Interview with Keith418 on Thelema and the still-birth of Contradiction
C. Derick Varn: Recently the prison chaplaincy and the criminal activity of members of the OTO have forced a lot of issues to the head. What do you see as the central contradiction in the developments in regard to the leadership of the OTO and Thelemic values in regards to this? Why would an exclusive organization being so lax in membership?
Do you see this as stemming from larger cultural contradictions?
Keith418: Thelema usually awakens anxieties that push people to extremes. This is one of the most important reasons why developing self-discipline – through the physical and mental work Crowley prescribes, as well as the note-taking and diary work – is so important. The scandals surrounding the OTO’s “prison ministry” are – I suspect – the result of people feeling an overwhelming need to prove that Thelema is “good” and a force for “goodness.” The problem is that this “goodness” is the “goodness” defined and determined by the liberal left and today’s liberal-left “managerial elites.” It’s not the “goodness” that Crowley taught, which is another kind of “goodness” entirely. People in the Order seem impelled to prove that Thelema isn’t “Satanic” – that it can heal the halt, the weak, and the dumb – and turn hardened sociopaths and murderers around. They have realized that they can’t do this and are reaping the karmic rewards of a very stupid self-protective kind of pseudo-naivete.
You don’t know how wrong you are about the “exclusive” part of the today’s Order. This is a group that has thrown away all of Crowley’s arguments on quantity vs. quality. They want as many people as they can get and they view the kind of “exclusive” point of view you are describing with nothing but utter abhorrence. We can see where this vehemence has landed them.
Is there a cultural contradiction here? The highest values devalue themselves. Egalitarianism – for some the highest value – opens the door to rapists. Democracy – for some the highest value – ushers in the tyrant. Compassion – for some the highest value – entails the embraces of the murderer. The Order’s fundamental contradiction is that it has rejected Crowley for mainstream values; but it will not admit this or come to terms with what this decision really means. Rather than seeking to make society conform to Thelema, it attempts to make Thelema conform to society.
C.D.V.: Is this not in some sense normal for an organization that does not self-purge regularly?
Keith418: I think you’re missing a basic problem. Quakers cannot be expected to run a government system designed for administrating a Roman Catholic diocese effectively. The managerial rules and tools won’t “work” for them because the hierarchy involved clashes with their values. Likewise OTO members who are, at best, ambivalent, and who, at worst, bitterly opposed to Crowley’s political ideals (and the metaphysics that determine those values) can’t run a managerial system he designed either. The basic conflict here is that people who are not fully committed to his model are seeking to run it. How could this possibly work?
The turnover in the Order is tremendous. It may not “purge” regularly, but people “purge” themselves regularly by quitting or drifting away. This also serves to provide the leaders with convenient scapegoats (“That person is no longer with us”) and it destroys any far-reaching institutional memory that might serve as a needed corrective.
C.D.V.: I see. What allowed for such a values drift in the leadership in the first place?
Keith 418: My working theory is that the slow diffusion of Crowley’s actual writings played a part in this and still does. Without a wide understanding of his work, many people believe they can make it all up themselves as they go along. By the time they realize they can’t… it’s too late. Either they get trapped in a state of denial or they quit. A number of former “big names” in the Order came to the conclusion that they really did not, and could not ever truly accept Thelema – so they left. The OTO doesn’t want to talk about this, no matter how prominent these people once were.
People in the OTO came from a ’60s-’70s counter culture background – or from a broader culture influenced by that culture and its shared values. If “do what thou wilt” equals “do your own thing” and “your thing” happens to be an unquestioning belief in egalitarianism and democracy, then doesn’t Thelema endorse your values just as they are? The tougher option – to recognize, interrogate, and trace the origins of your highest moral values – requires a lot more work.
We still see many versions of this. People feel free to talk about what Thelema means without even paying the slightest attention to what Crowley actually thought, wrote, or taught. The leadership is stuck, however, because not only do they know – at least on some level – that they are not in synch with his ideas, but that their own values and ideas aren’t enough to carry them forward. The irony is that the best leaders the OTO has, as a friend noted, are the ones with the courage to do what they think is right. The problems is that what they think is right is determined solely by left-liberal middle class morality and anxieties.
C.D.V.: Do you think the conflict of values there is similar to the sort of vulgar political contradictions you see in partisan organizations which have a incentive to make sure the leadership is in line but in doing so saps itself of the very subject formation that it needs to actually maintain itself without explicit contradiction?
Keith418: Back in the ’60s, the idea on the left was to “heighten the contradictions.” We don’t see people doing that now because everyone knows that there isn’t anyone running around contradicting themselves all the time. The left and the right no longer have the option of even pretending that such a plan, and such a demand, is one that they themselves can perform or that they even desire. Most human organizations have found that they are always riddled with increasingly bizarre contradictions and individuals seek to avoid acknowledging these contradictions… rather than observing them and “heightening” them. This cripples any analytic framework.
Cult is really is culture “writ small.” We see these issues play out more sharply in groups like the OTO, but it’s part of modern life right now. Consistency is seen as an unnecessary, or even as constituting an impossible burden. If you avoid critics, and court the echo chamber, you can pretend it isn’t a problem. The collapse of the grand narrative renders any consistent ideology impossible and as the crises start to mount, logic and consistency become luxuries no one can afford.
What’s the big picture? No one can take the time to ask because they are all too busy bailing water. When God died, did the logos, “the word” pass away with him? Did we then realize that reason wouldn’t do what it promised, or what we hoped it could accomplish? Is this what it means to no longer understand man as being “the rational animal”? Is that what the end of the “word” means?
I wonder if there are other “words” out there.
C.D.V.: Do you think this is part of Nietzsche’s quip about people still believing in god because they still believed in grammar?
Keith418: I think its part of the way we see the nature of the “logos” and reason, yes. After WWII, a fellow philosopher accused Heidegger of being “beyond” the word due to his support for the Nazis. This state, the place he accused Heidegger of being in, deserves some consideration. What happens when an entire society, or group of people, can no longer attain to any sort of consistency? What happens when rational thinking and behavior becomes too much of a burden for it? Rationality and logic, if we interpret the logos in this way (and it’s hardly the only way) make demands. What happens when large groups of people can no longer accept and meet those demands?
Capitalism and communism both insist on defining man as the “rational animal.” If we come to acknowledge that people aren’t really rational, if they never were, and if reason is only deployed as a justification after a decision has already been made, then don’t capitalist and communist models and proscriptions suffer as a result? I don’t see people coming to grips with this, in part, because I think they have lost the capacity for that kind of discussion. Cats can’t do advanced calculus, right?
C.D.V.: Do you see this draft from belief rationality to mere instrumental rationality? I believe Heidegger talked about this as well. In other words, in the case, a shift from strategic thinking in regards to Thelemic values to merely rationalizing certain immediate functions and trying to maintain those?
Keith418: Calculative thinking vs. Meditative thinking? I think Heidegger’s right about a lot of this, but I have to wonder, at this point, how good people truly are with this calculative thinking. Are all the apps really necessary? How many people does Twitter actually employ and pay? How many kids have stopped even considering whether they are doing a lot worse than their parents did and distract themselves by playing Angry Birds on their smart phones? Is that time wasting truly “calculative thinking”? At what point is pragmatism no longer pragmatic? Are we there yet?
I’d expect to see more widespread cultural criticism on the left – perhaps in the Frankfurt school model – ridiculing the techie culture and its consumer frenzies. It’s not there. Like the “Old New Left” I’m talking about, Crowley was a fierce critic of his times and his society. The Thelemic community has not only abandoned that kind of criticism, it bitterly resents anyone who seeks to revive it. Your friends on Facebook, I’ve noticed, seem to accept the current consumer culture as a given. They don’t attack it or look critically at the way it infantilizes everyone. Isn’t that peculiar?
C.D.V.: What do you make of the idea that calculative thinking without a meditative or even strategic focus tends to lose a sense of time preference because time preference requires a larger motivational goal to maintain itself? In other words, calculative thinking without a larger component undoes itself?
Keith418: Junger writes about the deep nature of figures buried in time and our desire to see aspects of our own experiences consecrated within time – or lifted out of mundane time. The collapse of a grand narrative leads to a kind of drifting time – which means few can make choices with the understanding that there are always “opportunity costs” involved. Hiroki Azuma insists that the grand narrative has been replaced by databases – which index and help people locate their desired unconnected thematic aspects in little bits and pieces. Those who can no longer grasp or relate to larger narratives go in search of the smaller parts and motifs that satisfy them. Will it stop there?
“If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts.”
Divorced from time, how will anyone understand history – either the larger history they participate in and experience or their own individual history? Liberated from time, are people free? Or left with nothing?
C.D.V.: How deep to you think this lack of orientation goes? For example, you and I are both pretty critical of liberalism as a political practice, but would you say that even though it was achieved dominance as a governing paradigm and as a orientation of markets, it has also lost its earlier narrative?
Keith418: When the old world slips away, and the new one has yet to fully come into being, only ghosts remain. The coherence we see now is the “willing suspension of disbelief we know from games – a virtual narrative, or series of virtual narratives – that people cling to in the absence of the real thing. These pseudo-narratives are betrayed by their patently unsubstantial qualities – mere gossamer threads that evaporate like cotton candy on the tongue. This start-up, that pop-up, this new device, that new app – “Sure, it will be the next big thing,” people insist. Will it? Will, really? We all know better, don’t we?
But we have to go right on pretending. How can there be any sincere investigation when we already know that the application of real focus, the recovery of something like a meaningful attention span, will only tell us what we don’t want to know? This, we have discovered is the only guarantee left. So the pace of the games picks up and the hopes and dreams are summoned and discarded at such a rapid pace that they become a mockery of any authenticity
C.D.V.: So do returning to Thelema its old world slipping too? Or, is the New Aeon still in still-birth?
Keith418: That this is an interregnum period is, for all of us, obvious. In this period, as Gramsci noted, monsters are born. Instead of letting go of the old things, people insist on pretending they are still relevant. It’s all play-acting. It’s a game. They will go on doing that, I suspect, until something arrives – perhaps a “convergence of catastrophes” (to borrow an expression from Guillaume Faye) – that forces a real change. Does anyone really grow up until they have to?
In my estimation, under these conditions, Thelema grows more relevant by the hour. Crowley observed the child-like mindset of his times in the 1930s. What would he say now if he saw adults playing games on their smart phones all day long?
C.D.V.: Not much positive I suspect, but its eerie how much of the criticism of liberal modernity from the 30s or even Europe in 1890 still rings true. I suppose I will end on a question that you have been asked before, but why do you think Thelema is a total ideology and not just a religion in the modern sense of the later term?
Keith418: I think the “religion” characterization is dangerous – just as Crowley himself put it. Guenon is correct in arguing that any religion has to be distinguished from real metaphysics, simply because religion’s concern is always with sentiment and consolations. The absolute, which is the real focus of metaphysics, doesn’t care about your individual emotional state. Confusing metaphysics and religion helps neither – and it usually means that people intent on finding religious consolation start ascribing sentiment to metaphysical objects. This always ends badly. Al-Farabi saw the limitations of religion quite clearly and I very much agree with all his assessments. Crowley apprehended the emotional core of religious worship and his instructions in Liber Astarte are the evidence of his grasp of this subject. This text is neglected by most people calling themselves Thelemites – and this is unfortunate since grappling with it would give them an ability to control and direct their emotions, rather than letting their emotions control and direct them.
I suspect calling Thelema an ideology is better, but the term, for most people, implies a solely political focus. Ignoring the political dimension of Thelema is just as stupid as assuming that only its political features are essential.