Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Postmodern Sacred - Em McAvan

This article from the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture argues that post-9/11 religion has returned forcefully to popular culture as fundamentalism on one extreme and New Age spirituality on the other.

I think there is some merit to this position - if postmodern spirituality is to enter the mainstream consciousness, it will be through popular media like books and especially film.
The Postmodern Sacred

Em McAvan
Division of Arts
Murdoch University


I argue that the return of the religious in contemporary culture has been in two forms: the rise of so-called fundamentalisms in the established faiths—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, even Buddhist—and the rise of a New Age style spirituality that draws from aspects of those faiths even as it produces something distinctively different. I argue that this shift both produces postmodern media culture and is itself always already mediated through the realm of the fictional. Secular and profane are always entangled within one another, a constant and pervasive media presence that modulates the way that contemporary subjects experience themselves and their relationship to the spiritual. I use popular culture as an entry point, an entry point that can presume neither belief nor unbelief in its audiences, showing that it is “unreal” texts such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Passion of the Christ and Left Behind that we find religious symbols and ideas refracted through a postmodernist sensibility, with little regard for the demands of “real world” epistemology. I argue that it is in this interplay between traditional religions and New Age-ised spirituality in popular culture that the sacred truly finds itself in postmodernity.

[1] Clearly after September 11, religion has become an ever more vital, and contested, part of culture across the world. The aftermath of September 11, however, has not been a re-assessment of what legitimately constitutes the domain of the religious or the spiritual (and these two are not necessarily one and the same), but rather, the political implications that stem from religious belief. Debates over abortion, gay marriage, terror legislation, Israeli settlements, Middle East policy and so on are inflected with religious beliefs and practices, yet these debates all take religious positions as given. The terms shift depending on context, but all have a marked tendency to take religious beliefs as unified positions, static and fixed traditions—becoming variously religious/secular, Christianity/Islam, Judaism/Islam, East/West, and so on. Both atheists and religious adherents make this presumption, the former from a disdain of religion that often simplifies in order to rebut (as outmoded or suspicion, for example) and the later in advocating their eternal, fixed truths. What I would like to do in this paper however is to complicate the matter substantially, by pointing out how secular and profane are always-already entangled within one another. If, as I argue, we live in a postmodern age, and one of the characteristics of postmodernism is that it collapses many binary distinctions—say, between high and low culture—it should be unsurprising then that the sacred/profane binary should be collapsed by the postmodern. That collapse is dramatised by the strain of spiritually inflected popular culture texts I have termed “the postmodern sacred.”

[2] Whilst much of the rhetoric of the so-called “return of the religious” has been anti-modern (or anti-postmodern), I argue that contemporary culture is always-already mediated1 through a reign of simulacra best described as postmodern, and this is as true for the sacred as for the profane. We live in a world of the virtual, in which media permeates everything and everyone. The media shifts over the last fifty years, from the saturation of what are sometimes called “old media” and the development and convergence new forms of media and distribution has produced profound social changes. The task of analyzing what these changes are and mean is as important now as twenty years ago, when David Harvey (1989, 65) charged that the task of postmodern theory was to “trace the changes in the structure of feeling” in post-industrial society.2 How is the sacred modified through its interaction with virtual, media culture?

[3] Postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson once rightly pointed out (1991, 6), constitutes a force field through which “very different cultural impulses must make their way.” Subjectivity in the contemporary is clearly what Scott Bakutman (1993, 5) calls a “terminal identity,” one formed in front of the computer, television and mobile screens, at the intersection of various information networks. Media “news” seems unable to relay “real” events without first mediating them through popular culture references from music, films or TV; indeed the lines between journalism, entertainment and advertising are blurry at best. This is the age of the spin-off, of product placement and infotainment. Symbols slide through different mediums, from the movie screen to the television to the computer to the mobile phone to the written page to the clothing with which we brand ourselves. Perhaps the decline of postmodern theory in the academy may, ironically, coincide with the utter victory of the cultural logic of postmodernism itself—a global, dispersed, virtual culture.

[4] Postmodernity is very much about the virtual and electronic shift in political and aesthetic economies, though as Gayatri Spivak (1999, 317) rightly points out, this continues to make use of modern and even pre-modern forms of capitalist organisation. Indeed, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 285) argue in their mammoth Empire, global capitalism notably makes a shift from industrial production to the production of networks of information and symbols, what they term “informatisation.” Whilst information tends to flow from a privileged positions within the network—particularly the US in the texts I am analysing—it flows from and through other points too. Texts from India or Japan are widely available in Western countries like the US or Australia, along with what is marketed as “world” cinema (that is, anything from non-English speaking countries). The metaphors employed by global capitalism—the net, the web—suggest a different kind of spatialisation at work, one without a centre. Despite this shift, modernist top-down distribution has not been superseded by postmodern virtuality; rather it intersects with it, and supports it. Because of this shift in production, it is now perhaps impossible to underestimate the number of texts circulating in the culture now—in bookstores (on-line and off), on terrestrial television, cable or satellite TV, DVD.

[5] This culture institutes a new mode of engagement with the spiritual—one that disconnects the sign from its context—and as such requires a mode of critical engagement adept at reading media culture. I use popular culture as an entry point, for popular culture both produces and exemplifies this process, it is a feedback loop. Arguably the symbolic, the virtual and the real have merged, irrevocably, into one. Given that the majority of texts are produced with mass-markets in mind, using popular culture to as an entry point to postmodern spirituality can presume neither belief nor unbelief in its audiences. In particular, I shall chiefly use explicitly unreal texts, texts in the science fiction, fantasy and fantastic horror genres. Whilst there are undoubtedly Realist religious texts, from the burning bush to Revelation there is an element of the fantastic in Western religions that overlaps powerfully with more obviously “secular” fantastic texts.

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