America's Cultic Milieu Two[Trenchant Edges]

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 54 seconds. Contains 1781 words

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges where we’re finally on schedule!

Trenchant as in cutting, incisive, and perhaps witty.

Edges as in outside normal or something only seen out of the corner of your eye.

Today we’ve got a follow up from a few weeks ago’s Background on America's cultic milieu

It occurs to me as I was rereading that previous essay that I didn’t really talk about what a cultic milieu really is.

Let’s fix that.

Cultic Milieu and You

In 1972, Colin Campbell published The Cult, The Cultic Milieu, and Secularization which coined the phrase.

He described it as an oppositional space where a community of seekers fed up with the mainstream searched for what you might call alternative facts. They form a loosely knit cultural underground of society, a kind of generalized Jungian shadow with all the ideas purged from polite society.

Let’s take it from Campbell’s own text:

The cultic milieu can be regarded as the cultural underground of society. Much broader, deeper and historically based than the contemporary movement known as the underground, it includes all deviant belief systems and their associated practices. Unorthodox science, alien and heretical religion, deviant medicine, all comprise elements of such an underground. In addition, it includes the collectivities, institutions, individuals, and media of communication associated with these beliefs. Substantively, it includes the worlds of the occult and the magical, of spiritualism and psychic phenomena, of mysticism and new thought, of alien intelligences and lost civilizations, of faith healing and nature cure. This heterogeneous assortment of cultural items can be regarded despite its apparent diversity as constituting a single entity—the entity of the cultic milieu. There are several sources of this unity.

He continues by pointing out that by sharing experiences as rejected from society and opposed by it, most groups that form in the cultic milieu are notable for their syncretization, mutually supportive, and an ideology of seekership.

As a side note, if we include fringe politics into this cultic milieu, we suddenly see a coherent reason for the so-called horseshoe theory of politics. From the center, the content of far-left or far-right politics matters less than their apparent unreasonableness, lack of political power (+ the frustration that comes with it), and their oppositional relationship with the center.

Because everyone in a cultic milieu is constantly under whatever pressure the mainstream can bring to bear to marginalize them, members of the milieu tend to share more with each other than they do as outsiders, which is normal for most communities.

Such groups tend to form, splinter, combine, and disappear rather quickly because they tend to lack the resources or support base of more established religions.

Since the milieu is generated by dissatisfaction with the mainstream and appeals to those feelings, it tends to produce syncretic ideas where seekers draw from a broad swath of ideas to attempt to produce a better worldview.

These communities were generated mostly by printed products in Campbell’s time and mostly by social media in our own. There’s a McLuhanist lesson in here somewhere I’m sure. The Milieu is the massage.

This brings us to the ideology of the seeker. Mostly fiercely individualistic, Seekers must go out for themselves on a quest to find the truth and bring it back.

Echos of Walt Whitman and Joseph Campbell ensue.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin
of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions
of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

-Walt Whitman, a Song of Myself

Contrasted with the inherently collectivist ethos of Scientific consensus building, where Scientists are encouraged to brutally critique each other and strive to disprove their own work if it doesn’t measure up to peer review or is wrong.

Science is a professional endeavor, whereas the Seeker’s Quest is a Heroic endeavor. Which leads right to the obvious problem of tilting at windmills Don Quixote style.

Campbell suggests several hypothesizes for what role a cultic milieu may serve in a larger society:

  1. Diffuses “alien” cultural content for a host culture

  2. Center of cultural innovation

  3. Cultural “Gene pool”, maintaining otherwise unviable ideas so they’re still accessible if needed.

  4. Negative reference group for orthodoxy’s spokesmen

  5. The CM flourishes when the “host” cultural hegemony falls apart and is near “alien” culture.

  6. A source of renewal for ailing orthodoxies

  7. A general response to psychic deprivation

Ultimately, I think it’s probably some combination of these. But I think even the “Orthodox vs Heterodox” cultures are more an artifact of European Christianity than it is an inherent property of culture.

But we shouldn’t blame someone in 1972 for thinking a singular orthodoxy was still possible to maintain.

Cambell also suggests 3 different kinds of people engaging w/ the milieu.

  1. Adherents/Believers

  2. Seekers committed to some kind of Quest

  3. Mostly Passive Consumers

A blog post on this essay suggested adding academics/cult enthusiasts as a 4th category, but I think they’re not really a coherent category, fitting more into a more active wing of #3.

The interesting thing about this typology is it doesn’t include any distinction for cult founders or wannabes therein.

Adherents have found some One True Thing to believe in, Seekers tend to float from group to group looking for the meaning of life or healing or some such, and passive consumers spend their time treating the cultic milieu as a source of entertainment.

So that’s the basics of the idea.

Recoking With the Cultic Milieu

I’ll be honest with you, I’d planned to continue the history lesson from last essay but I’m about 40 browser tabs into that and it’s 9:30pm and I’m trying not to write these just before they go out anymore and my back is… not great.

Instead of something research-heavy I want to run through things a little breezier. Old Colin Cambell was writing in 1972 and we’re about 50 years past that with a technological revolution or two between us.

Obviously, the first thing we’ve got to bring up in the modern cultic milieu is Qanon. I’m going to take a moment to share probably my favorite video about Qanon. Seriously, it’s one of the best video essays on youtube.

Since we’re more than a year past Q’s last post, it’s worth considering why it’s been so durable.

The answer is practically the definition of the cultic milieu.

  1. Syncretization

  2. Mutually Support

  3. Ideology of the Seeker

Qanon is a big tent, pulling from just about every fringe group I know of that isn’t explicitly anti-Trump or anticapitalist. It’s got outright nazi followers and influencers and it’s got a few nominally antiracist adherents.

Some believe in aliens, others believe in fascism. Most these days are antivaxers, but even that’s not entirely a requirement.

What they’ve got in common is being disaffected with the mainstream way of doing things and willing to believe a little more weirdness after finding out about something real.

It happens bit by bit and it happens at the pace set by the individual. Many have similar stories but almost no one radicalizes exactly the same way. You get that rush of insight with a revelation and it becomes normal so you’ve got to hunt for more.

Mix that with a community that encourages and praises that behavior and you’ve got a powerfully addictive feedback cycle. Hell, one I’ve lived in many times even without the community parts.

Different branches and wings of Q are able to support each other even when they conflict because accepting most any part of the tent’s ideologies makes it easier to adopt others as you break further away from whatever mainstream you were previously anchored to.

This whole thing works no matter how aware of parapolitics or conspiracies you are because there’s always another level or secret to discover.

And because Qanon is a milieu rather than a church or a sect, there’s not really any point of failure or organization to collapse. It self-renews because many different people are vulnerable to its promises and there are plenty of rewards for playing along or inciting shit.

Because it’s so oppositionally defiant, any attempt to reason against it just becomes more proof of one’s secret correctness and righteousness.

I think of David Bryson, founder of the Evolvefest festival and someone I used to know. I knew he’d crossed a threshold past which there was no point speaking to him when I argued with him about the Sandy Hook false flag conspiracy.

He explained to me that the very pushback he got for it was proof he was absolutely right, even if none of his arguments made sense or held up to scrutiny.

Anyway, if you want to know what happened to that guy (spoilers: He’s a nazi now), you can look here. I don’t recommend it.

Now, Daivd was always kind of a charismatic charlatan type. But he didn’t become ruinously toxic until he radicalized past reason.

When I hear people new to “Escaping” the mainstream, I often detect hints of the assumption that having gone past their previous maps, they’re now away from bad or dangerous people.

The history of spiritual abuse is a testament to how wrong this mindset is.

Here Be Monsters.


As a Seeker myself reflecting on 10-15 years in the cultic milieu, I’m really torn. On one hand, I really do find a lot of mainstream cultures boring and have a genuine preference for people on the fringe.

On the other hand, so many fringe people are fucking awful.

Now, the inescapable thing there is that plenty of mainstream people are awful and I’m engaging in the kind of false dichotomy that I often preach against. So, whoops, I’m a hypocrite too. Again.

I wonder what an epistemology and ontology that weren’t rooted in weird social dynamics would look like. One that would have settings other than, “Believe mindlessly toxic popular things” and “Believe mindlessly toxic unpopular things.”

The only real option I know to get out of that is an intensely personal commitment to, uh, understanding the world as it is, which requires understanding ourselves as we are.

And the only way I know to get to that is the deeply idiosyncratic process that brought me to it (insofar as I have, which is debatable).

Not really the kind of thing you can bottle or share.

Anyway, next week we’ll get back into the history of the USAian milieu and discuss Diana Reed Slattery’s Xenolinguistics. Which is one of the only truly psychedelic books to come out of the last ten years.

Here’s a teaser. A new thought book I found in hardcopy when I wandered into the Seattle Theosophical society’s bookstore a decade ago.

See y’all around.