Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

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Prayer After “The World Spins Madly On”

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Almighty God,

You moved your servant to listen to “The World Spins Madly On” by the Weepies, that short, beautiful song of unfulfilled longing, broken promises, and utter helplessness in the face of this barbarian called life that you have let loose on us.

In this song you remind your servant that of all the contingencies of life, people, days, places, memories, words are just that – things that pass by us and are not meant to stay with us. You make us reflect on the only perennial thing in this contingent universe, mankind’s need to say goodbye to these contingencies. All these things, they come by our lives for but a moment.

But in the words of our father Augustine, we desire these temporary things to last an eternity. And in our efforts to make our own heavens on earth with the temporary things of this earth, we only render our heavens into foretastes of hell, creating glimpses of that separation that awaits those who, like those angels in ages past, declared their refusal to serve you, knew what it meant, and meant it with their hearts.

And in this song, O Lord, you cause us to ponder how the world does not care as these hells multiply, in our own lives and in lives all over its continents. Little wonder that we are jaded, O Lord, as our cries of agony of loss, small and large alike, are just met with the world simply moving on. Our world is so cold, and our search for comfort in this world for the pain of our loss only seems to compound this pain, as the sheer contingency of all things tears away our comforts that we have band-aided over our wounds.

But in your wisdom, you deign to heal our wounds borne from our bindings to those that would only leave us. And indeed, you deign to heal them with these very contingent things to which we cling, but in so doing you create your own portals to a truly eternal life. With water, oil, salt, bread, wine, bodies and words, you put together a vault of the sacramental life to immerse us in, thus showing viscerally to our own senses that our longing for the eternal can be fulfilled. Our recurring pain need not be the only eternal – nay it was merely an illusion – experience in this mad world, nor do they need to be meaningless knocks of fortune. Let these portals you have created, O Lord, take up these temporary things of this world gone absurd, such that they do not just get meaninglessly lost in the passage of the moments.

May it please you that, in the moment when moments march no more, you would in your mercy show us how every instance of loss and being lost in this life of ours – and yes, even the end of that life when we shall lie motionless in bed for the last time – forms the threads in this cosmic tapestry of your saving work.

For our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Praise be the name of the Lord, both now and forever.

 

Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince

 

People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Catholic Social Dispatches

 

With all the intense hypervigilence and dissection of the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Letitia, and equally intense online sabre-rattling over whether the Catholic faith has been transformed beyond recognition because of it, a lot of other stories in the Catholic social media landscape have received scant attention. Deliberately or otherwise, directly or indirectly, the theme of Catholic Social Teaching has figured rather prominently in these more marginal threads.

What jumps out is the way in which ecclesiology seems to undergird these seemingly diverse nods to Catholic Social Teaching. More specifically, these stories the attempts to position the Church as a crucial waypoint between the periphary and the centre, the hospital waiting room bridging the wounded and the well, the secular and the sacred and the ladder between the transcendent ideal and the less than ideal temporal situation.

Chief among these was the Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesbos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Both the Patriarch and the Pontiff focused their visit on those itinerant peoples who, for whatever reason, seek to relocate to Europe and found themselves stranded in that part of the European continent (other pockets of stranded are found in other parts of the Europe, mostly in the south and the east). Having concluded that visit, it was also announced that the Pontiff had also taken twelve individuals – those whose papers are in good order but remain stranded – onto the papal plane back to Italy. It is one of the more dramatic moves of a papacy characterised by highly symbolic moves.

While this story unfolded, it was also reported that the American Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, addressed a conference at the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. His paper, “The Urgency for a Moral Economy”, can be found in full here.

A third story can be found in a story (dated 14th April), in the Jesuit magazine America, which was a write up on Solidarity Hall, a group of writers who have converged in an online space started by Elias Crim, and has slowly evolved into a publishing venture under the management of Daniel Schwindt. Solidarity Hall now features its own contribution to the Patheos platform with The Dorothy Option. In the interview with one of its authors, Mark Gordon, the article spoke of the focus of the venture’s contribution to the development of the Catholic Social tradition by negotiating a “radically Christian life in the space between the state and the market” and the “polarities of left and right”, by reclaiming the “whole teaching of the church, unalloyed by the ideologies and false identities of party, class, even nation”. As a footnote, the article also mentioned by name the Divine Wedige‘s Matthew Tan, him being an Australian voice in an otherwise dominantly American project, contributing to the Solidarity Hall website on pop culture and total war, and a chapter on the migrant in their flagship publication Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about teaching or a space called the social, but also the bodies that occupy that space and live out the teaching. With this in mind the fourth item, a post from Rebecca Bratten Weiss of Franciscan University of Steubenville, deserves mention here. In it, Weiss draws our attention to the way in which a Church and a theology should not not only speak to and about the perfect or respectable bodies, but also those who enter its doors with bodies broken and violated from violence, illnesses or defects both intended and unintended, maladies that we try to shield our eyes from in our quest for the comfortable bourgeois Christianity. Weiss suggests that such imperfect bodies ought to be part of the story of the Body of Christ.

Hangry Eyes: Our Ravenous Seeing

 

Eric Carmans Hungry Eyes is an awfully corny song which, combined to the dance moves and fashion statements of the movie Dirty Dancing, form the quintessential signpost to the overall corniness of the decade that was the 80s. Corny though it may be, is there some ancient truth buried beneath the refrain, especially the line which goes “One look at you and I can’t disguise I’ve got hungry eyes”?

Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, authored by Chanon Ross and referred to in last week’s post, seems to indicate as much. The book makes the less than subtle claim that part of the religious aspect that ties the act of seeing to worshiping, mentioned in a previous post, is the consumptive aspect that ties seeing with consuming. Moreover, this kind of consuming far from passive and far from tranquil. It is tied with domination and aggression.

Ross refers to a passage in the Confessions, where Augustine recalls his friend, Alypius, and his addiction to the spectacle entertainments of the Colosseum in ancient Rome. Ross makes much of a line in the Confessions, in which Alypius’ addiction to spectacle was expressed in consumptive terms using the words:

he saw the blood and gulped the brutality, he fixed his gaze there and drank in the frenzy.

Another example used by Ross is the Roman theologian Salvian in his On the Government of God. In it, Salvian similarly makes a link between the gaze and eating. Commenting on the consumption of victims by wild animals in the Colosseum, Salvian imputes guilt on those that watch this violence, saying that

…the victims seem devoured almost as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of beasts.

We may excuse ourselves by saying that our gaze is not fixed on anything so visceral or overtly violent. Nevertheless, the consumptive logic of our seeing persists, and Ross suggests that it is Christ who, in giving of himself as a spectacle to be raised up, takes in our consumptive gaze and redeems it by turning it into the gaze on a gift freely given.

Dance and Transcendance

 

There is something uncanny about the subgenre of electronica broadly called “dance music”. In sample after sample, whether it is Ellie Goulding’s “Burn“, Juventa’s “Move Into Light“, Armin van Buuren’s “Waiting for the Night“, Koven’s “Eternal and You” or Seven Lions’ “World’s Apart“, the listener will notice that this musical genre better epitomises the postsecular than any other, for it is the most upfront in bringing in the vocabulary of soul, redemption, transcendence, eternity, light and darkness familiar to many believers, including many Christians.

Indeed, many Christians number amongst the devotees of the dance music scene, and possibly because of the overlap between the vocabulary of their faith and the lyrics blasted from the speakers, backed up by the aesthetic statements built into the music videos and live concerts, be they the enhanced strings in the harmonics, flashes of light breaking the monotony of the dark, the streaks of cloud drawing our gaze into the heavens, or the technologically enhanced superimpositions on temporality, modulating voices into multiple inflections, expanding bodies beyond natural capacities or making nature itself portray realities beyond what is physically possible.

Is the allure of the dance subgenre to a critical mass of young adults and the supposed ties to transcendence speaking to something built into our makeup as persons?

Scripture offers an obscure clue in 2 Samuel 6, when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the holy city of Jerusalem after the defeat of the Philistines and David, the man after the heart of God, dances half naked in front of the crowd, but more importantly in the intimate closeness to the God who dwelt in the Ark.

The ancient Church would seem to build on this and offer a more heavenly parallel via the Cappadocian Fathers, in particular St. Gregory Nazianzen. In the course of talking about how the three persons in the transcendent Godhead related to one another, Gregory used the term perichoresisWhile nowadays used to denote the very technical process of “circumincession” or the “creation of space for another”, it is interesting that the original usage of the term related to a form of dancing. The persons of the Trinity, in whose image we are made, to which all were drawn and in whom all find their eternal home, were thus depicted as engaged in a transcendent and eternal dance. The natural act of dancing, therefore, was used as to echo the transformed state of creation – indeed creation in its redeemed form – in their participation in the Godhead.

There is plenty that would set apart the reciprocal self-giving of the Trinity’s perichoresis from the isolating gyrations and simulated liturgies of the dance floor. Nevertheless, one cannot in the name of rejecting the blasphemous within dance music, dismiss also the important overlaps between the two sets of practices and logics, and in so doing understand the allure – dare one say salvific appeal? – and organisational power of music in postmodern culture, in its interface with the spiritual dimension in the human person.

Material Simulations & Flat Pack Furniture

 

After almost seven years of apartment living and relying exclusively on borrowed fixtures and chattels, with nary a stick of furniture to one’s name; and with a new term and resettlement into a new abode rapidly looming, the executive decision was made to acquire some basic new furniture to call one’s own.

A few expeditionary shopping trips made it quite evident that such rapid acquisition of interior fixtures was possible, with one notable condition. The only furniture within the available budget had to arrive in flatpacks.

The energy, pulled back muscles and countless hours spent assembling pieces of chipboard together in such as way as to close the gap between the jigsaw-puzzled components and the glossy catalogue pictures and shiny display models was extraordinary. That was not the surprising part.

What was surprising, however, was the degree to which, after the hours, the pulled muscles, the stripped screw threads, the broken allen keys and the fatigue, the finished product strayed from the models beheld just days before. The sheen of perfectly aligned workmanship stood in stark contrast to what was eventually put together. Pieces were out of place, pegs too long, holes out of alignment, and there was the unbearably artificial ergonomics, ill suited for any person with a body.

After several contortions of the spine on what was claimed to be the futon, it soon became apparent that the frustration stemmed from the pursuit, not of the furniture itself, but of the image of the furniture presented on screens, catalogues and even the show room. The images, and even the concrete models put on display for us to touch and interact with, were little more than simulations which we retained in our minds and then foisted upon the pieces in our flat packs, simulations that the lived reality of the assembled pieces in our homes failed to live up to.

Flat pack furniture stands as a stark reminder to us that, as Graham Ward once wrote in his Cities of God, that we “live in the order of the simulacra”, an economy where money is exchanged for images, even ones wrapped in the mantle of tactile reality. Slavoj Zizek put it another way in the title of a book, arguing that we are “plagued by fantasies” of experiences of reality that turn out to be mirages, because the economies in which we live have become abstracted under the hollowing lordship of money. Under this lordship of the image relations, whether to persons or to things, become holograms wrapped in flesh and fabric.