note: the following observations are primarily drawn from watching the Netflix documentary film “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru”, the first film to document his “Date With Destiny” seminar series.
Tony Robbins does not neatly fall into the Televangelism category, but employs similar tactics to the Televangelists I am interested in, including Mister Rogers, Robert Ashley, Grace Butler, Billy Crystal and other figures who develop a cult of personality around themselves using multimedia tools and environments with a singular mission in mind. This mission is often no less ambitious than to change the world by transforming the inner workings of the individual mind, collectively. The Televangelist differs from the Guru, the Spokesperson, the Salesman, the Jester, the Prophet and the Pastor primarily in the tools that they use, the principal tool being television, naturally.
Tony Robbins however, does not use television as his primary platform for communication. Instead, he conducts elite private workshops that cost up to $5,000 in oftentimes difficult-to-access resort locations. From the get-go, Tony’s practice departs from the qualities typically associated with television: accessibility, affordability, replayability. Instead, Tony’s week-long workshops are closer to the form of a retreat, a summit, a church camp, that deploy the tactics of the Televangelist.
The church camp connection is an important one with relevance to my personal history. I grew up in a Korean-Christian household, and through my childhood and adolescence through the 2000s attended over a dozen Christian retreats, which oftentimes lasted a week. They differed in form depending on ethnicity and age: Vacation Bible School (VBS) through the Korean church, Camp Firwood which was a more secular summer camp for white Christian youth, YoungLife for the older adolescent audience. Wenatchee, Lifeboats, Leavenworth, the list goes on. It is important to note that the retreats organized by more affluent White churches featured youth pastors much more like Tony than Korean churches - preaching anecdotal moralism in a Dane Cookian, distressed jean, “everyman" tone. Tony Robbin’s seminar feels strikingly uncanny to me precisely because I have already experienced such seminars, though in more explicitly Christian contexts (Tony mentions God and preaches rebranded Christian Moralism in accessible informal language, but nowhere is his ideology directly credited to Christianity - scriptures from the Bible are not used, although he does use keywords like “grace”.)
The Christian retreats of my youth deployed similar tools to Tony. Pump-up music to get the crowd in a communal, energized state of mind. An exuberant man on stage, speaking with passionate conviction about the dissatisfaction we have with our current lives and the steps required to liberate our true potential of self-manifesting as giving, loving beings. Printed worksheets - with instructions to fill out blank areas with questions, answers, keywords and phrases about our own lives, that are then shared, collected, and “worked upon”, until later, when time-based interventions occur, making use of the week-long retreat format to revisit those answers, your “old self”, after transformation has occurred. Ambient music and lighting - for intimate moments of collective prayer, reflection, and then celebration.
It is easy to malign Tony Robbins as a cult-leader with a God-complex, indoctrinating vulnerable minds (who can afford the fee) to an abstract ideology of self-help, to accuse him of being a motivational speaker who mashes up Christian moralism, Jerry Springer-like intervention-spectacles, EDM collectivism, appropriated Eastern practices of meditation (mindfulness), and neoliberal individualism/entrepreneurship to empty the wallets of a generation disconnected from organized religion (but open to abstract, universal, pantheistic moralism), that can be convinced that self-confidence is the missing link between their current status and fulfillment. How many Tony Robbins seminars has Donald Trump attended?
While there are strands of truth in the above critique, if it ends there, it is at best boring, and at worst, dismissive of the thousands of disenfranchised people that have derived value from Tony’s sensational techniques (ex: “Dawn”, the former child sex slave under the Children of God in Brazil who was gifted $100K by co-participants to provide services to traumatized victims of sexual violence). It is far more interesting to closely examine the apparatus of the Tony Robbins spectacle. The infrastructure of the program is impressive. A lubricated staff of 100 buzz around Tony, briefing him on the participants’ most recent reflections (passed down the grapevine of staff surveillance and emotional monitoring/maintenance), workshopping presentation templates and timing, coralling participants and priming them for Tony, manning the AV stations that orchestrate the visuals, musical cues, microphone placement, etc. What is the connection between this apparatus and the current state of religion under Late Capitalism and globalization (Tony notes that participants attend his talks from over 100 countries)? How can an apparatus that generates such fanatic and sincere response (willingness to engage in collective euphoria, tears, psychedelic transcendence, epiphany, connectedness) be instrumentalized for different projects?
Does he throw a million darts to see what sticks (hoping that one element of his performance unlocks the participant’s mind), or continually shoot one dart in a focused way to hit the bullseye and wait for it to work?
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