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November 09, 2004

Let's make it hot: a political entry at Popping Culture

It is becoming clear to me that the winner of an election isn't necessarily the one who has the best policies, cares more about the country or even has the love of the majority. My own political leanings aside, the race for the White House has become more than JUST a popularity contest - it's a battle over who owns the important images.

Campaigns these days are slicker. Political commercials are set up as a series of images designed to portray those discussed in certain lights. You can watch political commercials without the sound and still come away with a visceral, emotional reaction. The debates were not about intelligent discussion of issues, but about towing the company line, presenting an attractive face to the party and twisting the questions to fit pre-memorized talking points.

This article from religion online touches on just that: who owns the images?

The obvious truth is that the Right used religious imagery in powerful and subtle (as well as not-so-subtle ways) to great effect in this election, casting angels versus demons, when really both sides contain multitudes who love America. However, the writer, who is director of graduate studies and professor of art history at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, makes important claims on both sides, and to the TV culture as a whole.

Key teaser quote: From soap operas to news to sports, commercial telecasting performs a fundamentally sacramental function: it mediates and legitimates a belief in the American way of life.


Read this article and discuss.

Posted by Dan at November 9, 2004 08:05 AM

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Comments

I found the article an extreme reach. The Super Bowl is a sacred event? And the casinos in Las Vegas are holy temples? I personally view the mediums of television and theater as purveyors of those things material. It is the anti-religion, the anti-spiritual, the anti-philisophical. We have become a spiritually bankrupt society and the myth and dream being sold on television is one of material nirvana, not spiritual. In as much as atheism, agnosticism and the worship of things material is a religion, the author is spot on.

Posted by: Ralph at November 9, 2004 10:25 AM

I think the word "sacred" in reference to the Super Bowl is more secular in meaning. After all, the Super Bowl really is the new American holiday, and Vegas is like the Roman temples where you paid your taxes to Caesar (ie Caesar's palace).

In short, Vegas is like a temple to greed and people go there to worship the gods of luck and fortune.

We are spiritually bankrupt, I think the author is saying, because we have traded real spirituality for the Super Bowl and the slot machines.

Posted by: Big Dan at November 9, 2004 06:36 PM

I haven't read the article yet, but I'll say about Vegas in general that I find the place awful. I went there a couple years ago with my brother and sister-in-law after turning 21 and didn't have much fun at all. I don't win at gambling, for starters. The whole place reeked of vice. It was incredible how draining it was just to be in the city. I was very happy by the time we left and I really don't understand the draw it has over so many people.

Also, as a vegetarian, finding a decent meal was a real pain.

Posted by: Joel Caris at November 9, 2004 06:41 PM

I guess that was the author's point. It didn't really jump out at me. It was a thought provoking article. Even though our society is taking great pains to try and purge ourselves of religion, it somehow subconsciouly surfaces through these surrogate symbols and rituals. I found the whole site interesting and I have bookmarked it.

Posted by: Ralph at November 9, 2004 07:44 PM

I find it silly to define "religion" solely in a spiritual sense since "organized religion" originally took its meaning from the sociological sense in the first place. While athiesm and agnosticism are not religions, it is not because of a lack of spirituality of the part these individuals, but rather because there is no comprehensive, organized set of beliefs that unites them beyond their one belief (or lack thereof) about God.

While it may not be accurate to call the Super Bowl a religion, it does have all the attributes necessary to be part of a religion—as Dan alluded to—in that it is its own holiday around which traditions, rituals, and even superstitions have grown. By those far enough gone into a gambling addiction, one may very well even be able to label gambling a full-blown religion for them. Many such people structure and revolve their lives around gambling in the same way the most devout catholic, muslim, or christian might. In this sense, it isn't a stretch at all to label a casino where one goes for both salvation and sacrifice. I, for one, consider myself fully immersed in a religion though I have no spiritual beliefs at all (not even agnosticism or athiesm). My religion is built upon learning, accruing knowledge, and improving my mind. My temple is a book store or a library (just ask Joel).

In the same way, it is impossible to deny the power that television has on this brand of secular religion. In a great many ways, television, a simulation of reality, has come to replace reality in a multiplicity of ways and contexts. It becomes what Baudrillard refers to as the "hyperreal"—more real than the event itself. This, of course, has a lot to do with perception and point of view. Take, for example, Fox News vs. CNN. We don't know what really happened in a lot of cases. Yet, depending on which one watches, many people believe they're getting what's real—even when they're being told different things about the same event.

We've all heard how life imitates art, but, as this "endless rush of streaming images (Delillo, Mao II)" becomes more and more pervasive, it will be harder and harder to remember that life is not the art. The more this art shapes our lives and beliefs, the more a tool and a shaper of secular religion it becomes.

As Goethals so accurately puts it in his conclusion of the article to which Dan linked, "Forgetting the idiosyncratic, unspeakably diverse crowds of strangers, we become drawn through television to the familiar faces, myths and visions of the American Way of Life, thereby putting ourselves in touch with a shared vision of the human order—a vision that engages our loyalties and makes sense of our world." Replace "television" with "the priest" or "the minister" and replace "American" with the organized religion of your choice and you tell me how it's really all that different.

Posted by: Nathan at November 9, 2004 08:34 PM

Very well spoken, Nathan.

Posted by: Big Dan at November 9, 2004 09:04 PM

Nathan,
Anything can be a religion? A whorehouse can be a holy temple and the god being worshiped is sex. The casino is the holy site and salvation is attained by a stack of chips. The library is the altar and we pray at the altar of man's collective knowledge of the world. These are empty religions. The john who frequents the whorehouse might consider himself on some sort of crusade but his vulgar debasement of humans is spiritual bankruptcy. One need only witness one human birth to understand the sanctity of the act that caused it. I knew a fellow who told me that humans would attain eternal life through the advances of science. He was dead serious. One need only witness one human death to realize the vulgarity of his religion.

The answers in life are not always out there. Without introspection and the ability to search for answers from within, we are becoming a society of pagan worshipers. We pray at the altar of money, material objects, sex, books. We become atheists or agnostics because we want to sever our connectedness with other humans. The ability to reject our interconnectedness allows us to behave in any manner which becomes convenient for us. This empty existence drives us further into a world of false gods and destructive behavior. We might have plenty of secular surrogate religions these days but they are destructive paths which are dead ends.

Is spritual enlightenment like a gambling addiction? I honestly don't think so. It's a compass we can choose to use in order to live a better life and make a better world.

These thoughts are difficult to organize so I hope they make some sense to you.

Posted by: Ralph at November 9, 2004 10:51 PM

Sure, they do make sense. I completely see where you're coming from. The disagreement of ours is because you link religion to spirituality and some sense of higher good. I do not. I'm not sure "anything" can be a religion—simply those things around which one belives strongly enough to base one's life upon. I am using the word "religion" as follows: "A cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary—11th Edition)." This does not have to have even the most remote thing to do with spirituality. Simply, it is the unified set of beliefs one holds to no matter what. It just happens that the most widespread examples of religion throughout history have been the organized, spiritual type. Hence, the word has taken on that connotation in the minds of many. However, I want to emphasize that such a spiritual definition is not inherent in the word. Same with "faith" ("Something which is believed with strong conviction") which you migh have noticed in the definition I gave. Again, nothing inherently spiritual about the word. The spiritual sense of the word once again originates (and rightly so) from the common use of the word "faith" in relation to spiritual religion which is obviously an extremely widespread phenomenon.

Hence, when I talk about gambling as a religion to a hardcore gambling addict, all I mean is that the practices of and rituals surrounding gambling (i.e., checking the box scores daily, calling the bookie at the same time, always using the same slot machine, blowing on the dice exactly twice, the time time actually spent at the casino often over work or family, etc.) are many the basic factors around which such an addict builds the routine of his/her life. Again, he/she must also have faith that eventually he/she will hit it big and that all the losses and suffering will eventually be worth it. Without that faith, there is no way such a system of rituals and beliefs would be justifiable. Just as in Christianity or Islam or whatever spiritual religion one follows, one cannot participate in that religion without faith in its tenets and ultimate justification.

As for whether or not the religion centered around gambling is emptier than a spiritual one, I make no claim to their degree of equality or dissonance between any two religions or types of religion. I'd dare say Dan would be more qualified on that account than me. My point was purely as to what religion means in its most basic sense and the way media fits into that sense. Ralph, you ask "Is spiritual enlightenment like a gambling addiction?" Well, I have no experience with either, but I truly and honeslty doubt it. I know which I'd choose if forced to choose between the two. That's not the point to say they're alike in experience; only that the one (and probably only) thing they have in common is that they both fit into the mold and definition of religion—if in completely polar ways.

Frankly, my interest in this point is academic and not personal. If I offended you, it was unintentional. I simply have a love of cultural studies, and mass media is obviously one of the most important aspects of that discipline.

Posted by: Nathan at November 10, 2004 12:05 AM

Oh, and as for the "temple" reference, I didn't mean that in a spiritual sense either. Rather, it was meant simply as a metaphor for a place where the "religion" is housed most explicitly.

Posted by: Nathan at November 10, 2004 12:08 AM

Like I said in my initial comment, I found the article an extreme reach. Secular religion is an oxymoron. The deconstructionist or the relativist strives to play these word games in order to tear down what it really means. From Merriam-Webster online:

b the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

By definition, religion relates to the supernatural and spiritual. Certainly we can redefine words for purposes of deconstruction and word play but I prefer not to participate in such semantical forays.

My spiritual enlightment is the flame of a small match in comparison to others so I'm not going to pretend I'm the grand swami pubah of all that is right and good. That being said, I have studied some religion in my life which is probably far more than the average American. If you look at modern America, we have made great efforts to purge ourselves of religion. Religion has been an integral part of human history yet nothing about it is taught in our public schools? How can such an important aspect of human existence be ignored? What are the goals of this policy? The specifics of practicing religions SHOULD be left to the specific church or temple and have no place in our schools. That does not mean we should not study religion as it relates to us and our history. We have created a generation of people who are illiterate about religion and I don't see how any good can come of this.

As we become more illiterate about the spirituality of ourselves and others, these surrogate symbols and rituals spring up as symptoms of this problem. We can try and eliminate religion as much as we want but our subconscious strives to replace what we are trying to purge. It is a sad commentary on our society.

I am not offended by this discussion in any shape, manner or form. As any true academic should know, words have meanings. Let us stick to "traditional" meanings as opposed to new oxymoronic ones. It generally allows the discussion to move forward in a progressive manner as opposed to semantical meanderings.

Posted by: Ralph at November 10, 2004 10:14 AM

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