Media Ideologies: A Gallery

I study and teach about digital media, so I find these frequent artistic criticisms of technology usage useful and fascinating on a number of levels. In a social scientific vein, we might interpret these clever images as intentional media ideologies, that is, as discursive statements about how and when communicative technologies ought to be used. Such digital tools are relatively new, in terms of human social and historical development, so the rules on correct usage (or might we say, ritual correctness or cultural orthodoxy, as the discourses sometimes operate in religious registers) are not yet fixed or determined. Photographic statements such as these constitute proposals for those very rules.

Although I have yet to conduct a rigorous scholarly analysis of this corpus of images, one might delineate a few provisional observations. First, notice Kortaba, Geiger, and Reilly and Farias’s digitally manipulated photographs. Data phone usage, the artists wish to convey, distorts the rituals of daily life. Technology, the pictures suggest, have disembodying effects. Kortaba’s images speak especially on this point, while Geiger’s appear to theorize technology’s distortive, manipulative effects on human persons. The series by Reilly and Farias qualifies communicants as “ghostly” and not quite entirely present in real time. The Banksy image is the most straightforward in terms of content. Two lovers distracted by seductive white screens. Pickersgill’s “Removed” gallery thematically inverses the Banksy painting, to argue that technology, while an “addictive force,” is actually becoming, in an unsettling way, something of a “phantom limb.” Tech design perpetually sharpens and develops. Soon one won’t even be able to see the digital technologies that supplement, extend, and reinforce the tasks of the human body (see, for instance, this iPhone cover. Hoax uses ubiquitous pop culture icons (produced and disseminated by Disney, itself a veritable media empire) to add another level to this body of trenchant media ideologies.

All of this is so anthropologically fascinating. At the very least, it gives me a good deal of fodder for class discussions. What are the media ideologies present? I ask my students. What do the artists wish to convey about media use? What do the photographers find unsettling about contemporary communicative devices and burgeoning communications rituals? And the more controversial questions: Do you (dis)agree with the artists’ criticisms? Is it true that data phones will bring about the demise of society or at least the end of meaningful human interactions? Are the criticisms on to something, or are we living in simply the next stage of human media development? Do data phones make us any more antisocial than, say, newspapers

Lastly, a request for the reader. Have you ran across any other artistic and/or photographic work that constitutes a media ideology? If so, send me a link and I’ll add them to the gallery.

Image credit and/or source links: Kamil Kortaba via designyoutrust; Antoine Geiger’s Sur-Fake gallery (see also Colossal’s take); Eric Pickersgill’s Removed gallery; Saint Hoax’s Contemporary Fairy Tales series; Banksy’s “Mobile Lovers” via My Modern Met; Allison Reilly and Miguel Farias’s Gh0st L1fe series (via Colassal). The uses of the images on this page (i.e., for teaching, criticism, scholarship, and research purposes and not commercial ones) falls squarely under Fair Use parameters as outlined in 17 U.S.C. § 107 : US Code – Section 107.

CFP: Religion, Conflict, & Boundary Maintenance

An Anthropology of Anthropology

The anthropologist has, as part of his culture, his conceptual scheme, a way of ordering his experience of another culture, a way of constructing the reality he believes he is encountering, and he is not easily shaken loose from that secure, reassuring, comfortable, well-worn common language to which he is committed and shares with his community of anthropologists, and which helps to define his place in that community. The anthropologist lives by his culture just as everyone else does, and it is very unnerving to distance oneself from one’s culture and community, for this leaves one without a firm anchor in some secure way of occupying a known place in a known world and ways of viewing the world.

From David Schneider’s A Critique of the Study of Kinship (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984), 196-197. 


Cultural Diversity as Cultural Dogma

We hear a lot about cultural diversity today, and those who espouse it like to say that respect for it in the West is a result of non-Western influences and is a recent phenomenon. This is a rather surprising claim, for two reason: first, because there is probably no society outside the West that is as interested in what other societies have to say, and second, because the value of diversity, far from being a fad of the past few decades, is a dogma of at least the past two centuries. Why and how to pursue diversity is a story that begins in the Enlightenment, and certain Enlightenment texts could serve quite literally as its Bible.

Samuel Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 208.

Pipe-Smoking, Fixie-Riding, Buddy Holly Glasses-Wearing Christians

A Review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010).

The managing editor of Bioloa magazine, Wheaton college graduate Brett McCracken is a prolific consumer of books, music, and films. He often contributes thoughtful reviews to publications like Relevant magazine or posts them to his blog, “The Search” (see His experience within evangelical circles of higher education along with his keen analytical eye for all things pop-culture-oriented situate McCracken as an effective critic of hipsterdom as it converges in varying Christian streams. I approached Hipster Christianity with a degree of apprehension due to its subject content; in short, I expected another trite critique of (admittedly) feeble evangelical attempts at relevancy. My fears were realized to a point, I must admit, but not without offering a qualifying disclaimer: Hipster Christianity was one of my favorite reads of the summer, easily in the top ten list of reads over the past several months and very likely one of the top three or four.

McCracken’s purpose, credentials, and scope are relatively straightforward:

This book is about exploring, analyzing, and critiquing this desire for Christianity to be cool–but it also analyzes the already-existing cultures of Christian hip. The book addresses, in part, the phenomenon of Christian hipsters. I’ve observed this phenomenon firsthand for many years now, through writing for Relevant but also by being an evangelical youth group alumnus and a student and now employee at Christian colleges. I’ve observed the world of Christian hipsterdom at conferences and events from Michigan to Massachusetts, Oxford to Paris. I’ve seen it in the dozens of churches I’ve visited in preparation for this book–from a massive mega church in Las Vegas to a tiny Anglican gathering in a centuries-old church in London. I’ve heard it from the mouths of pastors and in the ironic jargon and nomenclature of the specific hipster communities I’ve observed. It’s fascinating to see these communities of Christian hip emerging, but it’s also confusing and a tad bit troubling. What does it mean that Christians are suddenly becoming just as cool as the cool elites in secular culture? This is another question that drives the writing of this book (20-21).

The book is divided into three parts, but for analytical purposes falls more cleanly into two. In part one, McCracken clarifies important terminologies (chapter one), gives a brief (and quite helpful) history of hip (chapter two), a general overview of hipsterdom (chapter three) and then narrows to North American Christianity and its relationship with hip (chapter four). Easily the most important contribution of the book, in my opinion, is the overview of contemporary Christian hipsters given in chapter five. McCracken offers a list of prominent hipster churches in chapter six, followed by discussions on the emergent/ing church (seven), social justice (eight), and the contentious world of contemporary “Christian” art (nine).

Thus ends what I have deemed part one of the book, as these chapters are primarily descriptive in nature with minimum of critical (i.e., theological) engagement. In part two, however, McCracken moves from description to analysis and diagnosis. This part begins with a fascinating treatment of churches that try too hard to be “hip” or “cool” (chapter ten) and is followed by a series of chapters that demonstrate the perils of a Christianity that sacrifices its ethos for the sake of being cool or relevant (eleven-fourteen). To put it pointedly, McCracken, himself a self-admitted Christian hipster to a degree (51), sees irreconcilable contrasts between the Gospel and core trends (or tenets?) of hipsterdom.

Hipster Christianity is a wealth of highly-informative material on the eccentric postmodern individual that of late has been dubbed by his or her critics as “the hipster.” The book is clearly and intelligibly written; McCracken illustrates not only his familiarity with the subculture but also that he is conversant in society’s trends. McCracken speaks fluent hipster, and his list of identification guides for various types of hipsters (see chapter five) are as witty and comical as they are accurate, in my perception of things. If one was to go on a hunt in the urban wilderness, in hunt of the ever-elusive hipster, McCracken would be one’s first choice as a guide. He knows his stuff. As I mentioned at the outset, Hipster Christianity is easily one of the most enjoyable reads of my summer. Yet, I have some minor reservations.

I hope it is clear by now that I consider part one of the book to be one of the most important contributions to the field of literature that has been written on hipsters, to date. But where part one is informative and valuable, part two seems to be a bit run-on and borderline redundant in parts. The book might be improved by reducing the theological analysis portion and extending the descriptive chapters. Hipster Christianity is primarily an essentialist take on a highly superfluous group within American subculture, but besides some brief descriptions of several hipster churches, what are Christian hipsters doing on the ground? What do their quotidian, daily lives look like? One wonders if more space might have been spent giving the reader a glimpse into live hipster culture as it is lived out on an everyday basis, such as through in-depth interviews or extended conversations with subjects. Where part one is cutting-edge in terms of informational relevancy, part two reads as a longwinded sermon. (Admittedly, however, this is a lesson that might actually do the listener good if they can bear it out.)

A second issue has to do with the subject matter in focus. As McCracken well knows–and demonstrates on multiple occasions–there are major difficulties in studying a group so diffused, varied, and eclectic. At times the author pleads with his readers to understand the diverse nature of hipsterdom and the problems that come when one is forced to identify and characterize such a sundry group of people. (In chapter three, for instance, he lists a mere twelve “common types of hipster” including the Natural, the Newbie, the Artist, the Academic, the Dilettante, the Mountain Man, the Shaman Mystic, the Detached Ironic, the Yuppie, the Flower Child, the Expat, and the Activist; McCracken convincingly identifies each category by both clothing and musical preferences.)

I’m certainly convinced of the group’s disdain for labels, boundaries, or rigid definitions and in this respect hipsters are thoroughly postmodern. But to describe a group as postmodern (an equally ambiguous term that itself implies flux, fluidity, dissimilarity, and fragmentation) does little to ease my taxonomic anxiety; at times McCracken convinces his readers so well of the necessary or required reductions of a study of this sort that I question whether this thing we call hipsterdom even exists. Is any attempt to homogenize these superfluous urban contrarians a serious categorical misstep? I’m just not sure. My confusion concerning definition and qualifications of hipsters and hipsterdom reaches an apex at chapter seven, “The Emerging Church.” Prominent Emerging Church Movement (ECM) thinkers like Tony Jones have demonstrated its “pluriform and multivocal” nature (134) resisting any rigid and confining definition and cherishing openness, fluidity, and flux. Does this sound familiar? McCracken obviously sees the similarities; the ECM even has its own chapter in Hipster Christianity. But now I wonder if Hipster Christianity is a misnomer; perhaps, one might query, a better title for the book would have been Emerging Christianity? I hardly see any differences between these two designations, if any at all. Both emergents and hipsters are contrarian in nature. Both tend to appropriate postmodern theory to their spiritual and cultural lives. Both stringently resist being boxed-in by any types of reductionistic labels. The list goes on and on, so I wonder: might “emergent Christianity” and “hipster Christianity” by synonyms? With the exception of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle, all of the “hipster” churches McCracken surveys in chapter six might also be considered “emergent” churches (and even Driscoll has roots in the ECM but has recently distanced himself from the movement). I’m not convinced that these designations are any different. According to Tony Jones, in fact, several caricatures of ECM practitioners include their penchant for “cool glasses,” “trendy clothes,” body piercing, and tattoos (see Tony Jones, “Emergent’s White Problem,” at -white-problem/). If these aren’t caricatures of hipsters, too, I don’t know what are. In summary, then, I remain unconvinced that trends within “hipsterdom” are concurrent enough to legitimize the label: “hipster.” And if an ambiguous group of people are indeed loosely identifiable by ethos or essence, even with all of the dissimilarities, I still don’t see how the “Christian” version of this subculture differs any from my ECM friends.

Ultimately–and aside from the above quibbles–I don’t think that these difficulties detract much from McCracken’s coherent overview of hipster Christianity. Regardless of whether or not I take issue with terms and technical designations, there is something going on in these progressive camps of Christian young people. After reading the second part of the book, however, I do feel that the author might somewhat overstate his critique. In the introduction of the book McCracken clarifies his position as author, intending a balanced outlook: “The book is not an advertisement or rallying cry for hip Christianity, nor is it an outright chastisement. It’s a critical analysis” (13). Yet, most critical analyses include treatment of both strengths and weaknesses and the prior is noticeably lacking in the second part of Hipster Christianity. Towards the end of the book McCracken warns against the “threat of postmodernity” (220) but simultaneously overlooks the benefits of the postmodern era to the Christian church (such as have been emphasized recently by thinkers like James K. A. Smith and Carl Raschke, among many others). Another example has to do with the author’s critique of absurd hipster fashion trends because of their self-interestedness, individualistic nature, and catering to “pride and vanity” (196). While he is right to do so, McCracken seems to avoid the positive aspects of some hipster fashion trends such as the frequenting of thrift stores or buying sweat-free in order to resist rampant mall-shopping consumerism that ultimately cater to self-centeredness and hyper-consumerism. There are ethical dimensions to the ways some Christian hipsters dress as they do, and while these reasons don’t alleviate the individualistic (and sometimes dandyistic) fashion styles, the positives, too, deserve focus. Perhaps as has been demonstrated over and over again throughout the colorful history of global Christianity, contemporary Christians are simply appropriating current trends, sanctifying them or making them holy. In the broader scheme of things, how is thrift-store shopping more self-interested than the suburban masses that flock on the weekends to mall retailers? Second-hand shopping is itself an act that carries positive ethical results: many thrift stores that I’m aware of, for example, donate a sizeable percentage of one’s purchase to a charity or non-profit.

In the end, McCracken’s book provides excellent reading material not only for confessional Christians (on both sides of the cultural spectrum), but for scholars of religion, especially those interested in emerging forms of post-evangelical, post-Protestant Christianity. Hipster Christianity is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary society, popular culture, postmodernism, and cultural studies. For researchers like myself, working from the perspective of religious studies, McCracken provides a wealth of information on dimensions of religious life such as clothing, dress, identity-construction, consumption and recreational preferences (films, literature, music, food), as well as a compelling description of the re-alignment or contestation of religio-cultural taboos.

Travis W. Cooper