The Buffered Self and Movie Buffs

This guest post comes from Jeffrey Wheatley, a graduate student at Northwestern University. His research explores formations of religious contestation, racialization, the state, and capitalism with a focus on nineteenth-century North America. You can contact him at or on Twitter @wheatleyjt. Cross-posted at History of Christianity, blog of the American Society of Church History.

Image from Esquire

The Academy Awards took place this past Sunday, so I thought a post on movie-going would be appropriate. Plenty of religious studies and American religious history books have engaged religion and cinema in one way or another (Judith Weisenfeld’s stellar Hollywood Be Thy Name comes to mind), but, despite a once tepid response to what I thought would be a compelling lecture (I now know better), I want to use movie-going in this post to take a tour through some of my side research interests and to think rather suggestively about the metaphysics of secularism, about the theoretical and methodological openings and foreclosures implicated in recent work on secularism, and about Frank O’Hara.

In A Secular Age Charles Taylor argues that one of the central transformations of the past five-hundred years is a shift from the porous self to the buffered self. The porous self is open to transcendent external forces like demons, spirits, and witches. In our contemporary secular age, we have buffered selves, meaning that we are largely autonomous agents resistant to external forces. Movie-going, Taylor argues here and elsewhere, is an example of our disenchanted age’s nostalgia for enchantment:
Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.[1]

Here Taylor is really talking about the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, in which non-physical, yet physically felt and affective, forces flow through the characters. But we might do better to think about the metaphysics of the movie-going experience rather than the stories. These genres, after all, have precedent in other mediums, but it is the film industry’s emphasis on medium itself that signals the particular cultural niche of movie-going in the United States and abroad. Movies have stories, characters, and tropes, but Hollywood presents itself as a particular type of enchanter. The industry runs on the promises and dazzlers of technological innovation, the visitations of the celebrities, and the theater’s experiential aspects.

On the one hand, we certainly can analyze “enchantment” as but one claim of Hollywood myth-making—and how could we be surprised? For instance, take the idea that early film audiences were terrorized by trains rushing toward the screen. Late nineteenth-century audiences losing it might be a compelling testament to the affective power of cinema in a theater, but, as at least one scholar has argued, the terrorized crowd is likely a myth developed decades later by journalists and the film industry.[2]

On the other hand, recent works that explore the metaphysics of secularism have opened up avenues of inquiry that take enchantment (or, to be more specific, the porous self) as an assumption rather than an exception relegated to the past. They do so while largely resisting, or at least sidelining, secularization narratives that proclaim the decline of religion. Consider John Modern’s exemplary Secularism in Antebellum America, which explores the flashes of nineteenth-century Americans’ recognition of the intimacies between the self and the world, especially as selves are made through and by machines. That is, Modern traces the ways in which the mutually reinforcing relationship between expanding and densifying technological networks and the individual will (Taylor’s buffered self) became evident and necessary to his historical actors.

From this perspective, movie-going—far from a backwards-pointing sign post in a disenchanted age—can be taken as efficacious enchantment, albeit of a very different sort than what Taylor meant. This is an enchantment openly reliant on technology’s capacity to present and distribute affective simulacrum. Accordingly, we have never been modern in the sense Taylor describes, but perhaps we have been un-modern (that is, desiring enchantment and enchantable in ways that defy our supposedly buffered selves) in different ways.

Allow me to provide one rather dramatic example by way of mid-twentieth-century American poet (New York poet, in truth) Frank O’Hara, whose poetry is full of ruminations on his Catholic childhood and his ecstatic devotion to movie-going. His love poem “To a Film Industry in Crisis” provides one useful example. The second stanza begins: “In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love, / And give credit where it’s due . . . ” He does not give credit to his starched nurse, nor to the American Legion, nor to the Catholic Church, which is “at best an oversolemn introduction to cosmic entertainment,” but “to you glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound, with all your heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms!”

His paean begins with the technologies of the film industry. O’Hara goes on to also give credit to a number of actresses and actors; the last stanza addresses the celebrities and the technologies:

Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays
and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you
as you rest after a long day under the kleig lights with your faces
in packs for our edification, the way the clouds come often at night
but the heavens operate on the star system. It is a divine precedent
you perpetuate! Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on!

Far from a nostalgia for a pre-secular enchantment that can be merely approximated through the genres of cinema, O’Hara seeks to affirm through his poetry his enchantment with the medium (and its characters who illumine the space of the theater). In “Ave Maria,” he makes the theater a key site where work is done on the soul (not vice versa!):
Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

That O’Hara, who was a self-described atheist but a Catholic when he was younger, sets up movie-going as a sort of substitute Catholicism seems clear by his vocabulary, which plays on associations with Catholic saintly visitations, especially in “To a Film Industry in Crisis.” O’Hara is flippant about Catholicism, but the persistent citations of Catholicism in his work, even if they are rather derogatory, might point us to a particular genealogy of enchantment that cannot be adequately captured by reference to a singular “secular age.”

In American Catholic Arts and Fictions Paul Giles makes the intriguing argument that many American Catholic artists, including O’Hara, display an aesthetics (often secularized) of Catholic culture through their work. Sketching the contours of a Catholic aesthetic in contrast to a Protestant/Enlightenment aesthetic that literary scholars have presumed to dominate American media, Giles emphasizes characteristics such as parody, ambivalence, the sacralization of the immanent, an analogical view of the world, and a greater openness to the passivity of the human—something akin to Taylor’s porous self. This aesthetic persists, Giles claims, even if the artists reject identifying with Catholicism.

For those interested in exploring secularism through this rather open framework, this might introduce a number of questions. If Modern’s work describes evangelical secularism, might we say that O’Hara’s poetic bonds between Catholicism and movie-going disclose a Catholic secularism? Is this type of categorization useful in the first place? And if so how might such a claim disrupt the persistent salience of a narrative of secularization conceptually and/or historically tied to Protestantism? Have we become too comfortable gesturing towards an amorphous Protestantism undergirding “secularism”? Derridean hauntology and projects that rely on the language of epistemics make these types of questions difficult to answer. But one of the things I find compelling about these approaches is that they open up the options of conceptual and organizational tropes available to the scholar. Very particular examples, such as movie-going as a cultural artifact, the Zong massacre,[3] the novel Moby-Dick (as in Modern’s case), or fitness trainer Shaun T (great for language play on the “buffered self”), for better or worse, can do a lot of work, they can capture quite a bit, which makes for (in instances not this blog post) compelling and provocative reads. The difficulty of discerning the temporal or spatial boundaries of epistemics—a discernment I desire in my more historical moods—seems to me both a constraint and an opportunity.

[1] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 38.
[2] Martin Loiperdinger, “Lumière’s ‘Arrival of the Train’: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 4, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 89–118.
[3] In a work both incredibly tragic in its content and astonishing in its presentation, Ian Baucom, in order to explore the epistemes undergirding finance capital, emblematizes the slave-ship Zong and the massacre of Africans as the crew threw them overboard to collect insurance. See Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2005).


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