The church: defender of theocapitalism?
Mission and consumer media capitalism
It is a commonplace to note the consumer character of the lives of all Americans, including young adults. At the same time, what this might mean for young adults or for the church often lacks specificity, if not rigor, and is hostage to a certain moralizing that expresses a humid mixture of condescension, guilt, and envy by pastors and academic theologians vis-a-vis the way that people that we teach or to whom we minister really live. This moralizing interpretation on the one hand and a celebration of consumer capitalism on the other are the Scylla and Charybdis of a theology of consumer capitalism.
There are indications that many young adults live deeply immersed within what we may provisionally call consumer media capitalism--a fusion of consumer capitalism and an extensive media culture. This immersion is a major theme of the book Generation on Hold by James Cote and Anton Allahar. They argue that consumer capitalism appropriates "practices that already exist" among youth, turning them to anti-intellectual ends that are exploitative of youth labor. From all sides, from sports to popular media, they argue, youth are immersed in a symbolic order that seems to endorse personal freedom yet ideologically educates for endorsement of consumer norms. For example, "if [youth] think that music, which criticizes the system, provides an outlet for their discontent and brings them satisfaction, that is fine. As long as their protests go nowhere, they are left alone; recording companies produce and sell their records, and everyone is happy." (1) They argue that consumer capitalism allows for the "meanings" that you ng adults attribute to their culture to glitter in endless variety, even spiritual variety, as long as young adults' actual behavior does not fundamentally upset the economic order. Thus is consumer culture fused and confused with young adults' freedom to find meaning within their young adult cultures.
Freedom, tolerance, individualism, and consumption are bound together also in William Finnegan's Cold New World, his report and analysis of his time with lower-class young adults in four areas of the United States. He became convinced of the power of mass culture over all classes of Americans. Despite the disparities in daily life in the young Mexican Americans, African Americans, and European Americans he studied, he concluded that they all shared a common culture, "liberal consumerism," a "tepid faith" in the fundamental goodness of individual consumption as a fundamental value. (2) In each place, he found a "savage tension between postindustrial capitalism's imperatives and the claims of family and community," leading young people to develop their own ways of "cross-cutting and satirizing the nonstop sales pitch that is the white noise of their lives." (3)
Moving from cultural criticism to economics, Juliet Schor has argued that "survey data show marked increases in materialist values among young people." (4) Schor herself cites the
high degree of knowledge [among middle-class teenagers surveyed] about the fashionableness of brands of clothes, athletic shoes,jeans, and makeup-particularly the more prestigious brands. [In one study,] teens not only knew what the popular brands were but preferred them. Among the girls, the brand ordering of clothing by how popular they believed it to be... correlated perfectly with the fraction choosing that brand as their favorite. For boys, [this study] found a high degree of consensus about athletic shoes. (5)
A widespread willingness to take on debt, or the simple necessity of it for "survival," is often cited as one prime characteristic of contemporary capitalism. Some of the data on young adults in this regard are striking. "The average monthly unpaid credit card balance for people between 25-34 is $2726--more than 10 percent above the national average, according to financial market research firm PSI Global." And further, "American Consumer credit service, a nonprofit that helps people negotiate lower interest rates and monthly payments to creditors, reports GenXers account for 43 percent of its clients, who carry an average debt load of $22,000." (6)
While such formal elements of young adult economic life as use of disposable income, brand loyalty, and debt accumulation are frequently mentioned in interpretations of consumer capitalist society, there is a remarkable conflict of interpretations about how these elements are related to each other and what the fundamental dynamics are of our consumer society itself--even whether there is such a thing as a "consumer society ." (This conflict of interpretations in economics may be as much a surprise to those of us who do theology as it might be for an economist to discover that the most basic reality at issue in Christian life, the person of Jesus Christ, is a fundamentally contested reality not only in his historical identity but in the very question of his centrality in Christian life and theology.) Interpretations of consumer capitalism of potential use to theology have come not only from economics but also from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines. Adjudicating this conflict is not my purpose here. In order to keep theology humble, however, it does bear noting economists Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold's conclusion that the very concept of a consumer society, in most academic usage, "lacks a coherent analytical content[,] a reasonably precise definition with an associated explanatory role.... In fact, precise and meaningful definitions of consumer society are ... as rare as the use of the term is common." (7)
Aware of their warning, and making the presumption for the purposes of this lecture that most young adults today are relatively immersed in popular media culture, I propose the following as a provisional brief definition: Consumer media capitalism is an historical configuration of two overlapping, mutually reinforcing and contesting networks of materio-symbolic production and consumption, strategically attempting to organize human self-transcendence into materio-symbolic practices that participate in the truths produced by this configuration. I shall unpack only one aspect of that definition here.
By referring to consumer capitalism as a strategic reality, I am using a distinction from Michel de Certeau. De Certeau distinguishes between strategies and tactics in his brilliant interpretation of everyday life. A strategy is a structural organization of reality, usually mediated by institutions, with the power to structure physical space, shape imagination, mold bodies, order expectations, and set the terms of cultural conversation and debate. A city's gridded urban plan, a university's or hospital's hierarchy, a corporation's ad campaign, an airport's design, and a book's layout all function as strategies designed to organize popular movement, thought, values, and spending patterns so as to render the cultural order benign toward the needs of the strategist. A strategy is "the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an 'environment."' (8)
Tactics, by contrast, are what people in everyday life actually do with these strategies: what they make of them; how they turn them to ends different than those intended by strategists; how they use them in ways unplanned, unmeasured, and even unmeasurable; how people exercise the margin of freedom that they do have to practice arts de faire so as to get through the innumerable hurdles of everyday life. Tactics are "ways of operating" in everyday life that have a logic expressed not in being thought but by being lived, "a way of thinking invested in a way of acting." (9) The resources of strategy are manipulated for enjoyment, getting by, making do in accord not with a theory or a rule but of the needs of the situation at hand. Everyday reading turns out to be a matter of "poaching" meaning from a text; everyday walking turns out to be a redefinition of the way city planners define public space; everyday prayer during worship turns out to be an appropriation of some liturgical material (the homily or scriptu re or hymn-or something even more banal, such as a glance from a neighbor or an announcement in the bulletin scanned during the sermon) that was never intended by the preacher, lector, or worship minister to be used in that way. A tactic is a "calculus which cannot count on a 'proper' (a spatial or institutional localization) ... [and] because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time--it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing.'" (10) Tactics are the everyday "internal manipulations of a system." (11)
Strategies may appropriate tactics for their own purposes. For example, a popular turn to thrift-store shopping that bears anticonsumerist meanings for young adults may be turned by a clothing manufacturer into the production of "retro" fashion styles. Or a band whose music expresses a forceful rejection of bourgeois Christianity may allow its music to be produced and distributed by a record label with investments or political alliances that undermine the political efficacy of the music's professed values. Tactics may use materials of strategies against the interests of the strategizers. For example, a young Catholic woman interrupts Roman strategy when she uses the techniques of discernment traditionally associated with an all-male priesthood in order to manifest to herself and others her own calling to the Roman Catholic priesthood; or when a global coffee chain employee takes advantage of an inattentive boss to give out free coffee to his friends as penance for his company running local coffee shops out of business; or when a consultant to the U.S. military uses part of his remuneration to fund causes that undermine contemporary U.S. military policy in Latin America.
I offer one caution about this distinction. De Certeau often presents strategies as working in a totalizing fashion over everyday life, and the tactician in everyday life merely exploits the failures or gaps in these tendencies. It may be more productive, and closer to the practice of everyday life, to theorize strategies as themselves internally contested, inconsistent, and containing within themselves multiple ministrategies that compete with each other. This internally unstable aspect of strategy provides the multiple openings for the quite different uses that people will make of the same strategic power. The same would be true of tactics, which renders them exploitable and appropriable by strategic powers. The difference between strategies and tactics is primarily one of power: strategies do not determine everyday use (this would be something akin to the Frankfurt School approach or to the moralizing interpretation). They do, however, deploy the cultural materials and their preferred use that tactics will then try to use, ruse, trope, turn, redescribe, rewrite, or poach for other purposes. In other words, with de Certeau, the practice of everyday life is a production as well as consumption; indeed, the style of consumption in everyday life is itself a creative act, a sort of production.
Consumer media capitalism as theocapitalism
Of course, the attempt to interrelate theology and economics is not new. Perhaps its most influential modem example is Max Weber. It seems that most work in this area today occurs under the aegis of Christian ethics, but occasionally it occurs elsewhere, as in the adventurous philosophical theology of Mark C. Taylor. Despite the apparent differences between economics and theology, Karl Marx once shrewdly observed that "Economists are like theologians.... Every religion other than their own is the invention of man, whereas their own particular brand of religion is an emanation from God." (12)
It is useful to get a running start into a theological interpretation by observing that consumer media capitalism functions in our lives today as a highly effective religious address to young adults. (13) I mean "religious" here in a broad social-scientific sense. And so, for example, consumer media capitalism offers young adults, in no particular order, (1) a consistent, coherent identity, in which you are told about your true self (as a consumer, producer, advertiser, buyer, seller of certain goods); (2) membership in a community (of athletes, video-game players, music fans, coffee connoisseurs, (14) middle class respectables); (3) an invitation to unconditional trust (in a brand name); (4) an opportunity to make meaningful a desire for ecstatic experiences (in violent and sexual popular culture); (5) an opportunity for mediation of faith through sacred images (such as the Nike Swoosh (15)); (6) the promise of conversion, a new life (by associating yourself with a particular line of clothing); (7) away to s atisfy one's restless heart (by the viewing of this movie, by the playing of this CD).
This line of inquiry, which I do not elaborate here, does suggest a productive way of interpreting consumer media capitalism. It opens our imagination to consider that consumer media capitalism may organize religious experiences. Indeed, I now propose and elaborate the following thesis: Consumer media capitalism functions strategically as an anonymous spiritual discipline on something like the terms of the strategic functioning of classic spiritual disciplines. If this proposal is adequate, we may refer to consumer media capitalism as theocapitalism, an economic strategy attempting to secure its ends in and through religio-spiritual terms and practices. I offer here two examples of what I mean, with regard both to the way in which spiritual disciplines and consumer media capitalism influence imagination and to the way in which they deploy their own theologies of culture.
One essential element of many historic spiritual disciplines, from the Benedictine Rule to the Ignatian Exercises, is their operation by way of an attempted formation of the imagination that is more or less unique to that discipline. Is this not one major effect of undergoing the Exercises and learning to talk with the biblical figures with the Jesuits, or practicing lectic and learning to ruminate on biblical words with the Benedictines? This is not to suggest that all imaginative orientations operate with the same content or for the same historical reasons--only that a strong orientation of the imagination under strategies organized by the discipline are central to the practice of classic spiritual disciplines. (16)
An analogous formation of imagination is present in consumer media capitalism. My own experience in ministry with diverse groups of young adults has shown me a striking conformity about images of the good material life, not just in terms of specific goods but specific brands of those goods. Sociological research about consumer society has discovered evidence that Americans in general manifest a common imagination oriented to specific consumer fantasies. According to the sociological research of Susan Fournier and Michael Guiry, consumer fantasies included widespread desires for new and better homes, new cars, and luxury items such as jewelry and designer clothes. (At the same time, their research cautions a theological reading against a simplistic approach in that they found a broadening of the meaning of materialism in consumer fantasies to include "enhancement of self, family, and society" through consumer goods, a desire for intense and exotic experiences in addition to conspicuous products, and consumer f antasies themselves as pleasurable goods of consumer society.) (17)
John Caughey found in his anthropological research that
Despite some systematic variation in social roles and subcultural affiliations, middle-class Americans seem to share a very similar fantasy life. The recurrent fantasies of my informants fall into only seven major classes: career success, alternate career success, natural world escape, material wealth, successful violence, sex-romance, and blissful married life, [and] any given fantasy often includes ... several of the other topics. (18)
In one example, Caughey's research revealed that "[f]antasy descriptions of ideal houses often sound like commercials, and many can be traced directly to particular media productions." (19)
One ad agency's study of over 27,000 teens in 45 countries found that "Teens who watch MTV videos are much more likely than other teens to wear the teen 'uniform' of jeans, running shoes, and denim jacket.... They are also much more likely to own electronics and consume 'teen' items such as candy, sodas, cookies, and fast food. They are much more likely to use a wide range of personal-care products too." (20)
Theocapitalism and theology of culture
But it is not only in influencing the human imagination that theocapitalism adopts the identity of a spiritual discipline. It seems to be true of classic spiritual disciplines that another element of their efficacy lies in their power of deploying theologies of culture that are appropriated by believers through the particular practices of the discipline. Take, for example, the ways in which the Ignatian Exercises form exercitants to experience "God in all things." We can bracket here the question of the various discernments within, the plurality of interpretations of, or the internal coherence of this Ignatian doctrine. It is enough here to note that the Exercises can and do work variously to open adherents to this experience of "God in all things," an experience that is an instantiation of what could legitimately be named an Ignatian theology of culture; this does not keep us from also admitting that exercitants may and do tactically trope this theology of culture to their own ends. Neither theocapitalism no r traditional spiritual disciplines has an absolute power to compel.
Theocapitalism, too, deploys a theology of culture, and it is this on which I focus for the remainder of this essay. One advantage of attempting to articulate it, which must always be a search for implicit traces, strains, and hints, minute details of power and trajectoried meanings, is that such an articulation focuses our questions on the relationship between the religious significance of our lives and the socioeconomic dimensions of our lives, not only to trace their relation but also to critically investigate their discursive separation. Articulating capitalism's theology of culture focuses thought to crystallize around a limited set of concerns and provides theological reflection a particular site of inquiry, bounded by questions about the human experience of mystery as mediated by human symbols and practices that are always already caught up, in the United States, in capitalist economies.
Elements in theocapitalism's theology of culture
I shall articulate four elements of theocapitalism's theology of culture. This exercise necessarily proceeds by creative distillation of text, empirical observation, and intuition. In this sense it is unavoidably poetic, however "scientifically" it strives to correlate a theology of culture and an economics of consumerism. This poetic quality does not save such work from needing to be critically tested. It does, however, distance it from a certain theologico-scientific overcaution about going "beyond the facts." I offer a short description of each element, followed by a brief example from contemporary consumer media culture. It is important to keep in mind that I am sketching the theology of culture of a strategic economic formation; the tactical use people actually make of theocapitalism is a different but equally important matter.
First: Grace as drama. By grace as drama I include grace co-identified with intense sensation, with excitation, with an episodic excess, and with titillation. In other words (and here I traverse the border of a moralizing interpretation), grace becomes the confusion of authentic experiences of transcendence with ephemeral effects of intensity. Grace is construed as ultimately experiential in a manner absolutely present and fully luminous to the seeker, whether the seeker is eventfully arrested in one's present or calmly reflective on one's past. This way of experiencing grace makes grace productive, clearly identifiable, something approaching a positivism of grace, perhaps even a commodity: grace as a thing.
Among many examples, one may note the iconographic media image of the football player in the end zone down on one knee in prayer thanking God for the grace bestowed in the dramatic touchdown. The ritual has taken on a solemnity that has made it one of the few features of public religious display that are not mocked, parodied, or ironized regularly in the media. As if to authenticate the gesture, even non-Roman Catholic players have been known to finish their touchdown prayers with the sign of the cross.
This theology of grace-in-culture may well be interlinked with a larger culture of excess manifest in material practices and in media culture. The film Magnolia serves as an example of the latter. It seems to be an excessive meditation on excess as experience and as trope of postmodernity. Tides of excess flood the screen: the excessive masculinity of Tom Cruise's character; the excessive guilt and chasm separating him from his dying father in his father's final hours; the excessive bursting of the proprieties of cinematic form by having all the characters sing along with the soundtrack what viewers may take as the excessively plain truth or the "moral" of the movie; the excessive action of God in raining down frogs upon a city already excessively warned of a plague, itself an excessive punishment, by an excess of religious billboards. Perhaps in ironizing excess by an excessive excess of excesses, each with a potentially religious name, this movie is an example of Baudrillard's notion of resisting virtual cu lture by getting the postmodern hyperreal to confront itself. It is interesting to note that a turn to the disclosive power of the excessive has also been one recurring element in postmodern theory. (21)
I wonder whether this grace as drama is not bound materially and ideally to the irreplaceable demand for economic growth within consumer capitalism. Such a demand, in theory and practice seemingly insatiable and infinite, makes it difficult to tell the difference between paced growth and excessive, burning-out-of-control growth. In the formulation of Schor,
The market imperative is bigger, better more.... The rising standard is a national icon, firmly rooted in the political discourse. For those who don't want to change what they have and are comfortable with a static lifestyle, the market offers limited choices. It is geared to newer and more expensive products. It is perpetually upshifting ... relentlessly unidirectional, always ascending" (22)
The second element in theocapitalism's theology of culture is a domesticating tolerance. It is a tolerance that invites one to suspend judgment about the winners and losers within a culture. This sort of tolerance is linked to suspicion and irreverence, the religious values of which I have previously argued for, but a general lack of a strong suspicion toward and irreverence of consumer capitalism itself. By referring to judgment, I am referring to judgment as Bernard Lonergan used the term, as a mature level of cognition that is arrived at, after attending to and interpreting the data of experience, in the humanizing process of self-appropriation. (23)
William Finnegan observed the religious function of consumer capitalism even amidst the poor American youth who populate the pages of his book Cold New World. He wrote of a young man who lived in New Haven, Connecticut,
If [he] is impervious to fundamentalism (Christian, Islamic, or black nationalist), it is because his own religion, his ideology--consumer individualism, imbibed since childhood from commercial television--is itself profoundly rooted. Of course, consumerism and lifelong poverty make a painful combination. So any source of fast money--such as dealing drugs--that might offer some relief gets seen, naturally, in the slanting light of economic man's moral relativism. It is a question of belief systems. (24)
In the present terms, it is also a question of theologies of culture.
This domesticating tolerance works through three mini-strategies: a politics of functionalism, a rhetoric of efficiency, and a hermeneutics of plasticity.
With regard to a politics of functionalism, every product or cultural event must in the end serve the function of another purchase, another act of consumption.
With regard to a rhetoric of efficiency, it is a matter of giving the appearance that nothing in the end must be wasted: time, money, materials. "In the competitive society," remarks Galbraith, the "central tradition" of economics (from Ricardo forward) puts a "premium on efficiency. The competent entrepreneur and worker were automatically rewarded. The rest, as automatically, were punished for their incompetence or sloth." (25) Galbraith also suggests that this premium on efficiency, in the "affluent society," is more a part of the talk of corporate leaders than an ironclad practice.
With regard to a hermeneutics of plasticity: theocapitalism reinforces a theology of culture that fosters an ability to "dignify" a diversity of interpretations, even religious ones, of its products, without this theology or its parent strategy being threatened by these interpretations. Ann Powers recently argued in the New York Times that the success of the rock group Creed shows the difficulty that any distinctively particular faith has of becoming a market success: "faith is still a strong force for change. But that faith need not only be self-righteous. It could as easily be pagan, radical and anarchistic. It can take as many forms as the culture industry allows." (26)
Within this appreciation for "diversity," irony, which can serve religious thought and experience, becomes a major trope, framing culture as something that is best consumed and not critically incorporated into the content of spiritual maturity. The type of irony undergirding this tolerance may be what Steven Connor calls "suspensive irony." This sort of irony "marks an intensification of the awareness of incoherence, to the point where it seems no longer capable of being accounted for and contained even in the ordering frames of the aesthetic. ..." (27) In the words of Alan Wilde, this irony is
an indecision about the meanings or relations of things ... matched by a willingness to live with uncertainty, to tolerate, and, in some cases, to welcome a world seen as random and multiple, even, at times, absurd ... [what is marked is] a world beyond repair. ...(28)
If this theology of culture reinforces a politics of functionalism that perpetuates theocapitalism, a rhetoric of efficiency that seeks to give the impression of resource maximization, and a hermeneutics of plasticity that may stretch to include any interpretation of theocapitalism's materials, do we not discover in this triad a bifurcation, articulated by Baudrillard, between distinction and conformity? (29) This diode may well be one production of this triad of domesticating tolerance, insofar as such tolerance is the product of a certain ability to adopt a tolerant attitude because one is most concerned with maintaining one's distinct status vis-a-vis one's reference group, and so has little time to intervene in the status domain of another; and because conforming with the group with whom you share status distinction affords a validation of your own position. Associating oneself with a specific array of commodities affords a unique distinction of status and identity (fashionable, smart, savvy, sexy, spirit ual, earnest) while rooting the consumer more deeply with the conformity peculiar to one's reference group (whether hip or stodgy academics, Precious Moments Christian homemakers, or redblooded weekend warrior males). The secure balance between distinction and conformity, which is actually a continually renegotiated task for the postmodern consumer, is enough of a personal economy to absorb most of one's emotional, psychological, and financial resources. This element of the theology of culture releases you to the project of fashioning your own existence. To find some aspect of theocapitalism intolerable, to self-examine one's own appropriation of its theology of culture, becomes a luxury purchasable only by a few of the well educated, a few of the well off, a few of the desperate.
Fine and Leopold comment on this bifurcation between distinction and conformity, rooting it in capitalism's material structures articulated by Baudrillard:
[W]hat, within capitalism, differentiates the content of the diode distinction and conformity, is the dependence of consumption on its derivation through exchange. ... [T]he emergence of money in a system of general commodity production gives all the right to consume everything--at least in principle. Hence, the basis exists for the process of emulation through consumption. ... By the same token, the commodity form of consumption implies that each (involved in exchange) has the ability to consume something in particular. Hence, differentiation in consumption is a necessary product of the commodity form of consumption. Commodity production, entailing a particular form of access to consumption, is the basis for distinction/conformity under capitalism ... material relations govern symbolic exchange value rather than merely serving as its representatives. (30)
If Fine and Leopold are right, then the role of distinction/conformity in supporting the domesticating tolerance of theocapitalism' s theology of culture may well be rooted in the dynamics of our consumer capitalist economy.
One sees this theology of culture gaining its assimilative power when advertising plastically co-opts any hermeneutical framework that might threaten theocapitalism, redeploying it in the process with the dignity afforded all possibly subversive hermeneutics: as a means of strategic advance under cover of liberal, pluralist values: advertising that advances its cause by way of religious inclusiveness, of affirming women, or of multiculturalism.
The third element is a theocapitalist technology of the self: the consumer takes up a relation to him- or herself in which the truth of oneself is to be found in a constant movement through commodities, which results in an excessive self-consciousness, making the body both glorified and renounced, and rendering all desire ambiguous.
Personal development means constant change that is a movement through commodities. The authors of Dancing in the Dark make a helpful point when they suggest that often in media culture, life is pictured as a sort of adolescence, "a perpetual unsolvable identity crisis portray[ing] human existence as an unending process of adapting to the latest ... clothes, cars, music. ..." (31)
Participating in this style of personal development requires a certain style of self-consciousness. The self must be continually aware of its commodity-mediated presentation to others, such that an investment in positive and visible qualities of the self are determinative of the truth of self-identity. (32) "Our lives become our own creation, through buying." (33) This is linked to the problem of the elision of historical consciousness I will name later: the attributes that come to be identified as central to one's self lose their historical contingency and are taken as necessary. "That we are what we have is perhaps the most basic and powerful fact of consumer behavior." (34)
Naomi Klein argues that global capitalism is fostering a global teendom, predicated on a "third notion of nationality--not American, not local, but one that would unite the two, through shopping." (35)
This self-consciousness is perhaps most apparent in the role of the body in this technology of self. The body paradoxically tends toward becoming both nothing and everything. We need only note the privileged class and race dimension of body-related disorders in capitalist countries: cutting, anorexia, bulimia. And not only in the United States. The New York Times reported in 1999 a rise in eating disorders among young Chinese women, particularly educated middle- and upper-middle-class teenage girls, who are now growing up in the conflictual capitalist body economy of glossy magazines, fast food, bodily transformation, "self-improvement." A new notion of beauty has taken hold for some of these women. As weight-loss centers are springing up at surprising rates,
many see the preoccupation with thinness as a sign of China's economic progress. The emergence of eating disorders is certainly a macabre milestone of sorts, indicating there is generally now enough to eat in a country where tens of millions starved in the famine of the early 1960s after the disastrous agricultural experiments of the Great Leap Forward. (36)
This paradox of the body is rendered strikingly in Taylor's description of supermodel Kate Moss: "A latter-day ascetic worshipping a God that no longer appears, [she] transforms herself into skin and bones--nothing but skin and bones. Hers is an inner 'beauty' that is finally indistinguishable from death." (37)
Why does the body under this anonymous discipline respond with a turn to a slimmed-down, even deathly visage? Klein makes an interesting observation about late global capitalism which seems to also be about the disciplining of bodies. When global corporations associate economic success with outsourcing, downsizing, and distancing from commodity production, and in general dissociate themselves from earthbound issues like workers, wages, unions, and factories in favor of the construction of the ethereal brand-image, these corporations compete in a race wherein "whoever owns the least, has the fewest employees on the payroll and produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products, wins the race." She calls this, provocatively, a "race toward weightlessness." (38)
A select group of corporations... attempt[s] to free itself from the corporeal world of commodities, manufacturing and products to exist on another plane. Anyone can manufacture a product, they reason....Such menial tasks, therefore, can and should be farmed out to contractors and subcontractors whose only concern is filling the order on time and under budget.... Headquarters, meanwhile, is free to focus on the real business at hand-creating a corporate mythology powerful enough to infuse meaning into these raw objects just by signing its name. (39)
Note the religious subtext here. The "body" (of Christ, and especially its lesser members) is essentially disposable, or at most a necessary evil to be dealt with as minimally as possible, with surgical gloves and masks, and only occasionally. The global capitalist body of Christ. Recall that Paul's theology of the body of Christ is also about the importance of the whole physical individual body for the Christian, not just the ideational "corporate" body of the church; its shadow side is its implicit hierarchical ordering--which itself comes out in this postmodern secular monasticism that we are here on the verge of. What Klein calls "corporate transcendence," separating the brand as ideal experience or lifestyle ("transcendent meaning machines" (40)) from the commodity and its earthly associations, seems to have an analogue in corporal transcendence, or a discomfort with living in the body--either by making it disappear, or (in the most obese country in the world) by stuffing it unhealthily.
Taylor connects the postmodern obsession with the body as a form of reaction and resistance to the felt dematerialization of virtual culture:
For an increasing number of people, it seems that life is lived in a locked room from which there is no exit.... The problem is not merely that the mechanization and routinization of modern life lead to excruciating anonymity and anomie. Even more distressing is the tendency of postindustrial society to create cities of glass in which everything is insubstantial and unbearably lite. As the media invade every aspect of life and electronic networks extend their tentacles to create webs that appear to be virtually seamless, reality itself hides behind screens that are infinite....
When reality becomes virtual, the body disappears. This does not mean, of course, that materiality completely vanishes.... But as the webs in which we are caught become ether nets, the realities with which we deal become more and more ethereal.... Many people who regard modernization and post-modernization as a fall rather than an advance attempt to resist the march of history by recovering the body. When the body appears to be endangered, it becomes an obsession. This is one of the primary reasons that tattooing (as well as piercing and scarification) has become so widespread during this particular historical and cultural period. Tattooing represents the effort to mark the body at the very moment it is disappearing. (41)
This technology also includes the ambiguity of the desiring self. By this I mean the way in which desire is the major nonmaterial currency floating through the theocapitalist system. Can we trace this entire economy of desire? What is at stake for "consumers" seems to include attending to the experience of one's desires, sifting them out along a material grid of potential satisfaction, and engaging in practices of participation in consumer media capitalism that aim to satisfy these desires. What is at stake for "producers," including in a unique way retailers and advertisers, seems to include inducing, evoking, or creating consumers' desire. (42)
Desire and its manipulation are central to the proliferation of the consumer society in Schor' s interpretation. "While spending is certainly a reflection of social distinctions, it does have at least one profoundly egalitarian aspect: just about everyone wants in.... Expensive branded goods and designer logos are popular with nearly everyone. In late-twentieth-century America, the culture of desire is pervasive." (43) "Inner desires are prompted first and foremost by exposure." (44) The logic of desire within consumer society that Schor outlines is "see, want, borrow, buy," with desire's "want" expressed as fantasies, wishes, and rationalizations. (45) But her account of desire leaves something wanting. Consistent with her emphasis on a Bourdieu-inspired reading of consumer dynamics, status and the maintenance of our consumer identity are the driving forces behind desire. She writes that "see-want-borrow-and-buy is a comparative process; desire is structured by what we see around us," (46) in our increasing exposure to others who are themselves captive to consumer desiring, and our idolizing of those in the upper part of the upper-middle class, the top 20 percent of income earners in the United States--as well as our exposure to television and our degree of education, both of which she argues are positively correlated with increased consumption or less saving. (47) While she argues that her evidence shows that "these comparisons matter deeply to us," (48) she is not able to show why status and identity, within an economy of desire, are so deeply important to us, other than that they are socially influenced by the envy of the four-fifths of those of the upper one-fifth (49)--and despite our constant denial of that envy. Her study raises theological questions: what spiritual needs, of whatever "origin," are given the promise of satisfaction within the consumer economy? Could there be something more happening than desire for status? Or, put another way, can the degree of concern for status be illumined by a theolog ical direction of inquiry in general and a theological anthropology in particular? Is desire for status only the tip of the iceberg?
Though there is much talk in the economic literature of the "creation" of desiring consumers, it may be precisely with respect to this desire that theology has something to contribute to an understanding of this theocapitalist desiring self. And it may further be precisely with respect to the uncreated ground of desire that theology may complement a psychoeconomic interpretation of the originary character of desire in human religious and economic experience. Productive starting points conceptually may reside in Tillich's notion of the ontological unity of eros and agape, or in Rahner's notion of the search for an absolute savior, a desire to experience a definitive answer to the question that the human subject is. The point here is for theology to test whether this desire, which floats freely throughout the practices and discourses of "consumer culture," is not in fact rooted in the createdness of the human person.
The fourth element is the denial of historicity in general and the particularity of specific histories. Theocapitalism's theology of culture proceeds by way of attempting to structure a certain timelessness into its strategies of perpetuation. A politics of forgetting is related to this denial: a denial or learned forgetting of my complicity, on the one hand, and of the past itself, on the other. My complicity in the larger economy, the history of this economy, my power and powerlessness within it, and the history that has produced such power and powerlessness. My complicity in my own personal economy. In the distance we experience between the commodities we consume and how they are produced, retailed, and advertised, theology may even recognize some of its hoary tradition in images of divine aseity on the part of the consumer--or is it on the part of the producer? Who does theocapitalism gift with being the most unmoved by society and history, or at least of laboring under such an illusion?
In a recent paper, Catherine Roach argues that various forms of popular culture, such as comic strips and car commercials, promote fantasies of aseity on the part of consumers. Her psychoanalytic reading proposes that human ambivalence toward nature, in part a feeling of guilt over our complicity in its destruction, results in popular images that promise consumers aseity if they purchase this car or this brand of butter. The consumer will take on God's quality of self-origination and radical independence; the consumer will thwart nature by becoming autonomous from it in the use of this product. (50) (One might also legitimately wonder about the relationship between such aseity and the functional docetism that seems to be so common to many Americans' practical Christologies. If my claims in this essay bear out, it is not enough to ask whether theocapitalism has affected our christologies; it remains only to think their relation. (51))
The Power Mac G4 Cube computer exemplifies several of these characteristics, including denial of historicity and of waste. Herbert Muschamp wrote of this computer:
With the Apple Power Cube, we see through a glass, darkly, but on the Internet we shall see each other virtually face to face. In advertisements, the Cube is presented as the embodiment of omnipotence and omniscience, an entity whose name we almost dare not utter. The inner and outer enclosures create an ecotone [a liminal space where two environments overlap] of color, a silver shade generated by the laying of clear plastic over white.
From the exterior, the Cube is a pure product of what used to be called industrial design. Even its abstract, geometrical shape harks back to the Bauhaus-influenced products displayed in the Good Design shows organized in the '50s by the Museum of Modem Art. The innards, easily removed by means of a handle, represent the increasing miniaturization of information-age technology. The Cube' sinner and outer enclosures symbolize an interface between the old and new economies.
"Silver makes everything disappear," Andy Warhol remarked apropos the decor of his 47th street studio. The tone of the G4 nudges this technology-packed device toward immateriality. So does the silence of its fan-less operation. Perhaps this is not, after all, a machine, but a box of emptiness, a chunk of force-field that has been captured from the event-horizon of a black hole and returned to earth, where its power to warp time, space and gravity has been harnessed to serve consumer needs.
The Cube plays off against the infinite variety of forms in which other computers come packaged, and the ceaseless abundance of images that materialize on its dematerialized flat screen. The Cube is a rounded-off Platonic solid. Its speakers play the music of the spheres. On the screen--a veil of pixels--everything is changing, morphing, mutating, pointillistic. The Cube transcends change. (52)
Theocapitalism' s theology of culture spins a tightly woven economy of denial on which rests its aseitistic speculation. Denial, for example, is a central feature of Schor's argument about consumer society. "Americans live with high levels of denial about their spending patterns." (53) This denial is most evident in our relationship to our credit cards and our refusal to pay attention to what we spend money for. Denial, she argues, also eases the discomfort we feel when confronted with the criticisms of greed in our religious traditions: "Not looking too hard helps keep that inner conflict tolerable." (54) What we see here is again a denial of history: this time in the guise of a denial of our concrete personal histories of consumption. (The one exception she notes about this denial is where parents' spending on children is concerned. (55) History is only affirmed in the space where it seems to have least immediate application. After all, children have a much shorter history to remember, and one largely gover ned by the influence of others.)
A tight web of denial: of the origins of our products, (56) of their transition through systems of provision, of the effects of their production on everyone but their end user, as if theocapitalism were populated by a universe of orphaned commodities, not only separated from their parents in production but without navels, never having been born from any concrete situation of human toil, blood, flesh. And so this denial of history denies our history of accountability or responsibility, particularly to the common good. There is evidence that an inverse relation exists between investment in private consumption and investment in public goods. (57)
Such a theology of the body as I suggest above depends on practices of closely-bound denials: a denial of my obligation to my now-global neighbor; a denial of my economic identity (as mentioned above); a denial of my bodiliness (in anorexia or corpulence) or my neighbor's bodiliness (through my participation in their low wages, poor food, and dangerous working conditions); (58) a denial of the producer's ability to see the end state of their products; (59) a denial of my denial. In this virtual asceticism--a life of advancement through renunciation--we are the postmodern monks of global capitalism.
Christians participating in this discipline risk practicing an economic docetism, separating a brand from its production, the finished product from the human makers and material processes of its creation, the idea of a product from the human, bodily, earthly locations of the product's production. An economic docetism tempts Christians to agree with the president of one branding agency who traded on a body-spirit separation when he proposed that "Products are made in the factory, but brands are made in the mind." (60) Economic docetism is a performative diminishment of Christian participation in Jesus in the present, by way of economic practices that endorse an abbreviated materiality, an overemphasis on the transcendent meaning of the brand. "After establishing the 'soul' of their corporations, the superbrand companies have gone on to rid themselves of their cumbersome bodies, and there is nothing that seems more cumbersome, more loathsomely corporeal, than the factories that produce their products." (61) Man y superbrand corporations own few or none of their own factories today. They contract out to brokers who oversee such gross materiality.
What I am presupposing in this claim is that a constitutive dimension of releasing oneself to Jesus as savior is a performative acceptance of the mode of being revealed by Jesus as possible for all humans: a life that becomes fully divine only in and through becoming fully human. Thus what is required for the Christian, or better, what defines Christian maturity, an ever-fuller releasement to this mysterious mode of being, is an ever deeper appropriation of the social, historical, and cultural discourses, practices, and networks in which human identity and experience is caught, elaborated, even produced, disciplined, and contested. These discourses, practices, and networks are "economic" when they deal with the rationalized exchange of human goods. As taking place within inescapably economic beings, Christian maturing is a function of the communal and individual appropriation of the rationalized exchanges of human goods in which one is implicated for the sake of their humanization, which means their ordering toward the common good, affirmation of human dignity, sustenance of health and wholeness, opening of opportunity for personal and social development, constructive realization of one's vocation. What this humanization means at any one time will unavoidably be subject to reinterpretation, even dismantling and deconstruction, by theological and philosophical reflection and the sciences. In these ways, salvation for the Christian is intrinsically linked to the transubstantiation of economic reality in the direction of greater human flourishing.
In sum, this theology of culture is one maneuver of the theocapitalist strategy to orient imagination, belief, value, and practice in the direction of the success of consumer capitalism. There are at least two elements absent from this discussion. First is an analysis and unraveling of significant gaps in this theology that unwork what the overall strategy attempts to work--an exploration of its inner tensions. Second is the role of individuals and communities of consumers in contesting and refashioning this theology of culture--everyday tactics.
We may enliven our conceptual sense of theocapitalism's implicit theology of culture by denominating it a theomorphology of culture. This theomorphology of culture promises to make a god present, seeking to pinch ineffability into visibility without remainder, or more carefully, with the only remainder being the creation of further desire. Is it too much to understand consumer media capitalism as fueled by the theorific passion to render visible what is forever invisible, making what cannot be seen about a product bear a symbolic value nonetheless, from "Pentium inside" to metal "4-Wheel drive" logos on cars. The logical outcome of this will to visibility is the prevalence of the designer logo, a conspicuous visibility referring to an invisible but tangible status. But the visible invisible slips back into spirit at the limit of desire: in the words of Schor, "the most expensive designer clothes carry far fewer outside labels. In haute couture, we never see them." (62) "Production only fills a void that it ha s itself created." Producers' advertising and consumers' practices of emulation of other consumers "create desires ... [that] bring into being wants that previously did not exist." Theocapitalism' s creatic ex nihilo. (63)
This theomorphism, rendered spiritually, can be interpreted as an issue of control: control over status, over self-presentation, over religious experience, and at the limit, control of the mystery not just that human beings bear but that humans are. This control
It wants to render grace and desire, for example, self-present, absolutely localizable, manipulable.
play[s] the double role of nature and of rule, since it has assumed the depth of nature in ancestral habit, in education, in everyday exercise, and since it is at the same time a constant principle of coercion. It is both spontaneity and constraint
Biblical scholar Stephen D. Moore has identified control as capitalism's primary analogue with modem biblical interpretation, insofar as monopoly control is granted to the autonomous author of the biblical text whose entire work is reducible to this producer's intention. The modem biblical scholar's task then becomes eliminating waste, doing so by rendering the reading that will most economically demonstrate the singularity of the original author's productive intention. (65) The affluent society as the non-effluent society. (66)
Theocapitalism within the church
And yet it would be incomplete to carry on such an interpretation of theocapitalism by focusing solely on its theology of culture deployed in "the world." The postmodern problematic giving itself for theological thought today is that every theology of secular culture is always already also a theology of the culture that is the church.
That is to say, every theology of consumer media capitalism is also potentially a theology of Western Christianity's present. Following such a line of inquiry implies that Christianity, the Christian "tradition," or a set of seemingly sui generis Christian "values" or "practices" cannot be set in opposition to an economic system in general or consumer media capitalism in particular, as one totality over against another. Itis more productive to think of "the church" and "the economy" in more sociohistorical terms, as bearing the characteristics of continually shifting, inherently unsteady contested historical formations of econospirito-politics whose identities, as historical, are continually shifting, and which organize our experience in "church" and "culture" and into the categories of"church" and "culture." This is not to reduce either to these terms but rather to secure these terms at the heart of theological work on them. Thinking in this way helps us to identify "consumer" formations that may be present in "church" and in "world."
I offer one example from ministry, of a negative cast, and slightly exaggerated into limit-cases for illustrative purposes. Sometimes young adults today are tempted to treat spirituality as a consumer identity that we are free to don or discard at will, borrowing various elements from the world supermarket of religions; a cut-and-paste spirituality, a laissez-faire religiosity. Or else many young adults retreat into the seductive pseudo-certainties of fundamentalism, longing for a book, a guru, a pope to save us from the complexities of our pluralist society. These two quite different spiritualities may share a common ground in a practical consumer tactics. For laissez-faire relativism, what matters most is one's freely chosen satisfaction (a consumer-choice spirituality, glorifying the right to choose or purchase from any tradition). For fundamentalism, what matters most is submitting to a dictator of desires (a couch-potato spirituality, passively consuming the "religious" advertising of one's tradition). H ere we glimpse a clear isomorphism between religious practice and consumer capitalist dynamics.
The Foucaultian concept of dispositif assists us in more clearly conceptualizing the manner in which church and world, or church and economy, both may deploy a theology of culture that is formed from the same "clay." I offer only the most attenuated presentation of it here. Dispositif has been variously translated as "apparatus," "deployment," or "grid of intelligibility." Foucault developed it to help him think through the problem of how sex and sexuality came to be understood as truth-bearing categories for modem subjectivity, across such diverse fields as religion and psychoanalysis. In other words, how do we think about a social-historical matrix that supports the structuring of a particular experience of ourselves across many fields of human experience in a specific time and place? To do so, Foucault says, we must attempt to analyze a very diverse constellation of elements that make up this matrix, including "discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measur es, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions--in short, the said as much as the unsaid." (67) Once this constellation is identified, the relationship between these elements must be thought: this network of relations is what constitutes the dispositif. One searches for the satisfaction of an "urgent need" at a specific point in time, which the dispositif strategically serves, by its particular organization of "relations of forces supporting, and supported by, types of knowledge." (68)
Pursuing a conceptualization of the dispositif, it should be clear, is not a question of reducing church or theology or spirituality to an economic formation. It is rather a matter of critically examining the social and historical matter from which church and economy are put together. Of course, then, this investigation never takes place with clean hands but always as if from the inside of this matter. Evidence that church and economy share this dispositif includes a significant interchangeability between interpretations of consumer society and interpretations of church theology and ministry. So that, for example, Raymond Williams's interpretation of advertising in consumer culture as a "magic system" might more fairly be rendered a "religious system," denoting both religion's employment of consumerism's advertisarial logic and its way of providing a contemporary model of "magical" practices for "secular" advertising to borrow. Williams writes that
Advertising, in its modem forms...operates to preserve the consumption ideal from the criticism inexorably made of it by experience. If the consumption of individual goods leaves that whole area of human need unsatisfied, the attempt is made, by magic, to associate
this consumption with human desires to which it has no real reference. You do not only buy an object: you buy social respect, discrimination, health, beauty, success, power to control your environment. The magic obscures the real sources of general satisfaction because their discovery would involve radical change in the whole common way of life. (69)
But what if consumer culture's advertising system is not magical but religious--by which I mean, in part, more ambiguous and less one-sidedly manipulative? What if we were instead dealing not with the "mystification" provided by magic but the "mysterification" provided by religion? By this latter term I mean the strategic production, and evocation, and manipulation of the human mystery that is both authentic and brokenly yoked to ultimately disappointing and exploitive referents. And this both "in" consumer media culture and the church. What if this advertising system evokes and distorts "the real sources of ... satisfaction" (rooted, I propose, in human self-transcendence), instead of simply "obscuring" them?
I now move on to discuss some of the elements of theocapitalism's theology of culture with respect to the church. These are church practices and theologies that do not contest theocapitalism and may indeed support it.
I suggest that we should not look to specific theologies, pastoral programs, Christologies, ecclesiologies, and so on as in themselves the bearers of theocapitalist impulses or as in some manner absolutely congenial to consumer capitalism without remainder. It is rather a question of how these theologies and ministerial programs, from the most speculative Christology to the most practical homiletics, are used, are deployed within theology and ministry, again, from the speculative to the most practical. This is because every "self-enclosed" theology or specific program for ministry takes its place within, and is received/deployed within, very specific, dense, and contradictory economic matrices.
I imagine the dangerous and troubling theological/ministerial/economic practices-uses that I am sketching in this lecture as red dots on the radar screen of Christian theologico-ministerial practice, marking pockets of great turbulence. When these pockets move close to the runway, where ministry touches down, where theology takes off and lands, these pockets of turbulence may become events of wind shear--a threat to the future life, psyche, or faith of those on board--whether those on board are spiritual tourists or frequent flyers. All theology and ministry bears a certain danger insofar as it takes place within power/knowledge matrices--but these pockets of turbulence are especially troubling because of the theological-economic relationship they leave unexamined. In a world come of age, we have no luxury of a pious hope that God is either our copilot or an air traffic controller who would save us from crashing into each other. We humans must signal each other. This then is the only space in which we encount er God or Jesus: as Paul writes, "in the air ..." (1 Thess 4:17).
I focus here only on the presence of domesticating tolerance within theology and ministry. This domesticating tolerance has not failed to escape a certain direction of inquiry classically elaborated by Weber; it also manifests itself in an unusual congeniality between religious and economic theodicy. The Social Darwinism (of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner) (70) of the past may indeed be finding occasion for resurgence today, insofar as Gaibraith was right to observe that the initial "rise of Social Darwinism in the United States coincided with the rise of the great fortunes ... a time not only of heroic inequality but of incredible ostentation" of the late nineteenth century. (71)
A system of thought that rationalizes unequal wealth finds itself at home in the postmodern United States, most markedly in our refusal to criticize "the market," as Harvey Cox has noted, and instead treating is as divine. Cox has argued that we treat the market today as a distorted version of the God of process theology, a God "becoming" omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent--if only we will trust this market God to become ever more so, relegating all market "corrections" to this God's murky inscrutability. (72) Whether naturally or divinely warranted seems immaterial for Social Darwinism's practice.
A postmodern social Darwinism is manifest not only in a tendency to accept the divine natural law of the market in church and society but in the persistence of the propagation of some Christian theodicies that block a protest against suffering directly to God, that anaesthetize the sufferer against calling God to account, against experiencing his or her suffering as, in Johann Baptist Metz's words, "suffering unto God." (73) This is the practice of referring our suffering to God, in simultaneous anger and hope--expecting that a God who creates humans in the divine image will be present to this anger and hope and respond in ways that confer meaning to our suffering. And that we will not give up until this happens--and happens not only with regard to our suffering but, for Metz, first and foremost to the suffering of others. This will mean that this spirituality of suffering, of God's accountability, righteous anger, and hope for meaning, will also experience "dark nights of the soul"--extended times of spiritu al poverty, bleakness, despair, which cannot be explained away, and can only be entered fully. Both postmodern Social Darwinism and these theodicies lock down the human agency and subjectivity-fashioning proper to humans made in God's image. They help legitimize one's unearned "inheritance," spiritually and economically, both naturally (the market) and supernaturally (God).
Richard Gaillardetz has recently argued that there may be an isomorphism between an obsessively technologized post-modern culture and a functionally unitarian theism that presupposes a God who is capricious and only sporadically involved with human life. That is to say, in presupposing a God who, as the premiere being, is essentially self-enclosed and absolutely other to the world, God is construed as one being among others who competes for our attention; and moreover, attention from this God must be fundamentally episodic in character, insofar as there is no intrinsic relationship between the world and God. To act in the world, God must "intervene" "outside" Godself and into the life of the believer--whether in prayer or sacrament (Gaillardetz' examples), or in moments of ecstasy, bliss, or excess (in keeping with the terms of the present study). The God-world relationship is fundamentally extrinsic. Gaillardetz makes quite clear the resulting discipline: "The spiritual life will be a mad attempt to insert a s many 'sacred' moments as possible into the profane structure of daily life hoping thereby to sanctify that life." (74) In relating to this unitarianly theistic God, grace is thereby experienced as a "thing," "as a kind of spiritual fuel, and the church and its ministers as sacramental grace dispensers." (75) God as the great Pez dispenser of grace. Gaillardetz argues that there is a disturbing congeniality between this theology of God and the commodification of daily life wrought by our post-modern overreliance on technology. The result is that technique comes to dominate our secular and spiritual lives, looking for ever more efficient ways to use the things in our secular life, and looking for ever more efficient practices to get God "into" our lives. (He provocatively turns to the Latin Mass as an example of the latter.)
Social Darwinism, according to Galbraith, had two lasting effects on American economic self-understanding: first, "Poverty and insecurity thus became inherent in the economic life of even the most favored country. So, of course, did equality." (76) Second, a tendency to attribute a "mystique" to the market. (77) We may read this as poverty and insecurity being inherent (a) even in "God's country" (economy) and (b) even in "God's kingdom" (church), justified partly through both Social Darwinism and through a scriptural appeal ("the poor you will always have with you," John 12:8). Sarah McLachlan's popular song "Building a Mystery" is then not only useful as a critique of "live in a church" mystification but of the mystification of the market as we11 (78)--and raises the possibility that there are winners and losers in the power/knowledge formations that underlie both the definition of the "market" and the definition of the "kingdom of God"--that we should reserve the power to critique the powers of the definer s first of all, and secondly that one social-historical set of power practices may be common to both.
This domesticating tolerance is also manifest in our "don't ask, don't tell" tithing practice. This is the Christian practice of asking for a certain percentage of churchgoers' income, without raising the question of where that income came from. Was it earned as a result of exploited labor, of morally questionable investments, of tax evasion, of a fudged time card? Most churches create a silent compromise with their members once the collection plate is passed: We won't ask you, you won't tell us, and both of us will meet our budgetary needs. As Galbraith remarked of the absolution functioning in the economic boom of the late nineteenth century, it was assumed that one "need [not] reflect, uncomfortably, on the methods by which growth had been achieved and wealth acquired." (79)
Finally, I suggest we see this domesticating tolerance manifest in exploitation of church workers, who are assumed to be the ultimate maximizers of their own utility while often serving severely underpaid-a model of work that tolerates the worst of theocapitalism' s labor-exploiting tendencies; and we see it in a lack of questioning about where church resources are produced or manufactured (for example, the coffee in the ubiquitous church coffee pots, often grown and harvested by farmers whose first-world employers refuse to conform to fair trade standards). Domesticating tolerance in this regard is a willingness to let consumption be divorced from production:
"live and let live." To what degree does the church participate in this element of theocapitalism's theology of culture, contributing to making the church, in the words of economist Tibor Scitovsky's description of consumerism, a "joyless economy"? (80)
There are two reasons for the church's ineffectiveness on this issue: first, we do not examine the way consumer media capitalism "capitalizes" on religious and spiritual needs, the way it functions as a spiritual discipline. And second, we deny the extent to which the church itself, in its theology and ministry, is shaped by the dispositif in which consumerism becomes the norm.
The possibility that church and culture share strategies of power/knowledge, that they both deploy practices/discourses (theologies, ministries, economies) that emerge from a shared matrix (or dispositif), need not necessarily imply that there is no "gospel" left with which we might give a relatively adequate critique of "the culture" (or, for that matter, "the church"). (How one would formulate this is our present problem--as Tracy noted a decade ago, on somewhat different terms, in Plurality and Ambiguity). (81) An uncertainty here is not an excuse for disengaging from our present. But the possibility that church and culture can and do deploy analogous practices/discourses that emerge from a shared dispositif should disabuse us of any attempt to formulate this critique from a bifurcated starting point, with the "church" and "culture" as separate entities whose primary problem is that of crossing the divide that separates them. Many Christian critiques of the "market" presume just this bifurcation, such as t he following: Cox's recent essay; Gaillardetz' book, which argues that techno-culture's "commodification of goods has been extended to the religious sphere in our age" (82) Kavanaugh's Following Christ in a Consumer Society; and Dorothy Bass' 2000 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church and Culture. All of these depend on an overclaim for a world/church separation that tends to overlook not only the social-economic forces that govern ideological production in both but that make such an overclaim between church and world possible in the first place.
If these elements of theocapitalism's theology of culture are shown to be relatively adequate over further testing and critical reflection, then we may with some confidence judge theocapitalism's strategies, present in church or world, to be profoundly theomorphic. To be theomorphic is literally an impossibility, to represent the unrepresentable, to give form to the formless. And yet this is what theocapitalism constantly promises: to make God tangible, whether in associating grace with titillation or excessive experience. This may be why the popular media culture does seem at times to be somewhat "Catholic" in its sensibility, as I pointed out in Virtual Faith-for example, the spiritual-sensual correlation at work in some popular culture. Referencing this sacramentality is often the closest theocapitalism can come to making God tangible.
Every theomorphism would by definition in Christian terms have to be judged idolatrous.
We place our traditional church/culture dichotomy at stake for the sake of a more searching account of working out our salvation in the world/church; for a more adequate construal of the church's responsibility under the strategy of theocapitalism; and for the sake of the vibrancy of the church's mission to younger generations, a vibrancy that must foster evangelization's concrete accountability to bring into the church the lived experiences of culture, and theology's accountability to analyze the cultural problematic woven into its ownmost questions and answers. In short, we need a ministerial and theological engagement with theocapitalism in order to turn mission outside in, and to turn theology inside out.
For self-examination: radical Christianity as utterly vertiginous.
(1.) James Cote and Anton Allahar, Generation on Hold: Coming of Age in the Late Twentieth Century (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 142. The reference in the text is to rap music; I have broadened it to include other forms.
(2.) William Finnegan, Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (New York: Random House, 1998), xxi.
(3.) Finnegan, Cold New World, xxii-xxiii.
(4.) Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 87. Schor cites Richard A. Easterlin and Eileen M. Crimmins, "Changes in the Values of American Youth," Public Opinion Quarterly 55 (1991):499-533, and an unpublished paper by Wendy Rahn and John Transue, "The Decline of Social Trust among American Youth" (University of Minnesota, 21 May 1997).
(5.) Schor, The Overspent American, 37-38.
(6.) Jeanne Sahadi, CNNfn Online, 18 February 2000.
(7.) Ben Fine and Ellen Leopold, World of Consumption (New York: Routledge), 62.
(8.) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), xix.
(9.) de Certeau, The Practice, xv.
(10.) de Certeau, The Practice, xix.
(11.) de Certeau, The Practice, 24.
(12.) From Marx, The Misery of Philosophy, quoted in Galbraith, The Affluent Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), 73.
(13.) With a slightly different focus, note the recourse to religious discourse taken by Naomi Klein throughout No Logo (New York: Picador, 1999) in order to make sense of contemporary corporate branding (e.g., p.21).
(14.) "... the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores" (Howard Shultz, Pour Your Heart into It [New York: Hyperion, 1997], 5; in Klein, No Logo, 20).
(15.) On the swoosh as secular icon, see Klein, No Logo, 56.
(16.) Other elements of spiritual discipline that I aim to take up in future work on capitalism include the ordering of practices, the recognition of a stable authority structure, and accountability to a tradition.
(17.) Susan Fournier and Michael Guiry, "An Emerald Green Jaguar," in Advances in Consumer Research 20, ed. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild (Provo: Utah: Association for Consumer Research), 355-57.
(18.) John Caughey, Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 185.
(19.) Caughey, Imaginary Social Worlds, 176. See also Klein: "Jordan and Nike ... are only the ... broad[est] ... manifestations of the way in which the branding imperative changes the way we imagine both sponsor and sponsored to the extent that the idea of unbranded space--music that is distinct from khakis, festivals that are not extensions of beer brands, athletic achievement that is celebrated in and of itself--becomes almost unthinkable. [This] new paradigm ... eliminates all barriers between branding and culture, leaving no room whatsoever for unmarketed space" (No Logo, 59). For younger generations, "the search for self [has] always been shaped by marketing hype, whether or not [we] believed it or defined [our]selves against it. This is a side effect of brand expansion that is far more difficult to track and quantify than the branding of culture and city spaces. This loss of space happens inside the individual; it is a colonization not of physical space but of mental space" (No Logo, 66).
(20.) Chip Walker, "Can TV Save the Planet?" American Demographics (May 1996), 42, in Klein, No Logo, 121.
(21.) For example, Julia Kristeva's use of "jouissance" (see The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986]), and Mark C. Taylor on the excessiveness of agape that borders on indifference in About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 45.
(22.) Schor, The Overspent American, 98, 104, 145.
(23.) See Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,  1996).
(24.) Finnegan, Cold New World, 9; emphasis added.
(25.) Galbraith, Affluent Society, 78.
(26.) Ann Powers, "Singing to the Converted," New York Times, 2 September 2000, A19, A25.
(27.) Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 122, discussing the work of Alan Wilde.
(28.) Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), cited in Connor, Postmodernist Culture, 122.
(29.) Baudrillard, Selected Writings (London: Polity, 1988), 36.
(30.) Fine and Leopold, World of Consumption, 269-70.
(31.) Quentin J. Schultze, Roy M. Anker, James D. Bratt, William D. Romanowski, John W. Worst, and Lambert Zuidervaart, Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 66.
(32.) Stephen J. Gould, "Public Self-consciousness and Consumption Behavior," in Journal of Social Psychology 128 (1988): 393-400.
(33.) Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London: Marion Boyars, 1978), 70.
(34.) Russell Belk, "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research 15 (September 1988): 139.
(35.) Klein, No Logo, 120.
(36.) Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Beijing Journal: China's Chic Waistline: Convex to Concave," in The New York Times, 9 December 1999.
(37.) Taylor, Hiding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 181.
(38.) Klein, No Logo, 4.
(39.) Klein, No Logo, 22. See also the interesting example of this regarding Tommy Hilfiger on p. 24.
(40.) Klein, No Logo, 68.
(41.) Taylor, Hiding, 127, 129. On photographs of young rock, pop, and film stars published in Hothouse (Reganbooks, 2000), many of which were photographed for Rolling Stone, photographer Isabel Snyder remarked, "Physical beauty has made my job easier, but what I always search to bring to my work is the spirit of a person, not its outer appearance." Rolling Stone chief photographer Mark Seliger tries to "figure out what's iconic about the person, and then bend and shape and add on to it" (in Jenny Eliscu, "Hothouse," Rolling Stone #855 [7 December 2000]): 30.
(42.) Some examples: "In the consumer society, beauty can.., be a smokescreen--a tool for distracting our attention from the bad and the false, the less savory side of consumerism itself. What a car! What a body! What a cool computer! Who wants to think about the sweatshop labor, acid rain, social disruption and disease that may be caused by the manufacture or use of these products? In this sense, beauty can be a veil, an invitation to overlook the ugly that we implicitly accept buy buying into the system" (Herbert Muschamp, "A Happy, Scary New Day for Design," in The New York Times, 15 October 2000, AR39).
Here is Roland Barthes on fashion in particular and the "image-system" in general: Fashion is an "image-system constituted with desire as its goal," whose "substance is essentially intelligible: it is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells" (Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard [Berkeley: University of California Press, (1967) 1983], xii).
(43.) Schor, The Overspent American, 39.
(44.) Schor, 69.
(45.) Schor, 67ff.
(46.) Schor, 74.
(47.) Schor, 76, 80.
(48.) Schor, 75.
(49.) "Desire is strucured by what we see around us." Schor, 74.
(50.) Catherine Roach, "Fantasies of Aseity: Religion and Nature Imagery in American Advertising," draft of paper presented to 2000 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I am grateful to Roach for providing me an advance draft of her paper. Taylor, interestingly, has also implicitly connected cars with aseity, though not through advertisements, as in Roach's analysis, but the experience of driving them that has become commonplace in our culture. I note a certain congruity between Taylor's and Roach's analysis:
"The automobile is, in effect, the incarnation of the structure of self-referentiality that informs both modern and modernist practices of production and reproduction. Automobility is, of course, self-movement. Like an ancient Unmoved Mover who descends from heaven to earth, the automobile is moved by nothing other than itself. The dream of automobility is autonomy. To inhabit the automobile machine is to be integrated within a closed circuit in which all production is auto-production.... When automobility becomes a way of life, machines a habiter become glass houses whose windshields function like screens of noninteractive TV and nonimmersive cinema. (Hiding, 254-55)
Note Barthes on fashion in particular and the "image-system" in general: "a simulacrum of the real object must be created, substituting for the slow time of wear a sovereign time free to destroy itself by an act of annual [or more frequent!] potlach. Thus, the commercial origin of our collective image-system (always subject to fashion, not merely in the case of clothing) cannot be a mystery to anyone." Nor, we might add, can anyone be a mystery to it. "Yet no sooner has it altered than this universal detaches itself from its origin" (Fashion System, xii). This "sovereign time," deployed by theocapitalism's theology of culture, I think, is "detached" from particular histories and historicity in general.
For Henri Lefebvre, the ad industry uses images of the past to generate ever-contemporary use values: "The destruction of the past by the massive consumption of works of art, styles and culture... [are] the devices inherent to this consumption" (Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modem World, trans. Sacha Rabinovitch [New Brunswick: Transaction, (1971) 1999] 81).
(51.) For one specific attempt at such thinking, see Tom Beaudoin, "The Cost of Economic Discipleship: U.S. Christians and Global Capitalism" (lecture at Santa Clara University, 2001).
(52.) Muschamp, "A Happy, Scary New Day," AR39; emphasis added.
(53.) Schor, The Overspent American, 83.
(54.) Schor, 84.
(55.) (Schor, The Overspent American, 85.
(56.) "The [physical, economic, and political] barriers around the [Economic Protection Zones in foreign countries] serve to reinforce the idea that what is happening inside is only temporary, or is not really happening at all. This collective denial is particularly important in Communist countries where zones house the most Wild West forms of capitalism this side of Moscow" (Klein, No Logo, 207).
(57.) See Galbraith, Affluent Society, 259-60: "It is scarcely sensible that we should satisfy our wants in private goods with reckless abundance, while in the case of public goods... we practice extreme self-denial." And Schor: "The new consumerism... siphons off resources that could be used for alternatives to private consumption.... When lifestyle norms are upscaled more rapidly than income, private consumption 'crowds out' alternative uses of income" ("The New Politics of Consumption," http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.3/schor.html).
(58.) There are many commonalities in American brands' foreign factories: long workdays, mostly young female workers, harsh management, below-subsistence wages, low-skilled and monotonous work. See Klein, No Logo, 205.
(59.) "... for the [brand-name multinationals in free-trade zones] to function smoothly, workers must know little of the marketed lives of the products they produce" (Klein, No Logo, 347).
(60.) In Klein, No Logo, 195.
(61.) Klein, No Logo, 196.
(62.) Schor, The Overspent American, 47.
(63.) Galbraith, Affluent Society, 153, 155, 158. Fine and Leopold level two criticisms against moral critiques of consumerism that could also be leveled against the conversation here. First, they posit that "beyond the bare minimum of physical survival [and, as they note in a footnote, sometimes not even that], all needs are socially determined and it is arbitrary to divide them into those that are genuine and those that are not" (World of Consumption, 68). This position still leaves unanswered the further question of which configuration of "socially determined" needs are more likely to serve the common good and human flourishing. Indeed, I see them posing the latter question implicitly in their analysis. They have undercut a simply moralizing and overnaturalizing analysis, to be sure, but not the ethical dynamic in consumer capitalism's theology of culture that I sketch here. Second, they suggest that because "it is inadequate simply to rely upon the psychological manipulation of society alone, advertising ought to be linked analytically to economic imperatives, such as those associated with large-scale capital" (World of Consumption, 203). I find this latter critique to be much more persuasive than the former and aim to fashion my own work on theocapitalism's theology of culture, as directly linked to "economic imperatives, such as... large-scale capital," to address it.
(64.) "This is Foucault's description of religion's role in practices of moral reform of insanity in nineteenth century French asylums, in Madness and Civilization, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage,  1988), 244.
(65.) A quality Galbraith remarked on when he noted the "idealized" capitalist economy, "a thing of precision and symmetry ... rac[ing] for increased efficiency" (see Affluent Society, 41).
(66.) I wonder whether theocapitalism creates its own congenialities to theological extrinsicism and intrinsicism. In the former, a distance is established between human interiority and praxis from divine immediacy to human nature, establishing a gap that must be overcome juridically by control of religious aspects of human experience. In the latter, one attempts to divinize the person by iconic media images or by deployment of sacramental signifiers, seeming to make all the earth holy. And yet the immediacy with which they are to be recognized, numbing a critical response, numbing a meditative response, and the denial of their ambiguity, may militate against their being appropriated as a heightening of the "consumer's" appropriation of a lived theological intrinsicism. Extrinsicism: happiness, satisfaction, ultimate consolation, is outside of me, and I must buy (into) it. A congeniality consumerism's nonsatiation to extrinsic theological anthropologies. Can this be contested by a theological intrinsicism tha t allows consolation as already a part of who I have been created to be, and it only remains for me to appropriate it? That would also require an accompanying analysis of the socio-religio-structural factors that make awareness of that consolation difficult or nearly impossible for people.
It is interesting in this regard to note that the last section of Schor's The Overspent American is titled "Filling the Void." "Beyond a certain point, having more stuff doesn't seem to help" (p. 165). Help what? is the key question. See also the questions with which Galbraith closes his essay (The Affluent Society, 283), still relevant today: "How [do] we escape the present preoccupation with production; how [do] we escape the race to manufacture more wants for more goods and then yet more wants for yet more goods; or what is to fill the seemingly vast vacuum which abandoning this race would leave in our lives; or what are to be the symbols of happiness if goods cease to be so regarded"?
Also, note Taylor's discussion of agape as the "gift" given by the "sacred" that denegates God. Agape is for Taylor "a nonreciprocal nonrelation that eludes every economy and thus is senseless. Agape is not opposed to eros but is the giving not that leaves the gap eros ceaselessly longs to fill. ... [A]gape entails a release so radical that it is, in a certain sense, indistinguishable from indifference ... letting go totally ..." (About Religion, 44-45).
(67.) Foucault interview, "The Confession of the Flesh," in Power/Knowledge, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 194.
(68.) Foucault, "The Confession," 196.
(69.) Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays (London: NLB, 1980), 188.
(70.) See Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (New York: George Braziller, 1959).
(71.) Gaibraith, Affluent Society, p. 59.
(72.) See Harvey Cox, "The Market as God," Atlantic Monthly, March 1999.
(73.) See the interpretation of Metz focusing on this spirituality in James Matthew Ashley, Interruptions: Mysticism, Politics, and Theology in the Work of Johann Baptist Metz (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998).
(74.) Richard Gaillardetz, Transforming Our Days: Spirituality, Community and Liturgy in a Technological Culture (New York: Crossroad, 2000), 49.
(75.) Gaillardetz, Transforming Our Days, 50.
(76.) Galbraith, Affluent Society, 62.
(77.) Galbraith, Affluent Society, 62.
(78.) "Building a Mystery," from the album Surfacing. In a recent article David Chidester discusses Robert B. Ray's interpretation of the song "Louie, Louie." Ray concludes that the song uses "tantalizing mystification," which Chidester describes as "the strategic production of mystery." Is this not what McLachlan's "Building a Mystery" is implicitly critical of, with regard to churches: the strategic production of mystery, that is, mystification? See David Chidester, "The Church of Baseball," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:4 (Winter 1996), 754.
(79.) Galbraith, Affluent Society, 60.
(80.) See Tibor Scitovsky, The Joyless Economy: The Psychology of Human Satisfaction (New York: Oxford University Press,  1992).
(81.) Taylor's work has also understood this: "Can inevitable loss be embraced in a way that leads to creative engagement rather than the endless melancholy of interminable mourning?" (About Religion, 6)
(82.) Gaillardetz, Transforming Our Days, 51
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2002|
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