Clinic essay-header

New Age Culture

by Jay Kinney

Everyday through all frustration and despair
Love and hate fight with burning hearts
Till legends live and man is god again
(and self preservation rules the day no more)
We must dream of promised lands and fields
That never fade in season . . .
"Love Like Blood,"
—Killing Joke

The ads seem to say it all - or do they? "Enhance your life and raise your consciousness with Gemstone Candles." "Extraterrestrial Walk-ins in Service to Earth's Awakening." "Brain Booster Breakthrough! Astounding sound technology zaps stress, boosts brainpower, and unleashes extraordinary mental abilities. It's turning fat people thin and office clerks into mental millionaires." "Consult the I CHING: Guidance * Advice * Enlightenment . . . 1-900-USA-4000."

To be honest, I didn't really expect to be sitting here writing about New Age culture in 1989. Twenty years ago I was convinced that the Broadway Musical "Hair" had pulverized for all time the concept of an imminent Age of Aquarius, and ten years ago I was certain that the "Me" decade was about to collapse under the onslaught of Sex Pistols and safety pins from the U.K. Well, the joke's on me.

Say what you will about the New Age — and most people I know have little good to say — the concept certainly has staying power. These days anything that lasts in the imagination and memory of the body public for longer than a year or two has either struck some deep chord worth looking into or has an awfully good public relations agency at work behind the scenes. (Shirley MacLaine probably has both, but I'll get to that later.)

Before confusion ensues, let's define terms. What's come to be called New Age emerged in the Sixties when the tidal wave of Eastern spiritual teachers first hit America's shores. Parallel to this, and fueled in part by the same energy liberated by the liberal use of psychedelics, the human potential movement began to redefine psychology. Add to those two ingredients an amorphous utopianism that expressed itself in everything from the Vietnam peace movement and the McGovern campaign to the more recent "We are the World" benefit, and you have the skeletal frame upon which the New Age has hung its hopeful meat.

Just as the New Left in the 60's served as a generic label covering everyone with radical pretensions from the berserker Weathermen and Yippies to the careful academics of Studies on the Left and the Socialist Scholars Conferences, so the New Age in the 80's has become an umbrella covering CDs, videos, crystals, books, seminars, channelers, astrologers, UFOs, and transpersonal psychologists. If the overarching image of the 60's was Huey Newton in black leather sitting in a rattan chair, armed with rifle and sneer, the premiere image of the 80's has become an interchangeable psychic cum workshop leader beaming unconditional love at us in a white suit and tie.

Judging from what transpired around the end of the first millennium, it wouldn't have taken a genius to predict that the symbolic import of the year 2000 would engender a new wave of millenarian yearning. Such yearnings seem to take both pessimistic and optimistic forms. It may be a tough pill to swallow for those both inside and outside of New Age culture to realize that the New Age may be this millennium's optimism of choice. For those of us who are busy being pessimistic over the Greenhouse Effect, the Arms Race, and the Destruction of the Rainforests, the fragile hope of the New Agers' paradigm shifts and Harmonic Convergences seems little more than an irritating whistling in the dark. Consequently, what a bring-down for all concerned to consider that both end-of-the-worldism and new-ageism alike may be inchoate responses to an impending string of symbolic zeroes.

However, just as the fact that classic adolescent horniness may be "caused" by rampant hormones doesn't make the sexual urge any less real, laying the New Age at the doorstep of the millennium doesn't make it (or the A-bombs) go away. So, assuming that the New Age is here for the duration, like an arranged marriage, there may be no course left but to learn to love it.

New Age: how can I stand thee? Let me count the ways . . .

For starters let's note that the preoccupations of mass culture are insufficient for the task of providing meaning to most people's lives. Even the deepest and most resonant expressions of that culture (say, the Beatles or Willie Nelson, to use two ubiquitious examples) only reflect their fans' fragmented lives back at them and stop far short of providing any sort of answer to the ever-present question: "what the fuck?"

Judging from their output, most journalists and intellectuals operate from the assumption that access to the facts, a critical intelligence operating on all 8 pistons, and a sophisticated political analysis are what it takes for the masses to cut through the fog and wake up (i.e. vote Democratic). In other words, secular humanism would save the day if only we'd lock the TV on PBS and read between the lines in The Nation.

Yet neither newly-unearthed John Lennon tapes nor Alex Cockburn's nostalgia for the days when Kim Philby used to bounce him on his knee are capable of addressing one's darkest doubts about God, the world, or one's self. Only a hard-won sense of one's place in the cosmos and of the basic coherence of existence can provide an emotional and spiritual anchor for those adrift on the sea of alienation.

Mainstream religion used to provide this service of personal and cultural integration, but its allure has badly faded of late. Into this vacuum the verities of New Age philosophy have rushed, and if you find the prospect of building your world around Ramtha's kernals of wisdom to be laughable, just try wresting some solace out of Jimmy Swaggart or, conversely, Madeline Murray O'Hair.

New Age philosophy at least has the virtue of suggesting that the events of one's life form part of a bigger picture that is not at the mercy of Biblical scripture or of the scientists in lab coats, but rather is prefigured in one's dreams and is responsive to one's own efforts. This strays remarkably close to earlier eras' ideas of prayer and divine grace, but with God turned into an admittedly fuzzy Essence.

In giving shape to these spiritual aspirations, the purveyors of New Age philosophy seem to fall prey to the notion, born out of market research, that only the most generic euphemisms for religious concepts are capable of scoring the biggest ratings. Talking about God in any specific sense might squelch the momentum and hurt sales, after all. This obsession with quantity which seems to characterize the New Age is cea certain quantitative point a critical mass in human consciousness is reached and a profound change in world consciousness occurs) is first cousin to the Marxist fixation on dialectical leaps (i.e., revolutions) occuring when enough workers gain class consciousness.

Similarly, the preoccupation of the visionary-planners of wannabe mass events such as the Harmonic Convergence or Meditations for World Peace with insuring cosmic success and world change through sheer numbers of mellow meditators harkens back to the ballyhooed birth of "Woodstock Nation" at Yasgir's farm which was slated to win the election for McGovern in 1972. Well, hope does spring eternal, eh?

Indeed, to contemplate New Age culture in all its manifestations and commodities is to waltz with the ghost of that earlier stab at social overhaul — the Counterculture. Perhaps it is my still-sharp memory of being dizzily seduced by that particular revolutionary mirage, only to be left standing at the altar that has made me skeptical about claims for the New Age.

A concern with self-knowledge, with spiritual paths, and with alternatives to materialism and war; I find these New Age elements attractive and important. However, these the marketing of the New Age and will no doubt outlast it. The much-touted prospect of heightened global consciousness or of paradigms ashifting contributes little to the tasks at hand apart from a sense of momentum which is certainly good for sales and self-hypnosis.

The star-crossed proponents of Marxism-Leninism in the 1970s had a derogatory term for this kind of thinking — "premature triumphalism" — which they usually threw at boisterous radicals who spoke as if the revolution was just around the corner. Burnout and despair are the eventual fruits of such unearned optimism when the earth fails to shift on its axis and life goes on as usual.

Like all the other social movements of our era, there is an extremely fine line between creating a momentum with which to attract the media's attention and then taking the media-generated imageement "leaders" decide that there should be a movement, present themselves to the media as voices for the movement, attract crowds to demonstrations (or to buy products as the case may be), and then continue to speak of the movement as an ongoing force long after the crowds have gone home. Yet if one can speak of a movement at all, it has little to do with the leaders, the ideology, or the demonstrations. Rather it has to do with a large segment of the population changing its everyday behavior because it simply seems like the sensible thing to do.

In this sense, if there is a New Age movement, it is embodied in a large chunk of people operating from a deeper set of values than one usually runs into in the mainstream culture, which may be fine and dandy but it has little or nothing to do with New Age stars booked into Whole Life Expos, workshops dwelling on paradigm shifts, and simultaneous mass events.

Yet ironically, given our cultural impulse to testify to our states with the acquisition of symbolic knick- knacks, the onslaught of lavender mandalas, dolphin mugs, and holographic paperweights is certain proof of something afoot in the collective unconscious. The map may not be the territory, but neither dit invalidate the territory.

What we have here is one of those eruptions of popular fervor and sentiment that gradually transcend all restraints of taste or decorum. Just as the women's movement, at its peak, gave birth to true believers whose idea of good-looking street wear was shapeless sweatshirts emblazoned with giant silkscreened "Venus" symbols; and just as the anti-war movement gave us the sight of otherwise reasonable middle-aged men wearing giant carved-wood "peace signs" on leather cords hanging around their necks, so the New Age movement has evolved to the stage where its public presence ismired in tackiness.

Can this marriage be saved? Perhaps a trial separation is in order? I only have my own homegrown rules of thumb to offer for what they are worth.

  1. Beware of any product promising to change your life for the better. Only you can change your life and most products merely charge you money to tell you so.
  2. Beware of any product decorated with a photo of its creator beaming at you like a madman. "He who laughs has not heard the bad news."
  3. Beware of any psychic, channeler, or teacher who can afford to have a publicist. Related warning: avoid publicists who invoke the New Age within the first twenty seconds of speaking. In due course they may get the message and find a more productive job.
  4. Beware of getting sunstroke from philosophies that are all light and no darkness. You can't have the yang without the yin.
  5. Finally, beware of handy lists like this that purport to do your thinking for you. If this really is the New Age then you've got all the ingredients within to make up your own rules.

This article originally appeared in ArtPaper, April 1989. A slightly revised version of it was read at "Wildcat Words," San Francisco, 1993.

Reproduction is prohibited without permission of the author. Contact Jay Kinney.