Mediums of Exchange

Adapted by imp kerr from Drew Struzan’s Return to OZ poster, 1985

I was on a lunch break from the domestic violence support hotline where I worked part-time. Day after day, I sat listening to women tell me their stories over the phone without being able to do much besides providing an ear and references to various shelters, most of which had waiting lists. There are only so many times you can tell a woman who has just been beaten up that her sole option is to take herself and her children to the PATH Office in the Bronx and sleep in what is the equivalent of a bus station before you start to wonder about how people cope with life, how they make up strategies to keep on keeping on, often in the face of insurmountable stress and crisis.

Maybe because at that point I was getting daily confirmation that shit actually is seriously fucked up and bullshit, particularly for women that find themselves outside of the available structures of care and support, I saw with a different set of eyes a psychic’s storefront sign, the sort that is near ubiquitous in New York City. It claimed to “solve all problems, including love, money, and health.” Despite the cynicism such claims would usually inspire, I was suddenly curious about the ways women might speak to each other in “psychic” spaces. What did they say and do there? Was it ever effective, given that effective need not be defined strictly by the sign’s promises? Could psychic work be more than the “most bullshit-like of vernaculars,” as a woman on Twitter recently put it?

In an effort to answer these questions, I have been hanging out with psychics and Tarot card readers for almost three years in New York City as part of the fieldwork for a Ph.D. in sociology, observing the ways in which the seemingly antiquated practice of psychic reading has moved beyond the confines of esoteric milieus and become part of a larger risk society. Considering the long and rich history of the psychic reader in the city, we can say that she has always been a member of the city’s “support staff,” offering reassurance and comfort to urban dwellers, but in today’s market the psychic has also become the very model of entrepreneurial affective labor.

Despite their adaptability or perhaps because of it, psychics still raise strong feelings about what’s right, and real, and valuable in our lives. The men and women I have spoken with and hung out with — most of whom I met while attending classes at a Tarot school in Manhattan — are highly sensitive to the way they are perceived, and they engage in a number of strategies to distance themselves from the image of the storefront fortune teller, whose legality is in question and who is feared to be conning the “mark” out of his or her week’s pay, as Joseph Mitchell wrote in his classic New Yorker essay, “The Gypsy Women.” In New York State, fortune telling for the “purposes of divination” is a class B misdemeanor offense unless it is “part of a show or exhibition solely for the purpose of entertainment or amusement.” For the Tarot school students, fortune telling is a nefarious word linked with unempathic con artistry and “cold reading” — a series of manipulative interpersonal techniques that force the recipient of the reading into doing much of the psychic’s work, answering leading questions or admitting the validity of overly vague statements or common predictions. In the same way that a single horoscope can speak to a mass audience, cold reading also suggests that our personal lives are not as singular and unique as we like to think but rather easily reduced to somewhat common experiences of illness, the hope of love, the need for employment, and a basic fear of the unknown.

As a result of the economic sweeps of the past 30 years, which encouraged the professionalization of work, psychic abilities have been repositioned as “intuitive” skills that can be systematically developed, studied, and certified. Sara, a Tarot student and author, told me during my research that she and her peers should be considered “the Oprah generation,” as they align their esoteric work not with fortune telling but with the broader and more lucrative worlds of therapy, counseling, and life coaching. “Being psychic” has shifted away from the notion of being in possession of a supposed esoteric skill and has instead been folded into a more general sense of applied intuition. Indeed, skeptics who want proof of the existence of telepathy or other psychic abilities are in some ways attacking a straw man: the validity or proof of existence of psychic phenomena is not really the point for the Oprah-generation psychics.

Nevertheless, such psi investigations, such as the recent controversial study conducted by Dr. Daryl Bem of Cornell University, do continue.

Hardly fraudulent, the contemporary psychic practitioner performs an increasingly pervasive form of labor in American society. Part life-coach, part spiritual mentor, their work capitalizes on the conditions of everyday life, particularly as the quest for personal well-being comes to stand in for more structural promises of long-term security. They may, perhaps, be the quintessential affective laborers: those who sell their very capacity to produce in you the feeling that you exist — that you can be recognized, read, interpreted, and advised. A contemporary psychic practitioner is the ideal and idealized mother-witch-wisewoman for a population raised on the promise of unique selfhood, a population now being abandoned by that same disciplinary project. Against a backdrop of limited opportunity and the increased perception that the future is precarious and risky, these practitioners offer the simple reassurance that a life has meaning, perhaps even a destiny, and that you, as an autonomous self, are a source of agency and potential.

In many ways, the intuitive practitioner is herself a model for the development of such agency and for the forms of work it may inspire. Members of the Oprah generation take classes, read books, and attend conferences. They hone their vision of the self along with a very clear intention of becoming a professional who participates in the spiritual marketplace. This allows them to add to “all the physical and psychological factors” that help an individual develop what Michel Foucault called “capital-ability”: the ability to earn a wage under neoliberalism. Often, the explicit goal of aspiring esoteric practitioners is to forge a link between personal, intuitive development and this capital-ability. With that in mind, they not only professionalize their work but devise personal brand strategies.
While we may be tempted to cast aspersions on this kind of neoliberal spirituality, consider what it might feel like to be a person who has been pushed out of formal work arrangements, perhaps through downsizing or layoffs, and who may be fending off homelessness.

While we’ve long thought that spirituality comes about as individuals consciously reject religious organizations, in my research I have seen a series of social and economic forces encouraging individuals to become, often against their wishes, Homo economicus, who, as Foucault suggests, “is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of himself … being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.” Such becoming is both precarious and transformative, and its power is such that it can be experienced as a spiritual journey. Negotiating neoliberalism’s insistence that market forces be drawn into the deepest recesses of our lives becomes the substance of spiritual transformation for prospective psychics as well as the basis for advising their clients. Spirituality, here, is neither a simple reduction to market logic, nor can it be seen as reliable source of resistance. Rather, the spirituality of Homo economicus might be thought of as a form of resilience. As Mark Neocleous has written, “resilience is thus presented as a key way of subjectively working through the uncertainty and instability of contemporary capital.”

Moreover, such spiritual resilience becomes a productive terrain of new and often weird assemblages, or what Brian Massumi has called “variety,” or niche markets. This terrain is most clear when we see that along this transformative journey, social media wait to hear your story. Since they depend on our very personal experiences for the development of their content, social media present themselves as tools for savvy individuals to maximize their available resources. To understand the seemingly natural way social media have entered the project of spiritual entrepreneurialism, I think of Brian, a student at the Manhattan esoteric school, who had written a lengthy, wide-ranging book about Tarot during his time at the school. Lugging the large manuscript to class with him, it naturally became an object of interest among the other students, and Brian became a well-respected authority on the subject of Tarot among his classmates. But his reticence to share his knowledge outside the small classroom and go public with his skills marked him in the school as someone who still “needed to learn confidence” and was being “held back” from his full potential.

Whether or not Brian would take his work “to the next level” by publishing the book and becoming a public figure became the focus of numerous of the class’s group Tarot readings. Why not blog? Or, better yet, why not publish the book and begin teaching a series of classes? The tools of the internet could make it all so easy. In this regard, offering your own personal narrative and insight to public conversations becomes part of the spiritual process. Reflecting and commenting on the journey, and in the process finding your own unique narrative, becomes part of the journey. To do anything less is to fail to develop the capacity, the capital-ability, of the spiritualized self.

When the work of self-mining is translated into a viable online identity, we see how easily the lines between spiritual consumer and spiritual producer can be blurred. Fascinated by this brave new world of work, the New York Times ran an article in 2009 that marveled over the existence of “new gurus” — young female spiritual leaders who have amassed online followings and financial success. According to the paper’s fantasy of what women’s lives are like in New York City,

A decade ago, young women like Ms. Bernstein might have been expected to chase the lifestyle of high-heels and pink drinks at rooftop bars of the meatpacking district. But now there is a new role model for New York’s former Carrie Bradshaws — young women who are vegetarian, well versed in self-help and New Age spirituality, and who are finding a way to make a living preaching to eager audiences, mostly female.

Reaction to the piece among academics who study spirituality was, to say the least, harsh. The Social Science Research Council, which runs The Immanent Frame, a blog devoted to scholarly discussions of religion and the public sphere, asked eight scholars to address the article’s claim that a new spiritual movement was afoot. Melanie McAlaster offered this summary of the “new” trend: “A few women in New York turned 30, and decided to drink less and think more about meaning-making in their lives. That’s not new or revolutionary or even very surprising.”

While scholars are right to point out that these seemingly “new” forms of spirituality have deep historical roots in a much older “new ages” of the 18th and 19th centuries, easy dismissal of these women misses the conflation and interplay among entrepreneurialism, new media, and affective and flexible labor. This conflation allows the rich history of American spirituality and metaphysics to be remixed for popular consumption — as well as obscured.[i]

And it is through a rather recent assemblage of body/mind, computer, internet, Oprah, historical spiritual figures, spirits themselves, Tarot cards and other spiritualized objects, blogging software, Facebook, and Twitter that elements of spiritual history are reanimated, quickly circulated and shared, and often branded into the spiritual entrepreneur’s identity. It has been more than 25 years since Robert Bellah dismissed spiritual remixing as hedonistic individualism, what he labeled “Sheila-ism”: picking and choosing among different religious and spiritual practices to create a personal identity. Today, however, rather than imagining one woman deciding which Goddess to follow, we must see a network of hundreds of women reading blogs, updating their profiles, quickly sharing information about diet, health, mediation, Tarot, reiki, astrology, relationships, parenting, and so on. Rather than regard esoteric practitioners as problematic or strange individuals whose beliefs and practices must be debunked, then, we might see them as a particularly resilient social phenomenon, a model for how individuals adapt to new economic and social conditions as well as to new technologies and modes of communication.

While that last statement wouldn’t make Theodor Adorno much happier about the role that occultism and esotericism play in contemporary life, it does illustrate the ways in which both precarity and entrepreneurialism can take on a spiritual hue and why social media plays such a strong role in contemporary spiritual experience.[ii]

Writing, posting images, sharing information, seemingly connecting with others — the very things we do online — not only encourage the visible development of identity, persona, or brand, but the media we use for these activities become something like an affective socket that we plug into to find a source of energy that can both compel and legitimize a leap into productive, public, and ideally profitable work. When this assemblage suggests that selfhood is still a sustainable project, that the ever-elusive “well-being” might be within your grasp, and, particularly, that personal security in an increasingly precarious world of capital is still possible, it becomes the core of the contemporary spiritual experience.

[i] The history here is vast, reaching back to Swedenborgian spiritualism, the spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century and the American fervor for revival, Theosophy, and the boom of occult secret societies at the turn of the 20th century in America and abroad, academic investigations of telepathy and the nature of the mind, the rise of psychology and psychoanalysis as disciplines, and American pragmatism, as well as more recent history of self-help, the human potential movement, the women’s movement, the popularity of paganism and Goddess movements, and, last but not certainly not least, Oprah Winfrey — and the long and often obscured history of African American spirituality in America.


[ii] For Adorno, the mass media is not only responsible for institutionalizing age-old superstitions, which obscure reason from the human mind, but for using the occult as the most insidious foil for abstracted authority. In his “Theses Against Occultism,” Adorno writes:

“The bent little fortune-tellers terrorizing their clients with crystal balls are toy models of the great ones who hold the fate of mankind in their hands. Just as hostile and conspiratorial as the obscurantists of psychic research is society itself. The hypnotic power exerted by things occult resembles totalitarian terror: in present-day processes the two are merged. The smiling of auguries is amplified to society’s sardonic laughter at itself; gloating over the direct material exploitation of souls. The horoscope corresponds to the official directives to the nations, and number-mysticism is preparation for administrative statistics and cartel prices. Integration itself proves in the end to be an ideology for disintegration into power groups which exterminate each other. He who integrates is lost.”