Most of the time, when Catholics use the term “Cultural Marxism” they mean to capture within it images of everything they don’t like. This is the mirror image, I suppose, of the equally unhelpful way progressives tend to use the term “neoconservatism.” But to so convert “Cultural Marxism” from a specific tradition of analysis of material processes underpinning consumer culture ― what the Frankfurt School called Kulturkritik ― to a worldwide conspiracy to destroy everything the West holds dear is dangerous on two levels. Conservatives more generally give themselves an excuse to ignore insights that may in fact help us understand the material processes at work in contemporary culture; and Christians, in particular, miss an opportunity to understand how these processes can also be obstacles to the life of faith.
In order to ensure that this opportunity is not missed, I want here to tease out just one thread from the writings of two figures in the French strand of Cultural Marxism, which is distinct from but nonetheless parallels the work of the Frankfurt School. These are Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard ― figures who, in different ways, analysed the cultural power of images in creating a cultural condition that Baudrillard called “hyperreality,” where images become more real than reality itself. And yet, as Debord and Baudrillard argue, hyperreality is not just a cultural problem to be endured, but a form of idolatry to be resisted.
From commodity to simulacrum
It goes without saying that Western culture is saturated with images. They are on our billboards, on sides of vehicles, buildings, clothing and phones. We cannot even answer nature’s call without the walls of toilets calling to us with the latest offer we cannot refuse. The explosion of smartphone technology means that users have round-the-clock screen time. Our world is awash with signs and symbols that flood every corner of our social space and fill our collective imaginations.
But what is the cultural effect this image-saturation? This is where Kulturkritik comes in. The heart of Kulturkritik is…
For a podcast of a conference paper I presented on a similar theme, click here.