Laminack on Bray and Moore, 'Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies'

Karen Bray, Stephen D. Moore, eds.
Michael Laminack

Karen Bray, Stephen D. Moore, eds. Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies. Transdisciplinary Theological Colloquia Series. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-8566-2; $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-8567-9. 

Reviewed by Michael Laminack (University of Denver) Published on H-Socialisms (January, 2021) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

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Theology and Politics

Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies is a collection of essays that define affect theory and extrapolate the meaning of affect for the study of religion and theology. The first two chapters lay the groundwork for the following constructive essays. Karen Bray and Stephen D. Moore offer a profound, concise introduction to the field through a thoroughly instructive literature review with an excellent chapter bibliography. Additionally, Bray and Moore delve into one of the central divisions of affect theory in the context of religion, which is best articulated by Donovan Schaefer’s distinction between phenomenological and Deleuzian affect theories. In the second chapter, Schaefer details his argument regarding the two avenues of affect theory and expands on his argument(s) from his major publications. Together, the two opening chapters provide a thorough introduction to the study of affect, as well as a detailed analysis of a key disputation in the application of affect to the study of religion. This introduction provides a theoretical point of departure for the rest of the essays, as they each apply affect theory to the study of religion and theology.

Bray and Moore introduce the concept of affect through both theoretical analysis and elucidative examples: “Think of the spark, the electric tingle of expectation, before a first kiss. These and innumerable other similar sensations are all pulsations for which we do not have adequately calibrated language” (p. 2). Evocative descriptions like these introduce the reader to the complicated theories of affect in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Brian Massumi. Bray and Moore refer to this approach as “the Deleuzian-Massumian trajectory,” which represents a crucial trajectory within the field but does not encompass all such trajectories (p. 3). After this concise introduction, Bray and Moore walk the reader through an extensive literature review of affect theory. Each text and author they consider adds a slightly different approach to the study of affect, which expands the theory base and provides nuance to the Deluezian-Massumian trajectory. Bray and Moore eventually arrive at Schaefer, whose “streamlined taxonomy of affect is effective in its simplicity, and avoids oversimplification through a nuanced tracing of the complexities within and between its two theoretical currents.” They do not use Schaefer’s approach uncritically, however, as they propose “to expand Schaefer’s binary to a trinity ... by focusing affect theory through interconnected, yet distinct, lenses: a psychobiological lens, a prepersonal lens, and a cultural lens” (p. 5).

Schaefer succinctly describes his argument in his essay, “The Animality of Affect”: affect theory “is riven by two divergent, and perhaps incommensurable, definitions—affect, in the Deleuzian sense as unstructured proto-sensation—the sense reflected in ‘Weather Patterns’—and affects as the emotional textures structuring our embodied experience.” Schaefer prefers the latter (which he calls the “phenomenological,” as opposed to the “Deleuzian” definition), because it provides for “specified models of affects” that better elucidate “the relationship between affect and formations of power, such as religion” (p. 20). While the Deleuzian-Massumian trajectory argues from an understanding of pure becoming, Schaefer’s phenomenological trajectory recognizes necessary elements of structure. One helpful biological illustration Schaefer offers is that of neurotransmitters: if they start to become something other than their specific chemical makeup, the organism will disintegrate. Schaefer thereby argues, “from a biological perspective, becoming will kill you” (p. 24).

Elements of this argument shade the arguments presented in the rest of the essays, though the primary focus of the subsequent essays is an expansion of affect theory to various studies in religion and theology. The third essay, by Gregory J. Seigworth, concerns “credit-debt practices’’ that “drape themselves about and through the body” as a “debt garment” (p. 39). In treating capitalism as religion (with reference to Walter Benjamin), Seigworth describes the affective impact of debt on neoliberal subjects. In the following essay, Erin Runions likewise treats debt, though of a somewhat different variety. Runions’s essay “considers the affective movements of interest and debt as they circulate into the prison-industrial complex through biblical teaching aimed at personal salvation and moral amelioration,” and argues “that faith-based prison programs produce a demand for the pursuit of self-interest, countered by the imposition of spiritual and actual debt, thus immobilizing the incarcerated as interested-yet-always-indebted” (p. 55). Faith-based prison programs use debt in a neoliberal system to form prisoners into neoliberal subjects, partly by using evangelical conceptions of spiritual debt.

The following essays explore one of the expansive suggestions of affect theory and religion/theology by Bray and Moore in the introduction: “Instead of asking what a scriptural text, a doctrinal document, or missionary tract means, we might ask how the sensory encounter with it felt to particular bodies in particular places in particular moments in history” (p. 7). The next two essays apply affect theory to particular moments in South Korean society. In the essay “Affective Politics of the Unending Korean War,” Wonhee Anne Joh describes how “the Korean War, aka the Forgotten War, aka the Unending War, continues to have a hold on geopolitics that connect the United States to many transpacific places but also continues to have an affective hold especially on Koreans” (p. 85). Echoes of the “forgotten’’ war reverberate throughout Korean society and in the memories of Korean people. Joh explains: “Grief resulting from war operates not only in individuals but also in the collective and public unconscious” (p. 92). Ultimately, Joh argues that “thus far much of postcolonial theory has neglected serious examination of the role of affects in the de/colonial process,” but “we may discover that affects may have been put in service to the imperial projects but that affects can also be a powerful liberating force” (p. 97). The next essay builds on this theme, as Dong Sung Kim analyzes the sinking of the Sewol, and the affective impact that event has on the Korean people. Kim explains: “Sewol is the name of the ferry that sank into the water on the 16th day of April 2014, but the name has been turned into a culturally haunting buzzword” (p. 112). Like Joh, Kim argues that affect theory provides a basis for approaching devastating emotions (grief, shame, rage) in constructive ways.

In the seventh essay, A. Paige Rawson argues for a reflection on the Bible through a Rastafarian interpretation of the Samson story. Rawson states that “the Bible is itself bloom space—a gathering place always already open and opening in its capacity to affect and be affected, enduringly instantiating an event of innumerable incontrovertible (and irrepressible) reiterations in its capacity for illimitable interpretations of the human, the nonhuman, and the divine” (p. 134). The next essay, by Alexis G. Waller, also deals with affect and the Bible, though in this case with specific reference to a controversy in biblical studies. The Secret Gospel of Mark, a manuscript “found—or forged—by Morton Smith, a Columbia professor of ancient history,” in 1958, claimed homoerotic tendencies in the life of Jesus of Nazareth (p. 146). Responses by scholars on either side of the authenticity debate show that “feelings can be far more intractable than facts, it seems, and indeed, feelings can be too intimately bound up with what gets construed as fact to distinguish between the two” (p. 147).

With the next essay, “Gender: A Public Feeling?,” Max Thornton applies the theory base presented in the first two chapters to argue for “understanding gender as an affective assemblage” (p. 174). Thornton specifies that “in its technical usage by Deleuze and [Felix] Guattari, assemblage (agencement in the original French) means both the act of assembling and the resulting assembly,” in order to analyze sex and gender: “Assigning a sex to a fetus or infant is a social and biomedical intervention with political consequences, not the value-neutral uncovering of an empirical reality. I refer to what is commonly called biological sex as birth-assigned gender in order to emphasize that there is nothing given or natural about it” (p. 177). Thornton builds on this analysis of gender to make a theological point: “Church, like gender, is a public feeling” (p. 184). The following essay, by Matthew Arthur, similarly engages Christian theology, though in conversation with indigenous cultures. Arthur’s thesis is “that theologies (and atheologies) are reality-patterning stories that are performed in and by institutional practices and the practices of everyday life that make up a common world and, as such, are integral to the inscription of authority in a place as enactments of material and conceptual borders” (p. 188). For both Thornton and Arthur, affect theory provides a method for critically engaging Christian theology and praxis in embodied contexts. The final essay, “Feeling Dead, Dead Feeling” by Amy Hollywood, presents an intensely personal reflection on death. Hollywood describes her experience of loss and reflects on the experience of Sarah Edwards, wife of the famous minister Jonathan Edwards, after her husband’ sudden death. Hollywood writes, “this is the background against which I want to talk about how we die now, those of us who are no longer Christian” (p. 208).

In the introductory chapter, Bray and Moore ask, “What crossings, crisscrossings, are possible between affect theory and theology and the study of religion more broadly?” (p. 6). While the first two chapters offer an invaluable introduction to affect theory and affect theory in the contemporary context of religious studies, the subsequent essays expand on the crossings and crisscrossings suggested by Bray and Moore. As the various essayists demonstrate, affect theory provides avenues for reimagining political, religious, and theological contexts and how they affect and are affected by human beings.

Citation: Michael Laminack. Review of Bray, Karen; Moore, Stephen D., eds., Religion, Emotion, Sensation: Affect Theories and Theologies. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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