Monday, February 23, 2009

"Jesus Rocks it out!", or, the political mediatisation of religion

In a suburban America household, a mother survey’s her children’s addiction to their television set not without scepticism and reserve, worried that the pervasive use of “secular” references such as sex and violence may shake the staunch Christian orientation of her family. Perhaps the 1999 Columbine massacre orbits at the back of her mind, an event of shocking proportions that incited religious organizations to blame the “popular media”, and its depictions of violence. Grassroot inspired demonstrations speaking out against the socially corrosive effects of the “popular media” wasted no time in signalling out various forms of represented violence ranging from “violence on television, in the movies, and in video games” as affective rehearsals for copy-cat crimes enacted in the real world. Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall (who both were fatally wounded), both invested evangelical Christians, dominated press headlines, portrayed as religious victims persecuted on the basis of their faith. According to Bernall’s father:

“When that young man asked Cassie if she believed in God, she boldly said yes, and he shot and killed her. The reason he did that was because she believed in God.”

With this statement, a linear pathway of logic linking violence, popular media and anti-Christianity (or hyper secularization) was established that framed Cassie Bernall as a victim of a larger de-sacralising media system that produced what Glenn Muschert calls the “Juvenile Superpredator”. The “media-threat” narrative clearly is not unheard of in larger discourses of the effects of the media on religion. In a sociological project examining the attitudes of American Christians towards media technologies and popular programming, many interviewees eloquently elaborated their views on the “power and pressure” of media influences on the home, while simultaneously expressing their concern for the influence of popular programming on young minds. Stewart Hoover’s research findings, however, suggest a startling degree of self-reflexivity on the part of the survey participants:

“Most of our interviewees readily talked about these things in terms of “accounts of media” through which they positioned themselves on the media landscape.”

Can these accounts therefore be easily trusted as evidence of the media’s threat to religiosity, or is there a flip-side to this coin, suggesting the confluence and conflict between different discursive teams of media technology “played out” over and through these mediums? For Hoover, what this degree of “reflexivity” seems to articulate is not so much the polluting of the ideological hegemony of religious beliefs through the increased encounter with counter-beliefs, but an increased participation and awareness about discourse models of media and technology that have come to dominate public discourse. Furthermore, Hoover points out that despite their mounting concerns over programmatic issues over the media, most Christian families interviewed presuppose the dumb innocence of these broadcasting technologies, treating their “relationship to media as a mediation” between their households and the discursive topics of the public sphere. Television, in particular, is conceived as a window to a garden of shared cultural commodities, representing “symbols, events, and ideas that are both important and lodged in a broader social and cultural context”. As much as televised programs threaten to penetrate the hermetic barrier of Religious censorship, one may also posit that televised content helps to fashion a discursive public sphere heavily reliant on these media as fodder for discourse.

What is problematic, then, by such “hypodermic” models of passive reception (and hence narratives of victimization), is the ways in which religious discourses thrown into relief against media discourses fashion a sense of collectiveness, self-determination, identity and temporal stability. Put another way, by adopting the conceptual framework of victimiser/victimised, religious organisations and subscribing individuals appeal to a mode of ahistoricism, worse – transcendental essentialism – which easily conforms to narratives of decline and corruption by so-called secular media content. Furthermore, “hypodermic” models tend to obscure the (often messy) negotiations that occur at the intersection between religion and the media, masking internal divisions within religious institutions as well as its participation in larger modes of discourse (such as politics and economics) which are tightly woven into the scaffold of their very ontology. To do so would be to deny the dialectical, albeit evolutionary, nature between religion and the media. Jeremy Stolow suggests we place a Foucauldian spin on the matter, and closely examine the “deep entrenchment of religious communities, movements, institutions and cultural forms in the horizons of modern communication technologies and their attendant systems of signification and power.” Indeed for Stolow:

“[The] field of religious symbols, practices, and modes of belonging has been radically extended through the colonization of a dizzying range of genres, technologies and forms: from popular history and pop-psychology books to websites, cartoons, trading cards, posters, rock music, bumper stickers, television dramas, scientific treatises, package tours and sundry forms of public spectacle.”

The very platforms of “secularization”, then, offer religious institutions surfaces for self-expression and Althusserian “interpellation”, offering a counterbalance to what is delineated as “secular” media. The differentiating barrier between the former and the latter, of course, is clouted with grey areas and blurred distinctions, as exemplified in the case of the 1960s Christian Rock Movement (CRM) initially established “by American evangelicals as an alternative to the mainstream ‘secular’ entertainment business”. As “clean” alternatives to hypersexualized MTV spectacles, CRM gained enormous popularity, occupying (and incorporating) diverse commercial rock genres from “soft and MOR through rock, heavy metal, punk and new wave.” As a mode of interpellataion, participating in CRM (though listening, album purchase and discourse) offered Christian youths a platform upon which to articulate difference and, correspondingly, the construction of “social reality” and shared communities of faith, bound by acts of consumption. And yet, this very act of appropriation (or hybridization) troubles simple categorizations of sacred/secular boundaries: how, for example, does one identify a “religious” rock song from a “non-religious” secular one?

One way, as John Reid notes, in which such difference is produced is through characterizing “themes” in lyrics such as “1) personal salvation, 2) witnessing of one’s faith, 3) living by example, 4) human frailties, 5) rebellion, 6) sin, 7) forgiveness and 8) God’s love and mercy.” However, this radically simplified delineation tends to produce examples that overlap with other non-sacred songs and songwriters; can we take, by extension, Bob Dylan’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (the latter an ordained Rinzai Buddhist monk in 1996) as a sacred song? The reverse formula produces a similar paradox: not all self-proclaimed “Christian rock bands” (such as popular Nashville group “Jars of Clay”) continually produce Christian-themed songs. How are we inclined to view the degree of “religiosity” of their secular products? Does the band members’ self-proclamation of faith thereby guarantee the “sacred” status of all their musical products? Last but not least, does the shift of emphasis from the “music-itself” to “lyric contents” as a defining factor indeed suggest a strategic moving away from metaphysical debates that attempt to puppeteer the “ineffable” nature of “autonomous music”, for the productive purposes of Christian/rock music hybridity? The musical aesthetics of the “Other”, it seems, are not simply absorbed or grafted without mutual transformation. What this illustration shows is that existing discursive models that frame the epistemological object of inquiry too, have to change in order to strategically accommodate hybridized entities.

What emerges out of this “tight weave” between media technologies and religiosity is the way in which such “media” (as employed by religious institutions) “have become central to the terms of interaction within and among the embodied regimens and imagined worlds that constitute the sacred in the global present”. As Stolow suggests, what might be worth investigating is not an imagined “impossible” gap between religion and the media, but a fundamental reconceptualising of the nature of religion itself as media. For Stolow:

“The problem with the phrase ‘religion and media’ is that it is a pleonasm. Whether as the transmission of a numinous essence to a community of believers, the self-presencing of the divine in personal experience, of the unfolding of mimetic circuits of exchange between transcendental powers and earthly practitioners, ‘religion’ can only be manifested through some process of mediation.” (My emphasis)

That is, instead of clinging on to conceptually limiting binary opposites, Stolow’s suggestion of viewing religion as media allows us to pursue two tributaries that diverge around an initial epistemological obstacle: the mediation (or mediatisation) of the sacred, and, conversely, the sacralising of the media. Indeed the application of the latter heuristic framework upon case studies in Christian Rock helps us to visualize Christian Rock aesthetics as a (cultural?) sacralising of technologies of reproduction and representation. CDs, DVDs or live performances of contemporary “worship music” (such as the internationally famous Australian “Hillsongs” praise and worship conference) co-opt mediatised Darstellung (modes of presentation) into sacred spheres of signification, re-“auraticizing” supposedly “innocent” medias as religious relics, or sites of religious praxis and collective identification. One may even go so far as to conceive the fanatical “stockpiling” of religious media as a form of religious object-fetish, imbued with a transmogrified form of mobile “liquid aura”, not unlike fascinations with the Shroud of Turin or the respected status of the Bible itself.

On the other hand, the mediation/mediatisation of the sacred attempts to shed light on the ways in which religious organisations recruit technology for their own purposes and, in the process, alter or infuse these medias with cultural, religious and institutional meaning. For example, Charles Hirschkind’s illuminating 2006 study of cassette sermons in urban Cairo districts reveals how the very material qualities of recorded Islamic sermons accrue extra-religious agency, which, in turn, reflect, inflect and transform the very institution(s) from which they originate. According to Hirschkind’s findings, the social mobility of cassette recordings and its “acoustic architecture” it enabled was instrumental in the production of what he calls an “Islamic counterpublic” – an interpellated public organized around the sonic reality governed and potentiated by these cassettes. The “extra-religious” dimension of the cassette tapes, for Hirschkind, lay in its complex interaction between state-politics, institutions and individuals, eventually playing a key role in a nation-wide “Islamic Revival” (ak-Sahwa al-Islamiyya) that led to the critique, interrogation and transformation of existing structures of religious and secular authorities. The ubiquity of the cassette sermons gave a young, rising class of University-educated intellectuals easy accessibly (not to mention easily smuggled) to vast and differing religious opinions, providing, as it were, the “glue” for new discursive forms for “arguing about and acting upon the conditions of social and political life”.

Most importantly, Hirschkind notes how the proliferation of cassette sermons led to an implicit decentralization of religious and secular power by the dissemination of competing points of view and religious interpretations. Counter-opinions were sought beyond state boundaries, assigning the slowly accumulating “counterpublic” the agency to give “public prominence to these orators that the Egypt State ... has been able to do little about”. These sonic discourses occupied a symbolic battle-space outside the cloistered arena of the mosques, deterritorialized, as it were, to spaces wherever cassette-players were available. These mobile soundscapes, Hirschkind argues, created “the sensory conditions of an emergent ethical and political lifeworld [outside the jurisdiction of the mosque], with its specific patterns of behaviour, sensibility, and practical reasoning”. Through Hirschkind’s analysis, the mediatisation of the sacred does not merely reproduce a “hypodermic” model of transformation. Rather, the media “speaks back” to religion, albeit through the fashioning of new technologically-influenced “modern [sonic] subjectivity” which conceives agents of the new Islamic “counterpublic” as human mediums – mediums with transformed “perceptual habits” that constitute:

“A unique religiopolitical configuration that simultaneously compliments and challenges both the secular-bureaucratic rationalities of the state and Egypt’s longstanding institutions of religious authority.”

Though discerning of the wider implications of mediatising religion, Hirschkind’s employment of the “counterpublic” (as a privileged site of resistance or contestation) does not sit easy with Stolow. According to Stolow, the problem with “counterpublic” is ultimately a problem with the question of agency; the notion of a “counterpublic” does nothing to conceptualize the possible contradictions, fractures and fissures imminent in its relation to other co-existing communities. Every “counterpublic”, Stolow reminds us, “is still a ‘public’ – subject to the same performative demand to win legitimacy through claims of representativeness, and the need to marginalize those within and without who threaten to subvert this effort”. As such, Hirschkind’s emphasis on the “counterpublic” tends to over-romanticize the autonomy of such spheres without paying enough attention to “the nature of religious publicity and its relationship with what are purported to be the ‘non-religious’ dominant public spheres” especially in multi-ethnic, multicultural societies. The consideration of the “Other” within the context of plural postmodern communities provide a challenging nexus of intersubjective negotiation in which modes of self-determination of religious organizations undergo compromises under the purview of egalitarian governance.

Tong Soon Lee’s essay on the role of loudspeakers and the Islamic call to prayer (adhan or azan) precisely performs the tricky operation of teasing apart the politics of representation and self-determination in postcolonial Singapore. Owing to the culturally diverse makeup of Singapore’s demographics, the use of loudspeakers atop mosques to broadcast the adhan underwent a series of contestations in the 1970s due to political and ideological social restructuring projects implemented by the government. During the second half of the 1960s, a politically-driven program on “nation building” saw the destruction and local deterritorialization of urban villages or rural kampungs which (due to earlier colonial arrangements by representatives of the British East-Asian Company) were ethnically and hence racially distinct. The resettlement of villagers to multi-ethnic districts was (and still is) highly regulated by the government in order to microcosmically reflect the macroscopic ethnic makeup of Singapore, creating ethnically heterogeneous areas of population. As such, the reterritorialization of the adhan amidst an locally intense heterogeneous environment gave cause for complaint that the sonic universe of the “Other” was unnecessarily “polluting” the sonic terrain of non-Islamic residents. In 1974, despite drawing harsh criticisms from grassroot Islamic groups, the government and Islamic organizations “decided to re-direct the loudspeakers of the mosques inward” in order to minimize the sonic encroaching upon the Other’s space. Eventually, radio was mobilized as a solution to tensions between the public and the authorities, which “broadcast[ed] the call to prayer five times a day” in recompense for reducing “the amplitude of loudspeakers in existing mosques”.

For Lee, the redefinition of an Islamic “acoustic community” via the radio had a profound impact on the way the Islamic faith was practiced in Singapore. Faced with the problem of ethically dealing with the newfound spatial proximity of Others, Lee notes how it was “necessary for Muslims to reinterpret their tools of culture production and adapt to changes in social space”. Through fostering spaces of religiosity by adapting its method of mediatising interpellation, this new ontic property of the adhan subsequently redefined the reception and cultural, embodied response to these new adhan Darstellung. For Lee, “what was previously an inclusive, community-wide tradition has now become decentralized and individualized, reduced to an almost personal, private act of worship”. Lee goes further, claiming that the very production of gender difference in the remediated adhan positions women “equally to men ... in terms of their reception of the Islamic call to prayer” whereas previously, women were not expected to attend prayers.

When perceived as media, religion is understood to be an open-ended process rather than an enclosed hermetic system of static knowledge, beliefs and practices. Indeed one is able to focus on the act of transmission and the structures of knowledge that enable transmission, or problematize transmission. Conversely, the recruitment of new media technologies to widen the girth of possible transmission pathways inevitably tamper with the ontic properties of the transferred, revealing cracks and inconsistencies (or the locatedness) of existing knowledge-structures of transmission. Slowly but subtly, the alteration of these knowledge-praxis structures in order to validate or expedite these new pathways of transmission changes the features of the system itself, leading to the formulation of new beliefs, new challenges, and perhaps new media.


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