‘Queer Occulture and Feminist Ritual Performance’: Dennis Denisoff (23 May 2019)

All are welcome to join us for Dennis Denisoff’s seminar on 23 May 2019 at 18:00, in the Arts One Lecture Theatre at QMUL.

Denisoff PCS

Queer Occulture and Feminist Ritual Performance

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the largest and most influential occult society in modern history, appealed to a number of Victorian and Modernist authors and artists interested and involved in performance. For occult practitioners, the performance of a ritual was not simply the symbolic enactment of one’s beliefs, but a trans-temporal, trans-spatial means of entering into a relationship with the otherworldly. The nature of this kind of relationship can be understood through the sceptical vision offered by a queer lens. As David Halperin has summarized, the queer acknowledges its connection to sexuality and gender, but also extends into more general states and strategies that disrupt the normative: “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers.”

It is in a similar sense that Golden Dawn members Moina Mathers, Florence Farr, and Pamela Coleman Smith recognized that, through ritual performance, they could experience otherworldly, yet politically invested, queer/feminist re-formulations of gender associated with the new occultism – Mathers as one of the earliest and most powerful members of the Order, Farr as both the head of the main branch and an active participant in the literary and theatrical scene, and Smith as the artist behind the enduringly popular Waite-Smith tarot deck. While the variety of occult performances at this time ran from utterly secret rituals to public theatre events, the activities and productions of these three women suggest that occulture’s ritual-based enactments were related through a shared veneration of the transience of performance and its amorphous melding of the private and public. Mathers, Farr, and Smith all used this unaccountability not only to destablise normative genders and desires but, rather thrillingly, to experience in mind, body and spirit their myriad queer alternatives.

Dennis Denisoff is McFarlin Endowed Chair of English and Co-Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Tulsa, and the president of the North American Victorian Studies Association. He is the author of, among other works, Aestheticism and Sexual Parody, Sexual Visuality form Literature to Film, and the forthcoming Whom the Trees Loved: Eco-Decadence and the New Paganism, 1840-1920. He is the editor of Arthur Machen: Decadent and Occult Works, and co-editor of Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence and The Routledge Companion to Victorian Literature.

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