The Two-Handed Demons
Wisdom vs Parasitic Ambidextrous Collective Intelligences
Q: What’s your take on Egregores?
Like a Phillip K. Dick short story, these substack articles are meant to be delivery vehicles for particular concepts. Although I might include much information and weave it together through extraordinary prose and strange links, this is all meant to smuggle a single idea into your subconscious mind. Usually I don’t overtly tell you what that “vitamin” is but today I will — ambidextrous mass formations. Everything else in this article is just delicious bonus material.
Egregores are getting popular because it is definitely a cool, exotic word — ripped off from occult lore — pointing to a real social problem (i.e. entity-like forces emerging from collective thoughts). This seemingly ludicrous notion has been largely ignored by modern/conventional rational analysis but that kind of analysis is not really solving our collective problems so we might feel intrigued by the possibility of swaying into more poetic, magickal or shamanic strategies. Hence: egregores.
Personally, I used to treat egregores as a charming joke but I have been taking them much more seriously since an incident that occurred recently during the RESPOND Event at the Monastic Academy in rural Vermont.
Do you know the event?
Nine theorist-practitioners (incuding the Zen adept who created the monastery) were asked to spend a week engaged in focused group flow states & intersubjective dia-logos to generate the initial material for a wisdom-based “meta-curriculum.” Audacious. Fun. An honor to be invited, etc. And I have a certain fondness for the monastic lifestyle.
During one of these group sessions, my regard for the general topic of egregores, collective hypersubjects & techno-social demons suddenly got a little more serious...
2.0 An Embarassment of Demons
A few months ago (unless you’re reading this in the far future) I appeared as a guest teacher for the Core Self course on Bonitta’s Roy’s online school. We discussed the various empowering and disempowering ways that people think about the causal agency of social holons, mass movements, collective enitites, etc. Egregores. Entities that seem to exist via the shared thoughts and actions of multiple sapient beings.
Bonnie was concerned that the very notion of egregores might make people passive by transfering the locus of their agency onto epiphenomenal non-agents. I was more inclined to think that we become individually empowered by taking this extra imaginal layer of entities into our serious play. But despite my interest in shamanic, occult and anomalous entities generaly, I was not actually very concerned about this topic. It seemed, at best, like an area of intellectual play worth exploring merely because it had been coming up in certain liminal web discourses.
Here’s why that changed for me:
During the final day of full sessions at the Monastery, there was a lot of focus on existential risk (“x risk”) and cultural decay as problems facing the production of wisdom in the world. There was a main discussion group and a breakway alternative group. The breakaway group consisted of myself, developmental Parkcour instructor Rafe Kelley (Evolve/Move/Play) and the founder of Aletheia Coaching Steve March.
As we three tried to figure out what complementary value we could add to the main discussion, our discourse began to veer, as though directed by another force, off in an odd direction.
“We can’t go back to the main group and say: DEMONS! Can we?” I asked.
As the dialogos pulsed back and forth through each of us, we kept expressing surprise and even vexation at the emergent themes. We kept thinking we were joking but then actually taking it seriously. The major threat to wisdom today, we said, comes from parasitic social organisms.
These quasi-entities are dominating the social, technological & media landscape in a world which, owing to increasing automation, catastrophism and informational opacity, is operating in deeply superstitious manner.
Unless the advocates of development, wisdom, sanity, health, awakening, etc. are prepared to take this seriously and even invoke the magical tools (ritual, talisman, protective spells, blessing forces) found in earlier forms of wisdom traditions, then the influence of compassionate metacognition on human civilization is likely to falter dramatically.
Could we put together a contemporary medicine bag of psychosocial emergency preparedness techniques grounded in a sane, neurologically-informed re-appreciation of old schemes for empowering “villagers against demons?”
We peered very seriously into this question. And I am still peering into it…
3.0 Mythopoetic Phrasing
Demon struck us as a dangerous word.
Easy to misuse. Yet perhaps important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it comes with a built-in narrative power that may make it easier for pro-wisdom agents to use it memetic battles. Secondly, it is vivid, salient, evocative — historically able to alert pepole to dangerous forces operating outside of individual human agency.
We hope that people pull together under adversity but we know that most of us become less conscious and less capable and more reactive when stressed. And so we need to take seriously the idea that “bad ideas” might be drawn to our most anxious social moments as if they were vampirically feeding on our souls. We need to be very careful about how ideas move through people in times of instability.
Under COVID, for example, we saw that a few people thrived but many others swayed into depression, addiction & irrationalism because they were cut off from their normal forms of social engagement and collective sensemaking. They became easy prey.
Actually it requires a lot from people to maintain a life of social, intellectual, meditative and physical exercise that meets their minimum needs for stability, agency and inner worth. Most people have only a tenuous grip on these factors which can be snatched away by any real crisis or by the next wave of social media hysteria and cultural polarization.
The “culture wars” are not only a low-grade form of political discourse, they are also a very real way to undermine our capacity to feel connected to our fellow citizens while simultaneously provoking in anxieties that we cannot solve.
Therefore we become likely to discharge this subconscious distress against our symbolic enemies — who we suspect of thwarting our obedient participation in symbolic but very serious-feeling schemes for establishing benevolent security and control.
These waves of intense or moderate cultural madness, these tornado vortecies of the shared information space, have real deleterious effects on real human beings. But this is a hard risk to see coming and to take seriously. Even fairly wise and well-informed people are often caught off guard by irrational social fads. So how do we keep ourselves alert to these historically real patterns of psychosocial danger?
Maybe we should call these things “demons” just to keep the danger vividly in mind?
4.0 Seeing the World as Reciprocal Vision-Logic Structures
So our break-away dialogue group had a lot of agreement on these topics. Interestingly, one outstanding area remained inconclusive:
Are demons ambidextrous?
(Just to be crystal clear, I am using the word “demon” as a vivid way to describe the degenerative influence of groups, apps, fads, teams, digital devices, etc. The current article says nothing, either way, about the possibility of inherently malevolent or evolutionarily degenerative subtle energy swarms or intentional beings. That discussion is for another day — if anyone asks me about it. Today we are talking about patterns of social momentum similiar to what has been decribed as mass hysteria, group psychosis and mass formation.)
Rafe suggested that these pseudo-entites are engaged in rivalrous conflict. This is the straightforward view. Woke vs MAGA. Polarization occurs as struggle between the various egegrores. And certainly that resembles many things we see in the natural environment. However, my suspicion is different:
Building on the idea that a wise mind tends to see the world in higher-order reciprocal patterns (yin/yang, non/dual, un/certain, middle path, dialogue), I want us to at least consider the possibilty that the polarized struggle is a facade. We may be dealing with pseudo-entites that have both left & right hands.
The two pedals of a bicycle are not “competing.”
They pull in opposite directions in order to collaboratively establish movment in a hybrid direction. Nature is full of these hybrids. Our human body is an excellent example of an evolved form that has two eyes, two hands, two brain hemispheres, etc.
And even socially, we can see that the system in which Democrats and Republicans operate was set up intentionally to be metastable as a result of struggle between opposed parties. A binary political ethos subsumes everyone into a common “bipartisan” agenda by picking them up on both sides and then driving toward the middle through fear of radicalization and ultimately passing only the legislation with that is mostly palatable to economic sponsors on both sides.
Although it is not true that both parties are always equally bad, nonetheless it is not merely cynical to observe that we may be embedded in a process that tries to get us from both ends!
5.0 Mass Formation
I first began pondering this problem after watching Brett Weinstein interview Professor Mattias Desmet about his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism.
Weinstein’s justified sense of having been unjustly demonized for the work that he and his wife did during COVID — leveraging expertise in evolutionary biology to convene an ongoing, open-minded and sometimes gullible inquiry into the disease, the legitimacy of the institutionally affirmed studies and government interventions & the often irrational waves of social reactions — dovetailed nicely with Desmet’s focus on how group psychosis (“mass formation”) is still alive and well.
We all shake our contemporary heads at witch hunts, the 30 years war, Nazi Germany, the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, etc. Why do we think that’s a thing of that past? We’ve still got the same brains and social incentives as our periodically crazed & scapegoating ancestors.
Desmet believes that it is actually even more dangerous now — because the more economic and technological environment creates an atomized, lonely, mistrustful, aggrieved, unealthy population with insufficntly nourishing social relationships. These are exaggeraetd preconditions that (historically) tend to make even rational people become unwitting participants in irrational fads of scorn, control & team-membership.
It is a fascinating podcast if you get the chance. Desmet stresses the element of self-destruction implicit in such movements while Brett tries to make a case for perverse incentives in evolutionary biology that make these events narrowly rational in certain ways.
Generally, however, they both end up commiserating about suppressive, irrational, unscientific “follow the science” monological pro-Vaxx populations who reactively demonize all dissenting opinions. And I don’t disagree — it’s just incomplete...
The majority of the people who felt aggrieved by conspiratorial forces of lockdown and vaccination were not wise, natural, freedom-loving citizens but they were the equal and opposite form of irrational, faddish, conformist, symbolic polarization.
I see these forces as being on the same team. Pushing for the same result by the same methods. Operating in tandem. An egregore with two-hands.
But this idea does not even come up for Desmet and Weinstein. It does not occur to them that a mass formation might always (or even sometimes) have two opposite positions within itself. Maybe the demon is feeding upon you at the very moment that you feel “sides” exist?
If it takes two to tango, then is the egregore one of those dancers— or is it the tango?
For me, MAGA & Woke generally describe the same type of behavior using different slogans. During the Cold War there appear to have been TWO complementary forms of nuclear-imperialistic bureaucratic industrial empires who both justified their behavior as the alternative to the other one. Could they have been a single force with a left & right brain? Catholic vs Protestant. Sunni vs Shia.
This doesn’t imply that every time you find “sides” that they are equal or secretly in cahoots but it does suggest that you ought to consider that where you see an apparent struggle — it could be dynamic collusion. This apparently complex behavior is build into surprisingly simple layers of physical and biological reality.
Whenever you think you correcting THEIR imbalance, it would be wise to pause and consider whether your activity is co-creating the imbalance…
6.0 Note to the Wise
>Walking one evening along a deserted road, Sufi saint Mulla Nasruddin saw a troop of horsemen rapidly approaching. His imagination started to work; he saw himself captured or robbed or killed and frightened by this thought he bolted, climbed a wall into a graveyard, and lay down in an open grave to hide. Puzzled at his bizarre behavior, the horsemen – honest travelers – followed him. They found him stretched out, tense, and shaking. “What are you doing in that grave? We saw you run away. Can we help you? Why are you here in this place?” “Just because you can ask a question does not mean that there is a straightforward answer to it,” said Nasruddin, who now realized what had happened. “It all depends upon your viewpoint. If you must know, however, I am here because of you – and you are here because of me!”
This famous comic paradox from Sufi lore hints at the need for the “wise” (whoever is audacious enough to think they want wisdom) to think in terms of paradox, reciprocal functions, oppositional structures, complementary parts, etc.
If I was running the Illuminati (hint) I would ALWAYS constructed a mainstream progapagand lie AND an alternative propaganda lie. I don’t want to declude only half the population, I want to delude nearly the whole population — in their appropiately polarized styles.
I want all the people who think they’ve “discovered the truth that has been missed by the other half” to fall into my lovely clutches…