Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Religious Groups and "Affluenza": Further Exploration of the TV-Materialism Link

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Religious Groups and "Affluenza": Further Exploration of the TV-Materialism Link

Article excerpt

Across the six studies heavier TV viewing generally correlated with materialist values, especially the value of "making a lot of money" for the young. The results validate Georg Simmel's observation that even those devoutly dedicated to salvation and the soul are influenced by the culture, and mediated culture is saturated with a disempowering and ultimately unsatisfying consumerism.

The recently concocted term "affluenza" already has been in the titles of three books: Affluenza (James 2007); Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (deGraaf, Wann, and Naylor 2005); Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (Hamilton and Denniss 2005), two documentaries, Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza (deGraaf, Boe, and Simon 1997; Boe, deGraaf, and Urbanska 1998), and even a stage play Affluenza! (Sherman 2006). The term suggests that excess materialism is a social contagion, draining global resources, straining lives, and debasing values in the dogged pursuit of more (deGraaf, Wann, and Naylor).

The affluenza argument also connects directly to religious values. Lives spent valuing acquisition of material possessions presumably value less the intangible, the spiritual, and the self-sacrificing. The documentary Affluenza already has pointed out that battling affluenza politically unites a political left-wing concerned with protecting the environment with a political right-wing seeing affluenza as a distraction from a God-centred life (deGraaf, Boe, and Simon 1997).

Typically mass media are asserted to be principal actors in spreading affluenza. Though it might be easy to dismiss affluenza as a cutesy "pop culture" catch phrase, the argument actually presents a serious matter with testable claims. This research project examines the affluenza argument that media use (especially TV viewing) connects to affluenza values and presumed affluenza symptoms, and further this link is so strong and pervasive it appears even among religious populations, especially religious youth. Along the way this research should help our understanding of three important, if somewhat overlapping, concerns: (1) whether affluenza should be viewed as a message effects model, an exercise in audience uses and gratifications, or a reinforcing cycle combining both; (2) whether affluenza effects validate cultural critiques of consumerism as an object-oriented opiate of the masses, and (3) how consumerist messages implicitly devalue citizenship, effectively bolstering the status quo.

Literature Review

Human beings' economic and spiritual connection to their material creations, even before electronic media's capacity to multiply that connection, long has been a subject of introspection and dispute. As Georg Simmel (1911) has written, "Man, unlike the animals, does not allow himself simply to be absorbed by the naturally given order of the world. Instead, he tears himself loose from it, places himself in opposition to it, making demands of it, overpowering it, then overpowered by it" (27).

In Simmel's construction those primarily directed toward salvation and the soul share one trait with those primarily directed toward satisfaction through goods. Both miss the importance of culture as an integrating factor of subject and object (36). Industrial production, he notes, generates products for which there is no need. "Thus vast supplies of products come into existence which call for an artificial demand that is senseless from the perspective of the subjects' culture" (43). Mass Media, especially mass advertising, help generate and maintain that artificial demand.

Simmel further observes that "infinitely growing supply of objectified spirit places" not only creates desires, but also feelings of individual inadequacy and helplessness. The human being becomes surrounded by things that are neither meaningless nor meaningful. People's possessions, in effect, own them (44):

   This could be characterized with the exact reversal of the words
   that refer to the first Franciscan monks in their spiritual
   poverty, their absolute freedom from all things which wanted to
   divert the path of their souls: Nihil habentes, omnia possidentes
   (those who have nothing own everything). … 
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