It would seem I am the least qualified person in this forum about Maia Kotrosits’ book to speak to the quality of her Biblical scholarship, so this response will be dictated from a theory cave. What I find so compelling about Kotrosits’ work is the way she converts conversations surrounding affect in philosophy, literary studies, and queer theory into methodological tools for thinking about religion. In particular, what strikes me as so important about Kotrosits’ work is the way she solves a problem I am often confronted with: how to apply affect theory to sources that are strictly textual and, in particular, sources that emerge from ancient archives for which the primary kind of information we have about them is textual. I want to lay out what I see Kotrosits doing in terms of affect theory and suggest a few prods for continuing to reflect on this framework.
Affect theory is a way of approaching the humanities that emphasizes the facets of subjectivity that cannot be reduced to language. You could say that it’s a kind of inversion of the linguistic turn brought about by postmodernism, while still holding on to the postmodern emphasis on incompleteness, fragmentation, and perspective. Rather than seeing everything that makes us what we are as a sedimentation of words, affect theory examines the effects of forces other than discourse (while recognizing that those forces often require discourse as a distribution mechanism). To do this, affect theory positions itself against an assumption in the humanities that I like to call the linguistic fallacy. The linguistic fallacy says that, at heart, everything that we do as humans is done via the highway of propositional thought. We have an idea about something (a concept that can be rendered in language), we reflect on the idea, and then act accordingly.
Affect theory proposes a murky, stratified version of subjectivity in which we are not exactly aware of the many ways that we are being worked on by the world around us. Affect theorist Kathleen Stewart writes that “[t]he affective subject is a collection of trajectories and circuits. You can recognize it through fragments of past moments glimpsed unsteadily in the light of the present like the flickering light of a candle.” (Stewart: 2007, 59) What she’s saying is that the pulses of subjectivity—the surging matrix that dictates what a body does, where it goes, how it feels, what it thinks—all of these are fundamentally nonlinguistic. This has direct implications for thinking about the interface between subjects and systems of power. In a passage Kotrosits and I both admire, Stewart writes that “[p]ower is a thing of the senses.” (Stewart: 2007, 84) The way that expressions, images, emotions, sensations, sounds, and matter itself shape subjectivity all falls under the purview of affect theory.
Something I am often asked, then, is how we can apply this to fields in the humanities where the object of study is exclusively linguistic or exclusively textual—such as Biblical studies. Leaving aside the way that the material culture archive supplements Biblical studies, this is a legitimate problem: how do you talk about the non-linguistic elements of embodied life when your only avenue of access is a text? The answer is elusive in part because some affect theorists are so aggressive about pushing language into the background. In the work of some affect circles, language is seen as fundamentally separate from affect. There is an idea that affect as such is separate from thought, and so is essentially exterior to language. Whatever language is doesn’t interest these affect theorists, and I think that’s a mistake. I prefer the approach of the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, whose four-volume set Affect Imagery Consciousness is titled without commas because, as he told his students, the three cannot be separated. (Nathanson: 2008, xi) Affect theorist Lauren Berlant writes that affect theory can be understood as a new phase of ideology critique. (Berlant: 2011, 53) This suggests not abandoning approaches that centralize discourse, but adding new dimensions to their field of focus.
This means starting with a picture of affect as something that is intimately interwoven with the way we make meaning from texts, rather than fundamentally opposed to it. Affect is the set of propulsive motivational coordinates that make things matter to us. We talk, think, and write out of a mesh of affects. Even language cannot be reduced to language. As Kotrosits writes, “thinking and feeling are hopelessly interwoven experiences…. We cannot fully know how we know what we know. Even the baldest of facts can be undone by a notion that it just ‘doesn’t feel right,’ and we may or may not be able to say what exactly about it doesn’t quite feel right.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 3f)
And this is exactly what Kotrosits’ readings illustrate so brilliantly. True, we only have the texts for ancient sources. But texts do not come from nowhere: they are themselves the working out of deeper affective currents crossing and colliding with one another. Texts tell affective histories. And equally importantly, to make meaning from these texts, we need to try to create a map of the affective coordinates by which they were created and interpreted. I will take any opportunity to quote one of the most stunning passages in this book so let me offer it here: “One of the things diaspora and affect theories accomplish,” Kotrosits writes,
“is that they engender terms for talking about power that have more texture, more qualitative oomph, and more refined assessments than the fields of New Testament and early Christian studies currently have at hand for describing what it means to live in empire, or what it means to have one’s nation in shards at one’s feet.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 13f)
What Kotrosits is offering is a theory of how a particular diasporic nation felt in its historical moment.
This is, it seems to me, a far more subtle and versatile understanding of nation than the “imagined community” framework offered by Benedict Anderson to explain the emergence of nationalism in modernity. “In contrast to ‘the nation-state,’” Kotrosits writes,
“and more along the lines of the ancient term ethnos, I understand nation as a persistent imaginary with political pasts and ongoing effects, geographical referents, and cultural productivity. Although I do intend to imply ‘peoplehood,’ I do not wish to suggest a fundamental or monolithic set of shared characteristics—a conceptualization of nation that has participated in modern discourses of racial purity. I mean to convey, rather, an uneven and frictive conglomerate tied together through historical, political, and affective factors—including factors that would seem to test the salience of national belonging itself (such as imperial conquest).” (Kotrosits: 2015, 16)
A nation is a tangle of forces fused by the force of affect. There is, then, no pure nation, but instead only a slapdash set of parameters for feeling a nation into existence. This is the milieu within which ancient texts are created, and understanding their affective dimension is the avenue Kotrosits proposes to discern how they make meaning. In particular, Kotrosits uses the affect approach to displace a binary frame of Christian vs Jewish identity in ancient sources. She sees the groups that would eventually become the Christian community of this time as still inextricable from a set of Jewish intellectual and historical coordinates. She writes that “rather than negotiating or generating a distinctly Christian self-understanding, belief system, or set of practices, these texts are thick with the dynamics of national haunting and ongoing and transgenerational trauma; they mark the strange  and unpredictable turns of social life.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 1f) Identity, she proposes, is best understood not as a state, a label, or a category, but a “sense,” and a sense that flows from many streams, rather than being flicked on like a lightswitch. (Kotrosits: 2015, 55)
To take one example of this, consider Kotrosits’ acute intuition about how Ignatius’ letters traffic in a sense of “Israel” not so much as a coherent identity package, but as a nation suffused with an affect of desolation. Drawing on the work of Judith Lieu, she notes that Ignatius draws on a sense of ioudaismos as a tragic nation that through obedience to God, brought down its own worldly destruction, cited “not as a distinct religion per se, but rather as the abstracted entity justifying—in the sense of giving purpose and meaning to—one’s murder.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 72) Paralleling the Roman legion’s march back to Rome carrying Israel’s sacred objects after the razing of the temple in 70, Kotrosits notes that Ignatius’ characterization of his own “march toward Rome in honor of Israel’s god might be more delicately understood as a complicated, pained, and ghostly embodiment of Israel’s collapse.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 75) The affective backdrop of Ignatius’ writing is “the swirl of affects around diasporic hopelessness and imperial and national hauntings.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 76) Rather than a logic of linear supersession, in Ignatius’ writings “christianismos begins to swell with a disappointment in the apparent demise of ioudasimsos. Christianismos in the letters of Ignatius functions as a rhetorical flourish, and the force and impulse for this flourish is derived from the clustered affectivity surrounding Israel’s various and dramatic imperial confrontations.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 76)
What Kotrosits sets out to accomplish, then, is to reframe the study of ancient texts as an exploration of their affective coding—how they feel, how they felt, how they make us feel—and opens the door to the study of how this translates into political effects. Let me turn, by way of conclusion, to a question.
Kotrosits often poses affect as a sort of unsettling force, something that disrupts existing patterns and relationships and opens up new horizons of possibility. “Reading for affect, and reading affectively,” she writes, “reorients one to texts and history by cueing one into the indefinite, turbulent, and immersive qualities of bodily and social life. While possibly the most recognizable qualities of bodily and social life, these qualities are also the most unsettling.” (Kotrosits: 2015, 85) This is derived, it would seem, from a well-attested strand in the literature on affect theory in which affect is seen precisely as that which transforms. This is particularly salient in readings of affect theory that take their inspiration from Deleuze’s readings of Spinoza and Bergson. (1988a, 1988b) It plays out not only in affect theory, where affect is often correlated to funny Deleuzianisms like becoming and intensity, but in other areas of the humanities, where scholars talk about things like excess or the event. In all of these concepts, there is a thematization of something that alters or exceeds, a sort of substantive principle of change itself.
However, there has been significant pushback on this aspect of affect theory. It’s arguably the most controversial feature of the affect theory landscape, with scholars like Ruth Leys (2017), Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard (2010) all identifying problems with it. Not all of these criticisms are of equal merit, but I think Papoulias and Callard, at least, have important contributions to make to the conversation. Their concern is with the way that affect theory in the Deleuzian key overstates the relationship between emotions and change. As they point out, much of the literature from the brain-mind sciences on emotion—literature which many affect theorists invoke as foundational to their claims—emphasizes the durability of emotions, what we could call their intransigence, rather than their evanescence. Some affect theorists use affect to suggest the body’s “aleatory bio-logic,” that is to say, its openness, contingency, and fluidity. But for many brain-mind scientists, the accent is actually on the way embodied affect is “pre-adapted to initiate very precise, constrained courses of action (such as running away from certain types of stimulus).” (Papoulias & Callard: 2010, 41)
I would not for a second accuse Kotrosits of being unaware of this. In her conclusion, she refuses the version of affect theory that wants to rigidly separate affect from emotion, while recognizing the versatility offered by taking on different definitional coordinates at different times. However, I do want to ask whether there is a weight placed on affect as something that unsettles rather than something that cements in her work. This is partly a function of her scene of analysis: reading the diasporic Jewish-Christian community as a shattered nation, she is eager to explore how their literature provided a healing resource. But do we also need to talk about how the same affective mechanisms that unsettle and socialize also concretize and fix? This is not a value judgment, but it does seem to me that when we change stages and begin thinking about Christianity now, the weight falls instead on the affective bonds that mobilize rigid dogma, baroque moralizing, and, of course, bloodthirsty nationalisms. What is the relationship between these two scenes in the macro-historical drama of Christianity? How does the shattered, dispersed nation congeal into an arrogant, violent empire? Are there seeds of the one in the other? Is it a predictable cycling of trauma? Is it best understood on the model of history as genealogy, in Foucault’s sense—as nothing more nor less than a sedimentation of accidents in which the early and late forms bear no essential relationship with one another? (1984) Or is it something else entirely, something that the affective approach helps us see?
Donovan Schaefer is an Assistant Professor of Material Religion & Visual Culture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Tomlinson, Hugh, and Barbara Habberjam, trans. New York: Zone Books, 1988a.
Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Hurley, Robert, trans. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1988b.
Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In: Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1984: 76-100.
Leys, Ruth. The Ascent of Affect: Genealogy and Critique. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017.
Nathanson, Donald L. “Prologue: Affect Imagery Consciousness.” In: Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. Karon, Bertram P., ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008: xi-xxvi.
Papoulias, Constantina, and Felicity Callard. “Biology’s Gift: Interrogating the Turn to Affect.” Body & Society 2010 Vol. 16(1): 29-56.
Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. Bertram P. Karon, ed. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008.