Modernity and open-source mysteries
During a recent episode of Samsara Audio, my guest Gabe remarked that knowledge cannot be “occulted” anymore.
The mystery cult is dead, and we have killed it. We have unleashed the deep mysteries on an unsuspecting populace, and now anyone can infect themselves with esoteric wisdom on YouTube. The mysteries once guarded by ritual have been released, and they cannot be put back in the box.
Although this open-access impulse has marked modern consciousness even from its first emergence, the advent of the internet removed the last remnants of our ability to effectively gate-keep ideas. As rituals and forms of initiation have been torn down, the doors of the inner sanctum have been thrown wide open.
Today, all knowledge is considered potentially public, all insights are equally accessible, and everyone has a right to know. The modern mind, like Noah’s son Ham, would unveil its own father’s nakedness for a chance at grasping the fruit of hidden knowledge. Nothing escapes the prying eyes of reason and science.
This is the obscenity of our knowledge.
While the ancients had some awareness that one must ascend to an idea, or at least pass through stages to arrive at higher wisdom, we have entirely lost this in our contemporary context shaped as it is by endless flows of “information.”
Against the idea of the mysterious, the occult, or the esoteric, our egalitarianism rebels at the thought that someone would need to be "prepared" for an idea. We rankle at the suggestion that another person could judge whether we must wait to hear something new.
Learning is no longer the activity of a particular situation coming to its own realization in time and space, but rather the acquisition of bits of data for storage and processing in our biological computing apparatus — a radical flattening of all persons, contexts, and thoughts into fungible units.
The structure of the mystery cult radically asserts the non-fungibility of each individual person, because it accommodates itself to the reality that sharing a thought with a person is not simply furnishing them with a new piece of information. It's more like throwing a pebble in a pond – how will the waves ripple, and what lies just beneath the surface?
Each person is a dynamic and contradictory constellation of experiences, dreams, thoughts, and wounds. When operating with this understanding, we develop a sharpened sense for what another person might need to hear, how they might take what we're about to say, or the work they will need to do to integrate the insight.
In this way, we act more like doctors dispensing a prescription, because what's medicine for me might be poison for you. Don't introduce a depressed person to Schopenhauer; it's pedagogical malpractice.
The modern university's pedagogical malpractice
How can one prescribe without a case history or a diagnosis? And ought not one be held responsible for the side effects of the insight pills they prescribe?
My guest Gabe made his illuminating comment during our conversation precisely because he had an experience in which he was introduced to deep knowledge too soon — and it ruined him. Like being prescribed the wrong medicine by a doctor, he suffered terrible side effects for a long time.
He related to me how his professors taught him and his fellow undergraduate literature students at the Evergreen State College about postmodern theory. These teachers, as Gabe described it, introduced him to "emptiness" before he was ready.
The fiction of self, the arbitrariness of signs, the illusion of consciousness – a profound acid for all but the most well-prepared practitioners. Young college Gabe from a Catholic upbringing probably never stood a chance.
We could call Gabe a victim of pedagogical malpractice – literature professors indiscriminately teaching postmodernism to developing young adults amounts to freely handing out drugs without bothering to ask the patient about their symptoms.
Unfortunately, side effects can include protracted anomie, speaking in strange tongues, and performative rebellion coupled with excessive deference to authority.
Would Derrida's insight about the infinite play of the signifier help or hurt this student? Does a young person really need to stare into the abyss of the groundless ground of the self? The question is never asked. The answer is assumed at the outset, and it would be anathema to even broach the question. One would be accused of "censorship" merely to float the notion that all ideas are not appropriate for all people at all times.
And thus the astringent is administered.
To be clear – postmodernity's insights of emptiness could be emancipatory to a different person in a different context. This I fully maintain. The groundlessness of things might be needed to break up old structures which we felt were keeping us shackled in place, and to release us to freely create a new possibility for ourselves and our world. Such difficult wisdom may be demanded by certain conditions.
But is the emptiness of the phenomena which appear to consciousness a helpful insight for a young person who hasn’t even established any concrete mastery of their own abilities or agency in the world? Don’t they need to have some structures first before these reifications can be unsettled?
For the right person, perhaps the answer is yes. It may be just the medicine they need to stimulate them to a higher mode of life and activity. But to assume that every student who signed up for a general education literature class needs to or is prepared to stare into the abyss seems like a naivety bordering on cruelty.
Professors play a crucial role in the constant labor which higher education renders to the bio-political state in producing compliant and productive subjects, and the modern university's all-encompassing program for proselytizing postmodern theory to its students ultimately serves the strategic ends of the powerful.
In pointing this out, I follow my conviction that one must be willing at times even to appear to oppose the truth when that truth is wielded like a sword in the name and interests of power.
I cannot escape the sense that the zealotry with which teachers push postmodern theory on young adults, especially at the most vulnerable and impressionable point in their lives, serves to render the student's mind unusually malleable to the process of being re-formed in line with the dominant ideologies which the educational institution was designed to foster in its unwitting matriculants.
Induce vertigo in the learner, and then subtly guide them to where you would have them land. The modern university up-roots the young adult from the loving bonds of family and community, introduces new potent mind drugs, and then cuts them loose to drift in the deafening echo chamber of the chatter of their fellow adolescents all struggling to find their way in the world.
The profound insights of emptiness serve in this context not as a tool for cultivating greater vitality, but as a corrosive acid leaving the learner utterly disoriented, and consequently unusually dependent on the pronouncements of authority figures and the flattery of their peers.
When someone speaks, we may ask not simply about what they said, but also about the standpoint from which they have said it. Why have they spoken about this at this time? In asking this question, we are asking about the pathological element which operates in human discourse. What is the speaker's desire?
When someone divulges a secret to you, what power do they gain from making this revelation? Does modernity's drive to unmask mysteries serve a purpose other than the freedom and egalitarianism it so loudly trumpets? What does the confessor hope to accomplish when they take what was once hidden and make it obscene?
They have changed the hearer's world with this secret, and one must learn how live from here on out. There is no going back; there is only out and through.
As always, I am humbled by your readership. Thank you for taking a little time out of your day to think with me. I would be honored if you would consider purchasing a premium subscription to provide ongoing support to my work.