Review – Donovan Schaefer’s Call For a Materialist Turn In Religious Theory (Jonathan Russell)

Schaefer, Donovan O.  Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power.  Durham NC:  Duke University Press, 2015.  ISBN 10: 978-0-8223-5982-1, 10: 978-0-8223-5990-6.  Hardback, paperback, e-book.  304 pages.

Donovan O. Schaefer’s Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power is at once a whirlwind introduction to the relevance the fields affect theory, critical animal studies, and evolutionary biology have for religious studies, and also a laser-focused critique of the contemporary context in religious studies. For all its breadth in Religious Affects Schaefer develops a well-crafted argument and clarion call: the study of religion must include, at its very core, the study of affect. As a project then, “it explores the possibility that a turn to affect can help us better understand human religion as animal.” (3)

Pace animalistic understandings, religion is often considered a paradigmatically human, linguistically enabled affair. Following the (sometimes caricatured) western Protestant religiosity of the propositional, cognitivisitic, and belief-oriented subject, much of contemporary religious studies has simply followed suit in so much as they have continued to carry the enlightenment creed that the human is essentially linguistic, and therefore the study of religion often remains within what Schaefer calls a socio-rhetorical methodology.

However critical, however Foucauldian, such a turn inaugurated by Jonathan Z. Smith toward the socio-rhetorical, which rightly criticized of the abstractly metaphysical orientations of earlier phenomenologist’s of religion, does not go far enough in so much as it still operates with an understanding of religious subjects as “Kantian rationalizers—linguistic subjects thinking through their situations.” (10)

This, for Schaefer, is the linguistic fallacy: reducing the study of religion to ideology critique, to make worldview and discourse the locus of one’s analytics of power. Schafer’s project, however, is situated not against Smith and his ilk, but seeks to radicalize—that is, extend and materialize—the critical analytics of the power at play in religion beyond the angelic lilt of ideology and discourse, and into the messy, affective bodies of the human animal. He follows Manuel Vásquez’s call for a materialist shift, a materialist phenomenology of religion as bodily lived, pre-linguistically embedded in the world of affect.

Chapter one clarifies affect as “the flow of forces through bodies, prior to, and underneath language,” and goes on to develop a paradigm in which affects as multi-directional systems of influence operate between and within bodies as powers pre-linguistically stabilizing into religious forms. (4) Affect theory studies these operations, and in this way opens religion unto our animal bodies, and the inter-bodily fields of force within which we become. It thematizes the ways in which affective drivers within our embodied deep histories move us—often ineluctably.

The turn to affect then is a turn to an embodied, sinewy phenomenology of religion. In this sense, Religious Affects quite nicely connects with the turn toward the posthuman in various fields, aiming to think religion in all its phylogenetic material diversity and complexity. Such an extension of the religious into the body, into our evolutionary embeddedness, is the course of the books takes through the unfolding of the concepts of intransigence, compulsion, and accident.

Intransigence (chapter two) marks for Schaefer forms of embodied experience that pull apart the overly symbolic orientation and also distinguishes the strand of affect theory his project mostly draws upon. Divisible into two currents, affect theory is has developed in both a Deleuzian and phenomenological mode. Broadly speaking, affect in the Deluezian sense operates underneath and distinct from emotions (of which we might be conscious), which are categorically distinct from the cognitive domain and oriented towards the pure becoming of being.

The phenomenological understanding of affect is less distinct and autonomous, effectively “paracognitive, coassembling with the cognitive.” (24) In this way, the phenomenological strand is more amenable to the practical focus which Schaefer (and the materialist turn more generally) maintains alongside the theoretical developments. Affects operate as “ensemble[s] of psychological engines” which hover at the level of lived experience and thus can be observed in some cases as they operate through us. (28)

These affects become intransigent in the sense that they are evolutionarily derived “ affective channels biologically inscribed in bodies.” (44) As such, the phenomenological affect paradigm gives us an alternative to the anti-biologism of much critical theory, developing an ontology of evolved semistable essences in animal bodies, which pushes back against the angelic autonomy of the liberal subject. The human animal is built and bound by forces from deep time, embodied histories that predate and subtend linguistic social constructions. In a way similar to other embodied studies of trauma show, affective intransigence marks the way in which the body ‘keeps the score’ of an ancestral life beyond self and socio-linguistic determination.[1]

It is from within and through these embodied histories that formations of power within religion develop as a “suite of embodied forms.” (55) These forms become bodily technologies and pedagogies that inscribe affects within religious communities, as Schaefer deftly shows in his vivid analysis of the affective conditioning on display in the film Jesus Camp (chapter three), which again work not according to propositional content—discursive power—but circulating fields of networked affect

As matrices of power, affects organize bodies according to compulsions (chapter four) as the way in which they articulate our bodies to systems of power. Compulsions are regimens of relating bodies to worlds, something bodies inherently do in recursive ways. Using Jokob von Uexküll’s understanding of Umwelt (lifeworld), Schaefer develops an ecological understanding of bodies as compelled through these body-world relations. Affective compulsions (the pulses of our bodies) are tetherings between bodies and their worlds whereby we are evoked by our world.

Animal religion maps these dynamics and patterns. Further disrupting the sovereignty of the autonomous subject, affects can be understood as pulses of power that choreograph our relations to the world, relations which become constitutive of our very lives. Religious affects then are sites of this foundational compulsory binding between bodies and worlds (the ligature of our lives).

These compulsions as forces that direct bodies through pushes and pulls are exemplified in the way racism and Islamophobia can be portrayed as affectively compulsory economies of hate which correlates to insights gained from the study of sociality among primates (chapter five). As affective economies, such racialization and Islamophobia can become networked into (or produced by) the intransigent compulsory networks of religious affectivity. Schaefer shows they way in which such post 9/11 racism can be understood as an “affective machine.” (143)

Chapter six takes a somewhat theoretical shift toward the application of affect theory to contemporary evolutionary theory and deconstruction, by way of the concept of accident. Perhaps the most theoretically dense section of the book, Schaefer seeks to synthesize the way in which the Derridean project of deconstruction “as a sort of prolegomenon to affect theory,” where meaning is created in and through the accidental play of différance, has resonances with th turn toward postadaptationism (Schaefer’s terminology) in current evolutionary theory. (152)

Such post-(ultra)Darwinian approaches emphasizes the ways in which evolutionary development exceeds and complicates an understanding of evolution according to a logos which follows a simple balance sheet of survival advantages. In the same way that Derrida’s animalism challenges logocentrism, post-adaptationist evolutionary theory eschews the reductive logic of evolution as a simple orderly calculus and seeks to include the play of indeterminate environmental impacts. “Evolution as the production of embodied histories is an awkward sedimentation of accidents.” (162)

Post-adaptationist evolutionary theory is animalistic in so much as it affirms the accidental nature—the clunky, contingent, unfurling process—of our becoming. As such, affects as intransigent forces that compel bodies, whether in the cases of sexual selection or religion, can be understood as born of adaptive processes, but now existing as decoupled forces, working on and through our bodies as heterogenous zones of the play of these accidental histories which compel, but in non-rational, non-calculative ways.

Ultra-Darwinism betrays the same kind of ontology of the autonomous rational subject that Derrida’s animalism deconstructs, albeit microscoped down the phylogenetic chain. Therefore, far from simply retracing the theoretical anti-biologism, affect theory supplements a more pluriform understanding of evolution, one which opens animal bodies to a wide berth of contact zones, one of which is religious affects.

Chapter seven extends this analysis with a theory of animal religion that outstrips the rational analysis of both the socio-rhetoricist and the sociobiologist. As animalistic, religion is truly accidental and embodied in forms that demand moving beyond the symbolic and the ultra-Darwinian reductionistic regimens. We must understand religion as “a complex, embodied response to the world” that “like other forms of power, moves bodies by creating affective ligatures between bodies and their worlds.” (179)

Through an understanding of the affective body as “better understood as dances of colliding forces rather than bridges to ascension” Schaefer attempts to reclaim a robustly immanent and embodied understanding of religion as evolutionarily born but not functionally reducible affective embroilments of bodies with worlds. It is, we might say, and affectively relational understanding of religion as fundamentally a dance between these materialities.

Schaefer argues that these ligatures are always situated histories of becoming where we are improvising—that is, at play—in response to our world. This relationality, for the animal, is primordial. We dance against the backdrop of our world as the bowerbird dances his mating dance against the backdrop of his lek (a constructed studio). Crucially here, as affective, dance is not mere representation (a concept from the cognitive and linguistic register).

Religion as dance exceeds the purely representational as the embodied rhythms enacted as a logic of becoming by our bodies. As dance, we pattern an experiential relation to the world (and others), and are equally (we might say) ‘im-patterned’ by it. Again, the body is open and heterogenous—acting and being acted upon. Here, religion is not primarily understood as a matter of belief or faith, “but as an affective, radically embodied encounter with the world, our histories, our relationships, and semistable forms of our bodies.” (192)

But what distinguishes these religious affective economies from others? What is the (semistable) nature of religion as a type of ligature? They are, as biologist E. O. Wilson argues, biophilic in the sense that we have evolutionarily bequeathed affective drives toward life, and we may say, by extension, features of our natural world, which have become embedded within us. As the raw materials of animal religion these biophilic aspects are “echoes of ancient landscapes reverberating through our bodies.” (197) In this way, religious affects are the products of insistent landscapes, leks of all kinds, by which we are ancestrally drawn .

Animalistic religion then is an “affective response to the things of power in the world.” (199) It is the ligature by which the felt-being of our embodied histories—the onto-phenomenological character of all being (as Karen Barad terms it)—compel us, intransigently. Such affective economies as body-world dances subtend the symbolic. They undergird and massively predate our late-developing linguistic capacities such that when we speak our religion we thematize something deeper, something working in the affective architecture of certain corners of planetary life, and not just our corner.

Born of such histories, affect, and therefore religion itself, always exceeds reduction to function and draws to earth attempts at angelic transcendence, meeting us as the fissures and linkages where our bodies are drawn out into worlds. As Alfred North Whitehead claims, in a quite different but not altogether dissonance register, “religion is world-loyalty.”[2] Or, as Schaefer writes “Religions…are revive its of compulsory links to the world…a network of beacons calling out to our animal bodies.” (207)

There are undoubtedly a host of new directions and interdisciplinary trajectories birthed in Schaefer’s Religious Affects, the breadth of which I have only touched on here. As a dancing, embodied extension of the materialist turn, it continues the much-needed intermingling of recent currents in the social and natural sciences. The study of religion must be of the body—earthbound as Bruno Latour might say. One of the recurrent (and most urgent) themes is the necessity of moving beyond the angelic western subject—the autonomous rational agent of liberalism—in the way we conceptualize human animals.  Indeed, such a paradigm of the subject is part and parcel with the ideological roots of capitalism and the climatological crisis. To this end, Schaefer’s project is timely in an urgent sense.

One such trajectory of interest is the way in which Schaefer’s embodied account of the human animal and his emphasis on the relation of bodies to lifeworlds pairs quite well with certain understandings of embodied cognition, (such as enactivism) in the cognitive sciences and philosophy of mind (Vásquez’s materialist phenomenology takes up the beginnings of such an engagement). On such models, many similar themes are developed, for example, the body-world relation as essentially an enactive process where organisms are constituted through their extension out into their worlds.

Such accounts resonates with Schaefer’s, emphasizing that subjects (human and nonhuman) are embodied self-organizing processes, always already shot through with their environments. Such models also herald the necessity of an embodied, sinewy phenomenology that dislodges Cartesian and representational understanding of subjectivity and cognition. Bodies are not inert or purely rational, oriented to the world as self-same agents acting for survival benefit, but stockpiles of accidental history, shot through with the contingency of the world, affectively formed through the play of the world(s) within them.

The evolving body is, as Williams James once put it, “a storm center.”[3] Just as storms are constitutively relational, “dancing bodies are stuck to the world around them by webs of pulsing affective lines,” some of which are religious. (183)

This emphasis is akin to Nietzsche’s understanding (who makes appearances in both Schaefer’s and Vásquez’s books) of the body as a concatenation of drives, many of which we are constitutively unaware. Nietzsche’s project was quite similar in some ways, also seeking to disband the myth of the unified rational ego operating at the foundation of Christian religiosity. What Schaefer adds, quite incisively, is that such an understanding of the transparent autonomous subject is often also operating even in the most critical approaches to the study of such religiosity.

In other words, if the socio-rhetorical method retains the angelic disposition not just in its understanding of the religious subject, but in its scholarly stance as well, has it simply switched positions, becoming the Protestant social scientist—a mistaken progenitor of what Nietzsche snidely called ‘modern ideas’—all the while failing to register the fundamental character of affect and the complicating function it plays in our attempts at objectivity and neutrality?

Here, after the “affective turn”, a host of interesting methodological issues come into view, two of which immediately come to mind as potential sites of rich dialogue as the questions of normativity and objectivity in the critical study of religion continue.[4] First, if religion is fundamentally an affective dance, how well can the linguistically inflected, dispassionate scholar’s too kit capture it? Put differently, how helpful is ideology critique at the primordial dancehall?

Schaefer’s project opens a host of new directions in which the study of religion (critical or otherwise) may explore new ways in which to explore the non-discursive, embodied powers working through religions. Secondly, and perhaps more pointedly, I wonder if the affective turn may be more of a Trojan horse for the critical study of religion than simply an extension of its project (as Schaefer at times seems to construe it).

As with Nietzsche’s project, affects (as drivers) are not simply sequestered within the religious sphere. What does the understanding of the scholarly body as shot through with networks of pre-linguistic drivers (religious or otherwise) mean for how the critical scholar self understands her work? What does it mean to acknowledge the scholarly work as essentially animal as well?

These questions and their engagement as corollaries of the continued deconstruction of the western subject, which might point the study of religion toward more embodied, animal methods, are just some potentialities born from the rich ground of Schaefer’s project, for which many readers are surely to be grateful.

Jonathan Russell is a PhD Student in Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, adjunct professor of philosophy and religion at Chaffey College, and contributing fellow at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture. His current research interests include applications of posthumanism, embodied cognition, and ecological understandings of selfhood to the philosophy of religion.

[1] Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 49.

[3] William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2003), 89.

[4] For a recent overview of the current discussion and debate over normativity in critical religion, see Warren S Goldstein, Rebekka King, Jonathan Boyarin, “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion,” Critical Research on Religion Vol. 4(1) (2016): 3–7.

One thought on “Review – Donovan Schaefer’s Call For a Materialist Turn In Religious Theory (Jonathan Russell)

  1. In Religious Affects, Schaefer presents us with two images:
    1) Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees who do a startling waterfall rain dance, swinging through the spray on hanging vines, lifting up and hurling rocks and branches, and rhythmically stamping their feet in the water as if in primate heaven.
    2) Jesus Camp children, in a 2006 documentary, with white American evangelical children worshiping in religious ecstasy.
    Is religion of ape or of man? Schaefer uses developments in affect theory to claim both, while echoing Derrida’s “The Animal That Therefore I Am” (2008). He takes the beyond-mere-survival approach to evolution, which he terms postfoundational Darwinism, in line with the approach of Tielhard de Chardin.
    Schaefer traces the philosophical linguistic turn exemplified by Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida, who emphasize the embodied, empowered, enactive and affective domains of lived experience. Everything is political–products of power–even religion. And power is embodied through affect(s). There is a dual theory of “affect(s),” where affects means Schaefer’s concept of phenomenological theory where there are multiple (n>2) affects which play out in life, versus affect (n-1) ascribed to Deleuze as a singular reduction of affect to a metaphysically restricted “becoming” beneath emotions (a Derridian interpretation of Deleuze). Schaefer insists that bodies are not pure becoming, but intransigent and consistent, though metastable and semistable.
    Thus Schaefer tracks the phenomenological affective turn which stands opposed to the linguistic fallacy which has resulted from the Enlightenment fantasy of rationalistic personal autonomy. He also presents the shift to a materialist phenomenology which embodies histories in deep time, and exemplifies the heterogenous multiplicity of animal bodies.
    He examines religion as therefore an outcome of a body’s affective response to power in the world. Religion is embodied in the animalistic—a dance in response to certain affective rhythms in the world which are also transferred through cultural and political means, and with global implications.
    What are we to make of Schaefer’s genealogy of religion? What he does not say is impressive. Left out are religious or political propositions of deontological truth claims. He does however imply that given adequate awareness of our condition, perhaps we can circumvent historical abuses of power through cultural means such as religion, and replace examples of political or religious tribalism such as Islamophobia (and now Americanophobia) with measured responses of wonder and awe at the pluralism in the world, whether dancing is by waterfalls themselves, by chimpanzees, by children or by a divine collective united in solidarity.

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