. As Yerbamala noted in an interview, “We are not asking a corrupt system made of corrupt actors to give us back pieces of our power. We are instead showing that system that we never lost our power to begin with, that our power was always ours, inalienably, and that there is a part of us deep inside that fascism can never kill.”

And maybe that kind of power shift was happening in the 33 Thomas exorcism and I just missed something, or maybe that particular flavor of chaos magic was simply Not For Me. Despite my specific dissatisfactions with the decisions made by a cohort of Ridgewood hipsters about their use and application of magic, I also recognize that if I actually want to see a world of more magic practices, it’s going to inevitably have approaches to magic I’m probably not going to be 100% on board with. A world with more magic (which I would really like) is by default going to be a world in which I can’t control how people use magic. Ultimately, I’m not sure that the exorcism achieved its stated aim of casting negative energy out of 33 Thomas Street. But it did make me think about what kind of magic I want to see and make in the world, which is a good motivation for going out there and making that magic manifest.

See also: notes, magic