Interview with John Corrigan, editor of Feeling Religion

John Corrigan’s new volume, Feeling Religion, was released by Duke University Press in December 2017. Graduate intern Jeremy Hanes spoke with Corrigan on the phone at his office at Florida State University in July 2018.​

JH: Could you explain the contents of Feeling Religion and the main takeaway you want readers to get from it?

JC: Well, as a collection of essays from a lot of parts of the scholarly world—some are historians, anthropologists, sociologists, people who work in literary studies, philosophy…there are a number of different areas—what I wanted to do was get people together who could describe the kind of specific interests that readers in their own fields would have when it came to the study of religion and emotion, and to present some kind of picture of what it would be like to study religion and emotion from that perspective. These essays were all originally papers presented at a conference at the National Humanities Center, and the object of that conference was to get people to talk about all the different ways we study religion and emotion. One of the things that’s very important, I think, in the beginning stages of the coalescence of a new scholarly field is that we develop a way of talking about it that does not become a secret language, a jargon, so full of neologisms that we miss the point, such that people who aren’t already familiar with that language won’t be able to understand it. So my idea has been all along that the study of religion and emotion is, in certain ways, a new kind of thing—although people have studied religion and emotion for centuries, even millennia—and that we try to get to some common denominators in the way we talk about it, so that we maximize the possibility for people to draw on scholarship in this new field.

JH: At the National Humanities Center conference, did you feel like people were engaging with each other’s methods and approaches to emotion and religion? In some of the chapters, for instance, I noticed there is a kind of back and forth between whether we’re talking about emotion or affect. Could you speak to the way people are trying to nail down the terminology?

JC: Yes, I think it’s important to be somewhat specific in terminology, but I also think it’s a potential danger if not done well. We have to watch out for this risk that we become too wedded to one set of terms over another. One of the things, I think, that everyone at the conference was interested in doing was to make sure that whether we were talking about affect or emotion or feeling, passion, or anything else, that we were still talking about some of the same things. So although there are some scholars who really focus on affect, others on emotion, the terms themselves are only useful to a certain point. In fact, the reason that we gravitate to one term or another is because the scholarly literature that we pay attention to has already done that. So people in literary studies tend to talk more about affect; in philosophy, they tend to talk more about emotion, as do people in history. People who work in the social sciences, they talk about both of those. The point is, we’re all talking about the same sort of thing at some level, and although it’s good to leverage the specific theory, whether it has to do with affect or emotion or feeling, it’s useful only in order to get to what I see as shared goals. We still have to learn to talk clearly about the same thing.

JH: Your interest in veering away from some secret language or jargon seems to line up with something you mention in your introductory chapter, which is that emotions tend to be inscrutable to analysis. What it is about religious emotions in particular, or religious affects, that are so prone to this perceived need for secret language, and different sets of terminologies?

JC: Well, it’s up for debate whether there are such things as religious emotions. Are there classes of emotions that we call religious that are different from other emotions? For a long time, people said there were. There was a specific kind of feeling people believed was religious, and it was thought to differ from other kinds of emotions, other kinds of feelings. That’s up for debate. But it might be more useful to talk about emotions like this: “Here are some emotions we find prominent in religion, here’s some emotions we find in other places, and here’s some emotions we find in both.” I think that we’re overstating things when we talk about specifically religious emotions. That said, there’s been an effort to talk about religious emotions, as you just said, as if they’re inscrutable. I think part of the reason for this is that people would like to keep some kind of idea of mystery about religion, some kind of sense that it isn’t reducible to an analysis of emotion, that there’s some kind of hidden content that you can’t completely get to. So the whole idea of religious emotions, to me, can be a way of ducking a serious critical analysis of emotion. Emotions might be hard to study, they might be complex, but I don’t think they’re inscrutable. If they were inscrutable, we wouldn’t study them.

JH: There seems to be a recognition that emotion isn’t a given or a natural category, right? That understandings of it stem from personal history, gender, race, different factors. For instance, in Abby Kluchin’s piece, she says that not everyone is equally counted as a subject. Scholars in postcolonial studies talk about how people deemed or created as “subjects” of discourse have been said to be more prone to “religion,” and more prone to emotional display. Do you think the contributors are recognizing this history?

JC: I think that gender and race and ethnicity are absolutely crucial to the study of religion and emotion. Not just those categories though; I think age is really important; class is really important; in certain contexts I think language is important; family and constructions of family are very important in all of this. I think the personal lives of people, how they grew up and what they did, when you get down to that granular level of study, becomes very important as well. Those kinds of big structures that we always pay attention to, such as race and gender and so forth, those are really important. And the study of religion and emotion has taken account of those things, and it can also shed light on them. By studying emotion and religion, sometimes you come to insights about gender or insights about race that you might not have come to in other ways. It provides a tool, a kind of leverage, that can crack open some problems that seem very resistant to other forms of analysis, and other approaches.

JH: That builds off of another idea mentioned in your introduction, that you understand religion as practice and emotion as performance. What lines of inquiry open up when you work from this understanding of religion and emotion?

JC: I don’t think practice and performance are completely different. When I wrote that, I was trying to highlight something about emotion, mainly that emotion is performed with reference to certain kinds of religious contexts—ritual contexts, literary contexts, community stuff:. Emotion is prompted by what’s going on in other aspects of community life. It can also be diminished by what’s going on in other aspects of community life. Religion is practiced as traditional, sometimes in a way that emotion is not. You know, you practice tradition. Emotion, of course, is practice as well. Monique Scheer has been very clear about emotion as practice. But sometimes I prefer the word performance because when you talk about emotion and religion, it’s not a practice in the same way as habitual genuflection in front of an altar, or a habitual uttering of a prayer at a certain time of day. It’s a performance in that it has that very specific dimension of affectivity which is often spontaneously or unpredictably provoked. Emotion is in many ways culturally constructed, but sometimes it is also unforeseeable. It isn’t just a rote practice. It is a performance that certainly draws upon tradition, while at the same time altering it or bending it because of the immediate circumstances, including any changes taking place in the body of the feeling person.

JH: You don’t seem to see a difference in the way certain theorists differentiate between emotion and affect in terms of spontaneity, with affect being uncapturable while emotions are constructed culturally. Do you see both emotion and affect having a potential for spontaneity as they’re performed?

JC: I don’t think they’re irreconcilable. What people mean by emotion, what people mean by affect…they’re more alike than different. As I said, when people talk about one or the other, it’s because the literature that they found most useful to their particular kind of research has gravitated toward using one term or the other. I think it is most useful to recognize culture in each, and the body—nerves, hormones, organs—in each. It is a mistake to pursue them analytically as if they were separate things. That might make for informed-sounding discussion in closed circles of specialists, but in the long run it is likely to be counterproductive, bordering on academic conceit.

JH: Is there anything else that you want our readers to know that we haven’t covered so far?

JC: I think that the study of emotion and religion can open up a lot of questions that are sometimes difficult to see when taking approaches that do not recognize emotion. But more importantly, we’re just not doing a very good job of studying religion unless we make the study of emotion a really essential component of our research. We miss out. You can’t imagine having a conversation with friends over the course of an evening and not talking about feelings, whether you’re talking about your own, or someone else’s, or about some kind of collective identity that has something to do with feeling. It’s a way we take ourselves to be human, how we are related one to another, how we have roles to play within these social-historical formations. So unless we pay close attention to that in the study of religion, we’re not getting the larger story.