Power and Perfect Pictures

This post is part of a series that originated out of a photo essay assignment in Dr. Simmons’s Interim “Religion and Pop Culture” course that asked students to apply discussion themes to everyday objects or experiences.

When I was younger and more naive, I thought the future would have flying cars, cured diseases, and immortal people. Today popular culture more often utilizes trends of a dystopian future, such as the ones in The Hunger Games and Divergent. In these stories, there is great injustice and suffering, and the hero of the story must rise against the system. These plotlines occur where good ideas and intentions cross with futuristic technology and end up with unintended consequences. The shift in view of the future from a place we all want to live to a place only the damned are left to endure reflects the situations of the storytellers. Asking in a post for The Week why TV is “awash in afterlives, hells, and purgatories,” Lili Loofbourow states, “I’m trying not to read too much into this historical moment, but it’s hard to avoid speculating about the ways in which this proliferation of TV shows about people embracing the irrational reflects the national mood.” I think this shift in fiction, as Loofbourow implies, goes hand in hand with people’s everyday lives. Stories about the future are really stories about the present—about the people telling them.

Continue reading

The Performances We Give Every Day

This post is part of a series that originated out of a photo essay assignment in Dr. Simmons’s Interim “Religion and Pop Culture” course that asked students to apply discussion themes to everyday objects or experiences.

The time is Halloween 2018, and my nephews—ages nine and seven—are focused on one thing. They eat, sleep, and breathe Power Rangers. For them, these action heroes make the world go round. So naturally, at Halloween, the only costuming option as far as they are concerned is…you guessed it, Power Rangers. The only problem is that their love for the franchise is bigger than the amount of options available at stores. So, we set out to make their outfits from scratch. Several sheets of craft foam, plasti-dip, and spray paint cans later…here we are.

Continue reading

Defending Non-“Real” Music

This post is part of a series that originated out of a photo essay assignment in Dr. Simmons’s Interim “Religion and Pop Culture” course that asked students to apply discussion themes to everyday objects or experiences.

I think there’s a power in not caring about the opinions of others. If we place enough value on something, then no matter what the opinions of others are, we can still look at it with a sense of pride. Taking away the “unfortunate interruption of opinions” allows for someone to unironically love something (Kavanagh, 306). There are a lot of things we hold dear to ourselves that, in theory, have no “real” value on our lives. Of course, a lot of people would defend their family, friends, careers—but favorite music? Why do we place such importance on who our favorite artists are? Why do we get so defensive when others try and shut down our top picks? Why do we feel a little embarrassed sometimes if the person or group we’re into isn’t “real music”?

Continue reading

Power Always Changes

This post is part of a series that originated out of a photo essay assignment in Dr.Simmons’s Interim “Religion and Pop Culture” course that asked students to apply discussion themes to everyday objects or experiences.

As I was sitting at work the other day at Bryant Denny Stadium, the doorbell buzzed turning on the camera to let me know someone was outside. Using the speaker, they explained to me why they were there. This is part of my job. People ring the doorbell, explain to me why they are there, and I decide if they get access to the building. A few weeks ago, the doorbell rang and as I was about to hit the unlock button, I realized that I recognized the person outside. One of my past professors was standing outside waiting for me to respond. This professor was…not my favorite, to put it diplomatically. For a few seconds, I sat there debating on if I should let him in. Here I was sitting at my desk, a student, but I had the power in this setting. This power was situational but absolute. Outside of that building, I have no power in comparison to the professor. In class, I had no power, but he did. At the moment before I open the door, however, I get to make the decision of who can enter and who cannot. I, a student worker, control the access for one of the most important buildings in Tuscaloosa. People come from all over the world to this building, but I get to make the decision if they get to come inside. This one instance made me think about the peculiarity of power. Who grants it, who has it, and who does not are all constantly changing. Whether or not we realize it, we can observe these shifts in our lives every day if we pay attention. Continue reading

Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

Harry Potter, or in human form Daniel Radcliffe, is currently acting in an off-Broadway play titled The Lifespan of a Fact. Timely and satirical, the play posits a contemporary political pastime of major and minor news agencies across the world: fact-checking truth. Perhaps the more important question one might ask today is: is there truth out there to be found by all these fact checkers? For Radcliffe, there are no magic wands, no all-knowing Hermione Grangers and no easy answer to this question as he portrays the dedicated fact checker. Tim Teemen in his review of this play for the Daily Beast explains that the play is about “what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.”

On stage, Daniel Radcliffe works to fact-check an article by a well-known journalist about a horrific suicide in 2002 when a sixteen-year-old jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  This real story and actual journalistic attempt was in the “fact-check” phase for seven years before it was finally killed as a story for Harper’s Magazine due to journalistic disagreements.  The story was finally published in the form of a book seven years after the actual event and then became the subject of this play exploring the discourse of the narrative flow in non-fiction true event’s writing.

The United States is currently at war with itself in terms of what free speech is and whether free speech and truth are the same. The illusion is that free speech, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, is equal to “truth”. Civics teachers have been emphasizing for years that it is our right and that we need to honor each other’s right to speak our truths.  What wasn’t emphasized was that “truth” and “free speech” are not equal.  This is not a new argument either in popular culture or in academic scholarship. Roland Barthes a major French literary theorist wrote about the nature of linguistic meaning and one of his explorations dealt with the multiplicity/plurality of meanings. Barthes is talking about literature and scholarship but the implication is that “meanings” are complex and are affected by time, relationships and authors. Is there such a thing as “truth”? Does the designation of “fact” make the item “true”? Can we trust the fact-checkers in the media when as Pierre Bourdieu stated in his text On Television (1996), “we are getting closer to the point where the social world is primarily described—and in a sense prescribed—by television.”

Journalists work for companies, whether as print journalists or televised journalists, which are owned and sponsored by moneyed operatives or corporations. Television and print medium fans have their own “teams” in terms of what news outlet they support or champion and as long as their “truth” is espoused, they continue to watch or read.  Journalists are writers and writers like to have their work read or seen by a wide audience.  Whether it is fiction or non-fiction there is always tension about what literary license means when presenting truth. With fiction, the author expects the reader to come along for the ride and agree that there is plausibility in the story. With non-fiction, the author still has a desire to present the material in a literary form so that the reader will want to read the article or book, assured that the facts of the story are being presented.

The conundrum is that the reading/watching audience are operating with a set of truths that, as Barthes would argue, are complex and layered and from individual to individual may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is. No matter how hard the fact-checkers work or how long they pursue their goal, what is presented in the end by that news outlet will not be received by everyone as “truth”. The new term “fake news” used today has nothing to do with the veracity of an article or item. It is used to combat journalism that one doesn’t like.

Harry Potter had to deal with “fake news” too, put out by The Daily Prophet. At least he had a magic wand to deal with his “truth” issues. Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact has no magic wand and unfortunately, his character cannot guarantee his outcome as truth either.

The 6th Annual Day Lecture

The Department of Religious Studies hosted its 6th annual Day Lecture. The series (established, by his family, in the memory of REL grad Zachary Day) focuses on religion and popular culture, attracting students from across campus.
Continue reading