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Britney Spears and the Downward Arc of Empire: An Interview with Eugene McCarraher

The Other Journal (TOJ): Let’s start with Britney Spears, who was in the news all last week with experts decrying her parenting gaffs and bemoaning the fact that she has fallen so far that a judge would shift parental control from her to her burnout ex-husband K-Fed. Putting aside questions of why this is news and what is news, how do you account for our culture’s nurturing of celebrity that seems to fluctuate between consuming (Britney as sex symbol) and discarding (Britney as burnout mom), between lust and contempt? Are we are seeing celebrities as commodities, and if so, what does this phenomena say about us and how we relate to one another as consumers?

Eugene McCarraher (EM): I don’t think you can put aside the question of why Britney Spears is news because ignoring it means we’re ignoring the production end of celebrity. Like the rest of the news, Ms. Spears is a product of the culture industry, one of whose chief purposes is to distract us from the tedium or injustice of our daily lives. Just as her premeltdown songs and videos were glittery commodified ephemera, created precisely for the purpose of being enjoyed and discarded, so her meltdown is a commodity, mediated for our entertainment pleasure.

But on top of that, Ms. Spears is a commodity fetish, to use Marx’s still-relevant and illuminating language. Like any other commodity fetish, Ms. Spears is a screen onto whom consumers project their own repressed desires—in her case, to misbehave. And like many a repressed desire, its inexorable expression is malignant. Seeing its malignancy, consumers deride their fetish, often with a viciousness commensurate to the intensity of the identification with the commodity. So there’s something insidious, not only about the consumption of her sexualized persona, but about the way that celebrities-in-distress like Ms. Spears are tossed aside. The celebrity cycle of consumption-disappointment-vicious rejection raises to a high degree of visibility and vividness the way in which all goods are handled in this culture. Unable or unwilling to confront their desires for what they are, or to discover how to transform those desires in accordance with their status as, oh, the imago Dei, consumers project [their desires] onto commodities, suffer [...] inevitable lack of fulfillment, and grow ever more cynical and full of rage. The telos of consumer autonomy turns out to be not so much freedom or license as a sullen emptiness and boredom that eventually requires different forms of violence—verbal, visual, military—for its satisfaction.

TOJ: So given the importance of what is news, do you understand our national obsession with sports in a similar light, as a commodity meant to distract us from the deeper injustices that plague our lives, similar I suppose to imperial Rome (gladiators, coliseum, et cetera)?

EM: Yes, but sports also retain some potential as a source of criticism of commodity culture. On the one hand, sports sell both capitalism and nationalism: during a typical football broadcast, for instance, you’ll get a standard ideological package of beer, food, cars, sexual titillation, and some patriotism thrown in. (“Are you ready for some U.S.A.?”) But because even professionalized, commodified sports still insist both on achievement within rules and on standards of excellence that have nothing to do with money, they represent an oasis of sorts within the culture of avarice.

TOJ: You have argued that our culture in North America is one that thrives on death, “from poverty, unemployment, and alienation, to abortion, capitol punishment, and war,” and that as Christians our most urgent duty is the affirmation of life. What do we, in the fall of 2007, urgently need to be doing to affirm life? Furthermore, if we are really to affirm life, how do we disinfect ourselves of the pervading libido dominandi, which you describe as “the love of domination, which corrupts everything we are and create”?

EM: On one level, it’s quite simple: don’t participate in wars; don’t have an abortion; protest the state-sponsored murder of offenders; create an economy that provides useful, remunerative, and cooperative employment. But clearly there’s more involved. First, Christians should practice the fundamentals: the sacraments, prayer, study of Scripture and tradition. As the defining practices of Christian faith, they’re the template for a culture of life, as they afford both participation in the divine life and the growing realization of what a gift life is, not something we have to earn or deserve. So much of libido dominandi is traceable to our acting as though we have to gain God’s approval or to acting as though we or others must be wanted or that we should deserve life—or death. (Fr. Herbert McCabe has some wonderful passages in his sermons on all of this.)

Some of the other advice I’d offer probably won’t go down as easily. First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about consumerism. Consumerism is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I’ve come to think that that’s the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It’s just too easy a target. There’s a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don’t, by the way, believe that we inhabit a post-industrial society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they’re materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome because it clearly doesn’t work, and wrong-headed because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a culture of death. Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we’re logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of choice or freedom. But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I’ll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You’ll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They’ll retort that capitalism doesn’t kill anyone in its normal operations, but first, that’s just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn’t matter, because the exercise of market autonomy has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. (“Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you’re still alive!”) When I say this, a lot of people retort that I’m changing the subject. In one way, yes, I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the autonomous individual, the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols and not just reproductive choice.

As for talk about empire, it can obscure the fact that, while the U.S. is indisputably an empire, it’s also an empire in decline. If the American empire were as strong as the rhetoric of many Christians makes it out to be, there’d be no point in doing anything other than retreating into ecclesial enclaves, talking sagely about practices, and—oh, gee, that’s what a lot of theologians and pastors and seminarians are doing. But if, as I believe, the empire is now on the downward slope of its historical arc, then Christians can be optimistic as well as hopeful. (Yes, there’s a difference, but many then go on to think that optimism is always foolish. It isn’t.) Although I don’t believe that we’ll be leaving Iraq any time soon—since we invaded for the oil and for geo-political advantage, it stands to reason that we’re not going to exit—it’s also quite apparent that the insurgency, together with the lack of genuine domestic support (how many war enthusiasts do you know who’ve enlisted out of patriotic fervor?), have demonstrated the limits of our vaunted military might. Moreover, the extremely fragile state of finance capital, the knowledge that we can’t rely on oil for much longer to propel our corporate consumer economy—all of that should indicate that the empire is very much in the condition of Edwardian England, or Hapsburg Spain, or fourth- to fifth-century Rome.

Given that we’re an empire on the downslope, Christians should be preaching the good news that America can decline gracefully, and that Americans will be saner and happier when they relinquish the imperial imperative. (I have no patience with the providentialist bullshit shoveled by Richard Neuhaus or Stephen Webb. That star-spangeled drivel has gotten and will continue to get a lot of people killed.) Talking about empire is a way of not talking about the world we could build in concert with the many non-Christians who also see the impending erosion of American power.

So what, then, should Christians do to create a culture of life? If economics is part of a culture of life, then we need a political economy of life. And I am unashamed in saying that some form of socialism remains the most inspiring and practical way of arranging our economic affairs in the light of the Gospel. We should wind our way back to the road not taken in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century: Christian socialism, which now has to be a post-secular socialism, undertaken in concert with non-Christians. Work to transform capitalism, not into a more efficient way of producing and distributing “illth,” as John Ruskin called so much of the shabby and dangerous and unedifying crapola that truly is a gross domestic product, but into a political economy of genuine wealth, “the possession of the valuable by the valiant.” At a minimum, that means a metamorphosis in the ethos and curricula of business and professional schools at Christian colleges and universities. Christians should be pioneering a whole new economics, not just tacking values onto capitalism. They should be affirming abundance, not scarcity, as the primary ontological fact of economics. They should be offering courses not in management but in how to do without management as a distinct class. They should be offering courses and training in union organization, or in dispossessing those useless people otherwise known as stockholders and putting firms into the hands of people who actually work in them.

I’m convinced that working toward such a political economy of life would increasingly render abortion more and more inconceivable for the simple reason that libido dominandi wouldn’t leaven the entire society.

TOJ: In this issue, we are looking at psychopathology and sin—what sins define our culture? How are they deforming our psyches and our hearts? Are they representative of acute psychopathologies or broader personality deformations? One of the foundational questions then, in approaching this topic, and one that indeed undergirds psychology and politics, is how do we conceive of the self? Within our modern political discourse, how do our views of freedom and inalienable rights fashion the idea of the secular self? How is the late-capitalist secular-self at odds with the Christian account of personhood?

EM: I don’t believe that the modern self is secular, at least not in the way that’s usually understood, and I don’t believe it because, however deeply deformed we become, we’re still the imago Dei, and that means that we’re always yearning, even despite ourselves, to participate in the divine life. In discussions of the person as well as in discussions of history, economics, et cetera, it’s absolutely crucial to not give an inch to the secularization narrative, because to the extent that you do, you surrender any serious claim on the disputed territory. Once you concede the essential legitimacy of the secular account of the person—or of economics, or politics, et cetera—you end up relegating Christianity to the realm of spirituality or values or some other gaseous invertebrate that hovers around an essentially secular self. Rather, Christians should contend that the secular marks the repression, displacement, and renaming of our desire for a sacramental way of being in the world. Indeed, the history of the person is both the history of those perversions and of attempts to mitigate or undo the perversions. So I think that it’s better to say not that the Christian account of personhood is at odds with the secular account, [but that] the secular account is a disfigurement of personhood.

In this view, the self under late capitalism is a perversion of our desires for a beloved, sacramental community of labor. If you look closely, I think you’ll find that, for instance, a great deal of management theory—as dullard or cynical as it truly is—represents an effort on the part of corporate capital to simulate such a community. Advertising, to take another example, is the devotional iconography of late capitalism: it arouses, in the very act of disfiguring, our sacramental longing for a land of milk and honey, for a New Jerusalem.

All that said, I’ve come to dissent somewhat from William Cavanaugh and Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank and others who see almost nothing but perniciousness in the liberal tradition. Look, let’s be honest: the heroes of the antislavery movement, of the movements for women’s rights and for civil rights for nonwhites, all employed the language of liberalism in addition to the language of Christianity. Why? In large measure, because Christian tradition had legitimated a language of hierarchy and duty and subordination that even Cavanaugh and Hauerwas and Milbank can’t stomach anymore. Perhaps because I’m a mere historian, I have to respect the indisputable evidence that Christians certainly weren’t citing the church fathers when they demanded that the slaves’ shackles be loosened or that women get the right to vote and be educated. For all that it’s perverted the Christian account of personhood, the liberal account of freedom and rights has preserved and, yes, even enhanced vestiges of the Christian tradition. So enough liberal-bashing; it has gotten boring, and it’s not entirely accurate historically, anyway.

The Gates Foundation, powered with staggering capital from Bill Gates’ fortune as well Warren Buffett’s billions, promises to do what governments in the developing world have not been able to do, things such as eradicate malaria in the third world and provide aid to the poorest of the poor. Two of the richest men in the world, who have thrived in the marketplace and become inconceivably wealthy from corporate profit, seem to be following the soteriological script of capitalism to a tee—a script that says eventually wealth will trickle down, aid the needy, and the market will mete out justice. (Such crises in Africa and generally in the developing world are terrible situations, and I am, like everyone else, relieved to see mosquito nets distributed and vaccines being tested to eradicate malaria, a disease that kills one million impoverished people a year.) How can we understand the Gates Foundation phenomena in light of your statement that “a vital task of any genuinely pro-life gospel and politics should be the demolition of the corporation’s material and cultural power”?

EM: I think we must understand the Gates Foundation in exactly the way you described it: as a capitalist soteriology. That’s a basically Augustinian way to frame it, and as Augustine says, not everything about the earthly city is rotten. Still, even compassionate actions are performed with the ultimate intention of preserving and extending the libido dominandi that propels the earthly realm, and those actions are inevitably further compromised by the conditions that made them necessary and possible. There is, for instance, a correlation between Western economic policies and health pandemics. Witness, for instance, the infamous Bhopal incident in India a while back, caused by Union Carbide’s reckless conduct. That wasn’t just a correlation, but a direct cause-effect relationship. Moreover, there is clearly more than a correlation between the (often coerced) adoption of agri-capitalist practices (single-crop farming, the use of various pesticides and other chemicals, etc.) and large-scale famine.

What should also trouble us about the Gates-Buffett initiatives is the idea that the poor—or the rest of us, for that matter—should have to depend on the benefactions of the super-rich rather than on the ministrations of government or of religious institutions. These acts of bourgeois-oblige, so to speak, exemplify the utter privatization of public services, among which should be the provision of medical care. Indeed, Gates and Buffett are idols of the corporate-benevolence complex: these are people who exploit workers and extract resources and then shower benefits on the world’s wretched, soaking up praise for their charitable endeavors. Thank you, thank you, oh nabobs of wealth, for deigning to notice our plight. So while Gates and Buffett’s actions are certainly better than nothing, they shouldn’t warm our hearts for too long.

TOJ: It is said that we live in a therapeutic culture and that psychotherapy has begun to supplement authentic community, intimate friendship, and authentic confession in the context of the church. Celebrities often erase past mistakes in a public-relations sense by going into rehab; therapeutic terms such as repression and projection are common within the parlance of our time; and the therapist’s office has become somewhat of a holy place where authenticity and healing can thrive. As a Christian psychotherapist, I recognize the value of psychiatry and psychology. I also am often struck in a broader sense by the enabling nature of the psychiatric and psychological industries, where normalcy is subtly and not-so-subtly couched in terms of being free from suffering, and being yourself is prized regardless of vice or virtue. Are we a therapeutic culture? Is the account of wellness that the psychiatric and psychological industries are importing congruent with the therapeutics of the Gospel?

EM: The phrasing of your last question underscores why we have to be careful when using terms like therapy or therapeutic culture. A lot of scholars often invoke Philip Rieff when trashing our therapeutic obsessions, but Rieff was much more meticulous and insightful in his use of these terms than a lot of his subsequent enthusiasts have been. Rieff is very clear, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, that all cultures are therapeutic—that is, all have ways of forming personal identity and integrating it into the larger community. Rieff distinguished not between therapeutic and non-therapeutic cultures but between rival therapeutic modes and communities, their ideals of health and methods of cure. He also made a crucial distinction between positive therapeutic communities—which link interior well-being to commitments outside the self and seek a transformation of desires in accordance with certain communal purposes—and negative communities—[...] which lack integrating symbols and communal purposes and thus register rather than transform desires. In his view, the contemporary West was a negative or purely therapeutic community. (Rieff’s prose can be maddeningly abstruse, and I think this is why it’s easy to misread him.)

Now, I think Rieff’s characterization of our culture as purely therapeutic is right as far as he goes, but I think we have to understand that Western capitalist democracies do, in fact, have an integrating purpose: the production and consumption of commodities. Rieff didn’t clearly relate the triumph of the therapeutic to the cultural and psychic impact of capitalism—mainly, I suspect, because he comes out of a tradition of conservative cultural criticism which just doesn’t like to dwell on capitalism. (They think it’s reductive or Marxist or materialist—in short, it’s bad intellectual manners—to mention economics.) MacIntyre’s association of the therapist and the manager in After Virtue highlights this connection.

In my view—and I used this to frame a good part of the argument in Christian CriticsThe Triumph of the Therapeutic traces, not a shift from religion to therapy, but a transferal of therapeutic powers from religious authorities to secular experts, as well as an uncoupling of personal therapy from aspiration toward a broader collective destiny. That’s not to say that Christians can’t rely on psychological or psychiatric professionals—I certainly don’t think that preaching the Gospel to people is a cure for obsessive-compulsive disorders or for schizophrenia or for any number of personal troubles. But I do think it’s pretty obvious that many people, including Christians, now take certain troubles to mental health professionals that require more than talking cures or prescriptions. And I think they do so because the notion of cure that’s at work is one very much like industrial efficiency: you do this, you take that, and you’ll be free of whatever malady is bothering you. The Gospel doesn’t assure you that you’ll be cured of a certain malady; it proclaims that you’re forgiven, not that you’re free of any number of obsessions or sins.

TOJ: As you know, post-9/11 pro-atheism publications are plentiful and have often launched acerbic attacks on the Christian tradition. Is this a new intellectual current that you are seeing in the academy, which has primarily been nurtured by the Bush administration’s religious language and the 9/11 attack by religious fundamentalists? Beyond the War on Terror and anti-Bush sentiments, why in 2007 are such publications wildly popular with the culture at large?

EM: Looking at these books in purely intellectual terms, I don’t think that the current spate of anti-religious books indicates anything strikingly new. The arguments you get from Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens are basically the same arguments we heard from Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Bradlaugh, Ingersoll, O’Hair, et cetera: religion is scientifically absurd; it is sponsored superstition and slaughter, et cetera. What’s new is the extent to which these arguments are now common currency among wide swaths of the upper-middle classes, who are, given the price of books these days, the primary audience for these writers. So I don’t think this is simply an anti-Bush phenomenon, and I don’t think it’s simply a reaction to the religious right or to radical Islam. These sentiments have been out there for quite a while, and the vitality of fundamentalist religion has elicited a suitably exuberant reaction.

I also doubt that this is only a recoil from Bush and Evangelicals because support for the new atheism doesn’t necessarily translate into opposition to the War on Terror. Everyone knows that Hitchens has been an especially virulent and bloodthirsty warmonger; it’s rather less well-known that Harris is also a stalwart supporter of the use of U.S. military power against terrorists. (As you and many of your readers may know, I wrote a long review of Hitchens’ God is Not Greatfor Commonweal in which I explored these issues at some length.)

TOJ: In your Winter 2004 the New Pantagruel article, “Embedded Christian Intellectuals,” you gave a call to arms for Christian intellectuals, in which you said—”What is to be done? First, we must demolish unrelentingly the illusions promulgated by Novak, Elshtain, Weigel, Neuhaus, and other embedded Christian intellectuals. Whether ignorant or heedless of American hubris, they sanitize their accounts of the imperial order; pervert the critical intelligence of Christian faith; and bivouac in the discursive parameters drawn by the corporate regime. Stale and obscurantist, their rendering unto Official Sources merits rebuke and inattention. It’s time for regime change among Christian intellectuals.”

Could you elaborate on the need for regime change using some recent examples of Christians sanitizing their accounts of the imperial order, and have you been encouraged by indicators of such a regime change among Christian intellectuals in the last three years?

EM: From a legion of disgrace, the two best-known examples of Christian fealty to empire have been Jean Elshtain and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Elshtain’s work had been heading in this direction for over a decade. Disturbed by some trends on the left, and especially among feminists, she appointed herself something of a Lady Bracknell to preside over cultural and political discourse. In the course of becoming an ideological cop, she morphed into one of these virtue- and civility-meisters, wagging her finger at everyone to mind their intellectual and polemical manners. She started seeming a lot like William Bennett, adopting this schoolmarmish, moralizing tone. Then along came 9/11 and Iraq, and she went over to the dark side, pontificating on Just War and spouting all sorts of Augustinian tautologies. Along with Michael Novak, she got to be one of the media’s go-to people for a quick exposition of why God wants us to go to war. You don’t hear much from her now that everything’s gone down the crapper.

Neuhaus was always a bellicose sort, even when he was on the left. Like most other intellectuals who opine so sagely about Just War, he’s a chickhawk whose relationship to violence has always been of the most conceptual and literary sort. (In The Theocons, Damon Linker traces Fr. Richard‘s attraction to violence.) Add to that his supine deference to competent authorities—this, from a man old enough to remember Tonkin, My Lai, and Cambodia—and you have the classic authoritarian personality.

Against the embedded Christians, I’ve been immensely encouraged by the emergence of a motley and diverse group of Christians unwilling to enlist their talents in the service of Caesar. When I read and talk to people like Bill Cavanaugh, Mike Budde, Shane Claiborne, Kelly Johnson, Charles Marsh, Lauren Winner, Richard Hays, or Steve Long—all of whom are indebted to Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder—I know there’s hope, enormous hope.

TOJ: Finally, we usually leave open space at the end of our interview if you have any final thoughts you would like to share. Final thoughts?

EM: No. I think I’ve probably said quite enough to inspire, provoke, or anger your readers. My work here is done. Serenity now.

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Chris Keller :
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Eugene McCarraher :
Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history and director of graduate liberal studies at Villanova University. He is the author of Christian Critics: Religion and the Impasse in Modern American Social Thought (Cornell University Press, 2000). A contributor to Commonweal, Books and Culture, In These Times, and other periodicals and scholary journals, he is currently writing a cultural-theological history of corporate business, The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.