So it seems I’m adding yet another academic blog to the existent stockpile. I do apologize. Though, I would like to think mine will be slightly more fun, as it will involve video games, YouTube videos, and forum posts, because I study religion and popular culture.
One of the greatest issues with studying popular culture is the speed of academic publishing doesn’t match the speed of popular culture. By the time we have selected what to study, done the study, written it, got it edited, resubmitted it, and run through the publishing gambit, the subject of our study may well have fled the purview of public interest. But perhaps I can bypass some of this by some of my interest being featured here instead of passing through some elaborate system which does not quite understand that the Internet’s interest is only about as long as one loop of a cat gif.
So as the obligatory introductory first post, I should sum up what my specific interest is. And its quite easy to sum up in one word: narratives. I like stories: stories people share; stories people tell about themselves; stories people find funny; stories people find sad; stories we consider myths, or legends, or folklore; stories we call fairy tales… I think you get the picture. Narratives are the closest thing we have to understanding the intangible parts of human life, like emotions or belief. And belief should not simply be tied to our common understanding of religious life, or what I like to call the Big Five (the five often dubbed “world religions”: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), as belief is often more complex than this, especially when looking at contemporary belief on the internet.
There is a form of belief which must happen for communities to exist online in the first place. We run into many ideological issues when we (and not just the academic community, but often the online community as well) dub the physical world as the “real” world. This automatically positions the online community in strict opposition to the physical, not on a virtual/physical dichotomy, but on a real/imaginary dichotomy. The communities formed and experienced virtually are thus considered not real, but are often felt as so much more real than their physical counterparts. And belief can happen temporarily, or partially. I can in some ways believe in the land of Hyrule, and the evil which plagues it, without believing in its physical existence. I can believe in the Triforce and what it stands for without believing in the truth and accuracy of the existence of the three goddesses.
When arguing about the academic tendency to focus on definitions of legend and myth involving the community to believe in the absolute truth of the narrative, I frequently use the best example I have in my own narrative repertoire: my mother. When I was a child, my mother told me a story of a Buddhist monk. The monk was walking through the woods. A rabbit jumped across his path. Very soon after, a hunter ran by the monk, and asked the monk if he had seen a rabbit. “Why do you need to know of this rabbit?” the monk asked. “I am a hunter,” the hunter explained. “If I do not kill the rabbit, I cannot eat.” The monk was then faced with a difficult choice. If he told the hunter where the rabbit went, he would not be lying, as telling the truth is an important Buddhist precept, but a living thing would be harmed due to his action. If he chose not to harm the rabbit, he would be lying, and may harm the hunter, but a vulnerable life would be saved.
The story ended there, with no inkling as to which way the monk chose. When I pushed my mother on this, she shrugged and said, “Well that’s the point. Sometimes there is no right answer.” I was not satisfied, and demanded to know if the story was true, and if it was what the monk had chosen. Her response was simple: the monk had not lived, but the story was true. It is true that at some point in life, you may have to make a choice between two paths which may go against your ethical stance. For my mother, the story of the Buddhist monk was not a historically accurate story, but it was still a true story, and one she believed in.
In a similar way, I can believe in the truth of the Hylian Triforce without believing in the historical accuracy of the story. The Triforce stands for an ideal balance in the human, a balance between power, wisdom and courage. I personally believe in this idea, and it has been a belief of mine since I played the games originally as a child. Despite this, I do not believe the Triforce physically exists, nor do I entertain ideas which clash with the fact someone in Japan created the Triforce for a video game.
In my mind, this is how popular culture works: it creates believable ideas in unbelievable places which stick with us. It makes us think about it much later when we’re supposed to be working on that report due tomorrow. It makes us smile when we remember it. It makes us dress up as those unbelievable characters who invoke those beliefs. It makes us seek others who feel as attached to those narratives. It makes us get tattoos of those symbols. And, yes, it makes us put more money into the hands of the creators. But it also makes us tell stories. And it makes us believe.
That is the power of popular culture. It makes us believe as a collective, as one community, in opposition to the idea that the ever digitizing world is making us grow apart. We tell our own stories in relation to those around us – to relate our own experiences to those we vicariously experience every day. We tell our stories of how our worlds were changed by experiencing these things. We tell stories of how others should pay attention. We create fan fictions, yes, but we also simply speak our narratives to those around us. Or we type these narratives to those virtually around us. The narrative which we could study alone, as a single forum post, or a single video game, is in reality only one small story in a network of stories, creating a narrative web where our own lives, and our own narratives, are woven with others.
And that’s why I love these narratives. They hold a large amount of power – the power to make us laugh, the power to make us cry, or the power to make us believe.
So this website is not meant for academics alone. Each post is written not to be published in some academic journal, but rather to be one of the many narratives in this web. It is meant to encourage dialogue between the well-sheltered academics (like the one who demanded a definition of the word ‘controller’) and people who, like me, love these narratives and live them as much as possible. It is not enough to study popular culture from a distance, but we must partake with those who believe as strongly as we do. And share our narratives with them.
So while this particular academic website may get lost in the shuffle of all the others, I hope that it may add, even if in a small voice, to the overwhelming number of narratives which exist all around us.