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Nothing left but sinners and victims.

That an institution such as the Catholic Church could release a list of contemporary 'sins', only to have it subsequently mocked or ignored by most sectors of the mainstream media, suggests both the declining force of mainstream religion and the moral irrelevance of contemporary ideas of sin. The list, a supplement to the traditional seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, gluttony, etc), was significant, however, because the Church wanted to highlight the category of socialsins that went beyond the individual. The new sins, 'polluting, genetic engineering, obscene riches, taking drugs, abortion, paedophilia and causing social injustice', are, according to Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, 'a corollary of the unstoppable process of globalisation'. This attempt to recast sin within a social setting is suggestive. However, given that the current bestseller list includes at least four works attacking the very idea of religion in the name of social progress, any bid by the mainstream Church for social relevance was bound to be a fraught exercise.

It's easy to see why the new sins are an easy target for critics of the Catholic Church. The list has a somewhat ad hoc feel. Apart from being vaguely defined as social sins they seem to have little in common. If the original seven sins all share a common element of excess, in terms of passions and appetites, it's hard to imagine any common rationale underpinning the new sins. How might the creation of social injustice be compared to drug abuse? How might one condemn obscene riches in the same breath as paedophilia? Green or left-leaning groups might welcome the condemnation of genetic engineering or obscene wealth, but baulk at the simple-minded condemnation of abortion. In this sense the list of new sins is disappointing to anyone keen to see the church tackle issues of a social, rather than simply private, nature. While one might welcome some of the ideas, it is hard not to see the list as reactionary. The notion of a social sin gave no account of how the social might be thought of.

Of course, any attempt to extend the concept of sin from the private to the social realm requires a conceptual stretch. For writers like Frank Furedi the whole idea of sinning is irrelevant in today's secular culture, where the moral burden of transgression has been emptied out and reclassed as a form of behaviour requiring medical or therapeutic modification. 'Lust' becomes 'sex addiction', to be treated via therapy; 'gluttony' becomes food addiction or obesity, where the subject is invited to take part in a new dietary or exercise regime. Other sins, such as 'pride', have been transformed into positive virtues--building one's cache within an entrepreneurial culture. For Furedi the new sins merely represent the last grasp at authority by an irrelevant church.

Furedi's point about the irrelevance of sin in a secular culture that simply medicalises transgression is undeniable, up to a point. We increasingly inhabit a climate where citizens are disciplined in order to alter their behaviour as 'flawed consumers'. In Victoria John Brumby has launched a campaign to change the lifestyle patterns of workers as part of a war on obesity. Now we have had Kevin Rudd's declared 'war' on teenage binge drinking. In an effort to combat the 'epidemic proportions' of the drinking culture the PM plans to spend $20 million on a shock and awe style 'in your face' advertising campaign, similar to that of the anti-smoking and TAC ads.

These campaigns have been controversial, but in their attempts to 'scare the living daylights out of young people', in the words of the PM, one cannot help but be reminded of older 'fire and brimstone' sermons from the pulpit. Both rely on an unstable combination of affect and reason--the person is meant to be both terrified and capable of reflection. In the absence of a religious context such fear is not based on judgement in the afterlife but predictable outcomes in this life, based on a statistically measured set of future probabilities.

For instance, the most recent TAC ads move from focusing on the direct victims of road accidents to highlighting road victims' friends and families. One might think that, in moving from direct victims of accidents to the suffering of those connected to the victim, a kind of morality might be invoked. Using 'real' volunteers, the ads present private grief in a highly mediated and public form. We see family members staged in gestures of grieving, looking at old photos of loved ones. The soundtrack supplements our imagination of irrevocable loss. While the new TAC ads try and regulate our behaviour by making us imagine the hidden victims of road trauma, it's hard to imagine how the moral imagination can be harnessed simply though the use of televisual spectacle. However, the structure of the campaign and its overarching message undercuts any moral imperative. Indeed, the most singular aspect of the new TAC ads is the message at the end. The screen goes blank with the words: 'This is why you are photographed when you speed'. After three minutes of highly charged emotional content we are left with a 'moral' endorsement of high-tech policing, where the actual presence of police no longer counts so much as the surveillance potential of the all-seeing speed camera. In this secular framework one is still made accountable before an invisible presence. However, the high-tech supervision of individual behaviour now replaces any broader context of responsibility. The moral calculus is replaced by the more cynical mode of risk analysis. Will we beat the speed camera, or the health risks of over-consumption?

Yet it remains uncertain as to how far we have actually moved from the language of old-fashioned morality. After all, most leaders of Third Way-style governments (including the new Rudd government) are keen to emphasise their religious convictions. To frame the problem of drinking, smoking, obesity and the like in terms of a 'war' is to invoke a moral context of right and wrong. Generally, however, this context is thin--only present through the use of technologies of measurement and the production of persuasive images. Such wars on the civilian population are post-political too, in the sense that they rarely address problems in terms of structural issues or substantive shifts in the way we live as a culture. Like the list of new sins, governments want to tackle social problems without taking the social into account. Moral issues, questions of excess within society, are solved by turning us into the subjects of high-tech surveillance systems.

Whether you want to use the language of sin or the secular equivalent of flawed consumption, there's no doubt that our culture demands from us precisely the kind of behaviour that leads to excess. Consumer culture demands that we ceaselessly 'enjoy' its offerings; indeed, our very identities are built upon this process. Increasingly, such pleasures are also anti-social in orientation: the privatised thrill of the automobile; the solipsistic pleasures of binge drinking; individual consumption of processed food; internet porn and so on. Attempts by governments of all colours to maintain this balance--where capitalist growth is both necessary for society and destructive of it--ultimately seems as ineffectual as a set of new directives from the church. The more the market compels us to enjoy its offerings the greater the capacity for excess, as older forms of social life, religious or secular--forms which determine limits to behaviour but also grant meaning to behaviour via social recognition--are hollowed out in the ceaseless pursuit of unfillable wants.

No amount of technocratic adjustment is able to come to terms with this larger framework that is increasingly hollowing out the notion of collective life. While many on the Left have become disenchanted with the inability of New Labor governments to tackle the social and cultural dilemmas presented by the 'unfettered' market, it is also possible to find more thoroughgoing critiques of contemporary life from religious quarters. New publications, such as A Moral Climateby Christian ethicist Michael Northcott, use the language of sin but go beyond mere reaction. Northcott makes a crucial distinction between original sin, the capacity to do wrong, and what he calls 'structural sin'--where the potential for sin is greater within certain social formations. Significantly, Northcott names the global market economy as a structure of sin--in the way it perpetuates inequality, contributes to global warming and generates an individualistic culture that cuts us off from notions of collective good or collective responsibility. Naming capitalism a 'structural sin', Northcott is indicating a critical dimension missing from the attempts of the Catholic Church and contemporary governments to correct the shortfalls in social life. Unless the larger structures of the market are addressed we remain condemned to a morality defined by reaction and surveillance.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.
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Title Annotation:COOPER'S LAST
Author:Cooper, Simon
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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