fragments of an attempted writing.

Pope Michael, that Southern peacock loving writer I'm not really that fond of, capitalist realism, ephemera...

You may recall that Thomas Frank devoted a fair chunk of What's the Matter with Kansas? to this guy, whose given name is David Bawden.

His website is here.

Bawden, in my mind, is an interesting case study in the interplay of social fragmentation and social homogeneity.  Watching this, I was struck at how similar Bawden's mannerisms and his approach to religion is to fundamentalist Protestants I knew in my youth and traditionalist Catholics and traditionalist Eastern Orthodox I met later in life.  There is no doubt a separatist homogeneity in American religious life (a social phenomenon which Martin Marty has written a great deal about).   At the same time, this corresponds with more and more "formal" fragmentation.

My thoughts on this matter are off the cuff and unfinished, so take this as a draft of sorts - I am initially inclined to wonder if there is not an operative milieu, or perhaps a social condition even, that is typical in the more fervent expressions of American libertarian tendencies - a drive to, unwittingly, embrace social patterns that are strikingly homogeneous, while at the same time the breaking down into ever more clarified and parameter laden camps.  Even in mainstream religion one sees this tendency among those with a "libertarian ethos."  Within, say, the Roman Catholic Church you have conservatives and traditionalists of various stripes who embrace social patterns very similar to their correspondent types in other communions.  Thus a neo-con/neo-Cath in American Catholicism shares mannerisms and habits and displays a lifestylization that is very, very similar to neo-cons within Eastern Orthodoxy, neo-cons within conservative Protestant groups, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, neo-cons within Judaism.  Libertarians in the RCC, EOC, Prot groups, etc., also tend toward this sort of easily categorized and objectively recognizable homogeneity.  Of course the same can be said of leftists and petit-bourgeois liberals across the religious spectrum, but this is less remarkable as they don't stress separatism or "rugged" individualism.

In certain Christian circles there is the tendency to view this sort of fellow as a Flannery O'Connor type character.  I don't think this is correct.

 I have met a number of people raised in banal Christian middle class suburban settings (or those aspirant to such and able to keep themselves in some other form of saccharine social bubble) who ascribe Flannery O'Connor characterization to a wide array of eccentrics, which of course is a result of their inability to parse eccentricity - a given considering the human poverty of their life experiences.   Bawden, at least as he is presented to us in the media which describes and portrays him, is not a Flannery O'Connor eccentric for any number of reasons.  First and foremost the internet changes the whole game.  Flannery O'Connor eccentrics are particular and localized in their eccentricity.  Bawden seems genericized, and I can't help but think that the internet has something to do with this (though he did start his religious process that led to his enthronement prior to the internet).  Bawden, at least as we know him via mass media, is also a hell of a lot more boring and more mundane than an O'Connor character.

But the point for those who would O'Connorize any analysis of human eccentricity and quirkiness is that it, whether explicitly or implicitly, ascribes some sort of goodness and humanness to said eccentricity and quirkiness.  It's as if pretty much any hardcore eccentricity in this day in age represents a good akin to the good of an O'Connor eccentric.  That is a mistake.  Bawden gets things exactly wrong.  Where he is united with others (his homogeneity) he is a cookie cut product of the more mundane mechanisms of capitalism - the guy has virtually no personality outside of that given to him through mass media and a culture with a rather unmitigated relationship to mainstream mass media.  Where he is separated from people is his "formal" life - he and his flock of 50 throughout the world are the remnant set apart by God whose puny existence effectively renders the rest of the world hell fodder.  So Bawden is, by volition, formally excluded from 7 billion people, sans 50 or so, in a formality that is both ridiculous and serious, while informally very much united with the masses around him, via his and their consumption and formation in capitalist realism.

Human beings should be exactly the opposite.  They should be at least inclined toward (even if just intuitively) a formal unity with all other humans if not "formally" united to all of humanity (and there are any number of ways in which a person might do this in a manner that is essentially the opposite of Bawden's "formal" separation from nearly all human beings) and at the same time express their personal uniqueness and individual temperament and manner and interests via their choices of consumption and production and labor.  I am not here suggesting that this is easily done in a late capitalist context.  Perhaps it is most accurate to say that it is not really possible, and thus the social pathologies of the type Bawden embraces seem to be inevitable.  I wonder if the drive for increased fragmentation with regard to formal ties to society and humanity is in part a desperate attempt to be able to choose something that is perceived to be unique or idiosyncratic or radically subjective (and at the same time providing meta-level meaning).  Following Mark Fisher's logic in a post below, most people today intuit (at least) that their choices for this alternative music or that indy film or some organic food product or some other marco-beer to reject the microbeer are not essentially free expressions of human personality and temperament but are (to some significant degree) choices made in a context of capitalist mechanisms of manipulation and the homo consumericus social formation behind that.  Perhaps the person doesn't even care about all that or has never thought of it, as Bawden seems not to.  He just likes him some Jeopardy and Numbers like everybody else likes something of the sort.  He doesn't have and can't get actual personal expression and actual  individuality in his TV choices, or with regard to what he eats, or how he speaks, or his conceptions on culture and society and so forth.  His day to day activities like TV watching and eating and talk of society/politics/economics aren't going to be too much different from other rural Kansans/Americans and they are going to be formed by the same "outside" self-interested and manipulating forces.  But, he gets that radical subjectivity moderns hunger for elsewhere, in his papal white dress, his flock which seems to mostly connect via correspondence and online, his homespun marshmellow chapel, and his smugly watching 7 billion souls head toward an eternity of divinely appointed torture as God spares Pope Michael's twoscore and ten.  Of course, with regard to many of these impulses, Bawden really isn't that different from a disturbing number of American Christians - "formally" separated, but a religious psychology and impulse cut from the same cloth.


  1. I know a Greek (jurisdiction, not ethnicity) monk (not an Ephraimite) who insists that the cultivation of the individual temperament, as you put it, is the essential goal of Eastern (or at least Egyptian) monasticism. There's some literature suggesting that later, homogenizing styles of piety arose out of attempts to rationalize the unruly body of vitae - sometimes in the interest of one or the other side in the various Christological debates, and sometimes for more mundane political purposes. Mennonites could probably make something of that.

    What's a good starting point for the subject with Marty? One of my committee members is fond of him, and my dissertation topic skews enough in this direction that it might be good if I were familiar.

  2. It's ironic that, as she wrote in a non-fiction essay that I don't have time to track down, O'Connor was largely trying to capture a world that she knew to be dying. All around her, the Interstate highways and big corporations and federal government programs were making her eccentric characters and their communities obsolete. Today, the Southerners and Pentecostals and rural people whom she wrote about mostly continue to exist in a weird reactionary mode that attempts to use post-cultural signifiers (e.g., Christian music, televised NASCAR races) to recapture ways of life that are no longer possible except among those too poor to be a part of the internet-saturated, standardized world. But the profits of such post-cultural signifiers go to New York City (if not Singapore), and the "culture" is invented in places like Los Angeles and New York. So it is no longer possible for Hollywood to portray American life without re-portraying images that they have already molded.

  3. And this is why I am on Facebook, that last place for true, authentic personal expression.

  4. Apo,

    I think perhaps sometimes there is a confusion at hand.

    There is the desire, among individuals and as a social phenomenon, for "true, authentic personal expression." A discussion of such phenomena will always involve assumptions about the subjective and thus is necessarily subject to a huge amount of debate/disagreement - "no, really, we drank that brand of beer because it was so cheap, etc., and not because of x marketing scheme or y social phenomenon" and so forth. This post isn't about that sort of phenomenon. What is a much more objective discussion, concerning empirical phenomena, are the plethora of social mechanisms used in the attempt to influence behaviors, and their overall societal effects. For instance, there is a mortgage company called "Green Tree Financial Corp" which for years has been the #1 issuer of loans to people getting pre-fab and mobile homes. I recently read of the decision made in a board meeting to choose the name Green Tree for the company, and of course I appreciated the deliberate irony of naming a company that specialized in financing trailer homes and pre-fab homes "Green Tree." That decision, and the process that led up to that decision, is objectively verifiable. And it is those sorts of decisions (and their results in the aggregate) that this post is, in part, about - the only assertion the post makes about individual consumer decisions is that, from the capitalist point of view, they don't matter - if you get your mobile home loan from Green Tree and unwittingly feel slightly better about it because of the earthy clean sounding name, or you get it from Green Tree and feel worse about it because of the manipulating sounding name, or you get your loan from "Despoiled Earth Financial, LLC" - none of that matters with regard to the successful moving forward of Capital and its social processes - if you are among the vast majority of people who need financing to buy a house or mobile home, you're going to go to a company like Green Tree if not Green Tree. The decision to go with the Green Tree name was made with experts who had done marketing research at hand. They don't need you to be effected by the name Green Tree, they just need a certain percentage of the overall trailer finance seeking population to have an ever so slight inclination with regard to the name, and more often than not, those experts are correct, and their social influence is successful. Now, with the name Green Tree the matter is not all that coercive or manipulative and the effect not so serious. But when you consider the full spectrum of the ways Capital exerts pressure upon human perceptions, and you consider the, literally, billions of particular deliberate operative social pressures which will effect the life of someone, say, born in 1980 who dies in 2065, each of which (at least from the point of deliberation regarding the introduction of the social pressure) is empirically observable phenomenon, well, that is an important thing to consider when attempting to come to terms with the condition of human persons and the context of human decisions in late modernity.

  5. - cont'd -

    In all human societies "outside" social pressures could have had a huge impact on the conditions of a human life. A king might have decided to conscript the young men in your village, or a tyrant may have decided to liquidate the villages in your region. You may have been forced to grow wheat instead of barley because the king wanted wheat even though you knew growing conditions were better for barley that year. You may have changed the attire you wear because of changing availability of certain materials, changes that had nothing to do with consumer choices but due to the decisions of an elite. Such states were horrible and abusive and the like and none of us who is honest wants to go back to such. But generally then the king or tyrant didn't try to change the tastes of peasants, or to alter the manner in which they looked at themselves and the world. In late capitalism, the "peasant" is presented with what seems to be a myriad of "free" choices, but that "peasant's" choices are between matter and modes of consumption that have been marketed and designed to alter the "peasant's" independent, or, dare I say, "free" perception of the item (and, often, the world itself), or even the "peasant's" participation in a "finite" and localized social group which forms such perceptions as a group. Whether any given effort to alter a given "peasant's" perception about Irish Spring Soap evoking cleanliness and crisp Irish nature instead of carcinogenic chemicals and the pollution of nature is successful is beside the point - they don't need to get that particular "peasant," they just need to get a designated share of the "peasants." And if that "peasant" isn't gotten by Irish Spring, he'll be gotten by thousands/millions of other attempts to alter his perception of reality. Any given "peasant" might argue with me about how a given attempt to alter his perception of reality effected or didn't effect him, but the mechanisms in place which have been designed to alter his perception of reality are undeniable.

    All of this gets complicated by the fact that when so many mechanisms of the alteration of social perception are in place and operative, things start to take a life of their own, and you have social pressures introduced that never were intended but are the result of composites of other intended social pressures (the history of Facebook provides an excellent example of this). And then you also have the more developed phenomenon of commodity fetishing, and it's myriad of effects on human perception and social phenomenon, some of which is the result of deliberate intent on the part of operatives of capital, but much of which is simply the social clusterfuck resulting from the mere base level of corporatist intentions.

  6. where does Marty discuss this?

  7. Daniel,

    Homogenization among varying fundamentalist groups is one of the central themes, if not the central theme, of Marty's The Fundamentalism Project:

  8. Owen:

    I'm no scholar and definitely not a communist but much of what you write resonates with my own way of thinking. I enjoy reading Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Muggeridge, Walker Percy, Pascal, and Augustine. I also read this ArchDruid blog and find the same common themes. Of course the Archdruid is not a Christian but his writings seem fairly congruent with the others when considering this world.

    It seems to me that all these men were just not happy with the world as it is. They realized that all their strivings in the world amounted to very little. The Archdruid withstanding they knew that their only choice was imitating Jesus Christ instead of the myriad desires of others.
    They understood that were being manipulated by some unseen force(i.e. the culture, satan, etc.) and struggled to know the Truth regardless of the ramifications.


  9. Owen, I think indeed it amounts to a whole lot of pressure, probably more and in more ways and means of which we are really aware. Our so-called freedom as a factor of our surplus wealth (real or perceived, it is besides the point) comes to us in no small part in the form of free time, i.e. leisure. And it seems to me that this form of wealth is behind much of what you describe. So we have time now to make choices as to lifestyle, what and how we consume, choice of profession and so forth. All 'choices' and 'freedom' which were not available in earlier time as you point out. In truth we are not really as free as we think when you consider what we do with our free time and our wealth. We all end up buying from Green Tree so we can watch Dancing with the Farts and sending our money to DC so we can bomb another country.

  10. "Within, say, the Roman Catholic Church you have conservatives and traditionalists of various stripes who embrace social patterns very similar to their correspondent types in other communions."

    I've noticed this as well. For the past year or so, I've been studying the Quiverfull/Patriarchy movement, and it's very similar to Catholic traditionalism. There's the same preoccupation with fertility, the pathological sheltering of youth, homeschooling as the only "Christian" educational option, the obsession with women wearing pants, courting, etc. All of which makes me wonder, was I in a cult during my traditionalist phase?

  11. Apo,

    By all measures I am aware of leisure time for most American working class persons has decreased in the last 30 years.

    I remember reading once about a year in the life of a Finnish immigrant family farming in northern WI in the late 18th century. They worked a hell of a lot (20 hour days sometimes) during harvest time, and several other stretches a year where they worked long hours, particularly in the summer, but during winter they were all couped up in their tiny cabin most of the time, in a place with less than 8 hours sunlight a day, no musical instruments, only a bible and a hymnal and a few letters around to read, sickness and oppressive boredom. I think most humans in that situation would have killed for a TV and dancing with the stars.

    A lot of consumption of mass entertainment today is done by people who find themselves in difficult circumstances, limited means, shit meaningless labor, and so forth. That's not exactly leisure in the Josef Pieper sense. So perhaps we still end up stuck in our little isolated cabins through other means. This isn't by any means the primary problem with capitalism, just one of the many byproducts.

  12. Leah,

    was I in a cult during my traditionalist phase

    I came to answer that question in the affirmative with regard to some of my own religious experiences.

    I'm curious, in your studies have you found any indication of increased rates of incest among quiverfull types? In the last few years I have learned of several very large families, some Prot, some Catholic, all fundamentalist/traditionalist, which turned out to be riddled with incest. I wonder if, akin to what one sees in clerical ranks (across ecclesial boundaries) with regard to a culture of sexual repression which seems to manifest itself in quite maladjusted and power oriented sexual abuses, we see similar patterns among isolated separatist families which are large enough to create their own micro-culture?

  13. Owen, yes it is a by-product not the cause, agreed.

    As to leisure time, I don't doubt that the Finnish immigrants had lots of free time on hand in the winter (BTW this is not a representative example, most farmers had livestock to attend, prepare food stuffs, trade goods, mend tools, all year around) - but my point is they were not consuming mass culture while doing so. Now we are. We consume endless amounts of information, products, thoughts, lifestylizaton, entertainments, social media, and so forth. We have the means and time to do so now. That in my mind is a huge change.

  14. I was greeted with skepticism when I wrote that people don't really choose what they wear:

    Good post. And yes, any group that has as a prerequisite the rejection of most of your community is cultic by nature. Traditionalists have just tended to cultists on the cheap, justifying their place within capitalism (or all too often academia or law) with some sort of health and wealth crap.

  15. Owen,

    The official literature on Quiverfull is sparse, probably because the movement itself is relatively new, and until the rise of the Duggars, not very well known. However, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that incest in rampant in such families for the very reasons you suggested. Homesteading and off the grid living seem to be very popular in QF and Catholic traditionalist circles, probably because it's easier to isolate one's family from "heathen" influences. If the only people that a teenager or young adult is are allowed to socialize with are his or her siblings, it shouldn't come as a shock if some kind of "Flowers in the Attic" situation occurs, although some families remedy this situation by not allowing brothers and sisters to be friends after puberty. All of these pathological tendencies are on display in the Duggars' TV show, but it's seldom pointed out.

    It's still shocks me how the Duggars, who are farther to the right than Jerry Falwell ever was, aren't more criticized for their extreme beliefs, especially since they are affliated with groups like Vision Forum and Bill Gothard. Once you learn about the truth behind the Duggar's beliefs, the obsessive natalism turns out to the least offensive thing about them.

    The best way to learn about QF is to read blogs, either by people who have left the movement or those still in it. The self-explanatory "No Longer Quivering" is a good source for the dark side of QF. Blogs by QF families are interesting too, albeit disturbing.

    Lastly, I don't think I was able to be fully immersed in Catholic traditionalism because I wasn't part of the homeschooling clique at my parish (I was, and still am, single). If you drag children into that kind of lifestyle, it becomes easy to get sucked in and hard to get out without everyone being scarred. Even then, I didn't buy the traditionalist account of history, bolstered by the fact that I worked at a well-known black organization that my fellow trads considered found morally offensive, but I found completely mind blowing (in a good way).

  16. So, do you know this guy?


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