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Nik Stanbridge Psychic TV, Riverside. 1982. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0BY-NC-ND 2.0 / cropped)

Groupthink and Other Painful Reflections on ​Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth

TOPY and Genesis P-Orridge’s knowing adoption of cult iconography quickly slid from satiric emulation to full embrace — and we all went along with it.

Aftershocks

Following the spread of unrest throughout Thee Temple’s membership, P-Orridge concluded that TOPY had metastasized beyond h/er ability to pull its strings, and on 3 September 1991, pronounced the network dissolved. Though P-Orridge insisted that the “experiment” terminate through h/er force of will alone, some appendages of the global TOPY grid refused to give up the ghost; vestiges and enclaves exist to this day. The North American chapter (TOPYNA), which pushed back fervently against P-Orridge, became the most prominent rebel group and its “evolved” iteration—founded in 2008—currently persists online as the Autonomous Individuals Network, or AIN23. In AIN23’s “Statement of Intent”, they make no bones about their acrimonious birth, proclaiming how “[TOPY] collapsed after being built on a foundation of untruths and misguided ideals … TOPY was the design of ONE person, with a desire to CONTROL a CULT for his own personal pleasure and egotistical growth … .”

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Jennifer Patterson LohmanPsychic TV / Taken at the Farm in the mid 80’s” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

…chaos magick [is] a lot of shit … if all these magicians
are so great and powerful, why are they all so broke and
don’t have girlfriends?

(Keenan 2016: 305)

P-Orridge waged a public crusade for TOPYNA to cease all use of Thee Temple’s name, symbols, and other elements of branding. But h/er dogged pursuit, in the wake of TOPY’s forced euthanasia, confirmed the former membership’s burning suspicion: that all along, TOPY unfurled, persisted, and ultimately withered with h/erself at its nexus, contradicting any insistence that individual liberation, or even egalitarian community, were the operational priorities. How could this vindictive demeanor square with the radically ecumenical, revelatory tone of the early TOPY tracts, which sold Thee Temple as an escape hatch from the dreary orthodoxies of Thatcher et al.?

Was such posturing ever truly sincere? In documented harangues against TOPYNA, P-Orridge first attempts a moral appeal to some secret, long-standing plan for TOPY’s dissolution. Thee Temple “was voluntarily terminated by its SOURCE with ex-dream prejudice … in accordance with their original intent. Any person … claiming Membership … is clearly either a fool or a charlatan. … Do not support them in their delusions” (P-Orridge 2010d: 506).

After openly naming h/erself the “SOURCE” for all of TOPY’s artistic and intellectual fruits, ex-disciples felt even more jilted; despite winking attempts to insist otherwise, they had served Thee Temple as mere minions. What happened, they no doubt wondered, to the “modern tribal framework,” a “unity ov Purpose,” or “100% … devotion to the group”? When TOPYNA refused to capitulate after P-Orridge’s initial screeds, the TOPY ceremonial patois dropped from h/er further correspondence. Instead, lawsuit threats were then wielded as cudgels: “… both the [TOPY] name and the logo are my internationally registered trademarks and/or intellectual copyrights which I have used continually for well over a decade. They also represent symbols that are closely associated with me in the public mind on a global scale artistically, commercially and personally” (P-Orridge 2010d: 507-9).

Evidently, “smashing old loops” now takes a backseat to the sanctity of (allegedly falsified) copyright enforcement. But just imagine: after a decade of ardent organizing, and accruing the fealty of thousands worldwide, the counterculture prophet who inspired this fervor cancels the entire sect with little more than an afterthought. And why? For h/er future merchandising and commercialization opportunities. This treachery cuts deep; TOPY’s plebeians clearly believed they were traversing brave new plateaus of the human condition and changing the world through communal ritual magick. Yet Thee Temple outlived its usefulness for P-Orridge’s machinations, and so its members were sloughed off, as a snake sheds its skin.

When TOPYNA replies to h/er cease-and-desist demands, the emotional devastation is palpable; as are the vestiges of an unquestioning reverence for P-Orridge: “I watched your [P-Orridge] video material, listened to your music, read your words … How was I not to believe in you? You were, to me, a friend that I simply hadn’t met yet … I never misunderstood you Gen, everything you said was crystal clear in my mind. That’s the only reality I know and understand… Was it [TOPY] a disinformation campaign? … Is anything REAL about you left besides dogma and control, which supposedly you are against …?” (P-Orridge 2010d: 512-513; 515-516).

When P-Orridge pulled the plug on Thee Temple—apparently to seek out greener pastures for monetization—ex-members realized that, all along, their guru and the Ratio Five leadership had been feigning (through one dramatization after another) the righteousness that the underlings were living out on a daily basis. On a larger scale, I think this callous turn also points to the tactics of emotional and narrative deception practiced by P-Orridge and h/er lieutenants to distract, dodge, and deflect credible allegations of abuse. Indeed, their efficacy is evident, since despite unmistakable brainwashing, and profound psychological injuries inflicted by Thee Temple on its disciples, the conversation around P-Orridge and TOPY remains largely obsequious and deferential. By examining these tactics, as well as the concerns they connote, I further aim to investigate what TOPY’s mutated reception says about the present climate of subcultures and transgressive spaces.

Tactic #1 – Manipulating Journalists

TOPY’s first tactic involves manipulating journalists to distract from abuse allegations. P-Orridge and h/er coterie deliberately targeted critics—some gullible, others just cynical—in order to sculpt public reception, propagating h/er preferred, often imagined version of a cultural memory. Most prominently, Thee Temple cast their ’80s and ’90s opponents—church, state, tabloid media, and even skeptics in counterculture—as relentless oppressors, and promoted caricatures of themselves as doe-eyed innocents, hounded largely for their eccentric lifestyle choices. In doing so, they dredged up sympathetic portrayals among modern journalists and academics, which in turn, discredited victim whistleblowing. Abuse call-outs would be conveniently conflated with this overblown story they helped sell as a misdirect (namely, misunderstood radicals under siege from all sides), and dismissed out of hand.

To work, this plan required a confluence of credulity, wishful thinking, and lazy regurgitation among tastemakers—provided in spades, as luck would have it. For instance: except Art Sex Music, every one of my primary sources were accessible to commentators throughout TOPY’s recent rehabilitation. Cursory digging would have revealed the same unflattering and/or abusive portraits for those who took a few minutes to probe. So even after Art Sex Music‘s release, to press forward with P-Orridge and TOPY’s beatification in spite of further highly credible allegations, is a moral stain on music journalism. Many voices in criticism—both fêted and obscure—earn their share of blame here. Early adopters of P-Orridge revivalism include a few mid-to-late ’00s books and magazine profiles (e.g., Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again and David Stubbs’ essay in The WireWire).

But after 2015, journalist, fan, and artist adoration for P-Orridge and TOPY surged. Reverent features spread like wildfire in a variety of publications, such as the New Yorker, SPIN, The Guardian, i-D (1 and 2), Tiny Mix Tapes, The Quietus, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Vice Media verticals both active and extinct, self-titled, HERO, Dazed, CVLT Nation, CLRVYNT, local alternative weeklies, and even putatively authoritative sources such as AllMusic.com. Even my own academic writing joins this bandwagon.

As alluded by former COUM collaborators, expertly sculpting h/er own reception is perhaps P-Orridge’s most prodigious gift, a thread that connects h/er disjointed career ventures more than any single artistic or intellectual undercurrent. Numerous P-Orridge contemporaries—”old hands” from ’70s and ’80s music counterculture—speak to how h/er knack is less musicianship, songwriting, or subculture organizing, and more the shrewd ability to induce historical rewrites; sometimes playing the lottery to see what sticks in the public imagination, and sometimes appropriating others’ ideas as h/er own. And to that end, journalists and other interpreters have always been h/er marks. P-Orridge’s self-aware peacocking to media outlets, particularly over the past decade, conjures a daring, even romantic stylization of h/er and other Temple leaders as cheeky yet charming “Merry Pranksters”—freethinking dissenters laying themselves on the line against the merciless Thatcher regime of control and conformity.

But criticism of P-Orridge’s hypnotic hold over h/er interpreters is beginning to emerge. Lottie Brazier comments on how Marie Losier, director of the 2011 documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, allowed her subject to dictate the turf of the storytelling and whitewash any mention of past exploitation. Hans Rollmann similarly notes how Simon Ford, author of the first significant COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle study Wreckers of Civilisation (1999), gave P-Orridge carte blanche to paint h/erself as Throbbing Gristle’s preeminent instigator and artistic ringleader. Consequently, this portrayal circumscribed the 20 subsequent years of sympathetic (if not adulatory) reporting on P-Orridge’s early career.

H/er mendacity with interviewers did not escape notice by TOPY-era collaborators, either. Gavin Semple describes how Thee Temple’s core artistic and magickal components were collectively introduced by John Balance, David Tibet, and other early comrades, not assembled by P-Orridge ex nihilo as many profiles claim. Balance separately confirms how “‘we all chipped in a lot of stuff to [TOPY’s worldview] actually … [but] everything had to be reported back to [P-Orridge], nothing was allowed outside the net. It was really draconian” (Keenan 2016: 53-54).

And of course, this tactic of planned revisionism is also a tool for obscuring abuse. Case in point: P-Orridge and h/er apologists are all too keen to play up TOPY’s “Satanic Panic” controversy as supposedly emblematic of claims levelled against them by adversaries. In their storytelling, the misrepresentation of TOPY’s “First Transmission” video art tape (as depicting ritual child abuse, leading to the much-ballyhooed Scotland Yard raid on their Brighton compound) demonstrates the lengths to which their antagonists will go to smear and discredit the group. But while this police raid was no doubt in error, and alarming for all involved, Thee Temple subsequently used this event as a smokescreen to conceal their actual offenses.

Obviously, TOPY hid no basement dungeons, or depraved playgrounds of devil worship for the ritual torture of infants, as daytime talk shows of the era were eager to avow. Yet by repeating this flimsy distortion repeatedly, almost gleefully, their victimhood is built up as a red herring for distraction. They imply through self-righteous interviews that if a police operation, abetted by tabloid hysteria, persecuted Thee Temple using contrived abuse allegations, then what other cruel untruths stand to be leveraged against them?

This refrain is a narrative sleight of hand, asking journalists and fans to look in one hyperbolic direction (“here are your so-called TOPY ‘misdeeds'”) while obscuring or downplaying TOPY’s many actual abuses against their own members. P-Orridge de facto suggests that we write off nearly all indictments of TOPY as just the latest false invective stemming from this original miscarriage of justice against h/er chosen people. And thus, the canard of satanic ritual abuse covers for the disturbingly mundane, day-in-day-out exploitation that did occur. By focusing on the sensationalized fearmongering of TOPY’s few actual antagonists, journalists and fans (unintentionally or not) carry water for Thee Temple’s reputational repair.

Tactic #2 – Corrupting Subculture Leadership

TOPY’s second tactic involves corrupting subculture leadership to dodge abuse allegations. The inner circle carefully self-branded as spokespeople for castoffs and outlanders, particularly those adrift or alienated from the industrial West’s 1980s “greed-is-good” mainstream. Their proselytizing missives and devotional texts characterize Thee Temple as both awakening sleepwalkers and safeguarding helpless bohemians against the grip of church, state, and corporate power. So TOPY posed as the champion of kids on the margins, but not just as allies doing a good turn.

In this mimicry, they are the transgressives, the queers, the bullied and abandoned; they set the mold for summoning a more liberated version of oneself, and a more just version of the world, using artistic ventures and ritual magick. Indeed, through this posturing façade, acolytes and fans saw their hopes and anxieties—even themselves—reflected in Thee Temple’s combative stance and claims to counterculture authority.

TOPY persuaded the bleary-eyed Generation X that their cult epitomized an audacious breed of subculture—one with teeth, one feared by the normative establishment, but most importantly, one that its admirers wished existed. Today’s disenfranchised “creative class” of Millennials holds P-Orridge and h/er coterie in similarly high regard, as the living exemplars of an (imaginary) moment, since past, when youth rebellions involved bravery and danger beyond dragging antagonists on Twitter. Now, as then, underground communities project their aspirational values onto TOPY; an embodiment of the scene’s fictive former glory.

TOPY is meant to stand for safe spaces that fans and followers might thrive in; to embody the moral clout for calling-out oppressors and defending the tribe against external threats. Yet that faith—so hard to give freely in our cynical and broken world—was thoroughly debased. TOPY cultivated a communal status of guardianship, and promptly cashed in for coercive power. These trespasses—emotional domination, systematic destruction of identity, tyrannical bullying, and the (nonsexual) predation of minors—were entrenched and sweeping; a bureaucracy of abuse in a ten-year global cult apparatus reaching 10,000 individuals. The sheer gravity of betrayal has yet to be fully contemplated or processed.

By harnessing self-doubt, Thee Temple
neutered outside probing or criticism.

This tactic’s present-day success connects with how music scenes recognize and react to exploitation. #MeToo and its allied movements name and shame gendered or identity-based coercion in the public sphere. But while (admirably) taking a page from these grassroots justice groups, music factions are torpid, or fumble, when reacting to exploitation when outright bigotry—e.g., misogyny, transphobia, racism—is not the apparent motivator. TOPY’s abuses fly under our collective radar because we lack the vocabulary to frame, mobilize around, and punish another species of coercion: one that infiltrates and hijacks our aspirations as a counterculture community.

TOPY’s exploitations never hinged on identity for their power, but rather, on warping and repurposing the internal narrative(s) of subculture itself—that, through solidarity as an out-group, we create a seat of protest and action against the somnambulism and inequities of the modern world. As the evidence shows, this alternate method of control, however subtle, also binds the wills and bodies of others, exacting a traumatic, dehumanizing ordeal on its victims.

Here, TOPY engaged in what I call “scene-sploitation”: playing off our insecurities and idealization of what subcultures genuinely represent or accomplish, beyond just underground fashion cliques. By harnessing this self-doubt, Thee Temple neutered outside probing or criticism; with no apparent prejudice or discrimination, suspected abusive behaviors were written off as just part and parcel of their beguiling cultish fervor and steely organizing acumen.

Indeed, P-Orridge offered up a prefab, saccharine vision of what we wished our scenes were actually doing: bringing determination to the demoralized; gifting voice back to the unsung; striking against cultural hegemonies; and refusing our preordained roles as bit-players in the ant colony of the industrial West. And the TOPY “template” simply leveraged already-conditioned behaviors in our scenes: the mystique of stardom or guru-status; the corresponding thrall of fandom; and the smug belonging of the secretive in-crowd, to name a few. Amidst the gleeful accelerationism of contemporary politics, and the fracturing of subculture’s unspoken pact, Thee Temple’s promised utopia is simply too tempting to pass up.

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Photo of Genesis P-Orridge courtesy of © Scott Simpson. Photo may not be redistributed without permission of the photographer.
Tactic #3 – Weaponizing Irony

TOPY’s third tactic involves weaponizing irony to deflect abuse allegations. Thee Temple’s aesthetic designs, organizing principles, and quasi-spiritual tenets all occupied a liminal zone of esoteric strangeness and pop culture remix, where for outsiders looking in, the line between glib satire and true belief (or mass delusion) remained intentionally blurry. This wavering, off-kilter visage fronted their public pretensions, and by offering explanations to journalists and fans that always hedge in a strategic manner, one rumor of coercion after another seemed to wash away. P-Orridge and the Ratio Five became masters of projecting plausible deniability, and in turn, camouflaging their exploitative tendencies.

TOPY’s calculated irony is even more powerful today, thanks to the proliferation of Internet edgelords and the numbing effect of their caustic antics. This dynamic is exceptionally pronounced throughout the gloom-laced music subcultures where Thee Temple is most celebrated. Present-day journalists and fans not only misread reports of TOPY’s injuries as equivalent to the casual abjection or debauchery of social media melodrama, but actually ogle Thee Temple’s disciplinary machine—and the abuse itself—as hip and fashionably contrarian, even seductive.

One such example is the nonchalant repetition of “anti-cult”, P-Orridge’s preferred tagline for TOPY; as if Thee Temple were some risqué anti-hero in the cinematic imagination. Indeed, they depict TOPY’s wrongdoing as just a rarified, vintage version of the same subversive grandstanding we’re all familiar with (let’s say, during a black metal press junket), and then sugarcoat these exploitations by granting the presumption of parody. What’s the big deal, they imply, if P-Orridge’s game plan relies on playing footsie with autocratic and authoritarian tendencies (not unlike the right-wingers TOPY claims to oppose)?

Consequently, a functional cult with a documented track record of dehumanization, brainwashing, bullying, and other torments is being portrayed as a quirky experiment into the outer reaches of iconoclasm. And when brief mention is made of TOPY’s harms—characterized as missteps of exuberance, if anything—the horrific reality of cult entrapment is glossed over or reconciled because TOPY and P-Orridge were always on our team, in the trenches alongside us. Tribal “us vs. them” thinking in subculture politics demands that we excuse, or even defend their extreme approach as a necessary evil against the ascendant right wing of the 1980s—just as many rationalize drastic reprisals against reactionary forces today. But like most tin-pot insurrections, TOPY invariably began to devour their own.

How did cults become chic in underground music? David Keenan points at industrial culture itself, noting that the scene’s fascination with both left- and right-wing totalitarianism led to proverbial “lightning raids behind enemy lines … [as] the best way of gathering information. Some [artists and provocateurs] went further, equating totalitarian ideas of discipline with freedom. … TOPY’s rhetoric was based on this seemingly contradictory equation” (Keenan 2016: 131; see also Reed 2013). But a cult’s basic premise—coercion—is always, already broken, no matter how dire the outside threat appears. That any debate is required around TOPY to prove this truism again is stunning, and our collective failure to shout this out loud in the era of #MeToo (and adjacent movements) is especially noxious. There is no art, introspection, or mobilization that justifies a cult, or emerges untainted from its crucible.

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