Political Bodies and a Touch of Pain: An Interview with Darlene Juschka, Part 2

Darlene Juschka is a cross-appointed Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan Canada. Juschka is well-published in both fields; her works include Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader, (ed. 2001) and Political Bodies/Body Politic: The Semiotics of Gender (2009), along with many articles and chapters for books. In part one of this interview we discussed some of the theoretical influences on Juschka’s work in Political Bodies, and talked about how the categories of myth, ritual and sign-symbol are deployed in relation to the construction of gender/sex. Here in part two, we talk about at how such questions are related to the study of religion and conclude with a glance at Juschka’s current work on the concept of pain in the Eurowest.

For part one of this interview, see here.

Matt Sheedy: In your final chapter of Political Bodies, you shift the focus from the semiotics of gender to thinking about questions of sign-symbol and icon more generally and how they are typically deployed in religious studies, among other disciplines. You set out to deconstruct the dominant theory of symbol as it is found, most notably, in the work of Mircea Eliade, and thereby move the conversation from a notion of symbols as a repository of the “sacred” toward a theory of symbols as semiotic devices. Could you elaborate on these premises and explain why this is important for the study of religion.

Darlene Juschka: This last chapter marked the first steps toward trying to figure out how the abstract sign-symbol is represented as fleshy, material, and having agency – seen most specifically in the figure of the icon. For Eliade and others who use a phenomenological (and equally a hermeneutical) lens by which to understand the sign symbol, the icon is prima facie evidence of the so-called sacred in the domain of the profane. For me this kind of explanation, that is ‘it is sacred’,  is insufficient and furthermore assumes, without argument or proof,  that there is something called the sacred, which some objects, peoples, spaces, non-human animals and the like have or take on. This assumption, to my mind, is theologically rooted. To say something is “sacred” is to make an ontological statement, something I am very much disinclined to do. I wanted to show how the icon is linguistic and indeed a third order sign-symbol. The acquisition of the flesh/materiality that signifies the icon is effected through ritual, intentionally as in the instance of the Ganesha icons, or equally a mythic narrative can speak to the ritualistic events that led to the icon’s finding, for example the discovery of the statue of saint/orisha Caridad del Cobre/Ochún in the Bay of Nipe near the mining province of Cobre in Cuba. As a third order semiotic device I can investigate the ideological play of the icon, the social work that it is made to do by and within the social body, and even engage in potential comparisons. If it is deemed “sacred” what is there left to do but stand in awe or contempt?

Equally this chapter was significant toward developing the project I am currently working on entitled Contours of the flesh: The semiotics of pain.  I realized how the body itself is an icon made to speak in various ways, too frequently via the medium of pain. The flesh of the body was made to speak “the truth” through ritualized torture, for example Islamic male/masculine, which is “found” to be feminine and as feminine, porous, irrational, uncontrolled, and overly sexual. So this last chapter was a jumping off place for my next semiotic project.

Matt Sheedy: In a recent essay, you discuss the categories of myth, ritual and sign-symbol as representational frameworks for how we talk about pain, especially in the Eurowest. Contrary to the rationalist tradition, you argue that pain is not merely a “natural” and external category existing “out there,” but is something that is embodied or performed, following Judith Butler, in relation to the many ways that it has become internalized in different locations (e.g., as redemptive in certain types of Christianity) as well as in relation to other categories, such as gender/sex, class, power, etc. My question, simply put, is why do you think this re-conceptualization of pain is useful or important for the study of religion?

Darlene Juschka: My effort in this piece and in the semiotics of pain is to challenge the idea of natural categories/symbols and to show how pain, something we take to be real and something that invades our bodies, is both discursively constructed and linked to power – at least as it plays out in many Eurowestern contexts. Equally, I wanted to show how pain is coded by such categories as gender/sex, race, status, class, animality, and geopolitical location, and in doing this I hope to push scholars of religion to think again about their certainties that emotion, awe, rationality, and other kinds of so-called raw experience are produced by and within a social and historical context and therefore fully constructed by said social context. Equally, I want to push folks on the idea of an interior life from which things like pain emerge. We have a way of thinking about our flesh, our bodies, and ourselves that places the authentic on the inside and the inauthentic on the outside.

My effort, then, is to call into question this normative way of thinking – that there is this inner world which scholars of religion (and a few disciplines) can access and reveal. Michel Foucault comments on this operative notion in our Eurowestern social bodies referring to the need to confess, and this conceptualization of truth moving from the interior to the exterior is one that I and others have queried (see chapter 4 of the semiotics of gender and how torture was used in witchcraft trials in early modern France). So this piece, and my new project seeks to show, among other things that: 1. Our experiences, including the so-called raw experience of pain, are equally linguistic, that is discursively constructed; 2. That our conceptualizations of the body sans “mind”, and fleshy experiences therein, are often distorted and skewed producing some very problematic studies in the field; and 3. The ontological notion of a dualist self wherein the human (and most life forms for that matter) has an interior and an exterior – the former hidden (soul, psyche, consciousness, etc) and the latter superficial (like our skin) has been an ongoing problem in the study of religion. This is in some measure due to several hundreds of years of a phenomenological hermeneutics dominating the study – particularly those who assume Eurowestern ontology to be normative. It is my effort as a feminist poststructuralist with posthuman leanings to challenge this taken for granted thinking that shapes in greater and lesser degrees the study of religion.

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