Mass Media, Propaganda, and Sacred speech.
Baba Rampuri is interviewed by Thomas Steininger, the editor of “Evolve,” a leading magazine of consciousness and culture in Germany, https://www.evolve-magazin.de/, on sacred speech in the postmodern world of mass media. They discuss the nature of Speech itself, its metaphors, and how mass media changes consciousness, even humanity, highlighting Guttenberg and his printing press, Edward Bernays, the father of modern propaganda, and the consequences of the internet and social media.
e: In your teaching work, you speak about something that sounds for our western secular understanding of language and communication very particular. You talk about sacred speech. What do you mean by that and why is it important?
Baba Rampuri: First of all, I would turn the words around and instead of using the expression, “sacred speech”, let us say, “speech is sacred.” In that way we avoid marketing it.
So, if we say that speech is sacred, we can come to a very interesting starting point on speech, where I find a convergence of modern thinking and ancient thinking. And that is the speculation among both the ancients and the modern cognitive scientists including Chomsky, that speech is an innate part of the human being – that speech is not something which is acquired and does not come from outside, as the Greek concept [logos] would suggest, that speech was placed into man by God, the “word,” and so forth in John [Bible]. Rather, speech is an inherent part of what we call “human-ness”. It is present at birth and goes on to define what we will know and what we will experience. I would go as far as to say, that speech determines our knowledge and our experience.
Now, the second thing is that speech is a networked phenomenon. Speech gets shared by definition. Speech has no meaning if it just exists in a single individual. What makes speech speech is the fact that it’s shared, is the fact that it’s networked. And if that is the case, we start running into a problem with the whole idea of the individual. Does the individual even exist? And this is a basic distinction, not only between East and West, but between the modern West and the medieval or even classical West. I think it’s in the classical period that the idea of the human being as the individual grew. This is a product of that time, which also conforms to Descartes and the idea that human rationality defines the human being and his power. And before this time I think that in these terms the West more resembled the East.
e: I really liked that you turned around the phrase and made the point that speech is sacred, because then we talk about speech as such, not about a particular speech. But what do we mean when we say sacred?
BR: Let’s use a metaphor. We can say that the dome of the heavens – the sky – is a reflection or a mirror of the events on Earth. As such, the sky as witness tells the story of the events on Earth – that is what we call astrology. And humans have a dome of speech that goes from the throat to the lips, which resembles the dome of the sky. And through that dome of the speech the story-telling of the sky is known by human beings. When that cycle is complete, I would probably call this sacred speech. That is also storytelling in its ideal. The wise man reads the sky and articulates it, interprets it for his people. What happens in our languages, our speech, our politics and so forth is, that we make a virtual image of the sky that is not the sky. It is an image that has no correspondence with its own reflection. It’s not something that fits into a natural analogy. But instead we use human rationality to change this relationship and to create a story, or really a narrative, that is not a correspondence between the sky and a dome of speech, but it is a correspondence with an idea, with a marketing, with an expression of power.
e: In this your are already saying a lot. When you talk about a possible correspondence between what you called the sky and our human speech, how a wise man can express this, than this correspondence is already there in us as humans.
BR: I would say it is in everyone. This is what is born with the human being, that is specifically the human being’s humanness. It’s the dome of speech within the human being. And when we explore this and find that somehow we can understand somebody who speaks very poor English or very poor German or has a very thick accent, we start to understand that actually it’s not the precise sounds that we are dealing with. It’s something else that those sounds strike and stimulate and cause a coming together or an understanding.
e: You are a Westerner. You have Western roots, but many years a go you became a Naga Baba, an Indian Sadhu. Became part of an ancient oral tradition that is based on a culture of oral transmission. When we talk today about modern media, than we talk about a society where those oral traditions have no role.
BR: Except in one place, which is very interesting to me, and that’s music! If you look at the role of music and musicians in popular culture, this is something that people aren’t getting from universities or books. They are getting it through a transmission of oral tradition of musicians, teachers and students, even if it doesn’t look like that. This is a structure where that transmission continues to take place.
e: Interesting, yes. You also seem to point to the fact that our modern language does not have this ancient correspondence any more. It is related to ideas. We put it into a rational context.
BR: Yes, we are putting it into a specifically structured context. We are not just putting it out into the world, we are not saying: that’s just unbounded human rationality that is appreciating or analyzing an unbounded world. We have created a structure of how it must operate, what constitutes authority for example, what are those things can we rely on, and what are the building blocks that establish for us what we call reality. And how real is that reality?
e: We encounter speech in our modern times mostly through media.
Does media and particular the exploding digital media do something to our speech?
BR: Absolutely, I mean, look: if we go back several hundred years, we find Gutenberg changing the entire intellectual landscape on the planet through the invention of the printing press. Just look at the historical turmoil that this created in Germany by putting the two Christian groups at each other’s throat, which killed nearly one third of the population of Germany in the 30 year war. I am not saying that Gutenberg’s printing press caused that, but it is part of a media, an extension of the human voice, that has consequences. And it also creates necessary limitations, regarding to how it is used, what it is used for, what it does not include. We can look at media and in that kind of sense we can see the changes that radio created in consciousness. We can see the kind of authority that is born out of the printing press, out of the newspaper, out of the radio and when television came, of course it went on steroids. Because now, not only do we have the words, but we also have the images, and the images radically change the entire culture into a society of the spectacle. This became the nature of our human relationships, the spectacle that grabs our attention, mediates our relationships, and defines the world that we see around us. And as if this wasn’t strong enough by shaking the very roots of who we are, we added the internet and social media. Analytically it does change a lot of things and it ends up with unintended consequences – and intended consequences as well.
e: When we bring this in relationship to the sacredness of speech. Of course our media has not much to do with what a sacred oral tradition means with speech. But, if we talk just about the structure of speech, what do media, the printing press, the radio, TV and particular the new media do to – lets stay with your metaphor – the correspondence between sky and speech?
BR: The obvious thing is that it takes speech away from the sky and puts it among powerful people, who have their agendas, their intentions, their goals, their market places. Now we are having to rely on certain interests – benign or not benign – that are basically in control of our sacred facilities, as it were.
And the power structures create the media not the other way around. In the same way power structures create the individuals rather than the other way around.
e: When I understood you right, you also said, that something in the development of speech through media is not included anymore. Something is left out. What is not included anymore?
BR: Truth! Because there is no interest in the truth. This is not the point any more. The natural elements of the sky and the planets and so forth, they have no means of lying. They only state the facts as they are. But the media, whether we are talking about the printing press or the radio or whatever we are talking about, there is not an interest in truth. There is interest in a particular point of view, or a particular agenda, a particular ideology, or a particular marketing approach. A discussion of media, especially the kind of media we have in the world today, is incomplete without a full understanding of Edward Bernays, who changed the entire media landscape on this planet at least as much as Gutenberg.
Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. In the beginning of World War I when they did polls in the United States, how much of the public supported the entry of the United States into the World War I, I think it was around 1%. So, there were certain interests that saw this as not being satisfactory, interest in the War Department, certain bankers perhaps or whatever. The interest for them was that the United States should get involved in World War I. So, they hired Edward Bernays who was, as his uncle was an individual psychologist, he was a mass psychologist. It was his responsibility to change the thinking, to change the consciousness of the public, so that now they could support this political event and the United States could become a part of this war effort and so he did. He created a program of demonization of the Germans, as being apes, not humans – they didn’t have human faces, they had faces of apes with the Bismarck-helmets, and they would bayonet babies. Was the purpose of this to appeal to the rational instincts of people or to appeal to the emotional instincts of people? Obviously there was no rationality as an attempt to find truth. He understood the people are marketed to not through rationality, not through spreadsheets, not through facts, but through emotion. Through the clever manipulation of words and images to cause emotional reactions. And he was vastly successful and the Americans entered the war. But the real story is what came afterwards.
After the war the Tobacco companies approached him and said: Professor Bernays, only half of our potential audience smokes. We want you to get all of our audience to smoke cigarettes.
So, he organized a political women’s liberation march down Madison Avenue in New York and he had Lucky Strikes Cigarettes handed out to all the women marching. He had a camera capture all these women marching proudly down the street in expression of their rights, every one of them smoking a Lucky Strike Cigarette, which became the symbol for their own personal freedom, their political freedom, their independence.
e: Do you think that since the development of the mass media in the 20th century from radio, TV, cinema to now our social media today is a new step in the emergence of the internet and the dialogical capacity of the internet and social media and Smartphones. Is there a new dimension that you find adds something on how media works at us?
BR: No, I actually see this as the destruction of the “human being” as we know it, today. This will end the idea of the human being which we basically invented starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, going along with this Heideggerian thinking. Michel Foucault, in his text “Les Mots et les chose” , which described the creation of the “image of man” through the classical period, sensed that “the end” was near. He was not talking about nuclear war nor any ultimate catastrophe. He was talking about the image of Man being washed away like a sandcastle built on the sea shore.
TS: In our world of the internet and social media where do you see the future of the sacred? Is there something or would you say it’s a kind of doomsday step that we have here?
BR: I think it’s in a big trouble. Are we performing the funeral rights for the sacred? It’s very very possible. But you see, the world goes on and the nature of time is that it continually changes. There are circumstances and there are events that we can not predict. Nobody could have predicted the election of Trump. But there are events and circumstances that take place that change things. Unfortunately us humans change more readily when we are confronted with trauma. This is not what I would wish to anybody, but I look on my own life and I can see that it’s actually through moments of trauma, that great clarity would come. When you are forced to weigh things and you measure that values and you understand what is really important and what not, it’s trauma that very often draws that line. I see the world as having increasing trauma and I don’t see that reducing in the near future although I pray every day that it does. But, yes I think, that things will happen and people will change and I can’t predict what that change may be.
TS: How does the sacred respond to this?
BR: The sacred is only represented, the sacred does not respond! We have churches and religions, we have even political parties who have that claim to represent the sacred. Really what we can conclude at this point in time is that the sacred is just about as abstract as the word democracy. We can make claims, we can make a virtual sacred or we can interpret the sacred and change the sacred in so many different ways. But as it were we can call rice wheat, but it’s rice on the end of the day, regardless of what we call it. I think that there is an extra little thing that we can throw in from folk tradition, which is that when we misuse speech, we curse ourselves. And I think that’s what we are doing now. I think that we have misused speech to such a degree, the way that we have imported speech from the mass media into ourselves and therefore practically destroyed all of our relationships on earth, because we are practicing the insincerity and the un-truth of mass media rather than the readily accessible truth that we have as our defining humanness. We are giving that up! I see this as a human problem.
When I first released my autobiography I went to the States and made a twenty-five cities tour and spoke to thousands of people, mainly spiritual people, mainly people into yoga. I spoke about the mystical and the magical, the esoteric and all these kinds of wonderful things. And in the end of my talks, people who would come up with questions – all they wanted to know is one thing: how can I repair my relationship with my husband, or my wife? I was astounded. It was as if nobody had question about the mystical, but everyone wanted to know why their relationship had collapsed. So I had to start addressing that, just because I couldn’t believe how wide spread this was. I saw that as the direct result of the insincerity of speech, actually because they were going against their nature, because they were subservient to the mass media. Now, if the mass media would just give us information that we go in our notebooks, but instead of a consciousness that we are importing into our being and changing our humanness because of. This is where I see the crux and the conflict. Does it result in happiness and prosperity? I don’t see it.
e: What you are describing from your book tour is the insight into the importance of real relationships as the foundation of our humanness. In a video of you that I saw you also ask: Where do we take our speech from? It used to be the elders in a village, or the teacher or some people with real respect and real relationship. And now it’s a show, and being a show there is as its nature hollow speech, because it’s produced as something that is just meant to be staged and not real. The way I understood you is by basically not to just respond to the hollowness of media speech, we have to find real relationships to respond to. It are the real relationships that are the foundation of our humanness.
BR: There you go! Yes! And what is this, introducing a word like friend? For a Facebook contact? I find this actually shocking, because people start believing this. It changes the meaning of the word “friend.” My entire life I have been reluctant to call someone a friend unless they really were. I felt that if I called somebody a friend who wasn’t really a friend, I was in a way sort of cursing myself, something might happen, as I am going against nature. When I see that we use these words and these words become standardized and our language changes according to input that comes in from media. I don’t often travel to the States. The last 50 years it’s not more often than every 5 to 7 years. But that gives me a particular interesting view of what goes on there, because it allows me to see the forest from the trees. Changes stand out, they become in sharp contrast from what was before. One thing that I noticed is that the vocabulary changes. They change every time I would go there and I didn’t understand it at first, how it was that the people were using words that I didn’t even understand – and I grew up there. How is that possible? And the answer is that all those words and expressions came of the televisions set, usually from sitcoms, from TV. And yet they are incorporated into the natural speech of people. These mediums have a lot more baggage than we are generally, most of us are generally, acknowledging. And I make no prescriptions, consistent with the Eastern tradition, I am trying to make descriptions. And analysis, which doesn’t prescribe – you should use or you shouldn’t, you should do like this or like that, or you should think like this or that – but to be aware of what it is that we are using, what it is that we are becoming through using it.
TS: And as I hear you, you are using one emphasis. You are emphasizing real relationships.
BR: Absolutely yes. In my life, this is the big joy in my life, these real relationships with real people that are significant, that go on. This is a source of joy and maybe I’m being small in promoting joy, but this is something that gives us a substance in life, by having significant relationships.