Many of these Chronicles have been devoted in one way or another to defending consumer society against those who affect to despise it. Resentment of the wealthy aside, the intellectual loathes consumerism because it has proved an effective substitute for socialism. The potential revolutionary is diverted from the struggle by the constant pressure to update his life-style. The Marcusian idea of “repressive tolerance” secularizes Pascal’s critique of the worldly divertissement that distracts us from the care of our immortal soul.
But secular spirituality need not be assimilated to political negativity. The mode of the soul’s perseverance with which we are most likely to concern ourselves is historical. Celebrities fascinate us not simply because they are famous now; their aura reflects our expectation that they will be inscribed in the future’s reconstruction of the present as past that goes by the name of history. Our passion for top-100 lists of films, actors, sports figures, and what have you reflects this equation of historical immortality with salvation.
No doubt the modern exchange system complicates the simple dichotomy of sacred production and profane consumption: because consumption produces social meaning, its expense is also an investment. As opposed to the Calvinist for whom worldly success is a sign of salvation, the modern producer/consumer manipulates signs in order to succeed, choosing the wine or travel anecdote that will clinch the sale. Even what is at first sight pure animal self-indulgence is recuperated by the system of signs. The attention to body-image that has shrunk portions in upscale restaurants gives rise in reaction to stores selling frozen yogurt and even chocolate chip cookies, high-calorie words in the yuppie message inflected with the ethnic accent of Mrs. Fields or Famous Amos–compare Winchell’s Donuts.
Yet the opposition between consumption and production, self-indulgence and self-abnegation, continually reasserts itself. The “p” in yuppie stands for “professional.” Buying the right suit is part of being a lawyer, but it doesn’t substitute for law school, the bar exam, and fourteen-hour workdays. Nodding respectfully to conspicuous consumption and potlatch, the Pascalian dichotomy reemerges in everyday reality. We constantly encounter the temptation to abandon the sacred for the profane, even if the sacred corresponds to cleaning out the garage and the profane to redecorating the living room. The dichotomy is unforgivingly clear for writers. Business deals may be sealed on the golf course, but books are not written there. The chief source of Marcel Proust’s iconic status as The Writer is the falsely reassuring myth his career inspires that our lives wasted in self-indulgence will some day be “regained” by twenty years’ activity in a cork-lined room.
No, the critique of consumption as distraction has not lost its relevance. The clothes, entertainment, or travel I consume may enhance my self-image and serve my career, but unless I am a professional model, film critic, or travel writer, they will not win me a place in the history books; better work at downing the most hot dogs in ten minutes and get my name in the Guinness Book of World Records. Consumption steals money, time, and mental energy from the productive activity that is our best shot at becoming immortal. It tempts us with the short-term satisfactions of acquiring and using a new object, of experiencing the envy of others. For our chances of historical immortality are vanishingly small, and the pleasures of consumption, fleeting but reliable.
One candidate for the “motor” of Western history is the structural difference between Christian spiritual immortality and secular historical immortality. It is not simply that the latter is more difficult than the former; in Pascal’s Jansenist universe, nothing is less certain than the salvation against which we are asked to wager our finite lives. The difference lies rather in the competitive nature of historical as opposed to spiritual salvation. That not all souls are saved is no reflection on God’s ability to save them, whereas historical immortality rewards a few successful competitors for the world’s finite attention. This scarcity inevitably arouses resentment. However clearly an individual has earned his place in history, our sense of human moral equality is violated by a selection process that saves a mere handful and casts the others, good and evil alike, into eternal darkness.
This resentment in turn provides energy for faith, which we can understand most simply as reliance on the omnipotent sacred center to preserve us from violence. The cultural scene’s success in deferring mimetic violence makes it a transcendental causal agent to which can be attributed the power to defer all violence–the violence of death, and of forgetting.
If originary, “ostensive” faith is indistinguishable from this reliance itself, faith in the strong, “declarative” sense conceives the sacred Being as the subject of a predication rather than as the object of an ostensive sign. This removal of the sacred to the sphere of narrative gives birth to divinities who incarnate the permanence that inheres in sacred Being as the object of the originary sign. At this point, the sacred becomes a bulwark not merely against Hobbesian violence but against resentment of human difference: whatever my neighbor’s superiority over me, it is as nothing compared to God’s over both of us. Before preserving historical memory, language and culture commemorate God’s omnipotence. It is no coincidence that the minimal credo of Islam, the religion most successful at channeling resentment, begins with “God is great”; that of Judaism, the religion most successful at attracting resentment, reads “our God is one” (yours, presumably, isn’t).
Salvation, translated into anthropological terms, is participation in the immortality of representation. For the Christian, as opposed to the Buddhist, this means individualsalvation, the promise of resurrection in the flesh. A democratic and vastly more comprehensive version of the library, the Internet offers no doubt the first practical secular model of immortality. Just as all our life’s actions are presumably preserved on the celestial WWW of which God is webmaster, we expect all files on the Internet to remain available forever. The belief that the Internet or its successor will preserve–if it hasn’t already–not merely selected documents but every trace of our existence in every medium is not implausible. A mere two decades ago, a twenty-page (40K) essay posed a storage problem to personal computers. Today’s 20G hard disk contains a few bytes for every person on earth. Who can imagine network capacity even fifty years hence? Survival on the Internet is not equivalent to survival in the history books, but survival in any form is sufficient to give one a shot at the history books of the future.
Where does this leave the Pascalian opposition between production and consumption? A web page is at least nominally a “production,” but what of those webcams that give us the opportunity to create our own reality TV? (Pretty girls finance their education by getting men to pay-per-view them all day long.) Perhaps the web of the future will contain recordings of complete lives; I can see upscale parents subscribing their unborn children, beginning with conception. Historical memory at last freed from the contentious condition of scarcity, we will all remain “out there” forever. . .
And why am I writing these fantasies, dear reader? As a diversion from the book that I should be writing about the origin of language. For a writer, even writing can be a form of divertissement. Or could it be that these Internet Chronicles are what will one day remain of my writings on Generative Anthropology?