CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Internet as illustrating the McDonaldisation of Occult Culture

by P.R. Koenig
Paper presented at the 2001 International Conference The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century, organised by INFORM and CESNUR (London, April 19-22, 2001)

Fragmentation is the major quality of the Occult Culture (in the sense of hinduistic variety), of the Internet, and also of how identity is defined in post-modernism. The equality between 'person' and 'rôle' leads to a break-up where multiple or de-centralised selves are the benchmarks of knowledge. The association of the fragments (or the fragmented perception) has a reason: but there is no ultimate truth behind. This is the imperative of meanings, and their simulation as rôles. Surfing the Net through the ever-changing variety of websites does not require one to use the deeper methods of searching out sources and discerning structures. There is only need of an aesthetic way of simulation and navigation in order to find one's way about in virtual spaces; in a world which is never analysed, but merely inhabited.

This fragmented self (or rather the multiple subjectivities and post-modern concepts of the self), this life lived as a series of Cabalistic correlations - which constitutes reality for many occultists - is reflected in the endless image-manipulation seen in trances or visions and their written versions, and also of the imagination displayed both on and behind the computer-screen. Is this a virtual form of Gnosis, where the unbearable body is virtually transsubstantiated and experienced anew - but this time not through extreme sports, or sex-magic, or drugs, or Yoga? Does Gnosis become dia-gnosis when mankind leaves the old Temple of the body to find a new home on the Net?

The only measure of 'quality control' in occultism is the intensity of what is experienced, which will manifest itself in a passion for 'authenticity', 'true' knowledge, and introspection; the Internet now simulates this sense of urgency, this strong feeling of a 'presence', of being present. If we define cyberspace as the space behind the images, then it leads to a complete detachment from time, space, and social relevance in Internet communication. Virtual Occult Culture has been generated; the technological duplication of reality into 'real' and 'virtual' engenders a mere mimickry of activity, and produces 'instant' illumination. Of course the thoughts and ideas that meander round the Net are not totally formless, but their very vagueness, transience, and illusory qualities increase both quantitatively and qualitatively. As the net grows and grows, it gets harder to get hold of concrete ideas and concepts, and more difficult to judge and observe properly. An unforeseen chance to revise traditional approaches to reality has arisen.

The speed of data-transfer simulates and stimulates an illusion of wealth, power, and community. Any loss of self-restraint through this speed appears to give 'instant' access to an occultist's inner Self; but that Self now seems to have forgotten the most basic rules of grammar or how to think analytically, has no vestiges of 'political correctness', and has lost its common courtesy. The degeneration of much language on the Internet into a kind of Pidgin English is supposedly for reasons of speed, and a result of pragmatism in communication. The fonts, icons, pictures, and animations on the screen, the generally-obtaining silence of Internet communication, the lack of non-verbal clues from body language - all these seem to have led to over-exaggerated sympathies, antipathies, idealisations and demonisations. The disappearance of the sort of traditional consciousness that was moulded by external factors (such as everyday life, the time required for old-fashioned 'snail-mail' to arrive, the need to draft and edit, cultural borders, and so on) has meant that old-fashioned strategies for resolving conflicts have been lost or forgotten. Nike's "Just do it" slogan as seen on the trainers worn by the Heaven's Gate suicide victims comes to mind here: was that another example of the rituals of communication being abused, as supposed 'awareness' increased? Aleister Crowley's "Do what thou wilt" became "Do your own thing" in the 1960's; through commercialisation it became "Just do it", and now it is the demonstrative "Do!".

The opportunities in cyberspace to change personality, sex, and age at will, to exist as pure 'bodyless text' or an icon are in blatant contrast to a traditional occult lifestyle and experiences (sports, drugs, music, dance, light-effects, yoga, sex-magic). On the Internet, everything gets reduced to a uniformity of typefaces, formatting, and style. Slipping into this discorporated astral existence is experienced by some occultists not only as the fulfillment of the 'Great Work', but as a concomitant sense of being parasitised or eaten up, with a dramatic loss of energy; for them, it is as if the Internet has become an evil vampire. The processing and assimilation of all the data becomes one-dimensional, a road you can't seem to get off: mental consumption alongside physical stiffness. As a result, there is physical degeneration alongside mental decay: eye-infections and bad eyesight, repetitive strain injury, eccentric habits, headaches, disturbed sleep patterns, and lack of concentration. Another alarming result of this loss of former emotional authenticity is a wish to somehow melt into the computer, like Andy Warhol's desire to become a machine, sometimes seen in Japanese man-machine films. The new media are not really devoted to the old desire for immortality, but the Gnostic need to achieve perfection. The physical body has been devalued, and now the need is to at least partially replace it. Neurological technology aims to separate mind and body, so that the mind may be stored in an electronic form, and thereby be improved and reprogrammed. The interest in the possibilities of influencing the body so as to change it and improve it, are symptomatic of a disinclination to accept physical and psychical disabilities. This allows a new myth to be introduced: being a fictional creation becomes an integral part of being real; to be one simulation among other simulations. Magicians feel comfortable with such a concept, for after all it is just another way of changing the world purely through the exercise of a magically-honed will. The trouble is that these magical wills only seem to express themselves by exposure to constant new stimuli (from higher dimensions, for example), or to download a new mind off the Internet.

The Internet turns out to be a global stage for self-exposure, with only a theoretically cathartic effect; it is a medium for breaking taboos, and of the lowest common denominator. Here there is a meeting of self-confidence with traditional longings and deficiencies derived from popular culture. Access to the Net supports extreme opinions, gives them credibility and an audience. With this socially irresistible hybrid constellation of minds, cyberspace degenerates into a largely æsthetically mediated exposure of the social mainstream, and hence also for the occult commonplaces of ritualised chatter about Yoga, Cabbala, Gnosis, ceremonies, and Magic. All the claims about the Internet being a form of expanded consciousness turn out to be a simple reconfiguration of the world which allows things to go on as before. It is a semblance of expressing the individual will and plans, an imitation of freedom blinkered by a corsett of rituals. Or if you will, the saga of Narcissus updated: McNarcissus.

Selective attention now decides whether information is worthwhile or not; now it doesn't matter if that information is right or wrong, or even true or false - only whether it attracts attention. 'Netizens' organise themselves in net-rings - communities of interest detached from geography, communities based on time-zones, widespread anonymity, and constantly-changing identities. These are the standards for affiliation to these Web communities, on the meta-level that is online existence. Thanks to the Internet, what were previously activities exclusive to occult societies have become part of popular culture, factual concerns shrink to the level of e-mail 'happenings' and second-hand opinions, knowledge becomes data-hoarding, the linear becomes interactive, and proper friendship dissapears in interchangeable cyber-interaction. Occult Culture becomes an audience riven by factions which fishes its half-truths out of the limitless digital pool. This McDonaldised Occult Culture is an arena where anything goes, a breeding-ground for conspiracy-theories where half-truths are classed as scholarly work - for example in the wholly quantitative use of data exclusive to the Internet in university dissertations and theses. This reduction of facts to hallucinatory speculations leaves no room for the controlling influence of truth, and results in an endless fragmented labyrinth of unlimited choices. Any information here will face a continuing elasticity in a process of transformation and interactive reconfiguration. In the vast catacombs of the hypertexts it is all too easy to lose a feeling for the whole; in the nebulous atmosphere left by an absence of such an overview, connections and continuity can disappear. Where there is hypertext, there is no context. Does this hold out the unalluring future prospect for Internet users of having to develop a robust information immunity against the infection of false information on the World Wide Web?

The numberless manifestations of multiple identity in our culture - including the creation of Internet personas - contribute to an over-all confirmation of traditional unitary theories of identity, and support the post-modern Weltanschauung. There are relevant metaphors for this running through information science, psychology, children's games, literature, advertising, biology, medicine, mass culture and of course Occult Culture. The principle of the 'embodied artifical intelligence' is well-known, and used as a paradigm in physics, information technology, biology, and behavioural science. Never has the gap between high culture and mass (or consumer) culture been so narrow. What is visible doesn't have to allude to the concealed, existence doesn't have to allude to essence, nor the signifier to the signified. We are living in an electronic version of Oscar Wilde's disguise, where "the true secret of the world is the visible and not the invisible".

Copyright P.R. Koenig, integral version at http://www.cyberlink.ch/~koenig/mcdonald.htm    |    mail

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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