Signs and wonders

The narrow focus of 'profane' media studies on semiotics and consumption ignores the extent to which culture is rooted in our deep yearning for the sacred, argues Eduardo de la Fuente

June 2, 2011

The French sociologist Émile Durkheim once claimed that religion represents the "serious life of a society". This is a puzzling suggestion for those of us working in the secular academy. Was Durkheim implying that modern university scholars interested in culture and society are cut off from the serious life?

Max Weber, a contemporary of Durkheim's, had a slightly different way of framing the issue. He believed that an intellectual culture that had eaten from the "tree of knowledge" would struggle to find meaning in modern everyday existence. He called this situation the "disenchantment of the world".

In the closing pages of his landmark 1905 work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber suggested that the best that could come from a culture unable to access the sacred was a situation of "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart". We moderns might think we are advanced; but in reality we have been robbed of the resources to lead what Weber terms a "satiated" life.

Weber's friend and intellectual sparring partner Georg Lukács agreed. In an essay written in 1910 he asks why it is that "when the topic turns to culture people prefer to talk about aeroplanes and railways, the speed and efficiency of telegraphs".

Lukács' central argument, in the period before he converted to Communism, was that modern man was increasingly suffering from a "poverty of spirit" - a situation where humans often confused "enriching" forms of communication with those that simply deliver messages faster. He quipped: "Have our letters gained in depth and become more soulful on account of a faster mail service?"

Even though the technologies in question have changed, such concerns linger. We continue to worry about whether the quality of communication is sacrificed at the altar of more and more gadgets; and whether the more we surround ourselves with mobile phones, iPods, laptops and other electronic devices, the less we are able to lead a "good" or meaningful existence.

Yet technology and theology, or the science of the soul, have not always been in opposition. Many of the theorists who first came to understand the significance of modern communication technologies were not as allergic to theological and religious precepts as we might think.

Harold Innis, the Canadian scholar who explored the role of the media in shaping culture, was raised an evangelical Baptist and considered studying for the ministry. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian communications theorist who coined the phrase "the medium is the message", was a conservative Catholic who was heavily influenced by G.K. Chesterton and whose doctoral thesis considered the classical trivium - grammar, logic and rhetoric - of the medieval academy.

Figures such as Joseph Campbell, an expert on comparative religion, and Mircea Eliade, a Romanian historian of religion, also led the way in showing that modernity was not entirely secular and that the arts - both "high" and "popular" - were full of religious symbolism and mythical narratives.

Even within more explicitly secular forms of cultural thought, such as Marxism and structuralism, the influence of religious and theological language is not entirely absent. What is Walter Benjamin's notion of "aura" (and the account of its decline) if not a theological precept? And Umberto Eco, like McLuhan, derived many of his insights into modern culture and communication from a solid grounding in medieval religious aesthetics and metaphysics.

The 20th century also produced many fine theologians whose insights into culture and communication have not been widely read in the secular academy because, to cut a long story short, most secular academics simply aren't interested in God or in the sacred.

It is hard to imagine anything other than prejudice accounting for the almost complete absence of theologians such as the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper within debates in fields such as cultural studies. His theory of festivity, for example, is much less well known than the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "carnivalesque".

It is a pity because Pieper provides an insightful account of why humans engage in play and ritual and why festivity is modelled on the sacred. In his 1965 book, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, Pieper suggests that: "From time immemorial...the immanent fruit of all great festivals" - secular and sacred, high cultural and popular - has been to experience the transcendental feeling associated with the "abundance of life".

As the Australian scholar David Tacey has convincingly argued, much of what we experience in the realm of culture is a displaced version of the sacred - and this includes modes of conduct that are self-destructive, egotistical or antisocial. He refers to behaviours such as binge drinking as a corruption of the Dionysian impulse and, more generally, of the need for transcendence within secular culture.

But back to academia and academic forms of analysis. What do we lose sight of when we ignore the enduring significance of the sacred? Arguably, one of the characteristics of the contemporary academy is that we have restricted the question of meaning to what the science of semiotics terms relationships between signs. While this definition of meaning might work for traffic signals and Morse code, I'm not entirely sure that it captures what culture is or what it does to us.

Using the language of theological discourse, we might say that current discussions of culture and communication are driven entirely by a "profane" understanding of culture. The concept of meaning that is dominant in humanities and social sciences today fails to account for why human beings attend to certain things and what significance they draw from the things they hold to be special.

One cultural theorist who resisted the tide and argued that the sacred still has much to offer the analysis of modern culture was the US sociologist Daniel Bell. In an essay published in 1979, "The return of the sacred - The argument on the future of religion", he proposed that culture is the history of the "modalities" by which humans pose and answer questions to do with finitude and transcendence, life and death, consciousness and the cosmos.

Rather than suggesting that secularisation has cut us off from the sacred, Bell argued that modernity engenders a profound process of "profanisation". Culture is profaned when it becomes stale, corrupted or debased. As with Tacey's account of the displaced sacred, Bell argued that modern culture suffers from the tendency to "democratise Dionysus" through the ethos that everyone should "act out one's impulses".

The "infinite" and the "unattainable" become questions of gratification, or what we moderns term "consumption". Culture becomes reduced to taste, or to lifestyle choices.

Enter the media studies brigade. They take to profane culture as ducks take to water. For these folks, culture is a lifestyle choice. They are happy to document that wealthy people are more likely to subscribe to the opera and that being university-educated makes a person less likely to eat at McDonald's (or at least to admit to eating at McDonald's).

Because the only motivations conceivable within the profane culture paradigm are the baser human motives - for example, greed, lust for power or need for approval - lifestyle choices come to be understood through the prism of power and status competition. What we watch and what we like becomes a function of income, class and postcode. In a perverse irony, cultural studies academics and sociologists who study media have come to mirror the techniques used by those they have often been keen to differentiate themselves from - namely, experts in marketing and consumer research.

While these kinds of investigations can yield important data about who is doing what and why, the profane understanding of culture finds it difficult to explain meaning as anything but an arbitrary construct. The profane model also has the effect of restricting what we mean by culture and communication. Anything that is difficult, challenging, elite, defunct or passé is held to have no cultural - and thus no academic - value.

Try telling a media studies scholar that prayer or the Eucharist may yield insights into the role of communication in human affairs and the response is likely to be: "I study television and Twitter because that's what most people prefer in our society."

However, this suggests a marked lack of curiosity as to what makes contemporary culture tick. After all, there must be a reason why Pentecostal mega-churches are overflowing with young worshippers. Interestingly, in Australia at least, many of the Australian Idol winners tend to come from this kind of church environment, and have therefore absorbed some of the ambience and communicative styles of this brand of Christianity.

Furthermore, profane cultural studies, in my opinion, tends to overstate the extent to which contemporary communication is about consumerism and lifestyle, self-fashioning and identity. It also tends to treat students who study culture and communication as apolitical, hapless victims of the consumerist-mediated society.

I suspect that today's university students are nowhere near as materialistic or self-absorbed as academics like to believe, or as stereotypes of Generation Y suggest.

Until recently I was a lecturer in communication and media studies at Monash University. I would routinely start my first-year Communication and Society class by suggesting that "communication is the study of meaning". I would then ask the class to "free associate" and tell me what the word "meaning" conjures up for them.

Top of the list were always terms such as "significant", "valuable", "important" and "special". When asked to put it in a sentence, those same students might say: something meaningful is like friendship or love - a relationship or connection between two humans that is special or different from other relationships.

Interestingly, semiotic or other relativist precepts were almost entirely absent from the discourse employed by students. Whenever terms such as "signifier" or "signified" were deployed, it usually suggested some earlier form of academic indoctrination (the student might have done some media studies at high school).

I'm not suggesting that today's undergraduates are closet theologians, or that they necessarily want a university education that simply appeals to their better selves. No doubt they are in our classrooms for a variety of reasons - some intellectual and/or spiritual, others prosaic and/or vocational.

My point rather is that most university students end up subscribing to a profane or secular model of culture only after several years of indoctrination into the precepts of the modern humanities and social sciences. They therefore may be much more receptive to a history of culture and communication that recognises the contribution of theological frameworks to modern life, and which gently pushes them to think about how one may find fulfilment - or, if you like, grace - through culture and communication.

The other notable thing about students is that, like other social actors, they experience communication in terms of boredom and exhilaration, intellectual-cum-aesthetic ennui and the feeling that insight and illumination (two profoundly theological words) have been reached.

As I am not an expert in pedagogy, I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure why a negative or positive experience occurs for a student in the classroom situation. But if communication is what is happening in the classroom, then finding delight in connection and in being taken outside one's prosaic concerns must rank highly as explanations.

John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher, wrote in Experience and Nature (1925): "Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful." In the context of university teaching, the wonders of communication often register as a glowing face, a smile or a level of attentiveness suggesting that a student is listening deeply.

At these moments, we might feel the need to turn to theological language to describe what is taking place. The teacher might think: "I see God in each of their faces."

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