Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

The morphology of two spiritual technologies: the Modern Olympics and Scientology

1908 Olympics poster, Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A hidden vision

With the Olympics in full swing, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on the perhaps forgotten history of this massively successful revival culture.

Today the Olympics might seem like a technocratic affair. Beneath the sediment of the results fetishism, however, lies a story about an anachronistic vision for a sporting festival, driven by a moral, historical, spiritual and aesthetic vision. The unlikelihood of the global synchronising power of the modern Olympics ought in this sense to be a reminder of the efficacy of dreams and, when humans are concerned, the regular slippage between the illusory and the real.

Designing spiritual technologies

In the Design Futuring subject I coordinate, students create something called a ‘diegetic prototype’ as part of their assignments. It’s basically a thing that tells a story about a world at some imaginative distance from the real or contemporary world. Rather than being limited to present day constraints, the purpose of a diegetic prototype is to give designers the opportunity to deliberately work outside those constraints. So the theory goes.

Because it’s a futuring subject, the instinct for many of the students, as with most people, is to design a computerised object that approaches human intelligence and/or allows humans to fulfil increasingly complex tasks with increasing ease. The students tend not to focus on spiritual technologies, or even the spiritual dimension of technology, which means a vast dimension of human practicing is neglected — not to mention the fact that present day constraints are heard very vocally in future visions filled with labour saving computers!

‘Sustaining in the Moonlight’, a diegetic prototype with a take on the future of cars that doesn’t involve autonomy, informed by the notion of spiritual technologies, by
Kiara Davis, Alexandra Shute. More examples here.

What do you mean by spiritual technologies? The students will typically ask, so I give them two examples: the modern Olympics and Scientology. Of course, I could choose many other examples from many other cultures. But these two, as demonstrated by Peter Sloterdijk in a distinctive comparison, are particularly illuminating case studies concerning the dynamics and morphology of human socio-technical systems in the twentieth century.

What makes Sloterdijk’s comparison so compelling is the inverted dynamic between the modern Olympics and Scientology concerning the relative roles of fiction and religion, and what this says about humans and their cultural niches more broadly. Stated most crudely: the Olympics began as a vision inspired by religion which then became a secular sporting festival, and scientology began as a work of science fiction and then, via psychotherapy, became an official religion — and a far more successful parody of the religious impulse than Ricky Gervais could ever pull off.

Rather than examine the two examples from a perspective defined by a division between the secular and religious, Sloterdijk examines both as of the same type and defined by three key ingredients: “a tightly organised illusion practicing society”; “a set of training instructions”, and a founder, or in his words: “a radically ironic, universally flexible business trainer who will stop at nothing, and demonstrates to his progeny what techniques one requires to survive in the jungle battle of egotisms”.

From my perspective, it’s the changes in the form of these spiritual technologies that makes them so interesting. In both instances, the plasticity of form — albeit it an intangible form or vision, a “dream machine” if you will — ought to be an invitation to fabricate forms of inspiration that go beyond the ‘computers that will make it easier to do things’ type.

A story of the modern Olympics

Pierre de Coubertin’s vision for the modern Olympics was inspired by his own to some extent artful interpretation of the role of physical education, or what he termed “athletic chivalry”, in the curriculum at Rugby school in England and the central role of sport in English culture more broadly — not least in its colonial endeavours, which were seen by de Coubertin as far more “successful” (an odd word to use in this context from our perspective today) than those of France on account of the soft artillery of English sports.

In particular, de Coubertin romanticised the legend of previous Rugby headmaster, Thomas Arnold, who, while not being entirely averse to sports as part of education, was far less enthusiastic on the matter than de Coubertin seemed to have imagined. The quote below is from de Courbertin’s speech at the Greek Liberal Club of Lausanne in 1918:

It was left to the great Englishman Thomas Arnold to take up the Greek work at the point where a hostile fate had interrupted it, and to clothe it in an educational form adapted to modern conditions. The world had forgotten how organised sport can create moral and social strength, and thereby plays a direct part in a nation’s destinies; had so far forgotten it that the spread of Arnold’s doctrines and example first in England and then throughout the British Empire was an almost unconscious process. Rugby School may thus be truly considered as the starting-point of the British revival. (de Courbertin, cited in Chatziefstathiou 67)

Nonetheless, de Coubertin’s visit to Rugby in the 1880s was not a fact-finding mission and he found there what he needed to help sustain a vision strong enough to get him through the initial disappointment of physical education not being included in the French school curriculum, as he had hoped, and onto instigating arguably the greatest cultural revival of modern times.

Now that the Olympics is a run-of-the-mill affair every four years it is perhaps easy to overlook the massive global success of the event and the improbability of de Coubertin’s moral and aesthetic vision to have such binding and impactful force — in both communist and democratic nations, and everything in-between. Although this aspect of the games might be obscured beneath the current spectacle, the Olympics testifies to the power of a purposefully rendered ideal as a globally binding force. The games perhaps no longer seems like a staged revival of ancient culture — it just happens, we take it for granted. De Coubertin had to sculpt and communicate his vision — he’s been claimed retrospectively as a brilliant social marketer (Chatziefstathiou 2007) — and that vision was in significant part informed by a certain relationship between physical from (muscle), performance or ability, and spirit (Olympism as an ideal, as body animated by specific values).

The Scientology comparison

Scientology emerged from very different cultural ferment to the Modern Olympics. If religion and self-improvement are the common ground, then cybernetics, psychoanalysis, and science fiction are influences peculiar to this more recently founded illusion practicing community. Rather than developing humans and society through sport, scientology centres on a certain conception of the human brain and the associated speculative, psycho-technic explorations into error-correcting systems in the postwar period.

The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was a rampant bricoleur who paid no heed to the conventions of genre which typically partition fiction from fact. It’s difficult to separate Hubbard’s incessant desire to found a community to infect with his illusions and the quality of those illusions themselves. No doubt his early science fictions were in part a training ground for the peculiar omnipotence of thought experienced by an author over the worlds they create and the related though distinct task of ‘programming’ a book with a believable form of artificial intelligence — whether in the form of characters or narrative voice. The implicit psycho-technical element of all fiction writing in Hubbard’s case then became an explicit effort to found a practical psychotherapeutic technique (known a ‘dianetics’ — deliberately echoing ‘cybernetics’), and then, for the purpose of tax exemption, a cult religion, which combined the worldbuilding talents of his science fiction writing practice with the pragmatic, distinctively American creolisation of psychoanalyisis deployed for the purpose of spiritual purification through success.

Sloterdijk points to the shared historical ecology of scientology and cybernetics in postwar America, and suggests that Hubbard “unmistakably belongs to the turbulences set off by the irruption of cybernetics into the domain of metaphysical classicism” (2013, 99). Hubbard’s first fictive, then psychological, and finally religious explorations of the virtual, and the dreams of accessing a superhuman form of intelligence, are in this sense different responses to the same “wholesale defamiliarization of mankind’s store of mental and spiritual traditions” that came with the long duration of scientific and technological changes in the modern period (2013, 99).

Evil saltine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


So where does this bastard history of spiritual technologies leave us today? Perhaps we now live in a global context that is too cacophonous and volatile for there to be any hope of reviving the ‘‘idealistic internationalisms’’ (Hoberman 1995) of the first part of the twentieth century? Perhaps the contrast between the distinctively modern Olympics and the distinctive postmodern Scientology and their respective historical chronologies is testament to this? Perhaps. It is, however, very hard to get a grasp on just how synchronised the planet is globally in comparison to earlier periods, particularly when social media and the media generally to some extent runs on expressions of divisiveness and the associated drama, even though the broader reality might be a cohesion-division dynamic tending towards harmony. Many segments of the population remain astounded by the fact that other spiritual technologies manage to insulate subcultural groups from each other so effectively. But if we were to view the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to other historical examples, there is compelling evidence to suggest that the speed and scale of human, national, institutional, technological and media organisation testifies to unprecedented powers of synchronisation — albeit perhaps for largely pragmatic, rather than spiritual, ends.

The challenge for the problem of climate change, Kevin Rudd’s “great moral challenge”, is perhaps finding the right set of training instructions, the right visions with which to support and sustain our minds (War on Waste), and the right founder figure, though Greta Thunberg seems as good a candidate as any Hubbard or de Coubertin?



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Tom Lee

Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz.