We watched a chunk of Century of the Self, Adam Curtis' 2002 documentary about the birth of the modern world, last night in the History of Advertising class. I showed it because it begins with a lengthy exploration of the work and influence of edward bernays, probably one of the most overlooked figures of the 20th century. Nephew of Sigmund Freud and developer of public relations and believer in the power of propaganda to influence the decisions of human beings.
Curtis' film does a great job of setting up the tensions that have, and continue to shape our world with regard to the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Bernays applied lessons learned from propaganda used in wartime and applied them to peacetime living, essentially giving rise to consumer society as we know and experience it today,
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the
organized habits and opinions of the masses is an
important element in democratic society. Those who
manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling
power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
The film is filled with intense material and doesn't paint a great picture of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, but it sets up this dichotomy about us--are we to be 'active citizens' or 'passive consumers'? The answer to that seems to be the tension that we all live in everyday. Another theme is the tension between big business and government over the how and in what way industry should be managed, represented and offered to citizens--another theme that is still playing out today.
The success for which Bernays is perhaps most widely known is his campaign on behalf of the tobacco industry to get women to smoke. smoking was essentially taboo for women, something only prostitutes might do, as with many 'pleasures' it was the domain of men. But Bernays, applying his uncle's principles and building on the theory from another psychologist that women view cigarettes as phallic, he managed to change an entire culture's view of smoking almost overnight, and with virtually a single act of carefully managed public action--heady stuff.
The issues raised by the film, about Bernays, psychoanalysis, relationship between business and government, between democracy and capitalism, the emergence of the consumer society etc., are central to understanding the nature of self-understanding that was developed in the early 20th century and continues to plays out today and, I would argue, key to any public dialog about issues related to humanity--anyone preaching or teaching should be aware of all this, because it is key to understanding the way we see ourselves today and it is a unique and challenging perspective.
This is what Noam Chompsky had to say about Bernays' 1928 book, History Is A Weapon,
[The] American business community was also very impressed with the
propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was
becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote
and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more
people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and
So what do you do? It's going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller's image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact, the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term "propaganda," incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days. It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies." These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques.
This is the main manual of the public relations industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didn't smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the techniques—models and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.
On September 30th, 1929, John Logie Baird, inventor of the televisor, initiated the first ever live tv broadcast in London. A fitting beginning point for the Fall term's class on theology and media culture.
The class is going to focus on two principle media lenses--the first half will consider television, the second focusing on the digital shift and concentrating on social media. There is communication, media and cultural theory, plus theological methodologies, thinking about the way various media re-direct content, transform how and what we communicate. It's ultimately about joining dots between theology, culture and media exploring the interplays between various artifacts.
Just over halfway through the course and today we finished up the television section. In honour of Halloween we spent some time exploring otherness--strangers and monsters. We looked at The Walking Dead and True Blood using some of Richard Kearney's thinking on Strangers, Gods and Monsters, which I have found insightful along the way in thinking about the ways in which we (various and diverse cultures and societies) process and manage our fears, anxieties and concerns.
"There are monsters on the prowl whose form changes with the history of knowledge," declared Foucault and I think these shows, and others like them, give some examples of how our monsters have changed over the past decades. The fact that both zombies and vampires have traction in the culture is interesting to me. Those characters first appeared out of the underbelly of the enlightenment project, the 19th century churning with change and looking for new maps, manifested its anxieties in the tales of Frankenstein and Dracula--today we seem to have come back around to these symbols and are using them again, in modified forms, to attempt to find new pathways, to handle our present challenges and fears in this time when of not-knowing--when once again, the maps that have brought us thus far, seem insufficient.
Next week we are turning our attention toward digital culture and entering the world of new technologies, social media and all that. Geert Lovink's book on Network Culture is strong critique of post-desktop digitality, the world of mobile digitality, but along with critique he does open up some great questions about things like anonymity, connectivity, sociality, which I hope will give the students plenty to wrestle with. I must say that this particualr class has been very engaged thus far and I have heard and learnt a lot from them.
We had a very interesting class Monday. We were joined by some professors from Beijing--who are visiting the school. How they wound up in my class I dont know but they were a delight--there were some language issues, but thankfully one of them was able to translate for the others. They were from the religious studies department of Beijing University--the Dean, who teaches philosophy, a taoist philosopher, a marxist studies prof. and a professor of Christian studies, who recently translated some of Graham Ward's stuff into Chinese. The class topic was theology and the body and we began with a reflection on Catherine of Siena and then moved backwards and forwards considering the various ways in which the idea of 'body' has been understood throughout Christian history, and how we might think about it today. There was an interesting roadblock of sorts when it came down to the idea of the 'soul' between those who were very clear in their belief i its existence, but less clear in their ability to explain it in any meaningful way. I'm not a big 'soul' man, unless it's Marvin Gaye--I believe its simply language trying to get at something beyond words.
I did raise a point made by John Caputo that "technology repeats theology," meaning that miracles in the Bible become medical and technological miracles today--opening up new space to think about the relation between the material and immaterial worlds.
I have been thinking through a book idea around this--techno-theology, exploring the relationship between technology and flesh-the organic and the mechanical, the material and the immaterial, stuff like that.
I finshed up my latest term at the art school last evening. It's been a good term, the students definitely rose to the occasion and did some really interesting work along the way. the classes I teach are in the school of advertsing, but, with the exception of one class on the history of advertising, they tend to be fairly esoteric and connected to advertising mainly by virtue of their focus on the explication, exploration and practice of creative conceptualizing. One of the major projects this term required the students to catalogue everything they ate and drank the entire term and present that information in interesting ways.
Part of the exercise was to think about ways in which needless information can become compelling by virtue of the creative manner of the presentation. I am quite a fan of Nick Felton, whose annual report, is always worth getting a hold of, and his work, plus a few other informational hubs were the root inspiration. Most of the presentations were good, really good actually, and I will try and feature some more later, but I thought this one was particualrly cool. The students made miniature models of everything she ate and drank and presented them categorized in a food tray---nothing too profound or innovative--just hard work, well-focused--the take-out bag actualy has grease stains on it, and slightly obsessive--something I always think leads to interesting stuff.
Before I get into this particular post, it seems that a couple of posts I wrote went astray, not sure what happened, they seem to have disappeared completely, so my lack of posting this past week was not intentional--and they were really, really good posts, haha!!!
Anyway, back to this post, which I will post immediately after writing it to avoid whatever issue took the last one. I teach at a fairly conservative evangelical theological seminary, and I don't think I would be too far off base to suggest that my particular theological positions, such as they are, are not the norm by any stretch of the imagination, but there are perhaps a surprising number of students who do not fit the imagined student constituency, and I manage, by nature of the kinds of classes I teach, to interact with many of them. I have been engaged in a long-term book reading group with a number of students over the years whose progressive and imaginative theologizing has surprised and informed my own again and again. That said, there are any number of students who are way more conservative and rigid than I and I get to interact with them as well. All of that means that my classes can be quite wild journeys--lots of back and forth, lots of provocations and occasional upsets.
My latest class is Theology and Culture, a broad syllabus looking at the relationship between theology and culture, followed by some cultural engagements, designed to introduce ideas about enagaging theologically with the world around us---something that comes as revelatory to some, but more often than not, is something that many of the students simply haven't been equipped for thus far.
I am interested in intersections, the places where any number of things meet, connect and diffuse, and the past couple of weeks we have been exploring the intersections of four things: theology, church, religion and christianity. Part of the process is examining where we are and what might have brought us to this place. With these four topics there is a lot of overlap which is why I clumped them together. yesterday we had a pretty lengthy conversation about religion versus spirituality (cue eye-rolling? yes, but I actually think it is an under-evaluated continuum in terms of exegeting where people are at and going--lots of simplistic interpretations--like most things today it is complex), and we wound up discussing that viral video of the spoken word about hating religion and loving Jesus. There were any number of reactions in the room, ranging from non-plussed to excited. I have to admit that it was my responses that elicited the most reaction. I said that while I could acknowledge the frustratons and legitimate concerns voiced in the video, my real issue was that he had not broken free of his own conceptual horizons and the latter part of the video collapsed for me into a typical understanding of the cross/jesus/sin/god/etc. and that it wasn't religion per se that was his problem, it was his theological grid. This of course, led to discussions about the work of Jesus on the cross--the place of sin/forgiveness etc.
As you may know, I'm a bit of a death-of-god type, so for me the cross means something other than what it might mean for someone else. The conversation didnt get heated at all--it was just surprising to me, no it wasn't, it was affirming once again, that the real work that needs to be done is on the theological--we spend an inordinate amount of time examining forms--what works what doesn't--but theology? It's secondary, even tertiary at times it seems, when it comes to really thinking through that state of things.
It seems to me that we are witnessing the disintegration of the concept of religion in the West, and it is morphing and transforming beneath our feet. The response I think is stronger theological self-definition, a rigorous examination of all aspects of our 'believing' and the avoidance of what Graham Ward names as fetishization--which can only be accomplished by some serious theological reflection and reaction I think. The problem for me with that viral video is that he is unplugging from the wrong thing, or maybe only unplugging from half of the story--it's not just the structures of religion in and of themselves, its the god of those structures-what Bonhoeffer called deus ex machina. Our viral poet still seems lowering that god down into world and until that changes...
Last month I wrote about a frustration with students and book reviews--a general lack of engagement with the actual material and a virtual ignoring of parameters set by a particualr authour with regard to the topic that they were addressing when it came to writing a review.
I came across this comment in the lovink book in a section on Comment Culture. "We need to keep in mind that in this age of self-representation (italics mine), commenting often lacks a direct confrontation with the text or artwork. The present act of replying does not seek a one-to-one dialogue with the creator..." Lovink is addressing comments made on blogs and the like, but it seems to me that the same could be said for interaction with texts of all kinds these days, virtual or otherwise. I found this comment helpful and will see if it makes sense. I might try and do some anecdotal research around this, not quite sure how or what just yet, but something along the lines of self-representation and interaction. I think there is a truth here--the idea being that a person makes comments that are clues to him or herself, acts of self-representation, rather than a critique of a particular work--a shifting away from focus on the text to focus on the interactor--i.e. 'look at me, this is who I am'--a part of us revealed in the likes and preferences we name not only on our Facebook pages but in our thoughts and opinions over and against everything we come into contact with?
(the image is of medieval margin notes from Laphams Quarterly via BMD Love Blog)