The Potential of Religious Studies for Affect Theory’s “Structure-Bodies-Problem”

Affect, Politics and Religion in Iceland

Religion in politics is a contested field even without taking its affective and emotional dynamics into account. But exactly this was the aim of our workshop Affect, Politics, and Religion (held by Ricarda Ameling, Aletta Diefenbach and Antje Kahl) that took place at the end of July 2022, for which a group of young academics from all over the world gathered in the Westfjords of Iceland. In this picturesque and isolated region, we discussed how theories of affect and emotion can help us better understand current forms of religion, populism, racism and other inequalities, and how we can study them empirically.

In this blog series, two participants of the workshop share their impressions and thoughts on affect, politics and religion. 

Part Two by Max Johnson Dugan

How should scholars analyze the interface between macro-structures and embodied feelings? This challenge—what I will call the “structure-bodies-problem”— was at the heart of the Affect, Politics & Religion workshop. When we weren’t scanning the bay for whales or hiking up fjords, we read and experimented with affect theory. Early workshop materials oriented us to a socio-relational and situated account of affects (von Scheve 2018), with later readings testing this framework with case studies related to secularism, populism, racism, and Nordic politics. The workshop facilitators pushed us to think critically about the rigor of our approaches and the stakes of our analysis. The brilliant content of the workshop was, somehow, even more invigorating than Iceland’s nearly perpetual daylight.

I did, however, leave the workshop with the feeling that additional attention to “religion” as a concept and religious studies as a field of inquiry would have provided novel approaches to the structure-bodies-problem. Critical religious studies scholarship pushes forward affect theory in a variety of ways, several of which I focus on below:

Thinking through Affect and Politics 

Despite my advocacy of religious studies frameworks, it is important to acknowledge that the workshop’s approach was highly generative especially in the way it grounded our workshop in the practical, everyday stakes of affects. Scholarship that emphasizes debates about the ontology of affects—often those that maintain the presocial and nonlinguistic framing of affect (e.g., Massumi 2002)—often does so at the expense of affect theory’s application. Instead, this workshop eschewed heady affect theory conversations by using affect as an analytic for political and social phenomena. Workshop participants focused on, for example, the role that affect theory might play in better understanding urgent political challenges, such as the rise of right-wing populism or intensifying postcolonial asymmetries. In this way, the workshop followed affect theories from Queer Studies and Black Studies (e.g., Sedgwick 2003, Ahmed 2004, Berlant 2011, Holland 2012) that use affect as a means for more incisive analysis rather than an end in itself.

Complicating “Religion”

Any scholarly engagement with “religion” will benefit from critical frameworks from religious studies and overlapping fields. Rather than take for granted categories of difference, critical scholarship analyzes the social processes that shape the embodiment of race, gender, and ability. So too should scholars interrogate what they mean by “religion” and how they deploy the category. The uncritical use of “religion,” as with “race” or “gender,” risks perpetuating the power asymmetries that make such differences cogent. Religious studies provides a wide range of tools for complicating and deepening the use of “religion.” For example, scholars have shown how the ubiquitous “world religions” model echoes colonial knowledge production and superimposes Protestant norms on other religions (Masuzawa 2005). Even attempts to rectify harmful power relations often fall into what Nadia Fadil (2019) calls the “double impasse” of the anthropology of Islam in Europe—a set of assumptions about religions, religious difference, and secularism that prevents knowledge production about Islam (and non-Protestant religions more generally) on its own terms. Anytime we use “religion” to understand a phenomenon, we rely on assumptions about what religion is and does. Further engagement with religious studies can help us unpack those assumptions and intervene with their harmful processes.

Religion, Politics, and Affect

The readings of the workshop that drew on religious studies problematized the religious, especially Protestant, roots of the misconception of affects as individual or interior to individuals. For example, Yasemin Ural and Anna Lea Berg’s genealogy of “religious emotions” connects shifting notions of affect to the changing religious discourse of Western Europe and the United States during the 19th and early-20th centuries. Schleiermacher’s writing, they argue, reflected the Protestant emphasis on an individual relationship with God by grounding “emotion” in personal and internal feeling. They then link Schleiermacher’s concern with individual emotion to later religion-oriented thinking, like William James’ focus on individual feeling as the domain of religious feeling. Ural and Berg show how these religiously-inflected understandings of emotion and feeling influenced the now-pervasive framing of emotions as individual and internal. In this genealogy, Ural and Berg engage extensively with critical religious studies literature on Schleiermacher and James (Ural and Berg 2019: 210-14). Religious studies enables Ural and Berg to produce a more nuanced genealogy of the discourse of feeling, emotion, and affect in the Western European and US context. In the process, Ural and Berg also make evident the macro-structural force of religion. Indeed, religions have been and continue to be vital affective pedagogies.

Novel Analytics of Power and Affect

Recent work in and connected to religious studies offers insightful analytics of particular macro-structures, such as anthropocentrism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Despite their focus on religious phenomena, these projects show the wide-ranging force of affects that are especially salient in certain religious frameworks, social imaginations, and communities. For example, in his work on animal religion, Donovan Schaefer uses affect theory (2015) to unpack the anthropocentrism of dominant, language-oriented framings of religion. In his more recent monograph (2022), Schaefer elaborates this framework to show how racialized affects shape religious difference. Similarly, Jamal J. Elias’s work (2018) on the “social aesthetic imagination” clarifies how affects like cuteness and anxiety entrench generational and gendered hierarchies in different Islamic contexts. Affects can also shake up racializing power structures, as shown by Sylvia Chan-Malik (2018) in her incisive study of the “affective insurgency” of Muslim women, especially Black Muslim women. A central concern of the workshop was the emancipatory and/or oppressive potentials of affect, politics, and religion. These concepts—religious affects, social aesthetic imagination, and affective insurgency—do just that, with an incisiveness that might apply to a range of subjects.

The Potential of “Tradition” for Affect Theorists

The concept of “tradition” offers affect theorists an incisive concept for analyzing the way discourses, temporalities, and materialities engender emotions. “Tradition,” as theorized by anthropologists and historians of Islam (Asad 1986, Grewal 2014, Tareen 2020) resembles Salmela and von Scheve’s concept of “emotional opportunity structure” (EOS), or macrosocial frameworks that allow some emotions and inhibit others (Salmela and von Scheve 2018: 437-39). Asad first articulated (1986) “discursive tradition” to identify the ways that Islamic discourses shaped Islamic practice in given situations, with a particular concern for the influence of power and temporality. Where “tradition” in everyday parlance often implies a static and calcified orthodoxy, scholars who draw on Asad’s work increasingly theorize tradition as a dynamic set of power relations that shape “not just shifts in the grammar of concepts and their meanings but also distinct sensibilities, passions, and aptitudes, with which one can act in particular ways and not in others” (Abeysekara 2018: 339). In other words, tradition links macro-structures with the behavior of individuals in a locally situated and elastic manner (Grewal 2014).

Additionally, this conception of “tradition” brings attention to other macro-structural features that fall outside the purview of the emotional opportunity structure as articulated by Salmela and von Scheve. For example, “tradition” accounts for the motivational force of material and visual culture, as well as the salience of temporality. Material culture engenders feelings in subtle yet profound ways, shaping sensibilities about images, spaces, objects, and bodies. Feelings like hope, fear, or bittersweet melancholy orient bodies toward particular temporalities. Thinking with “tradition” would have shed light on key questions that arose during the workshop. How might feelings about a glorious past or a miserable future motivate political affiliations? How might material cultures entrench gun rights advocacy or climate change denialism for certain communities? “Tradition” as articulated by Asad and his interlocutors complements and extends the macro-structural focus of the emotional opportunity structure, thereby expanding the analytic toolbox available to affect theorists.

Questions for a Potential Future Workshop

Religious studies concepts like these offer exciting potential for affect theory. In addition to the above concepts, I propose three questions that might be productive launching pads for future scholarship on affect, religion, and politics:

1. How does religion affectively compare to politics? What methodological and theoretical adjustments, if any, should scholars make when analyzing religious phenomena? What structures of feeling animate religion that do not animate politics, and vice versa?

2. How might critiques of “religion” shape how we undertake affective analysis of religious phenomena? In what ways do decolonial, feminist, and antiracist approaches to religion further “emancipatory” affect theory?

What alternative concepts might we use alongside or instead of “religion” (e.g., “tradition”)?

3. Using affect theory, how do we account for differences across “religions”? How do religious bodies feel religions differently? How might we analyze religious differences without reinscribing the structures of feeling that enable harm according to difference? What are the political, social, and economic stakes of labeling some things “religion” and other things not?

The excitement that animates the lines of inquiry is a testament to the vitality of the Affect, Politics, and Religion workshop. I hope that these questions and concepts might extend our engagement with the structures-bodies-problem and open new, currently unthinkable challenges for affect theory.

Works Cited

Abeysekara, Ananda. “Theravāda Buddhist Encounters with Modernity: A Review Essay.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 25 (2018): 333–71.

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Asad, Talal. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” Qui Parle 17, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2009): 1–30.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Blickstein, Tamar. “Affects of Racialization.” In Affective Societies: Key Concepts, 152–65. New York: Routledge, 2019.

Chan-Malik, Sylvia. Being Muslim: A Cultural History of Women of Color in American Islam. New York City: New York University Press, 2018.

Elias, Jamal J. Alef Is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.

Fadil, Nadia. “The Anthropology of Islam in Europe: A Double Epistemological Impasse.” Annual Review of Anthropology 48 (2019): 117–32.

Grewal, Zareena. Islam Is a Foreign Country: American Muslims and the Global Crisis of Authority. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Salmela, Mikko, and Christian von Scheve. “Emotional Dynamics of Right- and Left-Wing Political Populism.” Humanity & Society 42, no. 4 (2018): 434–54.

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

———. Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Durham: Duke University Press, 2022.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Tareen, SherAli. Defending Muhammad in Modernity. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2020.

Ural, N. Yasemin, and Anna Lea Berg. “From Religious Emotions to Affects: Historical and Theoretical Reflections on Injury to Feeling, Self and Religion.” Culture and Religion 20, no. 2 (2019): 207–23.

von Scheve, Christian. “A Social Relational Account of Affect.” European Journal of Social Theory 21, no. 1 (2018): 39–59.