‘The obedient always think of themselves as virtuous rather than cowardly.’ – RAW, Email to the Universe
The above Robert Anton Wilson quote (I’ll call it “the meme-quote”) has been used by some as a meme equating Covid-advice observance (eg vaccination, mask-wearing) with “virtue-signalling” obedience.
Ironically, Wilson frames scientific progress as anti-obedience and anti-authority in the chapter containing the quote (more on this below). Yet the people posting the meme evidently equate Covid science, on some level at least, with “obeyed authority”.
(Or maybe not Covid science per se? Maybe just specific government mandates, or “Big Pharma”, or Deep State perversion of Covid science? Well, all of that suggests a whole additional box of notions/assumptions – which the meme by itself doesn’t address. For this and other reasons that I’ll look at, I see it as a misappropriation of RAW’s quote).
In one fairly obvious respect, the meme seems an amusing misfire. Those vaccinated (and mask-wearing) out of informed personal preference to reduce the risk of harm to themselves (and others) don’t appear to be acting out of obedience. That leaves those who grudgingly follow (ie obey) mandates – and they presumably don’t feel very virtuous about it.
Of course, Bob Wilson’s original observation linking “obedience” to “virtue” appears valid for any society where “morality” has replaced overt brute force as a means of social control. But in order for that observation to fit the present (Covid-related) case, one would have to make some pretty huge assumptions regarding the motivations of millions of people for getting vaccinated and wearing face-coverings, etc.
In any case, the mini-controversy gives us an opportunity to unpack and appreciate a fascinating text from RAW, and hopefully to reach a different conclusion from the memesters…
Authority and Submission – and “coding”
‘All authority is a function of coding, of game rules.’ – RAW, Email to the Universe
The meme-quote is from Email to the Universe* (chapter: ‘Damnation by Definition’). RAW comments that this chapter’s “fragments” come from an unpublished book, ‘Authority and Submission’, that he started in 1964.
The text has been updated by RAW (it mentions Internet, etc), and although short, it covers a range of RAW’s thinking, from stark libertarian dichotomy (society framed in terms of liberty vs authority) to McLuhanesque remarks about techno-mediated taboo and authority, via the section containing the meme-quote, which looks at the social interplay of circuits 2, 4 and 3 – specifically “submission”, “virtue” and “coding” (Bob doesn’t explicitly use the “circuits” terminology here – the original fragments presumably pre-dated that model).
Here’s the full paragraph containing the meme-quote (which is in the context of RAW’s remarks on how “neurosemantic game habits” – or “coding” – shape the functioning of authority in human societies):
‘Submission is identified not with cowardice but with virtue, rebellion not with heroism but with evil. To the Roman slave-owners, Spartacus was not a hero and the obedient slaves were not cowards; Spartacus was a villain and the obedient slaves were virtuous. The obedient slaves believed this also. The obedient always think of themselves as virtuous rather than cowardly.’RAW, Email to the Universe
My reaction to this passage is to recall how virtue and obedience become linked in our neurology – simply because that’s how we’re conditioned (or socially “coded”, to use RAW’s term in this chapter). Bob has commented elsewhere on the discovery (which he locates in the era of Divine Sun Kings) that humans could be controlled en masse – made obedient and submissive – through “moral” or “religious” game rules/codes. The ancient symbolic social conditioning no doubt proved more efficient and convenient than forms of control that relied on physical force.
And in the present day, the first “virtue” we learn as children? Probably, or possibly, obeying our parents – particularly in performing tasks we don’t enjoy, and particularly in social coding systems which place moral emphasis on the obedience of children (eg in “Patrist”, “conservative” or “strict father” upbringing methods).
This childlike “virtue” of obedience later takes the form of the work “ethic”. As adults, we’re paid to obey our bosses – it’s called “employment”, or “wage slavery” (equating the earning of wages with the obedience of slavery goes back a long way – Cicero wrote that the labourer’s wage “is a pledge of their slavery”). Work and “virtue” thus seem connected in our neurology in terms of obedience to authority. Have you noticed how many people take pride in being “hard-workers” (even when it seems total BS-work)?
So, if I were to use a quote like RAW’s (linking obedience with “virtue”) in any meme at all, it would probably be a meme that took aim at, say, an office with a chronically overworked culture of corporate loyalty. That, at least, would make sense to me in terms of socially-conditioned obedience masquerading as something else.
But in order for it to make sense to me on Covid science, I would first have to believe that this science benefitted nobody but the powerful (corporations, states, etc). And that would imply deception on a colossal, global scale – including experts in all kinds of fields across the world, medical doctors, epidemiologists, vaccine specialists, data researchers, “frontline” hospital workers, health organisations – the list just goes on and on.
Deception on that scale would entail the kind of gigantic conspiracy theory that RAW expressed most scepticism about:
‘a conspiracy too omnipotent and omnipresent, and therefore too metaphysical, for me to take seriously.’ – RAW, Email to the Universe (on Holocaust Revisionism)
RAW on scientific progress
Wilson wrote about some of the reactionary manifestations of “science” (see, for example, The New Inquisition), and also about science’s progressive, liberating aspects. The chapter with the meme-quote contains both strands (although very briefly visited). Firstly, science is listed by RAW as an institution that acts as a bewildered “card-indexer” perpetually trying to juggle “Damned Things” (unique, individual entities/events) into convenient classification slots.
“Science” has this in common with all human symbolic coding systems with which we categorise, model, limit, control and ultimately murder those “Damned Things”. These acts of “damnation” (conceptualisation, generalisation, framing) may, RAW explains, be socially and intellectually necessary and useful – but may also tend towards the controlling and authoritarian. Particularly when we mistake our symbolic constructs for really real “objective” reality.
‘Each Damnation has its values and uses, but is nonetheless a Damnation unless we recognize its partial and arbitrary nature.’ – RAW, Email to the Universe
I note at this point that, as symbolic constructs go, Big Conspiracy Theories stand out as some of the worst conceptual suppressors and ignorers of Damned Things that don’t fit. Indeed, that appears to be the reason why RAW expresses such scepticism over these theories that involve ubiquitous and fungible power-groups. (Oh, you didn’t realise the conspiracy got even bigger when the Covid Industrial Complex and the Establishment Liberal Media merged into one?)
After including science as one of the many routes of human symbolic damnation, RAW then writes about the opposite trajectory of science – the progressive, innovative aspects; their potential to liberate the damned:
‘Every fact of science was once Damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy […] The entire web of culture and “progress,” everything on earth that is human-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some person’s refusal to bow to Authority.’RAW, Email to the Universe
There you have scientific progress framed by RAW as anti-obedience, anti-authority. And I feel sure the development of vaccines falls under Bob’s perspective of science as a progressive, liberating force. In fact, he appears quite explicit on this point – eg when he mentions the smallpox vaccine. Here’s one example:
‘a great deal of what I admire and appreciate in existence has been the result of human invention and ingenuity, such as pure mathematics and certain music and a few dozen paintings and poems and “cold inhuman technology” (as ecology mystics call it) that abolished bubonic plague in the last century and allowed me to walk again after I had polio twice and recently (in 1976) abolished smallpox’ – RAW, Natural Law
So: considering all these things, I don’t find much sense or intelligence in applying RAW’s quote to the population-wide uptake of vaccinations and mask-wearing.
So am I an agent of the Liberal-Medical-Industrial-Political Fnooooord Complex?
Note: I haven’t addressed mandates in any detail for the simple reason that each mandate works differently. At one end of the scale, it was mandatory for hospital Covid ICU visitors to wear protective gear. At the other end of the scale, vaccinations could (hypothetically) be mandatory for every citizen. There appear to be as many possible types and magnitudes of Covid-related mandates as there are traffic laws. If you think you have one argument or one virtuous principle that covers your position on all mandates, you’re smarter than I am! Like laws in general, some mandates make sense to me; but others don’t…
* The meme-quote also appeared in Appendix Teth (Hagbard’s Booklet) in the Illuminatus! trilogy (Part III – Leviathan, 1975). What RAW describes as “fragments”, from the unpublished book (Authority and Submission, started in 1964), formed not only the chapter ‘Damnation by Definition’ from Email to The Universe, but also the Appendix from Illuminatus! – the latter in a fictional context, of course, and presented as passages from Hagbard Celine’s booklet, ‘Never Whistle While You’re Pissing’. The chapter from Email to the Universe is almost the same as the Illuminatus! appendix – the former has been lightly edited with a few word changes/updates, different paragraph breaks, an additional paragraph at the beginning, and minus a paragraph about “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. The meme-quote is identical in both.