Posted by: Dan | August 1, 2005

Emancipating Individuals Vs. Creating New Social Bodies

The 'private man,' because 'thought is free,' is at liberty in his heart to think what he will, provided in public he exercise his right to remain silent.
~ William T. Cavanaugh

One can think whatever one wants to, so long as one continues to live within the world of the nation-state (or what Rowan Williams, in light of the increasing influence of corporate businesses, calls market-states).

This is why counter-cultural movements from the hippies to punk rockers, from culture-jammers to adbusters, will continually miss the point (cf. Heath and Potter). Being counter-cultural is not about emancipating the individual from an oppressive social structure. Indeed, as Cavanaugh so cogently argues, the nation-state is built upon the emancipation of the individual. With the birth of the individual (over the social group), the state becomes the social body in which individuals can operate and protect themselves and their property. All other social bodies are consumed by the state — Hobbes' “Leviathan” swallows all other social bodies leaving a population of self-disciplining individuals. For, as Foucault argues, once the only social connection that individuals have is to the state (a structure Foucault describes as a “Panopticon”) they will not need to be disciplined to stay in line. They will fall in line and discipline themselves.

And so counter-cultural movements that seek to further the cause of the individual are simply a natural extension of this project. There is very little (or nothing at all) that is subversive about them. As Heath and Potter argue, it's not just that counter-cultural movements are co-opted by corporations, it's that there was very little genuine difference between the two. They both embrace the same story — it's just that one party is clean cut and wears suits while the other party has dred-locks and wears tattoos.

A true counter-culture must be one that exists as a very different social body. That is why it is the Church (and not just individual Christians) whose existence must be a counter-culture. It is the Church as a body that lives a very different story — a story that genuinely counters the dominant culture of today.

In his best known story, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury describes a group of social outcasts and vagabonds who are, in fact, former professors and intellectuals. Within a culture that burns books, a culture immersed in war, image, noise, and every form of distraction devoid of meaning, these people have memorised the great works of literature. Thus the following conversation ensues when Guy Montag (the protagonist) is welcomed into the group:

“Would you like, someday, Montag, to read Plato's Republic?”
“Of course!”
I am Plato's Republic.”

So also the Church, immersed as she is in a culture given over to war, consumption, and useless images (for, as Neil Postman reminds us, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand pictures could well prove to be worthless), memorises the Christian story, learns the Christian language, and lives as strangers in a strange land.

“Would you like, someday, to read the Word of God?”
“Of course!”
“We are the Word of God.”

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