Authentic Fakes Religion and American Popular Culture David Chidester

I still have a few more posts on popular culture before I am done with the topic. This tic wont last longer than this month. We will return to Green-Landes debate when I receive the next batch of materials.

In the context of the new book about the relgion of Oprah, there is an older book that keeps figuring int he discussions. Authentic Fakes
Religion and American Popular Culture
by David Chidester

Chidester points out how popular culture lowers the seriousness of the discussion of relgion to tolerable levels. (Some of you remember the RJJ article by Levitt from a few years ago that suggests that the reason for so much talk in shul is to reduce the tension that they dont believe in/appreciate prayer.)
Chidester also notes how much popular culture is based on the body- think of the year in Israel as part of a construction of the body –it is about changes in dress, taste, touch, and movement. How does it serve the pop culture needs of the American students.
One of the important point made by Chidester is the quest for authenticity and how brand new produced objects can take on an aura of authenticity. Certainly, everything done in a gap-year in Israel takes on an air of authenticity. One can teach any new age practice, any metaphysical thinking or tell any homily and by virtue of the situation it becomes authentic.
Even here in the US, what makes the purim videos – authentic? What makes orthodox popular culture as orthodoxy?
And finally, the economic comodification side- what objects are fetishized in Orthoodxy, what serves as a magic object of possession?

Religion is serious. According to the great psychologist of religion William James, religion “signifies always a serious state of mind.” Popular culture, by contrast, is not serious. Or is it? In this book, I posit that it certainly is. Through the idea of religion, I will engage the compelling political, social, and economic realities of America, at home and abroad, as expressed in American popular culture.

From the most intimate embodiment of personal subjectivity to the most public institutions of social collectivity, what I call religion is at work and at play. It is at work in the disciplines of the body, the regulation of one’s conduct, and the legitimization of political, social, or economic power. It is at play in the creative improvisations, innovations, transformations, and transgressions of all that serious religious work. Of course, sometimes work can seem like play, so this initial opposition between religious work and religious play will blur.
What difference does it make to call any cultural activity “religion”? As we will see, religion can be useful term for understanding the ways in which transcendence, the sacred, and the ultimate are inevitably drawn into doing some very important things that happen in and through popular culture: forming a human community, focusing human desire, and entering into human relations of exchange.

Social cohesion, in forming a sense of community, is reinforced by religious resources. Rising above the everyday course of life, traces of transcendence seem necessary for instilling a sense of continuity with the past. Set apart from the ordinary world, traces of the sacred seem necessary for establishing a sense of uniformity in the present. In the play of popular culture, religious techniques for creating sacred time and sacred space have generated a sense of community within a diverse array of cultural enterprises, such as the church of baseball, the pilgrimage to Graceland, the devotion to Star Trek, and the proliferation of invented religions on the Internet.

Although the notion of the fetish calls attention to an important religious activity—the formation and focusing of human desire

To adopt a phrase coined by the unconventional sociologist Georges Bataille, popular culture celebrates ritualized expenditure in nonproductive economic activity. Not for profit, as Bataille argued, expenditure is economic activity in which the loss must be as great as possible in order to certify a claim on ultimate meaning. Ritual expenditure occurs in a gift, a display, or a performance of wealth. But expenditure also takes place in the waste, the destruction, or the irrecoverable loss of valued objects, including the highly valued “object” of human life. In many contexts, such as the performance of rock ‘n’ roll or the mystery of the global economy, we will see ritual expenditure, in Bataille’s sense, operating within religion and American popular culture.

the gospel of money by television ministries, which appeal to their viewers for support funding, promising miraculous financial returns to the donors; and even the religious devotion to money in the online Church of the Profit$, which claims to be the only honest, authentic religion in America because it openly admits that it is only in it for the money.
These, then, are three reasons for investigating religion in American popular culture: religious activity is at work in forming community, focusing desire, and facilitating exchange.
Religion and Popular Culture in Embodied, National, and Global Spheres
As a religion of the body, the religion of American popular culture involves the most basic, visceral engagements with the world. Sex, drugs, and the pulsating rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll embrace the body in an immediacy, an intensity, although the mind and soul might subsequently follow. Mediated through the senses, especially through the physical sense of touch, the embodied character of religion in American popular culture appears in the binding, burning, moving, and handling of religious meaning and power, but it also registers as religion under pressure, as a pervasive sense of anxiety, distraction, and stress in a world that seems to be spinning out of control.

Although I take the human body as the basic ground of religion, it also is important to recognize that much of the creativity of popular culture involves changing or leaving the body. Many ways of modifying the body—piercing and tattooing, plastic surgery and liposuction, cross-dressing and transsexual surgery—have increasingly become part of the American way of life. At the same time, Americans have sought to leave their bodies, flying out of this ordinary world into cyberspace, or virtual reality, unencumbered by the physical pull of planetary gravity or the physical weight of human embodiment. In these efforts, echoes of shamanism, the archaic “techniques of ecstasy,” reverberate.

Throughout this book, I confront the problem of authenticity. Although the productions of popular culture might in many ways look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like religion, there is a distinct possibility that they are not actually religious. Baseball is not a religion; Coca-Cola is not a religion; and rock ‘n’ roll is not a religion. But then all kinds of religious activity have been denied the status of religion, including indigenous religions labeled as superstition and alternative religious movements labeled as cults. What counts as religion, therefore, is the focus of the problem of authenticity in religion and American popular culture. Making the problem worse, some religious activity appears transparently fake, including the proliferation of invented religions on the Internet, but even fake religions can be doing a kind of symbolic, cultural, and religious work that is real.

One response to “Authentic Fakes Religion and American Popular Culture David Chidester

  1. The book blurb/intro sounds a bit incoherent to me.

    In any event, “authenticity” is clearly a normative concept implying a judgment about the worth of something. Unfortunately it is usually thrown around as a self-explanatory descriptive term. Once you think about it there is simply no description of a social practice or artifact that marks it as authentic without recourse to some other evaluative criteria. And in most cases if you are self-consciously asking whether something that you are doing is “authentic” you are past the point of answering the question in the affirmative.

    While it is descriptively empty, as far as I can tell, a”authenticity” appeals to people as a shortcut to achieving different varieties of transcendence. But the kind of transcendence that can be bought or achieved via the appropriation of collective memory is rather illusory.

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