tag : bright yellow-green apples: formulaic nature

"I see little point in persisting in a discussion with one so obstinate as you" Martin White

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

formulaic nature

figure 9.7. make someone special with a…

I'm currently reading Understanding theology and popular culture by Gordon Lynch, cos I'm going to review it for SCM's Movement magazine. While walking round the charity shops yesterday I was reflecting on a chapter discussing the meaning & role of consumption in our lives today. And there's one thread which strikes me as particularly notable. In it he starts off by looking at how consumption, the searching & purchasing, is becoming ever more a means of finding & creating identity, forming a sense of self. He quotes a commentator's observations:

"Rather than inflexibly adopting a lifestyle, through tradition or habit, the new heroes of consumer culture make lifestyle a life project and display their individuality and sense of style in the particularity of the assemblage of goods, clothes, practices, experiences, appearance and bodily dispositions they design together into a lifestyle. the modern individual within consumer culture is…the world of men and women who quest for the new and the latest in relationships and experiences, who have a sense of adventure and take risks to explore life's opinions to the full, who are conscious that they have only one life to live and must work hard to enjoy, experience, and express it"

Now this is all slightly exaggerated, but it's a good breezey take and there are some important resulting points. Now some people, notably Pete Ward, say in no uncertain terms that this new consumer world must be come to terms with - that religions must configure themselves to serve the way society seems to be leading. To be a faith of choice and lifestyle construction, so that we might speak it's language. To some extent, alpha is an example of the emerging adoption of consumer practice as a framework for relating to wider society. But when I read that extract, I found myself a bit disturbed by how accurately it seems to capture the mood of things, and how I readily conform to that whole approach. Why? Because, as the book goes on to explore, (1) consumption is not a neutral activity without implications, (2) consumption is far from a devolved activity but contains a latent deceit, and (3) consumption as a widespread approach to life disenfranchises vast swaths of people.

(1) In going out to purchase our commodities and our life, we are sheltered from the outcomes of what we are doing. Walking into a supermarket, the labels and foodstuffs will not easily betray the repercussions of the processes to get them to us. Buy a bunch of flowers for valentines day, as an expression of your love for someone, and you will probably never know how many air miles got it over from Kenya, the economic loss from outsourcing and poor worker treatment, and how much native biodiversity was lost to provide its growing space. No matter how much we might be rationally informed, the sheen of presentation positively reduces the sense of responsibility and outcome, and encourages us to do things in a state of forgetfulness about results. (2) We are presented with a cacophony of options in everything from spirituality to soundtracks, such that when we're told that ever greater choice is there we actually swallow the line. And yet, there is ever greater standardisation in media. Music is a product, and great proportions of it is calculated by how much money it will make. The supposed variety of tv broadcasting and news print is whittled down to ever fewer media empires, such as Rupert Murdoch's. The constructing we do is carried out within very defined guidelines set by producers, 'purchase power' is absorbed into the system and simply fuels the standardisation of every part of our life. Some activity work to make a commodity of every part of life. (3) What do we do when we don't have enough income or time to devote our resources into constructing a meaning? We become outsiders to this new religion because we cannot take part in the rituals and stories. There is plenty of chance for disenfranchisement - just look at how many children will feel bereft if they don't have the right toy or cloths and you see it explicitly in action. We tend to be devalued if we cannot or will not go out and dutifully shop, actively eak out our lifestyle. I don’t want to brandish bar codes as the work of the beast, but this is hardly some great utopia unfolding.

It would be unwise to be unconditionally vitriolic about 'consumer culture', there are aspects of it we now take for granted - the freedom to explore outside boundaries, to encounter new, and to interact and share by personal choice. And there are ways of doing religion that might well serve people through this approach, with integrity. But we must be concerned when all around us the mantra of the day is "choice" and markets are extended into every part of our society. This new religion or enlightenment, where our government spouts "equality of opportunity" as a total mantra is not simply benign 'freedom'. It can be dehumanising and contains elements that are ambivalent and deeply hostile to healthy relating & self view. Active critique is needed by a prophetic religion, we cannot buy into it wholesale.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great blog Laurence. A conference I went to at the beginning of January had a paper which was a critique of Pete Ward. See also my own similar critique. An added problem of consumerism is it divides as well as it unites - it unites those will similar tastes, but divides the rich and poor (as you suggest) and this is of course hidden from our eyes (as you suggest also). Andy G

5:58 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

I'm suprised you read it all, cos there was an awful lot of waffle! Thanks, though, for your comments. I should just add here that I don't wish to totally dis Ward. In many ways I commend him as one of the most astute and sharp minds currently exploring theology and Church, and though he goes a bit awry here he has some incredibley pertinant lessons to pick up on...

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh completely - he was my lecturer for a year and i like his work a lot. I think also that liquid church has a lot of positive in it, I'm just not sure I can see liquid modernity as positively as him, although i like the idea of being more fluid at our edges.


5:17 PM  

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