In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Rachel Wagner, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College, published an essay in online magazine Religion Dispatches discussing the loss of media access during the storm and society’s dependence on technology. Wagner was in Manhattan to research the behaviors of Comic-Con fans for her book, “GodWired.”
Staff Writer Patrick Feeney spoke to Wagner about her experience with the storm and the themes behind her essay.
Patrick Feeney: What was it like to see Sandy’s impact on Manhattan?
Rachel Wagner: There was power [on 42nd Street]. There were tons of people in the powered part of New York. Times Square and above, everything was completely normal, so everyone was going up there so that they could get food, and it looked to me, on 42nd Street, that nothing had happened.
PF: Why were you attending the New York Comic-Con?
RW: I have a chapter in the book I just published in January called “GodWired,” and I have a chapter about transmedia — just the idea of worlds that capture our fascination and encourage desire for entry into those spaces and how that’s similar to religious work and practice. Comic-Con was here, and I wanted to go see what hard-core fans looked like, what they did, how they found meaning.
PF: What are “transmedia franchises?”
RW: “Trans” means “across,” so think about delivery of the same story world across different types of media, so the story world itself is perceived as above, beyond, behind all the different delivery mechanisms.
PF: How is that related to religion and philosophy?
RW: Religions work the same way. You could talk about the world of the Bible, for example, which is accessed through fan culture, through texts, through literacy, through rituals, through objects. These are other worlds that we can imagine entry into through comics and television shows and haunted houses.
PF: Where did you get the inspiration for the Hurricane article?
RW: Usually, when we think about media, it’s something we take for granted. We don’t think about the power, and the electricity, and the energy that lie behind these things we take for granted. When Sandy happened, we couldn’t access that stuff. I had to ration the use of my cell phone. I couldn’t reply to student questions about assignments very easily. I’ve noticed it in myself that I was frustrated, that I wanted to check Facebook, and I wanted to check my email more often. It just seems like such a strange thing to write about Comic-Con and those worlds, all taking for granted the option of media access that they imply.
PF: Do you think this reliance on media and power says anything about American culture?
RW: One of the most striking quasi-religious qualities of media today is this utopic assumption that the world will be united by technology and that it’s this sort of green experience. But it’s actually not. There’s this real material cost for this dependence upon technology. We’re running low on fuel, and people don’t talk or think about use of that fuel for powering our electronic appliances. We don’t think about the relationship between that crisis and the devices we rely upon for basic communication.