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.

When What We See Is What We Worship

The old saying goes that the “eyes are the windows to the soul”, and many are quick to scoff at the grave implications of a faculty that is used so often for such mundane things that it is taken for granted. Upon examination of the Christian tradition, however, such a claim, though liable to some qualification of being the window to the soul, nonetheless posits sight as one very important access point.

Consider how, of all the senses, the Christian tradition appears to give the most attention to the sense of sight, as if our being and our salvation – our beginning and our end – literally depended on it. The first creation account in the book of Genesis makes the  provision of light – the foundation of sight – the first creative act upon whichall other creative acts follow. It was the sight of a burning bushthat lay the foundations of the forging of the covenant with Israel. The psalms speak of the path of life as also a path that is lit by God, the Gospel of John speaks of Christ as the “light that shines in the darkness”, while the synoptic Gospels give great weight to, Jesus’ healing of the blind as well as the lame. Our salvation lies in a state that theologians call the “Beatific vision” where, as Paul once wrote, our true home lies in an eternal state of “seeing Him face to face”.

Scripture’s attention to the sense of sight is continued on in liturgical worship, where colour, shape and sheen are not incidental to the proper worship of God, but are the very means by which one enters into the proper act of worship. Seeing was very closely linked
to worshiping.

As we know from the Genesis account, however, a major contribution to the downfall of humankind lay in the eating of a fruit that was “pleasing to the eye”. Other than sound, it was also sight that contributed to the entry of sin into the world.

What is interesting to note, however, is that this kind of sight was not a seeing devoid of worship. However banal the object of our sight is, whether it is in a movie, news report, fashion item or porn image, the act of worship is never far behind. In his book Gifts  Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross provides a very important insight into the link between seeing and worshiping. Ross refers to the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, to show the way in which seeing in our day not only serves a material function, but is also a spiritual action.

For Debord, seeing was not merely an instrumental function, but also a tapping into a longing for transcendence. Debord speaks of our economy as one dependent on the faculty of sight, and argues that a sight-based economy is driven by a form of “religious fervour” for what Debord calls a “factious god”, and seeing becomes a way of accessing this god.

Though Debord sees the need for a change in the economy by ridding ourselves of the need for religious fervour and gods, Ross sees in this analysis a highly important insight, that Debord recognised that seeing is more than a function but a liturgical “worship of a …  god”. Ross is even more pointed to not only draw a link between seeing and worshiping, but saying that seeing analogous to worshiping. The beholding of a spectacle in an economy saturated with the shine of images and commodities, Ross says, “is like a prayer offered to a malicious god” which “opens us to powers and principalities”. Ross suggests then, that an economy built upon spectacle is not just a material order, but also an order oriented towards the worship of things other than the worship of the God of Israel.

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.

New Essay: Sarah Coakley and the Prayers of the Digital Body of Christ

Janice McCrandal, lecturer in theology at Trinity Theological College in Brisbane, has edited a new volume, published by Fortress Press this year. The new work focuses on the impact of the work of the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, Sarah Coakley, in the field of Systematic Theology, hence the title Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology.
The edited book grew out of a symposium on Coakley’s work, held in 2010 at the United Theological College, featuring a collage of theological voices from a number of ecclesial traditions. Coakley herself was present to respond to the presentations. 

the Divine Wedgie’s Matthew Tan was one of those who contributed to the symposium and to the volume. The chapter, entitled “Sarah Coakley and the Prayers of the Digital Body of Christ“, interfaced the use of the internet and Coakley’s work on trinitarian prayer, arguing that the practice of the internet paralleled and ultimately parodied, the practice of Christian prayer. 
Thanks is due to Dr. McCrandal and to Fortress Press for bringing this work to the light of day.

Speaking Dates in Victoria

Blogger at large at the Divine Wedgie, Matthew Tan, will be giving a series of talks this weekend in the State of Victoria. These include

  1. Melbourne Launch of  the book, Justice, Unity & the Hidden Christ: To be launched by Dr. Conor Sweeney, Lecturer in Sacramental & Postmodern Theology at the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and Family. This will be held at the Institute (278 Victoria Parade, East Melbourne) this Friday 18 September at 1pm. For catering purposes, please email Owen Vyner at ovyner@jp2institute.org.  
  2. Being Someplace Else: The Theological Virtues in the Anime of Makoto Shinkai: This talk will explore the films of Shinkai, dubbed “the next Hayao Miyazaki” in light of the theological virtues as explored by Josef Pieper and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The paper will consider how Shinkai’s explorations of longing for other places ties in with the journey towards the ennobling of our natures that the virtues put us on. This talk will be held in the Caroline Chisholm Library (3/358 Lonsdale Street) on Friday 18 September at 6 for 6:30pm.
  3. The Sacraments of Pop Culture: Come and see why, instead of the materialist culture we so often believe ourselves to be living, we are instead living in an age of a new spirituality in our cities, one mediated by the commodities we consume within popular culture. The talk will be held in “Casa Siena” (216 Walker Street, Ballarat North) at 6pm, followed by an evening meal. Please RSVP by emailing clara@siena.org.