‘It is in Gnosticism, that failed religion of the West, that there appears an experience of time in radical opposition to the Greek and Christian versions…it posits a concept whose spatial model can be represented by a broken line. In this way it strikes directly at what remains unaltered in classical antiquity and Christianity alike: duration, precise and continuous time. The cosmic time of Greek experience is denied by Gnosticism in the name of the world’s absolute estrangement from a god (God is the allòtrios, the supreme other) whose providential work cannot be a matter of preserving cosmic laws, but of breaking them. The impetus towards redemption of Christian linear time is negated because, for the Gnostic, the Resurrection is not something to be awaited in time, to occur in the more or less remote future; it has already happened.
The time of Gnosticism, therefore, is an incoherent and unhomogeneous time, whose truth is in the moment of abrupt interruption, when man, in a sudden act of consciousness, takes possession of his own condition of being resurrected. In keeping with this experience of interrupted time, the Gnostic attitude is profoundly revolutionary: it refuses the past while valuing in it, through an exemplary sense of the present, precisely what was condemned as negative (Cain, Esau, the inhabitants of Sodom), and expecting nothing from the future’.
Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History
In The Baffler No. 8, Chris Lehman makes an eloquent case against treating this theology of time as anything other than a cultural curio, or at best a melancholy symbol of academic feeble-mindedness. Glib worship of discontinuity for its own sake is as much the norm in Cultural Studies programmes as on M.T.V., he claims, and in both cases it contributes to the ‘privatization of history and culture’ of which it’s a symptom. He chooses an example that’s either ripe for savage rebuttal or fathoms beneath serious consideration, depending on your point of view. Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the Twentieth Century , a sort of ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves of hipster culture’ according to Lehman, discovers a common ‘Gnostic’ impulse driving such anti-historical rebels as Tristan Tzara, Guy Debord and Johnny Rotten. Marcus enthuses at length over the radicalism of these figures’ demand for a ‘creative’ present which cancels every trace of the past, an attitude which Lehman calls ‘profoundly reactionary’. ‘The erosion of any sense of historical continuity’, he argues, ‘is one of the signal triumphs of consumer capitalism, not a weapon to be turned against it… the purchase of new commodities, after all, is rarely predicated on anything more than their novelty, the illusion of which can only be maintained by continually destablizing the forces of personal and collective memory’. To question the aptitude of conscious memory or narrative to represent justly either mass extermination or ‘genuine (as opposed to élite aesthetic) movements of resistance and opposition’ risks forgetting these events’ reality altogether, dissolving it in complacent ‘aesthetic irony’.
Lehman’s identification of this smarmy amnesia in Marcus’ book is entirely convincing. The question that remains is, how far can the charge of ‘hipster ahistoricism’ be applied to other twentieth century attempts to avoid the dangers of Hegelian-teleological or merely evenemential history? (Lehman is not the first critic to make a single awkward package of ‘thinkers as diverse as Jean-François Lyotard, Richard Rorty and Jean Baudrillard’).
It’s difficult to see how a Gnostic hostility to physical creation can be labelled ‘aestheticism’, if the latter is properly understood as the habit of judging on grounds of sensation. But even if it’s granted that the urgent political stakes — ‘implacable upward distribution of wealth…a rampant privatization of social goods…a polity openly governed by access to money’ — leave no time for such semantic niceties, Marcus the historian-as-rock-critic is hopelessly unqualified to speak for the philosophical tradition he blithely borrows from. For all their harping on the limits of representation, their efforts to reduce Foucault’s work to the fatuous soundbite ‘power writes history’, Marcus and Cultural Studies scholars deal in strictly representational politics. They strain to see subversion in ‘sub-culture’ because, the impossibility of concretlely affecting power relations being presupposed in despair, all their faith is gambled on symbolic gestures. Just as televised images of protestors’ limp, live bodies borne away by police are supposed to stand for deadlier injustices elsewhere, converting outraged spectators into potential actors, the ‘counter-hegemonic’germ in cheap entertainments is entrusted to the consumers’ conscience. In both cases human wit and sympathy are expected to pierce the medium’s ideological armour, while practical action (Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’, or the excercise of what Negri and Hardt call ‘constituent power’) is always deferred, the imperative passed on from the maker of the symbol to its interpreter. This blend of optimism and resignation has less in common with Gnostic disdain for the future than with social democrats’ obstinate faith in progress.
Yet it’s no accident that Marcus’ platitudes are swaddled in a Gnostic vocabulary. The most vigorous recent promoter of ‘Gnosticism’ has been the psychotherapist and Nazi collaborator Carl Gustav Jung, in whose theory of (racial) archetypes representational, symbolic politics is most purely distilled. In a chapter of Aion calling for the interpretation of history through psychology, he wrote that ‘Gnosis is undoubtedly a psychological knowledge whose contents derive from the unconscious…Valentius and Basilides were in reality theologians who, unlike the more orthodox ones, allowed themselves to be influenced by natural, inner experience’.
If his ‘Gnosticism’ is recognized as this drastically revised version, Marcus’ role in ‘the privatization of history and culture’ can more easily be discerned. Lehman rightly observes that easy identifications of ‘power’ with ‘history’ are especially senseless where, as in America, historians’ public influence is weak. For the same reasons, the twentieth century’s serious critique of historicism (to which Cultural Studies has contributed nothing) can hardly be held responsible for the atrophy of historical understanding which seems to spread with ‘global culture’. By the time Guy Debord tried to hijack ‘the present’s domination of the past’, this phenomenon was already ascendant in a form which could only send him running to his country cottage, his bottle, and his shotgun. Those of us born into the second ‘generation entirely obedient to the spectacle’s laws’ can only imagine what it was like to dream in earnest that ‘the creative elements of life’ might ‘dominate over the repetitve’. But the present’s power to annihilate the pastness of the past, to deny the temporal relation between events, by translating them indiscriminately into contemporary psychological terms , is so familiar that it seems like part of nature.
In this way, history is doubly subjectified or ‘privatized’. Firstly, the Marxist determinism of base and superstructure is so far inverted that complex social processes appear as effects of spiritual epiphanies experienced simultaneously by millions of separate individuals. Secondly, for the globalized humanist, secreting viscous empathy from every pore , history is not something that befalls you but something you choose from, a smorgasbord (or, in every detail, what Heidegger called a ‘standing reserve’) of people, places and events, all equally liable to be ‘identified with’.
It’s clear now what Marcus’ talk of ‘Gnostic negation’ and ‘resistance to master narratives’ amounts to. For all the antinomian language it’s dressed up in, the process by which one becomes ‘not a Christian but Christ’, with unlimited access to past and present, depends on a homely set of emotional truisms. The most familiar of these concern things like love, sex, security, innocence and loss, but the confessional capitalism in which Marcus’ heroes miserably thrive welcomes a boundless diversity of relations to these norms. Even open rebellion is no problem, inasmuch as it expresses personality. For in this term whose meaning is a matter of ‘common sense’, medical, juridicial, economic and media discourses converge, gaining the power to dissolve historical particularity. The sense that events are singular — carved painfully into real situations which were themselves determined by other events — fades, leaving the individual potentially liable without limit, perpetually in debt to a forgotten Law.
The newly inflated ontological status of Personality is most easily detected in the products of the culture industry. Recent films and television programmes treating historical subjects don’t so much ‘distort’ or ‘glamorize’ the material as indiscriminately humanize it. In order to be ‘believed in’, the events depicted in films like Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins and Steven Speilberg’s Schindler’s List must be ascribed to private psychological motivations similar to the audience’s own.
Meanwhile, the lives of the merely entertained come to resemble those of media ‘personalities’. Just as stars’ careers depend on careful management of biographical detritus, employers and state agencies hold intimate habits responsible for individuals’ economic fortunes, causing the ambitious or despairing to run to therapists to have their character retuned. Corporate ideology has come to value ‘personal competencies’ over ‘technical skills’. The Financial Times reports that ‘delayering and teamworking are enhancing the importance of competencies such as communication, decisiveness, judgement, initiative and self-management’ (6/1/97), in other words, the old, impossible goals of self-therapy. When researchers warn that employees’ failure to meet these targets creates a ‘skills gap’ capable of crippling the ‘business community’, the practical sense of the S.P.K. slogan ‘turn illness into a weapon’ becomes obvious.
Where criminal law picks up the medical category of ‘personality disorder’, the homogenization of time takes on a threatening new reality. Psychiatry makes prosaic science out of Robert Musil’s comedy , defining personality traits not as singular qualities of a mysteriously integrated subject, but as fixed, pre-existent ‘risk factors’ of which empty human vessels partake and are composed. Deleuze speaks of ‘the new medicine “without patient or doctor” that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation…but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a “dividual” material to be controlled’. (‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’). This shrinking from individuation is not in conflict with a religion of personal responsibility: paradoxically, it permits the principle’s extension to infinity.
Experts in policing, in the original and still effective sense (polizeiwissenschaft — the science of surveillance and productivity), have been quick to recognize the usefulness of ‘risk factors’ understood in this way. The ‘dividual’s’ participation in criminality is a psychological fact, unaffected by contingent events, as true before as after any crime has been committed. The two main political parties in Britain currently propose to modify the Criminal Justice Act to allow the prosecution and fining of parents for their childrens’ potential, rather than actual, delinquency.
The return of the word ‘Gnosticism’ to newspaper reporters’ vocabulary will no doubt have embarrassed the academics and Jungian analysts who built careers on it. The international press seized on the ‘Gnostic’ theories left behind on the Heaven’s Gate organization’s website after their vodka and phenobarbitol cocktail party. They managed to get a few cheap laughs out of the ideas’ ‘weirdness’ and ‘anachronism’ , but what’s most striking in the documents themselves is their ordinariness, a cheerful compatibility with the everyday anti-historicism this article has attempted to describe. To make this observation is not to indulge X-Files – style conspiracy fantasies: rather it acknowledges that there’s nothing exotic about ‘cults’; they tend to spell out guilelessly the normally concealed logic of the social situations they appear in. The Heaven’s Gate suicides provoked a lot of effusion about ‘zeitgeist’ because the ‘Crew’ made their money designing websites. But their publicists revelled in the ability to ‘speak in tongues’, breezing in and out of the idioms of environmentalism (humanity is due to be ‘recycled’, ‘the weeds spaded over’), science fiction (a ‘95 statement by an E.T. presently incarnate’) , professional sports (in the spirit of Musil’s ‘racehorse of genius’, Christ and his disciples were ‘an away team from th Next Level’), and above all, management training. The mythology of ‘personal growth’ flourishes in these contexts; in all of them a rigid spiritual hierarchy does without any sense of bathos whatsoever. (Only under such conditions could ‘the true Kingdom of God’ habitually be referred to as ‘the Next Level’, or the incarnation of souls compared to ‘putting it in a closet, like a suit of clothes that doesn’t need to be worn for a while’).
This lack of care for the ridiculous comes with the contempt for language which often characterises those who expect salvation from the mysticism latent in science. Heaven’s Gate teaching dramatically reverses the Christian opposition of Word and Flesh. The claim that ‘You cannot preserve the truth in your religions…it is present as long as a Truth Bearer is present’ means that the word decays , while truth is present only in the personality of the ‘Older Member’. Another passage in the web page Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human makes it quite clear that this personality is not contingent but eternal:
‘Just as the biological body is the “container” for Mind (“Spirit”). Mind translates into the brain as information (knowledge). Information is available to humans from only two sources — the mind of the adversarial space races — or the Mind from of the Kingdom Level Above Human. The mind of the adversarial space races yields misinformation (promoting the behavior and concepts from this corrupt world). The Mind from the true Kingdom of God yields true information (though the space races and their servants would reverse this interpretation)…When our “eye becomes single” or our soul is filled only with the Mind or “Spirit” from the true Kingdom of God, it becomes pure or “Holy” Mind (“Spirit”)’.
The late Bonnie ‘Ti’ Nettles and her former aversion therapy patient Marshall ‘Do’ Applewhite are strikingly faithful to the medieval physicians here. The individual personality is dissolved or decoded into Information (Averroës’ ‘Unique and Separate Intelligence’, the Neoplatonic ‘One’), which outlives its organic prison as serenely as it existed before it, belonging to a dimension beyond time.
When the Heaven’s Gate ‘teachers’ describe ‘the Evolutionary Level Above Human, the true Kingdom of God, the “Headquarters “ of all that is’ as ‘a non-temporal place (outside of time , and therefore with eternal life), they’re in perfect accord with psychiatric orthodoxy. This extra-temporal, quantifiable reality is precisely that of the personality traits that create the criminal, and the timeless ‘human qualities’ which serve history up on a platter.
It’s on this plane of timeless ‘mind’, of personality as data, that ‘souls’ may choose ‘of their own free will to become totally separate from their creator, whether knowingly or not’ (italics added). That such an unconscious excercise of free will is possible is the hidden premise which allows a ‘lifestyle’ to be held directly responsible for an illness, a lack of ‘personal competencies’ for poverty, or a disordered personality for a hypothetical crime.
It’s of little consequence to observe that Greil Marcus may have chosen ‘of his own free will’ to be a Jungian, ‘whether knowingly or not’. It may not even matter much whether the metaphor of Gnosticism falls into the hands of ‘cultural privatizers’, dealers in symbolic politics, therapists and managers of personality. But it’s very clear that their project can’t be grounded on the ‘Gnostic’ experience of time as described by Agamben. Each infinitely divisible moment’s total alienation from all others means that the past can never be used to justify the present.. In contrast to this perpetual anxiety, the ‘peace’ of the timeless ‘Next Level’, of immanent personality, resembles that of the £220,000 apartments for sale in London’s Elephant and Castle area, protected from the bloody urban flux outside by surveillance cameras and 24-hour uniformed security guards.
- Heaven’s Gate, Artaud, ‘regenerative slime’. Part 2 of Gnostic Front, datacide two. Few self-contained pieces of bad advice can rival self-help legend Sheldon Kopp’s ‘learn to forgive yourself again and again and again and again’. This would not only mean pretending to be guilty of digging whatever pit you happen…