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



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