Simulations & Spouses

Poster of “Bride and Gloom” (1918), Public Domain.

The popular philsophical writer Alain de Botton recently published an article in the New York Times outlining the ways in which, in the end, everyone marries the wrong person (a longer version of this essay can be found here) While this is often a cause for despair, de Botton chimed in with an encouraging note, as well as a note of caution with the words:

The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person…We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

This observation of the effect that that what he calls the “Romantic idea” of marriage is an important one, for it would seem that the current environment of image-saturation, creating a condition that the Marxist philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s called “hyperreality”, exacerbates the “Romantic idea”. This is because conditions of hyper-reality – where images are deemed more real than reality itself – bear the potential to generate, and indeed have generated, simulations of a spouse that cement themselves into the mind’s eye to the point that actual, embodied spouses are constantly coming up short, whether it is in terms of appearance, temperament, abilities or delivery of lifestyle. The actual spouse is constantly exposed to be nothing like the sweeping movie scene, the checklist or the airbrushed photo on Pinterest. It is in love that the death of actuality at the hands of an overpowering potentiality are most viscerally experienced.

On the other hand, what the article by de Botton, and indeed the Theological work on marriage in the tradition of St. John Paul II and Marc Oullet highlight, is that the taking of a spouse is always a taking in of a mystery that is gradually and constantly unfolding before you. Marriage is that context within which the embodied reality of the spouse acts as an abrasive to grind back the simulations that the conditions of hyperreality have encrusted onto us. An important task of the spouse then is twofold, to resist the simulations of the spouse delivered by movies, music videos and social media, but also develop a disposition of active waiting for the unfurling of one’s actual spouse.

Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

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.

The Mall as Monastary

A recent news report touched on upcoming designs of new shopping centers. According to some architects, people will be able to do more than just shop in the mall of the future. In order to lure customers back into the shops, malls may also increasingly become redesigned into hubs for dining, exercising and even living, with some suggestions that apartments could be integrated into the overall Mall design. The shopping mall, in other words, becomes a world unto itself.
It is interesting how the mall of the future is starting to take the form of the monastery of many contemplative orders like the Carthusians, where the monastery is treated like a world unto itself, with the monks or nuns rarely, if ever, go beyond the monastery walls. At the same time however, such an enclosure is often coupled with an openness to the world outside, as characterised by the ministry of hospitality that is exercised by many in the Benedictine family.
Understood this way, the modern Mall could be regarded as an inversion of the logic of the Monastery. While modernity is often hailed as a celebration of openness to the world, we see more of the world becoming incorporated into a hermetically sealed architectural bubble, to the point where contact with the outside world is rendered unnecessary or even discouraged, in order to continuously fuel the processes of consumption.

Consumerism and Refugees

Today, the High Court of Australia ruled as illegal a proposed “refugee swap” program between the governments of Australia and Malaysia, where new arrivals to the former would automatically be sent to the latter, and processed refugees from the latter be shipped over to the former.
Many have been capitalising on the little media storm this decision has created. For the government, this is a disappointment that a great policy has to be scrapped, for the opposition, this is another indicator of the government’s general incompetence in the offshore handling of asylum seekers (which by implication, the Coalition could do better once it is in government). For refugee advocates, it is a triumph in stopping the plight of asylum seekers from getting any worse. For legal scholars, this is a triumph of parliamentary law acting as a check on wonton executive power. And the list goes on…
In this flurry, many seem to have neglected to ask: why is it that we now have a situation where both major parties seem eager to send asylum seekers offshore when the capacities for processing them already exist on the mainland?
Strangely enough,  a possible answer may lie in the deeply entrenched consumer culture in Australia, which has created a political dividend that politicians in general are tapping into as part of their strategy for gaining or remaining in power  (and that goes for the minor parties too). Consumer culture, which celebrates the kingship of commodities, is a culture that engages in a cult of the surface and glorifies visibility.
This cult of surface and visibility has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it even bears political implications. Those political matters that matter now are those that are given greater visibility. Conversely, those that lack such visibility are rendered powerless in shaping political discourses and policy. By shipping off asylum seekers offshore, both sides of politics are at one level removing the seeming inconvenience they seemingly pose to the smooth operation of our consumerist lifestyles, but at another level they are also attempting to remove the capacity of asylum seekers to lay claim on our consciousness.
If this analysis is correct, then this would explain not only the strategy of making asylum seekers invisible by shipping them out of public sight, but also other strategies that try to deprive vulnerable groups by rendering them invisible, such as the unborn, families, the unemployed, the elderly, the mentally ill, religious minorities and a raft of others. This is something that implicates all sides of politics, media players, interest groups and those  heaving under the burden of so many shopping bags.

The Postmodern Lent: Ever Ancient, Ever New

The concluding prayers of the Divine Office for the second Monday of Lent read that the Lord teaches us “to discipline the body for the good of the soul”. Very often this is framed in terms of mortification: depriving the body for spiritual nourishment.

After reading William Cavanaugh’s “Torture and Eucharist”, it is possible to give this prayer a postmodern twist, giving this ancient wisdom a new vitality.

The Old Testament demonstrates that the Jews have long realised the importance of providing mere “advice” for the mind, as if the soul were detached from the body. Indeed, because God made man in both spirit and flesh, great moments of conversion or other spiritual turning points were marked by rituals that acted on the body.

It is possible to apply this ancient wisdom to the current consumerist culture, a culture that not only trains minds to accept the quasi-eschatological mythology of retail salvation. Through the ritualistic actions of the 9-5, sunday shopping mall trips and credit card swiping, the body is taken up into the whole process of formation, so that consumerism is not just seared into the minds of the shopper, but the body as well. And when the body is habituated into rituals antithetical to a faith that hopes in a world yet to come, the soul is placed in turn placed into jeopardy. It is possible to to say that modern culture, dominated by the market, doesn’t just want your hippocket. It not only wants your body, it wants your soul as well.

Viewed this way, the point of convergence apparent in Jesus’ phrase “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” can be made clear. The body belongs to God’s as much as the soul does, and thus it too must be taken up into the process of salvation. The body is not ancilliary to this process. The doctrine of the Incarnation, and more recently, the late Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body have demonstrated quite clearly that the body is central to the process of salvation.

Viewed this way, lenten bodily mortifications are not just a sideshow preparing of the soul for the main event of heaven. Lent can also be a time to incarnate salvation within culture. In disciplining the body, the soul can be protected from the modern mythologies of market supremacy and atomistic self-hood that have created this all pervasive culture of death.

If both Cavanaugh and Daniel Bell are correct, Lent is given even greater significance given the ever growing series of intersection between the State and the Market. Lent, like Easter, is not just an excercise of spiritual conversion. Conversion must bring about a political dividend as well, for in the disciplining of the body, it proclaims in history another community apart from the market – the Kingdom of Heaven. It proclaims that the shopping mall and the fast food chain, the office, and ultimately the State, do not have a monopoly over our bodily lives, and thus our souls. Lenten disciplines create the space whereby the words “on earth as it is in heaven” can be made true.

Lent then cannot be just viewed as a six week anomaly, a long preparation for a short weekend festival, but the bedrock for a new political, and thus spiritual paradigm, that reaches far beyond the season, and far beyond our individual souls.