Monastic Practices Countering a Culture of Consumption

Peter Sampson

Abstract


Over time, many groups have sought to offer alternatives to the dominant culture of the day; for example, the civil-rights movements, antiwar protests, and environmental activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Not all groupings however can be considered countercultural. Roberts makes a distinction between group culture where cultural patterns only influence part of one’s life, or for a limited period of time; and countercultures that are more wholistic, affecting all of life. An essential element in defining a counterculture is that it has a value-conflict with the dominant society (Yinger), and that it demonstrates viability over time: long enough to pass on the values to the next generation (Roberts).

Each society has images of what it means to be a good citizen. These images are driven by ideology and communicated through media channels, educational values and government legislation. Ideologies are not neutral and compete for the “common sense” of citizens; seeking to shape desires and allegiance to a particular way of life. A way of life is expressed in the everyday practices, or routines and choices that make up an ordinary day, the sum of which express the values of individuals and communities.

A number of groups or movements have sought to counter the values and practices of dominant cultures only to find themselves absorbed into it. For example, the surfing magazine Tracks was an Australian countercultural text that chronicled the authentic surfing lifestyle of the 1970s. As surfing became big business, the same magazine was transformed into a glossy lifestyle publication. The surfing lifestyle had become part of the expanding field of consumption and Tracks had become one more tool to promote it (Henderson). As the “counter” is absorbed into the dominant consumer culture, new ways to engage the hegemonic culture emerge that offer fresh possibilities of living and engaging in contemporary society.

Positioning

I hold to a critical postmodern perspective of consumption. That is, while I acknowledge some of the pleasures of consumption, I see a dominant posture of detachment as a result of consumer cultures increased distance from production, producers and the products we buy (Cavanaugh; Sandlin, Kahn, Darts and Tavin).

The market is a powerful educator of individuals (Kincheloe; Steinberg), but it is not the only educator. Families, schools, churches and other interest groups also seek to educate, or shape, individuals. These competing influences do not however hold equal power. In many instances the families, schools, churches and interest groups have uncritically adopted the dominant ideology of the market and so reinforce the values of consumerism; such is its hegemonic power.

I hold that individuals, and more importantly communities, have some agency to consume in alternative ways that give rise to the formation of different identities. I see critical practices as important in the awareness raising, or awakeness, and shaping of an individual and a community (Freire; Rautins and Ibrahim).

Contemporary Cultures

Consumption has become the organizing principle of many contemporary cultures (Hoechsmann). The message that to be a good citizen is to be a good consumer is pervasive and promoted as key to economic growth and the remedy to lift countries out of recession. This message of consumption falls on fertile ground with the development of consumerism, or consumer culture. Smart (5) sees this expressed as a way of life that is “perpetually preoccupied with the pursuit, possession, rapid displacement, and replacement of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of things.” These “things” have increasingly become luxury goods and services as opposed to the satisfaction of basic needs and wants (de Geus).

Contemporary Alternatives

There are examples of contemporary alternatives that open spaces for people to imagine that “another world is possible.” Sandlin, Kahn, Darts and Tavin (102, 103) call upon educators to “critically analyze what it might mean to resist a consumer society predicated on the normalization of overconsumption” and to “celebrate the creative and critical agency of all those who resist and interrogate the hegemony of multinational companies/industries.” A number of examples are worth celebrating and critically analysing to offer input in the engagement with the dominant culture of consumption. The examples of the Adbusters Media Foundation, Bill Talen’s work as a political-theatre activist, and the voluntary simplicity movement will be briefly examined before exploring the contribution of monasticism.

The Adbusters Media Foundation produces a glossy bimonthly publication and website that seeks to unmask the destructive power of global corporations. Through the use of cultural resistance techniques such as “culture jamming,” Adbusters remix advertisements to catch the reader by surprise, to make the taken for granted problematic, and to open them to the possibility of an alternative view of reality. These “subvertisements” offer the opportunity for detournement; a turning around or a change in perspective (Darts; Sandlin and Callahan). As people get involved in “culture jamming” they become producers of artifacts and not just consumers of them.

The work of Adbusters uses the tools of the media saturated consumer culture to critique that very culture (Rumbo). Advertising performs an ideological function within a consumer culture that addresses people as individual private consumers rather than citizens concerned for the public good (Scatamburlo-D’Annibale). Given the ubiquity of advertising, individuals become ambivalent to its messages but still soak in the dominant narrative. The very form of resistance reinforces the culture of the individualistic citizen as consumer. While it might be seen that the “culture jamming” artifacts of the Adbusters type might not have substantial effect on the broader public, it does provide an accessible means of resistive action for the individual (Haiven).

Bill Talen is a political-theatre activist who plays the Southern evangelical preacher Reverend Billy as leader of the Church of Stop Shopping. The Reverend stages “retail interventions” or performances in public spaces and retail stores as an act of “culture jamming”. Reverend Billy uses humour, music, art and theatre in his “services” to create strangeness, discomfort or ambiguity in the lives of the public. In doing so he calls people into transitional spaces where what was normal is disrupted and they are free to imagine differently. This disruption that causes a movement into the unknown is a central pedagogical strategy that seeks to encourage people to question their taken for granted understandings of life (Littler; Sandlin, Learning). Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping offer a fuller bodied experience of “culture jamming” that engages both the body and the emotions.

The act of creating culture together is what fosters a sense of community amongst culture jammers (Sandlin, Popular culture). And yet Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping appear not to be focused for their own good in that they have formed a number of coalitions with other organisations to work on campaigns that oppose global corporations and the influence of consumerism’s ideology on everyday life. Reverend Billy not only creates disruption in people’s relationship with consumption, he also provides an alternative place to belong.

The voluntary simplicity movement involves a growing number of people who choose to limit their incomes and consumption because of new priorities in life. Those involved call into question the dominant cultures view of the “good life” in favour of a less materialistic lifestyle that is more “personally fulfilling, spiritually enlightening, socially beneficial, and environmentally sustainable” (Johnson 527). Grigsby’s research (qtd. in Johnson) found that participants were involved in forming their own identities through their lifestyle choices.

The voluntary simplicity movement, it appears, is a niche for those who understand consumption from a postmodern perspective and participate in alternative lifestyle practices. Sandlin (Complicated) sees the formation of collective identity as crucial to a movement’s ability to effectively engage in external education. A shared vision, or telos, is central to that forming of collective identity. However, the voluntary simplicity movement is focused primarily on individual lifestyle changes, thus making it ineffectual as a collective to challenge dominant ideologies or to engage in external education to that end.

Each of the examples above provides some insight into a considered engagement with the dominant culture: the creation of Adbuster like “culture jamming” artifacts provides an accessible means of engagement for the individual; Bill Talen’s interventions show an appreciation of the importance of community in supporting countercultural choices; and the voluntary simplicity movement promotes a “whole of life” approach to countercultural engagement.

However, when comparing the above examples with Roberts’s definition of a counterculture they appear to be lacking. Roberts (121) holds that “the term counter-culture might best be reserved for groups which are not just a reaction formation to the dominant society, but which have a supporting ideology that allows them to have a relatively self-sufficient system of action.” The remainder of this article examines monasticism as an example of a counter-culture that offers an alternative model of “the good-life” based on a clear ideology and a fifteen hundred year history.

Considering Monasticism

As seen above, the work of countering the dominant ideology is not without its difficulties. bell hooks found that offering an education that enhances students’ journey to wholeness went against the anti-intellectualism of the current education system. What enabled her to stand within and resist the oppressive dominant culture, and offer alternatives, was the sustaining power of spirituality in her life, the basis of her hope.

Tolliver and Tisdell appreciate that spirituality can be an elusive term, but that amongst the definitions offered there are commonalities. These are that:

spirituality is about a connection to what is referred to by various names, such as the Life Force, God, a higher power or purpose, Great Spirit, or Buddha Nature. It is about meaning making and a sense of wholeness, healing and the interconnectedness of all things. […] As many have noted, those who value spirituality generally believe that it is possible for learners to come to a greater understanding of their core essence through transformative learning experiences that help them reclaim their authenticity. (Tolliver and Tisdell 38)

There is a growing interest in the age-old traditions of Christian monasticism as a means of addressing the challenges of contemporary life (Adams; Jamison). When the BBC broadcast the television series The Monastery in 2005, millions of viewers tuned in to follow the way five ordinary men were affected by the experience of living in a monastery for forty days and nights. Similarly in Australia in 2007, the ABC broadcast the television series The Abbey that followed the experiences of five ordinary women enclosed for 33 days and nights in the space and routines of the Benedictine nuns at Jamberoo Abbey.

It was when watching these television series that I was led to consider monasticism as an example of cultural resistance, and to ponder the contribution it might make to the conversation around counter-cultures. As an observer, I find something compelling about monasticism, however I am aware of the possibility of romanticising it as a way of life. The tensions, difficulties and struggles represented in the television series help to temper that.

Benedictine spirituality is the foundation for life at the Worth Abbey (The Monastery) and the Jamberoo Abbey (The Abbey). The essential dynamic that underlies this spirituality is a shaping of life according to the Bible and the guidelines set out in the sixth century Rule of Benedict. Monastic life in a Benedictine abbey is marked by certain routines, or rhythms, that are designed to help the community better love God, self and one another (Benedict, chapter 4).

“Listen” is the first word in the Rule of Benedict and is closely linked to silence (Benedict, chapter 6). As a key part of monastic life, silence gives the monastics the freedom and space to listen to God, themselves, one another, and the world around them. As Adams (18) points out, “the journey to knowing God must include the discipline of coming to know yourself, and that risky journey invariably starts in silence.”

The rhythm of monastic life therefore includes times in the day for silence and solitude to facilitate listening and self-reflection. For Benedict, distractions in the head are actually noises inside the heart: the result of human desires and preoccupations. Silence, and the reflection that occurs within it, allows the monastic to listen for, and see their own relationship to, competing ideologies.

This everyday practice of listening might be explained as paying attention to what is noticed, reflecting on it and the internal response to it. In this way listening is an active engagement with the words read (Irvine), the stories heard, the conversations had, and the objects used. Hoffman (200) observes that this practice of attentive listening is evident in decision making within the monastery. Seen in this way, silence acts as a critical practice counter to the educative agenda of consumerism.

Physical work is a basic part of monastic life. All members of the community are expected to share the load so that there is no elitism, no avoiding work. This work is not to be seen as a burden but an outlet for creativity (Benedict, chapter 57). By being involved in the production of goods or the growing of crops for the community and others, monastics embody practices that resist the individual consumer identity that consumerism seeks to create. Monastics also come to appreciate the work involved in the products they create and so become more appreciative of, and place greater value on them. Material things are not privately owned but are to be seen as on loan so that they are treated with a level of gratitude and care (Benedict, chapter 32).

This attitude of not taking things for granted actually increases the enjoyment and appreciation of them (De Waal). De Waal likens this attitude to the respect shown towards people and things at the Japanese tea ceremony. She says that “here in the most simple and yet profound ceremony there is time to gaze at things, to enjoy them, and to allow them to reveal themselves as they truly are” (87). Such a listening to what products truly are in the dominant consumer culture might reveal chairs made from the denuded forests that destroy habitats, or shoes made with child labour in unsafe conditions. The monastic involvement in work and their resulting handling of material things is a critical practice counter to the ideology of consumerism and the attitude towards products flooding markets today.

Community is central to monastic life (Veilleux). Through vows, the monastic commits to life in a particular place with particular people. The commitment to stability means that when conflict arises or disagreements occur they need to be worked out because there is no running away. Because a commitment to working things out requires attention to what is real, monastic community acts as a counter of all that is not real. The creation of false need, the promise of fulfilment, and the creation of identity around consumption can be viewed through the same commitment to reality.

This external stability is a reflection of inner stability marked by a unity and coherence of purpose and life (De Waal). A monastic community is formed around a shared telos that gives it a collective identity. While people are welcomed as guests into the community with Benedictine hospitality, the journey to becoming a member is intentionally difficult (Benedict, chapter 58). The importance of committing to community and the sharing of the collective telos is not a rushed decision. The stability and permanence of monastic commitment to community is a counter to the perpetual chasing and replacing of other goods and experiences that is a part of consumerism.

The deliberate attention to practices that form a rhythm of life involving the whole person shows that monastic communities are intentional in their own formation. Prayer and spiritual reading are key parts of monastic life that demonstrate that spirituality is central in the formation of individuals and communities (Benedict, prologue). The formation is aligned to a particular ideology that values humanity as being made in the image of God and therefore the need to focus on the connection with God. A holistic humanity addresses issues and development of the mind, body and spirit.

Examining Ideology

The television series The Monastery and The Abbey demonstrate that when guests enter a monastic community they are able to experience an alternative model of “the good life”. If, as Roberts suggests, a counter-culture looks to reform society by providing an alternative model, then change is based upon seeing the alternative. The guests in the monastic community are involved in discussions that make explicit the monastic ideology and how it shapes the countercultural values and practices. In doing so, the guests are invited to listen to, or examine the consumerist ideology that permeates their society and shapes their everyday experiences. In evaluating the conflicting ideologies, the guests are free to choose an alternative view, which, as the television series showed are not necessarily that of the monastic community, and may in fact remain that of consumerism.

Conclusion

While ideologies are not neutral, they are often invisible. The dominant ideology of consumerism reduces citizens to individualistic consumers and naturalises the need for never ending consumption. A number of groups or movements attempt to expose the logic of consumerism and offer alternative ways of consuming. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses; some are absorbed into the very culture they seek to counter while others remain apart. Christian monasticism, based on the Bible and the Rule of Benedict, engages in the social practices of listening, physical work, and commitment to community. The formation of individuals, and the community, is based explicitly on an ideology that values humanity as made in God’s image. This model has stood the test of time and shown itself to be a legitimate counterculture that is in value-conflict with the current dominant culture of consumption.

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Keywords


consumption; monastic; critical pedagogy



Copyright (c) 2014 Peter Sampson

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