Sunday, February 1, 2009

Sugar Taoism and the Secret of Wealth

There is no good reason to watch the interminable (8 minute) video below. A summary will do. An inarticulate man in a posture of improvised authority --out in nature, on a woodbridge over a stream, and wearing what appear to be archaic robes of some kind-- makes an extemporaneous list of things which were formerly thought impossible but which have since become routine.

After listing a few formerly "impossible" things, such as a terabite disc, cell phones, "a person of African descent as President," and so on, the magician (his word -- the title is "Taoism, Magic, Alchemy, and the Impossible") unveils his marvel of insight: "It was all possible all along!" The implication is of course that anything which currently seems impossible might be --and perhaps he means must be-- possible already and likely to occur in the future. Applying this to one's own life, one ought to assume that anything one really, really wants to possess or achieve is in fact within one's eventual grasp, despite all appearances to the contrary.

This will not do.

Elsewhere in this same video, he makes a claim that pops up almost every time somebody engages in this sort of thing: "I am sharing a big secret." Of course there was recently (in 2007) a mountain of money made by one Rhonda Byrne, Executive Producer of The Secret, a book and DVD (and so on) whose central premise was that, in the words of Jiminy Cricket (as quoted often by James Howard Kunstler), "When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true." The premise of that film was so obscene that it prompted formidable responses from critics who were shocked by its vulgarity. Here's an example of what The Secret looks and sounds like, before we return to our Taoist hierophant:

As I watch this, I can hardly believe that it isn't a parody. The schmalz music, the soaring camera techniques, the commanding all-caps typeface are enough to suggest that it must be a joke, but those elements come down to taste (and to targetted marketing aimed at the people who enjoy that sort of thing -- remember the snazzy computer graphics logos from the network news shows during the 1991 Gulf War? Classy!) Quite apart from that dopey decor, the sheer absurdity of the words is staggering. I use words like "vulgar" and "obscene" because from my perspective, one ought not to admit that one's chief concern is merely to become wealthy; one ought not tell others that one is unacquainted with everything that keeps us sane and safe: the limitations of human nature; the boundaries of the ego; the competing claims of altruism, cooperation, and competition; and perhaps most importantly, the consistent and universal physical characteristics of the world which make its behavior partially predictable and amenable to human plans, prudence, and adaptation. The person who holds all boundaries in contempt -- regarding them as either unjust or illusory -- is a bad neighbor, because he will think nothing of crossing the threshold of your home in the night and eating your stash of jelly donuts. Such a person tends to believe that he is entitled to break boundaries because he has ceased to respect them. Only belief is real: I no longer believe that what's yours is not mine, but I still believe that donuts are yummy; ergo, I eat your puffy little friends right out of your refrigerator. I "manifest" your donuts right into my tummy.
The Secret comes from the same intellectual black hole that brought those ubiquitous Marlboro matchbooks of the 1990's that shouted: "NO BOUNDARIES." The phrase was supposed to suggest --in the words of Nicholas Cage's character in Wild at Heart-- "individual liberty and personal freedom": to wit, the freedom to kill oneself with cancer & to enjoy the genuinely pleasurable effects of tobacco (if there were boundaries, there would be no second-hand smoke). Fine. The interesting part of "No Boundaries" was that we were all expected to regard it as an obviously good thing. In marriage, no boundaries means adultery and betrayal; in the workplace, inadequate boundaries permit union busting, child labor, the 12 hour workday, and embezzlement; in the family, no boundaries means incest and madness; in the state, lawlessness; in the market, thievery; in finance, deregulation and the resulting orgy of fraud amid whose consequences the floating fragments of the American economy are even now washing toward the sea of oblivion. I doubt that the Marlboro Red smokers who identified with "NO BOUNDARIES" would be content to see that slogan implemented along the lengthy area where the Arizona desert meets northern Mexico.
But The Secret is easy to attack, and as I mentioned, it's been done well many times already. I'm more interested in the fake Taoist guy. The Secret was 2007, before the crash began to accelerate. This dude is doing his thing in 2009, whistling "Wish Upon A Star" while the roar of reality's cat-5 shitstorm is more deafening every day. Although this fellow presents himself and his work as an Asian phenomenon, it has little-to-nothing to do with the originary and mature Taoism of Lao Tze, and much more in common with, well, The Secret, which itself derives from the business classic by JFK-bashing bigot Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952). That book was a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson's sermon/essay "Self-Reliance" (1830), with the difference that Emerson's essay was vividly aware of its own contradictions and ironies, heroically integrating them into the grand sweeping arc of its argument. In Emerson there is tragedy and joy; in Peale, a desperate utilitarian cheerfulness nearly bursting with repressed hostility.
The fractal, protean, generative and dialectical quality of Emerson has something in common with the Tao Teh Ching of Lao Tze -- perhaps the best book ever written. Both are texts in which striving and loss are somehow seen to be aspects of the same thing; with the difference that whereas the ancient Chinese founder of Taoism seems to suggest that one ought to avoid loss by refraining from strife, the 19th Century Methodist American draws the contrary conclusion: that one must strive in such a way as to accept the inevitable losses which come with ambition and desire.

The claim that everything is always already possible amounts to contempt for the facts, and contempt for the adults whose work represents serious engagement with the Real. As the Aristotelian Stephen Daedalus says about his Platonist bosses in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, "That they may dream their dreamy dreams, I carry off their filthy streams."

It's 2009. Everybody's getting swamped by tidal waves of debt. The old game can no longer be counted upon to continue indefinitely. Keen observers have been writing and speaking for years about the pathology of endless economic growth, its similarity to cancer, to a Ponzi scheme, to the Roman Empire that collapsed because of military overstretch, ecological depletion, and the diminishing returns of complexity and expansion. These days, subscribers to and are no longer the only ones who realize that endless growth on a finite planet is suicide. One need no longer be Joseph Tainter, William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Mark Robinowitz, Jared Diamond or James Lovelock to realize the real secret hidden under miles and miles and miles of industrial & "post-consumer" waste:


Now along comes our friend the magician with the claim that wealth comes from pretending that you are about to receive it. He is, of course, an example of the truth of his own claims (which is why he believes them). After all, with no inherently valuable goods to offer for sale -- such as clothes, bread, novels, furniture, and so on -- nor any services of unimpeachable value -- such as sewing, baking, writing, craftsmanship -- he creates wealth out of thin air plus cheerful ambition. How? By persuading other people -- for a fee -- that wealth comes from a combination of thin air and cheerful ambition:


  1. who puts donuts in the refrigerator?!? ;-)

  2. While it is certainly true that that which is most valuable comes from the earth, money is generated and passed from hand to hand in one giant Ponzi scheme. Kurt Vonegut wrote about finding someone to teach him to drink from money river. Apparently this "taoist monk" and the author of "the Secret" have found the way to the flow. There's nothing wrong with wishing for wealth, although there is no ethical way of gaining it while respecting everyone's bounderies. There is much exploitation in this giant Ponzi scheme, one just needs to decide who they are willing to exploit. And try not to hurt the bystanders.

  3. The person who holds all boundaries in contempt -- regarding them as either unjust or illusory -- is a bad neighbor, because he will think nothing of crossing the threshold of your home in the night and eating your stash of jelly donuts. Such a person tends to believe that he is entitled to break boundaries because he has ceased to respect them.

    Yes, and did you notice that guy in The Secret video stole that magic lamp?


    this is beautiful Jamey. it goes right to the heart of so many of the problems we face today.

    off topic, this led me to thinking about how it is that much of the earth's wealth comes from the sun. and that asking "how much" doesn't really make sense, because you are just falling back to thinking in the same dissective terms that led to the misunderstandings about labor and capitol in the first place. or something like that.


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