Suspended academic

Play is alien to no human being; everyone is famliar with it from the testimony of their own life.

(Fink 2016 231)

Over the last twenty five years, I have heard more times than I can count that succeeding in academia—as in life—merely requires learning the rules of the game and then playing it better than the next person. Or at least playing the game well enough that you do not find yourself thrown out of it.

The fashion where some go on about institutional customs as being “games” really does not make sense to me.

Of course, carefulness with the power of a particular kind of play and gaining mastery within that extraordinary field makes some sense. We can appreciate those who lose themselves to playing. Thus, being-at-play takes a central role in the thinking of diverse philosopher’s of the 19th and 20th centuries. Besides Nietzsche’s Dionysian play and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games (Hinman 1974, 106f), both Hans Georg Gadamer and Eugen Fink make playfulness a key component of profound thinking (Gadamer 2006; Fink 2016). For Gadamer, especially, playfulness provides meaning to the exploration of our life-experience, or Erlebnis.

But a direct imposition of gaming onto the day-to-day world confuses regulation play with the regulating of our circumstances. Such analogies provide some insight, but often they simply create a material condition where play itself becomes reified and loses the power of authentic adventure. Making academics or business or politics into a sport in such a fashion misses the point of being extraordinary (literally, out-of-order). It all becomes about “winning” within the order-of-things rather than playing-out. For this reason, those who do find such analogies crass have a very authentic aesthetic reaction: Such reifications are not only cheap but ugly.

At times when I see this ugliness rising in my own life, I turn back to the cards.

Real life is healthier if one gives it the holiday in unreality that is its due.

(Bachelard 1983, 23)

The deck of cards is heavy. Although the cards were originally quite stiff when I got them in 1989, they are quite worn now. The gold edges are almost rubbed away. A few corners are bent; one card has a knick where a small bit was torn away leaving the white cardboard exposed beneath. But I colored over the blemish with a black dry erase marker so it is not so noticeable by eyes other than my own.

I shuffle the cards a few times thinking about my life as a nearly 55 year old PhD student. Coursework now over, I also passed my qualifying exam. Last February, I defended my research prospectus and was allowed to succeed to that group of graduates designated ABD: all but dissertation. Sustained research must soon begin on a topic that matters to me. I taught 85 students on my own this semester while juggling three courses. Much drifts into mind about my mother and my husband. I focus back in on my vocation.

I wash the deck: spreading all the cards out on the table moving them carefully around each other by barely touching them. As I watch the cards, wash the deck, I continue thinking about forms and formalities of education.

Stacking the cards back together, I cut the deck with my right hand into three short piles toward my left. I pick up the middle pile and look at the bottom card.

What is the purpose of my formal education?

There appears the hanged man, a prisoner shackled to a rough boulder and suspended upside down with his head against the parched ground. In the sky, an eagle swoops down toward the captive in the light of a blood red sun setting down in the western lands.

Fig. 1 The Hanged Man from The Mythic Tarot deck. Greene et al (1986) base the entire deck on a Jungian interpretation of Greek Mythology.

Here is Prometheus bound.

His face is unbothered by his predicament, almost serene as he watches the eagle coming toward him to mete out the punishment: the raptor eats his liver every day; the organ grows back; the bird returns again and again again.

A good draw, at least in terms of how I feel these days. Of course there is more to it than just the first impression. As a game to be played, tarot requires more engagement than just superficial impressions. There is a line of tension to be explored between tradition and personal experience.

For most decks, the Hanged Man symbolizes sacrifice. In The Mythic Tarot (Greene et al 1986), from which this particular version of the card comes, Prometheus represents a matured seeker, first represented by Dionysius as the Fool who begins the journey of the trump or major arcana cards. This card appears half way through the trumps. The tied titan reached a point of continuing unjustly in ignorance or giving himself up to something greater. He has measured a possible future of freedom against a current situation of oppression. Prometheus gave fire to humankind; Zeus did not like that. Yet he has “thought-ahead” (pro metis). He knows that the gift of light will bring punishment to him but freedom to his creation, humanity. The card captures both the starkness of the current situation, the moment of pain, and the serenity of a better vision.

What does this mean on a deeper level for me in response to playing out an exploration of this card?

The head upside down on the ground implies that reason has become subordinated to some other aspect of the whole person. In many ways, this card could show what happens when Plato’s tripartite soul is turned topsy-turvy. Intellect that soars to Heaven now touches the low earth. Yet the feet—one bound up to the great rock, the other falling loose—not touching earth are immobilized. Thus, the will has also been fixed. It cannot be read as what happens when immoderate desire gets control of the whole being. (In a sense, that might be Dionysius the Fool.)

The narrative of gift and sacrifice co-mingle as contemplation of consequences. In ancient lore, the liver is the site of the spirit. The constant loss of the liver but its regrowth, even though a part of the curse in one sense, promises freedom from despair, liberation from dispiritedness. The face shows that Prometheus is not broken but awaits the next day even though he remains uncertain that there will be a difference. The Hanged Man is not just the test that proves the seeker but the gift of the seeker to himself as a holistic mind, a whole spirit: the seeker’s current experience resolves as being-at-play as the bringer of light.

Whether the positive should always have priority in the memory, or whether the tendency of life to forget the negative is to be criticized in all respects, is a question that needs asking. Ever since the Prometheus of Aeschylus, hope has been such a clear mark of human experience that, in view of its human importance, we must regard as one-sided the principle that experience should be evaluated only teleologically, by the degree to which it ends in knowledge.

(Gadamer 2006, 344)

I began reading tarot cards when I was 16 years old. I bought a Rider-Waite deck from a Barnes & Noble book catalog. Back in 1980, there were probably about ten decks in regular production. Since then, tarot has increased almost exponentially in popularity. Besides many dozen artists online making limited productions of their own cards, at the time writing this, US Game Systems—the largest but not the only commercial publisher of such decks—offers over 100 variations of the game.

Interpreting the cards for myself and other people since a sophomore in high school, my notions have evolved to a significant degree concerning what the cards are and what they can do. I am not one who believes that the tarot are directly connected to the fickleness of Dame Fortune nor are they an ancient wisdom handed down to us from the ancient Egyptians. Rather, they appear to be a method mediating between what some might call the oral and the literary traditions (Sparisou 1989, 22-27). They are oral in so far as they require a speaking from our portion, what we have been dealt by chance in the play of the world. They are literary because the cards are fictional creations with a standard meaning. It is clear that fortune telling and esoteric mysteries were never the original reason for the deck which came about as a parlor game in 16th century Italy (Frost 16). But even taking them to be descended from a game, they are not necessarily a frivolous distraction.

I forget how many times I have read the cards in these thirty six years. I do not remember any outcome that was so off the mark it would weaken my relationship to playing the tarot at all. Neither do I recall in all the readings if there had been a spread wherein I saw myself one day seriously considering what it means to be-at-play with the cards. But then, being-at-play is more like Jose Ortega y Gasset’s notion of hunting: it is serious diversion (1995, 2f). When we play, we divert our selves toward something that absorbs our attention for the sake of an adventure. There will be trophies, perhaps, certainly tales of the one that got away or a cipher of being a hunter that we carry back from an intense trip into our diversions. But it is not about the thing won. Or better, what is won is “how”: absorbing playfulness. Tarot cards comprise a system of representation providing an opportunity for recognizing more about the world than previously seen before playing with the cards.

What Hans Georg Gadamer says about Erlebnis holds here: play fascinates precisely because it “interrupts the customary course of events, but is positively and significantly related to the context which it interrupts” (2006 60). Even if play is a regular feature of our lives, every form of serious play opens onto the extraordinary: that is, playfulness clears a space out-of-the-ordinary or out-of-order. Thus an adventure lets life be felt as a whole, in its breadth and in its strength. Here lies the fascination of an adventure. It removes the conditions and obligations of everyday life. It ventures out into the uncertain.

Gadamer situates the exploration of Erlebnis as a cultural phenomenon between a word as having a history and as being a concept (2006 53-61). As a noun, the term was not in use before the 19th century and only came to prominence after Wilhelm Dilthey’s work on Schleiermacher (54f). Erlebnis becomes central after this to Husserl’s phenomenological techniques and therefore to any phenomenological psychology (cf. Karl Jaspers, Erwin Straus, etc) and certainly any attempt at hermeneutics.

Gadamer treats the concept of Erlebnis as a term with a readily traceable history within the academic traditions of humanist exploration. Tracing that development discloses in a sense what the word does: Erlebnis as the experience of being an active self-unfolding that allows a person to share how the parts of her life relate to the whole of her living. Or that relatable experience that allows a biographer to share in the eventfulness of the person he studies. Such experience throws light on living as impacting and being impacted. This existential component rejects the “objective” distancing that would be encountered in the trends of Enlightenment philosophy (Gadamer 2006, 55). Similarly, in playing out any card from the tarot, there must be a reduction in the distance between the interpreter and the interpreted. This reduction confirms the line of exploration as a shared living.

The joy of recognition is rather the joy of knowing more than is already familiar. In recognition what we know emerges, as if illuminated, from all the contingent and variable circumstances that condition it; it is grasped in its essence. It is known as something.

(Gadamer 2006, 113)

Objectivity cannot be the target of playful adventure. If it is a (re)search into experience, it is seeking-again the line of meaning that makes sense. The “same feeling for experiment and research” (56) shared between those doing human as well as natural science becomes problematic when the latter became the measure of proper method for the former. Erlebnis provides thinkers the means to query how the world-gives itself to the experiencer and how that person is herself given to the world. Erlebnis becomes the datum for any reflective elucidation. The appropriation of these new descriptors for a changing reality—existential expression after industrial impact—allows philosophic research in the area of human life that does not reduce things to the relations of atomic sense data (57). The importance of this cannot be small as it gives way to seeing the self as a nexus of decisive possibilities (freedom) rather than a bundle of determined sense effects. This, of course, is the heart of playing tarot: the nexus of world-play where the intelligible and the sensible mingle as meaningful experience.

And as with all aspects of life, the experience begins as tangible.

There are physical cards that can be picked up, held, moved around, and looked at. Most decks are oversized compared to standard playing cards. Some are only longer while others are both longer and wider. The decks are usually printed on heavier stock as well. Besides the standard 52 cards in four suits, tarot contains a fourth court card (the page) as well as the 22 trump cards traditionally numbered 0 (the Fool) to 21 (the World). (The Hanged Man or Le Pendu is traditionally 12 though some decks might move his position around; ) That brings the total number of cards in a tarot deck to 78. As a commercial product, a set almost always comes with a small booklet giving the traditional meanings of the cards as well as suggestions for how to do different spreads or methods of interpretation.

For a reading, a single card to all of the cards can be used in different formats or plays on the same theme: card(s) chosen at random from a well shuffled deck, laid out before the reader on a table and interpreted to throw light on a situation put forward by a query. Like, What is the purpose of my formal education?

If someone takes up the cards and chooses only one, there are obviously 78 possible outcomes for the draw. Beyond this most simple form, the distinct combinations grow very high, very quickly. Pulling three cards provides just under 500,000 possibilities. And a ten card spread—one of the most popular called a “celtic cross”—goes well beyond 4.5 quintillion distinct layouts of the 78 cards.

Where experience meets chance the tarot happens. With so many possible combinations, tarot decks offer those who engage them an opportunity to play with reality when the question is engaged with the layout. Whether they are shuffled and spread out for yourself or for another, each of the 78 cards in the deck have traditional meanings that should only be a guide for playful interpretation of the question and never an exact key. To decipher the cards means to treat them as the familiar-new. Even if you have previously experienced them or known about them, they take on novel structures in light of new queries. This is why such games never fully fade away. As in all cultures, something that has the reality of chance woven into it takes on a significant level of seriousness as soon as folks give themselves over to the “wheel of fortune” to understand other aspects about their situation.

Yet the cards have history as well, and every reader participates as much in the historical imagination that gave birth to the decks as it does in the chance arrangement of the cards. As mentioned before, the tarot developed from an early 16th century parlor game in northern Italy. As the duchy of Milan’s Visconti-Sforza deck, the cards traveled north to France. And from what scholars can tell (Farley 2009), it was the detachment from their origin in Italy that gave the cards an opportunity to be seen as otherwise than a game.

Fig. 2: Hanged Man from a variation of the Tarot of Marseilles. Figures in this deck are very much influenced by Visconti-Sforza imagery.

The French freemason Antoine Court de Gebelin, writing during the age of enlightenment in France, first offered a re-presentation of the cards as a pictorial “Book of Thoth” (Farley 2009, 101-06; Frost 2016, 18). Court de Gebelin was fully aware of how tarot fit into a much broader gaming tradition. His work contains documentation of how the cards were often used by his contemporaries as a trick-taking game. His work lays out quite carefully the complex rules and the complicated scoring system while also drawing comparisons with the French game of Piquet with which most of his readers would have been more familiar. Piquet used something akin to our contemporary deck of cards (Farley 2009, 101f). Yet, even though he had all of this evidence of tarot as part of the western European gaming tradition, he became convinced that such a multilayered set of images must have deeply arcane meanings. So he set out on a most imaginative journey: To reveal that the safest way for an ancient lost civilization of Egyptians to keep their knowledge alive was to hide it out in the open as a card game (Farley 2009, 103). Note that it is a living-knowledge because it is a system of meanings, a map of the ever constant patterns of the cosmic mind.

Whereas the French were fascinated during the Enlightenment with mathesis universalis and therefore systems that gave whole knowledge, the post-Romantic age in England saw other reasons for studying the tarot. A great deal of what was happening in Great Britain at the end of 19th century concerned an attempt to create a bulwark against the seemingly unstoppable advance of “scientizing” the world (Farley 2009, 121-23). The teachings of Madame Blavatasky’s Theosophical Society as well as the organizing of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn pushed back against the situation of a Victorian era where technological progress was on an industrial track to monopolize all aspects of thinking. In fact, such movements—that numbered among their luminaries such figures as William Butler Yeats and Moina Mathers (the sister of Henri Bergson) can be seen as taking control of early globalization and multiculturalism by using the new wealth of knowledge about ancient rituals and eastern belief systems to affect a hermeneutic reconciliation of science and metaphysics in the esoteric devices first “re-discovered” in the French Occult Revival.

Fig. 3: The Hanged Man from A. O. Spare’s hand drawn deck. These cards were never published as a set and only discovered recently in the archives of the British Museum.

For Austin Osman Spare, a British occultist and ritual magician from the early 20th century, the creation of his own deck was a central aspect for comprehending the full power at play in the Tarot (Allen 2016). As can be seen in the figure of his Hanged Man, Spare annotated traditional meanings of the card. However, his cards are of special significance because Spare also notes important augmentations to the meaning of cards based on their appearance alongside other cards in a spread. For instance, in conjunct with the Ace of Spades, Spare sees the Hanged Man as a construct denoting death by hanging. Spare, of course, was a practitioner of ritual magick, and while the correspondence could be seen as divining literal death, it actually was meant to be a focal consideration for sending death to an adversary.

Spare’s Hanged Man actually resembles many pictures from the period of Harry Houdini in his famous escape trick where he is suspended in a glass case filled with water. The Hanged Man in the card appears to float in an ether of power, as though the gallows itself is a doorway to another realm. Based on the depictions of Le Pendu from the Marseille deck, Spare’s suspended initiate carries bags of money and jewels or seeds. They fall out onto the ground but are just shy of actually reaching the earth. They give even more of an impression that the Hanged Man dangles suspended in some fluid possibility that has been frozen. The inner currents with the frame of the gallows resemble the same gyres occurring on Spare’s Ace of Spades. They give a particular vibrancy to an image that otherwise denote immobility.

Fig. 4: The Hanged Man from the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. This tarot is very heavy in esoteric Christian symbolism.

The deck which would be progenitor to the proliferation of a multitude of new decks was the Rider-Waite, a revision of the cards that not only had allegorical and symbolic messages within the trumps but throughout all of the so-called “pip” or “minor arcana” cards. As can be seen from Spare’s deck, there was a tendency to leave the pip cards mostly resembling playing cards. Golden Dawn member Arthur Edward Waite, a British poet and scholar of mysticism, offered a complete revision of the cards from the imagery that had lingered from the original Visconti-Sforza and Marseilles decks. Waite was originally born in Brooklyn but repatriated with his mother to Great Britain after the death of his American father. The 1910 deck created by Waite and artist Pamela Colman Smith was followed with a full length book called The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1977).

Fig. 5 The Hanged Man from The Book of Thoth Deck, imagined in the mind of Aleister Crowley and realized in the art of Lady Frieda Harris.. 

A contemporary, and often a rival, of both Spare and Waite is Aleister Crowley. Even if Crowley was not very successful in achieving great power, as a public figure he obtained a kind of lasting infamy in certain areas of popular culture. As with anyone who had been associated with the Golden Dawn, the Tarot for Crowley plays the role of instrument in ritual magick as well as a kind of grimoire of magickal secrets. Crowley wrote a long and quite arcane book on all of the hidden meanings contained with the cards. Taking his cue from Court de Gebelin, Crowley called his tome the Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Magicians. (The term “short” is completely relative as the text is actually hundreds of pages long; however, given how much information he finds in the cards, it is certain Crowley found the published treatise superficial.)

Lady Frieda Harris designed the images of the deck based on collaboration with Crowley about his philosophy of divination and magick. With this deck, we see the most radical departure from the traditional images. That is, while for most decks there are emendations and slight changes to the symbols, especially among the trumps, there was a traditionalizing of representations. But Crowley, never one to shy away from radical departures, successfully collaborates with Harris to reimagine tarot as simultaneously the most ancient of communications and the most contemporary work of art: “The deck is justly celebrated for its modernising (sic) of the Tarot symbolism, and for its radical art style which wasn’t afraid to combine some of the developments in 20th-century art with Harris’s studies of Projective Synthetic Geometry” (Coulthart 2014).

For instance, the Thoth Deck’s Hanged Man hovers faceless above the depths of creation, a great serpent coiling within the dark roiling heart of the seas of life. The seeker is suspended from an inverted Ankh, his foot held in place by a smaller serpent. This depiction also has the man nailed to disks of power. Harris chooses to background the figure against a quadrule grid that resembles the Cartesian coordinate plane. It is obvious that there is a good deal happening in the picture vis. Crowley’s system of thinking. But the artist’s geometric synthesis adds rigid activity to the depiction.

In contrast with the Mythic deck’s request for a quiet contemplation, the Thoth iteration of the Hanged Man almost demands attention, even wariness. Whereas there may be some sympathy from the reader that arises from seeing Prometheus bound, the faceless seeker in Crowley’s magickal viewpoint needs no such consideration. He is caught in the middle of a great ritual magick. The suspended adept gains some real amount of power for which he accepts full responsibility. Were he not nailed in place, he might reach out to take hold of any who look upon him.

After Crowley’s imaginative rethinking and rigorous systematizing of the esoteric layers contained in each and every card, there is a kind of neo-renaissance in tarot deck making. Both Crowley and Waite had given storied images to the pip cards. Now new deck creators (such as Greene et al with the Mythic Tarot) recognize the opportunity to create decks that draw from every manner of narrative and image source. As noted earlier, there are hundreds of deck in production now. Numerous artist websites and image collection platforms like Pinterest have countless new cards based on everything from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, ancient African folktales to French impressionism.

Fig 6. The Hanged Man as portrayed in The Urban Tarot, an LGBTQ friendly
deck created by Robin Scott in 2018.

The attitude of the player does not determine the nature of play; rather, the nature of play determines the attitude of the player. The excitement of of a game consists in its tendency to take over a or master the players…

(Spariosu 1989, 135f)

What is the purpose of my formal education?

Liberation from darkness. Evolution from frivolous distraction to serious diversion. Remembering the ever present power of forgetfulness so that I may see beyond this moment.

Seeking to accomplish a thoughtful philosophic examination of the Tarot poses a twin problem. First, it is difficult to separate the historical facts about the evolution of the cards as a game from the, often elegant, esoteric fictions set forth by the likes of William Butler Yeats (1953), Arthur Edward Waite (1977), and Aleister Crowley (1974). Such sages of secret lore would have us believe that the cards represent the lost doctrines of the Egyptians transmitted since time immemorial through images of the most profound meaning—if only one has the key! Second, the connection of the tarot to carnival fortune tellers and psychic hotlines already establishes a sense among philosophers that it is merely superstitious mumbo jumbo that is hardly worthy of serious study.

Neither of these poses an insurmountable task when we take the tarot as an example of game play. In that regard, they equate easily enough to any sporting, board, or card game. Certainly there are plenty of philosophic studies of such past times and diversions. Nor would there be all that much objection to posing solid arguments for why fools and their money are soon parted once we swallow the superstitious line that the cards tell the future for anyone who would listen. Yet neither of these is what intrigues me about tarot. Rather, having spent so much time playing with many different kinds of decks and integrating that play into my world, I see that picking up the cards encourages the development of a hermeneutic discipline. Relating life-experience to the chance draw of cards that are often small works of art inspires play as aesthetic exploration.

Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play. Seriousness is not merely something that calls us away from play; rather, seriousness in playing is necessary to make the play wholly play.

(Gadamer 2006, 103)


Allen, Jonathan, Ed. 2016. Lost Envoy: The Tarot Deck of Austin Osman Spare. London: Strange Attractor Press.

Coulthart, John. 2014. ”The Art of Frieda Harris, 1877–1962.” Feuilleton, last modified Aug 2014, accessed Dec 12, 2016,

Crowley, Aleister. 1974. The Book of Thoth. Originally published in 1944 as an edition limited to 200 numbered and signed copies. New York: Samuel Weiser.

Farley, Helen. 2009. A Cultural History of Tarot: From Entertainment to Esotericism.New York: I. B. Tauris.

Fink, Eugen. 2016. Play as Symbol of the World and Other Writings. Trans. Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Published in German as Gesamtausgabe 7: Spiel als Weltsymbol. 2010. Ed.Cathrin Nielsen and Hans Rainer Sepp. Verlag Karl Alber, Freiburg im Breisgau.

Frost, James Edward. 2016. “The Serious Game: Towards a Hermeneutic Understanding of the Tarot.” The International Journal of the Image, Volume 7, Issue 2, 15-32.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. 2006. Truth and Method. Second, Revised Edition. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum Press. Published in German as Wahrheit und Methode. 1960. Tubingen.

Greene, Liz, Newell, Tricia, and Sharman-Burke, Juliet. 1986. The Mythic Tarot. New York: Fireside. Cards with book of interpretive meanings.

Hinman, Lawrence M. 1974. “Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Play.” Philosophy Today 18 (2): 106-124.

Ortega y Gasset, Jose. 1995. Meditations on Hunting. Trans. by Howard B. Wescott. Intro. by Paul Shepard. Foreword by Datus Proper. Belgrade,MT: Wilderness Adventures Press.

Waite, Arthur Edward. 1977. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. New York: US Game Systems.

Yeats, William Butler. 1953. Autobiography: Consisting of Reveries over Childhood and Youth, The Trembling of the Veil, and Dramatis Personae. New York: MacMillan.

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