Q&A with Donovan O. Schaefer

Donovan Schafer 5a (1)Donovan O. Schaefer is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, also published by Duke University Press, and The Evolution of Affect Theory: The Humanities, the Sciences, and the Study of Power. Schaefer’s new book is Wild Experiment: Feeling Science and Secularism after Darwin. Examining the reception of evolutionary biology, the 1925 Scopes Trial, and the New Atheist movement of the 2000s, Schaefer theorizes the relationship between thinking and feeling by challenging the conventional wisdom that they are separate.

How does Wild Experiment, which is your second book, build on or diverge from your earlier book Religious Affects?

After writing Religious Affects, I had a lot of people tell me they were convinced by its core argument—that affect theory is an excellent lens for studying the relationship between religion and power. But it also ended up reaffirming a binary that I found troubling: the notion that religion is uniquely driven by affect, the emotional counterpart to secular rationality.

That’s not what I meant to put forward at all. I think affect theory offers what Lauren Berlant calls a “sensualized epistemology,” a way of defining the relationship between thinking and feeling, rather than just building out the study of feeling as a domain radically separate from thinking. So Wild Experiment goes much further than Religious Affects in setting out to show how what we think of as purely cognitive processes—including reason, science, and secular rationality—are determined by affect.

That said, a big part of what the book is up to is making the case that seeing thinking and feeling as connected doesn’t mean that we can’t learn, reflect, and build our understanding of the world around us. Knowledge-making is a process that’s shot through with affects, but as I argue in the Introduction, that’s both why it works when it works and why it gets pulled off course.

978-1-4780-1825-4_prIn your Introduction, and then throughout your book, you are interested in “the emotions that move thought” and “the way thinking feels” (3). Can you say a bit about how your book breaks down the thinking/feeling binary?

The thinking/feeling binary is what I think of as an “ambient” paradigm. It’s not necessarily something that scholars—or anyone else—says or writes down. They don’t have to. It saturates so much of our thinking that it’s everywhere, from academic monographs to social media feeds to chatting at the bar. Even some thinkers who push back on the priority of cognition will tend to reiterate the binary, reaffirming the value of the affective by assigning it priority over cognition. This is a syntax that informs a lot of affect theory, especially versions of affect theory that are most closely associated with the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

That doesn’t at all mean the binary is accepted across the board. The first half of the book is an extended survey of thinkers and literatures that push back on the binary from different directions. Some of that comes from within the Western philosophical tradition, but I’m especially interested in other strands of affect theory (especially as informed by queer of color theory), postcolonial critiques of secularism, science and technology studies, the post-critical turn in literary theory, and academic psychology. My hope is that putting all these conversations side by side builds a conceptual critical mass that will help destabilize the thinking/feeling binary.

In addition to being an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, you are also Core Faculty in the Program in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. To what extent does this book contribute to or borrow from gender/feminist studies?

I realized after I had finished the book that it had actually started in a seminar I took in grad school on feminist epistemologies with Linda Martín Alcoff. That seminar highlighted the limitations of classical epistemologies that focus exclusively on the intellectual dimension of thought. Feminist epistemologists have been interested in how to connect thinking to embodiment for decades. And feminist epistemology, as I read it, is also centrally concerned with the question of how a belief comes to seem like an expression of impartial reason. Feminists wanted an explanation for why skewed knowledges were so effective at defending themselves with appeals to “reason.” What they found is that the composition of any given political rationality is always configured by a distinct set of historical coordinates. Every reason has a genealogy. Some feminists went further, showing that these genealogies were embodied and affective.

I also draw heavily on the longstanding interest among queer and trans theorists in desire, pleasure, and feeling. The version of affect theory I’m most interested in is a direct outgrowth of these central concerns of queer critique. One of the arguments I make in Chapter 2 is that Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Vol. I, one of the foundational texts in queer theory, has actually been read through a prism that blocks some of its most compelling insights. Foucault spends a huge amount of time in that book elaborating what he calls “power-knowledge-pleasure.” That conceptual structure is foundational to the arguments he makes about science, politics, and sexuality. But it gets surprisingly little attention in the secondary literature, especially when Foucault is read outside of queer theory. One of my aims is to develop the conceptual link between science and feeling that has been of vital importance to queer science studies.

One of the book’s major concerns is race, and you engage with a range of figures coming from Black studies and queer of color theory to develop that analysis. What is “racialized reason”?

I’m interested in the question of how something comes to seem “reasonable” to some people in their time and place, and how oppressive regimes of knowledge are able to fortify themselves by appealing to “rationality.” Why does a racist society end up producing, validating, and recirculating racist science, for instance? I don’t think it’s adequate to say that racists create a well-packaged lie that none of them actually believe and put it into circulation to preserve existing hierarchies. I think racist ideas are genuinely believed by racists, even when they verge into absurdity. What I argue, building on queer of color theorists interested in affect, is that it’s because “reason” is not just the neutral analysis of ideas and information. It’s configured by a set of affective parameters that dictate what feels true. Racist structures of feeling configure “rationality” itself, setting the table for racist ideas to feel true.

This is where the constant Trumpist refrain of “fuck your feelings” comes from. White supremacists are able to present themselves as above the fray of “emotions” because what they call “rationality” has been fashioned within a white supremacist society. Their version of “reason” makes racist ideas feel true. Everyone who disagrees with them is dismissed as “emotional.” Sara Ahmed calls this whiteness as an orientation that is in frictionless alignment with the “white world.” The big lie underwriting all this, of course, is that what they call “rationality” has itself been configured by white supremacist structures of feeling. “Reason” has become racialized through its contamination by racist affects. So what they’re really saying is “fuck your feelings—but protect my feelings at all costs.”

Sharon Patricia Holland’s concept of racism’s “erotic life” has been a huge influence on me, too. Her work opened up for me a way of thinking about racism as something that doesn’t have to be associated with a set of functional or economic priorities. Part of what makes racism as intractable as it is—and why it’s so easy for neo-fascist movements to mobilize racism—is the pleasure dimension of racism that doesn’t necessarily reduce to a calculation of costs and benefits for racists. Constantly framing racism as an economic strategy awards way too much political intelligence to racists. Coming from another direction, Sylvia Wynter and Denise Ferreira da Silva’s challenge to a particular Euro-modern definition of “Man” as that which is autonomous and unaffected is crucial for this project.

You talk about the prevalence of misinformation, and how people are compelled not by what is “true,” necessarily, but what “feels true” given what they have already come to know/believe. How might this insight inform the way that people engage with each other across gaps in understanding and differences of thought or values?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there’s a global crisis of communication happening right now. One of the dimensions of that crisis, as I see it, is that we still tend to assume that good information always floats to the top, that there’s an inevitable algorithm by which “truth will out.” What I propose, instead, is that we need to see the landscape of information as defined by feeling. That doesn’t mean we’re lost at sea. The work of better understanding ourselves and the world around us is an emotional process—and it succeeds because it’s guided by feeling, what Audre Lorde calls “consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with.” But we also need to recognize that sometimes beliefs are fastened in place because they feel good, regardless of whether they’re true. Conspiracy theory, I suggest in the book, is a perfect example of this. It’s a sprawling set of interconnected beliefs that are embraced—passionately—because they’re the most exciting possible interpretation of a situation. Conspiracy theories flourish in the social media age because they’re pitch-perfect clickbait. They explain the world in ways that are profoundly misleading—but feel good. They’re seductive ideas that people quite literally “want to believe.”

On the other hand, I think we also too often tend to assume that people are either “rational”—if they’re following what we consider the right ideas or evidence—or “irrational”—if they refuse. I don’t think that framing of the problem leads anywhere. The liberal fantasy of a rational public sphere—in which people are always and everywhere persuaded by better arguments, more evidence, more facts—is a myth; but it’s also a mistake to think that someone who isn’t persuaded by new information is fundamentally immune to facts. Both of those framings are ways of mapping persuasion according to the thinking/feeling binary. Being more thoughtful about persuasion means recognizing that persuasion is always about reshaping what feels true for someone. Understanding how that affective landscape is shaped by factors that are extrinsic to the content of what you’re saying to someone is crucial. But it’s also important to recognize that facts themselves are powerful tools of persuasion, especially when we consider how facts feel to people in different contexts and positions.

What do you hope that readers take away from Wild Experiment, if you had to sum it up in a tweet?

The thinking/feeling binary is a construct; it’s a construct with a history, but one that has been extraordinarily successful at presenting itself as a natural division. There’s no thinking that we do that isn’t affectively defined. We always feel our way along. And to understand the relationship of knowledge and power, we have to make feeling central to our analysis. As Lorde writes, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.”

Read the introduction to Wild Experiment for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E22SCHFR.

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