Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (4)

In chapter 3 Clavier turns to the ‘Rhetoric of Consumerism’. By this he means the persuasive story / stories which shape our Western consumer culture – and people like us in it.

And I’ll say upfront, if you want to be critically informed about the world in which we live read this chapter.

He starts by referencing the atheist philosopher A C Grayling, one of the few thinkers to attempt to offer a robust defence of the good of consumerism. This quote gives a flavour. Comparing consumerism to religion Grayling says,

Both the language and the symbols offer what religion once did – a common structure. But as a community bond it is … more democratic and equitable. For consumers are not fools, not victims of dogmas taught by a priesthood. They are their own priests, they know what they want and are getting it. (42)

So in this vision consumerism is freedom and enables autonomous individuals to construct their own identities and happiness. But such freedom is only for the select who can consume as they wish. As Clavier notes

Graylings’ ethics are at best meaningless and at worst insulting to low income people or the vast majority of people who live in the developing world. (42)

It is also a vision which imagines that we are somehow detached, above the fray, and able to make free rational choices unaffected by a culture intensely manipulated by the market.

Clavier draws nice parallels with Cicero’s orators. Today consumerism works through charm and eloquence rather than rational argument. The entire superstructure of Western prosperity demands relentless and ever-evolving consumption. Buying becomes more than a purchase, but an activity of self-expression and self-fulfilment. And so desire is the driver of the consumption cycle – desires must be created, stoked and refreshed in an endless cycle of wants.

Frugality, ‘enough’, satisfaction and contentment are therefore the enemies of Western capitalist culture. They threaten the very basis of economic sustainability.

Personal dissatisfaction, therefore, isn’t a byproduct of consumerism but the very essence of it. A contented public would be the ruin of Western economies … Billions of dollars are spent on consumer behaviour research to find new methods for convincing people that they’re yet to find true happiness and that they have needs yet unmet.  (46)

And so consumerism is effectively a desire factory – new needs and new desires create new commodities while old ones are thrown out. And so our vast waste disposal problem and the destruction of the physical world. The rather inconvenient truth about consumer dreams is that they are destroying the real world at a catastrophic rate.

A major difference from Cicero’s time is that powerful rhetoric would have been rarely heard, yet Western culture is one of unceasing rhetoric, we live in a society of perpetual persuasion, telling us stories about reality and our ideal place within it.  

Clavier unpacks in more detail the processes of consumer persuasion. In such a world of endless manipulation, choice becomes a burden rather than a freedom. It is a culture of never-arriving, never-resting and never-enough (my description).

In a desperate competition for attention, marketers analyse and study us as never before. Data is gold-dust and is used to inform the stories we are sold so that they connect with us at a personal and emotional level.

The heart rather than the mind is the object of their appeal … Delight is the key to connecting emotions to information and stories intended to persuade. (53-4)

This echoes Augustine, “a hearer must be delighted to he can be gripped and made to listen” (54, quote from On Christian Teaching, 4.12.28)

And Clavier links here to the power of mass entertainment in creating delight and selling us things in the process. This includes films, box sets and such like of course, but boundaries are increasingly blurred between information like news and marketing. Everything is shaped around pleasing the customer – the market is ‘on our side’ and there to help us experience life to the full.

And so sources of delight are ‘systematically commodified’ – this is the strategy of ‘inform, delight, engage’. We are not bullied but delighted into being loyal consumers of favourite brands. Virtually nothing is beyond commodification.

Take your life for example. The genius of Facebook, followed by other social media platforms, is that our delight in sharing our lives with others has been monetized. As Clavier says, we are ‘willing (but unwitting) marketers. Delight is the key to getting them to share their experience with others’ (57).

Increasingly we are becoming aware of just how deeply Google, Facebook, Amazon and others are able to exploit our personal data, but most of us just don’t mind. It’s a trade-off – our delight for their profit. We don’t feel oppressed, in fact it is

a bondage of delight … we enjoy it. If given a choice between being middle-class consumers and any other identity, almost everyone in their right mind would choose the former … so long as we feel free, does it really matter if we aren’t? (59).

So while the planet burns and extinction rates rise; while we are increasingly aware of the hidden dark side of consumer goods made in sweat shops far away; while we may fret about the breakdown of community and social bonds and we worry about the impact of social media on mental health – we still feel that the market ‘works’ – what, after all, is the alternative? Clavier again:

Where may one go to escape from being primarily a consumer within the rhetorical community of consumerism? … (59)

The answer many conservative Christians give is choice – we must choose to resist (somehow) the all-pervasive embrace of the market. But for Clavier this is inadequate,

The contest isn’t between choices but between the suggestions and delights that give rise to choices. In short, if Cicero and Augustine are right, that what’s needed isn’t just a different choice but, more fundamentally, a rival rhetoric powerful enough to persuade people to be something else than a consumer. (60)

And it is that rival rhetoric articulated by Augustine that the next chapter gets into. We’ll discuss how successful this move is at the end of this series.

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On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (3)

In chapter 2 Clavier unpacks Augustine’s ‘rhetoric of self-destruction’. In other words, we are in the theological territory of the human will, love, desire and choice. On the one hand, we are lovers who find our true identity in pursuing our desires. On the other hand, pursuing those desires leads not to freedom but to bondage. 

Clavier traces the early career of Augustine: small town Thagaste in modern day Algeria, to Carthage to study rhetoric, of being deeply impressed by the great Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), a career move to Rome where, after impressing an influential Roman senator he was appointed imperial Rhetor in Milan.

“… a kind of PR expert for the beleaguered court of the emperor Justinian II” p. 24.

In a sense this is a very modern story of ambitious young man forging a career in places of power, of getting noticed and having significant patrons. While we may struggle to understand the power and appeal of eloquent rhetoric in the ancient world, we still admire great orators today. Regardless of politics, Obama is one such example. The same, um, can’t quite be said of the present incumbent of the White House – but I digress.

The key theme here is the ancients had a profound understanding of human nature and of the power of persuasion, emotions, desires, and language in shaping beliefs and behaviour.  It is the will that follows the heart. Given the power of rhetoric, it was recognised that there is need for the orator to be moral – to use such power well for the benefit of his hearers, rather than for self-interest.

It was these sorts of insights that probably helped Augustine develop ‘what might be termed as a psychology of sin’ (p. 27) that

“… took seriously the unarticulated forces that motivate people to pursue particular ends. This in turn led him, probably unintentionally, to describe redemption as a kind of rhetorical contest between an eloquent God and an eloquent devil. Satan lures sinners to consent to sinful and earthly pleasures through the promise of delight. The experience of these illicit delights in turn binds sinners either to sin or to the world. Sinners delight in their own perdition, just as a captivated audience might delight in agreeing with incompetent or malevolent orators. The dreadful irony of an eloquent devil for Augustine is that people mistake their own bondage for happiness and this subsequently leads them to identify closely with the very things that destroy them.” p. 27

And of course this all ties in with Augustine’s own experience. After his encounter with the Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he has come to accept the Nicene Creed with his head, but not his heart. He remains a man ‘caught between two opposing forces’ (p. 32) – two competing delights.

If all these offer equal delight at one and the same time, surely the divergent wills pull apart the human heart while we are deliberating which is the most attractive option to take (Confessions 8.10.24, quoted p. 32).

And so conversion for Augustine is primarily a matter of the heart, of what delights he gives his life to. There is a cost associated with this – to embrace one is to say no to the other.

In other words, his conversion to Christianity when it came wasn’t a victory of the intellect over his emotions but a conversion of the heart to a more appealing Christian faith. p. 34

Clavier unpacks how Augustine’s understanding of the power of delight led to a robust theology of the power of sin (the bondage of the will).

Think of it this way: what delights you? What do you love doing?

I might love DIY, you may not. I might love writing and you may find that incomprehensible. The point is our delights are complex and mysterious – what delights one may bore another senseless.

Such delights can be ‘dark’ as well – what sins and addictions I struggle with you may have no problem with and vice versa. For example, I remember being in Las Vegas some years ago and being utterly mystified how people could spend all their days (and money) pulling the handle on a slot machine. Gambling seems such a fool’s game. But just because that particular ‘delight’ does not attract me does not mean I am not attracted to other destructive delights.

The very reason we struggle with sins is because they are delightful – they appeal to us at a deep level, they offer freedom and joy and pleasure …

The point is that our delights ‘choose us’ more than we choose them. We feel most free and ‘ourselves’ when we get to do what we love. All this means that we are less free than we like to think.

So, according to Augustine Clavier says

“… we are already enslaved to delights, and not just any delights, especially those that ultimately dehumanize us. Left to our own devices, sinful, illicit delights continue to draw us inexorably to our ruin.” p. 40.

Clavier will return to how Augustine spoke of the good news of God’s liberating grace (chapter 4). But first he turns in chapter 3 to how Augustine’s theology of freedom, delight and slavery speak theologically into the power and appeal of modern consumerism.

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight (2)

Mark Clavier’s Introduction sets the scene for the book with a scalpel-sharp dissection of how consumerism ‘works’. How all of us cannot escape its omnipresent grasp: “Like it or not, we now perpetually live in the marketplace” (p.5). How from cradle to grave we breath in and are shaped (mostly unknowingly) by the ‘rhetoric’ of consumerism – which has a persuasive power unrivaled in human history.

Of particular relevance is discussion of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion. Writing in the 1990s before the Internet, he saw how mass-mediated images and ideas shape our perception of reality to create a ‘pseudo-environment in which

 “public opinion isn’t governed by rational principles, but by meaning-laden images woven together by our social imagination.”  p.8

Lippmann’s genius, argues Clavier, was to see how perceptions of reality are malleable through the power and reach of mass media. This is a form of social engineering – the ‘manufacturing of consent’ that has become infinitely more powerful than Lippmann could ever have imagined.

Just think Brexit

Just think Cambridge Analytica

Just think warnings about systematic Russian manipulation of the last US Presidential election.

Just think about Chinese govt control of information and propaganda to where entire generations know next to nothing of Tiananmen Square.

We are anything but the mythological rational autonomous individuals making detached logical choices (Spock clones). Rather, governments and advertisers know that

‘minds go where the heart leads’ (p.10).

We inhabit a persuasion society which is segmented into interest groups which have common identities based on shared perceptions produced by the market. We are

“consumers gathered into tribes of shared consumption, shared sentiment, and shared notions of the good life” (p.11).

Within this all pervasive market, the individual has no escape. It is from the market we derive our identity, our freedom and our happiness (p.12). Clavier tells the story of Jack and Diane, children shaped from the cradle to be consumers, free and autonomous, and yet their whole world is shaped by persuasion and the market.

Christian Responses?

Clavier’s argument is this: there are two general Christian responses to the malign impact of the market on individuals and on the planet.

One is effectively to sell out – go with the flow of consumer culture and simply become a religious segment of the market. Become a Christian tribe, use the tools of marketing to sell Christianity to consumers. Present Christianity as a lifestyle that offers happiness and self-fulfilment in the here and now – and offers zero critique of the market, of self-interest and of the global destructiveness of consumerism.

Maybe you can name names here – I will resist!

A second response is to stand apart, reject consumer dream and exhort believers to an alternative way of living in the world. Clavier give the example of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si (2015) which presents Christianity as ‘a different, even opposing manner of engaging with the world’ (p.15). One of contemplation, prayer, and simplicity from endless consumption.  

But, Clavier argues, this second response is inadequate. First, it is impossible to stand apart – the market has already over-run the ramparts and invaded every sphere of life.

‘The Church is just one stall amongst countless others set up in a global marketplace, whether it likes it or not’ (p. 16).

Second, even a critique consumerism ends up being assimiliated within the all-embracing reach of the market. (I guess you could say Clavier’s book itself is an example – Bloomsbury is the business of selling books after all).

So, he contends that both conformity and resistance lead to the same place – a Christianity as occupying a niche within an overarching consumer culture.

[I think he overplays the point that both conformity (sell-out) and resistance lead to the same destination. There is a huge ethical and moral distinction between the two. At least resistance is naming the enemy and fighting against it. And his book is not a ‘third way’ – but is surely a form of resistance – his argument is that a better strategy of resistance is needed.

What is this better strategy? It is to go to Augustine and a theology of the heart. It is in the arena of love and delight that the rhetoric of consumerism captures consumers’ loves. And so the challenge for the Church is to articulate and embody an alternative rhetoric of delight and love – which is what this book sets out to do.

On Consumer Culture, Identity, the Church and the Rhetorics of Delight

As a teacher who also loves to write, now and then you come across a book that makes you wish you’d written it. It captures what you have been thinking and teaching about for a long time, only in a much better way than you could ever have hoped to articulate!

Mark Clavier’s On Consumer Culture, Identity, The Church and the Rhetorics of Delight is such a book. It’s a gem. He is Residentiary Dean of Brecon Cathedral.

I got a copy out of curiosity since the description overlapped so much with themes covered in a course I teach called ‘Faith and Contemporary Culture’.

In the course we spend most of the time exploring the story, appeal (‘Rhetoric’) and pervasive power of consumerism to shape our identities and capture our hearts.

We consider how consumerism shapes contemporary Christianity at an individual and corporate level, and how, despite its ubiquity, it is rarely preached and talked about – almost like an invisible force shaping every aspect of our lives that we remain blind to.

The core of the course is the idea that consumerism is an issue not of the ‘head’ but of the heart, and it is the heart that truly shapes our ‘loves’ and our choices – how we live our lives day by day.

We spend time particularly with Augustine, the great Christian theologian of the heart, who saw more clearly than most, how it is the heart that is the seat of our identity.

We look at the teaching of Jesus on money and how Augustine’s focus on the heart is faithful to Jesus’ radical challenge around discipleship.

We bring in J K A Smith and his modern re-appropriation of Augustine and his argument that so much Christianity is rationalistic. Human beings are not ‘brains on a stick’ but lovers – we ‘believe’ through passionate commitments to stories that capture our hearts and imaginations.

An aside: It is my conviction that Christian discipleship should ultimately be framed around love. The baseline issue in being a Christian is what or who we love the most. And so any discussion or ‘programme’ of discipleship that does not focus on the heart is missing the point …

So, it has been a joy to read Clavier: he captures the dynamics of modern consumerism; he engages in depth with Augustine (the book series he is writing for is ‘Reading Augustine’); he links to J K A Smith; he brings in Stanley Hauerwas and he resists any easy ‘step by step guide’ to ‘how to beat consumerism’…

Another aside: In The Message of Love, published next month, I have a chapter on ‘Love Gone Wrong: Money’ – in which all of the above themes appear so you can see why I have found this book both helpful and significant.

So, after a rather long break from blogging – due in part to some globe trotting over the summer – this post is the first of a series on Clavier’s excellent book. More to come.