Our faculty colloquium this fall asked colleagues to select one word that motivates our work in religion (teaching, scholarship, or both). My word, unsurprisingly, was affect. These are my remarks:

In turning to the noun, affect, I want to foreground its forcefulness, the way this noun indexes its correlative verb–to affect and be affected, to influence and be influenced– and I want to conjoin this forcefulness with an atmospherics that curiously dis-places agency.

Consider this. Claudia Rankine opens her recent short drama, The White Card, with two images. The first is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”*, this one a triptych of plain white panels, and second a photograph by Robert Longo titled “Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014).”** The photograph is also a kind of triptych, turned horizontal to Rauschenberg’s vertical panels, with two bands of blackness on the top and bottom of the photo and a center band of blotchy lights from police cruisers and tanks that bring the bodies of the police officers into relief. The juxtaposition of these two images works for Rankine to show how the violence of anti-black racism erupts out of the pervasive atmospherics of seamless whiteness.

The work that moves me right now is work on this atmospheric whiteness, this ability for racist norms and racial normativity to be lived and launched transparently, as unnoticeable and—as Merleau-Ponty puts it—as seemingly natural as the tone of light in a room, even while these racist norms and this racial normativity are deeply felt and deeply valued, an affective embrace evidenced most readily by the tremendous resistance to changing them. These questions about norms and normativity hook up with my recent reflections on theorizing religion as and through affective and discursive structures of valuation and transvaluation. Religion for me, these days, denominates collective (i.e., interpersonal and institutional) structures that name, codify, form, train, and ritualize the values that bind members of a collective over and over again. The binding through structures of valuation becomes the material grist for attempts to change, that is, transvalue, those structures. My interest in cinema derives in large part from the fact that directors and writers often evoke and deploy religion in just this affective way—as a shorthand for the characters’ shared values or as a gesture to pressures, practices, or presences that transvalue a film’s diegetically operative values.

My newest questions about the atmospheric and luminous qualities of norms and normativity have pressed me to consider not only how characters are filmed vis-à-vis their surroundings in ways that convey religion as valuation and transvaluation but also how the characters themselves emerge as normed subjects through the navigation of these structures of valuation. In this work I’ve been helped by two philosophers who were influential on the 68ers (Foucault and Deleuze), namely Étienne Souriau and Gilbert Simondon. Both philosophers examine how individuals emerge out of unchosen dependence on surrounding environments, with Souriau emphasizing the instauration of entities through different aesthetic regimes, and Simondon emphasizing the process of individuation out of differential resource gradients of a milieu. Agency, then, or (better) the differential capacities for agency are displaced to questions of environment, structure, and technology.

Taking this back to film and religion, I’m interested to see how the camera itself is functioning as a normalizing force that forms and deforms the persons and objects before it—not only how the camera is a milieu and an aesthetic that gives rise to subjectivities (or something like an individual), on the one hand, and to structures of valuation (or something like religion), on the other, but also how the unfolding of this emergence can cue scholars to the passive, not-quite-conscious, and always affective absorption of norms and normativity that, once extant, become very difficult to change.