What are you drawn to like, to watch, or even to binge? What are you free to consume, and what do you become through consumption? These questions of desire and value, Kathryn Lofton argues, are questions for the study of religion. In eleven essays exploring soap and office cubicles, Britney Spears and the Kardashians, corporate culture and Goldman Sachs, Lofton shows the conceptual levers of religion in thinking about social modes of encounter, use, and longing. Wherever we see people articulate their dreams of and for the world, wherever we see those dreams organized into protocols, images, manuals, and contracts, we glimpse what the word “religion” allows us to describe and understand. With great style and analytical acumen, Lofton offers the ultimate guide to religion and consumption in our capitalizing times.
About the Author
Kathryn Lofton is professor of religious studies, American studies, history and divinity at Yale University.
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Social Life in Extremity
How often do scholars of religion — or, better put, scholars associated with the term religion — experience moments of interdepartmental wincing, wariness, or sweet-faced condescension? I don't mean to confess outright abuse. I seek to capture that moment when a colleague who works in the same geographic region as you do says that she tries to "pretend there are no religious people" when she visits a common archive, or that moment when a high-level administrator visits your Department of Religious Studies and finds it necessary to say, "Well, I don't know anything about religion. I am just a nice Jewish boy."
The history of the complex interpolation between scholars of religion and the rest of their university colleagues is a lengthy and circuitous one, including the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century seminary origins of many private American colleges and universities, and the significance of nineteenth-century appointments in Bible at many land-grant research universities, and the twentieth-century emergence of religious studies concurrently with other interdisciplinary fields such as African American studies. Religion as an object of academic concern has never been a modest or quiet one. It has always been a gauntlet thrown, a reason for intellectual gathering, and a reason for intellectual discrimination.
Whenever I try to explain my own relationship to the study of religion, I often fumble through a series of pop examples, pointing to my own particular interest in the reasons that individuals cohere in collectivities like stadium sports, Occupy protests, or within the Beyhive. Invariably, if I yammer on long enough, the person whom I'm trying to advert my scholarly interests will reply, "I get it. It's like Durkheim. Collective effervescence." Suddenly, with the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) as endorsement, we can proceed: the intellectual kingdom of this person's ideological demystification is understood to be the same as my own. Because of this Durkheimian commiseration, I can now be understood to be neither religious myself nor an evaluator of her religiousness. Instead, I am understood to be someone who watches other people do things, and observes those actions with a proper sociological distance.
I lean into the privilege of this translation even as I am in strong dissent from its regimental posture. To be clear: I think Durkheim is the reason the study of religion belongs in the research university and within liberal arts curricula. Yet what I learn from Durkheim is not that religion is distinct from what scholars do. The classic way this proposition has been articulated in the study of religion has been to distinguish between religious studies and theology, or between religious studies as a subspecies of the liberal arts and religion as a missionary ambition of theological education. However comforting this distinction might be, it does nothing to assist our proactive efforts to interpret the world and continue creating within it. What we do, as scholars of religion, is deeply imbricated with what Durkheim said about what we study; what we can see, in our sociologies of religion, is deeply bound up in the failure or success of certain overt institutionalizations of religion.
What both Durkheim and theological education have in common is precisely the identification of a social common as the inevitable documentary field and propositional result of religion. Which is just a fancy way to think about what Durkheim spent a lot of pages proving, namely that our socialization is our humanization, and religion is the primary social form by which our socialization takes place. "The general conclusion of the book which the reader has before him is that religion is something eminently social," Durkheim explained, referring to his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). Recognizing the social origin of religion, Durkheim argued that religion acts as a source of solidarity and identification for the individuals within a society. Religion provides a meaning for life, it provides authority figures, and most important for Durkheim, it reinforces the morals and social norms held collectively by all within a society. Far from dismissing religion as mere fantasy, despite its natural origin, Durkheim saw it as a critical part of the social system. Religion provides social control, cohesion, and purpose for people, as well as another means of communication and gathering for individuals to interact and reaffirm social norms. In case it isn't clear, for Durkheim, religion isn't just one means of social control within society; it is the means. In his words: "The idea of society is the soul of religion." Many of us have never seen the inside of a cathedral, a temple, or a seminary offering theological education, but don't worry. "Religion seems destined to transform itself rather than disappear," he said toward the end, suggesting that no matter what you think you are relative to some abstract notion of religion, you are, as a social actor, being determined by it. That is, if you're socialized.
Which we are, perhaps, increasingly not? Before running headlong into some store-bought Durkheim, we might wonder at the present sociological truth of his long-ago sociological assessment. If we take Durkheim as our guide, we need to ask whether we think we live in a social world he could have conceivably recognized as socialization. How now would we describe the nature of socialization in the West? How now those souls, that noble idea of society? From whence does it come? And where does it direct us to go?
These are lofty abstractions. Let me bring you to earth, to a particular problem with a particular person, and see what sociality we may find.
In 2014, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal reported on his own struggle with a twenty-first-century addiction:
Binge-watching television shows — viewing episodes back-to-back for hours on end — may be America's new favorite pastime, but it's brought me to some pretty dark places. At 3 a.m., bleary-eyed and faced with the choice of watching another episode or going to bed so I could be ready for work and family the next day, I've often found myself opting for "just one more" hit. I've struggled with this habit intermittently for more than a decade (my first all-nighter was season 1 of 24 on DVD). I would hit the Netflix hard and reach rock bottom, then go cold turkey by canceling my membership — only to start the cycle again when I thought I had the wherewithal to watch responsibly.
The confessor, Michael Hsu, here describes himself as stuck in a vortex fostered by the allure of cultural programming and the technology used to access it. The process that brings such programming (such as season 1 of 24) to your personal device (laptop computer, television monitor, smartphone) is generally referred to as streaming media. Certain providers — like Netflix, to which Hsu refers — specifically exist to provide (and profit from the provision of) on-demand Internet streaming media. With his references to rock bottom, cycles, and cold turkey, Hsu's struggle has pre-streaming language, but it is very much of the technology of his specific epoch.
The majority of definitions for technology emphasize its physicality. Dictionaries and encyclopedias tend to describe technology as the physical result of cognitive work done elsewhere, defining technology as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Advances in computer technology lead you to possess a device that can track your cat's movements at home in Cleveland while you travel to China. Whatever those "advances" might be, the technology is the material capacity to track the cat. More esoteric definitions of technology consider it a way of thinking itself. In such definitions, technology is a form of thinking about technical means to negotiate the self in society. This underlines how often technology connects scientific laboratories to home economics, engineering schools to industrial arts, pure science to applied science. In recent years, technology has also been increasingly used to describe a process or a method, that is, the technology by which you resolve a problem. Technology thus can refer to the physical manifestation of thought; it can be thought itself; it can refer to the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.
The technological context in which Hsu can be a so-called binge viewer is one in which every person is in possession of low-cost computers on integrated circuits that connect users to networks that transfer information at increasingly higher rates of speed. The hardware that makes possible Hsu's binging includes everything from the cables that carry terabits of data to the microprocessor in your computer sitting in front of you. The protocols that organize how information passes through the Internet include the transmission control protocol (TCP), the Internet protocol (IP), and the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), each of which route and organize packets of data through these cables and to your laptop screen. The information carried in accordance with this protocol is in streams of binary digits, 1s and 0s. These digits are mathematical entities, but they are also tangible ones: they are embodied and manipulated as voltages in electronic circuits. Therefore, every bit of data must have some mass, albeit minuscule. A science reporter for Discover magazine calculated that the weight of the Internet adds up to just about 0.2 millionths of an ounce, roughly the same as the smallest possible sand grain. It is as immaterial a material can be while still being material.
The historical precedent to streaming media can be found in 1922, when an American Army Signal Corps officer named Major General George Owen Squier (1865–1934) created "Wired Radio," a service that delivered music to businesses and subscribers over wires. This innovation depended on Squier's longtime effort to improve the transmission of information signals, including a system for the transmission and distribution of signals over electrical lines, which he called "wired wireless." Squier would sell the rights to his information transmission patents to the North American Company utility conglomerate, which created a company named Wired Radio Inc. with the plan to use the technique to deliver music subscriptions to private customers of the utility company's power service. This service, which provided music by cable to subscribers, was known by the name Squier gave it shortly before his death: Muzak. Although Muzak has been supplanted by other more interactive commercial music streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, for years it was the music heard overhead at shopping malls and the inevitable accompaniment to dental procedures.
Squier was, like so many tinkers, scientists, and practical reformers of his Progressive Era moment, a person who didn't think technology was merely material. He thought it served intangible ends. "It seems to me," he said in a 1911 interview, "that one of the great troubles of all modern civilization ... is that men ... have too little time for contemplation. It must be through contemplation that crude thoughts find their evolution into the finished thoughts which mean development. Americans especially rush through life at such a speed that thought-seed planting is too rare and the development of thought into completion is still rarer." Every time you rolled your eyes at a Muzak rendition of an alternative rock song, you avoided the meditative frame Squier had set for your contemplation. Slow down, the music suggests. Use this elevator ride to think.
Is Hsu's binge viewing an addictive act or a meditative one? Binge viewing gives viewers the ability to watch a TV show as it fits their schedule, allowing them to have a customized viewing experience that's not dictated by a broadcaster. It's not an entirely new concept — TV marathons (which were first programmed in the 1980s), renting series on DVDs (first available in the 1990s), and watching multiple episodes on TiVos facilitated binge viewing before the advent of sites like Netflix and Hulu. However, new technology, consumers' desire to watch TV on their own terms, and an increase in quality TV content have brought binge viewing to a new level. "Binge" is increasingly the normal way media content is consumed; that is, individuals increasingly watch at least three episodes of the same show in one sitting (fig. 1). As one student remarked to me, "If I've decided to watch TV, I am going to watch a lot of TV." Emma Montgomery, global product director for the Human Experience Center at Starcom MediaVest Group, discourages criticism of this new practice: "Bingeing connotes excessive indulgence, and while the back to back viewing occasion may be long, millennials' actual behavior is neither excessive nor indulgent. It is a deliberate and ongoing shift toward how they prefer to view and stay on top efficiently in a world of far greater, and far better quality programming."
Yet Hsu felt that the deliberative quality of his viewing had long passed. Instead, he found the relationship he had with this technology was increasingly like that between an addict and heroin or a bulimic and food. Indeed, the symptoms he describes are not unlike those associated with binge-eating episodes. Doctors describe binge-eating episodes as when someone eats much more rapidly than normal; when someone eats until feeling uncomfortably full; when someone eats large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry; when someone feels unable to stop eating or control how much is eaten; when someone eats alone because of being embarrassed about how much is being eaten; and when someone feels disgusted, depressed, or very guilty after overeating. These are the feelings Hsu suggests he began to experience in relation to consuming media online. These are feelings of shame, self-repudiation, and chaos.
It is tempting to think about grand-scale analogies to binge viewing within religious culture: the way that many churches have all-night worship services, or extreme forms of monastic discipline such as fasting. Extremity in general is something religions can offer, a feeling of removing yourself from the world so as to feel something about the cosmos more purely. It is tempting, too, to think about how many religious groups have chosen to develop elaborate rules around the use of technology in order to keep at bay the very kind of addictive, possessive frenzy Hsu relates. When tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men gathered in 2012 at a New York City baseball stadium, they did so not to celebrate a particular holiday or support a new leader but to discuss the potential problems that can stem from access to pornography and other explicit content on the Internet. "Desires are out there," one attendee said, adding that men could be particularly susceptible. "We have to learn how to control ourselves."
I want to pause here, and note that we haven't landed somewhere surprising. No, when we talk about technology in the history of religions, we often find ourselves talking about more conservative religious actors than liberal ones. If you search the words technology and religion, you will often come up with the Amish, but within monographs on the subject, you find yourself among the haredi, the Muslim Brotherhood, among what we have called the fundamentalist. Time and again, the expanded role of technology in the public sphere invites a posture of its opposition clad in religious vestments. In their signal work on fundamentalism, Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan write, "If we are to describe fundamentalists as defenders of 'traditional religion' against the encroachments of 'secularization,' we must also recognize both their ambivalent attitude toward modern science and their simultaneous selective adoption of its methods." Who are these fundamentalists relative to Hsu, to binge viewers, and online porn addicts? The title of this chapter points to this moment as an age of extremity, one in which we seem divided between reports on beheadings and reports about the social effects of such technological excess. In such an age, who or what is the fundamentalist as a figure?
At the most general level, fundamentalism emerged in European and North American scholarship as a shorthand referent for any movement in which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as adherents through articulate opposition to modernity. Fundamentalism is thus a rhetorical act of corporate self-preservation. In this vein the American sociologists Jeffrey Hadden and Anson Shupe designate fundamentalism as "a proclamation of reclaimed authority over a sacred tradition which is to be reinstated as an antidote for a society that has strayed from its cultural moorings." Yet the multiplicity of religious contexts to which the term fundamentalism has been applied makes it a bit of a satire to consolidate it into something so simply rendered. The word has been applied to minority movements in nearly every global religious tradition, although it was first used within American Protestantism as a category of theological self-designation.
Excerpted from "Consuming Religion"
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Table of Contents
Preface IntroductionPracticing Commodity 1 Binge Religion: Social Life in Extremity 2 The Spirit in the Cubicle: A Religious History of the American OfficeRevising Ritual 3 Ritualism Revived: From Scientia Ritus to Consumer Rites 4 Purifying America: Rites of Salvation in the Soap CampaignImagining Celebrity 5 Sacrificing Britney: Celebrity and Religion in America 6 The Celebrification of Religion in the Age of InfotainmentValuing Family 7 Religion and the Authority in American Parenting 8 Kardashian Nation: Work in America’s KlanRethinking Corporate Freedom 9 Corporation as Sect 10 On the Origins of Corporate Culture 11 Do Not Tamper with the Clues: Notes on Goldman Sachs Conclusion Acknowledgments Notes Index