I attended two sessions at the recent meetings of the International Communication Association (my primary scholarly home) that came into conversation with one another in the hearing and reflecting.
The first was an otherwise very fine Popular Communication Panel, “Sounds Global: Popular Music, Politics, and Discourse.” The second was a plenary panel titled “Do Disciplines Matter?”
In the “Sounds Global” panel, we were treated to a rich set of papers dealing with particular locations of popular expression, with varying implications in gender, politics, globalization, and violence. One paper dealt with the trajectory of image-making in pop music, looking at a popular female Korean Wave group. It followed their evolution in form toward international markets and noted the sexual, gestural, and gendered dimensions of this shift. A second looked at rap music in the Turkish Community in Germany as a resistive force, with an elaborate and layered analysis of the ways this has evolved in the form of specific groups and rappers. The third focused on popular and generational online discourses of resistance In Iran, including reflection on media meta-discourses, including tensions between Iranian and diasporic media voices. A fourth concentrated on mediated resistance in Norway in the wake of the Otoya massacre carried out by an ultra-nationalist skinhead.
In the panel on disciplines the discussion centered around the conundrum of disciplinary distinction and rigor on the one hand and the need for interdisciplinarity and dialogue on the other. Both are important, one can be emphasized at the expense of the other, etc. but, the first panel illustrates yet another value of disciplinarity.
Each of the presentations connected its chosen phenomenon with the deep and rich panoply of culturalist theory-making around identities, mediation, and public representation. The paper from Korea focused on how the particularized and original effervescence of this pop group was gradually integrated into the global pop-culture (specifically the “Korean Wave”) scene and the concessions it made and the gestures, expressions, and representations that marked this evolution. These included gestures of gendered bodily display and discursive performativity. The paper on dissident rap in Germany looked at the work of male and female rap artists in the immigrant community and the means and methods of distinction and particularity they adopted, negotiating evolving standards of “German-ness” in relation to “other-ness,” and the tools of cultural distinction and difference available to them. The Iran paper looked at the affordances of digital and other media to support voices of resistance and dissidence in Iran. Youth culture, in particular, is rising in new and nuanced ways against the dominant public cultures of Iran, and these media artists want to assert a uniquely Iranian voice in what has become a global flow of diasporic discourse, much of it dominated by voices outside Iran. Finally, the paper that looked at the Norwegian massacre concentrated on a specific hip-hop group that arose in the aftermath, voicing immigrant concerns about the ultra-nationalist streams of influence present in the mainstream parties in Norway.
Each of these papers referred to important literatures related to culturalist media analysis. Feminist, post-colonialist, intersectionalist and polymediatic ideas were brought to bear. All were good and all were compelling.
One very obvious thing was missing: religion. Each of these papers trod turf rife with religious history, conflict, meanings, attributions, claims, and exclusions. It is hard to think about standards of public performativity around culture in contemporary Korea without at least framing the role that Protestantism has played in framing public culture there, particularly as regards women, their roles and their representations. The resistant voices in Germany were Turkish, and thus at least nominally rooted in Islam and its histories and traditions of expression, meaning-making, and politics, and its internal struggles over forces which wish to articulate valid and legitimate claims to different visions of modernity—this project heavily inflected by Turkey’s experience with integration or non-integration into Europe. The public culture of Iran is, of course Shia Muslim. There is so much to be learned about the capacities and affordances of religiously-inflected cultures such as Iran’s to support or nuance or layer resistance, and the cultural and symbolic resources that might be involved. Finally, ethno-nationalism across Europe is heavily and troublingly inflected with religion. (Anders Brevik, the shooter in the Otoya massacre was an example of this—many headlines read “was Brevik a Christian terrorist?”). Modern Europe is, of course, stunningly secular (particularly in comparison with the US), but this ethnonationalist development seems in layered and nuanced ways to be inflected with religion, with “the religious,” or with “cultural religion” (see, for example the debates over religion that arose during the drafting of the European Constitution).
So what is my point here, how does this relate to disciplines in the field of communication?
Each of these papers could have benefitted greatly from a careful review of these religion-related dimensions. Why didn’t they? I asked the question of religion in the panel, and it was clear that all four panelists agreed that it was a gap. So why did this occur? It was not the fault of these young scholars.
It is simple. There is a gap in the literatures–in the discipline(s). There were no widely-circulated articles, no contending theories, no commonly-known arguments to refer to, as there were in the other literatures that *were* referred to to great benefit to these projects. The fields of mass communication, cultural studies, and media studies, in which these papers were situated, have a gap in knowledge when it comes to religion. Much could be said and written about this and about why this is the case.
To the question of the value of disciplines, this is a value: they provide frameworks, languages, theories, methods, arguments, and ongoing trajectories of scholarly discourse. They cannot be ignored. Could any of the papers I’ve described have “gotten away” without referring to gender or to post-colonial theory?
So, for a lot of not-so-good reasons, there is still a scholarly “blind spot” around religion, and our scholarship and broader public knowledge are the poorer for that fact.