Some have suggested that there is nothing inherently “evil” (not my term) or uncivil about referring to a philosophical position as a “cult” or a “mysticism”. It seems to me that this is dishonest in the extreme. Why are terms like this intrinsically discussion enders? Here, I think, we should take a page from Foucault’s History of Madness. How do terms like this actually function within discourse? What is their semiotics? What do they do? Following Foucault’s analysis of attributions of madness in The History of Madness, these terms function to silence the possibility of those to whom they are attributed to speak. Once one falls within the classification of “madness”, they no longer have a voice, become objects in the pejorative sense, and are no longer capable of participation in the discourse within which they are enmeshed. In Spivak’s memorable phrase (warning, pdf), the mad have been reduced to permanent subaltern status, unable to articulate themselves or participate in public discourse because their speech has been, a priori, excluded from from participation.
Terms such as “cult” or “mysticism” function in exactly the same way. If one is branded as belonging to a cult they have been excluded from discourse a priori, their dismissal has been authorized a priori because, to use Morton’s term, they have been classified as “nutters”. They can be treated as objects of discourse, without being included as participants in discourse. “Oh, they’re just a cult.” In this regard, calls for members of the cult to “show their papers” (“prove me wrong”, the original post asked, despite being referred to places where this could be done), are again dishonest because “members of the cult” have already been relegated to subaltern status and are therefore incapable of speaking and therefore incapable of producing counter-arguments. Like fodder for the psychiatrist’s case studies, the speech or utterances of the subaltern is placed not on equal footing with other participants in the discourse, but as yet more fodder for their classification within the subaltern category.
This is the way in which what Deleuze and Guattari call “order-words” function within discourse. In “The Postulates of Discourse” (A Thousand Plateaus), Deleuze and Guattari argue that “order-words” bring about “incorporeal transformations” in the bodies upon which they befall. They change nothing physically in those bodies, but they change everything in the position of those bodies within collective assemblages of enunciation. When, for example, a justice of the peace says “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the legal status of these two individuals fundamentally changes. Likewise, when a judge pronounces a guilty status, the status of the person changes fundamentally. So too with order-words like “cult” and “mysticism”. These are rhetorical order-words designed to undermine the possibility of speech and public participation.
What is interesting is the question of why these particular order-words are appearing at this particular juncture. What other set of concerns is giving rise to this particular set of rhetorical maneuvers. We’ve seen appeals to authority and cottage industries. We’ve seen references to “new kids on the block”. Perhaps these rhetorical strategies appear at precisely this point because it’s become clear that certain arguments simply don’t hold up under scrutiny. Faced with the failure of those arguments, the inability for certain positions to be cogently be defended, and the revelation that they are merely “world-pictures” and assertions, the only thing left is a rhetorical strategy that attempts to position the interlocutor in subaltern status. That something like this is going on is all the more clear from the fact that said persons have been referred to those places where these issues are treated, yet then mock those referrals with claims to the effect that “you’re just asking me to read something else”. This underlines the fact that they were never interested in responses to begin with.