Deviance As a Space of Resistance

Anna Colin

“A witch is, actually, a successful (in the sense of surviving) deviant. You have a cultural, ideological, social, what-not pattern which is, for that society in question, normal (and, importantly, this is understood as a synonym for natural). Most people survive because they conform to these patterns, because they behave normally. […] But then suddenly you get a deviant which survives, and since it does not draw its support from the normal pattern, […] that deviant is understood as drawing its support from “unknown”, “supernatural” sources. […] If we cannot survive without our order, how can she [the witch] survive in solitude? Hers must be indeed a very powerful order to exist so independently, without all the inter cooperation and individual compromise which we have to go through to survive. And if it is so powerful, then it could destroy us. We must try to destroy it first.” 
Maya Deren, “From the Notebook of Maya Deren”, 1947, October, vol. 14 (Autumn 1980): 21–45.

The list of artists, writers, activists, researchers, journals, conventions and camps that have sought to conjure the figure of the witch since the 1950s is not only longer than the above chart suggests, but also growing. Symbol of the enemy, the outsider, the maladjusted and the subversive, the witch is also, as historian Jules Michelet put it in his 1862 book La Sorcière, “the sole doctor of the people to have existed throughout centuries”. If her close knowledge of nature and her involvement with all aspects of life and death—from midwifery, to burials—have been points of inspiration for various generations of feminists in their struggle to reclaim sovereignty over their bodies, the regime of terror of which she was the target between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in both Europe and the so-called New World is an equally, if not more, useful reference to make their voices heard. In an interview with Xavière Gauthier, published in Les Parleuses (1974), Marguerite Duras remarked that: “We have burnt them. To stop and to contain madness; to contain the feminine voice.” This shall not happen again.

The comparison between the emancipated woman and the witch has meant turning the latter into a proto-feminist. As the collective WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) stated in 1969: “Witches […] were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression—particularly the oppression of women—down through the ages.” Along the same lines, the journal Sorcières published a statement in its first issue in 1975: “The witch is the personification of the feminine revolt which, against resentment, oppression and persecution, says yes to herself and no to the world as it is, but as it shouldn’t...”

Independent, rebellious, nonconformist and marginal, the so-called witch thus symbolises the one who speaks out; the one who has left the domestic sphere in favour of the political arena; the one who has control over her own body and actions; finally, the one who defies the sexual division of labor, as well as gender binarism. To this day, her alterity continues to serve as a reference to several counter-cultural movements and gatherings invested in unifying spirituality and politics, and questioning gender and identities: from the Reclaiming community,1 to the Radical Faeries network,2 through the annual pagan convention PantheaCon,3 all of which find their roots in California.

Cover reproduction of Sorcières (issue nr. 6, 1976), featuring an artwork by Evelyne Ortlieb, Courtesy Xavière Gauthier (Sorcières)