My academic location in the study of religion always puts me in a discursive minority at the Feminist Theory Workshop.* There is the occasional religion scholar there, and sometimes graduate students from Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill’s religion program participate. Most academics, though, don’t really know what goes on in religion departments and don’t really care. And that can be…inconvenient.**
My particular way in to the study of religion is through critical questions of valuation and transvaluation, particularly the embodied, inter-relational, and technological forms that affectively transmit and sustain shared valuations. Questions of valuation are affective questions: we value what we hold dear and this “holding dear” multiplies affects and orients us as individuals and communities. Readers of this blog know that I approach religion as an affecognitive structure of valuation in which every affective patterning inevitably makes use of and is constrained by existing discursive and institutional arrangements. As such, our daily lives are saturated with a gooey mess of feelings, intuitions, practices, and assertions of values, and these inevitably press up against and interrupt other values, sometimes with relish or bafflement, sometimes with disgust or rage. I am curious about when these shared valuations express themselves or are denominated as “religious” or “spiritual”—and I seek to understand how they are transmitted and sustained by particular embodied, inter-relational, discursive, and technological forms.
This year’s workshop challenged me to think about a few broad thematics that I have brought home and continue to ponder. I am grateful to the four plenary scholars: Riley Snorton, Lauren Berlant, Jocelyn Olcott, and Kim Tallbear. I also want to shout-out to my on-site workshop interlocutors: Randall Johnson, Kim Hall, Rebecca Moody, and Courtney O’Dell Chaib.
Below I gesture to further thoughts on (1) valuation; (2) the differences and connections between the conceptual rubrics of structure, ecology, and web; and (3) the theoretical and political problem of limited or non-existent available grammars;
- Valuation. Extending last year’s presentation from Denise Ferreira da Silva, all four papers this year expressed the need to grapple with the ways in which every structure of valuation coalesces on a ground of nullification that in the United States is blackness. This fact of nullification and its relation to valuation raises the question of how attention to forms of embodiment and practice might be supplemented with acute attention to what makes that form both possible and valued. How might we grasp what escapes-form and why certain modalities of survivance come to be valued? As Snorton noted, how does the swamp as a horizontal ecology of external relationality constitute the vertical valuation of the “plantation zone”? As Olcott challenged us, how do we come to ascribe (or not) value to affective fields and practices of care? As Berlant suggested, how might we better attend to and value small gestures of perturbation in a larger social and affective landscape of erotophobia and trauma? The familiar dialectic of naming what is non- or under-valued, and then mobilizing thought and activism to get it valued fails to show how what counts or matters as “value” always coalesces on and out of grounds of nullification. Tallbear suggests this fact to me in the word-war between so-called water activists and self-named water protectors. Protection of water as a value, as a relation, is not valued in dominant culture—any more than care labor is so valued, as Olcott shows—but the question of what forms show up that non-valuing is something I need to think more about.
- Conceptual rubrics. The need to pursue better models of valuation raises questions about the relation and difference between the three theoretical rubrics raised by the plenary scholars: structure, ecology, and web. What might be the useful differences between scenes of structure (Berlant), scenes of ecology (Snorton), and scenes of web (Tallbear)? How are these frameworks of structure, ecology, and web useful for thinking about what remains, and how we might use what remains, in excess of the White supremacist capture of life? In their book with Lee Edelman, Sex or the Unbearable, Berlant writes that, “Structure is a process, not an imprint, of the reproduction of life” (p. 12). In “Swamp Sublime: Ecologies of Resistance in the American Plantation Zone,” M. Allewaert, cited by Snorton, calls ecology “an assemblage of interpenetrating forces” (341). In “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family,” Tallbear writes of “a web or net in which relations exchange power, and power is in tension, thus holding the web or community together” (Clarke and Haraway, Making Kin not Population, p. 160). Do these different terms attend best to different problems or are they resonant? Do they work better, or differently, at different social or inter-relational scales?
- Staying with the Trouble of Grammar (Haraway). I heard Lauren Berlant as questioning how we might nudge our affectscape from erotophobia back toward something like erotophilia, while Snorton claimed, at the end, that he was quite simply interested in life, in Black life. How might we push for something like the positivity of sex or comedy or social transformation, without being heard as minimizing or resisting the trauma of violence? It feels to me that attempting such a push quickly runs us up against the limit of available grammars of analysis. Likewise: How might we theorize the swamp as an ecology of fugitivity that is life without minimizing the dynamics of capture and death that are articulated as social, state “care,” as Snorton challenged us? How do we insist on reconceptualizing value outside of capitalist logic and assumptions, as Olcott insisted, when we can barely imagine, much less speak, an outside or beyond of capitalism? How do we wrestle with the fact that all translations between indigeneity and the modern state form when all translations are, as Tallbear rightly noted, “terrible”? All four papers leave me with the challenge to face dead-on (or rather, erotically) the challenges of conceptualization and categorization, to hit my own walls of insufficiency and yet to stay, and to suggest tactics of research and activism that continue to touch and tease out what Amit Rai, in his recent book, Jugaad Time calls the “infinite sponginess” of the world.
*I was invited (and honored) to share remarks at the FTW closing round-table. I reproduce those remarks here in a slightly edited form.
**Prof. Lauren Berlant spoke at the workshop on the “inconvenience of others” and “erotophobia.”