Sunday, August 19, 2012

HT Jim West: Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Obituaries as cultural barometer)

It would appear that as the 20th century progressed more high profile obituaries included celebrities and fewer religious figures.

 ... Nolan, who joined USC College of Arts and Sciences' faculty in 1979 and whose book "Human Societies" is the common college text for teaching macrosociology, said technological advances have played a major role in fueling public interest in celebrities.
"Technology has become so productive that we now generate a surplus. That is, a surplus in the sense that we produce more than what is needed to keep people clothed, fed and housed," Nolan said. "Surplus creates options. A person who once made $5 beyond their basic needs for food and shelter had to decide whether to save it or buy something. A person who makes more than $100 after paying their bills has more options. That's when thinking shifts from survival to how to spend one's time, including leisure activities. The economy has generated this potential."
Nolan said science-fiction writers of the 19th-century envisioned a future in which machines would free people from labor and dangerous jobs so that they could spend time refining their minds through literature and philosophy.
"It didn't work out that way. It's easier to lazily cater to our passions, pace and appetites," Nolan said. "Obesity wasn't a major problem 100 or 200 years ago. Then people struggled to get enough food. Now we're talking about banning 16-ounce sodas and cutting down fast-food in school cafeterias."
Nolan plans to continue his work on secularization in contemporary society by turning his attention to the secularization of religion.
I've quoted the article at some length to help illustrate a point, that celebrity in the 20th century and beyond has become a function of decisions made with discretionary/disposable income.  Where celebrity has (and will) continue for those who pioneer in invention, in politics, in battle, and so on there is a level of celebrity for  entertainers that was not practical or conceivable in earlier eras.  In the 1990s the term "supermodel" began to gain currency and exactly one century earlier that term was inconceivable and such a career was likely to have been found deplorable at best.  It's not that women did not become legendary or mythic for being beautiful, far from it--what changed in the second half of the 20th century was how well-paid a woman could be for conforming to a culturally accepted measure of physical beauty. 
And for men, it's not necessarily a suprise that athleticism of some kind or another becomes a corresponding measure of celebrity, is it?  As Roy Baumeister has begun articulating in the last six or so years cultures find ways to exploit men as well as women and the nature of this exploitation can inform us as to what culturally defined gender-roles measure men and women to be worth and on what grounds.

Earlier this year Dan, at City of God blog, brought up what the Sandunsky verdict does or doesn't tell us about justification of abuse and exploitation of people on the basis of sports as anything near a religion.

In the case of Sandusky though, we saw all kinds of people getting up to defend a pedophile and those who allegedly enabled him because of football. Here the stock response is that in many parts of the US football is “like a religion” or something to that effect. We can even point to the Reformed tendency to see idolatry as the root of all sorts of evil and say that yes, football might look like an idol. But beyond that, how is football like a religion? It can’t save your soul. It doesn’t explain why humans are on earth or how we got here. It doesn’t explain what happens after we die. It makes no sorts of abstract metaphysical claims. People just seem to really, really like it, so much so that they may even say that it’s one of the things that gives their life meaning. [emphasis added]

But again, football has none of the features that the New Atheists suggest make religion so dangerous to humanity. It is possible to be a completely satisfied materialist and still be crazy about your football team. So what’s the takeaway for a New Atheist? Forget about religion, maybe people should just not care about stuff because when you care about stuff you can end up irrationally defending the indefensible?

All salient points and then Dan came across sports team coffins.

A trouble with defining sports as "like a religion" that we should consider is a level of devotion to the defense of a specific brand.  The trouble is that even if religion were eliminated in all possible forms the human brain will simply not have changed to the point where brand loyalty (as we may now describe it) will have fundamentally changed.  Somewhere there are people lamenting the passing of Nora Ephron and I don't understand that because I can't recall seeing a film scripted by Nora Ephron and if I saw one I don't remember if I cared for the movie.  The recent obituaries for the recently passed Helen Gurley Brown who was editor of Cosmopolitan is another case where I, not being whatever a mouseburger is (that I know of), can't appreciate what is supposed to be consider the significance of HGB's achievement.

If her great achievement were summed up in being editor of Cosmo ... well ... the 21st century has brought us to the point where laudatory obituaries for the editor of a magazine like Cosmo doesn't fit with what a women I knew in high school said about the magazine, that it was basically a magazine "for 21-year old skanks."  Judgmental?  Maybe but who was I to contest an apparently well-informed woman who'd read fashion magazines, considered that they seemed to promote ideals about female beauty that were either unrealistic or impractical, and was willing to provide her assessment as to the target demographic of specific magazines.  I was, at that time, an 18-year old boy who figured there were smarter things to do than to question whether or not Cosmopolitan was really a magazine catering to 21-year old skanks? What it even have been a good idea to question the nomenclature?

I know that it's not possible for me to really mourn the passing of a screenwriter who gave us a few Meg Ryan movies and an editor who gave us Cosmo.  I just can't muster up any tears for those two.  Sorry, and not the sarcastic kind of "sorry".  If your life was genuinely made better by Nora Ephron screenplays and issues of Cosmopolitan it's impossible for me to even conceive of that, but it is apparent that we live in a time in which the passing of two determined and industrious women has netted them obituaries for significant accomplishments.  Now I can imagine that any number of Christian readers or bloggers might consider that there's a time to blog about the trash produced by either woman.  The whore of Babylon and all that, perhaps, but even in Revelation a lament is recorded for Babylon.  The Lord told Ezekiel He did not take pleasure in the death of the wicked.

I can't imagine whether or not Christian bloggers of any variety have considered the passing of Nora Ephron or Helen Gurley Brown.  Neither woman produced the kind of content that most American evangelical males would wish to be caught dead, let alone alive, having any part or knowledge in.  This would be particularly true of my neo-Calvinist brothers, wouldn't it?  So I know a little about fashion.  Joan Didon wrote a nice little piece for Vogue that, yes, I actually read.  It was a Joan Didion article, what else can I say?  You either get why I might like Didion already or there's no point in explaining it to you. And on that note ... on to the next entry.

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