“What’s on the card?”

I was recently chatting with some folks about tarot, as you do, and someone said, in a fairly condescending way, that ascribing astrological information to tarot is fine, but they prefer to "look at what’s on the card" (given my audience, this was not in the HHoL).

No. That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of this works.

This is basically a post about semiotics, I’ll be honest with you up front. Simply, that’s the study of signs, symbols, and how those are used. Every tarot card is a sign. It is made up of smaller signs, or symbols, or signifiers, that add up to a whole. But the symbols on their own mean nothing. They just can’t mean anything in a vacuum. Think of those marks on the asphalt you see sometimes, that indicate to workers where pipes are and what they’re going to do next week. If you know what those mean, they’re meaningful, but if you’re like me, you stare at them like they’re alien script. I have no idea what they might mean, and of course naturally they fascinate me a bit.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the theory, but in short, signs are made of a signifier and a signified. When it’s a word, the text is the signifier and the idea it brings to mind is the signified.

Swords and stuff

So think of a tarot card. There’s no "your marriage is failing" tarot card. If we were to "read what’s on the card," that’s the kind of thing we’d expect to see. At least, we’d expect to see a card that says "marriage" and another that says "fails."

What we see instead are a bunch of swords, wands, and people going about their business, like staring off into space, playing 3 Card Monty, and dancing naked in space. What’s our favorite cliche to use on clients? "Oh, that doesn’t mean Death, it just" well, uh… it depicts Death harvesting people. Huh.

Simply put, we don’t read what’s on the card. We use the card as a catalyst to create webs of associations, and then we sift through those assocations. Each card is a locus in our semiotic network.

2 of Swords

Let’s take the 2 of Swords. In this reproduction of a Brussels style tarot, made by Tarot Sheet Revival, you can see 2 swords and a bird.

That, I wish to encourage you to consider, is all that’s on the card.

Etteilla said, among other things, that it meant "[f]riendship, attachment,a ffection, tenderness, goodwill, [and] rapport" (Huson 203). The Golden Dawn papers said it meant "Contradictory characteristics in the same nature" (203). Neither of those are "a bird is in the middle of two swords."

This is the thing, the precise thing I mean: we never read "just what’s on the card" when we read them. That’s not how symbols even work. They always defer meaning outwards (and inwards, when thinking about the person or people involved). A symbol expressly works by making one’s mind go elsewhere, that’s the point.

This is what those tiresome people on social media miss when they chortlingly retweet those memes making fun of teachers for analyzing literature: once something becomes symbolic, it cannot be pinned down to anything, not even its "objective" sense of identity. Everything means something, once you start making meaning.

"Everywhere I look, I see something holy"

The header is from Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum. Once you start seeing the world as being made of meaningful things, you can’t stop. It just keeps happening.

That’s why I sympathize with, while trying to firmly stand against, certain opposing views of tarot. While I started this essay talking about someone who believed only "what was on the card" mattered — as though there’s anything on the card that can mak meaning without the interpretive actions of the viewer — I would like to point our attention towards the people who insist that the occult significations of the tarot have always been there, that tarot is some kind of universal code, "hieroglyphs" of coded intelligence. No. They were cards made for gambling. They’re a product of specific historical forces interfacing, namely the relaxation of rules about gambling and iconography in Europe, the influx of goods from Persian soldiers, and then again the influx of further goods from Crusaders and other soldiers moving about within Europe, and cultural iconography.

So the other side of knowing you make meaning when you look at the card, rather than believing the meaning is on the card, is knowing you’re making the meaning.

"You" in this case can and probably often does mean "you all," you and the many spirits and gods you converse with using tarot."

And finally

See, the thing is, we make meaning all the time. And because it comes so naturally to us, we tend to think we found it, rather than made it. And a certain subsection of tarot fanciers think that, because they use the old cards without any new stuff ladled on top, that they’re only "reading what’s on the card." On the simple level of semiotics that’s not true, but also it’s false given that the cards depict abstract combinations of tools, sometimes decorated with flowers in whatever way a printer could fit flowers into the margins. On a mechanical level there’s no difference, no change in virtuousness or accuracy, if you look at the 2 of Swords and think "friendship" or "contradictory characteristics." Both are ideas drawn from the abstractions different people came up with looking at the same thing. They’re just different because they emerge from different cultural contexts.

You see, even people withe the same cultural background will abstract meaning in differing ways. If that wasn’t the way it worked, then everyone would think the same thing about Star Wars. Because the movie doesn’t change from person to person, does it? Only the people change.

And Star Wars is 50 years old, give or take. The tarot is a few hundred now. Do people really think there aren’t going to be multiple sets of abstractions emerging "from" the same cards," as they pass through history?

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