Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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Creative Commons

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.

Discerning Before Utopia

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“The Daydreamer”, Creative Commons

This post was spurred on by two things, a class given on discernment at Campion College Australia and reading a letter in a section of the monthly journal Traces, put out by the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation.

In going through the contingencies of life, discerning God’s will is always hard to do. The challenge becomes particularly acute when we realise that discernment is almost always mixed with our desires and the frustrations of those desires by the slings and arrows of fortune.

Being creatures driven by the heart, as James KA Smith noted in his Desiring the Kingdom, it would be impossible to eliminate the restlessness that desire instills in us and the eagerness or anxiety that will find its way in the discernment process.

The reasons for our eagerness can be gleaned when one considers how desire operates in the context of what Graham Ward calls a “subject position” in his book Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. Ward suggests in that book that desire does not allow us to keep still within our subject position, which is always made up of a whole range of social and cultural factors. Rather, our desires put us onto what he calls “projects” which, as the word suggests, projects us forward, pressing us against the confines posed by the factors that make up our subject position. In many respects, our eagerness inevitably will drive us to want to break many of these confines, and urge us to strain towards “where we want to be”. This is what Ward calls in his book “utopic horizons”.

However, our eagerness is often met with frustration because, as the name “utopia” suggests, our desires very often push us towards places other than where we are now. We believe that where we are now are but obstacles to our discernment and to the fulfilling of our vocation. We want to escape where we are and what we are doing, so that the will of God can finally be done.

This desire to escape our circumstances is understandable, but it must be juxtaposed with observations by Rabbi Edward Feld and Fr. Luigi Giussani. In an essay on the 23rd Psalm, Feld noted that, though the journey in the psalm is marked by many changes and much buffeting by the circumstances of life, the sheep are nevertheless still “on the right path”. Fr. Giussani put it more succinctly, saying once that it is in the circumstances that one seeks to escape where one’s vocation, one’s call resides. Discernment thus is not dependent on an escaping of those circumstances, but by pressing against them and feeling their texture press back upon us.

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.

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.

When a Dead Body Attends Mass

One morning, probably due to a combination of liturgical illiteracy and bad timing, a coffin with a body was casually wheeled into a suburban parish in the middle of the Eucharistic liturgy, in preparation for a funeral which was to come immediately after.
So there it was, a dead body, cutting through the almost boring familiarity of the space between “Let us pray” and “One God forever and ever”.
At first glance, a dead body casually gliding into a non-funerary liturgy might seem to some slightly odd. Other folk might seem irritated at the funeral director’s awkward sense of timing. After the initial awkwardness and rage, however, the presence of the coffin and the corpse therein can be seen to be not an interruption but a correlation, a visible reminder to those attending the Eucharist at just what the Eucharist is about.
What is striking in this action is the sight of two bodies facing each other. On the one hand there is the dead body of the deceased, while on the other is the paradoxical body of Christ, the body that is sacrificed yet is brimming with life that is passed onto those who receive it.
In a way, the Eucharistic body is not completely juxtaposed with the dead body. Indeed, as Graham Ward reminds us in an essay on the Eucharist in his City of God, the Eucharistic body is the archetype of the human body. It is no accident that St. Augustine, in his sermon on the Eucharist, once described the Eucharistic Body as “who you [the congregant] are”.
Set against this backdrop, the body of the deceased is not longer a mere dead piece of flesh. As mentioned in a previous post, bodies also prophecy to a future moment. The ancient Church looked to the body as a signal to the last day when these bodies, long waiting for their restoration, are brought back to life as it was on the day of Christ’s death. The dead body, in other words, is a signal to that end of history where the glorified body of Christ is made fully manifest.
As the body – both the Eucharistic Body of Christ and of that of the deceased – catapults our imagination to that future moment, they also pull as back to another moment in the past, indeed the very first moment in history in the Garden of Eden. For in was in that garden when creation enjoyed uninterrupted communion with its Creator, and the Eucharistic Body of Christ, in drawing us to Communion with Him, draws us also to a restored Eden. The flowers arranged on top of the coffin offer this little hopeful glimmer of that thing both ever ancient and ever new.

Doctrine Divides While Justice Unites?: An Interview with Catholic News Agency

 

Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, written by the Divine Wedgie’s blogger at large, was recently the subject of an interview with Ann Schneible of Catholic New Agency, under the title of “Doctrine Divides while Justice Unites?“.
The interview centred around this claim, which presumed that social justice naturally united those of different confessions. The question that needed to be raised here was not so much whether social justice united Christians.
Rather, following Graham Ward, the real question centres on what a Christian action would look like when it is being undertaken whilst surrounded by the discourses of Liberalism, and whether that action can be recognised as Christian when filtered through these discourses.
The full text of the interview can found by clicking here. You can also follow Ann Scheible’s work in Catholic News Agency and at Vatican Radio on twitter at @AnnSchneible.

The Postsecular Zombie

 

One research thread on an upcoming project on zombies concerns the liminal space that the undead occupy between the secular and the religious. Whilst this is often portrayed as a juxtaposition between the religious undead and the secular living, what has become more apparent as the research progresses is the ways in which the undead actually reflect a postsecular streak running within a seemingly secular urban life.
Back in 2000, in Cities of God, Graham Ward wrote about Vampires as the endpoint of an urban project wherein “our cultural horizons are crowding with hosts of angels”, with immortality being the sought after goal. This is not some vague concept of “culture”, but is manifested in concrete forms in our consumer goods, and in our bodies
…the brocaded, fabulous couture of Gautier, Versace, McQueen and Galliano is producing angels of all of us. Our bodies are becoming prisons for angelic souls: concepts and construals of the perfect corporeality are disciplining us in what we eat and binding us with fears of infection. The cult of sport, with its glamourisation of sweat, flesh-not-fat and sculptured muscularity…all demonstrate that we are perfecting the techniques for turning each of us into angels. We are manufacturing and manufactured by a contemporary angelology.
This consumer driven angelology, however, finds its embodiment in the vampire, which Ward regarded as the hybrid between the human and the angelic.

More recently, John W. Morehead has in another essay in The Undead and Theology made similar remarks about zombies embodying contemporary aspirations towards acquiring immortality. In an essay entitled “Zombie Walks, Zombie Jesus and the Eschatology of Postmodern Flesh”, Morehead spoke about the zombie as more than a symbol of the end of life. The Zombie Walks, for Morehead, suggest that there exists an impulse to achieve “transcendence…of and through the body”. The zombie acts as a secular symbol whereby “Death is transcended in that the dead return to ‘life'”.

At the same time, Kim Paffenroth wrote another essay (entitled “Apocalyptic Images and Prophetic Function in Zombie Films”) in the same volume, in which she spoke of the zombie forcing us to “strain against the scientific framework that is imposed on them”. Whether it is in terms of speculation on the causes of the zombie apocalypse as judgements from an angry god, or the implicit speculation among characters of The Walking Dead on whether the human is a purely material creature doomed to stay the same, the zombie thus acts as our means to pierce that veil that divides the secular, in which science reigns supreme, and the “life of the world to come”, in which God sits on His throne.