I’ve been working for some time now on the question of how contemporary moral struggles emerge in public media.
A piece in today’s New York Times about the “anger” Germans are feeling toward Greece brought some things into focus. As I thought about that “anger” (and when did it become appropriate for reporters to accept–and report on–“anger” as a valid political position?) of Germans contemplating supposedly profligate Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Italians, I also thought about the so-called “anger” that many in the US seem to feel regarding recent social evolution here.
As a scholar of media and religion, I am particularly curious about how religion relates to such struggles in modern, developed societies such as those in Europe and North America. Fortunately for me, some contemporary examples have emerged for me to study. I’ll be doing a longer blog post on our Center Blog presently, but here I’d like to link two discussions:
1. the Eurozone Crisis–particularly focused on the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) countries–lately focused on the Greek situation, and
2. the fallout from the recent SCOTUIS decision on gay marriage.
Each of these invokes a category that deserves much more attention: the “social imaginary.” Many will be familiar with this concept from Benedict Anderson’s book in Imagined Communities. The basic idea is that cultures and nations are knitted together not only by material realities of geography, kinship, economy, state, etc., but by commonly-accepted (but also negotiated) “imaginaries.” they are imagined communities as much as they are real. In fact they are made real through their collective imagination.
Cultural scholars are starting to use the term “imaginary” (as a noun) to describe these collective products. There is a lot that could be said, of course, but let me focus on one dimension of this: the fact that imaginaries can be particularly compelling because they can imagine literally anything and they can also imagine perfection. That is, regardless of the harsh realities of class and social structure and economic struggles, “imaginaries” can be places of halcyon perfection, where values and moral behaviors are clear and confirmed, and where boundaries are also clear.
In both the Eurozone crisis and in the SCOTUS fallout, there is clear evidence of the functioning social imaginaries which invoke religion. In Europe, this has been articulated in terms of a historic divide between “Protestant” Northern Europe and “Catholic” (and Orthodox) Southern Europe. The Protestant north is sober, industrieous, thrifty, and “responsible” (all dimensions of Protestant Culture as defined by Max Weber) the non-Protestant south is a place where debts are forgiven and sins can be remedied through indulgences. Here are accounts of this from Corriere della sera in Italy, News Lattitude, an online journal, Dagens Nyheter in Sweden, and a study released by the European Commission itself.
Two learnings here. First, that religion enters such imaginaries as a powerful marker and constituent (not necessarily a source) of them. It is a marker in that it seems to be able to coalesce a wide range of social images and cultural values under an umbrella of (often “remembered”) consensus. It is not a matter of doctrine or theology so much as it is a looser (“Imagined”) set of connections and beliefs and commmitments.
Second, the mediated public sphere is increasingly (as modernity progresses) the place where these imaginaries are articulated, struggled over, or negotiated. Its capacities of fluidity, fungible boundaries, embodied sensation, and invocation of tastes and sensibilities, makes the the media sphere particularly implicated in the functioning of contemporary struggles over these imaginaries.
This is a very powerful way in which “religion” and “media” come together in contemporary life.