November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
Ken Myers: The experience we have as consumers is surely one of the most formidable features of contemporary life, and yet the way living in consumer culture affects us is often neglected by religious leaders. Most often theologians, pastors, and moralists focus on the problem of greed or materialism, worthy concerns to be sure, but like the poor greed and materialism, we always have with us.
There’s nothing new about covetousness or the god called mammon. The new thing about consumer culture is less about intemperate desire than about identity, less about wanting things than about needing to want things. The new thing about consumer culture is suggested in the word used more by sociologists than pastors: commodification.
Vincent Miller, assistant professor of theology at Georgetown University, is eager for Christians not to underestimate the destructive effects of consumer culture on society. His new book is called Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture.
Vincent Miller: Consumer culture is certainly about consuming, but it’s about consuming certain kinds of things like commodities. A commodity is not necessarily a thing but a thing seen a certain way, and how the thing is seen is in abstraction from its origins, from its conditions of production, from the land and the space where the products grow, and from the laborers that then produce it and bring it to market. All those things don’t appear, so when you walk into the produce section and see a banana there, all you see is whether it’s an attractive banana or not and how much it costs. You don’t see anything about the labor struggles in Latin America, how Ecuador coming online has undercut the labor gains of the last 30 years in Central America.
It’s not that we don’t care about those things, the system systematically hides them from us so I think in my quantification, it gives the new read of what’s going on in consumer culture. It’s not simply greed. It’s not simply excessive desire for things, although it certainly involves that, but it’s also not having access to the information to make profound decisions about our consumption.
I think most consumers would make very different decisions if they knew about the sweatshops that produced their clothes in a specific way rather than a generalized anxiety we have. On that basic level of consumption, thinking about the commodity and how it works gives you a much more complex way of engaging what’s going on with our high levels of consumption. Seeing a commodity as presenting itself with a ready appearance that we can evaluate, desire and choose without any context in the situation of production, I argue in the book, and many cultural theorists over the past hundred years have argued, has gradually colonized the way we relate to culture as well. That way of seeing things makes us comfortable in engaging pieces of culture, picking out of the context without asking questions about what they meant in their original traditions, what they meant in terms of their origins, what they meant for the communities that practiced them.
The example that always leaps to mind is the song “Return to Innocence” by Enigma. It was a global hit in the early 90s. It opens with this very moving a capella folk song that’s gradually set to a dance beat. When I first heard it, I liked it, and obviously millions of people liked it around the world. I listened to it for probably three or four years, and always presumed it was some kind of indigenous folk music but I never actually asked, “What indigenous culture? Where? And, what was the folk music?” It turns out that it’s in the Ammi language, so I believe if you look at the liner notes you get some transliteration of the syllables. It turns up happily enough that it’s a harvest song, happy drinking song it’s called. But it’s only when there was a story on NPR several years later about a lawsuit started by an ethnomusicologist in Taiwan who knew where the music came from and filed it on behalf of the tribe.
That story illuminated the commodification of culture so well for me because I was comfortable listening to this song with some kind of ethnic concern for indigenous people for half a decade and I had no idea whatsoever what the meaning of the music was. I contrast that with my grandfather and imagining him listening to that song and he’d say, “What the heck is that? What does it mean? Who is that person? What is he singing?” He would have been uncomfortable engaging that piece of music in the way that I did.
KM: So in treating this piece of music simply as a commodity, the meaning of the music vanishes. It becomes a contextless ornament. What happens to us when we become accustomed to consuming disassociated cultural tidbits, leading cultural lives that are an assemblage of accessories?
VM: That way of seeing things translates into a set of habits of interpretation, a set of habits of using culture that makes us comfortable engaging small pieces of religion in abstraction from, separated from, lifted from their contexts within their historical, communal traditions. When we engage in this way, two things are lost. First, the relationship of the religious symbol or doctrine or value or even the practice – the relationship of those pieces of religious culture to the broader tradition, the broader worldview, where symbols and doctrines and values and practices are all connected together. This worldview reinforces their meaning; it corrects misunderstandings. That’s the first loss and as a result you get this more weightless element of religious culture. The second loss is the connection to communities, communal practices, and the communal institutions that connect this worldview to a form of life.
KM: It’s important to underline the word “unconsciously.” These habits of interpretation and cultural appropriation are learned by living in culture dominated by consumption and sadly reinforced, I might add, when religious leaders glibly adopt the paradigm of the market to guide the strategies of religious ministries. One of the terms that is often used to describe the dynamic of the commodification of culture is pastiche.
VM: Pastiche happens in a culture where elements of tradition are so commodified, so ground down in little discrete objects, round little polished stones, they have very little connection to one another, very little traction, friction. Therefore, the combinations themselves have very little meaning because they disconform to the container; they don’t challenge them as we use them.
KM: Could you give an example of something like that?
VM: I think the perfect example would be Reginald Bevy’s study of Canadian religious belief that has half the people there simultaneously affirming resurrection and reincarnation. If you have even a slightly deep understanding of one of those you know they are completely incompatible. But if they are removed from their tradition in discrete ways, it somehow must be for these people possible to affirm both.
KM: So, there’s a sense that affirming resurrection gives me something and affirming reincarnation gives me something else and I want both things.
VM: Yes. And, you encounter both things in a way that doesn’t force you to choose between them.
KM: The mentality encouraged by consumer culture has been increasingly intensified in the past four decades. One of the results has been a disastrous erosion of the very idea of authority, and the legitimacy of institutional authority. Of course, there have been explicit attacks on the idea of authority from the various philosophical sources, but these arguments have probably not been as influential in encouraging a general suspicion or indifference toward authority as has the intuitive outlook encouraged in a culture of consumption. The consequences for churches will continue to be severe, especially if one’s view of the church contains some notion of authority, discipline, and the protection of orthodoxy.
VM: Religious institutions, authority structures and communities structurally have less and less control over the archives of their tradition. They don’t have the ability to force interpretations or demand certain disciplines for access. That’s simply gone. We’re in a situation where we have to reconstitute that in a new way. It will be very difficult, but it’s the challenge that religious communities, in general, face. What we need is to find a non-fundamentalist way to respond to the erosions of globalization, where the ongoing existence of organized religious traditions is very much an open question over the next several hundred years. The archives won’t go away, nor the symbols, the doctrines or even the values. But whether there’ll be organized traditions of practice in communities that hand on certain interpretive habits for engaging these traditions, that’s an open question. It’s a structural problem as much as a problem of the attitudes of individual believers.
KM: But the attitudes are encouraged or sustained or given plausibility by the structures.
VM: Absolutely. What I really sense is over the past fifteen years a sea change has begun to happen, where you hear more and more voices raising this new question about how do we preserve traditions in a non-fundamentalist way. Because of the egregious abuses of religious leaders and institutions, a general attitude is suspicion and therefore very hard to talk about this today. What we need is a new attitude that realizes and respects the value of institutions and communities, the friction, pain, and tensions that come with that. It’s harder to believe in a local community. It’s harder to believe within a community that has an allegiance to a broader global community with authority structures. There are all sorts of frictions that necessarily come up when belief happens within communities and institutions, but along with those frictions comes a massive weight that preserves both the worldview and the form of life of the tradition.
KM: Let me push this a little further. One of the liabilities of the posture of the consumer is that it makes it difficult for us to have some deep sense that there is something prior to our own choice. There’s some commanding demand in the cosmos that is prior to our choosing.
KM: And, we may not like what it represents, but the mentality of the consumer makes it less and less likely that people will submit to an order that they really don’t like but know has a kind of commanding presence prior to themselves.
VM: When the self is formed as a consumer, not necessarily understood as a consumer, but formed as a consumer, you lose the ability to ask those more fundamental questions you raised about whether one’s own desire is appropriate to begin with. You lose a space to think about how desire needs to be reformed before it decides. You lose the ability to ask the questions about do I know what’s best for me, or does a voice from outside of me call me to transformation towards an end that I cannot envision or can even desire for myself, yet. The self is now constructed as a chooser, not as one that is called and responds. That’s a little invisible than not being able to accept an order outside of one’s self because we can always choose that, but this idea that there might be something more fundamental than their choices that doesn’t appear within the system.
KM: During our conversation, Vincent Miller pointed out that there are two kinds of responses to consumer culture among religious leaders. The first is to embrace the dynamics of consumption, to commodify Jesus. If people are predisposed to regard religion as consumer goods, than Christians should assure that the gospel is the shiniest, sexiest, most user-friendly, instantly gratifying product on the shelf. That is the assimulationist’s strategy. At the other extreme is the withdrawal strategy. Build the walls thicker and higher and preach louder and longer. Miller suggests a different approach, one that takes seriously the disorienting effects of commodification.
VM: The option that I pursue is what I call a tactical response, which is to admit that we don’t control the world out there, that the days of Christendom are gone forever, that most religious communities no longer significantly have influence on the socialization of their believers. They come already formed largely on broader culture. What do you do about that situation? A tactical response tries to look at the resources of a given religious community and see how it can attempt to tactically challenge the most problematic aspects of consumer formation. The first assertion is a strong and perhaps odd one. If this argument works, that the commodification of religion is a result of a commodification of culture which is a consequence of our formation of ways of seeing things, the first step has to be to address commodification and begin to imagine the objects we consume as having an origin, of coming from the earth somewhere, of being the work of human hands in certain places.
KM: So the first step is not what we do on Sunday, but what we do Monday through Friday.
VM: Precisely. I’m not proposing this as an ethical practice although I think ethically we should challenge consumption, I’m proposing it as a meditative formation of the imagination. Pick one commodity and learn everything you can about where it comes from, how it was produced, what issues are going on in the context of its production.
KM: To reiterate, you said you are not proposing this as an ethical or a political activist sort of thing. You’re not saying do this so you’ll vote the right way.
VM: This is a spiritual discipline to begin to change the way we imagine the world. This is the beginning of tearing the veil from the commodity and seeing it as a thing with a context in the world. With that imagination, we can begin to turn to our relationship to culture, turn to our relationship to religion, and begin to see that the same things are going on. These objects that we take willy-nilly from cultures and traditions have an origin, they have original meanings, and perhaps the best way for me to respect third world indigenous cultures is not to listen to music that has some generic little splicing of a harvest song but for me to actually get involved in a program to help a community. To bring it closer to the American context, the best way to deal with race relations, for example, is not for me to play African American music, be it spirituals or the blues or hip-hop, it might be for me to be part of a community where I have relationships across the race divide, and not to substitute consumption for those other practices. Awareness is the key thing because all this stuff happens below the level of awareness—the more you can bring it up to the surface, the more you can bring up our tendency to substitute consumption for other political and ethical and religious acts. It’s not an really an argument about what people believe or whether they have the right values, it’s about trying to show people how they’re being systematically trained by this culture to substitute acts of consumption for those other acts.
KM: And instead of being consumers of religious products, believers should be encouraged by the shape of religious communal experience to see themselves as members of a historical community, not simply abstracted believers but recipients and custodians of a way of life in which belief and practice are intertwined.
VM: We need to continuously encourage people to think of themselves as having responsibility for thinking within the tradition in a new moment and handing it on to a new generation, rather than seeing authority structures and communal structures as coercive things that just get in the way and not things that help preserve the message. Where did you hear about the gospel? It came from this local community of believers, perhaps, and how are you handing that on to the next generation.
Originally published online at The Matthew’s House Project: www.thematthewshouseproject.com
© January 2005. Used by permission. To order a subscription or back issues of Mars Hill Audio, please call 800.331.6407 or go to www.marshillaudio.org.From Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 69
Vincent Miller is an associate professor in the theology department at Georgetown University. His most recent book, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture, considers the effects of a consumer culture on religious belief and practice. He is currently engaging similarly the effects of globalization on religion.