FIELD NOTES: New AAR Group Announcement: Religion, Affect, and Emotion

The Program Committee of the American Academy of Religion has approved a new program unit, the Religion, Affect, and Emotion group, for a 5-year term beginning in Fall 2013.

Mission Statement

This group provides space for theoretically informed discussion of the relationship between religion, affect, and emotion. The group serves as a meeting point for conversations on the affective, non-cognitive, and passional dimensions of religion coming from diverse fields including anthropology, comparative religion, psychology, decolonial theory, gender and sexuality studies, cultural studies, philosophy, and theology. Proposals drawing on these theoretical resources to examine specific religious traditions, shifting historical understandings of religion and affect/emotion, comparative work that looks at affective forms across traditions, and broader theoretical reflections are all welcome.

Initial Call For Papers

M. Gail Hamner (co-chair), Department of Religion, Syracuse University and Donovan O. Schaefer (co-chair), Department of Religion, Haverford College. For its inaugural session, the Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group invites paper proposals exploring contemporary and historical approaches from within the field of religious studies to the relationship between religion and affect. Theoretically informed examinations of specific religious affects, explorations of the role of affect in particular religious traditions, and theoretical work that develops religion and affect as a methodology are all welcome.  In keeping with the 2013 AAR theme of pluralism, we are also interested in papers exploring pluralism, secularism, and post-secularism from the perspective of affect/emotion.  For a possible co-sponsored session with the Men, Masculinities, and Religions Group, we invite papers on the ways that masculinities are created, sustained, and resisted at the intersection of religion and affect. Proposals will be accepted through the online PAPERS system.  For inquiries, contact group co-chairs Donovan Schaefer ([email protected]) or Gail Hamner ([email protected]).

Affect Theory and the New Program Unit

The affective turn is well underway. What Patricia Clough identified in her essay of that name as an initially sociological and philosophical project has now expanded to a cross-disciplinary undertaking on the political, cultural, and social effects of embodied, precognitive forces.  The field of religious studies is in a unique position to explore the ramifications of the affective turn.  Religious studies has, since its inception at the beginning of the twentieth century, been keenly interested in the relationship between the cognitive and pre-cognitive layers of self, experience, language, body, and culture.  The religious studies archive offers a crucial, untapped contribution to affect theory as a trans-disciplinary theoretical conversation.  At the same time, central and ongoing debates in religious studies contain a wealth of insights that would benefit from a new look through the eyes of affect theory.  The new Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group will be a site for this interdisciplinary exchange to take place.

The full impact of affect theory is only just beginning to be felt within the field of religious studies, where it has been received and reinterpreted in complex, provocative ways.  Beginning with the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s poststructuralist reading of psychologist Silvan Tomkins, “affect theory” orients the humanities to the priority of emotion over drives, cognition, and language. For Sedgwick, the reasoning subject that has been the traditional focus of humanist discourse is epiphenomenal to a more fundamental bodily economy of feelings. In the words of Sedgwick and her collaborator Adam Frank, there is “crucial knowledge” missed when linguistic constructs are taken to be the “final word” of embodied experience.  Our research can only go so far without exploring prelinguistic factors.

Affect theory crosses, in complicated ways, with another line of inquiry emerging out of poststructuralist philosophy and cultural theory, particularly the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: this is the theory of affects, in Spinoza’s sense, as pre-personal embodied forces. In Bruno Latour’s articulation, the turn to affect means reconceiving bodies as processes—processes that take place prior to our cognitive awareness.  These affective processes are the raw materials out of which thought, awareness, and consciousness are fashioned.  Media and political theorists such as Patricia Clough, Brian Massumi, and William Connolly zoom in on this sense of affect to develop rich accounts of how subjectivity is formed through the intersecting textures of pre-personal cultural interactions.

Although these strands of the affective turn have yet to be fully integrated, they all point to an orientation to the network of pre-linguistic, pre-subjective, and pre-cognitive affects “sticking” to the world, shaping thought and behavior. “Affect,” Sara Ahmed writes, “is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects.” (“Happy Objects,”. 29) The recent turn to affect has placed on the table a new set of evolving theoretical tools for understanding the relationships between bodies, discourses, and historical-cultural formations.

Affect theorists outside the religious studies academy have already begun to engage with questions of religion.  Moreover, religious studies has a well-developed tradition of exploring religion along the lines of emotion.  Since William James, scholars studying religion from a variety of disciplinary perspectives have offered reflections on the implications for religion of pre- and extra-cognitive processes.  These developments have paved the way for the adoption of a flexible but systematic theoretical framework within which to discuss the terrifically complex topic of religion and emotion.  The affective turn, an interdisciplinary convergence drawing from queer theory, feminism, poststructuralist philosophy, postcolonial studies, and other cutting edge fields, offers a new set of theoretical resources that can be drawn on to reframe and reexamine these questions within religious studies.  Moreover, religious studies is a critical but under-represented conversation partner in this transdisciplinary endeavor across the humanities and social sciences.  Religious studies and affect theory have a great deal to say to each other about language, experience, embodiment, the nature of interdisciplinary inquiry, politics, pedagogy, and material culture.

The Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group provides a forum for this dialog.  It will promote exploration of contemporary affect theory in dialog with religious studies and provide a channel for religious studies to connect its own insights to the broader conversations around affect happening in the academy now.  The Religion, Affect, and Emotion Group will mix the emerging canon of affect theory with interdisciplinary resources within religious studies and related theoretical fields.  Much like the Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group, which specializes in methodologically sophisticated explorations of the encounter between feminism and religion, Religion and Affect will play host to a variety of theoretically informed conversations happening inside religious studies on the relationships between religion, emotion, and affect.  This multilateral approach will allow for the natural evolution of the program unit over time.


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