Sometimes Dancin' (pt. 2)
In which the work works on me . . . with help from the King of Pentacles
A past teeming with stories has led us to this moment. It finds me already in place, like the King of Pentacles on his throne. I am orienting myself, settling into space, preparing for serious play. Almost despite myself, this writing became a demo of my working methods. The King (as we’ll see) insists on enlivening the present moment, on putting performance to good use. He helps us do something with the information that enters and shapes our lives. He asks, as you might: But how does Talent Agency work? I’m not totally sure where the question will take us, but it’s enough to begin.
I look down at the three fragments before me:
1 / This is another King of Pentacles, the one from the Mystic Mondays Tarot deck. When I spotted this deck early last year, I was captivated by its bold illustrations. Each scene, made of simple shapes and flattened pictorial space, is enlivened by vibrant gradients and ombres. Color lends dimension and temperature, light and warmth, to the deck’s imagery. For me, Grace Duong’s illustrations recall aura photography and recent UI design trends, among many other things. From this angle, the artist’s self-professed “love of color” wraps spiritual technology in the hipper, more approachable sensibility of vibes.
What vibe do I get from this King of Pentacles? Whatever it is, it emerges from the card’s blacks and blues. These are the colors of standard business suits, like the well-tailored one this figure wears. One focal point in the picture is a small bright circle—a wristwatch casting its glare. Green-ombre streaks suggest lively intercourse with money.
Meanwhile, this King’s well-trimmed hair never moves. Neither do his sleeves, secured as they are by the cuff links he locks into place. Something thick and heavy sits about this figure: sandalwood, cigar smoke, gold. He stands solidly at the center of some universe, generating its gravity. Sky-blue and grass-green swirl around him.
If Duong’s deck invites readers to vibe with the world, its archetypal references facilitate the process. The type I recognize in this card is a businessman. Importantly, this moment of recognition is where I confront the stakes of my encounter with this card. Recognition is a way of making meaning; and meaning-making, true to the spirit of the Pentacles, is one way of processing and enacting information.
So what kind of meaning do I feel this card is asking me to make? I look at this figure and brace, as if by reflex, against his hardness. What I sense is the shape, the gender, the vibe of respect demanded by force—of existence succumbing to a harsh new logic, order, sense. A glinting watch, a tailored suit.
For all my recognition, I do not recognize myself in this card. I’m shocked I feel so strongly. This King stirs something deep in me, though I thought I’d overcome my anxieties about representation. I can tell Duong tried to depict people of different body types, ages, gender expressions, and sociocultural contexts in this deck. But the artwork still skews toward those who are young, able-bodied, of higher social status, and—despite the fanciful renderings of skin tone—probably not black. These limitations are only emphasized by a literal flattening of the figures’ contexts. Ultimately, what am I being asked to vibe with?
The King’s is a warmth I don't feel drawn into. When I see this deck, and its King of Pentacles in particular, I’m witnessing something I don't want to participate in. I cannot identify with this King; he is not-like me. I haven’t used this deck in a reading, personal or otherwise, for some months.
2 / This document has sat on my computer, unfinished and unsent, for over a year. It was supposed to be an open letter, fairly brief, able to fit into a single post on Medium. Instead, it swelled into two parts. The second half of my “broken-open letter” (as I called it) starts like this:
Recently, I’ve been attuned to my longing for acknowledgment. Wanting a professor to praise my latest batch of dissertation writing; wanting someone I admire to return my friendship; wanting a partner to notice my unique contributions to the relationship, or a choreographer to pay me more for dancing in their work. In each case, I give of myself, often intensely, yet feel I haven’t been met how I want and need. You are going to acknowledge me, [I say] to them—and if you don’t, I will resent you.
I wanted my letter—so I told myself—to be a call-in. I considered myself a peer of the person I wanted to address. Though I don’t know them personally, they enjoy some prominence in an emergent discourse I follow faithfully. This discourse is sometimes called the “sensemaking conversation” or “liminal web.” I’ve often hoped Talent Agency could contribute to this discourse, and my strange vision of peership entailed being recognized and accepted as an equal by the person I was writing to.
Funnily, this meant casting power onto this person in my mind, giving them power to authorize me. Whatever I said, whatever I believed, my writing tells on itself: I wanted to wrest acceptance from this person, if not as a supplicant, then as a challenger. But it’s remained difficult for me to enter this dialogue. Despite my attempts and intentions, I’ve mostly felt like a spectator.
As I drafted this issue of the newsletter, I thought it was crucial to explain what ‘the’ sensemaking discourse is, and how I fit into it. When I promised insights about “the origin stories of modernity” in the last issue (casual!), this is the conversation I planned to address. But the text just kept ballooning and ballooning...a lot like the “broken-open letter” I tried to write. A lot like my dissertation. A lot like messages I’ve sent to loved ones who hurt me.
I’ve gotten good at unleashing intense feelings in bouts of blistering prose. This time, though, I caught the pattern. I sensed it as a forceful, even violent bid for recognition and care. In one move, I both relinquish power and wield it recklessly. I had to wonder: where in life was I approaching others, not from beneath or from above, but poised solidly over my own center? How do I call these disavowed parts back to myself?
As I’ve pondered this question, I’ve recalled the Parable of the Sower (both the Bible story and Octavia Butler’s novel, which I just started reading). For the protagonists of both stories, the value their insight is not located solely in others’ support or recognition. Instead, it starts with the seeds of their message. Further, both protagonists learn that not all soil is good for the seeds they sow. This isn’t a condemnation of the soil, but a reminder that things are only meant to flourish in certain contexts.
A skillful farmer or gardener knows this. They don’t hoard seeds or protect their crops out of fear of loss. They know some will fall by the wayside, some will spring up hastily, and some will grow full and ripe, able to nourish many. They plan for this. They strategize. This is how they steward growth without recourse to violence or domination. This is the King of Pentacles.
I pondered all this, and was reminded that Talent Agency only exists because of what I have cultivated both by myself and in community with others. It is the fruit of my livingness—a gift not bestowed by someone holding power over me. It’s suddenly silly to curse soil that can’t nourish me. What is it like to feel it resting firmly in my own hand, in the moment just before tossing it? Where will it land, take root, and blossom?
3 / More vibes: At 6230 Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, a technicolor mural overlooks the street. It gently hearkens to the acid-fueled Art Noveau stylings of late-1960s/early-1970s rock posters. When I spotted the mural late in 2019, I hadn’t remembered seeing it before, though it seemed impossible to miss.
Many sites in LA have undergone makeovers, becoming anything from a film set to a fake office complex. This building just recalled itself to (a past) life. Though it sat in disuse when I first saw it, 6230 Sunset was once known as Aquarius, a concert venue that hosted rock concerts—and a long-running production of Hair—beginning in 1969. Seeing it again in 2019, I eventually learned its former glory hadn’t been invoked on a whim. It was all dressed up for its appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. (Apparently, it never got out of costume.)
I was a senior in high school when I first saw a Tarantino movie. I sensed what was vital about it. I knew what it was to be so full of love for art that that love spilled out of you. But as I saw more from him, I realized that his love is so itemized, so finicky and precious. In his exacting quotation of film scenes, aesthetics, and soundtracks, he renders art as information, information as trivia, and trivia as something to be known and known-about.
That knowing becomes a buffer. We are supposed to know there’s a gap between an old movie’s representation of the world, and the values ‘we’ hold ‘now.’ When people shout down the objectionable content in his films, those in the know will tell you: well, we all realize what’s going on here. Look at how artificial it is. Besides, it’s just a movie!
It makes sense that Tarantino learned about movies by working in a video store. When handled as so many fictions, as information, the films of the past can be admired and, importantly, edited—like inventory in a catalog. And as keeper of this store, of these stories, Tarantino strives to undo the atrocities lurking in the archives.
This is especially obvious in his historical-revisionist movies, including Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained (which address Nazism and American chattel slavery, respectively). These movies rewrite historical ‘fact’ by running it through myth—in this case, the beloved myth of the underdog—and granting victory to those who have suffered horrible loss. Many people I know loved Django because, for once, a mass-media representation of black people imagined us winning. Allegedly.
But we know that flipping an oppressive binary only reinforces that binary. In so much conversation I’ve heard about Tarantino’s movies, Django or otherwise, focus hovers around the What of his work. Is this ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representation? Does he glorify or condemn violence? Who is or isn’t allowed to say what? Far fewer people consider his attitudes and his habits, his Hows: his knowingness, his underdog ethos, his ultimate ambivalence toward oppression. It’s just a movie! To him, history cannot be changed, only prodded—or, worse, relived (if with a difference).
These are his Hows, and when we accept his invitations, they become our Hows too. When we recognize this, we are positioned to ask how we could clamor for the destruction of the ‘old’ ways, while sustaining the stories that keep them alive. Tarantino is firmly invested in the solidness of these stories—whether it manifests as films on a shelf or a mural on Sunset.
Stories shape the world, and our possibilities for being in it. However simple this sounds, it is an engagement with mystery. Those well versed in the magic of story warn us: the moment we think we know how a story works, we have foreclosed its power. So how do we learn to unstick our stories, to move with them? How do we leave the feel-good stories, the burnt-out stories, the dead-end stories, for those that give us good ground to grow in? How do we learn to honor our Hows, and to hear what they teach us about our Whats? How do we learn to do something with the information we have been given?
These are the questions I ask. They take no answers, only faithful doing...
TRY IT FOR YOURSELF: Think of a book, song, show, movie, dance…that’s on your mind these days. List as many relevant attributes, associations, and/or connotations as you can. Throughout your day, notice how much of the list resonates with your personal experience. Then, at day’s end, take some time to reflect on your day and your list. Note the items that played a lesser role in your experience. How do you feel about these items? Do you ever want to give them more room in your life? If so, why? Revisit your chosen piece (if possible), paying special attention to those attributes you would like to bring into sharper focus. Invite the piece to teach you without your having to try. (Repeat this process as often as feels useful to you.)
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