Advertising as ritual magic
On propaganda, pt. 4
Back in the 50s, Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade coined the designation of human beings as homo religiosus, the point being that humans are innately religious, and that our psychology seems to inherently reproduce those sorts of behaviours and experiences that very broadly speaking can be called “religious”.
Even though I agree with the basic point that religion is in some sense natural to the human being, I think this general description (as well as much of Eliades work) amounts to pretty strong overgeneralizations, not least since as a traditional Catholic, I have a much more narrow understanding of what religion really is. Everything from soccer to ballroom dancing can be forced into something like the catch-all category of “religious behaviour”.
I also think the notion that our psychology tends to reproduce the experiences and behaviour we categorize as “religious”, risks naturalizing the truth-claims of religion and beg the question against them, rendering them merely some sort of byproduct of our mental makeup, rather than the fruits of genuine experiences of reality.
But generally speaking, I think Eliade’s suggestion is insightful, in the sense that whatever we think of their content, the broad category of behaviours, social facts and institutions we tend to define as religious, inevitably reflect aspects of human beings and our behaviour in groups. In other words, “religious behaviour” in a purely sociological sense, is a natural aspect of human groups and societies.
So what is “religious behaviour” then?
Well, it in some way relates to the distinction between the sacred and the profane, it’s the focal point for generating and stabilizing interpersonal relationships, honor and shame (and all their equivalents), and through all this also connects to issues of ultimate value and meaning. Religious behaviour is basically about liminal stuff, relationships, and the Absolute.
Religious behaviour also, importantly, includes rituals that facilitate the connections between the sacred and the profane, and that make these connections manifest in the social order and in our roles and identities.
The Midsummer celebrations depicted above are a holdover pre-Christian fertility ritual. It’s an interesting example since it’s mostly disconnected from the dominant secular worldviews, as well as from almost all commonly practiced religion, yet as a solstice celebration is nonetheless maintained as a popular pseudo-cultic practice.
The dressing in traditional garb you see here is often part of the more elaborate celebrations. It specifically relates to the nationalist revivals of the late 19th century, and symbolically charges the ritual with an implied connection to a shared history.
“Religion”, prior to secularization, was really never a fully discrete sphere separate from life in general. This also seems to be the case in almost every non-Western traditional society whatsoever, where a more holistic interpenetration of religion, associated behaviours, beliefs and practices, and everyday life is more or less the norm. A hunting ritual that combines divination, magic, communion with ancestors and a sacrifice to deities towards a very tangible and “mundane” end, is a case in point. The worlds weren’t separate.
And arguably, neither are they really in the contemporary post-modern, post-secular, post-everything condition. Relegating to the private sphere a set of behaviours and practices which really are human universals doesn’t really strike one as a very durable arrangement. And if the levels of “religious attendance” in this corralled sense diminish, well, you’d expect to see the emergence of pseudo-religious behaviour in other areas of social reality to compensate for the… Deficit.
I hesitate to associate religion and magic too strongly. This has been done way too often by scholars of the secular age, intent on reducing both phenomena to false or misleading superstition.
Nonetheless, they are indeed related to one another, if only tangentially. Religious traditions often, not to say generally, employ such rituals and practices that overlap with magic as a set of methods towards producing changes in mindset and patterns of interaction. This is not really unique to formal religion, however. You see the very same thing in everything from spectator sports to musical performances.
Magic, as it’s seen in anthropology, ought namely best to be understood as the active employment of strongly charged symbols within the framework of ritual, with the purpose of influencing human consciousness and social processes towards certain tangible ends. This might sound like a naturalistic framing of the issue, but does not in fact preclude preternatural aspects thereof, all the while it neither necessarily presupposes them. However everything is cashed out metaphysically, the focal point of magic as a set of practices is to elicit effects in the human consciousness, and in the social realities that we as interrelating persons constitute.
And the various connections between perceptions and actual outcomes (not least those tentatively affirmed by contemporary natural science pertaining to the relationships between intentionality and the actualization of potentialities in physical reality) should at least serve to emphasize that magic, thus construed, can in principle be quite powerful.
Religion is relevant to magic precisely because it anchors the realm of the symbolic, not because it necessarily employs magic as described above. It rather provides the metaphysical background through which our symbolic universe is charged and shaped, i.e. it gives us the worldview and the fundamental value-system.
Traditional or formal religion also provides participants with a way to critically and intentionally engage with this basic symbolic structure so as to make it their own. Religion allows us to integrate the symbolic realm’s various layers of meaning and creative potential as a resource for our own personal growth in virtue, as well as for support in times of trial.
It gives us tools to interpret our experiences in a way that brings out their meaning and higher purpose. Ultimately, it directs and opens us towards God, and our companionship with other creatures.
And this is almost entirely lacking in the modern secular context. Here, the symbolic realm is exclusively imbedded by fiat and authority, with very little space for actual human agency to critically and creatively engage with it. There are no deities that communicate with you, that actually respond to you as an independent subject, and there’s relatively little you can do to actively make use of industrial capitalism’s scientistic ideological superstructure as a fruitful spiritual resource, according to which you’re basically just meat.
It is, shall we say, not really intended for that purpose.
It still generates rituals, however. The secular symbolic and its underlying worldviews can just as easily function as the base of magic in the sense described above, and in some ways to greater effect since people have very little capacity for resistance. They don’t really own the secular symbolic like a Voudo priest or a Protestant church lady own the language and signs of their respective worldviews, so the framework can be used much more arbitrarily.
This is especially true for the vicarious participation in ritual peculiar to mass media entertainment. One example is the reenactment of myth taking place in Hollywood war propaganda films, including those ostensibly critical of the Empire, which affords almost no agency to the “viewer”. There’s no interaction with the audience as in all forms of classical theatre, and accordingly, scarcely any negotiation with the narratives portrayed. The roles and relations of the characters we identify with are firmly fixed in relation to the societal power structure and the “normal” order of things, and as we vicariously participate in these immersive experiences, the values, ideals and aspirations portrayed tend to become our own.
Children’s role-playing activities are less ritualistic and far more open-ended in comparison. They almost by definition will involve the successive taking of opposing roles, and the experience of portraying various aspects of the narratives involved, while also actually engaging with other human beings that actively respond to you.
Consumer activity in the contemporary marketplace is another phenomenon with clear aspects of ritual. Rooted in the ceremonial marketing of brands and the roles and props this process assigns, such activities as “shopping” is really quite similar to the participation in sacred mythical events that’s a staple of formal religion. The Coca-Cola communion is a timeless event that brings us out of the humdrum everyday. The purchase of a pair of Nikes in some vague and distant sense connects us to the eternal triumphs of Michael Jordan and Carl Lewis.
Here’s a girl who… Well, tells the story of her “haul” from a famous Swedish superstore (that in turn has it’s own bloody reality TV show), and basically just recounts her purchases while providing cute commentary. The clip has a pretty huge number of views, and gets much love in the comment section. She’s certainly popular for other reasons, but this sort of content is apparently very well-liked.
It’s really something remarkable to behold. The whole thing strikes me as this actually pious participation in the rites of consumption, that from the commenters’ viewpoint already is twice removed from the actual purchase of goods, nested in a hall of mirrors of simulacra. And while at some level ironic, the girl nonetheless comes off as genuine, even humble, in this reenactment of the ceremonies of the temple of purchase. Reproducing layer upon layer of falsehood of a system of spectacular domination, she is yet somehow free from deceit. Sincerely human.
But it’s still bad magic. We know well the fruits of the institutional and ideological arrangements that are in play here, and the most disheartening aspect is that they allow almost no space for creative human agency. It’s multiple levels of passive participation in illusion, in turn erected upon a false metaphysical background of mere sophistry, designed to crush, exploit and delude.
The above ad is from 1994, the earliest phases of the digital age. The mythmaking is palpable. This was way before the real market penetration of the PC, and more than ten years prior to the majority of Westerners having Internet access, but the dominant themes are already fully matured. Digitalization is hopeful progress. It is our gift, our creation, that empowers you, the consumer. It connects people and places, bridging all distances in this brave new world of unbridled creativity and the realization of untold possibilities. Of technology. Of domination.
Of the human person’s utter interchangeability and emptiness.
If we’d look at television ads from the perspective of anthropology, it’s really difficult not to think of them as ritual incantations. Almost every ad segment has something of the cargo cult over it, the invocation of charged symbols in a ritualized setting with the purpose of conjuring the participation in some idealized mythical experience or sacred event. Which in turn charges the brand, this magical fetish, with power, and induces you to purchase whatever bears its awesome image.
And it’s precisely this reduction of life to the symbol, of the signified itself to the mere sign, that reveals the horror of the modern meta-narrative. This masking of what is truly and vividly alive, this veiling of the sacred and the transformation of the human search for meaning and transcendence into just an abstract transaction of value, exactly focuses the anti-human lie at the heart of the modern worldview.
The secular rituals and the magic of the spectacle are inherently anti-religious. They not only fail to facilitate the connections between the human, the sacred, and creation at large, but actually profane and obscure them.