I have so much to be thankful for a sweet and loving family, my fiance and future in-laws included, and dear friends. I am thankful I’m in a great graduate program and almost done with coursework, at least from the perspective of Arkansas and Texas it looks like the economy is mostly recovering just in time for me to think about the job market, and that I live in a beautiful country that provides me, my family, and friends with more security, liberty, stability, comfort, and convince than many people around the world will ever know.
But all that said, I can’t help but feel like these grateful utterances once on “paper” (ie facebook post) look a little more like bragging especially if you consider that they are being broadcast throughout our social networks and into the global space of the Internet. Thanksgiving has always felt like a very American holiday to me, but pondering its origins and meaning leaves me somewhat unsatisfied with what we are celebrating. Gratitude aside, are we celebrating Gluttony and Manifest Destiny? And if Thanksgiving is the day of Gratitude, Gluttony, and Manifest Destiny … are we ok with that? After all they play a big role in America’s past and present.
This blog entry is an expansion of a facebook post I made earlier today. I am going for time’s sake, I’m going to split it up into 3 posts.
As far as holidays (holy days) go Thanksgiving seems to be a new world take on the traditional European harvest festival. Considering how few of modern North Americans are still involved or connected to agriculture it seems a little strange the holiday is still such a big deal, however, in the United States Thanksgivings continued relevance seems to be tied to its more recent association with commercialism. In the days following Halloween, we decorate with fall leaves and turkeys dressed a pilgrims. We coordinate with family and friends to ensure we each have our own massive feast fit for a medieval king, except they didn’t have turkey or mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie because they are new world foods. I watched my mother fret over orchestrating this massive feast for my extended family for years. Family members drive or fly very long distances to be together on Thanksgiving day. By the time it is actually time to eat, at least half the people at the table are exhausted, annoyed or at their wits end.
For many, the meal itself is only second place to the Macy’s Day parade and the afternoon packed with football games. Overstuffed with mom’s best stuffing, everyone half-passes out in front of the TV. While all of the family’s big shoppers get busy circling the Black Friday Ads and go to bed early so they can wake up at mid-night.
The big question I want to ask is what exactly are we celebrating here and what does it say about our culture. How is a holiday designed to express gratitude also a celebration of Gluttony and Consumerism? And in what ways is this holiday ritual vital to the American economy.
Considering I was in Ireland for the 4th of July, I decided to get a little imaginative in the way I celebrated America’s Independence Day. Greg and I went out to eat, I got a milk shake and we watched the late showing of the new Spiderman movie in 3D. (The 3D is totally worth it on this movie) Now, one important thing of interest to note is that in Ireland, the Irish celebrate the 4th of July. Greg was actually a bit surprised by the depth to which the celebration extended beyond simply going out to the pub for a drink to celebrate.
We took the day off, had a relaxing meal at one of our favorite pubs and then headed into Castlebar (the nearest city with a movie theater). However, it was in this “time-off” that I had a major realization about the connection between Nationalism and Communitas, and it is all thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man.
So what is communitas, you might be asking? The best way to explain it to people who grow up in a Western culture is to say it is that feeling in which your sense of self is fully united with your sense of community. It is a moment in which your sense of individuality is overwhelmed by a strong feeling of community. Communitas is in essence community spirit, but a sense of community spirit which deeply resonates within you. It is found in those moments in which you deeply connect with others because you know in that moment you and a those other people are experiencing almost exactly the same thing. Anthropologists describe this happening in rites of passage, pilgrimages, and moments of community action.
Communitas is the feeling of oneness, togetherness, solidarity, and deep sacred connection with others. Now the community can be as small as your cohort growing up or as large a nation.
What does this have to do with the Amazing Spider-Man? Well, not to give any spoilers, during a particular scene I was flooded with a feeling of communitas. It was actually a pretty profound moment for me because it was the first time I realized that that perticular feeling was communitas. I’ve had an intellectual understanding of the term for about four or five years now, and I’ve experienced the feeling numerous times throughout my life without putting a word to it. Experiencing during a movie, and realizing it, however, opened up a large can of worms for me.
Wow I just felt communitas during a movie…
1) If communitas can be generated, felt, and shared through movies … then it is possible to share through all forms of digital media I bet. This reminded me of my friend Jacob Oliver’s honors thesis about music and how people today have come to experience as sense connection to particular pieces of music which were really important to them really hitting home to their situation in the moment in time. Movies do this as well. Like it or not, movies, TV, and music connected all of us digitally long before the internet.
2) Nationalism… Sitting in a theater in Western Ireland, in a room full of 50 or more people, Gerg and I were the only Americans. I am not always the most patriotic person, but in that moment, I was an American. I was filled with patriotic pride and an overwhelming sense of connection to America and Americans. I argue this is how communitas functions to make self-identity and group-identity unite absolutely, even if it is only for one moment. The implications for humans as a social species cannot be underestimated.
However, beyond the importance of communitas to community building and group solidarity, I was also taken back at the notion of me feeling communitas while watching Spiderman and people in New York City. I was born and raised in rural Arkansas about as far from New York City as you can get and still be in the United States. Both distance and culture separate me from these people. I’ve never been to New York City outside of the airport, either. And currently, I am not even in the United States.
Yet somehow, I was able to experience this deep-connection from Ireland. Communitas at the national level was never something I considered before that moment, yet as I finished watching the movie it was staring me straight in the face. Isn’t national communitas exactly what the nation as a whole had experienced in the wake of September 11th?
3) Spiderman is a hero in American mythology. Ok, ok… I knew this before but the profoundness of Spiderman as American mythology did not truly set-in until I realized there was a spiritual dimension beyond the “moral of the story.” For me at least, “real” mythology has to not only guide its readers to culturally specific ideals and heroic behavior, but it also has to unite those readers on a deeper, spiritual level. I suppose, in essence I am saying that while mythology from all over the world has lessons to teach us, it is the culturally specific mythology which holds the most power over the reader. It gives us the cultural script of what it means to be heroic and villainous. The aspect of mythology lost on many Modern Americans, is that the hero does not have to have actually lived to be REAL. For a myth to truly be American, it must then speak to American culture and adhere to the Religion of America.
The concept of the Religion of America is something Religious Studies Professors and Theologians have put forward and it is something that my mind has toyed with since I took a course on Religion in the US with Dr. Jim Dietrich and Dr. Julia Winden-Fey. The idea is that beyond the formalized religions and denominations of the United States, there is a separate and distinct Religion of America which is very much tied up with patriotism and matters of state. The idea is that despite the separation of (a particular) Church and State, politicians, the government, and public events at large still very much acknowledge a form of spirituality which embodies American ideals and is devoid of the sectarianism that might indicate divine preference for one faith over the other. In other words, the God of America is the God of liberty, equality, freedom of choice, and responsibility of freedom, but this God is no less Mormon than Catholic, no less Christian than Muslim.
Spiderman is an American hero and his story is a heroic epic of American mythology. When his story is told well, it is capable of inspiring people to achieve the heroic ideals he stands for and it strengthens our connection to one another.
Questions to Ponder:
Did other people experience communitas while watching Spiderman?
Was this feeling of communitas limited to Americans? How does nationality influence media’s ability to provoke communitas?
What role does communitas play in social health? Do moments of communitas impact our sense of social well-being? If so, what are the ramifications for our mental and physical health?
Where do people experience communitas on the national level? What events, experiences, and media provoke communitas on such a grand-scale?
If you have an experience of communitas you’d like to share with me please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences.
Also, please take a second and respond to my poll:
While visiting the Brú na Bóinne about an hour north of Dublin, Greg and I had the opportunity to view Jane Brideson’s Ever Living Ones collection. This collection brings together Ireland’s sacred landscapes and ancient myths in moving contemporary artwork. Her art is currently displayed at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Center in County Meath. Jane’s blog has more details on the exhibit location.
If you are in County Meath or in Dublin and have time for a day trip, Jane’s art and the neolithic mounds at Brú na Bóinne are definitely worth the drive/bus ride to go see.