2 Media and the Sacred: An Evaluation of the ‘Strong Program’ within Cultural Sociology (4/5) – Social Media and Religious Change

less one indicator of the kind of phenomena that we might think of as sacred.
Furthermore, there is a sense in which such intensity is also necessarily associ-
ated with the subjectivity of the concept. When I have heard researchers from
other countries present studies on sacred forms or moments in their cultures
for example, on media coverage of the murder of Anna Lindh in Sweden or
the killing in China of a working-class student from a poor background as a re-
sult of careless driving by a young man from the new economic elite Ihave
been struck that there is an emotional content to these narratives which I can
understand but do not experience as directly as the researchers themselves. Sim-
ilarly, when talking to othe r researchers, our awareness of sacred moments in our
own cultures is often tied to instances where we felt compelled to feel or act in
extra-mundane ways to grieve the loss of a public figure, or to engage in public
protest at some instance of the violation of human rights. There is a sense in
which an appreciation of sacred forms can involve a researchers own emotional
identification with those forms. This is not to say that the sacred is whatever a
researcher wants to call the sacred. Rather, the researchers own awareness of
his or her cognitive, emotional, embodied response to particular social phenom-
ena can provide evidence of the intensity that marks sacred forms which, when
triangulated with other accounts or performances of such intense identification,
may provide stronger grounds for using the concept of the sacred. This is,
though, an initial proposal, and defining the criteria for identifying sacred
forms will remain an ongoing task for the strong program.
A second issue for critical reflection is the extent to which the strong pro-
gram takes adequate account of issues of aesthetics, materiality and embodi-
ment. In its more strongly semiotic forms of expression, the strong program
risks reducing social interaction to a range of linguistic and textual concepts:
code, symbol, langue, parole, text, script, binary distinction. Whilst supporting
analysis of the content of cultura l meanings present in a given situation, such
linguistically derived concepts do not necessarily help to make connections be-
tween cultural meanings and subjectivity, materiality, embodiment or action. The
use of performance theory has provided one way of thinking about the ways in
which cultural texts are enacted, as has the use within the strong program of
speech-act theory. But there is scope for expanding an appreciation of the aes-
thetic and material within cultural sociology beyond this. Alexander has recently
started to address this issue through developing the concept of iconic conscious-
ness, which occurs when an aesthetically shaped materiality signifies social
value, generating understanding by feeling, by evidence of the senses rather
than the mind (2008: 782). From this perspective, cultural signifiers are extend-
ed beyond the linguistic/cognitive to allow for the possibility of the experience of
cultural meaning through aesthetic processes. Such processes do not reflect a
30
Gordon Lynch
deep engagement with the essence of material objects themselves in a Heideg-
gerian sense, but rather the aesthetic construction of material surfaces and
their experience via feeling consciousness (Alexander 2008: 783). The aesthetic
meaning of an object is not simply inherent in the materiality of the object itself
but in the ways in which it is experienced aesthetically through cultural frame-
works of meaning. Importantly, Alexanders position moves beyond an instru-
mental understanding of the material object as a carrier of pre-determined cul-
tural meanings and recognises the ways in which cultural meanings themselves
are always implicated in the qualities of particular material objects and sensu-
ous forms of engagement with them. Whilst this represents a significant develop-
ment in attempting to move beyond semiotics relative failure to address the ma-
terial and the aesthetic, there are still areas of ambiguity in Alexanders
discussion. The use of the sacred/profane cultural binary is reflected in his ten-
dency to use similar, generalised, aesthetic categories the beautiful, the sub-
lime, the banal. But, given his recognition of the specificities of material forms
and aesthetic regimes, it would seem more profitable to make use of concepts
from the study of religious mediation, such as the sacred gaze (Morgan 2005)
or sensational forms (Meyer 2008), which provide a more flexible structure
for thinking about how particular experiences of the sacred are implicated in
particular cultural traditions, aesthetic practices and the material properties of
media. Alexander is also cautious about placing too much emphasis on the ef-
fects of the material in structuring culture, reflecting the strong aversion to ma-
terialist theories of society within the strong program. He has, for example, ar-
gued that actor-network theory has little to offer cultural sociology because
its ontology is relentlessly material [and] there is no symbolic imagining to
speak of (Alexander 2008: 783), rejecting it because of its over-emphasis on
the concrete, pragmatics and immediate experience. But there is scope for asking
whether this rejection is too strong. Could it be conceded that the nature and per-
formance of sacred forms are shaped by the materiality of spaces, objects and
technologies not in a deterministic way, but in terms of the affordances that
those material forms make possible? One example of such influence can be
found in Jacobs Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society, in which he argues
that part of the reason for the ongoing marginalisation of the African-American
press (and thus of cultural meanings grounded in the experience of black com-
munities in America) relates to the information technology used by journalists.
In a media age of tight copy deadlines, information technology is an essential
journalistic tool for accessing data needed for a story, including previous stories
published in the press. One of the main databases that support the search of
media archives is Lexis-Nexis, which makes possible a range of different kinds
of searches across thousands of news print media. African-American newspapers
2 Media and the Sacred
31
are not included in the Lexis-Nexis database, however, which means that the use
of this very convenient data source by journalists in major commercial newspa-
pers recursively reproduces the exclusion of black perspectives already rein-
forced by other sources of racial stratification. Although not simply determining
the way cultural meanings circulate by itself, Lexis-Nexis as a technology embed-
ded in a particular kind of cultural practice is implicated in the shape taken by
such patterns of circulation. More generally, then, we might ask what role the af-
fordances of different media play in the ways in which the sacred is encountered,
celebrated, or contested in contemporary society. Alexanders emphasis on cul-
tural meaning leads him only to acknowledge the illusion of the agency of ma-
terial objects at this point (Alexander 2008: 784), but the strong program could
reasonably expand its sense of the material and aesthetic further to allow that
cultural meanings and sacred forms emerge in the context of fields of agency
in which social actors, cultural symbols, material objects and aesthetic regimes
all interact to shape the nature and significance of the mediated sacred (see
Schofield Clark 2009; Miller 2010: 110 34).
¹
Such attention to the material
and the aesthetic has the potential both to add greater ethnographic richness
to the ways in which the strong program understands the relationship between
cultural meaning and the practices of social life and to move beyond thinking
about the representation of sacred forms in media texts to thinking about the ex-
perience of the sacred in the embodied and aesthetic uses of media.
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