Popular Religion and Participatory Culture Conversation (Round 5): Whitney Phillips and Jason Bivins (Part 2)


Jason on fear:

Every so often you write things that you secretly hope will become outdated. We want people to read our stuff, of course. But when scholars write, as I do, about religio-political formations that they find deeply challenging and in places anti-democratic, it’s not unreasonable to hope that the culture will change in ways that steadily reduce their presence and influence. Ten years ago I published a book called Religion of Fear, in which I posed the question: how did impulses and ideas that lurked at the margins of cultural discourse in the 1960s become mainstream by the 2000s? My answer was to look at the influence of several different cycles of evangelical popular entertainments, specifically at their fearful depictions of American politics.

Clearly, the movement of outlandish and fearful into the mainstream isn’t finished yet. Who can even keep up? Fervid imaginings of the Deep State, sinister secularists, or radical leftists who want to abolish Christianity through mind control – all this is so commonplace now that we wonder if we’re losing our collective ability to be outraged by such claims. By talking about the strange normalization of outrage, catastrophe, and horror – not Hurricane Maria or the day’s latest mass shooting by a white male – we’re focusing in on the ascendance of a particular religious response to “the fucking new.”

While we live in the thick of progress narratives – the providential variety, or the secular pluralist variety most prominently – we find that to engage religion in America is necessarily to be confronted with fantastical and fearful narratives. And these narratives – whether mass entertainments like The Walking Dead or Left Behind, or more subcultural fare – depend on symbolic violence done to innocent and guilty bodies alike. In my own work, I explore the eroticism that’s part of these imaginings, and the attractions of demonology generally. But there are also more overtly political implications.

In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger described violence as an ontological breaking into and breaking down of the “communal World” as it appears to custom: “This act of violence, this decided setting out upon the way to the Being of beings, moves humanity out of the hominess of what is most directly nearby and what is usual.” We might think of this passage when reckoning with religious enthusiasm, and with how the production of disturbing fear-talk is a sign of civic disaffection in a time of political crisis. But that hardly accounts for the real violence of Pizzagate or Charlottesville, does it?

Perhaps because of that intellectual limit, I’ve found myself turning more often in my current work to fiction as a way of explaining public life. In “The Canterbury Pilgrims,” Nathaniel Hawthorne explores the American propensity wherein “a cold and passionless security be substituted for human hope and fear.” And in “Passages from a Relinquished Work,” he meditates self-referentially on Cervantes, the first novel, and thus the opening of modern self-reflection on some level, preoccupied from his authorial position in mid-19th century America with Quixote’s and Panza’s tacking between “auguries” and “anxieties.” How might these Hawthornean notions capture the strange comforts of fear in a time that is actually so decidedly scary?

They do so partly by keeping things in our head, those things which in frightening us so deeply confer on us a real vitality that boring old neoliberal democracy can’t. And they also allow for the more obvious pleasures of vicarious killing, as with all those Obama puppets in nooses. The ceaselessness of the chyron becomes the fuel for the trapping and the expulsion alike. Consider John Edgar Wideman, who wrote in his novel Fanon about how “Three new stories in the news catch my eye – faith-based prisons, cell phones with tracking chips, a man arrested for raising a tiger and an alligator in a Harlem apartment. The same story really. The Big Squeeze at both ends, so nothing left alive inside people’s heads.” American politics takes shape in the relationship between death and life, fantasy and the Other.

We can’t make sense of this condition simply by pointing to religious fear as reason’s other. What seems salient to me is not just the moral urgency of fear, which is the obvious point, but also its epistemological urgency. What is at stake is not simply identity, or moral principle, but a form of knowing, of filtering out ambiguities, of rescuing a message from the depth dimensions of language. The vibrancy of the fearful and the apocalyptic subsists comes through its assessment of what it identifies as evidence. This doesn’t simply mean theological claims that, for example, ISIS rockets are biblical plagues of locusts or that Hillary was (is?) the Whore of Babylon. More than this, the emotional focus of fear, its necessary urgency, comes through moments of exposé that we convince ourselves confirm our righteous outrage. The exposure of hypocrisy and secrecy, the proof that the monster everyone else denied is really there, gives us authenticity in precisely those places where the self – and thus the world – begins to wobble just a bit.

If Foucault was right, over a half century ago, that the apocalyptic is “the world’s old reason engulfed,” what if we confront seriously the idea that many millions of Americans find excitement and promise in a glorious, Action Movie burning out rather than the insignificance of ordinary unhappiness?

Whitney on fear:

When I was a graduate student (I earned my PhD in 2012), I used to joke on conference panels that I was the Darth Vader of the conversation--everything I studied was always such a bummer (understatement), from Facebook memorial page trolling to “media fuckery” (as participants then giddily called it) to a range of identity-based antagonisms on and around 4chan’s /b/ board. Since then, my work has taken on an even more ominous cast, as focus on media manipulation and online antagonists--I don’t use the word “trolling” to describe any of this behavior, for reasons I articulate regarding Donald Trump here--has brought me into the orbit of online extremists and others committed to weaponizing information, sowing discord and mistrust, and generally undermining participatory democracy.

So I’m pretty well positioned to say, and I do not think this will come as a surprise to anyone, that there are a lot of things to be afraid of on the internet, from harassment to extremism to manipulation to hoaxes to mis- and disinformation and all the ways those things can have an immediate, embodied, irreversible impact on people’s lives.

Much of this fear--or at the very least, this loathing--stems from a rejection of the lives, worldviews, and behaviors of (those who are seen as) bad others. This is an understandable, indeed I would argue natural and appropriate, impulse when considering the violence and harm enacted by white nationalists and supremacists, and others whose sole motivating impulse is indeed to watch the world burn. But the reaction to bad others can be just as visceral when the “badness” of those others is debatable; when it’s not fear of being harmed, of traumatized, or dehumanized, but fear of being...disagreed with, or asked to take responsibility for one’s own actions and choices. (I’m looking at you, anyone who’s tried to disappear into the wallpaper with the excuse that “I was just trolling” when called out for harmful behavior).

Wherever the fear--and/or loathing--may originate, these are always instructive moments. At least, that’s what I tell my students in the Cross-Cultural Monsters course I’m currently teaching. To do so, I refer to Mary Douglas’ exploration of dirt and taboo, and how ideals about what constitutes clean, or pure, or normal are the logical preconditions of any declaration that something is dirty, or tainted, or aberrant. Focusing on what that bad thing is--or what that bad thing is regarded as being--provides immediate insight into what that culture or community values, believes, and normalizes. Monsters, in short, help us understand who the upstanding citizens are. (I used this framing to explore subcultural trolling from around 2007-2014, with the added complication that, hmm, the same people standing in mainstream quarters--with a particular focus on journalists at Fox News--lamenting the existence of trolling were often…..doing the same things as trolls, certainly in the trolls’ and journalists’ mutual exploitation of sensationalist news stories and racial/racist tensions during the Obama era, raising the question of exactly what people were criticizing, when they criticized trolls).  

I bring this up, first, to offer a means of taking inventory of what norms people are pointing to, privileging, or otherwise reifying by spotlighting the badness of others--however well-deserved that designation may (or may not) be.

I also bring it up as a segue to what I fear the most online. White nationalists, supremacists, abusers, manipulators--they are all high on my list, with the “loathing” quotient very well represented. But occupying its own special category is the fact that online, because of Poe’s Law, because of context collapse, because of rampant decontextualization, we often have no way of knowing what kind of monster we’re dealing with. A person spreading outrageous, harmful conspiracy theories might genuinely believe them. They might be trying to mess with reporters. They might be a Russian disinformation agent. They might be part of a computational propaganda effort, of which they might or might not even be aware. They might not be a person at all. Crafting an effective response--Do you debunk? Do you ignore? Do you call the FBI?--hinges on knowing which is which. But more often than not, we can’t know--complicated by the fact that when several, or dozens, of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people are spreading the same information, there are several, or dozens, of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of possibilities as to why. Even the most effective intervention for some could do nothing for others--or could backfire. Could create entirely new categories of monsters.

Like all fear, mine is revealing. It’s also confusing. The fear, the aberration, is uncertainty, and the discomforting fact that observation is not confirmation online. That would make certainty and empiricism the norm, certainty the norm--but are they? Were they ever? Has that always just been wishful, privileged thinking? Is this what the world is actually like? Whatever the answer is, I do not know what to do about it. And that scares the hell out of me.

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.