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Monday
Feb202012

Narrative Imagination and Religious Expression

 by Dale Rominger

The Narrative Arts as Challenge ~ Life and Death on the Waterfront

Joey Doyle, thrown from the rooftop of his tenement building by longshoremen thugs, lay dead on a waterfront street. His arms are outstretched, as if seeking a cross. A newspaper covering his face and chest acts as a death shroud. Joey had been lured to the rooftop by Terry Molloy, who had not known Joey was to be killed. A crowd gathers around the body, Joey's sister Edie kneeling by his side. Father Barry enters the scene:

CLOSE ON BODY OF JOEY. TENEMENT LANDING. NIGHT.
FATHER BARRY prays. A police SERGEANT turns to POP.
SERGENT: You're Pop Doyle, aren't you, the boy's father?
POP (Angrily) That's right.
SERGEANT: He fell over backwards from the roof - like he was pushed. Any ideas?
POP: (Aggressively) None.
MRS COLLINS: (Coming forward) He was the one longshoreman with guts enough to talk to them crime investigators. Everybody knows that.
POP: (Wheeling angrily and pushing her away) Who asked you. Shut your trap. If Joey'd taken that advice he wouldn't be - (Starts to crack up.)
MRS COLLINS: (Protesting) Everybody knows that...?
POP: I said shut up!
SERGEANT: Look, I'm an honest cop. Give me some leads and I'll (POP stands silently, choked with grief.)
KAYO NOLAN: Listen - don't bother him. Right, Moose?
MOOSE: (Nodding) One thing I learned - all my life on the waterfront - don't ask not questions - don't answer no questions. Unless you...(Looks at the body and stops.)
LUKE: (Reverently) He was all heart, that boy. Enough guts for a regiment.POP: (In a bitter rage) Guts - I'm sick of guts. He gets a book in the pistol local and right away he's gonna be a hero. Gonna push the mob off the dock singlehanded...
FATHER BARRY: (Comfortingly) Take it easy, Pop. I know it's rough but time and faith are great healers...
CLOSE: ON EDIE. TENEMENT LANDING. NIGHT.
Joey's sister, a fresh-faced, sensitive young Irish girl who has been kneeling over the body. She looks up and round at the Father in bitter grief.
EDIE: 'Time and faith'...My brother's dead and you stand there talking drivel about time and faith.
FATHER BARRY:(Taken aback) Why Edie, I -
EDIE: (Plunging on) How could anyone do this to Joey. The best in the neighbourhood - everybody said it, not only me.
FATHER BARRY(Embarrassed) I wish I knew, Edie, but - (Starts to turn away as if appealing to the others.)
EDIE: Don't turn away! Look at it! You're in this too - don't you see, don't you see? You're in this too, Father.
FATHER BARRY: (Defensively, sincerely) Edie, I do what I can. I'm in the church when you need me.
EDIE: (Bitingly) 'In the church when you need me.' Was there ever a saint who hid in the church? (She turns from him angrily, towards the covered form of JOEY.)
CLOSE SHOT: FATHER BARRY
FATHER BARRY stands there, jolted and troubled.[1]

The above, taken from the shooting script, is an opening scene in the film On the Waterfront (1954) by Budd Schulberg. The film was a popular and artistic success, winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Today it is considered a film classic.

From the above text we learn much: The waterfront local union is run by the mob; Joey Doyle, a longshoreman, was going to testify to expose the mobsters; Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) sets Joey up for the kill, but was also set up himself; everybody knows who killed Joey and why, everybody, that is, except Father Barry. As the scene ends, Father Barry (Karl Malden), is "jolted and troubled," perhaps more by Edie's (Eva Marie Saint) passionate and direct challenge then by the actual death on the waterfront.

While Father Barry represents the church, Joey Doyle hints at something else. It would be wrong to suggest Joey is a Christ-figure, however, his courage to confront evil, his goodness as recognized in the neighbourhood, the crucifix-like position of his body in death, and the very effect his death has on individuals and the community, all encourage us to see "Christ-ness" in the character and his death. Father Barry offers platitudes to Pop Doyle and would have gotten away with it if not for Edie Doyle kneeling at her brothers side.

Edie accuses the priest of "talking drivel" in the face of death and social injustice. Confronted with the tragedy of personal loss and the injustice of the good being murdered, she asks Father Barry who would do such a thing, that is kill a decent man and her brother. While the small gathered circle can answer Edie's naive question, Father Barry is at a loss, is embarrassed by his obvious ignorance, and begins to turn away from a young woman in grief and in need of answers. He looks to others for help, but Edie blatantly, surprisingly, calls him back. Her words are painful to hear: "Don't turn away! Look at it!"

The "it" is, we will learn, not just the dead body of her brother, but the situation in which they all live: injustice, insecurity, fear, relative poverty, and powerlessness. She continues to push the limits of acceptability, crying: "You're in this too - don't you see, don't you see?" She demands the priest, who represents the church, take his place in the world and, in language that echoes the gospel relationship between blindness, seeing, understanding, and discipleship, to "see!"

Father Barry instinctively retreats to his own safer world and defends himself, weakly to be sure. He tells Edie he is in the church and can be found there when she needs him. In other words, she is not to seek him in the world. In essence he is saying "I am not in this too." Even in her grief, she will have to go to him, to the church, for help. He will not, or perhaps cannot, come to her, in the world.

Amazingly, Edie does not bow to church tradition and ordained authority, but mocks the priest with his own words and in one breath damns him for hiding in the church and judges the character of those who do. We should not be surprised to read (see) that Father Barry is "jolted and troubled." It is this encounter, this jolting, this disturbance, which eventually leads to Father Barry's transformation in the story. He comes to realize that his "parish" is the waterfront community and eventually fights for justice alongside the people of that community.

This transformation is signaled in many ways, perhaps most powerfully in the sermon Father Barry delivers in the hole of the ship after the death of Kayo. That sermon moves Terry to "confess" his involvement in the death of Eddie's death and sits in a confessional booth: "Father help me, I've god blood on my hands. Bless me, Father, for I have -" Father Barry closes the shutter of the confessional abruptly and leaves the booth. Terry follows after the priest who his leaving the church. He pleads to be heard and Father Barry says: I don't want to hear it in there…Tell it to me in there and my lips are sealed. But if I dig it out myself I can use it where it'll do the most good."[2] The message seems uncompromising. If justice is to be done, it needs to be done outside the Church. 

On the Waterfront is not an overt condemnation of religion in general nor Christianity in particular, but it is challenge to both. Though the film was released in 1954, this opening scene is still painful to watch. The representative of the Church at a loss for how to respond to a situation everyone else sees as obvious. An almost instinctive turning away from that situation. Embarrassment and awkwardness. And the final retreat from the streets (the world) and back into the security of Church walls. Institutional religion can still be accused of distance, or even alienation, from the world, turning away and hiding away from the context of peoples' lives.

The Church still expects people to come in to it, instead of it going out to them. The simple truth is, people will not humbly go to the Church that seems naïve about the realities of their living. Nor will the search for life's meaning simply stop, but will be done elsewhere. The film On the Waterfront is a challenge to religious sensibilities and practices that find it difficult to enter into the world (and popular culture).

It is fair to say that today the narrative arts challenges the "interpretive monopoly" of religion. In society we no longer "get our informing images from the walls of the churches as historical Christians did; we get them from the media culture in which we live…"[3]

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] Schulberg, Bud. On the Waterfront. Faber and Faber: London and Boston, 1980, pp.10-12.

[2] Ibid., pp.63-64.

[3] Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.3.

Monday
Feb202012

The Narrative Arts as Substitute ~ Message and Meaning on the Stage

by Dale Rominger

In a review of Dennis Potter's Son of Man[1] Michael Billington[2] says the play offers a message of redemption and mercy as well as an opportunity for the audience to sense unity, a coming together. In other words, in both the drama and the performance in the theater, there is a meaningful message and ritual[3] the audience response to. Billington continues

It is as if, at a time of waning faith in organised religion, we look to the theatre to shore up and sustain our wilting beliefs...All I'm saying is that something significant and scarcely noticed seems to be happening in our culture which is that, as a counter to the materialism of the age, we increasingly look to art, and specifically to theatre, to provide a substitute religion. God, we are told, is dead: I would argue He is currently very much alive in the British theatre.[4]

It may seem to religious institutions wearied by years of steady decline that Billington's assessment of the power of theatre (and I would add, cinema) is somewhat optimistic. Nonetheless, Billington makes a valid point. The narrative arts and religion have always been and always will be intimately related, sharing at least in part similar spirits, methodologies, and aims. They both want to address people's lives, defining and/or transforming their meanings. Whether it be a drama in a Soho theatre, a film in a shopping centre multi-complex, or the drama of worship in a local church, it is hoped that the performance will substitute, at least in part, for the everyday experiences of those present, that people will be challenged, and will ultimately appropriate in ethical attitudes and actions the message and meaning being played out.

Billington returns to this theme years later when he reviews Nativity by Peter Whelan and Bill Alexander. Once again he notes we are told we live in a post-Christian age and that we find in art

rather than organised religion an antidote to the materialism or the age…the supposedly secular society retains its hunger for mystery, with art now fulfilling the function once exercised by the divine service…I suspect that theatre, music and visual arts are what really stir our spiritual longings.[5]

Indeed, he confess that the show "aroused [his] dormant belief without insulting [his] reason"[6] (emphasis added).

It is in the narrative arts that we explore and represent what it is to live ethical, religious, political, social, ideological lives. It is important to remember the poetry of stage and screen does not simply represent the everyday but endows it with added power and meaning. Thus the trivial in everyday experience when seen in performance can be, for example, overwhelmingly emotional or forceful. Alan Read writes, to "value theatre is to value life, not to escape from it. The everyday is at once the most habitual and demanding dimension of life which theatre has most responsibility to."[7] And speaking of film, Jean-Claude Carriere says, "We thought cinema was outside us, whereas it clings to us like a skin. We had assumed cinema was mere entertainment, but it is part and parcel of what we wear, and how we behave, of our ideas, our desires, our terrors."[8]

What Read and Carriere say of drama and film can also be said of novels, novellas, short stories, poems, and television. We should not think of the arts as simply entertainment.[9] Obviously some artistic expressions are purely entertaining, but many are deeply theological and ethical, which is to say they speak about the nature of the sacred and the meaning of human life.[10] Some of the narrative arts are directly and consciously theological, like Dennis Potter's play The Son of Man, while others are indirectly or more subtly so, like Willy Russell's play Shirley Valentine. The numerous films about the life of Jesus are obviously religious, but, perhaps more surprisingly, Sylvester Stallone's movie Rocky uses (or abuses) the image of Jesus and a central Christ figure to frame the search for meaning in contemporary American life. The novel and film Ironweed by William Kennedy is a beautiful and rich exploration of theological concerns in human lives without belaboring issues of church and God, while film The Matrix is an overt retelling of the Gospel narrative. 

Personally, I think Billington's assertion is good news (even given his paternalistic and hierarchical language used for God), and not all that surprising. People have always been and always will be religious. Materialism, consumerism, science, technology, and ideology have not killed God and faith, but redefined and renamed both in their own images. And the search for religious meaning, the need for ritual and worship, the use of religious symbols and values to make sense out of life, have not ceased simply because the Church is in decline, having become boring and irrelevant to almost all except the holy huddle.

Religion is not now and never has been confined to the churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Religious understanding, concepts of God, the meaning of our lives, and even religious rituals are being explored and acted on beyond the walls of our religious institutions. Margaret Miles goes so far as to say that "the representation and examination of values and moral commitments does not presently occur pointedly in churches, synagogues, or mosques, but before the eyes of 'congregations' in movie theatres." [11]

We can, of course, retreat and pretend that we hold a monopoly on religion and value formation. Or we can open our minds, thus learning from and being a challenge to cultural expressions of religion values.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] Potter, Dennis. Son of Man: A Play. Samuel French: London, 1970.

[2] Billington, Michael. "Gospel According to Dennis." The Guardian, 20 October 1995.

[3] We should not underestimate the importance of ritual in theatre. While ritual may more easily be associated with religion, Richard Schechner points out that the "barriers between sacred and secular, like those between work and play, are both extremely porous and culture-specific." The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance. Routledge: London, 1995, p.228.

[4] Billington, Michael. "Gospel According to Dennis." The Guardian, 20 October 1995.

[5] Billington, Michael. "Barnstormers." The Guardian, 11 December 1999.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Read, Alan. Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. Routledge: London, 1993, p.103.

[8] Carriere, Jean-Claude. The Secret Language of Film. Faber and Faber: London, 1995, p. 229.

[9] We should not, however, underestimate the interpretive importance of pleasure. Miles, Margaret R. in Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.11 claims that "pleasure is a primary tool of interpretation" and that visual pleasure "is the place to begin primary motivation for analyzing a film" because "by producing visual pleasure, a film communicates values."

[10] See Martin, Joel W. & Ostwalt Conrad E. Jr. Screening the Sacred: Religion, Myth, and Ideology in Popular American Film. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1995, particularly pages 1-17.

[11] Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.25.

Monday
Feb202012

Postmodern Dangers ~ Co-option, Coffee and the Meaning of Life

by Dale Rominger

My interest is the interpretation and appropriation of religious images, symbolism, myth, and characters in the narrative arts, primarily in popular films. If the narrative arts can be a challenge to and a substitute for traditional institutional religion, they can also co-opt religious meanings. While this has always been the case, there are three particular developments in postmodern artistic expression (particularly in film) that directly challenge the process of co-opting religious value creation. These dangers are: image ambiguity, exact repetition, and new technologies.

I would like to approach these postmodern dangers to narrative interpretation and religions meanings by way of one of the most powerful and common narrative vehicles for creating and promoting meaning, the final aim of which is the commoditization of image and value and, therefore, meaning itself (including religious meaning). Let us look at the ever present filmic genre the advertisement and then turn to the difficulties of ambiguity, repetition and technology.

It is, of course, not such an odd place to start. The merging of artist expression, meaning making, and selling is complete in filmic advertising. Awards are given for the quality of advertisements. The public embraces the advertisement not just as a vehicle of information and persuasion, but as a form of entertainment.[1] Film makers produce advertisements and advert makers make feature length films. They embrace narrative structures. From the sexual to the surreal, they tell stories, and tell them well.

Filmic advertisements are so fundamentally a part of our western culture it has been suggested that all "current forms of activity tend toward advertising and most exhaust themselves therein."[2] Baudrillard believes that advertising has led to a "superficial transparency of everything," where a "language of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities...progressively converge." This convergence in time defines the society in which we live, a society where there is "no longer any difference between the economic and the political, because the same language reigns in both..."[3]

Baudrillard makes a distinction between advertisement proper and a mode of expression that is advertising-like. He begins his essay Simulacra and Simulation with the words, "...what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising"[4], by which he means the form and a language of advertising. Thus, not only are the political and economic made similar, but the social is also absorbed: "an absolute sociality finally realized in absolute advertising…The social as a script, whose bewildered audience we are (emphases added)."[5] The scripting is so complete that the purpose of true advertising is "the design of the social, in the exaltation of the social in all its forms, in the fierce, obstinate reminder of a social, the need for which makes itself rudely felt."[6]

Given the possibility that the script of the social is an advertisation of image and meaning, the paradox of belief is illuminated. Nothing is demanded of us. The artistic expression no longer offers a "signifier" to believe in. Nothing lies beyond the image: there is no referent. The advert no longer functions to inform or even persuade, but becomes a commodity in and of itself. It is not persuasion to sell, but existence for its own sake. It becomes a parody of itself, where the medium really is the message and there is a "demand for advertising in and of itself, and that thus the question of 'believing' in it or not is no longer even posed..."[7]

While this book is not a study of commercial advertising, the power and influence of advertising as a narrative form does pose two important questions. To what degree has religious meaning also been absorbed by the advertisation of the social? And, to what degree has the advertisation of the narrative forms of drama and film affected their use and creation of religious meaning?

To explore these questions, let us now turn to a coffee advert I first saw in the British cinemas.[8] I chose this example for two reasons: first, given its unlikely use of religions images and ideas, it powerfully demonstrates the relationship between the narrative arts and religion and what is happening beyond the walls of the Church. Second, the ad is a good example of the effects of image ambiguity, exact repetition, and new technologies, though all these dangers are realized in film with the availability of videos and DVD's and new digital technologies.

As the ad begins, we see, on a cold and wet evening, a young women walking along the Thames in London. She is alone and obviously sad, if not disturbed. She walks towards us and eventually sits on a bench facing the river. In her hand is a letter which gives her no joy. What the letter actually says, who it is from, whether it has to do with her walk along the night river, we are not told, but given the mise-en-scene we can presume it has something to do with her situation. What exactly that situation is, also remains somewhat of a mystery, but the images, the lighting, and the performance, lead us to consider the possibility that she is sadly alone and, perhaps, newly homeless. The entire scene leaves us with a sense of insecurity.

During her walk and sitting on the bench we hear the voice over of Louis Armstrong speaking to the audience and the music to his famous song What a Wonderful World. The song, written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss and recorded by Louis Armstrong, was released by MCA on the album of the same name in 1968 and re-released in Compact Disc in 1988. In the information provided with the CD, Bob Thiele says, "Basically, the idea was how wonderful the world would be if there were no wars, in Vietnam or anywhere else." The selection of the song for the advertisement was, of course, very deliberate. It is worth reminding ourselves of the words:

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They're really saying I love you.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

As we watch the woman, Armstrong addresses the young people in the audience with the words:  "You young people have told me..."[9] As the music, and by suggestion the words to the song, float in the dark theatre, he speaks in a comforting and kindly paternal voice, assuring us that he hears when they, the young people, say it is not such a wonderful world, that there is war, poverty, loneliness, homelessness. As Armstrong reassures us of his sensitivity, we watch the young woman and, crucially, begin to equate her situation with the real woes and worries of the world. She begins to represent both the troubles of the world and the young people who voice their concerns.

To her left is a kiosk and we, the viewers, can see inside through its side door. The kiosk is brightly lit, indeed it is the area of most light in the film. Inside the kiosk, inside the light, is a young man who notices the young woman approaching and then sitting on the bench. He obviously shares our concerns for her condition, he represents our anxiety for the woman, and perhaps the state of the world. At the point where Armstrong completes his list of woes that young people have accused him of ignoring in his famous song, he actually admits that they exist and that the world is a pretty tough place. How could he deny it? The young woman sitting on the bench confirms all he has now agreed to. Her representation is acknowledged.

At this point two things happen simultaneously. Armstrong says that what he really means in his song is that it is not the world that is bad, but what we are doing to the world. As he says this, the young man comes out of the kiosk with a brightly coloured cup of coffee and gives it to the young women (my memory tells me that the cup was red, in contrast to the darkness of the rest of the scene). The woman looks up at the man, takes the cup and smiles. She warms her hands on the cup and then lifts it towards her face as Armstrong declares that love is the answer. The music plays on, the young man smiles and, for a moment, all is right with the world.[10]

The advert is artistic, well filmed, well performed, and very affective. The ad address real issues that actually do affect people’s lives and the making of meaning in life. Like Read's theatre, it draws us into the everyday, while at the same time endowing the everyday with significant importance. The ad deals with global and personal problems. It applies to issues of war, want, sorrow, loneliness, the just and healing qualities of love, compassion, and relationship; all concepts of religious import and meaning. However, just in case we become too caught up in the plot and characters, the red cup of coffee, bright and obvious, reminds us at the crucial moment in the story what the ad is actually about. 

The audacity of the advert's story is impressive. It has the temerity to speak of significant human concerns, tragedies, and sorrows, and to offer a solution. The solution is, of course, love, to which most of us would agree. However, the blatant association of the power of love with a particular cup of coffee can take our breath away. The juxtaposition of real concerns and the salvific properties of love with the selling and buying of a particular product is exploitative and offensive, though the utter quantity, repetitiveness and commonplace of such ads has overwhelmed our sensibilities and dulled our discernment. The scenes and over voice claim, without apparent embarrassment, that the coffee can, in some mysterious way, save the young woman through genuine companionship and security, and bring peace to the world. If we would all drink a particular brand of coffee, what a wonderful world it would be.

The association of images with values is paramount for the selling of products, and the expressing of religious value and the making of meaning. This obvious fact is the very factor that lends persuasive power to advertising and enables film to engender secular problems with sacred significance. However, by associating the human reality and religious value of love with the consumption of a commodity, the ad trivializes the problems we face (particularly, in this example, strife and alienation) and love as a solution to those problems, just as excessive materialism trivializes life. Perhaps given the association of love with religion, it also trivializes religious faith. While it is unlikely that people are going to begin worshipping coffee, it is true that the devaluation of image and meaning by associating love's salvific power with consumption, the repetition of the ad (like all adverts it was shown over and over again), and the technology used to introduce Armstrong's voice over, all have their impact.

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] In the United States people talk about and anticipate advertising during the Superbowl to the extent that the advertisement is a significant aspect of the viewing experience.

[2] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, 1994, p.87.

[3] Ibid., pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid., p. 87.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] Ibid., p. 90.

[7] Ibid., p. 90.

[8] I do not chose this example lightly. Coffee plays an important role in our lives and in the global economy. Brad Weiss has written an interesting article entitled "Coffee Breaks and Coffee Connections: The Lived experience of a commodity in Tanzanian and European words" in Howes, David, editor, Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markets Local Realities, Routledge: London and New York, 1996. Weiss says that "concrete spatial and temporal relations...(are) both imbued with cultural meanings and serves to direct creative culture activities. To inhabit a world in this way - to construct its orientations in the course of ongoing collective action and interaction - is, at the same time, to objectify the values that guide, restrain, enable, and motivate the agents of these actions. The significance of commoditization processes and the value of particular commodity forms can only be understood, I would argue, in relation to such encompassing socio-cultural processes of acting and objectification" (p. 94). Speaking of the commodity coffee directly he says: "As a central feature of both economy and everyday experience, coffee is a substance that embodies articulations within and across local and global orders. In the construction of class relations, social space, and even bodily intimacy, coffee provides a medium through which connections and disconnections, conjuctures and disjunctures, can be recognized and acted upon" (p.103).

[9] Louis Armstrong died on July 4, 1970. I first saw the coffee ad in the cinema in 1995. The young people in the audience had actually told Armstrong nothing, since he had been dead for twenty-five years, which is to say he had been dead longer than many of the young people had been alive.

[10] I do not have a script or a video of the advert and so have described it from memory: which is to say, I have shared my impressions of the advert, created by the advert itself. This is not an insignificant point, for the coffee company is both creating and selling an image and an impression before the coffee itself.

Monday
Feb202012

Image Ambiguity ~ The Paling of Reality

by Dale Rominger

Our quite natural ability to distinguish between image and its referent, fiction and nonfiction, imaginative reconstruction and observed reality, are now being threatened, which means value creation (including religious value) is also being distorted. Richard Kearney says,

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the image of today and former times: now the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent. Or to put it in another way, reality has become a pale reflection of the image.[1]

Kearney tells the story of two women conversing over the back fence to emphasize his concern for the relationship between image and reality, and what I am calling image ambiguity. One woman compliments the other's child, to which the mother responses, "Yes, he is lovely, but you should see the photograph."[2] Everywhere we turn, we are confronted by images that seem more important than the reality they supposedly represent. As the photograph of the boy becomes more important than the child himself, so too the cup of coffee becomes more important than the compassion of a stranger.

As the anecdote makes us smile, Kearney goes on to claim the same confusion is happening in the arts: "at the level of artistic culture there is a growing awareness that images have now displaced the 'original' realities they were traditionally meant to reflect."[3]

Given that the narrative arts both generate (as challenge and substitute) and appropriate religious imagery and values, we should not be surprised to discover that in religion the image and the reality of faith are also confused, with actualized faith becoming a pale reflection of its symbols and rituals. Perhaps it can even be argued that the values and precepts of the Christian faith have lost meaning in reality and function only dramatically in the theatre of worship, albeit often times poorly performed. In other words, principles of faith are not actualized in everyday life but are only ritualized in the performance of worship. The displacement of faith commands with dramatic image and ritual action enables the worshipper to embrace elements of faith without challenging his or her character of being and action in the world. Thus, we can, through ritualized performance, continually read in worship-theatre that Christ has come to give good news to the poor without having to question what such sacred concerns might mean to our middle and upper class lives. This is possible precisely because the image has become more important than that which its reflects. Or, put differently, discipleship has become a pale reflection of worship.

The paling of reality and the distorted power of images must be due, at least in part, to the commodification of the image itself. Whereas before the image represented something else, thus contributing to the creation of meaning, it is now a product of consumption in its own right. It has value in and of itself, and not just as a representation. Annette Kuhn writes that images are  always seen in context: they always have a specific use value in the particular time and place of their consumption. This, together with their formal characteristics, conditions and limits the meanings available from them at any one moment. But if representations always have use value, then more often than not they also have exchange value: they circulate as commodities in a social/economic system. This further conditions, or over determines, the meanings available from representations.[4] (emphasis added)

Kuhn helps us to remember that it is the image of a cup of coffee, and not the coffee itself, that is really being sold. While the cup of coffee itself cannot in our minds equate with love and salvation, the image created in the film's mise-en-scene actually can. The offering of a cup of coffee from the young man coming from the light, into the darkness surrounding the woman on the bench, is meant to represent compassion, love, saving powers. If ever we were to doubt this, the text, through Armstrong's over voice referring to the worlds woes and the impression of the song What a Wonderful World, guides us. The image as a commodity begins to function symbolically: we purchase the product to own the image that represents certain values we desire to consume. In time the process begins to occupy theological and ideological space.

One of the most successful and impressive selling of a product and an image is the story of Coca-Cola. From the very beginning Coke was marketed as "one sight, one sound, one sell." You may remember the 1970's television commercial showing a group of ethnically diverse young people gathered on a hilltop singing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company." The advert had both popular and universal appeal. "The implication: open a Coke and enjoy instant communitas!"[5]

While a particular coffee offers us love, salvation, and peace, Coca-Cola brings us world harmony. The consumption of image is "the place where the material and the symbolic dimensions of social life meet,"[6] and meet in our everyday lives. But now the product and its image are portrayed as if they possess religious significance, idealized qualities entering into everyday life. "All products (and I would add images), from electric shavers to minivans or a meal at McDonald's, are touted by their advertisers as an eruption of the extraordinary into the everyday."[7] Hope can be realized, salvation found, if we buy the product and embrace its image. If the image is not God, it surely has divine power.

If you think I overstate the case, consider Campbell Soup's changing approach to advertising its product. The New York Times featured a story entitled "Campbell Soup pitches comfort food for the modern soul during the Winter Olympics."[8] Hays reports that Campbell is "trying to graft a contemporary edge onto its image in a pair of television commercials..." The new slogan is "M'm! m'm! good for the body, good for the soul" and echoes their past image while announcing new intentions.

Emotions which, according to Hayes "lend certain qualities to the soul," are emphasized in the ad. In one commercials a foster-child is left at her new home. "There is the anguished look the new mother gives the social worker, the painful disconnect of the child, the memories of home - the vanished mother - that are stirred up when the bowl of chicken noodle soup appears on a tray." The little girl speaks: "My mommy used to fix me this soup." The foster mother replies: "My mother used to make it for me too. Why don't I tell you about my mom, and then you can tell me about yours?" The little girl chirps, "OK."[9]

The chief executive of Campbell Soup Company calls the commercial a "soul piece" saying it is a good way of "going beyond just the nourishing aspects of soup and talking in a contemporary sort of way about the nurturing aspects." As the commercial shows us, even the angst ridden spirit of a little girl can be nurtured with chicken noodle soup.

Soul and soup. Coffee and salvific love. Soft drinks and universal peace. What we learn, at least in part, in all our examples is that the creators of advertising consider religious values to be part of our contemporary world and that they can be sold as image when associated with their products.[10]

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1988, p.2.

[2] Ibid., p.2.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Kuhn, Annette. The Power of The Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. Routledge: London, 1985, p.6.

[5] David Howes, editor. Cross-Cultural Consumption. Routledge: London, 1996, p.3

[6] Philibert, Jean-Marc and Jourdan, Christine. "Perishable Goods" in Cross-Cultural Consumption, ed. David Howes, Routledge: London, 1996, p.72.

[7] Classen, Contance. "Sugar Cane, Coca-Cola and Hypermarkets" in Cross-Cultural Consumption, ed. David Howes, Routledge: London, 1996, p.72.

[8] Hays, Constance L. New York Times. February 9, 1998.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The image of certain people are also co-opted for selling. Thus, the image of Martin Luther King delivering his "I had a dream" speech is used to sell running shoes and the image of Gandhi is employed to sell computers. Even the image of Adolf Hitler was used to sell crisp. Hitler is seen giving a Nazi salute. The scene then cuts to a woman "whom the agency, Leo Burnett Bangkok, says 'wants to change his evil ways by casting a voodoo spell over him.' A swastika then turns into a product logo." From AP, Bangkok, and The Guardian June 2, 1998.

Image Ambiguity ~ The Paling of Reality

Our quite natural ability to distinguish between image and its referent, fiction and nonfiction, imaginative reconstruction and observed reality, are now being threatened, which means value creation (including religious value) is also being distorted. Richard Kearney says,

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the image of today and former times: now the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent. Or to put it in another way, reality has become a pale reflection of the image.[1]

Kearney tells the story of two women conversing over the back fence to emphasize his concern for the relationship between image and reality, and what I am calling image ambiguity. One woman compliments the other's child, to which the mother responses, "Yes, he is lovely, but you should see the photograph."[2] Everywhere we turn, we are confronted by images that seem more important than the reality they supposedly represent. As the photograph of the boy becomes more important than the child himself, so too the cup of coffee becomes more important than the compassion of a stranger.

As the anecdote makes us smile, Kearney goes on to claim the same confusion is happening in the arts: "at the level of artistic culture there is a growing awareness that images have now displaced the 'original' realities they were traditionally meant to reflect."[3]

Given that the narrative arts both generate (as challenge and substitute) and appropriate religious imagery and values, we should not be surprised to discover that in religion the image and the reality of faith are also confused, with actualized faith becoming a pale reflection of its symbols and rituals. Perhaps it can even be argued that the values and precepts of the Christian faith have lost meaning in reality and function only dramatically in the theatre of worship, albeit often times poorly performed. In other words, principles of faith are not actualized in everyday life but are only ritualized in the performance of worship. The displacement of faith commands with dramatic image and ritual action enables the worshipper to embrace elements of faith without challenging his or her character of being and action in the world. Thus, we can, through ritualized performance, continually read in worship-theatre that Christ has come to give good news to the poor without having to question what such sacred concerns might mean to our middle and upper class lives. This is possible precisely because the image has become more important than that which its reflects. Or, put differently, discipleship has become a pale reflection of worship.

The paling of reality and the distorted power of images must be due, at least in part, to the commodification of the image itself. Whereas before the image represented something else, thus contributing to the creation of meaning, it is now a product of consumption in its own right. It has value in and of itself, and not just as a representation. Annette Kuhn writes that images are

 

always seen in context: they always have a specific use value in the particular time and place of their consumption. This, together with their formal characteristics, conditions and limits the meanings available from them at any one moment. But if representations always have use value, then more often than not they also have exchange value: they circulate as commodities in a social/economic system. This further conditions, or over determines, the meanings available from representations.[4] (emphasis added)

Kuhn helps us to remember that it is the image of a cup of coffee, and not the coffee itself, that is really being sold. While the cup of coffee itself cannot in our minds equate with love and salvation, the image created in the film's mise-en-scene actually can. The offering of a cup of coffee from the young man coming from the light, into the darkness surrounding the woman on the bench, is meant to represent compassion, love, saving powers. If ever we were to doubt this, the text, through Armstrong's over voice referring to the worlds woes and the impression of the song What a Wonderful World, guides us. The image as a commodity begins to function symbolically: we purchase the product to own the image that represents certain values we desire to consume. In time the process begins to occupy theological and ideological space.

One of the most successful and impressive selling of a product and an image is the story of Coca-Cola. From the very beginning Coke was marketed as "one sight, one sound, one sell." You may remember the 1970's television commercial showing a group of ethnically diverse young people gathered on a hilltop singing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company." The advert had both popular and universal appeal. "The implication: open a Coke and enjoy instant communitas!"[5]

While a particular coffee offers us love, salvation, and peace, Coca-Cola brings us world harmony. The consumption of image is "the place where the material and the symbolic dimensions of social life meet,"[6] and meet in our everyday lives. But now the product and its image are portrayed as if they possess religious significance, idealized qualities entering into everyday life. "All products (and I would add images), from electric shavers to minivans or a meal at McDonald's, are touted by their advertisers as an eruption of the extraordinary into the everyday."[7] Hope can be realized, salvation found, if we buy the product and embrace its image. If the image is not God, it surely has divine power.

If you think I overstate the case, consider Campbell Soup's changing approach to advertising its product. The New York Times featured a story entitled "Campbell Soup pitches comfort food for the modern soul during the Winter Olympics."[8] Hays reports that Campbell is "trying to graft a contemporary edge onto its image in a pair of television commercials..." The new slogan is "M'm! m'm! good for the body, good for the soul" and echoes their past image while announcing new intentions.

Emotions which, according to Hayes "lend certain qualities to the soul," are emphasized in the ad. In one commercials a foster-child is left at her new home. "There is the anguished look the new mother gives the social worker, the painful disconnect of the child, the memories of home - the vanished mother - that are stirred up when the bowl of chicken noodle soup appears on a tray." The little girl speaks: "My mommy used to fix me this soup." The foster mother replies: "My mother used to make it for me too. Why don't I tell you about my mom, and then you can tell me about yours?" The little girl chirps, "OK."[9]

The chief executive of Campbell Soup Company calls the commercial a "soul piece" saying it is a good way of "going beyond just the nourishing aspects of soup and talking in a contemporary sort of way about the nurturing aspects." As the commercial shows us, even the angst ridden spirit of a little girl can be nurtured with chicken noodle soup.

Soul and soup. Coffee and salvific love. Soft drinks and universal peace. What we learn, at least in part, in all our examples is that the creators of advertising consider religious values to be part of our contemporary world and that they can be sold as image when associated with their products.[10]

 



[1] Kearney, Richard. The Wake of Imagination. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1988, p.2.

[2] Ibid., p.2.

[3] Ibid., p.2.

[4] Kuhn, Annette. The Power of The Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. Routledge: London, 1985, p.6.

[5] David Howes, editor. Cross-Cultural Consumption. Routledge: London, 1996, p.3

[6] Philibert, Jean-Marc and Jourdan, Christine. "Perishable Goods" in Cross-Cultural Consumption, ed. David Howes, Routledge: London, 1996, p.72.

[7] Classen, Contance. "Sugar Cane, Coca-Cola and Hypermarkets" in Cross-Cultural Consumption, ed. David Howes, Routledge: London, 1996, p.72.

[8] Hays, Constance L. New York Times. February 9, 1998.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The image of certain people are also co-opted for selling. Thus, the image of Martin Luther King delivering his "I had a dream" speech is used to sell running shoes and the image of Gandhi is employed to sell computers. Even the image of Adolf Hitler was used to sell crisp. Hitler is seen giving a Nazi salute. The scene then cuts to a woman "whom the agency, Leo Burnett Bangkok, says 'wants to change his evil ways by casting a voodoo spell over him.' A swastika then turns into a product logo." From AP, Bangkok, and The Guardian June 2, 1998.

Monday
Feb202012

Exact Repetition ~ The Reinterpretation of Meaning

by Dale Rominger

The power of image as an item of consumption is reinforced by the repetitive nature of the presentation.  In addition to image ambiguity generated in the narratives of our consumer culture, the advent of exact repetition also affects the creation of meaning. It is worth quoting Marina Warner at length. She says

repetition narratives course through the hardening capillaries of the social system with unprecedented fluidity, carried by a thousand different conduits in a million images and sound bites. It's so obvious, but it bears repeating: no participant in the mysteries celebrating the exploit of Hercules, no member of the audience of the tragedy of Agamemnon or Jason had the story recapitulated and reproduced and beamed at him -or her- again and again in a frenzied proliferation of echoes. This use of repetition combines with another new and very popular form of storytelling: the advertisement. The principal task of an ad -to persuade- has altered responses to the myths advertising often absorbs and reinterprets...Almost always, ads trigger desire and excite imitation and identification.[1]

While Warner is speaking of the place of mythology in human experience, we can here replace myth with that of religious values and share in her concern about how, in this example, advertising utilize narrative tradition and religions values while absorbing and reinterpreting them to their own purpose. We can also share in the concern about how exact repetition actually changes the way in which religious values are formed. It is not just that the coffee ad utilises religious values in a particular way, but also that we see it over and over again. The absorption and reinterpretation is magnified in the process of exact repetition, a phenomena relatively new to human experience, as Warner points out. The new narrative form does not function as mythology and/or religious narrative inviting people to participate in a process of contemplation, pathos, joy, "argument and counter-argument." Instead, the new narratives of "contemporary culture - the TV channel, the computer game, the toy shop, the street" using mythic and religious images and values offer models of valuation and behaviour which "reiterate the message...appealing to the group's purchasing power, shaping tastes, playing on rivalry and vulnerability."[2]

In our example, we begin to confuse the relationship between the power of love t address reality's problems with the consuming of a particular image. Exact repetition reinforces the ambiguity of image and the reinterpretation of meanings. Eventually we come to believe that a warm cup of coffee, and not the actualizing of love, will make everything all right. Admittedly, it may be stretching it to claim a cup of coffee can save us, or that a soft drink can bring world harmony, or that a bowl of soup will heal the brokenness in a small child resulting from the loss of a her mother (thus the utter audacity of the ads), but we do begin to associate the product with the value being portrayed. It is not beyond us to admit that what we consume does, to a very large extent, define us. The car we drive, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and much more, give us value. Eventually, inevitably, what it means to be human, to be in community, and to seek the sacred, is transformed. Maybe we will become better people or create a better community if we all drink the right coffee and soft drink and eat the right soup.

While the concerns of exact repetition do not necessarily apply to drama, they do to film. There is a large market in videos and DVD's which allow repeated viewing of films, and the repeated viewing of particular scenes of films. Further, we can now "own" films, which is to say we can also "own" the images and values the film offers. And of course, film and advertising have melded into one enterprise with each film selling everything from sunglasses to CD's, dolls to hamburgers. We are buying a complete network of images and values, and it is with each viewing of a particular film we "activate" that network.

If you think the case is overstated, it is interesting to remember that at the WTO conference in November 1999 Seattle the police handling of demonstrators because the police themselves evoked images of Star War storm troopers. The judgment of police practices was influenced by the images and value portrayed in the Star Wars trilogy, which has become a "real" part of our lives. It is difficult to believe that such a judgment would have been made without image ambiguity, exact repetition and the comodification of value.[3]

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] Warner, Marina. Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beats, and More. New York: Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, Inc. pp.37-38.

[2] Ibid., p.38.

[3] I am tempted to wonder if those who designed the Seattle police riot gear were consciously or unconsciously influenced by the Star War films.