You might have heard about the young man who won a ticket to the Super Bowl, and he was so excited. His excitement lessened as he realized his seat was in the back of the stadium. As sat up there and used his binoculars to scan the seating closer to the field. He spotted an empty seat much closer, on the 50-yard line. He went down and approached the man sitting next to the empty seat and asked if it was taken. The man replied, "No."
Amazed the young man asked, "How could someone pass up a seat like this?"
The older gentleman responded, "That's my wife's seat. We've been to every Super Bowl together since the day we were married but she has passed away."
"Oh, how sad," the man said. "I'm sorry to hear that, but couldn't you find a friend or relative to come with you?"
"No," the man said, "They're all at the funeral."
This, of course, is a joke. Surely no one would really skip their partner’s funeral to watch a football game – would they? Still, some people take the Super Bowl pretty seriously. I watched it this year. LoraKim and I had a few of our clergy acquaintances over. We had a good time.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of membership – about how membership is about belonging. To belong to – to be appropriately assigned to: nothing feels better. To be among the people that it is right for us to be among because we find concern and respect, and have concern and respect for others – to live without alienation – to be rooted in the soil we were made for and made by -- is this not the life we most want?
What is presented to us as community, often isn’t. A phrase I once read in Allan Bloom has stuck with me. He was talking about true community being a rare and difficult thing,
“In the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community.”Simulacra of community? Like . . . ? Oh, yeah, that’s what the whole Super Bowl experience is, isn’t it?
The Super Bowl is about three things: there’s the game itself, there’s the commercials, and there’s the half-time show. First there’s the simulated community of sports team fan-dom. I mean, I kinda like watching football. It’s fun, sort of. There’s a pretense to it – pretending to care about the outcome, or, at least, pretending that there’s actually a reason to care about the outcome. There’s a time for letting oneself slip into that illusion, enjoying the illusion, and then there’s a time for seeing through the illusion. I’ll kid myself again later, but in between games or seasons it’s good to acknowledge the reality: One billionaire bought himself a bunch of athletes to play a game against another billionaire’s bunch of athletes. And we, the fans, pretend to be identified with one of those bunches of athletes because we want community so much that we’ll take simulated community. The community of Broncos fans or Seahawks fans – or Jets fans or Giants fans (of which I am one, now) -- is a simulacrum of community. We aren’t really a member, in the true and real and deep sense of that word, of anything.
In fact, though they are called “football clubs,” not even the players and coaches themselves are really members in any meaningful sense – they’re just fulfilling the terms of contracts, and, should they be traded, or become free agents, will be just as happy to play for the rival team. No one’s a real member, and there is no real community.
Watching an NFL game means spending more time watching commercials than actual playing. And that’s the second set of simulated communities. The commercials try to make it feel like there’s a community of people who own X, or of people who consume Y, because community is what the heart longs for, but it’s all fake community. And as with sports-team fan-dom, so with product fan-dom: we know it’s simulated community, but we kind of enjoy the illusion because that’s how hungry we are for community, for a context of connection.
And so also with the fan-dom of musical bands, and that leads to the third part of the Super Bowl, the half-time show – which makes no effort to hide the fact that it’s all about spectacle, and which draws us in, if it does, in large part because we want the illusion of being a part of a community that has shared that spectacle.
The Super Bowl is just particularly paradigmatic of the condition of modern and postmodern life, a condition Allan Bloom’s phrase captures:
"In the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community."They’re self-contradictory because the image they dangle before us actually distances us from the real thing – as self-contradictory and distancing as a sugary liquid of empty calories, or, in one variation, of zero calories and equally zero nutritive value, claiming to be “the real thing.”
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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Meaning of Membership"
Next: Part 2: "Realizing Who We Are"