Temptations of the “Everybody”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nota Bene: Due to the impending porting of The Divine Wedgie to the Patheos Catholic channel, this will be the final substantive post on this platform. Links to the new site will be posted once it is live.

Commonweal Magazine recently published a highly informative article by Regina Munch, on her reflections on the post-Brexit fallout among millenials, as well as the recriminations of racism and xenophobia following the narrow victory of Britons wishing to leave the European Union.

Though this is not the central point of her article, what is indeed interesting is what seems to be Munch’s calling out of a kind of universalism in the production of political opinion by media elites. In a way, what she indicates goes beyond what Michel Foucault wrote about deviancy in his History of Sexuality. There, he spoke about the processes that led to the production of normality on the one hand, and deviancy on the other.

The difference in what Munch seems to indicate is that, while there are still the shrill cries of deviancy (namely racism and xenophobia) from the Remain camp, the manufactured commentary from both online and broadcasted sources actually go further by also denying the existence of a different opinion altogether, with cries like “everybody” or “universally” thrown about like so much political confetti, papering over any geographical, class, age-based or economic nuance on the ground.

Regardless of the side of the debate, or regardless of the topic of debate, and regardless of the variety of opinions that the media showers us with, it would seem that the filtering of opinion via media channels both new and traditional still bears a new form of the logic of massification identified by Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, a logic which the Marxist saw as a form of totalitarianism. In a way, this form of massification is more insidious due to its attempts at erasure of any type of complexity by manufacturing a simulated notion of the “everybody”, outside which no real thought or person exists. What is more, this simulated uniformity can apply to opinions manufactured on all sides of any debate.

As the media, rather than lived experience, becomes an increasingly important source of information, one temptation to resist would be the one that such media encourages, namely the tendency to ignore the complexity that embodied experience can uncover and adopt the virtual uniformity of whatever is being flashed on one’s screen. Indeed, it would appear that vigilence against the processes that generate such uniformity might be needed in order to defend the politics presumed by Aristotle to be predicated on difference. The converse is that, if one were to give into manufactured uniformity, the existence of any truly political exercise is put at risk.

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Jesus, Jazz and Who We Are

A previous post explored the assertion by Lacanian psychoanalysis that a subject undergoes a kind of death when exhaustively encased within language, or more precisely, linguistic symbols. This is due to the limitations of symbols in expressing the fullness and the complexity within each subject. True subjectivity, according to Lacanian psychoanalysis, comes when one breaks through the realm of symbols into what Lacan calls the “Real”. That post also hinted at how, in a media-saturated culture, true reality is quashed and broken into a form that fits text-based narratives peddled by media outlets everywhere.
Another way to view this gap between text and the “Real” is explored in Cynthia Nielsen’s latest book Interstitial Soundings: Philosophical Reflections on Improvisation, Practice, and Self-Making, published by Cascade. The book uses the practice of jazz music as a launch point into a  philosophical exploration of subjectivity, weaving jazz theory with diverse philosophical insights from Gadamer, Foucault and MacIntyre.
Of note is a point in her first chapter concerning the role of the score-sheet in the process of composition. Nielsen highlights a modern tendency towards treating the score as the exhaustive deposit of music making, and embodied performance by the players as mere transmission of the score. Though Nielsen admits that players are in a sense “tied to the score”, she nonetheless highlights a gap in composition between the text on the score on the one hand, and the inflections brought out by the individual performances on the other. This embodied performance, Nielsen argues, is as much part of the compositional process as the product encased in the score, meaning that the score is not as complete a musical product as we tend to think it is.
Moreover, Nielsen argues in that chapter that the performance of music – and the book focuses on the performance of bebop – was also an important part of forming of the subject. In Nielsen’s words, the “performer herself is changed [one can say “formed”] through ‘dwelling with’ the piece and allowing it to become…another aspect of her musical voice” (13).
What can be drawn from this important chapter is that the reality of music, and indeed all reality, cannot be so easily encased in text or symbol. We must thus  be cautious of any attempts by media outlets, elite or otherwise, to convince us that the world can be encased in a headline, hashtag or video clip. Attention to the embodied subject has to be given in order to truly say one knows reality at all.
At the same time, it must be noted that this is not some injunction of a moral relativist, but is also gleaned from the pattern of the life of the Word that took on a body, who heralded the Kingdom of Heaven by encountering bodies, touching bodies, who brought eternal life by having His followers eat his body, and defeated death by undergoing the death of His body. Finally, as Augustine once said in a homily, it is through the encounter with the Body of the Incarnate Word, that we can finally know and receive who we really are.

The Most Read Posts of 2014

 

As we sit on the threshold of another new year, it is time to look back on the year that was 2014, a year that saw a intercontinental move from America back to Australia, and a slew of deaths of important theological voices, including that of that great voice of the liberal arts, Stratford Caldecott.
We also look back on the year that was at the Divine Wedgie and have included below three posts that received the largest number of hits. These include

 

  1. Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology: The new take on the theological journal from the good folk in theological publishing has gotten off to a very good start, and also topped the list of most read posts on this blog for 2014. Syndicate acts as an online deposit of highly sophisticated responses from established and emerging voices from the theological world on specific books and events, covering topics as diverse as the redemption of the theology of Karl Barth, the care for the dying, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and the Occupy Movement. This promises to be a highly important vehicle for the furthering of theological voices at a time when they are simultaneously proving to be highly crucial in understanding important past and present events in theory, yet in practice are shunted to the sidelines or silenced altogether. A list of recent symposia can be found by clicking here.
  2. Feedback on “Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ”: 2014 seems to be a year for the reviews and references, with the honours for second most read post going to the feedback given for the book Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ: The Theopolitical Complex of the Social Justice Approach to Ecumenism in Vatican II. At the time of writing that post, favourable feedback had been received on social media, as well as on sites such as Ethika Politika and the blogs of the Papal Nunciature to Ukraine and the Catholic League in England. Since that post, the journal Radical Orthodoxy has furnished an extensive review essay, written by Conor Sweeney.
  3. Graphics and Augustine: The Lust to be Dominated: This post on the backfiring of Ann Coulter’s exploitation of the #bringbackourgirls online campaign, reflected on the way in which our exploitation of graphics for self-expression can so easily morph into an inversion of what Augustine called “the lust for domination”. Rather than seeking of impose our will, Augustine warns of the time when we become unaware that in our lust to dominate, we will become the dominated. In the case of graphics, this is demonstrated most concretely in the slippage of turning an image for one thing into the image for another by external parties.

We look forward to your readership in the 2015. A blessed New Year to all.

The Body Moral

 A 2008 edition of The Sociology of Sport Journal featured a highly illuminating article entitled “Fatness, Fitness, and the Moral Universe of Sport and Physical Activity“, it consisted of an ethnography which suggested the existence of a “moral universe that makes the moral superiority of the fit, athletic body possible”.
This article is one of a slow and gradual trickle of written works that are hinting at an unwritten moral law within contemporary society, whether approvingly or otherwise. This is the law that says: those with athletic, toned bodies have superior moral compasses to those whose bodies show any signs of imperfection. We see this moral universe at work in the micropractices of our economy, from increased job prospects for the toned and bronzed, to the demeaning moral reasoning that links  moral objections of commercial practices (particularly in the porn industry) to “physical unattractiveness”, to the adjustment of bodies to pornographic templates as a means to regulate or even save human relationships.
And solutions abound for such imperfections, be they the more corporeally engaged methods of gyms and plastic surgery, to the more electronic method of airbrushing one’s profile picture to suit the pornographic image du jour, or even all of the above.
It must be stated that the Christian tradition does recognise a link between the direction one’s moral life takes and how the body is positioned. However, such a deterministic causal link our culture currently makes between the seemingly invisible universe of morality to the tactility of the body has been identified, albeit obliquely, by Herve Juvin in his The Coming of the Body. There, Juvin spoke of the collapse (engineered largely by advertisers) between the spiritual universe with not creation generally, but the human body specifically. Furthermore, he notes that this link is shallow and facile, since the soul, Juvin writes, is “located on the surface of the skin”. Thus, the more the skin is perfected, tightened nipped and tucked, whether in on the treadmill or the surgical table, the more divine one’s soul becomes.
As one’s muscles become more visibly toned, one’s moral compass is deemed by the culture to be better honed and primed to not only set the moral criteria for oneself. As Foucault suggests in his Discipline and Punish, the more visibly athletic may also end up setting the moral compasses of others whose participation in the spectacle of health is not as prominent.

"God of War", the Democratisation of Rage & the Power of Easter

The gaming world recently welcomed the latest instalment of the God of War franchise with Ascension on Playstation 3, which functions as a prequel to the popular game series.
The franchise has received criticism on a number of fronts. Apart from critiques of its repetitive gameplay and gratuitous violence, the game has also been slammed for the seeming one-dimensionality of the protagonist, Kratos. Such criticisms say that Kratos is portrayed simultaneously as an angry god with a complex and tragic human past, with the complexity of that past only stoking nothing more than Kratos’ anger, which he takes out on a whole pantheon of gods, titans and their minions. Both of these elements are hinted at in Ascension’s launch teaser)
Yet, it is this very concentration on Kratos’ rage that is acting as the drawcard of players the world over. One reason is indicated in a telling comment by a player on a webforum, who stated quite matter-of-factly that Kratos’ meting out of his rage on the gods acts as an affirmation of human dignity over and against the gods. Playing the game, therefore, becomes not only the player’s participation in Kratos’ rage. In participating in Kratos’ practical demonstration that man is not made in the god’s image, the player is also analogically affirming his or her own dignity as a human being.
This comment is telling, for it is symptomatic of a diagnosis of civic bodies in modernity, made by Michel Foucault in his essays on “governmentality”, or the techniques of rendering a populace governable by the sovereign. As the civic bodies mature, Foucault suggests, governmental functions can actually seep out of their institutional centres and into the fibres of society via a series of very small, almost unnoticeable micropolitical acts on the individual’s body. Far from weakening the power of the administrative centre, this democratisation of governmental functions actually serves to strengthen it, since such a process of consolidation is coupled with a  peddling of the illusion of individual self-determination, freedom and dignity.
The God of War series can be said to play into this foucauldian process of governmentality because one function of statecraft that has become distributed amongst the populace is, as the sociologist Max Weber once wrote, the state’s former monopoly on the unleashing of violence. One may object that a distinction may be drawn from the virtual nature of the violence of Kratos and the real embodied violence of statecraft. This distinction, however, becomes blurred in postmodernity because, as Gilles Deleuze suggested to his readers, what underpins both real and virtual forms of violence is desire, more specifically the desire for justice or revenge, which expresses itself in a vengeful or righteous anger. In other words, the God of War series plays into systems of governmentality because Kratos is the avatar through which the desires that in turn underpin governmental functions are channeled, harnessed and mapped out onto the individual. In foucauldian terms, the game platform is the micropolitical counter over which state control of rage is passed from the institution to the individual.
While many might be quick to use this post to affirm suspicions of the ill-effects of videogames on impressionable minds, it is important to note also that gaming is only one symptom of a much larger governmental problem, that affects every sphere of human action and every person within those spheres, including those who might view themselves as too mature be subject to manipulation by institutional forces. The politician, administrator, shopper, office worker, parent, teacher and student are all similarly subject to the democratisation of government functions in their embodied lives, which will encompass the desire for revenge. And as the functions of governance finds more and more outlets within the social sphere, so too does rage snake around that same sphere, multiplying the sites by which it can unleash itself and solidifying its hold in every nuance of sociopolitical life.
The good news for the Christian is that there exists a channel to break the seeming stranglehold of the economy of rage. The gate that leads to this channel is none other than the crucified Christ, the second person of the One that says in response to His creations desire for revenge, however righetous it may be, “vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19). Indeed, it is significant that the release of God of War Ascension roughly coincides with the final stages of Lent, which lead to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As Daniel M. Bell puts it in his Liberation Theology After the End of History, the crucified Christ interrupts the economy of rage at two levels. At a visceral level, Christ becomes the recipient of not both the desire for revenge, in terms of the unjust rage of the world as well as the righteous anger of God. Christ takes both onto His person and bears its consequences by being executed and sacrificed on the Cross. At the same time, in remaining on that Cross, Christ breaks the circuit of vengeance by refusing to take vengeance Himself.

But the most significant answer to Good Friday’s refusal to avenge is the empty tomb of Easter. Easter is a reminder that, as awful as the refusal to avenge and the refusal to end suffering might appear, its effects are not to have the last say. Christ does not just break the foucauldian economy of rage but transforms it from within. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily, Christ destroyed rage when he endured it, and “destroyed hell when He descended into it”.

 

Prayer and Blogging with Benjamin Myer

Benjamin Myer, a  theologian from the United Theological College in Parramatta and author at large of the Faith and Theology blog, has compiled an impressive mini-anthology on prayer, consisting of the thoughts of writers both ancient and modern (examples include Isaac the Syrian, Evagrius of Pontus, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, Kallistos Ware and William Stringfellow). This post provides some useful material for beginning any reflection on prayer and comes highly recommended.
Myer has also given us valuable food for thought on the impact of blogging on academic theology in an article published by the American evangelical journal Cultural Encounters. Borrowing some elements of Foucault’s terminology, Myer reminds us in his article that writing has been an indispensable formator of identity, yet has been taken to new trajectories with the consolidation of the blog format. The effects are far from neutral, but not necessarily adverse.

Some may legitimately differ with Myers on whether the online form can be as nurturing for theological thought as he argues it to be, but his article nonetheless makes for compelling reading.

The Biopolitics of Chest Hair

The centrefold of the 24 November 2011 edition of Sydney’s mX tabloid featured an assortment of celebrities that insured their body parts. Some statistics included Mariah Carey insuring her legs for $1 billion as an accompaniment to an ad campaign by the shaving corporation Gillette. Another included Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera, who insured her teeth for $10 million as part of an ad campaign for a tooth whitening brand. One humorous example included Tom Jones, who insured his chest hair for $7 million.
mX readers might find this report amusing, but this piece is an apt demonstration of the culture of postmodernity at several levels. At one level, it bespeaks of what Foucauldians would call an “insurational imaginary”, where the culture’s obsession with security in a commercialised culture translates into the proliferation of objects that can be insured. This proliferation means that the body can now become the subject of insurance. What this allows however, is a cultural ceding of the body over to the whims and fancies of business to ascribe value to the body, rather than assume the body to have its own inherent worth. This is ironic, seeing that the culture of postmodernity that produced this “insurational imaginary” started out by celebrating the body as having its own inherent worth, and its limitless potential for self-actualisation.
However, according to Graham Ward in his Politics of Discipleship, the body celebrated in postmodernity is highly reductionistic. The more the body “as mere flesh” (to borrow Ward’s words) becomes celebrated, as it is in consumer culture, the more the body becomes reduced to a blank slate. It becomes stripped of meaning and is rendered a mere commodity, whose value can only be discerned by its being adorned with other commodities, such as jewellery, clothes or on this case, insurance products. The body under such circumstances then becomes highly vulnerable to commercial manipulation.
What adds to this tragedy is that these commodities that the body requires to attain value themselves have no inherent value. As recent financial crises have demonstrated, monetised products are highly unstable categories, subject only to the whims of the most powerful commercial interests. The body, therefore, in attaching value to itself only insofar as it attaches itself to these commodities, become mere extensions of international business. This calls to mind a reading from the Epistle of James, a sentence of which reads
Your gold and silver are corroding, and that same corrosion will testify against you, and it will devour your flesh like fire (5:3)

The Christian must also be vigilant against allowing the flesh to be devoured, as if the body were so tainted by sin as to be worthy only to be jettisoned to save the soul. This neo-Gnosticism has no place in the Church. What is needed is for the flesh to be redeemed. For Ward, the starting point is not to endow more value on the body itself, but find the body’s value from its coabiding in the glorified Body of Christ, who rose from physical death and ascended into glory both spiritually and corporeally, and who asks us constantly to remain in him as He in us (John 15:4).