Consuming Religion. By Kathryn Lofton

Consuming Religion. By Kathryn Lofton This book explores the “hermeneutic territory” that opens up when scholars accept the “commonalities” of consumer popular culture and traditional religions (xi). It is, ultimately, not a book about consumer culture’s effects on traditional religions, but about how corporate discourse, consumer marketing, and media celebrity themselves constitute forms of sociality that demand analysis by scholars of religion. Durkheim provides the theoretical orientation for these studies. Lofton employs his equation of religion with the social as a license for the scholar of religion to analyze the symbolic and practical construction of sociality “no matter the presence or absence of sectarian affiliation” (3). “Religion is a name for social organization. . . . I claim that no matter what you think you are relative to some abstract notion of religion, you are, as a social actor, as a political actor, and as an economic actor, being determined by it” (xi). This expansive view of the competence of Durkheimian analysis for economic as well as social realities perhaps explains the paucity of engagement with the long tradition of Marxian critique of the commodification of culture that has been such an important interlocutor in critical discussions of consumer culture. Lofton positions this work as an exploration of religion that does not presume the “perpetuity of denominated, sectarian religions.” In this analysis, “much of consumer life is itself a religious enterprise . . . in the sense of enshrining certain commitments stronger than almost any other acts of social participation.” The marketplace thus can be thought of as the “primary archive of religion” (6). Although this approach gives license to study any social reality as religious, Lofton is attentive to the continued manifestation of religious language and symbolism within corporate and popular culture: for example, Grauman’s Chinese Theater as the “church” of movie “religion,” corporate hygiene propaganda references to religious bathing rituals, parenthood described as a “religion,” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s quip that he was doing “God’s work,” and so on. Corporate structures and consumer commodities are particularly important, as they are taking their place alongside the state as “systems of social organization” that interact with, form, and often replace religious traditions. These give rise to “new kinds of orthodoxy.” Our “social and ritual interests” are now placed “not in denominational tradition but workplace culture; not in inherited objects but recently purchased goods; not archaic icons but an endlessly rotating cast of minor and major celebrities” (8–9). This religious portrayal of consumer society enables Lofton to employ the ambiguity of religion as a source of both control and freedom to posit within consumer culture itself the possibility of critical consciousness and liberation. “Consumer culture, like religion, could be merely another emblem of alienated self-consciousness. Or, it could incite the beginning of a new self-consciousness to liberate us from the very obsessions it compels” (13). This method legitimates a broad exploration of the “hermeneutical territory” of religion in consumer culture. This is undertaken in eleven chapters that explore the interplay of the religious and secular: the nineteenth-century revival of ritualism in Christianity in terms of the emergence of consumer culture; the religious dimensions of the marketing of bath soap and hygiene; the celebrity of Britney Spears in terms of religious notions of sacrifice; the interplay of religion and celebrity as documented in the pages of USA Today; parenting as a site of negotiation of authority in and outside of religious contexts; the Kardashians; corporate personhood and religious freedom; a critique of the obscurantism effected by the use of the term “culture” in debates about the 2008 financial crisis; and an ethnography of the corporate culture of Goldman Sachs. Each chapter functions as an independent essay. Most of these explore the relevant roots of the phenomenon in confessional religious traditions, situate its emergence in contemporaneous history, and explore its social consequences. Religious studies discourses are deployed in often surprising ways to illuminate the religious dimensions of ostensibly secular realities. While the topics are diverse, they are united by a concern to show the interplay of sacred and secular in consumer culture. Lofton’s treatment of the Herman Miller Company’s invention and marketing of the office cubicle exemplifies the project. The chapter explores the religious background of key figures at the company and the ethos of the company as expressed in marketing materials, modern industrial design, changing models of office labor management, and broader historical trends. The interest here is not in the product itself, but in the interplay of what are often considered sacred and secular categories. Dutch Reformed sensibilities are translated into marketing rhetoric. The product is not simply a material object but an ideologically thick material construction of workplace experience and behavior. Lofton concludes, “Corporation is just another word for sect. And sects produce any number of creeds, codes, and ideas about committed community” (58). Here we see both the strengths and weaknesses of this method. By refusing a binary distinction between religious and corporate action, Lofton is able to show how both inspire and control social behavior. What, however, of the explicit and avowed differences between religious and corporate action? No one would deny that both are forms of social organization and control, but they function differently and generally serve profoundly different ends. There are religious groups for whom community is a constitutive good fundamental to their existence and definitive of their mission. Corporate management frequently invokes “community,” no doubt sometimes quite sincerely. Nevertheless, corporations are very specific economic structures in which profit is a fundamental and preeminent goal. All other values are necessarily subordinate to this mission. Lofton’s argument for accepting their similarities would be stronger if their differences were addressed as well. These essays are often illuminating and surprising. They can also be frustrating if one is expecting a comprehensive treatment of the given topic. A chapter on binge watching segues from the history of streaming technology, to medical discussions of binging, to conservative religious suspicion of technology, to extreme religious practices, to fundamentalism and religious extremism. Little mention is made of the extensive history of the precocious adoption of new communications technologies by conservative religious groups that began long before ISIS opened its first Twitter account. The goal of the chapter, however, is not to offer a full account of consumer media technology and religion, but to undo the sacred/secular binary to argue for the formal similarity of binge consumption to fundamentalist rejection of the uncertainty of the world. “Future scholars of religion . . . may find that the sharpest sectarian divides are formed between how you binge, on what, and when, and the commentary produced by those who decide something meaningful happens as they watch their glowing screens” (32). These studies overwhelmingly draw their material from the archives of consumer media, marketing, corporate public relations, and especially media reporting. More ethnographic studies are occasionally cited. The ethnographic portions of the final chapter are an exception. The author’s conclusions about the changing locus of the sacred would be strengthened with more attention to how actual consumers and employees engage and incorporate popular culture, celebrity, and corporate ideals into their lives. Various schools of cultural studies have extensively studied the ruses, inversions, and creative uses to which consumers put corporate popular culture and corporate discipline of labor. Likewise, the sociological literature on para-church organizations richly documents the interplay of denominations and churches with new forms of religious organizations using media and consumer infrastructures to influence believers. Attention to these sorts of analyses might further nuance the author’s desire to overcome binaries between secular and sacred. Without them, the book may indeed paradoxically reinforce the binaries it wishes to challenge. To choose but one example, one cannot understand Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ without considering the role pastors, congregations, and a host of para-church marketing groups played in its popular culture success. The book concludes with a reflection on the difficult work of “conceiving alternative structures of collectivity” that requires “imagining new ways to share what we have and care for those who have not” (288). Terms such as “alternative” and “imagining” can mask the inevitably normative character of this critical task. It is far from clear that the Durkheimian method employed in this study can guide such work. It can illuminate how changing social relations result in and are legitimated by changing notions of the sacred. It can show the imperative for scholars of religion to attend to consumer culture. But how does it offer critical principles for challenging a given construction of the sacred, a given structuring of the social? © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of the American Academy of Religion Oxford University Press

Consuming Religion. By Kathryn Lofton

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0002-7189
eISSN
1477-4585
D.O.I.
10.1093/jaarel/lfy022
Publisher site
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Abstract

This book explores the “hermeneutic territory” that opens up when scholars accept the “commonalities” of consumer popular culture and traditional religions (xi). It is, ultimately, not a book about consumer culture’s effects on traditional religions, but about how corporate discourse, consumer marketing, and media celebrity themselves constitute forms of sociality that demand analysis by scholars of religion. Durkheim provides the theoretical orientation for these studies. Lofton employs his equation of religion with the social as a license for the scholar of religion to analyze the symbolic and practical construction of sociality “no matter the presence or absence of sectarian affiliation” (3). “Religion is a name for social organization. . . . I claim that no matter what you think you are relative to some abstract notion of religion, you are, as a social actor, as a political actor, and as an economic actor, being determined by it” (xi). This expansive view of the competence of Durkheimian analysis for economic as well as social realities perhaps explains the paucity of engagement with the long tradition of Marxian critique of the commodification of culture that has been such an important interlocutor in critical discussions of consumer culture. Lofton positions this work as an exploration of religion that does not presume the “perpetuity of denominated, sectarian religions.” In this analysis, “much of consumer life is itself a religious enterprise . . . in the sense of enshrining certain commitments stronger than almost any other acts of social participation.” The marketplace thus can be thought of as the “primary archive of religion” (6). Although this approach gives license to study any social reality as religious, Lofton is attentive to the continued manifestation of religious language and symbolism within corporate and popular culture: for example, Grauman’s Chinese Theater as the “church” of movie “religion,” corporate hygiene propaganda references to religious bathing rituals, parenthood described as a “religion,” Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s quip that he was doing “God’s work,” and so on. Corporate structures and consumer commodities are particularly important, as they are taking their place alongside the state as “systems of social organization” that interact with, form, and often replace religious traditions. These give rise to “new kinds of orthodoxy.” Our “social and ritual interests” are now placed “not in denominational tradition but workplace culture; not in inherited objects but recently purchased goods; not archaic icons but an endlessly rotating cast of minor and major celebrities” (8–9). This religious portrayal of consumer society enables Lofton to employ the ambiguity of religion as a source of both control and freedom to posit within consumer culture itself the possibility of critical consciousness and liberation. “Consumer culture, like religion, could be merely another emblem of alienated self-consciousness. Or, it could incite the beginning of a new self-consciousness to liberate us from the very obsessions it compels” (13). This method legitimates a broad exploration of the “hermeneutical territory” of religion in consumer culture. This is undertaken in eleven chapters that explore the interplay of the religious and secular: the nineteenth-century revival of ritualism in Christianity in terms of the emergence of consumer culture; the religious dimensions of the marketing of bath soap and hygiene; the celebrity of Britney Spears in terms of religious notions of sacrifice; the interplay of religion and celebrity as documented in the pages of USA Today; parenting as a site of negotiation of authority in and outside of religious contexts; the Kardashians; corporate personhood and religious freedom; a critique of the obscurantism effected by the use of the term “culture” in debates about the 2008 financial crisis; and an ethnography of the corporate culture of Goldman Sachs. Each chapter functions as an independent essay. Most of these explore the relevant roots of the phenomenon in confessional religious traditions, situate its emergence in contemporaneous history, and explore its social consequences. Religious studies discourses are deployed in often surprising ways to illuminate the religious dimensions of ostensibly secular realities. While the topics are diverse, they are united by a concern to show the interplay of sacred and secular in consumer culture. Lofton’s treatment of the Herman Miller Company’s invention and marketing of the office cubicle exemplifies the project. The chapter explores the religious background of key figures at the company and the ethos of the company as expressed in marketing materials, modern industrial design, changing models of office labor management, and broader historical trends. The interest here is not in the product itself, but in the interplay of what are often considered sacred and secular categories. Dutch Reformed sensibilities are translated into marketing rhetoric. The product is not simply a material object but an ideologically thick material construction of workplace experience and behavior. Lofton concludes, “Corporation is just another word for sect. And sects produce any number of creeds, codes, and ideas about committed community” (58). Here we see both the strengths and weaknesses of this method. By refusing a binary distinction between religious and corporate action, Lofton is able to show how both inspire and control social behavior. What, however, of the explicit and avowed differences between religious and corporate action? No one would deny that both are forms of social organization and control, but they function differently and generally serve profoundly different ends. There are religious groups for whom community is a constitutive good fundamental to their existence and definitive of their mission. Corporate management frequently invokes “community,” no doubt sometimes quite sincerely. Nevertheless, corporations are very specific economic structures in which profit is a fundamental and preeminent goal. All other values are necessarily subordinate to this mission. Lofton’s argument for accepting their similarities would be stronger if their differences were addressed as well. These essays are often illuminating and surprising. They can also be frustrating if one is expecting a comprehensive treatment of the given topic. A chapter on binge watching segues from the history of streaming technology, to medical discussions of binging, to conservative religious suspicion of technology, to extreme religious practices, to fundamentalism and religious extremism. Little mention is made of the extensive history of the precocious adoption of new communications technologies by conservative religious groups that began long before ISIS opened its first Twitter account. The goal of the chapter, however, is not to offer a full account of consumer media technology and religion, but to undo the sacred/secular binary to argue for the formal similarity of binge consumption to fundamentalist rejection of the uncertainty of the world. “Future scholars of religion . . . may find that the sharpest sectarian divides are formed between how you binge, on what, and when, and the commentary produced by those who decide something meaningful happens as they watch their glowing screens” (32). These studies overwhelmingly draw their material from the archives of consumer media, marketing, corporate public relations, and especially media reporting. More ethnographic studies are occasionally cited. The ethnographic portions of the final chapter are an exception. The author’s conclusions about the changing locus of the sacred would be strengthened with more attention to how actual consumers and employees engage and incorporate popular culture, celebrity, and corporate ideals into their lives. Various schools of cultural studies have extensively studied the ruses, inversions, and creative uses to which consumers put corporate popular culture and corporate discipline of labor. Likewise, the sociological literature on para-church organizations richly documents the interplay of denominations and churches with new forms of religious organizations using media and consumer infrastructures to influence believers. Attention to these sorts of analyses might further nuance the author’s desire to overcome binaries between secular and sacred. Without them, the book may indeed paradoxically reinforce the binaries it wishes to challenge. To choose but one example, one cannot understand Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ without considering the role pastors, congregations, and a host of para-church marketing groups played in its popular culture success. The book concludes with a reflection on the difficult work of “conceiving alternative structures of collectivity” that requires “imagining new ways to share what we have and care for those who have not” (288). Terms such as “alternative” and “imagining” can mask the inevitably normative character of this critical task. It is far from clear that the Durkheimian method employed in this study can guide such work. It can illuminate how changing social relations result in and are legitimated by changing notions of the sacred. It can show the imperative for scholars of religion to attend to consumer culture. But how does it offer critical principles for challenging a given construction of the sacred, a given structuring of the social? © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Journal of the American Academy of ReligionOxford University Press

Published: Jun 4, 2018

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