Introduction: What is the Cosmos Cooperative?
I have been trying to come up with a way to describe what the Cosmos Co-op is and is not, but I have really been struggling. Why?
A few reasons. First, I am relatively new to the Cosmos Cooperative. I joined about four months ago, when I decided to contribute 5$/month to the “initiative,” if that’s the right word. Being new, however, means that I am still learning about Cosmos, and hence attempts at more comprehensive descriptions are tough.
Another reason, though, related to the first, is that Cosmos itself, for new or more veteran members, in and of itself resists description. How so?
Well, for starters, there is something very raw, unformalized, sprawling, anarchic and heterogeneous about Cosmos that makes it elusive when it comes to pinning down. This is actually one of the reasons why I think people like it, including me – there is something pregnant and robustly fuzzy, productively vague, about Cosmos culture, which is another way of saying that it is teeming, drunk, and drenched with ideas, possibilities and potential. This sense of potential is embodied and enacted on and in Infinite Conversations (the online discussion forum of Cosmos) and the Cosmos Café and Readers Underground (two distinct book discussions that take place on Zoom, which is like Skype). But it can also be witnessed on and in Metapsychosis, the creative journal of Cosmos, where people are encouraged to not only write longform pieces, but serialized longform pieces, which I confess I find wonderful and exciting. In other words, Cosmos, through its online forum, video discussions and journal, allows people to stretch out and take creative risks – emotionally creative risks, mentally creative risks, spiritually creative risks, ethically creative risks, aesthetically creative risks. This allows for a pungent diversity, as well as a rich kind of un-fixity (autocorrect changed the last word to “infinity,” which works, too), all in the spirit of Keats’s negative capability, though again, somewhat hard to capture.
There is a third reason, related to the first two, that is maybe the most interesting of the three, at least to me. Cosmos, in some ways, is something new. It draws intelligently and robustly upon an eclectic, fascinating range of traditions – everything from anarchism to mysticism to the Situationist International to literary criticism to futurism to speculative fiction to aesthetics to consciousness studies to Weird studies – but it is neither reductive nor formulaic when it comes to marshalling forward, understanding and revising these streams – and so it manages to be actively reverent/heterodox. Reverence and heresy (reverent heresy? heretical reverence?) are nothing new – what is new is not only this potent syncretic stew – which Cosmos unites under the umbrella term, visionary – but synchronizing this with the model known as a platform cooperative (we are still working on this aspect, and hope to have a council/governing structure and formal membership soon). I think that’s essentially what makes Cosmos new, if we needed to boil it down to basics: that is, the entanglement of the visionary, with all of its various implications and iterations, with the platform cooperative, with all of its own various own implications and iterations.
A great way to get a feel for this newness – and therefore experience what I am trying to describe – is to participate in a conversation on Infinite Conversations (the online forum), or join a book discussion group – Cosmos Café, Readers Underground – to meet on Zoom. These conversations and groups are really like salons, with a heavy emphasis on the importance of deep and thoughtful conversation as a means for pleasure and learning. Yet even as these conversations look back to salon culture, they also look forward to podcast culture – they are often fun, exploratory, digressive, unpretentious, intelligent, and genuinely curious (“curious” in both senses of the term – eager to learn, and genuinely strange). The primary motivation in Cosmos is a curiosity to learn, explore, and converse, and in so doing to tap into and generate ideas, enthusiasm, passion, fullness, and interest around topics of mutual interest, often dealing with things like cosmology, consciousness, culture, imagination, spirituality, religion, mysticism, anatheism, literature, integral studies, anthroposophy, posthumanism, dreams, futurism, shamanism, poetics, and beyond. And in the same way in which both salon culture and podcast culture can represent deep enactments of the public sphere, Cosmos culture is wedded to the notion of the commons, the value that the texts, ideas, and resources under discussion should not be private property but rather used as cultural resources open for anyone in the public sphere with a desire to learn and an internet connection.
By focusing on the pleasurable and edifying aspects of conversation, Cosmos is interested in learning and knowledge sharing. But learning and knowledge on Cosmos are totally un-stuffy, un-stodgy, un-dusty: extemporized, co-creative, divergent, out-of-the-box, spontaneous, collaborative, loose, unconventional. There is an emphasis on a sort of decentralized freedom and truth in and on Cosmos that is refreshing and energizing, especially in our polarized, dogmatic and doctrinal world, not to mention in our mainstream social media landscape (see below). This sort of freedom and truth opens up a space to both really listen to another person, and in that sense see and connect with someone else (through writing, on Zoom, synchronously and asynchronously), but also to really express one’s own self on a topic of interest, (through writing and on Zoom, synchronously and asynchronously). As has been argued in the blueprint of Cosmos, called the Key Docs – written by Caroline Savery (with a background in platform cooperatives), one of the two founders of Cosmos, along with Marco Morrelli (with a background in philosophy, integral studies and the visionary) – Cosmos Co-op is a place that can help people self-actualize, through the probably incommensurable but equally valid modes of solidarity (ethics, justice, listening to the other) and self-expression (aesthetics, self-creation, exploring one’s interests). And this all happens in a space that can be both academic and alternative, intellectual and ecstatic.
What is the Cosmos Cooperative Not? Who Is Its Audience?
Okay, hopefully that made some sense and described Cosmos in some fashion, a sort of Via Positiva for Cosmos culture. Now: what is Cosmos not? What is the Via Negativa of Cosmos culture?
I struggled with this question, too, especially because I wondered if encouraging a William Jamesian pregnant vagueness was antithetical to defining ourselves against something. In other words, was the question even worth asking? Was the timing right? At one point do we turn our gaze outwards? I decided to try and answer this question, however, if only because I think I joined Cosmos in the first place not only for what it is, or seemed to be, but also for what it is not, and so I suspect this is true for others as well.
So: Cosmos, for starters, is not Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram, though I’m going to focus here on FB).
This is not a total dig against Facebook. I use FB actively, and I’m sure many if not most of the people on Cosmos do, too, as well as whoever is reading this piece. But Facebook, as many people are recognizing, acknowledging and intuiting, is not really interested in our self-actualization, and definitely not the visionary. I think even saying the terms “self-actualization” or “visionary” on Facebook would be considered weird in a pejorative sense. Because the truth is: Facebook could care less about us. Yes, it makes us videos with happy pictures, and tells us when people’s birthdays are, and reminds us of past events with memories, etc. All of that is fine, and can even be weirdly intimate, as anyone might feel after friending someone, or being friended, and looking at that person’s pictures of family events, or videos of people lighting birthday candles, or being silly with their kids, or posting about what they are thinking about, mundane or extraordinary, every day, and so on.
But this weird intimacy belies quite a few problems, many of which we hear discussed in the news and on Facebook everyday: privacy issues, psychological effects, tax avoidance, intellectual property infringement, censorship, advertising, etc. These problems suggest that Facebook is not exactly what it appears to be – a place to connect, share pictures, etc. For me, Cosmos in a sense is what it appears to be, and hence strikes me as an authentic digitial space for connecting, sharing ideas, etc. So here I want to focus on two overlapping values related to our earlier discussion about what Cosmos is, both of which can help define what Cosmos is not in relationship to Facebook.
- The first value is of actual respectful, deep and provocative conversation.
- The second value is of finding one’s own interest community, and then playing an active role in it. (This latter value is less developed in the piece, but implied throughout.)
Let’s start with the value of conversation. I think it is clear by now that it is very difficult to have an actual conversation on Facebook. I do not think this is a controversial statement. In fact, I would argue that Facebook is not here for us to have a conversation. If someone posts a meme, or a political argument, or a link to an article, with the hopes of having a conversation, what happens, pretty much invariably, as everyone knows by now, is:
- People, often in the same political bubble, agree with said meme, argument, or article, in few words or less, maybe a “like” or an emoji; or
- People, often in a different political bubble, disagree with said meme, political argument, or article, in whatever fashion – words, “likes,” emojis, etc.
These agreements are usually mostly banal, obvious and uninteresting. And these dis-agreements are usually mostly banal, obvious and uninteresting, unless you have a real jones for schadenfreude. There is a sort of exhaustion in all of this. The only difference between these agreements and disagreements is that the disagreements are often heated and acrimonious, while the agreements just confirm our biases and assumptions. In other words, for the most part, no one really cares on Facebook about having a conversation to solve problems, clarify ideas, create knowledge, share actual work, learn, etc. If they do, I do not see that, with few exceptions. (Do you?) People do post about political rallies, say, and use Facebook to drum up interest in these rallies. But do people actually have conversations in these contexts – digital or analog – that lead to further out-of-the-box learning? From my experience of rallies, you 1. walk in a big group, 2. look at funny posters, and 3. listen to people shouting at you. Also, I don’t know what your feed is like, but mine is mostly composed of pictures of kids starting school – totally fine, and fun, but not really clarifying ideas, creating knowledge, etc. There are also the endless memes, where – I hate to say this – people could write something interesting or thoughtful, but instead for whatever reason rely on essentially prepackaged image-texts to think for them and express their probably more idiosyncratic ideas.
I hope what I’m saying makes sense – maybe it’s obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing and stating plainly. Essentially, it’s this: it is futile, unrealistic, even misdirected, to go on Facebook to have an actually prolonged, meaningful, sustaining, edifying conversation. Doing so is quixotic, but in a non-strategic way, and therefore hopeless – without adequate cunning, and therefore not authentically quixotic. Because the platform is not built for that – lest we forget, it was initially intended as a “hot or not” game for comparing female students at Harvard. It is no longer a “hot or not” game, but one never strays too far from one’s intentions. And there is a way in which Facebook is actually like a “hot or not game,” a sort of mainstream sublimated social media erotics, a disguised form of Tinder, where we scroll instead of swipe, and the partners we choose (“like”) are the same bubble-inhabiting people shown to us by the all-knowing Algorithm. Seriously: who could actually, authentically dispute that Facebook is often superficial, exhausting, predictable, sensationalistic, and essentially distracting? Sure, there are glimmers of something more interesting or meaningful – feeling connected, let’s say. But these are only that, just glimmers. That’s why, when I see intelligent posts on Facebook that seem interested in an actual conversation, but that just completely fail, I want to ask, “Why do we spend so much time here?”
You know, I would love to hear how others would answer this question. And actually, I think exploring answers to the question can help us come to a better understanding about the difference between Cosmos and Facebook. At least the way I see it, sometimes I think people would answer the question of why they spend so much time on the site by saying or thinking that Facebook allows one to reach a wide audience through their many Facebook friends. They are on Facebook to “spread their message,” mundane, extraordinary, political, literary, etc. Yet that is probably a bit confused. Unless you’re Dan Rather, Roxanne Gay, et al., the sobering truth is that our actual audience is a group of mostly impatient, stressed-out people who care less about what one is saying and more about the fleeting thrill of scrolling through eye-candy and escaping temporarily into a world of distraction, to forget for a moment the reality that the world is – as we all know – really just one big mindfuck.
Another answer would be, as mentioned above, that Facebook allows us to connect to each other. And I suppose there is some truth to this – I like seeing what old friends and acquaintances are up to. But that’s sort of the extent of it – I see pictures of people with their kids, or doing whatever. So I am really basically connecting with images. Which is sort of strange, if you think about it.
I can also hear someone answering the above question, explicitly or implicitly, by saying or believing that, because Facebook is a relatively new genre of sorts, part of the “zeitgeist,” it is therefore on the “cutting edge,” and so has value. But I think that is also a false correlation. Why? Just because Facebook is relatively new does not mean it has valuefor healthy, genuine, mature pleasure, learning, or conversation. I learn this lesson first-hand by working most days at a public library, where many of the new books, fiction and nonfiction, are of such a poor quality content-wise (they do look nice) that they are essentially not helpful for actually thinking in any way, and might even militate against such a goal and stifle thought and imagination. (I don’t intend this as a critique of public libraries so much as the publishing industry, which cannot not publish things, and so everyday pretty much the same sorts of books are published about the same sorts of things, for the most part.) I hope it’s not news to say here that most people do not know how to evaluate books. In the same way, most people do not know how to evaluate social media.
How do I know this? Even if we feel tired or upset after going on Facebook, we still go back to it. Why? Because we are still not really evaluating it for what it offers us, or doesn’t offer us – we are choosing in whatever way not to be conscious of its serious drawbacks. We might have a hunch that something is wrong or off about the site, but that hunch is usually not validated or confirmed, because most of the time we are on Facebook, and everyone else is too, (at least many millenials on up), and no one for the most part is evaluating Facebook on Facebook or elsewhere, even if we have literally bazillions of articles about problems with Facebook blaring in our faces, in our Facebook feed – which we probabaly mostly ignore, anyways. (Doing so – evaluating Facebook on Facebook, would be futile and quixotic in a non-cunning way – most people would yawn, ignore and scroll past.)
Many people do seem to be content with what Facebook offers them, that can’t be denied – they like sharing pictures of their family, or chatting on messenger, and that’s totally fine – I do, too. But in this piece, I am not concerned with most people who share family pictures or chat on messenger. Instead, I am concerned with people who do feel disillusioned about Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram etc.), who do have visionary, aesthetic, spiritual-philosophical leanings, who do seek community, but who do not know where to go to actually have an intellectually meaningful and rich conversation about ourselves and the world. Because that is basically what Cosmos is for, who Cosmos is for. (On Facebook, this sort of conversation is really not possible; on Cosmos, it is.) These sorts of people, I am guessing, are also not interested, or unable (like many people), to plunk down the outrageous amounts of money required for further education in standard universities in this country. They might participate in a religious community, an academic community, a literary community, a political community, but they do not feel totally comfortable in these communities, especially as a means of talking about and trying to answer the big-picture and inescapable questions that are not easily pinned down to disciplines, fads, creeds, politics or whatever else. I think people think about these sorts of questions constantly, but they often do not have the opportunity to make their thoughts explicit, to have the generative space to discuss and write and explore ideas with oneself and others.
Put another way, the people Cosmos wishes to attract are quixotic, which is probably my favorite word for thinking about Cosmos. They recognize that real, independent thinking requires some real, independent idiosyncrasy. They are people who are deeply disillusioned with the status quo, in all of its manifestations, in the analog and digital worlds, and who are interested in the quixotic, the idiosyncratic, the poetic, the particular, the cosmological, the religious, the spiritual, though with the concomitant desire to have a conversation about such things within a community of other human beings who take them seriously and value their ideas and experiences, and wish to both helpfully challenge and support them. Yes, we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., but we are much more than that, too – mystics, visionaries, poets, dreamers. We are informed by tradition – religious, literary, philosphical – but we are also interested in revising tradition. To have a conversation about the near and the out-there, without fear of censor or total lack of understanding – that’s what Cosmos is about. And that, as is hopefully probably obvious, has never been what Facebook is about, or for that matter Twitter or Instagram.
Can We Improve Cosmos?
Okay, we have talked about what Cosmos is, and what Cosmos is not. Is there anything we can say about a critique of Cosmos itself, despite its still emergent quality? In other words, can we evaluate Cosmos, however tentatively, in the form it is in now? Because, although I am trying to express my enthusiasm about and care for Cosmos, I do not want to romanticize or idealize it – that would be unfair to the people who participate in the forums and discussions and journal, but also to the people who are interested in learning more about it and hopefully participating. Another way of saying this is that it would be untrue to the questing, questioning spirit of Cosmos itself.
So yes, there are some problems with the platform, at least in the way I see it. I think the main problem is that Cosmos is so sprawling and anarchic that there is sometimes not a lot of rigor or authoritativeness, which you can sometimes find in areas of academia, if you can afford it. In that sense, most people on Cosmos seem primarily sort of “reader-response” oriented when it comes to discussion, for better or worse. Although they are interested in studying the text, they are often more interested, at least in my experience as part of the Readers Underground, in using the text as a springboard for reverie, theatrical intervention, personal experience, and occasionally a sort of creative impressionism more interested in freedom than truth. So there isn’t as much of an emphasis on close reading. To me that can be unfortunate and sometimes frustrating – close reading really is or should be, I think at least, the basis for textual study and interpretation, no matter what text or tradition we are talking about – visionary, anything. And while I love theatrical interventions, these performances can be enriched by getting as close to the text as we can. For me, that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like, but I’m sure it can in the future.
Of course, people might say to this that maybe this relative lack of rigor is a logical by-product of what happens when you do foreground the visionary, as opposed to the more conventional. But that’s not true. There are plenty of writers on the visionary – think of Blake, Ken Wilber, etc. – who are quite systematic, authoritative and rigorous. And there are other writers – Harold Bloom, Ashbery, Kierkegaard, Emily Dickinson, Ramana Maharshi, Emerson – who are totally paradoxical and unsystematic, and yet still, at their best moments, quite “rigorous” in their own way, as well as authoritative. So, just because one is interested in the visionary, does not rule out the possibility for these qualities of attention. At the same time, these figures mentioned in this context – Blake, Wilber, Bloom, Ashbery, Dickinson, Kierkegaard, Ramana Maharshi, Emerson (choose your own visionary – white, Black, male, female, queer, Asian, etc.) never quite fit into their contemporary academic, religious, literary, or political cultures. That’s what it means to be a visionary – out of step with the present, because you are looking towards the future. The Cosmos Cooperative is a fresh attempt to bring new life to the visionary life, mind, spirit, heart, character, especially during a time in our culture when every single thing is so awfully materialistic. We are interested in sponsoring people – in helping each other become our best, most strange and true selves. We are decidedly not perfect, hence this slight critique, but who wants to be perfect, anyways? What we are is intentional, compassionate, unpretentious, smart, open-minded, tolerant, idiosyncratic, dreaming-full and generous. And that, dear reader, is not a bad place to start.
 William James, in Principles of Psychology: “It is better not to be pedantic, but to let the science be as vague as its subject…At a certain stage in the development of every science a degree of vagueness is what best consists with fertility.”