Affect, Tactics, and Islamophobia

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Yesterday, Matt Sheedy posted an analysis of this short documentary clip posted on nytimes.com in December by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (perhaps best known for their 2006 documentary feature, Jesus Camp), showing demonstrators drowning out an anti-Islam sermon delivered by Pastor Terry Jones in September 2011 by singing The Beatles’s “All You Need Is Love.”  Matt’s post, arguing for broader pedagogical and theoretical engagement to combat Islamophobia, prompted the following exchange between us.

DOS: I’m all for more theory and broader public understanding fueled by theoretically informed pedagogy along the lines that you suggest.

But I also have to speak out in defense of the singing countersermon in Times Square. You write as if the only possible meaning for the song was to advance love as a conceptual antidote to hate speech. I don’t think that logocentric approach does justice to the tactical intentions of the counterprotesters. I think their objective in that moment in that space was to create a new image–an image that has been very successful in traveling across a wide range of digital publics–not merely a new idea.

In other words: what if the politics of opposing Islamophobic racism is just as much about a reconfiguration of affective flows as it is about the combat of ideas?

MS: Provisionally, I would tend to agree with what you have suggested and concede that I could have been clearer in parsing out the affective dimensions. For what it’s worth, this idea was contained in my line that such actions “can also have the effect of delegitimizing hate speech.” Perhaps I could have been clearer in stating that what interests me is how this idea of “love” and its links to tolerance, etc., is often drawn-upon in favor of more watered-down solutions that don’t tackle the more complex questions that I mention (e.g., the ways that religion interacts with ethnicity, gender, social class, etc.). At any rate, it is a complex domain and no single trajectory seems to capture the overall affect of a single event, which is no doubt multi-faceted.

Last, I think it’s also worth considering the difference between the affect within the space of Times Square vs. the affect it creates when turned into a popular video on Youtube (the digital public that you mention). I would also want to push you a little on the idea of the “tactical intention of the counter-protesters.” Being a long-time activist myself, I’ve found that much of the time things like this are spontaneous and take on a life of their own, which seemed to have been the case in NYC. So in this sense, it may have been more spontaneous than tactical, which makes it hard to talk of intentions. What we do in our post hoc reconstructions (we as scholar and the general public) is of course a different question.

DOS: David Halperin writes in Saint Foucault that it is “pointless to refute the lies of homophobia” because the grounding of homophobia is incoherent–and therein lies its strength. He describes instead a set of tactical interventions–forms of theater, all of them–that warp the field of power relations surrounding the fortress of heteronormativity–a field of which logocentric conceptual argument is only one corner. I think Islamophobia is the same way, and the response to fighting Islamophobia can’t just be waged through reasoned debate, but through theater.

So I take what you say about tactical intentions not always being transparent to activists in the moment to heart, and would add that what you’re seeing is a tactical response emerging outside of logocentric channels: you have an affect-driven strategy in which bodies respond rather than a concept-driven strategy that tries to do battle on the plane of ideas.

MS: I find myself in agreement with your comment that “logocentric conceptual argument” is only one aspect or element of combating bigotry–be it homophobia, Islamophobia, or what have you. As a political strategy, such affective dimensions, including the use of symbols and rituals (something I’ve looked at in my research on the Occupy Movement) are often just as important as rational arguments and, I would argue, probably more important in creating space in the broader social imagination for thinking about things differently. For example, the Occupy Movement’s use of the sign-symbol the 99% vs. the 1% has arguably done more than anything else to create a space for certain types of conversation that were previously considered taboo (e.g., critiquing capitalism). Theorizing about how affect works in these “non-rational” areas is, in my opinion, yet another important task for scholars of religion.

My only qualification or defense here in relation to my article is that I was arguing more from the perspective of a scholar than as a concerned citizen or activist. In that sense, I was less concerned with the many viable strategies that can be marshaled to combat Islamophobia than with the role of religion scholars and what we can contribute to the debate. While I myself am an activist, I struggle to distinguish that from my scholarly work. And so while I’d agree that affective processes are important in social struggles, my emphasis was on what we as scholars can contribute to the debate, which is exactly what I take us to be doing here–using theory to offer models that can help us better understand the social world.

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