Why Belief in the Primacy of Language Leads to a Misunderstanding of Richard Dawkins, Islamophobia, and Politics

Like marijuana, affect theory seems to pop up at parties, where it circulates within small groups that keep to the periphery. While it isn’t illegal in any of the 50 states—it’s an intellectual approach to emotions, after all, not a controlled substance—it has the aura, especially at academic conferences, of an exciting and risky way to reshuffle your faculties of perception. Also like marijuana, affect theory produces esoteric insights that can seem overblown in the sober light of day: Dude, we are constituted by affective social energies!

Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power
Donovan O. Schaefer
Duke University Press
November 13, 2015

The way that affect theory functions, on the other hand, more closely resembles macroeconomics, which shows how small things like individual economic choices aggregate into giant dynamic forces, which then loop back and shape individual experiences. Except the currency of affect theory is emotion, which scholars have broken up into much smaller elements like background moods, facial reactions, impulses, and a whole bevy of subtle signals that pass between our brains, bodies, and other people.

For much of Western intellectual history, emotions have been dismissed in favor of logic and rationality. If the passions were studied, it was in order to correct them. But some scholars have come to recognize that emotions are crucial to human cognition. Affect theory provides a language for describing how individual emotions can be influenced and activated by large dynamic social systems.

What happens when someone walks into a Trump or Sanders rally, for example, and instantly feels excitement or disgust? They might explain that they disagree with the candidate’s ideas or that the rally has bad energy. An affect theorist, on the other hand, would be interested in the economy of sights, smells, and sounds that help to produce the feeling. How do the sensations and emotions condition thoughts? How do they alter the grounds on which experiences are formed and ideas exchanged?

Donovan Schaefer’s Religious Affects is the first book dedicated to applying affect theory to the study of religion. The implications are significant. For centuries, Schaefer argues, thinkers have understood religion as a function of language. Scholars have been most concerned with people’s explicit beliefs and sacred texts, but Schaefer wants to recognize the central role of emotion and physicality in religious expression. Once we recognize that there’s an economy of emotions, religion no longer seems to be exclusively linguistic, or even exclusively human.  

The Cubit’s editors met up with Schaefer, Departmental Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion, to discuss how affect theory produces new insights on issues like Islamophobia, Richard Dawkins, and American politics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On the Limits of Language, Religion, and Arguing with Richard Dawkins

How did scholars use to think about the brain and the self? And what was wrong with that?

Somewhere in the history of Western thought in particular, we ended up with this model of subjects as primarily linguistic thinking beings. There’s this notion that the first thing that happens leading to an action is a word.

[In affect theory,] rather than thinking about the self as being a language—as being like a computer code that speaks—we think about the self as a cluster of forces. [These forces] make us what we are, and our decisions come from that rather than from this linguistic layer, which is actually constituted by that more fundamental cluster of forces.

That’s what I see affect theory doing: upsetting this idea that human beings start with language and that we do what we do because we’re linguistic beings.

“In the beginning was the Word.”

Exactly. I think that there’s a very strong line of continuity between that notion of sovereignty as coming through language to where we are now, where we see language as fundamentally what power is.

Many people think of religion as a set of propositional beliefs that can be written down in a book.

Which I think is where so often secularists and atheists misunderstand how religion is actually operating. And how secularists and atheists misunderstand how secularism and atheism are actually operating. Because all of those things are drawn by affects.

You see it right away in someone like Richard Dawkins. He sees God as a hypothesis. He sees it as a propositional statement that is reducible to a set of beliefs. But I think most people don’t really encounter religion in that way. They encounter it as affects moving through them. Even if their language insists on seeing it as a set of propositional beliefs, I think that there’s something more fundamental and more powerful going on there.RDinboxSo would it be fair to say that the religious practitioner who goes and debates Richard Dawkins in a linguistic mode is already set to lose that debate?

To me, neither side wins or loses in that situation. It turns into a stalemate. It turns, in a sense, into a perpetual aggression machine where they can constantly tussle with each other. It’s just a sort of ongoing boxing match, but it’s because they’re not actually arguing in a way that’s winnable. They’re talking about religion as if it’s a package of beliefs. And talking about science as if it’s exclusively about truth, when it’s actually about the production of knowledge in process.

That ultimately isn’t subject to any kind of resolution, and so they’re able to go back and forth with each other forever and produce these intractable conflicts [with no way] for them to be resolved.

On Islamophobia, Human Differences, and the Political Questions

When we ask something like the classic stoner/Thomas Nagel question: What is it like to be a bat?, we immediately come upon the problem of differences—

—right, a bat flight simulator! But one of the things that we need to recognize is that . . . human beings experience their worlds very differently. I’m very interested in the phenomenon of disagreement. What does it mean when two people look at the same information and they come to different conclusions? To me, that is in some way indexing how deeply ingrained our affective experiential priorities are—the prisms that stand between us and the world, that we can experience the same information in completely different ways.

It connects to a lot of political questions. I think that a lot of the disagreement about how we should respond to something like a terror threat connects to how vividly people experience threat. Someone who lives in a more fearsome world is going to have a different response to the question of what sort of security measures we put into place after a terrorist attack than someone who lives in a less fearsome world.

That speaks to the depth of these experiential differences. To the extent that when you say something like I have a rough idea of what it’s like to be you, I’m not sure that you do. Or at the very least, that’s not necessarily something that is so generalizable that we can build an entire model of subjectivity on top of it.

How can affect theory help us to understand responses to terrorism that verge on Islamophobia?  

We really need to understand how scary it is for someone to think about their child being taken away from them in an act of terrorism. We need to be really respectful of that, and really responsive to just how urgent that would be for someone, that their child might be at risk.

On the other hand, we also need to look at the way that this fearsome world is in a certain sense desirable. There’s a way in which it charges the world, it gives it this extra affective electricity. We need to be very focused on not letting ourselves indulge in that.

Is fear fun?

People pay money to see horror movies—why? If fear were a negative affect, why would you pay money to see it? This is part of what’s so important about the queer dimension of affect theory. Its says: let’s not start from the assumption that there are good affects and bad affects.

How does this relate to hatred?

I think hatred is also something that we need to see as viscerally exciting for all of us, that’s something that we’re always susceptible to, always going to be tempted by. In the American context, especially, we very often reach for race as a way to exercise that.

It’s a difficult thing to talk about because you can’t just make it into a moralistic question. We’re talking about affects that are working through us. But I do think that we can put those affects into conversation with other goals, other hopes, other affects and try to reshape ourselves into people who can respond more compassionately to situations like global terror.

After the Paris attacks, a chart kept popping up on my newsfeed. It showed a circle that represented the entire world Muslim population, and three tiny small circles that represented the relative size of these different extremist groups. Reading your book, though, it struck me that that graph—as attractive as it is to me—probably wouldn’t change a lot of people’s minds if they’re Islamophobic.

I don’t want to say that the hierarchy of information and affect is so intractable that new information, new ideas, new encounters can’t reshape your affects. And in a lot of ways, I think what we’re seeing right now is a sort of a struggle going on between different affects, different affective strategies for responding to the situation. I do think that people can be confronted with new perspectives that give them an avenue to another affect.

The other piece of viral content that I’m reminded of is the video where the father tells his son that they needn’t fear bad guys with guns because they have flowers and candles. What are some other examples of affective strategies that people use to combat Islamophobia or to respond to these fear-based responses?

What really struck me about the clip was the way that the father was opening himself up to vulnerability. He struck me as somebody who had resigned himself to his vulnerability. And yet nonetheless he thought that that was the right world to live in with his son. I think that was what I found so starkly powerful about that image. And that seemed to me like a very dramatic affective strategy, that is kind of its own thing; is more than just saying, let’s direct more compassion into our responses to these situations.

When do people’s affective responses cut against their personal incentives?

In classical ideology critique, we often see affects as being marshaled to achieve particular effects. The approach that I think affect theory offers us is more subtle. It sees affects as working through us and producing political effects on their own. Rather than, you know, assuming that there’s a sort of switchboard operator who is not feeling these affects, who is just sort of pushing buttons in order to push these affects out into the world in order to control us. I don’t think that that’s quite the right model. We need to see these affects as circulating through their bodies as they circulate through other bodies.

We’re less than a year from the presidential election, which in American politics means we’re halfway through the campaign season. How can affect theory help you be more attentive to what’s going on in the news?

I think one of the things that I see in this election cycle is a very strong impulse to seize dignity at the expense of others. That’s what worries me about a figure like Trump, or Carson. They’re very focused on this idea that there’s something inherently right about the people who are with them and something deeply wrong about the people who are outside of them. That’s an incredibly powerful dynamic in politics always, but it’s something that we need to be particularly alert to in this election cycle.

I think something that we’re really going to struggle with in this election is, how do you maintain a consistent political front—one that doesn’t just constitute a new politics of hatred of the other side—while at the same time having a strident critique of the politics of hatred?


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