Essays from: Stewart Hoover and Nadia Kaneva, eds. Fundamentalisms and the Media. (Continuum, 2009).

  • R. Scott Appleby, “What Can Peacebuilders Learn from Fundamentalists?”
  • Susan A. Maurer, “A Historical Overview of American Christian Fundamentalism in the Twentieth Century.”
  • Robert Glenn Howard, “The Vernacular Ideology of Christian Fundamentalism on the World Wide Web.”
  • J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “African Traditional Religion, Pentecostalism, and the Clash of Spiritualities in Ghana.”
  • Jin Kyu Park, “Discursive Construction of Shamanism and Christian Fundamentalism in Korean Popular Culture.”
  • Pradip N. Thomas, “Christian Fundamentalism and the Media in India.”

Pulling together a broad range of scholarship, this path-breaking collection of essays insists that it is impossible to understand fundamentalisms “without reference to the media” (3). Taking the Protestant fundamentalism of the 1920s as the prototypical case of fundamentalism, the editors declare that all fundamentalisms emerged in the age of mass media. More than that, media have been essential in shaping and reshaping fundamentalisms over time, intricately bound up with the evolution of these modern religious movements. Fundamentalists have proven experts at using media to disseminate their messages, but media themselves have also helped to found and shape fundamentalisms. Among other things, media can “represent, define, construct, and symbolize” fundamentalisms (5). Media offer tools for creating and disseminating meaning, and they are also contexts “within which competing sets of symbols are proposed, promoted, circulated, and consumed” (13). Influenced by the theories of Foucault and Bourdieu, the editors suggest that scholarship must look beyond instrumentalist models of media, taking seriously how various practices of media interact with fundamentalisms. When defining “media,” they argue we must keep five issues in mind: a) reflexivity, i.e. the self-consciousness and autonomy of today’s social actors; b) the eroding boundary between public and private in our media age; c) the proliferation of media producers and the move away from passive audiences; d) the largely visual and symbolic character of “the media,” which many see as particularly amenable to fundamentalist aims; e) media construct an autonomous social and political sphere of authority, which erodes traditional religious authorities (14-15). Focusing on such questions, this collection makes a valuable contribution to an emerging field.

But reading this collection after spending yesterday with Latour may have spoiled my appreciation of it. Given the lofty—indeed, often admirable—theoretical aims outlined in the introduction, the essays themselves surprised me in several ways. The good surprises. The essays I found most helpful all stood under the “Locations” heading and concerned “fundamentalisms” in non-western contexts. Asamoah-Gyadu, Park, and Thomas each pushed the usual boundaries of conversations about fundamentalism in useful ways, examining traditional Ghanaian religions, Korean shamanism, and Indian Protestantism respectively. Thomas, for example, demonstrates how a “fundamentalist” style of Protestantism gets circulated and constructed in India through people’s interactions with audio recordings, videos, posters, consumer goods, and urban space in Chennai. Though not flawless—many betray anti-fundamentalist leanings—these essays challenge common assumptions about what fundamentalism can be, where it can happen, and how it works.

Now to the disappointing surprises. I won’t say anything here about my problems with the project of comparing fundamentalisms, because I’ve already posted on that. I have another beef. Frequently, contributors refer to “the media”—as in the title. This term lent itself to a slippage between singular and plural, where “the media” sometimes required is and sometimes are in the same essay. In the introduction, I found this formulation somewhat clever, but elsewhere it was just confusing. Referring to “the media” in the plural invites readers to consider the distinct roles of particular media in particular fundamentalisms; referring to “the media” in the singular invokes a spectral force, one usually thought to be comprised of network television news, daily newspapers, and most Hollywood movies. For someone like Jerry Falwell, “the media” was precisely this sort of singular, spiritual entity—it corrupts, leads youth astray, causes sin, etc. Since he clearly offers a critique of Falwellian fundamentalism, I found it odd that Appleby’s essay used the term in roughly the same way, without comment—though presumably stripped of all its force as a spiritual agent (see 33). I’m splitting hairs, but I think they’re important ones that signal our scholarly approaches. If we’re going to talk about “the media” as an entity (or an actor), we had best explain how “it” lives in a particular community, what “it” can/can’t do, how people treat “it,” etc. If we’re going to talk about media as plural, we had better slow down and trace their each one’s functions, operations, actions, possibilities in a particular community. In the 1930s, daily newspapers and Hollywood films had very different roles, effects, powers, and possibilities in many American Protestant fundamentalist circles. We can’t gloss over those differences with a term like “the media.”

Review by A.T. Coates