The Emperor and Wyrding freedom: Surging beyond heteronormative tradition

A philosophy dissertation should strive for more than presenting a series of research notes written in a formal language that matches the pre-established expectations of “good scholarship.” I do not propose to only dissertate queerly but existentially. While I recognize the need for rigorous scholarship, I refute the notion that scholarly conduct in such an enterprise should be “objective,” written from the third person point of view as though it is a scientific report or explanatory essay.

I am engaging my own life’s work through my own loving struggle with others who, like me, have lived on the margins of a society that only has a place for queer folx when they accommodate themselves to some heteronormative end. The strictness of many dissertation forms, I would argue, are themselves examples of heteronormative control. bell hooks own experiences with “academic rigor” as a woman of color very much parallel this problem (hooks 1996: 62-64).

If I have any privilege as a queer academic who happens to be a white, cisgender man in 21st century America, I think I should use it to affirm how queer dissertating must work in a realm for Wyrding an intellectual space wherein queer folx—indeed all marginalized folx—can explore and express their research in a way that speaks to the “maladjusted” first and to the “well-adjusted” second (Freire 2005: 4). I fully admit that this process will privilege QUILTBAG2 siblings and their needs over the curiosity of those who benefit simply by the accident of birth from heteronormativity.

My dissertating, to be authentic queer philosophizing, must be a Wyrd insurrection against the Emperor—the Pater Familias, the Patriarchy, the Toxic Masculine. My experiences over the last two years with a few older colleagues in professional philosophy informs me of how very much the “problem” of toxic patriarchy permeates our culture. If “thoughtful” folx—as purportedly philosophers should be—are capable of gaslighting themselves about the innocence of their motives, how could it not be at least as rampant in society at large, if not even more so. And I certainly make no claims to not having adopted a good deal of this behavior that needs excision. Therefore, it is not only a structural system to rise up against in my surroundings, but an instructed component built-into my very self.

How often does this noxious figure of heteronormativity follow us into every life decision? Almost always.

Reproduction of the Emperor from the original Visconti-Sforza Tarrochi deck

The inspiration for the card of the Emperor in the Tarot’s Major Arcana is most likely the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire was nothing like what we imagine it to be. There is an old joke from Voltaire that the name is a complete misnomer: neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire. And in that last case, it certainly was not the centrally controlled colonial web we have come to expect from the imperialism of the last few centuries. It was in fact a mix of ancient cities, medieval principalities, and early modern trade routes.

L’Empereur from Marseilles Tarot variation.

When encountering the tarot card of the emperor, remember to consider him in these terms of being like a Holy Roman Emperor ruling over a hodgepodge of ancient traditions, medieval privileges, and early modern monopolies. In this regard, the emperor is not the all-powerful autocrat put on the throne by some notion of divine right. Rather, such a figure represents the one who has struggled to achieve authority over a web of “global” human customs and activities that are always already in danger of unraveling from the push back of localized troubles.

From New Mythic Tarot deck, this version of
the Emperor presents Zeus as All-Father.

We might think of the Emperor more as a CEO in a large multinational corporation—the corporation itself being a holdover of the days when late imperial and early colonial powers began drawing riches back to aristocracy by the creation of the trade monopolies I mentioned above. Aristocracy’s power originally existed in their land holdings—which included human lives tied to the land (serfs and peasants). As merchants became more and more prosperous during the high and late Middle Ages, and the ability to sustain a living by not being a farmer opened up to those willing to take up guild trades, the nobles found themselves rich only in the blood of their lineage. The attempt to repatriate wealth to the aristocracy followed a pattern of seeing where opportunities might lie, and then giving a chartered monopoly to one noble or a group of aristocrats. Henceforth, only those belonging to that body (corporation) could profit off of such trade.

Sponsored markets are not free markets but in fact products of statecraft which privilege certain power dynamics that stabilize the status quo.

The British, French, and Dutch empires grew from first investing in colonies, then privileging who got to trade with those colonies for raw materials, and then privileging yet again someone else who benefited from a monopoly trading finished products back to those colonies. Over time, companies like the British East India Company became so powerful, they had their own military arms. All of this was absorbed back into the British government by the middle of the 19th century. By then, there were corporations like we are more familiar with today but still all benefiting off the structure of making the market a web that privileged certain politico-economic institutions.

Emperor card from
Robin Scott’s Urban Tarot (2019)

As Cassandra Snow makes clear in Queering Tarot, the Emperor stands more for the Father cipher than it does for a political ruler (2019: 17-20). The person with “masculine” energy (Yangness) in our early life stands for order and stability. Queered, the card does not automatically intend a person who identifies as male so much as someone who performs as “masculine”: the influence of whichever person represented control in our lives.

In my own case, growing up with a father who was quite lenient on me and a mother who could be very strict, I believe I started out in the world already recognizing that gender roles do not have to do with actual biological vectors. My mother herself often reacted to an out-of-control situation by becoming angry. Having suffered as a child from polio, I wonder at times if she was already reactive to anything that took away her control. In so far as I have evidenced a tendency to normalize (stabilize) a situation, it has been from the example of my mother. While my nurturing and creative desire to help others is a product of my father.

A queer emperor then implies the ability to redefine the borders of meaning as needed and this includes the societal boundaries of established gender performance. Ironically, it is the power for decisively changing tradition that rests in the hands of this figure meaning that in order to keep that ability as a dynamic in folx’ lives, Yangness must decide to give way to Yinness, masculinity to femininity, standing-firm no-matter-what to yielding-when-necessary.


† I will probably “adapt” these Chinese notions of YIN (Great Feminine) and YANG (Great Masculine) as the periechontological boundaries of being-human, the horizons of meaning that encompass our situation roundabout wherein we exist ever moving between the limits.


Freire, P. 2005. Educating for critical consciousness. Trans. with intro. D. Goulet. London: Continuum Press.

hooks, b. 1994. “Theory as a liberatory praxis.” Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge, 59-75.

Snow, C. 2019. Queering tarot. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.