Commodity fetishism is not simply an obsession with things. It is not materialism, but rather a kind of dematerialization. When use takes a back seat to exchange, commodities become vehicles for a flight into transcendence.
Idolatry is embedded in whole economic and social and political systems that hold us in thrall. In an unjust system, we are all idolaters, and there needs to be systemic change to free people from false worship. — William Cavanaugh, “Strange Gods”, Commonweal
As I read the small “arts and craft” movement interlude in Cavanaugh’s Commonweal essay I thought about the homemade nature of my childhood, more specifically my childhood clothing. Cavanaugh cites studies that demonstrate that traditionally religious households are less susceptible to brand-based advertisting.
My parents are certainly traditionally religious people, and I was brought up in a traditionally religious household. Our house is still adorned with Agnus Deis and Sacred Hearts, and growing up we certainly weren’t allowed to wear Abercrombie or become, as my mother aptly put it: “free walking advertising for Hollister.” Brand clothing was verboten.
Furthermore, my mother might as well have subscribed to the arts & crafts movement, as she opted into sewing many of our outfits as young children. I think of my mother sewing so many of our clothes, our matching Christmas pajamas, our Halloween costumes, so lovingly and tirelessly. Her natural aptitude for numbers, measurements, and solutions make her a pro at the patient and precise task of sewing well.
As a child, my main closet staple was a whole horde of dresses that were soft knitted jersey with drop-waist skirts and elastic collars that I could pull over my head. I hated buttons, so I wanted clothes that slipped on easily. If skirts vis-a-vis pants are supposedly more limiting of physical activities, I didn’t get the memo. I tore homemade skirts climbing over fences, I played kickball and ghosts in the graveyard in my uniform of home-grown dresses.
My mother doesn’t value her creations the way John Ruskin would: she sees them now as simply obstacles to a tidy home—thirty years of accumulated things no longer needed. Perhaps John Ruskin had more leisure and space to be romantic about artistic manufacture. Or, perhaps, in a world that’s clotted with things that are no longer materially valuable, only commoditized, perhaps even things that are truly valuable have a harder time claiming their own value.
As much as I perhaps intellectually or pastorally disagree with large swaths of my upbringing, my fundamental stance towards it is deep gratitude. Mostly because I was a strange child who wanted to run around in the same dress in five different colors each day and wrote odd stories and lived very much in my imagination until well into high school, and I spent so much of my youth not sheltered from others who were different than me but sheltered (somehow) from the need to assimilate. My upbringing, which, as a movement of traditional religion that consciously resisted the values of “mainstream culture” taught me that there was value in Being Different. But, perhaps just as importantly, it gave me a community of people who could reinforce that choice of being so. Difference needs relationship to sustain it.
Again, I’m not sure that the ways I was taught to Be Different are all the ways I’ve continued to be and the ways in which I would choose to pass on to my children. But my childhood both primed me for a skepticism regarding the water that we’re inescapably swimming in and offered a parallel community that professed to be a space of freedom within the acid bath of culture. This, I’m sure, is valuable.
Reading Cavanaugh’s essay, I was first struck by how vulnerable we are to the time we’re born in. The way in which I was raised, like all movements of false nostalgia, traded (consciously or no) off of resurrecting some contingent past that is dead and gone. It tried to live by ignoring cultural context. I don’t know that any sort of wisdom can begin without acknowledging where you are and the limits of what you can think. Limited by our historical vision, even our diagnoses of our illnesses are compromised. Even our solutions are in some ways corrupted by the illnesses they seek to heal (see: the Christian Right).
At the same time, as it sunk in how enmeshed (trapped, even) in history we are, I was struck by how eternally exigent the call of God seems to be. From his first address to Abraham, from the crescendo of Christ, to now, there is never a moment the message of the creator is not the most urgent Word.
It seems that nearly every catechism lesson I offer to the seventh-grade boys I call my class winds its way back to creation. It seems we’re always going back to Genesis, flipping the Bible open to its first pages. Their questions always return to if God made evil, whose fault it is if not God’s, where the angels fit into this, how the sea was made, and what it means for humans to be made from dust and ribs and God’s own image. We’re always (it seems) going back to those same seven days.
On our last visit to Genesis, I thumped the slim binder that serves as our textbook and pointed to a word.
This is the most important word in this lesson.
If you’ve ever taught boys over the age of ten, you know that Robin Williams’ standing on a table is not just a nice scene in Dead Poets Society but an effective pedagogical technique. You have to lasso in their focus with some dramatic gesture. The room is abuzz with the confused energy of growing, and you have to find a way to rise above their internal noise and channel their fungible confusion to your purposes.
The word I pointed to, of course, is gift.
Perhaps it is vital that we continually go back to Genesis, that we examine our milieu through the ur-story of the world, through what we are told the world truly is. A gift: something good, designed, intended, beautiful, and chosen: picked for us, because we’re known, we’re loved, and we’re intended. We are part of the gift—we are designed, loved, meant, full of meaning and expression. The world is gift, which means that on the other end of it is a person.
Gifts are material things, and they become treasured material things in their materiality. Giftedness, unlike commoditization, cements the value of the thing. I have absolutely no use for anything J.K. Rowling ever wrote, and I certainly didn’t like her novel Casual Vacancy, but given that the book is from a dear friend before they even became so dear, it has pride of place on my bookshelf. I’m not super into St. Michael (not against or for, just wildly neutral!) but an icon of St. Michael as a gift at a time when I was certainly plagued by all the anxieties St. Michael is invoked against and when I publicly and loudly questioned the traditional representation of angels, has become a treasured possession. The thing itself is precious.
Commodities, I suppose Cavanaugh is saying, become vehicles for ourselves, our desires, our ideologies. They become avenues for worship, but on the other end of the altar is nothing, our own creations, or our selves.
Gifts, on the other hand, become symbols of a person. On the other end of the gift is, to our delight, chagrin, or wonder, always the Trinitarian other. It is only in and through relationship that we are ever able to change the world or break open new systems or ways of being. To be made as gift, to be a gift, to be surrounded by a universe of gift is to have precisely what we need to move from idolatry to living.