The great German sociologist Max Weber, in the closing pages of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, expressed the concern that modern culture may very well lead to a situation of “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart”. He added: “this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved”.
Anyone working in the contemporary university, especially in a humanities or social science department, may be tempted to update Weber’s maxim by suggesting that we live in an intellectual culture of “theorists blissfully ignorant, empiricists focused on triviality”. Along the same lines as the civilisation Weber worried might be emerging, contemporary academics also like to congratulate themselves on how enlightened and progressive they are. They like to think they are more cosmopolitan and savvy than their scholarly predecessors; more adept at sounding critical while securing tenure and landing research grants. Paraphrasing Weber on the “nullity” that imagines itself to be a very advanced “civilisation”, we might say of contemporary academia: “Never before have so many supposedly intelligent people written so much that has added so little to collective wisdom or happiness.”
The obvious question is: Why? Rather than engaging my reader with stories of what passes for knowledge in disciplines such as sociology, cultural and media studies (stories of the “Can you believe that any self-respecting adult devotes their life to studying this sort of nonsense?” variety), let me pose this as an intellectual puzzle. Why is it that in the field of communication studies (my current field of academic employment) the last scholars to say anything profound and enduring were: an economic historian who was raised a strict Evangelical Baptist and who considered studying for the ministry (Harold Innis); a conservative Catholic professor of literature who was heavily influenced by G.K. Chesterton and completed his PhD on the medieval “trivium” (Marshall McLuhan); an autodidact whose intellectual curiosities ranged from architecture to sociology, urban planning to the history of technology but who preferred to eke out a living from writing for art periodicals and literary journals rather than be bound by the strictures of academe (Lewis Mumford); and an Eastern European mythologist who studied comparative religions and the role of symbolism in history, the sacred and the arts (Mircea Eliade)?
I suspect that Weber has his own ready-made answer. As he suggests in his own treatise on academia, “Science as Vocation”, modern culture suffers the fate of “disenchantment”, a loss of meaning stemming from the absence of “religious interpretations of the world” in art, science and public life more generally. To put it succinctly, for Weber, the problem is the secularisation of culture and what this does to the world of ideas. He therefore would not find it surprising that my list of authors who have made significant contributions to communication during the last century includes two figures who had a very personal connection with religion and religious practices (Innis and McLuhan), and a third who was Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Chicago (Eliade).
The only figure in my list that seems not to fit the pattern is Mumford. However, even he entitled one of his books The Myth of the Machine, and when the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 invited this famous urbanologist and historian of technology to teach for a semester, Mumford chose the theme “Religion in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia”. Ever the inquisitive polymath, Mumford used his intellectual excursion into the religious practices of ancient peoples to provide a radically new account of everyday artefacts—such as vases and pots—in early urban civilisation.
Some might retort that I have “gilded the lily” somewhat by listing influential thinkers prior to the advent of more explicitly secular forms of thought, such as Marxism, semiotics, feminism and psychoanalysis. However, even here theological strains of thought are not entirely absent. About the only two cultural theorists from these traditions that I can still bear to read—Walter Benjamin and Umberto Eco—both produced work that is heavily shaped by religious and theological concepts. The latter—like McLuhan—also wrote his doctoral dissertation on medieval aesthetics and set his famous novel, The Name of the Rose, in a fourteenth-century Italian monastery. The hero of the story is a monk-cum-scholar, the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville.
Thus, there is good reason to think that good scholarship on culture and communication has often had a fruitful connection with religious systems or the study of these systems. I would also add to the list the German mid-twentieth-century Catholic theologian Joseph Pieper, whose theory of festivity is much less well known, amongst academics, than the Russian Formalist-cum-Marxist Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnivalesque”. Pieper’s book In Tune with the World is not much read these days in academe. Partly, this is because it fails to follow in Bakhtin’s footsteps and celebrate riotous or indecorous behaviour for its supposedly “subversive” effects. Yet by not reading Pieper because of misplaced secularism and populism, communication and cultural scholars miss out on a pretty fundamental set of insights into the role culture plays in the human condition. As Pieper puts it in In Tune with the World:
In practising the rites of worship men hope that they will be vouchsafed a share in the superhuman abundance of life. From time immemorial, this very thing has always been considered the true, the immanent fruit of all great festivals.
If only sociologists studying youth culture or raves took such insights seriously. They would be better able to explain both what motivates people to engage in popular festivals, as well as why, when the need to worship or be in touch with the divine is ignored, festivals and rites deform into human activities that are less than enriching. Note the current tendency in most Australian major cities for young people to drink themselves into a stupor on a Friday or Saturday night and then engage in senseless violence. Others seek transcendence through drugs. As David Tacey puts it in relation to Australian culture and its displaced sense of the sacred:
spiritual ecstasy … has been replaced by the spurious, artificial ecstasy that is provided by alcohol and drugs … Instead of controlled rituals of Dionysus, the mythic loosener of rational boundaries, we have the destructive boozing and brawling of Dionysus.
One would think that a concern with anti-social or self-destructive behaviour alone might prompt some academics to dip into the science and hermeneutics of the human soul. Not so with our postmodern super-critical, hyper-reflexive academics populating the arts faculties of contemporary Australian universities. Once again, Weber demonstrated great foresight. In one of his essays on religion he noted: “[The] shift from moral to aesthetic evaluation is a common characteristic of intellectualist epochs; it results … partly from the fear of appearing narrow-minded in a traditionalist or philistine way.” Hence, the hysteria amongst urban knowledge elites in relation to the recent scandal surrounding Bill Henson’s photographs of young children in sexually suggestive poses. How dare anyone question whether the photographs were art or pornography? Who but a philistine would fail to see the difference?
But it isn’t just a profound moral relativism that characterises theology-free departments of humanities and social sciences. I would venture a further hypothesis: namely, that despite all the fashionable talk about “meaning”—for example, semiotics is often defined as the “science of meaning”, the latter understood as “signs”—the last two generations of academics have been less equipped to study meaning than at any other time in history. In addition to being epistemologically and ethically relativist, academics presently engaged in the study of culture and communication tend to employ a flaccid understanding of meaning that fails to account for why human beings attend to certain things and what significance they draw from the things they hold to be special. In short, contemporary reflections into culture simply lack the tools with which to study what art, comic books, conversation, and any other form of communication, do for us and to us.
Daniel Bell, one of the last social scientists to combine great moral insight with perceptive analysis, claimed that the problem with modern culture was not only secularisation—as identified by Weber—but also that the “sacred” was in serious danger of being rendered “profane”. This is because the “sacred” is central to what culture is and what it does. Bell tells us that culture is those “modalities of response by sentient men to the core questions that confront all human groups in the consciousness of existence: how one meets death, the meaning of tragedy, the nature of obligation, the character of love”. The history of culture is therefore the history of the modalities by which “sentient beings”, through “myth, philosophy, symbols, and styles”, respond to these deeply existential questions. Bell suggests that the questions confronted by culture are “universal” and found “in all societies where men become conscious of the finiteness of existence”. The answers may vary; but the impulse to answer them doesn’t.
How then has culture become “profaned”? Bell argues that religion has been one of the central means by which humans have addressed the cultural questions listed above most successfully. For him, religion or the sacred consists of the “celebration of rites which provide an emotional bond for those who participate”. Rites, creeds and answers to the questions of “infinity” and “transcendence”—these are the basics of culture and where culture most clearly resembles the pursuit of the sacred. We could say that art, sport, food and travel are at most cultural when they fulfil the kinds of needs met by the sacred. That is, as with religious rites, cultural forms do their cultural work best when they hold our attention or captivate us in such a way that we feel psychologically or spiritually refreshed once we have engaged in these activities.
Profanisation, according to Bell, occurs when cultural forms become stale, corrupted or debased. As with Tacey’s account of the displaced sacred, Bell argues that modern culture suffers from the tendency to “democratise Dionysus” through the ethos that everyone should “act out one’s impulses”. The “infinite” and the “unattainable” become questions of gratification or what we moderns term “consumption”. Culture becomes reduced to “taste” or the lifestyle choices that people make.
Enter the television and Twitter academic brigade. They take to profane culture as ducks take to water. For them, culture is a lifestyle choice. They are happy to document that people who live in Toorak are more likely to subscribe to the opera and that being university-educated makes you less likely to eat McDonald’s (or at least admit that you eat McDonald’s). They revel in the kind of empirical facts that professionals in marketing and advertising have at their fingertips. Yet our contemporary cultural studies academic would have you believe they need great amounts of taxpayer-funded research money to prove what most people in marketing and advertising already know; obvious facts that they dress up as containing profound hermeneutic, semiotic, discursive, ideological and sociological significance. Thus, in the jargon of contemporary cultural analysis, people who live in Toorak subscribe to the opera as a way of showing off their “economic capital”; while university-educated people eat sushi, samosas or rice paper rolls instead of Big Macs in order to show off their “cultural capital”—that is, to reinforce their self-perception that they are culturally superior to suburbanites and other philistines.
Not only is this a fundamentally negative view of human motivations—we engage in culture merely to show off!—it also has all the limitations of the “profane” understanding of culture. Anything that is difficult, challenging, elite, defunct or passé is held to have no cultural—and thus academic—value. Try telling a media studies scholar that prayer or the Eucharist may yield great insights into the role of communication in human affairs and the response is likely to be: I study television and Twitter because that’s what most people these days are into. If you point out to them that McLuhan’s famous dictum, “The medium is the message”, was derived from his deep historical knowledge of religious communication and the impact of the printing press on how monks communicated with each other and with the laity, you are likely to be met with a blank stare. Equally, mention names like Mircea Eliade or Joseph Campbell, or their insightful studies of mythology and religious symbolism, and you are likely be asked: what did Eliade or Campbell say about the internet?
One of the major problems with academic reflection in the age of profane culture is that it becomes impossible to convince scholars that meaning is not just a semiotic construct and that culture wasn’t invented by postmoderns. We seem to have simultaneously lost our capacity to reflect upon culture as “immanence” and “transcendence”. Put colloquially, academics have lost the capacity to see the forest for the trees let alone know the difference between Fagus silvatica and Betula pendula. Mind you, the latter are exotics anyway and therefore a product of the “imperialist botanical gaze”.
A few scholars (those who have heard of him!) may tell you that their academic vocation is inspired by William Blake’s famous motto: “To see the entire universe in a grain of sand”. But when you are convinced that the universe has nothing to do with God (or should I say ignorant of the fact that human beings have referred to the sky and the infinite space beyond earth as the “heavens” for a reason!) then Blake’s motto becomes untenable to the contemporary academic mind. A more fitting motto would be: “We seek to prove that sand means something different to different groups of beachgoers”. If you think I’m kidding then I refer you to Volume 1 of the Australian Journal of Cultural Studies (1982) which contains the following essay: “Surfalism and Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture”. Unfortunately, things have only deteriorated since “Surfalism and Sandiotics”. I suspect that some media and cultural studies academics have even forgotten that people still go to the beach. Today, the academic paper is more likely to be titled: “Towards a Hyperreal Theory of the Beach: Or Why Real Sand Doesn’t Exist for the Postmodern Beachgoer”.
I’m not entirely sure what serious academics are meant to do. Should we leave media and cultural studies departments and take up refuge in theology schools? We might even entertain fantasies of leaving the university entirely and taking up residence in some remote monastery. The architecture and amenities are surely better at New Norcia than the Menzies Building at Monash University?
Call it vocational responsibility or professional self-delusion but I’m not prepared to leave the academy to the television and Twitter brigade. If they get the entire run of humanities and social science university departments then the only tools for salvation left will be serious books—but the best books could never be a replacement for teachers committed to serious teaching. In any case, in an academic universe where more books are being written then will ever be read, librarians have had to shift many books not currently on prescribed reading lists to off-campus storage depots. Many worthy tomes are simply gathering dust in the bibliographic equivalent of rarely visited sarcophaguses.
Thus, whichever way you look at it, teaching has to remain central to the academic vocation. Indeed, one source of salvation for the academic frustrated with the current state of the academy could well be the innate intellectual curiosities and spiritual hungers of the students who pass through our doors. I would never pretend that every student who sits in one of my classes is there to cultivate their better selves. But I would assert that students are often much less narcissistic and materialistic than their academic teachers presume.
It is for this reason that I have some faith that things will turn around in the university as students themselves start to realise that there is more to life than television and Twitter. Occasionally when lecturing, there is that moment when you see in the faces of your students that they are being taken beyond the confines of their prosaic concerns and routine ways of looking at things—including the bad academic habits they have acquired at secondary school and continued at university.
The kind of experience I’m alluding to usually registers as a glowing face, a smile, or a level of attentiveness that prompts the student to stop taking notes and to really listen. A moment when the student realises that there is more to knowledge acquisition than copying undigested information from PowerPoint slides. At these moments, when connection between teacher and student is achieved, and insight, enjoyment and discovery combine, we might need to turn to theological language to describe what is taking place. The teacher might express it as: “I see God in each of their faces.”
Eduardo de la Fuente teaches in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash University. He is the author of Twentieth Century Music and the Question of Modernity (Routledge, 2010). As he hasn’t secured tenure he finds musing upon the current state of the university in published articles strangely satisfying and cathartic.