Monday, July 27, 2015

Accuracy vs. Authenticity, Part the First

The splendid Dr. Olson, who is almost always right, says this:
“For yet another thing, I perceive among myself and my circle of friends areaction against some of our current culture’s informality. In myhouse we call it the MadMen effect. There is, particularly on the part of younger Gen-X and Gen-Yfolks a desire for some of the structure—and style—that we thinkwe see in MadMenDownton Abbey,and other perceptions of the Time Before the Sixties. There was aclarity there in roles and responsibilities we find lacking intoday’s world. I’m very sensitive that this is a nostalgia forsomething we never actually experienced.That’s a whole other topic that we’ll get into some other day.The point I’m making here is that those looking for depth and authenticity increasingly hard to find in a shallow consumer-centered culture may be looking for something else. Perhap slanguage redolent of long-lived experience that actually is in directcontact with over a thousand years of Christian tradition is what they’re hungering for.”

This is an important paragraph, and one of the first I've read that begins to tackle an increasingly worrying issue: “nostalgia for the unexperienced experience.”

You've probably seen one of those chewing gum commercials that entitles their gum “winter blast” or “tropical fruit breeze” or “bus driver's coffee breath,” but uses the image of tautly-muscled athletes laying on a visibly vibrating speaker to approximate the experience of a “winter blast.”

Accurate, but not an authentic “winter blast.” Someone who had actually experienced a “winter blast” or “tropical fruit beeze” would instantly recognize that laying on a virbating speaker, while having it's own thrills and sensations, is not an authentic “winter blast.”

Likewise, Mad Men and Downton Abbey (per Dr. Olson) are a kind of “accurate but not authentic” picture of '60s and early 20th century life of a certain aspirational experience of a subset of people. People praise both series' “authenticity,” but what they're actually praising are the series' accuracy; things look '60s-ish and appropriately Edwardian, but the mere fact of recreating those periods requires an inauthenticity to simply survive. Props, sets, actors, are all inauthentic in terms of having actual connection to the time period portrayed; indeed, the series' successes are because of that inauthenticity. They mirror our own tumultuous changes in family, social and political order, and dramatize them via the series' individual conceits. 

 Flipside, pop-culture wise, is the inaccurate but authentic Modern Family; the resolution of plots and characters' dilemmas aren't based in an accuracy to life (no one sets up a tight-rope wire in their front yard, for example), but authentically reflects society's struggles to come to terms with the revolutionary changes in the past 10-15 years. The People's Budget is the Cuban Missile Crisis is Cam and Mitchell's marriage.

Baudrillard called these sort sof things simulations, and that forms the basis of The Matrix, the plot of which I won't belabor here. We know, intellectually, that laying on a vibrating speaker is not a winter blast, and most of us would say a vibrating speaker is still no where the same experience as actually experiencing a brisk winter... But what if a person, or society, no longer had a reference point of an actual winter, and began to prefer the simulation? Baudrillard calls this situation a “simulacrum,” and this is the potential trap the Church needs to lighten its step as it negotiates the Millenial generation.

Because Millenials are the ones who tend to favor simulacrum over the actual. Raised on Disney, video games and the internet, their entire context and cultural milleau puts them at the critical junction between the actual, the simulation, and the simulacrum. Consumer-centered and consumer-savvy, Millenials sense inauthenticity and inaccuracy with uncanny immediacy. But without a touchstone of what actual authenticity is... How do we determine authentic vs. inauthentic?
More often than not, the determination of authenticity comes from a consumerist identity-seeking; this feels authentic to me because it validates my chosen identity for myself: I believe myself to be This, and That affirms This, therefore, That is authentic. Things, and People, become accessories to hang on the identity of the individual. I am the person I believe myself to be, because I am the type of person who has an iPhone. Or a Galaxy. Or an Android. Or a whatever. Rachel Held Evans' completely unsurprising move to TEC is less about a spiritual home, but about Evan's own branding of herself as a Evangelical refugee.

Let's be clear: Millennials are not innately spiritual, nor are we innately communitarian or in search of actual authenticity; recall, we've never experienced actual authenticity, spirituality or community unmediated by an all-present media. We're looking for the feeling of spirituality, the feeling of community, and the feeling of authenticity; the search is for the simulacrum of those those things. A millenial that encounters the actual would likely run screaming from the room. We mistake Lena Dunham's openness about her sexuality and experiences for openness about her intimacy; in fact, the openness itself serves to avoid intimacy; if everything is open, then nothing is intimate. We've convinced ourseleves that removing a single flag (however correct that removal may be) has solved racism and gun violence in the US. Oops.

In return, The Church likes the simulacrum, because it relives us of forming actual authentic Chrisitan communities or doing actual Christian formation. We can focus on other things, easier things, and we feel good about the misfocus, because we've formed our own simulacrum: we accurately look like communities or doing formation or evangelism, but have no touchstone to what that authentically looks like. We get the positive feed back of celebrity conversions and a slightly younger, hipper clergy without the negative feedback of having to do the work to earn those conversions or effectively form those clergy.

The way in which feelings of impotence are usually processed is through meanigless, if slightly magically understood, activity; if I do A, B, and C, then the Great Other looking over my shoulder will react positively. And if any organization has ever displayed anxious activity in the midst of impotence, it has been TEC since 1979. If we do A, B, and C, then the Great Other will bless us with higher numbers. So we go through the throes of the LGBT Debate(s), of Spong, of TREC and restructuring resolutions, and finally with the long-ago referenced permission for normalizing the use of “Rite III.” Young deputies opposed the resolution, older deputies supported it. This is not a clash of visions for the church, but a clash of consumerism; the Boomers want one result to affirm their idenitity, Millenials want the other to affirm their identity. The approved version affirms (or allows the bishop to affirm) both.

Which is fine, I suppose, so long as we realize precisely what we're doing; enabling consumerist interpretation of the church. In the midst of not being able to make heads or tails out of 50-year decline, or to make sense out of Millenial simulacrum, TEC is flapping its liturgical wings helplessly and anxiously, trying to offer a better product, like Paul Kinsey desperately trying to one-up Peggy.

Slow down.

We're still here.

Most of us aren't looking for a product. We're looking for authenticity, but we don't know what that is. Show us. You can do it.