Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power: An Interview with Donovan O. Schaefer, Part 1


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 two of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: You begin Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power with a brief anecdote by the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, where she recounts witnessing a group of chimpanzees begin to dance and engage in a series of displays in response to a large waterfall. You go on to note that for Goodall and other primatologists “we witness in animals … forms of behaviour that, in humans, get called religion, including complex forms of sociality, ritual, and responses to death.” This idea helps to frame your argument as one that seeks to ground the study of religion in animal behavior, where the role of emotion and/or affect becomes a critical tool in addition to theories of language, knowledge, and power. Could you say a little about how you came to develop this framework for studying religion?

Donovan O. Schaefer: Thanks, Matt. The book has heavy intellectual debts to pay to the affect theorists, postcolonial theorists, and scholars of religion who I brought into this conversation. Most of those debts are right on the surface in the index. But I think there are also some less visible debts, the two largest probably being to Donna Haraway and Michel Foucault. Haraway has the most effective account, still, of how humans, animals, and cultural formations like science, politics, and relationships converge on a single plane. The biological, the cultural, and the technological are a single polychromatic continuum. A lot of my background training was in continental philosophy, but I realized that most continental philosophical perspectives are simply not up to the task of thinking about animality. It’s not until Jacques Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I Am was published in full in 2008 that the Darwinian hybrid dynamic—the swerving lines of continuity and divergence that are species—became a concern in that tradition. Haraway’s work pushes us to track down the flaws in theories of human exceptionalism, the view of humans as what Mary Midgley calls “a distinct, unassimilable pattern at odds with all else on this planet.” (The Ethical Primate, 6) That path ultimately leads back to Darwin and post-Darwinian evolutionary biology—a body of literature that Nietzsche had some passing acquaintance with but that much of the twentieth-century philosophical tradition ignored or wished away. Locating religion on the plane of continuity between humans and animals that Haraway and Darwin describe was the goal of this project.

MS: In your introductory chapter, you highlight the work of Jonathan Z. Smith as having a central influence in shifting the discipline from models that presented religion as an “ahistorical phenomenon” and “a transcendent source of meaning arriving beyond human circumstances,” to one that took seriously how the category “religion” has been constructed and classified historically (e.g., as a “private” affair) and how it operates within systems of power (e.g., in support of colonial power). While lauding Smith’s “linguistic-conceptual method” for helping to expose the “politics of how the word religion is used,” you argue that the model that he helped to pioneer runs the risk of falling prey to a “linguistic fallacy.” Could you elaborate on these ideas?

DOS: Smith is indispensable for overturning a particular narrative of religion that feeds directly into this complex of radical human exceptionalism. Sui generis religion in scholars like Mircea Eliade was possessed by the revenant of anti-Darwinian philosophers like Martin Heidegger who wanted to locate human uniqueness in the contemplation of sacred mystery. Smith is also an important antiracist thinker, putting forward a powerful repudiation of hierarchies of classification that dealt “reasonable” religion to some and “crazy” or “primitive” religion to the rest. Contemporary religious studies wouldn’t exist without his insight that the category of “religion” is an artifact of history that is different from time to time and place to place.

At the same time, Smith is committed to what he called in “The Devil in Mr Jones” the “faith of the Enlightenment.” (Imagining Religion, 110) I think there’s a way in which Smith has a tendency to see human beings as first and foremost thinking, language-using creatures. It’s not wrong to see language as part of the human world, but I think our models of power need to move beyond both reasoning beings and the notion that religion is a language-like system. I’m not sure Smith would disagree with that, but I think the reasoning, autonomous Kantian subject is a template that casts a long shadow over his work. From the perspective of affect theory, human beings aren’t subjects, but complex systems of forces, and my argument is that the analytics of power needs to track those forces in order to understand how religions and other formations of power work.

MS: Chapter one provides an overview of the development of affect theory, which you characterize as divided by Deleuzian and phenomenological streams. For those unfamiliar with affect theory, could you provide a little background and touch on why it is relevant to the study of religion?

DOS: Ann Cvetkovich in her book Depression (2012) has a great account of this. She leads off by pointing out that attention to affect has been going on in feminist, queer, and antiracist theory for decades, and to identify affect theory as new is an optical illusion—you’re just looking at something that was already there in a different way. There are a few different strands of affect theory, as you say, and they can be typologized in different ways, but the commonality of their approaches is in paying attention to the way that power is channeled by vectors other than language. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the “linguistic turn” that tended to turn up the volume on accounts of the emergence of identity, culture, and history that emphasized language. Affect theory builds on that turn, but also swings past it, highlighting the way that linguistically-mediated power is only one strand of a sprawling network of power that does a lot of its work outside of the register of words. This means paying attention to bodies, not as sedimentations of linguistic performatives, but as coalescences of linguistic and non-linguistic forces moving at different speeds. Or it means paying attention to materiality—the way that things like sound, color, texture, space, or other bodies elicit affects without the need for linguistic mediation. Even when we are speaking to each other, I’d argue that the micro-features of embodiment like tone of voice or the look on someone’s face shape the impact of that speech-act alongside the propositional content of the words. As I write in the book, “power feels before it thinks.”

The study of religion has always been fixated on the nonlinguistic aspect of religion. We’ve been trying to find ways to explain what moves us outside of language since the field began—whether you want to locate that moment with Müller, Schleiermacher, James, or Durkheim. But as Smith rightly points out, much of that early scholarship (other than Durkheim) conveyed us to the private affair tradition, which defined religion as a resolutely individualistic phenomenon that was unhooked from history and from power. For affect theorists, this makes no sense. Embodied affects, though they might seem to be private, are composed by histories: they come from a public somewhere and they do public things. Far from being irretrievably private, affect is part of the complex, uneven continuum of public and private forces—power.

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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