Erotic revelations in cyberspace

by Cliff Bostock


Space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination.
--Gaston Bachelard (1994, p. xxxvi)

During the last few years I have noticed parallels between the American fascination with cults and the proliferation of cyberspace. In this paper I wish to make a few observations in that respect, particularly in consideration of images with erotic meaning and their resonance with some elements of early mystery cults.
I should say from the start that in using the word "erotic," I mean to denote something of the Platonic sense of an eros that starts with lust but also includes the appetite for abstracted knowledge.

Generally, the ancient mystery cults concerned themselves deeply with the erotic. In the Dionysos cults, a pivotal moment of the ceremony, apparently, was the revelation of an image of an erect phallus in the liknon. The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii is painted with erotic imagery that includes flagellation. Even the Eleusis cult, with fertility and rape as central themes, was drenched in erotic rites and imagery by some accounts. The phallus sometimes was used as the object of meditation, in the same way a stalk of grain was.(Otto).
Despite Livy's account of the Bacchanalia (1987) as a ritual of pure sexual debauchery, we have Aristotle's earlier commentary that the mystery cults provided a transcendental experience. The rituals, revelations and signs were only designed to help create a mood for the personal encounter, in a collective situation, with the numinous, Aristotle argued. This is congruent with Plato's idea of the erotic.

There was, thus, in the ritual a kind of movement from the body's knowing to the abstracted or "disembodied" knowing. This was no less true in the gnostic Christian cults where the body's suffering -- identification with the passion of Christ - was the first step toward transcendence. (At the same time, there is some reason to believe that the early Christian practice of self-flagellation, called a means of identification with Christ's suffering, was highly charged with erotic energy. We do know, according to Will and Gloria Brame (1994), that the church outlawed flagellation among common Christians, so addicted to it had they become. Instead, it was reserved only for celibate monks.)

But the real means of transformation through the mystery cult is expressed in its root metaphor. The word "mystery," according to Meyer (p.4-5), derives ultimately from the Greek very myein, which signifies closing of the lips and eyes. Thus, he concludes, the mystery's meaning is revealed through the opening of the eyes to light and images. The highest stage of initiation at Eleusis is that of the epoptes, the beholder.

So, we might conclude that the power of the mysteries was somehow linked to beholding the image of the erotic. There is a sense of experiencing the erotic in body, kinesthetically, then stepping back to view it as image. Something is apprehended beyond the sexual through this abstraction. This is quite similar to Robert Romanyshyn's (1989) thesis about the development of linear perspective in painting. The movement from the tactile to the visual reveals the abstract. As Aristotle seems to note, this must have been a profound recognition for those in the Hellenistic World.

David Ulansey [an adjunct professor at Pacifica Graduate Institute] theorizes that the rise of mystery cults was a reaction to the loss of the ubiquity of Greek culture when Alexander the Great's conquests brought multiple cultures into contact with one another. I speculate that the loss of the polis (and its pantheon) as the foundation of identity created an impetus for the individual pursuit of spiritual meaning. This of course has its ultimate expression in the Christian cult, where the soul is given individual personality. Although the cults offered the companionship of like-minded people, the members were bound by belief, not by nationality or culture. The concern of the Christian was the fate of the individual soul, not of the collective.

I find the parallels to the proliferation of cyberspace striking. But I also note some significant differences:
The most obvious similarity is the secrecy with which people conduct themselves in cyberspace. People assume fictitious identities and names, even creating characters. Even after "real-life" identities are disclosed there is an assumption that everyone safeguards one another's identity. Identity is an open secret in the cyber world.

Similarly, the cyber environment, like the Hellenistic one, is a world at once shrunken and enlarged. People who would earlier have had no contact meet one another in cyberspace - it shrinks real space - but the very exposure to new material enlarges the realm of one's experience and imagining.

Cyberspace, like the mystery cults, is permeated with erotic imagery. In fact, most Americans associate the internet with pornography. Millions of people have posted erotic, even pornographic, self-images in cyberspace. So-called virtual reality is mainly regarded as a sexual venue (as in the popular movie "Lawnmower Man").

But cybersex, like the erotic rituals of the mystery cults, serves a purpose other than the conventional procreative or hedonistic ones. It also reforms (or "morphs") identity. In cyberspace one may assume a body of choice in fantasy. But it is in any case fundamentally a techno-body that occupies cyberspace. It is imagination embodied by machine technology. (Its apotheosis is the erotic cyborg.)

Without attaching particular values to this, one can certainly remark that the cyber body and the "mystery body" both are expressions of the immense upheavals of their times. The body of the mystes presaged the creation of the individual - even foreshadowing the shift from the earth-centric Ptolemaic to the Copernican heliocentric view. The cyber body presages man's fusion with technology in a time when the planet is in immense ecological crisis, when the cyborg may really be the future and salvation of man.

The revelations of cyberspace are, like those of the mystery cults, a beholding of imagery. The popular image of cyberspace's entry point is the black monitor screen. In lighting the monitor, we open our eyes to a work of images, of deiknymena. In the mystery temples, these images - according to the little we know - caused a transformation of experience by "seeing through." We cannot assume that an "absolute" was apprehended. At most we can presume there was an individual penetration of archetypal images, in the way James Hillman describes the healing properties of images.

Exactly the same thing occurs in cyberspace - with a very important and unsettling difference. In cyberspace, the image morphs through the use of hyperlinks. One "clicks" on an image and it leads to another and another. In one sense, this is no different from an individual associative process. We can imagine individually what associations might arise in our own psyche if we meditate on the revealed phallus in a Bacchanlia. Although we can't say how figures of the imagination really arise in such a reverie, we can say they are constellated between the personal psyche and the other, the image of the phallus.

But who is imagining in cyberspace?As we surf the Web an apparent random series of images begins to arise that at some level has coherence to the psyche (if we can presume some kind of coherence is necessary to maintain our attention). Any web surfer can verify that this "dialog" can go on for hours. The lived experience is not of incoherence and disassociation. It is instead of fascination and learning. One feels in contact…but with what?

This too is similar to accounts of the mystery cults. One is taken over by the experience - specifically by the "god" in the experience at the center of the cult. Despite the balkanization, the fragmentation into various cults with different contents, the shared experience in all of them is of being overtaken. The same is true in cyberspace. To put it in Marshall McLuhan's terms: We are re-tribalized (into newsgroups and chat rooms), but the particular content of the tribe doesn't matter so much. Why? Because the medium itself is the message.
But, again, what is the fundamental quality of the medium - or, as the Greeks might put it, what is the god in the medium? Perhaps, as Ulansey seems to suggest, it is the collective psyche or anima mundi - the "megasynthesis" of matter and thought into a self-reflective colelctive envisioned by Teilhard de Chardin (1959).

Finally, it seems worth mentioning that if a planetary psyche is attempting expression in cyberspace, it will - like all psyche - have a shadow expression. The clearest demonstration of that to be has been the cyber cult Heaven's Gate, whose members participated in a group suicide last year at the Rancho Santa Fe home.

Members of that community practiced very much like a mystery cult, but in a negative reversal of one. They used cyberspace to shed sexuality, assuming in the imaginal field and in real life androgynous identity (as often happened in the Dionysos cults). In this case, though, it was for the purpose of expelling sexual feeling. (The leader had attempted a "cure" of homosexuality several times. Failing that, he had himself castrated and advocated amputation of breasts and testicles as a puritanical value.)

If the collective mind at work in cyberspace calls us to the possibility of matter's (including technology's) self-reflective ensoulment, a world re-enchanted by eros, then its shadow might demand not only sacrifice of the genitals but complete sacrifice of the self, like the Christian martyrs. Could it be, as I've argued before, that the eeriest proof of cyberspace's'self-reflective character so far has been its shadow expression? The Heaven's Gate cult, after all, openly announced its planned suicide on its web site weeks before it occurred. It is a complete reversal, like any other shadow expression of the unconscious: a suicide note left for reading before the act had occurred. Perhaps nobody heeded it because it really was in the unconscious of a new psychological organism.

[Note: The Littleton shootings, which were described in advance in cyberspace, also demonstrate this last point.]


Bachelard (1994). Trans. Maria Jolas. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Brame, Will and Gloria (1994). A Different Loving.

Livy (1987). "History of Rome: Book 39.8-19." The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, Marvin W. Meyer, ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Otto, Walter F. (1955). "The Meaning of the Eleusinian Mysteries." The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Joseph Campbell, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Romanyshyn, Robert (1989). Technology as Symptom and Dream. London and New York:

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