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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