Gregory Ulmer would have us believe that we are currently entering into or living in an electrate world. This world is characterized by the primary institution of Internet, a practice of entertainment, and a dichotomy of joy and sadness, and has been ushered in with the invention of the World Wide Web and increasing technological advancements. While this is just a theory, its proposed implications can be identified through most of mainstream society, especially when we look at our generation’s dependency on the Internet, smartphone apps, and digital social media. However, we often don’t notice how society’s shift into a new “apparatus” effects unconventional groups, subcultures, or even religious groups. Cults are groups that often encompass unconventionality, subculture, and religion; they exist on the fringe of society, never much noticed by the general public until they’re sensationalized for media consumption, as was the case with Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate is a former UFO “religion” that I believe can be effectively explored in its relation to society’s apparatus shift from literacy to electracy, which may even go further back to orality. This cult, whose duration encompassed the beginning of a societal apparatus shift, was made more apparent to the mainstream public towards its tragic ending with the creation of its website, heavensgate.com.
Though I already knew about the cult’s ending, which we’ll cover later on, and even though the website essentially covers the entire history, I learned much about the group that would eventually be called Heaven’s Gate’s formation and early years in Benjamin Zeller’s Extraterrestrial Biblical Hermeneutics. Branching off from Christianity, the group’s founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, read the Bible “through a fundamental set of assumptions: that life exists on other planets, that such alien life has interacted with Earthlings in the past and will in the future, and that biblical evidence points to such relationships” (Zeller 35). Zeller describes the group as strongly influenced by the New Wave movement of the late twentieth century, which probably accounts for its preoccupation with extraterrestrial life, but he’s more concerned with how this particular framework shaped the meaning of the Bible for Applewhite and Nettles, how that meaning changed over the years of the group, and the use of scientific rhetoric rather than religious rhetoric to derive these interpretations. This establishes the group as a religion based in literacy, that cares more for method than ritual, and that taught in classrooms rather than preaching in churches (though this may have been more due to convenience than anything).
While Zeller’s obvious focus on hermeneutics, or the art of interpretation, paints the group’s pedagogy as literate, many other aspects of the group’s beliefs seem to be planted in orality. First, Nettles and Applewhite believed they were presenting knowledge, proved through their specific biblical interpretations: “the movement read the Bible as describing the empirical, tangible, and technological, rather than the spiritual or ethereal” (Zeller 38). Even though the leaders preferred a scientific approach, as with any religion, this belief system still requires a strong faith in concepts that haven’t actually been scientifically proven; they still employed, Zeller argues, “a Protestant perspective on predestination” (54).
The focus on predestination leads to another orality-based aspect of the group’s pedagogy, which is its particular beliefs about its members’ human bodies (which I will later focus on as an aspect of increasing electracy, but that, in the early years of the group, placed them in an orality-based light). Nettles and Applewhite believed in their ability to physically transcend life on earth to reach the “Evolutionary Level Above Human” (heavensgate.com), which required that they “overcome their natural condition” and human attachments (Zeller 46). This included cutting off all relationships with other humans, abstaining from sex, and resisting any form of overindulgence. Focusing primarily on materiality and the body, and seeing this approach as the only way to transcend to the physical heavens (another planet), Applewhite and Nettles proved to have formed a clear duality of right and wrong, which is what Ulmer states is the axis of orality as opposed to the true and false axis of literacy (Introduction: Electracy).
Perhaps Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM, the group’s early name) originally existed somewhere between orality and literacy, as many new religious movements of the time probably did. This makes it easier to conceptualize a shift into electracy in the age of the Internet, but first let’s delve further into the group’s beliefs about the body.
Heaven’s Gate/HIM maintained a focus on the body throughout their duration, but the particular parameters of the human bodies or “vehicles” evolved with changes in group logistics. For example, as noted by Susan Raine in Reconceptualising the Human Body, they initially believed that “to enter the Next Level one had to be in a living, physical body” (105), but this belief notably changed after Nettles’ death, which allowed them to believe that “they did not require either a physical body or a spaceship” to enter the Next Level (113). They also, due partially to Applewhite’s “dysfunctional beliefs about the nature of sexuality, claims Raine, saw the body as an “object of ruin” (110). This focus on controlling the body above all else, even worship of God, paints Heaven’s Gate as a group that even in its formative years showed signs of an electrate rhetoric proposed by Ulmer. Although they were also concerned with God and Reason, the body is clearly the priority; it’s what poses the problem of corporeal urges, desires, and distractions that are not present in Next Level beings and that need to be overcome in order to achieve perfection and enter Heaven. At the same time, this might not indicate a shift into electracy, as the limitations on the body were more strictly enforced in the group’s early years than they were later on, when they believed that the vehicle/body would die anyway, “while the true self would move on to the Next Level” (Raine 113).
The group’s view of human bodies as “transitory vehicles to be discarded through a process of metamorphosis” (Raine 106) is almost in direct opposition to Mark Coté’s relatively new theory of the body as inseparable and evolving along with technological tools, which are originary and essential to human bodies. Applewhite’s view of human bodies as inessential and actually hindering to personal development might be seen as the opposite of this theory proposed by Coté in Technics and the Human Sensorium, but it could also be viewed as in total agreement. Hear me out: if Applewhite saw human bodies, their temptations and limitations, as delicately intertwined with the technology, its developments and increasing importance, of this world, then those bodies would be even more steeped in worldly concerns than was even originally conceptualized by him. This belief would drive him even further to stressing need to rid oneself of a human body. In fact, in 1992 Applewhite compared the body to “like a kind of living computer that never quite shuts down” (Raine 108), and therefore may have had an early understanding of it as inseparable from its surrounding technology. This comparison may be indicative of a beginning shift into electracy.
When we look further into the rhetoric of the actual website, we notice an almost advanced understanding of electrate concepts. Although this website now looks outdated and almost comically “’90s”, it seems highly developed for an early Internet-era page. It utilizes many space-oriented graphics and provides an abundance of resources. A deliberate choice of related graphics and (arguably) matching colors and background gives the impression of a group who is not naïve to the philosophy of “aesthetics” that accompanies an electrate age. The website’s first rhetorical method is to immediately evoke a sense of urgency with this gif:
It then notifies us of the group’s plans of departure with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, which was by now believed to be the “marker” of “the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home.” (heavensgate.com) They then state their website’s purpose: to help readers understand the group members’ purpose on earth and to explain the “joy” felt as they’re preparing to leave. The site is mostly to explain themselves, their beliefs, but they are not opposed to welcoming new members who’ve read the online materials and want to join them on their intended departure. In Our Electrate Stories, Santos et al. explores Ulmer’s concept of mystory, which is intricately related to his concept of electracy. The Heaven’s Gate website often operates in the same way as Ulmer’s mystory genre, namely “Ulmer’s postpedagogy fundamentally rejects the mantra that individuals can be taught and instead favors celebrating the possibility that they can learn.” With the creation of their website, the Heaven’s Gate members seemed to be now less concerned about recruiting new members, and more about providing all the information they possessed, cultivating an open environment for people to learn about the group’s dogma in whichever way they pleased. While this apparent indifference to new recruits may have been due to a perceived lack of time, I think this open but not forced invitation for learning, when compared to their much earlier rhetorical tactics of travelling the country to recruit followers, and then teaching those followers in a classroom setting, exemplifies a shift in rhetorical style from oral to literate to electrate.
Another characteristic of Ulmer’s mystory, as described by Santos, is “Though published on the Internet, the mystory is mostly an individualistic, isolated exercise” (para. 4). Heavensgate.com also fulfills this qualification in that it seems to exist entirely on its own away from other parts of the Internet, much like a cult does outside of mainstream society. The only connection it has to the outside Internet world is a page we are directed to from a very small link at the bottom of the homepage called “Connecting Links” which consists of “Other web sites that we feel address related or connecting topics”:
However, we have no way of really knowing if these any of these sites had any affiliation with the cult or were even familiar with it. This creation of an online “space” also relates to Ulmer’s concept of chora that constitutes the ontology of an electrate world. The fact that this space still exists after the group’s eventual suicide makes it now seem like an abandoned room, riddled with unanswerable questions that create their own argument this much later, and serving as what’s almost a memorial to the group as a whole.
A table of contents highlights the group’s most recent materials:
It also links to the book that encompasses a thorough chronological history of group beliefs, but it’s clear by the placement that this isn’t their primary concern. As far as websites go, this one seems fairly linear in format, offering its links in a list style, but the consistency of functionality and use of multiple organized pages suggests a creator who was very proficient in website design, especially for the late ‘90s. The group also offers transcripts of some of Applewhite’s (Do’s) videos, and what seems to be all of the videos recorded by group members, which leads one to ask: who transcribed these videos and who designed the website? Was it someone outside of the group? These are questions I haven’t gone far enough to find answers for yet, although the “Transcripts of Two Recent Videos” page does state that one of their “correspondents from Germany offered to translate these transcripts into German.”
The creation of their website didn’t cause a direct shift into electracy, since at the same time the group still held public meetings in a desperately urgent attempt to explain their position and recruit new members to “save” them and offer them an admittance to the “Evolutionary Level Above Human,” but the affordances of having a website certainly ushered in the use of emerging electrate tactics, such as hyperlinking, an attention to aesthetic, and gradual shift into an Internet institution.
I started out believing that Heaven’s Gate, whether a religious group or a UFO cult, might exemplify a pedagogical shift from orality into electracy but, as with most things, it isn’t that clean-cut or clearly categorized. Zeller presents the group as employing a unique mix of orality and literacy, through its largely materialistic, literal, and “scientific” interpretation of the Christian bible, while Raine paints a picture of a group whose orality-based beliefs about the human body might actually show a before-their-time understanding of multisensorial rhetoric and electracy. Through exploring the website itself, I found a electrate repositioning or formatting of a largely linear and literate pedagogy. After all of this, I’m not certain where this cult stood at its beginning and ending, but I can say with some sureness that its particular timeline allowed it to change with the times. Ulmer’s proposed shift from literacy to electracy, not clean-cut in itself since all three apparatuses still exists to some extent and each new apparatus is introduced to supplement the ones preceding it, can be witnessed in Heaven’s Gate’s change in beliefs, teaching methods, and eventual end.
Ulmer, Gregory. “ELECTRACY: Writing to Avatar.” University of Texas at Austin. Computer Writing and Research Lab, Austin, TX. October 2008. Guest Lecture.
Zeller, Benjamin E. “Extraterrestrial Biblical Hermeneutics and the Making of Heaven’s Gate.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 14.2 (2010): 34-60. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2015.
Raine, Susan. “Reconceptualising the human body: Heaven’s Gate and the quest for divine transformation.” Religion 35.2 (2005): 98-117.EBSCO. Web. 27 April 2015.
Coté, Mark. “Technic and the Human Sensorium: Rethinking Media Theory Through the Body.” Theory & Event 13.4 (2010): n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.
Santos, Marc C. et al. “Our Electrate Stories.” Kairos. 18.2 (2014): n. pag. Web. 17 April 2015.
“Introduction: Electracy.” Ulmer The Learning Screen RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
All screenshots taken from:
“Heaven’s Gate – How and When It May Be Entered.” Heaven’s Gate. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.