The Secret, Cultural Property and the Construction of the Spiritual Commodity

Guy Redden

Abstract

A randomised survey in Texas found that 22 per cent of the public identified themselves as consumers of New Age media. Despite widespread recognition of the ‘spiritual supermarket’ there has been little sustained analysis of the production of spiritual commodities and related issues of cultural property. This article presents a case study of the bestselling spiritual self-help book and DVD The Secret, which features various teachers and sacred wisdom traditions seen to hold the key to the meaning of life—but which has also been the subject of copyright disputes. Through this example the article examines ways informational commodities are produced by transforming freely available spiritual traditions into intellectual property for a contemporary market in self-help products. Two related tensions raised by this reconstruction are explored. The first is between cooperation and competition in the liberal New Age milieu where entrepreneurs present marginally differentiated goods and services side-by-side. In contrast with exclusionary organisation of religious doctrine, freedom to adapt the lingua franca of holistic spirituality allows for coefficiency among providers, but also new forms of ownership distinction, as exemplified by The Secret. The second tension is between these private property relations and the corporate cultural property of the custodians of knowledge traditions that are commodified. The Secret, as with much New Age syncretism and multiculturalism, depends upon particular processes of transvaluation that inscribe diversity as positive by rendering selected instantiations of it equivalent—in this case through universalising the therapeutic value of specific traditions have for modern life. Drawing in particular upon debates about New Age use of Indigenous Australian knowledges, the author questions how the reworking of wisdom into a commodity may bear upon the ethnocultural significance of sacred traditions and upon other attempts to fashion their roles in contemporary public spheres

Keywords

New Age, spirituality, The Secret, cultural property, commodification

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