Remarks to the faculty forum October 6, 2020:
Recently I’ve been theorizing religion as an affective technology of valuation. I take “technology” here from Foucault who points to four types of technologies, each, he says is “a matrix of practical reason.” This rich phrase—technology as a matrix of practical reason—requires a bit of ink to unpack, which explains why I tend to shift to the language of structure when I’m talking about my research as opposed to writing about it. Religion is an affective structure of valuation, in the sense of structure resonant with what sociologists and cultural critics will use when they refer to structures of patriarchy or structural racism. I’m not so interested in trying to find religion ‘out there’ in the world as an affective structure of valuation as I’m concerned to theorize what denominates itself as religion and consider how or if this rubric of ‘affective structure of valuation’ is apt. From my studies, what seems to carry the term ‘religion’ are interpersonal and institutional structures that name, codify, form, train, and ritualize the values that bind members together over and over again, thereby generating and sustaining an affective structure of valuation.
The binding of structures of valuation becomes the material grist for attempts to change, or transvalue, those structures, and this possible change happens, I think, precisely through affect. The structure of religion is (a matrix of the) discursive, embodied, practical, and institutional. Affect limns discourse, bodily practice, and institutional spaces in ways that are both articulable and inarticulable (i.e., affect is always affecognitive, but the affective part is not reducible to cognition). The power of affect (or the affecognitive) is such that it can tilt a word one way, or another, it can orient a person or a reading or a group toward this, or toward that. Right now, I am most interested in the way affect hovers in the matrices of our relationships and pricks us at the edges of our daily lives—the way affect is implicated in what we say and do (and self-reflexively in what we say and do about what we say and do) and yet also subtends or exceeds or shies away from conscious articulation and control. I have written about this subtending or exceeding as the transparency of normativity and the mutability of normativity: how we are rarely aware of the norms that deeply configure us because we take for granted (or were never presented the opportunity to question) how these norms orient us affectively, how they quietly construe and protect the valuations we live by. But it also is possible that a word said differently, or a certain kind of encounter can show up the contingency of our norms, nudge us affectively in a slightly different way, and open the possibility of shifting the structure of valuation by which we live. It takes time but it can happen.
Here’s an example that will at first sound out of place because it’s not obviously about religion. I was a sophomore in college when I was first exposed—in an English class, I believe—to feminist arguments about language. I had grown up with some of the battles around Equal Rights, but feminism as something more than the press to obtain the same employment and pay as men was unknown to me. I remember feeling empowered by that class session. And I remember trying to translate that feeling to my friends who attended a different university. One guy asked me if I was now going to “be a feminist” and I said “yes! but that I wasn’t going to stop using man and he for the general categories of human being. That,” I said, “was ridiculous.” What this memory suggests is how language embedded structure in my life and sharing the way affect, the affect generated by a certain encounter, can pulse out of phase with that structure. Is this an affective structure of valuation? My adherence to Man probably was part of my Southern Presbyterianism—a part that was so deep as to be inaccessible to me. Now, nearly forty years later, whenever a student uses ‘man’ or ‘he’ I twitch a bit. The words and the affects have re-aligned, though I could point to other concepts that are now out of phase with my affects.
How does change happen? Not through rational arguments alone but through affective shifts in how words are meant and felt, and through practical shifts in how words and feelings are lived in the world. Because it is an affective structure of valuation, religion is deeply resistant to change and also a powerful tool for change.