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Symbol Drain and the "West Wing"
Harold K. Bush, Jr.

Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.

Neil Postman. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Knopf, 1992.

 

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.

Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

 

Some things that were formerly sacred nowadays seem to have lost their luster. This is a common sentiment, as illustrated over forty years ago in one of Bob Dylan’s most haunting lyrics. Cheap and garish goods, such as glow-in-the-dark statues of Jesus, evidently do contribute to our loss of the sacred. But behind Dylan’s critique, and this essay, is the firm conviction that human beings desperately need the sacred as a centerpiece of our collective imaginations and vocabularies. And if indeed we’ve badly mangled our ability to imagine the sacred, we better do what we can to recover it. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” sang Dylan.

In his masterful study of The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade describes the sacred as a primal, and a primary, human need. We can perceive the sacred as “the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world” (11). Even fifty years ago, when he published his book, Eliade was reporting that western cultures were losing their sense of the sacred, and he was greatly distressed about the barbaric results that might ensue from this loss. How quickly the acceleration has proceeded since then.

Today, early in the twenty-first century, it might seem commonplace that the sacred has been moved to the margins of much of our so-called “secular” society. But even this bit of “commonplace” is a recent development. Most peoples have believed in the sacred; says Eliade: “the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit....desacralization pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious societies and...in consequence, [one] finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies” (13).

If Eliade is correct, and if humans by their very nature must seek and commune with the sacred, perhaps it explains the persistence with which many Americans continue to self-identify as being “spiritual.” While young people and college students by the droves are distancing themselves from the organized churches, they still have a hard time denying that built-in need for the sacred. As a frequent teacher of “spiritual” literature courses, one of the major revelations of my courses often turns out to be the way that the quintessential ideas of the sacred in American culture, such as God and the universal Body of Christ, are being systematically eviscerated of whatever sacred power once resided in them. These formerly sacred symbols are being drained of whatever power they once might have held. Consider the change in public perceptions of the church and Christianity over the past generation. Numerous well-publicized scandals have rocked the hierarchy of both the Catholic and the evangelical churches—and often these scandals revolve around sex with children. Furthermore, the loud and insistent public spokespersons of the Religious Right have bullied their way into partisan politics in a manner that appears to many to be sufficiently unchristian, so much so that it has had an ironically off-putting effect on many of the unchurched today.

All of this bad press helps explain why in today’s America, “spiritual” has become such a favored term. Frequently one hears from intelligent adults the distinction that they are “spiritual but not religious.” That pithy phrase has become so conspicuous that Robert C. Fuller used it as the title of his influential volume discussing the phenomenon, (2001). According to Fuller, until very recently religious and spiritual were basically synonymous. But now as many as 20 percent of Americans describe themselves without irony as “spiritual, but not religious.” The abandonment of the term religious for self-identification apparently refers to the speaker’s skepticism toward “organized religion,” even though that speaker desires to be understood as a person of metaphysical curiosity and even perhaps commitment. American perceptions of religious institutions have fallen on such hard symbolic times that a fairly substantial number of Americans are choosing not to self-identify as religious anymore. “Religious” has become a nasty word for many Americans, and nowadays hardly any college students will describe themselves in public as religious. It’s just too toxic an adjective.

 

The swift change in public perceptions of our bedrock religious institutions reflects a phenomenon that the cultural critic Neil Postman referred to as the “Great Symbol Drain,” which he defined in his volume Technopoly. Postman described symbol drain as “the trivialization of significant cultural symbols.... Through prints, lithographs, photographs, and later, movies and television, religious and national symbols became commonplaces, breeding indifference, if not necessarily contempt” (165–6). Postman draws upon Daniel Boorstin’s argument in his study The Image (1984), as well as an older argument by the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, to claim that the mechanical reproduction of images empties them of their powers. “One picture, we are told, is worth a thousand words. But a thousand pictures, especially if they are of the same object, may not be worth anything at all.... The extent of symbol overload and therefore symbol drain is unprecedented in human history.... The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition” (166, 170).

Postman’s fiercest enemies are the agents of advertising and, much more pervasively, the lords of technology in our lives, or what he calls the lords of “Technopoly,” by which he means the monopoly of technological powers over our culture. Much of Postman’s wrath is directed at television, as in his famous critique of mass media as entertainment. But Postman’s critique came years before the emergence of the cynicism on steroids that today’s cable networks serve up, in the form of Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, whose mission in life appears to be the complete evisceration of anything that might be considered sacred. (Postman was under the impression that someone as quaint as Johnny Carson was beyond the pale, a contrast that shows just how far we have fallen since the 1980s.) Eliade, Postman, and I all share a great sadness, and a great alarm about our culture’s strange insistence on the evisceration of our most valuable traditions and their emblems

This phenomenon of draining previously robust and useful terms and symbols reaches well beyond the strictly religious realms of our culture. Consider the change in public perceptions of the federal government over the years. Perhaps the greatest symbol of American government is the White House and the office of the President. One of the great expressions of the symbolic weight of that institution was written by Walt Whitman, a man who nearly worshipped Abraham Lincoln. Whitman spent much of his time in the nation’s capitol during the Civil War visiting injured Union soldiers and acting as a part-time nurse of sorts. During the course of many of his days in Washington, Whitman would drift by the residence of the president and occasionally would even spot Lincoln on the streets of the city. His romantic depiction of these things captures eloquently an older version of how many Americans envisioned these lofty images: “The white portico—the palace-like, tall, round columns, spotless as snow—the walls, also—the tender and soft moonlight, flooding the pale marble... everything so white, so marbly pure and dazzling yet soft—the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon.” Whitman’s version of the White House focuses precisely on its whiteness: its purity, innocence, and even sinlessness.

And yet, in my lifetime, the scandals associated with the presidency have been enormous, and the media coverage of those scandals unprecedented. I only want to point out what almost any American, whether left or right, should already know: numerous shameful and sickening betrayals of the public trust have been thrust upon us from the confines of that once sacred and hallowed place we call the White House. It is not so much that scandals never occurred in earlier times—but certainly the media were not as overpowering, and the administrations were better at covering them up.

Since Vietnam and Watergate, news coverage has become almost omniscient if not completely vicious. The result has been the drainage of prestige and honor from the symbolic pool of the presidency and the White House. Few Americans today would be able to embrace Whitman’s description without some serious reservations. In fact, possibly the most famous image of the White House in recent popular culture was in the film “Independence Day.” Who can forget the shocking sequence of sinister aliens as they deploy their mysterious mega-weapon and blow the building to bits and pieces? At least the President got out in time, though most of his staff were left behind. The desire to obliterate the White House, unfortunately, is not so altogether alien among good tax-paying American citizens, sadly.

 

In this context we might consider one of the most successful and honored prime time network series of the new millennium so far, “The West Wing.” It was the winner of nine Emmy Awards in its first season, the most ever, and it featured some of the most thought-provoking and edifying stories in recent television memory. The idea for the series began with the success of Rob Reiner’s “The American President,” a film that captured many of the same emotions and which was written by Aaron Sorkin, one of the major writers for the series. “The West Wing” featured an excellent cast, headed by Martin Sheen as the President, and although it was Democratic and liberal in orientation, it often managed to come off as somehow beyond partisan politics. Certainly there were issues at stake in which the administration had to show its left-leaning colors: gay rights, women’s rights, capital punishment, social security, and so forth. But often “The West Wing” modeled a bi-partisan common sense approach that thrilled its audience by being precisely what we might hope our government could actually be. In this way, it managed, on many occasions, to transcend the partisan politics that characterize our government these days.

 In an episode about Social Security, for example, the ad­ministration brokers a deal between Republicans and Democrats and gets no recognition for the part it plays in doing so. In another episode about gay rights, in which a high school boy is brutally tortured and killed by gay-bashers, the audience is tricked at first into imagining the father of the murdered boy as being ashamed of his dead son. Only later do we discover that the father is in fact ashamed of the abandonment of the gay community by the government—including the left-leaning White House. The function of the plot twist is to show how regular Americans really do care about individual adolescents, no matter their sexual practices—and that even politicians can be blinded by partisan stereotypes. The grieving father, imagined by the Administration (and the audience) to be some caricature of conservative homophobia because of his political and geographic particulars, is finally revealed to be the compassionate and caring parent that we all should be. Another plot development involves the hiring of a pretty blond Republican attorney by this steadfastly Democratic administration. While at first she is chastised by her colleagues, she slowly begins to see their value, just as her co-workers do begin to see hers. “These people are patriots,” she tells her snide right wing friends ridiculing the White House, “and I’m their lawyer!”

The West Wing” depicted a humane, just, and extremely selfless White House—even though the show did not really pull its punches in depicting the crude infighting, the difficult relations with the media, and even the scandals that are always a part of presidential politics. The Chief of Staff is shown to have been an alcoholic and drug addict in a previous stint as Secretary of Labor; the Vice President is forced to resign due to Clinton-like sexual philandering; and even the President is depicted as having hidden his own life-threatening illness during his election campaign. In other words, this was not just a rosy and peachy kind of White House. It was emphatically situated in the real political world of our day, with all its pettiness and mindless partisanship at play. Through it all, the President and his trusty staff figured out ways to maintain an ethical balance, serve the American public, and believe in the ideas at the core of America itself.

The West Wing” succeeded by drawing upon two related American yearnings. First, it attempted to reinvest the great symbols of American government with the power and glory that they previously held for most Americans. Second, it did this by drawing upon the very real desire among the American public for such a reinvestment. In other words, “The West Wing” took advantage of the American yearning for our great symbols to be filled up again with meaning. “The West Wing” was a symptom of American shame and disappointment about our abandonment of what matters most to us. In a remarkable episode called “Shibboleth,” the action takes place during Thanksgiving week, and there is much inspiring talk about our history of religious freedoms. Meanwhile, a ship is discovered in San Diego carrying about a hundred refugees from China, who claim to be Christians persecuted for their faith. The President summons a representative, in order to determine the authenticity of their faith, and he is not disappointed. The refugee’s testimony is stirring and convincing, and the President arranges a political solution that both grants refuge and allows the Chinese government to save face. It is a moving episode celebrating the origins of the American mythos—and it was aired originally during the Thanksgiving season, which heightened its clout.

It is true that some critics were not as glowing in their responses to “The West Wing” as my discussion here. For example, in their volume Why Do People Hate America? (2003), Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies give a riveting and at times brilliant analysis of how the program relied upon Arab stereotypes and, despite the show’s supposed left politics, was complicit in the War on Terror rhetoric of the Bush administration. And it is worth noting how the series often reinforces certain kinds of stereotypes, especially of Evangelical Christians, Republicans, and to some extent of Arabs and Muslims. There are other criticisms to be made as well.

But my point here is to focus on its positive features as a series fostering hope among Americans and attempting to reclaim the symbolic possibilities of the White House. “The West Wing” was most compelling when it combated the draining of symbolic weight of its subject and ultimately sung the song of America. “The West Wing” phenomenon is symptomatic of both the increasing suspicion toward institutional forces in our lifetimes, as well as the deep yearning to recover and act upon the sources of our most valued ideals. In short, the great symbols of our civilization have been taking a beating lately, and it is most noticeable in the public perceptions of such crucial American institutions as the church, the family, and the Presidency. So is the drainage of the symbol of our national ideal: the White House. Overall, the series constituted a powerful jeremiad calling America back to its sacred ideals, and it reminded us of what precisely those ideals are.

 

Postman’s concept of the “Great Symbol Drain” is valuable as far as it goes. But his focus on merely the amount of mechanical reproduction of images is not enough. As I have already briefly suggested, it is not just overexposure but also the nature of that overexposure. Over and over, we are shown the dark and corrupt underbelly of things; over and over our media bombard us with the hideous aspects of these symbolic institutions. We are thus suffering from an even more widespread and sinister kind of drainage. Postman hints at this connection between the drainage of symbols and the drainage of something much larger and much more significant: “With the erosion of symbols there follows a loss of narrative, which is one of the most debilitating consequences of Technopoly’s power.... it is certain that no culture can flourish without narratives of transcendent origin and power.... Symbol drain is both a symptom and a cause of a loss of narrative” (171, 173). Postman recognized the loss of faith not just in the symbols of our civilization, but in our mythic stories as well.

Besides the “Great Symbol Drain,” we need to understand what I would like to call the “Great Story Drain,” by which I am referring to the loss of faith in narrative-driven versions of truth in our culture. The “Great Story Drain” follows, of course, the standard prime directive of postmodernism, that we now must have “incredulity toward metanarratives,” surely one of the most famous and puissant three-word phrases available to us in English today. Many Americans today do not envision their lives as being part of a larger story. The only story of which they are a part is their individual life story, and perhaps beyond that the story of their job or their family.

A critical recognition of the “Great Story Drain,” my own term for the loss of belief in the power of communal stories, is a fairly common one. America’s communal vision, once a crucial source of hope for our culture, has almost died due to the current stress on cultural suspicion and paranoia regarding metanarratives. Communal hope and belief may in fact be the chief victims of the Great Symbol Drain that Postman described. And the rejection of communal vision and hope constitutes also the rejection of the sacred—something we humans cannot live without. Again I will quote from Mircea Eliade: “the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.... desacralization pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious societies and ... in consequence, [one] finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies” (13).

Difficult, says Eliade, but not impossible. If we can restore that vision, if we can recover that yearning, and if we can reassert that there is something sacred about America and about our very lives, then perhaps there is still a chance that we will remember this era not as the death of American vision, but as an era in which the American vision almost died. An effort like “The West Wing,” miniscule and flawed though it surely was, should be applauded for its contribution to such a project—whatever one’s particular politics might be—if for no other reason than that it depicts the possibility of American vision, national consensus, and the reinvigoration of national symbols.

In our current state of symbol drain, such possibilities are very much needed. Just the other day, during his first televised news conference, President Obama was asked by a reporter if his recent efforts had discouraged him from going forward with his attempts at bipartisan legislation. This question came (with a straight face) after only three weeks in office! Such profane levels of cynicism are very hard to overcome, but Eliade and Postman would agree that such jadedness originates in a depleted national imagination, one that has largely lost touch with the sacred (despite all the campaign rhetoric). What comes next—and what Eliade and Postman are not so clear about—are methods by which we might go about recovering that sacred imagination.

The good news is that the electorate evidently agrees. Indeed, it may be the primary reason for the popularity of President Obama: his uncanny ability to scratch an itch that we are all feeling, in these postmodern days. We all await the verdict of history, but given the state of our national symbology, hope is a good thing; maybe, even, the best thing.

 

Harold K. Bush, Jr. teaches American literature and culture at Saint Louis University and is the author of two books and numerous articles on topics ranging from American literary figures to the pragmatics of teaching and reading. He recently was a short term Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

 

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