Affective Trajectories

Religion and Emotion in African Cityscapes

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Hansjörg Dilger, Astrid Bochow, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Marian Burchardt
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The focus of Affective Trajectories, edited by Hansjörg Dilger, Astrid Bochow, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, and Marian Burchardt, is the relationships between religion, affect, and emotion in African urban settings. The central role of media and the senses in contemporary religious life in Africa has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Scholars of African Pentecostalism, in particular, have been fascinated by the ways in which believers have skillfully and innovatively deployed new technologies of communication to articulate religious experiences, identities, and communities, and to remake shared spaces, especially in urban areas. Building primarily on the literature on affect and emotion, this innovative book takes the conversation in a new direction, exploring how urban spaces are shaped by and shape religious affect and emotion.

The main scholarly debates in which the book sets to intervene are outlined in an introductory chapter, where the editors argue that neither the scholarship on African religion nor that on African urbanization has properly engaged with affect and emotion. The introduction usefully defines these terms, emphasizing the extent to which they take shape and form in relation to wider material and social circumstances. It is also in the introduction that the editors present the concept of affective trajectories, used to “highlight the fact that experiences of urban space involve a wide register of affects, emotions, and sentiments,” which are not only historically contingent but also embedded in broader “social, political, and material configurations and arrangements in specific urban settings” (15–17).

The book features a total of eleven chapters, loosely divided into three thematic parts focused on urban infrastructure, transnational religious movements, and identity and belonging. The strongest parts of the book are those that bring together stimulating ethnographic material with a strong focus on the intersection of urban spaces, affect, and religious practice. Wilhelm-Solomon’s opening chapter, drawing on research in unlawfully occupied buildings in Johannesburg, does just that. The chapter demonstrates how religious rituals—particularly funerary rites and rituals of cleansing of buildings believed to be haunted due to misfortunes and unnatural deaths—represent “affective responses” to the insecurities and hardships of urban life. Wilhelm-Solomon introduces a conceptual term, “affective regenerations,” to describe this process of renewal of urban spaces and infrastructure through religious engagements.

The diversity of case studies in the volume is impressive, even if, as is often the case in scholarship on religion in Africa, less attention is paid to the eastern parts of the continent and there is a certain bias (acknowledged by the editors) toward Pentecostal Christianity. What is refreshing, in particular, is the variety of experiences and affective trajectories the contributors sketch out. Hans Reihling, for instance, looks at the experiences of male gang members who become born-again Christians in Cape Town, South Africa, describing how Pentecostal rituals generate vulnerability that in turn opens up space for reflection and change. In another engaging chapter, Peter Lambertz follows the members of the Église Messianique Mondiale of Kinshasa, a syncretic religious movement originating from Japan. He shows how they cleanse spiritual dangers and pollutions through regular cleaning campaigns, during which they cultivate sentiments of love and gratitude.

While the book covers considerable ground, not all the themes it raises are interrogated to the same extent. One issue that perhaps deserved more nuanced probing, given the framework the editors have set for the collection, is the question of urbanization and urban spaces, infrastructure, and culture. The urban is at the heart of the book, and the general thrust—persuasive, but at times uncomfortably instrumental—is to understand religious practices as responses to the insecurities and destabilizing impacts of urban life. But in an era in which most of Africa’s “urban” dwellers reside, in fact, in peri-urban spaces—straddling urban and rural economies, religious practices, moral orders, and social networks—the distinction between the urban and the rural, largely taken for granted in this collection, can be problematic.

Indeed, several chapters focus not on urban centres or even “slums” but on the movement in and out of cities or on peri-urban areas, urban margins, and suburbs. Isabelle Lange, for instance, explores the healing experiences of West African patients who were treated in a hospital ship run by an American Christian organization and describes their “affective journeys” as they move between rural and urban areas. Isabel Mukonyora describes how Masowe Apostles pray outdoors, in the “urban wilderness” at the margins of Harare, while Benedikt Pontzen explores the prayer practices of Muslim immigrants at the outskirts of Offinso, Ghana. In some of the other contributions, the urban seems secondary to the argument or represents a broad cultural trajectory more than a specific space or material environment.

Another issue relates to ethnographic research and writing. In his contribution, Pontzen rightfully asks: “How are we to access the affective dimension of the lives of our interlocutors when we are always already on the level of language and discourse in our conversations and writings?” (188). Affect and emotions are challenging subjects for ethnographic research, and even more so for ethnographic representation. Not all contributions stand up to the challenge. The book persuasively emphasizes the centrality of affect and emotion in religious life. But more could have been done to provide readers with ethnographic material that interrogates precisely those sensual and material dimensions of religious practice—texture, temperature, bodily postures and attitudes, touch, volume—that remain beyond words and cannot be conveyed through quotes.

The issue of materiality and sensation is also important because, while the scholarship on religious mediation is not consistently engaged with in the book, one of the things this collection implicitly invites readers to do is consider the roles of affect and emotion as forms of religious media. Ultimately, then, even if not all contributions speak to quite the same concerns or in the same voice, an intriguing image emerges out of the diversity of the case studies and contributions, leaving the reader with original insights but also exciting new questions about the changing nature of, and relationship between, religious practices, personhood, and urban life. This makes Affective Trajectories a valuable contribution to the study of religion in Africa.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yotam Gidron is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hansjörg Dilger is professor of social and cultural anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin.

Astrid Bochow is senior researcher at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen.

Marian Burchardt is professor of sociology at Leipzig University.

Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is lecturer of social anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand.



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