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
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
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).
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.
Alexander, James C. 1988a. Introduction: Durkheimian sociology and cultural studies today.
In Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies, edited by J.C. Alexander, 1 22. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
. 1988b. Culture and political crisis: Watergate and Durkheimian sociology. In
Durkheimian Sociology: Cultural Studies, edited by J.C. Alexander, 187 224. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
. 1988c. Action and Its Environments: Towards a New Synthesis. New York: Columbia
University Press.
. 1990. The sacred and profane information machine: Discourse about the computer as
ideology. Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions 69 (1): 161 171.
 This would fit within the emphasis on multi-dimensionality in Alexanders social theory (see
e.g., Alexander 2005: 22): The ambition of my cultural sociology has been to [] provide the
internal architecture of social meaning via concepts of code, narrative and symbolic action, so
that culture can finally assume its rightful place as equivalent to, and interpenetrated with,
other kinds of structuring social force.
32 Gordon Lynch
. 2003. The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.
. 2005. Why cultural sociology is not idealist: A reply to McLennan. Theory, Culture and
Society 22 (6): 19 29.
. 2006a. The Civil Sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
. 2006b. From the depths of despair: Performance, counter-performance and September
11.’” In Social Performance: Symbolic Action, Cultural Pragmatics, Ritual, edited by J.C.
Alexander, B. Giesen, and J. Mast, 91 114. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
. 2008. Iconic consciousness: The material feeling of meaning. Environment and Planning
D: Society and Space 26: 782 94.
. 2009. Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate. New York: Oxford University Press.
Alexander, James C., and R. Jacobs. 1998. Mass communication, ritual and civil society. In
Media, Ritual and Identity, edited by T. Liebes and J. Curran, 23 41. London: Routledge.
Alexander, James C., B. Giesen, and J. Mast. 2006. Social Performance: Symbolic Action,
Cultural Pragmatics and Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Alexander, James C., and Mast, J. 2006. Introduction: Symbolic action in theory and
practice: The cultural pragmatics of cultural action. In Social Performance: Symbolic
Action, Cultural Pragmatics, Ritual, edited by J.C. Alexander, B. Giesen, and J. Mast,
1 28. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anttonen, Veikko. 1999. Sacred. In Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by R. McCutcheon
and W. Braun, 271 282. London: Continuum.
Bellah, Robert N. 1967. Civil religion in America. Daedalus 96 (1): 1 21.
. 1992. The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Carrette, Jeremy. 2007. Religion and Critical Psychology: Religious Experience in the
Knowledge Economy.
London: Routledge.
CBS. 1954. A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. See It Now March 9, 1954. Available
at: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/murrowmccarthy.html.
Cordero, Rodrigo, F. Carballo and J. Ossandon. 2008. Performing cultural sociology: A
conversation with Jeffrey Alexander. European Journal of Social Theory 11 (4): 523 42.
Couldry, Nick. 2003. Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge.
Dayan, Daniel. 2010. Beyond media events: Disenchantment, derailment, disruption. In
Media Events in a Global Age, edited by N. Couldry, A. Hepp, and F. Krotz, 23 31.
London: Routledge.
Dayan, Daniel, and E. Katz. 1992. Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
Durkheim, Émile. 1912. The Elementary Forms of Religious Forms. Oxford: Oxford University
Durkheim, Émile, and M. Mauss. 1903. Primitive Classification. Chicago: University of Chicago
Eliade, Mircea. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt.
Eyerman, Ron. 2008. The Assassination of Theo van Gogh: From Social Drama to Cultural
Trauma. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2000. The Ideology of Religious Studies. New York: Oxford University
. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related
Categories. New York: Oxford University Press.
2 Media and the Sacred
Gettlin, Robert, and Len Colodny. 1991. Silent Coup: The removal of a President. New York:
St. Martins Press.
Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2000. Religion as a Chain of Memory. Cambridge: Polity.
Hilliard, Robert L., and Michael C. Keith. 2005. The Broadcast Century and Beyond.
Burlington, MA: Focus Press. 4
Hunt, Lynn. 1988. The sacred and the French Revolution. In Durkheimian Sociology:
Cultural Studies, edited by J.C. Alexander, 25 43. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Inglis, David., A. Blaikie, and R. Wagner-Pacifici. 2007. Editorial: Sociology, culture and the
twenty-first century. Cultural Sociology 1 (1): 5 22.
Jacobs, Ronald. 2000. Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Katz, Elihu, and T. Liebes. 2010. “‘No more peace! How disaster, terror and war have
upstaged media events. In Media Events in a Global Age, edited by N. Couldry, A.
Hepp, and F. Krotz, 32 42. London: Routledge.
King, Richard. 1999. Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and the Mystic
East. London: Routledge.
Knott, Kim. 2005. The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London: Equinox.
Kutler, Stanley. 1997. Abuse of Power. New York: Free Press.
Luckmann, Thomas. 1967. The Invisible Religion. London: MacMillan.
Lukes, Steven. 1975a. Political ritual and social integration. Sociology 9 (2): 289 308.
. 1975b. Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work. London: Penguin.
Lundby, Knut, J. Summiala-Seppanen, and R. Salokangas. 2006. Implications of the Sacred in
(Post)Modern Media. Oslo: Nordicom.
Lynch, Gordon. 2007. The New Spirituality: An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the
Twenty-First Century. London: IB Tauris.
. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McCutcheon, Russell T. 2003. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric.
London: Routledge.
Meyer, Birgit. 2008. Religious sensations: Why media, aesthetics and power matter in the
study of contemporary religion. In Religion: Beyond a Concept, edited by H. de Vries,
704 23. New York: Fordham University Press.
Miller, Donald. 1999. Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millenium.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
. 2010. Stuff. Cambridge: Polity.
Morgan, David. 2005. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Otto, Rudolf. 1923. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schofield Clark, Lynn. 2009. Mediatization and media ecology. In Mediatization: Concepts,
Changes, Consequences, edited by K. Lundby, 85 100. New York: Peter Lang.
Shils, Edward. 1975. Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Smith, Philip, and J.C. Alexander. 2005. Introduction: The new Durkheim. In The Cambridge
Companion to Durkheim, edited by J.C. Alexander and P. Smith, 1 40. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Swidler, Ann. 1986. Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological
Review 51 (2): 273 286.
Gordon Lynch