Berkeley Talks transcript: Poulomi Saha on why we're so obsessed with cults

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #183: Poulomi Saha on why we're so obsessed with cults.

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

[Music fades out]

Chauncey Walker: Good morning everyone, I am Chauncey Walker, a current third-year student here at Berkeley double majoring in economics and media studies, and I'd like to welcome you all to Homecoming and Parents Weekend. 

Today, it's an honor to introduce today's speaker, Poulomi Saha. Dr. Saha is associate professor of English and co-director of the program in critical theory. Their teaching and research span ethnic American literature, postcolonial studies, psychoanalysis and queer theory. Their first book, An Empire of Touch: Woman's Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal, was awarded the Harry Levin Prize and the Susan Tartar Prize by the American Comparative Literature Association. They're currently at work on a book about America's long obsession with its own intended visions of Indian spirituality and why so often these groups and communities come to be called cults.

Having taken several classes with Professor Saha, I can personally assure you that they're a phenomenal teacher and you can look forward to a fascinating lecture. Before they begin and I hand off the stage, I offer you one piece of valuable information that I learned in Saha's class: Assume everything you know about cult is wrong because it most likely is. Thank you.

Poulomi Saha: I learned how to do this. It's taken me a decade. Thank you so much, Chauncey. Thank you for the introduction. I had a frisson of terror when I was told that Chauncey was going to do the introduction because I thought, "What might he tell this lovely esteemed group of alums and parents about what happens in my class?" 

So thank you for keeping this so scholarly, but I'm really delighted to be here. This is always so fun for me to get to do a version of what I do for undergraduates and graduate students for a slightly different audience. And we're going to run this the way I run a class, which means that I'm going to try and cover an enormous amount of material in a very short time. But I'm hoping to leave enough time for questions.

And I hope that this will give you a sense of some things that I have been thinking about and working on and also some of the conversations that I've been having with students. So we'll get started. I will also offer the land acknowledgement that we are visitors here on Ohlone Land and the benefits we derive from this land, I hope that we appreciate and return to the Native peoples, who are the rightful stewards of this place.

OK, why are we so obsessed with cults? We're in what I like to call a cult culture boom. That is Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, podcasts. Cults are everywhere. They have taken what used to be a fringe phenomenon and it has moved fully into the mainstream. And so the question I have is: Why are we so interested? What is actually driving this massive industry and what might it tell us about what we long for, what we fear, who we hope to be? So the question of, "Why do we like cults so much?" is one that I pose, actually many semesters. I've taught a class on cults and popular culture now five times, and each semester the group gets bigger. Each semester the feelings get stronger, and each semester they come with better answers to this question of why we're so interested.

One answer that's becoming quite clear is that this vast and growing industry of cult media and the eager audience that is you guys, students, and hundreds of millions of listeners and viewers, are proving a remarkable point. Cults aren't just being represented in culture; they're fundamentally shaping society. 

Now, I'm not a psychologist, I'm not a theologian, so I'm not going to offer you either of those takes on this question. I'm a literary study scholar. My investment in the question of why we're obsessed with cults is a question of culture, of social movements and fundamentally of narrative. That is, the stories that we tell and the stories that we tell ourselves and each other about cults reveals something essential about rationality, faith, choice, desire, who we are as people, what is a collective, and what is transcendence.

I'm going to do this in three parts. We're going to first start with semantics. We're going to get some words on the ground. I'm a good literature professor in this way. And then we'll talk a little bit about history, how did we get here? And then we'll take on the big speculative, maybe unanswerable question of why we're so interested. So let's start with the basics. What is a cult? Can I turn this off? Or I can turn this off, I'm sorry. This is off? OK, perfect. Thank you.

OK, so this is the OED definition of the word cult: a particular form or system of religious worship or veneration, especially as expressed in ceremony or ritual directed towards a specific figure or object. Second definition, which is the etymology that began in the 1610s: worship or homage, a sense now obsolete, a particular form of system of worship, which comes from the Latin cultus, which is to care, to labor, to cultivate also from what we get culture, worship and reverence. And it comes from a word that means to till, that means to work, to grow.

This version of culture is about effortful commitment felt in the body, evinced in society. But when we talk about cults today, we're not talking about this. This is not the interesting definition of cults. This is not why you're here. You are here because of scandal, of charismatic leaders, of terrifying secret rituals, of things that happen inside a space that seem utterly transformative to which we have at best a glimmer and often absolutely no access. We're here because there's something secret to the cult and we all want to know what it is.

If the dictionary definition doesn't get us to what a cult is, then we might think about why cult means something separate to us than the dictionary. And this is my first literary argument for you, that the way we use cult today is not an object in and of itself, it is actually a narrative device. The word cult is a kind of sheath of meaning that we give over a range of beliefs, philosophies, activities, leaders, feelings, and possibilities that only contingently relate to scandal, fear, transcendence, that actually what a cult is is a way of making sense of forms of spiritual and social being outside the norm.

So let's figure out where the norm is first and then we can get to the outside. That is, what makes a cult so different than, let's say, a religion? Now, what cults do is they disrupt our social equilibrium. When we talk about cults, we're talking about a thing we see, a thing that makes us uncomfortable, and that social equilibrium is a finely calibrated sense of how we are in the world. We're contained rational individuals, and when we encounter this thing that we call a cult, to which we give this entire array of narrative strategies, we're pointing to a thing that asks us to consider how we might break out of our own patterned lives. That cults actually produce in us discomfort and desire by inviting us outside of the norm, by challenging what we take as a given, for example, something like religion.

Now again, really unsatisfactory definitions of religion here offered to us by the standard, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I won't blame Stanford here, but I wonder. That a religion is a concept as a taxon for a set of social practices, a category concept, whose paradigmatic examples are the so-called world religions. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. That is, forms of life that have not been given a name, but are common to a geographical area. It is a concept used for social formations that include several members, the type of which there are many tokens. That is, a religion by this definition is more than one person who expresses a belief in some way. Not helpful.

Now, we have here my friend of Immanuel Kant, who says that religion is a recognition of all of our duties as divine commands. Morality, that's one definition of religion. Émile Durkheim, the great scholar of religion, says, "It's a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things." That is, things set apart and forbidden. Beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church and all those who adhere to them. The sacred is a set of things outside the everyday, the human, the profane, and the ordinary, and they come to be collectivized in this thing we call a church, that is, a regularized routinized practice.

We have James Frazer here, anthropologist, that says, "It's a propitiation or a conciliation of powers superior to man, which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life." This is a vision of religion in which we mere humans are worked upon by a force much greater than ours. And then we have William James, another great scholar of religion and psychologist who says, "Religion is the feelings acts, experiences of individual men in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." That is, religion here is a singular experience. You may have it in a thing called a church. You may have it with others in congregation, but fundamentally for William James, religion is you and the divine, and the sense that there is between you some inextricable connection.

Now of course, this is one vision of religion. I got a couple more for you. Our friend Karl Marx, we're at Berkeley, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, a protest against real suffering. It is the opium of the people, the illusionary sun, which revolves around man for as long as he does not evolve around himself." My other friend, Sigmund Freud, says, "Religion is comparable to childhood neuroses," and our friend, Friedrich Nietzsche, "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." What is it? Is man only a blunder of God or is God only a blunder of man?

So these definitions of religion tell us something about how we apprehend individual and social relationships to the idea of the divine. The division of these understandings of religion tell us something about a story we have inherited about who we are as modern beings in the Western world. And so here, this is where I'm going to turn to the question of history because I think the only way for us to understand how we get to this bifurcated understanding of religion out of which another thing will come, which is the cult, is to think about how we have come to think of God as dead and yet also the thing that speaks to us in the quiet of night.

All right, we're going to get to our friends, the cults, in a second, but history. Have we always been this way? No. Chauncey, pop quiz. Sorry. Something miraculous happens in the 18th century. Do you remember what happens in the 18th century? Many things.

In the 18th century, a remarkable thing happens. It's called the Enlightenment. Have you heard of it? Yes? In the 18th century, the enlightenment of the philosophical, economic and political movement designed to rethink everything in existence because until this moment in the 18th century in Europe, and I say Europe because this is a story about Western thought, you had a relationship of being in which people existed only through a reality ever known through God. That is, the church told us a story about being in which all things were an effect of God. The movement of the stars, the course of our life, all God. 

Now, we have here the scientific revolution. We have radical shifts in conception of what is being. And we had a group of men largely, who thought, "How can I simply be this passive conduit for some invisible thing out there?"

So they did something pretty remarkable. They killed God. That's what happened. The Enlightenment claimed quite decisively to kill God. That is to say, all of the things that you think God does humans do. So we killed God and we invented the human. This is not to say that the biological category of human did not exist before, but rather that there's a transformation that happens in the 18th century, where we go from being people under the subject power of the divine to being humans.

And what is a human? It is imbued with a few fundamental characteristics. One, a human is sovereign, self-owning. You are your own being. This is radical because the conception of God that we had inherited until then was that God was omnipresent, God was everywhere, including in us. So if suddenly I am my home, we've done away with some of the force of God. The God is in the... Sorry, the human is individual.

There is a distinction between you and I, and I cannot actually know completely ever the distinction between us because what is essential to me and to you and to you is private. It is interior. It happens in your mind. It's expressed through thought, but it is not naturally shared nor identical. In fact, our difference becomes an essential feature of being human. I am myself. And to be the self, you're also rational. That is you're thinking. You do not act out of instinct. You do not act out of sheer feeling. And you certainly do not act because some divine entity works through you.

So what the human was is this revolutionary concept. It turned the world upside down to think that there are subjects imbued with all of the qualities once reserved only for the divine. God was omniscient, all-knowing, omnipresent, in all places, and omnipotent, all powerful. God could not be all of those things with the human. So we enter into this very uncomfortable space in which we are trying to wrest from the supremacy of the divine these essential characteristics which are so important for many things to come, we'll talk about liberalism.

But in so doing, in killing God, in freeing ourselves from this invisible force, we did something else. We render ourselves unbelievably alone. When we killed God, we created this vast empty space, which is just you and me, thinking, walking, being, but so much else fled. Now, you'll notice that I have a big old asterisk. God didn't die. Don't worry. Not only did God not die in the Enlightenment and Enlightenment thought in Europe, but also in most parts of the world. There's never been this moment where we claim the death of God. However, this story is really essential for what comes after, which is that America is born.

Now, America is a remarkable thing. It's a remarkable thing because it is the first great modern experiment in collective being. That is, America is born out of the Enlightenment, out of liberal thought, and twinned to modern capitalism. And so in some ways America is made up by this guy. Rational, sovereign, self-owning. Now, how many of you on everyday basis feel fully in charge of yourselves, fully contained and that you're only acting out of rational thought? Anyone? No one, right? This is a lie. It is a lie. No one ever fully lives this category of human, but it became the model for the citizen subject of the United States.

So already we're entering into a really difficult territory where you're building a nation, a settler colonial nation, from scratch. That is to say, there were people who lived on this land before, but the idea of America as a modern nation is built from scratch out of these people as a model. An impossible thing. But having inherited Enlightenment logic, America actually begins with a promise of being secular. That does not mean America begins with the promise of being a land without religion. As you know from high school history, if not anything else, this started as a subtler colonial project to flee religious persecution, to be a land in fact of religious freedom.

But that religious freedom had to be installed in America as a private relation. That is, in America secularism means that whatever your religious feeling is, keep it to yourself. Practice it privately in churches, in synagogues, in temples, in your home, but also keep it in yourself as in don't do it out there. Religion becomes this highly private contained form of being so the expression of religious thought or feeling becomes relegated to the internal, to the domestic, to the personal. In America, we don't perform religion out there.

Now, again, everything I say today is going to have asterisk because we see every day how this is not in fact true. Religion and religious feeling is perpetually being performed in public, in politics, in social life. But again, the originary premise is that we'd keep it inside. And in keeping it inside, that would be meted out through reason. We would act in ways that meant that us as thinking subjects were fully self same to us as spiritual beings. Sorry, hold on. I'm giving you a spoiler there.

If you have in America this idea that we're fundamentally secular, and also as secular liberal beings we're actors socially and politically and economically through this idea of being contained in individual. We also have the First Amendment. What does the first amendment do? The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. That is, this public entity, Congress, the state law, will not make any laws that interfere in your private being. Religion is private, law will not interfere in your private being.

But the First Amendment in America does not actually orbit religion. It orbits what Congress can do towards people in the name of religion, but it doesn't get to say what religion is. You were in my class before. Who gets to... You show up, you get a pop quiz. Who decides in America what a religion is? Whether something is a religion?

Audience 3: Each person to their own.

Poulomi Saha: Optimistic but wrong, no. Anyone know who actually orbits whether something is a religion in America? The government, yes, but where in the government?

Audience 3: The IRS.

Poulomi Saha: Yes, the IRS. Did you know the IRS are the Earth theologians of the nation state? But they are. The IRS is actually the being that decides whether or not something is a religion for a very important reason relating to liberalism as an economic category, which is, when you get to be a religion, you get to have a remarkable gift. Tax exemption. That means you can accumulate money tax-free. Everybody wants to be tax-exempt. It allows for the creation in perpetuity of wealth that upholds particular beliefs. That's what religion becomes.

When a church or a faith or a spirituality is able to guarantee it will exist for generations, it enters into the forms of establishment that we think of as religion. How does it get to enter into this perpetuity? By making, maintaining, and increasing money through tax exemption. So this is the most unromantic answer imaginable to the answer of what is religion and who gets to decide. We live in a world rife with religious tension, conflict, and violence. This still is the major feature of our daily lives, disagreements over whose God and whose God gets to put somebody in power. And in America the answer is the IRS.

Now, it is perhaps this unsatisfying answer that is our first avenue into why we're so obsessed with cults. That is to say that in denuding the question of religion in public from feeling, from belief, from faith, from transformation and transcendence, we've had to send it somewhere else. We've had to send it into the fringe, into the private. Religion becomes a dry matter of making money. Where does the other feeling go? We see an example of this actually in a particular historical moment, though it happens not just then. Sorry, more on the IRS. Which is, that when we think about when cults come into being, they come into being in a remarkable socioeconomic and political moment.

The great cult boom of the 1960s and fifties actually evinces what makes the IRS such an interesting arbiter of religion, and this is why. In the 1950s we had a moment of extraordinary economic prosperity after the war. So you have the extraordinary psychic and social devastation of World War II, the utter catastrophe of what happened in Europe and in Japan. And as those places start to rebuild, to mourn, to think about what they are, America suddenly is in the middle of this extraordinary boom economically, in terms of industry, in terms of military prowess in the world. And in this moment it is solidifying itself as a particular kind of global force. That global force also has a social life inside.

What does America look like in the 1950s? It is a time of extraordinary conformity. How many of you have seen Leave It to Beaver? Thank God. I cannot tell you, every semester I ask this question and it was like I have to teach TV 101. OK. When we think of America in the 1950s, we think of Leave it to Beaver. And for those of you who are younger, I will tell you, Leave It to Beaver was this incredibly popular American TV show about a white middle class nuclear family in the suburbs. It was a vision of prosperity, of safety, of stability and security, and conformity.

Out of this prosperity, stability, security, and conformity, you had a new generation woke up and looked around and they were like, "This does not feel great." Just as no person is always sovereign, rational, individual all the time, very few of us with ease step into the perfect box of normative being where we are either June or what's the dad? Cleavers. Ward Cleavers. I never remember Ward Cleaver. June or Ward Cleaver. In fact, America has instilled essentially in all of us this idea that we should be individual, that we should have something of ourselves that we can express.

Now we have this individual impulse pressing up against a culture of conformity. This gives rise to counterculture. Berkeley 1960s, this is the moment. So we have on the one hand this question of how to live. Is how to live an economic question make money, buy a house, reproduce your safe, normative life? Or is it a question of an ethical relationship to the world? We have this rise in the idea that we improve ourselves. It's also part of what gives rise to the great corporate boom of the sixties. This idea that to make money in America in this moment, you become a particular kind of person, you improve yourself, and the more that you improve yourself, the more money you make. Now, the self-improvement language used to be the purview of religion. Here I see in The Power of Positive Thinking, a book you may have read because it is in its 64th reprint this year.

You also have in this moment, of course, global forces working on America. You had the Vietnam War, you have the protests of the 1960s. You also have in 1965 a radical shift in immigration policy, which transformed the very landscape of the United States. Prior to 1965, there were, first, quotas, and then an absolute ban on immigration from most countries in Southeast and Southeast Asia. That was overturned in 1965. And in fact, America began an immigration policy that shapes what Berkeley looks like today by actually incentivizing immigration from especially Asia and the immigration of educated people and people with particular skills. So we have an influx of Eastern spirituality coming in this moment, brought into a particular pop-cultural frame by people like the beats.

We have growing disenchantment, questions of gender, questions of money. No one feels fully comfortable. Everyone wants something they're not getting. If the great success story in America in the 1960s is that you get to be middle class nuclear suburban person, for a lot of people that did not feel like it satisfied something inside, something about how they might want to live the desires they might have. So we have student protests and we have a turn towards radical alternatives. If you don't like your suburban hetero nuclear family, well, why not live in a shared house? Where instead of June Cleaver, who works all day in a skirt and apron unpaid for her labor and make sure the kids go off to school and make some lunch and dinner, and Ward goes off to work, does something that we never see. We don't actually know what Ward does. And he comes home and there's a hot dinner on the table, and he then after dinner gets up and walks out and June clears. We have no sense of their interiority, but you can see how that vision of life might feel empty, isolating.

And an alternative in which you get to live and build a shared life with people like yourself in which you all take care of each other. You grow food, you cook together. Children aren't just a responsibility of the stay-at-home mom, but their care is actually meted out across many people. You can see how that might be a really alluring alternative. Or if you don't want to enter into a corporate job after you graduate from Berkeley because you think, "9-to-5, being a data processor or an accountant, that's not really what makes me happy." Maybe there's another thing you can do with your life, maybe making money and building the stability and security doesn't have to be your path.

Out of this moment of both on the one hand stability and a kind of excess of conformity and global upheaval, we had all kinds of groups emerged like the Hare Krishnas, the Peoples Temple, the Unification Church, and they said, "Things feel confusing. You know that you're not happy with life as it is, and in some ways you're being sent out in the world to be this rational individual person. Why don't you come to us and we'll give you structure? It'll be totally different. We'll give you meaning. Your life can mean something more than your individual self and your individual bank account. You can belong. Are you confused? I'll tell you what perennial philosophy is. Are you lonely? You'll never not belong with us. Do you fear the unknown? So do we." It was a remarkably compelling offer in this moment. It's one though that remained largely on the fringes.

Final moment. Pop culture. Here we are to our current fascination. In the 1960s we see this cult boom coming out of a crisis in America. The cult culture boom, today is also coming out of a crisis. We are in crisis. My students every day look at me and they tell me the things they fear as climate catastrophe that is literally the time of their lives. Indebtedness, radical isolation, a sense that they see the burning of the world around them, and everyone who gets to make the rules and everyone who tells them what to do doesn't get it, checked out, making money, producing structures that are ill fit to their lives. The crisis here is not quite the same as in the 1960s, but it's really not that far off.

So in this crisis moment, we have a return to desire for overarching meaning, radical acceptance, transformative experience, transcendence. But unlike in the 1960s, we're not dropping out, we're tuning in. We're not out on Sproul dancing with the Hare Krishnas, who are still there. But there is a really good podcast and you could go home right now and listen to one episode, 30 minutes, or you could listen to 45 episodes a whole day and you could feel a relationship to these crazy things that somehow doesn't imperil you. 

So here is where we are right now, that between these... The behemoth streaming services of Netflix, Max, Hulu, there are more than three dozen documentaries streaming right now about cults. In terms of podcasts, you can't even count how many cult podcasts there are. However, a number of them, like IndoctriNation, Let's Talk About Sects! Cults regularly appear on the Spotify and Apple Podcast's most popular lists. They're enormously popular. They make a ton of money. There is then incentive to continue to produce this kind of media and a ready playbook to do it by.

So when we are tuning in, we're tuning in to a highly regularized representation of cults. If in the 1960s, we had the sense that fringe groups and communes might offer us a way out of conformity and regularity, in this current incarnation, when cults appear in our everyday life, they do so highly regularized. 

There's a really interesting move happening here in this new return of cults to our lives. So what is the trope that they build on? What makes cult documentaries and podcasts so alluring? It's their familiarity. You tune in, you know what you're going to get. Because they're taking up the playbook of true crime in some ways in which you're presented with a familiar scandal and the promises that over the course of a number of episodes, because these are serialized, so you'll keep tuning in longer than one hour, longer than a feature film of three hours, sometimes eight hours, sometimes 24 hours. Over this course of time, you will come to understand the secret behind the scandal.

This model offers you extraordinary amounts of information, archival deep dives. They found all the documents. Firsthand accounts, people who were there. It will offer you all of this rational information. It'll also offer you the thing you knew was behind the story, but you couldn't quite see. It'll show you some of that hidden allure. Why did people join these groups? Why did people disappear into communes and change their names and lose touch with their families? You want to know, right? You want to know what happens inside? These take you pretty close. You sitting in your own house, driving in your own car by yourself in private get to vicariously experience something of the secret while staying totally safe. You're not imperiled, you're not changed. You don't have to go out and make some radical transformation of your life. You don't have to change your name. You can have all of the good stuff and none of the cost.

Here's the question. Is the experience of immersive viewing and listening, obsessive research, the Reddit deep dive, the conversations that keep you up at night with your friends or that take over dinner parties where you're talking about the charismatic leader and when the philosophy went wrong, and how maybe some of that utopian possibility could have remained. Or if you're asking each other, "What's your favorite cult?" Is that experience radically different than the historical memory of the commune boom of the 1960s? I would argue it's not. That in fact something transformative is happening. The way you relate to the world is being shifted such that what used to be experiences and beliefs on the fringe, ones that you would be uncomfortable or afraid to admit were interesting to you, that spoke to a particular kind of longing in you, because it would've required you to make some great sacrifice in your life, those experiences can now be rendered to you cheaply, freely, often, in this highly digestible mode. And as you are experiencing them, you are being changed. Your sense of yourself, your sense of what you believe are being altered.

I don't think this is a bad thing. I think part of what's happening in this moment in which we're obsessed with cults is we are actually being asked to consider what it is we long for and how now we find it in private consumption of culture rather than in congregation, in temple, in church. That in fact what this material allows for is this fantasy that you can remain entirely contained and also transformed. So I have not answered at all the question of why we are so obsessed with cults, partly because it's an impossible question to answer. But what I want to suggest is whatever your favorite cult is, is telling you something about what it is you long for, what may be missing in your life, and what forms of desire that you may not even be able to understand yet as your own. That actually this site of discomfort and desire, th e embarrassing over-attachment to a cult is actually the site of a possibility of how you might be transformed in radical ways.

Now, whether you want to explore it is up to you, of course. The paths you take to find it are many. But I do think that this boom is making new ways of being in the world, not just possible, but by moving the fringe into the mainstream, into popular culture is making them likely. It's making them actually welcoming, that actually we may be in a moment of a radical social and spiritual transformation, even if we think we're just watching and listening to it. 

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

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