December 20, 2007
Trangressive Irony at Radio City
— Travis Scholl
Editor's Note: Sightings will return in the new year, on Monday, January 7.
At this time of year American culture is laden with customs, themselves
laden with multivariant meanings. The Christmas Spectacular that takes
place every year at Radio City Music Hall, for example, comes with its
own set of traditions. The stunning simultaneity of the Rockettes' high
leg kicks…the complex choreography of the Wooden Soldiers…the condensed
retelling of the Nutcracker story—most of the elements of Radio City's
Christmas Spectacular, now in its seventy-fifth year, are told year after
year, only with different choreography and new sets.
Near the end of each year's Spectacular, another tradition takes place: the "Living Nativity," in which, as the program notes tell us, the "beautiful and inspiring story of the first Christmas [is] told reverently in pageantry, music, and scripture." It features multiple set tableaus, live animals, and swelling musical orchestration; but perhaps the most notable component of this particular scene, as I observed it over Thanksgiving weekend, was in the audience response to it. As soon as the curtain pulled back to reveal the full set of the nativity, the stage began to sparkle with the strobing flashes of camera bulbs. It was the one and only point at which the audience was willing to transgress the venue's explicit rule to not take flash photographs.
It has been about twenty-five years since the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterized postmodernity as "incredulity toward metanarratives." His definition relied on the distinction between (big) metanarratives, which tend to dominate whole systems of meaning, and (small) narratives, which provide more organic meanings within existential realities. But what Lyotard's distinction does not necessarily take into account is the way that cultural narratives, even religious narratives, can be inverted upon and into each other. In a postmodern context where popular culture is inundated by spectacle, religious narratives, most often presumed to function as metanarrative, can be inverted, taking the form of smaller narratives within other systems of meaning. At Radio City , the Spectacular's own metanarrative could have been summarized by the production's oft-repeated encouragement "to believe in the magic of Christmas," supported by its signature lyric to "let Christmas shine." As such, the narrative of the Christ child—which took up all of about twelve minutes of an almost two hour show—was subsumed within the larger narrative of the Spectacular's more recognizable emcee, Santa Claus.
In most cases, such inversions become instances of those most famous of postmodern events; they become transgressive instances of irony. The irony of what happened at Radio City worked through a kind of double inversion: The production inverted the nativity narrative within its much larger spectacle, but audience members displayed their own inversions of what they were seeing by transgressing the rules for (non)participation and pulling out their cameras at what was staged as perhaps one of the least "spectacular" moments of the show.
This holiday season will surely provide countless opportunities for talking heads to argue over public displays of religion; and just as surely, each display will open itself to its own potential transgression into irony, where discourse becomes spectacle, where the spectacle is in the eye of the beholder, and where one person's metanarrative is, for another, just a fat man in a red suit. I saw it happen at Radio City Music Hall on Thanksgiving Day. The irony came in a flash. And it left just as quickly, lost in the 3D metanarrative of magic and exhibition that is New York City—and twenty-first century America—at Christmastime.
Travis J. Scholl is a recent graduate of Yale University Divinity School and Managing Editor of Theological Publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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