On Cults (1/2)

[This award-winning dialogue was previously hosted elsewhere. For basically uninteresting reasons it was taken down. I am archiving it here until I get a takedown request: this arrangement does not, of course, imply the collaborators’ agreement with any other material posted on QL, now or in the future. -ed.] (Part 2 is here.)

The fundamental goal of all State education is of course indoctrination, specifically, the indoctrination of the intellectuals into ideological compliance. At some point in the 20th century Freud and Marx clearly became very useful for that purpose. Why and how?

I’d start from a different point of view. Universities, research institutes, and the rest of the intellectual infrastructure of society are responsive to many pressures simultaneously. Researchers need to impress benefactors, they need to humiliate rivals, they need to market to the public, to draw in students; and on top of all this, yes, they need to respect the pieties of their neighbors, their peers, and their government monitors. So can we say a priori that at some point Freud and Marx became useful for creating ideological conformity in intellectuals? Well, only if we start by answering the question Ideological conformity to whom? I lean towards the view that Freud and Marx each established intellectual cults, which succeeded first in perpetuating themselves and then in infiltrating important institutions to the point where the orthodoxies of the cult started to become the focus of intellectual conformism.

When Freud first travelled to the US in 1909 he famously told Jung: “We are bringing them the plague.” I value that kind of pathogenetic perspectives: conceptual history as a movement of microbial agents – with Freud as a vector  instead of a master, or, as you say, cult leader. This dimension is in Freud’s theory too – this “Copernican revolution” in psychology which dethrones “his Majesty, the Ego” from it’s position in the centre of the mental cosmos and reveals the deeper realities of unconscious drives. The problem of what constitutes a cult becomes an open question: it turns into the issue of what isn’t a cult, or couldn’t be described as one.

I think we have a similar perspective — although it seems implicit in your description of the situation, first, that there is something uniquely pathogenic about Freud, and second, that there is an intrinsic connection between the corrosiveness of Freud’s lèse-majesté against the ego, and the infectiousness of his ideas. I try to conceive of the spread of ideas in general on a “pathogenic”, i.e. on a memetic model. The spread of species, the spread of languages, the spread of schools of thought — all versions of the same thing. Perhaps it would be perverse to turn this into a discussion of mimetics in general (too far from Freud, and unlikely to get to the root of our differences concerning him) so I will make one further comment: in a sense the Freudian (and Marxian) are a poorer fit for the “viral” model of propagation than many other ideologies, precisely because of the role of the cult in spreading them. That is to say, the ideas were not infectious in themselves, but only once they had had a few decades to incubate inside the cult. And thus the question of how the Freud-cult or the Marx-cult spread its ideas so effectively almost becomes a question of group dynamics rather than of mimetics per se.

Again, the underlying question here concerns what constitutes a cult, or cultishness more generally, and what part of the social body resists description on that level – or if any section does. From a certain point of view, it is possible to describe psychoanalysis, or Marxism, or any ideology, or language, even language itself, epidemiologically as a kind of virus and the organization around it as a community of infected and infectious vectors. We haven’t yet begun to scratch the surface of how pathogens can manipulate behavior, and questions of group dynamics and mimetics are perhaps not far apart. 

There’s a book called Origins of Group Identity by a virologist named Luis Villareal from which one can learn many things. Villareal points out that viruses are the most ancient, numerous and adaptable biological entities on earth. “We have long recognized them for the harm and disease they can cause, and they have been responsible for the greatest numbers of human deaths. However, with the sequencing of entire genomes and more recently with the shotgun sequencings of habitats, we have come to realize viruses are the black hole of biology; a giant force that has until recently been largely unseen and historically ignored by evolutionary biology. Viruses not only can cause acute disease, but also persist as stable unseen agents in their host. In this, they attain stability in evolution. It is from such a persisting relationship that viruses can inform us regarding the strategies and mechanisms of group membership. In order to persist in their host, a virus must be able to resist both themselves and all other competitors.” The key point from our perspective is “viruses can introduce into their host new genetic identities that create group identities and group immunity, including altruistic-like individual self-destruction used for the protection of the group. From this relationship, we can trace how genetic parasites and the strategy of addiction modules have contributed to the evolution of group identity, a pathway that leads us directly to humans.” 

I endorse everything in the passage from Villareal you quoted. In particular, I would reiterate his observation that a virus is not competing primarily against its host, but against other viruses of the same type. And this leads to a common observation about Freudian psychoanalysis: Freud took the ethical practices of auricular confession that had been at the core of Christianity for thousands of years, and Catholicism in particular, and imitated them. In some accounts it is an exacting and precise imitation; in others, Freud is a slapdash copyist. Is Freud’s psychoanalysis a perversion of the holy, or a profanation? I can’t give a definitive answer. But certainly a healthy share of the demand, not just for psychoanalysis but for all forms of investigation into psychopathology in the nineteenth century, came from secularists and socialists who, having rejected the authority of the Church for various  reasons, could no longer avail themselves of its highly evolved solutions to the suffering of the psyche. And a healthy share of the supply of psychoanalysts were Jews who would have been barred from the priesthood or the ministry – barred, that is, from the single profession that in the nineteenth century employed the lion’s share of university graduates.

There’s clearly a resemblance between psychoanalysis and confession; there’s also a relationship to Mesmerism, an earlier species of psychological praxis, not uncoincidentally also drawing principally on an upper-bourgeois, female clientele. And you’re correct in pointing out that psychoanalysis relates to the secularizing dynamic of the nineteenth century, the process Weber called “the disenchantment of the world”, the sharp decline in the cultural centrality of Christianity, and the formulation of the science of psychology in general. Where it fits precisely into these developments – was it scientific, pseudo-scientific, crypto-religious, etc – was a subject of controversy from the beginning. Between Freud and Jung, for instance, but not only between them. Plainly, different forms of institutional, political and social power inhere to different designations, now and then. As Régis Debray remarks, “Every social body of thought is a device for battle, and takes effect through its particular milieu.” The war, I think, is between the secularizing State, and everything outside of its control, such as the Church, but perhaps this too is just a surface manifestation. Today, of course, Freud, like Marx, is taught mainly in humanities departments, not departments of psychology or economics.

How would you encapsulate the conflict between Freud and Jung? In my former life as a shitlib, I shunned Jung because it seemed obvious to me that the characteristic features of Jungian psychoanalysis (archetypes, and so on) only made sense if they had a biological, genetic explanation. And of course a hereditarian theory of the psyche Was Not Okay.  As a result, I know less than I ought to about the politics of the Jung/Freud split — but I can hardly imagine a more revealing case-study in the development of quasi-secular crypto-Christian cult. Now, this personal anecdote would seem to suggest a straightforward “purpose” for Freud in the secular-liberal state: to dispose of hereditarian psychological hypotheses that were distasteful to the upwardly-mobile bourgeoisie even before 1789. But I’m dubious. In the first place, Freud’s theories are hardly the only ontogenetic psycho-theogonies available in the twentieth century. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, for example, relies on Piaget. B.F. Skinner and his set had a whole research program around associationist psychology that could have served the same purpose. Dewey and the other progressive pragmatists were not true psychologists, but they dabbled in psychological theory and their dabblings were non-hereditarian. At the moment that Freud’s ideas were becoming contagious, there were other theories that were more accurate, more useful (in terms of providing quantifiable results to sister-sciences), and more free of socio-political sin (in that Freud’s ideas were still linked to the anti-liberal tradition of Stirner and Nietzsche). Again, rather than any ideological function Freud served in the liberal-secular state,  either initially, or later, my eye is drawn to group dynamics.

Freud maintained that the only way to “learn” psychoanalysis was to undergo psychoanalysis. This seems to be the conditio sine qua non for the kind of viral spread of an ideology; every agent is first a patient, and being a patient allows you to act as agent. (An idea brilliantly illustrated in the final scenes of The Master.) It’s also interesting that Freudian psychoanalysis attracted followers among literary critics very quickly — so quickly, in fact, that fiction was being written with Freudian subtexts before Freud’s basic concepts had become mainstream. Was this because there was some peculiar elective affinity between the Freudian fantasia and the daydreams of novelists? Or is it an outcome of a specific constellation of intellectual interests and commitments in the subcultures of Vienna, Frankfurt, and Bloomsbury?

Freud and Jung’s relationship was of course enormously complex. But as I understand it, their central split concerned the issue of the scientific character of psychoanalysis which Freud wanted to uphold. Defining psychoanalysis as a science implied a certain trajectory for its development; Jung had a different and arguably, a more expansive vision; subsequently his work became a major, if not the major, influence on the so-called New Age. I’m not a Jung expert by any means; like you, I tended to avoid him in my former life, but now am becoming more interested. Jung’s ideas about alchemy in particular seem intended to be understood as the basis for a potential myth to meet the challenge of the disenchantment of the world.

The irony is that Jung’s mythopoetic conception of psychic research was arguably a good account of what Freud was doing, whereas Jung’s less-constrained approach led him to turn up all sorts of interesting empirical regularities that could later serve as the foundation for genuine scientific research. But at the time, no one recognized that; or perhaps no one cared.

Like the question of cultishness, the issue of “genuine scientific research” and especially the idea of genuine psychological research opens up a complex field. As noted, Freud today is not widely used in clinical psychology — because it is cheaper and easier to treat patients with drugs. But the roots of psychology in fact come from magic. The question is bigger than Freud. The definition of science changes through time. Before the scientific revolution established experimental science as the paradigm of research, the conception of science derived from the conditions Aristotle set up in the Posterior analytics

The Freudian position on psychiatric pharmaceuticals was indeed, until recently, that drugs had eclipsed psychotherapy mainly because they were, as you say, “cheaper and easier”: with the implication that psychoanalysis might be harder and of course more expensive, but certainly better. This position was at least in part a reaction to a sensible but perhaps under-theorized attack on Freud, to the effect that if you could cure a disease with a drug, then the etiology proposed by Freud was clearly wrong. That attack, in its most naive form, isn’t logically sound, and the traditional response of Freud’s sympathizers is similarly misguided. There’s no reason, in principle, why you can’t have a psychiatric disorder with both a psychoanalytic description (in terms of the development of the disease, the form in which it is expressed in a particular patient, and the ascription of quasi-agentive status to psychological processes) and a biochemical description (of the chemical mechanism). It just happens to be the case that the psychoanalytic descriptions offered by Freud have no basis in fact, and no relation to what psychiatrists have discovered about biochemistry. But it would be possible to point to, for example, Freud’s involvement with cocaine, his very beginnings as a neurologist, and say “Well, there is nothing un-Freudian about biochemistry affecting the brain, Freud knew that psychoactive drugs could effect the brain, only in 1900 biochemistry was still too primitive to advance psychiatry in that way.”

But look, we don’t need to go back to Aristotle to diagnose Freud as a scientific failure. Every unhappy research paradigm is unhappy in its own way, so we don’t need to unearth the One True Methodology to diagnose Freud as junk science. The central problem is that there is now overwhelming evidence that most psychiatric conditions are highly heritable, as indeed most psychological and cognitive traits are; and the cross-variance between the traits/conditions provides strong evidence that they are inherited together. If Freud had been doing good research, he would have stumbled across this at some point; instead he claimed that the psychological disorder developed out of path-dependent events in childhood, and that understanding the original “tangle” of psychological motives was the key to unraveling it. There was an existing body of hereditarian literature which he and his followers explicitly repudiated. That literature was mostly guesswork at that point, true, but it was guesswork backed up by empirical observation, parallels to zoology, and thousands of years of common sense. Freud didn’t even have that; the real scandal is that, once you are driven to ask “How could he go so wrong?” and go back to look at his research practices, there wasn’t even anything that could be called empirical observation.

We keep returning to the problem of defining science. You say that we don’t need a definition of true science “the One True Metholodology” to dismiss Freud as junk science, but I think we do. You also argue more that Freudian psychology ignores biology and in particular what could be called psycho-genetics. I don’t know what the status of that field was at the beginning of the twentieth century, or today; what  I can say is that a major amount of psychological knowledge was lost with the shift from the scholastic to the modern scientific paradigm. Feyerabend makes this point in his famous defense of astrology. —— But we’ve digressed from our problem. Perhaps we can agree to bracket for the moment epistemological questions of science to acknowledge that Freud’s psychoanalysis dealt, in some form, with a real phenomenon, that the psychological forces which it utilized/theorized (utilized by theorizing) must on some level be real; in other words, that it’s describable as a social body of thought, that is, a device for battle, taking effect through a particular milieu.

Yes, yes. This is a good place to start. There is the (putative) science, and then there is its subject matter. The what, the thing it aspires to be a science of. We agree on that. Now, I’m guessing we can also agree that if someone gets his knowledge of this subject, the psyche, from Freud — let’s say an undergraduate who has been assigned some basic texts like The Ego and the Id and Five Lectures, and these psychoanalytic readings are his primary exposure to the study of the psyche — it will generate some expectations about how the world works? Some of these expectations are nothing more than his acceptance and affirmation of the phrases he read in Freud’s books, while the others are his inferences about their implication.

Popper writes in The Open Society about an object that he calls “The Spell of Plato” – we could conceivably discuss a “Spell of Freud”. What are the features of this spell? What is the Freudian conception of the world? Plainly there are more or less sophisticated variations, as well internal discontinuities: in particular, between Freud’s initial “hydraulic” model and his later “Ego/Superego/Id” scheme. 

Spells, conceptions of the world, models: complicated stuff. Like you said, we jumped out too far ahead first, and we kept getting stuck on this question, “What is science?” So let’s slow down and stick to the idea of “expectations” first, before we specify a particular connection between the Freudian paradigm and the expectations of the student who has just read a lot of Freud. If you take that paradigm to be equivalent to certain published works of Freud or his disciples, then you cannot explore the expectations of a student of Freud while identifying these expectations with the paradigm… unless you deny what I proposed, that some of the student’s expectations are implications of his reading, rather than its contents.

What is “the Desire Named Freud” — what does reading Freud give a student in the first place? Nobody is forced to read him. One explanation is that people come to him in order to explain a modern world that is already deeply Freudian. I proposed above that Freud can be seen as contributing to a de-centering of human psychology, but from the perspective of a student seeking expertise the reality is different — Freud becomes a kind of codebook, an optic for achieving psychological and social mastery. As Régis Debray puts it – addressing semiotics, but the dynamic is the same – “Whoever accedes to it is transformed into a cultural Grand Subject. Since this novel, this thriller, this poem declines (as one possible version among many others) into a generative model whose keys I possess, I become its master at a critical distance, at the very least its equal in inventiveness. The encoding on all fronts of the manifestations of human genius – with the translations and passings it authorizes from one to the other – places the Decoder at the upper reaches of the sources of meaning and makes him into the author of authors, a creator to the second power… The critic turns sunlike, pulling works and products one by one from his deconstructable discourse as if out of a hat containing a thousand secrets.”

“Nobody is forced to read him” — on the contrary. I was assigned three weeks of Freud in my second semester, I had to read him very carefully. That was my largest single dose of Freud, but there were other doses, and more broadly, there are many fields where to be informed you must be able to refer to Freud, which one hardly can except by reading him. And then there is a great deal of indirect necessity, where if it is necessary to understand e.g. Marcuse, the concepts and the vocabulary presuppose an intellectual moment drenched in Freud, and to understand that language one must return, again, to Freud.

Still, there is something legitimate in what you say. Yes, as a smart kid growing up inside a “a modern world that is already deeply Freudian”, you feel the necessity to understand Freud as some kind of initiation into adulthood (the adulthood of bourgeois “educated professionals”, at least) even before anyone forces you to read him. That is interesting to examine, but more as an epitome of the types of direct and indirect force I mentioned earlier than as a desire in its own right. What is still more legitimate, though, is to ask why it was that people read enough Freud to create an intellectual moment drenched in Freudianism in the first place. Or, if the answer to that turns out to be unenlightening: why that intellectual moment created tendencies and ideologies and schools that keep our education system anchored to Freud, and not to Mesmer, James, Browne, or a dozen other enterprising hucksters.

Let me throw out a few hypotheses. First, a sociological hypothesis about the rise of Freudianism as a psychological/theroretical clinical cult. In the late nineteenth century, especially in fin de siècle Mitteleuropa, a new demographic was entering the market for literate, credentialed labor. For nearly all of European history, the overwhelming “buyer” for this kind of labor was the Church. In 1900 the percentage of literate Englishmen going to Cambridge or Oxford was 5%, identical to the percentage in 1600; in the mid-19th century, the majority of graduates were going on to careers in the Church of England, 50% and 80% between 1830 and 1880. The traditional tithe of agricultural produce, where it was enforced, plus the land owned by the Church, supported a large workforce of vicars, abbés and their assistants, who met Europe’s entire need for intellectual  labor (or close to it). I don’t want to speculate about how much of the post-Petrarchan history of Europe is the history of lay professions trying to muscle their way into a priestly monopoly on clerical labor: but in fin de siècle  Vienna, there was most certainly a situation where a newly-emancipated, rapidly growing Jewish middle class wanted professional, white-collar jobs for their talented, educated sons. But a huge “lump” of the labor that these Jewish boys were willing and able to perform was the exclusive preserve of Roman Catholic priests or, in Northern Germany, Lutheran ministers, whose white collars entitled them to a share of the pastoral labor that needed to be done.

Freud took the pastoral duties of a Viennese priest and repackaged them into a professional career open to secular Jews. That’s my “tentative hypothesis” explaining the peculiar tenacity, the rapid growth, the cult-like structure of Freudian psychoanalysis, and in particular the ways in which it differs from other psychological and philosophical schools. Freudianism is not simply theoretical content, but the triadic relationship between the “school”, the pool of educated Jews in need of stable professional careers (Freud’s janissaries), and the niche in the white-collar economy that Freud opened up to them.

I see some issues with that model. Fundamentally, although psychoanalysis perhaps in some sense was in competition with the Church, the Church explicitly was in competition with the State. Rivalry for control over this sphere of human culture was mediated by changing demand structures and political expansion so a problem which was previously ecclesiastical became conceived as medical, or clinical, indeed consumerist – your broken mind can be fixed, not through Jesus, but through the skilled ministrations of a trained professional. You can see how this plays into the hands of the State and the capitalist economy. Psychoanalysis in that respect is a chapter in the history of atomization, and the idea of the individual unconscious a market-ready innovation 

Every civilization is characterized by overlapping rivalries and alliances, which shift into different constellations from arena to arena. For the French state, what you say is true: the Republic was baptized in the flames of anti-clericalism, and immediately seized one of the central functions of the clergy, primary education, along with its economic support.  The curé and the professeur were, proverbially, at war with each other in every village in France. But where else was there a war on this scale between Church and State? In Wilhelmine Bavaria, perhaps (the original Kulturkampf) but elsewhere the conflict took different forms. In Britain, for example, the conflict was between the established Church of England and the “low church.” And so on.

But we agree that medicalizing the psychic was a large part of the rise of psychology as a discipline, starting as early as the 1680s, when witchcraft prosecutions started to go out of style. Still, the failures of the eighteenth-century materialist model of “man the machine” meant that the late nineteenth century was arguably a time when the secularization of mental phenomena was at a low intensity! Seances and spiritualism flourished, extra-Newtonian forces like animal magnetism were “discovered” and many sober psychometric researchers tried to experiment with paranormal activity. Debray’s quote seems to be suggesting something similar to Ricœur’s hermeneutics of suspicion: in other words, that psychoanalysis is an example of a type of school (Marx’s and Nietzsche’s being others) that, by building a theory of deception or false consciousness into its theoretical axioms, easily dismisses its rivals and indeed can be adapted to “dismiss” or explain away any theoretical claim or cultural expression anywhere. Still, I think this “suspicious” type of theory doesn’t explain well this “Grand Subject” that Debray invokes. The idea that both critic and creator want to transform themselves into the Grand Subject, or submerge themselves in it, suggests something symptomatic. In a disintegrating society, lacking any coherent sense of “what one is thinking about”, the only way for a novel to take a position on the human condition is to offer itself as a vehicle for yet-another-rendering of the Freudian psyche or the Marxian production-relation. Whereas Dante or Milton could reflect on the soul without using a second-order theoretical vocabulary.

I agree with Reinhart Kosselleck that the key event was the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which granted confessional authority to Princes in order to shut down the religious civil war. As he describes it:

“The Stände agreed that a ‘stable, secure, unconditional, and eternally lasting peace was to be created.’ This was to hold even if (and while disputed, this was conclusive) the religious parties should arrive at no settlement and find no unity. Henceforth peace and religious duty were no longer identical: peace meant that the fronts of religious civil war were to be shut down, frozen in situ. Today we can only with great difficulty gain a sense of quite how monstrous this imposition seemed at that time.”

In the phrase of a French politician and lawyer: ‘L’heresie n’est plus auiourd’huy en la Religion; elle est en l’Estat.’ The treaty opened the way (Kosselleck concludes) to a new understanding of time, as historical time, and a new principle, that of “politics,” which set the parameters for the modern world, namely the long march of the State through previously religious institutions and the appropriation of their functions, especially education, towards the “Divine” State which we are faced with today. This process is clearly complex. At some point psychoanalysis enters the picture with the hermeneutics of suspicion; later Régis Debray’s semiotic “grand subject” emerges after Freud has already been incorporated into the matrix, and generally transformed beyond the scope of his original remit. How can we analyze these massive cultural shift? You point out the significance of Jews; of course the Jewish role in the elaboration of modernity fills libraries. At any rate, we can identify traces in Debray of the figure of Man as Magus which animated the Renaissance, and in Freud, the demonic (or what Jason Jorjani calls the spectral), which raises the question of to what extent the magical cosmos which predated the long march of secularism really ever ended. In the absence of the Absolute, relative contingencies – Hegel speaks of a “rationality puffed-up into Absolute Spirit” – arrive to fill the void. Freudianism can be understood as a substitute which achieved the degree of prominence that it did not because of the actions of a small dedicated faction, as you suggest, but because the previous institutional model had already collapsed. Understanding psychoanalysis from this perspective changes the focus of the problem from the actions of Freud himself to how he was received, which seems to me to represent a more plausible vector. Plainly, psychoanalysis could not have succeeded in a different cultural environment. 

I don’t deny that institutional support structures, or lack thereof, are part of the story. Rather, I take it that they need to be part of any story about how psychoanalysis supplanted auricular confession. Therefore we still need to ask: why Freud, and not a different ideologue? Why did Freud’s psycho-therapeutic institution accelerate the decay of guardian institutions, while other heresies provoked a coordinated reaction and retrenchment?

Bruno Latour in his book on Pasteur identifies the triangulation of cultural, macro-political and sociological forces that were necessary to create the conception of a “Pasteurian Century” and the same kind of analysis could be applied to Freud. To return to the viral model, we can see, in retrospect, that Freudianism was highly adapted to twentieth century social conditions which allowed it to colonize cultural market-share. In order to understand how that happened, we’d have to look at it closely, on an institutional basis, to understand what Discourse X does for Agent Y, in a clinic, in a Literature Department, or wherever. But I question your post-Ecclesiastical model and also the degree of industrialization implied by that. To start with, trying to research “the Renaissance theory of mind” isn’t impossible, there are multiple sources, to begin with Aristotle and his Scholastic followers, and then Plato and the theories of magic which were elaborated by people like Marsilio Ficino and finally people like Paracelsus, all of which constitute the long range backdrop to the psychoanalytic project. Shakespeare, we know, was influenced by Montaigne… But this is diverting from the point. 

Do we know that? I’m not doubting you, but I’ve read (for example) articles that confidently document Montaigne’s influence on Bacon, and also articles that tear apart and refute that older position in minute detail. In Bacon’s case it’s far from clear that he did more than skim Montaigne! I’ve seen reams of paper on Shakespeare’s implicit emotional theory and there are a nearly unlimited number of plausible influences. I assume you’ll grant that (even if you take some specific figure like Shakespeare as an exception) there is a world of difference between trying to sift through the overlapping influences of a dozen different branches of Aristotelianism, neo-Platonism, Augustinianism, hermeticism, and classical humanism, versus the comparatively simpler connect-the-dots project of Freudian literary analysis?

The hermeneutics of suspicion identified by Ricoeur and by Nietzsche certainly belongs to a specific phase of historical development, in which psychoanalysis participates. You can also see that it also encourages the formation of a dogma and a model so the suspicion isn’t absolute. What’s important about Freud is that to some extent his moment has already passed, or been reconfigured into a more thorough-going theory via the incredible synthesis of Freud and Marx completed around the middle of the twentieth century. Residues of Freudianism now are active mainly in a re-contextualized form – in the idea of the unconscious, for example, which is handled in a folk psychological way by the masses in a similar way to religious concepts. Rather then speaking of cults, we could identify Freudianism as one of the strata of a post-theological syncretic religion which has become the dominant ideology of the contemporary West. Voegelin describes it as gnosticism. Naming it is not necessarily straightforward, but social justice is a plausible conception. Freud himself, I think, would have been unlikely to support it, but that’s another matter. The essence of it, I think, is that it came to form a component of a larger machine.

We first should look to the timeline to frame the “how” and “why” questions we want to nail down e.g. when the Freud/Marx synthesis was attempted, in how many iterations, and at what point we are no longer looking at the synthesis, but at the viral spread of a prefabricated synthetic product. Same questions for Freudianism proper: putting aside our questions about its genesis, we can ask at what point it started being used in literary or art criticism, and at what point was that version of Freud articulated and put into circulation? Chronological questions, I think, help resolve the more subtle questions, or at any rate will expose our disagreements more fully.

I also had a thought about Telesio that may be relevant. Telesio wrote an immensely long, immensely complicated, immensely wrong, and even incoherent book — and his theories became immensely popular. The riddle is not about how a long, difficult book became popular, because it didn’t; no one read it, never mind tried to understand it or defend it. So a fortiori it was not some doctrine stated or expressed in Telesio’s De Rerum Natura that became popular, but rather a popular description of it that caught the imagination of the Renaissance cultural elite. What I’m highlighting is a form of dualism between two mimetic entities: the dominant description of a work in a given cultural ecosystem, and the doctrines contained in the work itself. These two entities — call them the exoteric and esoteric perhaps — are in a symbiotic relationship, but neither is strictly derivative of the other. Telesio’s outlandish views would never have been taken seriously by anyone but his personal acquaintances but for the existence of a forbidding tome in which they were (supposedly) explained and defended. The book, conversely, would never have been read by someone like Francis Bacon (and perhaps not even by Campanella) if there was not a widely-shared sense that the theory which it “contained” was widely-recognized and even respected or regarded as intelligent. The two proceed side-by-side, like a left foot and a right foot, or a dog on a leash.

… But the two moments make only one.

[Continued in Part 2]

4 thoughts on “On Cults (1/2)

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