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Introduction: We've Got Spirit, How 'Bout You?

From reading the daily news, you might think we're lacking in spirit. But...
Megan Shaw Prelinger and Jonathan Sterne, Issue Editors

Issue #51, October 2000

In 1903, German sociologist Max Weber wrote that "today the spirit of religious asceticism ... has escaped from the cage. But victorious capitalism, since it rests on mechanical foundations, needs its support no longer." Weber's now-classic book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argued that people's emotional investment in capitalism works like a religious calling, but that capitalism no longer needs an explicitly religious dimension. Almost a century later, it's looking like he wasn't quite right. Christianity and capitalism are happily married. Rumors of our secularization have been greatly exaggerated.

But Weber was right to point out that certain spirits have "escaped from their cage" and infused themselves throughout "secular" spheres. Our economic lives, our personal lives, our recreation, and the tools we use to do our work are all infused with intangible energies and invisible forces that can most simply be described as spirits, as well as with explicitly religious language and ideas.

From reading the daily news, you might think we're lacking in spirit. Joe Lieberman's cynical call for more religion in American public life (as if to say "see, Jews can play the political piety game too!") certainly suggests as much. After all, politicians' overtures to religion are about as soulless as you can get. But there's more to spirit than meets the television.

A common anthropological explanation of magic, spirits, and religion is that they are methods for human beings to make sense of the world. Modern spirituality is certainly about that, but it is also about the impression that there's more to modern life than meets the senses. Spirits abound in these advanced capitalist days, we need only to look around us. The seemingly intangible dimensions of modern life multiply with each passing day. Capitalism pretends to be a resolutely secular enterprise, but its quest is ethereal. Investment bankers, speculators, and managers aren't just after money, labor power, and things. They're after value. The currency of our times is credit. Our stock-in-trade is information. And our mode of exchange is, increasingly, the ether cable. These abstractions represent the move of modern life's core transactions from the material to the super-physical plane.

At the same time, the defining public literature of our age has been written and published in the genre of children's fantasy. By backing away from simple binaries of right and wrong, the Harry Potter books model complex problem-solving skills for their readers, and teach such "morals" as sometimes you have to hedge your bets; and sometimes good guys die even though they do the right thing. By locating her stories in a parallel magical universe, the author has been able to lay out better tools for coping with the complexities of modern life than exist in any other genre.

Whether we're talking about children's literature, investment portfolios, obsessions with sporting events -- hope you enjoyed the Olympics! -- or people's attempts to "get in touch" with their inner being, there is no doubt that in virtually every sphere of public and private life attachments to the ethereal world abound in our age.

For Bad Subjects #51 we've got spirits, a whole lot of them. We start with good old-fashioned team spirit. These days the purely devotional aspect of mass-consumed athletics overwhelms the sports themselves. Micah Holmquist explores his devotion to sports in our lead-off essay. He makes a point some progressive thinkers need to hear: that if our world-changing efforts are to have impact, we will have to muster pennant race spirit behind our causes.

The idea that commodities themselves have spirit is an anchor of leftist thought. Capitalism is funny that way: relations among people take on the character of relations among things; and things themselves -- commodities, that is -- appear to have magical powers to transform our lives. Mat Callahan's essay shows how millennial thought plays out in the realm of new technologies.

Spirits can heal as well as transform; maybe. Spiritual healing is another theme of this issue. Mike Mosher encounters Christian rockers who fight cancer by rewriting the words to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in a land where poisonous chemical spirits are all too abundant. Michelle Silva, meanwhile, suggests that the science of alchemy provides us with a richer model of the human spirit's transformation than does modern psychology. Lindsey Eck's history of the Chinese arts of t'ai chi and pa kua shows that even the most formal and bodily of the spiritual arts have an irreducibly political dimension. And Mark Harrison writes of the popularization of that strange figure of "the gray," the alien face that has evolved as a visual symbol of our repressed fears, and whose image has jumped from the realm of arcane science fiction to children's lunchboxes in under a generation.

Articles in this issue also address the explicitly religious dimensions of public life. The religious right and the religious center are powerful forces in American politics, even if they are publicly committed to secular policy aims. Aimee Placas' essay in this issue explores the religious right in an earlier time, when their most threatening proponent was Jimmy Carter, and when credit card numbers were more likely to be the number of the beast than their ticket to deep cultural influence. Charlie Bertsch's essay on the spirit of irony shows that his investment in irony is a fear of public investment in anything else. Finally, Joe Lockard's deeply disturbing tale of the cynical use of Israel's rabbinical courts for purely secular disputes offers a perfect example of what happens when religion truly comes to dominate public life. Secular concerns mix with holy wrath in a religious state.

Copyright © 2000 by Megan Shaw Prelinger and Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.