Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
Few things are as disconcerting to people who train in a Thelemic system as being asked to memorise a chapter of one of the Holy Books. We live in a time when anything and everything is available online, and memorising anything seems irrelevant.
A recent essay by the critic L.M. Sacasas, associate director of the Christian Study Center in Gainsville, FL, has provoked extended discussion among the thoughtful people I know. Any number of pundits have praised or bemoaned the effects of digital culture, but Sacasas seems to have nailed what it’s doing to people’s self-concepts. In order to do your will, you need to examine that notion, and in order to know it, you need to know yourself: what you want, what you fear, and what you do in defiance of both those sets of traits.
Thelemites in general have been early adopters of digital technologies. It was my Thelemic community that required me to get email in the early 1990s, and which taught me to navigate the intricacies of the early online experience. Crowley himself insisted his students have more than a passing familiarity with science, so they could understand the physical universe before penetrating the astral and spiritual ones, and that spirit continues down to our fourth and fifth generations.
The current lockdown, affecting most economically developed countries, has exponentially increased our dependence on digital information. Deprived of close contact with others to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all spending more screen time, and finding how much it frustrates our deeper needs, and the simple human desire to act rather than to study or share opinions.
I’m still questioning some of Sacasas’ conclusions, but all of them have germs – and gems – of truth. In particular, he has grasped the true difference between the print culture we used to have (or print plus TV and radio) and the far more complex digital world. He borrows his core metaphor from St. Augustine’s City of God, an idea that ancient author contrasted with the mundane city of man. Sacasas therefore speaks of the Digital City and the Analog City.
“As is now well known,” he writes, “social media platforms have been deliberately calibrated — using likes, retweets, and other reward mechanisms — to hijack our desire for attention and approval. This hybrid, cyborg audience, because of its ability to colonize every dimension of our experience, blurring the older distinctions between private and public life, heightens the power of the Digital City to shape our identities.”
At the same time, we’re overwhelmed by our entanglement:
” We have never been able to document our lives so thoroughly as we now can with the help of digital tools, yet we feel that time is out of joint and that we’ve lost the thread of both our personal and collective histories. We appear to be both obsessive documenters of our experience, yet largely indifferent to or overwhelmed by the archives we create. We have ever more access to the past, but we are unable to bring it meaningfully to bear on the present.”
This is where he caught my attention. Previously, reflective and aware people used what they read, saw or heard to reinforce a particular self-sense that meshed quite well with the kind of autonomy the Book of the Law expects and requires of us.
“In his account of the nature of secular society,” Sacasas adds, “Charles Taylor argues that an important part of the emergence of the modern age was the disenchantment of the world and the rise of what he describes as the “buffered self.” Unlike the old “porous self,” the new buffered self no longer perceives and believes in sources of meaning outside the human mind. This new self feels unperturbed by powers beyond its control. We might say that in the Digital City the self becomes in some ways “porous” once again. It is subject to powers that we perceive as impinging on us, powers now algorithmic rather than spiritual.”
Ideally, it shouldn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. As the Book tells us (II, v. 17), “Fear not at all; fear neither men nor Fates, nor gods, nor anything. Money fear not, nor laughter of the folk folly, nor any other power in heaven or upon the earth or under the earth. Nu is your refuge as Hadit your light; and I am the strength, force, vigour, of your arms.”
But in reality, we still have to deal with “the world” as it presents itself to us, and even the tiny spiritual elite, the servants “few & secret” (I, v. 10) can’t escape the conventional requirements of getting through a life. Incarnation and anxiety are virtually inseparable. But if the paradigm that prevailed until a quarter-century ago gave us some support in developing individual selfhood, separate from the scowling Abrahamic God, the current one tends to leave us bleeding, in the psychic or etheric sense, from a thousand tiny puncture-wounds. Its very inter-activity exhausts us rather than helping us sort out how to act, and it also fuels micro-communities that seethe with paranoid ideas.
Sacases notes, “The Digital City disabuses its citizens of such notions. They know they are dependent and vulnerable, enmeshed in systems beyond their capacity to master.” And he further comments, “This new social order is hyper-pluralistic, a place of ceaseless and irresolvable conflict. Our identities take shape as we self-select into ever more narrow subcultures, and we are then drawn together in public forums lacking a sense of a greater whole to which we might all belong.”
I’m not trying to use Sacasas to “explain” the turmoil in cities in the US and around the world this past week: there are other factors arising out of the need to express True Will fuelling that. But in recent times, we’ve all felt we have to combat an impossibly complex and contradictory mass of information. We try hard not to get myself trapped in one political, social or spiritual perspective, since all of them can be provisional, but the effort to grasp the broader range of viewpoints can feel exhausting. This is particularly so when you realise a specific standpoint arises as much from stupidity and ignorance as its does from any positive or creative aim. You can dispute an interpretation of facts, but it’s hard to dispute assertions arising from fantasy.
A lot of Sacasas’ essay covers old ground about online alienation; it’s the analysis that’s helpful. Most critically, the insight that our conceptions of selfhood, and how those selves fit into the current world, are under attack, is the big take-away from a Thelemic perspective.
“One way to understand our moment is to recognize that digital technology is reconfiguring the nature of the self that enters into the political arena, even as it restructures the arena itself,” Sacasas says. “The contrast between those who mainly inhabit the Digital City and those who still primarily inhabit the Analog City becomes increasingly stark. Simple appeals to conventions and solutions grounded in the Analog City now ring hollow. The old virtues and ideals, as well as the institutions they sustained, have lost their purchase on the imagination.”
Sacasas’ Christian perspectives aside, you can take that in the crudest sense: that boomers really do need to get out of the way, an idea, as a boomer myself, that I’m not strongly against. Thelema moves ahead; it doesn’t plant its flag in the ground and refuse to budge. At the same time, by letting the Digital City make us focus too strongly on the ephemeral Now, and on the ideas that are deemed fashionable or essential this month, we lose our sense of our total self as opposed to the social one. Spiritual reality is found in the Now, to be sure; but we verify it as universally applicable and truly authentic – not just currently relevant– by its connection to our past, recent and distant, as well as to the unimaginable future.
Hence to return to the first paragraph, memorising a text isn’t just a chore sent to try our determination. It anchors us outside the superficial Now, and it’s critical in reinforcing our sense of the roots of our own being.
Love is the law, love under will,