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Issue Seven


Issue Seven: Religion Online & Techno-Spiritualism

THE SPIRITUAL CYBORG

By Erik Davis

 

Erik Davis is a San Franciso-based writer, culture critic, and independent scholar who recently published TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (Harmony Books, 1998), undoubtedly one of the very best analyses of how spirituality and technology intertwine, not only in the past but in the present as well. Unlike David Noble's neomarxist 'The Religion of Technology' which covers the link between technology and the christian religion from a rather hostile viewpoint, Erik Davis covers all traditions and he covers them with knowledge and empathy.

Ranging from the printing press to the telegraph, from radio to the Internet, TechGnosis peels away the utilitarian shell of technology to reveal the mystical and millennialist expectations that permeate the history of technology, and especially information technology. The book shows how the religious imagination, far from disappearing in our supposedly secular age, continues to feed the utopian dreams, apocalyptic visions, digital phantasms, and alien obsessions that populate today's "technological unconscious." In turn, TechGnosis also shows how the language and ideas of the information society have slipped into and even transformed the myriad worlds of contemporary spirituality. In the end, the book gestures towards a networked framework for grappling with some of the impulses that are currently tearing us apart: spirit and the machine, modernity and nihlism, technology and the human.

In this selected piece, Erik Davis examines the theme of the 'spiritual cyborg' with particular attention to two contemporary spiritual movements, i.e. Gurdjieff's Fourth Way and Ron Hubbard's Scientology.

Some of his work can be accessed at http://www.levity.com/figment, and he can be reached by email at figment@sirius.com. Davis has also contributed articles and essays to Wired, Gnosis, 21C, Spin, Feed, Mediamatic, Lingua Franca, The Nation, Parabola, Green Egg, Details, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice.

Information on TechGnosis can be found at http://www.levity.com/techgnosis

Introduction by Michel Bauwens

 

The Church of Scientology has issued a rebuttal to this article. Please see: http://www.socio.demon.co.uk/magazine/7/scientology.html


THE SPIRITUAL CYBORG by Erik Davis

If human history is the story of a creature who molts from ape to angel -- or, as Nietzsche claimed, from beast to Superman -- then somewhere along the way it seems that we must become machines. This destiny is rooted in our own evolution. For as the engines of civilization pulled us farther and farther away from the unpredictable and often spiteful dance of nature, we withdrew from the animistic imagination that once immersed us in a living network of material forces and ruling intelligences. We started dreaming of transcending the old gods, of controlling our "animal souls," of building an urban heaven on a mastered earth. Though technology was by no means the only way that humans expressed or inculcated their experience of standing apart from nature, it certainly became the Western way. Western civilization could be said to have made a pact with machines -- those systematic assemblages of working parts and potentials which by definition lack a vital spirit, a soul grounded in the metaphysical order of things. And so today, now that we have technologized our environment and isolated the self within a scientific frame of mind, we no longer turn to nature to echo our state. Now we catch our reflections, even our spirits, in the movements and mentations of machines.

This imaginal relationship between man and machine was a long time coming. The ground was laid by the mechanistic cosmologists of ancient Greece, and it really seized the imagination when tinkerers like Heron started building those fanciful proto-robots we call automata -- mechanical gods, dolls, and birds that fascinated ancient and medieval folks as much as they fascinate kids at Disneyland today. The elaborate clocks that decorated medieval churches were often outfitted with mechanical sinners, saints, grim reapers, and beasts, mimicking our passage through time. The notion of a mechanistic universe, which these clocks helped engender, eventually landed us at the philosophical doorstep of Descartes, who adopted the revolutionary notion that bodies were not animated by spirits of any kind. The difference between a living being and a corpse was nothing more than the difference between a wound-up watch and a spent automata. The Catholic Church recognized the threat to religion that Descartes' new mechanistic philosophy posed, but was satisfied with the philosopher's dualistic solution: simply divide the res cogitans, the realm of the mind, from the res extensa, the spatial world of bodies and objects and insist that never the twain shall meet.

The enormously productive power of Cartesian philosophy insured that bone-cold mechanism would come to dominate the Western worldview -- so much so that today the flimsy wall that Descartes erected to protect the thinking subject is now breaking down. Neuro-scientists, psycho-pharmacologists, and geneticists are now offroading into the wilderness of the human mind, mapping every step of the way. The most cherished images and experiences of the self are being colonized by authoritative scientific languages which threaten to reduce our minds and personalities to complex mechanisms -- Rube Goldberg assemblages of genetic codes, mammalian habits, and bubbling vats of neuro-chemicals. Modern psychology can barely keep its hoary old tales alive; as Time magazine recently opined, even the Oedipus complex, that grand drama of human personality, has been reduced to a matter of molecules.

As we come to know more about the nuts and bolts of human life, we inevitably come to suspect that our actions, thoughts, and experiences, which seem so spontaneous and free, are programmed into our bodyminds with the mercilessness of clockwork. Speaking before the congressional committee that funded the Human Genome Project, which plans to map the entire human genetic code, the Nobel laureate James Watson said, "We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know that, in large measure, our fate is in our genes."1 As if such genetic determinism wasn't enough, sociologists and psychologists have also amassed a load of evidence that points to the profoundly automatic patterns of much of our social and cultural life -- patterns which arise, not only from our animal instincts, but from institutions, family dramas, and cultural conditioning. Common sense may not be so common after all; our understanding of what constitutes normal reality may simply r e present the power of what the psychologist Charles Tart calls "consensus trance."

With the recent decline of overtly authoritarian political regimes , we now believe ourselves more "free," but the power of consensus trance may actually be waxing in our highly networked and hypermediated age. As the hair-splitting scientific management of the Taylorist factory proved, capitalism has a long and exuberant history of embracing whatever technologies and institutional frameworks allow it to fit human beings into vast and efficient mega-machines of production and consumption. The footloose "post-industrial" economy is supposed to have left such soulless mechanism behind, but in reality the mega-machine has simply fragmented and mutated. While handing off its primitive assembly lines to developing countries or illegal sweatshops, it "spiritualizes" its routines into immaterial cybernetic meshes of information labor or the sophisticated marketing games appropriate to a society based on compulsive consumption. Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, enmeshed in the cogs of Modern Times, has gone virtual, becoming at once the home shopping networker and the electronic sweatshop worker whose every key-tap and bathroom break is micro-managed down to the nanosecond.

As Marshall McLuhan noted in the early 1970s, "we are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies."2 Today there are far more technologies to get involved with, far more cybernetic loops demanding that we plug in and turn on. With the continued ideological dominance of reductionist science and the socio-cultural dominance of its technological spawn, the once glorious isle of humanism is melting into a silicon sea. We find ourselves trapped on a cyborg sandbank, caught between the old, smoldering campfire stories and the new networks of programming and control. As we lose our faith in free will or the coherence of personality, we glimpse androids in the bathroom mirror, their eyes black with nihilism -- the meaningless void that Nietzsche pegged over a century ago as the Achilles' heel of modern civilization.

Needless to say, the loss of the motive soul unnerves a lot of people. Most of the spiritual, New Age, and religious activity of the moment is committed on one level or another to either trashing or supplanting the reductionist and mechanistic imaginary. Fundamentalist Christians and Native American animists alike attack Darwin's theory of natural selection, while acupuncturists and holistic healers rekindle the magical life force of vitalism. Archetypal psychologists try to recover the timeless images of the soul, while ecological mystics call for a "reenchantment of the earth" and a rejection of the world of malls and virtual media zones. Even liberal humanists scrabble about for values, for a "politics of meaning" that can resist the steady encroachment of technological thinking.

But can we ever turn back the clock, especially to the time before there were clocks? Perhaps the image of man as a machine holds more promise than its detractors admit, especially if the image is not allowed to totally dominate our vision. For a certain breed of twentieth-century seeker, in fact, the ancient goal of awakening is not served by a retreat into romanticism, religious orthodoxy, or magical incantations. Instead of denying the mechanistic or automatic aspects of human being, they instead aim the psycho-spiritual quest through the image of the machine, using the mechanism, as it were, to trigger its own wake-up alarm. To paraphrase the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan: one aspect of our being is like a machine, and the other aspect is like an engineer. In this view, the first step towards waking up is to recognize how zonked out and automatic we already are; such dispassionate and reductive observations help dispel delusions, reveal genuine possibilities, and thus paradoxically enable us to cultivate some of the most deeply human aspects of being. The machine thus comes to serve as an interactive mirror, an ambiguous Other we both recognize ourselves in and measure ourselves against. This is the path of the spiritual cyborg, a path whose buzzing circuits and command overrides represent both the perils and promise of techgnosis.

THE CASE OF GURDJIEFF: MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE MACHINES

Loosely speaking, the first spiritual cyborgs were probably the shamans, those ecstatic technicians of the sacred. But the first modern spiritual teacher to productively exploit the language of mechanism was G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian teacher known for his harsh wisdom, hypnotic charisma, and very large mustache. According to his own writings, Gurdjieff spent the turn of the century cruising the monasteries, yogi shacks, and mystic schools of the Middle East and Asia -- though it is difficult entirely to believe a man who once packed up and fled a hamlet after a rainstorm threatened to wash the yellow paint off the "parakeets" he was selling about town. But though some skeptics and spiritual leaders continue to write Gurdjieff off as a metaphysical flim-flam man, a close reading of the most important Gurdjieffean texts make it clear that the master not only synthesized a variety of teachings and techniques into an eminently practical form of esoteric work, but that he creatively integrated a number of modern psychological and scientific ideas into the ancient goal of gnosis.

Gurdjieff died in 1949, and throughout his life, he had little but scorn for European civilization and its rejection of the great spiritual traditions of old. But in other ways, he was very much a modern man. He mocked Spiritualism, ignored the gods, enjoyed working with machines, and embraced the seemingly reductionist notion that "all psychic processes are material." Like the theosophists, he adopted a loosely evolutionary notion of cosmic history, though he balanced the external course of material evolution with the corresponding necessity of involution -- the retreat >from the multiple laws that govern material phenomena and the turn towards the liberating cosmic All. Many aspects of Gurdjieff's cosmological system, at least as they appear in P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous, were grade-A mystical pseudo-science. Ouspensky's text is chock-full of curious psycho-geometric laws, charts of the "higher hydrogens," and descriptions of cosmic chains of command, the latter of which culminated in the amazing notion that the ordinary purpose of humanity's energetic life was to provide "food for the moon."

Gurdjieff was a trickster, and both his eccentric teaching style and eyebrow-raising cosmology seem designed to keep his students and followers on their toes. The same holds for Gurdjieff's withering assessment of human psychology, a vision that basically boils down to the most repellent of axioms: "man is a machine." In our ordinary state, Gurdjieff argues, we are just like motorcars or typewriters or gramophones -- mechanically pushed and pulled by external chance or internal habits, never genuinely doing or realizing anything ourselves. We always react, and never cause. Though he implied that our zombiedom was written into the human condition, he also believed that modern industrial life perpetuated and reinforced this trance. "Contemporary culture requires automatons," he said.

Having diagnosed this condition, Gurdjieff made a pretty good case that the only intelligent thing to do in our predicament is to escape -- an escape that was synonymous with awakening to our non-mechanical essence. Only by upgrading our ordinary, everyday awareness can we genuinely hope to govern and take responsibility for our actions and our desires. As an alchemical modernist, Gurdjieff conceived of this development as an "artificially cultivated" p rocess. Our soul, our non-mechanical essence, is not bor n with us; it is made, and this soul-making runs counter to the course of things. "The law for man is existence in the circle of mechanical influences, the state of the 'man-machine.' The way of the development of hidden possibilities is a way against nature, against God."3 Rather than embracing Gaia's elan vital, the carnal rhythms and imaginative powers beloved by animists and nature-worshippers past and present, the awakening human goes against the grain, shifting control from mechanical forces to the awakening "I." Gurdjieff was a gnostic Promethean, seeking to realize the self in an opus contra naturam divorced from any myths of divine intervention. For all his traditionalism, he was the spiritual godfather of the Extropians.

Unlike the Extropians, however, Gurdjieff believed that modern people were so hypnotized by technologies, intellectual concepts, and the mounting waves of information churned out by journalists and scientists that they had lost their potential for recognizing and realizing the deeper levels of consciousness where the essential self awaits. As Jacob Needleman argues, Gurdjieff was the first esoteric thinker to describe the object of spiritual work as "consciousness," though he did not romanticize consciousness like so many New Agers today. Instead, he treated it as a basically materialistic force that could be shaped and transmuted by psycho-spiritual techne -- what students call "the Work." And the Work begins with ruthless self-observation, a cold-hearted analysis of "our machine." Somewhat like the Theravadan Buddhist practitioners of vipassana, or mindfulness, the budding Worker is encouraged to notice and register her own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors -- an objective process of discrimination that Gurdjieff describes as "recording." This is not the recording of the ancient scribes, but the unforgiving recording of the camera or the research scientist, gazing through a microscope at a wiggling germ. After recording ourselves for a while, one of the first things we realize is that we have no permanent and unchangeable "I." As Gurdjieff explained, "Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking 'I.' And each time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man's name is legion."4 Here lies our fundamental inauthenticity -- the "I" that makes one promise is not the "I" that breaks it. Needless to say, the notion that we have "hundreds of thousands of separate small I's," oftentimes ignorant of and in conflict with one another, runs counter to our existential sense of a stable self. But Gurdjieff argued that if we committed ourselves to ruthless self-observation, we would come to realize that this ordinary sense of unified being is a sham.

Gurdjieff's psychological vision owed much to his metaphor of the "man-machine," for the principle of the machine is the assemblage, the soulless conglomeration of subsystems, working parts, and shifting points of energy and production. Many decades later, the hardheaded mechanists working on the problem of human cognition would bring this "assemblage" model of the mind into popular consciousness. Though possessing considerable variety, most of the models in cognitive science imagine the mind as a construction created through the struggles and alliances of myriad small and densely interconnected symbolic sub-systems and agents, a vision that the artificial intelligence wizard Marvin Minsky calls the "society of mind." More recently, other cognitive scientists have served up less hierarchical or symbolically-dependent models; these picture the mind as the product of even more primitive and "asocial" mechanisms of sensation, perception, and memory. The ego, the self, the conscious sense of "me," is seen as an "emergent property," a vaporous afterimage of the complex computer-like machinations of glandular data gates, neurochemical sparks, and the logical structures that whir and buzz beneath the surface of thought.

Gurdjieff was hardly the only spiritual thinker to anticipate what seems at first to be a uniquely modern, technological deconstruction of the self. Buddhist psychology also holds that there is no core essence, no atman, no singular "I." Instead, traditional Buddhists divide the self into a number of "heaps" (skandas) that are composed of a shifting array of perceptions, judgements, mental categories, thoughts, and awareness. The material in these heaps is constantly shifting around, pushed and pulled by habit, desire, and the constantly changing causes and conditions of the world. Behind this ceaseless activity lurks no fixed platonic forms or eternal souls, but only the empty flux of constant change. Because this groundless flow terrifies us, Buddhist shrinks reasoned, we build castles out of the shifting sands of consciousness, and proclaim them stable, real and eternal. Within our minds, we reify an essential self, whose inability to respond spontaneously to the flux of things, or to recognize the emptiness in its heart, helps generate the delusions and sufferings of samsara.

Indeed, Gurdjieff sounds a bit like a dour Buddhist when he says that "to awaken means to realize one's nothingness, that is to realize one's complete and absolute mechanicalness and one's complete and absolute helplessness." However, even this depressing analysis contains the seed of hope, a seed that Gurdjieff believed lay in our very capacity for realization and awareness. By paying attention to our own mechanical routines, we cease to identify with them, and this de-identification shifts our attention towards the higher "I" that observes its own process and directs, as best it can, its own inner growth. This transcendence-through-feedback separates the essential self from the automatism of the machine, and creates a crystal of consciousness capable not only of genuinely directing its own activity, but of actually surviving death.

That's the plan anyway. In a sense, the Gurdjieffean Work can be seen as an explicitly "spiritual" analog of the Extropians' brash commitment to master the sluggish body, control the emotions, and reprogram themselves for immortality and self-realization. Like the Extropians, the Gurdjieff Work can also be accused of being elitist, antinomian, and pretty thin on universal compassion and those other "myths" that remind us of our indissoluble links to the human community and the physical biosphere. At the same time, the Work possesses a psycho-spiritual sophistication entirely lacking among the gonzo Extropians, and it s transcendental thrust is tempered by Gurdjieff's insistence on a pragmatic engagement with ordinary life. Students are encouraged to live and work in the everyday world, and to refine, expand, and integrate the levels of consciousness associated with the body and emotions -- not to leave these "lower" apparatuses rusting in the Darwinian trash heap. But one of the principle dangers of the Work is not shared by the fiercely individualistic Extropians. Gurdjieff insisted that only an awakened teacher can help students snap out of their most intractable hypnotic habits, and that serious Work thus requires strict fidelity to an external master. As the history of new religious or esoteric movements demonstrates all too well, such situations often degenerate into those dangerously authoritarian patterns of behavior we associate with cults. A number of the groups which picked up the Work after Gurdjieff's death did not escape the clutches of this kind of tyranny. On the other hand -- and here's the rub -- one person's cult is another person's community of awakening. At one point during In Search of the Miraculous, a group of student s tel l Gurdjieff that their old friends believe that they have become colorless and boring, nothing more than parrots of Gurdjieff, veritable "machines." (Today we would say that they were "brainwashed.") Gurdjieff laughs enigmatically. "There is worse to come."

Gurdjieff's chuckle arises from the fact that when we are dealing with religious counter-cultures, which call into question the assumptions of mainstream society, awakening and hypnosis often appear as two sides of the same coin -- and it's not always easy to tell which side you're on. "Liberating" your outlook and behavior through psycho-spiritual means does not erase the problem of power and control; waking up from the troubled sleep of ordinary delusion, one runs the risk of simply swapping the old familiar archons for obscure and potentially more maniacal ones. At the same time, if the consensus reality world we work in daily (and tune into nightly) does indeed generate the kind of mechanical trance Gurdjieff describes, then awakening from this condition might make one more aware, and even obsessed, with the subliminal forces of control. Suddenly, the whole social and symbolic arena of social reality, that rather haphazard carnival of soap-box cranks, snake-oil salesmen, and sideshow distractions, takes on the appearance of a vast, if unconscious, conspiracy. Such paranoid spectres often dog subcultures that self-consciously slip outside the mainstream, but they can be particularly tenacious along those cyborgian paths that integrate modern ideas about thought programming, Pavlovian trigger signals, and hypnotic trances into their worldview.

THE CASE OF SCIENTOLOGY

Ideally, the sort of "self-remembering" techniques described by Gurdjieff would enable one to evade the lures of paranoia and esoteric authoritarianism, but many psycho-spiritual groups that engage the mechanistic imaginary have impaled themselves on these two fierce prongs.

Take Scientology, whose far cruder attempt to spiritualize the man-machine have made it the world's first corporate cybernetic mystery cult. In the 1940s, L. Ron Hubbard was a regular contributor to John Campbell Jr.'s Astounding Science Fiction, where he wrote stories about paranormal (and often rather fascist) supermen who conquered worlds and wielded amazing psychokinetic powers; he also wrote Fear, one of the meatiest paranoia stories in pulp SF. After being hyped by Campbell, Hubbard's article on Dianetics appeared in the May 1950 edition to great acclaim; its subsequent book form, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, sold 150,000 copies in a year. Offering a hands-on, straight-forward approach to the problems that beset the human mind, Dianetics presented simple and sensible techniques that could "clear" people of the psychological problems and psychosomatic ills that Hubbard claimed constituted most ailments. As an added bonus, Hubbard hinted that these tricks could potentially unveil the same latent psychic powers that drew readers to his tales.

Less a science of mind than an engineering manual of mind, Dianetics began with a bold and now familiar assertion: the mind is a computer. In its optimum state, our "active mind" recalls all data, responds rationally, and solves all possible problems. But our active mind is obstructed by our "reactive mind," a "memory bank" which corresponds loosely with Freud's concept of the unconscious. Here lie "aberrative circuits," dysfunctional habits which Hubbard labeled "engrams:" multi-sensory records of unpleasant experiences that can resurface in our lives as moments of fear, pain, or unconsciousness. For example, let's say I was once bitten by a dog in a rainstorm; the sound of falling water and a barking Chihuahua would then restimulate the engram and ruin my day. By "auditing" such engrams -- which means bringing them to consciousness and "processing" them through Dianetic techniques -- one could step toward the optimum state of "Clear."

Today the belief that the mind behaves like a computer barely raises an eyebrow, and for decades has almost constituted a guild oath for reductionist cognitive scientists. But in 1950, the world's first electronic computer (ENIAC) was only four years old, and Hubbard's transistorized Freud packed a healthy punch among people feeling the first stirrings of the digital revolution. His "modern scientific methodology" particularly appealed to ASF readers and their intellectual ilk, who evidenced much of the pragmatic rationalism and Promethean dreams that would later breed technological enthusiasts like the Extropians. These were the kind of people who were tickled pink about mainframe computers and the promises of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener's new science of "communication and control."

Hubbard became one of the first people to hawk the new paradigm to an American market notoriously attracted to self-help scams and quick-fix gadgets. By employing a cybernetic language of "circuits," "process," and "memory banks," Hubbard seemed to offer his readers technical control over their own minds, giving them an effective therapeutic system they could use to improve themselves in the comfort of their own homes -- and without the expensive intervention of meddling psychoanalytical witch doctors. Hubbard was also reactin g to the dominant psychological theory of behaviorism, which conceived of human beings as "black boxes" -- organic stimulus-response machines whose behavior could be understood and treated on an essentially mechanical basis that paid no attention at all to subjective experience. Hubbard did not so much reject this paradigm as give it a comic-book, Gurdjieffean twist: our bodies and ordinary minds may be programmable machines, but our essential selves are capable of programming and debugging these machines.

In the early 1950s, Dianetics groups started spontaneously popping up across the land, and Hubbard may have felt that he was losing control of his do-it-yourself, self-help program. In any case, his initially secular techniques were soon absorbed into the "spiritual" philosophy (and hierarchy) of Scientology, which incorporated its first Church in 1954. To the Freudian circuit diagrams of Dianetics, Hubbard added ungainly chunks of Buddhist psychology, New Thought, and probably elements of Aleister Crowley's Nietzschean brand of modern occult "magick." Early in their spiritual career, budding Scientologists learned to break down ingrained patterns of social behavior and to generate altered states of consciousness (one early training routine consisted of staring blankly into another person's eyes for hours without reacting). These palpable shifts in perception and awareness, produced through often effective techniques, were then reframed according to Scientology doctrine, a process that led students deeper into Hubbard's off-the-wall cosmology and the authoritarian structure of the Church. Bureaucratic and technological efficiency reigned supreme as metaphors of spiritual progress. Scientologists still refer to Hubbard's elaborate and byzantine system of training routines, audio tapes, and texts as the "tech." And the tech, they say, always works. Hubbard also pushed a new cyborg technology, a strange and intriguing box originally demonstrated to him in 1952 by a New Jersey Dianeticist named Volney Mathison. The "electropsychometer," or E-meter, is equipped with dials and two attachments that resemble tin cans. Somewhat like lie detectors, the E-meter registers changes in galvanic skin response -- roughly speaking, the flow of electricity through the body. Budding Scientol ogists hold the cans while an auditor asks them questions (or a ttempts to "push their buttons"); eventually, the dials register a charge that indicates the presence of an engram. Hubbard's idea was that thought has mass, and that the neurotic "heaviness" of engrams creates resistance to electrical flow. Once the imprints are cleared through Dianetic techniques, the E-Meter needle "floats," and the subject is one step closer to enlightenment. The E-Meter is like God in a box -- as one operator's manual put it, "It sees all, knows all. It is never wrong."5

Such claims did not cut it with the FDA, who teamed up with some U.S. Marshals and stormed Scientology's Washington D.C. headquarters in 1963, seizing truckloads of E-meters and manuals. In a protracted court battle, the Church contended that auditing was akin to Catholic confession, that the E-meter was a "religious artifact," and that Scientologists didn't have to prove its efficacy any more than the Vatican had to run tests on wafers and holy water. The argument was ingenious: rather than attempting to prove the scientific validity of the E-meter -- a challenging task to say the least -- they simply hid behind the cloak of religious mystery. But they also unwittingly underscored the fact that technologies sometimes derive their power from their symbolic deployment rather than their tec hnical prowess. Attempting to reduce the grey area between these two to black and white, a Federal judge banned the E-meter for "secular" diagnosis and treatment, but allowed its continued use for "religious" counseling.

In his history of Scientology, entitled Religion Inc., the British journalist Stewart Lamont noted that for Scientologists, "spiritual progress could actually be measured and practiced without recourse to providential grace from God. It could be assured by performing the correct techniques and by following a manual...It was the age-old heresy of gnosticism repackaged in a way to appeal to twentieth-century scientific man." 6 Though Lamont's conception of gnosticism reflects orthodox propaganda more than the phenomenon itself, he is right to note the gnostic current that gives Hubbard's "tech" its peculiar zap. Sounding like an Extropian battle-plan, Scientology claims "to increase spiritual freedom, intelligence, ability, and to produce immortality." Once the E-Meter has erased all the instincts, memories, and pains that define our personalities, we are left with what Hubbard calls the "thetan," an immortal essence that he defines as the incorporeal part of us that is "aware of being aware." Taking Cartesian dualism into the stratosphere, Hubbard imagined an alien spiritual entity that distinctly resembles the "spark" described by the gnostics of yore.

In fact, Hubbard's cosmology reads like the "Hymn of the Pearl" as filtered through Darwin and paranoid science fiction. In his brain-bending book Scientology: A History of Man, which purports to be nothing less than a "a cold-blooded and factual account of your last sixty trillion years," we learn that long ago a bunch of bored thetans decided to amuse themselves by creating and destroying universes. To make the game more interesting, they relinquished some of their superpowers, voluntarily entering the universe of MEST -- Matter, Energy, Space and Time. Our universe. Falling into MEST in a "dwindling spiral," they became so hopelessly ensnared in physical space that they wound up forgetting their true origins. Reduced to "pre-clears," these thetans just pass from one lifetime to the next, accumulating karmic banks of engrams that only Dianetics can clear. Once freed of the vegetable body and its psychic crud, the thetan will be fully operational again, able to simulate "facsimiles" of a body, and manipulate the virtual reality of MEST at will. Thetans are not the only forces in the cosmos however. After arriving on Earth and transforming mindless apes into Homo s apiens, the body-snatching thetans apparently encountered the Martian "Fourth Invader Force," whose sinister legions trapped and enslaved the thetans using a variety of psychological and electronic torture devices, including the dread "Jack-in-the-Box" and the horrifying "Coffee-Grinder." When we die, our inner thetan goes to a report station where Martians erase its memories using a "forgetting implant" seems to resemble a satanic wheel of television sets.

Beneath their "hoods and goggles," the Fourth Invaders clearly resemble the gnostic archons of old. But with their battery of bizarre electronic machines, they also represent Hubbard's feverish pulp spin on psychiatry. Hubbard hated the mental health establishment, and particularly loathed the widespread use of electro-convulsive therapy. (Hubbard's A History of Man also includes extended rants about how "electronics alone can make a truly slave society.") In the 1950s and 60s, he fanatically and publicly opposed ECT, lobotomies, the deplorable conditions of mental institutions, and the authority granted to psychiatrists by the law. He also became one of the first to accuse the CIA of performing mind-control experiments, accusations that later revelations about MK-ULTRA proved perfectly true. In his own paranoid and self-serving way, Hubbard nonetheless suggested what Michel Foucault would later articulate fully in Madness and Civilization: that institutional psychiatry is as much a form of so cial control as a form of healing.

Like many heretical and authoritarian organizations, however, the Church of Scientology was also capable of reproducing and far exceeding the most manipulative, totalitarian, and fanatical elements of the social institutions it opposed. As exposés like Jon Atack's A Piece of Blue Sky document in chilling detail, the Church hierarchy became quite hostile in the late 1960s and early 1970s, going to astounding and illegal lengths to undermine "suppressive persons" deemed hostile to the organization. Inside the Church, Hubbard increasingly put communications in the service of control. Fleeing from the authorities to the high seas, Hubbard maintained tight control over his "Orgs" through an elaborate telex network. He also churned out tens of thousands of pages of Scientology material, an endless stream of books, pamphlets, directives, memos, and policy letters that unconsciously parodied the most absurd excesses of print-based bureaucracy. Audio tapes of Hubbard's mesmerizing, rambling, and vaguely amusing lectures were also used extensively during Scientology training, perhaps fostering the "deep tribal involvement" that Marshall McLuhan claimed allowed demagogues like Hitler to sway the masses through the radio.

Because the most advanced levels of Scientology hardly delivered the promised superpowers, Hubbard was also forced to constantly upgrade his increasingly expensive "tech." Atack describes the scenario in terms all too familiar in these wired days: "Each new rundown [or upgrade] would be launched amid a fanfare of publicity, and claims of miraculous results. One critic...complained of 'auditing junkies,' forever waiting for the next 'level' to resolve their chronic problems."7 Drawn ever deeper into a worldview rigidly enforced by insiders and well-nigh incomprehensible to the rest of us, many Scientologists found themselves locked in a paradigm without exit doors. For as Margery Wakefield explains in her survivor text "The Road to Xenu," which floats about the Internet's voluminous anti-Scientology sites, the attempt to overcome cultural and psychological programming paradoxically draws Scientologists into vicious cybernetic loops. Her tale culminates when, after twelve years in th e Church, she reaches the level of OT3 and its extremely esoteric t exts. She lear ns that many moons ago, Xenu, the head of the Galactic Federation, solved a cosmic overpopulation problem by sending thetans to Earth and then blowing them up with nuclear weapons hidden in volcanoes. Reading this seriously baked tale, Wakefield understandably experiences a kind of cognitive dissonance:

I was feeling very strange. I had been programmed under hypnosis for ten years to accept as gospel everything said or written by Hubbard...But the materials were too absurd to be believed. The result was that my mind, like a computer which has come upon data impossible to analyze, simply refused to compute... Hubbard had jammed my mind. And from that point I became a total pawn. Not able to think, I was a completely programmable stimulus-response machine. I had become a robot. Or, to use the phrase now popular among ex-Scientologists, a "Rondroid." 8

Wakefield's knotted mix of technological metaphors is fascinating, not least of all because it shows how a therapeutic "technology" based on liberating the mental computer could produce in some of its followers a sense of robotic stimulus-and-response reminiscent of the evil Borgs (Orgs?) on Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Reading Wakefield's story, one can hardly f ault her for considering herself a Rondroid, but her technological metaphors also obscure as much as they reveal. As the psychologist Lowell Streiker points out, the tactics of persuasion used by Scientology and other cults "are not so much a 'technology of mind control' or hallmarks of brainwashing as they are...common techniques by which groups break down personal resistance and establish their influence."9 But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the possibility that every day we swim in a diluated sea of brainwash. Every time we rally around a flag or a logo, or pop a Prozac, or accept a marketing campaign into our lives, we are dancing with the forces of social control, or at least with the "consensus trance" that seeks to keep us, for all intents and purposes, dazed and confused.

Gurdjieff's Work suggests that the "man-machine" can wake up and free itself from its own automatic and socially-imposed behavior, that the spiritual cyborg can move towards greater consciousness by first getting in touch with his or her inner machine. Scientology exemplifies the creepy cultic hazards that lurk along this road, and reminds us that liberating the self from some programs may simply free up blank tape for new and even scarier trances. In any case -- and despite Hubbard's resoundingly bad example -- computers, cybernetics, and information technology now provide cur iously useful mirrors and metaphors along the trail of self-development.

For people drawn to psycho-spiritual transformation but repelled by the old fairy tales, the metaphor of "technologies of the self" does not dehumanize so much as empower. Besides according with the scientific temperament of modern people, it carves out room for a pragmatic experimentation that is freed, at least in principle, from any dogma. At the same time, the increasingly popular image of the programmable self definitely reflects the steady bureaucratization and technologizing of society that took place throughout the twentieth century, a process which, Extropian rhetoric aside, is not so easy to jibe with the genuine realization of human potential. For this reason, many of the counter-cultural spiritual movements of the postwar world violently rejected the mechanistic imaginary, strongly opposing electronic Babylon and the dehumanizing effects of technocracy and its abstract, institutional logic. But as we will see, beneath their buckskin vests and Japanese robes, these movements were far more intimate with the logic of technique than they initially let on.

 

 

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information , By Erik Davis

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Contents Page

Issue Seven