Oxbridge 2008 Discussion 1 – Bruce Herman Thesis

Christian artist and educator Bruce Herman, brings his faith, visual sensibility, and careful thinking about the influence of art and pop-culture on our sense of self to his Oxbridge 2008 lecture topic Outgrowing the iSelf: Beauty, Personhood, and Pop-Culture An Artists Perspective

The famous Apple ads showing a silhouetted figure dancing alone with her iPod against a brightly colored backdrop are fitting symbols of the imagined autonomy of the postmodern constructed self. This self-concept is actually more the sum of consumer choices than the wholesome identity one develops through a deep sense of belonging and accountability in community. And individualistic pursuit of self often results in isolation and anomie rather than meaning, belonging, and a sense of vocation.

What is your reaction to this thesis? Do you agree/disagree? Why?

12 thoughts on “Oxbridge 2008 Discussion 1 – Bruce Herman Thesis

  1. Mary Kauffman

    Certainly an image of a person with an ipod, earphones in, is a picture of a closed circuit; it is a closed world wherein nothing new can enter. There can be no expansion or growth. It is a picture of exclusion of everyone and everything except the single person and the specifically chosen music that reflects that person’s worldview. It is a picture that says “closed” rather than “open.” And then how can one even be “self”? “Self” only exists if there is one who is not self; we know ourselves only as we know others. We define ourselves in context with others and through the responses and reactions of others to us. There is no “self” in isolation.

  2. So . . . we change the context of the meaning of the advertisement by having the individual dance with another person through a multiple earphone setup to their iPod(which is available) . . . or with a dance group in which each individual has an iPod that they all are dancing in sync with. Could it be that person is listening to the Scriptures . . . maybe a Psalm . . . and is dancing in joy like David? What does that do to this thesis? It is my observation that one walks daily with Christ . . . admonished to take up ones Cross daily . . . and that is a very singular act . . . albeit united in Christ. We learn “self” by the time spent in the Scriptures, prayer and meditation. God uses those instruments to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Yes, there is the body of Christ . . . as long as it is not the “busy body” of Christ . . . but a community consisting of individuals willing to reveal themselves – in the “nakedness” of their true and authentic identity – to each other. It appears that one aught to enter into a little discussion of Francis Fenelon at this point!!

  3. So quite randomly, Bruce Herman spoke last Friday at my local Inklings wannabe group (www.amherstcenterforchristianstudies.blogspot.com) and although I missed it, my friend Lisa went and she said he was really wonderful. Apparently his art is excellent, also: in her words, “He uses really intense colors like I do but he also knows how to do gold leaf! And then he uses this stuff that makes it look kind of antiqued! And then he takes SANDPAPER to it!”

    Re the consumerism/identity angle: on NPR on Monday, this man James Twitchell was talking about his new book, Shopping for God. He described this phenomenon he’d noticed: that the experience of buying luxury goods has a lot of similarities with the experience of being in a religious community. You feel validated, accepted and acceptable, something like that. And what he drew from this (I think- I was kind of wandering in and out of the kitchen) was that essentially Christianity is a kind of luxury good, and evangelism just another marketing campaign. I’m not sure if he was saying that it’s American Evangelicalism specifically that’s like that, or if he was indicting Christianity in general, but the comment had a definite flavor of nothing-buttery (conversion is nothing but a different kind of decision to buy a product, blah blah).

    The funny thing– this happens so much– is that what he’s saying is half true, but inside out and backwards. It’s what Jesus was saying about God and Mammon, and what the church could with great effectiveness be saying to the world: that there is a huge similarity between being in a mall and being in the Body of Christ, except that being in the Body of Christ is the real deal, the thing that shopping mimics, which is what makes it (shopping) so powerful and.

    n.b. I don’t think malls are evil. I somehow suspect that at some point between now and December 25th I will be inside one. But I do think it’s a bad idea to try to buy your identity there.

  4. The irony here is that while ipod users seem to be isolating in increasingly greater numbers, the human race has never been so well connected because of the same technology.

    I mentioned this to my 22 yr old college student son who also works at Apple Computers. He maintains that the ipod is just a tool that empowers the user in his particular desires or tendencies, be they good or bad, isolating and reclusive or reaching out and connecting.

    He says that, walking around campus, 3 out of 4 students are plugged into their ipods. He says that today he was listening to a fascinating podcast of a social worker from Darfur. So was he isolating himself from the student community around him but connecting with another community in Africa that interested him more at the time? It seems so. He had the power to control how, when and where he would experience community. One might say that this was just a one-way, ersatz experience of community, But what if he started communicating w the social worker by email? Or organizing his thoughts and writing on his blog?

    This surprised me because I had imagined all these “youngsters” (never thought I’d use that word)
    were just listening to some head-banger music.

    My son also mentioned Michael Foucault’s theory that iods provide the Post-modern generation with a meta-narrative but it doesn’t seem as if it could be a very satisfying one.

    I’ll be looking forward to Bruce Herman’s thoughts on this subject.

  5. Mr. Lunsford asks (above) if changing the context/content of the iPod ad changes the thesis — and he suggests that belonging to a group can also mean loss of individual integrity. I see his point, however, I never meant to use the Apple ad as a whipping post, nor do I intend to use the iPod as a villain in this thesis. I merely suggest that the ads can serve as a fitting image of radical autonomy. Actually the Bono/U2 iPod ad is a wonderful counterpoint to the other ads — dancing together, hanging on each other affectionately, grabbing the cross around his neck, and kneeling — shouting “YOUR LOVE keeps teaching me how to kne-e-eel.”
    My thesis is actually more one exploring the problem of historical and social dis-location and the anomie that can result from attempts to “invent” oneself in a private (virtual) world versus discovering oneself in the context of community.
    Lastly, I’d only add that I am deeply interested (and invested) in seeing what’s good out there in the pop-culture, not simply trashing it. I find lots to celebrate in the music, art, drama, films, etc of our time. The 20-something and 30 something generation have got a massive capacity for creativity.
    My only caveat is the unconscious persuasion that is continuously coming to us — via manipulative messages in the media and via technology. My art is a dissent from mass-culture while at the same time a celebration of what’s still good in the human heart and mind and spirit. – Bruce Herman

  6. Very excited to hear your lecture, Bruce. I too am quite interested in the implications of the widespread “attempts to “invent” oneself in a private (virtual) world versus discovering oneself in the context of community.” As someone who has grown up in a predominantly virtual “make your own avatar identity” world, I can definitely relate to my generation’s preference for the individuated self-constructed “self.”

    I recently assigned a paper to my students at UCLA in which I had them analyze “social networking” sites like Facebook/Myspace (which they are all quite active on) in terms of individual vs. social communication. I wanted them to think about how they are using these “virtual communities” as either a platform to exhibit some idealized avatar of themselves or a more ritualistic site of community-building and shared meaning… or some combination therein. The consensus of my students was that Facebook-type communities are first and foremost valuable as an efficient way to be “in the loop” in everyone else’s lives. The real-time updates that are on every Facebook page are a sort of publicized self-disclosure in which every participant reveals their unfolding identity in accordance with what they want their perceived facebook “self” to be… So in this way it is definitely an individual, highly self-conscious construction of one’s “public” self, though it is done in the context of a tightly-knit community in which everyone wants to be in on everyone else’s experience.

    It’s all very interesting to me, even though I’m not (and will never be) on Facebook…

  7. Thanks Brett. Your point above about “avatars” is precisely what interests me in this conversation — and of course, all social activity can be seen as a construction site so-to-speak. (I imagine cave people sitting around a fire beating their chests and fluffing up their primitive Prada costumes to appear more impressive.) We all paint self-portraits each minute of our waking existence — the trick, it seems to me, is to be freed from mere posturing and that false sense of self that leads us to think we’ve created ourselves. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer cries out “Non Serviam!” (I will never serve!) because he feels that his dignity and selfhood would suffer loss if he were to submit to God or serve creatures lower than himself (humans). But this is the divine economy: the higher always serves the lower.
    In a world of imagined autonomy and self-creation, we are subtly tempted to think of ourselves more highly than is wholesome. Living amongst real people in real time and real space always results in at least a little humiliation. (Which is health-giving and life affirming. The supposed autonomy of self-invention is, I fear, closer to death and the ultimate suffering of total autonomy: hell.)

  8. writer2b

    I agree with Mr. Lunsford’s thesis. The picture that pops into my mind is of Lucy leafing through the magician’s book in ‘Dawn Treader.’ She sees one scene in which two friends are talking about her, and draws a conclusion about her real social being among them. But Aslan reproves her, saying that the picture on the page has only given her a part of the story. The message seems to be that Lucy can’t get an accurate sense of who she is in the community of people by being a spectator, but by participating; being a spectator is represented as a temptation to be less than who she really is.

    The same is true of of our culture’s infatuation with the cyber-self, or with the assumption that we can create ourselves through what we buy. We’re given tempting visual images in advertising; we picture ourselves with these products; we purchase them. Or we design a personal advertisement of sorts in a web page. But this only creates our “exterior self.” What we need others for is the mirror they provide of our inner selves. The more deeply you know and interact with others, the more you confront what’s universal about being human. And the more you have to make accommodations to others, the more conscious you become of who you are as distinct from them.

    All of us have been in restaurants and observed (or experienced) the strange phenomenon of people gathered together for social interaction, but talking on their cell phones. They make eye contact with those around them, but deflect into the private technological experience they’re having. It’s a good example of the way self-creation flattens out a person’s multidimensionality.

  9. Kathleen D

    I know I am entering the conversation quite late, but I had some thoughts to share.

    The majority of people who pass me in the halls today are tuned into an iPod or some other device. While not attacking these technological inventions themselves, I do see some repercussions developing.

    With headphone in ears, one is no longer obligated to acknowledge other humans as they pass by and, what is even more interesting, these other humans generally do not consider such behavior rude but chalk it up to “Oh…s/he is just in her/his own world.” We have found a way to bring “our own world” out into public space and create an even larger bubble of “personal space” (or is it that in our very crowded world, personal space was shrinking anyway? An interesting examination into the territoriality of today…)

    I know in some cases an iPod can be quite convenient. While seated next to a very chatty passenger on a flight, I became the sole focal point for all of his conversation as the girl on the other side of him was “plugged in” to her iPod. It seems to be an unwritten rule that to disturb her would have been rude, an invasion of her space.

    Other creations, such as Facebook and MySpace, can be a link to society for some people, but as Brett stated above, it can also be used in a way to present one’s “best face.” Although in Facebook, to which I was recently introduced, it appears that a friend is sharing intimate details to help others know him/her, it feels odd to someone like me to realize the exact number of so-called intimate friends (I was 1 out of 66). I do not feel more connected to my friend–I just know more about what she is doing everyday.

    Revealing one’s self through Facebook or MySpace does contain good and bad points. For someone like me, the chance to think about what I want to say helps. I was a very shy person for most of my early life, and I do continue to have a more reserved temperament; therefore, I tend to share more in letters or writings rather than in person. Whether I create a false facade or let the “real me” out is a question I have long debated within myself. If I do not feel free to be “me” in group of people I can see in front of me, how can I be sure that what I share in the letter or email is really “me”? (Not looking for an answer here, just wondering if this is where the technological phenomenon has hit most of us in its appeal.)

    C.S. Lewis questioned (in Mere Christianity) whether “what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly.” Interesting thoughts to which I am not sure of the answer…

  10. Kathleen D

    I just wanted to explain that I did not insert a smiley face into the text I wrote on July 2. It must be the result of the punctuation of the ellipsis and the parenthesis — please don’t let the wink confuse you!

    Also, to tie my ideas back to the image of the girl dancing with the iPod, I agree with Mr. Herman’s statement about its being “a fitting symbol of the imagined autonomy of the postmodern ‘constructed’ self.” That particular image itself suggests that, with the iPod, the person can celebrate or create her “own world” (as I mentioned above) and be a happy fulfilled individual. It does also create the sense that to interrupt her celebration would be unkind.

  11. Jenn

    Interesting thesis. I suppose in some respects we as a society have been heading down this particular path for some time now. We talk about the contributing factors of iPods, MySpace and other technological advances on the isolated autonomy so prevalent in the world today. And, yet I can’t help but wonder if its origins aren’t rooted a little closer to home. For instance, historically where we would have once seen households with one stay at home parent, we now typically see dual income families or single parents working outside the home. The reasons for this vary. Some of it is by circumstance, some by need and some by choice. None of which I intend to judge. But, it seems in order to gain one we very often have to lose out on something else in exchange. In most cases, that something else is the gift of time with one another. I am reminded here of that line from the Shawshank Redemption where the inmate, upon being set free, noted that “the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” I think in many respects it truly has and not always for the better.

    On a smaller scale, neighborhood porches that were once teeming with friendly banter have now been abandoned in lieu of a more private patio or garden. Many of us today barely even know the person living next door to us, much less the people right under our very own roof. How difficult it must be to figure out where one fits in, in such unfamiliar surroundings.

    Perhaps it’s not so much the technology that is the real issue, but the overall need to place ourselves first. I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s not about us. Not really. Certainly not in any Christian sense of the word. In that regard, we’re not really inventing ourselves. God has already done that for us and if you like, “re-invented” us through Christ. Perhaps the real issue arises when we feel the need to do this for ourselves according to our own liking and not necessarily that of God’s – either because we don’t like or agree with what’s been given to us or we simply think we know better.

    At any rate, I can’t help but agree with Lewis when he says “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

  12. I’ve enjoyed reading through some of the more recent entries in the discussion, and look forward to meeting some of you at OXBRIDGE 08. I’ll be speaking on this topic on Sunday, August 3 in the evening after the Ely Cathedral processional and worship service. I hope some of you will come for the discussion after and help me think more clearly about the impact of images, technology, and current social trends on our sense of self. Any other thoughts you might have on all this are also welcome as I continue refine my talk. I am a visual artist and primarily think in images — the prospect of interacting with some of you at the CSLewis conference is a welcome relief from the blogosphere and Facebook…a little Face-to-Face, where I can see you. The virtual realm though convenient in certain ways severely limits the conversation.

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