Hexes and Hegemonic Complexes: A Political Analysis of WitchTok
Originally published on Medium.
This summer, it was alleged that some ‘baby witches’ from the coven of TikTok — otherwise known as WitchTok — cast a hex on The Moon. In a year as turbulent as 2020, one struggles to trace the consequences of said hex; are we to attribute the soaring second spikes of Covid-19 and the ever-polarising state of politics to the healing crystal-charged incantations of a clan of American teenagers, or simply to the already nebulous flurry of current affairs?
To the dismay of the anxious TikTok Witches who took to Twitter with fears over the cosmic crimes of their ‘newbie’ inferiors, we will probably never know. What we can delineate, however, are the socio-political undercurrents of the latest witchcraft wave. It is certainly not the first of its kind; it was only a few years ago that millennial Insta-Witches and their ‘spiritual’ makeup kits were coming into vogue, and it could perhaps be said that this latest manifestation is simply the same cultural fascination coming into full fruition, now with the added catalyst of TikTok’s algorithmically supercharged interface.
However, the distinctly postmodern milieu of TikTok — with its hyper-ironic humour and attention span-shrinking short-form content — makes for a particularly pertinent analysis of the interplay between Gen-Z’s witchcraft and its politics. In fact, WitchTok offers up an elaborate altar crowned not only with amethyst geodes and bottled ‘erbs, but with an array of ideologies — most prominently, Focauldian conceptions of power; the postmodern deconstruction of grand narratives; identity politics; individualism and secularism — that underpin young people’s attitudes and views of the world today.
Some of these ideologies have likely been consciously embraced by WitchTokkers; particularly over the lockdown, the platform has become almost as engaged with social justice discourse as Instagram and Twitter (even if this discourse takes the more unconventional form of headache-inducing flashing coloured filters and textboxes accompanied by the Nintendo Wii music theme), sharing a cyberspatial territory with left-leaning narratives on current affairs. This cohabitation is not merely algorithmic, but revealing of the reality that the two run in an almost identical vein of political metaphysics.
On the one hand, it is likely conscious of itself in this regard; it shares notions of power, revolution and the uprooting of tradition (in this case, traditional religion) with the so-called radical left, and this is very much part of its appeal. However, other elements of WitchTok — namely, its ties to neoliberal capitalism and its individualistic foundations — are more covert, and arguably contradict the craft’s free-spirited and antinomian credo. Both of these aspects of WitchTok’s politics deserve an analysis, to decipher whether it is a legitimate mode of spirituality or a mere marionette to the unconsciously regnant ideologies of its generation.
Firstly, and most overtly, both TikTok’s leftism and witchcraft engage themselves with the dynamics and distribution of power at play in the world. The regnant social media brand of identity politics finds itself particularly concerned with the dichotomy of the oppressor and the oppressed, in an attempt to navigate the multitude of hegemonic complexes that they perceive to dictate society today. A crucial element of this is the identification of which groups are deprived of power — the sole currency, according to the regnant Foucauldian worldview — that controls and dictates all interpersonal interactions.
Witchcraft, by its very metaphysics, is a tool designed to harness power, typically in circumstances where individuals find themselves to be deprived of it for reasons beyond their control. These reasons can include pre-existing societal hegemonies, from systemic racism to the patriarchy. By providing the opportunity to reclaim power, WitchTok can thus be thought of not only as a signifier of the Focauldian axiom in it its mere acknowledgement of the abstract entity that is ‘power’ as the universal currency, but in that it encourages the individual to actively alter it. The manner in which it does so is further powered by the spirit of Marxism, which seeks to shake up existing power structures through radical and revolutionary means with the intent of overthrowing capitalism — an objective which TikTok makes crystal clear.
It is no surprise that the prospect of magic is highly enticing to a generation preoccupied with countering the surpluses and deficiencies of power in society — after all, what better way to reclaim control than by manipulating the laws of nature themselves? When stirred into the pot of performative progressivism, the potion of witchcraft is one that turns to extraordinary means of reclaiming the social force of the oppressed — perhaps explaining why the WitchTok demographic consists predominantly of women and members of the LGBTQA+ community and has, in recent months, directed itself to political causes such as Black Lives Matter — and override the existing dynamics of power by manoeuvring the very physics of causality.
Another aspect of Gen-Z witchcraft and its mission to reclaim social force is its inherently political notion that the distribution of power can and should be enforced not by governing social structures, but through the will of the individual. In this regard, WitchTok epitomises the postmodern preoccupation with dismantling grand narratives, doing so by transcending traditional modes of social revolution through harnessing the energies and the currents of the cosmos itself. This, as with the endorsement of Focauldian notions of power, is likely to be a conscious tenet of WitchTok.
However, the form that this rebellion takes within the movement of WitchTok is distinctively individualistic — a trait of contemporary witchcraft which may be deliberately adopted as an accessory to individual liberation, but nonetheless finds itself, most likely unconsciously, inextricably linked to the neoliberal capitalist structures to which its adherents fervently object. Though witchcraft certainly can be a collective pursuit, as is exemplified by the structure of the traditional coven (and, if the rumours are true, the fact that ‘baby witches’ all over the Western hemisphere really did remotely join forces to cast the hex on the moon), in the context of TikTok it has become a hyper-individualised affair, characterised by the malleability of its deities and rituals which compliment the formation of the personal brand.
In many ways, traditional witchcraft itself can be regarded as a form of spiritual antinomianism; a rebellious divergence from the imposing so-called power structures of organised religion. However, the inherently self-centred nature of social media amplifies this to unprecedented measures, contriving a form of spirituality that is more subject to individual preference than ever before. In the postmodern pantheon, deities can be copy and pasted from Greek, Celtic and Nordic traditions to suit the inclinations of the practitioner and their personal objectives — just like the commodification of Eastern religions which, as Dr. Sophia Rose Arjana explores in her new book ‘Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi’, has come to itself resemble the state of modern capitalism.
Not only does witchcraft complement its demographic’s preoccupation with societal power, then, but it also serves as an accessory to individualism. Considering the left leaning demographic of WitchTok, it is somewhat ironic that this cannot be separated from capitalism and its insistence of building the personal brand. Indeed, it is a credo that has dominated the lives of the TikTok generation, from their senses of style to their Instagram feed aesthetics. The personalisability of the altar and spellbook, though perhaps seeming an empowering means of harnessing individual power and liberation, in fact provide a mode of spirituality that is compatible with the consumerist preoccupation of crystallising the individual identity.
Moreover, it makes possible the pursuit of spirituality without succumbing to the perceived power structures of organised religion, turning power away from the authority of God and upon the individual. The WitchTok generation is one that ardently rejects organised religion as an inherently dogmatic institution and a source of oppressive power, being principally associated by its demographic with the homophobia of the Westboro Baptist Church and evangelicals marching outside abortion clinics. Though WitchTok’s straying away from organised religion may perhaps seem a conscious element of its postmodern power-deconstruction, however, it would seem this ultimately only makes its adherents more susceptible to the ills of individualism and capitalism which they so passionately revolt against.
In this regard, WitchTok the pinnacle of the self becoming the new God. It not only claims to understand the nature and mechanisms of the universe, but goes so far as to propose that it can actively manipulate them — a further departure from organised religion, which posits the ultimate powerlessness of the human will. The emphasis that witchcraft places on the ‘manifestation’ of that will can further be taken as a token of the pleasure principle as the driving force behind contemporary Western culture. By offering the individual to turn their desires into reality through the intervention of the supernatural rather than through manual means, witchcraft offers a form of self-gratification that takes consumerist mentalities to a cosmically elevated level.
In conclusion, while WitchTok may be perceived simply as some harmless fun (at least, when hexing the solar system isn’t on the cards), in reality it is telling of Gen-Zs complex altar of individualism and spiritual antinomianism in the name of abolishing the narratives of traditional religion and their perceived power structures. One the one hand, it may be commended as a bold attempt to revive belief in a secular world. However, WitchTok’s credo is unconsciously wedded to the same ideologies that its members fervently reject in its inherently individualistic and self-gratifying nature, brewing an elixir that is laced with self-contradiction.