Review: Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Donovan O. Schaefer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Pp. xii + 286.

“The phenomenological is political” (8). Donovan O. Schaefer repeats this claim throughout Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power. Arguing that a linguistic constructivist approach to religion depoliticizes and dehistoricizes it, he continuously sets himself up against what he calls the “linguistic fallacy” in order to present an understanding of religion based on affects rather than language and belief and to better explain how religion is embodied and lived in connection with politics and power.

Using examples of animal behavior such as social interactions and rituals that could be considered spiritual, Schaefer claims that religion is not dependent on human language. He aims to “subtract[ ] the framework of human exceptionalism from religion” so as to formulate a less anthropocentric understanding in line with current affect theory (3). He interprets religion as embodied in affective responses that do not necessarily depend on rationality or language. Defining affect as “the flow of forces through bodies outside of, prior to, or underneath language,” Schaefer uses affect to better understand the animality, which he seems to define as the non-linguistic nature, of religion and how it works in conjunction with knowledge and power (4). Schaefer offers an interdisciplinary approach that draws on work from various fields, including religious studies, affect theory, critical animal studies, evolutionary biology, literary theory, poststructuralism, material feminism, and political science.

Schaefer provides a helpful history of trends in religious studies, explaining how earlier phenomenological approaches that resisted political and epistemological explanations were superseded by a linguistic “turn,” introduced by Jonathan Z. Smith, that treats religion as a method humans use to interpret and understand situations dependent on language and affected by history, politics, and power. Situating himself against both of these approaches, Schaefer claims that religion “is best understood neither as exclusively cognitive nor as exclusively human” (6). In doing so, he aims to demonstrate how the linguistic model of understanding religion is fallacious because it locates power in linguistic formation and neglects explorations of power outside of language. He offers affect theory as a means for exploring how power is not limited to language, as cognitivist approaches such Smith’s suggest.

With this work, Schaefer endeavors to “expand[ ] the toolkit of religious studies” (11) by deploying affect theory to describe relationships between bodies, emotions, politics, and power. He draws an interdisciplinary link between affect theory and religious studies (while also borrowing ideas from animal studies), bringing conversations from both fields revolving around three concepts: intransigence, compulsion, and accident. After the introduction and Chapter 1, the book’s chapters work as pairs: Schaefer focuses two chapters on each of these ideas, starting with a critical discussion and then a case study examining the concept.

In the first chapter, Schaefer provides an introduction to affect theory, surveying recent criticism to show how it can be applied to ongoing conversations in religious studies. He divides affect theory into two models: Deleuzian and phenomenological. He summarizes work by Brian Massumi (which falls on the Deleuzian side) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (which falls on the phenomenological side), examining connections and tensions between these two strands of affect theory. Schaefer positions himself on the phenomenological side, along with critics such as Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, Lauren Berlant, and Kathleen Stewart, although he notes that many of these scholars “draw on both currents” (34).

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Schaefer’s claim that affects are intransigent – not necessarily inflexible (they can be reconfigured) but somewhat durable and consistent. Affects form embodied templates that are dependent on physiological and cultural factors; the way bodies feel form “blueprints” (39) for understanding religion and power. Concentrating on embodied history rather than language systems, he explains how globalization complicates these embodied affects. Chapter 2 functions largely as an expansion of his literature review and a deeper exploration of the two models of affect theory that he theorizes in the first chapter, with a focus on the intransigence of affects as they “surge through bodies, producing semistable structures that become the tough, raw materials of religion” (39). In Chapter 3, Schaefer uses his experience teaching the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp as a case study to show how nation, race, gender, politics, and media shape religious experience, that is, how global religion is formed by intransigent embodied affects circulated through various intersections of media and pedagogy.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Schaefer turns to the second of his three main concepts, compulsion, in order to explore how affects move bodies. Schaefer argues that we need to move away from what Derrida calls “carno-phallogocentric discource” that “denies our bodies our animality” (93). He defines compulsion as a feature of affects: “[B]odies are anticipating things, compelled to form relationships with worlds. A body is always pulsing in currents of affect formed by a biological footprint configured by the finely grained, sedimented strata of an embodied history” (93). He defines compulsion as a way of dealing with forms of power outside of linguistic, sovereign subjects – affects are compulsory rather than optional and cannot be regulated by language or sovereign subjects. Chapter 5 offers a case study of contemporary American Islamophobia, specifically the Park51 (or “Ground Zero Mosque”) controversy in 2010, in order to show how compulsions move bodies in animal ways and how relationships between religion, bodies, and power can lead to racial and religious divides.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with accident, the last of Schaefer’s concepts, which he uses to mean uncalculated or without rational explanation. He presents accident as a means of mapping the relationship between power and bodies, including religion. He brings together deconstruction and evolutionary biology by drawing on Derrida’s ideas of animalism as a way to “refram[e] language itself as an evolutionary accident” (150) that resists metaphysics. He aims to show how Derrida’s thinking can be used to improve analysis of religious power because it provides a framework for considering how “systems of meaning” such as religion come from accident, or “coalescences of forces producing unpredictable events” (154), rather than any stable, language-based Truth. In the case study for this concept, Schaefer analyzes a chimpanzee waterfall dance, his example of animal religion from the introduction, as an accident-driven affective economy. He expands this examination in an attempt to read religion itself as a prelinguistic “dance” that occurs between moving human and animal bodies and their worlds that circulates affects.

An earlier, clearer definition of religion would strengthen Schaefer’s claims about nonhuman animals being religious beings. Religion hinges on content and ideas that must be passed down through language or communication of some sort. Although religion may also have the affective, bodily, prelinguistic aspect that Schaefer highlights, and how the process of passing down key tenets would work for nonhuman animals remains unclear. Schaefer does offer a redefinition of religion in the conclusion in a subsection titled “What Gets Called Religion?” Here, he argues for a postessentialist, expanded version of religion that works in terms of affects rather than beliefs, but opening the book with this discussion might strengthen the animal religion portion of his argument. Schaefer makes a strong claim for religion not being predicated on language and instead existing largely as affective experience, but the supposition that since animals are prelinguistic, they are also religious in this affective sense remains mostly unproven.

Religious Affects offers new way to use affect theory to understand religion that better accounts for its connections with politics, globalization, and power. Though the book is rather densely theoretical at times, Schaefer deftly navigates wide-ranging scholarly fields including affect theory, religious studies, critical animal studies, evolutionary biology, material feminism, deconstruction, political science, and more in order to clearly demonstrate how religious studies can benefit from using an affective lens to move away from a cognitive-linguistic understanding of how religion works.

Staci Poston Conner