Ipsita Chatterjea: Thank you for taking the time to talk to the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog about your group and its work! What is Religion, Affect and Emotion’s origin tale?
Donovan Schaefer for Religion, Affect and Emotion (RAE): I was inspired by a panel I saw at the AAR in 2011 on affect hosted by the Philosophy of Religion group—where Abby Kluchin, Liane Carlson, and Jenna Supp-Montgomerie were presenting. We had an extraordinary conversation for over an hour after the presentations—one of the richest conversations I’ve seen after an AAR panel, a true dialog among audience members and panelists—and I had the idea of trying to create a venue at AAR to make room to keep talking. I approached the members of the panel and my mentor, Gail Hamner, who had introduced me to affect theory, and we pitched a “Wildcard Session” for 2012 in Chicago. We packed the house and our proposal for a full session was accepted a month later.
IC: Who are you people?
DOS for RAE:
Gail Hamner is Professor of Religion at Syracuse University, where she teaches, writes, and supervises grad students in the areas of American religion, gender, science, and film studies. She has published books on American pragmatism and viewing film as a practice of subject formation.
Donovan O. Schaefer is Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at Oxford. He works on affect theory, secularism, and questions of species, and his book on all of those things, Affect and the Animality of Religion: Evolution, Embodiment, Power, will be coming out with Duke in fall.
Jill Petersen Adams is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Oxford College at Emory University. Her work is informed by Asian and Continental philosophy of religion, and her current project focuses on mourning and memorialization in postwar Japanese and Jewish religious practice.
Liane Carlson is a PhD candidate in the department of Religion at Columbia University. Her research interests include Continental philosophy, with emphases on German Idealism and French Phenomenology, the intersection of religion and literature, and the history of emotion.
Abby Kluchin is a Mellon CIE Postdoctoral Fellow at Ursinus College, where she teaches Continental philosophy and feminist theory. She is also co-founder and Associate Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an experimental school in New York City.
Tam Parker is Professor of Religion at Sewanee, where she teaches in the area of social ethics, Jewish and holocaust and religious violence studies.
Bart Scott is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Montana State University, where he teaches courses in cultural studies, critical theory, and South Asian religions. His book Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self–Rule is forthcoming with University of Chicago Press.
IC: What does RAE do and how does RAE do it?
DOS for RAE: There’s a lot of potential right now for rethinking the role of emotion in the study of religion. It’s been a major part of the field since the 19th century, but the latter third of the twentieth-century saw a backlash against experience-centered approaches. I think that there are now many more resources on the table for thinking about religion and emotion in a more sophisticated way, from Manuel Vásquez’s notion of “materialist phenomenology” coming out of postcolonial anthropology of religion to affect theory to brain-mind science. I’d say that the liability of earlier experience-centered approaches was that they took the experiencing subject as a given—as autonomous, individuated, and irreducible. These new approaches look at subjects as things that are formed in histories, whether cultural histories, political histories, or biological histories. RAE is a platform to bring those different bodies of work and different frames of reference into conversation with one another and ask how they can help us understand religion.
IC: What have been your favorite RAE sessions, or session moments, or separately most memorable (famous or infamous) moments ever?
DOS for RAE: This is hard—sort of a frontal assault on the natural shyness of academics. I guess I’m invested in what I see as the ongoing cultivation of a conversation in the group rather than individual moments, where questions, problems, and methodological issues are being raised and mapped out. Part of what’s exciting about it is that affect theory is a young subfield that is still getting a sense of itself, and it’s been great to see religious studies take ownership for a corner of that. I will sound a note of immodesty and say that our group sessions have some of the best Q&A’s that I’ve seen at the AAR. They draw out seams of thought happening in the audience in very exciting ways and lead to many after-session hallway chats and connections.
IC: I apologize for savaging a fellow academic, thank you for rallying and answering. Could you talk to us about books or articles that have appeared in the last few years that RAE’s Committee recommends, or publications that embody RAE’s editorial line, including those that the RAE has had some hand in producing?
DOS for RAE: There are different streams to draw on. On the one hand we’re talking about books coming out of affect theory, where I think most people would agree that affect theory as a field starts with separate publications by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Brian Massumi in the mid-1990s (though Ann Cvetkovich and others have pointed out that you can’t really pinpoint a starting point for studies of affect, which have been going on in feminist and queer scholarship for at least a generation). In terms of things that have been published in affect theory in the past few years, certainly Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and more recently Willful Subjects, Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies, Jose Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, Sharon Patricia Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism, Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone, and Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression have been generating a lot of discussion and have been/can be brought into conversation with religious studies in very interesting ways, though there’s so much that’s come out in the last 2 years alone it would be really risky to try to rein it all into one list. We hosted a panel session in San Diego last fall exploring the links between Ahmed’s work and anthropology of religion, which did very well. There are dozens of others exploring affect from different angles—cultural studies, race/postcolonial studies, performance studies, sex and gender studies, obviously…
Then there are texts that come out of religious studies more specifically, some of which look directly at affect theory, and some of which are more generally about reconceptualizing relationships between religion and emotion. In the former category, you have Constance Furey’s “Body, Society, and Subjectivity in Religious Studies” or Kevin O’Neill’s “Beyond Broken: Affective Spaces and the Study of American Religion,” both in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Ann Pellegrini’s work is hugely important for this, as well. If we’re restricting ourselves to the last five years, I very much like her essay “Movement” in the journal Material Religion’s “vocabulary” issue in 2011.
In terms of our work, certainly Gail is a prolific publisher. Her book on religion and film, Imagining Religion and Film, sets up the idea that there are specific affects associated with both nostalgia and transcendence, and that we can track the working of these affects in a variety of contemporary films, and that those affects have implications for processes of subject-formation, as well as a companion journal article piece on methodological approaches to religion and film, and has become particularly interested recently in the American director Terrence Malick (see here). The early formulations of my secularisms and affects project came out in an article in Hypatia called “Embodied Disbelief” a couple years ago.
IC: What journals do you find scholarship in your area citing most frequently?
What journals do you think religion, affect and emotion scholars should be reading?
DOS for RAE: Tricky because affect and emotion studies is transdisciplinary and has implications and shoots all across the humanities and social sciences. I polled our steering committee and heard back things like Critical Inquiry, Social Text, Cultural Anthropology, Body and Society, and Theory, Culture, and Society. In religion its come up not only in JAAR but in area studies—lots of Americanists are getting into it but also affect and emotion studies have appeared in positions: asia critique. But you can see from the response to the last question that it’s coming from everywhere, because it’s turning out to be such an interesting and productive approach.
Moreover, there’s a split in affect theory between approaches to affect stemming back to the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and his readings of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson) and approaches that focus more on “psychological” elements. Eve Sedgwick was very interested in a 20th-century psychologist named Silvan Tomkins as a way of moving past the pathologization of queer sexuality in psychoanalysis via affect. That divergence makes it even more difficult to pin it to a single journal or subfield.
IC: What fields outside of religion do you find have the most resonance for producing innovative interdisciplinary work on religion, affect and emotion? Separately or as an extension of that last question, what are RAE’s corollaries outside of the AAR, study of religion-centered or not?
DOS for RAE: Queer theory and gender theory are in the background of affect theory, as well as poststructuralism and postcolonial theory, and those areas (increasingly in conversation with brain-mind sciences) still tend to dominate affect studies. I think that in all of those approaches you find a vivid awareness of the way that something that is being called “Rationality”—which is presumed to be universal—is being used to place certain bodies on the margins. I think that alone gets a discussion of affectivity and all the others of rationality off the ground as a critical machine that rebuffs the demand to subordinate oneself to “reason.” And it helps us understand how what gets called “reason” is composed not just out of cognition and perception, but a very thick tissue of desires.
IC: Beyond those listed in your CFP, could you talk about scholars who have forthcoming work you think we (as generalists, or specialists) should be looking at?
DOS for RAE: I’d be afraid of leaving out something important.
IC: In keeping with your earlier answers, that religion, affect and emotion is among other things a newly rejuvenated area of work and that there is a split, roughly put between philosophy and psychology, that seems fair. On behalf of the Bulletin, thank you for letting us get to know the Religion, Affect and Emotion group. Is there anything else we should know?
DOS for RAE: No, but thanks so much!