Desire & Idolatry: After Debating

Desire & Idolatry: After Debating October 4, 2016
Source:, CC0 License
Source:, CC0 License

Elections come, elections go, but the media stands firm forever…

Whilst another electoral debate has concluded in the United States, it will be a while before another televised debate will show up somewhere else in the world. The people may be different, but the format is pretty much the same.

Chances are that each one will come up with different sounding spiels that, under the surface, have the kind of manufactured pre-packaged constants – that those in the Frankfurt School spoke about in what they called “Mass Culture” – a message of crisis and a promise of salvation from said crisis if only they were put into public office. Desires are stirred, if not whipped into a frenzy, and this frenzy of libido is taken as the legitimation of one candidate or another, an exercise of public reason analogous to what Rousseau called the “General Will”, to which every citizen is subordinate without qualification. Minority voices, nuance, pause for reflection, details and particularly soon fizzle and disappear under this tsunami

And channelling that tsunami to our eardrums, eyeballs, and glands are the manifold media outlets who provide their “angle” on the debates under the guise of informing the public. But as John Durham Peters of the University of Iowa suggested in his interview with Ken Myers on the Mars Hill Audio Journal (centring around his new book The Marvellous Clouds), the media are “agencies of order”, creating the public rather than reflecting it. Media networks form ecosystems that specialise in dividing citizens into factions, organising them around positions, and orbiting them around a narrative with an indispensable protagonist.

And the beating heart for this organisation is the harnessing of desire, and it is a desire that is not free from liturgical, religious or even transcendental significance. Indeed, in his Gifts Glittering and Poisoned, Chanon Ross makes an important link between the harnessing of desire and worship. Drawing upon the metaphysics implicit in the sermons of Augustine of Hippo (concerning the propriety of Roman Christians witnessing the spectacle of the arenas), Ross speaks of desire not as an inward movement of some hermetically sealed spirit, but an outward and even upward movement between one stratum of existence and another, higher stratum. Emotions and libido, for Augustine, are launchpads that facilitate a person’s transcendence, or approximations of it. Ross thus suggests that insofar as any sight or sound stirs the desire, there is a form of transcendence being facilitated at a metaphysical level. And insofar as they direct the person to organise themselves around someone or something other than God, then there is a form of idolatry being undertaken at a liturgical level.

The idolatry may not last, but the recipe for idolatry is an oft-repeated formula that is rolled out so constantly that it is treated as a neutral given. In its gaze, we allow reason to be formatted by it, allow speeches supposedly based on reason to be repacked in order to be funnelled through it, allow our communities to be reorganised within it, and we allow ourselves to see it in full swing at every election cycle. And when that cycle is over and our idol placed in the seat of public office (or demon in the case of that idol’s detractors), we will still continue to allow it to format our daily lives, in our consumption of social media, radio, television and streaming, preparing us for the next round of elections in a few years time.

Elections come, elections go, but the media stands firm forever…

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