Into the Mystic: Capitalism and the Structuralization of Spirituality

In his fantastic book The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Paul N. Edwards forwards a quasi-literary reading of the way power and subjectivity operate in the age of the computer, focusing primarily on the lineage running from the Vannevar Bush’s  Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to the birth of cybernetics and their proliferation during the Macy Conferences to the electronic battlefields of Vietnam, and, finally, to the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative – the “Star Wars” program that propelled the growth of Silicon Valley and its corollary Californian Ideology, as well as the globalization of information technology across the 1990s. For Edwards the collision of massive government subsidies and steering of computer research and the geopolitical imperatives of the Cold War – dressed in the rhetoric of “containment” – produced the metaphoric construct for which the book is titled: the “closed world”. The architecture of this world is one of boundaries and walls, managed by a vertically integrated chain of command and control. Within the closed world knowledge is framed in a succession of cyborg discourses – the melding together of “both human mind and artificial intelligence as information machines”, with the distinct goal of “integrat[ing] people into complex technological systems.”[1]

It was Jean Baudrillard who was perhaps the quintessential philosopher of the Cold War discourse. In hyperbolic manner he charted the disappearance of the reality into hyppereality, the world of advanced statistical control and the governing of society according to the dictates of computer simulation. By the 1980s and 90s, as simulation went global and unleashed a torrent of cheaply-made consumer goods across the world, people had but disappeared into his discourse: all that was left was informatic capital, gobbling itself in a frenzied rush towards an ecstatic collapse. It wasn’t until after September 11th that the people, or even the specter of a world beyond simulation, began to trickle in again. Baudrillard’s own closed world was not so totalizing after all.

Edwards gives his own interpretation of what exists beyond the closed world: the “green world”. The green world is the world of nature, teeming with life and organic anarchism. Like the Baudrillardian disappearance of the Real, the green world too has vanished from view, existing only as entities “trapped inside the boundaries of land-island national parks, the systems disciplines of ecology and genetic engineering, and the global-management aspirations of the Club of Rome and its successors.”[2] If green world discourses persist anywhere, it may be found in “animist religions, feminist witchcraft, certain Green political parties, and the deep ecology movement…” One could add to his roster the influx of environmental awareness in leftist politics and the popularization of the Anthropocene in the humanities and social sciences. At the same time, one must wonder if such things could truly open up a green world horizon, given the predominance of computer simulation and climate science to enhance governmental priorities and rationale – not to mention that variety of “eco-modernists” stressing the possibilities of a ‘good Anthropocene’ through promethean feats of technology and the fostering of conscious capitalism. [3]

It is on this last note that I want to focus here. Edward’s analysis of the “closed world” is in some ways deceptive, particularly when one takes into account the application of military-derived technologies and paradigms in the private sector. As I’ve argued elsewhere[4] the discourses of computational technology, in the context of neoliberal capitalism, has undergone a profound shift over the last fifty years. From the end of the Second World War until the 1980s epistemological closed world discourses did indeed reign, but from the early 90s on this closed world discourse shifted towards an open world ontology. The reasons for this are multifold. One was the limitations of instrumental rationality during wartime and market expansion. As technological-enhanced vision was able to render starkly the dynamics of the territory in question, information bottlenecks were created, generating a critical division between the applicability of simulation and the anticipation of action the users of this technology hoped it would grant. This issue was resolved through the introduction of more advanced simulation technology, in particular the growth of “agent-based modelling” systems used to chart out the self-organizing dynamics of complex adaptive systems. For capitalism this meant a proliferation of tools through which to accrue higher rates of profit: no longer did the system need to produce a supply, to which it conditioned the attitudes of population to partake in. The ability to quickly monitor, compile, analyze, and feedback consumer attitudes shifted us from the closed mass to the open individual, a cyborg being that would function as an entrepreneur of the self in labor and a connoisseur of culture in leisure. This subjectivity is what Brian Holmes has described as the “flexible personality”,

a new form of alienation, not alienation from the vital energy and roving desire that were exalted in the 1960s, but instead, alienation from political society, which in the democratic sense is not a profitable affair and cannot be endlessly recycled into the production of images and emotions. The configuration of the flexible personality is a new form of social control, in which culture has an important role to play. It is a distorted form of the artistic revolt against authoritarianism and standardization: a set of practices and techniques for “constituting, defining, organizing and instrumentalizing” the revolutionary energies which emerged in the Western societies in the 1960s, and which for a time seemed capable of transforming social relations.[5]

One could easily argue that this open world has itself been superseded again by the closed world, with the resurgence of neoconservative unilateralism and its subsequent transformation into the ‘shadow wars’ waged throughout the world, the surveillance society revelations of Edward Snowden, the persistence of racism throughout the Western world, and the ongoing centralization of wealth in a small percentile of the global population. Indeed, the open world is deceptive, hiding the most closed of worlds within itself. It is better to think of a dialectic of open worlds and closed world, yet one that does follow the logic of contradiction and synthesis, but of mutual support. Affluence and the ghost of freedom circulates through society, even if we are all ground down under the machinery of capital’s gear. The promise of the ‘good life’ exists even in the face of extreme climate change and the return of the most reactionary social formations. The personality is still perceived as flexible, even if the system cuts down every change for a mobility of the self.

Thus, an empty (or even fulfilling!) imaginary of the green world will most likely serve as an upgrade or enhancement of governmenality, carried out to retain the core functioning of the system. What I want to do now is take a pre-existing green world discourse, one teeming with liberatory energies, and show how this exact transformation has already been carried out.

Industrial Governmentality


The closed world has long pre-existed the introduction of computers, cybernetics, or simulation into the terrain of power. What each of these elements promised was an increase in efficiency of systems and production; this goal itself has been the bedrock of Western civilization, stretching back through the Enlightenment and before. Most commonly described in terms of rationality and rationalization, the advancement of efficiency has been bundled together on the rubric of “progress”. For Adorno and Horkeimer, Enlightenment rationality is in fact an instrumental reason whose sole purpose is providing civilization the technical means of mastering nature.[6] This mastery, in turn, is itself expressed as the division of labor, the economic mechanism through which power expresses itself.

“The formalization of reason is merely the intellectual expression of mechanized production.”[7] Through the technical advancement of the means of production, a panoply of scientific means were deployed in order to synchronize the activities of the human body to production itself. In the 1880s the drive towards maximum efficiency gave rise to scientific management; armed with a stopwatch, Frederick Winslow Taylor analyzed the motion of worker’s bodies while they labored. What he discovered, from the perspective of production, was that the worker’s own productivity often fell short of its perceived potentials. He recommended a strengthening of labor as routine, and under the watchful eyes of the shop floor boss, the motions of the workers were divided into synchronized blocks and transformed into objects of rigid analysis. “Rule of thumb” techniques were eliminated by a mass standardization of motion, described as resulting from careful “scientific” study to be taught to the workers by an increasingly technocratic managerial caste. Taylorism, in short, conforms very closely to and perhaps marks the culmination of Foucault’s diagnosis of disciplinary institutions and their effect on the organization of external society.

Taylorism’s impact was felt everywhere. In the Soviet Union, the implementation of Taylorist techniques was honed at the Central Institute of Labor, led by a former poet named Aleksei Gastev, who had once insisted that while “Many find it repugnant that we want to deal with human beings as a screw, a nut, a machine… we must undertake this as fearlessly as we accept the growth of trees and the expansion of the railway network.”[8] Gastev’s followers would later find much inspiration in the writings of Hugo Münsterberg, a Harvard-Based psychologist who was himself a devotee of scientific management. Münsterberg, in a 1913 book titled Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, debuted the term “psychotechnics” to describe a psychological extension of Taylorism. It wasn’t enough to standardize the body to the mechanics of production, Münsterberg argued; psychotechnics could easily match a laborer to the ideal job and provide him with constant guidance through the process of career growth. In the Soviet Union the application of psychotechnics cut a little more to the chase – to quote Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, this new technique was “the scientific theory which would lead to the seizure and subordination of the mind [psikhovoi], to the artificial control of behavior.”[9]


The same year that Münsterberg debuted Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, John B. Watson penned his “Behaviorist Manifesto”. Like psychotechnics, behaviorism was in many regards an extension of Taylorist factory techniques into the study of the mind, and like the later Soviet appropriation of these tendencies, the goal was control: “[Behaviorism’s] theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior”, writes Watson.[10] By the 1920s behaviorism would become the baseline of study in the social sciences, largely due to the efforts of the Rockefeller family’s philanthropies in sponsoring behaviorist research across the United States. To quote one social scientist in 1925,

The primary emphasis in the social sciences now falls on behavior… [These sciences] are seeking both their differentiation from one another and also their cooperation in behavioristic terms… This exaltation of behavior… really amounts to nothing less than a rather striking and genuine intellectual revolution… [there was an] important shift in scientific interest and emphasis, a shift from understanding to control… from knowledge, from the search for truth… to management, direction, betterment, greater effectiveness…[11]

The concern of the behaviorists was not so much what went on inside the individual, but the way that individual carried out external behavior. The self was a “black box” – stuff went in, behavior came out, but what transpired in the interim was both unknown and inconsequential. We could say, then, that behaviorism itself was a sort of closed world discourse in that it erected fundamental barriers (the barrier separating the knowable exterior and the unknowable interior) while also focusing its primarily concern in the stability of the system through the correcting of behavioral anomalies through conditioning techniques. Once the system is stable, behavior – in theory – would become itself something knowable, predictable and thus controllable; as N. Katherine Hayles points out, this “bracketing” of behavioral traits led to a metaphorical “slippage”, where the commonalities between behavior, understood mechanistically, and the operations of the machine pointed to a fundamental congruence in operations.[12]


The post-metaphoric equation of man and machine is often attributed to the introduction of cybernetics during World War 2 – it was Norbert Wiener, for example, who carried out this conflation in his work on fire control issues under the auspices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development’s National Defense Research Committee. Somewhat paradoxically cybernetics is also frequently considered to have been the force that shattered behavioralist discourse, opening the passageways to cognitive approaches to psychology that probed the contents of the so-called ‘black box’. It seems apparent, however, that at the level of discourse there is a direct lineage, running from drive towards a rationalizing efficiency to Taylorism, and from there to behaviorism to cybernetics. We could also note that class interests maintain this continuity: the Rockefeller Foundation, once the major proponent of behavioral research, took to providing large funds for research into cybernetics both inside and outside the armed force’s laboratories and think-tanks. Warren Weaver, meanwhile, served as head of the National Defense Research Committee after holding the position of director at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Natural Sciences Division – a position he returned to after the war.

While the theories of cybernetic feedback loops tending towards homeostasis pointed towards a decentering of traditional boundary lines, a branch of cybernetics led by individuals like Herbert Simon (a figure who must have disturbed Baudrillard greatly, as he was undoubtedly one of the fathers of simulation) returned to starkly behaviorist discourses. “The whole man,” wrote Simon, “like the ant, viewed as a behaving system, is quite simple. The apparent complexity of his behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which he finds himself.”[13] One of Simon’s close colleagues, George A. Miller, dug into the black box of the self and unveiled a simple set of supposedly universal patterns that governed behavior. He dubbed this the TOTE system, which was little more than a basic feedback loop of “test-operate-exit-test”, and argued that it acted as a system of “control” identical to the way that “computational machines… execute the list of instructions that comprise the program it has been given.”[14]


For Paul Edwards, Miller’s cybernetic psychology was a closed world discourse par excellence, effectively serving as an internalization of the military’s command-and-control systems within the individual. It isn’t the only place where such a trajectory played out. In the RAND Corporation, cybernetics met with game theory and operations research (a sort of military interpretation of Taylorist factory techniques) to produce systems analysis, which relied on statistical research and computing modelling in decision-making and resource allocation processes. Under President Kennedy, systems analysis became the de-facto organizing logic in the Department of Defense following the appointment of RAND Corporation principles to numerous positions in government. During the Johnson administration systems analysis would move from the military to welfare, with its focus on centralized budgetary decisions and cost-benefit analysis becoming the governing system of the Great Society programs. As S.M. Amadae has shown, it was through this evolution that systems analysis became deeply entrenched in social and political sciences; it found its home in places like the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences (founded at Stanford in 1954 by the Ford Foundation for behaviorist research), where it became the basis for rational choice theory.[15] Rational choice theory, in turn, maintained that rational and efficient behavior came from within the individual and, in a correlation with laissez-faire economic theories, often operated in relation to the external stimuli of price mechanisms. It is on that foundation, in the late 1960s, that the closed world discourse began to point towards the open world discourse that would dominate two decades later.

Not all cybernetic theories, however, can be spoken as exhibiting a closed world discourse – others pointed strictly to openness in issues of society and governance and greenness in ontological formation. At the helm of this tendency was Heinz von Foerster, whose own brand of cybernetics drew equally on biology, physics, and philosophy. His entry into this world came at the urging of Margaret Mead, who invited him to participate in the Macy Conferences (a series of events that brought together the leading luminaries of cybernetics); it was from here that he began to open the mechanistic viewpoints espoused by the likes of John von Neumann and George Miller towards the world of complexity. When considering a feedback loop, he reasoned, one had to take into account the functioning of the system the role of the system’s observer his or herself. Simply put, the ‘black box’ of behaviorism was not remedied by a flight towards machinic metaphors. Instead, it is reflexive: the contents are in fact a reflection of the exterior world and its environment, making the self as an imbedded participant in a wider ecology.


Looking at von Foester’s circle of close associates reveals a consortium of individuals who took cybernetics far from the domain of the military-industrial complex. Ross Ashby, for example, had migrated from the Macy Conferences to the Center for the Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences; unlike his rational choice theory-inclined colleagues, he built a model of cognition which deployed multiple and perfomative “homeostats” that interacted with the unknowable exterior to provide the self with agency. Gordon Pask, meanwhile, strove to utilize feedback systems to build environments capable of teaching individuals through interactions with modular architecture. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, meanwhile, innovated the concept of autopoiesis along with colleague Francisco Varela – but it was perhaps Margaret Mead’s husband, Gregory Bateson, who is the most remembered of von Foester’s colleagues.

Anti-Disciplinary Technologies

For von Foester, the introduction of reflexivity into cybernetics marked the possibility for a new mode of being. If the lineage running from von Neumann to Simon to Miller and beyond dressed cybernetics in the language of command and control, von Foerster’s was capable, he argued, of building new frameworks for democracy. As he wrote,

It is clear that our entire society suffers from a severe dysfunction. On the level of the individual this is painfully felt by apathy, distrust, violence, disconnectedness, powerlessness, alienation, and so on. I call this the “participatory crisis”, for it excludes the individual from participating in the social process… It is not difficult to see that the essential cause for this dysfunction is the absence of an adequate input for the individual to interact with society. The so-called “communication channels”, the “mass media” are only one-way: they talk, but nobody can talk back. The feedback loop is missing and, hence, the system is out of control. What cybernetics could supply is, of course, a universally accessible social input device.[16]


This same concern – the need to prioritize multidimensional communication over one-way message transmission  – was one the key motivators behind Gregory Bateson’s own interpretations of cybernetics. In 1940, along with Margaret Mead, psychologist Gordon Allport, and the Frankfurt School’s Kurt Lewin, he joined the Committee for National Morale (CNM), an organization that sought to define the conditions that led to the rise of fascism in Europe with the hopes of remedying them in America. The direction of the CNM’s perspective was rooted deeply in the Frankfurt School’s dual critique of fascism and modernity. In particular was the vein of inquiry pursued by Adorno: for the philosopher, unidirectional media was encased in power’s hegemony through its ownership of the means of transmission and through the culture industry, producing in the listening experience a reinforcement of its particular designs. The same held true for the totalitarian countries such as Germany: it was the unidirectional parade of messages and signs, radiating from the speakers to the listeners, that one could attribute the rise of fascism to. Writing about the mass panic that followed the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, columnist Dorothy Thompson summed this perspective up quite aptly: “Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men.”[17]

Bateson and Mead would soon hone in on a solution. While carrying out an anthropological study in Bali, the two observed how the indigenous peoples carried out a society based on communication, while lacking the centralized control that this seemed to instill in the west. Sociality in Bali was constructed around stories and fables, told to the population by a storyteller; the difference with the west, however, was that all participated in the telling of the story through the answering of questions posed by the storyteller. Communication was thus interactive and multidimensional, leading to the creation of a “democratic personality”. “The events-stream is mediated,” wrote Bateson, “through language, art, technology, and other cultural media which are structured at every point by tramlines of apperceptive habit.”[18] By opening up the communication channels habitation would be shaken, and disciplinary routine would be replaced by something far more rooted in spontaneity and reflexivity. The CNM recommended that multidimensional media be constructed in museums, where instead of static art viewers would find interactive exhibits that would let them explore the possibilities imbedded in free will.


Bateson and Mead, of course, would both play fundamental roles in the Macy Conferences. Given these earlier preoccupations it’s not hard to see why they were attracted to cybernetics: in Norbert Wiener’s model feedback allowed a person to explore their environment through interacting with it. Mechanistic frameworks notwithstanding, Wiener’s cybernetics (which could very well be a prelude to the reflexive turn) depicted a self that was geared towards adaptation. Like cybernetics and its derivatives, however, the perspectives cultivated in the CNM quickly evolved into the ideology of ‘Cold War liberalism’ – the promotion of ‘democratic values’ – meaning a highly-coordinated system of pluralist management – aboard as a means to contain the spread of communism.[19] In other words, open communication were viewed as a closed world apparatus; like the social scientists generating the cyborg discourses of the mind-as-computer, these values were understood as something that could be programmed into hardware of the self and society. Margaret Mead, during the Second World War, already grasped the implications of this evolving paradigm: “We must see this war as a prelude to a great job – the restructuring of the culture of the world – which we will want to do, and for which, because we are a practical people, we must realize there are already tools half-forged.”[20]

As Fred Turned describes, the goal of the Cold War liberalism propagated by Mead and her fellow social scientists was one in which the self becomes a “whole individual”, free from the fragmentation and alienation so present in non-communicative, non-interactive totalitarian societies. In a reflection of the Fordist state capitalism that marked their time period, which sought to smooth out the contradictions of market economics by elevating – and institutionalizing – working class power in relation to the economic elite, the ‘whole individual’ would achieve subjective autonomy through inclusion in a ‘democratic’ mode of being. Though it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully elucidate, an argument can be made that the ‘whole individual’ is very much the humanist compliment to the aforementioned rational choice theory, which in effect internalized the supposedly rationalist, regulatory perspective of Fordist-Keynesianism within the self – lending credence, by extension, to the laissez-faire school of economics that maintains the possibility of an efficient and self-organizing market driven by individual self-interest.

At the same time, another counter-trajectory was being formed from these developments, at the head of which was none other than Gregory Bateson himself. In 1952 he assembled a research team in Palo Alto, California, with the intended purpose of studying systems of human and animal communication. With a funding grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the team soon turned their focus to the dynamics of personal communication between members of a family unit; applying cybernetic theories of feedback, they argued that relations with the family tended towards a homeostat equilibrium, with feedbacking systems of communication being deployed to overcome challenges and struggles the family might face. They also proposed the existence of the double-bind: sometimes these communication channels transmit series of contradictory or otherwise conflicting statements, from which there is no chance to move back to equilibria.

Sometimes double-binds exist in a rather simple formula – the authority figure (the parent) might tell the child that they will only “speak when spoken to”, while also emphasizing that the child “must not talk back.” No matter the path the child takes, at the communicative level there is no clear resolution. In other instances, Bateson argued, the double-bind could be so destabilizing that the result was schizophrenia; faced with the impossibility of a resulting synthesis, the individual would carry out a retreat from the system of open communication into a paranoiac space marked by hallucinations and other ‘strange performances’ of the mind. Bateson and his colleagues point out that the typical traits associated with schizophrenia are not, in fact, unique the ailment and “can be produced temporarily in normal subjects with hypnosis.”[21] They continue: “These need not be directly suggested as specific phenomena, but can be the ‘spontaneous’ result of an arranged communication sequence.”


On hand to Bateson’s project in an advisory capacity was Alan Watts, the British-born philosopher best remembered as the popularizer of Zen Buddhism in the West. During the early 1950s Watts was carrying out weekly lectures on Zen and Taoism on his program for Berkley’s Pacifica radio station, amassing scores of followers, some of whom were affiliated with the nascent Beat movement and would later participate in the 60s counterculture writ large. By the time he had encountered Bateson, he was integrating cybernetics into Eastern philosophy – for example, in his 1957 work The Way of Zen, he describes the concept of Avidya (that is, the ignorance and delusion that acts as a limit for the self to overcome) as the refusal to see “that subject and object are relational”, which by extension gives cause to the individual to see how the self and the exterior world are fundamentally bound together. “This is really what a simple problem,” Watts writes, “of what we now all cybernetics, the science of control.”[22] The experience of Avidya becomes a feedback loop from where there is no escape, much like the double-bind, for the ignorance to see the relation between subject and object, self and the world triggers an attempt to the control the world, itself a feat of impossibility. Escaping the Avidya means to move from the insulated closed world of the self into a literal green world. Just as von Foerster promulgated a green world understand of cybernetics as a counterpoint to the reduction of the self to behaviorism via computational metaphors, Watts “offered a way for cybernetics to transcend its own tendencies toward technocratic computationalism.”[23]

Most likely under the influence of Watts, Bateson and his team discussed Zen Buddhism at length in their “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia”. While the schizophrenic experience offered a negative double bind, Zen offered a positive double-bind that led in the opposite direction, one that pointed towards Enlightenment. To quote them at length,

In the Eastern religion, Zen Buddhism, the goal is to achieve Enlightenment. The Zen Master attempts to bring about enlightenment in his pupil in various ways. One of the things he does is to hold a stick over the pupil’s head and say fiercely, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will strike you with it.” We feel that the schizophrenic finds himself continually in the same situation as the pupil but he achieves something like disorientation rather than enlightenment. The Zen pupil might reach up and take the stick away from the Master—who might accept this response, but the schizophrenic has no such choice since with him there is no not caring about the relationship, and his mother’s aims and awareness are not like the Master’s.[24]

Cage Suzuki 11

In 1961 Bateson would build upon his theoretical relationship between the experience of schizophrenia and the quest for Enlightenment in the aptly-titled book Perceval’s Narratives. No longer was schizophrenia simply the negative of Enlightenment; it was instead an aspect of the journey of becoming itself. “Once begun, a schizophrenic episode would appear to have as definite a course as an initiation ceremony—a death and rebirth—into which the novice may have been precipitated by his family life or by adventitious circumstance, but which in its course is largely steered by endogenous process.”[25] The problem arises for Bateson that many “who embark on this voyage” become moored in the schizophrenic experience, unable to escape from it.

While Bateson would leave from the realm of psychology for territories deeper in the green world, focusing on the holistic and self-organizing principles of natural systems, his particular vein of cybernetic psychology would be picked up in Great Britain, where it became integrated with the burgeoning field of ‘anti-psychiatry’. At the helm of this development was R.D. Laing, an affiliate of the Tavistock Institute of Human Behavior and its particular school of organizational and social psychologies (it might be worth acknowledging that Kurt Lewin, who had blazed a trail from the Frankfurt School to the Committee for National Morale, was a key influence on the theories developed at Tavistock). Laing had travelled to the United States and met with Bateson in 1962; while he distanced himself from cybernetic programs per se – perceiving many of the theories emerging from the Macy Conference participants as “vivisectionist”[26] – he saw immediately the logic behind the notion of the double-bind. Even more so, however, he deeply grasped the understanding of the schizophrenic as a journey not unlike those in mysticism of Eastern philosophy.


“Mystics and schizophrenics,” Laing wrote, “find themselves in the same ocean but the mystics swim whereas the schizophrenics drown.” His understanding of this ‘ocean’ was one deeply rooted in a green world vision of the cosmos, one teeming with multiplicity and interconnection. When either the schizophrenic or the mystic descends into what civilization typically deems as madness, he or she undergoes a voyage into the interior, “and back and through and beyond into the existence of all mankind, of primal man, of Adam and perhaps even further back into the being of animals, vegetables, an minerals.” Bateson and his team at Palo Alto had observed that the positive double-bind to be found in the Zen experience was made possible by role of the master, himself an embodiment not of authority but of the experience of passing through itself – yet this was not unique to Eastern philosophies. The bulk of mystical traditions around the globe offered variations of the shaman, a spiritual guide who has undergone the tribulations of ‘madness’ in order to be able to assist others on their journey. Looking at this esoteric currents, Laing felt that the psychiatry should be approached in the same way – what better guide for the schizophrenic than another who had already passed through the experience?

In 1965 Laing and a group of his colleagues established the Philadelphia Association, a charitable organization driven to establish a therapeutic institution outside the hegemony of Great Britain’s mental health network. Two months later the organization obtained a building in East London called Kingsley Hall, which was quickly turned into a communal space where the everyday lives of schizophrenics, therapists, artists and New Left thinkers blended together. Psychedelic drugs like LSD became constant fixtures, while experimental techniques that dissolved the boundaries between therapist and patient were implemented.


Unfortunately, aside from the famous case of Mary Barnes, logs and other documentations of daily activities at Kingsley Hall are notoriously barren. What I would like to stress, however, is the way in which Laing’s anti-psychiatry was itself an aspect of the counterculture sweeping the globe across the 1960s. Like Bateson, what Laing was proposing was essentially a nonmodern ontology, one that could be contrasted sharply with the hyper-rationalist, coordinated and mechanized epistemologies enforced by civilization subsumed in capitalist efficiency. Anti-psychiatry took aim at the practice’s orthodoxy as complicit in this megamachine and charged it as simply correcting the surface level ailments in order to the restore the individual to the systems of production and consumption. Laing’s own journey crossed paths with some of the key thinkers and movements of the time. In 1967, for example, he was a participate in the Dialectics of Liberation Conference, alongside Gregory Bateson, Herbert Marcuse, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Stokley Carmichael of the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the anarchist philosopher Paul Goodman, Emmett Grogan of the San Francisco-based Diggers (a theatrical community action group from Haight-Ashbury), and Paul Sweezy, a Marxist economist and founder of the Monthly Review. The conference, in turn, was inspired by the Situationist and Beat writer Alexander Trocchi, who had spoken of a need for a ‘spontaneous university’ – called “Sigma” – that would help spark a worldwide revolution that resembled mystical enlightenment more than it did Marxism.[27] Trocchi himself was a close friend of Laing, and also of Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood – who had tapped the cybernetician Gordon Pask for their aforementioned Fun Palace.[28]

These cross-pollinations between radical politics, mysticism, and cybernetics were not unique to Great Britain, and had long-since gained traction in America. On a literary level William Burroughs had appropriated the language of communication theory to build a quasi-political construction around the tape recorder, which he felt could explode the boundaries of the control system of the “Reality Studio”. Thomas Pynchon, meanwhile, freely used cybernetic and thermodynamic systems terminology in his countercultural novel The Crying of Lot 49 to articulate a world where meaning is bound to multiplicity and randomness stymies any chance of real control. In the famed Port Huron statement of the Students for a Democratic Society the fears of the Committee for National Morale – that unidirectional communication systems produced totalitarian societies – were resurrected; they would later speak of direct communication mechanisms as something essential for the growth of participatory society. Stewart Brand, a close friend of Bateson, brought cybernetics and ecologically-minded systems theory into conjunction with the Communalist movement through his Whole Earth Catalog. Another associate of Bateson, John Lilly, popularized LSD use and supplemented his scientific research with studies into Yoga and mystical consciousness-raising techniques radiating from the Arica School of Oscar Ichazo.



What we have is a mangle of forces, movements, tropes, aspirations, and sciences: one cannot reduce the events of the 1960s to cybernetics, Eastern mysticism, or even the distinctive ways that various elements in the counterculture manifested themselves. It is instead a panoply of techniques with shifting borderlands between them, bound together by a shared rejection of the modern, industrialized self. Fred Turner argues that the events of the ‘psychedelic 60s’ constituted a break from the ‘political 60s’ of the anti-war, students, and Civil Rights movements; the psychedelic wing, in his history, is largely an outgrowth of the actions of the Committee for National Morale and their interest in the psycho-communicative foundations for the ‘whole individual’. In many respects this is an accurate analysis, but Turner falters in drawing boundary lines between the different divisions of the counterculture and ignoring the massive circulation of individuals, institutions, and paradigms between the two – in other words, he misses the point that the 60s were a collective condemnation of the closed world. It is in Theodore Roszak’s seminal text, The Making of a Counterculture, that this is most clearly depicted:

On October 21, 1967, the Pentagon found itself besieged by a motley army of anti-war demonstrators. For the most part, the fifty thousand protestors were made up of activist academics and students, men of letters (among them, Norman Mailer leading his “armies of the night”), New Left and pacifist ideologues, housewives, doctors… but also in attendance… were contingents of “witches, warlocks, holymen, seers, prophets, mystics, saints, sorcerers, shamans, troubadours, minstrels, bards, roadmen, and madmen” – who were on hand to achieve the “mystic revolution”. The picketing the sit-down, the speeches, and the marches: all that was protest politics as usual. But the central event of the day was a contribution of the “superhumans”…[29]


The College of Consciousness

As these currents were circulating around across the United States and around the globe, it became institutionalized – and in a sense, internalized – on the West Coast. At the helm of this particular evolution was Richard Price, who had taken courses in anthropology under Bateson when he taught at Stanford for the early 1950s. By the mid-50s he was acquainted with the Beat movement and lived in San Francisco’s Bay Area; it was there that he became acquainted with Alan Watts at the American Academy of Asian Studies – one of the major entry points of Zen Buddhism into the United States at the time. It was also in this time period that Price underwent a psychotic episode, leading to a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. As he later recounted, the therapeutic regime imposed on him obscured the reality that what he was undergoing was – as Bateson and Laing would argue – the experience of a quasi-mystical journey. In his own words,

There was a fundamental mistake being made and that mistake was supposing that the healing process was the disease, rather than the process whereby the disease is healed. The disease, if any, was the state previous to the “psychosis.” The so called “psychosis” was an attempt towards spontaneous healing, and it was a movement towards health, not a movement towards disease. In some categories it would be called mystical, really a re-owning and discovery of parts of myself.

In 1962 Price, along with Michael Murphy – yet another student of Bateson who had looked to the East, having taken to India in the 1950s to practice meditation at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram – set out to establish a space where alternative practices of living and being in the world. With consultation and assistance from Bateson, Watts, Aldous Huxley (who had become a countercultural hero through his psychedelic experiences recounted in his book The Doors of Perception) and Frederic Speigelberg (a co-founder of the American Academy of Asian Studies alongside Watts and a popularizer of Sri Aurobindo’s writings in the US), the two launched the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Within a few years it would become a hotbed of countercultural activities, attracting everyone from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to Timothy Leary to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to its doors.


The purpose of this institution was “radical psychological development” though a focus on what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences” – “those flashes of godlike or transpersonal capacities above the muddy ruts of the mundane mind”.[30] Through the adaptation of Gestalt therapy, Eastern mysticism, and cybernetics, Price and Murphy hoped to close the door for good on behaviorism and its progeny. Given this context, it’s unsurprising then that one of the first seminars was led by Bateson, bearing the title of “Individual and Cultural Definitions of Reality”. Later in the 1960s Laing himself gave lectures at the institute; Price would also attempt to establish an analogous therapeutic commune to Kingsley Hall at Esalen, though this experiment never quite came to fruition.[31]

Alongside the interest in cybernetic psychology and anti-psychiatry, Esalen’s primary methodology would come to be dominated by two distinct strands of mystical practice. On one hand, it was the “integral yoga” promulgated by Sri Aurobindo, holding that yoga techniques can further human evolution to the point where it experiences the divine in the matter of the world itself; and on the other hand the systems advanced by Oscar Ichazo at the Arica School in Bolivia, with his studies of the human behavior in accordance with an Eastern chakra system and a nine-pointed enneagram that allowed him to identify personality types. As mentioned earlier quite briefly, Bateson’s friend – and Esalen fixture – John Lilly would study under Ichazo, but another curious connection to the world of cybernetics takes place through Stafford Beer, who learned of the enneagram from the Arica School; he would deploy it in building a hypothetical cybernetic system that sought to link human activity to the swirling mess of the cosmos.[32] To complete the circle of connections, Beer too would be invited to attend events at Esalen.


It’s important to see what Esalen produced was very much in line with the 60s counterculture, while also deviating sharply in several ways. The most apparent of these is that it moved away from political concerns, choosing instead to focus on the interiority self in order to achieve a sort of cosmic singularity with existence. The counterculture had posed, at its core that encompassed both the New Left and the more esoterically-inclined contingencies, a critique of the alienation induced by the closed world systems of rationalized civilization. The theories and techniques radiating from Esalen, by contrast, shifted the trigger of this alienation to a spiritual quagmire inherent in the human condition. While many of the techniques may contain valid means through which to the individual can step outside rationalization, the movement of Esalen beyond the counterculture exhibits a distinctive depoliticalization. In that respect its trajectory for very similar to the one taken up by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which supplanted critique and resistance to power with a retooling of it through a back-to-the-land ethos. Indeed, Brand would become a common face at Esalen down through the years.


As the 60s ground to a close Esalen’s unique take on consciousness-raising gave rise to the so-called “human potential movement”, conceived by the institution’s future president George Leonard on the basis that humans use only 10% of the brain’s potential and that if tapped, we could reach that longed-for ontology of authentic experience. Like the democratic personality aspired to by the Committee for National Morale, fulfilling human potential would be the realization of wholeness in subjective experience, replete with the self embracing the full creative capacities within them. Such language resurrected the individualist mentality that the left had scorned, while simultaneously opening a space for the capitalist co-optation of countercultural rhetoric. This can be observed most strongly in the works of Werner Erhard and his “Erhard Seminars Training” (EST).

Erhard’s pedigree was somewhat different from his countercultural colleagues. Across the early 60s he cut his teeth in the business world by doing stints as a car salesman, working for Lee Iacocca of automobile fame, and acting as manager for Parents Magazine Cultural Institute, a division of the traditionally conservative (if not outright reactionary) W.R. Grace & Co conglomerate. He readily consumed popular business literature like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Up Rich and Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics – the latter an early self-help classic that deployed, as its name implied, psychological and cybernetic principles as a means to cultivate personal growth and success. Erhard also took the courses offered by Dale Carnegie, author of tracts like How to Win Friends and Influence People and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. He did, however, deep his toes deeper into the waters of the 60s zeitgeist: he attended the lectures of Alan Watts and became close friends with the philosopher, absorbing the principles of Zen Buddhism in the process. Later Erhard could be found dabbling in L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology[33], Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and the “Silva Method” propagated by Jose Silva, which deploys meditation and guided imagery to assist individuals in “re-wiring” themselves from the conditioning of past negative experience.

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Erhard’s EST constituted a sort of potpourri of these various influences, carried out in a large-group setting. Participants are gathered together in two-hour sessions, through which they are subjected to a Socratic questioning that drew out the faults of their past actions. The goal was one of cathartic release, enabling the participants to look at themselves and their personalities from the outside, as a means of observing and gauging their faults in dire need of correction. According to one participant, the EST session led her to realize “that the individual is all-powerful and totally determines one’s fate”[34] – the classic figure of laissez-faire’s ‘rugged individual’ in self-help form. Elsewhere, Erhard commanded his followers to understand mystical experience as something framed by the closed world discourses developed by Herbert Simon and George A. Miller: “true enlightenment is knowing you are a machine.”[35] Finally, EST transmuted itself into a virtual recreation of the harsh disciplinary institutions analyzed so thoroughly by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. In the early 1970s a group of educators that had undergone EST training utilized Erhard’s techniques to launch the Innovative Program School (IPS) in Los Angeles as an alternative learning space for high school students. A former graduate of the IPS would later liken the experience to “prisoner-of-war brainwashing”, complete with the military boot camp tactics of ‘breaking down’ the subject to rebuild it from the ground up.[36]

Erhard would eventually become friends with Michael Murphy, a conjunction that moved the EST programs and the activities in Esalen into close alignment. It was around this time that Esalen was fully abandoning its countercultural roots. Richard Price was succeeded by Julian Silverman, a veteran of the National Institute for Mental Health and follower of R.D. Laing, as president of the institution; under Silverman, the sort of participatory governance of Esalen was jettisoned for a more corporate-minded model. Arguing that the institute was staffed by “transient hippies,” he reportedly made clear that “This is not a democracy! This is a damn business!”[37] True to his word, Esalen under Silverman became less a wellspring of experimentation for spiritual seekers and more of a sounding board for self-help gurus and a hotspot for corporate retreats. Soon a slew of businesses – including AT & T, Proctor & Gamble, and Dupont – were dispatching their employees to take self-awareness classes at Esalen’s “Big House”, a retreat center financed by none other than Laurence Rockefeller.[38]


The corporatization of spirituality cannot be attributed solely to the activities of Esalen and Erhard. 1974 saw the publication of Robert Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, perhaps the seminal text of the human potential movement’s Westernized philosophy. Borrowing freely from Zen, cybernetics and the counterculture, the work’s spiritual protagonist focuses on achieving “Quality” in his tinkerings on his motorcycle. Importantly, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance exudes an extremely pro-technological perspective, a stark contrast to the critiques of advanced technological systems espoused by key countercultural thinkers like Herbert Marcuse, Lewis Mumford, and Jacques Ellul. Whereas they had critiqued technology from the vantage point of civilization’s alienating systems of labor and production, Pirsig encourages a beneficial relationship between the human and the machine. In a retort to several characters who are obvious stand-in for technology’s critics, Pirsig writes that “Their flight from and hatred of technology is self-defeating. The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha—which is to demean oneself.”[39]

Pirsig sidesteps the primary critique of the countercultural thinkers, which held that technology could be beneficial to mankind under a different paradigm of social, political, and economic relations; his response is the striving towards “Quality” – a cosmic condition that, like the Tao, “is the cause of the subjects and objects.”[40] While Pirsig’s goal might not have been to lend credence to the world of American world of business, it was there that his impact was most readily felt. A slew of management manuals have built on the foundation of his concept of Quality: everything from Quality and Power in the Supply Chain to Commercial Management of Projects, from In Search of Excellence to Research on the Management of Innovation to The Zen Approach to Project Management contain extensive references to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. By the 1980s, the post-60s rush of the human potential movement was becoming the de facto ideology of the world of post-Fordist business.


The 60s counterculture coincided with a tectonic shift in capitalism’s organization, one that followed the technological innovations moving from the wartime and postwar think-tanks and labs into the private sector, triggering a restructuring on a global level. Increased automation undercut the demands of organized labor, while developments in container technology and means of monitoring supply chains allowed manufacturing centers to relocate elsewhere in the world – almost always where wages and labor protections were meager. Once monolithic, the formerly Fordist mode of capitalism became distributed into a global post-Fordist network of production and consumption, one far more flexible than its earlier historic stages. Particularly in the context of the massive rejection of Fordism in the 60s, business practices that were quick, adaptive, and less hierarchical in regards to management became prioritized.

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While the US and Europe began transitioning towards this model in the 1970s, flexible production had been well underway in Japan as far back as the 1950s. Innovated in the Toyata factories, lean production would seize on waste elimination as a process to ensure both quality of product and service; manufacturing was streamlined through automation and the imposition of “just-in-time” techniques such as the lessening of goods produced and a rapid delivery time. The latter was achieved by a highly coordinated supply chain process, overseen not by a hierarchical corporate caste but series of flexible teams that openly communicated with another to establish feedback loops linking each step of the commodity’s journey. While typically understood as a Japanese phenomena, lean production’s origins can be traced to W. Edwards Deming, who had worked closely with Japanese industrial giants in the postwar reconstruction under the direction of Douglas MacArthur. Prior to this, Deming has worked for Bell Labs, where Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver were working on the quantifiable theory of communication that would spurn the developments of cybernetics and systems analysis.

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Foreshadowing the integration of cybernetics with Eastern spirituality – and its subsequent corporatization through Esalen, EST, and others in the human potential movement – lean production techniques quickly collided with Zen Buddhism during Japan’s economic boom. Buddhist monks became common sites in the halls of Japanese businesses; this ‘corporate Zen’ was then encountered by the legions of American businessmen who travelled to the country in the late 1970s to study the flexible management techniques.[41] In 1981 this broke into the corporate mainstream with the publishing of The Art of Japanese Management, written by Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos. As John Williams points out, the worked launched Pascale and Athos to notoriety, placing them on the lecture circuit and at the head of the new managerial discourses on the 1980s. A series of meetings at the headquarters of the consulting firm Mckinsey & Company led to the creation of the “bestselling management book of all time”, penned by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman with the title In Search of Excellence.[42] While this book can be seen as the culmination of the lean manufacturing tendency trickling into American business, it also represented the further incorporation of the human potential movement into the corporate arena: references to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance abound the text, with Pirsig’s mystical Quality being linked directly to the quality achieved through just-in-time techniques. If the Buddha was in the machine, as Pirsig insisted, then the machine itself was automated.

Following the theories put forth by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their The New Spirit of Capitalism, Brian Holmes argues that what he calls the “flexible personality” is, in one respect, the cultural logic of post-Fordist capitalism, and in another, the appropriation of the 60’s critique of alienation by capitalism itself. We can see how the movement from spirituality to corporate management clearly illustrates this paradigm; the cybernetic mysticism of the counterculture perceived the world, under technical rationality, as something fragmented and mendable through a holistic approach to life. Following suit, the flexible corporation would replace authoritarian models with holistic ones – a sort of secular spirituality for the new mode of capitalism. Business leaders were no longer to be strictly business leaders – instead, they had to become both students and teachers, capable of guiding with the wisdom of a world beyond if they were to navigate their interests through the turbulence of globalization. Just as Esalen would become a retreat center for corporate leaders, many other post-countercultural spaces sprung up to educate the new managerial class. One such place was the Santa Fe Institute, where agent-based modelling simulations were being perfected in order to understand the evolution of complex systems, be they biological or economic in nature.



Though it is beyond the scope of our concerns here, the connections between the techniques and rather holistic theories emerging from the Sante Fe Institute is pivotal to fully understanding the growth of capitalism across the 1980s and 90s – the time of the so-called “New Economy” that rode the duel dot-com and financial bubbles until their respective bursts across the 2000s. We can give pause to mention, however, a series of events closely affiliated with the Sante Fe Institute: the Learning Conferences, organized by none other than Stewart Brand with help from Esalen. Modelled on the earlier Macy Conferences, these sessions brought together scientists and business leaders “with an eye to generating not formal products so much as intellectual insights and new rhetorics and new social networks to support them.”[43] These intellectual insights were both scientific and holistic in nature: how to learn from adaptability and flexibility, and put these into practices in our everyday business lives.

The Learning Conferences, in turn, produced the groundwork for the creation of the Global Business Network (GBN), an international consultancy group that works closely with Fortune 500 companies, advising them on actions through a combination of systems analysis and forecasting techniques – both of which can be traced back to the Cold War-era strategies developed at the RAND Corporation. Unlike those earlier conditions, these tools and their derivatives were put not to use to the enforcing of the closed world, but the opening of this world to the information networks of neoliberal capitalism:

GBN… became both a model and a source of symbolic and rhetorical resources for corporate executives and government officials looking to understand post-Fordist forms of economic activity. In its meetings, its publications, and its presentations, GBN offered those individuals a vision of the New Economy as a networked entity, open to management by elite social groups and charismatic leaders and linked by interpersonal and informational networks, an entity whose laws could be made visible through a mix of systems theory, collaborative social practice, and mystical insight.[44]

The GBN’s primary founder was Jay Ogilvy, a veteran of the Stanford Research Institute – an important institution in the military-industrial complex nexus that was also a haven for countercultural sympathies. Ogilvy would go on to migrate to Esalen, where he helped set up the Center for Theory and Research (CTR) – a series of hundreds of sessions and conferences to aid in the promotion of an open-ended “new worldview”.[45] The CTR’s new worldview, as Ogilvy tells us, circulates around the idea of “conscious capitalism”, typified by companies like Whole Foods and things such as the organic food movement, fair trade goods, and “value-based” economics. Like Holmes’ flexible personality, conscious capitalism represents the recuperation of capitalism’s critics, holding that market action – if carried out from an enlightened, holistic perspective – could be the perfect promoter of peace and equality. Conscious capitalism is also the logical progression from the human potential movement, with its promoters constantly advising practitioners on methods of awareness and mindfulness.


Contemporary capitalism is suffused, at this point, with the imagery growing from this entire trajectory. Collaborative learning sessions, guided imagery, meditative practices, and lessons from non-Western sources are a constant facet of the capitalism business experience, existing everywhere from hiring practices to learning seminars to office politics. Yoga and other techniques for mindfulness, through their incorporation into the self-help genre, have become a ‘technology of the self’ aimed not to achieve new modes of being in relation to the cosmological green world, but to gain a competitive edge in relationship to labor and business . To quote a “technology entrepreneur” living in New York City, “I’ve had more success [finding financial investors] at meditation than I’ve had at any networking event I’ve attended.”[46] The ascendancy of corporate social responsibility successfully displaces critiques based on exploitation, alienation, and economic disparity.



The reader, at this point, might pose the question of why present this history? Despite its high visibility, conscious capitalism hasn’t detracted from a great many movements contesting capitalism in its totality, be it the movements of 2011 or the more contemporary resistance to austerity. Likewise, many corporations that practice conscious capitalism have shown themselves to be just as exploitative as their more traditional counterparts. Why reflect, in so much detail, on marginal currents and moments that are often written off as instances out on the fringe?

What I hope to illustrate is the processes of structuralization that effectively capture critique in order to bolster the system’s internal functioning. This, of course, is not a new mode of analysis, but what needs to be drawn attention to is the way that this structuralization unfolds in relation to capitalism’s processes of restructuring. These restructurings follow patterns of massive technological acceleration – which appear to happen in bulk, usually following periods of economic downturn. As we’ve seen here, capitalism underwent a major transformation following the introduction of cybernetic technologies after the Second World War (the transition to post-Fordism) and again in the 1990s (the evolution of post-Fordism into the New Economy). Each was marked by a reciprocal challenging of the capitalist system – the 60s counterculture, for example, blended the very technologies and techniques that were spurning the system’s evolution and turned it against itself. The 80s and 90s in a similar vein saw a proliferation of discourses and movements, ranging from the emergence of hackers to the alter-globalization movement, with elements of each now incorporated into the system. One could argue that the introduction of new innovations into the system opens up a possibility space wherein the toppling of the system becomes vaguely recognizable; this possibility space, in turn, becomes the locus of capitalist structuralization into a new mode of governmentality.

It seems readily apparent, in these years after the financial crisis, that a possibility space is being opened up. The rise of technologies enabling the makers movement, small batch production and desktop manufacturing, P2P networks and hackerspaces, combined with the push towards sustainable energy and the recognition of the Anthropocene, point towards a world extremely different from the neoliberal capitalism that has evolved from the mid-70s onwards. In relation to technologies and economics, this possible world appears as an open world based on “post-capitalism” techniques of sharing, commonly-held resources, and liberation from labor itself; in relation to the ecology, it is a green world that is both sustainable and survivable in the context of climate change.

There is no reason, however, to confess utopian perspectives on all these changes, as many are apt to do.[47] As past experience has shown, there is every reason to expect that the waters we are moving in today will, in fact, be the guiding ideologies of tomorrow’s capitalism. For this reason structuralization – in all of its guises – must be examined with a critical eye, not for debate over the past but for looking into the future.

[1] Paul N. Edwards The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America MIT Press, 1997, pg. 2

[2] Ibid, pg. 350

[3] See the “An Eco Modernist Manifesto” Stewart Brand, an important figure in this essay, is one of the authors of this document.

[4] See, for example, “The SAGE Speaks of What He Sees: War Games and the New Spirit of Capitalism”

[5] Brian Holmes “The Flexible Personality: For A New Cultural Critique” European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, January, 2002

[6] Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer The Dialectic of Enlightenment Stanford University Press, 2007

[7] Ibid, pgs. 81-82

[8] James C. Scott Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Yale University Press, 1999 pg. 381, note 48

[9] Ross Wolfe “The ulta-Taylorist Soviet utopianism of Aleksei Gastev”

[10]Lily E. Kay Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology Oxford University Press, 1996 pg. 35

[11] Ibid

[12] N. Katherine Hayles How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics University of Chicago Press, 1999 pg. 94

[13] Peter Kreig “The Human Face of Cybernetics: Heinz von Foerster and the history of a movement that failed” Kybernetes Vol. 34 Iss: ¾, pg. 552

[14] Edwards The Closed World, pg. 231

[15] See S.M. Amadae Rationalizing Democracy: The Cold War Origin of Rational Choice Liberalism University of Chicago Press, 2003

[16] Kreig “The Human Face of Cybernetics” pg. 554

[17] Fred Turner The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychdelic Sixties University of Chicago Press, 2013, pg. 37

[18] Ibid, pg. 67

[19] See Turner The Democratic Surround; as well as Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village Pluto Press, 2007; and Frances Stonor Saunders Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War Granta Books, 2000

[20] Margaret Mead And Keep Your Powder Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America Morrow, 1965, pg. 165

[21] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” Behavioral Science, 1956,, pg. 14

[22] Alan Watts The Way of Zen Vintage, 1999, pg. 68

[23] R. John Williams The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology, and the Meeting of East and West Yale University Press, 2014, pg. 177

[24] Bateson, et. al. “Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia” pg. 5

[25] Quoted in Andrew Pickering The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future University of Chicago Press, 2013, pg. 176

[26] Ibid, pg. 442 note 23

[27]For more on Alexander Trocchi and his Sigma project, see McKenzie Wark The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International Verso, 2011, pgs. 130 to 134

[28] We should note that Cedric Price was connected to the Archigram architecture group, who were initially inspired by ex-Situationist Constant Niewunhuy’s “New Babylon”, a fully automated communist society. New Babylon, in turn, was conceived by Niewunhuy’s attempts to conjoin Marxist analysis with Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. For Price and Archigram, see Pickering The Cybernetic Brain pgs. 364-365. For New Babylon and cybernetics, see Wark The Beach Beneath the Streets pgs. 135-143

[29] Theodore Rosak The Making of the Counterculture: Reflections of the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition Anchor Books, 1969, pg. 124

[30] Erik Davis TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information North Atlantic Books, 2015

[31] The Gestalt Legacy Project The Life and Practice of Richard Price: A Gestalt Biography,, 2014 pg. 75

[32] Pickering The Cybernetic Brain, pgs. 295-302; 458, note 69

[33] L. Ron Hubbard’s extensive usage of cybernetics in developing Dianetics and Scientology is discussed at length in Ronald R. Kline The Cybernetics Moment: Or Why We Call Our Age the Information Age John Hopkins University Pres, 2015

[34] Aaron Barlow The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth Praeger, 2013, pg. 202

[35] James R. Lewis Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy Prometheus Books, 2001, pg. 385

[36] Brendan Mullen, Don Bolles and Adam Parfrey Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times and Short Life of Darby Crash Feral House, 2002, pgs. 17-18

[37] Jeffrey Kripal Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion University of Chicago Press, 2008, pgs. 179-180

[38] Frank Rose “A New Age for Business?” Fortune October 8th, 1990 On Laurence Rockefeller’s efforts to co-opt green world environmental discourses, see Michael Barker “Laurance Rockefeller and Capitalist Conservation” Swans Commentary October 19th, 2009

[39] Quoted in John Williams “Techneˆ-Zen and the Spiritual Quality of Global Capitalism” Critical Inquiry, Autumn, 2011 pg. 33

[40] Ibid, pg. 37

[41] Ibid, pg. 45

[42] Ibid, pg. 46

[43] Fred Turner From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism University of Chicago Press, 2008, pg. 182

[44] Ibid, pg. 184

[45] “About CTR”

[46] Quoted in “Organizational Notes #34”

[47] See, for example, Paul Mason “Postcapitalism: the end of capitalism has begun” The Guardian July 17th, 2015

19 responses to “Into the Mystic: Capitalism and the Structuralization of Spirituality

  1. Reblogged this on alien ecologies and commented:
    Edmund Berger gives us a secret history of our information processing era and how the corporatocracy has at each stage been able to reincorporate the negative and opposing shifts of the Left into its ongoing initiatives. His knowledge of this era is unique and details out in this one post a part of his ongoing project. A must read for those who want to know the secret history of capitalism during the twentieth century…

  2. Edmund this is excellent! I was surprised you didn’t mention Fritz Perls whose Gestalt Therapy fused the Watt’s Zen and the commercialized forms of its meditative practices into a sort of gum-ball machine for corporate execs… just went to their site and see this corporate spirituality as a sort of substitute religion:

    Of course Club of Rome
    and Club of Budapest: – with its Manifesto for Planetary Consciousness etc. Brainchild of Ervin Laszlo, the systems thinker and friend of Bateson…

    in Europe are the other avenue of the corporate initiative…

    • Thanks, Steve! I had been planning on writing this one for some time – the spiritual and its relationship to technology, acts of resistance, and the ongoing transformation into grist for the capitalist mill has something that has long interested me.

      I had actually intended to talk about Gestalt therapy, since its completely relevant not only to the development of Esalen but to the avant-garde of the 1950s, which is where one truly has to look in order to reach the origins of the 60s counterculture – but alas, I felt like I was already getting a little too long-winded! Fritz Perl was deeply influenced by a figure who appears several points in the essay – Kurt Lewin, who moved from the Frankfurt School to the Committee for National Morale. When Perls and Paul Goodman wrote their work on gestalt therapy, it was very much the psychological equivalent of the media are being advocated by the Committee: both prioritized and emphasized spontaneity, the breaking down of body rigidities, and the intertwined relationship between the self and the environment. Given the points of circulation between the gestaltist and the artists who took up the Committee’s ideas and ran with them – taking place primarily at Black Mountain College – what we have in fact is a singular phenomena, an ideological exodus away from the alienation of high industrial society. Which is completely necessary! Ultimately, I think that the structuralization of spirituality a subset of the wider capitalist offensive that emerged as a response to the global revolts of the 1960s. What I found so interesting, though, is how much it really fills in the gaps between the objective, infrastructural developments (cybernetics and computers) and the more subjective, free-form tendencies (the avant-garde and the counterculture).

      I think that whole period was full of incomplete experiments that have much to still offer us, but perhaps the door has closed on them. This is precisely because of the corporatization of both spirituality and the complexity sciences (the two developing in close proximity to one another) into the bland “new age” industry – and also because of the more managerial and technocratic variants like the Club of Rome and the Club of Budapest that you point too. Aside from the “Limits to Growth” report (based on modelling software developed by Jay Forrester, a cybernetician and engineer who would also innovate the computational systems that uphold the complex logistics of global supply chain management!), I must confess I don’t know too much about them. I’ll have to read more!

      • Yea, under it all is the almost Guattarian asymbiotic graph – a counter or occult mapping that acts like a mobious strip following the standardized or official histories that you’ve outlined so well. I think in some ways I’ve been working with rereading this whole timeframe from biographies of various individuals and players then working my way back to their ideas through the matrix of music, pop-art, pulp fiction, etc… it’s like there is this underbelly of culture that infiltrated the seams and then was hijacked by the corporatocracy. We see such systems of corporatized religion as ‘Scientology’ emerged by way of bringing the occult and corporate visions together in a unified control system. L. Ron Hubbard after all was Aleister Crowley’s greatest pupil…

  3. This one hits close to home. The American Academy of Asian Studies was the parent organization of the California Institute of Integral Studies. Haridas Chaudhuri re-founded the AAAS as CIIS in 1968 as the school’s mission and degree programs expended beyond the original East-West focus to include clinical psychology, Western esotericism, anthropology, etc. Michael Murphy and Dick Price were both students of Chaudhuri’s and Speigelberg’s at the AAAS before founding Esalen. The founding director of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS is Richard Tarnas, who lived at Esalen for a decade to study with the transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof.

    Esalen has definitely strayed from its original ideals, which were closer to Price’s vision. Things began to change after he died in 1985 (a boulder loosened by recent fires fell on him during a hike along the creek that runs through the Esalen campus).

    Thankfully, CIIS has not followed the same de-politicization trajectory. The Anthropology and Social Change program is doing great work to combat gentrification in San Francisco (Erin McElroy is a recent graduate:

  4. Pingback: Psychedelic Socialism: Acid Communism, Acid Corbynism, the Politics of Consciousness, the Future of the Left | Deterritorial Investigations·

  5. Pingback: Saturday September 16, 2017 – Trance-Scripts·

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