Courage Is Contagious

What are some aspects of your scholarly background that you would like to share?

I have always felt like an accidental traveler into the study of religion. I grew up in a broadcasting family―both of my parents and my step mother all worked in network television and then in the cable television industry. From a very early age, I was used to screening television pilots as our family pass time and being asked to evaluate what we saw beyond simply a thumbs up or thumbs down. My sisters and I were taught to be critical readers of media on a daily basis, and it always surprised me to discover when I went over to friends’ houses that their families did not watch four televisions programs at once the way we often did. Our televisions were stacked in a cubed “Hollywood Squares” formation, and we would watch the programming for any given time slot on the competing three networks, and then sometimes add a tape of a newly proposed pilot on the fourth screen. Sometimes we watched with the sound completely off and simply judged the programs on what kind of story (compelling or not) the visuals were telling. This family viewing ritual has stayed with me today and come in handy as I have begun more formally analyzing both the visual and verbal rhetoric involved in media study. 

As an undergraduate at Brown, I was passionate about politics and broadcast journalism. I served as a News Director of our college television station and spent my summers working in network news campaign and election coverage and in news rooms at both NBC in New York and CNN in Washington, DC. Originally a “Modern Culture and Media Studies” major, I ended up majoring in Political Science with the goal of becoming an on-air political reporter. Given that today I am a religious studies professor, what happened?

While working at CNN the summer before my senior year, I asked Bill Headline, the famous bureau chief, for advice about journalism graduate schools and where to apply. I caught him in a particularly stressful period because an offshoot of the pro-Iranian Shiite group Hezbollah had recently released a videotape of their hanging of an American Marine, Lt. Col. William Higgins. This was before such media releases of video killings became more frequent in public viewing and consciousness, and it was painfully shocking and bewildering. This was also before “Google” and the Internet as we know it, so researchers were scrambling to nail down just what a “Shiite” was in relation to other forms of Islam, why Hezbollah called itself the “Party of God,” and what kind of context viewers needed to make sense of what had happened. To the newsroom’s credit, reporters and producers were trying to cover the Muslim dimensions of the story responsibly, though admittedly without knowing a whole heck of a lot about Islam or even very much about religion in general. It was in this context that Bill Headline answered my journalism school question by telling me to get an advanced degree “in something real,” which he elaborated as something like history, law, or international relations. He said he needed more reporters who could bring history and the depth of context to the stories covered. At the time, Frank Sesno, who was hired by Bill Headline, was the crackerjack political correspondent in the bureau, and although Frank, to my knowledge, did not hold an advanced degree, and he had never attended journalism school, he had graduated from Middlebury with an honors degree in history. He was known in the bureau to study history obsessively and was constantly reading scholarly background materials to inform his work. At the end of my conversation with Bill Headline about getting an advanced degree in something “real,” more coverage of the Higgins hanging was playing in the background, and Bill stopped and said something to me that would make a lasting impression. He told me I should go study the history of religions and come back with training in that because no one knew a damned thing about religion. 

I returned to university for my senior year and took my first religious studies course, which I loved. The life-transforming professor who taught it inspired me so much that it made me consider for the first time a teaching career.  I then went on to pursue an M.A. and eventually a Ph.D. Captivated by the cultural study of religion, I never did go back to journalism, but in recent years, I have come full circle, returning to my media roots as I have become more immersed in the study of religion, media, and culture. A few years ago, I made the decision to return to graduate school post-tenure to pursue an additional advanced degree in Media Studies with a specialization in Media History, Philosophy, and Criticism. Thanks to the tireless field building that foundational scholars such as Stewart Hoover have done over many years, and with my Media Studies degree in hand as of Spring 2019, I look forward to digging even deeper into the dynamic and innovative subfield of “Media and Religion.”  Even today, as Bill Headline observed back then, those who work in media and on media often know very little about or pay scant attention to religion, so perhaps I am finally answering Mr. Headline’s directive lo these many years later.

Can you tell us more specifics about your body of work?

My most recent book is due out from NYU Press in October 2019. Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue delves into the complex and contested processes of remaking our world and rescripting the future in the digital age—a time when storytelling processes themselves are shaping and being shaped by new media outlets and digital sharing technologies. I am interested in the stories we are telling ourselves about our relationship to the planet in an age of environmental crisis. As we tell these stories, they in turn tell us. Mediated messages of “ecopiety”―green virtue in practice―conveniently reassure us that small, simple works of environmental piety are wholly adequate to “saving the earth.” Ecopiety demonstrates how and why these stories thrive both in the contemporary consumer-driven mediasphere and in the hospitable conditions of depoliticized marketplace environmentalism. Whether circulated via the adscape, reality television, popular erotica, fan fiction, Internet pornography, film, gaming, or social media, these stories explicitly or implicitly promise publics that the practice of an individualized, consumer-based ecopiety holds the key to solving our most daunting environmental problems. In the process, works of “green media” too often strategically “market” an imagined moral economy, in which tiny acts of voluntary personal piety, such as recycling a coffee cup, or purchasing “green” consumer items, can be exchanged as an “offset” to justify current volumes and patterns of consumption. No need to make any fundamental structural changes; the trick is simply for the consumer to buy “the right things” in order to shop our way to a greener future. Drawing on theory and method from religious studies, media studies, cultural studies, and environmental studies, my goal for this book is to offer a “reality check.” Exploring the power of story and mediamaking to shift social energetics and effect social transformation, it challenges mediated stories of dour and individualized ecopiety. This book in turn highlights media interventions that interrupt narratives of ecopiety and offer pathways to “restory the earth” that engender the power of collective action, civic engagement, delight and play.

The research project I am working on as part of the media and public religion working group is called No Planet B: Media and Presence at the End of the Earth.  It analyzes mediations of extraterrestrial escape fantasies in the contemporary media marketplace. Examining the verbal and visual rhetoric deployed by billionaire technocrats, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Besos, this book makes the case that in marketing Mars colonization to the public, these figures tap into both historically embedded and religiously inflected narratives of “manifest destiny,” while evoking otherworldy popular apocalyptic “bug out” narratives that currently thrive in U.S. culture. That is, space travel consumerism, as marketed, has effectively come to constitute an ultimate “bug out” plan for the 1%.  This plan, in turn, consigns disposable people to a disposable planet, “left behind” in the conquest of new territories.

This book raises the moral question of whether Musk’s media sell―the narrative that human extraterrestrial migration is unavoidable and that humans have no other option than to abandon an already “used up” earth―sets in motion a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. Exorbitant financial and planetary resources must be marshalled and consumed to make this enormously logistically difficult and costly human migration to Mars feasible. In the process, the very resources critically needed to heal and repair our home planet, including measures to address climate change, are squandered in the service of a planetary “bug out” plan to colonize anew.  

In contrast to SpaceX’s marketed “earth exit” fantasies, the tactical media surrounding the “No Planet B” global environmental messaging campaign focuses squarely on reinhabiting instead of abandoning earth.  Rather than promoting a human “cut and run,” the “No Planet B” global campaign crafts media interventions that espouse the ethics of “staying at home” and “belonging to place” that are associated with the environmental philosophies of bioregionalism.  The public discourse associated with the “No Planet B” campaign, in championing the priority of healing and restoring of earth as planetary home, resists the colonial impulse to extract natural resources for profit, render a wasteland, and then move on to the “next great place.” Mediations of the “No Planet B” environmental messaging campaign concomitantly and implicitly subvert embedded Western cultural and theological narratives that associate salvation and redemption with some other off-site home that is not the earth. Utilizing media, cultural, and rhetorical analysis methods, this book engages the kind of cultural work being done by both space colonization marketing and environmental activist media messaging to shape divergent public perceptions of human planetary and extra-planetary futures.

What are the challenges and potentialities of public scholarship?

The potentialities are nothing less than a robust activated civic engagement, with enough traction and spread across a broad enough scale, that it catalyzes a massive shift in social energetics that derails us from our current trajectory careening toward worsening climate change and environmental disaster. That is my Christmas wish, by the way, and also the reason why I write books on media, environment, and moral engagement. Storied media is how we shift those social energetics in ways that, as eco-economist Gernot Wagner puts it, the planet will actually notice.

What are the challenges of public scholarship? The poisonous dimensions of digital culture, its ruthless cannibalism and bloodlust for any weakness, imperfection, misstep, or vulnerability, mean that public scholars who speak out are often skewered (along with their innocent bystander families). Careers are destroyed, lives wrecked, death threats received and/or other bodily harm threated, in addition to other troubling repercussions that make up the dark risks and consequences of public scholarship. At least one of the outspoken members in our group has needed to move house after death threats and has needed a police escort at various times to go to work.

Oddly enough, the history of the evisceration and demise of Marshall McLuhan as a public scholar of media gives me some cause for optimism―at least within the slow-moving cogs of academia. In his day, vilified by more conventional and undoubtedly jealous colleagues, McLuhan was dismissed as something of a kook and smeared by his own lot. More recently, especially with the explorations of “elemental media” by John Durham Peters, newer theories of mobile media, and in the intensifying of media-age dynamics in the digital age, McLuhan is being rescued, rehabilitated, and recognized for his off-beat brilliant creativity and prescient insight. As even the much-maligned McLuhan is resurrected, something is also concomitantly changing, albeit slowly, within academia. In the Trump era especially, academics are more so realizing that our silences will not protect us and that no place is safe. We live in a surveillance culture where everything we do is either public or potentially public. So why not make it count? Public scholars who have longevity and substantial impact are those with a very thick skin and very little to lose. I will confess that neither of those traits describes me. To be candid, I am approaching the realm of public scholarship with no small dose of trepidation. Being surrounded by such incredible colleagues and more-experienced mentors in this working group has therefore been key. As they say, courage is contagious and seeing others being brave makes us all a little braver.

By Sarah McFarland Taylor

Sarah McFarland Taylor is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and in the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture at Northwestern University.