If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Greg B. Johnson


On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

Group Work Sucks. Why Collaborate?

Greg Johnson, University of Colorado

In retrospect, I now see that the most productive years of my career were marked by an intensive individualism. Left to my own devices and discoveries, I could See Spot Run with laser lucidity. Joey, in stark contrast, was in the dark. He didn’t know where to begin to look for Spot. Bereft of any workable epistemology, Joey also had no viable phenomenology or ontology. He was stuck. And so was I—Joey was my reading group partner in first grade. Thus began my resentment of group work, now called “collaboration.” It was asymmetrical, yielded little more than wasted time, and was inevitably awkward. Group work was best left to the playground. Such was my early assessment, which has left a mark on me years later. In memory of Joey, I never inflict group work on my students.

Perhaps this pedagogical rigidity is also defensive. After my white-hot early career—roughly kindergarten through fourth grade—I went through a pensive phase that was decidedly unproductive, at least by conventional measures. This decade was spent “cooking” ideas, a solitary pursuit. Authority structures (namely, homework) were called into serious question. And yet the pedagogical fetishization of “group think” demanded sacrifices. Thus it was that Julie eviscerated me in science lab every week. My failure to prepare was tanking the group, she screeched. I began to understand Joey. Group work sucked from his perspective, too.

I emerged from my pensive phase in college. Thinking less and writing more seemed like the right mix for this exercise. Group work occasionally came my way, but I managed to avoid the worst or it. Then came graduate school. To my delight, group work was virtually nonexistent in this particular climate. But that lack of human engagement was a bit unnerving, too. Even so, I appreciated the presumed professionalism behind the individualistic model. The unmistakable message was: “Succeed on your own merits or go home.” Fair enough. I got in this groove the best I could and had some productive if uneven years that entailed roughly equal measures of key ingredients of academic success: reading, thinking, and writing.

Once on the job market and in my first (great) job, this basic mix—life in the silo of one’s own head—continued to prove productive. But I also had the dawning realization that regular and sustained conversations with my new colleagues at Franklin & Marshall College were helping me grow intellectually in ways I hadn’t expected. Organic collaboration! During that same period, I served on a student conduct committee. A rather large entity, this committee grappled with a range of issues from petty to serious. To make a long story short, it was a humbling experience to see “group think” in this context. The committee included students, faculty of all ranks, and administrators. Time and again we can came to decisions that I supported but had not anticipated. Here was a model of collaboration that was very persuasive to me. Tasked with tough decisions, but ones that would not impact any of us directly, we grappled aloud with heavy issues, including procedural ones. This was a profound learning experience. In my current role as Program Committee (go team!) chair for the American Academy of Religion, I frequently look back to what I learned then about the merits of group thinking.

Even so, it would take a few more years for this realization about constructive collaboration to influence my academic work. And in some ways this was to my benefit. Namely, with the tenure clock ticking, it was in my best interests to keep my head down and do “my own work.” As we all (should) know, the current configuration of reward structures in the humanities (at least in North America) is such that collaborative work is undervalued at best and frequently dismissed. On that note, I wish to point out that the following account of collaborative successes should be read in the context of institutional constraints. Sadly, “group work” is largely a function of privilege (of rank and resources), and it is unfortunate and perhaps even backwards that the formative stages of careers in the study of religion are shaped in relative isolation. Lucky for me, just about the time I received tenure, I was asked to participate in several collaborative projects.

Collaboration, I suppose, would have come my way eventually due to the nature of my work, which is both interdisciplinary and marginal (relative to normative categories and structures of our field). My primary research focuses on contemporary indigenous traditions and law. Over the past fifteen years, most of my fieldwork has been in Hawai`i, about which I have no complaints whatsoever. Of the many great things about my research site (ok, I’ll stop soon…), what stands out foremost—indeed it is the condition of possibility for my work—are the terrific relationships I maintain with a number of Hawaiian colleagues, some of whom I count among my closest friends. I have learned so much from them and have been able (on occasion) to offer something back with regard to my knowledge of relevant legal issues and other forms of modest advocacy (See Johnson 2014).

In academic circles, pursuing Hawaiian studies within religious studies has demanded that I find conversation partners beyond my own specialization. By way of my own training and predilections, this push led to engagement with second order horizons of our field and the conventions by which they are constituted. Folks at the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) and others similarly inclined towards questions of method and theory became regular interlocutors. The pedagogical payoff of these engagements has been tremendous. I have for years taught a method and theory course that is in many ways the classroom incarnation of this multi-year conversational collaboration.

Religion and law debates became another site of collaboration, and it is my tremendous good fortune that Winnifred Sullivan, Robert Yelle, and others have been pushing the boundaries of this sub-discipline for the past decade, particularly on questions about discourses of religious freedom and the role of the state. Invited to join the conversation at various junctures, I have been challenged to “think law and religion” in ways that exceed the particular contexts of my research (burial protection and repatriation). These multi-disciplinary conversations disabused me of some “shop talk” habits learned in graduate school. I learned that navigating common languages for critical work carried a much higher payoff than speaking in one’s own particular tongue, no matter how inspired.

This lesson yielded returns back home. Over the past several years the University of Colorado, where I now teach, has launched its Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies. This is a fantastic initiative and one I’m delighted to be involved with in several capacities. One of my tasks has been to work with other faculty members to chart a vision for the Center. Here too there has been a premium on plain language framing of second order horizons. I want to emphasize this aspect of “group work.” Too often we academics assume—in practice, if not in principle—that jargon spewing and sparring is the most effective way to do collective theoretical labor. It isn’t so. Cogently framed second order horizons, in my experience, are best described, mapped, and approached by means of shared languages. My point isn’t against theory. It is that collaborative theorizing is built from common bricks. In the case of the Center, we have some wonderful plans for symposia exploring the intersection of narrative, law, and indigeneity, and we aim to reach our goals by collaborative means. I’m sure theoretical languages will emerge in the process. And that is just the point—to theorize (actively), as opposed to regurgitating and repeating a looping cycle of theory dribble. Collaboration at this level depends upon interlocative accountability—a commitment to speak to and with (rather than past) one another.

Interlocative accountability (something I never extended to Joey) can result in one of the best fruits of collaboration: generative comparison. This may seem painfully obvious, but it may also sound like a liability. “Comparison, really? Aren’t we over that?” At the end of the day, this is what collaboration amounts to, whether by design or not, and whether in terms of first order exempla or second order frames. So if you don’t like comparison, for sure don’t collaborate (or try to communicate with other human beings, for that matter).   If you do wish to collaborate (or have) and aren’t too allergic to the idea of comparison, perhaps you may find some inspiration in Marcel Detienne’s recent reflections on collaborative comparison:

For ‘a’ comparativist to become plural, it is necessary to form a microgroup of ethnologists and historians who are colleagues or even accomplices and who are prepared to think aloud, together. A regular meeting place is more important than a big research grant, for in that shared space, a comparativist can acquire the competence of a historico-anthropological microcommunity. The project may begin with no more than two members, the one a historian and the other an anthropologist, just so long as each partakes of the intellectual curiosity and competence of the other… (2008, 24).

I am currently involved in such a “microcommunity” by way of the Indigenous Religion(s) project housed at the University of the Arctic in Tromsø, Norway, and anchored by Siv Ellen Kraft and Bjørn Ola Tafjord. Constituted by a seven-member core group and numerous affiliates, this project is designed to last five years. It is explicitly collaborative and comparative. Our aim is to analyze the relationship between local indigenous traditions and articulations of indigenous religion(s) on the global stage. What are the networks that link the former to the latter? What about feedback loops from the global to the local? Which actors in what contexts invoke “religion” and to what ends? Pursuing these kinds of questions, we hope to be able to say something about the category “religion.” Is it serviceable here? Does it adequately name something “on the ground”? Does it productively frame a second order set of analytical rubrics? Might we venture alternatives?

The method to our madness is deceptively simple. We will make field visits to each other’s research areas as a group. Finding encouragement in Detienne’s vision, we aspire to hard-nosed comparison in the sense of seriously engaging the empirical-discursive stuff of one another’s data. In this sense, the challenge is to operationalize the best of post-Eliadean comparative work through empirical means. This is not a naïve call for some sort of revitalized sensory epistemology masquerading as method (“Hey, I see that too!”), though the simple affirmation that one isn’t making everything up is surely comforting. Quite the opposite, this sort of empirically based collaborative accountability is about ferreting out blind spots, missed opportunities, unexplained tendencies, and other forms of chastening excess. This kind of work requires serious collegiality and a willingness to place analytical rigor above mere collegiality. It requires openness and risk (of falsifiability—or at least demonstrable wrongheadedness).

As we travel to our sites we will be explicitly framing initial investigations in terms of four categories as a means to provide us structure and leverage: translation, performance, media, and sovereignty. We are just now launching into the field phase of the project. Already, however, we are seeing results. Even to frame our collective work (in grant applications and publication proposals) we have had to talk through and by means of our differences. Speaking for myself, this process has caused me to sharpen and focus some ideas while abandoning others. Most of all, through getting to know the other’s materials (content and theory), I am seeing ways this project may lead—at least provisionally—to the articulation of novel comparative analytical taxonomies. We are asking: what categories give increased purchase, if differentially, here (“here” being multi-sited) and there (also multi-sited)? Right now our collaborative patois is somewhat clunky, but we are building a language for posing a bedrock theoretical question: How do empirically based and collaboratively generated categories challenge or supplement received categories in the academic study of religion? In terms of “products,” we have several volumes planned, the most radical of which is to be jointly authored in real time in the course of our field visits. About this particular embodiment of collaboration I remain agnostic but hopeful. Ask me in five years how it turned out!

In terms of personal benefits from the Indigenous Religion(s) project, I look forward to the candid response of my colleagues with regard to my aforementioned advocacy activities. Once in the field with me, how do they perceive the nature of my relationships there? Do my colleagues resonate with my reasons for choosing to get involved with legal and political issues in Hawai`i (again, in admittedly modest ways)? Do they see analytical costs to the ways I am situated? Have I compromised my stance and vision as a scholar of religion? What would they do differently? Beyond these questions, I’m genuinely eager to see the contours of our categorical finding as relevant to my own work. I take for granted that Native Hawaiians are indigenous, as that category is invoked in academic and everyday contexts. But as the research collective takes a close and comparative look at the discourse of “indigenous” across a rather wide geographic and demographic range (from Polynesia to India) I wonder how I’ll rethink this category. I don’t know the answer, of course, but I strongly suspect I’ll be far less comfortable with it. And that is exactly one important task of collaboration and of academic life in general—to denaturalize the taken-for-granted character of the world, our categories included.

Group work can suck. And, as I noted above, it isn’t adequately rewarded by the academy. Furthermore, collaborative work is often slow, especially in terms of publication. Then there are human variables—of timing, attitudes, and so forth, not to mention doubts and worries. Am I Joey? Are you Julie? Even so, it seems to me that collaborative work is one important and fruitful path for improving our discipline. It’d be great if we could help nudge our field—and the humanities, generally—in the direction of collective and cooperative research and the generative theorizing this can foster.

Works Cited

Detienne, Marcel. 2008. Comparing the Incomparable. Translation by Janet Lloyd. (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Johnson, Greg. 2014. “Off the Stage, On the Page: On the Relationship between Advocacy and Scholarship.” Religion 44(2), 289-302.

Greg Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, where he is also affiliated faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies. Recent publications include “Bone Deep Indigeneity: Theorizing Hawaiian Care for the State and its Broken Apparatuses” in Laura Graham and H. Glenn Penny (eds.), Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

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The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism: An Interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Part 2


Editor’s note: The follow is an interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on her book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014). Part 1 of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: In chapter four, entitled, “Reconfiguring Freedom,” you draw on the example of veiling and how it has been framed as a tension between freedom of choice vs. religious duty or obligation, noting that Muslim French have been forced to rely on the public rhetoric of “choice” and downplay the idea of duty as an ethical practice, thus obscuring their own subjectivities. Could you say something about how Muslim French have sought to negotiate their subjectivities in light of such constraints?

Mayanthi Fernando: As I note in that chapter, most Muslim French women I knew felt that veiling was both an obligation for Muslim women and a deeply personal decision that needed to be driven by the internal desires of the practitioner. Veiling was also usually done in conjunction with, and usually after undertaking, a series of other ethical practices like reading and developing one’s knowledge of Islam, fasting at Ramadan, and praying five times a day. In other words, a number of women came to the personal decision to veil by purposefully working on themselves to become more pious Muslims, such that the obligation to veil became a desire to veil through the engagement with and acceptance of certain authoritative norms. Indeed, my point throughout that chapter is that for these women, there exists no opposition between choice and obligation or between norm and desire, and that social and religious authority do not oppose the “true” self (as they ostensibly do in secular-liberal configurations of the self) but rather lead to that self’s cultivation and realization. But the kind of self imagined by these women was largely unintelligible within public-political discourse in France, nor was it intelligible within secular law (or, consequently, protected under the various conventions on religious freedom).

I was struck by how consistently veiled women downplayed the obligatory nature of the headscarf in public debates, and how much they played up the trope of individual choice. In a 2003 demonstration against the then-proposed law banning “conspicuous religious signs” in public schools, for example, most placards and signs proclaimed the veil as “my choice.” There was only one woman, and she was much older than most of the other demonstrators in their twenties and thirties, who made any reference to the suras of the Quran that are thought to constitute the basis for the injunction to cover, and she was actively shunned by the younger women. This language of choice wasn’t some kind of disingenuous double-talk – as I noted above, many Muslim French women understand the hijab as an internally driven choice as much as it is an obligation – but rather an implicit recognition that to talk about obligation was to render oneself a “fundamentalist” since, within secular-liberal terms, obligation is understood as the negation of choice and individual will.

But the constant recourse to choice was problematic in that it turned an ethical obligation into a mere choice: the headscarf-as-choice became akin to any other sartorial choice. When the headscarf is disembedded from its anchoring in a wider set of ethical norms, it’s difficult to argue for its special status as a religious practice, and one ends up losing the capacity to express the ethical stakes of what it means to wear the headscarf as a religious obligation (and, conversely, the profound disarticulation of one’s very self when one is forced to take it off).

Moreover, to argue for the headscarf as a choice also limited women’s ability to engage the question of religious liberty and be protected by the various international and European conventions on religious liberty. My argument is more detailed in the book, but the gist of it is that most of these conventions make a distinction between the right to conscience, which is inalienable, and the right to “manifestations” or “expressions” of conscience, which can be restricted. The distinction between conscience and its manifestation is basically a distinction between belief and practice; one has an absolute right to belief, but religious practices can be abrogated in the name of public order, state security, etc. Interestingly, there exists an exception in European law in which the manifestation of conscience is taken much more seriously: when certain practices are obligatory for a religion. But the European Court and European Commission have consistently defined obligation in a way that privileges the opinions and rulings of established religious authorities that are already recognized by or recognizable to the Court and Commission. So the debate internal to the Islamic tradition about whether the headscarf is a religious prescription is precisely what disqualifies it from this kind of protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. Ironically, Muslim French women’s commitment to the validity of internally generated desire – their insistence that the headscarf must be an individual choice – ends up disqualifying the practice of veiling from the law’s protection.

MS: In chapter five, entitled, “Of Mimicry and Women,” you discuss how the current logic of French republicanism and French secularism has worked to reinforce its own claims to universality by exalting the stories of certain secular Muslim women whose personal experiences are frequently drawn upon as evidence that Muslim culture is “inherently undemocratic and misogynist,” (193) where men are framed as hyper-aggressive and women as passive victims in need of saving. One thing I found fascinating about this argument is that you link the appeal of this rhetoric (and its attendant social effects) to the waning sovereignty of the French state under neoliberalism. Could you elaborate on these ideas?

MF: That fifth chapter concerns the emergence of “the secular Muslim woman” (la musulmane laïque) in French politics and public discourse. As I make clear, although I focus on the organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats, NPNS), I’m talking about the trope of the secular Muslim woman and her role in French debates not only about Islam and secularism, but also about national sovereignty. One part of my argument therefore takes up the way that secular Muslim women – NPNS in France, but this applies to women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland and Irshad Manji in North America as well – have become powerful totems in the universalist narrative of secularism. After all, it’s really striking how the defense of the sexual freedom and sexual equality that ostensibly define Euro-America culture and that secularism ostensibly guarantees is so consistently mediated through these non-white secular Muslim women. In that part of the argument, I argue that even as sex and gender norms have come to signal the particularity of European secularism in contradistinction to its civilizational Other Islam, secular Muslim women’s embrace of those norms simultaneously reaffirms secularity (and its normative sexuality) as the site of the universal. In other words, these secular Muslim women manage secularism’s claims to both particularity (as culturally specific to Euro-America) and universality (as the best arrangement for everyone everywhere).

The other part of the argument takes up neoliberal sovereignty. I was struck when writing this book how so many scholars seemed to take for granted the notion that national sovereignty has waned under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism. Obviously this is true in certain domains – for example, national economies, including the French economy, have been rendered vulnerable to extra-national forces, and especially multi-national capital – but definitely not in others, witnessed in the massive policing and incarceration operations in French banlieues, and the kind of authority the French state wields over black and brown bodies. Carcerality has become a defining feature of neoliberal governance; in fact, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant has argued that economic deregulation and carcerality are interconnected elements of neoliberalism, since the penal state is necessary to manage the devastating effects of deregulation.[1] Interestingly, then, just as it withdraws from organizing the economy, the neoliberal state reasserts its authority over domestic law and order, and over black and brown bodies.

Secular Muslim women like the spokespeople for NPNS come into this picture as allies of and alibis for the French state in what I call a shell game of sovereignty. First, NPNS helps to turn the problems of the banlieues into a problem of secularism, and to propose the retrenchment of secularism – rather than effective economic and social policies – as the solution to this problem. Second, what we might call the carceral feminism of NPNS helps to rationalize an expanding penal state as the most effective means of managing the unruly banlieues and emancipating Muslim women from the clutches of Islamic patriarchy, violence, and misogyny. In other words, by locating responsibility for the problems of the banlieues in the bodies and culture of its residents, NPNS justifies the state’s expansion of a carceral regulatory system necessary to neoliberal governance without any concomitant acknowledgment that that very same system of governance produced the conditions of poverty and socio-economic marginalization found in the banlieues.

MS: Your final chapter, entitled, “Asymmetries of Tolerance,” seems to me to be concisely captured in the following excerpt: “Because white Christians are always already European, their homophobia is considered a political problem, not a civilizational one.” Could you explain how this quotation ties in with the rhetoric of tolerance, and the figurations of both Muslim and European identity that you discuss in this chapter?

MF: This chapter examines the way in which ostensible Muslim homophobia serves as the grounds for Muslims’ exclusion from France, and from Europe more broadly, as legitimate moral and political actors. There are a number of moving parts to the chapter’s broad scope and argument. First, I discuss how opposition to same-sex marriage among some Muslim French activists reproduces an impasse within secular tolerance itself between two competing imperatives: the commitment to respect others, and the obligation to deeply held moral norms. But the public and political focus on Muslim intolerance shifts the burden of this constitutive impasse onto Muslims, who are henceforth made almost solely responsible for the problem of intolerance in Europe. In making this argument, I also examine the various asymmetries within the European demand that Muslims be tolerant. First, I observe how tolerance, ostensibly the gesture of a powerful majority, has come to be both individualized and made incumbent upon minorities, thereby dissimulating the power, and homophobia, of the French state and dominant majority. Second, I examine the way in which the tolerance demanded of Muslim minorities actually exceeds the original form of the gesture of majoritarian tolerance by insisting not merely on tolerance but on active and explicit approval (of same-sex marriage, abortion, etc). Finally, I consider the asymmetrical distribution of tolerance, not only in the way that Muslim communities are disproportionately targeted as “intolerant” but also in the way in which Muslims are always interpellated as an essentialized group – rather than as individuals – in this regime of tolerance.

In getting at some of these issues, I found it instructive to think about majoritarian attitudes toward Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage versus majoritarian attitudes toward Muslim opposition to same-sex marriage. After all, when the Socialist Party introduced a bill in November 2012 legalizing same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, opposition was fierce: the center-Right UMP party strongly contested the law, massive demonstrations were held in cities across France, and Catholic clergy (joined by their Jewish and Muslim counterparts) spoke out against the law. Interestingly, though, proponents of the law understood this opposition as a political disagreement rather than a civilizational cleavage. Even when violence was invoked by the opposition – one of the major opposition figures declared that if President Hollande “wants blood, there will be blood” and another predicted “impending civil war” – people felt that perhaps they had gone too far, but their belonging to France was never questioned, as one might imagine would be the case for similarly violent remarks made by Muslims.

Indeed, the very same critics who see the Catholic position as political rather than purely homophobic, and as evolving rather than intractable, configure a similar Muslim position against same-sex marriage and adoption in moral and civilizational terms, and as incapable of progressing. The distinction between homophobic Catholics and homophobic Muslims operates through spatial and temporal matrices that feed back into each other. Because European modernity is held, even by staunch secularists, to have emerged out of Christianity, the latter is figured as both always already within Europe and capable of transforming; concomitantly, because Christianity contains within itself the possibility to modernize, to become that which it is already (i.e. European), it naturally belongs in Europe. By contrast, because Islam is always already not-Europe, it has long been thought incapable of transformation. Conversely (and tautologically), because it is incapable of transformation and modernization, Islam cannot belong in Europe. With regard to homophobia more precisely, Muslims, it is held, have always been and therefore always will be homophobic. Any attempt to prove otherwise must be made immediately. Hence the circumscribed temporality within which Muslim French must operate: they do not have time or space to think or to debate, time and space offered to Catholics, in the National Assembly, no less. Muslim homophobia, and the inability of certain Muslim French to defend homosexuality, serves to confirm their a priori status as non-European rather than to establish it after the fact.

[1] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Duke University Press, 2009).

Mayanthi L. Fernando is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her first book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014), addresses the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary France. She has recently begun to work on law, embodiment, and the sex/gender norms of secularity.

Posted in Interviews, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group: Call for Papers For 2016 AAR/SBL Annual Meetings in San Antonio, November 19-22


The CTDR group offers an interdisciplinary and international forum for analytical scholars of religion to engage the intersection of critical theory and methodology with a focus on concrete ethnographic and historical case studies. Critical theory draws on methods employed in the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, literary criticism, and political theory in order to bring into scrutiny all kinds of discourses on religion, spanning from academic to nonacademic and from religious to nonreligious.

CTDR’s Call for Papers s available as a PDF.

CTDR invites proposals on the following topics:

  • The death of Michel de Certeau: Thirty years later, what is de Certeau’s impact on the study of ‘lived religion,’ history, and death? How does de Certeau’s work inform our analysis of religious ‘strategies,’ ‘tactics,’ and rituals? (Please note: We expect papers that use de Certeau’s work and critically explore the boundaries of its utility and applicability.)
  • “Revolutionary Love” and Foucault: We welcome papers that draw on the works of Michel Foucault (especially the History of Sexuality series and the relevant parts of Foucault’s College de France lectures) so as to engage critically the notion of “Revolutionary Love.”  (When is love transformative or liberatory? What are the powers of the erotic? How is power/love bodily negotiated?) Papers can be focused around theoretical, methodological, and/or empirical issues/approaches. For potential co-sponsorship with the Religion and Sexuality Group.
  • E-Racing Durkheim in American Religious History: We are looking for papers that explore the co-constitutive nature of race and religion in the making of American history(ies), particularly through an engagement with Karen and Barbara Fields’ recent book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (2014), and through discussion of how Emile Durkheim’s work has – or has not – been used to query formations of race in religionFor a potential co-sponsored panel with the African American Religious History Group.
  • Social Hierarchy and Power. With an eye to a formation of a seminar on this topic, we invite proposals with strong foundations in historical, ethnographical, social scientific, and/or textual research on a clearly demarcated aspect of the intertwinings of social hierarchies, class, power, and religion. Proposals should rigorously contextualize all deployments of the terms social hierarchy, class, power, and religion as components of research design.
  • Discursive formation of key categories in the study of religion. CTDR invites proposals on research in progress where experiments with theory applied to data of various kinds compel us to rethink categorization and concepts deployed in the analysis of religion.

Method: PAPERS: http://papers.aarweb.org/

Proposals are anonymous to chairs and steering committee members during review, but visible to chairs prior to final acceptance or rejection


Co-Chair David Walker, dwalker@religion.ucsb.edu

Co-Chair William E. Arnal, warnal@hotmail.com

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The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism: An Interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Part 1


Editor’s note: The follow is an interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on her book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014). Part two of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: Could you say something about how your idea for this book came about, including your training, your interests in theories of religion and secularism, and your fieldwork in France?

Mayanthi Fernando: I was trained in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago and I was lucky to work with two really extraordinary mentors, Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Saba Mahmood. I initially came to my topic with a fairly conventional interest in the Islamic revival in France. I wanted to know how French Muslims “negotiated their identities” – that is the phrase I recall using in my grant applications – as both Muslim and French. I also wanted to know how a French context might change the ritual and hermeneutical practices central to Islam. Islam and Muslims were therefore very much my object of study, and I took for granted the narrative that being Muslim and being French was somehow problematic, a conundrum of sorts fit for anthropological analysis. What I realized when I started doing fieldwork was that being Muslim and being French was indeed a problem, though not for Muslim French but rather for secular French and the French state. In other words, the difficultly of being Muslim and French was not an ontological one emerging from these subjects themselves but rather a political one resulting from their interpellation by secular-republican society (and of course that led to day-to-day difficulties for Muslim French). So I began to think more critically about secularism and its ontological, epistemological, and political demands and conditions of possibility, and in particular about the “proper” forms religion and religious people must take to be intelligible and acceptable to secular norms. In so doing, my object of study shifted to republican secularism, even as my object of observation remained Muslim French life.

Indeed, I would say that paying close ethnographic attention to the experiences of my Muslim French interlocutors actually led me to widen my analytical lens, turning it toward the source of their often tenuous subject position, namely, the secular Republic’s discourses, institutions, and political and legal practices. For example, if my Muslim interlocutors insisted on their Frenchness, why were their claims so quickly and easily dismissed by the majority? If they insisted that the headscarf was both a choice and an obligation, why was this so hard for secular law and French public discourse to grasp? You can see this analytical-methodological volte-face throughout the book, which tacks back and forth between an analysis of Muslim French religiosity and political praxis and the contradictions of French secularism they precipitate. And I use precipitate here purposefully: my argument is that these contradictions within secularism and republicanism are long-standing and are not so much generated as precipitated by the presence of Muslim French.

I should add that my approach is indebted to a number of scholars. First, I was quite taken by Trouillot’s distinction between one’s object of observation and one’s object of study. He argued that anthropologists often make their objects of observation and study one and the same, and in so doing, end up without a robust sense of power or history, and therefore without a critical edge to theorizing.[1] Second, I was influenced by Mahmood’s insistence that we take seriously the network of concepts with which our interlocutors world their worlds, even if they are radically unfamiliar, and in so doing, that we critically interrogate and provincialize the concepts and norms we are used to working with.[2] And finally, my approach is very much in line with something Talal Asad once said about power, translation, and the unfamiliar. He argued that the traditional Geertzian approach of translating across cultures by making strange concepts familiar is too comforting, and that we should do the kind of translation that forces us to rethink our own traditional concepts and categories.[3] In other words, rather than make the unfamiliar familiar, we should de-familiarize or unsettle the familiar. That, for me, remains the epistemological, methodological, and political purchase of anthropology, including the anthropology of religion and secularism. Hence the title of my book: The Republic Unsettled.

MS: In your introduction, you argue that unlike many theorists who have sought to draw a clear distinction between historical forms of French secularism (laïcité), which focus on political and legal matters, from newer forms (laïcité nouvelle) that are concerned more with cultural matters, French laïcité is better understood as a project of governmentality that is less about separating religion and politics in order to create a neutral ground for shared citizenship as it is about regulating certain “religious subjects” who do not fit within the boundaries of its universal claims. Would you say this is a fair assessment of your general thesis? What are the main reasons that lead you to develop this particular theoretical framework?

MF: Yes, that is a fair assessment of my general thesis. I would note that there are various related parts to this claim about laïcité, and about secularism more generally. The first is that I understand secularism not as the separation but rather the imbrication of the religious and the political: secularism is a historically evolving project of government that entails the administrative intervention into, transformation, and regulation of what are called, retroactively, “religious” traditions, institutions, practices, and sensibilities. Proper religion is therefore not opposed to the secular but rather an effect of the secular. As you note, this is also a critical interrogation of the idea of secularism as neutrality. My argument is that secularization transforms life-worlds into forms toward which the secular state can be neutral. And this, in turn, is an interruption of the distinction, mobilized by progressives in France, between an older, non-interventionist laïcité (exemplified by the 1905 law separating church and state) that guaranteed rather than restricted religious freedom, and a new nationalist-culturalist and often Islamophobic laïcité exemplified by recent laws against veiling. I understand that it is politically advantageous to invoke a history of non-interventionist secularism to combat dominant discourses about French national identity. But doing so ignores the continuities between old and new, takes for granted the concept of neutrality, and, most importantly, underestimates the regulatory force of secularism, whatever its various modes. After all, the post-1905 neutral state depended on a centuries-long transformation of religious and political life in France. My point is that, rather than two different models of secularism, intervention and neutrality work together, since intervention produces the kinds of religion and religious subjects toward whom the state can be neutral.

The example of Jewish Emancipation is really instructive here. Emancipation in the late 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally transformed Jewish life, since Jews’ incorporation as citizens into the French nation depended on their becoming incorporable, which in turn depended on the radical transformation of Jews’ relationship to community, self, and the divine. For instance, Emancipation attempted to “de-communalize” French Jews and remake Jewish life by dismantling Jewish law (halacha), which had heretofore constituted the legal, political, and ethical basis of Jewishness. The secular state denied authority to those elements of the halacha that overlapped with civil law and turned the rest into a matter of optional, individual, private practice – in a word, religion (“Judaism”). There are a number of historians who have written in detail about this process of incorporation or integration into the French nation – Esther Benbassa and Paula Hyman come to mind.[4] What I want to emphasize is that Jewish life had to be fundamentally remade before the secular state could, finally, be neutral towards Jews and Judaism, to emphasize the transformative nature of secularism as a political project. Of course, the imbrication of race and religion in the figure of the Jew made full privatization of her Jewishness (i.e. her Judaism) impossible, but that’s another story (one told very well by Gil Anidjar, for example[5]). And that story parallels the vexed secularization of Muslims.

MS: Drawing on Frantz Fanon, you talk about the “representational burden” that Muslim French carry, where subjects who are identified as Muslim must not only account for themselves when engaging in public discourse, but also bear the weight of many other symbolic associations, such as racial (e.g., Beur, Arab, Maghrebi), historical-political (e.g., the Iranian Revolution and the “War on Terror”), and religio-cultural (e.g., veiling practices). These “semiotic collapses,” as you call them, overdetermine Muslim French identities in particular ways and make their own subject positions largely unintelligible to mainstream society. Could you elaborate on these ideas?

MF: You’ve very nicely summed up the basic argument I’m making about the representational burden Muslim French carry, so let me elaborate on the Fanon citation and give a few examples of what I mean.

When thinking about the predicament of Muslim French, I was reminded of that famous passage in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks when a white child looks at Fanon and declares, “Look, a Negro! … I’m scared!” In that moment of interpellation, Fanon writes, “I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and for my ancestors. I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all … the grinning Y a bon Banania.”[6] Though Fanon was writing of his blackness, I was struck by how much his description resonates with the way Muslim French are, through various acts of naming and recognition, fixed in place, affixed to a community and a history, and eternally communally responsible. One could easily substitute “Look, a Muslim! I’m scared.”

Take, for instance, the different reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Many Muslims – not just in France but across the world – responded to the murders with placards, newspaper columns, and tweets that the attacks were “not in my name.” I think the difference between this slogan and the equally widespread “Je suis Charlie,” tells us a lot about responsibility, community, and individuality. To claim “Je suis Charlie” is a gesture of solidarity, an act of collective identification in which individuals in France (and all over the world) voluntarily express their attachment to a common identity, one might even say to a community. In contrast, to declare “Not in my name” is a gesture of dis-identification, a disavowal of communal belonging, an assertion of oneself as an individual subject for whom no one else speaks or acts. Muslims in France (and elsewhere) must declare “Not in my name” after attacks like that on Charlie Hebdo precisely because they are assumed to be communally responsible. They are not presumed to be individuals but rather members, always already, of “the Muslim community.” Communal belonging is the presumption; individuation must be made explicit. Muslims are terrorists, fundamentalists, Islamists, anti-Semites, homophobes, and sexists until they prove otherwise.

At the same time, “Muslim” is a self-ascription as well, and beyond the representational burden Muslim French carry when they are interpellated as Muslim, I was also trying to get at the gap between the various meanings of Muslim. Muslim French may be an oxymoron within the wider society, but it makes perfect sense to those who inhabit that identity. Louis Althusser describes interpellation as that moment when the individual is constituted as a subject in ideology by recognizing himself as the subject being hailed. The problem for Muslim French is that they do not know whether to turn around when they are hailed as Muslim, for the Muslim being hailed (terrorist, communalist, fundamentalist, not-French) and the Muslim they know themselves to be are not necessarily one and the same.

MS: In chapter two, entitled, “Indifference, or the Right to Citizenship,” you look at how ideas of difference are constructed and constituted through popular republican narratives about Muslims in France. Drawing on the work of such noted political philosophers as Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, and Axel Honneth, you seek to problematize their theories of multiculturalism and the politics of recognition by arguing that many Muslim French would prefer the right to “indifference” and equal citizenship, where their identities are seen as variations of the norm and not deviations that need to be tolerated and accommodated (or not) under the law. Could you discuss how your fieldwork helped you to problematize these theories?

MF: Again, you so nicely summarize my argument! I initially went to the field assuming that the Islamic revival in France was part of a broader paradigm that Charles Taylor has called the politics of recognition, whereby minority groups seek the recognition and accommodation of their racial, cultural, and/or religious difference. Once in the field, I realized that this wasn’t quite right. One of my interlocutors once told me, fairly early on, “I don’t want the right to difference. I want the right to indifference. That is to say, I want to be forgotten.” Another told me that Muslim French “want the right to be ordinary [on veut le droit d’être banal].” What these two friends were saying, essentially, was that Muslim French like them want the right to be unremarkable, to be un-remarked upon and to represent an unexceptional occurrence in French public space. They want their Muslimness to be an ordinary way of being French, not a sign of their difference, but they also want to be ordinary in a way that does not require their assimilation into dominant religious and cultural norms. What they want, in other words, is the indifference to their Muslim “difference,” such that their Muslimness is neither abstracted nor overdetermined, rendered neither invisible nor hypervisible. The “right to difference” framework doesn’t quite capture this desire to be ordinary French because it reinscribes Muslimness as a form of difference and, in so doing, leaves intact a fairly conventional idea of what constitutes Frenchness, from which Muslimness is always a form of difference. In fact, what I realized was that the assimilationist position of republican integration and the differentialist position of the politics of recognition, while seemingly opposed, are actually similar in that they both mark Islam as a sign or practice of difference; they only diverge in thinking about how to manage that Muslim difference. Even an ostensibly inclusivist politics recognizing Muslim difference reproduces certain ways of being and thinking as different, and leaves dominant norms and assumptions about France and Frenchness intact. It also leaves intact the organization of majority and minority, center and periphery, identity and difference.

In thinking through all this, I was struck by how many of my interlocutors insisted that their work as Muslim French activists was a form of citizenship. One of my friends, who I call Younes in the book, once said to me, “if one is a French citizen of Muslim faith, that means that all spaces of dialogue, of debate, of social transformation, all these spaces concern us.” Younes was a member of the Collective of French Muslims (CMF), which did a lot of civic work, including voter registration drives. Younes’ statement, and the CMF’s work more generally, really exceed the “right to difference” framework that underpins a lot of thinking about multiculturalism because Younes and the CMF imagine the national polity as cross-cut by a multiplicity of differences without any essential form of non-difference, no ontological majority. Younes’ spatial metaphor – “all these spaces concern us” as Muslim French – collapses the distinction between general and particular, and between center and periphery, on which assimilationist republicanism and differentialist multiculturalism rely. His statement has two meanings: first, as he explicitly says, Muslim French can and should intervene in French society as a whole and not only in their particular communities. But the second meaning is more interesting, because he seems to be arguing that even when acting for and within their own “particular” communities (ostensibly the ultimate sign of communalism), Muslim French are always already intervening within France more broadly, since Muslim French are, by definition, French. Why this is so hard for so many to grasp – both in France and in the US academy – signals, I think, the continuing failure to fully understand Muslim French as French.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (Palgrave, 2004).

[2] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[3] In David Scott, “Appendix: The Trouble of Thinking: An Interview with Talal Asad,” in Powers of the Secular Modern, ed. David Scott and Charles Hirschkind (Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 243-303), p. 274-275.

[4] Esther Benbassa, The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, translated by M.B. DeBevoise (Princeton University Press, 2001); Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press, 1998).

[5] Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford University Press, 2003); Gil Anidjar, Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (Stanford University Press, 2007).

[6] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (Grove/Atlantic, 2008), p. 92.

Mayanthi L. Fernando is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her first book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014), addresses the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary France. She has recently begun to work on law, embodiment, and the sex/gender norms of secularity.

Posted in Interviews, Matt Sheedy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Sexuality and Gender, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Nicola Denzey Lewis


by Nicola Denzey Lewis, Brown University

On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

I’m going to direct my comments particularly at junior women scholars, partly because despite having had a female doctoral advisor myself, I still could have used more advice, and partly because of the significant problems that women are facing in the Academy as a whole. Sexism in the Academy? As Sarah Palin would say, “You Betcha!” How many stories do I have on this? So, so many, starting with my own. My husband – an academic with his Ph.D. from an equally stellar institution as my own, with a CV roughly equivalent to my own (I have one more book than he does and a bunch more national fellowships but, hey, who’s counting! …) – makes about twice as much in annual salary than I do. For his achievements, he gets promoted – he’s a full professor at an Ivy League institution. For my achievements, well, an entirely different story. But this is not about me. This is about what I wish I had been told, as a junior woman professor.

1. Realize that you will have to advocate for yourself. Women tend to be more reticent about self-promotion than men. For example, a number of prominent awards in Religious Studies have consistently been awarded to men; only a small proportion to women. Hear that little voice in your head saying that your work is not good enough? Ignore it. Self-nominate for awards and fellowships.

2. Do not be afraid to increase your professional visibility. Another fascinating finding, thanks to my fellow scholars investigating serious gender disparities in the Academy: women scholars are far less likely to have their own Wikipedia pages than men. In fact, when a group of women scholars worked actively to write Wikipedia pages for one another, many of our pages were rejected by an anonymous series of (male) editors. When asked, a number of highly accomplished female scholars said that they did not want Wikipedia pages – part of a culture in which women feel uncomfortable self-promoting or appearing to be self-promoting. As a result, there are scores of Wikipedia pages produced by and for men that increase their visibility although their achievements are often not as impressive as those of female scholars who go unrecognized.

3. If you hold a teaching position, be aware of the gendered elements of teaching evaluations, which have been widely researched. Students are looking at you and evaluating you on the basis of all kinds of things – mannerisms, your grading and feedback, even your way of dressing. In fact, particularly your way of dressing. What you wear will be noted. If you choose to wear your Jimmy Choo stilettos, someone will mention that. If your dress is clingy, they will notice. If you wear jackets every day, for God’s sake, students will probably mention that too, as recently happened to a friend of mine. Why what women wear is interesting and relevant to what we teach is unclear to me and I am absolutely not telling you not to wear your Jimmy Choo’s if that is your thing. But please don’t be surprised when you receive both positive and negative feedback about your appearance. File them mentally under “irrelevant to my professional expertise.” A different way of putting this: TAKE NO NOTICE OF YOUR TEACHING EVALUATIONS. If they are not good, well, someone will be sure to bring this to your attention, and you can decide then if your teaching style and approaches need work, or if something else is going on. If they are great, read them over for your own pleasure and self-affirmation – what we do can be pretty thankless – but be aware that great teaching evaluations have a way, to put it delicately, of biting you in the ass. Keep them in proper perspective, which means diminishing their importance. Read them; put them away. Don’t put them on Facebook. Don’t tell your colleagues about them. PUT THEM AWAY.

4. TEACH LESS EARNESTLY. This is controversial and some will strenuously disagree, but if you are ambitious, you may want to focus less on being a spectacular teacher and more on maintaining an aloof professional identity as a researcher. There is often little professional reward in our guild for the hours and hours we spend devoted to teaching; frankly, a great teacher also often incurs the hostility, jealousy, and resentment of senior colleagues, many of whom will be on a tenure or other evaluation committee. Heard of “helicopter parenting”? There is also such a thing as “helicopter teaching.” Make yourself available to your students, but set clear limits. Model the academic life for them honestly and transparently, noting that your teaching responsibilities are only a part of what makes you a great professor. Take one day a week purely for research and writing. Limit your office hours. Make a policy, in writing, that you will not respond to student emails after business hours or on the weekend.

5. NO BAKING. I happen to be a very, very good baker. No ego here: it’s an open secret that before I went to college, I apprenticed to be a pastry chef. But when one of my professors in graduate school told me – eating some luscious cake that I had made for a faculty-student party at his house – in jest (hahahahaa! hilarious!!) that I was a better baker than a graduate student, I decided on the spot that my baking talents should hitherto be exclusive and secret. I think sometimes of a great scene in 30 Rock when Liz Lemon bakes cupcakes for her staff to make them like her. They do like the cupcakes, but they also end up whiny and disrespectful of her, because she’s trying too hard. You don’t gain respect for your scholarship, or your authority, by baking. So don’t be the one to bring in home baked treats for your students, or for your chair. Which brings me to…

6. NO MOTHERING. Be careful not to become “Professor-Mom.” That is, be careful not to have your students think of you as a motherly type. It is not your job to counsel them through personal hardships, substance abuse, and other troubles. Colleges and universities have massive resources allocated for this sort of counseling; your job is not that. Only today someone posted this article in the NYTimes. The problem is real.

There. That’s my best motherly (ha!), professorial advice – things I wish that someone had told me twenty years ago. Do I wish I had done things differently? Not made the sacrifices? Not stepped off the tenure track to have kids? Not hovered in the background rather than stepping up? Not made myself small? Yes, of course I do. But I’ve learned much along the way, and it’s been a difficult, infuriating, but sometimes exhilarating ride so far. Do I see the Academy changing? Maybe. I’m not sure, honestly. Yet I honestly believe that the crop of current recent PhDs can keep from making the mistakes that I did.

Nicola Denzey Lewis received her B.A. from University of Toronto and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religions of Late Antiquity at Princeton University. She works on the intellectual and social history of Rome, and the process of Christianization in the Roman Empire and Late Antiquity. She is currently on leave from Brown University as an ACLS Fellow at Princeton University, working on a book on the early modern invention of late antique Rome.

Posted in Guest Contributor, If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Zombie Attack: Karen Armstrong does Calvin


by Richard K. Payne

Note: This post originally appeared on the author’s blog.

In the world according to Paul Krugman there are some ideas that just won’t die no matter how often refuted: hence zombies. Perennialism, the claim that all religions teach the same ultimate truth, is one such zombie, and Karen Armstrong has been carrying the infection for a long time.

In her book review of Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things (New York Times, 7 Dec. 2015), Armstrong discusses Robinson’s relation to Calvinism, and adds as a throw away:

Calvin insisted that divine wisdom was one such “given,” perceived only “within radical limits.” Robinson does not say so, but here Calvin was deeply in tune with the great sages of the past, who all maintained that the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao must always ultimately elude us.

Having not read Robinson, nor being a Calvin scholar (or even a Calvinist), I can’t myself explicate the meaning of divine wisdom being perceived only “within radical limits.” On the face of it, however, it seems entirely contentious for Armstrong to interpret this claim in such a fashion as to present it as a Perennialist claim, a claim that comprises two parts, each of which is problematic.

The first is that Calvin “was deeply in tune with the great sages of the past.” This claim could only be supported by surreptitious selection and reinterpretation—selecting only some specific religious teachers, i.e., the ones who can be interpreted as being in agreement with one another. There is something of a spectacular feat of circular reasoning at the basis of this: anyone whose religious teachings/actions could not be made to fit into a Perennialist theology (Tomás de Torquemada, for instance) would not be included as one of the “great sages of the past,” because he did not have a Perennialist theology. Circular reasoning of this kind often seems irrefutable, because one part of the circle is concealed.

The second part is the the claim “that the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or Dao must always ultimately elude us”—this may be called the argument from ineffability. The problem with the reasoning here is that if all of these different terms point to something that ultimately and therefore necessarily eludes us, then how do we know that they point to the same thing? or even to anything at all? The claim is empty of any truth value, but does seem to have great affective appeal.

A throw-away like Armstrong’s here works in part on the basis of its being presented as if it is obviously true, not needing any discussion, argumentation or defense. The reader all too easily integrates the claim without critical reflection, since it is presented as not requiring any. It is in just this surreptitious fashion that the zombie virus of Perennialism infects others—such seemingly innocent little memes get inside your head and distort your thinking. Soon you’ll think that all religions really are just the same. And like what sense does that make?

Richard K. Payne is Dean and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley. The IBS is affiliated with both the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and Ryukoku University, Kyoto.

Posted in Guest Contributor, Politics and Religion, Religion and Theory, South Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer, Part 2


The following is an interview with Donovan O. Schaefer based on his new book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (2015), with Duke University Press. An excerpt from the book can be found here. Part one of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: Following your introduction and your first chapter, entitled “Religion, Language, Affect,” you divide the rest of the book up into 3 main categories or concepts—intransigence, compulsion, and accident—with a theoretical chapter on each followed by a case study. While there is much to discuss here (too much for an interview!), could you say something about these concepts and why you’ve found them useful in theorizing religious affects?

Donovan O. Schaefer: I wanted to introduce affect theory to religion scholars (and other humanists) but in the process of writing realized that it couldn’t be captured in a single idea—it’s a conversation, not a solo line of critique. At the same time, I want the book to offer specific conceptual tools rather than review the available literature.

In brief, intransigence is about what it means to think affects as linked to durable, semistable features of embodied life. It brings affect theory into conversation with evolutionary biology to remap the “nature-nurture” problem and solve it in a new way, emphasizing that embodied life is always a hybrid system of quickly changing and slowly changing forces. This is why the book takes the contentious line that affect is structured, rather than structureless: the particular affective template that we exhibit is a feature of the slow-moving evolutionary trajectories that have produced our bodies (and will someday produce different bodies and different affective templates) plus the fast-moving personal-cultural histories of our own experience.

Compulsion is about what it means to think of affects as sovereign in embodied life. Rather than consciously choosing to do things, bodies are moved by tissues of affects pulling in different directions. Some models of power assume that affects can put a bit of spin on power and subtly redirect it, but ultimately, at the heart of every decision, is a sovereign, thinking subject. My take would be that affects are the substance of power. To change affects is to directly alter the configuration of power.

Accident means that in the wake of the affective turn, we need to rethink the way that we analyze the “rationality” of human or animal behavior, including religion. It’s an argument against two interrelated mistakes: the quasi-Marxist social-rhetorical approach to religion that sees it as a strategy of deception designed to mask sinister political or economic interests, and the adaptationist approach to evolutionary biology that assumes that every feature of human/animal embodied life must be “adaptive” within a survival economy. Both are wrong. When you shuffle affect theory and post-Darwinian evolutionary biology together, you end up at the realization that embodied life is deeply complicated, and assessing everything according to what is “rational” for a given situation doesn’t get at that complexity.

MS: In chapter two, you talk about how affect theory enables us to re-examine older phenomenological models of religion, concerned with things like emotion and transcendence, by placing “embodied affective potentials” in relation to systems of power. Here I was particularly intrigued by your discussion of Eve Sedgwick’s “pedagogy of Buddhism,” where she talks about her own engagement with Buddhist meditation as not merely “distorting or appropriative,” following post-colonial critique, but also, potentially, as a multidimensional form of universal cognitive transmission—as you put it, “a process of coalescence driven in part by a recognition between bodies that a particular bodily practice has meaning across cultural and historical contexts.” What implications do you see this having for the study of religion?

DOS: In a way, none. We already know that bodies are disciplined in ways that shape them as subjects and as far back as the early 1970s, Foucault was already emphasizing that these disciplinary regimes need not be linguistic. The prisoner in the panopticon isn’t being read to every day telling them that they are being watched, leaving them with a sedimentation of linguistic operations that rewrites their subjectivity. They experience supervision as a force that reshapes their embodied existence. I’d say the best way to explain that reshaping is with reference to affects. On the other hand, the humanities, because so much of our work is textual, has a slight “lean” effect towards thinking of disciplinary regimes as linguistic. I guess I see affect theory as another way of correcting that lean, calling on us to do the hard work of thinking about how bodies are disciplined in ways that can’t be represented in language.

Critics of the phenomenological tradition in religious studies are rightly wary of this emphasis on the pre-linguistic. But the affective approach doesn’t deliver us to either a depoliticized or a dehistoricized understanding of religion. Bodies are always historicized—they’re artifacts of evolutionary histories, and they are really only snapshots of an ongoing evolutionary process at the genomic level. Nonetheless, Sedgwick writes that we need to be wary of “reflexive antibiologism” in theory circles. (Touching Feeling¸101) This is where I think her attention to Buddhism is productive: are there ways that certain meditation practices might produce consistent effects across cultures—even without a discursive framing? Experiential structures embedded in bodies (among humans and other animals) aren’t necessarily washed out by cultural differences. A thing that you do to your body—a discipline, in Foucault’s vocabulary—can shape subjectivity in ways that will be common across time and space.

MS: In your concluding chapter, you write the following provocative statement: “Secularization is a hypothesis of which animal religion has no need.” Could you elaborate on what you mean here in relation to your overarching theoretical approach—i.e., theorizing animal religion through affect theory—and talk about how this statement differs from poststructuralist approaches to deconstructing the religion/secular binary, as well as what it might say in response to more sociological theories of secularization that are understood (partly or primarily) to indicate structural differentiations, such as formal and legal separations between state institutions from ecclesiastical authorities?

DOS: Poststructuralist critiques of secularization theory are about the way that the categories of “religion” and “secular” are created by drawing a circle around a set of human phenomena and defining them as separate. In the Protestant episteme, behaviors like law, community, and politics are stamped as properly secular, behaviors like belief and experience are stamped as properly religious. Subtract those labels and the world is just bodies doing stuff (though of course the labels become part of the world and reciprocally influence the behaviors they were imposed on). You could start over and come up with a different set of labels, which would mean different configurations of “religion” and “secularism.”

Affect theory goes a step further. Rather than just showing up the arbitrariness of secularism and religion as categories, it specifies the mechanism by which the public/private binary dissolves. The private domain of personal affects is projected in the public domain of political systems. Those affects run through bodies and coalesce into formations of power. As I write in the book, “the phenomenological is political.” Some bodies are disciplined in such a way that they can erect a sort of barrier between their public and private selves. But even that barrier is best understood as a sluice, not a dam. Any seemingly private experience forms the landscape of subjectivity that is ultimately the arbiter of public “reason.” My next project will take this further, showing how secularisms draw on affective landscapes that are tinged or shadowed by religious affects. The New Atheism, for example, strikes me as deeply apocalyptic—watch the closing images of Bill Maher’s Religulous if you want an example—and my sense is that the apocalyptic is ultimately an affective structure. I’m interested in the ways that this affective symmetry means that secularisms and religions end up mirroring each other at the level of politics even as they diverge at the level of belief—for instance, in the way that both New Atheists and right-wing evangelical Christians end up as deeply Islamophobic.

MS: Many thanks for sitting down with the Bulletin for this interview!

Donovan Schaefer is a departmental lecturer in science and religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford. His research looks at the relationship between religion, emotion, and power, with particular attention to approaches embedded in evolutionary biology and poststructuralist philosophy.

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