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The Brink

Affect Theory and Political Theology

Recent work in the fields of affect theory, especially in the fields of decolonial theory, queer theory, and disability studies, have shown how the necessity of attending to affect and temporality in ways that move beyond traditional accounts that prioritize inner states over exterior practices.

This essay serves as the introduction to Political Theology 25.3, a special issue on “Affect Theory and Political Theology. Find links to each respective articles below.

Studies of affect center the porous non-enclosure of bodies and psyches, the ways that our engagements with politics and religion are not mere expressions of internal opinions and beliefs and are shaped by forces that exceed our cognitive grasp. Temporality is embedded in how we talk about violence, loss, and rebellion, and the change that we perceive in their midst. The call for this issue was written six months into the Covid-19 pandemic and four months after George Floyd’s murder. Its impending publication comes over two months into Israel’s genocidal onslaught against Palestinians following the attacks by Hamas in Israel on October 7, 2023. All of these events arose as sudden devastations; all were conditioned by racial, colonial, and capitalist patterns of harm and vulnerability. The synchronicity of uprising and suppression is not new either, but the uncertainties it generates are not resolved with historicist or presentist preoccupations. While none of the pieces in this collection directly discusses these events, we mark them here to acknowledge that a shared drive to push beyond current conceptual roadblocks to liberatory action bears their traces.

In Toward a Global Idea of Race, Denise Ferreira da Silva presses the submerged significance of spatiality in critical theories that emphasize time. She argues that, “When the racial writes Europeans and the others of Europe as subjects of exteriority, it institutes the body, social configurations, and global regions as signifiers of the mind.”[1] It is “exteriority [as] an (im)possible ontological moment” that configures and haunts European post-Enlightenment epistemologies.[2] The ostensible transparency of the (again, theoretically) self-determined subject is spatially delimited by attributions of interiority.[3] The field of religion has been no stranger to the prioritization of interiority for political reasons. One might recall the experience of the “holy” or numinous which is described by Rudolf Otto as the essence of religion in his Idea of the Holy.[4] For Otto, the holy is experienced as an overwhelming feeling which is unlike other emotional states and can only be understood once one has had a unique experience of it. His influential theory prizes “inner experience” over and above the social, political, and linguistic context of that experience. Recent work in the fields of affect theory, especially in the fields of decolonial theory, queer theory, and disability studies, have shown how the necessity of attending to affect and temporality in ways that move beyond traditional accounts that prioritize inner states over exterior practices. The essays collected in this special issue draw on these fields to open new ways of configuring the relationship(s) between religion, affect, and temporality.

In many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment works of European philosophy, a march into the future towards reason and away from myth or superstition has often been represented as a march away from affectability, toward self-sovereignty. Carlos Ramírez-Arenas traces an important strand of the philosophical genealogy that aligns transparency and authenticity with a racially and religiously formulated model of consciousness. Heidegger’s critique of temporality is central to this problematic; while he helpfully intervenes in a notion of time as “independent from human existence” and acknowledges its affective conditioning, Heidegger also portrays the authentic being liberated from ontic time as issuing from an ascetic practice that “mirrors the temporal and affective configuration of Protestant eschatology.”[5] Ramírez-Arenas, with da Silva, argues that this asceticism is differentially available and dependent  upon “exterior determinations such as geographical location or kinship.”[6] Authenticity involves performances and options that are differentially available along racial lines, and “the failure to embody the ideal” is used to confirm race and culture as natural scientific forms of difference.[7] Taking inspiration from J. Kameron Carter, Ramírez-Arenas gestures toward a “fugitive sacrality” that would not seek transparency but would affectively dwell in a (Glissantian) opacity and untranslatability.[8]

In “Nat Turner and the Affective Power of Religious Fanaticism,” Jeffrey Wheatley notes that so-called religious fanatics in the U.S. leading up to the Civil War were defined by what da Silva calls affectability. Part of the analytics of raciality, designations of affectability mark those without self-determined will, the marker that one is a subject of reason.[9]  Wheatley argues that affectability was an image Nat Turner cultivated (“affected”) to demonstrate that his political actions aligned with divine intentions. This placed his seemingly failed rebellion in a wider existential frame and temporality.[10] For those looking to discount Turner’s actions and prevent their replication, affectability provided a mode of psychic and political containment: it was fanatical religious delusion, not enslavement and oppression, that drove Turner to violence and made his message compelling to others.[11] Incommensurable narratives of the relationship between religion, politics, and temporality generated and expressed a complex, discordant “affective economy.”[12]

In writing about Nur students in Turkey, Maria Tedesco (“Affect, the State, and Political Subjectivity among the Nur Community in Turkey“) is also conscious of how Orientalist notions of Muslim excitability too often preclude attentive understanding of convergences between “affect, thought, and action in the religious field.”[13] In sohbets dedicated to reading and discussing Nursi’s Risale-I Nur (Epistles of Light), students develop habits of engagement that intuitively align “collective personality” in a religious context with attitudes toward the state. Through what Tedesco, following Silvan Tomkins, calls “ideo-affective resonance,” the state comes to be regarded as a living entity growing toward “full development.”[14] Nur participation in an officially secular political realm tends to strive for “positive action” that is neither “passive acceptance of injustice” nor “forceful, disruptive political action.”[15] While Tedesco intentionally withholds reflections on the extended political effects of these alignments, the analysis shows its subjects’ keen awareness of the impossibility of “autonomous self-containment” in religious or political praxis.[16]

The nation as “collective body” is also significant in the British government’s 1933 censorship of Angarey in India. Throughout “Colonial Sense and Religious Sensibility: Understanding Injury and the Body of Nation in Censored Literature in South Asia,” Sumera Saleem attends to the contradictions the volume both elicited and expressed: Much like the colonial state, the fiction anthology Angarey largely portrayed Muslims as excitable and irrational, “the opposite of secular modernity.”[17] Saleem notes that its authors had westernized educations that influenced their critiques of religion but were also grappling with Muslim political minoritization and colonial injustice.[18] The text, which incited large-scale protests and condemnations from the Muslim community in India, was banned by the colonial government “in an attempt to maintain the order of the colonial public sphere.”[19] While state actions might accord with religious objections to Angarey as blasphemous, censorship functioned politically to contrast “what it means to act rational” with “what it means to feel religious.” An emphasis on affect, Saleem suggests, can helpfully attend to embodied performances of both injury and rationality so that neither is assumed to be a fully transparent phenomenon.[20]

Ebrahim Moosa, in his “Decolonizing the Politics of Love: A Ghazālian Genealogy of Love in Islam,” challenges the universality of the self-sovereign subject of Christian European philosophy. His starting point is “A Common Word Between Us and You,” a letter written by several Muslim theologians in response to a lecture by Pope Benedict that casted Islamic accounts of God as irrational. Moosa critiques what he sees as the desire of Muslim theologians to find common ground with Christian conceptions of love at the expense of a robust Islamic theological account. By attempting to bring Christian and Islamic notions of love closer together, they relinquish the importance of obedience as a precondition for love between God and humans in the classical Islamic tradition. Drawing especially on the twelfth-century Islamic theologian and philosopher Al-Ghazali, Moosa makes the case for an account of “love of God” that is just as detailed and dynamic as the Christian one, without sacrificing the uniqueness and distinctiveness of it from the Christian account. Further, by acknowledging the necessity of obedience to God as a precondition for love, his account challenges the notion that love begins in the interior of the individual and only then extends outward toward God.

Fannie Bialek likewise challenges philosophical narratives that center mastery over vulnerability that often have their roots in Christian European philosophy within her “Incredulity and the Realization of Vulnerability, or, How it Feels to Learn from Wounds.” If Moosa and Tedesco turn to different Islamic conceptions of selfhood in order to challenge notions of self-sovereignty, however, Bialek does so by offering an immanent critique of Christian notions of selfhood. Bialek puts victims of sexual assault’s incredulity about their own suffering into conversation with Caravaggio’s 1602 painting The Incredulity of Thomas to show how what she calls “emotional incredulity”—that is, an inability to acknowledge that something truly terrible has really happened—as a step in the process towards realizing one’s state, and all our states, as a vulnerable creatures. Bialek argues that we might see incredulity not always as a denial that something terrible happened, but as a wish, or hope, that something so vile could not happen, that we are not indeed the vulnerable creatures such harm reveals us to be. A lesson we might take from Bialek is that incredulity might open space for realizing our own vulnerability through and with others, and in doing so, open up new potential forms of solidarity.

Finally, in “Spiritual Memory, Spatial Affects and Churchstateness in a Popular Uprising in Afro Colombia’s Pacific Littoral,” Carlos A. Manrique takes us to Colombia and the 2017 Civic Strikes in Buenaventura. During these strikes, protestors took to the streets in solidarity against state-sanctioned inequality. Taking on the secular political paradigm which would place strict boundaries on the institutional separation of religion from the state, Manrique shows how for protesters, the separating religion from politics in order to engage in “reasoned” debate—the ways John Rawls might have preferred—would have neglected the concrete social, political, and historical realities that shaped civic space in Colombia. From the bottom-up the hope among protestors was that the marginalized in partnership with the Church would penetrate the institutions of the state in order to transform them. This is a model that challenges European and US colonial paradigms which separate religion from the state in hopes of containing its potentially status-quo challenging power. This secular schema of course also privileges the autonomous rational individual da Silva critiques. And as Manrique shows, religious affects move in ways that push the boundaries not only of the institutions of the secular state, but also the notion of sovereign self-mastery that underpin it. Here too we are far from the inner experience model of religious affect that Otto put forward and that has played such a crucial role in forming the modern study of religion and political life in Europe and the US.

Taken together, these essays provide a roadmap for reimagining the study of religion, affect, and temporality that moves beyond the universalizing tendencies that have been dominant in the study of all three fields. For example, even a field as focused on power, history, and social inequality as affect theory often treats its subject matter as an abstract quality of human beings that can be applied without attention to the particularities of a given context. By centering stories from the margins, the essays collected here, in political theological fashion, contribute to growing conversations about how these fields might engage with and contribute to projects of imagining otherwise.[21]

[1] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) 29.

[2] Ferreira da Silva, 31.

[3] Ferreira da Silva, 35.

[4] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).

[5] Carlos Ramírez-Arenas, “, 3, 8-9, 13-14.

[6] Ramírez-Arenas, 15-16.

[7] Ramírez-Arenas, 21.

[8] Ramírez-Arenas, 25.

[9] Jeffrey Wheatley, “Nat Turner and the Affective Power of Religious Fanaticism,” in current issue, 2.

[10] Wheatley, 4, 6.

[11] Wheatley, 8-12.

[12] Wheatley, 13.

[13] Maria Tedesco, “Affect, the State, and Political Subjectivity Among the Nur Community in Turkey,” in current issue, 3, 16.

[14] Tedesco, 5-12.

[15] Tedesco, 14-15.

[16] Tedesco, 11.

[17] Sumera Saleem, “Colonial Sense and Religious Sensibility: Understanding Injury and the Body of Nation in Censored South Asian Literature,” in current issue, 2-3, 9.

[18] Saleem, 18, 32.

[19] Saleem, 11-12.

[20] Saleem, 15.

[21] The phrase “imagining otherwise” has resonance across multiple fields, from the anti-Cartesian philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to abolitionist discourses to queer theorists pushing beyond heteronormative and cisgendered frameworks. The essays collected here might be framed as additional layers of these sometimes aligned, sometimes divergent efforts.

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