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.