“Killing Ourselves with Texts” and Avoiding “Wisdom Cults”
Considering “The Stoa” and “Theory Underground” Together on April 18th, 2023
Both The Stoa and Theory Underground hosted interesting reflections and conversations today on April 18th, with the first being a reflection on “Wisdom Cults versus Wisdom Commons,” and the second being an incredible livestream event that featured a discussion with Cadell Last about “killing ourselves on texts.
To see Cadell’s Presentation, click here.
I highly suggest both videos, and in The Stoa conversation we see a problem in how we might find wisdom in a community and not turn it into a cult. Most “wisdom teachers” start off as “guides” (as “High Root” speaks on), but they can eventually become “gurus,” and this can lead to problematic dynamics. Also, communities of genuine wisdom can become places where people believe “the world would be saved” if everyone shared in their thinking, thus forming a “Messianic Complex.” How might this be avoided? Not easily.
As The Stoa panelists described a “cult,” I couldn’t help but think that every culture entails cult dynamics. We can never entirely avoid dynamics which “might” become cultish, and thus the presence of these dynamics do not necessitate the presence of a cult, and yet this risk must follow. For more on why the risk of a “cult” cannot be divided from the existence of a “culture,” please see Belonging Again by O.G. Rose, set to be released May 12, 2023.
The main point the panelists rightly pointed out is that cults tend to form where isolation occurs, so perhaps we could say that a cult is an “isolated culture.” That’s simplistic, yes, but I do think it’s fair to say that the more isolated a culture becomes, the more likely it is to “realize” its potential to be a cult. To avoid centralization then in favor of decentralization, we have to increase the probability that cults form, but greater centralization means there is greater power and all the trouble this entails.
Also, I think a “guru dimension” can form around “anti-gurus” just as much as within guru structures. The people who know the cults from the cultures become those who have “salvation knowledge,” and furthermore these people might just be critics who make nothing of their own. Furthermore, it can be great for publicity and marketing to attack popular figures, so we cannot be quick to assume that no “cult dynamics” can form where cults are being critiqued. Things are not so simple.
Bonnitta Roy made a key point: what is needed is a test to assure that “the rubber meets the road” and “intentional communities” are eventually tested. There must be tests for “wisdom commons” to see if wisdom can actually “emerge” from them, and so cults must always eventually become “intentional communities” which try to truly live and work together. If this never happens and there is isolationism, the likelihood of a cult is high. Basically, decentralization without mechanisms of testing (like Deirdre McCloskey describes “the market”) is a recipe for trouble.
What do we do though if the economic system controls “the means of testing” to assure that no “experimental community” cannot be tested without automatically failing because it isn’t Capitalistic (Deleuzian “capture” in/by autocannablism)? It is easily the case under Global Capitalism that new communities can’t test themselves, simply because the system will not give them “the space” to do so (via financing), and so the small communities are forced to be positioned to become cults, exactly as Global Capitalism wants. In my view, the larger system assures that new community structures can’t test themselves, which makes it probable that they autocannibalize themselves with gurus, conspiracies, and cults. It’s a strategic move, honestly, of Global Capitalism: it forces people to create small communities to escape the system, remove realistic means of testing for those communities, and thus makes it probable that the majority of the communities devour themselves. And so Global Capitalism perpetuates (assuring most small groups become cults is the work of Deleuze “capture”), hence why the work of “a new pricing mechanism” is central, as pioneered by Anthony Morley of Intrinsic Macro, from whom I have learned much:
I always find it interesting that we don’t so much worry about business CEOs being “cult leaders” (though it’s possible); we naturally associate CEOs with “tyrants” while leaders of small communities can be “gurus.” That association is important, for I think it suggests that “testing” is primary for avoiding cults, just like Bonnitta Roy said. For me, what Cadell Last described at Theory Underground is a way for small communities to “test themselves” in a world where Global Capitalism doesn’t want them to be tested: a useful strategy is orbiting the communities around foundational texts. To put it another way, the system might not want small communities to test themselves so that they autocannibalize themselves, but the system can’t do much to stop us from reading Hegel (with “the hard to understand” can emerge “a line of flight”). On this point, we might glimpse how foundational texts might provide a “loophole” in the system of Deleuzian “capture.”
At Philosophy Portal, everyone is trying to learn Science of Logic together, and Cadell is the teacher and guide, but he certainly isn’t a “guru.” If anyone is, it’s Hegel, but he’s dead and so won’t be trying to brainwash us anytime soon into giving him all our money. And Hegel isn’t a guru, for he doesn’t seem that interested in “giving us wisdom,” except secondarily. Primarily, he’s interested in describing the truth of the world and seemingly doesn’t care if anyone else gets it; to get what he’s after, he just must write a book in order to think. The goal is the world, whatever that is, and the world is always vaster than us: it by definition cannot give us all the answers (unlike a guru). When the teacher is the world itself (which it seems to often be regarding the great foundational texts), no cult can be formed, for no totalizing system is possible. If the world tells us we don’t know everything, its initiation is humility and work.
When a community orbits a common and difficult text, it is possible for the interpreter of the book to be a guru, as has happened in religions like Christianity, but when the text is a book of philosophy, the interpreter cannot speak “on God’s behalf” or some divine authority. Furthermore, the interpreter can be tested against the text, and even if the interpreter is treated as “all knowing,” that omni-knowledge is contained to the text. It cannot spread out into all areas of life, as it can more easily with “wisdom.” Yes, this risk is there, but focusing on “foundational texts,” which can befuddle the guide just as much as they befuddle us, can help “bind” cult dynamics.
Now, this dynamic could lead us back into colleges again, which are dysfunctional and problematic, so we have to approach foundational texts for themselves and not as a means of accreditation, but why in the world would we do that? What’s the point? Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be one, and the very absurdity of this might itself “bind” cult dynamics. We are doing something for its own sake, believing there is good in it, and this very dynamic can help bind and control “messianic aspirations” that might creep in. We’re kind of absurd, after all (who do we think we are?).
Economics, literature, difficult books—all of these can help “test” and “bind” a community from falling into becoming a cult. I doubt many communities intend to become a cult, so why do they? Well, perhaps we could say it’s partially because they orbit a text and/or “guru” they can access, while to focus on Science of Logic is to focus on Hegel, who is always out of reach. Thus, if we want a savior, that savior is gone (being in the past and humbled by time), and this helps positively “bind” us. So it can go if we want to be rich and powerful through the economy: we still have to convince customers to like and buy our product. If they don’t, our hands are tied.
Also, psychoanalysis generally wants us to focus on the subject and “the work of the subject” (say in Lacan), and Hegel emphasizes “conceptual meditation”—both of these are examples of intellectual traditions which force tests upon ourselves. This is what we need, suggesting that “wisdom communities” lacking a psychoanalytical emphasis are in danger. Like Hegel, psychoanalysis is very hard, and resulting “intellectual humility” is good for avoiding cults. There are never any guarantees, no, for it’s imaginable that people study Lacan who feel like they have “secret knowledge” that makes them better than others, but in my view this is to read Lacan in a manner that ignores the fact that Lacan teaches us not to seek a Big Other (which would mean we shouldn’t make him one either). When at the center of a community is a work that teaches against treating the center as everything, then the failure of the community is more on us and simply a question of if we did the work or not.
Snowden notes that Protestantism is inherently prone to cults in emphasizing “saved by faith alone,” suggesting that so are wisdom communities if we must “become wise alone.” Every “alone” dynamic is dangerous, but that means we must avoid decentralization, and centralization seems problematic as well. We thus need “binding principles,” and great, difficult books certainly are humbling — that might be a practice with which we should start. Furthermore, great works tend to always “haunt” us, keeping us company as a constant reminder that we must do our best to never know that much at all.
Theory Underground and Philosophy Portal are truly great and enjoyable places to confront how little we know. Do check out their shared and upcoming course on Alenka Zupančič’s “What Is Sex?” It starts May 7th 2023: