Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble: covens of care exist in a state of stubborn feminist killjoy hopefulness.
Covens are usually thought of as gatherings of witches, and maybe they still are, although in the Middle Ages monks could coven as well. The ancient witches’ coven was generally thought to have “had 13 members: six men and six women plus a high priestess” to “produce the best harmony and results in magic.”1 This was not a rigid rule, but size was something to be considered as “too few members mean[t] ineffective magic [and] [t]oo many became unwieldy.”2 The role of the high priestess was more a function of psychic intuition and dedication to the administration of the coven, rather than a reproduction of the oppressive, power-hungry electorate that by covening the witches had desired to escape.
Thus, maybe there’s something a little witchy, a little clandestine, a little magical, a little queer, about the forms of communal care and convocation that stubbornly endure in and against regimes of network governance and value extraction. Covens have familiars, but are not necessarily family. Covens have covenants, but not binding contracts. To networks of value extraction, covens are an ever-receding hinterland that is never quite entirely tracked and monetized. They sit in the gaps and fissures of the logics of accumulation and anticipation.
From the point of view of the coven itself, it is the coven that makes a place, a center, a hearth in a heartless world. Covens of care endure despite conditions of domination, violence, or erasure. At times, covens rely on digital interfaces and networks. They form and endure both in and against the precarious conditions of life that networks impose. In the connected world, real or imagined, being physically present with desired others becomes a privilege enjoyed by the few; for example, while transnational labor markets move Filipina nannies abroad, they might only communicate with their own children back home via WhatsApp.
Remember: you are sleeping for the boss! All of one’s time, one’s cognitive powers, one’s emotional strength, is supposed to be on the job, and can be called to work at any time. Google’s headquarters in New York City has “themed” meeting rooms, such as the one that looks like a baroque antechamber as reimagined by Florida real estate agents. One of the rooms attempts to simulate the living room of an average middle-class, middle-American suburban family, with its coffee table, plush sofa and table lamps. There is even a clutter of children’s toys in the corner. One can only imagine the feelings of actual employees, who have families, who have kids, called into weekend meetings in this room that takes pains to duplicate all they are obliged to be away from. Even if one has a heteronormative family or something like it to turn back to, one might still need a coven of care to pick up the pieces.
The ever-presence of information and connection carves individual time into seemingly random and even chaotic obligations to wage labor. Rather than free the worker from the tyranny of the workplace, the cellphone means the workplace is everywhere. The whole of space becomes an open-plan office, in which shouty men yabber into their phones as if the fate of the world depended on it. The coven, in response, hides in plain sight, in a group message, in a Slack backchannel, for those who don’t get to pretend they are masters of the universe.
We take inspiration from a graduate student feminist coven at the University of Kentucky. The coven communes in person but also through private messages and group chat, sharing support through empowering hashtags or memes that critique their condition. They recognize the university as a space of “competition, scarcity, imperialism, racism, and patriarchy,” but their shared aim is not so lofty and exhausting as trying to tackle these cultural structures of precarity all at once.3 Instead, their goal is to create autonomous feminist zones of empowerment and support that exist in and survive outside of the university. The coven tackles its own precarity through self-care and community, welcoming care while acknowledging all the bullshit happening that has it needing it.
Instead of competing with each other, we collaborate by praising boldness, cultivating norms of trust rather than suspicion, elevating friendship above romance, grounding our relationships within political work and feminist praxis. Our willfulness to love and resist conjures momentary, inhabitable spaces, where we dream of alternative futures and nurture our energies for revolutionary change. The autonomous feminist spaces we create – these groups, our friendships – give us the strength and the enthusiasm not to settle for the few comforts of professionalization in the university. We know that the success of some comes on the backs of more precarious others. We acknowledge the cruel optimism of holding onto dreams of recognition and respect in the academy. We are in an unhopeful condition, a kind of catastrophe or impasse, and we stay here anyway.4
The covens of care through which people connect and support each other may have long-lived roots that extend deep into the ground of a given place. Or, they may assemble briefly and disperse, like cloud formations in virtual space. Many people are forced into mobility even as the fantasy of the digital says that mobility is not necessary. As the dictates of work make people more and more mobile, uprooting themselves and implanting themselves in city after city, online covens of care can, at times, become the only constant.
Covens of care take more than a casual commitment. They mean putting something else before the dictates of labor, seeing them as being of more value, even if their instantiation can only happen in the margins of work’s demands. And yet covens of care do not just persist despite these conditions, but can also produce the conditions for the possibility of living otherwise. Back in the 1970s, Angela Y. Davis described the domestic care work of women under slavery in the US, which was performed not in a family household, but for men and children and other women who came together not as kin but as kith under conditions of complete domination.5 This other kind of domestic space became the main space of resistance to the conditions of slavery, because the care labor within it was the only work not fully claimed by the slave owner. While reproducing the lives of the enslaved as property, this care work also created the conditions for resistance to enslavement.
A different kind of example: consider a network of trans women, mostly living in New York City. A few have straight jobs. Some do sex work. Some are casually employed here and there. Sometimes they live together. Sometimes they fuck each other. Sometimes they gossip and snipe. And yet, always, there’s the watching out for sisters. Someone has surgery and needs others to come care for her. Someone is suicidal and someone has to look out for her. Someone needs to borrow a shot of estrogen as their prescription ran out. Someone is organizing a benefit to raise money for someone else’s surgery. Everyone puts ten dollars in each other’s GoFundMe for emergency rent money or medical expenses. Everyone posts selfies with questionable new outfits for others to affirm or critique.
It’s a coven of care. It is not utopia. This person is no longer on speaking terms with that one because of that one thing she did – and so on and so forth. Indeed, covening is always fraught, for it involves the mobilization of social networks of care that are only available to those who are already stitched to people with resources –emotional and material. Covens are often organized into racial, subcultural, and class-segregated units. The Jane Collective was a kind of coven consisting mostly of white women.6 Queer land projects in Tennessee have historically provided refuge for mostly white people who invented new modes of care in the wake of the AIDS crisis.7 While covens are a crucial mode of recirculating resources of care, not everyone can, or knows how to, access the coven. Shy radicals, working-class women of color, and those most worn-down by precarity may have no way (and no energy) to enter the coven.
The coven, almost by definition, is unstable – for covens emerge in and against spaces of institutionalization. Their ongoingness is always in peril. People who need constant care may not find it in the coven. Survivors of abuse who only have their coven may quickly find they need more buoying-up than their friends can provide.
But when most of the world hates you or is at best indifferent to you, the coven is a place from which to draw strength, and maybe even to invent a new way of life. Some have called this way of life T4T: trans for trans.8 Sometimes, all we have is each other.
Something that is obvious to trans people maybe sometimes more than to others is that flesh and tech are integral, for everyone, but in such extremely variable ways. Trans people can need hormones, surgeries, interventions of tech into flesh just to make life livable. But perhaps all bodies are like this, including cis bodies. Bodies are at once more and more precarious and more and more dependent on systems of technique to function.9 Covens of care create pockets of shared affect and attention, in and against medical-technical business models that rank and rate bodies mostly on their profitability and ability to pay.
What does covening in care feel like? José Esteban Muñoz gave us “feeling Brown” as a way to be in the white supremacist nation but not of it, a connection without identity, and for some a connection with other subaltern histories that cannot be spoken.10 For people of color and other precarious subjects who feel not quite right, Muñoz soothes us: feeling Brown is a way to feel one another, together. It can feel excessive, overperformed. It can feel like a strange affinity. But it feels less precarious, together, now.
Through covening, we preserve the incalculable – the abundance of “the gift” and its attendant obligations – to give, receive, and reciprocate.11 The gift puts you in a relation of reciprocity, where one’s ongoing debt sustains a relationship. It takes a lot of effort to take a gift out of a commodity. We create emergent and messy zones of intimacy that exceed monetized transactions. The coven emerges, not necessarily as a romantic fuck-you to the disciplinary function of welfare state, but in the crucible of mass abandonment – by both the state and legitimized networks of social support. When you are kicked out of the family, you lose access to society’s default network of care. This is why covens emerge as complementary networks for the affective value of the family. We coven because our survival depends on it.
In an ever-more-depleted world, covens have to bear a supplementary burden of finding ways to sustain life outside of commodified enrichment. They come under pressure to be what gets us through the superadded volatility not just of the social-technical world but of the natural-cultural one as well. Maybe it’s a time to learn from – and teach the wisdom of – various kinds of witches.