Thursday, March 3, 2016

Interview with the Author: Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

                                                       Link to book excerpt

Interview with Donovan Schaefer

What is the main argument in this book?

There’s an implicit bias in the humanities toward seeing human beings as primarily driven by the grid of their thoughts. My suggestion is that we need to replace this with a more interactionist picture that sees thoughts as embedded in our bodies. And more specifically, we need to think of bodies as guided by networks of affect as the sources of actions, thoughts, and values. The project of the book is to bring Michel Foucault’s “analytics of power” into direct conversation with affect theory, showing how the landscape of affects is one and the same as the landscape of power. This is what I call the animality of affect—the way that we’re moved by forces that precede language.

I was at a seminar a few months ago where we started talking about the category of charisma and, through the mystical alchemy of academic conversations, got onto the subject of the charisma of babies. We were discussing why it is that people find infants so fascinating and compelling. One of the participants said “People love babies because they represent the future.” That’s what the book pushes back on. Concepts are part of the tissue of forces that produce our actions, beliefs, and desires, but they aren’t fundamental. Rather a grid of cognitively arranged conceptual propositions, the pushes and pulls of power are more animal, shaped by affects before ideas.

What motivated your work?

I was reading a lot of affect theory and trying to find threads that would tie it together. I was also reading evolutionary theory and working on new approaches to thinking about animality from within the humanities using those resources. I realized that the two projects could be knitted together around the motif of power. At the same time, I was thinking about Elizabeth Grosz’s reading of Darwin as a figure who could transform scholarship in the humanities not by simplifying it—by boiling it down to a few mathematical principles, as sociobiology tried to do—but by complexifying it. For Grosz, this is consonant with the project of thinking past the human exceptionalism that structures the classical humanities. Human exceptionalism is a holdover from a pre-Darwinian, Enlightenment understanding of the world that leads to misguided models of subjectivity. While leaving room for a thick description of human difference, one of the arguments of the book is that affect theory is a way of locating human bodies on a Darwinian continuum of animal species. It then explores the implications of this positioning for religious studies and cultural studies.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

Foucault and Donna Haraway are the major background figures on the pure theory side, and J.Z. Smith, Manuel Vásquez, and Aaron S. Gross on the religion side, but the book itself is mostly about telling the story of affect theory in a new way. Within affect theory there’s a divide between two (maybe more) perspectives, which draw on some of the same conceptual resources but push them in different directions. One of the branches is very heavily influenced by Deleuze and tends to have a lot of currency in media theory and poststructuralist philosophy. The other is what Sara Ahmed calls “feminist cultural studies of affect” and is more prominent in postcolonial, queer, and feminist scholarship. 

In the book I relabel them the Deleuzian and phenomenological branches. The Deleuzian branch tends to see affect as a sort of principle of non-structure that is the condition of possibility of experience, but not something you can actually “feel.” The phenomenological branch is more comfortable with the idea that affects have a “shape”—what Eugenie Brinkema would call the “forms of the affects”—and that they enter into the stream of experience. I think that they both have insights to offer the conversation, but the book leans toward the conclusion that to map power in its specificity, we need to move beyond the pure Deleuzian approach and recognize that affects shape bodies in different ways at different times and places. So this brings the book closer to theorists like Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, José Muñoz, Kathleen Stewart, Sharon Holland, Lauren Berlant, and Jonathan Flatley.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

From what I’ve heard so far, it’s being used in three main settings: in cultural studies classrooms, in theory and method in the study of religion classrooms, and in animal studies classrooms. Those lines reflect the conversations the book sets out to interact with. I think the first chapter is a good, versatile introduction to affect theory and the analytics of power, and the rest of the book develops some themes within affect theory by drawing out three analytical tools—intransigence, compulsion, and accident. At the same time, it makes an intervention in religious studies, pushing past the linguistic turn and trying to reconsider strands of the RS genealogy in the light of affect theory and the analytics of power. Finally, it adds to a conversation happening right now in animal studies that has been advanced by scholars like Kari Weil, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, and Cary Wolfe, which is to explore how an attention to animals compels us to reconsider the framework of the humanities.

Your book has a chapter on pedagogy, a sort of meta-reflection for a class you taught on film. Can you offer any additional thoughts on that chapter? How does it contribute to the book?

Sure. That chapter is about my Religion, Emotion, and Global Cinema class that I taught at Haverford College during my postdoc there, and about the reading of the film Jesus Camp that emerged out of the class discussions. In thinking pedagogy through affect theory, it follows a trail blazed by scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Gail Hamner, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, and Megan Watkins. In the context of this book, I’m arguing that pedagogy can be understood as a circulation of affects. This is true in the classroom, where information exchange needs to be set against the backdrop of the system of affects that configures how that information resonates with bodies. Simply put, it’s the reason why we have teachers rather than just textbooks. It’s the Good Will Hunting question: Why not just get a library card? It’s because the teacher’s body, as a channel for the affects flowing around words and concepts, makes learning much, much easier for bodies. Teachers curate a field of information by organizing it affectively, training students in what’s interesting and what’s boring, how to sequence ideas for impact, how to probe their own uncertainties and confusions, and how to combine ideas to produce novelty. Because pedagogy shapes subjectivity at levels that exceed the strictly cognitive, I argue, we need to think of it as challenging the binary of public reason and private feelings.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

By using it as a jumping-off point for exploring ways to think about power differently. There’s a growing sense in the academic humanities that we need to move beyond the linguistic turn and describe power as something that always necessarily interlaces with bodies and affects rather than just words and minds. But I’d also say that it’s more than an academic exercise. Looking past the conventional wisdom that human beings are driven by grids of reason (or assuming that what gets called “reason” is always a good thing), attuning yourself to the forces that actually move us, has implications for media, journalism, activism, culture, religion, politics, or whatever else you’re doing where you need to understand humans in all their complexity.

Many thanks for sitting down with Practicum for this interview!

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