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Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

by Donovan O. Schaefer

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In Religious Affects Donovan O. Schaefer challenges the notion that religion is inextricably linked to language and belief, proposing instead that it is primarily driven by affects. Drawing on affect theory, evolutionary biology, and poststructuralist theory, Schaefer builds on the recent materialist shift in religious studies to relocate religious practices in the affective realm-an insight that helps us better understand how religion is lived in conjunction with systems of power. To demonstrate religion's animality and how it works affectively, Schaefer turns to a series of case studies, including the documentary Jesus Camp and contemporary American Islamophobia. Placing affect theory in conversation with post-Darwinian evolutionary theory, Schaefer explores the extent to which nonhuman animals have the capacity to practice religion, linking human forms of religion and power through a new analysis of the chimpanzee waterfall dance as observed by Jane Goodall. In this compelling case for the use of affect theory in religious studies, Schaefer provides a new model for mapping relations between religion, politics, species, globalization, secularism, race, and ethics.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822359906
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/13/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 989,723
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Donovan O. Schaefer is Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.

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Religious Affects

Animality, Evolution, and Power

By Donovan O. Schaefer

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7490-9



Power is a thing of the senses. — Kathleen Stewart,Ordinary Affects

In God Is Not One, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero places religion on the dissection table and finds it to contain four parts: there is a problem, then a solution (the "goal" of any religion); there are techniques for reaching this goal and exemplars who lead the way. In Christianity, for instance, the problem is that the world is sinful; grace through Christ or faith or works is the solution and the practice; Jesus the mythological figure is the exemplar. Although Prothero acknowledges the usefulness of Ninian Smart's model of religion as constituted by multiple "dimensions," of which belief is only one, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that assessing all religions as beginning with problems fundamentally orients religion to a cognitive-linguistic axis. In such a scheme, language and power form a smooth, hydraulic system without remainder: "people act every day on the basis of religious beliefs and behaviors that outsiders see as foolish or dangerous or worse," Prothero writes. "Allah tells them to blow themselves up or to give to the poor, so they do. Jesus tells them to bomb an abortion clinic or to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so they do. Because God said so, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe thatthis land is their land, so they fight for it in the name of G-d or Jesus or Allah." Religion, for Prothero, is a grid of linguistic commands, a current of force from concepts and beliefs to moving bodies.

This model is no doubt useful in many contexts, and Prothero is exactly right to push back on the tendency to extract religions from a historical frame by flattening their conceptual differences. But the problem-based model is also an illustration of the linguistic fallacy: Prothero locates power within symbol systems, of which religion is one example. In this, he builds on a linguistic template developed by religion theorist Jonathan Z. Smith that is in the background of several contemporary projects in religious studies. For Smith, the "human sciences" — including religious studies — become "conceptually possible largely through the acceptance of the argument that their objects of study are linguistic and language-like systems." This comes across in Smith's analyses of the zone of overlap between power and religion, which highlight how systems of power are led and maneuvered by symbol systems. Smith argues that religion is best understood as a worldview — "a culture's or an individual's symbolization of the cosmos and their place within it" — that is shaped by social processes. Smith imagines a speaking, thinking-knowing subject as the indivisible unit of systems of power. In Smith's model, to change power, one must only change the thinking subject's symbolic milieu — the transcript of what is said to us and by us. For Smith, culture, religion, and society are texts inscribed in minute detail by systems of power.

In addition to being in the background of popular offshoots like Prothero's book, this template is also a precursor to the social-rhetorical approach in academic religious studies. Contemporary scholars such as Russell T. McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Bruce Lincoln have developed the social-rhetorical approach as an adaptation of neo-Marxist ideology critique to religious studies. In this model, religion is functionally synonymous with ideology — a set of lies designed to mask certain material interests in accumulating what McCutcheon calls "social benefits." "Religion" is a discursive strategy, a linguistic move made in a multidimensional chess game played by bodies embedded within an economically arranged, zero-sum social landscape. Smith's work lays out the contours of this template for religious studies by focusing on religions as text-like technologies of social control.

Affect theory does not seek to interrupt the hypothesized link between language and power, which has been well established in neo-Marxist and post-structuralist critiques. Affect theorist Lauren Berlant notes that "affect theory is another phase in the history of ideology theory," and that "the moment of the affective turn brings us back to the encounter of what is sensed with what is known and what has impact in a new but also recognizable way." Ann Pellegrini writes that culture critic Raymond Williams's notion of "structures of feeling" is not designed to abandon "worldview" or "ideology" as categories of analysis, but to "push us to take seriously how 'formal or systematic beliefs' are embedded in, and arise out of, concrete relations and experience." Smith's linguistic turn in religious studies dispatched earlier metaphysical approaches to religion that mystified the relationship between religions, the category "religion," and systems of power. This paved the way for the historically and materially grounded (nonangelic) approaches to religious studies on which Religious Affects is built. The social- rhetorical method and other linguistic models of religion are indispensable components of the religion theorist's toolkit. Affect theory adds to the critique of power by supplementing the linguistic turn, not erasing it.

And yet, the affect theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick expresses a weariness toward the hot pursuit of approaches deriving from the hermeneutics of suspicion. In her extraordinary essay "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading," she argues for attentiveness to what she calls the "queer possibility" that the things bodies make and do — relationships, cultures, texts, religions, regimes of knowledge, gestures — might not always be sinister or cynical acts of dissimulation, but loving, joyful, or healing. For Sedgwick, the exact equation of language systems with regimes of power risks lapsing into a practice of endless accusation that suppresses other ways of diagramming culture and politics. Just as Thomas Tweed suggests that every theoretical approach is a "sighting" that entails its own vistas and its own blind spots,the critique of the phenomenological tradition in religious studies launched by Smith — in successfully pushing back against the ahistorical, sui generis tradition in religious studies that insisted that religion as a private feeling could never touch or be touched by the political — could be said to overlook the ways that the phenomenological can be recruited into a political analytics.

Affect theory, then, opens onto new ways of framing religious studies. Religion understood affectively illuminates a much more complicated picture than the "paranoid" vantage offers, a picture in which bodies move in a variety of directions at a variety of odd angles that cannot always be cashed out in terms of "social benefits" like financial or political gain. The social-rhetorical approach attributes a level of cohesiveness to language — and a level of forethought to human bodies and institutions — that is unsustainable in the wake of the materialist shift: it elevates us to the status of far-sighted angels. Affect theory's project is to question the extremely tight fit between language and power — the flawless symmetry without remainder — that has become the orthodoxy of some offshoots of the linguistic turn. Knowledge is embedded in fields of power, but it is by no means the only form of power. Complicating the social-rhetorical approach by exploring affect is one of the subplots of this book, developed especially in chapter 6.

In superseding the linguistic fallacy — the myth that the medium of power is language — affect theory is a continuation of the materialist shift outlined by Manuel Vásquez in More Than Belief. Vásquez is also wary of the overemphasis on social constructionism and the "suffocating textualism that approaches religions as essentially systems of symbols, beliefs, narratives, and cosmologies, ignoring other important material dimensions of religious life." Instead, Vásquez proposes materialist phenomenology as a working model for religious studies: an interdisciplinary exploration of the way that religion is lived and experienced within and without the limited domain of language. For Vásquez, traditional phenomenological approaches from philosophy and religious studies have been too much in the thrall of transcendentalist — and anthropocentric — models of subjectivity. But, at the opposite end of the critical spectrum, social constructionist approaches that overemphasize the linguistic model fail, for their part, to "acknowledge our embeddedness in nature ... and our continuities with nonhuman animals." Materialist phenomenology, for Vásquez, retrieves "alternative phenomenological currents [that] stress historicity, facticity, enfleshment, and embeddedness in everyday life." In developing a model of power that is not reducible to language, affect theory helps to map the contours of animal religion as a materialist phenomenology enfolding human and animal bodies.

This chapter serves as a survey of contemporary affect theory, with an eye to developing a set of conceptual tools useful for religious studies in subsequent chapters. Following recent genealogies of affect theory such as those created by Ann Cvetkovich, Jasbir Puar, and Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Religious Affects proposes that affect theory is best understood as emerging in two currents, what I call its Deleuzian and phenomenological modes. This work charts the similarities and divergences of these currents and begins to indicate their relevance for thinking a materialist phenomenology in religious studies that sidesteps the "suffocating textualism" of the linguistic fallacy. Affect theory in all its forms is designed to profile the operations of power outside of language and the autonomous, reasoning human subject. Affect theory asks: what if power was not a symbol system, but something enfolding and exceeding language in the ways it plays across bodies — a "thing of the senses," in Stewart's phrase?

Affect Theory: A Dual Genealogy

Material feminist theorist Karen Barad opens her essay "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter" with a line that could serve as a miniature manifesto for affect theory: "Language has been given too much power." Affect theory is a cluster of interrelated but not always commensurate theoretical approaches that take affect or affects (the distinction is important for some, as discussed below) as their objects of study. These approaches draw on different theoretical lineages in bringing forward the notion of affect, and so there is a hazard in venturing a single definition of their shared terminology. But as a provisional locus, affect or affects can be understood as the propulsive elements of experience, thought, sensation, feeling, and action that are not necessarily captured or capturable by language or self-sovereign "consciousness."

Affects, then, are forces that exceed the classical liberal thematics of self-sovereignty. Liberalism here refers to an intellectual lineage emerging out of Western modernity that places the liber — the free man, the singular, rational, autonomous, speaking agent — at the center of its understanding of culture, politics, reason, knowledge, and religion. The liber is auto-nomous — both self-lawed and self-sovereign — and therefore is the node (either the origin or the target) of systems of power. Affect complicates this picture. Berlant calls affect "sensual matter that is elsewhere to sovereign consciousness but that has historical significance in domains of subjectivity." Bruno Latour identifies the turn to affect as the reformulation of bodies as processes rather than entities. The shapes and textures that inform and structure our embodied experience at or beneath the threshold of cognition are affects. To study affects is to explore nonsovereign bodies, animal bodies, bodies that are propelled skittering forward by a lattice of forces rather than directed by a rational homunculus. The liberal topoi of language, cognition, will, and free choice are layered on top of these stormy affective climates. "Where has logic originated in men's heads?" Nietzsche asks: "Undoubtedly out of the illogical, the domain of which must originally have been immense." Affects are the deep, recalcitrant textures of our embodied animality.

For some affect theorists, such as Brian Massumi, Patricia Clough, and Erin Manning, the term affect rigidly excludes what are called emotions — felt experiences that are the pieces of our personhood. But others, such as Silvan Tomkins, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Teresa Brennan, and Ann Cvetkovich, suggest that the consideration of emotions falls under the purview of affect theory. This work will consider both of these perspectives in exploring the prelinguistic and prepersonal dimensions of religion — not exactly noncognitive but extra- or paracognitive, coassembling with the cognitive (Silvan Tomkins's word) to shape the contours of thought, action, and experience. I suggest that at the emotional and preemotional levels, affects are the flexible architecture of our animal lifeways, the experiential shapes that herd together and carry religion on their backs. Affect theory makes available a set of approaches to religion that work through animality by probing the thick forms moving outside of the narrow lighted circle of language.

To develop the dual genealogy of affect theory, we turn to two of the starting points for contemporary affect theory and their ramifications for the study of religion: Brian Massumi's 1995 essay "The Autonomy of Affect" and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank's edited volume of the same year, Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. What I see as the constitutive tension of affect theory and its potential for building bridges into the study of religion emerge out of the interplay and the null zones between these early entries, which inaugurate the Deleuzian and the phenomenological streams of affect theory. Massumi's essay is an effort to crystallize a particular intellectual lineage — from Spinoza to Nietzsche to Deleuze to contemporary neuroscience — around a single analytic locus: Spinoza's notion of affect. In the Spinozistic sense of affect, all aspects of embodiment are understood as the effects of a matrix of micrological forces. Spinoza in his Ethics writes that his study of affects "shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies." Departing from the Cartesian notion of the human subject as an undifferentiated pocket of self-mastery, Spinoza finds in affects a multitude of forces that are the plural, heterogeneous materials of subjectivity. Deleuze characterizes this as the ethological approach, in which bodies are understood as a compendium of crisscrossing lines of force. For Spinoza and Deleuze, affect dislocates the anthropocentric perspective, opening up onto a multiplicity of animal ways of being organized around the variety of "natures" making up the bodies of different organisms. The ethological approach explores the variety of animal life streams by mapping our affective makeup as heterogeneous networks, rather than undifferentiated "subjects."

Massumi updates Spinoza by bringing his model of affect into conversation with contemporary neuroscientific frameworks. "The Autonomy of Affect" is structured around three different neuroscientific investigations, one in which German test subjects were shown a short film about a melting snowman with different narrative voice-overs, a second in which it was demonstrated that the minimum threshold of awareness of a stimulus for the human brain was a one-half-second duration, and a third in which the psychologist Oliver Sacks described the reactions of aphasic hospital patients to a speech by Ronald Reagan: watching the disjuncture between Reagan's facial expression and his speech, the patients would laugh wildly.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction. Species, Religious Studies, and the Affective Turn  1

1. Religion, Language, and Affect  19

2. Intransigence: Power, Embodiment, and the Two Types of Affect Theory  36

3. Teaching Religion, Emotion, and Global Cinema  60

4. Compulsion: Affect, Desire, and Materiality  92

5. Savages: Ideology, Primatology, and Islamophobia  120

6. Accident: Animalism, Evolution, and Affective Economies  147

7. A Theory of the Waterfall Dance: On Accident, Language, and Animal Religion  178

Conclusion. Under the Rose  206

Notes  219

Bibliography  261

Index  281

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More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion - Manuel A. Vásquez

"Blending seamlessly the most fecund insights of affect theory, evolutionary biology, and critical animal studies, as well as feminist, queer, and postcolonial theories of materiality and embodiment, this bold and trenchant challenge to the ideology of human exceptionalism and its accompanying linguistic fallacy—the refusal to analyze religion and power outside of language and texts—offers a revolutionary and more capacious approach to religion that recovers its visceral intensity and animal generativity."

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