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Religion, Culture and Society in the 'Information Age'

Author(s): Philip A. Mellor


Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 4, Special Issue: [Culture and Constraint in the
Sociology of Religion] (Winter, 2004), pp. 357-371
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Sociology of Religion 2004, 65:4 357-371
Religion, Culture and Society in the
'Information Age'
*Philip A. Mellor
University of Leeds, UK
In some forms of sociology, "culture" has come to replace "society" as the central object of study.
This has encouraged an epistemological relativism that overrides a proper engagement with human
ontology, while it has also allowed for the development of forms of reductionism where culture turns
out to be determined by something deemed more fundamental, such as technology. Some influential
contemporary accounts of the "information age" exhibit both these characteristics. The argument of
this paper is that these do not offer a productive route forward for sociology in general, or for sociol-
ogists of religion in particular. It is argued that Durkheim's social realism not only helps to illuminate
the inadequacy of those theories that ignore the human and religious dimensions of contemporary life
in their intoxication with machine-mediated flows of information, but can also point towards a more
productive way forward for the analysis of contemporary social and cultural realities.
Over the last twenty years or so, the development of the "cultural turn" with-
in sociological theory has sought to challenge earlier conceptions of culture as a
readily circumscribed, derivative phenomenon of secondary importance in rela-
tion to the power of economics or social structure (Featherstone 1992).
Sociologists of religion have not been slow to recognize the potential benefits of
this development, which, amongst other things, raises questions about the reduc-
tive assumptions underpinning some conventional secularization theories and
opens up fresh avenues for the exploration of the contemporary significance of
religious symbols, beliefs and values. The best examples of such studies, however,
while illuminating the continuing potency of religion as a cultural resource,
have, nonetheless, retained a firm focus on the fact that culture must be exam-
ined in relation to society, even if it cannot be reduced into it (Beckford 1989;
Hervieu-Leger 2000). In contrast, within some other areas of sociology, this focus
has been lost, and "culture" has come to replace "society" as the central object of
study. This has had two main consequences: first, it has encouraged the emer-
gence of some highly idealistic forms of theorizing, typically characterized by an
epistemological relativism that overrides any serious engagement with human
*Direct all correspondence to: Philip A. Mellor, School of Theology and Religious Studies,
University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, United Kingdom. E-mail: pa.mellor(leeds.ac.uk
357
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358 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
ontology; second, and contrary to the original impulse behind the cultural turn,
it has allowed for the development of new forms of reductionism where, freed
from any intimate relationship with the complex reality of human
society,
cul-
ture turns out to be determined by something deemed more fundamental, such as
technology. These consequences are especially evident in some influential con-
temporary accounts of the "information age."
Currently, one of the most prominent forms of the cultural turn in sociological
theory is the interest in the pervasiveness and power of cultural changes arising from
the development of information technologies, an interest that is closely related to a
broader rejection of the conventional sociological focus on society. Indeed, for some
writers there is not an information society at all, only a series of mobilities, networks
and flows where everything is reconfigured in a global interplay of information. In
this respect, these theories call much of the sociological heritage into question: the
sociological focus on society developed by classical figures such as Durkheim is
deemed to rest upon anachronistic visions of innate human potentialities and char-
acteristics, and upon faulty assumptions about a distinctively social realm of human
experience (Urry 2000:11). Instead, sociological study becomes focused upon rela-
tionships between culture and technology, and Durkheim's (1995) interest in the
social origins of patterns of collective representation is displaced in favor of argu-
ments concerning the power of information technologies to shape human thought
and experience. In the words of Castells (1998:1), "A culture of real virtuality, con-
structed around an increasingly interactive audiovisual universe, has permeated
mental representation and communication everywhere, integrating the diversity of
cultures in an electronic hypertext." Within these sociological accounts, "making
sense of the information" comes to replace the traditional sociological attempt to
make sense of society (Lash and Featherstone 2001:16).
These arguments need to be taken seriously by sociologists of religion for two
reasons. First of all, they are becoming increasingly influential amongst sociolog-
ical theorists in general, where they are part of broader attempts to construct a
new paradigm for sociology (see Abell and Reyniers 2000). Although very differ-
ent in nature to new paradigm thinking in the sociology of religion (Warner
1993), both these developments articulate a common desire to reassess conven-
tional sociological assumptions and arguments that appear to be called into ques-
tion by contemporary social and cultural realities. Second, it is clearly the case
that contemporary technological developments can have a significant impact
upon social and cultural forms, and upon the ways in which people
encounter
and experience religious phenomena. Lyon's (2000) sensitive account of the per-
ils and promises faced by those who encounter "Jesus in Disneyland" testifies
to
the importance of some of the issues raised by information society
theorists.
Consequently, it is not the intention of this paper to suggest that debates
about
the information society are unimportant: they raise significant questions
about
the nature of the contemporary world, and the usefulness of conventional
socio-
logical models in seeking to understand it. Rather, the argument of this paper
is
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 359
that the answers offered to these questions by some influential theorists of the
information age are highly questionable, and that this manifestation of the cul-
tural turn does not offer a productive development for sociology in
general, or for
sociologists of religion in particular. Further to this, it is argued that reflection
upon the role of religion in relation to society and culture can offer a valuable
corrective to some of the more extreme claims of such theories.
Here, the focus is on theoretical issues and problems, particularly as these have
repercussions for the sociological study of religion, rather than the empirical
dimensions of studies of the information age. This is not to say that these
empiri-
cal dimensions are unimportant. Indeed, it could be suggested that the lack of
much in the way of empirical evidence to support claims about the "virtualization"
of reality is a key feature of such studies: for all the contemporary dependence
upon computers, televisions and mobile phones, for example, empirically orient-
ed studies have demonstrated the continuing sociological importance of embod-
ied relationships with real people in specific, geographical locales (Jenkins 1999;
May 2002). Further to this, it might also be said that information society theorists,
and, more broadly, advocates of post-societal sociology, tend to ignore all evidence
to the contrary and simply take for granted the decline of nation-states in the face
of global information flows (Billig 1994; Urry 2000; see Fulcher 2000).
While questions about empirical evidence are significant, however, theoret-
ical considerations about the kind of existence social and cultural phenomena
have, and how these relate to human potentialities and powers, are, perhaps, of
greater importance. Here, it is worth noting that a key insight of the social real-
ist vision of sociology is that social reality is not a one-dimensional phenomenon
to be apprehended only through hard data, but is complex and multi-layered with
some non-empirically observable elements that can be known only through their
causal effects (Durkheim 1995:12-18; Archer 1995:50; Mellor, 2004). Further to
this, I suggest that a critical re-engagement with Durkheim's (1995) theoretical
account of the intimate connections between religion and society, which embod-
ies this social realist approach, can provide a more useful corrective to some of
the more extreme claims associated with theories of the information society than
an account of their empirical deficiencies. Before discussing that, however, it is
important to outline some key characteristics of post-societal perspectives that
are beginning to have a very significant impact upon certain areas of sociological
theory, and to sketch out how these relate to theories of the information society.
THE CRITIQUE OF SOCIETY
Although the conventional view of sociology as the study of society is being
challenged on a number of fronts, many of them tend to congregate around the idea
that "society" is an arbitrary construct of certain types of sociology, political ideolo-
gies and cultural theories, that has been imposed upon the complex, shifting and
infinitely variable patterns of social and cultural existence. Postmodernist philoso-
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360 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
phy
offers an influential
post-societal perspective
built on this
type
of
argument.
Its
philosophical genealogy can be traced from Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of
God and his deconstruction of all claims to truth as manifestations of a will to power,
through Foucault's death of Man and the reduction of reality to competing dis-
courses representing power interests, to Baudrillard's death of the social and the col-
lapse of reality into the simulacra of the "hyper-real" (see Archer 2000). Not only
Baudrillard (1983, 1990a, 1990b), but also Deleuze (1979), Lyotard (1984) and
Derrida (1991) have all encouraged, directly or indirectly, a deep skepticism about
society, suggesting that it is simply a culturally relative construction that masks the
endemic plurality and indeterminacy of human life. Baudrillard's arguments con-
cerning the death of the social, however, have been particularly influential.
Baudrillard (1983:4) notes that sociology depends upon a "positive and
definitive hypothesis of the social," but considers three possibilities concerning
the social that illuminate its non-existence or current dissolution, thereby mark-
ing the death of sociology as well as of the notion of the social. These three pos-
sibilities are as follows: first, that things have never functioned socially but "sym-
bolically, magically, irrationally"; second, that the social is some sort of residue
now becoming absorbed into the administrative machinery of society; and third,
that the social might once have existed but has now vanished into the simula-
tions, circuits and networks of the information age (Baudrillard 1983:68, 73, 83).
Baudrillard's own position in relation to these three possibilities is not free of
ambiguity, but it is generally accepted that the third position characteristically
marks his
"anti-sociology" (Bogard 2000:240).
Within this
anti-sociology,
the
social is displaced by a simulation of the social, since the real has given way to the
hyper-real. Here, there is no ontological basis upon which to ground any notion
of the real, or any form of knowledge about anything, since there is only radical,
chaotic, meaningless contingency.
Such postmodern forms of philosophy have been incorporated into sociolog-
ical analysis in various forms, and with varying degrees of acceptance of their rel-
ativistic logic. For example,
Touraine's (1989, 1995) focus on social movements
that render the idea of society meaningless, and Urry's (2000) manifesto for "soci-
ology beyond societies," arise out of an engagement with postmodem philosophy.
For Touraine (1989:15), the complex and changing fields of social relations that
mark the present seriously compromise any notion of an overarching society, and,
he argues, "the very idea of society should be eliminated" (Touraine 1989:11).
Urry's (2000:1) "manifesto for sociology" also makes the claim that sociologists
should abandon the concept of society. He argues that sociology should, instead,
be focused on the analysis of "global networks and flows" which produce a "hol-
lowing out of existing societies," producing overlapping, disjunctive orders across
time and space in "a kind of hypertextual patterning" (Urry 2000:36).
For him, we now "inhabit an indeterminate, ambivalent and semiotic risk
culture where the risks are in part generated by the declining powers of societies
in the face of multiple 'inhuman' global flows and multiple networks" (Urry
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 361
2000:37). This focus on inhuman flows is, however, allied to a highly problemat-
ic view of agency. Indeed, Urry (2000:14) argues that "the
concept
of
agency
needs to be embodied," but simultaneously suggests that "there is no autonomous
realm of human agency." Thus, he draws attention to the significance of the sens-
es in relation to the emergence of distinctly modem forms of life and to the expe-
rience of contemporary post-societal flows and mobilities, but distinguishes this
from the assertion of any specifically human society, reality, essence or powers in
a world where inhuman objects constitute social relations through phenomena
such as technologies, texts and machines (Urry 2000:14, 77; 2003:56). For Urry
(2000:15-16), the idea of a human agency that produces a social reality is absurd:
"the ordering of social life is presumed to be... irreducible to human subjects."
The only things that appear to have a real existence in this post-societal
vision are machines: transportation systems, cable and wireless networks,
microwave channels, satellites and the Internet are the "scapes" that "constitute
various interconnected nodes along which the flows can be relayed" (Urry
2000:35). Real human beings are no more than ghosts in these machines, which
means, for example, that Urry's examination of the notion of citizenship in a
post-societal
era
("a citizenship
of
flow") has to skirt around the absence of
any
ontological foundation for the balance of rights and duties he seems to believe is
desirable. Furthermore, it is notable that, although religious issues are hardly
mentioned by Urry, his brief references to the Islamic
jihad against the West sug-
gest that fundamentalist organizations should be seen as "virtual communities"
constructed through cultural discourses and media images (Urry 2000:43, 209;
see Barber 1996; Rose 1996). Here, AI-Qaida is not an embodiment of a radical-
ized interpretation of Islam, but a "chaotic" phenomenon representative of the
"emergent global fluid of international terrorism" (Urry 2003:132). This easy
association of social movements with fashionable notions of virtuality and glob-
al fluids, which puts Muslim terrorists on a par with New Age newsgroups, is sure-
ly a massive simplification of real social dynamics. In denying a specifically
human agency, it also means that we cannot even begin to consider why such
people might be prepared to die, and to kill others, because of the religious val-
ues their membership of a particular community entails.
TECHNO-SOCIETY
Craig Calhoun (1998:380) has noted that the excitement of new technolo-
gy can lead researchers to start with computer-mediated communication and
then look for communities associated with it, rather than studying the role of
computers and other communications media within communities that already
exist. Following this, as May (2002:85) suggests, calling communities that have a
presence on the Internet "virtual communities" ignores the degree to which face-
to-face encounters, pre-existing traditions and networks, and enduring forms of
social solidarity can be much more important than electronic communications
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362 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
media. Such unqualified excitement about technology is,
however,
a characteris-
tic feature of many writings about the information society.
Where Touraine's (1969) early account of the "programmed society" offered
a critical vision of the dehumanizing aspects of contemporary social and cultural
changes, more recent accounts have exhibited what Calhoun (2000:47) has
called a "failure of imagination" in their presentation of such changes as
inevitable. As David Lyon (1988:8) has suggested, a common orientation that has
developed in accounts of the information society is that of technological determin-
ism, where human beings have to adapt to changes brought about by technolog-
ical and scientific developments, resulting in new social and cultural processes
and patterns. As he suggests, the danger here is that moral and philosophical
questions about the human condition become displaced by assumptions about
the technological possibilities of social engineering (Lyon 1988:158; see also
Webster 1995). Similarly, May (2002:21) identifies in notions of the information
society a "shift from engagement to passive accommodation... by presenting
these changes as epochal rather than merely taking place within contemporary
society." The notion of an information age, like that of a postmodern age, in fact,
exhibits a neglect of enduring questions about being human in favor of a focus on
novel, large-scale transformations to which people simply must adapt. In partic-
ular, questions about the non-reductive materiality of embodied being, and the
sensuous or emotional potentialities and powers inherent to humans, get lost
amongst some highly idealistic visions of the power of machines to reconstruct
what it is to be human (Archer 2000:316).
Castells's (1996, 1997, 1998) work on the information society is instructive in
this regard: not only does he believe that the powers of individual states necessar-
ily wither in the face of global information networks (May 2002:34, 94,120), but
he also claims that the instantaneous exchange of information through computers
has led to the collapse of past, present and future into the "timeless time" or "vir-
tual time" of information exchange (Lyon 2000:121; see Castells 1996).
Furthermore, the technologically induced reconfiguration of the social transforms
humanity. For Castells, social networks now operate on the basis of humans who
are configured like computers and,
as such, have no means to make a necessary
linkage between knowledge and experience (Castells 2000:21). This is how it is
that the Internet becomes the principal metaphor for the contingent, fluid char-
acter of contemporary social life (Urry 2000:40-1), and how sociology becomes
divested of much of its human content in favor of talk of the programs, nodes,
grids, networks, virtualities and hypertexts of communications technologies. In so
far as people figure at all, they are disembodied minds assimilating codes of infor-
mation and images of representation (Castells 1997:84). In this respect it is
notable that Castells touches upon knowledge
and experience,
but does not grapple
with the embodied dimensions of being,
which might encourage him to question
the extent of this transformation of human beings and societies, or, at least, to
grasp more fully the de-humanizing aspects
of some of the processes
he considers.
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 363
Paul Virilio's (2000) analysis of these developments, on the other
hand, offers
a much more robust critique of contemporary developments, particularly with
regard to their dehumanizing consequences. Furthermore, he links
dehumanizing
processes with a corruption of knowledge that alienates us from our own
being
rather than simply talking about the circulation of knowledge within
technolog-
ically constructed domains. In fact, Weber's (1991) concerns about modem sci-
ence as a stimulus to the dominance of instrumental over value-rational action is
multiplied several times over in Virilio's (2000:1) view of twentieth
century sci-
ence's "pursuit of limit performances, to the detriment of any effort to discover a
coherent truth useful to humanity."
For Virilio, this absence of any connection between techno-science and com-
mon, human values is relentlessly enforced by the way in which global networks
of information increasingly disconnect us from the Earth, bringing about "an end
of geography," as time and space become warped by the cybernetic interactivity
of the contemporary world (Virilio 2000:9). Within this cybernetic reconstruc-
tion of reality, the global becomes the center of things and the local the periphery,
as virtual geography starts to dominate the real dimensions of the Earth (Virilio
2000:10). This domination is apparent in the construction of Internet commu-
nities, where the neighborhood unit is no longer local, but an elective, global
association mediated by technology (Virilio 2000:59). Such communities operate
on the basis of a "tele-presence," rather than an embodied encounter with oth-
ers, across virtual time and space. In short, this lack of an embodied co-presence
in our encounters with others means that we are increasingly deprived of our sen-
suality, and that our old "animal body" is increasingly out of place in this emerg-
ing symbiosis between technology and the human (Virilio 2000:40).
In broad terms, these developments signal a loss of faith in the social; a loss
of faith also exemplified, and sometimes celebrated, in the more nihilistic ele-
ments of postmodern philosophy. This postmodern view, however, is strongly
opposed by Virilio, who reasserts the importance of the social in the face of
Baudrillard's nihilism, and rejects the concept of "simulation" in favor of that of
"substitution" (Armitage 2000:43). For Virilio, there is no collapse between rep-
resentation and the real, only the substitution of a virtual reality (with its own,
technologically mediated, representations) for the flesh and blood reality of
human interaction. This substitution is also, however, a religious substitution: the
collapse of the social is tied to the gradual elimination of traditional forms of the
sacred from the contemporary world, and the emergence of techno-science as a
new, surrogate religion. For Virilio, genuine religion, along with humanity and
society, is being systematically eliminated (Virilio and Lotringer 1997:124).
In contrast to many techno-society theorists, then, Virilio's vision is a pas-
sionate, immensely powerful depiction of the contemporary human lot, which
does not simply accept contemporary technologically driven social and cultural
changes as inevitable, let alone desirable. Furthermore, in contrast with much
postmodern theory, he does not doubt that embodied human beings, natural and
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364 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
transcendental realities, and society have ontological substance to them.
Likewise, there is a keen sense of the moral capacities and potentialities of
humans that informs his work, and stimulates the outrage he expresses in relation
to many aspects of techno-science. What he shares with writers such as Castells
and Urry, nonetheless, is the belief that a radical reconstruction of such things is
taking place. Thus, what alarms him is the dehumanization, disembodiment and
moral anaesthetization that is now, he believes, accompanying the substitution of
virtuality for reality.
REPRESENTING SOCIETY
Nonetheless, as challenging as Virilio's work is, the idea that society or even
the social has now vanished into the simulations, circuits and networks of the
information age finds its most robust challenge in Durkheimian social theory,
which might explain why post-societal theorists tend to define themselves
against Durkheim. Touraine (1989, 1995) and Urry (2000), for example, single
out Durkheim's vision of society as the most influential source of sociology's
anachronistic concern with society, even if the Durkheim they reject is often
something of a sociological parody, wherein his arguments are characteristically
reduced to a neo-Parsonian concern with the Hobbesian problem of order (see
Mellor 1998, 2002; Morrison, 2000). What Durkheim's work alerts us to, howev-
er, is the fact that questions about society necessarily raise questions about human
potentialities and limitations; questions that are ignored in much of the infor-
mation society literature. It is the Durkheimian tradition, in fact, that expresses
most forcefully the idea that being part of society is inextricably tied to our
humanity, an idea that is of fundamental importance if we are to continue to
study what societies really are rather than succumbing to technologically driven
fantasies about what they might be.
In the work of Durkheim, the notion of society is examined and reconsidered
repeatedly, but in general it is used to address the "supra-individual" elements in
social life relating to social actions, feelings, beliefs, values and ideals (Lukes
1973:115). Furthermore, these elements are understood to be emergent from, and
central to the development
and flourishing of, individual human beings: it is in
this sense that he identifies society with "an immense cooperation that extends
not only through space but also through time," combining ideas and feelings in a
rich and complex set of processes through which we become "truly human"
(Durkheim 1995:15-16). It is in this sense that, for Durkheim (1974a:27-8, 34),
sociology's object of study, society, is not simply a set of institutions but a collec-
tive way of being emergent from diverse forms of human relationships.
Consequently, although he is attentive to the great variety of forms that societies
can take (and criticized Comte for failing to deal with this adequately),
and
although he is attentive to the fact that particular forms of society can emerge
and decay, he is also clear that, so long as there are human beings, the notion of
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 365
society will remain sociologically and philosophically important (Durkheim
1974b:197; 1995:315).
It is this focus on the human dimensions of society that shapes Durkheim's
(1995: 438) view of culture: the collective representations that emerge from socie-
ty but act back upon it have to be assessed in relation to broad issues
concerning
human capacities, agency and the ontologically open dynamics characteristic of
society as an emergent reality. In this respect, it is worth noting that the enthusi-
asm with which some sociologists have embraced Durkheim as someone who pre-
figured the cultural turn has to be tempered by a recognition that culture cannot
be studied separately from real social relationships (see Alexander
1988),
a fact that
is especially evident in relation to Durkheim's analysis of religion. Indeed, the idea
that religion can simply be a cultural resource is quite alien to Durkheim's thought:
on the contrary, it is his focus on humanity's social potentialities that also defines
his distinctive understanding of religion as a "fundamental and permanent" feature
of human society, since human interaction does not simply broaden our horizons
beyond our own immediate perceptions and
desires, but transforms them under the
influence of an energy peculiar to collective life (Durkheim 1995:1,34). In short,
Durkheim's sociology of religion does not equate religion with culture, even if he
argues that religious beliefs can be regarded as collective representations. Religion,
for him, is a phenomenon that embraces culture and society: it is a system of ideas,
but is also a form of life emergent from the embodied potentialities of human beings
(Durkheim 1995:309; Mellor and Shilling 1997).
Durkheim's arguments have, of course, aroused considerable debate, and even
some of his admirers have expressed doubts about many aspects of his interpreta-
tion of religion (e.g. Pickering 1984). Nonetheless, in broad terms, the value of
Durkheim's work is that it grounds sociological analysis in a form of social realism
that takes seriously the human basis of religion, society and culture (see Jones
1999). More specifically, whether sociologists are inclined to agree with the details
of his arguments or not, he reminds them that however significant a particular set
of historically variable institutions, ideas or processes might appear to be, they
have to be assessed in relation to more basic questions about what it is to be
human. In this regard, it is clear that Durkheim's understanding of religion, cul-
ture and society offers an important challenge to many contemporary accounts of
the information age, not least because it throws into sharp relief their highly ques-
tionable assumptions regarding the "post-human" direction of the world.
POST-REPRESENTATIONAL SOCIETY
The fact that theories of the information age are often tied to a notion of a
"post-representational" society, would, on the face of it, appear to call
Durkheim's arguments into question. Lash and Featherstone (2001:15-6), for
example, have argued that we now live in a "de-traditionalised, transformed and
fragmented" world determined only by the information flows of the communica-
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366 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
tions order. Here, "the social bond comes more and more to resemble the com-
munication," standing apart from everyday social relations in the compressed,
machine-mediated flow of information that "avoids
completely
the
question
of
representation," taking place "outside of symbolic structures-in the real" (Lash
and Featherstone 2001:16; Hardt and Negri 2000). In fact, in this post-represen-
tational world, recognition "becomes making sense of the information and com-
municational flows," values "are disengaged from structures and are set free into
the general flows," and intersubjectivity becomes mediated through technology
(Lash and Featherstone 2001:17). In Hayles's (1991) terms, representation,
grounded
in human
relationships,
no
longer
works in a
post-human
world.
Lash and Featherstone's arguments, which complement many of the views of
writers such as Urry (2000, 2003) and Castells (2000), exhibit some of the gener-
al characteristics of theories of the information age, notably the tendencies
towards technological determinism and the adoption of grand claims about
epochal transformations in Western societies, allied to a false restriction of
Durkheim's notion of society to the modem nation state. What is of particular
note, however, is their evacuation of the human from "the real:" here, the human
is identified with the realm of the symbolic, while the real is identified with infor-
mation flows. This takes the cultural turn in a new direction: culture no longer has
any connection with humanity (which is not real anyway, but relegated to some
insubstantial realm of the symbolic), but is defined through machines. Under the
circumstances, while they are full of praise for his helpfulness in making sense of
a now vanishing modern culture and society, it is not surprising that Lash and
Featherstone find Durkheim is no longer a useful theoretical resource for making
sense of the contemporary world: how could he be, since his sociology remains tied
to the anachronistic idea that society and culture are human realities?
Nonetheless, the theoretical sources Lash and Featherstone draw upon in
developing their account of this post-representational world are often expressly
hostile to such an interpretation, and can help illuminate important weaknesses
in such approaches. One of their sources, Slavoj
Zizek (1989), for example, has
recently argued in very clear terms that using the notion of the "real" in this sort
of way actually obfuscates the reality of the human condition in the contempo-
rary world (Zizek 2002). It is also notable that Lash and Featherstone's arguments
rest on a misinterpretation of Bataille's notion of the "general economy,"
which
they define as "the space in which the social bond has broken down." Indeed,
contrary to their suggestion that Bataille was "Durkheim and Mauss's most impor-
tant opponent" (Lash and Featherstone 2001:16), he quite clearly
followed
Durkheim is his argument that the general economy is not the space where the
social bond is absent, but where it comes into being, expressing the exuberance
and effervescence of life (Bataille 1991:10).
Rather than
offering
visions of a
post-representational
world of excess,
what
Bataille and Zizek share is a commitment to a fuller sense of what it is to be
human than that acknowledged in modernity, and in much modern social theo-
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 367
ry. Indeed, while Lash and Featherstone (2001:16) reference Zizek and Deleuze
together as advocates of a notion of the real "in excess of Durkheim's
symbolic,"
Zizek (2002:30) attacks Deleuze for occluding the real forces within society. It is
also notable that, unlike Lash and Featherstone, Urry, Castells and Touraine,
Zizek emphasizes the importance of religion in these terms; that is, he emphasizes
the necessity of assessing contemporary cultural processes and changes within the
context of a firm grasp of the intimate connections between religion, society and
the real dangers and opportunities facing human beings in the world today. This
emphasis, however, is strikingly different from the general neglect of religious
issues in accounts of the information age.
RELIGION AND THE INFORMATION SOCIETY
The neglect of religion is well exemplified by the writings of Castells who,
even while introducing a book centered on the notion of the millennium, appears
to see religion as an archaic leftover from a previous age. Indeed, Castells's
(1998:1) manifest inability to take religion seriously is signaled by his dismissal of
Christianity as "a minority religion that is bound to lose its pre-eminence" as rep-
resentation becomes shaped by "real virtuality" rather than religion, and by his
failure to even consider what Virilio (1984) envisages to be the dangerous and
inhuman consequences that flow from the attempted elimination of modernity's
religious origins. Here, it is important to note that Virilio clearly stands apart from
other theorists, offering an interpretation of the information that is more theo-
logical than sociological. For Virilio (2002:10), the history of the modem West
can be read as a striving to be "rid of God." It is in the modem techno-scientific
imagination, however, that this striving reaches its most extreme, "Satanic" form
since humanity becomes enslaved to the pursuit of an immortality, beyond good
and evil, that ultimately results in the elimination of the human (Virilio 2002:16,
19, 28). While these arguments have a characteristically apocalyptic tone, it is
important to note that Zizek's more measured reassertion of the importance of reli-
gion nonetheless has a number of similar features.
ZiZek's (2000) The Fragile Absolute is, uniquely, a Marxist defense of the West's
Christian legacy. This defense takes seriously the increasing power of technologies
to reshape cultural forms and experiences across the globe, but he is also con-
cerned with the violence and corruption that often goes with this, and the fact
that postmodern theorists of culture collude in such processes through their fail-
ure to engage with the questions about human nature and destiny that are as
important now as they have ever been. Further to this, he is also highly critical of
certain aspects of the apparent resurgence of religious factors in the contemporary
world, since they often simply reflect, rather than challenge, broader patterns of
de-humanization. Thus, for him, the return of the religious dimension in much
contemporary social and cultural life is, in many respects, deplorable because it is
manifest as an obscurantist postmodern spiritualism that dissolves social reality
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368 SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION
into a multiplicity of meaningless subjectivities. In contrast, what he finds in
Christianity is a certain kind of social realism where, contrary to postmodern the-
ory, people cannot be reduced into symbolic codifications of "otherness" which
offer opportunities for self-realization, but are real, unavoidable neighbors whose
very particularity confronts the individual with universal demands and obligations
that cannot be ignored (Zizek 2000:109). This is why, for him, a proper engage-
ment with the nature of culture and society in the contemporary Western world
necessary involves an engagement with its Christian legacy.
The strong Christian sensibilities that shape the work of Zizek and Virilio
give a particular character to their assessments of contemporary social and cul-
tural changes. Both of them refuse to accept the reduction of human social and
cultural realities to information, and in Zizek's case in particular, find in the
Christian tradition a focus on charity, on love as social solidarity, that confronts
the de-humanizing processes of the present with a universal obligation transcen-
dent of cultural differences, technologically mediated or otherwise (see Zizek
2000:146-7). Nonetheless, while these explicitly theological commitments might
place these writers outside the taken-for-granted methodological atheism of
many sociologists of religion (Berger 1990), they can usefully remind sociologists
of some of the dangers inherent in some forms of the cultural turn in sociological
theory, and can contribute to a productive reassessment of the continuing value
of classical theorists such as Durkheim. By way of a conclusion, in fact, it is pos-
sible to focus on two key points of continuity between the arguments of these
writers and the social realism developed by Durkheim.
First, Virilio and Zizek, like Durkheim, locate the origins of social life in dis-
tinctively human capacities and potentialities that are able to develop and flour-
ish through our relationships and interactions with others. It is this human focus
that is most lacking in many accounts of the information age, where the notion
of some sort of shift towards a post-human world is almost taken as given. The
frequent failure to deal with such notions critically is not only a betrayal of the
sociological tradition developed by Durkheim, but also neglects the traditions of
critical sociology introduced by Marx, Weber and Simmel. All of these writers,
albeit in different ways, developed their visions of the contemporary
world
through an engagement with the human and the moral dimensions of social real-
ities (Shilling and Mellor 2001).
Second, the writings of Virilio and Zizek, despite
differences in other respects,
follow Durkheim in understanding the social context of human development
in
religious terms. For these contemporary writers, these religious dimensions have a
specifically Christian character, while, for Durkheim, the social significance
of
religion rests on a more general capacity
to confront individuals with universal
demands and obligations expressive
of a sui
generis reality transcendent of partic-
ular interests. Nonetheless, in both cases a concern for the human basis of culture
and society necessitates the serious engagement with religious factors, particularly
with regard to the notion of transpersonal obligations and demands. The absence
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RELIGION, CULTURE AND SOCIETY IN THE 'INFORMATION AGE' 369
of a serious engagement with religion in much of the information society litera-
ture, on the other hand, is expressive of a lack of interest in such moral obliga-
tions, a lack of interest evident in Baudrillard's (1990:104) claim that anyone
wanting to understand America should ignore its churches and, instead, watch TV
or visit Disneyland (see Lyon 2000). Under the circumstances, it is hardly surpris-
ing that such writers cannot even begin to appreciate the importance of religious
factors in confronting the dangers posed by those social and cultural forces that
threaten a post-human world. More fundamentally, it is also clear that such views
betray a highly selective appreciation of how people really live.
Taken together, these two key areas of continuity between Virilio, Zizek and
Durkheim help illuminate the inadequacy of those theories of society and culture
that ignore the human and religious dimensions of contemporary life in their
intoxication with machine-mediated flows of information, and point towards a
more productive way forward. In particular, although Durkheim could not have
anticipated the development of the types of technology central to the informa-
tion society, the social realist focus on the emergence of society as a phenomenon
contingent upon the embodied potentialities of human beings, and characterized
by inherently religious dynamics, remains as relevant today as it was at the turn
of the twentieth century. Indeed, Durkheim's critiques of the utilitarianism and
individualism of his time offer models that can usefully be applied to theorists of
the information age: challenging the artificial vision of human beings implied by
such philosophies, he emphasized the need to take full account of the interrela-
tionships between religion, politics, family, nationality, geography and historical
location that shape the complex realities of human social and cultural life
(Durkheim 1970:85). In this respect, it might be said that he anticipated aspects
of the critiques of contemporary realities developed by writers such as Virilio and
Zizek. If we are to develop these critiques further, and avoid the extremes of tech-
nological reductionism or social constructionism which have marked many con-
temporary forms of the cultural turn in sociological theory then further reflection
on these concerns can make for a more productive start than losing the socio-
logical focus on society in our intoxication with the programs, networks and
hypertexts of communications technologies.
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