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PoMo Tarot

  • artist and author: Brian Williams
  • publisher: Harper Collins
  • first appeared: 1994

This deck is currently out of print, but copies may still be obtained from some sellers.

Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that sees "truth" as a kind of political implement rather an objective model of reality. For the postmodernist, reality itself is just as diverse, boisterous, manipulative, and attitude-filled as is the patchwork of human cultures that create it. In the cacophonous postmodern universe, anyone attempting to stake out some stable ground and claim a privileged perspective becomes a target for "deconstruction"--an academic demonstration that the foundations upon which one has built are just rickety self-serving contrivances, no different than anyone else's.

Whatever one makes of postmodernism as a serious philosophical stance, one cannot help but take a certain wry, cynical pleasure in the tribulations of the postmodern world in which we live. We no longer have a monolithic culture, and each ideological faction has its own pomposities and cherished absurdities. Ironically, postmodern writers themselves seem especially easy targets, with their opaquely pretentious jargon-drenched prose and their inscrutably humorless insensitivity to the ironies of their own positions. In the postmodern world, the serious matter of making sense of life is no longer the prerogative of a central cultural authority; it's been "deregulated" and become a free-for-all of manic hawkers and raving demagogues.

The irony of postmodern life is also reflected in the proliferation of tarot decks. Each is supposed to summarize the human condition in 78 symbolic images, each is supposed to be a universal language of the soul. Well, this universal language seems to have an incredible number of dialects! Hundreds of tarot decks are available for purchase, each one firmly planted in its own symbolism. The postmodernist sees yet another example of the politics of truth . . . perhaps an especially ironic one, given tarot's connotation of deep, ageless wisdom.

Tarot artist and author Brian Williams has answered irony with irony. He has deconstructed the traditional tarot, demystifying its classic symbolism through irreverent modernization: swords become guns, coins become bills, the Chariot is an armored tank, and the Sun is now a tanning lamp. But that witty pose is just the opening act in this richly layered performance. Take a look, for example, at one of my favorite cards from the deck: Mom, a.k.a. The Empress. Her orb and scepter have become pie and rolling pin. Here we have, first of all, a witty spoof on the ubiquitous tarot pop-psychology that sees the Empress as the archetypal mother. In answer to "I am a fertile garden in which creativity can be nurtured to fruition" (Empress card affirmation from Mary Greer's Tarot for Your Self), Mom seems to offer "Finish your broccoli". Yet a quick revisiting of childhood memories informs us that the rolling pin and scepter are not that different after all. One is left with feeling that after Brian the witty brat has broken the cathedral window and climbed through it with iconoclastic bravado, he nevertheless finds himself standing in a very familiar place--much to his own delight.

And that is the brilliance of this deck. The tarot, perhaps, is something like the ouroboros, remaining unchanged even as it devours itself. Instead of all this cleverness undermining and transforming the tarot, instead it is the cleverness that is undermined and transformed! The Joke twists itself and becomes the Truth, and the tarot remains the tarot.

The minor arcana in the PoMo tarot are all based on famous works of art, mostly from the last two centuries. Here, too, we see the same irony at work. These are paintings that have shaped the modern identity, icons of our epoch. Williams revisions them in delightful, provocative ways, so that we see the originals with a freshness that is sure to raise a smile, but is often strangely moving as well. Again, we are led round a strange loop that brings us back to our starting point, but with a dizzy feeling of having watched everything turn inside out and then right itself again.

The book that accompanies the deck is a treasure. It is written in a tongue-in-cheek style that gently spoofs both postmodernist and tarot pretensions, but still conveys a plethora of remarkable insights about the cards. Perhaps it is only when we give up all hope of being taken seriously that we are free to draw out the best we have to offer. (The book has the best, most succinct account of the meaning of the Fool that I have ever read.) The descriptions of the minor arcana include short but illuminating discussions of the original works of art on which they are based, giving each card a cultural context that is rewardingly enriching and intriguing.

I bought the PoMo Tarot more to admire than to use. I expected it to be something like the local celebrity at the cocktail party--witty, erudite, and entertaining but worthless for sweeping the floors or changing the litter box. After some getting-acquainted work, though, I discovered that the PoMo Tarot has a unique talent. It's the only deck that seems to understand what my TV set does to my brain. (Perhaps it's hooked into some astral plane fiber-optic cable link to Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan.) The PoMo Tarot is the only deck I use for current events reading, and that is the only type of reading I do with it. (I use my own current events spread for reading the cards.)

Every day, the mass communications media bombard us with an overwhelming crosstalk of reconstituted reality. If you doubt that we live in a postmodern world, where clashing agendas reshape the truth minute to minute, and where being alive means being overloaded with information that becomes obsolete long before it can be assimilated, just turn on your TV. Only the PoMo tarot can lie in the cathode rays without melting. It was born there. When I get feeling desensitized and pegged out by current events, I pull out my PoMo Tarot and let it tease out some focus from the maelstrom. It's restorative--every bit as important to one's well-being as the money, relationship, and life-purpose issues many people use tarot cards to clarify.

The PoMo Tarot is one of a kind. Having found its niche in my world, it has become utterly irreplaceable.

Copyright © 1999-2008 Tom Waters