The postmodern sacred.

Author:McAvan, Em
Position:Essay
 
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[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 postindustrial 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 (online 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.

The Postmodern Sacred

[6] So what is the postmodern sacred? This is a term I have coined to describe pop-culture spirituality, a strain of spiritually inflected unreal texts that have been remarkably central to the popular culture of the last decade or so which are marked by a number of postmodern characteristics.3 The postmodern sacred consists of movies like The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Peter Jackson's adaptations of Lord of the Rings, TV series like Stargate SG-1, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica. It is also The Passion of the Christ and Left Behind, two texts produced for and by Christian evangelicals that nevertheless have a significant correspondence with so-called secular entertainment. Though there is undoubtedly a great distance on some levels between Buffy's lesbian witch Willow and Mel Gibson's Passion, I argue that both are marked by the traces of a New Ageised postmodern cultural dominant. What these disparate texts share is a virtualisation of the sacred, a foregrounding of the virtual as a legitimate form of experience, a pastiche of multiple traditions and generic tropes (if unknowing in the case of the Passion of the Christ and Left Behind) and lastly a consumptive approach to that sacred.

[7] The postmodern sacred then consists of texts that are consumed in part for their spiritual content, for an experience of the transcendent ambivalently situated on the boundary of formal religious and spiritual traditions. The postmodern sacred is everywhere once one begins to look for it, for popular culture is rife with the detritus of millennia of religious tradition. Because of the suspension of the usual rules of the "real world" in their textual universes, the postmodern sacred occurs most of all in the literary and visual genres of science fiction, horror and fantasy (what I have termed the "fantastic postmodern sacred" and it is those that I will be drawing on for some of my textual analysis. Although they are produced for the profane purposes of capitalism and entertainment, these texts are heavily packed with spiritual signifiers cobbled together from various religions and myths. All of these, I argue refract religious symbols and ideas through a postmodernist sensibility, with little regard for the demands of "real world" epistemology.

[8] The postmodern sacred emerges partly out of the various New Age movements that have become an increasingly acceptable part of hegemonic Western capitalism, championed and popularised by such people as the influential Oprah Winfrey. The contemporary landscape of the sacred has been profoundly marked by New Age beliefs and practices, though is not necessarily produced by New Age practitioners nor constrained by their need to justify their beliefs as epistemological "truth." Instead, it functions as the textual sedimentation of many New Age beliefs and practices. It takes from the New Age both its scepticism towards traditional institutions as well as a constant emphasis on the Self. Sociologist Paul Heelas (1996) argues that the New Age places the experience of the individual at its foreground as the sole arbiter of truth and authority. He says that "truth, not surprisingly for those who see themselves as spiritual beings, must--at least first-and-foremost--come by way of one's own experience. For this alone provides direct and uncontaminated access to the spiritual realm" (21). This becomes clear when one examines the Western embrace of Buddhism, which Slavoj Zizek (2001) has argued has come to function as the ideological supplement to late capitalism. Zizek points out that the Buddhist logic of "letting go" enables its practitioners to surrender to the inevitability of postmodern capital and to maintain the illusion of not participating in the game of capitalistic accumulation (12).

[9] Rather than view their practices as religion, New Agers often use the term "spirituality" to more accurately capture what...

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