figment on Fri, 28 Mar 1997 23:03:23 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Gnosis and Stahlman

Though as usual Stahlman waxes grandiose, his recent post about Wired,
Heaven's Gate, and modern gnosis is quite intriguing. Though I do not draw
the historical lines of causality and control as tightly as he does, the
basic drift of his connections point to much that gurgles beneath the
surface, and shows once again that his "hermeneutics of suspicion," for all
its excesses, is a vital thread in this debate.

But for some specifics:
>Let's take, for instance, the Heaven's Gate UFO/death cult.  As noted by
>the "religion" editor of the NYTimes today, this is/was simply another
>Gnostic cult.  The extreme belief in the separation of mind/soul and
>body/reality is what allowed these poor idiots to rationalize the deed and
>commit mass suicide yesterday...
>I maintain that this group's belief system is *identical* to the impulse
>behind what eventually became the liberal wing of the philosophical
>movement known as the Enlightenment.  This is the "Knowledge is Power"
>framework of Francis Bacon and reason why Newton has been described as the
>"last Magi."  It is the impulse to impose human will on nature and it can
>only lead, in the final account, to our extinction -- as shown literally in
>this case.  It is, in turn, no different from the pathetic geek-stroke of

In a general sense, Mark is spot on. The Heaven's Gate folks were crude
hard-core gnostics in two senses: the belief in a radical separation of
mind and body, and the additional belief that the world is a rotten sucky
place. And while I do not agree that this impulse is "identical" to the
psychological orientation of the Enlightenment -- such loose leaps on
Stahlman's part are precisely where he overstates his case and begins to
seem hyper -- there are loads of similarities that history will provide.
One cannot understand the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe without
understanding the profound political, philosophical, and social role of
secret societies. Most of these Masonic or Rosicrunian organizations
combined the "exoteric" freethinking anti-clerical rationalism of the
Enlightenment with an "esoteric" psycho-experiential mystery with a deeply
gnostic current -- the emphasis being less on the evil of the physical
world as the power of the individual to achieve individual and autonomous
"gnosis" (knowledge), which would draw them outside of the normal rules of
reality. This current was also very much bubbling about the Founding

As for the conncetions between Heaven's Gate's crude Star Trek gnosticism
and the virtual information oligarchy, I will simply quote these amusing
bits from their more public, business-oriented Higher Souce website:

"Now that the public is rapidly adopting the Internet as the primary
source for their informational needs, we at Higher
Source not only  cater to customizing websites that will enhance your
company  image, but strive to make your transition into the "world of
cyberspace" a very easy and fascinating experience.  ...  Whether using
stock or custom photography,  cutting-edge computer graphics, or plain HTML
text, Higher Source  can go from "cool" to "corporate" like a chameleon.
...  Many users are  unaware of how vulnerable they are to others with
questionable  ethics. Higher Source offers consultation and training on
systems  using secure transactions and electronic communications. This
knowledge will help de-mystify the inner workings of the Net,  increase
your confidence, and ensure safety in all of your Internet  endeavors.  ...
Our "hands-on" consultants and engineers can also  help you with digital
phone systems, computer telephony,  hardware/software installation,
cabling, troubleshooting, and  training. Higher Source is very much "in
tune" with the current  pulse and future direction of technology... The
individuals at the core of our group have worked closely  together for over
20 years. During those years, each of us has  developed a high degree of
skill and know-how through personal  discipline and concerted effort. We
try to stay positive in every  circumstance and put the good of a project
above any personal  concerns or artistic egos. By sustaining this attitude
and conduct,  we have achieved a high level of efficiency and quality in
our work.  This crew-minded effort, combined with ingenuity and creativity,
have helped us provide advanced solutions at highly competitive  rates."

>As you may recall, Gnosticism was declared to be heretical in the 2nd
>century by the bishops in Alexandria.

The story is vastly more complicated than this -- in the 2nd century,
orthodoxy as we know it did not exist, and it is highly doubtful that one
can divide (even in retrospect) the "gnostics" from the "Christians." It
was a highly fluid time. I wont bore you with the scholarly bric-a-brac,
but there are loads of "gnostic" elements in Christianity, which in its
first few generations would have been branded a "cult" without a shadow of
a doubt by all the sociological yahoos and anti-cult hysterics how now are
interviewed on news agencies across the land. In a sense, the problem for
the later ecclesiastical organization was how to create a story of "gnostic
heresy" that would help it with political and spiritual control -- which is
not to say that orthodoxy didnt offer important corrections to those
elements we now think of as classically "gnostic" -- elitist,
quasi-antinomian [against wordly law], anticosmic [against the "evil
earth], and stressing unmediated individual realization.

 Needlesstosay, this "movement" never
>disappeared and it never gave up its hatred for the then triumphant

Because of this complexity, statements like the above are highly suspect.
Most ancient gnostics considered themselves Christian, and Mark's take on
their "hatred for the then triumphant" church reflects the total bias of
the Church (from who we derive much of our information about Gnosticism).
Moreover, one has to believe in a "secret history" beneath the far more
fragmentary surface of visible history in order to call gnosticism a
"movement" (perhaps this was why Stalhman put it in quotation marks), not
to mention one that never disappears. I enjoy people who make this move
toward secret history, but I can no more than dangle my toes in it. From a
more reasonable perspective, it is  more accurate to say that gnosticism is
a tendency that crops up again in again in most if not all religions -- ie,
that it is a pattern of religious thinking that confers certain inherent
psychological orientations, effects, etc., and derives from some pretty
deep psycho-spiritual/experiential/social capacities of human beings.
Buddhism, for example, is very much a religion of gnosis, and plays out
some similar dynamics, albeit in a very different way, given the lack of a
highly institutionalized universal orthodoxy. In fact, the relatively
benign history of Buddhism is an indicator that gnosis need not produce
evil oligargic secret societies.

 Whatever might
>have remained of the earlier Christian integration of body and soul (there
>is a *reason* why incarnation is vitally important, you know), was rapidly
>stomped out of most public expressions of our "spiritual" and intellectual

This is the rub, and for all the insane and evil manipulations of the
Church, here I must state my fondness for certain aspects of old-school
Catholicism. The reason that the ardent Catholic McLuhan took the eucharist
everyday is that for him it denied two currents of modern thought he very
much deplored -- materialism *and* gnosticism -- and it did so simply by
overcoming them both. McLuhan was quite "up" on the world view that
Stahlman describes, and was convinced that a gnostic/Freemasonic
organization had its manipulative tendrils in all sorts of modern
institutions -- including the post Vatican II Church! He also saw in his
more grim later stages that the "disincarnate" man that electronic
communication was producing was ripe for all sorts of deadly gnostic

>Theosophy and Crowley.  Teutonic myths and collective unconscious.
>Scientology (which has very similiar UFO origins as Heaven's Gate, BTW) and
>techno-paganism.  New Age and body-piercing.  These are all "gnostic"
>belief structures which were "invented" to fill the void left after the
>Enlightenment had (more or less) buried its enemies.  Humans are a
>religious bunch, as it turns out.  In order to defeat Christianity, the
>obvious place to start was the "counter-tradition", Gnosticism.  Let a
>thousand gnostics bloom.

Here is where, once again, Stahlman steps overboard and loses the excellent
kernals of his argument to overly broad generalizations. Even using the
broadest definition of gnosticism, I cannot follow him here, for he seems
to want to say that any modern Western religious formation that is not
Christian is "gnostic." While Crowley and Theosophy and the New Age and
Jung all have gnostic elements, it does nothing to anyone's sense of
history to collapse them all into false religions engineered by the powers
that be to fill the void (you'll really have to elaborate about
body-piercing for me here as well). I do agree that in many ways, "humans
are a religious bunch," and that in the absence of traditional
authoritarian organizations all sorts of weird stuff, old and new, will
emerge, and that those movements are symptoms of larger social structures
and can even be used by them. But to reduce all these phenomenon to a
unified, consciously engineered, anti-Christian Gnostic conspiracy is not
only to do violence to history and the creative phenomena of the religious
imagination, but to reproduce a Manichaen view of history: a war between
singular forces of good and evil.

And Manichaenism of any stripe, as Stahlman should know, is Gnostic to the
core, if not in theology than in psychology.

>LSD wasn't designed to make/break spys.  That's what is known as a
>cover-story.  It was intended to be the basis of a new synthetic religion...
>Despite it's casting as pre-civilization "oneness", LSD and all its
>companions are pure post-modern social-engineering.
>So is anti-war.  So is anti-statism.  So is zero-growth.  So is
>environmentalism.  So are all the "liberation" movements.  The theory is
>that growth-obsessed, authoritarian nations destroy the environment and
>start wars which threaten us all.  Surely you've heard this theory.  Maybe
>you even believe it.  Who's theory is this?  It's the oligarch's theory, of

Though I dont want to open up the issue of environmentalism again,
open-minded person such as myself, I must once again point out the sheer
idiocy of simply associating  environmentalism with the oligarchy. Yes Al
Gore wants to play both networks, and yes environmentalism can be sucked
into fascist organizations of political control (ie, the World State takes
over in the name of the now-sacred Earth), but there are far more ways that
protectionist/resistance environmentalism stands opposed to the unbridled
spread of unregulated capitalism, which, though becoming increasingly
virtualized, still spills out into heedless destruction of species,
ecosystems, water supplied, top soil, etc. The Extropian cyberlibertarian
capitalists of the world want to replace nature with bioengineering, not to
save dolphins and rainforests (or thestill quasi- premodern cultures that I
thought Stahlman would be interested in supporting). They dont give a shit
about dolphins or rainforests, because, evolutionarily speaking, its time
for them to go.

I refuse to go further into the politics and science of this, having been
exhausted and frustrated in an earlier attempt to do so by Stahlman's
auto-didactic unwillingness to genuinely engage in debate with a
sympathetic, openminded person who is not "attacking" him. At the time, in
speaking about the anti-virtual capital potentials of environmentalism (and
acknowledgeing its dangers), I quickly became an "enemy," a dupe of the
darkside of the Manichaen equation.

However, I will address the religious angle of this. Environmentalism, and
other new movements he mentions above (body piercing, some aspect of the
NEw AGe), are indeed religious, and fill the religious/spritiual needs that
any one who is not a stone cold Enlightenment modernist or a
balls-to-the-wall postmodern cynic has probably felt tugging at their gut.
And here Stalhman's attempt to assimilate these earth-based, materialistic
religions with gnosticism -- of the ancient, Freemasons, or Heavens Gate
varieties all -- just crumbles apart, for the simple fact that these
"pagan" movements have a *diametrically opposite* view of the cosmos than
the gnostic current we identified above. It seems to me that one must
perform tremendous intellectual violence to fuse the  *anticosmic* aspect
of Gnosticism -- the view that the earth, the body, and the material realm
are fundamentally flawed, evil, or nightmarish -- with nature-worship, a
"pagan" embrace of the body, and a belief that we are setting ourselves up
for disaster by not acknowledging that we too are part of the biophysical
"web of life".

On the other hand, radical neo-Luddite environmentalists can also be quite
Manichaen, with technology and modern civilzation taking on the role of the
"the Archon of Darkness." And it is precisely such Manichaenism that I
reject, for I distrust all stark "Battles", however much I am sympathetic
to their emotional, imaginative, and psychological resonances. There is
much of good and of interest in environmentalist nature worship, in modern
skepticism, in postmodern cyncism, in gnostic transcendence, in
anti-modernist crypto-Catholicism of the Stahlman/McLuhan/Lewis variety. We
do not get out of this mess by another divisive jihad, based on the
intellectual erasure of important differences in order to form a unified
enemy. I would encourage Stahlman to become a little more distrustfull of
his own tendency to see the world in black and white, though I can say with
the conviction of a prophet that he most likely will not.

Erik Davis

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