The climate change ‘mismatch’

By Noami Klein.

Binge TV and critical theory

Ever since entire seasons of TV programmes were available in DVD, and more so since Netflix’s policy of releasing a whole series at once, binge TV watching has been an enjoyable way to immerse oneself in a storyline, an escapism even easier than reading something light (watching is more passive than reading). With TV as good as The WireBorgen or (fill in your favourite programme here), one could even feel slightly highbrow about it. Nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. It’s elementary critical theory to point out, though, that binge TV is almost certainly one of the primary current ways people deal with the psychological and emotional stresses imposed on them by the economy, society, globalisation and politics. What better way to relax after a hard day’s work than the latest good TV (or reading, or whatever)? The news is depressing, ecological catastrophe looms, half the world is hungry, politicians don’t seem to know what to do about it…People can ignore the problems, but they can also retreat into a spectator-consumer mode, using their leisure time to enjoy themselves. The culture industry serves as a kind of pressure valve, releasing some psychic pressure, enabling one to return to one’s production role the next day. Insofar as they do so, they can act to divert from energy and attention away from the causes of that physic pressure and attempts to change them.

I was thinking about this lately because at times of high stress I feel the desire/temptation to retreat into a good book, and lately TV programme. (And retreat and temptation are the right words, I think). I’ve just finished watching the first series of The Newsroom. It struck me that it may be better at fulfilling some of the aims of critical theory than any work of Adorno or Horkheimer. For those who haven’t seen it, the programme is about an American TV news programme that decides to attempt seriously to educate and inform its audience: to pursue the best argument, to put arguments in context, to give facts. They naturally have to fight against viewer numbers, advertising and corporate/capitalist reality. Sorkin (the writer) pitches it explicitly as a Quixotic tilt at economic windmills. Yet in its very idealism it raises the question: why can’t the news do this? Why on earth does this seemingly straightforward task of the news fulfilling its own job description seem so (impossibly?) idealistic to us? One of the aims of critical theory is to encourage transformation in society away from oppression and domination and towards justice and emancipation. But much critical theory remains forbiddingly difficult to most lay people. By contrast, TV programmes like The Newsroom and The Wire attract audiences, educate, provoke thought, and pull people along via plot and characters. The new journalism associated with Tom Wolfe’s novels, of which these TV programmes could be considered a subset, does the same. In terms of raising consciousness, creating the will to change, and getting (enough) people involved, TV of this kind seems to beat academic critical theory.

Watching TV is, of course, not the same as acting. Critical theory returns repeatedly to the questions, what will motivate people to act? and how can they shoulder the psychological burden of their obligation to act? (Some critical theory goes even further, declaring us all far more morally guilty than we realise, an extra burden to bear). Perhaps TV can have the better of academic writing here too, since watching a character can be inspiring (as can reading real stories of change). Philosophy and high theory has its place too, but it is sobering for an academic to think that TV can do some of her/his work – Adorno would probably turn in his grave – even if most TV is obviously not of this kind. Still, perhaps critical theory needs more popularisers. 

Al Jazeera on Cameron

offer a good analysis of his cynical attempt to enlist Christian charitable help for the problems his policies cause. 

Purity & Impurity Across Anthropology, Psychology & Religious Studies: Contaminating Disciplines

20 May 2014 – 21 May 2014 ; Jesus College (Upper Hall), Jesus Lane, Cambridge, CB5 8BL

Speakers include: Jonathan Benthall, Simon Blackburn, Ben Campkin, Robbie Duschinsky, Richard Fardon, Mila Ginsburskaya, Jonathan Klawans, Jesse Lee Preston, Simone Schnall & Chenbo Zhong.

Conference fee: £50 (full), £25 (students) – includes lunch and tea/coffee

Deadline: Friday 16 May 2014


Purity and Danger, published in 1966 by Mary Douglas, was judged by the Times Literary Supplement to be among the ‘hundred books which have most influenced Western public discourse since the Second World War’. This text contested the common presumption that purity and impurity discourses are confined merely to ‘primitive’ or ‘superstitious’ cultures and societies, instead arguing that such themes play an important boundary-drawing role in all human societies. In the wake of Douglas’s contribution, research into questions of purity and impurity has blossomed in the fields of psychology, anthropology and religious studies. However, further testing of Douglas’ particular claims has led to the conclusion that new approaches to the question of purity are needed. However, a key hindrance to such work has been the relative lack of interdisciplinary engagement in relation to this topic. Even the main scholar to have attempted this integration, Julia Kristeva, has noted that ‘my investigation… picks up on a certain vacuum’. The central goal of the conference is to promote exploration of issues relating to purity, impurity, and disgust, and to do so by sustaining an interdisciplinary conversation.

Conveners: Daniel Weiss (Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge); Simone Schnall (Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge); Robbie Duschinsky (Northumbria University)

Purity and Impurity

Free journal articles for a while

Here and here.

Ein deutsches Lied, das ich liebe

,,Liebe,” Mopp Mama

A phenomenology of Spirit

Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality and the Self. An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ is now required reading in theology. The argument is really quite fascinating and bold. She discerns links between gender, sexuality, desire, theology and experience of God. As to the latter, Coakley argues, on the basis of decades of contemplative practice, that theology should start with contemplative prayer and a correlative apophaticism, yet at the same time, she argues contemplative prayer intimates a certain experience of God that implies trinitarianism (did I mention it was a bold argument?). She identifies structural parallels between the loss of control in contemplative prayer and that in charismatic prayer, both of which identify the Spirit as drawing the individual into the other persons of the trinity (I’ve crudely oversimplified there but that’s the gist). This is distinctively theology, not philosophy of religion or even metaphysics in the Five Ways style that may gain a more sympathetic ear from philosophers. If one is unwilling to take the experiences of contemplative seriously, I don’t suppose one will have much truck with it. Her use of sociology is excellent: neither reductive nor insulating theology from it, and even extending Troeltsch’s work on connections between social groups and types of theology. Each volume includes a ‘semiotic interlude’ to allow the imagination its place too - a welcome example of attempts to resist and overcome rationalised reason. This volume uses iconography, others will use music and poetry. Her combination of feminism and contemplative apophaticism is tremendous. Even the format is well thought through. It is stylistically lucid, which requires a certain bravery amidst the academic fashion for obscurantism and deliberate difficulty. Each chapter ends with an annotated bibliography, to help the less initiated. The argument is clear throughout, both individual sections and the whole trajectory. All in all, one of the best works of theology I’ve read.

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