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Genealogies of Religion, Twenty Years On: An Interview with Talal Asad

Craig Martin, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, St. Thomas Aquinas College cmartin@stac.edu doi:10.558/bsor.v43i1.12 Last fall, realizing that 2013 marked the twentieth anniversary of Talal Asads Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, I interviewed Talal AsadDistinguished Professor of Anthropology at The City University of New Yorkon the book and its reception and influence on the field. Genealogies of Religion influenced me early in my graduate studiesparticularly the first chapter on The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category, in which Asad argues that the concept of religion is, in many contemporary contexts, fundamentally shaped by Protestant assumptions. This was one of the first books I was exposed to that argued there is normative work accomplished by the very term religion, and all of my writings since have taken this idea as a central starting point. I want to thank Asad for taking the time to answer the questions I posed to him. Craig Martin: Can you discuss what you most hoped to accomplish with Genealogies of Religion? Do you think the book was received in the way you hoped it would be? Talal Asad: As far as I can tell, most people have understood that I was trying to think about religion as practice, language, and sensibility set in social relationships rather than as systems of meaning. In that book and much of my subsequent work I have tried to think through small pieces of Christian and Islamic history to enlarge my own understanding of what and how people live when they use the vocabulary of religion. I certainly did not want to claim that as a historical construct religion was a reference to an absence, a mere ideology expressing dominant power. It was precisely because I was dissatisfied with the classical Marxist notion of ideology that I turned my attention to religion. I was gradually coming to understand that the question I needed to think about was how learning a particular language game was articulated with a particular form of life, as Wittgenstein would say. The business of defining religion is part of that larger question of the infinite
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ways language enters life. I wanted to get away from arguments that draw on or offer essential definitions: Religion is a response to a human need, Religion may be a comfort to people in distress but it asserts things that arent true, Religion is essentially about the sacred, Religion gives meaning to life, Religion and science are compatible/incompatible, Religion is responsible for great evil, So is science and religion is also a source of much good, No, science is not a source of evil, as religion often is; it is technology and politics that are the problemthe social use to which science is put. I argued that to define religion is to circumscribe certain things (times, spaces, powers, knowledges, beliefs, behaviors, texts, songs, images) as essential to religion, and other things as accidental. This identifying work of what belongs to a definition isnt done as a consequence of the same experiencethe things themselves are diverse, and the way people react to them or use them is very different. Put it this way: when they are identified by the concept religion, it is because they are seen to be significantly similar; what makes them similar is not a singular experience common to all the things the concept brings together (sacrality, divinity, spirituality, transcendence, etc.); what makes them similar is the definition itself that persuades us, through what Wittgenstein called a captivating picture, that there is an essence underlying them allin all instances of religion. The things regarded as hanging together according to one conception of religion come together very differently in another. Thats why the translation of one religious concept into another is always problematic. But Genealogies doesnt argue that the definition of religion is merely a matter of linguistic representation. Religious languagelike all languageis interwoven with life itself. To define religion is therefore in a sense to try and grasp an ungraspable totality. And yet I nowhere say that these definitions are abstract propositions. I stress that definitions of religion are embedded in dialogs, activities, relaVOLUME 43, NUMBER 1 / FEBRUARY 2014

tionships, and institutions that are lovingly or casually maintainedor betrayed or simply abandoned. They are passionately fought over and pronounced upon by the authoritative law of the state. Definitions of religion are not single, completed definitive acts; they extend over time and work themselves through practices. They are modified and elaborated with continuous use. To the extent that defining religion is a religious act, whether carried out by believers or nonbelievers, it may also be an attempt at attacking or reinforcing an existing religious tradition, at reforming it or initiating a new one. My problem with universal definitions of religion, therefore, has been that by insisting on a universal essence they divert us from asking questions about what the definition includes and what it excludes, how, by whom, for what purpose; about what social/linguistic context it makes good sense to propound a given definition and when it doesnt. Trying to construct genealogies of concepts is one way of getting at such questions. For me the most important concern in all my writing has been, What, in this matter, is the right question? So in Genealogies of Religion I did not try to provide a better definition of religion, still less to undermine the very concept of religion. I was looking for ways of formulating the most fruitful questions about how people enact, declare, commit toor repudiatethings when they talk about religion. Thus in Chapter 4, in my exploration of Hugh of St. Victors account of the sacraments, and of Bernard of Clairvauxs monastic sermons, I tried to get away from notions like inculcation, a passive reception of dominating power, and to move towards something more complex. Thus I wrote, Bernard is not manipulating desires (in the sense that his monks did not know what was happening to them) but instead creating a new moral space for the operation of a distinctive motivation. What interested me was how such subjective processes related to embodiment and disciplineor put differently, how objective conditions in which subjects find themselves enable them to decide what one must think, how one can live, and how one is able to live. This was the project I was engaged in when I wrote the essays making up Genealogies, and this is what Im still engaged in. I dont think of that book in isolation from my other work. Many readers have understood what I was trying to do and sympathized (even if guardedly) with my
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effort. Some havent. It has even been alleged by the latter, to my surprise, that I am hostile to religion, and especially to the Christian religion, and that I developed my hostility during my childhood when I was supposedly humiliated at boarding school run by missionaries (in India)because I once referred to that period in my early schooldays as the time when I learnt to argue, to be combative, with my Christian schoolmates! I was never humiliated by Christian missionaries and never said I was. More important: anyone who has read Genealogies of Religion with some attention surely cant make sense of that claim. In fact Ive learnt much about the complexity of religion by reading Christian writers belonging to different historical periods. I certainly dont think that when people use a religious vocabulary they are really talking about mere constructionsabout ideological formations whose role is to provide justification for social domination. Of course something is constructed, and reconstructed, but this construction is not teleological (made and completed for a specific purpose), and it is not properly described as essentially social. That kind of functionalism is precisely what I wanted to get away from in Genealogies. CM: Could you comment on the different reactions to your work by other disciplines or sub-disciplines? Im familiar with how religious studies scholars have reacted to your work, but do you feel that this work has made the impact you hoped it would in, for example, anthropology, political sciences, sociology, as well as the diverse areas of religious studies? TA: I really dont know what impact Genealogies has had in the social sciences generally. I know that a number of talented young anthropologists have taken up the idea of embodiment, of sensibilities, of tradition, and of virtue ethics in their ethnography of Islam. They have recently been criticized by some people for exaggerating the importance of formal religiosity at the expense of ordinary spiritual beliefs and I have been blamed for having started this bad tendencyand then carried it on into a reactionary view of secularism. This is not the place to engage with their complaints, especially because they largely concern the anthropology of Islamand so they are focused more on an earlier essay of mine as well as on Formations of the Secular. I gather that many sociologists and anthropologists studying Muslim immigrants in Europe feel that my
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work is perversely normative, that it deliberately ignores the reality of the social experience of Muslims and their religious responsein short, that it overlooks their modern predicament in secular liberal countries. Thats one kind of reaction to my work, I suppose. But I am curious as to why they feel so strongly that my work threatens their truth. When I was an anthropology student we used to joke about senior ethnographers who responded to theoretical arguments in seminars by interrupting, But in my tribe people believed . . . This kind of empiricism is still, unfortunately, with us. Many ethnographers think that they have a proper understanding of their informants experience (and therefore of their religious belief or disbelief) by virtue of the fact that they have spent some (limited) time with them in their form of lifeas if the experience of their informants was homogeneous, complete and consistent, as if their form of life (shared briefly by the ethnographer) could be summed up in a representation reflecting an indisputable reality and was not itself an internally ambiguous interpretation, and as if their ordinary language was more authentic than the language of their theological texts. At any rate, there has been greater interest in Formations than Genealogies of Religion among political scientists, although I see the former book as closely connected to the latter and its questions about secularism more developed than they are in Genealogies. This interest is, I suppose, due to questions of pain, violence, and suffering that I share with some of them. They already know that things are not as simple as some versions of liberal ideology claim they are. CM: My own work is on the social construction of religion, and I see the first chapter of this book cited ubiquitously. However, do you think scholars both in religious studies and other disciplines are any more sophisticated in thinking about the baggage linked to the term religion and its affiliation with belief? That is, have things gotten any better in the last twenty years? TA: Yes, there is still a tendency to think of belief as the defining essence of religion. But is there enough sophisticated thought about what belief indicates? We are familiar with the idea that the medieval period in Europe was the Age of Belief, when it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, whereas in our timethe Age of Secularity
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belief in God is only one of many options. But what is belief? Philosophers have talked of it as a feeling (e.g., Hume), as a disposition (e.g., Ryle), and more generally as a mental state. The grammar of the noun belief (and of the verb to believe) in each of the senses or combination of senses varies. If religion is not best conceived as a fixed universalas I argue it is notthen the attribution of typical beliefs to it (or rather, to its followers) becomes problematic. Changes in the grammar of belief are connected with changes in forms of life, so that when people talk about believing they are referring to what are often incommensurable sets of sensibilities, commitments, affects, etc. Medievalists recognize the problem in translating Latin words we now assume correspond to the modern English belief (or French croyance). Take the word infidelitas, often glossed quite simply as unbelief: Infidelitas was typically used in secular contexts such as charters, laws, and historical narratives; it usually meant breaking a contract or an oath, acting in a disloyal manner or breaching someones trust. Infideles were thus not simply those who did not believe what the church taught; they were first and foremost those who acted disloyally in some way, or those who, through acts of treason or misfortune, were no longer a part of the relations that bound together God, Latin Christians, and their king one to another. Credere, the Christian Latin word rendered into English as believe, usually had an ethical rather than an epistemological sense, meaning to trust someone more often than to be convinced that a proposition is true. Thus Dorothea Weltecke, who has written on this subject, cites the case of Aude Faur, a young peasant woman, who was brought before the Inquisition: she was unable, she said, to credere in Deum. What that phrase meant, Weltecke argues, emerges from the detailed context: the existence of a God is taken for granted. It is because, in her desperation, Aude Faur couldnt see in the Eucharist anything but bread, and because she struggled with disturbing thoughts about incarnation, that she had no hope of Gods mercy. It is not obvious, says Weltecke, that the doctrine of Gods body appearing in the form of bread is being challenged here; what is certainly being expressed is Aude Faurs anguished relationship to God as a consequence of her own incapacity to see anything but bread. Did she believe in God? The Inquisition would say she didnt, a modern critic would say she
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did. In short, my point would be not that our present concept of belief (that something is true, or that one has a particular feeling associated with the rejection of a particular definition of God, or that one inhabits a particular state of mind when one believes in him) was absent in pre-modern society but that the words translated as belief in God articulated distinctive sensibilities, uncertainties, social commitments, personal hopes and fears. The grammar of that phrase in the Middle Ages is different from its grammar today. We cannot say definitively that people at that time couldnt disbelieve in God whereas now we can until we understand the grammar not only of belief but also of belief in God in the different historical situations. Clearly the question of translation often becomes critical in understanding such concepts. Thus the Arabic word imn is often translated into English as beliefas in the frequently used Quranic phrase ayyuhal-muminn, O Believers!but is better rendered as faith, as in I shall be faithful to you. Belief in the psychological sense is understood as a continuum rather than as a binary (belief/disbelief), and it is embedded in ritual and other practices. Thus I know of a Muslim who describes himself as weakly believing (daf al imn), and who uses the word imn to excuse himself from the prescribed daily prayers. The phrase itself, as I understand it, is neither an expression of doubt nor of disbeliefnor of any kind of certainty (including the certainty of the agnostic who refuses to pronounce on the existence or otherwise of Gods existence). But it is also not simply an instance of thoughtless speech and behavior; if it were there would be no need to describe it as weakly believing. Its a kind of belief linked to ordinary life that sometimes needs to be characterized as such. Another word commonly glossed as belief, itiqd, derives from the root aqada, to put together. This root gives the word aqd, contract, and its many cognates, and thus carries the sense of a bond that commits the believer to God as well as to his community. Thus in the classic sharia position personal conviction is said to be a matter between the individual and his God (baynahu wa bayna rabbih). What the law asserts is not that there is no such thing as an individuals state of mind and that it is therefore meaningless to talk about belief in God. What matters to the law is ones language-and-practice that establishes the individuals behavior within the
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network of Islamic norms, social obligations, etc. Any attempt to penetrate into the real belief of individuals (as in the Inquisition) is rejected as a legal and political principle not as an epistemological position. What people believe about God, how strongly they believe, are part of the believers relation to him. Of course, the notion of hypocrisy is employed in Islamic discourse, but it refers to a disparity between statements in one situation and the words and behavior in another; it doesnt presuppose a deep inner space in which real belief is located. The idea that belief is the core of religion and that it is essentially private, something that one may or may not express in words and behavior as one wishes, is central to much modern theorizing about the social and political structure of secularism. Talk about the privacy of belief is usually intended to ensure immunity of the individuals language when talking about religion; it is notneed not bea claim to the effect that religious belief is essentially untouchable and therefore private. It is a serious mistake to insistas many atheists dothat (authentic) religious belief is impervious to critical reason. The question of how belief can be changed is a complicated one and when change occurs its consequences can be important for the way one lives. The language of persuading people through criticism, of urging them to change their belief or to act in a different way is part of what was classically known as rhetoric. Famously, political rhetoric employed (and still employs) techniques of emotional arousal, but it also provided internal reasonsthus creating for listeners a moral space for forming their own motivation. The choice for the political orator between the two means was often largely determined not by considerations of truth but by what was likely to be more effective. At any rate, a distinction must be made between persuading and being persuaded, where the motive of the critical persuader may be self-serving or partial (i.e., creating conviction without providing its justification), or enabling (i.e., helping the subject to work towards the truth). Even when it is well meaning, the process of persuasionwhether political or religiousis a highly ambiguous mode of exercising power over others, which is not to say it is always successful as power. In our secular enthusiasm for critical thought and speech we tend sometimes to forget that persuasion works only through the particularities of ordinary language (including the use of stories, proverbs, jokes, anecdotes, sarBULLETIN FOR THE STUDY OF RELIGION 15

casm, promise, appeal, shame, insinuation, etc.), and through the banalities of ordinary life that are shared by persuader and persuaded. Most of religious life works quite well without critique because most of life does. CM: The critique of the social construction of religion has become something of a cottage industry in religious studies. Any thoughts on why it became popular when it did? Whose interests were advanced by its popularity (or the vehemence it sometimes provokes)? Why it has turned out to be mostly (although not entirely) white men who are making the criticism? TA: Im not sure I can answer this question because I havent followed recent thinking and arguments about the validity of religious studies as a distinctive discipline. Perhaps the popularity of such critique has something to do with the global activism of Muslim militants, the increasing prominence of Christian fundamentalists in American politics, of right-wing Hindu movements in India, etc. The criticism of religion as a social construct may be a way of accounting for these and other threats to democracy, and at the same time a way of holding out hope for the eventual triumph of a reconstructed liberal religion rooted in the idea of private belief. At any rate, if the very idea of the social construction of religion is being criticized it is probably because people cling to the notion that religion must have an essence, and to believe that is to betray the truth that a particular religion offers. CM: Do you ever feel like the rest of Genealogies is ignored because of how influential or popular the first chapter has proved to be? For instance, although pain and agency are themes in both Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular, most of the time when I see these books referenced it is on the questions of religion or secularism. Are there possibly structural reasons your work on pain or agency drops out? TA: Yes, I would have liked more engagement with the chapters on pain precisely because my genealogies of religion include some discussion of penance, repentance, punishmentthat is, psychological and physical manifestations of pain as transitive and intransitive modalities of discipline. The old claim that religion is the cause of great human suffering I find at once nave and boring. I am not really interested
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in refuting that picture, or in balancing it by pointing to the good that religion has done. We need to understand better than we do what the intellectual and cultural consequences are of the different ways we conceptualize pain and integrate it into our ways of lifeincluding what we call religion. Perhaps the best known of these is the notion of sacrificeat once religious and secular. We have a rich vocabulary for talking about pain as passion and action in our secular world: suffering, violence, agony, hurt, torment, torture, grief, and so forth. It has been said that the secular Enlightenment has helped moderns to overcome the brutalities of medieval religion, to develop attitudes of squeamishness when confronted by human pain and of the desire to lessen human suffering (universal benevolence). But we might ask ourselves why, for example, we are shocked and affronted by some representations of pain, while accepting others simply as occasions for exercising our virtue of compassion. I have been preoccupied with pain in my work generally partly because it lies at the interface of body and mind, and particularly because it is a central theme in religion, liberalism, and secularism. CM: I know a number of claims in the book were received as controversial. Can you comment on any significant criticisms leveled at the book? Were there fair or persuasive criticisms that have led you to reject or revise some of the claims you made? TA: I havent read all the published criticisms leveled at the book, although Ive mentioned a few of them above. Of course I have received comments and criticisms of my work from friends and academic colleagues, and that has helped me greatly in rethinking aspects of what Ive writteneven when I remain unwilling to abandon my basic argument. I have acknowledged these critics by name in my publications. Ive also benefitted from reading things that are at a tangent to my work. At any rate, I am now persuaded that the lengthy introduction to Genealogies (written very quickly to a short deadline) is the least satisfactory part of the book. It doesnt bring together the different themes of the chapters adequatelymost of which, bear in mind, were written several years earlier as essays (the analysis of the anthropological category of religion, for example, was first published in 1982). But why has the book been misunderstood as it sometimes has? I
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suppose its fair to say that thats partly the books fault. I should have made my arguments clearer than I didbut then I was feeling my way forward at the time without always being certain as to where these arguments would lead. For example I recognize that there is much more to be said about ritual than I write in chapter twoalthough I still think that we need fuller genealogies of the category of ritual that has become an object of scholarly interpretation. Thats something that hasnt yet been adequately attended to by critics. Surveys of different approaches to the study of ritual are useful but thats not what I mean by a genealogy of the category.

CM: What current projects are you working on? Anything that builds on, departs from, or runs parallel to Genealogies? TA: Ive been thinking more about pain, suffering, and violence, and especially about the ambiguous distinction between religion and the secular, and about tradition and habit. I am trying to think about these matters in relation to aspects of human rights history, European and Middle Eastern, past and present.

The Occupy Movement, Religion, and Social Formations


Matt Sheedy PhD candidate in religious studies, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg matt_sheedy@umanitoba.ca doi:10.558/bsor.v43i1.17 In his essay Revolutionary Exhumations in Spain (1989), Bruce Lincoln notes how during the Spanish Civil War some on the political Left engaged in a shocking ritual act by exhuming the long-buried corpses of priests, nuns, and saints, while putting them on public display. Given that the exhumations were not isolated events but appeared in dozens of cities and towns across Spain in the summer of 1936, Lincoln suggests that they should be understood as having taken place during a liminal period, where old rules and social boundaries had been rejected and new rules had yet to come into place. More importantly, Lincoln points out that the corpses were used as visual evidence against the churchs longstanding claim that the bodies of the pure do not rot like those of the damned, and in this way acted as a profanophany, which he defines as a revelation of the profanity, temporality, and corruption inherent to someone or something (1989, 125). What interests Lincoln is how social distinctions such as these are constructed within societies through the mechanisms of force and discourse. Since force is ineffective in maintaining collective identities over the long run, it is on the level of discourseincluding myths, rituals, symbols and classification that he finds the most enduring mechanisms for both preserving and challenging the legitimacy of social
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order. In this sense, discourse acts as a form of ideological persuasion and is drawn upon to evoke sentiments of affinity or estrangement with this or that person, group, or thing. While discourse often serves the interests of dominant groups, it is also used by subordinate classes in order to demystify and de-legitimate established norms and institutions (1989, 5). It is commonly held that the Occupy movement was spurred in the United States by the economic crisis of 2008, which included the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial bailout of major banks (McLean 2012; White and Li 2012), along with the influence of multiple global uprisingsfrom Santiago to London, Cairo to Madrid (Castells 2012; Dorfman 2012; Prashad 2012)as well as the American Tea Party movement and the Madison, Wisconsin, protests and occupation of the state capitol that began in February, 2011. The Twitter call to #OCCUPYWALLSTREET proposed by Adbusters magazine on July 13, 2011, went viral on July 26, 2011 (Schneider 2013, 9-10), and culminated in the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan on September 17, 2011. Occupy became a household name in the United States after a series of YouTube videos went viral showing confrontations between protesters and police (Schneider 2013, 42), including the arrests of some seven hundred people on Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011
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