"Moha Culture": Toad Worship Regarding a Former President of China (Part One)

Today, I am sharing another paper — a fascinating account of culture jamming and civic imagination in China — which emerged from my spring PhD seminar on Participatory Politics and Civic Media.

“Moha Culture”: Toad Worship Regarding a Former President of China

by Qiyao Peng, University of Southern California

Jiang Zemin served as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party between 1989 to 2002 and the President of China between 1993 to 2003 (CNN Library, 2017). Born in 1926, Jiang is known as the longest-living former president in China (CNN Library, 2017). During his presidential terms, Jiang was known for his corruption, a rumored affair with a female singer, and his ridiculous statements and behaviors (Zheng, 2016). Therefore, Jiang was not adored by the people during his presidency. However, since 2014, Jiang has become a popular figure on Chinese social networking sites such as Weibo (known as Chinese Twitter), WeChat (online chatting platform) and Zhihu (known as Chinese Quora) and generated many fans (RFA, 2016). On these platforms, Jiang is referred to as a “toad” because of his perceived resemblance to the animal, by a group of people who called themselves “toad fans.” This phenomenon is called “Moha culture,” which translates to “toad worship culture” in English.

This essay firstly explains the meaning and the context of “Moha” culture. Then, it introduces the cultural meaning of the toad in Chinese traditions and its connection to toad worship. Thirdly, this essay analyzes how toad fans can be regarded as culture jammers, and how “Moha” culture can be regarded as culture jamming. Lastly, this essay analyzes how this culture jamming became a source and battleground of civic imagination in the current political context in China. 

“Moha” Culture

The word “Moha” is the pronunciation of a Chinese word “膜蛤”, which can literally be translated as “toad worship” or “admiring toad.” In Chinese, “mo” means admiring and “ha” means “toad.” In this context, Jiang Zemin represents “Ha” because of his resemblance to a toad. People who worship toads call themselves “toad fans” or “toad lovers.” In this essay, “toad fans” refer to this community in general.

  Figure 1

Figure 1

  Figure 2

Figure 2

Figures 1 and 2 represent the most typical images associated with Jiang Zemin on Chinese social media. In Figure 1, the picture shows prominently Jiang’s mouth, flared nostrils and his usual black frame glasses. The “+1s” in Figure 2 represents “add one second to Jiang’s life to extend his life.” This is a common feature in memes of Jiang (Lam, 2016). The “+1s” denote Jiang’s longevity, particularly because of several reports of his death at different times that turned out to be fake reports. Therefore, people started to make fun of the fake news and ironically say that Jiang was about to die, but that people could contribute one second from their own lives to Jiang to keep him alive. In this same instance, Jiang is also referred to as “the elder,” who is old but cannot die. 

In addition to his age and perceived longevity, Jiang is also widely associated with the image of a toad. The nickname “toad” was firstly given to Jiang in 2004 by the members of Falun Gong (a religion that was suppressed by Jiang in 1999) to simply humiliate him (Zheng, 2016). However, after Xi Jinping, the current president of China, came into power in 2013, the purely negative meaning of “toad” when referring to Jiang changed (Zheng, 2016). “Moha” culture firstly became popular because of the popularity of a WeChat public account “Jiangxuanyantaohui” in 2014 during Xi Jinping’s first presidential term, which means “Seminar on the Selected Essays of Jiang” (Qin, 2015). From then on, toad fans emerged and some of them started to use the nickname “toad” in an ironic and even sometimes friendly way to refer to Jiang. 

According to Zheng (2016), most of the toad fans are well-educated young people who are mostly in college. The toad fans have mostly grown up with a limited understanding of Jiang’s governance because most were born after the 1990s. During Jiang’s presidential term, these toad fans were too young to get access to Jiang’s information directly. Therefore, their knowledge of Jiang’s leadership style mostly comes from the descriptions from their parents (Zheng, 2016). In addition, although they might be too young to remember his 14 years in power, they watched and shared videos and photos of his speeches to appreciate his confidence, openness, and occasionally his bad manners (Huang, 2016). In these videos and photos, Jiang sometimes plays the ukulele, dances and sings, and sometimes gives a speech in several foreign languages with hilarious accents, and even combs his hair in political meetings (Huang, 2016). Some of the Chinese millennials admire Jiang for his unscripted public persona, which is hard to see from other Chinese politicians, especially Hu Jintao (the former president of China who served between Jiang and Xi) who had a poker face, and Xi, who usually wears an artificial smile. After getting tired of Hu and Xi’s poker faces, toad fans turn the ridiculous manner of Jiang into a symbol of affability. Therefore, Jiang has a ridiculous but also informal image in most of the toad fans’ minds. 

The Image of the “Toad” in China 

Although the nickname “toad” was firstly used to describe Jiang only because of his physical appearance, people use different expressions about toads to convey more complex meanings. Firstly, it is worth noting that the word “toad” has two expressions in Chinese, one is “Hama” (also known as “Ha” in this context), which is a colloquial and vulgar expression that usually conveys a negative meaning; and the other one is “Chanchu,” which is a neutral word often used in written language. When people refer to Jiang, people usually use “Hama” or “Ha,” the vulgar version of toad, while in Chinese traditional culture, the lucky totem is usually represented as “Chanchu.” Therefore, although “Hama” and “Chanchu” mean the same thing, the difference in expression suggest different implications.

Moreover, the toad has an important figure in Chinese traditional culture. According to Yao (2017), the Chinese have tended to worship the toad since ancient times. The toad is a totem of longevity, wealth, and is considered an auspicious omen. However, although the toad represents positive meanings in Chinese traditional culture, it is never regarded as something sacred such as the Chinese dragon. In addition, in recent fantasy novels, toads are usually represented as the kind of animals with “spirit” and mostly evil. For example, a Chinese saying that translates to “a toad lusting after a swan's flesh” is used to satirize an ugly man who wants to marry a pretty girl. Based on this, toad fans often make fun of Jiang’s unconfirmed extramarital love affair with a pretty female singer. Therefore, it can be seen that although the toad has both positive and negative meanings in Chinese culture, it still represents something negative in everyday life and especially in Jiang’s case. 

In addition, the differences between a toad and a frog should be recognized. The toad was firstly used to represent Jiang. But since frog images are much more widely available online, and given its similarities to toads, the frog (in Chinese “Wa蛙”) is sometimes also used to refer to Jiang by toad fans. Although the toad has its meaning in Chinese ancient fairy tales, most of the literature, such as Chinese ancient poems, hardly used toads in the content. On the other hand, frogs are more often represented in popular culture than toads and are usually seen as cute animals. Frogs are regarded as friendly to humans because they eat pests and their sounds forecast the coming of spring, which represents positive meanings such as hope and rebirth. This aspect of the symbolic meaning of frogs also relates to Jiang’s longevity and to the toad fans’ contribution of “+1s.” Toads, on the other hand, often represent something ominous. The use of frogs in memes about Jiang, then, suggests more about the lack of toad images and symbols to use than the positive associations the Chinese might have to frogs.

  Figure 3: Toad

Figure 3: Toad

  Figure 4: Frog

Figure 4: Frog

Another interesting thing is that although people use “toad” to represent Jiang in language, they normally use the picture of a “frog” rather than a “toad.” It can be seen from Figures 3 and 4 that a toad can often be interpreted as much uglier than a frog because of its larger size and its bumpy skin compared to the frog’s much smoother, leaner appearance. The frequent use of frogs instead of toads might be due to the unsightly image of toads not only for toad fans, but also for other netizens who are willing to engage with “Moha” culture. Therefore, the way they normally use a frog’s picture as a substitute for a toad’s picture helps to spread the popularity of “Moha” culture. 

It can be seen that when using a toad and a frog to refer to Jiang, the meaning can be sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Therefore, toad fans tend to use degrading language to represent Jiang to fulfill their desire to kick up the people who have higher social statusthan themselves, which is also a way to make “Moha” culture interesting and more acceptable to broader audiences.

Culture Jamming and Toad Fans

With its ironic nature, “Moha” culture can be seen as a form of culture jamming. According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), “culture jamming” refers to a series of tactics used by activists to critique, subvert, and “jam” the dominant forms of power. These tactics include media pranks, advertising parodies, textual poaching, billboard appropriation, street performance, and the reclamation of urban spaces for noncommercial use (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). “Moha” culture can be seen as a typical example which makes use of the existing sources to challenge mainstream culture. In addition, DeLaure and Fink (2017) distinguished several universal qualities and functions of culture jamming. This part demonstrates that “Moha” culture embodies most of these qualities and functions. 

First, culture jamming appropriates (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Jammers typically retool existing cultural forms, poaching an image, corporate logo, advertisement, billboard, city wall, or retail space and transforming it into something new (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Their raw materials are the images, sounds, landscapes, and habitual practices of late-modern consumer capitalism (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In this case, toad fans usually use existing videos and pictures of Jiang to start their media pranks and textual poaching. They mainly produce videos, pictures, or memes based on Jiang’s interviews and photos. In this case, Jiang becomes a source of adaptations and is being reformed into something new by toad fans. 

The most notable example of appropriation is the toad fans’ adaptation or ironic use of pre-existing Chinese ancient poems and Jiang’s words as their sources to express new meanings. For example, Jiang’s own words or speeches are adapted to satirize Jiang. In an interview with a Hong Kong reporter, the reporter asked Jiang’s opinion about the election of Hong Kong’s governor. After Jiang said he supported the current Hong Kong governor without deep consideration, the reporter then criticized Jiang that the Hong Kong governor was internally determined by the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang was utterly discomfited, he left his seat and emotionally criticized the reporter in three languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and English with his strong accent. He blamed the reporter by saying “You only want to make big news!” and that the reporter was “too young, too simple, sometimes naïve!” and started to show off his relationship with an American reporter Mike Wallace and his ability to deal with hard questions by saying “Do you know Wallace? He is far more talented than you all and I talked to him very happily!” (Qin, 2015). Mike Wallace has interviewed Jiang before and criticized him as a “dictator” (Qin, 2015). Jiang’s words were appropriated by toad fans in memes featuring his face with the words “making big news” and “too young, too naïve.” The memes were then used to satirize other online news reports, and toad fans would use these two phrases from Jiang’s outburst in the comments section. By doing so, the concept of Moha is further spread and becomes known to a larger number of netizens. Also, Jiang’s words regarding Mike Wallace made people think that Jiang was tolerant to dissidents. Toad fans use Jiang’s own word to satirize Jiang, which corresponds to DeLaure and Fink’s (2017) idea that culture jamming occurs when mainstream culture is used and adapted to criticize itself. 

  Figure 5 (BBC, 2016)

Figure 5 (BBC, 2016)

Second, culture jamming is artful (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Most of the jammers featured in this DeLaure and Fink’s work are artists of various stripes: painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, graphic and web designers, actors (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Toad fans create new content artfully by adapting Chinese ancient poems for their own use, such as replacing other animals in the poem with “frog”. For example, the poem “the river becomes warm in spring duck prophet 春江水暖鸭先知” from the Song dynasty poet Su Shi was adapted into “the river becomes warm in spring frog prophet”. The original meaning of the sentence is to show the close relationship between the spring, nature and animals. By adapting “duck” into “frog”, toad fans try to satirize Jiang as a prophet who still does not want to give up his power and is informed of everything happening in China. Also, making videos and memes requires specific creative skills. For example, Figure 5 shows a news photo taken when Jiang was enjoying floating on the Dead Sea (BBC, 2016). Toad fans added the title “The floating toad on the Dead Sea” and transformed the news photo into a meme with a simple addition. The artful way of creating content is common among toad fans when “worshipping” the toad. 

Third, culture jamming is often playful (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), in confronting serious issues, culture jammers frequently use humor, pranks, and carnivalesque inversions. The ways toad fans interact with each other are playful and often ironic. This playfulness can attract more people to understand “Moha” culture, which is an effective way to encourage civic participation. In addition, the intentional choice of “Hama,” which is the vulgar version of “toad,” shows toad fans’ willingness to “kick up.” According to Littlewood and Pickering (1998), pleasure can be generated from kicking up and humiliating the person who has a higher social status than you. In this case, to use a vulgar word to refer to Jiang, who is a former president and has a high social status, is a way to jam and challenge the mainstream culture in a playful way. Moreover, Benton (1988) argues that humor is a way of easing political tensions. It can be seen that using humor to worship the toad in a playful way is effective for people to diminish the power of political leaders. 

Fourth, DeLaure and Fink (2017) argue that culture jamming is often anonymous. According to them, culture jammers do not seek personal fame and fortune. This is usually true in “Moha” culture because toad fans who worship Jiang do not like to disclose their personal information, especially under the censorship of the Chinese government. However, this statement is also arguable among toad fans. When interacting with other toad fans on social media, these fans tend to intentionally use self-censored words as if there were someone trying to delete their own content. For example, if they wanted to comment “too young too naïve” to make fun of Jiang, they normally only write “too young…” sometimes with the frog emoji. Then other toad fans might start to comment on that original comment by saying “your body is cold,” which means the original blogger has already died, or “you are now on the shot-to-death list.” Toad fans intentionally exaggerate the outcomes of toad worship, and then emphasize their braveness to break the rule. Therefore, to worship Jiang is a way of showing toad fans’ self-identity and their unique rebellion against the mainstream culture. It can be seen that toad fans are under control by the government censorship, but in the meantime, they try to play with the censorship and highlight the existence of censorship so that other people would notice it. This act corresponds to Zuckerman’s (2015) statement that Chinese government censorship pushed netizens on social media to use metaphors to circumvent censorship, and that those metaphors can remind people of the existence of censorship. 

Fifth, culture jamming is participatory (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), culture jamming might facilitate collective organizing and bring people with similar opinions together. Although there are still disagreements on whether culture jamming facilitates or hinders organizing, the example of “Moha” culture demonstrates the ability of culture jamming to bring toad fans together and facilitate interactions among them. As mentioned before, toad fans have a willingness to interact with each other by using their own language. In addition, Moha culture includes the participation of toad fans to create videos and memes and requires a large number of people’s comments on social media. The interactions among toad fans and the discussion regarding “Moha” culture also benefit from transmedia storytelling. On different platforms, toad fans use their own language to communicate and comment on public accounts. Therefore, the language and the concept of Moha culture can be seen by a large number of people multiple times and reinforce the impression of Moha in their mind. 

Sixth, culture jamming is political (DeLaure and Fink, 2017). Culture jamming challenges existing structures of power, seeking to reveal hypocrisy and injustices, spark public outrage, and promote collective action (DeLaure and Fink, 2017). It is obvious that toad fans usually work together and interact with each other on social media to ironically criticize or degrade political figures, which is a way to challenge both the mainstream culture and the structures of power. 

Seventh, culture jamming operates serially (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). The serial quality to culture jamming means that actions are repeatable (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In Moha culture, the memes and words can be used in different settings by different toad fans. People serially use similar memes and words to comment on different social issues. By doing so, “Moha” culture maintains its sustainability and improves its possibility of exposure. 

Eighth, culture jamming is transgressive and boundaryless (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In addition, culture jamming in the twenty-first century can traverse national boundaries and grow into a global phenomenon (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Although Jiang is a Chinese political figure with little popularity in other countries, the language of “Moha” culture, especially memes, can be seen by people outside of China. Also, there are no criteria to be able to worship the toad; everyone can be a toad fan and every platform can be used to spread “Moha” culture. 

Therefore, “Moha” culture can be seen as a form of cultural jamming and helps to encourage not only toad fans, but also other netizens to participate in politics by discussing political figures.

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Qiyao Peng is a master candidate at Annenberg school of the University of Southern California. She is interested in online communities and fandom. With a background in mainland China, she is also interested in how Chinese online communities engage in political participation.

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation: Daniel T Durbin and Joseph L. Price (Part 2)

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Joe Price: In liturgical ceremonies an acolyte is an assistant who must perform the ritual in correct ways in order to respect the process and to validate the meaning that lies beyond the function of the action itself.  Like the chess player who abides by the arbitrary—but customary—rule of moving a pawn only one space at a time, the acolyte also follows established guidelines whose origins were similarly subjective.  And while a liturgical acolyte might be oriented by goodness and the pursuit (or affirmation) of salvation, he or she, like the superstitious sports fan, might be acting also with the mixed motives of hope (for spiritual fulfillment) and fear of death or anxiety about one’s existential predicament, unspecified concerns arising out of the strictures of finitude (as Paul Tillich distinguished in The Courage to Be).  

Although sports fans might have jobs that provide the economic resources to secure food, shelter, and (perhaps) comfort, it’s possible that a sense of being called—the root of vocation—motivates them to find meaning in identifying with players or teams whose pursuit of victory can stimulate hope.  For the uncertain outcome of a sports competition provides athletes and fans with an event or a circumstance that cultivates hope: with two outs and none on the ninth inning and down by a run or more, or with fourth down and seconds remaining while losing by five, or down by two with two seconds remaining to inbound the ball at the baseline, a devout fan maintains hope that baserunners will get on to bring the winning run to the plate, or that a Hail Mary pass will miraculously be caught for a winning touchdown, or that a half-court heave will deliver a winning three-point buzzer beater.  Theologian Michael Novak maintains that an athlete or devout sports fan who achieves a victory is able to experience briefly in an anticipatory way a kind of spiritual fulfilment that is sought by acolytes and other religious devotees.

While hope might be sustained (even against all odds) throughout competition, defeat rather than victory might be realized.  In such cases, Novak avers, an athlete or fan is challenged in a nominal way to rehearse one’s possible response to the ultimate defeat—death.   Yet because of the seasonal nature of sports, it’s possible to reinvigorate hope following a defeat.  Tomorrow or next week there’s another game, and with a new season there’s fresh hope for a championship.  In Wait Till Next Year, her memoir of childhood fandom for the Dodgers, Doris Kearns Goodwin dealt with a season’s unsuccessful end by anticipating a new start the next year, much like her Jewish friend who sustained hope during High Holy Days by envisioning “next year in Jerusalem.”

 

Daniel Durbin: I appreciate your ode to hope in a sports fan’s life, but, let’s face it (ad hominem argument coming up here) that’s pretty easy for a lifelong Yankees fan.  For a Yankees fan, there is always hope (if only the hope of the wealthiest team in the game).

What about your typical, say, Sacramento Kings fan or, until recently, Chicago Cubs fan or (speaking of lives buried in existential despair) Cleveland Browns fans?  Many fans stay committed to teams they know have no chance of winning a championship. At times, being a fan of “lovable losers” or “snake-bit” franchises or the “non-one-percenters” can become an important point of identification for fans.

Some fans know they are not ever going to be pseudo-sophisticates living lives of regal luxury in Louis Vuitton and obscenely priced apartments in downtown Manhattan.  They are proudly “nobodies from nowhere” and the struggles of their often underfunded teams (relative to the big dogs in Los Angeles and New York) embody their own sense of underpaid-but-fighting-the-good-fight-for-family-hearth-and-home self.  They have no hope of winning in this season or next.  But, they continue to fight against a system that, from their perspective, may be stacked against them.  Why?  Perhaps because, on some level, they find a certain heroism in giving their lives for a lost cause.

As you note, the end of the season does mark a moment of death for them.  But, I would like to suggest that it also marks a moment of death for the championship team and that team’s fans.  I think this point is important for understanding the similarities and differences between a sports fan’s and a religious acolyte’s experience.  I will have to take a slightly circuitous route to get there.

To begin, as sports philosopher Bernard Suits and many others have noted, a key factor that distinguishes sports from games is that sports are a purely public affair.  I can play tiddlywinks all day by myself.  I can challenge myself to perform 100 push-ups in five minutes. But, these are not sports.  Sports exist when a sufficient number of followers (a public body) follow the sport as sport.  As with the athletic festivals that defined sport in ancient Greece, sport exists when a public recognizes a competition as creating a significant social narrative.

As a public activity, sport is a rhetorical exercise. From the creation of rules (which are used to persuade a sufficient public of the value of the sports competition) to the promotion of the sport to the performances of athletes as exemplifications of the values encoded in the sports rules to the broadcasting and discussion of the sports event itself, sport exists within the public sphere and functions as a form of public discourse that creates value promoting messages of praise and blame.  These messages use the performances of athletes as examples or proofs of the values expressed in the rules.  Their actions demonstrate the “rightness” of those rules and what is “right” or praiseworthy action within the world created by those rules.  

These ideas are not new.  Plato recognized the goal of sport as creating public discourses of praise and blame in his “Laws” and Aristotle recognized sports discourse as epideictic rhetoric in his “Rhetoric.”

As ritualistic rhetoric, sports can create messages of success and failure in tournaments and competitions.  But, once we create sports seasons as part of the sports ritual, we create a terminal point for the sport.  The sports season ends in death, symbolic death for all those involved in the sport.

The 1960 baseball season had a terminal point when Bill Mazeroski hit a home run to win the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees.  At that moment, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series and the New York Yankees ended the 1960 season in failure.  Yet, even as Mazeroski’s hit dropped over the left field fence in Forbes Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates of 1960 no longer existed.  The second that game ended, the Pirates of 1960 were, in sports ritual, dead.  They had finished their lives in victory.  But, they were as dead as the 1960 Yankees.

The moment Mazeroski jumped on home plate, the 1960 Pirates were dead and the city of Pittsburgh awaited the birth of the 1961 Pirates.  The victory meant that there was nothing greater for Pittsburgh fans to hope for from 1961.  Their team could not possibly do better in 1961 than they did in 1960.  Moreover, the 1961 Pittsburgh Pirates would not even be the same team.  Age, trades, injuries and circumstance would change the team (as happens with all teams in new seasons).

A fan might hope for a better season from a team “next year.”  But, the rhetorical ritual of death that ends each sports season creates a terminal point in meaning for the team as it exists within the fan’s experience.  And that point, I would argue, gives meaning to fans as it embodies their own rhetorical response to death.\

I may accept my team’s lot in life as an also-ran, a team that has no championship hopes.  It’s annual ritual of failure in public competition may express my own sense of failure at not competing with the “haves” in society.  But, as my team continues to fight to the last out or the final buzzer, even when it has long been eliminated from the postseason, even in the face of ultimate failure and loss, it may embody for me my own struggle, my own courage in fighting to the end of my life though I may end life with only the most modest of accomplishments.

So, even without hope for another season, because, in a very real sense, there is no other season for my 2018 Lakers or Warriors or Dodgers or Rams (or Yankees), sports can create rhetorical meaning for us as we face the most fundamental problem of our existence, our own termination. Our teams can embody our own success and failure, courage and fear as we face our end.  And, as they embody values we praise in facing their seasonal termination, they may create identification with those values within us as fans. With them, we stand courageous in the face of the end.  No hope, yet, no despair.

As Plato said in discussing leading a life of philosophical inquiry, perhaps, in this way, sports can help us “at the end of life cast off the burdens of the flesh [and] stand victorious in the first bout of a truly Olympian victory.” 

 

Joe Price: I’m always engaged and stimulated by your reflections on rhetoric, especially since (as the son of Southern minister) I have always been fascinated by language, its structure and its use.  Does experience itself create meaning, or is the meaning created in the reflection on the experience per se and the use or rhetoric to tell the story?  Although Mazeroski’s home run—I still cringe when I write those words and taste the tears that I shed that October afternoon—was an event that ended the game and the season, it created a deep sense of joy and meaning for fans and folks in Pittsburgh.  One of my present colleagues, a native of Pittsburgh who deigns to hear me talk about baseball, will gladly tell of joining the celebration in the downtown streets following the Pirates win.  For her like so many Pirates and Yankees fans, the meaning of that event did not die with Maz touching home plate nor with the end of the city’s immediate celebration nor with the drying of my own tears.  The significance and meaning of that game endures in memory, especially in its retelling, for which she uses she and Pittsburgh fans use a different rhetoric than the one that I employ.

 

Daniel Durbin: Like a funeral, end of season celebrations reflect on a life well-lived, a life that was given in the “heroic” struggle to accomplish the seemingly impible.  The 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates are dead.  But, they died in a glorious victory.

And here, perhaps, as T. S. Eliot once wrote, in our end we find our beginning.  For, tradition says that ancient athletic festivals, the very first sports, the sports that gave Aristotle and Plato the content to describe sport, those athletic festivals grew from funeral celebrations.  Athletic festivals were held to celebrate the life of a fallen hero. The athletes’ performances acted as performative exemplifications of the hero’s great deeds.  The end of the competition spoke of the end of the hero’s struggle with fate, the gods, other human beings.  The winner embodied the hero’s valorous struggle and ultimate victory, even in the face of death.

As the son of a Southern minister, you undoubtedly know Paul’s final summation of his own heroic struggle; “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Maybe, just maybe, Paul remembered the tradition of athletic festivals, here.  Perhaps, he drew on the tradition of sports as rhetorical summations of a finished life’s struggle as he dictated these final words, final reflections on his life.  Perhaps.

 

Joe Price:It’s certain that Paul was familiar with sports since by the time of his benediction he had readily aligned the athlete’s pursuit of victory with the faithful Christian’s pursuit of fulfilment.  Even so, he identified a qualitative difference between the victorious athlete’s medal as an impermanent wreath and the faithful believer’s reward, which is the imperishable prize of eternal life (1 Corinthians 9:24ff).  By extension, then, he would probably conclude, like you, that the sports fan celebrates temporal teams and their quests while the religious devotee reveres that which is beyond time and space, that which is indestructible. 

 

Daniel Durbin: Perhaps appropriately, we may let Paul have the final word, here.  For, in his “qualitative difference” between the impermanent wreath of a victorious athlete and the “imperishable prize” awarded the faithful believer, we have the exemplification of the distinction I made earlier in our conversation regarding the difference between sports and religion. For sports to be a game, an avocation, the victory and the prize must remain impermanent, a mark of a passing moment in time when the athlete achieved victory over opponents and the unnecessary obstacles the game placed in her or his way.  For the religious acolyte, the stakes are permanent, imperishable, serious in a way sports cannot be serious without losing their meaning as sports and games. 

Sports can bring a moment of rapture or despair for the transitory achievement of victory.  Religion must often posit the hope of a rapture that does not fade, a joy that cannot fall into despair---a permanent rapture and joy that we cannot achieve in our ever-changing human state.  Sports, at their best, may give us a brief hint of that joy.  But, as with all evolving human discourse, it can only offer the briefest of hints. 

Thank you, Joe, for a stimulating conversation and we both would like to thank Henry Jenkins for opening his blog to this conversation.

Joseph L. Price is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies. With a doctorate in theology and culture, he has taught more than thirty different courses, ranging from “The Life and Teaching of Jesus” to “Latin American Liberation Theologies” and from “Cinema and Religion” to “Sport, Play, and Ritual.” Author and co-editor of several theological works, including Tillich and A New Handbook of Christian Theology, he has also published numerous essays and books on sports and religion, including From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion and Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America. Combining his interests in sports, ritual studies, and music, he has sung the national anthem for more than 125 professional baseball games in 20 Major League ballparks and 100 minor league stadiums in 42 states.

 

 

Daniel T. Durbinis RTCP Professor of Communication and Director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Dr. Durbin has published numerous articles on sports, popular culture, rhetoric, media, and philosophy.  His current research interests include a rethinking of the entire process of sport as performative public discourse.  He is also writing a book tracing the massive social changes that remade Los Angeles and Hollywood in the summer of 1947.

Dr. Durbin has appeared as an expert in sports, public discourse and popular culture hundreds of times across a wide variety of news media including the CBS Nightly News, the NBC Nightly News, CNN International, BBC-TV, CBC-TV, NPR, the NFL Network, HBO-Sports, KCBS-TV, KCOP-TV, KCAL-TV, KFWB-NewsRadio and BBC Scotland.  Dr. Durbin appears regularly on KCBS-Radio and is often quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and many other news outlets.

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture (Round 3): Daniel T. Durbin and Joseph L. Price (Part 1)

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Joe Price: I was born with the DNA of a sports fan. I teethed on Major League Baseball and gnawed shortly thereafter on SEC football and basketball.  Like the rhythms of a liturgical cycle, the seasons of these three major sports oriented my childhood and have shaped my life.  Although I have been rooting for favorite teams since my earliest school days, I simply enjoy watching games of players of any age between teams with which I have little, if any, affiliation.  I began to think about the ritual significance of sports fandom, including my own, in conjunction with my studies related to religious devotion, especially the acts and attitudes of worship and the sense and strength of community established among like-minded (or confessing) devotees. 

Initially, my scholarly work aligning sports with religious practices and perspectives focused on the mythic significance of baseball and football. My turn to examine sports fandom grew out of field work that I undertook at several Super Bowls in the 1980s and 1990s.  At the Super Bowl sites I observed fans who frequently displayed their fervor for their favorite team by means of masking—by wearing team colors, by displaying an icon of the team name or mascot, or by sporting the jerseys of a prominent player.  As I interviewed scores of fans who had journeyed to the stadium, they frequently told of sacrifices that they had made and major difficulties that they had encountered in order to attend the game.  Their demeanor and behavior resembled those of religious pilgrims.  And they often revealed the depth of their devotion by indicating that they had invested in their team’s anticipated success by placing bets.  

 

Daniel Durbin: Over my career, much of my research has focused on first religious discourse and then sports discourse and the ways in which both create communities of acolytes. My focus has been on both as forms of performative public discourse; performative in that each creates meaning through public rituals, rituals that embody discursive narratives of praise or blame for specific actions.  As I am not a true acolyte of any sports team or athlete (a sports agnostic), I am most curious about the ways in which sports can create meaningful public rituals that engender fanaticism, passion, and the reenactment of those rituals as evocations of personal commitment to the athlete, team, sport and/or league.

 

Joe Price: Although you characterize yourself as a sports agnostic while I unabashedly embrace the identity of a sports fan, we concur in our appreciative use of religious language to provide a conceptual tool for exploring the ways in which sports commitment confirms a fan’s individual identity while it also establishes a sense of community with like-minded and similarly motivated devotees.  

In addition to the masking attire that fans often wear to identify with their favorite team (as I observed with Super Bowl fans), I’m also interested in how sports fans behave superstitiously in an effort to establish and maintain solidarity with their favorite teams.  In general, superstitions often begin by equating coincidence with cause, and in the case of fans, superstitions frequently develop by associating the outcome of games with specific patterns of behavior.  In preparation for watching a game of their favorite team, for instance, superstitious fans seek to repeat specific actions that they recall from a previous, significant victory.  Perhaps they correlate a pregame barbecue and a particular sauce with the outcome, or what mid-game snacks they consume.  Or they might connect the location of their seat in the stands or in front of a TV with their team’s success, or they might think of the clothing that they wore before a loss and thereafter make sure not to wear it again on game day.  In short, although superstitious fans seem to think that their accurate performance of pregame or in-game rituals might influence the game’s outcome, at a profound level they confirm their identity with their team by repeating their superstitious behavior.

Daniel Durbin:I empathize with your interest in fans’ use of “superstitious” rituals to help their teams win.  Though, I think those rituals may have as much to do with deterministic fears as with hope.  In November of 1974, my father watched the first half of the annual USC-Notre Dame football game.  Notre Dame ran up an early 24-0 lead and my dad slammed off the tv set in disgust and went outside to work in the backyard.  A couple hours later, my grandmother called up asking why my dad wasn’t watching the game. USC had roared back to a 55-24 lead. My dad ran into the house and turned the tv back on.  By the time he got the set warmed up, USC had finished its scoring.  He saw only the failure, not the success of one of his team’s greatest victories.  

Having been born barely a few feet from the University of Southern California campus, my dad has been a diehard Trojans fan from, literally, his first memories in life.  But, since that fateful afternoon in 1974, my dad, for 44 years, has refused to watch a Trojans game unless they were so far out in front with so little time left that it would be impossible for their opponents to catch them.  His rationale has been that he cannot be the cause of their losing if he is not watching the game.  And, (in a self-fulfilling prophecy) when he does allow him to watch a game (clean-up time for the Trojans, desperation time for their opponents), their opponents often end up scoring.

Despite some of my siblings’ stated beliefs, my father is a relatively rational man who knows his viewing has no impact on the Trojan’s fortunes.  But, in his team’s best interests, he has held himself to that practice for nearly half a century.

This illustration points out something I think distinguishes sports fandom from religious “fandom”.  As Johan Huizinga and others have noted, sports evolve from games and both are ritualistic practices in which we place unnecessary obstacles between ourselves and a set of goals to give value and meaning to those goals (we place a distance of five kilometers between ourselves and the finish line to give meaning to running a 5K race).  Those obstacles and the rituals that grow from them must, on some level be arbitrary. 5K is the distance solely because we define this as a 5K race.  The pawn only moves one space because it's a pawn.  The rules are arbitrary and this very arbitrariness keeps the games/sports from becoming vocational, that is, from becoming the most efficient means to a necessary or desirable goal, as we would have our vocational choices be.  

The ritualistic experience of the game is distinct from religious “fan” experience in that, for the rituals to remain valuable in the play setting of sports, we must rationally understand that they don’t really have an impact on the game, that they don’t literally make the path to the desired goal easier for our athletes or teams.  In order to take part in the play-activity of sports, fans knowingly engage in (if you will) irrational rituals, rituals that, by definition, have no bearing on the game.  If they did have a bearing on the game, the fans actions would lose the play element that defines games and sports.

This doesn’t work in the same way for the religious acolyte.  The rituals in which a religious acolyte takes part must, from their perspective, have some bearing on their goodness, rightness, salvation, being in order to have any meaning.  The rituals must lead to a definite goal.  Whether they hope the rituals make them better citizens or better people or lead to a final salvation in which they enter into an eternal peace, the religious fan experience must see rituals as embodying meaning.  Sports fans must see rituals as, on some level, being arbitrary and having no real meaning.  Religious acolytes must see their rituals as, on some level, carrying real meaning.  On this level, religious fandom is vocational. Religion, for committed fans, is not a game.

Joseph L. Price is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies. With a doctorate in theology and culture, he has taught more than thirty different courses, ranging from “The Life and Teaching of Jesus” to “Latin American Liberation Theologies” and from “Cinema and Religion” to “Sport, Play, and Ritual.” Author and co-editor of several theological works, including Tillich and A New Handbook of Christian Theology, he has also published numerous essays and books on sports and religion, including From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion and Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America. Combining his interests in sports, ritual studies, and music, he has sung the national anthem for more than 125 professional baseball games in 20 Major League ballparks and 100 minor league stadiums in 42 states.

 

 

Daniel T. Durbinis RTCP Professor of Communication and Director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Dr. Durbin has published numerous articles on sports, popular culture, rhetoric, media, and philosophy.  His current research interests include a rethinking of the entire process of sport as performative public discourse.  He is also writing a book tracing the massive social changes that remade Los Angeles and Hollywood in the summer of 1947.

 Dr. Durbin has appeared as an expert in sports, public discourse and popular culture hundreds of times across a wide variety of news media including the CBS Nightly News, the NBC Nightly News, CNN International, BBC-TV, CBC-TV, NPR, the NFL Network, HBO-Sports, KCBS-TV, KCOP-TV, KCAL-TV, KFWB-NewsRadio and BBC Scotland.  Dr. Durbin appears regularly on KCBS-Radio and is often quoted in the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News and many other news outlets.

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast" Diane Winston on Religion and Reality Television

This week I talk to Diane Winston, professor of Communication and Journalism at USC, about religion and reality television. Are young people getting insights into how to live their lives from reality TV? Contrary to reality TV being seen as a guilty pleasure, Winston's latest book talks about reality TV as the "the lived religion of late capitalism". Reality television tells stories that people feel identified with, or see as cautionary tales. Among other shows, we talk about Survivor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Castaways, and The Apprentice (and Trump as a “reality television president.” We designed this episode as a tie-in with the Popular Religion and Participatory Culture series running on my blog this month.

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round Two): Alice Marwick and Rachel Wagner (Part Two)

 

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Rachel:I’m not surprised by this confluence in our work, either. Conspiracy theories and apocalypticism aren’t that different – both posit a conviction that one’s own view of the world is correct, even if it strains ordinary credibility and even if it isn’t particular positive. Both set the world into two groups – those with insider knowledge who typically also perceive themselves as morally superior in some way – and those on the outside, who are deemed devious or violent or perhaps just not worthy of survival. Both engage in a kind of mythic construct, taking bits and pieces of the world around us and constructing them (akin in many ways to fan fiction) into elaborate meta-stories in which the interpreter plays a key role. In many of these constructs, God is absent, or so far in the wings or into the future that he doesn’t play a significant role in many of these emerging tales. I find it interesting that conspiracy theories in particular are largely not driven by a presumption that God is shaping the interpreter’s insights or that he is playing much of a role at all in the events.

I do really understand your question about evangelically-inspired literature like the Left Behindseries. There are at least two different kinds of apocalypticism afoot today, and they seem to have different purposes. What I am calling the “biblically-shaped” apocalypticism feeds off the presumptive authority of the Bible, and gets the anchors of its story elements there. So in the Left Behindseries (and other works like it) authors contend that in telling their contemporary stories, they are interpreting the Bible as an authoritative text – one that their readers will agreeis authoritative. These authors and their readers buy into the notion of an apocalypse involving the heavenly God seated on a throne who sends his agent (usually Jesus) to wreak destruction on enemies both earthly and cosmis. For these apocalypticists, the post-apocalyptic wasteland (if it appears at all) is a transitory stop on the way to a refashioning of earth in God’s glorious vision. And of course, their main focus is beyond this world entirely, in the expectation of the otherworldly space of heaven. Humans may have more agency in Left Behind than in some other modes of apocalyptic expectation, but God is still running the show. In the mediated cowboy apocalypses I am writing about, God’s role is much more muted or absent altogether. There is rarely a direct reference to biblical imagery, but there are strong apocalyptic themes. Instead of waiting for a supernatural messiah, the “good guy with a gun” is the one who will bring about a better world. And the imminent post-apocalyptic wasteland is a dark but nonetheless welcoming of a refreshed frontier where the gun will be the sole arbiter of justice. There’s a 2014 NRA ad in which the narrator asks: 

Do you still believe in the good guys? Because you’re surrounded by a world where madmen are famous, and good ones forgotten ... where filthy crimes go unpunished and killers and con-artists prey upon anyone who still follows the rules. The good guys are a lie, they laugh. Everyone’s corrupted.But what do you believe? Do you believe in people who would rather fail honestly than lie to get ahead? ... It takes courage to be free. A special kind of backbone to reject the world that surrounds you ... to believe that there is always a right choice and an honest consequence. That’s what it means to believe in America. It’s time to believe in the good guys again. 

There is no explicit religious imagery here, but there is heavy apocalyptic imagery: moral dualism; the presumption of a degraded world; the expectation that one should “reject” the world at large; and the deeply held notion of a kind of chosenness. There’s also the powerful presumption that the guy holding the gun will play the role of judge. Those NRA members who are also preppers see themselves as types of homegrown prophets, who have the ability to see the future and will prepare themselves for it by stockpiling guns and supplies. There’s definitely an implicit loss of faith here; God isn’t going to provide, so the many cowboy must do so. Apocalypticism, then, can tap into an “otherworldly” space that is distinct from the present world simply by being in the future - not by being in some supernatural plane. And instead of waiting for a savior, they take on that role themselves.

And humans will bring about their owncatastrophes in the cowboy apocalypse; disasters aren’t going to be poured from heavenly bowls of wrath, as they are in the Book of Revelation. Instead, there’s just a generalized apocalyptic worldview that posits human destruction and human survival and human violence as the means to survive. I see the cowboy apocalypse as deeply linked with the earthiness of post-apocalypticism – which of course informs the gritty YA literature you also are interested in.  

But as you note, cowboy apocalypses are not the only mainstream media responses to apocalyptic fears today. There are other forms of storytelling – in America and beyond – that suggest human kindness is the way forward, or that suggest we can avert catastrophe, or we can better survive it, or that tenacity and morality are worth holding onto through the decay. The cowboy apocalypse is one very popular apocalyptic tale, but it’s not the only one. I do, however, believe it’s the only one for which guns are the central motif. Have you read much Catherine Keller? Her Apocalypse Now and Thenis a powerful feminist revisioning of apocalyptic tropes, reclaiming the very notion of apocalypse as a kind of rupture than can openupperspectives as opposed to close them – thus can help us think in new ways about contemporary challenges. The cowboy apocalypses just “close” with their fascination with boundaries and endings, and we definitely need more feminist “openings.” What in particular do you think that feminists can offer us in this conversation? Do you see YA dystopic literature (like The Hunger Games) as feminist? What do you see as the relationship between dystopia, apocalypse, and conspiracy theory?


There’s one last key idea that I want to put out there, in part because it relates to this notion of “closing” and also because it’s key to the intersection between communications theory and the study of apocalpyticism for me. Alexander Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark put together a small theory book recently that I find immensely helpful in the work I’m doing on guns as symbols of apocalypticism. The book is called Excommunication: Three Inquires in Media and Mediation. They re-appropriate the religious term “excommunication” to apply it to a new theory of communication. They are interested specifically in the “insufficiency of media,” that is, what happens when media fails: when messages get garbled, or they are undelivered, or when mediation is completely shut down. This they call “excommunication” and they examine some of its most compelling forms. In some ways, we can think of excommunication as the flip side of transmediation. Instead of story hubs growing into many-armed articulations of the same narrative world, excommunication is about stoppages and endings. It’s about breaking connections rather than cultivating them. So if transmediation is about flows and connections, excommunication is about blockages and disconnections. 

For Galloway, Thacker, and Wark, excommunication is what happens when one wants to communicate that “there is nothing more to say.” To put it bluntly, excommunication is a form of communication that shuts down communication. In the book, they deal mainly in abstractions – how does media – when viewed as a network - garble communication? How is contemporary horror like medieval mysticism in inviting us to consider the incomprehensible? What fails to get delivered in different types of mediation? But I’m more interested in a concrete application of their theory, and so I apply it in a novel way and ask: What happens if we think of the gun as a kind of mediation? And more specifically, what happens if we think of guns as ritual objects mediating excommunicationwithin an apocalyptic framework? The gun is a symbolic and mobile perimeter, and for the cowboy messiah it is a means of shutting down – symbolically and at times quite literally – the global flow of peoples in a shrinking world. It becomes a talisman for closure. What’s more, the gun is the sacramental object that can cross through the veil, so to speak, from now to then – from the present world to the world after cataclysm. So the gun is - perhaps paradoxically - also a kind of transmediated object, a relic of participatory culture in its apocalyptic manifestations. Symbolically, guns become a kind of reassurance against global collapse, even as they reek with exceptionalism and the presumption of necessary violence against others. Guns communicate even when they aren’t shooting – by proclaiming the potential to excommunicate, to literally shut the mouth of anyone who crosses the one holding the weapon. The more guns you have, the more you can imagine yourself shutting out a world that doesn’t abide by the “rules” that you wish it would. Apocalypticism (and post-apocalypticism more accurately) enables these cowboy messiahs to imaginatively abide in a future in which the gun can enact its excommunicative purposes without interference. The gun is a silencer. It’s a ritual object. It’s a form of participatory fandom for endings. 

To answer your final query, why is apocalypticism so popular? I can speak mostly for the cowboys I’m interested in – and I believe it’s because mythic responses are the only ones that seem effective for them against global anxieties. The fates of all of us are tightly intertwined, and there’s not a damned thing we can do about that. We share our water, our fuels, our food, our shelter. We share our skies, our oceans, our soil. We are getting closer and closer together through population growth and through communications and technology that enable travel and interface and interdependence. So globalization has a life of its own. That causes anxiety for all of us (which is a partial answer to why apocalypticism is so popular for everyone, even if they aren’t cowboy messiahs). Myths offer imaginative solutions to the problem. Not all myths are as darkly pragmatic as the myth of the cowboy messiahs, who materially engage with their fears by purchasing goods and weapons. But even for those of us who use stories as mere escape, the popularity of apocalyptic stories today reveals our anxieties, as myths always do. Less obvious is how we can cope with these anxieties beyond the stories themselves. What do you see as a way forward from the closures that increasingly define us? Do you see apocalypticism and/or exclusionary perspectives as having mythic effects? Do you see some authors as offering some more rehabilitative options than others? Do our stories increasingly tend to lean toward the presumption of catastrophe rather than recovery? I think this is so, but I would like to hear what you see, and how what you study informs that opinion.

 

Alice:Let’s start with the big question you posed: What do you see as the relationship between dystopia, apocalypse, and conspiracy theory?

I don’t think that conspiracy theories are intrinsically apocalyptic; however, they are inherently anti-establishment. If someone truly believes a conspiracy theory—that vaccines cause autism, say—they are farmore likely to believe other conspiracy theories. If vaccines actually do cause autism, then the medical establishment, from the CDC down to your local pharmacy, has been sneakily and strategically perpetrating lies. Not only is the medical establishment untrustworthy, so is the mainstream media, which consistently pushes a pro-vax agenda. And the government is obviously in on it, since it regulates vaccines and requires them for public school on the state level. In order for the conspiracy theory to be true, there has to be a whole lot of duplicity and deceit in most of our public institutions. If they’ve been lying about vaccines, it’s worth asking what else they have been lying about? People who study public health are actually really concerned about this; a 2015 study of the political debate over the HPV vaccine(which combined conspiracy theories with a whole lot of scare-mongering about teen sexuality) found that people caught up in the conflict were less likely to trust both government and doctors. 

There are a number of reasons why the extremist right spends so much effort recruiting random people on Discord or Reddit, even around issues that seem only quasi-related to white nationalism (trans rights, for example, or anti-feminism). Partly this is because urgent fears of apocalypse or dystopia are really motivating (which I’ll talk about in a sec). But it is also because “red-pilling” someone on one issue makes it much, much more likely that they will be red-pilled on another. Believing, for instance, that feminists are trying to emasculate men and strategically spread misandry to weaken the White family implies that mainstream media, which the extremist right often believes is furthering a feminist agenda, is spreading hatred of (white) men (and therefore must be stopped, or at least contested). Once you can’t trust the media (and, indeed, believe that the media is explicitly trying to trick people), it’s a quick leap to believing that Jews control the media. The seeds of fundamental doubt in government and media have already been sown. 

For the far-right, I think dystopias and apocalyptic narratives serve as warnings and motivations. I really loved your analysis of race and the cowboy apocalypse; in our research, we see a lot of dystopias around Islamic control of the United States (implementation of Sharia law, criminalizing Christianity, banning Western music, art, architecture, etc.). But we also see language that frames the current US as a dystopia.

Ask yourself, why is America’s culture in the state that it is in? Why has it declined past not only feminism, destruction of the family, and massive obesity, but also into bizarre causes such as transsexual rights? Why is there such a push for massive third world immigration? If we turn on the television, why do we see cultural perversions acted out as if they are normal? Why do many other cultures now make fun of America, when they used to pedestalize it? (from a Medium post called Cultural Marxism is the #1 Enemy of Western Civilization)

To many far-right extremists, the current US is a dystopia, and should be replaced with a white ethno-nationalist state that adheres to an idealized version of the 1950s nuclear family. In this narrative, the white nationalist state is a utopia, with the White man, a uniquely powerful and superior individual, at its head. Feminism will be vanquished and women returned to their rightful place; immigrants, non-Christians, LGBT individuals, etc. etc. will be expelled or criminalized. (It’s not a coincidence that this world reminds me more of The Handmaid’s Tale than anywhere I’d be comfortable living). In other words, the far-right’s utopiais the leftist’s dystopia. And to the extremist right, the left’s control of culture has brainwashed people into thinking that the status quo is the natural state of things. It must be removed before we can move into a utopian white state.

So conspiracy theories erode trust in the status quo, which then makes people more likely to believe that institutions have nefarious motivations, suggesting that Shit Is About To Go Down and we better get together and do something about it. Which, I think, feeds directly into your doomsday preppers and NRA attack ads. This also makes your average alt-right participant feel very special and important for participating in a culture war, when really they’re just talking smack on Twitter and photoshopping Trump and Pepe into video game screenshots.

 

Rachel:As we wrap this up, I want to hone in on a key point that is shared across our interests - that fans of conspiracy theories and dystopia and apocalyptic media all are fueled by anxiety and by imagination. Proponents of all three envision a sort of imagined, hoped-for turning point when new revelations will bring about a change in the rule of order in the world. They also all seem to be about feeling powerless and lashing out in order to feel more powerful. Whereas biblically-minded apocalypticists have always imagined that one’s enemies will be punished in an otherworldly event of judgment, today’s cowboy apocalypses articulate a belief that the world is about to be transformed here and now, in earthly ways, and  that they will have some kind of special authority in the aftermath. As I’ve said already, one of the most profound shifts I see in apocalypticism is its recent re-centering upon an earthly cataclysm and an earthly future as opposed to a heavenly, supernatural intervention as biblicists tend to propose. Conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists likewise seem to be focused on an imagined earthly future, and just as easily get stuck in a kind of panic, declaring themselves outnumbered and therefore feeling justified in engaging in all kinds of nasty behavior. I wonder if all of this doesn’t have roots in anxieties about globalization? I certainly think the cowboy apocalypse does; it’s all about the symbolic reinstitution of boundaries that protect white American male violent privilege. I see far-right extremists as also about controlling the perceived flow of others who are “different” in some damning way. They too hope for some kind of dark revolution that will place them in power again. Isn’t that what MAGA is about, some kind of nostalgic desire that is imposed on a fraught future? 

So maybe the question I’d like to leave you with now is how this all filters into places that are not necessarily either right wing or extremist. Do you see the same kind of energy at work in any way in circles otherwise presumed “leftist?” So for myself I am asking: Is there any way that the binaries of mainstream earthly apocalypticism also take shape in presumed progressive locations? I suppose one could say that the reluctance of some “left” intellectuals to engage with “right” thinkers is an example of such dualistic thinking, but I don’t think that is necessarily true. After all, one of the ways of resisting racist, misogynist exceptionalism is to reject it outright as a viable worldview. So I think rather I’m asking if the kind of distrust and anxiety inherent in both apocalypticism and conspiracy theories can alsoinhabit leftist thinking in ways that are less obvious at first - for example, when otherwise very socially progressive people presume that people who are homeless or suffer from mental illness (or both) somehow deserve what happens to them. That kind of thinking is a relic of very old theological perspectives that presume God rewards the prosperous and punishes the wicked, thus those who suffer must be wicked. It’s not necessarily apocalyptic in its oldest forms, but it can be. And it’s still alive and well in culture at large. There are other examples, I’m sure, of places where dualistic “us versus them” worldview and anxiety-filled distrust of authority have shaped progressive worldviews too, to the extent that knee-jerk presumptions are more easily made than perhaps when such perspectives have held less social power. To put it another way: If apocalypticism encourages us to think in terms of “good” and “evil,” and if apocalypticism is all over our media at large, are people who think themselves progressive really immune to the implications of this worldview, or do they tend increasingly to exhibit symptoms of this kind of simplistic thinking as well? Of course, the implication here is that the media can nurture types of participatory culture that are not just entertainment, but that can affect people’s worldviews in damaging ways. We needn’t go down the rabbit hole of effects theory to acknowledge that media at least have the capacityto shape, reinforce, and reflect perspectives in real ways. And how can we combat these worst forms of messaging? I think this question has even more salience if we put it in conversation with conspiracy theories of the type you mention, like anti-vaxxers, who show up just as often (or perhaps more?) in presumed left-leaning circles. What is at root in this distrust of authority? Is it about global anxiety in some way? Is it dualistic? Apocalyptic? Something else? We are obviously a very anxious lot today, and we have a lot of anger, a lot of fear, and a lot of desire that things be otherwise than they are - so much so that we expend vast amounts of energy imaginatively investing in fantasies that more readily match our needs. What do you think that is about? And do you see it as a primarily right wing problem or extremist problem, or are there ways in which American culture at large is more susceptible than it used to be to these imaginative manipulations of reality? 

 

Alice:I like your summary of our conversation—anxiety and imagination. We send our imaginations off into unpleasant places, whether that’s by reading a dystopian novel or checking Twitter, and that doesn’t help our anxiety. But just living daily life is very anxiety-provoking for most people. Economic precarity and constant uncertainty about the future, mixed with very negative environmental news  and political outrage after political outrage – anxiety is a very natural response to the state of the world.

I’ve been musing over the leftist question for some time now. I think during the Bush years, in leftist circles there was certainly a belief that the mainstream media was in cahoots with the government to hush up problematic actions – for example, the New York Times’ complicity in promoting the idea that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction. Media studies scholarship like Herman & Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consentdiscusses how mainstream news and entertainment media relentlessly promote corporate capitalism and almost never further alternate points of view. Given that until the very recent past the left was very suspicious of the mainstream news media, and often saw them as a mouthpiece of the status quo, it is unsurprising that conspiracy theories circulate through the left as well. Of course, as a leftist media studies academic, I personally see a big difference between, for example, making the claim that sitcoms promote an unrealistic view of middle-class life and portray poverty as a tacky lifestyle choice, thus furthering class inequality; and rumors spread by people like Louise Mensch, who claims that Vladimir Putin had Andrew Breitbart murdered. But as we talked about previously, there’s a very strong link between distrusting institutions like the mainstream news media and the government and believing in conspiracy theories. So yes, I think the left is equally susceptible to problematic information.  The left is also very susceptible to politically polarized thinking – us versus them—which is on the rise across every part of the US political spectrum. 

One set of dystopias we didn’t discuss are capitalist dystopias, while had a resurgence at the turn of the 21stcentury: Infinite Jest,Minority Report, M.T. Anderson’s Feed (one of my all-time favorite dystopias), Max Barry’s Jennifer Government—all focused around a No Logo future of capitalism run amok. This, I think, is the leftist dystopia that predicts an environmental and psychic apocalypse based on rapacious corporations destroying community, individuality, and, you knowthe planet.  The move to buying local, shopping craft markets, eating farm-to-table cuisine, which is basically more of a fashion trend than anything that’s had actual environmental impact is, I think, a response to many of these fears and worries. 

So here’s back to the main question: why are we more susceptible to “imaginative manipulations of reality”? Well, social, financial, and environmental problems feel enormous, and the solutions feel puny. Our news culture is a bad news culture, where really positive social changes (like the huge drop in the crime rate across the US) are ignored in favor of endlessly airing every sensational murder case 24/7 and scaring everyone. Our society is increasingly segregated politically, not just in terms of red states and blue states but red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods. There is less intermarriage across political parties. Fewer friendships. It is far more likely today than thirty years ago that a Democrat can have very little contact with Republicans and vice versa, making it easy to demonize the other party. And, of course, we can’t forget the internet, which has given everyone a soapbox—and a lot of financial incentives to those who can attract attention online. Social media platforms mean that news spreads through interpersonal connections, and you’re much more likely to believe a story if it comes from someone you trust. This makes it extremely easy for hyper-partisan disinformation and conspiracy theories to circulate, because people share them to signal their political and personal identities. We don’t trust the news, we don’t trust people who aren’t like us, there’s a big increase in hyper-partisan media that’s created solely for clickbait, and voila, a perfect climate for disinformation spread.

I think what this conversation has shown me is the power of the stories our culture tells, a key element of both religious studies and media studies. What futures are we collectively imagining? Earlier in the conversation you asked me what feminism can offer us, and I think that feminism - along with critical studies of race, sexuality, class, and ability - can help us think imaginatively about a future we’d like to live in, rather than constantly trying to scotch-tape together a livable existence in the present. I recently saw a wonderful presentation by Woodrow Winchester III  in which he advocated designers using Afrofuturism to create speculative technologies, which, as he says, makes it possible to “enrich the plausible solution space.” By centering different perspectives-- not just the frightened White subject that both you and I are concerned with-- we can expand our imaginative spaces of what the future might look like, and perhaps work towards a future that doesn’t involve an apocalypse. 

 

Alice E. Marwick (PhD, New York University) is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Faculty Affiliate on the Media Manipulation Initiative at the Data & Society Research Institute. She studies the social and cultural implications of social media and is the author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale 2013) and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Social Media (2017).

Rachel Wagner [https://faculty.ithaca.edu/rwagner/] is Associate Professor of Religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College. Rachel's single-author book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality is part of the Media, Religion, and Culture series (Routledge, 2012). Short pieces relating to this research project can be found in Religion Dispatches and in the Society of Biblical Literature Forum

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round Two) Alice Marwick and Rachel Wagner (Part One)

Alice:Hi Rachel! I’m excited to talk with you and see where our interests overlap. My work does not engage directly with religion; I’m definitely on the media studies side of this exchange. I do ethnographic and qualitative research on social media use, and my primary research foci are a) privacy and b) media manipulation and disinformation by right-wing extremist groups. I work with the Media Manipulation Initiative at Data & Society, and we’ve produced some interesting research that touches on religion —one of our postdocs, Francesca Tripodi, spent a year doing ethnographic research among American conservatives and examined their understandings of news. It seems that you and I share interests in pop culture, feminism, and popular tech, so I think we will have a lot to talk about!

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Rachel:You may or may not know my previous work on religion and media. I wrote a book called Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and VirtualReality in a Routledge series (2012), in which I outline key issues and problems in thinking about the placement of religious experience in virtual spaces, and what the feedback between the virtual and the “real” look like in terms of religious experience. The book places significant emphasis on the issue of “play” and religion, and is mostly a theoretical introduction to problems and a means by which those who haven’t considered these issues can learn the basics. The final chapter is about participatory culture, looking at how religion is both transmediated and how transmedia can work like religion. I also have numerous articles and chapters in books on religion and film; religion and video games; and religion and technology. I teach about these topics as well.

I am currently at work on a book that I am calling Cowboy Apocalypse. The book is a look at the pervasiveness of apocalyptic mythology in American culture, studying it from a transmediated, participatory culture perspective. Although apocalypse is not singularly-branded or corporately-determined, it has (and arguably always has been) transmediated. In its American context, we can easily find it in our literature (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s The RoadWorld Made by Handby James Howard Kunstler; Maddaddamby Margaret Atwood; Max Brooks’ World War Z); in our films (e.g. Children of MenZombielandBook of Eli28 Days Later); in our television fandoms (e.g. The Walking DeadRevolutionThe 100The Last Man on Earth); in our reality television shows (e.g. Doomsday Preppers;Doomsday BunkersThe Colony); in our video games (e.g. Mad MaxMetro 2033Gears of War;The Last of Us); in our real life games and costumed experiences (e.g. humans versus zombies; Dead MatterPulau Zombie; homegrown survivalist “scenario” experiences in the woods; comic-cons); and in our embodied, “real life” mythologies (most notably, the apocalyptic mythology that informs NRA public rhetoric). Some of these apocalyptic mythic enactments are transmediated within specific corporations (the most obvious example include The Walking Deadand Mad Max). But regardless of these internaltransmediated fandoms, we can also say – just as accurately – that the apocalyptic myth itselfis transmediated across numerous franchises, where it exhibits a number of the features of apocalypticism traditionally conceived: expectation of a life-altering events; a portrait of a future transformed earth; the presumption that only some – those in the know – will survive; a dualistic construction of “good guys” and “bad guys;” the presumption that violence is the only means by which survival can be conceived. Another way of putting all this is to say that in America today, the apocalyptic myth is the hub of a self-generating and self-perpetuating set of mediated articulations of the end times that is consuming our popular culture. It is also highly participatory in its most material forms. 

What’s especially interesting, though, is what is missingin these more recent articulations. In traditional apocalypticism (of the sort that Jews and Christians popularized in the time period “between” the testaments of the Christian Bible), the expectation is that God or his agent will intervene in human history to bring about the impending change – which is, in this religious conception, a final judgment. While elements of judgment certainly remain in these contemporary popular mediated forms of the apocalypse, God has been replaced with what I call the “cowboy messiah,” an armed vigilante figure who judges his own enemies typically through the barrel of a gun. Instead of waiting for God to intervene, the cowboy messiah helps to bring about the violent transformation of the earth, or he responds to its inevitable destruction (through plague or resource depletion, for example) by “preparing” a future space in which he will live with his chosen few – his family and friends – reinforced by a violent perimeter. The gun becomes a mobile means of imagining a “wall” around one’s own exceptionalized perspectives, be they religious, racial, gendered, or otherwise close-minded. 

I argue in my upcoming book that the cowboy apocalypse is a product of the unique American racially-charged historical landscape, since America is a land formed upon the backs and with the blood of “others." The justification of genocide was accomplished in two not altogether compatible ways: either by defining the frontier as an empty vast wilderness intended for consumption by God’s newly-settled chosen ones, or by defining the frontier as a hostile landscape intended to be violently contained and purified by God’s chosen. In both cases, the brown-skinned peoples already occupying these lands were viewed as dispensable and - through mythic machinations - as violent interlopers themselves. Because settlers perceived themselves as acting with God’s favor, the “other” – the “bad guy” could be justifiably massacred. To put it simply, the American story of “cowboys versus Indians” has become the heart of the American story today, where other brown-skinned peoples (the ancestors of former slaves, the Mexican peoples along the Texan border, and most immigrants to America) have symbolically replaced the “Indians” as violent, barely human entities worthy of extermination by the “good guys.” These self-proclaimed “good guys” can be recognized by their weapons and their cowboy uniform. This is participatory culture with a punch. 

But with the challenges of a global economy and global threats, this localized American myth has taken on cosmic form today, such that the American articulation of the apocalyptic myth is inseparable from American frontier mythology. They’ve blended into one shared mythic, transmediated construct that tells of America’s beginnings and its imminent ending. We can see what I call the “cowboy messiah” enacting this myth over and over again in our media. For example, John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard(1988) takes on the stage name Roy Rogers and shouts “Yippee-ki-yay, mother fucker!” while shooting at the violent foreign enemy who has infiltrated his wife’s American business. We can see it too in Tremors, the cult-classic film (1990) in which a forward-thinking cowboy stockpiles military-grade weapons and thus helps to save a small remote community from aliens. We see it in Zombieland (2009), where the figure of Tallahassee wears the expected cowboy costume with hat, boots, and gun strapped to his leg. He’s in the “ass-kicking business” and takes out dozens of zombies in a vicious post-apocalyptic wasteland, in a single shoot-out, all while effortlessly cracking jokes.

This myth is - and really always has been - a kind of participatory culture for those who buy into it. With the growing awareness of the inevitability of a shared global destiny, this American story of violent frontier exceptionalism has melded with the Christian myth of apocalypticism, creating what I call the cowboy apocalypse: a participatory culture in which the role of God’s avenging agent is no longer supernatural but earthly, and embodied by the cowboy messiah himself. Where once America’s borders seemed porous and expanding, today they are fixed and in danger of shrinking. Whereas once the brown-skinned violent population seemed controllable and even easy to destroy, today the “other” is perceived as clamoring at the border – much like many of the portraits of zombies in shows like The Walking Dead– where they push against “American” land and identity, demanding visibility. This is a highly racialized, uniquely American, violent apocalyptic mythology, masked behind myths of zombie identity at times, and diluted in the form of alien representation in others. But it is easily recognizable once you look for it. 

The implications of the myth of the cowboy apocalypse are chilling: In traditional apocalypticism, those who see themselves as persecuted, the “righteous few” await God’s intervention, huddled beneath a heavenly altar or standing on a hill awaiting Jesus’s return. They themselvesdon’t enact the violence of judgment. Instead, a messiah figure intervenes and in some texts (like the Jewish text 4 Ezra) this figure comes with a mouth of flaming fire or (like the Christian text Revelation) with a mouth exuding a supernatural sword. Speech is violent in these texts. In traditional apocalyptic texts, an otherworldly messiah figure fights forhumanity so they don’t have to. Supernatural armies may be involved, but humans are on the sidelines simply hoping for the best, sometimes praying or singing but not riding into battle or blasting flames from their mouths. 

This all changes in the blend of frontier mythology and traditional apocalypticism that is today’s cowboy apocalypse. The “good guy with a gun” is himselfa self proclaimed messiah figure. Tired of waiting for God, today's cowboy messiah takes on the savior role himself in a highly gendered form: the gun becomes his apocalyptic weapon of choice, the “mouth” of flaming fire through which he speaks. The gun becomes the means of enacting “righteous” judgment on his enemies. In a later part of this conversation, I’ll introduce the concept of “excommunication,” borrowed from Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark, and Alexander Galloway, which I use to argue that the gun itself can be viewed a mode of mediation – a way of speaking – in this new apocalyptic mode. It’s participatory culture and avowed fandom with deadly consequences. It’s ritual performance with violent purposes. I don’t see the transmediated apocalyptic myth - the cowboy apocalypse - as harmless fiction. It is the darkest response possible to the challenges of globalization, in that instead of imagining a future in which humans cooperate to find global solutions, some of us propose a mythic solution with material consequences: that is, for some of us it would be preferable to violently refresh the “frontier” by allowing the earth to be destroyed. Such violent destruction would enable the cowboy messiah to demonstrate his manly mettle and ensure the survival of his own, his family and friends. This mythic construction is American exceptionalism in its most virulent, extreme form. And it’s not just mythic. Our global problems are real, which means that the responses we might envision are also real – whether they be global cooperation to deal with real problems, or cowboy destruction marked by “good guys” enacting vigilante “justice” in a harsh, ruined landscape. 

Alice:

Hi Rachel!

Your research sounds fascinating - I’m going to tell you a little bit more about the part of my own work that I think intersects most logically with your own and then delve into a few things that your email sparked for me. 

So I said in my last email that my most recent research interest, and something that’s become quite consuming, is disinformation and media manipulation online. Some background: During the 2016-2017 academic year I was a fellow at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York City. In the months running up to the election, a small team was watching as people on the 4chan and 8chan /pol boards brainstormed ways to influence the election through memes, conspiracy theories, rumors, slogans, and—most significantly—by using social media to spread false stories into the mainstream media. When we went to different funders and tried to explain why we felt this was important to research, we found that there was simply too much background that people didn’t understand—what is 8chan? What’s the alt-right? Who’s Pepe? What’s the men’s rights movement? Who cares what’s trending on Twitter?  Once Trump won the election, and the “alt-right” was on everyone’s radar, I volunteered to write everything up, and it became this massive report called Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online.

The main thesis of the report is that the alt-right is a disorganized group of people with very different viewpoints, backgrounds, and histories who are willing to work together on ideologically similar issues. Groups ranging from overt white supremacists to men’s rights activists to trolls to anti-Muslim or anti-Immigrant activists to conspiracy theorists all believe that their values are under attack from liberals, who have won the culture war (and in most cases, are synonymous with Jews). By positioning themselves as edgy, anti-PC, and countercultural, regressive social movements are spreading hateful ideologies to young people by radicalizing, or “red-pilling,” social media communities. This is often couched as ironic or humorous, providing plausible deniability when people are confronted or asked to take responsibility for their rhetoric. The gateway ideology for this process is typically anti-feminism, which is very popular among young men and often opens the door to racist and anti-Semitic belief systems. 

We also found that far-right extremists were using social media to actively spread rumors and disinformation to counter the Clinton campaign. They would brainstorm the best way to appeal to different demographic groups, identify potentially effective arguments, create images and videos that supported their counter-narratives, and use social media to spread them throughout the hyper-partisan mediasphere and to credulous journalists. A story like Hillary Clinton’s poor health circulated for months on social media, with /pol/ creating these elaborate montages of Hillary looking ill, which they spread everywhere when she actually did catch pneumonia. Other stories, like the Seth Rich conspiracy theory (which holds that the Clintons had low-level democratic staffer Seth Rich murdered because he was threatening to leak emails to Wikileaks), were fully-formulated and pushed to the mainstream once Trump had a bad news week.

It was surprising how vulnerable the mainstream media was to these efforts. If a story made Twitter’s trending topics (often by using bots), it was almost certain that someone would cover it. The campaign coverage was so intense and so consuming that often journalists were asked to push out dozens of blog posts or content items a day with little or no fact-checking. The people spearheading these efforts, like Andrew Anglin (who founded The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist blog targeted to millennials) or Richard Spencer (famous for being punched on camera by an antifa protester) were very canny at branding and marketing. Spencer, for example, was TV-ready and full of sound bites, while Weev, a notorious hacker who worked for the Stormer,conducted a series of fairly low-effort but newsworthy pranks that were, of course, covered by TDS in detail. As Yochai Benkler and his colleagues have since written about, a network of hyper-partisan news sites like Breitbartand the Daily Callercame to prominence during the election and were happy to publish any two-bit conservative conspiracy theory as long as it reflected poorly on Clinton and well on Trump. And of course, “fake news” sites set up for financial gain published all kinds of attention-getting claptrap, most of it pro-Trump. As a result, even on mainstream social media sites like Reddit and Facebook, there was a ton of pro-Trump, anti-Hillary messaging, many of it originating from far-right extremist groups.

I’ve continued my research on these communities since the election, and we have a really fantastic group of people involved with the Media Manipulation Initiative at D&S. While the alt-right isn’t the trendy topic it was a year ago, the people involved are still very much active. My co-author Becca Lewis is about to release a major report on the conservative influencer networks on YouTube, which are much closer to white supremacy than they are traditional Republican ideology. I’ve since investigated why people share fake news and conspiracy theories on social media, and found that it’s mostly motivated by identity expression and desire to fit into partisan social groups—that’s a whole other topic. Our amazing postdoc Francesca Tripodi spent a year talking to mainstream conservatives about news, and she found that even traditional Republicans are very distrustful of mainstream news, and are much more likely to believe that sources like Fox and Breitbart are trustworthy, and that large, significant stories like the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia are made up of whole cloth.

 

This research topic is fractal. I break off a tiny part and it gets bigger and bigger. Right now, I’m very interested in the social identities of the participants and how they feel themselves to be victimized underdogs. As a feminist scholar, I’m always interested in why anti-feminism and misogyny provides such an accessible entry point, and I’m also very concerned by the rise of misogynist separatist movement like the incels and Men Going Their Own Way. Feminists become a scapegoat by which disenfranchised or economically unsuccessful men can blame their lack of social or sexual success on the rise of women. And finally, I’m fascinated by the participatory nature of this culture. 4chan and 8chan are excellent examples of participatory culture; they have a low barrier to entry, creative contributions are highly valued, and there is a lot of explicit pedagogical interactions between less experienced and more experienced participants. My current obsession is Qanon, the theory that the Mueller investigation is actually a smokescreen for the real investigation of Hillary and Obama by, who else, Donald Trump. The people involved with Qanon are mostly baby boomers, and they conduct “close readings” of Q’s posts on 8chan in the same way that comparative literature students deconstruct poems, or fans beta-read fan fiction. While most of the early studies of participatory culture came out of fandom and tended to see participation as something very positive, creative, and generative, I’m interested in looking at communities that engage in participatory culture to less productive ends, such as networked harassment, spreading hateful speech, or propagating disinformation.

So I’m coming at your introduction from two perspectives. The first is my academic self, interested in the apocalyptic nature of a lot of conspiracy theories around, for example, white genocide, the New World Order, Obama death camps, etc. which often fall into the tropes you’ve so nimbly expressed. I really love this trope of the apocalyptic cowboybecause it’s not just about popular culture; it’s now a staple of extremist movements. Gun ownership, for example, is inextricably linked to the idea of armed insurrection against a government who has forgotten the traditional values of White America and is, instead, embracing European socialism, Islam, Sharia Law, Jewish control—even satanic or demon control (pick your poison). Often this is articulated in sort of vague terms, but it underlies much of the conspiratorial thinking and far-right sentiments that are present even in fairly mainstream social media culture. Qanon, for example, is all about defending American values from Obama and Clinton, who represent brownness, feminism, immigrants, and general Otherness. And while I really appreciate your insight that the apocalyptic cowboy isn’t waiting for Jesus’ return, I wonder how this plays out in stuff like the Left Behind series, which seems to at least scratch the same itch, and (very arguably) kicked off the contemporary fascination with post-apocalyptic stories.

The second perspective is mine as a lay-person dystopic enthusiast. Like many sci-fi fans, I went through a pretty intense period of reading post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction (I got sick of weak YA Hunger Gamesimitations and switched to mostly reading High Fantasy, which I love- if you have any ten-volume series to recommend, hit me up!). My favorite series are always those grounded in feminism, from the sort of liberal feminism lite of the Hunger Gamesto work by Octavia Butler or Margaret Atwood. At its bleakest, as in The Handmaid’s Tale or Meg Elison’s Book of the Unnamed Midwife, this work examines what life would be like for women if they were stripped of a social safety net and at the mercy of patriarchal control. At its most compassionate, as in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it envisions rebuilding a future along more egalitarian lines. So here’s a question for you. Why do you think dystopia/apocalypse appeals across the spectrum? There are apocalyptic novels for conservatives (I read one once where the entire crumbling of the present was blamed on Obamacare); for teenage girls—so many for teenage girls!; for teenage boys; for progressives; for action enthusiasts; for literary fiction readers afraid to read genre fiction. What it is it about these tropes that appeal so widely?

Alice E. Marwick (PhD, New York University) is Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Faculty Affiliate on the Media Manipulation Initiative at the Data & Society Research Institute. She studies the social and cultural implications of social media and is the author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale 2013) and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Social Media (2017).

Rachel Wagner [https://faculty.ithaca.edu/rwagner/] is Associate Professor of Religion in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ithaca College. Rachel's single-author book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality is part of the Media, Religion, and Culture series (Routledge, 2012). Short pieces relating to this research project can be found in Religion Dispatches and in the Society of Biblical Literature Forum

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation: Henry Jenkins, Sarah McFarland Taylor, and Diane Winston (Part Two)

 

Sarah:

I am glad that Henry recounted in his remarks his early life experiences with Christian fundamentalism and explained the ways that the trauma he carries from his religious upbringing has made him more hesitant to deal in professional life with religion as a category of culture or to engage possible correspondences between dimensions of religion and fandoms. In trying to discuss places where religious studies meets media studies with media studies folks I frequently encounter a similar reaction―a deep reluctance even to approach the topic of religion. It might surprise media scholars to learn that many in the cultural study of religion have had similar experiences of trauma related to their religious upbringing and, in some cases, gravitate to the field of Religious Studies in part to work through their religious traumas from childhood. Deborah Whitehead, who will be participating in this blog later in the series, is presenting a paper at the upcoming 2018 AAR that deals in part with what is increasingly self-identified online as a community of those who suffer from "evangelical PTSD." Whitehead examines the outgrowth of recovery support via social media channels for those who carry scars from their previous religious involvements. One of the challenges in building bridges between religious studies and other fields is our field’s unfortunate name, which makes it sound like our scholarship is "religious."  Diane and I just returned from a conference on media, religion, and culture, and although some headway has been made in introducing media studies scholars to what religion scholars actually do, many media scholars fundamentally misunderstand what the field is about. They think religious studies scholars are theologians and/or that our job is to evangelize and promote religion as a “good” in the world, or to convert our audiences to “believe” and become more religious. It is no wonder that few media scholars want to deal with the subject of religion and many have developed an “allergy” to discussing it. This is why I most often refer to what I do as the "cultural study of religion" in an attempt to make clear that what we do is not a "Divinity School" kind of religious offshoot. We are historians, sociologists, anthropologists, linguists, folklorists, philologists, cultural studies folks, and so forth, but our job is not to cheerlead religion but to explore, analyze, and critique its dynamics, its sphere and modes of influence, and its enmeshments with other aspects of culture.  

One of the textbooks that introduces the study of religion to students is called Critics Not Caretakers and explains to the uninitiated that the scholar of religion operates in a socio-political role as "a cultural critic rather than a caretaker of a religious tradition or a guru dispensing timeless wisdom." We engage in socio-political-cultural critique, much as any cultural studies scholar would, because we are indeed doing cultural studies of a particular aspect of culture called "religion," attending to its various cultural expressions and permutations.  If one thing that comes out of this blog series is more scholars in media studies gaining a better understanding of what we do and do not do, I consider that to be a big win.
 

Henry:

Sarah, one of my goals for this series is to complicate the ways my field thinks about religious studies. You will not be surprised that more than one of the cultural studies participants felt compelled to tell me that they did not see themselves as religious, were atheist or agnostic, etc. And I suspect more than one of us will end up writing about our complex histories with religion as part of how we situate ourselves in this conversation.  Cultural Studies draws heavily on forms of cultural experience and identity that touch us in very direct ways -- not just the “Aca-Fan” tradition that I helped to inspire but also going back to Raymond Williams’ drawing on his own rural and working class background to inspire his reformulation of how and why we study culture or work in feminist, critical race studies, queer studies, etc. So that may lead many of us to assume that religious studies work grows out of the beliefs and experiences of researchers. Of course it does, but not necessarily in ways that some outside that field might assume. Witness Diane’s narrative.

I am hoping we can spend some time in this theory thinking about the nature of epistemology and experience across these fields -- how do we know what we know? How do you write about religion without being necessarily religious? How might those tools give us greater insight and access to groups who may be fundamentally different from us in terms of their beliefs and practices, as you do in the really provocative things you say here about Donald Trump’s evangelical base. This is one of the things that contemporary cultural studies might learn from religious studies which is really urgent given the culture that surrounds us at the moment.

Speaking of your discussion of Trump, I was surprised to see the “Get a Life” sketch surface here. I wrote about that sketch extensively in Textual Poachers some twenty plus years ago and it remains a touch point of our field. I wrote from a fan’s perspective, writing a critique of the ways that it perpetuated long-standing stereotypes that have been harmful to fans and discussing the ways that it was unfunny to many Star Trek fans I know because William Shatner was pretending to joke about hurtful things that he has said in earnest in other contexts.

I love thinking about Shatner as standing in for Trump here.  Shatner felt so trapped by his fans, even as he also knew he was totally dependent on them for support at that stage of his career, and if anything, through the years, he has become more ambivalent and more desperate, begging publicly to be included in future ST projects. I personally struggled for years with whether it was Shatner or Kirk I disliked, only to discover it was a bit of both when Chris Pine played the role in the new film series. If we could only find a Chris to recast as Donald Trump for the rest of his term, our time on this Earth for the next few years would be much more bearable. All of this is to say that Shatner, in that sketch, reinforced the fictional fan’s “plausibility structures,” but at the same time, he further undercut them with most of the real world Trekkers with whom I spoke at the time. We are not believers, in other words, but we play them on television.  

Shatner in that moment is a bit desperate to reconnect with his fans, to build back up his authentic link with them, even as what rang true was that the guy really and truly hated being out there on the fan convention circuit. To me, this suggests some elasticity but also some fragility in the structures of belief and structures of feeling you are discussing here. Your analysis of Trump and the televangelists makes sense to me from the outside, but I wonder to what degree the expressions of support of performative, that the gap between reality and the belief structure is expanding over time, and that at a certain point those relationships will be impossible to maintain. Fans eventually distanced themselves from Shatner. Will MAGA supporters also eventually distance themselves from Trump and if so, do we have a clue what kinds of things would be impossible for them to absorb into their “plausibility structures”?

Diane, I have yet to see Juliet, Naked, but your account of it here suggests that I urgently need to do so. Whether I can catch it in time to incorporate my response here is another question, but I will try. So, for now, I will focus on the underlying questions you ask about fandom and religion. “Fictional storytelling can supply narratives that elicit loyalty, inspiration and empowerment—much the same as some sacred texts do….his fandom provided meaning, purpose and identity to an otherwise undistinguished life…. the strength, resilience and passionate embrace that cultural products can stir in (some/many) consumers.” Each of these phrases resonate with me: they certainly describe the relationship I have with fandom. And Yet…

Fandom serves many of (though not all of) the functions religion and faith-based organizations perform for their believers, but is it enough to reduce religion to its functions? Or do we need to ask, say, about the difference between expressions of social and cultural identity or shared meaning or ethical values on the one hand and spiritual beliefs on the other? We are certainly not turning to fandom here for an expression of what happens to us after we die or whether there may be divine forces influencing the events of our lives. I can think of some cases -- for example, the way “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” gets sung at some gay funerals-- where fan symbols get deployed to provide comfort at moments of trauma and loss.

But, ultimately, I turn to fandom to address different kinds of questions in my life than religion has helped me to address at other moments in my life. There is always an element of the ludic about fandom: it is, as Michael Saler suggests, about the “as if,” a self-acknowledged fantasy realm which also seems different from the way I have experienced religion.

And that’s why I would stop short of fully embracing your question, “In an era of religious indifference and disaffiliation might (some) cultural products evoke deeper devotion (from some fans) than traditional religions dqo from (some/many) followers?” or your statement, “Henry’s fans are, pound for pound, more fanatical about their favorite films, TV shows and books than many church-goers are about their denominations.”  You left in enough weasel words here that it is hard to argue with the “somes” and “many” but keep in mind that Star Wars fans are not blowing themselves up to wipe out those infidels who love Star Trek, there is no mass genocide committed in the name of Harry Potter fandom, and none of us really think you are damned to eternal torment if you enjoy reading 50 Shades of Grey. There is something so fundamental about religious identity -- at least for the most hardcore believers -- that fandom is never going to match, nor should it. At the end of the day, we play as fans while religion is for keeps. But asking and working through these questions help us to understand more fully the similarities and differences between the two.

 

Sarah:  

Like Diane, I in no way dismiss the power and persistence of the legions of devout and the more traditionally scripturally and institutionally identified religious.  After many years of arguing for the “secularization thesis,” even the social scientists have given up the ghost and admitted that religion is not going away anytime soon, the world is not becoming more secular, and indeed if we examine religious phenomena globally, we find just the opposite.  Sociologist Peter Berger’s The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics put the nail in the coffin of secularization theory. [See also Rodney Stark’s “Secularization, R.I.P”] Sociologists and political theorists of religion now struggle to keep up with tracking the rapid growth of “desecularization.”  Having said that, cultural often moves simultaneously in contrapuntal directions, as our Pew Research polls in this country keep telling us.

Pixar is right when they proclaim their motto: “Story is King!” And the stories morally engaging and moving those of younger generations are not the stories of entrenched religious tomes but the stories of mediated popular culture, as told through music, television, film, streamed audio/video, digital games, and social media.  Many of the transmediated epics Henry points to in his work are the defining mythological narratives of our time. People do not simply encounter those defining stories—they participate in them and “get inside” them, often building communities of story along the way. Diane’s work with television similarly demonstrates that stories of mediated popular culture are increasingly prime sources for meaning making, life perspective, moral insight, and shared empathy and joy in contemporary lives.

When Henry resists comparisons between fandoms and religion because fandoms have been dismissed or denigrated as “false religions,” such a designation of “falseness” is not in keeping with the theorizing of religious studies or what religious studies scholars do. Theologians and clergy may dismiss and judge fandoms as “false religions,” but contemporary cultural theorists of religion take cognizance of the very real religious dimensions of these fandoms and do not judge them as “less than” or “second fiddle” to “real religions.” In fact, the very notion of “real” religion versus “fake” religion is highly contested.  Can one even make such a designation in the cultural study of religion? Designations of “real” and “fake” are the purview of theologians.

The very definition of “religion” in our field is a constantly moving target. What counts as “religion” is constituted by who does the defining, what power they have, what interests are at stake, and in what context, circumstances, and to what ends that definition is enacted. “Religion” is a modern constructed category and that construction is involved in an ongoing process of negotiation with power dynamics and vested interests. The work of Gary Laderman, who has written on music fandoms and the Grateful Dead, among other aspects of popular culture, David Chidester who has written on the religious dimensions of Tupperware, gang culture, and Coca-cola consumer culture, and Kathryn Lofton who has written about “Oprah religion,” all do not cast “fandoms” and fan devotions as “false religions.” Again, that’s not what we do. In my own work on religion and consumer culture, I compare the 2008 “Black Friday” stampede death of Long Island Wal-Mart employee Jdimytai Damour, who was killed when shoppers broke down the store’s doors at five in the morning and trampled his body in order to make their way to discounted plasma television sets, to the religious stampede two months prior, when 224 pilgrims were trampled to death as 25,000 worshippers rushed the doors of the Chamunda Devi Temple in northern India during the 2008 Kumbh Mela festival. In my account of these two events, neither of these is “false” but each an authentic expression of a kind of extreme religious fervor.

Henry, you make the point that Harry Potter fans do not enact violence―strap explosives to themselves and blow themselves up―for what they believe.  In contrast, you observe that “religion is for keeps” and not playful the way fandom is. Yes, and no. To some, it is and to many others, it is definitely not. Is Unitarianism “for keeps” in the sense you mean?  A playful marketing meme for the Episcopal Church features the hip-looking biologist/oceanographer presiding Episcopal Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori standing next to ad copy that invites: “Don’t believe all that crap? Neither do we.”  Plenty of multireligious people find that one religion is not simply “for keeps” and so they identify with multiple practices, philosophies, narratives, traditions, and sacred symbol systems, often testing out and playing with a variety of customized combinations. Self-identified “Hinjews” or “Jewbus” are examples of this kind of exploration and experimentation.

The study of “lived religion” shows us that even when people remain self-identified with one religious identity, they still create and “mod” their religious worlds, adapting the tools and resources within them to meet new needs, “playing with religion” and trying out new possibilities. This is precisely one of the reasons Henry’s theorizing of “participatory culture” is so fascinating to the cultural study of religion because “prosuming” and remix is alive and well in religious contexts. Many religions in various forms are open to revisable data and creative interpretations, embracing the work of innovative figures. The impressive number of variations [feminist, gay, environmental, social justice, multi-faith, hip-hop, vegetarian, humanist, DYI, and even comic] of the Passover Haggadah are exemplary of this protean quality to religion and willingness to “play” with form and content. Check out also Denver-based House of All Sinners and Saints-founder Lutheran Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber’s provocative online video shorts, in which she offers a unique spin to questions like “Why You Should Forgive Assholes”, as she also “updates” the Beatitudes to include things like, “Blessed are those without documentation,” “Blessed are the sex workers,” “Blessed are the closeted,” and “Blessed are the kind-hearted NFL players” [the ones taking a knee]. Rachel Wagner and other scholars of religion and digital gaming have studied the ways in which gamers “play with religion” in the course of digital gaming.  See, for instance, Heidi Campbell and Greg Grieve’s anthology, Playing with Religion in Digital Games; Craig Detweiler and Chris Hansen’s Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games With God; and Nikki Bado-Fralick and Rebecca Sachs-Norris, eds., Toying With God: The World of Religious Games and Dolls. There is also a much broader literature on the study of “religion and play,” sacred clowns, holy fools, ritual play, comedy and playfulness, that deals with religion in its many and varied ludic dimensions. [See also Selva Raj and Corinne Dempsey’s anthology on religion and play in South Asian religions.]

On the other hand, what do we make of the violence of stalking fans who shoot celebrities, break into their homes, or attempt to do them other bodily harm? Fans for whom their fandom is not “ludic” but “is for keeps” in ways that are quite scary and destructive? What of Tori Amos’s famous autobiographical song, “Me and a Gun,” about a fan who gave her a lift home after a performance, only to trap her in his car and rape her at gunpoint? John Hinkley, Jr’s obsessive fixation with Jodie Foster that played out with him shooting then-President Ronald Reagan? These fans might be dismissed as “lone wolves,” who suffer from mental illness, but that courtesy is often not reciprocally extended to other violent “lone wolves” who suffer mental illness, who end up being portrayed as representative of entire ethnic and religious groups.  And one might argue that neo-Nazism, the KKK, and other white nationalist and militia groups are “fandoms” of a sort, involved in collective group violence and complete with their own sorts of “cosplay.” Sarah Banet-Weiser’s work points to online misogynist antifandoms that collectively visit violence upon women and terrorize them.

I would offer that, just as with “religion”―a spectrum of social activity that is contextually defined with particular social interests and investments at stake―both ludic and violent dimensions are present. I am appreciative that you bring up these points, though, because they echo many of the assumptions I hear made by media scholars when attempting to discuss religion in scholarly exchanges. Reciprocally, I likely made you and others cringe by bringing up the hackneyed SNL “Trekkies” sketch (Sorry!), even if I did substitute Trump for Shatner.  More reason, though, to have these conversations and to keep having them. Onward!

 

Diane:

Thank you Sarah! My fingers began itching when I read Henry’s distinction between religion and fandoms, but the argument I would have made was aptly presented in your last post. Since you elegantly covered the intellectual side of it, I would only add that, as Henry suggested initially, a lot of one’s notions about what religion is and is not stem from our personal stories. My personal experience of religion is “liberal” Judaism salted with forays into Unitarianism and Buddhism. On a gut level, I “know” religion as free, open, inclusive, non-dogmatic, political-progressive, playful, and similarly positive affirmations of human possibility. The supernatural? At 14 when I asked my rabbi about God, he said it was a force like magnetism. (I was too stunned to ask a follow-up question, and my subsequent trajectory can be construed as an attempt to decide whether or not I agree.)

As a journalist and as a scholar, I “know” intellectually that religions can incite believers to commit acts of atrocity--as well as to eschew cheeseburgers, shoes and, sadly, civility--but, that’s not my norm. Perhaps for Henry as well as other scholars who rush to say they are not “religious,” the opposite is true. Besides personal experiences, such as “evangelical PTSD,” the news media is largely responsible for this warped notion of religion. In the 1980s, when evangelicals, televangelists, and the Religious Right burst on the scene, legacy news organizations took note. The groups had taken credit for electing Ronald Reagan, they were new and different, and their leaders gave good sound bite. When they spoke to reporters, they claimed to represent “real” religion-- Bible-believing, God-fearing, clean-living Christianity uncorrupted by humanism, secularism, or an Ivy League education. (The problem actually goes back a lot further, see Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s wonderful book about the Prophet Matthias, https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Matthias-Salvation-19th-Century-America/dp/0199892490/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535392332&sr=1-1&keywords=matthias an early 19th century example of how the news media trivializes and sensationalizes religion. Or if you really want to dig down, many of the essays in my collection on American religion and the news media make similar points https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Religion-American-Handbooks-2012-09-06/dp/B01K0T3P5W/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535392599&sr=1-1&keywords=OUP+American+news+media+and+religion. )

Repetition leads to normalization, and after a time many Americans likely did believe that true religion was conservative religion. The news media presented few alternatives, and when journalists did cover religious moderates it was usually to report that they were dying out or locked in internecine battles over gay ordination and same-sex marriage. Bottom line: For 30-plus years, we’ve lived in a media environment that portrays real, authentic religion as extremist, close-minded, and sometimes lethal. And, as I write this, I realize that many religion scholars, especially those seeking to engage broader publics, are in an uphill struggle to recover the word “religion.”

But religion is rarely if ever just about religion. It’s also about politics and culture. Sarah and Henry’s discussions of Trump bring this to mind: are his evangelical followers participants in a religion or fandom? Or has fandom elided into religiosity as writer Jeff Sharlet suggested in a 2016  New York Times Magazine piece https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/17/magazine/donald-trump-american-preacher.html. Pope Francis is the flip side of this dynamic; his religiosity seems to have slid into fandom. Unlike Trump, Francis does not engender deep, unquestioning loyalty and devotion. Maybe religion has become so politicized that its worldly stakes--Trump’s MAGA promises--are more inspiring than Francis’ concern with eternity.

Here’s the nub of Henry’s argument: Fandom serves many of (though not all of) the functions religion and faith-based organizations perform for their believers, but is it enough to reduce religion to its functions? Or do we need to ask, say, about the difference between expressions of social and cultural identity or shared meaning or ethical values on the one hand and spiritual beliefs on the other? We are certainly not turning to fandom here for an expression of what happens to us after we die or whether there may be divine forces influencing the events of our lives.

I don’t think I am reducing religion to its functions any more than I am doing that to fandom. Both work functionally and substantively, and the two are intertwined. Systems succeed at a functional level because they offer substance--motivating rationales, specifically meaning, purpose and identity. When systems don’t provide meaningful rationales, their functionality is useless. That’s why so many Americans are turned off by traditional religions, but seek out cultural products that speak to their ethical questions and spiritual concerns. Are the 70 percent of Americans who are not evangelicals worried about what happens when they die and whether divine forces are influencing their lives? Maybe. But I think many are more interested in how to live meaningfully here and now. That’s why mindfulness programs are popular, why some Beyonce’s fans are investigating Oshun, and why Westworld became a social media sensation.  

Why is it that I--and maybe Sarah--are willing to totally deconstruct the notion of religion, but Henry is insisting on some form of essentialism?

Henry: Short answer, Diane, is that we are pushing against some of my own articles of faith here. I am, for the moment, agnostic on the prospect of “totally deconstructing the notion of religion”; I am more open to this possibility than when we began but you have not yet won a convert. You guys have had more time to work through the conceptual shifts you are proposing than I have. It’s core to your field and has been historically peripheral to mine.  For me, the distinction between fandom and religion does necessary work. But I am learning so much by trying to work through these issues together, and it is a good preview of what I hope the series as a whole will accomplish. We have much to learn from each other around shared concepts, such as meaning, affiliation, affect, aspiration, participation, fellowship, etc., which do not necessarily require us to resolve the definition of religion and its relationship to fandom.

Your responses to my suggestion that religion is more apt to lead to violence than fandom seem fair enough. I would distinguish between individual pathologies of specific fan stalkers and whole religious cultures that have turned to violence in the name of their faith. But, you are right to note that fandom does have its zealots too. And if we are talking about playing for keeps, we need to keep in mind the phenomenon that I most often see described as “toxic fandom” -- that is, the gender and culture wars within fandom which in extreme cases are resulting in threats of rape and other forms of harassment. Here, we are looking at collective forms of zealotry within fandom, though we still have much work to do to sort out myths from realities where some of this online behavior is concerned.

I certainly did not mean to imply that I saw religion as an exclusively conservative force, though I agree that is a common stereotype. This is why I referenced my own experiences with progressive forms of the Southern Baptist tradition. My embrace of reader-response theory is probably a direct outgrowth of the concept of the “fellowship of the believer.” I could also have noted how important black ministers from the civil rights movement were in shaping my political commitments growing up in the segregated South. And I have a great respect for the role faith played in my family, which tended to embrace a New Testament theology based on loving embrace rather than an Old Testament one based in fire and brimstone. My mother often sang “Jesus Loves Me” from the church choir. We might challenge some of its formulations of race, but the core idea that “all the little children of the world”  are “precious in His sight” was deeply felt and potentially progressive in the segregated context we were living. There was no hate in her religion, though her Pastor high-jacked her funeral for a “moral majority” style message. My relations to all of this is conflicted: I value the role of faith in our culture, but perhaps, like an immigrant who remains loosely connected to a diaspora, there’s some lag time in my mental image of the mother country from which I sprang. Like other immigrants, there are reasons why I felt I had to leave, but also much love and respect for my cultural roots and some nostalgia for what it was like to grow up in such a community.

I am trying to ask questions that I think other media and cultural studies people might need answered as we prepare the ground for the larger conversation series. I get the value of religious studies having the broadest possible definition of religion to describe the contemporary search for spirituality. But you are still operating in the context of a field of religious studies, which means there still must be some definition (however expansive) of what counts as religion and what doesn’t. I am trying to better understand where you draw those lines. I am prepared to accept that there are blurry boundaries here (your Beyonce example illustrates this) but are you really arguing that all culture is religion and vice-versa?

Sarah: Here is the video that I show my “Theories of Religion” undergraduate class. It is really pretty good!  

 

Henry: Yes, that is helpful in understanding the range of meanings religion might have in your field, and clarifying why it is so hard to nail down this concept even for the purposes of discussion. I suspect we are not the only cluster of conversants who are going to stumble around this issue.

Diane: Sarah, that is a great video! Thanks. Henry, will be working on conversion scenarios.I am curious to see if other conversations repeat our concerns.

Sarah McFarland Taylor is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture at Northwestern University. She is the award-winning author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology(Harvard, 2008) and currently a candidate for an advanced degree in Media History, Philosophy, and Criticism from the School of Media Studies at The New School for Public Engagement. Her latest book, Ecopiety: Media, Green Virtue, and the Storied Earth, is forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019. 

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She is the author of Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army(Harvard, 1999), Faith in the Market: Religion and Urban Commercial Culture (Rutgers, 2003) and Small Screen, Picture: Lived Religion and Television (Baylor, 2009). 

Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation Series: Henry Jenkins, Sarah McFarland Taylor and Diane Winston (Part One)

Henry Jenkins:

A few years back, my USC colleague Diane Winston invited me to participate in a panel at a religious studies conference which was intended to address links between my work on participatory culture and the study of popular religion. My first response was that I had not consciously made any contributions in this space. This is not quite true since I do specifically address the Christian discernment movement in Convergence Culture, but only for a few pages. But I discovered that there were many young scholars working in the study of popular religion who were drawing on conceptual models developed in cultural studies -- and in particular, in fandom studies and transmedia studies -- and expanding them in exciting new directions. Yet, this exchange is largely one-directional: many in fandom studies, say, are apt to find themselves in the same position I was, not realizing what we might learn by engaging more actively with this work. And that’s why I decided to work with Diane Winston and Sarah McFarland Taylor to bring together this extended conversation series for my blog.  

 

As I do so, I need to perhaps modify some of my past statements about the relationship between fandom and religion.  I can’t tell you how many times through the years reporters and students have asked me about whether fandom doesn’t just function as a religion for a more secular time. I have remained skeptical. For one thing, as I discussed in Textual Poachers, the root word for fan dates back to the ancient world -- “worshippers of the Fain” -- with fanatics understood as engaged in practices of false worship and more broadly, excessive zeal. Both of those associations carry dangers for thinking about fans because of the ways popular stereotypes see fans as “taking things too far” and being unable to separate fantasy from reality.

 

Yes, we can draw some comparisons to religion in terms of bringing relatively diverse groups of people together around shared ethical values, shared narratives, and shared practices (rituals?) but there are any number of other institutions in a well functioning society which serve these same functions (labor unions or political parties come to mind) without bringing with them associations with faith or worship.  Certainly we see churches embrace fandom as a means of outreach and fellowship, especially targeting younger congregants. And we can look at the success of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which uses interpretive tools from theology to re-examine J.K. Rowling’s fantasy texts as illustrating points of contact between the two.

Some of my resistance has to do with my own experience of religion. I was raised a Southern Baptist, the son and grandson of Baptist deacons, and so my template for thinking about religion was shaped by Christian fundamentalism. In some ways, being a Baptist was an ideal entry point to thinking about fandom, since in theory, the “believer” has a direct relationship with God rather than communicating through a church hierarchy and the “believer” is free to interpret the Bible on their own terms based on that communication, much as fans assert their own rights to play around with popular texts in whatever way they feel inspired. As a youth growing up in Georgia, I was particularly inspired by Clarence Jordan, the white minister who formed a multiracial, progressive community, Koinonia Farms, in rural Georgia in the 1940s, wrote The Cottonpatch Gospels, and helped to establish Habitat for Humanity. As I matured, I found my religious home at Northside Baptist Church, which also counted Jimmy Carter -- then, a post-president -- as a member.

 

But, along the way, I lived through a purge of progressive Baptists in the 1970s and 1980s as the far right took over the denominational organizations and seminaries and pushed out those who did not follow the “moral majority” party line. In those years, I met plenty of “one true wayers” --  people for whom there was only one possible interpretation and that was the most literal-minded (and humor-less) one possible. People I cared about, people who represented the things I believed in, were denounced and driven from my parents’ church. In the end, I lost faith.

And I will admit that this trauma has colored how I have thought about the religion analogy for fandom: there are certainly “one true way” types in fandom but its norms encourage much more freedom and openness; fans’ relationship to texts are not grounded in faith -- at least not in the literal-minded ways that fundamentalist are; religions are exclusive (with some notable exceptions) but I have always stressed the “nomadic” or “promiscuous” nature of fans who maintain affinities with multiple texts at the same time and many fans are devotely religious and understand that faith as very different from what they feel towards their fan objects.

Yet, what I learned in my discussions with Taylor, Nelson and others, was that the study of popular religion has developed more nuanced tools for talking about issues of belief, affinity, affect, and loyalty as they relate to faith-based communities and their practices. They are less interested in seeing fandom as a religion than they are in seeing how religion might be understood in the contemporary era as more like fandom. This is especially true as it relates to a more secularized world where many create syncretic religions, mixing and matching practices from different spiritual traditions, redefining them as resources through which to make sense of their own spiritual needs and their own identities, where many practice religion without formal links to particular religious institutions, and where religion gets fused with other ways of expressing their identities and social affiliations. It may be that we need a similar set of conceptual models to think about popular religion and fandom/participatory culture at the current moment, even if older models of religion may distort our understanding of fandom. I still have much to learn from this research, but I have found my own thinking starting to evolve in response to my first encounters.

Beyond this, the study of popular religion has been willing to take seriously and to more intimately engage with conservative groups than the Cultural Studies tradition has been able or willing to do.  The complaint is often that we assume that audiences or subcultures are progressive and yet, clearly, many Americans and around the world are conservative in their core beliefs and values. Since the election, my research team has been conducting workshops in red states (such as Idaho, Arkansas, and Kentucky), trying to get a better sense of where America is at today. And as we do this work, I find myself wanting to know more about how religion in these contexts helps to shape the way people think about democratic participation and social change. Our research group has at the same time done work in Mosques with a case study of the political lives of American Muslims a central dimension of our collective book, By Any Media Necessary. Here, again, we need to develop a better understanding of the ways religion both constrains and enables youth to find their voice in the contemporary struggles against Islamophobia.  And beyond all of this, I have been intrigued by what scholars of popular religion have shown us about progressive religious groups, whether the sanctuary movement or the Christian conservation movement, or going back further, the role of the black church in civil rights struggles across the 20th century. For all of those reasons, and many more, those of us in cultural studies need to develop a deeper understanding of contemporary research on faith-based communities and their cultural practices.

In this series, we have tried to pair participants who are working on related topics, looking for common ground, as well as disciplinary differences, and we have created a structure which allows participants to not only showcase their work but also ask each other questions and hammer out differences. I can’t wait to see what emerges here.

 

Sarah McFarland Taylor:

First, I want to thank you for organizing this “matchmaking” project between Religious Studies and Media Studies and inviting me to participate. Just to provide a bit of background for what brings me to this discussion, I should mention that encountering Henry’s work on media and popular culture precipitated a major shift in me as a religion scholar. When I first read Henry’s book Convergence Culture, I was struck at how much productive correspondence there was between Henry’s discussion of world building, participatory culture, transmedia storytelling, affinity spaces for learning, spreadability, and the various ways we discuss similar dynamics in the cultural study of religion. For instance, we study the mechanisms of worldview formation, cosmologies and cosmogonies, the making, unmaking, and remaking of religious worlds, the telling of religious narratives across art, music, material culture, literature, bodies, costuming and dress, technology, the dynamics of “spreadability” in evangelizing those religious narratives within the “spiritual marketplace,” patterns of culture, and so forth. After reading Henry’s work, I began to think of religions as constituting in many ways “media franchises” that engage in the telling of religious narratives across multiple platforms, not simply repeating the narrative but extending it through the use of varied mediums, strategically adding dimensions to it to make it more “spreadable” and to engender “fan” following and participation in the story. I now assign Henry’s work in my graduate-level contemporary theories of religion seminar, along with the work of core sociologists, anthropologists, and other cultural theorists that are useful tools for us when examining phenomena associated with religion. It was also in reading Henry’s work that it “clicked” for me that if you are not studying media, you are not studying religion. The converse is not true, but religion is always historically entangled with media, co-constituted with media, expressed through media, in many cases drives the development of media innovation and technology, and religion is always a media system. We might also think of some religions as “media ecologies.” A great example of this is the LDS church, which is very much its own media ecology. It was this realization about the integral relationship between religion and media, induced by Henry’s work, that set me on a course to return to graduate school in mid-career for an additional advanced degree in media studies.  It also prompted me to invite Henry to a special session on his work at the American Academy of Religion in San Diego to discuss with a wider audience of religion scholars how his theories of media and participatory culture might inform our thinking about the cultural study of religion. This continues as an open question, so it is a great pleasure to continue the conversation in this setting and format.

 

On the specific theme of “fandom” taken up by Henry’s current blog series, I want to begin with the figure of William Shatner as a way into talking about Trump fandom. In the Trump era, when pundits shake their heads daily and puzzle about Trump’s continued devoted evangelical Christian following in the wake of so many moral transgressions committed both during his campaign and his presidency, I often think of the classic “Trekkies” [S12, E8, 1986] sketch from Saturday Night Live. As readers may or may not recall, the sketch features the actor William Shatner, who plays the lead role of Captain Kirk in the science fiction television series, Star Trek. Shatner has been contracted to speak at a Star Trek fan convention, and when he is repeatedly barraged with highly specific questions from fans about obsessive trivia from series episodes, he finally loses it and shouts at them to “Get a Life!” Shatner is insulting and singles out one Trekkie, demanding to know if he has ever kissed a girl [he hasn’t]. Even though they have raised him up to the stature he now enjoys and have ensured his livelihood, he demeans and mocks everything the fans hold dear―all the things they have organized their lives around―in what appears to be an unforgivable offense. After a strict talking to from the conference manager about the terms of his contract and compensation, Shatner quickly backpedals and explains to the fans that actually he did not mean anything of what he just said―he was merely recreating the “evil Kirk” from “The Enemy Within” [Season 1, episode 5]. The fans nod enthusiastically as if they knew it all along and it all makes sense. In the study of religion, borrowing from sociologist Peter Berger, we would say that Shatner has effectively reinforced the believers’ “plausibility structures.”  That is, even when confronted with directly contrary data, they are able to maintain their worldview and still make it make sense. Here is one such area of porousness and family resemblances between fandoms and the followings of religious leaders. To be clear, SNL’s sketch is of course poking fun, and I want to take cognizance of Henry’s point that too often fans are portrayed as failing to discern reality from fiction. But the Shatner sketch does provide a useful image from which we might examine contemporary devotional behavior among publics toward idolized figures of political and religious authority no matter what “contrary data” might be presented.

This past year, I attended a fascinating conference on media, politics, and populism at Northwestern University, where I teach. A smart, insightful presentation was delivered on Donald Trump and his populist following, but nowhere was religion mentioned when discussing his seemingly “Teflon” appeal to his devoted base. This conspicuous absence of religion in the discussion of politics and media is not an unusual lacuna. Religion and media scholar Stewart Hoover, who co-founded the International Society for the Study of Media, Religion, and Culture, tells a great story about attending sessions on the extremist group ISIS at both the International Communication Association (ICA) and at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in the same year. When discussing ISIS, the ICA scholars never once mentioned religion. In turn, the AAR scholars discussed ISIS and never once mentioned media. Back at the Northwestern conference, as the only religion scholar in the room, I raised my hand during discussion and pointed out what a potent role Trump’s evangelical aesthetics, whether inadvertent or effected, play in cultivating and solidifying his devoted following. Some months after the Northwestern conference, I gave a presentation at ICA on the visual rhetoric of Trump’s hair and demonstrated, accompanied by numerous visual examples, how Trump’s hair “reads” within evangelical aesthetics as faith healer/mega-preacher/televangelist hair. His extemporaneous speaking style, his emotive gestures and performativity, his unbuttoned overplus of emotion, including anger, all evoke a tremendous familiarity and recognizability to conservative evangelicals. Even the sex scandals, the mistresses, the porn stars, the tax problems, the lawsuits, the fraud charges, the federal investigation of misconduct, are all reminiscent of countless high-profile mega-preacher televangelists who have gone to jail and yet still maintain a loyal following from the faithful. Convicted felon Rev. James “Jim” Bakker (formerly of the Jim and Tammy Bakker TV preaching duo), who is one of the preachers currently involved in promoting the online “POTUS Shield” digital prayer project [http://www.potusshield.org/] to protect Donald Trump against “spiritual warfare” is a prime example.  Bakker faced public scandal for having paid hush money to his secretary Jessica Hahn to keep her quiet about his allegedly raping her and was also convicted on federal fraud charges in relation to donation solicitation for his media ministry and in relation to investments in his “Heritage USA” evangelical theme park. Now out of jail, Bakker is back on television, and his devoted flock continue to adore him, seek out his religious authority, and send him more money. Where is the “plausibility structure” in this story that makes Bakker a hero even after his moral failings, conviction, and jail time? The prosecution of Bakker and his imprisonment merely testify to his followers of the efficacy of his preaching and ministry.  Like Trump, Bakker would not have “attracted” investigation or prosecution/persecution if he were not effective in riling “the Enemy” [Satan] and thus attracting “spiritual warfare” to himself by very virtue of his success in doing God’s work. The more Mueller investigates and tightens the noose around Trump’s neck, the more it provides testimony to the faithful of the President’s efficacy in carrying out God’s plan. Were the President not being used as an effective instrument of God, he would simply remain under the radar and not elicit Satan’s attacks.  Of course not all evangelicals subscribe to belief in spiritual warfare, but as I documented in my ICA presentation, it has become more mainstreamed among evangelicals than one might think. A bumper crop of self-help, prayer books, novels, online videos, radio and television preaching, and the inclusion of spiritual warfare in evangelical popular culture narratives has taken what was previously a fairly marginal belief and given it much more centrality and acceptance.

Here is where I also have a related theory about the nature and persistence of Trump’s fandom among his evangelical base that it would be useful to “bounce off” some media theorists. Since reading about “predictive saccades” in one of my graduate media seminars, I cannot shake the sense that the phenomenon of “saccades” might be playing an important part in how Trump’s religious fans view him. French author Anais Nin is often quoted as saying “We see things not as they are; we see them as we are,” but the actual mechanics of perception are considerably more complicated.  When our eyes look at something, we do so selectively, but also by filling in any gaps in visual input. As E.H. Gombrich explains in Art and Illusion, “Visual perception is not a passive recording of stimulus material but a concern of the mind . . . Perception involves problem solving” (1960:172). Rapid movements of our eyes between different points of fixation, which are called “saccades,” send a jumpy input of images to our brains, often interspersed by seconds of blur from movement or darkness caused by blinks. To correct for these disruptions, our brain synthesizes, fills in, and smooths these images at a rate of one twentieth of a second. This is the same rate we use for “vision persistence,” the process we use to fill in the gaps between the frames of a film so that we see a continuous story without interruption and without actually perceiving the frames. Social and cultural theorists may talk about reality as a “social construction” (P. Berger and Luckman 1966), but Arthur Asa Berger points out that in a very literal physiological sense, “we have to construct the world we see” (A. Berger 2015: 182-183).  

So, when devout conservative evangelicals hear about Trump’s affairs with porn stars and paying these women hush money, yes, this may well be read as simply evidence of “spiritual warfare” against a leader, triggered by his actually making “headway” doing God’s work. But what are his evangelicals fans also “filling in” in order to “solve the problem” that is Trump and make it no problem at all? It occurs to me that those schooled in literalistic readings of religious texts may also be concomitantly highly practiced in inserting what is needed to maintain continuous “vision persistence” when dealing with inconsistencies in text, much in the way gaps are “filled in” to account for the moral failings of charismatic religious leaders. In the SNL “Trekkies” sketch, the fans quickly fill in missing data that would make Shatner’s offensive rant make sense, and they are thus able to create a continuous narrative that satisfies a desire for cohesion. Are we seeing a similar process taking place with the President?

The function of “predictive saccades” in our visual perception actually helps us to anticipate the movements and variations of different objects so that our eyes move in a spatially predictive manner, depending on what we think or expect we’ll see.  Looking at the persistence and loyalty of Trump’s evangelical fanbase, makes me wonder if a similar kind of “predictive saccades” dynamic is at work in which it simply does not matter what Trump does or says.  He visually “reads” as tribal, as familiar, as “one of ours,” and as a salvific tool of God, to his fanbase, and then the gaps or missing frames are merely filled in. Media pundits may be perplexed at why Christians continue passionately to support such a seemingly un-Christian figure, but in fact, he fits quite neatly into the “predictive saccades” and mechanisms of his evangelical fandom’s “vision persistence”―like a lock and key mechanism.  It would be very interesting, though, to get a fandom studies perspective on this theory.

 

Diane Winston:

 

After seeing Juliet, Naked, an adaptation of Nick Hornsby’s 2009 novel, I wanted to talk about it with Henry Jenkins, my colleague at USC. Duncan, one of the film’s main characters, is a media studies professor at a small English university. Duncan enjoys lecturing on The Wire and other contemporary films and television series, but his true passion is Tucker Crowe, an American alt-rocker, who mysteriously disappeared after walking out in the middle of a gig 25 years earlier.

Duncan is the quintessential, obsessive fan. On the Tucker Crowe website he created, he live streams the latest “news” of Tucker’s whereabouts, updates on new caches of old material, and speculation about his idol’s love life. Duncan visits the site from his man-cave, a basement shrine bursting with Tucker Crowe posters and memorabilia. In touch with a small community of like-minded fans, Duncan trades daily emails on the missing singer-songwriter, reverentially re-visiting a musical catalogue that hasn’t changed in more than two decades.

A post-modern academic, Duncan would never, ever call himself a religious man. But his fandom—centered on a god-like figure who is everpresent in his absence—has many earmarks of a religion: rituals, reverence, community and authority figures (Duncan himself). The group even believes in a Second Coming, which seems imminent when Duncan receives a bootleg recording of acoustic demos for Juliet, Crowe’s seminal album.

Duncan is more Gen X than millennial, but the shift from mainstream religious affiliation to spiritual seeking in cultural streams has affected more than just today’s much-hyped, coming of age generation. Traditional religions no longer work for many worldwide and while I am not writing off billions of believers, I do wonder how those who left churches, temples, synagogues and mosques find the wonder, hope and joy to get out of bed every morning. (I am not suggesting that traditional religions are the only site of meaning, purpose and identity, but that has been their stock in trade for millennia.) In my own work on television and religion/spiritualty/ethics https://www.amazon.com/Small-Screen-Big-Picture-Television/dp/1602581851/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535056030&sr=1-1&keywords=diane+winston, I have come to appreciate how fictional storytelling can supply narratives that elicit loyalty, inspiration and empowerment—much the same as some sacred texts do. And watching Duncan, I was struck by how his fandom provided meaning, purpose and identity to an otherwise undistinguished life.

This raises a key question: In an era of religious indifference and disaffiliation might (some) cultural products evoke deeper devotion (from some fans) than traditional religions do from (some/many) followers? I haven't met many church-goers who build shrines in their homes, much less visit them daily to commune with their “god” and fellow believers. Yes, Duncan is a fictional character, but in an era of cosplay, comi-cons, podcasts and fan-fiction, would he be considered  an atypical fan? Haven't Trekkies (Star Trek), Dumbledore’s Army (Harry Potter) and Anonymous (inspired by V for Vendetta) demonstrated the strength, resilience and passionate embrace that cultural products can stir in (some/many) consumers?

That passionate embrace ignites my curiosity. What induces people to orient their lives around a set of beliefs? When I wrote about the Salvation Army https://www.amazon.com/Red-Hot-Righteous-Religion-Salvation-2000-10-02/dp/B01K2QFHZO/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535056267&sr=1-10, I wondered at the young women who gave up family, security and respectability to become soldiers for God.  Even if this made sense for some, given women’s limited options and opportunities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, why would a woman today want to wear an Army uniform, live in Army housing and subscribe to the all-encompassing Army rules and regulations? Orthodoxy, that is, a strict adherence to creeds, boggles and, yes, intrigues this mostly secular mind of mine.

Unlike Henry, I have no personal experience of deep religious commitment. Secular Jews, my parents enjoyed a Christmas tree until I asked them to please stop. I went to Brandeis, not much of a stretch after growing up on Manhattan’s West Side, and fell in with zealous Catholics. Their faith fascinated me as did the avid Zionism of classmates who moved to Israel and the “crazy wisdom” of those who dropped out to follow Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. My personal engagement with religion is nine-tenths intellectual curiosity and 10 percent Shabbat dinners, High Holiday services and bouts of meditation. The deep commitments of the Catholics, Jews and Buddhists I knew in college is nothing like the idiosyncratic attachment that holds me (and many others) to nominal attachments with our birth faiths. To my mostly-secular eyes, those deep commitments seem akin to fanaticism, and I would argue that, etymologically-speaking,  true believers are the real fans.

I’ve come full circle here so will put in a bid for what interests me most in the conversation that Henry, Sarah and I have proposed. Scholars of religion are ever more conflicted about exactly what it is we study. Some of us are interested in traditional religions; others curious about new religious movements, and still others wondering about the religiosity of cultural products. “How do you define religion for your students?” I asked a colleague who is a philosopher of religion. Her answer, “Personal conviction.” If you can accept that, then the line between our disciplines grows ever more blurred and thinking together about shared terms and overlapping ideas is useful. I would argue that Henry’s fans are, pound for pound, more fanatical about their favorite films, TV shows and books than many church-goers are about their denominations.

Toward the end of Juliet, Naked, Duncan has dinner with Tucker Crowe. Crowe has emerged from his self- imposed isolation and become friends with Annie, Duncan’s ex-girlfriend, who had disliked Crowe’s music almost as much as she resented Duncan’s obsession with the faded rock star. During the meal, Crowe and Duncan argue about the meaning of Crowe’s music. Crowe says that since he wrote the songs, he is the authority on them, but Duncan says once the songs are public, their interpretation belongs to the fans. The music has a life of its own, which exceeds the creator’s grasp. It’s not unlike an updated version of the argument at the heart of “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky’s tale of the Church that no longer recognizes the teachings of the real Jesus.

While the credits roll at the movie’s end, Duncan once again is live streaming on the Crowe website. Tucker Crowe has just released a new album, updating the canon after all this time. But Duncan is having none of it. Instead of Crowe’s familiar laments about heartbreak and betrayal, the new songs are happy paeans to childhood, animals and grown-up relationships—including his with Annie. Duncan rails about the new material, but his faith is unshaken. His Tucker Crowe lives. Fandom, like so many other religions, has a life of its own.

Sarah McFarland Taylor is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture at Northwestern University. She is the award-winning author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology(Harvard, 2008) and currently a candidate for an advanced degree in Media History, Philosophy, and Criticism from the School of Media Studies at The New School for Public Engagement. Her latest book, Ecopiety: Media, Green Virtue, and the Storied Earth, is forthcoming from NYU Press in 2019. 

Diane Winston holds the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. A national authority on religion and the media, her expertise includes religion, politics and the news media as well as religion and the entertainment media. A journalist and a scholar, Winston’s current research interests are media coverage of Islam, religion and new media, and the place of religion in American identity. She is the author of Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army(Harvard, 1999), Faith in the Market: Religion and Urban Commercial Culture (Rutgers, 2003) and Small Screen, Picture: Lived Religion and Television (Baylor, 2009). 

 

Coming Soon: Diane Winston will be our guest on this week's episode of How Do You Like It So Far? discussing her recent book on religion and reality television.

How Do You Like It So Far? (Season Two): Science Fiction as a Mode of Thought

 

Our podcast returns after its summer hiatus with an episode focused on science fiction as a way of understanding and reimagining the world. We reassembled a panel of science fiction scholars fresh from the World Science Fiction Convention (in San Jose) and eager to dig deeper into the history of the genre, its social and political impact, and in particular, the forms of thought which were enabled and sustained by the emergence of speculative fiction. Our guests are: Michael Saler, author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality; Sherryl Vint, author of Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed; and Minsoo Kang, author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. 

Cheryl mentions the film General Motors produced for the 1939 World's Fair.

‘La Taverne des Patriotes’: The Power of Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics—A Comparative Study of the French and U.S. Alt-Right Movements, Part Three

By Margaux Gatty

—————

5. Formal and Informal Politics

One question this raises  is the relationship that emerged between informal/participatory politics and the more institutionalized dimensions of the campaign. We may never know what kinds of collaboration took place here, but I was curious to see if the links were ever publicly acknowledged.

Frog.jpg

Interestingly, whilst the French and German extreme right virtual communities take the shape of a “star” (in social network language) that allows for fast and efficient communication and  coordination, the U.S. appears as a totally “decentralized structure” with many isolated nodes (Caiani, 2015). Yet the U.S. Alt-Right was more successful in creating a relationship between its informal/participatory politics and institutionalized politics than the French Alt-Right was. Indeed, whilst a semi-connection was made and publicly acknowledged between Trump and the U.S. Alt-Right during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign (although how far was the relationship “real” remains unknown), the French Alt-Right network who supposedly has efficient communication and coordination, did indeed have a strong impact on the elections, but Marine Le Pen said several times they were completely detached from her campaign and were acting of their own accord. Yet they were called Marine Le Pen’s “internet army” by journalists,  the digital call to arms that came shortly in the lead up to the 2017 French presidential election (Scott, 2017). What does it mean for interaction between informal and formal politics in general? It shows that acknowledging these groups through the press, whether positively or negatively, and whether collaboration existed or not, is enough to give them power. Therefore, this puts in question the way a government and the media should deal with these groups. I will discuss further this notion of informal and formal politics in relation to ‘underground’ political groups in the next section, and whether these concepts are valid when applied to different political and cultural contexts.

6. Civic Imagination and Subcultural Knowledge

Civic imagination is the capacity to “imagine creative alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems. When we address the civic imagination, we are addressing the heart of our malleable societal norms” (Slack, 2015). The U.S. Alt-Right and the Patriots’ Tavern were the embodiment of the civic imagination. As I mentioned above, dissatisfied by the power the public media sphere held over political matters as important as the presidential election, the Alt-Right youth imagined an alternative sphere within the public sphere to design new solutions to what they thought was a social and political problem.

This example was “civic,” according to Spinoza, because it used collective imagination (Cornell and Seely, 2017). Yet I would not go as far as to call it democratic because whilst it sought to imagine better, it did not seek out the widest engagement possible with citizens, remaining highly secretive in its logistics. Nonetheless, their use of “consolidated images, symbols, stories” allowed the groups’ participants to “materialize themselves and imagine their place in the world” (Cornell and Seely, 2017) collectively and to imagine and design a new political and social future. 

In the case of both the U.S. and French Alt-Rights, disrupting people’s everyday life was essential to their cause. But it had to be done with the use of authenticity and cultural acupuncture just like it was done by Andrew Slacks’ Harry Potter Alliance and Hunger Games examples. In the case of the Patriots’ Tavern, they needed to be authentically part of the gamer community to succeed just like the HPA and Hunger Games campaigns had to be authentically grounded into the fan community. It needed to speak their language and to understand all the cultural and political components embedded within that community. Thus, whilst the idea that this emerged from young gamers can make the movement seem superficial, it is not that at all. The apparent superficiality, for example, of the memes was actually a strength as colleagues at BBC would notice them but could not understand them—not because of language but because it was directed at young gamers of my brother’s generation Z.  Hence, the sometimes too layered references played in their favor to create “mystery” and spread “fake news” to discredit Marine Le Pen’s political opponents.

Spreading their engagement and message beyond the community turned out to be complex. Indeed, directly sharing the content would destroy the message. Therefore, as I mentioned earlier, the communication within the group was mostly bonding social capital, creating a “shared framework of meanings" among the members of a group rather than "allowing the group to find common ground with others” (Jenkins et al., 2016). But at the same time, their ability to act as a balance in the public sphere gave a space to the government’s critics, brought together the public’s diverse opinion in one conversation that overarched the Tavern’s platform itself. This is rather similar to the observations made by Robert Darnton in his work on the low-cost press and the figure of the pamphleteer. Indeed, just like a pamphlet (a booklet or leaflet containing information or arguments about a single subject) was used in equilibrium against newspaper during the French Revolution, La Taverne acted as the modern-day pamphlet, a blog of sorts against mass media, auto proclaiming itself as the check and balance on mass media for the duration of the election, thus exploiting the general public’s distrust in media to start a ‘conversation’. And in this sense, La Taverne did bridge social capital in its strict definition, but that is a reason for us to revisit the boundaries of the term considering its importance. Indeed, whilst the Tavern should have functioned as  antisocial capital because of its highly divisive message, they only functioned as such on their platform. But, outside of their platform, by creating a new alternative sphere within the public sphere, they seemed to have come close to bridging social capital in the public eye.

Their use of coded language such as memes to avoid government—and here mainstream media—was an interesting example in relation to the participatory power of the U.S. Alt-Right and the Patriots’ Tavern. Memes as coded language can surface from multiple subcultures as we saw with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and women’s memes on Twitter. The more memes circulate, the more media have to cover it and put it on the news agenda. And although most mainstream media did not trace back the memes or “fake news” to the platform, they reported on the numerous memes spread over Twitter through trolls and bot farms created by the Patriots’ Tavern or by the U.S. Alt-Right. To note here, the memes were not about simplifying the message. On the contrary, the memes were about using their voice and their subcultural fantasy to reach a broader range of people, and to be circulated on different media channels, whether the real meaning reached across or not.

A problem that surfaced on the platform was that Patriots’ Tavern would identify with virtual characters rather than real people. The platform’s participants would take on this new avatar identity as they dialogued to keep their identity private. It made them think about issues in sometimes nonrealistic ways (I am basing this on my observation of the platform as I was building an investigative piece for the BBC). That is an issue that has also surfaced with the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Alt-Right, and more specifically the Patriots’ Tavern, succeeded in creating a space that facilitated cultural reproduction (although it is hard to judge whether the urgency came from the platform itself or from the imminent elections). Nonetheless, in the midst of this urgency, stories were not being told and this group used it to their advantage and that was almost fatal to the French democracy and tainted the U.S. democracy.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, subcultural knowledge was used here to make it harder for outsiders to read what the Patriots’ Tavern was doing on the platform itself. The Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters struggled with this issue as a bug in their approach whereas it was seen as a feature from the point of view of the Patriots’ Tavern. This subcultural knowledge was part of the fantasy in this case—to be part of an underground, something hidden from public scrutiny, and the way this imagined community imagined itself. To understand why this “underground” culture worked better for the Patriots’ Tavern than the U.S. Alt-Right, I look next at the concept of “underground” politics in the French and U.S. political and cultural contexts.

France has a history of forming formal politics through informal ‘underground’ politics. In France, the context around underground politics is one of resistance during World War II, of France resisting the invader and protecting their country. To resist the German agents of the Gestapo, the French Resistance “developed codes, complex communication networks, and security structures to protect members and information” (Wilmoth Lerner, 2004). Most of these groups of resistance were formed by “political parties that the Nazi government had banned earlier” (Wilmoth Lerner, 2004). Hence, these groups were a mixture of informal and formal politics. This is very similar to the Patriots’ Tavern, although their codes are ingrained in the gaming subculture instead, as they are a mixture of young gamers but also members of small political parties and student unions (that are very politicized entities in France).  Hence, that would explain why the Patriots have this fantasy of remaining ‘underground’. It gives them the same fame as the French Resistance that, some say, saved France against the German invader.

Thus, the Patriots’ Tavern are able to portray themselves as the saviors of France. The fact that they remain underground gives them a certain legitimacy. Besides, being “underground” doesn’t necessarily imply that there is no public recognition. On the contrary, the Patriots’ Tavern had their fair share of media coverage. However, by remaining obscure and hiding their activities from the public eye, they made the public curious. Hence, the French public legitimized this underground culture because historically, “underground” movements very often sparked actions that have changed France forever, most of the time for the better. Indeed, it goes further than WW2. It goes back to the creation of the French Republic after the Revolution that started in taverns, from small underground communities.

I personally think that the existing disappointment in French institutionalized politics felt by French citizens comes from the fact that our politicians are too “public”, they haven’t “earned” the right to be there because they haven’t fought a silent battle to reach the top. This is why the youth took the matter in their own hands. Indeed, it wasn’t just the Alt-Right that was hosted on gamer platform Discord, but the far-left supporters of Mélenchon and they too had a great success in their campaign.  Clearly, there is a nostalgic undercurrent regarding “underground resistance”. This is also expressed by the number of student unions that plan strikes “underground” against the government, as it happened in the spring of 2018. By resisting the government by force, after silently planning their attacks, they are now able to call themselves politicians. And this blending of the formal and informal politics through the underground culture of political resistance is what truly characterize French politics and makes dealing with new movements of participatory politics so challenging and so different from the U.S. case.

On the other hand, for the U.S. the notion of “underground politics” is rather pejorative. It is a story of corruption as we are reminded of the Watergate scandal; a story of conspiracy theorists and their belief in the existence of a shadow government ruling the country, hidden from democratic institutions and scrutiny; a story of “underground” lobbyists which dictate the country’s politics and hold power over the democratically elected politicians. Hence, even when acknowledged in the public eye, and because of this notion of “underground politics”, the movement was immediately classified as negative and different from formal politics. It was almost not taken seriously, at least at first, whilst the French Alt-Right, and specifically the Patriots’ Tavern (and their underground use of gamer platforms and generally speaking cultural acupuncture) encouraged the public to admire them to some extent—just like some have admired geniuses, however evil they were, and have led them to power through that admiration alone.

The danger is that whilst the U.S. Alt-Right doesn’t have such legitimacy in the American public sphere—although it can be argued now that Trump is in power—the French version of the Alt-Right is ever more dangerous as it is “allowed” by the public to remain underground and infiltrate formal politics legitimately. Therefore, in the current unstable political environment, I believe it is essential to shed the light on this “underground politics” and the new practices of these emerging participatory politics movements.

Conclusion

Whilst these were disturbingly negative examples that, in the end, did not fully accomplish their ultimate goals, it proved that there is no such thing as so-called "slacktivism" in these countries,  especially among young people. On the contrary, these youngsters showed an impressive amount of political literacy, far more than the other groups of voters. Their power of bonding was impressive, although it proved challenging to travel beyond the gamers’ community. Yet they exerted thick civic participation and an innovative use of civic media that could be used for a “good” case in participatory politics. The case of the Patriots’ Tavern was particularly interesting because it implied that you can yield results without needing to bridge social capital or be present in a physical space in the traditional sense—contrary to what Zuckerman argued was necessary to spark social movements. This in turn has strong implications for future participatory politics movements and the way formal politics should interact with informal participatory politics, specifically in France, because whilst it technically doesn’t fall in the category of bridging social capital because the Patriots’ Tavern is “underground”, the concept of “bridging social capital” just does not apply to the political context of France, specifically its ‘underground’ context; nor do the concepts of informal and formal political engagement. Therefore, this essay shows that it is essential to apply several case studies to concepts as more and more similar movements emerge in order to know how official political agents and the media should engage with these new forms of participatory politics, according to multiple cultural and political contexts. It is ever more important because it concerns young people which represent the future, and that alone cannot be ignored.

References

 Baker K. (1990). ‘Public Opinion as Political Invention’ in Inventing the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Habermas J. (1989). Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Radical Imagination’, Truthout. Available at:

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‘La Taverne des Patriotes’: The Power of Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics—A Comparative Study of the French and U.S. Alt-Right Movements, Part Two

By Margaux Gatty

4. Third Spaces and Public Spheres

Next, I’d like to look at the 'tavern' metaphor, its implications and the way the concept gets discussed within the Patriots’ Tavern’s self-representation; how they understand it operating and what this means for the concepts of third space and public sphere when compared in the French and American contexts.

The first metaphor of the Tavern here is a reference to Gaul, which is arguably the ancestor of France as we know it today, and which inspires much of French culture. The term tavern here was specifically taken from the popular comic Astérix et Obélix, which also spawned several movies and an amusement park—referring to the “original” French in a show of strong patriotism. Indeed, Astérix and Obélix tells the story of French “origins”: in ancient France—Gaul—a group of villagers fight the Roman invader. This is in line with their self-representation as "more French" than the rest of the French citizens, and their strong refusal of any immigration policies that would benefit immigrants. It also shows that the group exists through its constant struggle. It tells a tale of regaining nationalism through the use of popular culture. Aside from that, Astérix and Obélix also provided useful material for memes that fit Zuckerman’s “cute cat theory” as they used the inoffensive material to convey offensive Alt-Right messages, as I  mentioned above. They also use many other pop culture reference from Pepe the Frog, Tintin, Pokemon, late queen Marie Antoinette, to famous paintings such as La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (one of the most symbolic painting of the French Republic). Some images are arguably more offensive than others and most were found on an image database shared by the French Alt-Right and started by the U.S. Alt-Right movement specifically. This database, still in use, is named ‘Pepe2France’ (Pepe from France) memes (Pepe2france, 2018). Below are a few examples:

 (Pepe2france, 2018)

(Pepe2france, 2018)

 (Pepe2france, 2018)

(Pepe2france, 2018)

 (This isn’t so clear here, but we can see Marine Le Pen’s face instead of the original la Marianne guiding the French People.)

(This isn’t so clear here, but we can see Marine Le Pen’s face instead of the original la Marianne guiding the French People.)

Taverns were also historically a third space or public sphere where political actions took place. The phrase “third spaces” derives from considering our homes to be the “first” places in our lives, and our work places the “second” (Oldenburg, 1997). Today, the third space extends the notion of the real and the virtual by suggesting a hybrid space that allows remote participants to engage in social relations with one another at a distance (Packer, 2014). This is exactly what is happening for the Patriots’ Tavern (and the U.S. Alt-Right). They called it a tavern because the platform allowed remote participants to engage at a distance in their “civic actions."

Third spaces foster political debate. They historically served as forums for political debate and discussion. And as third spaces disappear, so does political literacy in a country. Third spaces are entertaining, and the entertainment is provided by the people themselves (Oldenburg, 1997). Hence, the virtual Tavern is a new form of third space where political ‘debate’ is created. And no matter the good or bad goals of the Patriots’ Tavern, it did show that the young participants did have strong political literacy.

In discourse of dissent, the Third Space has come to have two interpretations:

  • that space where the oppressed plot their liberation- the whispering corners of the tavern or the bazaar;
  • that space where oppressed and oppressor are able to come together, free (maybe only momentarily) of oppression itself, embodied in their particularity (Bhabha and Homi, 2004).

The Tavern movement really embodies that first interpretation of the discourse of the dissent. Indeed, the idea behind the Patriots’ Tavern was to create enough whispers in the shadows to disturb the mainstream, a space where they plotted to discredit mainstream political leaders in order to “free the country of oppressors and corruption” as they saw it. And after all, the platform on which this “tavern” is hosted, created specifically for these alternative informal political movements, is called “Discord,” synonymous of conflict or even chaos.

Taverns and cafés were also public spheres according to Jürgen Habermas (1989) as they were places where public opinion was generated. These spaces quickly rose up to challenge traditional public spheres of the police and the government. (Brennan, 2005). Taverns have a particularly important history in France, which is why the Alt-Right, who considers themselves strong patriots of the ‘old France’, chose to use that word. Indeed, taverns in the public sphere in 18th century Paris demonstrated the evolution of a third public sphere from a space monopolized by royal control to one in which the populace constituted a public with its own discursive practices and norms. In their increasingly autonomous use of taverns, the people of Paris were developing a model of behaviour that extended to the political life of the city during the French Revolution (Brennan, 2005). This is similar to the “digital revolution” where the growth of the unregulated internet led to the breakdown of traditional authority. And indeed, the early internet fed the far right (Bartlett, 2017). Mike Godwin proposed a law of early internet behaviour whereby the more one talks online, the more likely you’ll be ‘nasty’. And indeed, these nationalists are using internet—“supposedly the very essence of openness, progress and tolerance”—to promote an agenda which agitates for the precise opposite. But that is not surprising as the radical right has frequently been the most avid and enthusiastic adopters of shiny new technology and have long found the internet a uniquely useful place. And many of the members of the actual far right in France are internet adepts indeed (Bartlett, 2017). For example, Phillipot, Marine Le Pen’s right hand during the 2017 French presidential campaign, is a notorious YouTuber who knows how to appeal to a young crowd. And the new forms of reaction that we are witnessing keep mutating, evolving and planning in a subversive obscure forum that we’ve never heard of yet.

In an article titled “In Praise of (Loud, Stinky) Bars” posted in the National Housing Institute’s Rooflines blog, Michael Hickey wrote:

“The vaunted ‘third space’ isn’t home and isn’t work it’s more like the living room of society at large. It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect. It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection. It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle. And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar” (Benfield, 2012).

And indeed, the Patriots’ Tavern functions as a space at the intersection of their home and workplace, where the “patriots” can freely form an imagined identity that answers their civic aspirations. Indeed, a study found that, just like taverns used to, “the political use of the internet by extremist groups is significant and plays an important role in identity formation, for organisational contacts, and individual and organisational mobilisation purposes” (Bartlett, 2017).

Furthermore, in light of Putnam’s evidence of the decline of crucial and social institutions, it may well be that the classification “lacking bridging social capital best characterizes the everyday American citizen.” (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006). And with, in parallel, the rise of the digital era, these third spaces where imagined communities thrived turned to the virtual space to create “virtual taverns”. For example, multi-player video games all have taverns, inns, bars (Vas, 2013) present where the players can meet regroup, swap stories, exchange resources and advice, etc. and so it is a metaphor which bridges between the realms of politics and gaming. The Patriot’s Tavern started from the same idea. They self-identify as a tavern where people of similar political affiliations regroup to plot actions against a government they feel is illegitimate. “By providing spaces for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace and home, MMOs have the capacity to function as one form of a new ‘third space’ for informal sociability. Participation in such virtual ‘third spaces’ appears particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital – social relationships that, while not usually providing deep emotional support, typically function to expose the individual to a diversity of worldviews.” A tavern accessible from your own room (Steinkuehler and Williams, 2006). The same is true for the Patriots’ Tavern, except they only share one worldview and are then, arguably, not bridging social capital as they grow anonymously.

I wish to look more closely at the concept of the public sphere as understood by Habermas here as I believe that it should be rethought, just like Fraser did in 1990. The idea of “the public sphere” in Habermas’s sense as I mentioned above,

“designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, and hence an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction” (Fraser, 1990).

It is a conceptual resource that can help overcome societal problems such as, for example, contemporary feminism. Feminists have used the term “public sphere” (the congregation of the state, the official economy of paid employment, and arenas of public discourse). The gathering of these three things can give practical political consequences when, for example, agitational campaigns against misogynist cultural representations are confounded with programs for state censorship or when struggles to deprivatize housework and child care are equated with their commodification. In both these situations, the result is to obstruct the question of whether to subject gender issues to the logic of the market, or whether the administrative state is to promote the liberation of women. This arena is distinct from the state and therefore these issues can be discussed apart from the state and be more 'objective.' This arena is also distinct from the official economy as it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than buying or selling. In theory, this concept of the public sphere allows us to keep in view the distinctions among state apparatuses, economic markets, and democratic associations. Yet I disagree in that in the case of both the U.S. Alt-Right and the French Alt-Right, their arenas are not distinct from the state and therefore what they try to achieve cannot be dissociated from the state. Indeed, whilst in the Habermasian public sphere the assumption is that a functioning democratic public sphere requires a sharp separation between civil society and the state, this separation today no longer exists. This is because the Habermasian public sphere is too old and based on a liberal model of bourgeois society. We need a new form of public sphere that moves away from the bourgeois liberal model of early 20th century, a new post-bourgeois model in order to continue using the arena’s critical function and to institutionalize democracy and ensure movements such as the U.S. and French Alt-Rights do not get so much space in this public sphere. Indeed, Habermasian public sphere became a masculinist ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule and today, an emergent form of extremism.

In the light of this example, the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital have therefore to be looked at more closely.  Whilst the Patriots’ Tavern acted as an ‘underground political actor’, people knew of them and acknowledged them, thus bringing a certain diversity of views as they were discussed within the French public sphere at a crucial time for the future of France. In this sense, this group, whilst obscure and 1-goal oriented, did get close to bridging social capital. Hence, the concepts of bonding and bridging social capital need to be revised. They also need to be tried against a series of case studies that exist in different political and cultural contexts to understand the extent of their usefulness. Indeed, whilst in the U.S., groups such as the HPA Harry Potter Alliance) and Nerdfighters, but also the Alt-Right struggle to bridge social capital because the U.S. history has made people believe in the power of silence as a tool to dismantle such groups (although they failed in the case of the Alt-Right in 2016), France believes in the power of dialogue, no matter how bad the opponent is. This difference might stem from a hard lesson France had to learn. They were the true authors of the Traité de Versailles, taking all legitimacy and power of dialogue away from the German nation that lost WWI, and that eventually is what brought the Germans back to France during WWII and led them to occupy our country. It taught France that silencing a group, or in this case a nation, does not work as it just gives it legitimacy to attack in full force in retribution to them being silenced.

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La Taverne des Patriotes’: The Power of Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics—A Comparative Study of the French and U.S. Alt-Right Movements (Part One)

Last spring, I taught a seminar focused around the Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics. We were blessed to have students in the class from many different parts of the world and thus to be able to test ideas I had developed in response to our research on young activists in the U.S. against case studies from Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. I wanted to share one of the many great papers that came out of the class -- this one drawing parallels between alt-right practices in America and France and helping us to understand the local specificities of the movement. 

‘La Taverne des Patriotes’: The Power of Civic Imagination and Participatory Politics—A Comparative Study of the French and U.S. Alt-Right Movements

By Margaux Gatty

—————

Introduction

Today, the compression of space and time, the new “immediacy” of news but also “worldwide conditions of migration […] global conflicts” etc. make people feel a precariousness in their everyday life, which increases the “retreat of citizens into 'hyperlocal' enclaves and 'hyperindividual' personal information spaces (connecting with the world without actually physically engaging with it through online social networks)” (Deuze, 2009). This heightened emotional expression has led to the development of new forms of civic engagement (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2016).

Last year, I participated in a collaborative journalism “CrossCheck” project launched by Google and First Draft. In this context, I debunked and tracked “fake news” for the BBC, targeting such related to the 2017 French Presidential elections. Whilst investigating the source of these news, I discovered a network called 'La Taverne des Patriotes' (the Patriots’ Tavern). La Taverne des Patriotes, created on the 5th of January 2017, is a participative and communal server hosted by the gamer platform Discord. Their goal was to help structure and promote patriotic movement in France through websites, YouTube videos, memes, troll attacks on Twitter, strong arguments and counter-arguments to break down leftist ideas. The Patriots’ Tavern’s guide writes “our camp has already won the battle of ideas, it is now our role to start a large-scale cultural war, and this won’t happen without your participation!” (La Taverne des Patriotes, 2016). I will show how this innovative example illustrates concepts such as civic media, civic imagination, participatory politics, and thin or thick engagement in unexpected ways, for “bad” civic purposes. After all, in a similar manner to Kenneth Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf in The Rhetoric of Hitler’s “Battle” (1939), studying what can be considered an “enemy” of democracy is an efficient way to strengthen democracy. Indeed, we need to think critically about political opponents to move towards social change and shape norms and policies today.

Burke’s essay on Mein Kampf, which he presented at the League of American Writers’ Third American Writers’ Congress in 1939, was a call to fight fascist propaganda. Burke read Hitler’s narrative and imagery very closely, showing how an “exasperating, even nauseating” book served to incite and inspire a mass movement. This wasn’t an abstract exercise. “Let us try”, wrote Burke, “to discover what kind of ‘medicine’ this medicine man has concocted, that we may know, with greater accuracy, exactly what to guard against, if we are to forestall the concocting of similar medicine in America” (McLemee, 2005). And this is what I attempt to do here. I attempt to show how tools that have been praised and successfully used by organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance and Nerdfighters, are also a danger to civic society and how that danger came to be.

Thus, I will be closely analyzing the case of the Patriots’ Tavern, testing it against different concepts and comparing the movement to the U.S. Alt-Right that had a role to play in the creation of the Patriots’ Tavern, carefully looking at their cultural and political contexts.

1.  Game Politics

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 16.38.06.png

 Before diving into my case study on the Patriots’ Tavern, it is useful to look into a similar, earlier example of gamers in the U.S. organized on Discord, a platform created to connect video game players in order to support the Alt-Right movement. “Before white supremacists, neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August [2017], they were organizing behind a computer screen”, according to a video piece by NBC News. “And a lot of that organizing happened through a messaging service called Discord” (Crecente, 2017).

The U.S. Alt-Right used the gaming fandom universe to slowly but surely build its organization. They started by infiltrating the #GamerGate online movement ostensibly concerned with ethics in game journalism and with protecting the 'gamer' identity (Gawker, 2017) that arose in 2014, and quickly coalesced into a group of self-identified members whose concerns expanded to include the rise of what they labeled 'PC culture' and SJWs, or 'social justice warriors'. “The more vocal of the group typically harass people, more often women and minorities, who question some of the status quo of game content in the video game industry” (Crecente, 2017). “GamerGate harassment is most often sparked by the expansion of gaming content, settings and characters to include more women, minorities and the examination of modern social issues” (Crecente, 2017).

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 16.41.46.png

A PhD candidate at Waterloo Institute, Emma Vossen, said that the same techniques used by GamerGate members were used by Trump supporters (Crecente, 2017). In fact,

“the 2014 online hate-storm presaged the tactics of the Trump-loving far right movement” (Lees, 2016).

“The similarities between GamerGate and the far-right online movement, the 'Alt-Right', are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence” (Lees, 2016).

After all, the cultural war that began in games even had a senior representative in the White House.

“As a founder member and former executive of Breirtbart News, Steve Bannon had a hand in creating media monster Milo Yiannapoulos, who built his fame and Twitter following by supporting and cheerleading Gamergate” (Lees, 2016).

This in turn inspired Marine Le Pen’s supporters in Alt-Right France. Not just inspired, they were called by the U.S. Alt-Right to do the same as they shared their database of memes on Pepe the Frog and other materials. The Patriots’ Tavern mimicked the GamerGate success in forcing mainstream media to cover its content. GamerGate had hit the mainstream when The New York Times, The New Yorker, PBS and NPR covered it (Bilton, 2014). But it was covered in its infancy before it became involved in Trump’s election. But raising awareness of that issue is most likely what inspired the so-called Alt-Right. It yields interesting results in terms of the ways that the discourses and networks around gaming can be deployed towards political ends.

The gamergate movement, U.S. and eventually French movements all started on 4Chan.

“4chan invented the meme as we use it today. At the time, one of the few places you saw memes was there. Terms like “win” and “epic” and “fail” were all created or popularized on 4chan, used there for years before they became a ubiquitous part of the culture. The very method of how gifs and images are interspersed with dialogue in Slack or now iMessage or wherever is deeply 4chanian. In other words, the site left a profound impression on how we as a culture behave and interact” (Beran, 2017).

And it is fascinating to see that Alt-Right movements have taken up that culture to create an imagined community to serve their end goal in a sort of fantasy land. In these imagined communities, the strongest weapon is irony spread through gaming platforms. Hence, these movements, specifically The Patriots’ Tavern, concocted a cocktail of culture and used the ever-growing pool of gamer fans to distribute their messages. Indeed, “experts say the Alt-Right have stormed mainstream consciousness by using ‘humor’ and ambiguity as tactics to wrong-foot their opponents” (Wilson, 2017), tactics that made 4chan so popular to begin with. Though the traditional far-right has long been using the internet as a tool, the Alt-Right differs in that it was able to attract a younger audience and advance its cultural war by effectively engaging with “Online Antagonistic Communities” originating on 4Chan (Hope not Hate, 2018). To note here, the U.S. and French cultural and political contexts didn’t matter when it came down to the formation of these groups who seemed to align to a global gamer culture and the use of irony to manifest that culture born of the by then global platform 4chan.

2. Civic Media

“Civic Media is any use of a medium that empowers a community to engage within and beyond the people, places and problems of their community[…] The medium of interaction alone is not enough, but it must be coupled with social practices and social design to engage people to participate” (Roque, 2011).

In this sense, the Patriots’ Tavern is very much a civic media. Indeed, it had a large number of French youth organized around a same common  overarching goal: getting their favorite far-right candidate Marine Le Pen elected. And they almost succeeded as she went to the second round of elections with a popularity only second to our now elected president Emmanuel Macron. They regrouped around their common social practices specific to video games 'nerd' community, using their specific set of 'tech' skills to create a strategy that went beyond their daily problems. Because it based its strategy on the gamers’ culture, the platform was very successful in engaging youth, and all members participated in the 'social media attacks', campaigns, design of new innovative platforms etc. In this case, contrary to the Arab Spring social media movement (Zuckerman, 2015), the impact of online platforms and social media were the strongest tools both this network and the U.S. Alt-Right network possessed and very little journalists or mainstream media could find out what action they were undertaking as they used highly efficient security and coded 'gamers' language particular to their own sub-culture; using, for example, memes referring to video games, but also using popular Pepe the Frog’s memes created by Alt-Right America, as I mentioned earlier. Besides, whilst some in the Arab Spring used these technologies and leveraged them for their own purposes (Roque, 2011), in this specific case, it was purely for a collective 'civic' action. The participants collectively believed they were pursuing social good and the space they created through this civic media allowed space for “disagreement, argument and critical thinking to flourish” (Khasnabish and Haiven, 2016).

“Communities are not just bounded by place, but also by shared interests, values, and experiences” (Roque, 2011).

In the case of the Patriot’s Tavern and the U.S. Alt-Right, they shared a virtual community, although the U.S. community was far less centralized and more nodal based, whilst the Patriots’ Tavern had a pyramidal hierarchical structure—in a way reminiscent of the US and French political structure. Any new ‘patriot’ in the Patriots’ Tavern had to tell his or her story and explain where his or her motivation came from before formally joining the platform. Besides, the platform heavily relied on coded gamer language, which informed their solidarity and turned that network into a civic community. In this sense,  the different political and cultural contexts of both France and the U.S. had little impact on the creation of these civic communities other than their internal structures. In a way, these examples are not that dissimilar from the Harry Potter Alliance, "an online activist community of Harry Potter Fans, that mobilizes youth to engage with civic issues” (Roque, 2011). Indeed, they advocated for their civic rights, believing the elitist mainstream media system in place was preventing the people from raising their voice. They decided to take matters in their own hands, starting a 'cultural war' or rather, as we do in France, a revolution. And after all, the French Revolution was born out of taverns.

3. Civic Participation

In evaluating civic participation, Zuckerman proposed that evaluations should be based on whether civic acts are “instrumental or symbolic, whether, the action is designed to influence people through passing laws, influencing norms, leveraging markets, or coding new possibilities, whether an act’s importance is through the raising of voice” (Zuckerman, 2016). In addition to this, “evaluating an action considers whether an action is thin, demanding little more than an actor’s presence, or thick, asking for creativity as well as participation” (Zuckerman, 2016). Zuckerman’s formulation helped me better understand the effectiveness and intentions of the participatory movement that is the Patriots’ Tavern. Indeed, the Tavern’s actions were not just symbolic but instrumental in pushing votes in favor of Marine Le Pen, creating false information that was designed to influence people through new innovative use of alternative civic media. For example, it influenced more than just generation Z. My grandfather himself once emailed me an article he had read and completely changed his opinion of then candidate Emmanuel Macron. Curious, I traced back the source of the article and found out that this also originated from that platform. So, in a sense, it led to a raising of voice, a speaking out. Moreover, these actions at the level of the Patriots’ Tavern involved thick engagement as it asked for creative participation to design strategies to create and spread false content over the web. On the other hand, their action also led to thin engagement from the general public who unknowingly spread the 'fake news' making the content go viral on social media platforms just like the U.S Alt-Right had previously done. Hence, this movement was a very effective participatory movement and has the potential to carry on and influence general politics beyond the elections that are now over.

Furthermore, this platform shows how internet tools designed to let ordinary consumers publish non-political content are often useful for activists (here youth activists) as they are difficult for governments to censor without erasing innocuous content; because censorship of inoffensive content can alert non-activist users to government censorship; and because activism using consumer tools can tap the “latent capacity” of non-activist users to create and disseminate activist content (Zuckerman, 2016). So, whilst the content could be, and most of the time was offensive, it was coded and spread on popular platforms under the eyes of the government, in a country where censorship is a very sensitive topic as French people are notoriously defensive of their freedom of speech, as we’d seen with the offensive content of Charlie Hebdo, which was nonetheless never censored before the tragic attack. Besides, this platform allowed the Patriots’ Tavern to act as “monitorial citizens” as they felt their responsibility “monitor what powerful institutions do, and demand change when they misbehave” (Zuckerman, 2016). It was also a place to foster both voice and listening (Couldry, 2010) as it created dialogue rather than a platform to voice people’s concerns and frustrations, whilst the U.S. Alt-Right was more about anger and frustrations after the government than dialogue. Therefore, it seems like the Patriots’ Tavern was a model of change (Dahlgren, 2009), whether that change was good or bad.

This was different in the U.S. which is more sensible to these cases and forces them to remain underground, otherwise these groups would be censored; whilst in France the Patriots’ Tavern who chose to go underground only did so for  fame as they did not have to go underground because of the French government’s policy of 0 censorship (although that is currently changing in light of the close call that was the previous election, and the increase of hate speech in the context of large immigration and the rise in terrorist attacks on French soil). In this sense, the concept of civic participation as is understood in the U.S. is very different from the one in France. The notion of civic participation in France is laxer than is in the U.S. because our history made us fear censorship, to the point that a group such as the Patriots’ Tavern are willingly acknowledged as a “civic” group that should be allowed to partake in a collective dialogue.

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Raiding the Archives: Henry's First Essay on Fandom

Through the years, I have mentioned in interviews the fact that I had first written about fandom as a student journalist for the Georgia State University Signal. The piece is one that I have always approached with a certain degree of shame, because I fell into many of the traps that I have criticized in other people's writing about fandom.  I learned from those mistakes and in the process, developed the framework that  informed Textual Poachers and my subsequent work on fans.

When my wife discovered that they had digitized the old Signals, the first thing I wanted to read was my essay on fandom.  As part of the historical record, I wanted to share the article today.

I warn you in advance that it takes a particularly male-centric view of what kinds of fans matter. Women are discussed here almost entirely as erotic spectacle, right down to the proverbial female Amazon in the fur bikini, where-as I take seriously the activities of male fans. That said, you will also find  an emerging sense that fans are up to something important, including both creative and civic undertakings. You might think of the discussion here of NASA boosters who were very much part of the fandom I encountered in the late 1970s as an early form of what today we might call fan activism. The article gives a pretty good sense of what it was like -- for me as a randy 19 year old -- to go to his first con during this period. 

Be kind and forgiving. I share it in the spirit of senior academics who are announcing their failures as a means of helping young scholars to put the ups and downs of their careers into context. 

 

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The Digital Civics Toolkit: Helping Students and Teachers Understand Participatory Politics

 

Off and on, I have shared reports of the work emerging from the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which over the past decade has been collaborating to research the political lives of American youth. Across multiple projects, combining quantitative and qualitative research methods, we -- under the leadership of Joe Kahne -- have developed a conceptual framework for understanding "participatory politics" and demonstrating its impact on American society.  My most recent book, written with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, was one of many to emerge from this research network. And at the end of the process, several of the research groups pooled insights and resources to develop a toolkit which translated some of the core findings for classroom deployment. These tools are already being adopted and deployed by numerous classroom teachers. As we move into the new school year, it seems a great opportunity to showcase this intervention on my blog. What follows comes from the three primary architects of this collaboration.

The Digital Civics Toolkit

by Erica Hodgen, Carrie James, and Sangita Shresthova

(Adapted from an Educating for Democracy posting on the Teaching Channel)

The beginning of the school year is often a moment to pause and imagine what new and innovative things we can experiment with next year. Given our interconnected lives and the many urgent and contested issues facing our world today, reconsidering how to prepare our students to participate in democracy and in society seems warranted.

What skills, capacities, and dispositions do your students need to thoughtfully and productively navigate the world around them - and how might you support them in new ways?

Of course, students often have many skills when it comes to using digital platforms and tools. But, they may not feel confident about using digital tools to learn about issues they care about, engage in productive online dialogue, voice their perspectives in powerful ways, and take informed action.

Enter, the Digital Civics Toolkit. This new toolkit is a collection of resources for educators to support youth to explore, recognize, and take seriously the civic potentials of digital life. It draws on the research and work of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP).

The Digital Civics Toolkit is organized into five distinct modules that each capture a key practice associated with digital civics:

  • Participate -- Students explore their identities and communities, identify civic issues that matter to them, and consider how they might use digital media for civic participation.

  • Investigate -- Students work to understand and analyze civic information online and consider what information they can trust.

  • Dialogue -- Students navigate diverse perspectives and exchange ideas about civic issues in our interconnected world.

  • Voice -- Students consider how, when, and to what end they can create, remix, and otherwise re-purpose content that they share with others in online spaces.

  • Action -- Students consider a broad range of tactics and strategies for acting on civic issues.

  • We invite you to explore the modules and choose the resources that best meet the interests and needs of your students, classroom, and community. Each module contains a conversation starter, several activities, and a closing reflection to support students to synthesize their learnings. If you would like to dig deeper into concepts, there are also links to extension activities. For more information on the ideas in each module, we provide teacher background information with links to articles, blogs, videos, and further resources.

We hope the Digital Civics Toolkit offers you engaging and relevant resources to explore over the summer as you plan and prepare for the coming school year.

Erica Hodgin is the Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG) at University of California, Riverside. She is also Program Director of the LEADE Initiative working with communities and school districts to ensure all students have access to high-quality civic learning opportunities.

Carrie James is a Research Associate and Principal Investigator at Harvard Project Zero, a Lecturer on Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a recurring faculty member at Project Zero’s institutes for educators. She holds an M.A. (1996) and a Ph.D. (2003) in Sociology from NYU.

Sangita Shresthova is the Director of Research at the Civic Imagination Project -- @CivicPaths -- based at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California. Her work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She is one of the authors of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism.

 

Memory Objects and the Civic Imagination

The Civic Imagination Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, has accepted as its mission an effort to stimulate discussions within communities across America and around the world about our shared values, our hopes for the future, and the models we use to think about the process of social and political change. We conduct workshops where participants are encouraged to imagine the future together, using techniques that have been inspired by the world building practices associated with speculative fiction. We ask those who come to our workshops to imagine the world of 2060 — not as it will be but as we desire it to be, and in this way, we try to find some degree of consensus about what an ideal society might look like, a consensus that cuts across other divides amongst us. As we do so, we are using utopias not as blueprints for an ideal world but, as Steven Duncombe suggests, as provocations to have further conversations about the nature and process of social change.

But we do not want simply to focus on the future — on what changes are ahead. We also reflect on our traditions, on things we cherish and want to carry with us into the future with us. One way we get our participants to reflect on that sense of tradition is to ask them to bring a meaningful or memorable object with them and share its story as a means of introducing themselves to the group. At first, we understood this practice as simply an ice-breaker, but from the start, it was clearly much more. Sharing these objects and their stories with each other creates a degree of intimacy and vulnerability between the workshop participants; it enables trust as people talk about stuff that is at the core of our common humanity. In the room, the sharing of these stories, the handling of these cherished artifacts, break down barriers, but as we’ve returned to our base at the University of Southern California, we have found that these object stories continue to do important work as tools to think with, ways that we as a research group can gain some sense of what things are valuable and meaningful to the people we encounter in our research.

Spring semester, we conducted an interpretive experiment trying to understand the memorable objects shared with us by the participants in two of our recent workshops — one centered on the future of work, involving former coal miners and tobacco farmers, assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky and one exploring the future of faith with the congregation of a Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Our discussions of these memorable objects were shaped by recent work in anthropology and sociology that explores how humans map meaning onto their possessions, how our belongings often express a sense of belonging, how the exchange of things helps to shape our relations with other people in our lives. See, for example, Daniel Miller's The Comfort of Things, which we read and discussed as a group.  In this tradition, certain objects are seen as "telling" — that is, they yield stories that help us to better understand the people around us. When we are asked to show off things that are meaningful to us, we engage in a process of self-fashioning — we construct and perform our identities through the stuff we share (both the objects themselves and the emotional baggage they carry for us).

In these short and very personal essays, our graduate students engage with some of the object lessons which we gathered from our engagement with the people of Kentucky and Arkansas. Our students are writing here to and about people they have not met, people they only know through these stories about cherished objects. Given the contemporary political context, the temptation is to read these essays as pieces written from a very blue state — California — to the inhabitants of two red states. But, in practice, the situation is far more complex, since some of our group members were raised in the south (as I was) or in the rust belt, and thus these stories offer a glimpse into a world they have left behind, at least for the purposes of their education. And beyond this, the members of our research group come from varied other places — from Latin America to Eastern Europe — and thus find other cultural connections with the original tellers of these tales and possessors of these objects.

For our research group, this is a means of getting our intellectual juices flowing — a discovery process that we hope will yield further insights into the civic imagination. But we also hope that it is simply another stage in a longer communication process. We published some reflections on Medium late in the spring and I wanted to share them with my blog readers today

 

We're Back...

My blog is back in production again after my summer hiatus. I wanted to provide some updates. I am going to be spending the fall in Washington DC as the Kluge Chair of Modern Culture at the U.S. Library of Congress. I will be up to my elbows in archives as I return to a project I started several decades ago only to be derailed but which has continued to haunt me—a historical account of children's media (and discourses regarding "permissive child-rearing") in the 1950s and 1960s. It means returning to texts which had meant a lot to me growing up in that era but also getting a better sense of what the adults were reading and talking about at the same time. I will be looking at Benjamin Spock, Margaret Mead, and others, as well as everything from Dennis the Menace to Mr. Roger's Neighborhood to Room 222.

Billy Proctor has agreed to step in and help me manage content flow.  Proctor is a kindred spirit and a good friend.  Proctor is killing it with work on remakes and reboots, media franchises,  and horror media. Proctor hosted a round table about "Toxic Fandom" on the blog last spring and wrote three essays on Disney's Star Wars and The Last Jedi

I still expect to have some one off posts showcasing our current research efforts and other resources that will be of interest to some of you, but I am structuring things so that we will spend much of the fall on two series which grew out of this Spring's State of Fandom series.

First, I have worked with Diane Winston and Sarah McFarland Taylor to organize some  exchanges focused on Popular Religion and Participatory Culture. I had discovered how much work in Cultural Studies is taken up and engaged with in religious studies and yet very little of that work is known within Media and Cultural Studies. So, I wanted to use this series to fret greater awareness across disciplines, pairing people who are working on similar themes and topics. 

 In the second part of the fall, Billy Proctor will be conducting a series of one on one interviews with an international mix of scholars who re working on horror and cult media. This topic is close to my own heart having taught a Horror class off and on during my time at MIT. I grew up in the Monster Culture of the 1960s as I recently talked about during Proctor's podcast, The Death and Resurrection Show. So I am looking forward to reading Proctor's interviews. He's shared a few with me already and they are nothing if not provocative.

How Do You Like It So Far?, the podcast I co-host with Colin Maclay. will be back this fall for a new season and we have some great things planned there as well. I hope many of you had a  chance to check out some of our episodes over the summer dealing with, among other things, Black Panther, The Last Jedi, Ready Player One, K-pop, Wyonna Earp and Sherlock

 

How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Emily Andras, Maureen Ryan, and Louisa Stein Discuss Fans, Producers, and Queer Baiting

Our final episode of the season -- episode 16!!!-- started when a Sherlock fan who goes by the handle, We Love the Beekeeper, sent a letter to my USC colleague Alison Trope from the Critical Media Project, describing her outrage over the ways that the series production and promotion team had mistreated its fans, especially LGBTQ fans and others who were invested in the idea that Holmes and Watson might, at least, be depicted on screen in a romantic relationship. As I read the letter, I felt that much of what was being described could just as well be referring to a range of other recent clashes between show runners and fans around the representation of characters who may or may not (will they or won't they be queer).

So, we invited three guests who we felt could shed light on the persistence of these patterns: Emily Andras, the very fan friendly producer of Wynonna Earp; Maureen Ryan, the television critic who was fearless in her support for fans throughout a similar controversy surrounding The 100; and Louisa Stein, a key figure in Fandom Studies and co-editor with Kristina Busse of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom.

These three amazing women share their thoughts on the "Bury Your Gays" trope and why bad things happen to good fandoms in an age when show runners theoretically understand the value of audience engagement. The episode digs deep but we also try to explain key terms of the debate as we move forward, so it is not a bad jumping on point for those who would like to understand what fans expect from producers and vice-versa.

We will be back in the fall with more cool episodes. In the meantime, let us know how you like it so far? I would love to base more episodes on getting answers to our listeners' questions (assuming we have any) so let us know what you would like to know more about. You can write me at hjenkins@usc.edu. 

Alas, this will be the last episode to benefit from the incredible work of our student producer, Sean Myers, and boy, will we miss him. 

 

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Erika Andiola and Yosimar Reyes from the Define American Film Festival

This week, Colin and I turned the microphones over to two of my PhD students Andrea Alarcon and Rogelio Lopez, both members of our Civic Paths research group. The Civic Imagination Project was invited to run a workshop at the Define American Film Festival in Chicago. You can read Lopez's report of that workshop here. And we asked them to see if they could collect some of the perspectives from key players in the movement for the rights of Undocumented people while they were at the event, leaving it up to them to decide who to interview and what questions to explore. We hit the jackpot! This week's episode features two interviews -- with spoken word poet  Yosimar Reyes and organizer Erika Andiola. Both shared perspectives from the trenches about the struggles they face in Trump's America, the anti-immigrant narratives they confront, the ways they use any media necessary to confront those stereotypes and myths, and their sense of what tactics work and what fail in their struggles for social justice. 

Let me provide a bit more background on the key participants in this week's episode:

 Erika Andiola is the former Press Secretary for Latino Outreach for Bernie 2016 and a former Congressional Staffer for Arizona Congresswoman, Kyrsten Sinema. She co-founder of the Dream Action Coalition and started her community organizing experience when she co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. She then served in the National Coordinating Committee and the Board of Directors for the United We Dream Network.  You can get a sense of her public voice from this speech that she gave at the 2017 Women's March on Washington about her mother and her family's experiences of immigration and their fears for the future of the country.

Yosimar Reyes is a nationally-acclaimed poet, educator, performance artist, and speaker. Born in Guerreo, Mexico, and raised in Eastside San Jose, Reyes explores the themes of migration and sexuality in his work. The Advocate named Reyes one of "13 LGBT Latinos Changing the World" and Remezcla included Reyes on their list of "10 Up And Coming Latinx Poets You Need To Know." His first collection of poetry, For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly… was self published after a collaboration with the legendary Carlos Santana. His work has also been published in various online journals and books including Mariposas: An Anthology of Queer Modern Latino Poetry (Floricanto Press), Queer in Aztlán: Chicano Male Recollections of Consciousness and Coming Out (Cognella Press), and the forthcoming Joto: An Anthology of Queer Xicano & Chicano Poetry (Kórima Press). Reyes was featured in the Documentary, "2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry." Reyes currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at the media and culture organization, Define American, the non-profit organization founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas that is dedicated to shifting the conversation surrounding immigration and identity in a changing America.

You can watch the videos below for some examples of his powerful spoken word performances, which explore his intersectional identity as a queer Latinix man. 

Adrea Alarcon's interests lie in the intersection of ICTD and cultural internet studies, as well as transculturalism and multilingualism on the web. She is particularly interested in the appropriation of social media in developing countries, especially as gateways to the web, and the influence of socioeconomic background and entrenched inequalities on the online experience. She received her MSc degree from the Oxford Internet Institute, and her BSc in online journalism from the University of Florida. She also worked as a Research Assistant with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. Before academia, she worked as a web producer and editor for the World Bank, and in social media for Discovery Channel in Latin America. She currently writes about digital culture for Colombian mainstream media. She is a research assistant on the Civic Imagination Project and a producer for How Do You Like It So Far?

Rogelio Lopez’s work focuses on the role of emerging media and tech in social movements, activism, civic engagement, and youth culture. He completed his M.S. in Comparative Media Studies & Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013. His M.S. thesis compared the media strategies of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s and Undocumented Immigrant Youth Movements in the 2000s. Prior to USC, Rogelio worked with MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Youth and Media at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. Current projects include a mixed methods analysis of social media use in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and a computational analysis of Net Neutrality activism online. He serves as a research assistant for the Civic Imagination Project. Rogelio and I are currently co-authoring an essay about Emma Gonzalez's jacket and the March for Our Lives. 

 

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Hye Jin Lee and Cristina Visperas on the Global Fandom for K-Pop

This week, my USC colleagues Hye Jin Lee and Cristina Visperas dropped by the Julie Chin, Leslie Moonves, and CBS Studio to talk with us about the global circulation and transnational fandom around K-Pop, popular music from Korea which offers a unique fusion of hip hop influences from the United States, the Idol system from Japan, and its own spectacular performance style. Colin had overheard a hallway conversation and learned of our colleagues interests in this area, and we had to capture some of their fascinating insights for the podcast. Through K-Pop, we get some remarkable insights into gender, sexuality, race, and politics in Korea, but we also learn about differences in the media industries and fan cultures of Korea and the United States, differences which surface, in part, when fans between the two countries interact online.

 Hye Jin Lee is a clinical professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, where she teaches classes on Visual Culture and Communication and Gender in Media Industries and Products, among other topics. Recently hired as an assistant professor in the USC Communications Program, Cristina Visperas is currently writing a book manuscript examining the wide-spread use of prisoners for human experimentation research in the decades following WWII.

One of our goals for How Do You Like It So Far? is to call attention to the global production and circulation of popular culture. Too often,. American media acts as if U.S. popular culture was the only popular media in the world, where-as we are seeing more transnational circulation of popular culture now than ever before. Some of the spread of transnational popular culture is shaped by diaspora communities and others by what I call Pop Cosmopolitans, people seeking cultural difference as a means of escaping the parochialism of their own cultures. I am interested in the tension points that emerge at the intersection of the two forces -- one seeking a return to a mother culture and the other seeking to escape their own for some place of imagined difference. K-pop offers us a great opportunity to explore what happens when these two forces intersect -- part collision and part collaboration.

How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Episode 13, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Kurt Squire on Ready Player One and Game Based Learning

This week, we wrap up our series of conversations inspired by Ready Player One with a consideration of the current state of research on games-based learning. I can think of no better thinking partners for exploring the past, present, and future of games in education than Kurt Squire and Katie Salen Tekinbas, two old friends, both there at the start of a movement to harness games technologies and design practices for learning, both now on  the faculty of the University of California-Irvine.

 

Kurt and I worked together years ago on the Games to Teach Project (Later the Education Arcade) at MIT. We were initially funded by Microsoft to do a series of thought experiments into what genres and what content might represent sweet spots for the use of games-based learning in higher education. Soon, we ended up prototyping a range of games and games-related practices which were tested through school-based and after-school programs. Kurt went on to join the education faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and now at the Informatics program at Irvine, where he has become part of the Connected Learning Network. He has remained a leader in this space as the former director of the Games, Learning and Society initiative and as the author of Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age (2011) and Games, Learning and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age (With Constance Steinkuhler, 2012).

Katie Salen Tekinbas was also there when it all began, an important early scholar who co-authored Rules of Play (2003) with Eric Zimmerman, which became THE textbook for games studies classes around the world, and co-edited The Game Design Reader (2005). She was the Executive Director of Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization which uses principles of games and play for social good. An early recruit for the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, she helped to design and launch Quest to Learn schools in New York City and Chicago which made game design principles central to their curricular design.

Colin and I sat down with them on the UC-Irvine campus for a free-wheeling conversation, which touched on everything from simulations games for teaching history to the rise of e-sports as a high school activity, and along the way, they shared what Ready Player One gets right -- and where it misses the boat -- in terms of our current understanding of how games and play may become learning opportunities.,