Symposium Introduction

Often academic guilds are driven by “turns” (at least within the humanities), as perhaps very well they should be—if we are not moving and filtering along divergent avenues into new neighborhoods, then what are we doing? Together with a collection of emerging and long-standing research trajectories, Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power is, in many ways, a turn within a turn, or perhaps more aptly, a coordination of multiple steps and turns into a dance. The materialist turn in religious studies. It is from this initial direction that Schaefer explores his own turn of a text (or turn from the text), conscripting everything from affect theory, post-Darwinian evolutionary biology, poststructuralism, new materialisms, and critical animal studies into his admirably clear and pointed project. My own introduction to Schaefer’s work came through reviewing this text several years ago now, and it has substantially inflected my own interests in scholarship on religion since. This symposium in its very genesis was designed to gather as wide a possible range of scholars of religion onto the dance floor with Schaefer’s work.

But what is that work? What are religious affects? And, pray god, why another turn?! Schaefer situates his project as a kind of critical extension of what we he calls the socio-rhetorical methodology, which operates primarily within the humanistic register of the linguistic and the analysis of religion primarily through discourses of power, etc. The problem, as Schaefer sees it, is that these methods (of which Jonathan Z. Smith is offered as key progenitor) fail to recognize the full breadth of pre-linguistic and pre-paradigmatically “human” operations and forces at play in religion. In this way, Schaefer’s work functions not simply to repudiate these more critical methods that seek to analyze religions as/through discourses of power, but rather to radicalize them, eschewing the narrowly humanistic sequestration of “power” as simply operating within human discourse, ideology, social systems. This turn within this complex of recent turns undoes the confines of discourse analysis as conclusive of the critical enterprise, thereby coaxing us out into the great outdoors of animality.

In some sense, I’d argue that we can see Schaefer then as a kind of radicalized (or perhaps just ever-faithful) Foucauldian, which is really just a good Nietzschean (in a certain sense) insofar as power is decidedly viewed as the primordial place of origin for everything, including analysis—powers that work heterogeneously on, within, and through human and nonhuman spaces alike. Such a “radical” view is not so radical when positioned alongside emerging fields such as enactive and embodied cognitive science, where some scholars such as Giovanna Colombetti argue that rational cognition is a developmental iteration of a more primordial affectivity of the organism coupled with its world.

What then is scholarship like in these outdoors—without the humans’ only door? If religion is animal, and the animal is the denizen of the world from which humans have struggled to cordon themselves off as self-sufficient subjects of Reason, then religious studies in the animalistic register is, in some sense, returning analysis to its proper habitat. At many junctures within the text, this is how Schaefer’s projects reads (and feels): a kind of theoretical preparation, preliminary report, and field guide for what observation and analysis might work like upon release. This analogical point is not to say that religion is being returned to where “it” should be, as if “it” were some reified object to be set free from captivity and, at last, studied properly in its “natural” environment to where we can finally know what, if anything, we are studying that is uniquely religious in religious studies (and thereby at long last giving religious studies its marching orders, assuaging much anxiety). Rather, it is to say that Schaefer’s field guided tour of affect theory and animality aims to reorient and release the scholar to explore religion within the appropriately expanded environment—to let field out into the fields, so to speak.

Such a task takes the preliminary form of diagnosing the disembodiment and excessive rationalization of the subject and the academy from the vantage of even current critical religious studies methodologies. However, the lion’s share of Schaefer’s project is exploratory and constructive—what might the study of animal religion be like having made the turn and living in a new neighborhood with news resources. Much of the discussion of affect theory and Schaefer’s inclusion of it within religious studies, together with his provocative coordination of evolutionary theory and animal studies into his argument, are discussed in the essays that follow.

I find his diagnosis of current practice and the “linguistic fallacy” to be particularly sound. In some sense (and this will remain to be seen), as I’ve said before, I think his intervention into current scholarship is something of a Trojan horse in just the same way Nietzsche’s own affective interventions into philosophy more generally were. If religion is fundamentally affective and embodied, what does that actually mean for not just the what of scholarship, but the actual effective practice of scholarship as such (including the how)? Much as we might successfully batter apart the Protestant Christian construction of the category of religion within religious studies, how might we excise what I would call the Protestant Social Scientist studying such constructions? What does it mean to make scholarship affective?

While many of these questions remain to be explored, the dimensions of potential study opened by Schaefer’s monograph are rich and varied. The following essays represent this well. Beginning with Jason Blum’s contribution, the question of power as the locus of Schaefer’s study is brought into view. How might other analytic concepts used by some and maligned by others such as experience function (or not) within Schaefer’s animal register? Is power the sole avenue for affective analysis? In a similar way, has Schaefer opened himself to critiques of obscurantism in his animalization and de-rationalization of some more ultra-Darwinian approaches to evolutionary theory?

Focusing in on Schaefer’s pertinent chapter on racialization and affect, Christopher Carter raises incisive questions as to how affect as the felt character of racialization in the context of White dominance might provide avenues for thinking through and exposing opportunities for Whites to “feel their racialization” through the power of the erotic. Coordinating Schaefer’s project together with his own insightful reflection on Du Bois’s affective staging of how it feels to be a problem in The Soul’s of Black Folks, Carter develops the beginnings of what a constructive proposal for using the power of the erotic toward anti-oppressive ends might look like through what we might call the development of an affective sensitivity to what George Yancy would call modes of White racist comportment.

Yasemin Ural, after providing a concise overview of many of the key ligatures in the body of Schaefer’s argument, queries the specifically “religious” nature of some of the economies of affectivity explored throughout the book, specifically the potentially tendentious distinctions between the political and the religious. Is every bodily being also thereby religious? What are the conditions of religious as opposed to political designation? Seeking clarification she offers political theorist Carl Schmitt’s much discussed paradigm as a possible conversation partner with Schaefer, which will certainly raise some interesting engagement as to what affect theory and Schaefer’s animal religion might mean for contemporary discussions within political theology.

In his contribution, Devin Singh introduces a stimulating thought experiment working on the possibility of thinking bees and their pulsing communications and hiving religiously. In this vein, he explores the historical conceptions of busyness of bees as a kind of rational economy where industrious individuals coordinate and divide labor—sometimes seen as the consummate capitalists. Exploring the blurred lines of economy and religion, industry and excess, Singh’s mediation on the bees opens deep questions about how far down (phylogenetically) we might be justified in construing the inhuman religiously.

Finally, in the concluding essay Pamela Klassen puzzles over and pulls at some of the seeming hard and fast dichotomies/binaries that seem to situate Schaefer’s overall project and the animal register he seeks to develop: angels versus animals, rational versus affect. Through both historical references and contemporary ethnographic material she wonders if both of these binaries might be too hard and fast. Through this lens, has Schaefer’s Religious Affects version bundled together a straw (rational) person to beat up on when the actual picture, historically and presently, is more heterogeneous and diverse—more muddled and blurred than such dichotomies can capture? Perhaps through contemporary theory on emotions we can see rationality not as one side of binary but an outgrowth and kind of “emotional practice.”

In each of the contributions, there is much to engage and much fruitful discussion (and dancing) to be had.



Depths and Accidents

Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects

Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects is an important book, rendering helpful therapy for some of the myopic methodological tendencies that can afflict the field of religious studies. Rather than pursuing a kind of intellectual scorched-earth policy, however, Schaefer’s theoretical admonishments are circumspect. He seeks to stretch and reimagine the intellectual horizons of the discipline, adding to our conceptual repertoire and broadening our collective field of vision on religion, rather than pretending that all theory that has come before should now be jettisoned in favor of some new panacea for all our field’s ills.

There are two points about Religious Affects on which I will focus. Both provide opportunities to highlight some of what I regard as Schaefer’s most valuable contributions, and to pose what I hope will be productive questions for both him and his readers.

Beyond the Linguistic Turn

First, Schaefer must be thanked for helping to herd theory in religious studies past the linguistic turn. Far too often, religious studies has succumbed to methodological monomania, a contagious malady within the academy. The condition arises when a new theoretical approach gains traction and gathers a sufficient number of adherents who construe that approach as the definitive paradigm for the study of a given subject, in need of neither supplementary concepts from other approaches or disciplines nor future refinement of its own assumptions or foundations. Symptoms include not only the explicit and sometimes a priori rejection of other paradigms, but a blinkered understanding of the subject matter, artificially tailored to the contours of an unnecessarily rigid theory.

The “linguistic fallacy,” as Schaefer calls it, has been just such a sickness in the study of religion. Back in 1988, Sallie B. King warned of the detrimental effects of the condition, specifically with regard to the study of mysticism, writing that the infatuation with language “reduces mystical experience to mystical language for reasons of methodological convenience.”1 As Religious Affects makes clear, however, the problem instantiated by the linguistic strain of methodological monomania is not merely an artificially delimited view of mystical experience, or even religion more broadly, but a truncated view of the human subject. Schaefer consistently challenges the self-serving and politically-laden view of humans as essentially linguistic, troubling the (for some) comforting fantasy that we are fundamentally different from other animals. He shines a spotlight on the array of non-discursive ways that we are situated in networks of power that act not merely by cognitive means, but via affective channels flowing through us every moment of every day.

I am grateful to Schaefer for complicating the resilient perspective that insists on shoe-horning all that constitutes the human engagement with the world into a linguistic box (a box that cannot help but bloat and distend, anyway). Schaefer should also be complimented, however, for resisting the temptation to throw the linguistic baby out with the monomaniacal bathwater, choosing instead to position his contribution as a helpful complication of and addition to—rather than a replacement of—more cognitively- and linguistically-inclined approaches. “The social-rhetorical method,” Schaefer writes, “and other linguistic models for religion are indispensable components of the religion theorist’s toolkit. Affect theory adds to the critique of power by supplementing the linguistic turn, not erasing it.”2 Rather than reinscribing yet another form of theoretical essentialism, Schaefer seeks to productively complicate our understandings of religion and animals’ production and experience of it, fleshing it out in ways that render it both more subtle and supple.

One question that I would like to pose with regard to this dimension of Schaefer’s program is the following: is the linguistic fallacy only or primarily about power? At various moments in Religious Affects, Schaefer seems to suggest that the linguistic fallacy is primarily a mistake in how the operations of power are conceived, defining it at one point as “the myth that the medium of power is language.”3 This would seem to suggest that the primary benefit of moving beyond the linguistic turn is the capacity to perceive alternative modalities of the operations of power. At other moments, though, Schaefer suggests a broader conception of the linguistic fallacy—for instance, when he questions “the humanistic notion that language is necessary for depth, complexity, and power.”4 Phrased thus, moving beyond the linguistic turn would seem to mean not only discerning additional modes of power’s operations on us, but something bigger—a broader phenomenology that reenvisions the importance of affect not just in terms of power, but in terms of humanity’s entire engagement with the world.

In my own attempts to wrestle past the linguistic turn, I have fallen back on the much-maligned term “experience,” a term that Schaefer seems to avoid in Religious Affects.5 I am not invested in arguing that “experience” is preferable to terms such as “depth” or “complexity” (both of which strike me as quite fitting)—that issue is trivial at best in comparison to the importance of Schaefer’s effort to complement the overarching cognitive-linguistic trend in religious studies scholarship with an affective-animalistic one. I am curious, however, as to what language (irony intended) Schaefer thinks would be best to describe the broadened perspective he constructs for us. Once we move beyond language, how could we best refer to that wider domain of human activity to which he would like us to attend, a domain that—if I understand him correctly—is meant to include both affect and language? Does the term “power” capture all that Schaefer thinks is important here? Is the term “experience” laden with too much baggage? Or, do we need new terms, perhaps like “depth” and “complexity,” in order to map out this new terrain?

Insights or Obfuscations?

Schaefer’s reinstantiation of the affective and his repudiation of the ubiquity of language are welcome revisions to the shape of religious studies methodology. It seems possible, though, that these positions could provoke familiar objections.

The discourse of experience and references to subjective, interior states have been criticized as obscurantist moves, allegedly rendering dimensions of religion impervious to scholarly inquiry. Such accusations have a history in religious studies scholarship. Wayne Proudfoot makes this kind of charge in his 1985 Religious Experience, specifically with regard to the category of “experience.”6 Similarly, Russell McCutcheon complains that the use of “beliefs, meanings, experiences, and impulses” as explanations functions to obfuscate the social forces that interpellate subjects.7

In the current scholarly climate, the predominance of social theory has resulted in a pervasive skepticism concerning even the implication of privacy or references to interiority. Such claims are sometimes regarded not merely as mistaken, but as aiding and abetting the insidious power of social forces to surreptitiously form and influence subjects.8 Even Stephen Bush—whose recent Visions of Religion challenges the regnant theoretical orthodoxy of religious studies in numerous ways—is not willing to counter the ubiquity and near-omnipotence of the social, insisting simply that “religion [is] a social practice.”9

In this context, Schaefer might make himself vulnerable to charges of obscurantism at moments like the following:

Although affect theory’s introduction of biological accounts and deprioritizing of structures of intentionality could be seen as opening doors to hard determinism, affect is much better understood as sketching bodies that are much more complex, much fuzzier, and all around less predictable than determinist or adaptationist models accommodate.10

Schaefer’s position is a moderate one. He is not simply rejecting the logics of Darwinian evolution and social theory tout court. There are degrees to which behavior—human and non-human, individual and collective—are guided by knowable forces and precedents, and therefore not only explicable but predictable. Schaefer is too circumspect a thinker to deny this. But he is also skeptical that any such logic or combination of logics can bestow omniscience. There is a degree to which the affective dimension of behavior renders all animals partially inexplicable and somewhat unpredictable. We will always be capable of surprising ourselves.

Chapter 6—entitled “Accident”—begins with a discussion of the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s meditations on the seemingly strange behavior of the coyotes who howl outside of his Maine cabin at night. Dennett wonders at the behavior, which would seem to reduce their chances of survival: why advertise their position to potential predators, or frighten off potential prey? He assumes, however, that the behavior must serve some adaptive function—the coyotes’ behavior must be rationally explicable. Schaefer, however, muses:

But what if [the coyotes’ howling] is an accident? . . . What if rather than an attempt to get ahead in a rational economy, coyote song is a by-product of an affective economy? . . . What if, rather than a cui bono, it is a bonus, a windfall, an accident of landscape? What if, rather than a steady striving in a sharply organized meritocracy, it is, perhaps, a glitch, an inassimilable remainder emerging out of a shape-shifting accidentocracy? What if they didn’t do it to survive, reproduce, or get ahead, but because they felt like it?11

Schaefer’s closing question—“what if . . . they felt like it?”—feels almost impertinent, brazen in its refusal to bow to the expectations of pure theoretical transparency and rational lucidity. And that, likely, is the point. Schaefer means to question the assumption that one or another logic—rational choice theory, natural selection, social theory, or some combination thereof—will necessarily be able to explain behavior in its entirety. Without rejecting it entirely, Schaefer deploys some healthy skepticism about Enlightenment-inflected presumptions of the final transparency of things to rationality.

A bit of healthy skepticism is almost always, of course, a good thing. As I suggested, however, I would not be surprised if Schaefer’s efforts in this regard are met with cries of “obscurantism” and “mystification”—charges that he is protecting some corner of human behavior or niche of religion in the attempt to preserve it from the denuding and demystification of the scholarly gaze.

I am not convinced that the kind of skepticism Schaefer expresses is necessarily protectionist. As King suggested back in 1988, it would be preferable to admit that some phenomena or aspects thereof remain beyond our theoretical reach than to indulge in willful misrepresentations for the sake of method.12 If Schaefer is correct that affects will, to some degree, remain forever intransigent to our rationalizing inquiries, it would be best to acknowledge this, rather than to comfort ourselves with illusions that misconstrue the nature of things. I wonder, though, how far Schaefer is willing to go in defending this claim: to what degree does affect name a dimension of behavior that will and must remain ultimately inexplicable? And if it is the case that affect will always resist our demands for transparency, why is that so?

  1. Sallie B. King, “Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71, no. 2 (1988): 751.

  2. Donovan O. Schaefer, Religious Affects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 21. See also 6, 7, 44.

  3. Schaefer, 22.

  4. Schaefer, 27.

  5. When Schaefer writes, “Language is not invisible to affect, which enfolds cognition even at the most fundamental levels” (198), I am reminded of William James’s succinctly memorable statement that “knowledge . . . lives inside the tissue of experience.” William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (New York: Penguin, 2000), 321.

  6. Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press), 190.

  7. Russell McCutcheon, A Modest Proposal on Method: Essaying the Study of Religion (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 39.

  8. McCutcheon, 38, 177.

  9. Stephen Bush, Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), ix.

  10. Schaefer, 149.

  11. Schaefer, 173.

  12. King, 268.

  • Avatar

    Donovan Schaefer


    The Material Foucault

    Very grateful for the generous reading offered by Jason Blum. I always tell my students to honor the conversations that took place before them, even when they see themselves as voicing disagreement. Blum has done this book a great kindness by framing it in those terms.

    Blum asks if the affect approach applies only to power, or also to other domains like experience. One of the sharpest mistakes I made in this project was not making clear how thoroughly Foucauldian it is. Let me try to answer Blum’s question by bringing some of the murky background assumptions to the surface.

    When I teach Foucault, I tell students to write the words “common sense” on a post-it note, draw a circle around them, put a line diagonally across it, then stick it on the book cover. Foucault hates common sense. He loves to tip over orthodoxies—after reciting them with corrosive sarcasm. This is partly why bad readings of Foucault are so common, like the prevalent error that History of Sexuality is an exposé of the way “society” tries to take away our sex. (There used to be a sleek YouTube clip out there summarizing HoS I to exactly this effect; thankfully it seems to have been taken down.) But this is exactly what Foucault is arguing against—mockingly so. He sneers at all those earnest revolutionaries who say “Tomorrow sex will be good again” (Foucault: 1990, 7).

    Similarly, Foucault does not believe that power is dropped on our heads by a “they” who tell us what we can and can’t do. It’s important to understand who he’s arguing against here—liberals, Marxists, psychoanalysts, the famous philosophers of the subject like Marcuse, Sartre, or Debord—all of whom, in various ways, romanticize the Free Man living an Authentic Life. They all capture a certain strand of modern common sense. Foucault hates that. For Foucault, power doesn’t win by saying no and backing that command up with force. It wins by saying yes. It wins because you want what it offers. “Power and pleasure,” he writes, “do not cancel or turn back against one another; they seek out, overlap, and reinforce one another. They are linked together by complex mechanisms and devices of excitation and incitement” (Foucault: 1990, 48).

    The denial of sex isn’t a cruel deprivation played by the upper classes on the lower classes. It’s a technology the upper classes apply to themselves to make themselves stronger. They think they can cultivate intensities through tactical self-deprivation.

    So part of how Foucault sees power is as a “mechanism of attraction” (Foucault: 1990, 45). This is where the affect analysis gets mapped on. The fine correspondence between affect and power is about power’s ability to attract. This is why, although the early Foucault resembled Bacon in asserting that “knowledge is power,” the late Foucault is much more radical. We might rephrase this late Foucault—now deeply concerned with embodiment, practice, and the shaping of desire—as a proto-affect theorist. His overarching theory is that feeling is power. Power-knowledge becomes power-knowledge-affect.

    The second feature of Foucault’s template of power, however, is no less relevant for affect theory. For Foucault, the liberal/Marxist/psychoanalytic mistake isn’t just that it thinks of power as only negative. It’s also deluded in thinking that we can create subjects that can withdraw from power relations altogether. Power is seen as a false imposition on the Sovereign Self, an inauthenticity, a contaminant that can be purified. Foucault sneers.

    For Foucault, power is everywhere. It’s in every environment, every relationship, composing the field of possibility of every action. Power “must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization.” (Foucault: 1990, 92) You don’t get to stand outside of power. You don’t get to be a Subject, upright and immune to the histories that made you. Nor do you get to withhold the exercise of power. Your body is a node of power, a transmitter and a receiver, making others as they make you. “Power is everywhere,” Foucault insists, “not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Foucault: 1990, 93).

    My reading of Foucault takes all of this onboard, and then follows the New Materialisms to take him one step further. Foucault sometimes sounds like someone who sees power as an attribute of the human world, as the currency of the social or the intersubjective. New Materialists would say that we live in a field of forces, that objects, sensations, matter itself are inextricable from the force field of power. Color is power. Shape is power. Architecture is power. Equipment is power. Sensation is power. The accidents of materiality infect the field of power—and therefore the field of affects—and rewrite it. Power is the field within which bodies make moves, a skein of eminently material pushes and pulls. “Power,” Kathleen Stewart writes in Ordinary Affects, “is a thing of the senses” (Stewart: 2007, 84). (If this sounds very Spinozist, it is. I heard recently from Foucault scholar Judith Revel that Foucault was re-reading the Ethics on his deathbed.)

    This is all by way of setting up an answer to Blum’s questions. First, I do think that affect helps us understand experience and agree with Blum that it’s a fascinating and useful category. I just don’t see it as separate from the field of power. If power is what makes bodies go where they go, experience is, in my view, a phase in that process. It is shaped by power and produces power. That is not to lapse into romanticism or nihilism (i.e., romanticism embittered) that despairs at how we’re all just “robots.” It’s simply to create a rich, multi-dimensional description of the field of forces that make us—including our bodies, which have their own fields of potential, their own intransigencies.

    Perhaps this also helps overturn the objections to the “private affair tradition” in religious studies. The private affair tradition says that religious experience is strictly internal, and therefore Unified and Authentic. The Foucault/affect/New Materialist perspective blows this up, showing that experience is part of a material field that includes social/political/historical forces, as well as bodies which bring their own agendas to the table.

    But we also need to recognize that just because something is not strictly Private doesn’t mean that discourse analysis alone will be sufficient to draw it out. This is, I think, where Blum’s gem of a quote from King on the danger of “reduc[ing] mystical experience to mystical language for reasons of methodological convenience” is so prescient. Not all material/affective formations can be satisfyingly captured in language. The book’s challenge to Dennett is brazen and impertinent—that’s fair. I thought a lot about whether to include “because they felt like it.” (Couldn’t actually remember how that landed until I saw the quote.) But to clarify: it’s not that there is no explanation for coyotesong, as Catherine Malabou might propose, a zone of “absolute existential improvisation.” (Malabou: 2012, 2) Or Alain Badiou’s starkly unhelpful notion of the “event” as a “radical break.” (Badiou: 2001, 42) Those are romantic sinkholes.

    Instead, affect theory proposes that the explanation might not be satisfying to our desire for a crisp economic rationale. Or that the explanation might be so intricate, so complicated, so shot through with bolts of accident that it exceeds our finite computational grasp forever. That’s not a property of affect so much as it is a property of a hypercomplicated world. (And besides, on the first order level, “because they felt like it” is the only reason bodies do anything.)



    Badiou, Alain. Ethics. Translated by Peter Hallward. London: Verso, 2001.

    Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

    Malabou, Catherine. Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity. Translated by Carolyn Shread. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012.

    Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2007.

    • Avatar

      Jason N. Blum


      Reply by Jason Blum

      My thanks to Schaefer for his considered response. Too often, it is far too easy to respond to one’s critics with a cleverly rewritten restatement of one’s thesis and call it a day. Schaefer takes my questions seriously and responds to them deliberatively (which is to say: if he thinks my response to his book models good writerly practices, so does his rejoinder). I do have one question I’d like to ask, building on his comments. Foucault, as Schaefer points out, is perhaps best known for his formulation of power-knowledge, which, Schaefer writes, becomes “power-knowledge-affect” in Foucault’s later writing. Schaefer explains this in responding to my (dated? quaint? some would certainly say “nostalgic”) question about the relevance of the category of experience, writing that he does not see experience as separate from power. Building on the incorporation of affect, Schaefer turns to new materialists, who expand on this move and incorporate further dimensions into power: “Color is power. Shape is power. Architecture is power. Equipment is power. Sensation is power.” At this point, I am tempted to ask: what isn’t power? Given Schaefer’s (largely convincing) argument, I think it is entirely reasonable to view experience as at least related to or intermingled with “power”; at the very least, I would regard any claim that experience is immune to power as deeply suspect. However, if power subsumes all of these things – knowledge, affect, experience, color, architecture, etc. – and if it is in fact “everywhere,” I fear that the term may have grown too broad, so inclusive as to be overgeneralized and ill-defined. Does this expansion of the realm of power dilute its meaning? Dare I ask: is it the case that the concept of “power” might need to be disciplined?

Christopher Carter


How Does It Feel to Be the Problem?

Affect Theory and White Supremacy Domination1

W. E. B. Du Bois begins his celebrated treatise The Souls of Black Folks as follows:

Between me and the other world, there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, “How does it feel to be a problem?” they say, “I know an excellent colored man in my town;” or, “I fought at Mechanicsville;” or, “Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?” At these, I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” I answer seldom a word.

How does it feel to be a problem? Du Bois spends the entirety of Souls attempting to answer this very question. Du Bois, like many social scientists, framed this examination of inter- and intra-racial conflict from the perspective of Euro-American white culture, the dominant culture in the United States. Generations of black academics have continued this trend in part because it is necessary to attain employment; we must frame our work such that white people (or white academe) can digest it. This framing is often done unconsciously given that, as post-colonial theorist Franz Fanon noted decades ago, the modern paradigm of academic training for people of color is designed to produce “colonized intellectuals.”2 Moreover, until the presidential election this past November, I too framed my work so that it could be digested by white people, my writing did not challenge the underlying problem of our society—white domination and its subversion of justice.

The invitation to write a response to Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects has given me the opportunity to continue rectifying my mistake, and I am grateful for this possibility. Schaefer’s text is an examination of how human-animal affects might inform our understanding of what we call religion. After reading Religious Affects and being (1) convinced of the importance of the affective turn in religious studies and (2) excited by the depth of his description of the embodied nature of racialization, two thoughts came to mind. First, the bodily technologies that emerge within white people when they create and defend their racial identity and cultural dominance seem similar to some of the bodily technologies that emerge when we practice “religion” as it is commonly understood. In this way, affect theory enables us to explore how the unconscious practice of white dominance can feel religious, and therefore feel like the right and normal way of being in the world. In this way, as black theologian Howard Thurman noted in regards to the white oppression of black people: “if normal, then correct; if correct, then moral; if moral, then religious.”3 Second, Schaefer’s arguments on race and affect immediately brought me back to Du Bois’s question and the necessity of asking it of white people as it relates to the affective dimension of racism and white domination—how does it feel to be a problem?

Our minds are often drawn to extremist positions when thinking about race, racialization, and religion; the Ku Klux Klan and the use of Christianity to justify the oppression of blacks and people of Jewish descent; or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of the German Lutheran Church’s complicity in Hitler’s Reich. It is helpful to examine religion and racial oppression in light of extremes such as these, and yet, if we limit our exploration of religion and racial oppression to extremist examples would not we be falling prey to Schaefer’s linguistic fallacy? The linguistic fallacy, as he defines it, “misunderstands religion as merely a byproduct of language, and misses the economies of affect.”4 In this way, affect theory helps us move past extremist positions to explore the way lived religion among whites generates economies of affect which produce bodily technologies that enable and encourage the oppression of minoritized people to continue. Rather than studying extremists, I contend that it would be more beneficial to explore the religious worlds of regular white people, particularly those who believe they are not prejudiced toward people of color. In other words, the vast majority of white people.

You may be wondering, “How can practicing white dominance feel like practicing an embodied religious belief?” Schaefer offers a helpful example in the Christian group he profiles in his chapter “Teaching Religion, Emotion, and Global Cinema.” In the documentary film Jesus Camp, we see Becky Fischer and other leaders of the Christian camp teaching the children at the camp what it “feels like to be us.” Through her use of the pedagogy of affect, the “us” that Fischer constructs is an us that is rooted in the base qualities of the virtue of courage, the extremes of excessive fear and excessive confidence. In this way, she teaches the students to live in fear of losing their identity as “true believers” because temptations in the form of practices that are not consistent with their religious ideology are everywhere. Simultaneously she teaches the students to feel confident in and be willing to fight for the freedom to feel confident and domineering in how they practice their religion. When considered in light of colonial and settler Christianity (i.e., the type of Christianity that the majority of Christians unknowingly still practice) which misused Christian teachings to elevate whiteness over and above people of color, the distinguishing lines between the affective economies produced by white domination and those produced by this type of Christian practice are at best blurred, and at worst almost identical. If Schafer is correct in his assertion that racialization is more contagious through affects than through discourse, then it is in spaces such as these where the experience of white dominance begins to feel religious as such.

Affect theory allows us to move beyond a difference in phenotype and to take seriously the realm of affect in regards to race. Indeed, to be an insider, to be white, is to feel a certain kind of way about yourself relative to others. I agree with Schaefer that racialization is not just about race, it is also an “attempt to disdain an outsider—national, religious, class—as savage.”5 This barrier between human and savage has historically been understood as being both the melanin differential between white people and people of color and the elevation of Christianity above all other religions. The affective turn in religious studies deconstructs this myth that European/settler religion (Catholicism and Protestantism) as it has been handed down to white people is the perfect conversion of religion and reason. Schaefer uses affect theory to explain how the production of white religion and consequently white dominance is itself a global, animal process.6 As such, within the framework of white dominance, I argue that full humanity is only available to those classes of whites who have the capacity to exercise the social, economic, and political autonomy that white dominance has defined as normative. In this way, whiteness is perhaps best understood as what Schaefer describes as a cruel optimism: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object, an attachment that in some way stands in the way of itself.”7 In this way, whiteness is a cruel optimism because within the worldview of white dominance, the majority of whites, along with people of color, are best categorized as savages.

To be sure, this does not mean that white people understand themselves to be savages or feel as though they are in fact savages. The affective economies produced by the practice of white dominance seem to be strong enough and feel religious enough that they are unable to see how upholding white dominance undermines the confidence and freedom they long to feel through their affects. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse argues that under a repressive regime freedom “can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of human freedom, but what can be chosen and what is chosen by the individual. . . . Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”8 If Marcuse is correct, as I believe he is, then this is how whiteness and the seemingly religious affects white dominance produces can be understood as cruel optimisms, the quest for whiteness and the perpetuation of white dominance prevents most white people from attaining it. As such, the pursuit of the affects that whiteness and practicing white dominance promise to provide secure un-freedom for all people, including the majority of white people.

I am not arguing that all white people don’t benefit from white domination. However, the majority of white people only get to feel the psychic and psychological benefits of white domination, and only a small minority get to experience the full measure of these benefits. The affective economies produced by these racialized feelings could be understood as what Schaefer, borrowing from Sharon Holland, describes as the “erotic life of racism,” a dimension of racism that “flourishes not because of ignorance or lack of information, but because of a set of compulsions that drive bodies to generate and police the boundaries of their social worlds.”9 In this way, despite the unfulfilled promises of white domination, the erotic life of racism enables the production of economies of affect that encourage white people (and people of color) to maintain the system of white domination because it feels right, it feels like the common sense thing to do.

Rather than ending this brief essay in the stereotypical doom-and-gloom fashion, or the Marley-esque everything-is-gon-be-alright placation, I would like to discuss an area of hope that I found in Schaefer’s analysis of the religious and affective dimensions of racism. I found hope in his description of the economies of affect produced by racialization as erotic. Although, as I will describe below, following black feminist Audre Lorde, in regards to racism I believe that pornographic rather than erotic is a more accurate term. Lorde defines the erotic as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.”10 Moreover, once we have “experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling [the erotic] and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”11 Conversely, pornography emphasizes sensation without true feeling and thus suppresses and denies the power of the erotic.12 It is in this way that the affective dimension of racism is better understood as pornographic rather than erotic. The pornographic life of racism becomes an answer to Schaefer’s second and deeper question about the relationship between affect and ideology: What do we do for affects?13

The affective economies produced by the practice of white dominance discourage the oppressor from truly feeling the pain and suffering they are causing themselves and others. The vast majority of white people are instead encouraged to be satisfied with the affective sensations produced by the psychic and psychological dimensions of white dominance. As in all forms of pornography, white people must be awakened to the fact that what is bringing them pleasure is not actually real, i.e., you are not really dominating in the way that you think you are even though you feel otherwise. Moreover, like pornography, racism severely handicaps our ability to have an intimate relationship with ourselves and others because we lose the capacity to discern between what is real and what is imagined, or what has been created to feel as though it is real.

The invitation to experience the affective dimension of race as erotic is an invitation to feel in such a way that we become aware of how our affective economies around race actually impact our actions and how our actions effect the others. As Lorde notes, the erotic is not a “question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”14 Using the power of the erotic to feel in this way requires courage and demands an intimacy, vulnerability, and compassion toward the self. The erotic enables us to share deeply with other persons and “forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and, lessens the threat of their difference.”15

Racial difference has been and continues to be a threat to white people since European colonial expansion. As such, racism was created by whites for white domination over other racialized groups and in this way it is a problem that can only be solved by white people. To be sure, there has been an increased intellectual awareness of the fact that white people need to play a larger role in dismantling racism and I believe that many (likely the majority of) whites consider themselves to be in solidarity with people of color. However, the education and economic gaps, mass incarceration, and the general devaluing of black and brown lives tell another story. The problem, I believe, is that people tend to intellectualize race and view it as either a human construct or genetic fate. Race as an intellectual construct enables white people to have the privilege of avoiding developing the capacity to feel race in the ways that people of color have to feel it every day of our lives. As such, I believe that white people developing the capacity to feel their racialization is among the most important steps in our pursuit of developing an anti-oppressive society. For whites, then, exploring the affective dimension of race as erotic rather than pornographic opens up the possibility of fashioning an accurate answer to the real question on racism and white domination posed by Du Bois over one hundred years ago. How does it feel to be the problem? Until such time as the majority of white people can answer this question, our pursuit of an anti-oppressive society will be handicapped.

Is effect the correct/intended usage here?

  1. I have been uncomfortable with the term “white supremacy” for years because I do not believe it accurately describes white oppression within the United States and global community. I have never believed that white people writ large are a supreme racial class. The phrase “white supremacy” feels too complimentary, a way to soften the language of oppression. In the United States and Europe, we are experiencing the oppressive domination of white culture, values, and way of being in the world. As such I use the phrase white domination in my work.

  2. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of The Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004). The colonized intellectual is an intellectual that has “adopted the abstract, universal values of the colonizer” (7) and is unaware that “colonialism and all its modes of thought have seeped” into them. Colonized intellectuals “give priority to details and tend to forget the very purpose of the struggle, the defeat of colonialism” (13).

  3. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 33.

  4. Donovan Schaefer, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 9.

  5. Ibid., 122.

  6. Ibid., 89.

  7. Ibid., 105.

  8. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 2nd ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 7.

  9. Schaefer, Religious Affects, 123.

  10. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 54.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Schaefer, Religious Affects, 128.

  14. Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 54.

  15. Ibid., 56.

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    Donovan Schaefer


    White Winter Blues

    I have little to add to what Christopher Carter is saying and am humbled by the insight he’s brought to the conversation, so forgive me if my response is more of a “riff” on what Carter has put down than a substantive contribution in its own right.

    Carter’s remix of Du Bois is profound: what if the question How does it feel to be a problem? were to be redirected to white bodies? What if the “psychic wage” of whiteness—Du Bois’s name for the addictive thrill of white supremacy—is itself the problem? The question, then, emerges in a new form: How does it feel to be white and complicit in a violent, white-dominated society?

    José Muñoz has already begun to answer this question in his early 2000s essays on “feeling brown.” He writes that whiteness is “a cultural logic that prescribes and regulates national feelings and comportment. White is thus an affective gauge that helps us understand some modes of emotional countenance and comportment as good or bad” (Muñoz: 2006, 680). Whiteness is a rule that allows us to discern certain affective performances as effortless and natural while others are assessed as ugly and excessive. Acting white, Muñoz suggests, “has everything to do with the performance of a particular affect, the specific performance of which grounds the subject performing white affect in a normative life world. Latinas and Latinos, and other people of color, are unable to achieve this affective performativity on a regular basis” (Muñoz: 2000, 68). In other words, whiteness, for Muñoz, is a set of approved templates for emotion and expression. To be white is to be in alignment. To be other, as Sara Ahmed suggests, is to be disoriented in a world that is facing a particular direction (Ahmed: 2006, 15).

    But I think Carter’s question calls on us to probe deeper than this. Because “being in alignment” is only a restatement of the situation. The real question is: What does it feel like to be in alignment? How does the psychic wage of whiteness accrue to being typical rather than eccentric? Moving through the world unobstructed, like a hot knife through margarine, feels good, but in the sense of a pleasant background hum rather than a spike of joy. It’s nice. This is precisely why it is so dangerous: white bodies come to assume that the pleasant background hum is how embodiment feels. We never have to feel like we’re a problem. Whiteness is, in part, the prerogative to live in an unacknowledged wealth of comfort.

    We operate inside a self-living affective machinery, a factory farm that invisibly siphons dignity from non-white bodies and transfers it to us. The retaliation by whites against “PC culture” and “Social Justice Warriors” is the rageful response to the exposure of this machinery. It’s the anger of the guy sitting comfortably in a heated room who feels a chill when someone opens a door onto the winter outside. The problem is not the open door. The problem is the winter nonwhite bodies in America have been sentenced to live in forever. The problem is the hypersensitive, caustic reaction formation of white bodies, who assume that everyone is inside, and really don’t want to hear otherwise. That hypersensitivity is, I believe, the correct response to the question of How does it feel to be the problem? White skin is warm, but thin.

    You can see it in the lurid glow of the Charlottesville tiki torch parade. White bodies are increasingly emboldened through the affective resonance machine of Trumpism. More and more whites are telling each other that the problem is the open door. In the white room, more and more whites are blaming the people in the winter outside for opening the door in the first place. This echo chamber effect is why more and more whites are demanding the right to defend whiteness, as such, in public. Naming this pattern of reaction is, I think, part of coming to awareness of whiteness, part of developing the capacity to feel our own (invisible) racialization, in Carter’s phrase.

    But the risk of rigid attention to the flags and costume of white nationalism, I think Carter would agree, is that we lapse into a definition of racism established by the linguistic fallacy. The white supremacist mentality doesn’t only make bodies that say racist things. It doesn’t only make bodies that think racist thoughts. Racism works through all bodies, in varying formations and varying degrees. Making Charlottesville the exemplar of how it feels to be white is wrong because it lets too many white people off the hook. White bodies don’t just react to the cold blast of air by waving swastikas and CSA battle flags. In fact, the vast majority of us react in much more benign ways, ways that are much less obviously about race. We see it in the interstices of decisions and evaluations, for instance, when we extend far less credit to black children—“he shouldn’t have been playing with that toy”—or black adults—“she shouldn’t have talked back”—than we do to whites—for instance, the white thirty-nine-year-old son of a billionaire president who is somehow still “just a kid” when he takes a meeting with Russian agents.

    And is whiteness religion? How could it not be? Religion, some say, is cognate with the Latin word for binding—the same root word that gives us ligature, ligament, and obligation. The classicist and religion scholar Brent Nongbri has shown that the earliest uses of the word religio suggest something more like what we might now think of as scruple or ethos rather than belief (Nongbri: 2013, 27). Belief sits on the surface. It’s see-able, state-able, maybe even excisable. You could, in theory, be argued out of a belief. But white domination runs much deeper than that. Whiteness is not just a “structure of feeling,” as Raymond Williams would have it, but a complex of feelings, a tinge that infuses a landscape of thoughts, behaviors, and actions. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we believe in whiteness as we believe that the sun has risen, not only because we see it, but because by it we see everything else. Whiteness binds us to a field of warmth. When others say that the world for them is warmthless, they speak a sort of heresy against whiteness. That’s when whites who demand that the church of whiteness go unchallenged grab their tiki torches.



    Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2006.

    Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s ‘The Sweetest Hangover (And Other STDs).’” Theatre Journal 52:1 (2000): 67–79.

    Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.



Is Animal Religion a Christian Religion?

The title of Donovan Schaefer’s book gives the impression that one is going to learn a great deal about animal religion. But despite the enriching examples of primate rituals (chimpanzees dancing at the base of a waterfall), the main tenet of the book is not nonhuman religion per se, but the very animality of the human religion itself. The author provokes the reader by suggesting a shift in focus from text to affect. This poses a profound critique to current religious studies, which has hitherto been mainly concerned with belief and transcendence as the ultimate elements of religiosity reserved uniquely for human beings with cognition. Schaefer undertakes the ambition to implement—or at least offer for consideration—an “animal turn” within the field of religious studies. This would add on to the “linguistic turn” while going beyond language, which he considers to be just one element of religion among many others—and definitely not the most privileged.

One of the main arguments of the book is that “religion, like other forms of power, feels before it thinks, believes or speaks” (8). Religion is therefore definitely more than a way of thinking, or conceptualising. But what, then, is religion? Schaefer admits honestly that he does not know, but what he knows and convincingly argues for is that the answer to this very question can only be provided through an understanding (even feeling?) of affects. In that vein, he sketches a thorough consideration of the two traditions within affect theory: the Deleuzian understanding of affect, on the one hand, which emphases the “autonomy of affect” in the singular, and phenomenological/feminist affect theories, on the other hand, which treat affects in the plural—necessarily akin to emotions, feelings and sensations. He embraces the second conception of affects as articulations of feelings and emotions, hence the title—religious affects—in the plural. The animal affects, argues Schaefer, constitute a semi-stable phenomenological structure of embodiment that emerges out of the deep history of an expansive evolutionary dynamic, longue durée historical developments (which the author names culture), as well as singular experiences, memories and histories of subjects within a lifetime.

One of the strengths of Schaefer’s book is the fitting empirical analyses that accompany his enriching theoretical insights. Relying on theories by Sara Ahmed and Teresa Brennan, he tackles the documentary film Jesus Camp as an example of affective pedagogy. Pedagogy, in Schaefer’s usage, means that proximity enables the transmission of affects that circulate through bodies. For Brennan, senses—olfactory, tactile, sonic, or visual—play a crucial role in transforming the body when it enters the atmosphere. Ahmed builds upon Brennan’s idea of “atmospheres,” but shifts the emphasis from passivity to the active role of the body in making and reshaping them. To Schaefer the bodily movements in the documentary are expressions of affects—for instance, religious shame—that are part of the vivid religious architecture of the space. The affects in the movie are shown to be both intransigent and pedagogical. Jesus Camp affectively informs not only the evangelical religious camp but also the postsecular, which invokes competing but equally intense feelings. The film also challenges the idea that white Protestant religion is self-containing and rational, when the rest of the world dances—like an animal.

Another important example Schaefer treats is the Ground Zero Mosque controversy in the United States and the hate economy created around this event. In the entire controversy, Islam becomes the site for the creation and distribution of affects within the language of a religious war between “Judeo-Christianity” vs. “Islam.” Schaefer describes it as “erotics of racialization,” a site where anti-Muslim groups savour their hatred and desires. The examples of Pamela Geller (a Jewish woman opposing the Ground Zero Mosque) and Terry Jones (an Islamophobic preacher, who organises Quran burnings) are, according to Schaefer, driven by animal religions more than ideologies. It is interesting and illuminating to see the references to primate war-like behaviors and moral sentiments as affective compulsions that prevail in recent racist desires. But although the book underlines over and over the importance of both evolutionary and material historical and individual roots of affects, it is surprising to see almost no historical references to centuries-old Christian prejudices against Muslims or to the recent history of Nation of Islam in the United States that certainly contribute to the making of the semi-stable phenomenological embodiments of the “Muslim Question” and Islamophobia in the West. Is racialisation not also as much in the embodied culture of the American nation, or necessarily in all nations, as it is within the animal religion?

The evolutionary biology plays a pivotal role in the way Schaefer conceives of religion, namely not primarily linguistic, textual or cognitive but rather embodied, animal and affective. Contrary to some evolutionary theorists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who construct evolution as intelligent, efficient, and rational, the author turns to post-Darwinian biologists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, who take up “another” Darwin less known to the public. Darwin himself, states Schaefer, believed that natural selection may be one strong component of evolution, but definitely not the only one. Evolution is a historical and accidental process that can in no way be demonstrated or traced back with perfection.

At this point Schaefer follows Elizabeth Grosz in drawing attention to sexual selection, a process shaped by compulsions, nonreason, and contingency. Evolution is a partial accident and the source of the accident is affective. There does not have to be a “reason” for why we do what we do. Our bodies repeat the accidents of landscapes, which made them. Power is not intelligent, neither controllable. “Religious affects are not random, but they are accidental” (177). According to the author, like art, dance, and play, which has no purpose or use, religion is pre-linguistic and part of a constant dance. Going beyond a mere metaphor, dance enables Schaefer to capture the embodied experience based on history and evolution that is beyond and above, before and under language at the same time. In that sense, dance becomes life itself, as well as our experiences of a particular time and space. Schaefer explains the dance of the chimpanzees as a dance of emotion, of awe, whose roots are in evolutionary biology. According to him, we carry a biophilia for the landscapes, which may have been prompted by survival needs at the outset, but after being carried through our embodied histories as affective compulsions has been “replaced by awkward economies—sliding, queer economies of affect” (197). Science, signification and language become also part of the human dance that we have in our bodies. This dance can happen to be a dance (in the sense we understand it) but can also remain an invisible dance where bodies moved by compulsion move through affects.

Although I find most of the propositions and theoretical undertakings of the author very innovative and rather convincing, I had difficulties understanding the “religious” character of the economies of affect with respect to racism for instance in the United States. It is all the more puzzling when we consider Schaefer’s own reading of Islamophobia as a form of racialisation. It seems like everybody is animal and religious at the same time according to the author. Can we then talk about the affectivities of a particular realm—namely the “religious”—when it’s completely mingled with the “political,” even in the case that we follow the internal logic of genuine religious affects? I could not stop wondering if the religious character of this affective controversy actually reposes on the supposed Christian roots of universalism as the basis not only of human rights but of the nation state (Badiou 1997). Or were the seeds of racism planted by the Christian missionaries first in the colonies (Stoler 1995)? Or is it that the racialized just happened to be Muslims as Islam at times “gets to be called a religion” yet at times considered a wholly political project? Although Schaefer does not explicitly refer to the (in)famous Schmittian argument that all political concepts are secularised theological concepts, might he be arguing that all political struggles are at the same time religious (and thus animal) struggles?

Schaefer’s clever selection of the primates—and not the dolphins or elephants whose practices after the death of a group member can be compared to a ritual, expression of awe or even a dance—as the prototype animal with religion enables him to create an affective resonance at the same time with the centuries-old political struggle between Evolutionist and Creationists. This very inner Christian debate of nineteenth-century Europe and North America still remains irrelevant or has only recently became relevant in non-Christian countries. It is hard not to wonder if one has to inhabit or inherit the Christian affective arrangements in order to literally have a sense of the provocation of the “animal religion” and the enormous challenge it poses to the field of Religious Studies. Are not non-Christian “world religions” already animal religions from the beginning of their conception?

In the final parts of the book, Schaefer explains the political implications of attributing religion to non-humans as it permits him to claim joy, dignity, and desire for animals, placing them on the same level of capacity to have religions as human beings. He also insists that similar to the religious, the secular and the rational are equally animal, equally affective productions. While putting the rational and the secular within the animal religion, he simultaneously discards the necessity of the secularisation theories, as there can be no going beyond animal religion. “Do all bodies have religion?” asks Schaefer, as an open question (217). I truly believe that the answer to this question should concern not only “what gets called religion” but also “who gets to call something religious.” What kind of an affective and historical charge might calling something religious instead of tradition or life entail? Schaefer takes also the responsibility of calling the affects in question religious and that courageous act is not without risks of reviving the colonial and national oppressions of carving proper religions out of life.



Badiou, A. 1997. Saint Paul: La Fondation de l’universalisme. Paris: Collège International de Philosophie.

Stoler, A. 1995. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


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    Donovan Schaefer


    The Stickiness of Classification

    My gratitude to Yasemin Ural for her thoughtful and insightful précis of Religious Affects. I am particularly excited to be in dialog with Ural for her versatile academic background and the variety of disciplinary perspectives she brings to bear on this topic. As usual, Ural’s questions are incisive. I’ll try to clarify where I can and admit the limits of my own understanding everywhere else.

    Ural zeroes in on two entangled orbits of the book: the definition of religion and racialization. One of the refrains of the book is the phrase “Religions and other formations of power.” I don’t think there’s a decisive way of defining religion. The strong consensus among scholars of religion is that a hard rule for deciding what is and is not religion is probably not going to be forthcoming. As the theorist of religion Jonathan Z. Smith wrote in 1982,

    while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study. It is created for the scholar’s analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy. (Smith: 1982, xi)

    Smith can be criticized for overemphasizing the role of “scholarship” in extending the reach of the concept of “religion.” But the overarching point stands: “religion” is a construct that can be and has been deployed in any number of ways depending on how the definition is formulated. This irreducible blurriness is not unique. It places “religion” in the company of other high-flying concepts that organize entire fields of study: “art,” “language,” “literature,” “history,” “society,” even, arguably, natural scientific concepts like “matter,” “space,” and “species.”

    But unlike most of those other field-organizing concepts, the use of the category of “religion” has outsized political implications. Because “religion” has been located at the edge of reason, at the edge of power, at the edge of what matters, and as a privileged category in liberal legal frameworks, the deployment of the category always surges through systems of power. This cuts in both directions: contemporary Scientologists may demand the label “religion” to guarantee legal protections; contemporary Hindu nationalists may reject it to establish the “scientific” superiority of their tradition. In either case, labelling a feature of culture as “religion” is never neutral.

    But the fact that the category of “religion” is historically contingent—and the fact that it’s power-laden—doesn’t mean it’s useless or meaningless. A social construct is a historically contingent way of capturing a certain configuration of elements in the world. It doesn’t mean that configuration of elements didn’t preexist the word. As Kevin Schilbrack writes, “religions, like dinosaurs and sexism, have existed even without the term” (Schilbrack: 2010, 1125). Nor does it mean that capturing that configuration for comparative purposes teaches us nothing. Smith’s injunction is for self-aware scholarship, not silence.

    If we are going to use the word “religion,” we need to be extremely careful that it doesn’t consolidate imperialist, anthropocentric, or racist priorities. One of the current fashions among anti-Muslim activists, especially in the United States, is to claim that Islam “isn’t a religion,” but in fact a “political system.” This allows them to excuse Islam from religious freedom protections. The self-reflective use of religion sought, however haltingly, by Religious Affects is extremely vigilant about claims like this. On the one hand, creating a rule that defines any institution that spans the public-private divide as “not a religion” needs to be named as an arbitrary concoction designed to flatter a particular formation of power-affect.

    But as importantly, affect theory helps us to wash out the public-private binary and cast light on how bands of power always crash over the borders of “self” and “society.” The way you make yourself as a subject through “religious” practice is the subject you are when you enter the public sphere. The way you are shaped and guided by history is the “self”—the semi-intact “you” you experience even in your solitude. Rather than seeing religion as exempt from power, the affect approach locates it as one formation of power among many, one region of the global reef of power linking all bodies.

    Pushing back on the attempt to define religion according to a set of propositions also sets up new lines of experiment in religious classification. It seems less and less plausible to me that we should treat “Islam” and “Christianity” as fundamentally different in their “beliefs.” Stephen Prothero, for instance, claims in his book God Is Not One that “the world’s religious rivals are clearly related, but they are more like second cousins than identical twins. They do not teach the same doctrines. They do not perform the same rituals. And they do not share the same goals” (Prothero: 2010, 13). The “rivalry” of religions surfaces because of conflicting belief systems.

    This is common sense, and I argue that it’s wrong. Affect theory asks us to consider not how religions are organized propositionally, but affectively. The contention is that the affective structure of traditions—the way they marshal different emotional configurations—is a more effective predictor of how they will interface with systems of power. It addresses what I consider one of the most fascinating puzzles in comparative religions: why are ultra-conservative Islams, Christianities, Hinduisms, etc., so preciously similar? The only difference between these various right-wing projects is nothing more than a few proper names. From the affect approach, the belief systems are secondary; what is primary is the affective rubric used to organize discourses, elevating some aspects of tradition and sidelining others to construct formations of power—like militant exclusivism and supremacism—with cross-cultural recognizability. I wonder if Ural would agree with a further provocation: could the same be said for secularisms? Are some formations of the secular, in Asad’s phrase, more “like” religions in the way they articulate bodies to reefs of power?

    Ural is right to point to the book’s failure to deeply depict contemporary Euro-American Islamophobia’s emergence out of an ecosystem of long histories of anti-Islamic Christian polemic, American imperialism, and American racism (including state violence against blacks who assert Muslim identity). The analysis of Islamophobia in chapter 5 would have been more compelling with this picture projected on the wall behind it. Let me rearticulate the narrower point that the chapter sets out to make. Racism doesn’t need a “reason.” Of course there are always “reasons,” like the claim that Islam “isn’t a religion” or that the Jews are “backstabbers” or that science has proven that those with blue eyes are “way more superior.” But the “reasons” given are layered on top of affective foundations. In doing this, “reasons” amplify, rearrange, coordinate, and sharpen the affective elements of racialization. But the reasons themselves are not the fons et origo. And the ability of racialization to infect systems of power always exceeds the force of the reasons given.

    Does one need to be Christian in order to be provoked by animal religion? Very possibly. Animal religion is designed to provoke not only Christianity, but other concepts that pin themselves to the integrity of Christianity as a category, including whiteness, Euro-Enlightenment, rationality, and secularism itself. This complex has a powerful tendency to racialize precisely by exculpating itself from animality. Animal religion aims to scramble this tendency by re-entangling bodies, affect, and power.

    This is why, finally, I think it’s right to abandon the Schmittian claim that politics is always a residue of theology. This is the linguistic fallacy: it assumes we need well-developed concepts in order to have frames of power. Discourse can play the role of sophisticating power, of distributing it and amplifying it. But discourse alone doesn’t explain why there is power, where it comes from, or why it thrums so deeply through our bodies, thoughts, and actions. As Saba Mahmood has noted, this is still the old Enlightenment myth of a world that is orchestrated by ideas.

    The fluidity of the religion-power system means that the theological and the political will always exist on a Möbius strip. “The religious” as a zone of that strip is a moving target, a sticky residue that can never quite be cleaned up. I can only agree with Ural that at the end of the day, claiming the right to control the definition of religion never stands outside of power, but is fully stuck to it.



    Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—And Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

    Schilbrack, Kevin. “Religions: Are There Any?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78:4 (2010): 1112–38.

    Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.



The Dance of the Bees

Bees have long served as a paradigm for thinking through ideals of human sociality and models of social arrangements. For the ancient Greeks, bees often symbolized perfect political community, a paragon of cooperation and commitment to the common, civic good. Bees have also operated as a screen upon which to project human moral aspirations and strictures. One eighteenth-century English clergyman, following the shocking scientific discovery that the king bee was, in fact, a queen, insisted she must be a virgin. Otherwise, this implied she took the many males of the hive as her mates, making her a “common prostitute, a base, notorious, impudent strumpet, the most hateful and abominable whore with gallants by the hundreds.”1 Clearly, the presumed king’s harem was morally unproblematic. More remarkable is the reduplication of immaculate conception and virgin birth within the hive, necessitated by patriarchal moral codes. The Virgin Mary was transmuted into a bee.

Bees have also functioned as a prime exemplar for a particular type of community centered on work and incessant industry. Bees eschew idleness. Busy as a bee, the laudatory saying goes. The eighteenth-century Dutch philosopher and satirist, Bernard Mandeville, famously relied on bees in his reflections on human society and modes of exchange. Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees is a commentary on his earlier published poem: The Grumbling Hive or, Knaves Turn’d Honest. The poem describes a kind of social experiment where self-interested exchanges and pursuits are done away with in the name of honesty and virtue.

While the beehive was productive and prosperous, its inhabitants complained about the lack of honesty and fraternity within. Crying out to the gods, they precipitate a change in which comradery, mutuality, and noncompetition become the norm, and where self-interest and selfishness evaporate. The economy of the hive collapses. None are motivated to work, Mandeville opines, and the economy of credit and debt contracts (since the virtuous dare not borrow nor lenders call in the loans due). The hive’s prosperity declines such that they become vulnerable to attack from without, and die defending their virtuous if enfeebled community.

Mandeville’s tale serves as a paradigmatic and classic celebration of market efficiency. It proclaims the faith that selfish motivations accumulate to the net good of society. The tale provided founding figures of capitalism, such as Adam Smith, with an example of the “invisible hand” and offered a fantastical meditation on the miraculous power of human sin and self-interest to benefit society.

Mandeville was aware of concurrent theological debates about God’s providential management of nature and society. Theologians clashed around interpretations of the divine gratuity that “works all things together for good” (Rom 8:28) in society despite human failure. Many extended this to the marketplace. Theological arguments about divine benevolence and communal redemption undergirded later claims about market calibration.2

For Mandeville, then, bees are the consummate capitalists avant la lettre. They fervently devote themselves to a virtuous work ethic that even Weber’s Calvinists would envy. Despite arguably being an obvious example of cooperation and mutual support, they emerge with Mandeville as ideal rugged individualists, all seeking their own gain in a way that unexpectedly, fortuitously, and providentially works for the benefit of the hive. Bees come to symbolize fervent, self-interested industry, the necessary affective posture of early capitalism.

Yet, bees don’t only work. Bees dance, as well.

As I write this review, I’m sitting on the third floor of the Robbins Public Library in Arlington, Massachusetts, where, just out the window beside me, they’ve installed a beehive on a small balcony. Lost in thought, I gaze absently at the hive, watching the endless comings and goings of its residents. The entrance is a congested runway, with a nonstop cycle of takeoffs and landings. The bees adeptly navigate one another and the narrow opening. Certainly, the bees appear to be a model of industriousness. Pollen must be harvested; honey must be made. The hive is awash with incessant activity, ongoing labor.

As I watch the hive, my focus shifts. My sight is drawn away from the hubbub at the entrance of the hive to its surface. I notice the mass of bees gathered there. I had at first taken them to be simply waiting their turn to enter. As I pay closer attention, however, I notice the rows of bees undulating back and forth, pulsing rhythmically. Their wings buzz and their legs tap, as they take a few steps forward and then shuffle backward. The movement is hypnotic and mysterious. In my mind’s eye, I’m transported down to the bees’ level and perspective, and I find myself in the fray, as the deafening vibration rises up around me. The beating of their wings—the snare drums—and stamping of feet—the bass—fill the air. Their lines heave forward and rock backward in imprecise unison (video).

Surely, this is a dance.

Inasmuch as Donavan Schaefer has offered a provocative and fruitful reimagining of the study of religion, his book also functions as an extended meditation on elements residing at the boundaries of intellection, of palpable and perceptible surges and flows that rise up into consciousness (or not), but which defy or elude the linguistic frame. His book is an invitation to pay attention. My response is an effort to think together with him along such lines.

Schaefer’s inquiry leads to questions about the launching point in the dialectical inquiry between human and animal in terms of religion. Do we start with human presumptions about what is religious and look for analogues in the animal kingdom? Or do we consider animal religion qua animals and use this to refine and redefine its presence in humans? Such a question and quest may be doomed from the start, for what would it look like to begin with animal religion on its own?

Considering the bees’ dance as potentially religious helps raise this problematic. After all, science has provided its own utilitarian explanation: bees dance to communicate the location of pollen to be harvested. The dance is pragmatic, an ingenious survival mechanism that takes the location of the sun and magnetic polarities into account. Yet, this may not be as troublingly reductive as it seems. Certainly, the dance is communicative and serves a purpose, but this need not take us out of the realm of religion, since rituals do the same.

Furthermore, the dance is an elaborate and one might dare say excessive method of conveying basic information. This reveals the layers of chaotic imbrications, randomness, and sedimentation that, Schaefer reminds us, characterize evolutionary processes. One might suggest that the dance, while conveying crucial information about food source location, includes so much more. Just as bees have been successfully trained to play soccer, who are we to say that they might not derive a sense of joy and play in this rhythmic exultation, directing their comrades to sources of sustenance that will extend the life of the hive? In demarcating these gratuitous and apparently useless embellishments, are we now in the provenance of the religious?

This raises the question of the sine quibus non of religion, a question with which Schaefer’s study admirably grapples. Is the potential presence of an excess beyond the pragmatic and utilitarian sufficient? Is religion the remainder?

This is why the chimpanzee waterfall dance is both a helpful and perilous entry into such considerations. The question of animal religion is raised in the minds of Goodall and others in the first place because the activity of the chimps before the waterfall looks a lot like what we as humans might do. Starting with human assumptions about terror and awe before the holy or wholly other (Otto) or matters of ultimate concern (Tillich), one then moves to the animal realm and sees correspondences. Or, beginning with assumptions of practical needs, religion serves as a cipher for what appears excessive, unnecessary, or unproductive.

But, to be on the side of dance rather than angels means inquiring into animal religion as a source for that which might disrupt conventional, anthropocentric demarcations. Schaefer’s study walks this line well, duly taking up and critiquing foregoing scholarly approaches while limning the sites “beyond” language and clear conceptual categories. Are we to approach animal religion with traces of what we as humans imagine it must include?

Considering the bees’ dance as religious helps blur the lines of the religious and economic, the sacred and the mundane and practical. For, surely religion is not simply a response to awe and terror, as the HADD theories of cognitive and evolutionary psychology might have it. Neither is religion only the activity of mammals that are conveniently homologous to humans before frightful sheets of tumbling water. Furthermore, religion might be more than the excess, the remainder, the wasteful, useless, and impractical.

Religion is also the everyday, the expedient, and the ordinary. Furthermore, might religion denote a function as well—not in the typical structural functionalist sense of a mechanism of communal equilibrium or crisis management—but in a more basic, functional and pragmatic sense of, e.g., telling another where to find sustenance? After all, if singing to community members about the purported “bread of life” or proclaiming in song and dance how one might procure “eternal springs” welling up within both count as religion, why not repetitive rituals of obtaining basic needs for survival? Life may be “more than food,” and perhaps “one cannot live on bread alone,” but certainly one needs as much as a baseline.

Schaefer’s emphasis on the random and chaotic sedimentation of evolutionary processes helps recall that this dance is anything but efficient in the orthodox economic sense. There should be much more direct ways to communicate in this bee economy. The tendency for economic theories of equilibrium and competitive advantage to elide with and rely upon caricatures of evolutionary theory is brought to light. Evolutionary results may not, in fact, be the most efficient. This serves not to relegate religion to the impractical and excessive, however, but to note that all such activity (the purportedly religious and the economic) are of a piece in this web of chance repertoires and embodied, ossified practices.

Thinking the bees’ dance as religious, and as a counterpoint to the waterfall dance, issues the reminder that the religious may include the ordinary and everyday. Again, while both dances may be on the same level within the animal world—equally mundane, practical, and religious—the tendency from a human perspective is to marvel at the apparently useless, extraordinary, and sanctified (as in clearly set apart and demarcated) activity of the chimps, while missing the everyday, practical, and necessary religion of the bees. The materialist and politicized phenomenological turn, which Schaefer extends and applies, requires attending to both.

The possible dancing joy and potentially religious affect of bees returns us to matters of hive economies. Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments was the foundation upon which many of his later claims in The Wealth of Nations were based. As the title suggests, we might here be very close to the realm of affect. Indeed, talk of sentiments, passions, and affections was prevalent in eighteenth-century philosophy (Smith, Montesquieu, Edwards). Somehow, these discourses have been suppressed. One might even venture the suggestion that it was the (affective) fear of affect that helped found modern economics.3 Ironically, the model of rational choice individualism brackets out affect, even though it is affect that governs such “decisions.” Schaefer’s study helps recall the affectual nature of economy itself, and rightly deems affective exchanges one appropriate site for theorizing the religious.

Perhaps what is called for now is a new fable of the bees. This one would not exalt selfish individualism. Rather, it would highlight the ecstatic dance of survival. Such a ritual provides important information about locating sustenance, and inefficiently and gleefully communicates this to other community members. Through the pulses, surges, and flows that lead, randomly and clumsily, calculatedly and delicately, to life’s flourishing, the religious might be glimpsed.

  1. Cited in Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (New York: St Martin’s, 2007), 93.

  2. See Paul Oslington, ed., Adam Smith as Theologian  (New York: Routledge, 2011); David Singh Grewal, “The Political Theology of Laissez-Faire: From Philia to Self-Love in Commercial Society,” Political Theology 17:5 (2016): 417–33.

  3. See, e.g., Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977); Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987); George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

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    Donovan Schaefer


    The Trembling Hive: A New Fable of the Bees

    Teaching bees to play soccer is only one among many exquisite details in Devin Singh’s brilliant diagram of the nexus between animality, religiosity, and the economic. Singh proposes that the attempt to define religion as the excessive, as that which categorically steps outside of usefulness, carries the risk of picturing religion narrowly—in humans and other animals. He draws our attention to the magnificent irony of religion that claims its source in inspired, untestable faith, yet is the incubator of philosophy, natural philosophy, and eventually science; religion that claims to turn away from money yet is always serving as a nexus for capital and enterprise, looming over the market square, riding the waves of trade; religion that claims that man cannot live by bread alone, yet organizes itself ritually around the eminently bodily, eminently nourishing act of the communal eating of bread. This is not an accusation of hypocrisy or a Hitchens-esque gotcha takedown. It’s something far more profound: an attempt to bring out the vibrant, divergent lines of embodied life and find ways to think all of them together.

    Singh is particularly on point in encouraging us to be careful about taking the chimpanzee elemental dances as the signal example of animal religion. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the dances as an exemplar, and Singh’s essay helped me understand why. It’s not that it doesn’t serve as a productive entry point into thinking about animal religion. But it also too quickly plays into the hands of the logic of economic exceptionalism. It’s allowed to be religious precisely because it doesn’t seem to be “for” anything. The same could be said with elephant graveyards and other animal funerary behaviors. “Treating dead things” or “responding to things that aren’t there” become the channels of otherworldliness, and therefore the only possible vessels of animal religion.

    I don’t want that. It’s obvious to me that all kinds of animal practices that have “practical” value can be seen as tinged with religion, if for no other reason than that what gets called religion has been interlaced with all kinds of practical human activities throughout history. As Singh knows, Aquinas believed that “lions love God by stalking, pouncing upon, and tearing asunder their prey” (Jenkins: 2008, 120). Why not a host of other things that bodies do? Birds flying? Ants with their massive factory-cities? Cows lying down with their calves in the evening? And equally, it seems to me that we could find “function” in the chimpanzee waterfall dance, which I pointed out may well be part of an ensemble of technologies of display that some chimps, especially males, use to consolidate power (Schaefer: 2015, 200). Or it could be both, a material-affective nexus of lines of force running between body and world that is itself a kind of dance.

    On the other hand, how could the book have begun otherwise? The idea of animal religion is so vividly shocking to Euro-modern common sense (though an almost effortless thing for premodern common sense) that we need shocking images to shatter the glass. People want to see animals doing extraordinary, extra-economic things before we can rubber-stamp their religion. It’s amazing how many post-Darwinian moderns are basically Levinasians—whether they realize it or not—seeing animals not as fundamentally irrational, but as profoundly rational. For Levinas, the animal, in presupposing its own survival as the highest good, is actually the most rational being. What distinguishes the human, Levinas will suggest in a 1986 interview, is our ability to be irrational, to step outside of the economic and sacrifice ourselves for the other (Levinas: 2004, 49).

    This purely selfless, radically non-economic zone is also, for Levinas and his secret army, the space of real religion. “There is no natural religion,” Levinas insists, “but already human egoism leaves pure nature by virtue of the human body raised upwards, committed in the direction of height” (Levinas: 1969, 117, emphasis original). Although usually unspoken, this metaphoric template is a powerful axiom patterning commonsense human exceptionalism for post-Darwinian moderns.

    (Very few people, I find, are in unspoken alignment with Georges Bataille [1992], who believed that animals flunk out of the rational economy so fast and so hard that they manifest a radically non-economic way of living in the world, and so are the paragons of religious being. This idea that we must put on our animal heads to become religious is, for obvious reasons, far less prevalent among Euro-enlightened moderns than the Levinasian approach.)

    That’s why, it would seem, only the image of the animal as non-economic can crash through the far more prevalent image of animals as fundamentally rational and—maybe—open a path to thinking animal religion.

    Or so I thought. This is precisely where Singh’s attention to bees is so compelling. I’m particularly struck by the way Singh reiterates the post-Darwinan emphasis on “the random and chaotic sedimentation of evolutionary processes” to spotlight the way that the dance “is anything but efficient in the orthodox economic sense. There should be much more direct ways to communicate in this bee economy.” Because the overarching flaw of the Levinasian approach (and the Bataillean approach) is that both rely on a binary between rational and non-rational. But the rational and the non-rational can’t be so cleanly cleft. If nothing else, “rational” always has to be imposed with reference to a particular standard. The Latin ratio means “to measure.” Measurement requires units, a frame of reference, and an instrument. There is no “measurement” as such, just as there is no “reason” detached from a particular material configuration. And the material background coordinates ultimately can only be explained with reference to a set of contingent (non-rational) processes. The canvas of the rational can only exist with the frame of the rational.

    Singh’s bees send us along a gorgeous deconstruction of the economic/non-economic binary, just as they deconstruct the rational/non-rational binary. Because bodies always happen in a field of contingency, a field of accident, there can be no purely rational body. Instead, there are forces in tension, affects, vibrant matter, a living tangle. What part of the tangle is religious? The non-economic part? There is no non-economic. Religion is and always has been about money, food, sex, healing (honey is all of those things in one). This is why Sara Ahmed’s notion of affective economies is so important (2004). She shows that the economies we engage, manipulate, circulate within are not just money economies. We do things for affects. Religion’s ability to mobilize these economies—economies of dignity, beauty, joy, and rage—interlocks with all the other visible-currency economies orchestrated by religion every day.

    The non-rational part? In addition to vilifying entire strands of the history of things that have been called “religion,” and waltzing elegantly into the lethal spiderweb of secularism (which would love for you to think that we can flatten ourselves to purely rational beings and expunge the remainder), there is no non-rational. We are always measuring the world with our bodies, measuring practices, measuring beliefs. Religion changes—within history, within lifetimes, within space. If religion were fundamentally irrational, it would be immune to change, immeasurable. Even the most ardent zealots are thinking, are responding to the changing empirical circumstances of their worlds. The holy and the profane intertwine.

    This brings us back to the earthworms that surge up from the soil in the conclusion to Religious Affects. Sometimes skeptics (Levinasians sans la lettre) will give me primate religion—maybe even mammal religion. But earthworms? How could twisting through the earth be religious? But I think Singh nudges us towards a more radical approach that helps us respond to this question. From the perspective of the transeconomic—neither economic nor non-economic—the rational subject ceases to be central to the operation of religion. Maybe the point then, is not to rethink the definition of religion so much as the definition of agency. By seeing ourselves as forces—affects, vibrant matter—twisting through us, the locus of religion is replaced. We aren’t angels, unified, pristine formations of intellect lancing over the earth. We’re in the earth. Religious affects are like worms twisting through us, binding us, pulling us in many directions. They leave our bodies buzzing.

    Here I dance. I can do no other.



    Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 79, 22.2 (2004): 117–39.

    Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

    Jenkins, Willis J. Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Levinas, Emmanuel. “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights.” In Animal Philosophy: Ethics and Identity, edited by Peter Atterton and Matthew Calarco, 46–50. New York: Continuum, 2004.



Religious Affects

Are angels a kind of animal? Is language a kind of embodiment? Is rationality a kind of affect? These are a few of the questions I scrawled in the back pages while reading Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, Power. Perhaps provoked by Schaefer’s own rhetorical approach of posing multiple questions throughout the book, such as “What do affects do?” and “What do we do for affect?” (128), the feel of my readerly questions ranged from the curious to the concerned, and sometimes ventured into the cranky. In what follows, I offer some brief answers to these questions as my response to Donovan Schaefer’s ambitious project.

Religious Affects is a helpful tour through the debates enjoined within what Schaefer describes as phenomenological affect theory, with detours into scholarship on evolutionary theory and animal behaviour. Schaefer argues that the study of religion needs to be oriented more by an anthropology of affect and animality than by a concept of the human defined by language. Closing his argument with another question, Schaefer asks, “What if religion makes us animal?” (204).

A set of parallel dichotomies, namely between angels and animals, language and affect, shape Schaefer’s argument throughout the book. He begins with a quote from an 1864 Oxford lecture by Benjamin Disraeli, the British novelist-politician, who grew up Jewish and became a Church of England member at 13 when his father decided to have his children baptized. Mocking Darwin’s new-fangled theory of evolution, Disraeli defended what he considered to be the scientific teachings of the Church with this quip: “The question is this—Is man an ape or an angel? My lord, I am on the side of the angels” (1). With frequent reference to this dichotomy, Schaefer wrestles with angels throughout his book, insisting that a better answer is one that understands human bodies as animals and not as “fundamentally light, uncomplicated, shadowless, and floating” angels.

In Schaefer’s reading, angels become a stand-in for what he describes as the liberal “sovereign self” in which language, rationality, and book-reading are prized modes of being human. Animals, by contrast, are cut out of the sphere of religion in the liberal mode, as another of Schaefer’s questions suggests: “If religion in the Protestant key that underpins the Enlightenment axioms of Western culture is a matter of belief—the cognitive manipulation and the autonomous affirmation of a set of propositional assertions about the nature of reality—how could animals, who are prelinguistic bodies who don’t fit the mold of speaking, reasoning, choosing, subjects, be religious?” (2–3). Placing language, belief, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment on the side of the angels, Schaefer faces them off against affect, embodiment, and the “globalized self” in the corner of the animals (66).

The “myth of angelic self-sovereignty” (117) has not only led to a mistaken anthropology that misunderstands the animality of humans, according to Schaefer, but also to a misconception of what “religion” is. At the crux of this mistake is the “linguistic fallacy,” or what he defines as “the humanistic privileging of logos, language, and rationality as the only possible loci for producing meaning, complexity, depth, and systems of power” (155, see also 35). Schaefer draws on an impressive array of poststructuralist and feminist theorists of affect to argue that “religion grows out of a pulsing network of embodied affect” (134), which can be better understood with recourse to a cautious use of what evolutionary theory reveals about the animality of the human. As he writes in his conclusion: “There’s an enduring risk in religious studies and in humanistic work generally that we get sucked into Bookworld, that we think the only way to understand our bodies and the only way to understand religion is by flipping pages. Affect theory, following the materalist shift, tries to think of religion as dance, a surging of multileveled, deeply stratified bodies into the world that is not reducible to language” (217). Schaefer sees his task as bringing the affective, animal body into the orbit of the study of religion, concluding with the optimistic claim that recognizing the animality of religion in a “postsecular context” will enable it to flourish as a “horizon of respect” (215).

The books’ chapters are rooted in diverse analytical settings such as: his pedagogical approach to teaching Jesus Camp, a movie about children becoming passionate and performative Evangelical spiritual warriors; how to analyse Islamophobia in the United States as a process in which solidarities are formed both through espousing hatred of Muslims and through contesting such racialized hatred; and a reading of solitary confinement as a technique of power and governance that breaks human beings through denying their need of sociability. Overall, Religious Affects seeks to provoke a theoretical pivot away from language and textuality and toward affect and bodies.

Schaefer is a generous reader of a wide range of theorists, including a truly noteworthy number of women (this may seem an unusual thing to say, but I became aware while reading his book how uncommon it is in a work of religious studies theory—that is not about gender—to find careful analyses of the work of so many theorists who identify as women, and as feminists). His approach to reading affect theory through the lens of animality will enrich critical engagement with the concept of religion as a theoretical tool and as a word of power in the world. I particularly appreciated his call to include within the compass of religion a focus on how human bodies are always shaped by some kind of biological necessity, or what he calls “compulsion.” Though what this “animality” compels people to do may not look the same everywhere in the world, it is always in some way shaped by what Schaefer calls a model of “global religion,” or “the circulation of intransigent embodied affects—bodily technologies created by evolutionary forces in deep time” (62). At the same time, I wondered if his argument would have been even more convincing without the dichotomies of angels vs. animals and language vs. affect orienting the story and its temporality.

Take the question of angels. Are they really so immaterial and uncomplicated? If we consider only the Jewish and Christian traditions—or even the “post-Christian” reading of the novelist Philip Pullman—angels turn out to be rather more complicated as material beings. In the book of Genesis, Jacob wrestled with an angel of God all night long, who left his groin “out of joint” (Genesis 32:25 KJV). In the “Animal Apocalypse” of the apocryphal book of Enoch, likely written in the second-century BCE, angels mate with animals to cause all sorts of problems.

In early Christianity, both angels and demons were considered to be material beings, requiring nourishment that they were thought to find in the smoke of animal sacrifice. As Gregory A. Smith argues in “How Thin Is a Demon,” the “material turn” in the study of early Christianity requires twenty-first-century readers to put aside any assumptions about angels and demons, in order to realize that in the late antique Mediterranean region, these spiritual beings were thought to share a similar kind of matter with the human soul: “Like the thicker bodies of ordinary animal life, they are subject to depletion and renewal. In other words, they need to eat.”1 Similarly, as Stanley Stowers has shown, the perspectives of early Christians on matter and spirit were shaped by their experiences of living not in “pre-linguistic” but in “pre-biomedical” bodies.2 All this is to say that to be on the side of angels does not necessarily mean to have spurned materiality, embodiment, or even affect.

This leads me to reflect on my second question: is language a kind of embodiment? This seemed to be the case for some of the women I spoke with in the course of my research on the home birth movement in northeastern United States in the late 1990s. Some women understood an embrace of their animality to enable them to let their bodies do the work of giving birth. Placing their experiences of childbirth on a continuum with those of horses, dogs, and cats, these women understood birth as an animal act spurred by a kind of evolutionary instinct, but also best guided by the support of experienced midwives, backed up by medical training. Language was a critical pathway that led these women to experience their animal bodies. Reading books that presented birth as a “natural” and not a “medical” act and sharing stories of their experiences of childbirth with friends and family was a process by which they retrained their bodies into new affects shaped by excitement and not fear for giving birth.3 The home-birthing women who embraced the animality of birth encompassed a diverse range of religious commitments, including sharply divergent perspectives on women’s reproductive rights. And they all came to their animal acts as what I called “post-biomedical” bodies, who knew they could count on medical assistance if their births became complicated.

In contrast with an analytical frame that sees the mutual imbrication of language and embodiment, affect theory often seems to require drawing clear lines between the pre-linguistic and the linguistic body, with the “pre” signifying an urge to search for origins of everything from morality to religion. As Schaefer puts it in his discussion of evolutionary theory that supports a “prosocial” vision of the human: “Prior to language, moral decision making—in humans and other animals—is produced from embodied regimes of affect” (133, see also 15). This pre-discursive temporal frame is often laid on top of the unfortunate metaphor that many seem to live by, which asserts the underlying “hardwiring” of the human.4 I’m not convinced that the language of priority or of hardwiring really helps us to better understand—as scholars who write books—how affect, embodiment, and language combine to make religion into specific “systems of power” (39).

What if, instead of placing angels and animals in separate corners, or opposing rationality as articulated in language with affect that surges through bodies, we thought of rationality as an always social practice shaped by affective dispositions? Reason is an ideal that requires accountability between human beings and to the empirical—the natural and the animal—world. Here the work of Monique Scheer and her colleagues in the history of emotions is particularly instructive. Scheer, drawing from Bourdieuian practice theory, argues that emotions are a “form of practice, because they are an action of the mindful body.”5 One way to read her article in conjunction with the claims of affect theory would be to ask: is affect theory another approach to hashing out the never-ending question of what, in late-twentieth-century parlance, went by the name of the conundrum of structure and agency?

Insisting that the physiological body is simultaneously a “socially prepared” body, Scheer develops a historically-informed theory and method that can help scholars of religion to understand rationality as a particular kind of emotional practice shaped by the ideal of reason. (Scheer does not use the concept of affect, as she also notes how affect is often given an apriori “precultural” status.)6 Conceiving of rationality as a kind of emotional practice also helps scholars to see how claims to reason often work to the advantage of some, rather than others. This approach to rationality would be consistent with Schaefer’s argument that understanding affect helps to reveal how power works. At the same time, we would do well to remember, along with the musician St. Vincent, the ongoing sexism enabled by the trope that “women do emotions but are incapable of rational thought.” Those who seek to speak truth to power would lose a great deal if they were to banish rationality to the politically suspect and disembodied realm of what Schaefer calls “Bookworld.”7

Affect theory without the history of emotions—and the history of angels—leaves us without the powerful tools of analysis that come with rational dispositions. Our abilities as scholars to describe, critique, and even perhaps change the systems of power that have depended on stereotypes, tropes, and even lies, demands that we make use of all the rational passions at our fingertips.

  1. Gregory A. Smith, “How Thin Is a Demon?,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 16, no. 4 (2008): 487.

  2. Stanley Stowers, “What Is ‘Pauline Participation in Christ’?,” in Redefining First-Century Jewish and Christian Identities: Essays in Honor of Ed Parish Sanders, ed. E. P. Sanders et al., Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 16 (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 352–71.

  3. Pamela E. Klassen, Blessed Events: Religion and Home Birth in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

  4. For a critique of affect theory along this vein, see Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37, no. 3 (2011): 434–72.

  5. Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History?): A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion,” History and Theory 51, no. 2 (2012): 220; also see Monique Scheer et al., Emotional Lexicons: Continuity and Change in the Vocabulary of Feeling 1700–2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

  6. Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice,” 207, and 198n26.

  7. Nick Paumgarten, “St. Vincent’s Cheeky, Sexy Rock,” New Yorker, August 28, 2017, http://home/

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    Donovan Schaefer


    Rational Passions

    The University of Pennsylvania Museum has a gallery dedicated to Buddhist, Daoist, and Shinto material religion of China and Japan. As I walked through it this summer, hypnotized by the exquisite forms and colors, the layering of history, and the rhythmic whirring of the floor fans, a man came in behind me. He was early middle-aged—perhaps a parent dropping a child off for the beginning of the semester—Asian, and had a young boy with him. As I gazed at a nineteenth-century statue of a Buddhist patriarch, he came up beside me. He inspected the statue for a minute, raised his hands together, and gave it a polite bow.

    Photo courtesy of the author.

    What was strange was what happened next. The man and his son breezed off to look at the other galleries. I was still soaking up the details and turned to another exhibit: a full-sized Japanese Buddhist shrine arrangement, probably twelve feet high and fifteen feet across. I was overwhelmed by the artistry of it: the color, the use of proportion, the careful use of sculpture, the visual dynamic of rhythm and singularity. I’m not a Buddhist, nor a believer in any Christian sense. But standing there, I had a strange impulse.

    I wanted to bow.

    Photo courtesy of the author.

    I’m very grateful to Pamela Klassen for this careful and provocative reading. I think she’s probing some of the sloppier parts of the book, where I was still working through my own thinking on these issues and/or being careless in the way that I communicated them. I hope I can allay some of her concerns with this response. That said, there are also undeniably provocative claims in the book and I want to restate those here, which may help cast light on areas where Klassen and I might really disagree.

    Klassen sees the book as “dichotomous” in pushing towards the animal rather than the angel. Her suggestion, if I understand her correctly, is that this move leaves too much behind, ultimately depleting our ability to do humanistic work. Let me try to set the record straight here, by which I mean make clear what I expressed poorly in the book. Religious Affects isn’t opposed to studying reason and language—the properties I identify as angelic. It’s opposed to studying them against the backdrop of the linguistic fallacy, which sees language/reason as the only modality of understanding power. J. Z. Smith writes that “the human sciences become conceptually possible largely through the acceptance of the argument that their objects of study are linguistic and language-like systems and that, therefore, they are the study of ‘eminently social’ human projects” (Smith: 2004, 207). The linguistic fallacy understands us as essentially information-processors, as decoders of symbols.

    Klassen is right that of angels, there are many. The angels I had in mind—and I think the angels Disraeli had in mind that day in Oxford, but who really knows—are the angels of Thomas Aquinas, who argued in part 1, question 51 of the Summa that angels, as suggested by the Greek root word angelos (“message”) are creatures of pure intellect: “Therefore in the intellectual nature there are some perfectly intellectual substances, which do not need to acquire knowledge from sensible things. Consequently not all intellectual substances are united to bodies; but some are quite separated from bodies, and these we call angels.” Of course, for Disraeli to cast humans as angels is theologically senseless. He would have baffled Thomas. But the fact that his statement met with such approval reflects a prevalent dialect of common sense that attaches itself to we moderns—especially those totally modern animals known as humanists—who are accustomed to seeing our disembodied “reason” as the key that turns all locks. That’s what I mean by the linguistic fallacy, with reference to angelism. It’s what the book is, I hope, however clumsily, arguing against.

    The book tries to take an ecumenical approach in introducing affect theory, though the reviewers who say that it skews more towards a phenomenological/emotions-oriented approach rather than a Massumian/affect-oriented approach are probably right. Since writing the book I’ve become more concerned about the way that some forms of affect theory rigidly separate affect from language/reason/consciousness. (I think Ruth Leys, who Klassen mentions in a footnote, makes a few workable points in her critique of this kind of affect theory, though overall her essay lumps so many different things together and makes such a hash of her science while accusing others of doing the same that I wince whenever I see it referenced, and now wish that I’d put the rejoinder I offer in the endnotes of chapter 2 in the main body of the text.) It may be right to attribute, as Klassen does, a need for “drawing clear lines between the pre-linguistic and the linguistic body” to Deleuzian affect theory.

    My own argument, inspired by the phenomenological strand of affect theory, may be in line with what Klassen has proposed: language and reason are essentially entangled with emotion. Michelle Maiese, who blends phenomenological philosophy with affective neuroscience, proposes that “sense-making is fundamentally affective, and that it is in and through living animals’ desiderative bodily feelings of caring that they make sense of their surroundings. Thus, . . . mindedness and cognition are not only essentially embodied and enactive, but also thoroughly bound up with affectivity and emotion” (Maiese: 2016, 4). As I wrote in the closing chapter of Religious Affects, “language is not invisible to affect, which enfolds cognition even at the most fundamental levels. It is part of the human dance to talk, to think, to question, to play within the chain of accidents that is language” (Schaefer: 2015, 198). This embodied dance includes rationality, science, and formations of the secular, hence the book’s endorsement, in its final pages, of the question posed by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini as a guideline of secularism research: “What does secularism feel like?” (Jakobsen & Pellegrini: 2008, 22; cf. Religious Affects, 215). Klassen calls this “rational passion,” which I assume is homologous with William James’s notion of “the passion for reason.” (Incidentally, these passages are at the forefront of my mind because this is the trajectory of my next research project—on emotion, science, and secularisms—and I’m very grateful to Klassen for giving me some space to think it through with her in this venue.)

    But where Klassen and I may disagree is in the contention of Religious Affects that emotion goes all the way down. The book makes a strong claim about embodiment: we, like all animals, are organically emotional/affective entities, and this is an inalienable feature of what it means to be a body. This position has earned the accusation of being a sort of “affect foundationalism,” which seems to me to be right. Human language is a remarkably precise technology “for sculpting and distributing” affects, which is exactly why discourse analysis is so important (so long as it recognizes that the words themselves are not the substance of made subjects, but rather the affects carried by the words) (Schaefer: 2015, 130). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t better and worse reasons, or that we can’t use a richly embodied “reason” to recover truth and change systems of power. It does mean that rationality is symphonic, musical, affective. We know as part of a matrix of feelings. And the claim to be bloodless in our reason—which seems to me to be one of the constitutive claims of modern masculinity—is actually an amazing pastiche of different affective forms designed to veil its own emotional constitution as a ploy for authority. If what we mean by an angel is essentially an animal in this sense, then I’m all for angels. But maybe Klassen wants to keep something angelic set aside, set above. I’m not sure.

    Klassen drops the dreaded h-word (hardwire) into her response. I did a quick search and found that word appears once in the book, in chapter 5, via a quote from primatologist Frans de Waal: “We are hardwired to connect with those around us and to resonate with them, also emotionally” (de Waal: 2005, 176). I then pick up the term, writing that this “hardwiring is the intransigent compulsion of affect, the sovereign tangle of living forces moving animal bodies into and through social worlds” (Schaefer: 2015, 133). I still think the de Waal quotation is right. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to say that the predisposition to sociality in human beings is anything but “innate,” which I think is a reasonable synonym for “hardwired” in this instance.

    But that said, I don’t like the term “hardwire” and usually avoid it. Maybe because it brings along too much of the baggage of sociobiology—clumsy attempts to explain complex behavioral forms exclusively through biological analysis—or maybe because it simply doesn’t capture the subtlety of what I think we’re actually dealing with.

    Chapter 2 of Religious Affects talks about the problem of hybrid systems. If one scholar comes up with an armload of data points that show that human beings (let’s leave the other animals outside for now, but they’re waiting for us and they have debts to collect, given the history of extraordinary pain that has been inflicted on their bodies to answer exactly these questions) are configured by their environments, they can make a strong case that human subjectivity is socially constructed. But another scholar can show up with their own data set demonstrating that human subjectivity is made up of biological constants. There is a straightforward solution to this problem, which is that both organizing rules are true. The data set offered by human beings is expansive enough that we can draw up massive dossiers of data to prove any number of different theories. If this were the case, we would expect the macro-data set of human behavior to produce long-standing trench warfare between different interpretative approaches, with neither really ever gaining the upper hand on the other. And that’s exactly what we see with the endless nature-nurture debates.

    Animals are so complicated that different rules obtain in different measures in different locations. Each individual organism is a dynamic interplay between intransigent particulars encoded by genetic and developmental histories and local influences of culture, time, and place. That’s a hybrid system. “Hardwire” doesn’t capture the complexity of that. If anything, I’d call it softwiring: a field of semistable predispositions and inclinations that can be reorganized through individual “experience.”

    So back to the Buddha shrine in the museum. An account that centralizes reason and language isn’t going to produce a particularly interesting explanation for why I felt an impulse to bow, at that moment. The story that needs to be told is about bodies, things, and emotions. It’s about my sociality, the way I resonated with the dignified, understated bow of the man beside me in the gallery. It’s about materiality, the way the color, the mass, and the subtlety of form of the shrine seduced me. And it’s about the felt circuitry of the space, the lifeblood linking everything together.

    The linguistic fallacy can’t get us to any of that. It routes us back to Bookworld, a place where the only visible objects of study are words and beliefs. “If you wanted to bow,” the angelic doctors say, “you must have believed.” That’s what I’m arguing against. “Reason” and “language” are of course part of the picture, but the foundation is emotive. Signification, discourse, and “reason” may be hovering close by, but I don’t think they’re driving the action, at least not yet. I would even argue that when the question Do you believe . . . ? appears on the scene, the answer to the question, even when carefully reasoned, is vividly embedded in the emotional tangle at the source. The “rationality” of something is partly constituted by a material-affective nexus, even as it has the ability to intervene in that formation and, to an extent, reshape it.



    De Waal, Frans. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005.

    Jakobsen, Janet R., and Ann Pellegrini. “Introduction: Times Like These.” In Secularisms, edited by Janet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, 1–35. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2008.

    Maiese, Michelle. Embodied Selves and Divided Minds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Schaefer, Donovan O. Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

    Smith, Jonathan Z. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.