When I had a chance to guest host a podcast, I knew the person I wanted to interview was Donovan Schaefer. Schaefer is a religion professor who writes on “affect” which he explains is mostly synonymous with emotion. His book was like drinking water I’d been desperately searching for while doing my PhD dissertation. (You can find the interview here or here – episode 191)
Three themes permeate the interview. Namely, how does affect (emotion) make us think about:
- What is a person?
- How does religion work?
- How does politics work?
On question #1, Schaefer argues that we have a kind of “Rational Actor Theory” where we imagine ourselves as rational beings who take in information, make choices, and then act. It makes us sovereign and emphasizes our reasoning capacities.
Schaefer contends that, in truth, we are heavily driven by emotions which are never totally under our control. Media images, groups, biological factors (e.g. hormones, whether you’re “hangry” at the moment), and our personal history (e.g. notably trauma, but not just this), are all permeating our being. Hence, we struggle sometimes to understand our own behaviours and can even struggle to feel like we’re in control.
This emotive/affective component is not small. We are “quivering antennas of affect” which, he explains, is why solitary confinement is so brutal. Denying us affect is torture.
On question #2 (about religion), Donovan argues that religion is not foremost about beliefs, but more of a “technology that makes us feel things.” (He clarifies this is true of much of culture, not just religion). We rarely choose a religion based on some analysis of options – rather, most of us find religion meaningful “in an emotional, experiential way.” This resonates with my own experience visiting religious communities for 20 years. On your first entrance, it’s strange and can be fascinating or unnerving (sometimes both). But as the years go by, it becomes familiar. Its rhythms affect your body in ways that calm and soothe and create belonging. Add in community and you’ve got something. Schaefer also speaks on how affect can make us think differently about secularism.
On question #3, Schaefer argues that politics too is often about affective cues. He talks about how Donald Trump is a master of conveying affects without words (body postures, facial expressions) much like an actor’s ultimate tool is their body, not the script. He describes Trump as a maestro at shifting feelings of dignity and shame which, I think speaks to much of politics generally. Even racism has a pleasure in it, as we can savour demeaning others. Schaefer talks about how affect is always in the room, whether it’s Bernie Sanders making people having certain feelings about a policy or me reading an academic text, partly for the pleasure I get from it. Ideas excite us, helping us to go beyond the thinking/feeling split that is the “original sin” of Western philosophy.
There’s more! We open with apes and end with secularism. I hope you enjoy it.