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.

Simulations & Spouses

Bride_and_Gloom_(film)
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

91248448_05cd5501c6
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.

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.

Fascism, Simulation & Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted the solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – more commonly known as the feast of Christ the King. Originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, the Solemnity was shifted in 1970 to the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.
The historical matrix behind the institution of this feast is complex, but one immediate factor that loomed large in the mind of Pius XI was the rise of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party (Mussolini had become Prime Minister the same year Pius instituted this feast). In addition, nationalist movements had begun to spring up or consolidate in Europe in response to the ravages of the First World War, with one important example being the Action Francaise, which existed before the War, and what was later to become the National Socialist German Workers Party in Germany.
Many of these movement had come to equate the nation state with a semi-divine status, which became manifest in subordinating everything and everyone to the nation-state. The nation was to be seen as the ultimate concern in all aspects of everybody’s life, becoming as Pius XI put it in his encyclical Quas Primas, “natural religion consisting in some instinctive affection of the heart.” This was a concern, not only because of the presence of these movements, but also the growing allure of these movements among Catholics, such that their Catholic faith was not a path to discipleship under the tutelage of Christ, but a placeholder for a national identity that was forged under the tutelage of the nation. The nation, in other words, had come to override and define what it meant to be a Catholic.
The feast was thus instituted as a reminder to Catholics that their constitution as members of the Church made their national belonging subordinate to what Benedict XVI would call in a 2012 Angelus address “the full realisation of the Kingdom of God, where God will be all in all”. This call, as the interwar period attests, went largely unheeded by Catholics in Europe who, in large numbers, threw their support behind these nationalist movements who made the national interest their primary, if not sole, interest.
It is easy to say “we will never be fascists”. It will be easy to distinguish our times from the turmoil of the interwar period on the vague grounds of having made great strides in civilisational progress in the last century. Nevertheless, it is important to note one important material constant that made mobilisation by nationalist and fascist movements possible – the normalisation of mass forms of communication, of which that the new nationalist movements and governments had a vastly superior command to that of the Church. It might be argued that our age of social media, marked by dazzling feats of technological wizardry, has little common with the technologically primitive forms of newspapers, radios and televisions.
However, as Jean Baudrillard put forward in his 1981 work Simulacra and Simulation, what had occurred with the growing availability of mass media – such as the newspaper and telegraph – was a cutting of any organic link between real things and the images and texts that were meant to represent them. Indeed, by the twentieth century images and texts have come to be regarded as more real than the real. It was this crucial break that then gave mass media its incredible powers of mobilisation, something demonstrated to devastating effect in the depictions of enemies in World War I as being only worthy of destruction, then similarly and later the depictions of ethnic groupings in the interwar period.What has changed now, according to Baudrillard, is that we now live in an age of “hyperreality”, such that texts and images do not even need to have any reflection with the real world in order to be believed. Indeed, texts and images now have the power to create the real world in its image.
After ninety years, the feast of Christ the King continues to be relevant then, not only because of the demonstrably enduring vulnerability of Christians to the allure of elements of nationalism and even fascism in times of perceived crisis. It is relevant also because the Kingship of Christ is made manifest on earth firstly through a Eucharistic presence, a sacramental presence where signs actually signify what meant to be signified. As even the marxist Baudrillard suggested, it was a sacramental imagination that held in check the risk of simulation overtaking reality. The Christian can honour this feast by making his or her looking forward to the life in the world to come translate into a resistance to letting cheap simulations shape their conception of life in the now.

Climate and Family: A Question of Covenant


Pope Francis has left North America to return to Rome, after a trip that brought to the fore issues of climate and poverty and ended with a conference focussed on the defense of the family. 
The Catholic or conservative social mediascape would no doubt express disappointment over the lack of the longed for a showdown with the President over issues pertaining to gay marriage, abortion, or other issues that political pundits both left and right fall under the ambit of “family” or “life”. In light of this, such pundits might portray a lack of cohesion in the topics covered in the papal visit.
The Christian might be tempted to use the rubric of “family” or “life” to see a contradiction in the various actions or speeches the Pontiff made over the course of his visit. This is a pity, considering that Christianity has resources that tap into the roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Key among these is the notion of Covenant as a hermeneutic of events within Scripture, explicated and made popular by biblical scholars such as Scott Hahn. Using a covenantal lens, the Christian might actually find more continuity between the Pope’s references to climate and family than the commentariat would suggest.
In the biblical tradition, covenants are not just contracts, but agreements through which a family unit is created by God. Furthermore, one might find a covenantal motif in looking at the first two chapters in the Book of Genesis. According to Scott Hahn, the earth was created with the covenant in mind, for the earth was meant to be a temple, used for worship and communion between God and humankind. Seen through the covenantal lens, the creation of the family also included the creation of a home for that family. In addition, the attention to that home in the first creation account, seen as “very good”, becomes the backdrop against which a man and a woman become one flesh in the second account. Seen through a covenantal lens, the questions of “family” and “life” share a seamless link with the questions concerning the planetary home.

 

It might very well be the loss of the supernatural frame of reference that might cause the rancorous divide between left and right over this papal visit. It is a submitted that a turning back to an alternative informed by revelation, may be the very thing needed to heal this divide. Whilst it is still too soon to fully grapple with the implications of this visit, one thread to consider might be the extent to which many Christians make the resources of revelation becomes secondary to those borne out of political allegiances.

The Magna Carta After 800 Years: A Day Conference (28 Nov, Sydney)

 

The Centre for the Study of Western Tradition at Campion College recently announced that it will be holding a day conference to mark the end of the year of the 8th centenary of the Magna Carta. The conference will also have a distinctly Australian flavour, representing a wide range of perspectives.
The keynote speakers for the event are Queens Council, Order of Australia recipient and refugee advocate, Julian Burnside and the Commissioner for Law Reform in Western Australia and legal scholar at Murdoch University, Dr. Augusto Zimmermann.
The program will also feature politicians, historians and legal scholars including:
  • Tim Wilson, Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission
  • Jeremy Bell, Lecturer in History at Campion College Australia
  • Keith Thompson, Vice Dean of Law at the University of Notre Dame in Australia and
  • Patrick Quirk, Associate Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University
Discounts are available for early bird registrations and permanent discounts are available for fulltime students and pensioners. All registrations include a buffet lunch at the Menzies Hotel in Sydney, where the conference will be held.
More details about speakers, programs and registration are available by clicking here for the fully interactive website. To keep updated, please sign up at the facebook events page.