Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Interview by: Jon Baldwin
Jon Baldwin: You open the introduction to the collection, Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, with the definition, “Hyper-real religion refers to a simulacrum of a religion, created out of, or in symbiosis with, popular culture, which provides inspiration for believers/consumers.” (Possamai 2012: 1) At the end of the introduction, after acknowledging various comments and critiques, the definition is refined and becomes “a hyper-real religion is a simulacrum of a religion created out of, or in symbiosis with, commodified popular culture which provides inspiration at a metaphorical level and/or is a source of beliefs for everyday life.” (Possamai 2012: 20) Accepting then, that the discussion of hyper-real religion is open and on-going, have there been any significant developments in the meantime that would modify the definition further?
Adam Possamai: I have discussed recent developments in my new book (Possamai 2018) and extended my analysis on religion and popular culture to society at large. In this work, I observe that the phenomenon of using popular culture for everyday life is not limited to religion. Other new social practices are being created or ‘brought to life’ at the grassroots level. One example is Real Life Superheroes, a movement in which people dress up as superheroes and walk through the streets of cities, acting as a type of neighbourhood watch and reporting to the authorities any crimes they witness. They do not necessarily fight against crime, but rather act as unofficial, and often untrained, social workers helping those in need, such as the homeless (Possamai and Iouchkov 2017). New sports have recently emerged from popular culture texts, such as quidditch from the Harry Potter stories and chess boxing from the graphic novels of Enki Bilal. There are also various events centred around the theme of zombie walks, where people dress up as the ‘living dead’ and wander around the streets of major cities. Anonymous, the international network of activists and ‘hacktivists’, has its members wearing the stylized Guy Fawkes mask as it was portrayed in the graphic novel comics by Alan Moore and David Lloyd in the 1980s, and later on the big screen in the film V for Vendetta. They wear their masks to signify their belief that governments should fear their citizens rather than the situation being the other way around. They are quite active online and oppose Internet censorship and control. To borrow from Greek mythology, what we have today is a Pygmalion process in which social actors attempt to bring to life various elements of art or popular culture. In the Greek myth, Pygmalion was an artist who fell in love with his own sculpture of a beautiful maiden, and made a successful offering to Aphrodite in order that his ‘ivory girl’ be brought to life. Although the digital world has not created this process, it has provided a platform for this effect to develop. People are today able to organise themselves, and share ideas, very quickly on new social media. Something that was more difficult in the age of photocopies and fax machines. Hyper-real religions are part of this larger process. To answer your question, the definition is of course on-going as all sociological definitions should be. As societies and cultures change, so should theoretical concepts that are capturing our reality. By bringing this new social theory on the Pygmalion effect (Possamai 2018), I have recently expanded the theories of hyper-real religions into a wider context.
Jon Baldwin: You suggest that the Internet has been instrumental in the growth of hyper-real religions akin somewhat to the way the printing press facilitated the Protestant reformation. This might, for instance, challenge the authority of the educated and elite purveyors of religion. What might be further possibilities, or dangers, afforded by the Internet?
Adam Possamai: Although there is a certain playfulness evident in the examples above of the intrusion of hyper-reality into people’s ‘real’ lives, one should be aware of its negative impacts as well. In 2014, in Wisconsin, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods before stabbing her nineteen times in order to please the fictional online character Slender Man, a tall creature with a featureless face who preys on children. Slender Man was created only a few years ago, but the internet meme quickly spread through dedicated wikis and sites such as 4Chan and Reddit, and his legend evolved as new authors wrote stories detailing his traumatic attacks on children. The girls said they hoped the stabbing would grant them access to his mansion. This event might be seen as a consequence of a particularly new phenomenon, as the creature was created in the digital world and subsequently became an urban legend. In cases such as this, digital culture offers a global and participatory platform for the story creation process. New technology also allows urban legends to be transmitted at a much faster pace, giving many more people the opportunity to shape folk stories that blur the distinction between fiction and reality. Commonly, these stories (and their characters) take on ‘a life of their own’ and become completely independent from the output of their original creators. Another aspect of this hyper-real phenomenon are conspiracy theories (Roeland, Aupers and Houtman 2012). These can be about the government hiding secrets from its citizens and/or about secret societies ruling the world, often with an esoteric bent such as the so-called illuminati. This group was originally a type of initiatory group from Bavaria in the 18th century with strong influence from the Freemasons. Today, popular culture makes reference to this group as a secret group seeking a new world order. Reference to this abounds in the literature, comics, computer games and cartoons. In our world of intertextuality, it is common to make a quick reference to this conspiracy theory. However, in hyper-reality, where reality often becomes blurring with the media and commodified popular culture, some consumers, passive or active, wonder if this is true and/or want to be convinced of their existence. One simply needs to observe the memes of the illuminati on Youtube and read the comments that people have posted.
Jon Baldwin: It is suggested that there are three ideal-types of hyper-real religious actors: (1) Active consumers of popular culture leading to the practice of hyper-real religions, (2) Casual consumers of popular culture leading to a sharing of characteristics with hyper-real religions, (3) Religious and secular actors opposed to the consumption of popular culture leading to the practice of, or to the sharing of characteristics with, hyper-real religions. Could you sketch out exemplars of these positions? Is there a type that is in the ascendancy?
Adam Possamai: With these ideal-types, I attempted to cover the whole field with regards to hyper-real religions. For the first type, we find social actors who are actively involved in hyper-real religions and develop meanings for their life through these social and spiritual activities. With regards to Star Wars, these would call themselves Jeddists. However, hyper-real religions are not just for those fully involved. It can also provide some inspiration to people who would not recognise themselves as part of these religions. Coming back to Star Wars, they might be interested in its spirituality and be inspired in their everyday life, but they would be more casual about this. If we make a broad comparison with Catholicism, the first type would make reference to people who believe and attend church regularly. The second type would make reference to people who do not attend church but still feel a connection to this religion. Back to this field of hyper-real religions, and moving to the third type, there are people opposed to this hyper-real phenomenon, and some of them are socially active to prevent the youth from reading, for example, Harry Potter. People from this ideal-type admit that popular culture can influence peoples but sometime in a negative way. In this instance, they are opposed to the story type based on magic which is interpreted as de-sensitising children to the occult. It is believed that these children will be more likely to join an occult group when they become adult if exposed to that type of literature. With regards to this typology, the second type is certainly becoming more popular as people use more and more popular culture to understand and live their social reality. This has been explained above through the concept of the Pygmalion effect. It is not affecting religion only but wider cultural spheres as well.
Jon Baldwin: You have written that, “we did not have to wait for late modernity to find invented religions, as this label could be applied to all religions and could even be read as a tautology.” (Possamai 2012: 19) Why might this be a tautology, and could you clarify the distinction between a hyper-real religion and an invented religion?
Adam Possamai: Sociologists of religion tend to study what people do with, and understand, divine and/or spiritual revelations. We are more concerned with what people do when dealing with the sacred than trying to validate the religious message or experience. And what people do, especially with their interpretation of the sacred, is always social constructed (see Possamai 2018). Indeed, as Weber wrote, the challenge of keeping a religion lasting after its leader passes away is to routinize his or her charisma, and as such, believers have to build a structure that will carry the messages of this person through the ages. As such all religions are socially constructed and are thus invented. If this was not the case, we would have had less schisms over the centuries. As religions are invented, calling them invented, is indeed a tautology. On the other hand, some religious people would see their religion as authentic (again a term in sociology that we argue is socially constructed) and thus would claim that my comment is instead an oxymoron. A hyper-real religion is blatantly an invented religion as it openly uses works of popular culture at its basis.
Jon Baldwin: Geoffroy has proposed that it would be more accurate to characterise your conceptualisation “as a re-interpretation than as a re-adaptation of Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality.” (Geoffroy 2012: 25) Is this a fair assessment? How important is Baudrillard in the notion of hyper-real religions?
Adam Possamai: To be true to Baudrillard’s vision, both understandings are correct. Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality is central to my work on hyper-real religions, but Baudrillard did not study this phenomenon. To reflect this economy of signs in the field of religion which now includes the use of popular culture, I have indeed re-interpreted the work of the French social theorist to capture the signs of the times. This phenomenon has developed thanks to the development of consumer culture, which involves the proliferation of signs and symbols ready to be used for one own religious or spiritual biography. Hyper-real religions reflect a change since WWII which has been captured so well in Baudrillard’s notion of hyper-reality. And as Baudrillard saw everything in terms of simulacra being exchanged constantly for other signs and symbols, the same goes for my own re-interpretation (or theoretical simulacra) which is part of a flow of exchange, and as such this can be seen also as a re-adaptation of his theory.
Jon Baldwin: Barker (2012: ix) suggests that your concept of hyper-real religions threatens the Durkheimian separation of the sacred and the profane. Further is the suggestion that hyper-real religions challenge the secularisation thesis. Do you accept this, and what might be the implications?
Adam Possamai: I agree with these suggestions. If popular culture is used more and more for spirituality, people might start seeing a type of sacredness in movies, shows, books, graphic novels and games. Inspired by the theories on implicit religion, we could extrapolate a type of implicit sacredness that people experience when seeing their favourite characters going through an inspiring moment. Indeed, some of the emotions felt by viewers and readers can have at times some similarities with emotions experienced through collective effervescence. As we are bombarded by popular culture which can provide an implicit collective effervescence, the distinction between the profane and the sacred is indeed becoming blurred. In terms of culture, hyper-real religions are indeed challenging the secularisation thesis. This is only a part of the larger increase of spirituality by people within and outside religious institutions. However, in terms of structure, this is not challenging the secularisation thesis as hyper-real religions are not impacting on society the way, for example, the catholic church used to do during the middle ages. My view is that hyper-real religions, in terms of culture, are indeed impacting on the hard line of the secularisation thesis but other social theorists will be correct in rejecting this claim as these beliefs are not impacting on society in a structural way.
Jon Baldwin: How might hyper-real religions relate to your work on New-Age spirituality and what you have termed ‘perennism’?
Adam Possamai: When I conducted my fieldwork in the late 1990s in Melbourne on New Age (Possamai 2005), I discovered that my informants gave meaning to their social and spiritual life by being inspired by various religions, spiritualties and philosophies. To understand these practices, I qualitatively analysed the interviews from my fieldwork and realised that the notion of the Perennial Philosophy from Aldous Huxley (1994) could explain the variety of beliefs and practices that I encountered. As my analysis was not philosophical but conceptual, I used instead the notion of perennism which I defined as a syncretic spirituality which interprets the world as monistic (the cosmos is perceived as having its elements deeply interrelated), whose teleology for its actors is the Integral Self (actors work on themselves for personal growth), and whose soteriology is sought through gnosis (the way to develop oneself is through a pursuit of knowledge). Later when I studied Hyper-Real religions, I discovered that this eclectic approach has been pushed further by including works of popular culture into this mix of religions and philosophies. There are elements of perennism in many hyper-real religions as some practitioners would see the universe as interrelated and will work on themselves for personal growth. As for this pursuit of knowledge, some would seek that of the universe, that of themselves, and/or that of the works of popular culture that inspire them (as an dedicated fan would do). I would not think that perennism could explain all the various sub-types of hyper-real religions, but certainly many.
About the Authors:
Jon Baldwin is from the London Metropolitan University.
Adam Possamai, Western Sydney University, is author of a number of works including Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament (2005) and The I-zation of Society, Religion, and Neoliberal Post-Secularism (2018). In 2012 he edited the Handbook of Hyper-real Religions.
Barker, E. (2012) ‘Preface’ in Possamai, A. (ed.) Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, Leiden, Boston: Brill.
Geoffroy, M. (2012) ‘Hyper-real Religion Performing in Baudrillard’s Integral Reality’ in Possamai, A. (ed.) Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, Leiden, Boston: Brill.
Huxley, Aldous (1994) The Perennial Philosophy, Chatto & Windus: London.
Possamai, A. (2005) In Search of New Age Spirituality, Ashgate: Aldershot.
Possamai, A. (2012) ‘Yoda goes to Glastonbury: An introduction to hyper-real religions’ in Possamai, A. (ed.) Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, Leiden, Boston: Brill.
Possamai, A. (2018) The I-zation of Society, Religion, and Neoliberal Post-Secularism, Palgrave McMillan, Basingstoke.
Possamai, A. and V. Iouchkov (2017) “An implicit hyper-real religion: Real-Life Superheroes” in C. Cusack and P. Kosnac eds. Fiction, Invention and Hyper-reality: Contested Contemporary Religions, London, Routledge: 272-290.
Roeland, Aupers and Houtman (2012) ‘Fantasy, Conspiracy and the Romantic Legacy: Max Weber and the Spirit of Contemporary Popular Culture’ in Possamai, A. (ed.) Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, Leiden, Boston: Brill.