Our Very Own Cargo Cult
Wagner, Roy, Oceania
Possibly the best place to begin with an understanding of 'cargo cults,' millenarian movements, and with the imitation of such phenomena in the very attempt to comprehend them, is with the idea of persuasion, or perhaps the will to persuasion in modern life. 'Belief' is less promising, in that it does not carry the credentials for its own conviction. But the fact that persuasion, from the days of Aristotle onwards, never works as it is intended to and has its greatest effect on the persuaders, qualifies it automatically for the role of arbiter. What does this mean? To the extent that the vast, worldwide communications industry, the media, the internet or Web, the ubiquitous 'sensory' modes and guidance-circuitries use 'information' or 'communication' as code-words for what is really going on, we live in a world that is actually created by the failure of persuasion. This means that we live in a world of information-stealth -- the half-truths of our lies and the lies of half-truth -- or what the CIA, or at leas t its critics, would call disinformation. I wouldn't be kidding you, now, would I?
Disinformation has a far more ambiguous or ambivalent effect than persuasion ever could have, and is both more informative and communicative than its buzz-word surrogates. Its works on a 'leakage' principle, partial truths leaked out in the telling of deliberate lies, and deliberate lies leaked in the telling of partial truths. It is motivated by goals and objectives that have nothing directly to do with either belief and conviction on one hand, or doubt and cynicism on the other; disinformation offers 'deniability' with both hands. 'It is either half true,' as the Viennese aphorist Karl Krauss said of the aphorism, 'or one-and-a-half times true.' So our modern version of it could well have begun in Vienna, possibly with Sigmund Freud. It is the essence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's philosophy, and of Neitzsche's anti-philosophy, and of what we most suspect about ourselves. We are unconvinced (e.g. 'Apathetic') on one hand, and overconvinced on the other, and the middle ground is the most contested of all.
So the classic cargo-cults would not necessarily have been from New Guinea, though they might be sighted there. Unidentified Flying Objects, UFOs, cut a very curious profile, regardless of what they might represent in modern history of persuasion, and one that is roughly coterminous with it. There were those enigmatic 'flying machines' with flashing port and starboard lights that appeared to midwestern farmers in the 1890s, crewed by ordinary human beings ('from upper New York State'), who claimed to have just invented them. There were the 'foo-fighters' and 'gremlins' of World War II. There was the Roswell Crash, the formation of saucers over Washington, D.C., there were the cylindrical craft that shot down MIGs over the Soviet Union. Later there were 'close encounters of the third kind,' disclosures about the beings inside the craft and the government's alleged abuse of them, unexplained suicides and telepathies. And of course there were the inevitable Conspiracy Theories -- those layman's equivalents of p ostmodern theory in anthropology. 'It is, or was, or will be only a trick,' but who could tell who was tricking whom? Famous astronomers, journalists, and psychologists were brought in to explain why UFOs couldn't exist; famous star clusters and suspicions about the universe were invoked to indicate why they must.
By now we have all kinds of phototrophic evidence for the various kinds of UFOs, and could publish a spotter's manual if necessary (like for enemy aircraft, except in this case we would have to know exactly who the enemy really is). We know exactly how they work (like the Starship Enterprise, if an account by Dr. Robert Lazar is to be believed), and we know so much about what their occupants look like that you can buy model kits. And if we do not give a damn for any of this knowledge (so remarkably like 'science,' so adroitly like mysticism), it is because the only issue that really matters is that of who is responsible for them. Who is disinforming whom?
Likewise there are theories about cargo-cults, and cargo-cults about those theories. The most important thing to keep in mind about them is that the specific ideology, informational content, and even the ethics or attitudes generated in this way, are far less significant than the classic UFO problem of who is responsible. What is the disinformation-circuitry really like? Is there any real difference between the alien coming from the stars and the alien who merely sees stars because of the Western technological impact.
We know far more about our consumer-products, corporate conspiracies, and political candidates than we would ever need to, or even want to know. We know more about world events than the people caught up in them, or at least seem to, and know more about UFOs and New Guinea cargo cults than the people inside them do. It is quite possible that this very surfeit of unusable knowledge has more to do with how products, corporations, political candidates, world events, UFOs, and cargo cults actually do work than we could ever imagine. Simply because we are what they work on, that is because we are at once both the targets and the agencies through which their 'persuasion' works. And if we should ask the question of who or what 'we' are supposed to be, that would involve us in yet another cargo-cult, called 'the social sciences.'
Disinformation rules the world, and it does so through 'deniability.' We know for a fact that every single trade, occupation, and especially profession has its secrets, known to its initiates and unknown to others. And that there are secrets within those secrets. What we call culture, society, art, science, and even religion, is the capitalization of those secrets, and the secret of their being secret at all. This has been true of 'our' civilization since at least the Guilds of the middle ages, and it seems to be true of all other civilizations as well. We do not know the formula for the 'Greek Fire' that the Byzantines use on invading fleets, or whether or not there was a reflecting telescope in the Pharos in ancient Alexandria. We suspect that the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians used electroplating, and that the Egyptians used a very adroit form of fractal mathematics. But we do know, from shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, that the Ancient Greeks had small metal calculators, and that they excavated dinosa ur-skeletons to re-assemble in their temples and museums. The Barok people of New Ireland invented self releasing fish-taps, used the principle of the propellor before Europeans did (visible in woodcuts drawn by Abel Tasman), and some of them told me, to my utter disbelief, that they had had a pre-contact submersible canoe called the bebanam. A Tolai entertainer from Rabaul once wrote a humorous song about how the submarine keeps being reinvented at different times and places by totally different peoples. How about UFOs?
If I seem to be persuaded that 'culture' or 'society' is that which creates the effect of culture or society, just exactly who is responsible (let me guess), and by what trick of disinformation might it come about? (I'll let you guess.) It seems quite probable that …
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Publication information: Article title: Our Very Own Cargo Cult. Contributors: Wagner, Roy - Author. Journal title: Oceania. Volume: 70. Issue: 4 Publication date: June 2000. Page number: 362. © 1999 University of Sydney. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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