Religious Symbolism and the Modern City, Part Two: Capitalism and Corporations

Preamble The previous part of this article accounted for the evolution of the city in the West since the sixteenth century, a period loosely described as ‘modernity’ since it succeeds the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and the Renaissance. It traced the decline of Christian symbolism and identified various ideological factors that conditioned the urban environment since that time, beginning with the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the written word—that is, scripture—over and against the material symbols of Roman Catholic Christendom inherent in the latter’s tradition. This emphasis on scripture and internal spiritual experience—in contrast to its outward forms—was a result of a growing anthropocentrism in this epoch, hastened earlier by the Renaissance. It also had a public expression in the separation of Church and state that was catalysed by the religious infighting between Protestants and Catholics. This eventually led to figures such as John Locke demarcating sharply between the Church and state, and Adam Smith’s insistence on the relegation of religion to the private sphere/personal sensibilities so that government could function in an ostensibly unimpeded manner. Smith especially was an advocate of the Enlightenment rationalism that we saw was by nature anthropocentric, and which would inevitably influence the city space. This anthropocentrism would ironically be compounded by Calvinism, which took up the an-iconic (i.e. anti-symbolist) sympathies of the Reformation from which it emerged, and through its peculiar doctrine of double predestination compelled its adherents to undertake externalised worldly activity. The hard work of the Calvinists led to an abundance of material goods and products that were sold through a vigorous mercantilism that, according to Weber, constitutes the seedbed for modern capitalism. Since human beings are meaning-making creatures, the dissolution of Christian symbolism in the public space led to an existential lacuna that was replaced by a return to the humanist aesthetics of the Graeco-Roman world, via neoclassicism and civil religion. But these two movements failed to completely grip the public domain, such that the rapid rise of the capitalist enterprise through corporations would completely dominate the centre of city spaces in modernity. This not only chipped away at the remnants of anthropocentrism—already eroded by late nineteenth/early twentieth century nihilism—but, as we shall see below, it led to a new kind of symbolism that is materialistic and reflexive. Instead of attempting to bridge the earthly and heavenly realms, corporate symbols target the personal interests and desires of the consumer to purchase the products they sell, and often do so in ways that associate these products with human instincts and desires. This process has been helped by postmodern relativism that dominated intellectual frameworks in the latter half of the twentieth century: you can be and have whatever you like! Below I address not only the impact of the capitalist enterprise on the modern city, but its existential ramifications. Before proceeding, I feel it especially important to highlight that in critiquing the capitalist symbolism that emerged in the twentieth century, I am emphatically not doing so from a Marxist perspective. Since critiques of capitalism are often undertaken by Marxist scholars, I would like to make it clear that I do not sympathise with the latter. Moreover, I believe that—apart from attempts at a grand narrative that was restrictive to personal freedoms—communist states deployed similarly problematic and nearly ubiquitous materialistic symbolism in their city spaces. The main difference between capitalists and communists in relation to the modern city and its symbolism was that the source of that symbolism was not corporations—since businesses in communist countries were tightly controlled by centralised authorities—but, in the main, the totalitarian governmental authority. The Capitalist Enterprise and the Modern City: New Symbols for a New Age In part one of this article I addressed the Calvinist contribution to mercantilism, which was eventually replaced by liberal progress1 with its emphasis on the competitive economic enterprise.2 This was especially the case in the market, which opposed governmental intervention in economic affairs.3 Thus, in the midst of the separation between Church and state, a new player was introduced—the free market—which, with the growth of big business, fuelled by the industrial revolution, led to the emergence of capitalism. This was also known as the “market economy.”4 Capitalism presupposed that “the products of labor have become commodities, in the sense that the goods and services that human beings produce have both a use value … and an exchange value.”5 The important factor is that these commodities yield a profit. In such a system, economic power was gradually wrested away from governments and concentrated into private groups6—corporations—that monopolised the commodities they were interested in. This not only led to the marginalisation of economic liberalism—which emphasised freedom of the individual in commerce and land rights—but also the conditioning of the city as an object for economic control by corporations, where, from the beginning of the nineteenth century on, the city “was treated not as a public institution, but a private commercial venture to be carved up in any fashion that might increase the turnover and further the rise in land values.”7 Since the eighteenth century, space in cities was increasingly interpreted through the lens of neoclassicism and civil religion and their symbols. In modernity, however, this space was seen not so much as an opportunity to reflect the specific mentality of the nation, but strictly through a utilitarian lens as a commodity that could be bought and sold, and then built upon, by corporations in a growing capitalist economy. In light of these developments, “the nucleus of the contemporary town”—or city—would become predominantly secular, “the reflection of the dominant technology and economy.”8 Moreover, the modern city would be dominated by new symbols (brands, etc.) of the products that needed to be sold (and that were advertised by that same technology). In the twentieth century the gradual loss of confidence in the human being’s rationalistic enterprise—in anthropocentrism—stemming from “two European based world wars, economic crises, Fascism, Nazism, and the guilt-ridden traumas of decolonization, along with further critiques of capitalism by ‘western Marxists’ … and more recently, feminists,” led to the breakdown of
the last remaining theories underpinning notions of liberal progress, or harmony through competition, of an optimistic belief in the reasonableness (of bourgeoisie) rational man.9
Here can be discerned the degradation of anthropocentrism, which can be seen especially in twentieth century art, which jettisoned the previous century’s romanticism and symbolism for abstract, cubist, and even nihilistic and absurdist imagery. Some examples include Kasemir Valemich’s Black Square and Marcel Duchamp’s Urinal (not to mention the macabre, anti-human work of Francis Bacon).

Kasemir Valemich’s Black Square, oil on canvas. Painted in 1915. (Source: Wikipedia)

Francis Bacon’s Study after Velásquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, painted in 1953. I am using this as an example of the mutilation of the human person, in this case a religious figure, in Bacon’s art (and because I cannot endure the sight of many of his other works). (Source: Wikipedia)

Anthropocentrism then underwent a pseudomorphosis around this time. For as Keith Jenkins pointed out, this loss of confidence in the human being—a staple since the Enlightenment—would also influence capitalism:
In this situation capitalism had to find itself another basis for value … But of course, as suspected, such an explicit valorisation of the ‘cash-nexus,’ such a heavy prioritisation of consumer choice, could only be bought at the expense of foregrounding relativism and pragmatism. In the open market commodities have no pretence of possessing intrinsic value; the value of ‘goods’ lies in what they can be exchanged for, in their exchange value. In such a market, people too take on the garb of objects…10
The commoditisation of the human experience (i.e. people taking on the garb of objects) resulting from the transformation of capitalism in light of the loss of confidence in the human being involved the paradoxical phenomenon of the prioritisation of the person—not necessarily as a thinking, rational being (the staple of the Enlightenment)—but as a consumer. In other words, the capitalist application of value to goods and services and material objects as commodities would become a dominant framework in public life. In light of this, the human being, who had struggled under various competing ideologies that all seemed to fail—not limited to the twentieth century movements mentioned above (civil religion, Marxism, Fascism, etc.)—would finally succumb to these commodities. Thus, the corporation, a product of capitalism, concerned with controlling the purchase and sale of commodities, “sublimated its sellable commodities as experiences both in the order of physical need and that of symbolic imagination.”11 And this fit well into the postmodern narrative that relativises absolute truths and values—even reason itself12—in favour of viewing and criticising the past which is interpreted solely through the prism of ‘power.’”13 Out of this nexus of the exaltation of the consumer and exchange value of products (marketed as essential) within the postmodern framework, a new kind of thinking emerged that defined the human person as homo oeconomicus, which, in the “standard view of economic theory,” defines human beings as “integrated, consistent, maximizing, utility-seeking, calculating creatures.”14 In other words, in an environment “where ethics become personalised and narcissistic, a relative and free wheeling affair of taste and style” and “no moral absolutes transcend the every day,”15 homo economicus becomes “fundamentally self-interested,”16 viewing even other people as commodities. He or she can, in fact, become homo narcissus. In light of this, the symbols that dominated the public spaces in cities dramatically changed. Increasingly attuned to the personal interests, desires and needs of the consumer and eschewing grand narratives—which, we saw in part one, in ancient and medieval times situated human beings within a broader cosmos imbued with the sacred—the modern city deploys very different symbols. In the central business districts that dominate the centres of most cities, skyscrapers often boast giant corporate logos and billboards that advertise the brands under which are the products or services sold by these corporations. These products are often tailored to personal interests, needs and desires without recourse to anything that might transcend them. In fact, they are marketed as essential for our wellbeing. According to Lewis Mumford, “in our time the ultimate fate of the commercial city is to become a backdrop for advertising,”17. If this is the case, then the sort of advertising just mentioned—where a soft drink might be associated with an exciting sport event or a half-naked person—will be displayed far above any temple or church (or war memorial). That these new symbols are successful is attested to by Joel Bakan, who affirmed that corporations and their “culture, iconography, and ideology” determine “what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do.”18

A plethora of corporate advertisements on billboards (electronic and otherwise) in New York’s Times Square.

Electronic advertisements placed high above traditional religious symbols, in this case a Celtic cross commemorating the statue of the figure standing before it—Father Francis Patrick Duffy (d.1932)—in what is known as Duffy square within Times Square, New York.

The prioritisation of such images in a taxonomy that still includes the older religious symbolism but which, on account of the near-ubiquity of product advertising—its placement in the most visible locations in cities and its proliferation in the software of information technology devices that almost everyone uses—is a reflection of modernity’s a-cosmic/religious worldview. This is, to reiterate, accentuated by a new kind of symbolism: city-lights and electronic signs that market material products and services while at the same time blotting out the starry canopy through light pollution. Even skyscrapers, on account of their vertical, needlelike posture, reflect this worldview. For while they are remarkable testaments to human ingenuity in engineering—and can be aesthetically impressive—skyscrapers nevertheless function according to their etymology, scraping the sky or cosmos instead of trying, like in ancient and medieval cities, to bring it, and the sacredness it contained, down to earth for our benefit. And all of this can be discerned in the above images of New York’s Times square, which in common parlance is called ‘the Crossroads of the World,’ ‘the Centre of the Universe’ and ‘the heart of the world.’ This is axis mundi terminology, yet applied in such a way as to reflect our contemporary sensibilities: for Times Square’s iconography does not intersect heaven and earth in the way that ancient and medieval civilisations envisaged their axes mundi. Instead, it is the intersection of the commercial and entertainment industries where the products or experiences they sell both are concentrated and made available to a new kind of human being: homo oeconomicus.   Conclusion In the introduction to part one of this article I mentioned that I would conclude with a brief reflection on the impact of the modern city on our wellbeing. Recent studies by neuroscientists have demonstrated that in the modern city mental health issues are made worse. Overcrowding in cities can lead to social stress that in turn generates physiological changes in the brain and its chemistry, resulting in anxiety and depression; and in extreme cases, schizophrenia and violence. Florian Lederbogen has narrowed down the negative effect of modern cities on humans to “pollution, toxins, crowding, noise, or demographic factors,”19 while Andreas Meyer-Linderberg has stated that “feeling different from your neighbours because of socio-economic status or ethnicity”20 can also lead to stress. I am certainly not suggesting that this is unilaterally the case in all modern cities. But it is worthwhile asking if the detrimental effect that the modern city has on human beings could be ascribed, at least partially, to the rapid changes in the urban environment that have precluded human beings from feeling that they live in an integrated cosmos wherein there is a capacity for transcendence? This transcendence, we have seen, was articulated in ancient and medieval cities as the presence of the sacred. In part one of this article, I affirmed that the earliest cities in Mesopotamia, and generally in the Near East and the Mediterranean, were made to intersect and encompass the three basic cosmic tiers of heaven, earth, and the underworld, at junctures where the sacred was revealed; where the hierophany took place. We know that in the period preceding modernity—namely in medieval Christendom—the public thoroughfares were full of images that not only integrated passers by into the Christian narrative articulated cosmically, but ‘advertised’ dispassion through icons of Christ and the saints giving the blessing of peace. Cities like Constantinople—the capital of the Byzantine empire for over a thousand years—inherited the statues and images of classical Greece and Rome that were proudly displayed in thoroughfares, meaning that inhabitants could participate in multiple narratives within a taxonomy that prioritised the Christian experience. Such cities were not without commerce—nor without problems—yet their priorities were different and consistent with the experience of human beings since the first urban settlements. I am not suggesting something as impractical as a unilateral return to the symbolism of ancient or medieval cities; although it would not hurt for religious institutions to display more of their symbols and actively guide observers/participants into their meaning. Nor am I implying that the current state of cities is entirely problematic, for the free market—propelled by capitalist and corporate interests—has, as Jordan Peterson has claimed—reduced global poverty through the creation of jobs for the manufacturing of goods to be bought and sold. This has not been without problems, but the reduction of global poverty coupled with our ease of access to products that we freely desire or need are direct results of free market capitalism that has shaped the city through its symbolism. Moreover, the infrastructure of the modern city, its war memorials, museums, gardens, parks, and even many shops—all are part and parcel of everyday living for most people and in many cases in a positive way. (Even small towns replicate, on a micro-scale, what large cities economically reflect on a macro-scale.) What this article has argued by analysing the rise of the modern city and its symbolism—through decline of predominantly Christian symbolism in the West via the rise and fall of anthropocentrism—is that this process has not been without its problems or detrimental effects from an existential point of view. This is because unlike Christian symbols—or religious symbols in general—corporate symbols do not integrate people into a cosmic narrative that transcends the mundane. It is hoped that it has been made clear that wisdom can be gleaned from the manner in which ancient and medieval cities deployed religious symbolism to ensure that human experience was framed in a cosmic narrative. This cosmic narrative was in turned delineated in proximity to ultimate values such as sacredness, which in the past helped to give meaning and purposes to people’s lives. That religious symbolism performs this function to this day can be discerned in the continuing significance of churches, temples, synagogues, mosques—and their symbols—in the city space.
Dr Mario Baghos is Senior Lecturer in Patristics and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney, Australia, and Chief Publishing Officer of St Andrew’s Orthodox Press. His book, From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021), comprehensively addresses themes related to religious symbolism in ancient and medieval cities both diachronically and cross-culturally. The present article comprises a coda to this book.
  1. Ernst B. Haas, Nationalism, Liberalism, and Progress, vol. 1: The Rise and Decline of Nationalism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 94.[]
  2. Arthur Salz, ‘Economic Liberalism Reinterpreted,’ Social Research 8:3 (1941): 375-376.[]
  3. Lewis E. Hill, ‘On Laissez-Faire Capitalism and “Liberalism,”’ The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 23:4 (1964): 394.[]
  4. David F. Ruccio, ‘Capitalism,’ in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Handler (New York: New York University Press, 2014): 37.[]
  5. Ibid., 38[]
  6. Hill, ‘On Laissez-Faire Capitalism and “Liberalism,”’ 396.[]
  7. Mumford, The City in History, 426.[]
  8. Ibid., plate 61.[]
  9. Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), 74.[]
  10. Ibid., 74.[]
  11. Vrasidas Karalis, ‘The Artefacts of Capitalism and the Objecthood of their Aesthetics,’ in Aesthetic Capitalism, ed. Peter Murphy and Eduardo de la Fuente (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 27.[]
  12. Jenkins, Re-thinking History, 74-75.[]
  13. Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020), 53.[]
  14. Russell Roberts, ‘Sympathy for Homo Religiosus,’ Econ Journal Watch 11:2 (2014): 228.[]
  15. Jenkins, Re-thinking History, 74-75. []
  16. Roberts, ‘Sympathy for Homo Religiosus,’ 228.[]
  17. Mumford, The City in History, 445.[]
  18. Joel Bakan, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2005), 5.[]
  19. Florian Lederbogen et al., ‘Letter: City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans,’ Nature 474 (23 June, 2011): 499.[]
  20. Alison Abbott, ‘Urban Decay: Scientists are Testing the Idea that the Stress of Modern City Life is a Breeding Ground for Psychosis,’ Nature 490 (11 October, 2012): 162-164.[]

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