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!



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. 


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