Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 5): Whitney Phillips and Jason Bivens (Part One)


Because this blog series on popular religion and participatory coverage could be taken in so many directions, and because Jason and my respective backgrounds go in several of those different but overlapping directions (with his work focusing on religion, politics, and culture in the US, and my work focusing on online antagonism, digital folklore, media manipulation, and digital ethics), it took us a few exchanges to decide how we would approach the conversation. The thing is, while the subjects of my research have certainly engaged with religion and religious people, often disparagingly, sometimes violently--thinking in particular of the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic elements of far right extremism--I am not a scholar of religion. So how to combine our interests? Ultimately we decided to reflect on three concepts prominent within the study and practice of religion, and just as prominent, though not always as directly acknowledged, in media and communication studies: faith, fear, and fanaticism. Jason will jump right in with faith, and lead each subsequent exchange as well, to provide the religious studies grounding needed for context.

Jason on faith:

I’m very excited to have been invited to participate in this forum. Aside from my admiration for the scholars convening the participants, my own scholarship on political religions has long benefited from cross-disciplinary exchanges. But as I think about my own interests in relation to Whitney Phillips’ fantastic thoughts on internet trolling and monsters, I wonder (as I often do) just what the disciplinary formation of Religious Studies really is. In a typical anthology or scholarly panel, such uncertainty is very nearly boilerplate. We spend an awful lot of time reminding each other that “religion” is a constructed category shaped from multiple biases and presumptions, that the field’s emergence bears the imprint of colonialism, that there is no settled method, and so forth.

As someone interested in public life and politics, it’s not that I find these self-inventories uninteresting. But they don’t exactly stimulate fresh thinking for me, especially in terms of my longstanding interest in making sense of religious discontent with American politics, that changing same. I’ve always tried to look beyond standard formations – party, denomination, lobby – out of a sense that those framings conceal the big story, the big shapes, as occluded as these sometimes can be. Media Studies (especially those at the intersection of affect and technology) has provided me with much more stimulation in the last decade-plus, particularly as I have focused in on religion’s emotional articulations in public discourse (in crowds, online, in entertainments).

Stodgy, placeholding terms like “faith” conceal emotional multitudes. I’ve spent an awful lot of time thinking about fear and outrage, which Whitney and I will jam on. Here, though, I want to spend a bit more time thinking about just what my subject is, and how it might relate to Whitney’s.

I was once obsessed with the HBO series Deadwood, which – in its institutional histories woven into melodrama – did for the late nineteenth century West what The Wire did for post-industrial Baltimore. Stunned by the irresistibility of what character Charlie Udder called “amalgamation and capital,” the residents of Deadwood strove to make sense of the new technologies – mining tools and pumps, railroads, and telegrams – that now produced and ordered their lives. In one memorable scene, sniveling worm of a mayor E.B. Farnham panicked at the presence of George Hearst in Deadwood, complaining to local godfather Al Swearingen, “It’s Hearst. Hearst! Is he Caesar, to have fights to the death for diversion? Murder his workers at whim? Smash passages in the fucking wall? A man of less wealth would be in fucking restraints.” Swearingen replied soberly, “We’re in the presence of the new.” Farnham: “Fuck the fucking new! Jesus Christ, Al. Is it over for us here?”


This scene stuck with me as a way of thinking about how not just religious selves but modern selves and categories are formed in response to moments of overwhelmedness by industry and technology. I’ve found it suggestive to think about religion as a medium of experience and an object of mediation since, as I try to chase down in writing elusive articulations of “faith,” the weight of media and technology is in many ways the weight of language, its power and purpose only partly a functional one. The steam powered train, the telegraph, constellations of data we imagine grouped together into something called a market, the tweet, all these technologies are so palpable and sensate and yet take us into realms of experience where the empirical is burdened, into realms we might think of as religious in their ineffability – that disembodied voice, those unseen gears, those swirls of paperless exchange.

The power of these collective media can shape the freestanding law of American jurisprudence, the “sincerely held belief” that makes for the generic American’s generic religion, or the crowd-sourced emotion, viral assertions, or chains of distraction that make for our online lives. My interest in faith, then, has been consistently interwoven with studies of politics and discipline and difference. Like many others, I return to Foucault regularly when considering such matters, specifically the 1976 lectures introducing ideas of biopower in a discussion of dispersed populations and industrialization. With biopolitics, Foucault says, we move beyond the disciplinary apparatus and even the surveilling apparatus of the early modern into a period where power moves through not just new bodies but new mechanisms: “forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures. And their purpose is not to modify any given phenomenon as such, or to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomena are determined.”

This very generality and abstraction is what places a greater premium on description, on language, on representation for life, literally the making lively of things, the animation, the em-powerment that is ubiquitous in an era of light and movement and circulation. One key to understanding the power that “faith” holds for Americans – aside from symbolic capital or lobbies – is its ability to make us forget our own role in its production, our own imaginative media, or our reliance on its very self-evidence as a category. That opacity, that everywhereness, is what allows it to do such powerful emotional and political work.

Whitney on faith:

The relationship between faith and technology is one I’ve reflected on often, though maybe not with an eye towards transcendence. Or maybe...sort of, as these issues don’t just rear up in response to the latest political crisis, but speak to deep existential, epistemological, and even ontological concerns. What it means when we lose a shared sense of reality; what it means when every single day is filled with so much chaos, so many conflicting truth claims; what it means when it’s just not clear what any of it means, and therefore, what any of us should do in response.

This is where faith comes in, particularly when considering responses to the spread of mis- and disinformation across social media, frequently described as “fake news” or “alternative facts” or other terms indicating that oh god, we’re really in trouble here. The call from many, particularly within journalism, the technology sector, and education, is to ramp up media literacy efforts: to check facts, verify sources, and evaluate the overall truth value of content. That approach, Alice Marwick argues, has within certain circles emerged as a kind of “magic bullet” theory for the digital age (the “magic bullet” refers to an early, frequent straw-person theory associated with interwar anti-propaganda efforts; it maintains, rather morbidly, that media messages go straight into a person’s brain, without any critical reflection or individual agency to stop them, rendering audiences perfectly and immediately under the propagandist’s control, which is not how media works--but that’s a different conversation). As Marwick shows, such efforts implicitly assume that truth is a corrective unto itself, a position that dovetails with the related assumption that the underlying problem is the public’s lack of exposure to facts. On this view, if we could just expose people to what’s true, our problems would be solved.  

Let me be clear, truth is a good thing. I like it very much (as do other scholars who critique traditional media literacy models; no one is saying that truth doesn’t matter, or that actual things in the world are somehow overrated). Critical thinking is also a good thing, as is close textual analysis, and source verification, and assessment of bias, and careful fact checking. All of it is good, in theory.

But in practice, that doesn’t mean it works, or that such efforts serve as a one-size-fits-all solution to the spread of polluted information.

The reason they don’t, not universally anyway, is that fact value--whether something is objectively, verifiably true--isn’t always why someone chooses to engage with or share something. Consider, for example, this 2016 Pew Research study, which revealed that 14% of survey respondents admitted to sharing false stories they knew to be false. That’s not a problem of fact checking. That’s a problem of people having their own reasons for sharing particular kinds of content, from the desire to make their friends giggle to the desire to watch the world burn to anything and everything in between.

In the same vein, whether something is objectively, verifiably true, isn’t always why someone puts their faith in something. I’m not restricting “faith” to religious experience, here; a person can have faith in institutions (or not), or faith in journalists (or not), or faith in the government (or not), or faith in each other (or not). Where one puts their faith--or not--isn’t something that cold hard facts can necessarily penetrate. The effort to counter faith with facts might even backfire. As Marwick argues--and she’s not alone; see the work of Lewandowsky et. al, Tripodi, and boyd, among others--correcting an untruth isn’t just likely not to penetrate the underlying belief structure. It may ultimately entrench the belief.

In short: my facts about something might just make your faith in the opposite thing stronger. Where do we go from there? What do we do when efforts to bridge epistemological gaps ultimately risk burning those bridges?

I don’t know. It’s a matter of faith, and faith is also how we got here.

Whitney Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Communication, Culture, and Digital Technologies at Syracuse University. She holds a PhD in English with a folklore structured emphasis (digital culture focus) from the University of Oregon, and an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She is the author of 2015's This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press), which was awarded the Association of Internet Researchers' Nancy Baym best book award. In 2017 she published The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online (Polity Press), co-authored with Ryan Milner of the College of Charleston. She is also the author of the three-part ethnographic study "The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Far Right Extremists, Antagonists, and Manipulators," published in 2018 by Data & Society. She is working on a third book titled You Are Here: Networked Manipulation in the Digital Age.

Jason C. Bivins is a Professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a specialist in religion and American culture, focusing particularly on the intersection between religions and politics since 1900. He is the author of Spirits Rejoice!: Jazz and American Religion (Oxford, 2015) a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2015. He has published most actively in the area of U.S. political religions, the subject of his first two books, Religion of Fear: The Politics of  Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford, 2008), a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2008, and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics (UNC, 2003). He is currently working on his next monograph in political religions: Embattled Majority, a genealogy of the rhetoric of “religious persecution” in public life. He is also writing about Jack Kirby, the “King of Comics,” for Penn State Press’ Religion Around series.