Religion as Little Something: Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Theory & Religion Series)

Ordinary Affectsby Donovan Schaefer

* This post is the first in a new feature with the Bulletin where contributors are asked to discuss a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), although widely read in affect theory, queer theory, and feminism, has only recently been brought into conversation with religious studies. Like many anthropologists of her generation, Stewart is interested in developing an understanding of culture as what bodies do—rather than as a signifying symbol system or a set of explanatory discourses proposed by elites. Stewart’s contribution, which has been further developed by scholars of religion such as Ann Pellegrini, Kevin O’Neill, and William Connolly, is to direct the emerging discourse of affect theory to an account of culture as embodied. In Stewart’s model of ordinary affects (and Ordinary Affects is clearly a model book, rather than a thesis-driven argument), bodies are always embedded in fluctuating, constantly reconfiguring matrices of affect that condition our everyday experiences and lay the channels for our decisions and biographies.

That said, other than a short tract at the outset, Ordinary Affects is not a work of theory. Rather, it is best understood as a highly accessible, avant-garde ethnography—“an experiment, not a judgment,” she says at the outset. (1) It is structured as a sort of cut-up of short narratives (running from 10 lines to four pages) drawn from Stewart’s fieldwork in Appalachia and the American southwest, as well as her own day-to-day experiences in Texas. The book is, in a sense, a filtering of Stewart’s field notes as an anthropologist and her own life through the prism of an extraordinarily gifted writer and story-teller with a profound thoughtfulness about the circuits of affect ethnographers explore and plug into. “The anthropologists,” Stewart writes, “keep doing the fun things they do together, poking around.” (37) And, like all brilliant story-tellers, Stewart’s narratives come to be about the art of story-telling itself, the affect-saturated bonds between language, bodies, and worlds.

Stewart describes, for instance, the sudden appearance of a memorial shrine on a bridge in Austin—an impromptu altar—made up of a sign with a message to a lost loved one and “yellow ribbons and a Sacred Heart of Jesus votive candle with half-burned sticks of incense stuck into the wax.” The sign, she proposes, “is both cryptic and crystal clear.  Its fury quivers in its wavering letters.  It does not ask to be interpreted, but heaves itself at the world, slashing at it like the self-slashing of people who cut themselves to feel alive.” (39) For Stewart, to take the sign literally—or to understand it strictly as a discursive artifact, is to miss the way it is designed to embed itself into and redirect the flows of our everyday experience. “Its visceral force keys a search to make sense of it, to incorporate it into an order of meaning,” she writes. “But it lives first as an actual charge immanent to acts and scenes—a relay.” (39)

Ordinary Affects offers strategies for producing maps of religious worlds that are not reducible to language. In this, it is aligned with recent attempts to rethink religion according to what Manuel Vásquez has called the “materialist shift.” It offers new resources in advancing the post-Enlightenment shift away from the Protestant roots of religious studies—in the exposition of myths and texts—as well as the post-Marxist ideological critique of religion as a system of domination through deceit. What gets called religion, from the perspective of ordinary affect, is one zone of power among many—one of the many “little somethings worth noting in the direct composition of the ordinary.” (48) Religion is something bodies are drawn to or repelled by, something they build small or large worlds around, pick up and hold close to them for healing, or transform into instruments of violence and control, or simply forget about and move on.

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