London’s Trafalgar Square is stampeding with Pottermania as I write, and the rest of the world is bracing itself for the last and ultimate battle in the nearly-universally loved Harry Potter stories. The power of Potter is exponential in a globalized age: the speed and reach of social and mainstream media has snowballed Pottermania into a worldwide mob, reaching a frenzied climax of religious and spiritual fervour that some analysts find confusing and unsettling. Newspapers, journals, and people who think for a living are working past deadline to get a clear answer to this question: what is the power of the Pottermania?
In the midst of this din, I want to argue that the power of Potter is something not altogether unlike what we’ve come to call religion. The word religio—the Latin root of religion—was not used particularly often prior to the Enlightenment, and when it was, it was typically more about the rules of a community, especially monastic ones, than about transcendent doctrines. It meant, literally, to bind: a cultic series of duties that bound people and places to rituals of meaning. It was a story embodied in a community of practice.
It was only after the Reformation and the Thirty Years War that the term “religion” and the ways we think about it today came into common usage, an invention of the modern period as something distinct from and rival to things like politics, economics, and culture. The invention of religion separated practice from transcendence, barring its convictions from the secular public.
But the artificial gate between story and practice has finally splintered under a relentless postmodern siege. First anthropologists and philosophers, then students of politics and culture began to find that the stories we tell, and how we tell them, are not simply reflective of but also deeply formative for our common life. They are religio, in the original sense. And these revelations have been spectacular, if unnerving.
In July 2008, Slate ran a story on “The Bauer of Suggestion,” arguing that American interrogation policy and its juridical elites borrowed more from the hero Jack Bauer of 24 than it did from the American constitution—Bauer, of course, being the man who finds someone who needs torturing 12 times a day, on average, and saves the world from imminent threat at least that many times.
Around the same time the hit British TV show Yes, Minister was making the rounds on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill among staffers and members. I told students at the time that if they wanted to understand the Hill, they were better off sitting through a few seasons of Yes, Minister than spoiling an afternoon slogging through legislative process. The show’s hilarious infusion of draconian politics and outlandish scheming told a story that would teach them more about the heartbeat of the Hill than all their textbooks could.
This is not a new phenomenon: Almost a decade earlier, Grab a Phaser, Ambassador brought the realism of Star Trek‘s universe into focus, first as a battleground for Cold War logic in the 60’s and later for the post-Soviet neo-liberal experiment of American (re: Federation) hegemony.
Pop culture both shapes and reflects the rest of the culture—but so what? Entertainment feeds us back the stories we tell about ourselves: that’s widely understood. But what we forget is that in retelling those stories we also change them—and us. The social construction of cultural and political power changes with every retelling, so that practices like, say, American torture policy come to owe more to Jack Bauer than they do to ethicists and ambassadors. Trekkie diplomats are great to poke fun at, until we pause to wonder who’s had more influence on their foreign policy: Jean Luc Picard or Samuel P. Huntington?
The power of Potter is not just a cultural and economic frenzy that will pass from record when the credits for The Deathly Hallows roll. The power of Potter is that the tale has actually changed our political and social imagination. It has revealed as much about our society as it has pushed the boundaries of what is possible, imaginatively speaking. What the particulars look like in the reign of Potter is a discussion for another time, but what’s certainly true is that a generation—or three—have had their imaginations shaped by Rowling’s hero and his world. And in politics, imagination is everything.
In The Theopolitical Imagination, Will Cavanaugh writes:
How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders.
Harry Potter is religio. Potter binds us, imaginatively (as we read the stories) and liturgically (as we read them and watch them together), to a common sense about what is and is not possible, what is right and what is true. The fact that this happens through popular culture, through literature and film, is why evangelical Christians especially have waged a frantic culture war to supplant the influence popular media has over the “hearts and minds” of their young these last few decades. So-called religious people, at least, have not forgotten the power of story to shape our common moral and social horizons. They have that instinct right.
In storytelling there are no mere flights of fancy. Stories are serious business, maybe more serious than the high politics of parties and think tanks that embody them. There is, conclusively, much to be said for stories that aren’t even true.
A few years ago I took a dive down the logic of this slippery slope. I read Twilight. It was trite. But like Harry Potter, these books were a mob sensation, especially in the much maligned Twi-hard demographic of teen and pre-teen girls. While pundits raced to attack and defend the books, the power of Twilight was at times overlooked. It was expressing and shaping, in real time, the imaginations—cultural, relational, romantic—of a huge, growing movement of North Americans.
These fantasies and stories don’t just tell us what we value; they also tell us what we come to expect, what is possible, as we practice the stories wrapped around us.
And if Twilight or Harry Potter powerfully captures the imagination of a huge demographic, that isn’t just instructive of where we are now—as a culture—but also of where we’re going. That should give everyone pause, even the Twi-hard and Potter haters. The truth about failed cultural activism is that it is not sloppy thinking or stagnant networking; it is bad storytelling.
None of which is to foolishly suggest that cultural power makes all these stories morally equivalent. Stories can degrade or inspire, betray or ennoble, and democratic decision making is not the last word on which does which. It is simply the method by which their scale of power is often understood. And when that scale operates at the mass mobilization level of Harry Potter, it puts a new pressure behind the critics’ advice for “must see.”
Why? Usually, the exaggerated sentiment of uniqueness that infects North Americans makes us allergic to the idea of doing something “because everyone else is.” Individualism seems to be the surest inoculant from the mob. But while this idea is seemingly cathartic, it’s ultimately a failed experiment. We’re social, liturgical creatures. Common cultural language of truth, good, and beauty constantly shift in the “mob”—maybe community?—of public life. Most of us aren’t really any more—usually less—than the half authors of our stories anyway.
I’d hate to boil this argument down to “do it because everyone else is,” but I’d also hate to invalidate the communal logic that individualism has dismissed: common story has common power, and if we excuse ourselves from the hearing and the telling—if we sit out a cultural phenomenon such as this—we lose the grammar of cultural engagement. We lose the power to have our voice not only heard, but also understood.
Hate it or love it, read it or not, the phenomenon of Harry Potter changed your world. So if you’re in the business of culture or politics, grab a ticket in the next few weeks. It’s probably better to know how it happened.