January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
November 28, 2011
It’s another gray and misty morning here in the second district of Vienna. The church bells toll to invite the sleepy-eyed revelers from the night before to churches that, except for Christmas tourists, will probably remain mostly empty.
The second district is historically the Jewish district of Vienna, where Freud lived and hung out. For some unfathomable reason Freud is in the air, virtually “everywhere” these days. His books are on sale, his named invoked regularly (even in newspaper ads), and he often serves as a self-identifier, as in the case of a student I know who met a girl at a Vienna dance club who in response to the standard, get-to-know-each-other question “what do you do?” replied, “I’m a Freudian analyst, so what do you think now?” Perhaps the answer was simply intended as a well-practiced feint against any presumed, male, predatory Anmarsch, as they say here. But the “Freudian thing,” as his “Ur-postmodernist” French psychoanalyst descendant Jacques Lacan put it, may be more the temper of the times than we care to admit.
In Civilization and its Discontents – a text that figures such as Derrida and Deleuze, for example, tend to cite – Freud sums up what might be called the “secular eschatological” implications of his lifelong work with the following quote from the German poet Schiller: “hunger and love serve as the gearworks of the world.” Freud was an infamous pessimist, and he certainly had nothing to say directly to Christian theology these days. You can’t “take Freud to church” – really! But Freud was definitely someone theologians should listen to, especially if you go prowling the streets of Vienna, or any European city, or any city at all for that matter, this late autumn. You observe the growing numbers of beggars and prostitutes every morning. You see a new, more disturbing headline about the slow-motion economic meltdown of the EU, not to mention the ever louder warnings from economists about its apocalyptic implications for the world economy.
Hunger and love! Until 2008 the “gearworks” worked magnificently to generate an ever expanding global consumer society that was supposed to gradually alleviate all hungers by fulfilling every symbolizable and estimable desire. Yes, we were worried about things like climate change, prompted by our using too much energy to produce too much “stuff”. But that could be handled by both a new consensual system of intergovernmental policies and regulations and the adoption of new lifestyles that were “post-materialist,” even if they remained highly consumerist. “Information” and “knowledge” leave no carbon footprint – allegedly. Our increasing consumption and production of “significations” rather than material commodities – i.e., Baudrillard’s distinction between the “hyperreal” and the real – would solve that problem, so we were told.
It is the hyperreal that has done us in, however, I fear. Although Baudrillard’s term converges with many familiar, key philosophical terms used in postmodernist discourse, such as Lacan’s “symbolic order” or Deleuze’s “difference machine,” the force of its meaning remains symptomatic of why the world order today appears to be inexorably and ever more painfully unwinding. A generation ago Baudrillard playfully characterized the hyperreal as the order of “processing simulacra”, of self-generating significations in the form of commodity images, fantasies, political and social ideas, collective idealizations, and so forth. He argued that these idealizations take on a life of their own, and that we become increasingly unaware that they do not somehow rest on any tangible base stratum of things, a theme popularized in such movies as The Truman Show and The Matrix.
But, more importantly, we do not recognize their generative and addictive power to guarantee what our senses assume is “really” real. Hence, the expression “hyperreal”, which according to Baudrillard is “more real than real.” The triumph of hyperreality in our time can thus be considered a reversal of the old order of repressed desires, which Freud diagnosed, in the sense that their purely virtual character now function as a whole new form of “repression” or unconsciously displaced meaning (the real force of Freud’s term Verdrängnis) . Just as our Victorian ancestors could not confront the fact that we are intimately bound up in material reality, we cannot confront our immateriality.
Consider derivatives. These so-called “special investment vehicles” (SIVs) proved to be the Achilles heel of the ever expanding global economy before 2008. Although it was the collapse of the American real estate market that technically triggered the crisis, it was the so-called derivatives that sent the worldwide jerry-rigged system into a downward spiral, which is still continuing. As in mathematics, a “derivative” in finance is nothing more than a set of signifying linkages, the notational equivalent of “difference” in the relations between two or more functions. The word “spreads”, which one hears constantly right now with regard to the European debt crisis, has a similar set of characteristics. Without going into the technical details of what these words means in investment parlance, we can say that the long-standing growth of “casino capitalism” was driven by a constant leveraging of the spreads or differentials in the mathematical algorithms that defined the new computerized global marketplace. Much of what people actually invested in had nothing to do with commodities, real estate, the net worth of companies, and so on. Investment increasingly was targeted toward “speculative” interrelationships between abstract calculative processes.
This tendency to pursue an economy of pure sign functions is not some perverse immoral imperative foisted on us by the “one percent,” the “greedy multinational corporations,” or the faceless “speculators”, as garden variety anti-capitalist rhetoric routinely intones. It follows the “logic of late capitalism” itself, as Frederick Jameson referred to postmodernism as a whole in his book by the same title that appeared in 1991 (See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism: The Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, 1991) . Jameson was in many ways prescient, although his work was considered largely cranky and obscurantist at the time. Like Žižek, who rose to notoriety during the decade immediately after the book’s publication, Jameson did not see “postmodernism” as some new, emancipatory phase in the development of politics and culture. He saw it as a form of worn-out modernism, at least in the cultural sphere.
In the economic realm he regarded it as the final stage of the world-historical process Marx had analyzed in Capital. The “crisis” Marx predicted, which actually did not come ironically until the early twenty-first century after communism itself had crashed and burned, would be a result, Jameson implied, not so much of the complete “immiseration” of the working class through capitalist expropriation of the value of their labor, but the transmogrification of labor itself into aesthetic trivialities and human consciousness itself into a whirl of frivolous enjoyments (think mall shopping or cable television), the endless production of new commodified intensities propelled by insatiable sexual appetites (think contemporary art and internet porn), the raising of compulsive triviality and narcissistic emptiness to the level of the pseudo-sublime (think Facebook). Jameson wrote in 1991: “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods.”
The “occupy” movement that has gained so much attention lately, like the Wall Street bankers themselves, therefore is simply one more node in the vast global net of signifying differentia, as Ferdinand de Saussure, who along with Nietzsche birthed postmodern thinking, would have put it. Saussure in many ways sketched out the theory of the hyperreal in his Course in General Linguistics given at the University of Geneva on the eve of World War I. Jacques Lacan, who influenced a whole generation of French postmodern philosophers, put it into practice with his analysis of how what he called the “symbolic order” – the order of linguistic and conceptual sign interactions – not only dominates, but absorbs all our desires and imaginings.
In postmodern culture the endless thirst for the “latest and newest” French thinker – the proverbial haut couture splashy intellectual “fashion model” with the trendiest, most recent, most outrageous position, or proposition, to come down the publishers’ runway – is but one manifestation of such developments. In pop Christianity it is the rage for an ever sexier way of making Jesus seem cool and relevant. Jesus, the historical singularity that fused the infinite Lord of time with the finite depravity of humanity, is now just an inexhaustibly mobile Lacanian “sliding signifier” in the global marketplace of commodified Christianities.
But let us return to Freud. As the slow motion apocalypse of the global system of empty significations (i.e., “late capitalism”) gathers momentum, hunger returns. Not only the hunger for food, but the hunger for significations that are not hyperrealities, that are not pure differentia. A hunger for a meaningfulness that is truly transformative and “sustainable”. Aha, say the salivating cyberevangelists, now let’s give them Jesus. But Jesus himself condemned the Pharisees for offering hungry men snakes and stones.
We can no longer give hungry men and women Saussurian signs. Just as we all suffer from so many environmental disorders because of the pollution of our bodies with additives, industrial chemicals, and waste products that we can no longer even define, so we pollute our spirits with the subtle hyperrealities we have no idea are no longer real at all. The love of God satisfies the hunger and environmental hysteria of the postmodern soul, but it is a love that does not come through the endless natterings of the “symbolic order,” let alone the political as well as the religious preachers of completely virtualized fantasies of a new heaven and earth, of a redemption that can be carried out through out through social media theater, through nothing but private and collective gestures, posturing, or signs.
The apocalypse that is at hand is the apocalypse of a real God who really loves us and really loves through the real love that we show in deeds rather than our gestures, our placing of our hearts along with our bodies in the space of those who desire love, who desire intimacy, closeness, and relationship. The love of God is inseparable from the love of neighbor (and even more so the love of child, spouse, significant other).
The second commandment is no Baudrillardian simulacrum. The true parousia of Christ (“Behold, I am coming soon”) is not “deferred” Derridean avenir.
Hunger and love. The real is relational and the relational is real. He is here now!
Carl Raschke is professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, specializing in continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to religion, popular culture, and technology.