You’ve heard it before: Christmas is over-commercialized, secularized, hedonistic, etc … After all, for a holiday celebrating the humble onset of God’s incarnation on earth, it does seem incongruous that Christmas has become a month-long orgy of shopping, eating, and frivolity. Yes, we all know this.I won’t beat a dead horse.
It’s as easy to acknowledge the commercialization of Christmas as it is to see through the conglomerate monopolization of capitalistic culture. We are all savvy enough these days to recognize that a “culture industry” does exist—an elite, disproportionately small group of conditioners that cross-market products to fill a demand they’ve fabricated in the first place. But as much as we know, at least in the back of our minds, that we are pawns in this game, we still merrily play along. Why?
Because we don’t want to be left behind.
In a culture that is increasingly dog-eat-dog, our pseudo social-Darwinist instincts tell us that survival means playing by the rules of the ruling party. As critical theorist Theodor Adorno writes in “The Schema of Mass Culture,” we fear being outside of the cultural dialogue: “Today anyone who is incapable of talking in the prescribed fashion … of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgments of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual.”
We sense the power of the merchants of cool, and we overcome our impotence by identifying ourselves with the hot ticket items. When something like Lost seems all the rage, or when Napoleon Dynamite becomes a buzzword, we jump onboard. We feel powerful if we are a part of the winning cultural trend. How else do you explain extraordinarily unnecessary things like iPods, BlackBerries or Ashlee Simpson? They satiate nothing in our lives, but the drive to possess them is unbelievably strong. Why?
Because ours is a world of manufactured desire.
Everything is a commodity that can—and should—be had. Experiencing things is less important than acquiring them. Often there is less pleasure garnered from the live experience of a concert than the fact that we paid $105 to attend it. The transaction of money is the root of manufactured longing. If we spend so much money on something, it must be good, right? Or at least we tell ourselves so. In any case, the swipe of the credit card is euphoria. For a moment we have clout in this crazy cultural power grab.
The power in purchase is first in our culture, but a close second would be the power of trivial knowledge. Our culture propagates the notion that knowing in the classical sense is not nearly as important as the facts that are known. Knowledge is reduced to a guarded commodity, marketed as a “must have” item. Thus, “facts” are organized in the easiest, fastest, de-contextualized manner: sound bites, polls, “breaking news,” talking heads, etc. As Adorno says, information “forces itself upon the hapless visitor and regales him with leaflets, guides, and radio recommendations, sparing each individual from the disgrace of appearing as stupid as everyone else.”
But with all the information we are given, we become less and less capable of discerning real culture, real art and real experience. Neil Postman famously warned of this nature in media: “there is no reason offered for why the information is there; no background; no connectedness to anything else; no point of view; no sense of what the audience is supposed to do with the information.” And this is where we are most vulnerable to manipulation.
To a larger extent than we’d like to think, the media control what we deem important. Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw’s Agenda Setting theory speaks to this. Their experiments during presidential elections from 1968-1976 revealed that media coverage largely determined what issues were most important to voters. Further research revealed a correlation between the position of a candidate in the polls and how voters saw their relative strength or weakness. If the media makes big news of the fact that candidate X got only 12% of the vote in a projection poll, for example, chances are the public will fear siding with such a “loser” and thus contribute to the poll’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether presidents or portable electronic devices, or whatever the “hot toy” may be this year, we want to be on the right bandwagon. We want to be on the winning team, and the culture industry keeps the score.
The Church is hardly exempt from this. A sure sign of a good church, we are told, is that the numbers are growing. Megachurches grow exponentially because, among other things, people want to be part of a winning organization. The Purpose Driven Life keeps flying off bookshelves because people see its popularity and want to be a part. Is this bad? Not necessarily, but the thing the culture industry tries to—usually successfully—convey is that the popularity and economic impact of a product are much more important than the experience of it.
Indeed, the thing the culture industry fears most is that we experience things on a deeper level. If that happens, then we might become disgruntled with the quality of products and yearn for something better. The culture industry counts on us accepting what it creates, no questions asked. We care about Paris Hilton but don’t know why; we listen when Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff sing, but ignore the fact that they are Viacom cash-cows and nothing more; we become obsessed with a group of fresh-faced California teenagers because MTV deems them interesting enough to dramatize on Laguna Beach. Presumably, if MTV launched Toledo, Ohio with the same conceptual framework, we’d be equally interested. Why? Because McCombs and Shaw were right—the media set our agendas.
Of course, all of this talk sounds very hipster, bohemian, maybe even socialist … right? Typically the people who rail against this kind of Fast Food Nation phenomenon are of this sort. But all those who read this with a sense of exemption are, I’m afraid, just as susceptible to the whims of mass-market culture. To be sure, the “indie” and “fringe” lifestyle are firmly worked into the conditioners’ business plan. In his essay, “Culture and Administration,” Adorno speaks of the misconception that “alternative” styles are somehow liberated from the oppressive culture industry: “In an effort to preserve a feeling of contrast to the contemporary streamlining, culture is still permitted to drive about in a type of gypsy wagon; the gypsy wagons, however, roll about secretly in a monstrous hall, a fact which they do not themselves notice.”
As much as we think we transcend the “sheep” trap, we still feed the beast. We are only human, and our needs for security, survival, and acceptance often outweigh our desire to live counter-culturally. It’s hard to be different.
Hard, but not impossible. Marshall McLuhan said that propaganda ends where dialogue begins. We immediately gain an edge on the cultural zeitgeist when we critically explore what is going on in culture and why. Why are we buying the things we are? Is our Christmas shopping list mysteriously similar to everyone else’s? Why is that? What is feeding the “wants” that decide our consumer binges?
In this Christmas season, I urge you to reflect on these questions. Remember, Jesus’ arrival on this planet was not a passive mission. He stood up to the ruling parties and introduced another way. As Christians, it is even more vital to question the status quo.Paul Tillich wrote, in The Protestant Era, that “a word can be spoken by religion to the people of our time only if it is a transcending and therefore a judging and transforming word. Otherwise, religion would become another contributor to what is accepted anyhow, another servant of public opinion, which in some cases is a tyrant as terrorizing as any personal tyrant …”
We live in the grips of imperial tyrants, just as that little town of Bethlehem was firmly in the grasp of Rome. But away in a manger, against all odds, hope was born. Let’s remember that.