That’s Not How I Imagined It

newyorkercartoonMy recent post, on an old Canadian beer commercial called “The Rant,” along with a query a while back from someone on Facebook, got me to thinking about why scholars these days are so excited about studying so-called virtual communities (from Second Life, which used to be cool, to a host of other online identities and platforms which, for the time being at least, are thought to be cool). Thinking about the audience pictured in that commercial from my earlier post — seated in what looks like an old movie theater and all listening to a disgruntled Canadian on stage go on about how he is wrongly stereotyped by Americans — we all know (right?) that it is populated by stand-ins who are quite literally standing in for the people to whom the commercial was directed: those in the TV audience who used the occasion to further identify themselves as misunderstood beer-drinking Canadians.

So I ended that post as follows:

The commercial works only because the disgruntled Canadians who were watching it in their living rooms were all sitting there imagining how some stereotyped Americans stereotype and thereby misunderstands them, imagining what they’d say to them if given the chance, imagining all the other Canadians doing much the same.

Since Emile Durkheim’s work on totemism, or at least Benedict Anderson‘s more recent work on nationalism, we’ve all been aware (no?) that this apparent thing that we call “the social” or “social life” or “society” exists nowhere but in shared sets of assumptions and internalized sets of rules (who to date, how to talk, what to enjoy eating, what to do when you see a a piece of fabric on a pole flapping in the wind, the way to dress, who to nod to as you pass them in the morning on your way to work, etc.) that are all operationalized in the world of objects that we bump into, constituting an ongoing feedback loop between the so-called ideal and the material. Thus, these two analytically distinguishable domains — ideas and objects — are, for the social theorist, best understood as co-constitutive and not simply imbricated, as if they were two separate worlds that did or did not overlap to varying extents. For even if there is something apparently solid out there to pick up — and trust me, I do think that to be the case — it didn’t proclaim its existence or use to me of its own accord. That I even focused on it to begin with is already a trace of the effects of that prior domain we might as well just call discourse.

So, at least according to the model that I work with, such apparent things as society or identity are and are not all in our minds to begin with. I think (“I think” — should we mull over that for a moment, since I’ve written it twice already as the justification for what I’m typing?) society is real, yes, but despite using nouns and definite articles, we should all be aware that “the social” has been virtual all along. Right Neo?keanuwhoaSo why all the excitement among some scholars for, for example, virtual religion? Maybe it has something to do with the success of “The Matrix” (1999); for despite that film’s sexy sunglasses and slick black leather coats, it presumes a surprisingly conservative distinction between a gritty real world and a fake virtual world, a distinction that nicely confirms a commonsense view, a folk ontology, that we all likely have (scholars included — just ask all the talking heads telling us what real religion is versus hijacked militancy). It is a view that normalizes certain assumptions/practice complexes, thereby allowing us to confidently know that what we think/do is right and real and true and sensible and what they merely claim to know is, well let’s be honest, kind’a goofy.

That’s why, when it comes to this genre of film, I much prefer the ambiguity of David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” (also 1999), which famously ends with the words:

existenzLike Morpheus, whose confidence in the distinction between the reality of Zion and the mere fakery of the Matrix is unshakable, research on virtual religion strikes me as failing to see that, as Wittgenstein told us long ago, we’ve always been in the game — the researcher included. Of course I’m happy to entertain that there are different games, with different roles and rules, and different implications to the specific medium in which they each take place. But those differences don’t strike me as justifying all the excitement for studying the virtual in distinction from the real or the ordinary. In fact, I admit that I’m looking forward to hearing of a paper at a conference on virtual religion devoted to the Apostle’s Creed’s “communion of saints“–an old school virtual community if ever there was one.

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