An interview with Donovan Schaefer on Religious Affects

On November 4. and 5., 2016, the thematic group on “religious feelings” of the Collaborative Research Center Affective Societies hosted the international two-day workshop “Inside Out: Affect(s) in Multi-Religious Secular Societies”, organized by Hubert Knoblauch, Christian von Scheve, Anna Berg, Meike Haken, and N. Yasemin Ural. The workshop aimed at reflecting upon and discussing the role of affect and emotion with respect to current secular-religious conditions and challenges. Participants were particularly interested in the ways in which emotion and affect contribute to the constant reconstruction of “the secular” and “the religious” as antagonistic entities and how they are implicated in the social and communicative construction of reality.

After the wor145kshop, we had the opportunity for an interview with Donovan Schaefer, who presented his thoughts on “Secular Affects: The Emotional Life of Religion and Non-Religion” at the workshop. Donovan is departmental lecturer in science and religion at the University of Oxford and tutors the Theology and Religion undergraduates at Trinity College, Oxford. He obtained his B.A. from the interdisciplinary Religion, Literature, and the Arts program at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and his M.A. and doctoral degrees are from Syracuse University, New York. After completing his doctorate, he held a Mellon Postdoc Fellowship at Haverford College.


Christian von Scheve: Thank you for taking the time for an interview after the two Workshop days we’ve just had. Many in the „Affective Societies“ Center are intrigued by the concept of affect and how it may contribute to better understand the social world. You are probably most well-known for your work on religious affect, a concept you developed in your recent monograph with the same title. Could you briefly explain what you mean by religious affect?

Donovan Schaefer: Sure. It operates on two levels. On the surface it’s a way of bringing affect theory into conversation with the field of religious studies. Religious studies has a very long tradition of thinking about the relationship between experience and culture, but also a very long tradition of anti-essentialism, of using the category “religion” flexibly, neither accepting the concrete reality of that category nor dismissing it altogether. I think resources within this tradition are very valuable for the project of affect theory.

On the other hand the idea of “religious affects” tells us something about the nature of “affect” itself.  One of the etymologies of the word „religion“ is „religare“ which means to „bind again“. Understanding religion as binding is, then, a way of understanding affects. Affects are part of the material, experiential, and phenomenological processes that bind us to things in the world and ultimately create the political structures within which we live. In this sense, all affects are “religious” because all affects serve as ligaments joining bodies to systems of power.

CvS: In the first chapter of your book, you point at two different strands of theorizing on affect: one is more inspired by the works of Deleuze, and the other is more phenomenological, something that is closer to the notions of feeling and emotion. Could you elaborate a little bit on this distinction – in terms of whether we should overcome this distinction or whether it is meaningful to maintain both of those traditions because they are useful to maybe answer very different questions? And you obviously seem to have a preference for the one that is closer to the emotions. Why is that?

DS: You have two versions of affect theory, although really, it could be multiplied much more. I see them as two types of approaches to affect. In one type, which is the Deleuzian type, you have the notion of “becoming” in the work of someone like Brian Massumi that becomes the organizing motif of what affect is. That understanding of affect sees it as an escaping thing, a processual thing, a virtual thing, a transformative thing that is always exterior to consciousness but at the same time is making consciousness what it is. I think about the Deleuzian model of affect as always evaporating; it’s always departing, but it leaves a residue, and that residue is what shapes subjectivity. That line of research has been incredibly fruitful and has done extremely productive work in terms of developing the broader picture of affect theory as well as fields like philosophy and media studies.

Another type is what I think of as the phenomenological branch of affect theory. I use phenomenology in a way that is partly philosophical but also partly shaped by the way that we talk about it in religious studies. In religious studies, the phenomenological tradition is about experience, it’s about something that you actually encounter at the level of your experience. Certain affect theorists are very prominently in tune with this phenomenological tradition. Sara Ahmed would be a great example, or someone like Jonathan Flatley who knows Heidegger well. These are scholars who are directly citing and drawing on the phenomenological tradition.

That tradition also tends to be the tradition that queer and feminist approaches to affect unfold within (just as a tendency, that’s not etched in stone). That version of affect theory tends to be much more flexible in the way that it uses its terms. Ann Cvetkovich, Ann Pellegrini, or Sara Ahmed would all use the terms “affect” and “emotion” fluidly, without trying to pin them in one category or another. They all have their own backstories for why they do that. I would not want to speak for any of them.

For myself, I worry about “consciousness” as an analytical category. I think that “consciousness,” as a category, tends to mislead more often than it illuminates. One of the worries that I have with certain interpretations of the Deleuzian tradition is that they presuppose that we know where the line of awareness is, they presuppose that there is a kind of egg called consciousness, and affect is always swirling on the outside of that egg. Whereas from my perspective consciousness has washed-out boundaries, it’s fluid, roaming. It can’t be nailed down into a particular shape. When you take that perspective, this idea that there are phenomena that are inside consciousness and others that are exterior to consciousness—and that we can use that to define the affect-emotion split– loses some of its appeal. That’s where I land in terms of how I use the word “affect”. But I understand how within different intellectual traditions making that differentiation has done valuable work and I would not want to erase that.

CvS: This brings me directly to my next question: My understanding of this Deleuzian tradition is that for them it’s not only a matter of consciousness, but some of them emphasize that affect is pre-linguistic, it’s pre-discursive, it’s pre-conscious, non-conceptual and so on and so forth. One of the things that we have been wondering about and also actually struggling with in our Center is the question of the possible links between affect and language, and in particular affect and discourse. What’s your stance on this?

DS: I think it’s wrong to say that affect is so abstract that it can never be entangled with discourse but I would affirm that affect is more foundational to the creation of subjectivity than discourse. The reason why that’s difficult to maintain–why there are lots of counterarguments to that statement—is precisely because we see discourse doing what seems to be substantial work in the shaping of subjectivity all the time. What I would say is that discourse is a tool for the circulation of affect. Language is a sophisticated technology that allows us to distribute affects with a high degree of focus and precision. That’s why it’s so powerful, that’s why it’s so effective, and that’s why generations of critical theorists have looked to language as the medium by which power is made and distributed.

The affect theory analysis, as I understand it, is simply to push a level deeper than that, and to say: Look, all of this critical work that focuses on language, that’s very important. But what  language is doing is not distributing semantic meanings. It’s distributing affects. And equally, on the other side, on the side of reception, language only works, it only manages to implant and make power move when there is a certain affective configuration already in place. A hard linguistic constructionism sort of makes us out to be robots–beings that are responsive to language in the way that computers are responsive to code. When we get languaged, when we get told something, we become coded. That misses this much more active, much more difficult-to-see embodied dynamic that is actually happening when you hear somebody’s words.

CvS: When you say it disseminates affect beyond or aside from the semantics, how does language do that? I could imagine that one side of this is actually through the semantics of language, but my hunch would be there is another dimension, there is something that works beyond the semantic dimension of language.

DS: I wouldn’t disagree with that. All that I would want to say is that semantic analysis is not sufficient for an analytics of power. That’s what I call the linguistic fallacy: this idea that it’s just about the propositional content. Partly what you’re looking at when you’re talking about language is the affective interplay between the words and the body receiving those words. There’s a fusion of landscapes in that moment. That’s partly semiotic. I wouldn’t say that the semiotic is off the table. But what we need to spotlight is the way that words very often come to us via bodies. The way that those bodies present words to us is incredibly important. This is where the sociological category of charisma is extremely important (and totally understudied within affect theory). Because charismatic bodies can make people believe things by speaking to them that an ordinary body couldn’t. By saying certain words, a charismatic body is able to give them the extra edge of impact. Nobody would say that Donald Trump is a master logician. He is not better at making arguments. But the species of charisma that he has increases the impact of the very clunky arguments that he makes, and for certain people that’s very persuasive. The analytics of charisma goes to an analytics of tone of voice, an analytics of beauty, an analytics of power that is not captured within the semantic register. All of that needs to be considered within affect theory.

CvS: There are just two more questions on my list. One certainly is, and I think this directly links to this question of language and discourse and how it impinges on affect, the notion of intransigence that you use in your book. In my reading it conveys the idea that affect can in some ways be patterned or structured, although the focus would not be on the rigidity of a structure, but rather malleability and potential flexibility. Is that correct? Could you say some words about this concept that you have in mind?

DS: I thought about this a lot after I published the book. I’m not sure that intransigence was the right word to use in that chapter.  The word that I really wanted was recalcitrance. Recalcitrance literally means „it kicks back.“ It’s got a punch of its own, its own ability to insert itself into a dynamic field. It has a push. With intransigence, I had in mind the image of something that is refusing to budge, rather than a concrete wall. Because I don’t think that affects are like a concrete wall, but I do think that they kick back. They have the ability to push themselves into subjectivity in a way that needs to be taken seriously, both in their biological, psychological profiles, as well as in their ability to concretely reconfigure systems of power.

One of the worries that I have about affects understood under the sign of becoming is that they become very feathery, very soft, things that are always slipping away. Then it’s only this other thing, this congealed residue—which is not true affect—that comes to be the substance of systems of power. And as a Foucaultian, I think of power as something that is fundamentally mobile and fundamentally relational. And to me, that’s what affect is, the relational substance of power. But precisely because it’s power, precisely because it is actively forcefully shaping subjectivity, it’s intransigent. It doesn’t allow you to tell it what to do.

So Lauren Berlant’s model of “Cruel Optimism” is perfect for thinking about this. She’s talking about these moments when you have an attachment to something that is either destructive for you or that you would desperately like to unhook yourself from: an addiction, something that you can’t control. Chapter 4 of Religious Affects goes to the example of Swann in Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past, and how Swann’s love of Odette has become destructive–a “scouring love,” Berlant calls it. You would give anything to be free of this love, but it’s intransigent. It’s telling you what to do. And that’s the way that I see our affects shaping our subjectivity. They have the ability to project force in addition to the ability to set the background coordinates of experience.

CvS: We are also constantly struggling with this question. Because in the Affective Societies Center we bring two kinds of scholars together, those from cultural studies and the humanities and colleagues from the social sciences. They tend to have slightly different questions, they tend to employ different methods and so on and so forth. At some points, we struggle with the methodological approaches that we can take to empirically investigate affect and/or the specific methods that we might be able to use to either describe or discover or maybe even measure affect. I would be interested in your position on this methods issue. And one of the ideas that just came to my mind is when you say affect has recalcitrance, would that imply that it would be fruitful to take something like a socialization perspective to uncover how recalcitrance might actually work? How do certain patterns of affect come to be? Should we look at those things in a diachronic way or could we use comparative approaches in a synchronic way? Maybe looking at cross cultural differences? Would those approaches make sense to you or would you have completely different things in mind?

DS: A challenge confronting affect theory is that it’s organized around studying something that doesn’t present itself as effortlessly as other objects of study, such as language. This is partly why language became such a key analytic motif in the twentieth century. Language is easy to find. Breaking down the truth value of propositional statements or unfolding the layers of sedimented ideology embedded in a statement – that’s easy to do. Your material is right on the surface. Affect theory, to continue moving forward, has to be interdisciplinary because it needs to draw on as many methodological repertoires as it can to spotlight this very difficult-to-find thing, the layers of affect. Historical perspectives examine how cultures, riven by their own internal differences, organize affect. And equally, synchronically, we can see how different cultures have different ways of organizing their affective repertoires. None of those methods should be off the table.

CvS: Donovan, thanks very much again for taking the time to do this interview.