Structure of Feeling / Structure of Being

Throughout the course of our investigations, we have garnered a much greater understanding of the relationship between activities grounded in pop culture and political movements, civic engagement, and public participation. Together we have begun to contemplate a multitude of frameworks and spheres ranging from social media—a member of our team, Kevin Driscoll, has recently responded to Malcolm Gladwell’s criticisms of Twitter—to DIY cultures and flash activism. Our thinking has been supplemented by insightful interviews and we have undoubtedly grown since our inception a year ago.  Yet, as with many other forms of research, hard work and findings, while fruitful, have also served to illuminate further areas of inquiry. For our research team, one of these subjects is the role and potential purpose of religion.

Going into this project, I feel as though our group endeavored to discover emergent themes:  although we each came to the table with a particular set of experiences, we used our backgrounds—a shared history of fan studies, civic action, popular culture, and cultural/media studies—to develop loose hypotheses regarding the various trajectories that groups might take. In some ways, then, it might make sense that we have only recently begun to dig deeper into religion’s role as the intersection between religion, media, and culture has only recently become a point of consideration; traditionally, scholars in various fields explored the overlap between religion/media, religion/culture, and media/culture, but not necessarily all three at once (Hoover and Lundby 1997). 

Immediate assumptions might position media merely as a carrier for religious messages (with televangelism providing a pertinent and visible example) or as a degenerative force, counteracting the positive moral messages of the church. While this view presents a valid lens through which we can understand the presence of religion in media and culture, it is also a narrow one; although we could certainly talk about the role of institutionalized religion in the course of our work, I believe that such a discussion would be inherently limited and ultimately unhelpful. Instead, I suggest that we begin to understand the possible influence of religion as an ideological framework that serves to shape the public sphere, structuring and ordering the world for its followers. Although we might be hesitant to associate religion and concepts of faith/spirituality with those of materialism, James Twitchell notes a similar (and already present) overlap between the fundamental functions of religion and branding/advertising—a very secular construct (2004, 1996). Arguments such as Twitchell’s force us to reconsider our notion of religion, possibly divorcing it from ingrained conceptualizations of what religion looks like. I would also note that this stance does not preclude a discussion of institutionalized or traditional religion, but instead endeavors to expand upon the processes at work.

 

In addition to understanding religion as a framework, we can also examine the functional role of religion in the lives of individuals through the lens of lived religion, a perspective that perhaps allows us to more directly understand the ways in which religion intersects with the lives of individuals. Employing lived religion as a theoretical construct allows us to begin to consider the ways that religion is enacted on a daily basis through the actions of individuals; the strength of lived religion revolves around the idea that many observed activities might not necessarily be articulated as religious by individuals but their genesis may stem from an underlying philosophy regarding morality or responsibility. In a sense, lived religion allows us to study the process of meaning making through activity. Again, this perspective does not discount the importance of actions traditionally associated with institutional religion, but merely serves to place them in a broader contextual range of action.

We can, for example, examine how one function of religion is to help followers understand their relationship to the world around them. As a research team, we continually contend with notions of local/global and online/offline, along with the theme of community in general; religion exists in all of these spaces and helps individuals to define their relationship to the space/place around them. How, then, does this mental mapping translate to tangible action?

The focus on the interplay between the secular and the sacred continues as we begin to see that the intersection between media, religion, and culture is also an important one as media, in various forms, serves as the basis for our groups’ content worlds:  in one case, we have a group that rallies around a fictional tale of a young wizard as told through a septology of books (and a complimentary series of movies) and in another example we have Invisible Children, a group who demonstrates an adept understanding of media in its messaging and branding. In both cases, symbols constructed by media have taken on a new form, imbued with (potential) religious significance in a process that mirrors that of a ritual. Again, although we traditionally associate religion with terms connected to a spiritual afterlife, I also ponder the ways that religion is firmly planted in the material world; heaven as a place is perhaps not as important as how we get there.

Continuing to consider the relatively subtle overlap between religion, media, and culture, we can reconsider the arguments of Melissa Brough, also a member of our team, with an eye toward the ability of media to re-enchant the world and to imbue it with new meaning. In her post, Melissa astutely outlines the power of media in Invisible Children’s recruitment efforts and the theory of re-enchantment allows us an additional understanding of how this process might operate.

This causes us to question whether civic engagement is in fact declining among Americans (in general) and American youth (in particular). Perhaps the lesson to be learned is merely that public participation is moving away from duty-based notions of engagement (e.g., voting or petitioning congressmen) and is instead being accomplished by alternate modes of action and for alternative reasons. If we consider our research goals in a larger context wherein Americans are withdrawing from traditional institutions such as politics and religion, we can see how concepts of re-enchantment, like those in popular culture and lived religion, might step in to accomplish the same functions. Ultimately, this examination of religion provides us with an important line of questioning as we continue to expand the scope of our research:  keeping an eye open for concepts like lived religion, without assuming their presence, can provide us with additional information to understand the potential motivations of individuals as they participate in the public sphere.

[EDIT:  Anthropologist Patricia Lange came to speak at the Annenberg School recently and raised some interesting questions regarding proto-civic engagement and civic attachment, mentioning the development of an outward focus as an integral part of public participation. In some ways, then, we can think about the role of function of religion in the development of community and helping individuals to develop a sense of space that is is outside of themselves.]

Chris Tokuhama studies popular culture, youth, Horror, and media as a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California while balancing a full-time job in the Office of College Admission. Primarily interested in mythical origins and narrative structures, Chris argues that some of his greatest religious epiphanies have come from television. Comments, questions, and Starbucks gift cards can be sent to tokuhama [at] usc [dot] edu.

REFERENCES

Hoover, Stewart M., and Knut Lundby. “Introduction: Setting the Agenda.” In Rethinking Media, Religion, and Culture, edited by Stewart M. Hoover and Knut Lundby, 3-14. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.

Twitchell, James. Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

—. Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College, Inc., and Museumworld. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.