Every friday, I publish The Week in Conspiracy, a roundup of news stories and the best articles from across the web, news and academia, over at Paper.li.
Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University | Co-founding Editor of the Religious Studies Project | Editor, Implicit Religion | Bulletin Editor of the British Association for the Study of Religion.
This site is where I promote my books and collect all the little bits of writing I do in other places. On the right you’ll find my most popular posts, and at the top my major publications. You can email me at david.robertson [at] open.ac.uk.
It’s been a busy year for the Religious Studies Project. We’ve just broadcast our last podcast (until September, at least), and are making plans for next year already. Now that we have two people to help me with the audio editing, I’ve been having fun getting back to interviewing again. Here’s three interviews I had broadcast in the last few months.
First up, ‘Spirituality’ – a term with enormous currency in contemporary discourse on religion, but frustratingly under-theorised. Little consideration is given to its development, and most scholarly work simply dismisses ‘spirituality’ as shallow and commercialised. I spoke to Boaz Huss and Steven Sutcliffe, to discuss the genealogy of ‘spirituality’, and its contemporary significance, with particular reference to the New Age movement. The second half focuses on how spirituality may trouble the religion / secular distinction, and its implications for the critical study of religion.
Ann Taves spoke to me about her work on “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.
Finally, it’s always a pleasure to talk to A. Dave Lewis, this time for a discussion of representations of Muslims in superhero comics. We talk about some positive representations, like Kamala Khan, Marvel’s new Ms Marvel, and some less-than-positive portrayals, like Frank Millar’s Holy Terror! We talk about American comics as a product of the immigrant experience, and how comics made by Muslims play with the conventions of the genre. And we talk about how to use these texts in the classroom, as a powerful tool for exploring representation, media and religion. And what is the “wormhole sacred”?
Richard D Hall of RichPlanet fame has a new film out, Kill Jill: The Dando Assassination Explained. It’s the follow-up to his I think 10 hours of investigation into the Madeline McCann case. Again, it’s an in-depth investigative piece featuring a fair bit of speculation, but like his other work, it does have original research, and it is definitely at the saner end of the conspiracy spectrum. While I don’t think he has anything like enough evidence to back up his conclusion, there could well be some truth in the collusion between the security forces and the media, particularly the BBC, in the case of the Brixton nail-bomber. And as he says, his work is more about analyzing how the media manufactures consent, although he pushes that further than Chomsky will, publicly at least.
That is the YouTube link. I wanted to link to the original video on richplanet.net, only to see this:
Coincidence? I don’t know. (Update: it’s back now. Maybe it was just a bandwidth issue.)
I once referred to Richard Hall as “the Vic Reeves of conspiracy theorists”, because he’s from the North and is genuinely funny (see if you can find his statement about the People’s Voice). But there’s also a transparency and self-awareness that you don’t often see in this sort of milieu, and I have to respect him for that. In a milieu that is increasingly mainstream and commercialised, his dedication to a DIY challenge to hegemony is pretty punk rock.
My colleague Marion Bowman sent me a link to a new product, The Dragonfly:
a brand new, empowering technology that allows you to communicate with your departed loved ones. It’s a safe and simple device that acts as a phone, so you can talk to the other side. Those who love you are always with you, guiding and helping you in your journey. Through them, you can access a universe of knowledge and understanding. This technology opens a “spiritual internet” of information.
I love the steampunky wood finish. It also reminds me of Derren Brown’s Dream Machine:
Fact is, there’s nothing new about devices like this – in fact this one is based on ideas from the 1950s. But the nexus between technology, supernatural or spiritual ideas and commerce has been a feature of the cultic milieu since at least the 1800s, with Mesmerism in Europe and then Spiritualism coming out of the US. (Rafale Natale’s Supernatural Entertainments is a good exploration of this relationship.)
To me, this makes as little sense as speaking to a loved one at their grave, or praying for that matter. Some might find the use of technological or scientific language troubling, but the underlying presupposition – of an undetectable realm of existence containing agents which can affect this world – should be much more problematic epistemologically.
Find out more at http://www.whatisthedragonfly.com/index.html
Things have changed a lot for Alex Jones in the last year or two. Long gone are the days when I used to listen to Infowars every day, a research process that was as much social anthropology as it was history, but I still like to keep an eye on the Tip of the Spear himself.
Things were looking good for a while – the media were paying attention, and thinly-veiled analogues for Jones were appeared in Homeland and The X-Files. He won over a new audience with a stoned appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience. Most of all, a presidential candidate was calling in to the show and making references to Infowars in speeches and tweets.
Donald Trump’s election was a phyrric victory for Jones, however. When your capital is based on your opposition to the institutions of state, it is a problem when you find yourself aligned with those institutions. The narrative of the Deep State worked for a while – the idea that Trump was being prevented from carrying out his more radical policies by unelected officials in organisations like the Department of State and the CIA with an unspoken agenda of their own. This kind of narrative fitted seamlessly on top of preexistent New World Order narratives, but we shouldn’t ignore that it was also the argument made by many Obama supporters as to why he also failed to close Guantanamo Bay. Conspiracy theories are in no way restricted to the right, nor to the margins.
But Jones has also had considerable personal problems. He split up with his wife, Kelly, and lost custody of his children in a rancorous public court case which famously saw Jones’ lawyer claiming his on-air person was “performance art”. Many of his critics leapt at the chance to say this was an admission of what they had known all along, ignoring that if he was lying the first time, why assume he was telling the truth this time, especially when his children were at stake? Kelly was a significant cog in the Infowars machine, and has kept the pressure on, very publicly. Two Infowars employees sued for unfair dismissal, accusing Jones of sexual harassment and racism. Then some Sandy Hook parents sued over claims that it was a staged false-flag. There are rumours that he is having problems with alcohol. Even his protegé Paul Joseph Watson seems to be distancing himself.
When Trump launched a bombing raid on Syria on 13th April 2018, Alex lost it.
During a 26-hour live show (something Jones has done annually for some time), a clearly exhausted Jones begins teary renouncement of Trump which builds into a tirade that makes his fragile state of mind plain.
“I will tell Trump that, you really betrayed your family, and your name, and everything that you stood for… I thought of Donald Trump as a bigger man than me… When I turn against Trump, it’s not because they got to me… I feel like I just had my best girlfriend break up with me… I’m done with Trump.”
It’s hard to read this as mere performance art. His co-host looks genuinely concerned as he repeatedly tells Jones not to stay on air. Jones interrupts him so often that he falls into a confused silence.
There’s no way the Alex Jones of ten or even five years ago would have failed to work this into his broader narrative somehow, no way he’d have let his audience know he was wrong. This disavowal says a lot more about Jones than it does about Trump.
I interupt my usual programming to talk about music again…
I’ve loved Liz Phair since Exile in Guyville came out in 1993, and it’s personally frightening that it’s 25 years old because that means I’m old too. My old CD doesn’t play all the way through anymore, so I probably would have bought the reissue anyway, but the addition of the complete Girly-Sound tapes sealed the deal. Not enough to buy it on vinyl, mark you – £70 for five discs seems a little over the mark to me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Guyville songs are the most recognisable of the old songs, often only lacking the rhythm section added, or changes of tempo. Lyrically, they’re mostly identical, with the odd tweak here and there. “Bomb” differs from its album version, called “Stratford-Upon-Guy”, with a spoken chorus which lends the aeroplane narrative a different reading, and “Fuck and Run” adds a verse from the male perspective which makes it clear that we are to read it as a critique of a whole generation’s dating doublethink, rather than a gender-specific one. Johnny Sunshine changes tempo for every verse instead of dividing the song into two sections, and while I think the album arrangement ultimately works better, it’s a great reminder that just because a piece is working doesn’t mean that it might not work even better if you move the bits around some more. Whip-Smart is hard to get your head around because it is played slower than the album version, and without its swing. I kept humming the bass-line, and it didn’t fit anymore.
But the unfamiliar songs are the real treat, and there are a ton of them here. “White Babies” is built on a variation of “My Bonnie”, and there’s lots of little snippets of pop songs and nursery rhymes that float up and disappear again in these songs, reinforcing the idea of them as private, like Leopold Bloom’s recurring memories of Fleshpots of Egypt and metempsychosis. There are flashes of the dorky humour of Funstyle in places, like the biting reworking of “Wild Thing” or the voices in “Elvis Song” or the juxtapostion of a blue joke with a chorus about leaving town to seek her fortune in “California”. Other standouts include the singalong “In Love w/ Yself”, another meditation on relationships, and “Hello Sailor”, which compares a sailor returning after a dubious foriegn campaign with her own romantic and existential position. But like all her songs, they take a few listens to emerge fully, and I know that I will be returning to these discs often, and there aren’t many reissue bonus tracks I can say that about.
I haven’t been posting much recently because during term-time, I have a lot of teaching. But I have been busy, and a couple of my recent interviews have been published over at the Religious Studies Project. (Please note that the wesite is being upgraded, so is prone to downtime and broken links atm, so I have posted the YouTube versions here.)
First up is a conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and myself, concerning magical thinking in the modern world. We tend perhaps to think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. I recorded this at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference back in February.
Also published recently was this panel I took part in, presented as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Religious Studies seminar series. The Committee of the BASR discuss the public impact of Religious Studies – is RS a “muted voice” in public discourse? Who are the new audiences for RS? My section on “Who are we speaking to?” comes last.