Racism and Religious Affects

The recent shooting of two gunmen at the Muhammad Art Exhibit in Texas has brought Pamela Geller, a blogger known for her vitriolic attitude toward Muslims, and her anti-Muslim advocacy group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) into the media spotlight.

imgresIn his forthcoming book, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Donovan O. Schaefer considers the connection between the SIOA, racism, and religious affects. Here are his insights, from chapter 5 of the book:

“In the summer of 2012, anti-Muslim advocacy group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) posted ads on the New York and Chicago subway systems with the following text:

“In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

The first sentence is a paraphrase of a remark by Ayn Rand—the hero of SIOA’s founder, a blogger and activist named Pamela Geller—commenting on the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Rand in her lectures frequently drew on an explicitly racialized vocabulary to designate various colonized groups—including Palestinian Arabs and Native Americans—as animalistic. The latter part of the ad recapitulates the vision statement of SIOA: that America faces an existential threat in the form of rising “Islamization.” Geller writes in her book of the same name that “Muslims are working in the United States now to make sure that Islam dominates by destroying our constitutional freedoms.” A range of civil rights organizations protested against the campaign, arguing that it implied a subhuman status on the part of Muslims, an animalization: the word savage derives from the Latin silvaticus, a “creature of the forest.”…

If theodicy is interested in why bad things happen to good people, affect theory is interested in why good people do bad things. This is why part of thinking about animal religion will always mean thinking about the temptation of race. There is something deeply Proustian about racism, except the field of delightful objects becomes a field of delightful bodies to spit on—like Proust’s reviled Françoise. Racialization activates a skein of affects between our bodies—affects playing out on a plane far upstream of a set of language games. The imaginary of race—the virtual, felt, prelinguistic sense of us and them—is a power source buried in bodies, electrifying the ground above it. But for this same reason, racial difference also becomes a powerful site for the activation of justice, compassion, and solidarity—affective engines that repurpose the circuitry of race and create rival technologies of what Hedges calls “meaning.” The critique of racism, the obliteration of lines, is also “erotic” in Holland’s sense. The temptation of race is as much about being drawn to antiracism as it is about racism—sometimes to the point of addiction. The embodied enactment of race is a temptation no matter the angle of approach.

Bodies are not smooth systems, operating in a singular granulated economy that orients all of its prerogatives and values toward a single focal point, a single common currency. Rather, the body is a cluster of bodily technologies crammed together in a single, heterogeneous space, each with its own priorities. The body contains multitudes and contradicts itself blithely. It chooses many different plates at the feast of difference, many different erotic preferences in the way it interacts with other bodies. And just as there is no single, smooth essential character to human bodies, there is no essential violence or essential lovingness to religion. Religion is a hybrid system, a set of embodied practices for the production of affects, skimming the surface of this spinning, multitiered network of historical (evolutionary and local) accidents. This chapter diagrams one paired example of these opposed bodily technologies: embedded in our bodies are machines surging for the production of both exclusionary, violent affects and inclusive, compassionate affects. In both complexes, we find opportunities to exercise the affective haloes that swirl around us in the presence of different bodies. Religious affects—animal religion—unfurl from this constellation of intimacies.”

Donovan O. Schaefer’s book will be available from Duke University Press in October 2015.

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