Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jesus is the answer, Jean is the genius!

Jean Comaroff and Eric Worby

The theme of Tuesday’s breathtaking morning session with Jean Comaroff was “the politics of faith”, revolving around the new entanglements of the religious, the political, and the economic. The God business booms, but what is new in this boom, Jean Comaroff argues, is how the sacred appears in ever more profane places. Governments discover citizens’ sense of empathy, proclaim moral regeneration campaigns, and lead wars against evil; the market economy appears as the vivid proof of the end of history. New “passionate convictions” seem to have overcome modernity’s alleged “affective deficit” (Mazzarella). Affect has become the currency that does not need exchange, it is direct, immediate, ready to feel, display, use, and to be overwhelmed by. Just religion? Rather a symptom of something more profound happening in society: a general metaphysical remaking of modernity.

“We want our church to look like a shopping mall” enthuses a pastor that Comaroff quotes. New practices of faith become ever more possessed by rationales coming from spheres long thought separate from religion: popular culture, secular media and the market. Indeed, one could argue, neoliberal obsessions with choice increasingly ground the very practice of faith itself. I came across the multi-faith site beliefnet.com that recommends everyone to do a “belief-o-matic” test in order to find out about one’s own spiritual preferences and styles. On the website it reads: “Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-MaticTM knows. Answer 20 questions about your concept of God, the afterlife, human nature, and more, and Belief-O-Matic™ will tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing.“ And right underneath „Warning: Belief-O-Matic™ assumes no legal liability for the ultimate fate of your soul.“ The marriage of commerce and faith seems unproblematic and, yes, absolutely rational. But the notion of choice is stretched even more: Need a prayer? And a meditation afterwards? No need to be restrained, one can pick from the theme park of faith whatever suits best for the very occasion one looks for input: ready to consume instantaneously. An example of Achille’s spontaneous creation of short-termism?

So, if Jesus, and others of his kind, is the answer, what was the question again? One question, at least, was Achille Mbembe’s where the political has gone (if, as others assumed, it has vanished). Comaroff’s title “The politics of faith” suggests an answer that slips away as soon as we start to pronounce it. The new political in the religious? Or has it morphed into new aggregates, new entanglements, new “regimes of feeling” (Thrift)? Take for example the discovery of love, mystery, secret, and passion by marketing gurus Saatchi and Saatchi as the central tropes for successful advertising. But where do we go from that in search of the political? David Goldberg reminded us to ask about the worldly effects of power involved in the new politics of passion and faith, such as exclusion to salvation. Here we are back to the waste-lands of human history.

Christine Hentschel

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