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Culture and Religion

Abstract and Keywords

This article surveys trajectories of religious inquiry whose antecedents commonly stem from the classical sociological tradition, but whose outcomes vary with respect to the way they deal with reductive tendencies in the social sciences. To whatever extent contemporary studies of religion remain divided, as has been suggested by Russell T. McCutcheon, between essentialist theories and social-constructivist theories, the discussion argues that the key contribution of cultural analyses of religion consists in the way it has problematised this well-worn impasse by positing the possibility of a non-reductive yet thoroughly sociological study of religion. It examines the thinking of Durkheim, Marx, Foucault, and Derrida on culture and religion. The article also provides a historical and sociological critique of the notion of religion as a state of affairs, rather than a state of mind, a debate that in the social sciences goes back to Durkheim and Marx.

Keywords: religious inquiry, social sciences, Durkheim, Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Russell T. McCutcheon


Like other disciplines in the humanities, over the course of the last couple of decades, religious studies has fashioned itself in relation to the discourses of ‘culture’ and, indirectly, cultural studies. In practical terms this entailed the importation of new avenues of inquiry, with new vocabularies, enlisting headings like postcolonial theory, feminist theory, gender theory (women's studies as well as masculinity studies), gay and lesbian studies (or queer theory), critical race studies, diaspora studies, media studies, and more. This new face of the discipline shapes the conference programs of groups like the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the International Association of the History of Religions (IAHR), the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and related organizations. It also prompted the creation of new journals like Culture and Religion, the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, and others. Peruse the table of contents of an anthology such as Critical Terms for Religious Studies and notice the virtual absence of entries with explicitly ‘religious’ connotations; they include, instead, standard categories in the lexicon of cultural studies: body, gender, modernity, conflict, culture, experience, image, liberation, transformation, transgression, performance, person, territory, writing (M. C. Taylor 1998).

In entries similar to the current one that appear in recent anthologies in religious studies, historians of religion Bruce Lincoln and Tomoko Masuzawa (p. 211) approached the subject of culture by surveying the history of the term and theories that emphasize conflict, power, negotiation, and fluidity (Lincoln 2000; Masuzawa 1998). Their essays model a study of religion as culture: that is, a human social production in which the rhetoric of gods and transcendence encodes social preoccupations with power, privilege, and identity formation. The reader is strongly encouraged to seek out these essays as indispensable resources for any attempt to consider the relationship between religion and culture. The present contribution differs slightly. It regards the association of religion and culture as a signifier for certain methodological and theoretical innovations. Here the question is not, What is culture and how might we study religion as culture?, but instead, How has ‘culture’ become emblematic of certain orientations toward agency and structure, ideology and system, subjective experience and subject formation? How have these intervening orientations informed the study of religion, challenging which rubrics of analysis? What fruitful lines of inquiry remain open to studies of religion situated at the intersection of ‘religion and culture’?

In what follows I survey trajectories of religious inquiry whose antecedents commonly stem from the classical sociological tradition, but whose outcomes vary with respect to the way they deal with reductive tendencies in the social sciences. To whatever extent contemporary studies of religion remain divided, as has been suggested by Russell T. McCutcheon, between essentialist theories (with roots in the phenomenological tradition) and social-constructivist theories (with roots in the social sciences), it will be argued here that the key contribution of cultural analyses of religion consists in the way it has problematized this well-worn impasse by positing the possibility of a non-reductive yet thoroughly sociological study of religion (McCutcheon 2003).

The Marxist Tradition: Culture, Cultural Studies, and Ideology Critique

Historically, ‘culture’ evoked the accoutrements of bourgeois life, intimating standards of taste, the greatest products that civilizations had to offer, the best books, musical compositions, and works of art. It implied a notion of canon as inclusion within what a given class in society privileged as uniquely emblematic of a culture. As such, ‘culture’ sanctioned a sphere of art and ideas which would preserve a dominant faction's definitions of the good, the true, and the beautiful (Williams 1977; 1983; 1985).

(p. 212) Marginal currents of twentieth-century Marxism later radicalized the concept and political significance of culture, the result of a specific history of reflection on the significance of culture dating back to the Enlightenment. Expanding Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Romantic ideal of the ‘voice within’ as a guide for remaining true to oneself or authentic, Johann Gottfried Herder considered the way in which nations coalesced around essential value sets, structures of feeling, and ways of being, unifying members into coherent communities with shared, authentic life ways. For G. W. F. Hegel, culture expressed more than the pure particularity of national life ways; the specificity of historical communities and their cultural practices participated in the epic realization of the Absolute (Spirit, Reason, or Geist) in history. Hegel invested culture with the significance of history's movement toward concrete forms of reason in history, its endpoint the achievement of societies attaining freedom no longer as an abstract concept (as he maintained Immanuel Kant's was) but as an embodied experience mediated by the cultures and polities of modern republican states (Taylor 2003).

In the shadow of Hegelian philosophy, German and, later, British Marxism resuscitated a new form of ambivalence towards culture, this time as either the domain of ruling-class ideology or the terrain in which the struggle for freedom occurs. In Britain especially, the New Left and cultural studies emerged in the 1960s as attempts to interrogate this ambiguity by working with and against traditional Marxian-Hegelian paradigms. A founding figure within that tradition, Raymond Williams's late twentieth-century work concentrated largely on the question of culture's place in histories of Marxist thought, wresting Marx's texts from the way in which orthodox, scientific Marxism interpreted them. Distancing himself from a mechanical style of Marxist theory and practice, Williams noted that Marx's early philosophical writings, which had suffered obscurity for many years after Marx's death, conveyed rather different attitudes toward the relation between structural and cultural formations. He argued that Marx rarely, and unsystematically, employed many of the concepts commonly associated with him, such as false consciousness and base/superstructure. And many of the early texts, as well as Engels's clarifications after Marx's death, flatly contradicted the spirit of those earlier readings. Instead of economic determinism, a view of ideology as an active and equally determining sphere in its own right (rather than the passive product of more substantive processes) emerged from close readings of the early Marx (Williams 1977).

Williams, and the kind of rereading of Marx that he popularized, helped engineer the rise of modern cultural studies and the revaluation of culture's relation to the political. With Richard Hoggart and E. P. Thompson he founded the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. The CCCS took as its point of departure its disillusionment with orthodox Marxism and its political outcomes (Lave et al. 1992; Hall 1996a). Among the early works produced by the Birmingham School, we can consider more closely (p. 213) two, in order to reflect on the early significance of the conjunction of religion and culture and what it opposed in traditional Marxist orientations to religion and ideology: E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963)—especially the chapter ‘The Transforming Power of the Cross’, a lengthy study of the relation of revival Methodism to Britain's stifled revolution—and Stuart Hall's early essay ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees’ (1996c).

E. P. Thompson

A lesser-known feature of the history of Marxist thought consists in its long-held preoccupation with religion, not just in the form of a critique of religious ideology, but through its attempts to comprehend religious movements that in some ways mirrored Marxism's own desire to mobilize the working classes to spontaneous outbursts. One example of Marxism's complex engagement with religion is the case of English Methodism. The combination of working-class support systems and collective eruptions led Marxists and other historians of Britain's failed revolution to want to understand in political terms the social significance of revivalism.

This debate became closely associated with Elie Halevy, Eric Hobsbawm, and Thompson. At mid-century, Hobsbawm and Thompson responded to Halevy's early twentieth-century thesis that Methodist revivalism frustrated revolution in England, thwarting the proletarianization of the working classes by distracting them with other-worldly concerns. Halevy (1961 [1911]) maintained that revivalism compensated for its political quietism with ritual histrionics. In the 1950s, Hobsbawm (1957) challenged Halevy's thesis by pointing to evidence that the correspondence between church membership and radical society rosters seemed to indicate that revival-goers were no less politically engaged than others, and that, in fact, Methodism seemed to support working-class agitations. Six years later, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) Thompson introduced a complex account of the way in which Methodist revivalism ebbed and lowed in tandem with swings in radical political activity, concluding that religious spontaneity provided outlets for pent-up political frustrations. Thompson labeled this cathartic function of revival religions ‘psychic masturbation’; Methodism's revival tendencies were emotional surrogates for unexpressed political grievances.

Arguably, Thompson's conclusions advanced very little beyond orthodox Marxism's ideology critique of religion as a dead-end distraction, if not a smokescreen benefiting and perhaps even propagated by the ruling classes. In the end he viewed Methodism as an impotent and misdirected response to political conflict, a ‘reactive dialectic’. In any case, the seriousness with which Thompson contemplated Methodism's place in the making of English class consciousness improved upon the mechanistic model in other ways. In particular, Thompson rethought class, no longer in rigid economic terms, where one's class identity mirrors one's position in (p. 214) dominant modes of production, but instead in terms of ‘class consciousness’ (citing Georg Lukács's use of that term earlier in the century, cf. History and Class Consciousness). Thompson argued in the introduction to The Making of the English Working Class for an experiential understanding of class consciousness, reliant upon modes of feeling and perception shaped not only by structural conditions but by cultural practices as well, including religious ones.

Whatever their limitations were, Thompson's arguments about English Methodism affirmed that the cultural and the political are linked inextricably. Even if Thompson toed the Marxist line by reducing cultural processes to underlying structural realities, he did at least unsettle the formulaic shape it usually assumed. The radicalization of what remained implicit in Thompson's argument eventually constituted the central claim of cultural studies in Britain, both in the works of Raymond Williams and under the intellectual leadership of Jamaican-born British sociologist Stuart Hall.

Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall's writing demonstrates how influential the claims of Raymond Williams were that Marx was susceptible to plausible, alternative readings which militated against the reductionism normally attributed to him. In ‘The Problem of Ideology: Marxism without Guarantees’, Hall performed his own exegesis of Marx's texts, concluding, with Williams, that only a narrow reading of Marx sustains the view of culture as secondary and epiphenomenal. Hall argued that for Marx culture instead exists in a ‘co-determining’ relation to productive forces in society. Moreover, Marx appeared to regard culture as part of a process whereby societies (or factions within them) do not simply deceive themselves and others; rather, culture comprises the ‘processes by which new forms of consciousness, new conceptions of the world, arise, which move the masses of the people into historical action against the prevailing system’ (Hall 1996c: 27).

Hall's work added to Williams's contribution the insights of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, whose early twentieth-century writings from prison had only recently been recovered after a period of obscurity, much like Marx's. Hall was largely responsible for bringing Gramsci to a wider audience and distilling from his texts implications for the study of class, culture, race, and ethnicity, as well as his critique of economic reductionism and his more optimistic view of the role that ideologies play in what Gramsci called the ‘hegemonic’ process (Hall 1996b). In short, Gramsci imagined a position marginal to the orthodox Marxism of his day by considering how non-metropolitan, ‘subaltern’ classes do not follow the trajectory of normative proletarianization that both Marx and Marxists predicted on the basis of their analyses of productive processes in the centers of industrial Europe.

Gramsci's Prison Notebooks criticized and undermined analyses of economic determinism that relegate culture to the status of a derivative reflection of more (p. 215) determinate processes. He considered the role that popular religion (as well as street theater, music, and other things) played in facilitating among subaltern masses a sense of identity and opposition to dominant social forces (Gramsci 1971). Hall wielded Gramsci's notes as an affirmation of ideology in the process of subject formation in ways that could not simply be regarded along traditional lines as duping, but instead as critical engagements with hegemony, or what he and others began to call counter-hegemonic discourses. In the spirit of Gramsci, Hall's phrase ‘Marxism without guarantees’ continues to serve as a kind of slogan for the anti-reductive claims upon which cultural studies was founded (Hall et al. 2000).

These recollections of the emergence of cultural studies suggest that the intersection culture-religion carries with it an implicit theoretical rejection of reductive approaches, retaining, however, the claim that one can study religion methodologically as a social phenomenon. In other words, they suggest the compatibility of sociological with non-reductive studies of religion. To whatever extent this narrative of the relationship between a cultural turn in religious studies and the history of Marxist cultural studies is anything like correct, we should not overlook an important irony with respect to other traditions of cultural and religious study. That is to say, while the influence of Marxist cultural studies on religious studies consists primarily of a shift away from reductive theories, the general pattern elsewhere among scientific approaches to the study of religion has been less consistent.

Social-Scientific studies of Culture and Religion

The study of religion as just one among many cultural formations (with no more privileged status than any other) characterizes much of the social-science tradition since at least the nineteenth century. Yet these traditions yield no consensus with respect to the question of reduction. In this section I briefly survey how a few key contributions to the sociological study of religion outside the Marxist tradition imagined religion's relation to culture; secondly, I comment on how these classical approaches in the sociology of religion inform contemporary work in religious studies, where questions of culture and reductionism prevail.

The Classical Tradition

Whereas according to traditional readings Marx reduced religion to socioeconomic causes, according to an equally traditional reading Max Weber reversed (p. 216) the order by arguing that one religion—namely, Protestantism—significantly contributed to the formation and success of socio-economic patterns in Europe such as capitalism. In fact, however, Weber proceeded with indefatigable caution in order not to suggest that Protestantism acted as a determining cause; he claimed only to show that Protestantism enabled the ideological atmosphere in which capitalism could and did thrive in Europe. In any case, Weber's legacy in subsequent sociology and religious studies runs counter to explicitly reductive approaches by considering how ideologies are not simply by-products of underlying processes but also play determining roles in the construction of society.

Alongside Marx and Weber, Émile Durkheim introduced a third classical source of sociological inquiry in the study of religion. Durkheim's thesis in Elementary Forms of Religious Life that collective consciousnesses project the sacred—that societies construct religion, and that religious formations enact social formation through a kind of group transference—represents another version of the claim about religion's essential sociality. Like Marx, Durkheim treated religion as a product of the imagination—‘religious society is only human society stretched ideally to beyond the stars’ (1972: 220)—but, unlike Marx, he regarded the function of an imaginary locus of group identity as indispensable to the construction of societies; there can be no society without this collective identification with an external object which simultaneously transcends and congeals the group. To simplify, we might say: for Durkheim religion occasions the social; for Weber religion shapes the social; and for Marx religion symptomatizes the social.

The Contemporary Tradition

One might identify three landmark interventions in the contemporary study of religion that advanced a certain kind of sociological claim by insisting not only that religions are cultural phenomena, but that the very concept of religion is a cultural construction. First, Wilfred Cantwell Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion (1959) posited that ‘religion’, viewed as a discrete realm of human experience, is both a new and a culturally specific concept—a modern, Western invention. Prior to the modern era, and beyond the boundaries of Western discourse, religion (where an equivalent term appears, which he showed is not always the case) did not carry the connotation of a realm separable from other aspects of cultural life; nor was it conceivable that one could enumerate some number of discrete religions (e.g., ‘Hinduism’). That is to say, he argued that modern, Western habits of imagining religion as a discrete realm of experience, and religions as coherent entities, mistake social conventions for phenomenological realities. Although he maintained that how we conceive of religion involves a kind of culturally inherited mental mistake, Smith did not go so far as to deny religion a reality of any sort (W. C. Smith 1959). He ultimately proposed the recovery of a pre-modern conception of religion as (p. 217) something like faith, betraying, we might say, his own inability to extricate himself from the predispositions of Protestantism (cf. Asad 2001).

Secondly, W. C. Smith's view of ‘religion’ as a modern, Western concept resurfaced a few decades later in one of the most frequently cited remarks in Religious Studies: Jonathan Z. Smith's argument in the introduction to Imagining Religion that ‘while there is a staggering amount of data, of phenomena, of human experiences and expressions that might be characterized in one culture or another, by one criterion or another, as religious—there is no data for religion. Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization. Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy’ (J. Z. Smith 1982). J. Z. Smith's thesis has been debated and commented on at length, in part because of its susceptibility to so many interpretations. Did he mean that religion ‘in itself’ eludes our grasp, and that we are left with no other recourse than to imagine it? Did he mean, alternatively (and most probably), that religion has no existence apart from our fabrications of it? In another register, did he mean to suggest that the history of the production of ‘religion’ as an object of study was the result merely of academic reification, and not of a certain cultural politics beyond the academy? Did the invention of religion and religions not also take place within the context of the colonial imagination and those other settings in which comparisons of peoples and their cultures informed the self-fashioning of Europe and its justification for dominating and conquering non-European others?

These questions highlight similarities between Smith's thesis and Edward Said's only three years before in a seminal text of post-colonial theory, Orientalism: that the ‘Orient’ as such does not exist, but is instead a reified product of the Western imperial imagination (Said 1979). One might also compare J. Z. Smith's claim, in ‘Map is Not Territory’ (1978), that within the framework of the history of religion, primitive peoples literally do not exist, because they fail to register within the discourses of ‘religion’ codified by the academy, to Gayatri Spivak's (1987) provocative suggestion (in another seminal work in postcolonial theory) that ‘the subaltern cannot speak’ because her speech is incomprehensible to dominant discourses of meaning, speech, agency, and recognition.

In any case, J. Z. Smith's remark seems at least to acknowledge, as W. C. Smith's had, that the contemporary habit of imagining religion as a discrete object, embodied by a number of discrete entities (‘religions’), indicates less the way things are and more the way we imagine them to be—a social-constructivist thesis (Smith identified it with Kant, presumably with the idea that we do not grasp things themselves but must instead represent them to ourselves, a process involving imaginative acts of cognition and classification). But, unlike W. C. Smith, J. Z. Smith refused to subscribe to a notion of religion as ‘faith’ or anything like it. Religion, for J. Z. Smith, can be grasped only as a fiction, even if, as he was not at all reluctant to state, a necessary fiction. In other words, while we must study ‘religion’ (p. 218) and ‘religions’, we must do so cognizant of the fact that these reifications simply assist us in the taxonomic effort of studying the ways in which humans construct worlds and world views (J. Z. Smith 1996). The requirement of the scholar of world-construction processes is that she not naively imitate religious participants' mental errors by mistaking the discourse of ‘religion’ for a real object. Although Smith likened his approach to Kant's, I would argue that his ‘imagining religion’ thesis fits better with the empiricism of David Hume, who similarly maintained that while we cannot live without the inferences we routinely make (e.g., about causation), we must remain cognizant of the real limits, even impoverishment, of our knowledge.

Thirdly, Bruce Lincoln's work raises several objections to the status quo of scholarly inquiry into things religious, influenced by basic sociological suppositions about the social determinations of religion, and by those histories of post Marxist thought recited above. In early works, particularly his very important Discourse and the Construction of Society (1992), Lincoln did two things. First, he developed a theory of religion as a set of rhetorical strategies that societies employ in the normal processes of social formation. In this sense, Lincoln posited a routine feature of the Durkheimian tradition. On the other hand, he moved away from that tradition in his emphasis on themes of conflict, authority, and power, all muted in Durkeim's account of the social.

Particularly in his very important Discourse, Lincoln aligned himself with Marxists like Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Antonio Gramsci as someone interested in relations of power as they permeate culture. He argued that culture, especially religion, serves as a site for ongoing negotiations for power and privilege in society, or the ‘hegemonic struggle’ (Lincoln 1992). In retrospect, Lincoln's nearly three decades of writing tend to emphasize only one side of culture's role in the hegemonic struggle: its ideological role, e.g., its effort to cloak its own historicity through transcendental claims meant to authorize one position and de-legitimize others. That is to say, he does not examine the way in which the hegemonic struggle for Gramsci and those he influenced (Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, cf. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Laclau and Mouffe 1986)) referred not simply to constructions of power and authority (by those in power), e.g., co-opting and appropriating dissent, fabricating authority and so forth; the hegemonic struggle also referred to efforts to challenge and de-legitimize those fictitious claims to authority, power, and privilege, precisely by rendering visible the arbitrariness of their claims.

Lincoln's most concise contribution to conceptualizing ‘culture and religion’ as a critical model in the study of religion appeared in the form of his very short ‘Theses on Method’ (1996), a text patterned on Marx's ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1978) and Walter Benjamin's ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1969). In the first place, Lincoln argued that religion, like all culture, should be approached as a negotiation of power through rhetoric, by paying attention to questions like ‘Who speaks … to (p. 219) what audience … who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?’ Second, he raised the issue of the scholar's relation to cultural objects, or the question of situatedness: ‘Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents' religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people's faith.’ In other words, Lincoln observed beneath the façade of tolerance and multiculturalism in the study of religion traces of a lingering imperial posture, i.e., ‘the guilty conscience of Western imperialism’. Third, Lincoln reiterated one of the important contributions of the cultural studies tradition: namely, the critique of cultural essentialism: the ‘dubious—not to say fetishistic—construction of “cultures” as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices’. Lincoln suggested that cultural essentialism errs by conflating a dominant faction's representations of cultural meaning with cultures as such, obscuring the contentions through which those representations signal a struggle for the privilege of defining groups against the backdrop of otherwise competing narratives, value sets, identity claims, and so forth. In a related point, he observed scholars' difficulties in recognizing systems of ideology operational in their own societies because (a) ‘one's consciousness is itself a product of that society’ and (b) ‘the system's very success renders its operation invisible’ (Lincoln 1996).

Thus, Lincoln's combination of neo-Durkheimian and neo-Marxist orientations to the study of religion and culture consists of three main features. First, he proceeds from the supposition that societies construct religion, and that this construction lies near the heart of the process of social formation. Second, he stresses that religion comprises a rhetoric of power, and that, as in all cultural instances, one has to view religion within the context of operations of hegemonic struggles. Third, he makes a methodological suggestion: in the study of religion one must regard with suspicion religion's own claims, rather than treat them as first-hand evidence, since religious rhetoric functions by concealing its own culturally and historically specific origins, claiming instead the authorship and authority of transcendent, supra-historical origins.

These, then, illustrate some of the important recent interventions in the social-scientific study of religion which take seriously the role of culture, by (1) viewing religion as a subset of culture rather than something sui generis (see further McCutcheon 2005); by (2) stressing the ways that religion, too, participates in the hegemonic struggle; and by (3) marking the way in which the very category of religion already betrays the cultural specificity of the modern West. In the final portion of this essay I reflect on the problem of reductionism in religious studies by exploring some of the ways that the cultural turn has resulted in a shift from consciousness-based orientations to one that emphasizes the way in which something like religion may reside not within consciousness but instead within culture itself. I conclude by summarizing the argument put forward here that one of the most productive contributions of the ‘culture and religion’ intersection may be (p. 220) the shift towards an analysis of religion as it is inscribed within cultural formations, rather than within the hearts, minds, or bodies of participants. I take this to be one of sociology's promising contributions to the study of religion, even if sociology remains often enough just as susceptible to belief-centered approaches.

Religion as a State of Affairs (Not a State of Mind)

Notwithstanding the importance of Jonathan Z. Smith's contribution to the scholarly study of religion, would it be possible to acknowledge that religion is more than subjectively ‘imagined’ by conceding that religion's existence has its locus beyond brains and bodies, beyond myth and performance, i.e., in something like a culture or a social system, in technologies of representation and of the self, in discourses of truth and subjectivity? I conclude by proposing the need for the study of religion to consider what it would mean to disarticulate religion from individual and group consciousness as the primary unit of analysis, to imagine instead how ‘religion’ resides in another locus exterior to one or more subjects. If the general trend within Marxism and the social sciences was to reduce religion to a subjective construction, how might we rethink religion as an objective social phenomenon in order to grasp how it continues to structure late modern society?

This approach complies with what sometimes goes by the name of discourse theory, but can be traced to elements within the thinking of Marx. To begin with, Marx showed that insofar as social realities may be ideological, they arise from objective conditions. Even the subject with ‘consciousness’ and beliefs emerges out of determinate conditions in Marx's analysis. While the religiousness of believers is to be expected, given their estrangement from the mechanisms that actually govern their lives, the real site of mystical phenomena and theological sleight of hand, for Marx, occurs at the structural level of the political-economic organization of society.

To illustrate this, notice how Marx's well-known comments in Capital on the ‘fetishism of the commodity and its secret’ did two things (Marx 1977: 163–77). First, it satirized ‘Enlightened’, demythologized society, which looked condescendingly at African and New World fetishism. Western society regarded these things as superstitious attributions of value to inanimate objects, while Europe, at the height of its highly advanced and civilized social development, constructed a socioeconomic system with attendant political formations on the basis of an equally mystical transformation of human processes and raw materials into special objects with inexplicable values, which is to say, commodities (see further Mulvey 1996; (p. 221) Taussig 1983). Secondly, Marx's critique of commodity fetishism broke with the common sense that regarded religion as a state of mind. If religiousness exists in the minds of individuals, it is because the conditions that give rise to those beliefs are already mystical in nature. The most ideological thing of all would be to look no further than cognition for an account of religion, for that would foreclose an analysis of the circumstances which engender religion as their cultural consciousness.

The problem, historically, is that sociology has tended to rely almost as much as psychology on the framework of consciousness; it merely provides a different account of its formation, as illustrated by a particular moment in Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In the following excerpt, Durkheim specified what can qualify as sacred, and in doing so excluded, contra Marx, anything which could not be explained in terms of projections of individuals or group consciousness:

It is not enough that one thing be subordinated to another for the second to be sacred in regard to the first. Slaves are inferior to their masters, subjects to their king, soldiers to their leader, the miser to his gold, the man ambitious for power to the hands which keep it from him; but if it is sometimes said of a man that he makes a religion of those beings or things whose eminent value and superiority to himself he thus recognizes, it is clear that in any case the word is taken in a metaphorical sense, and that there is nothing in these relations which is really religious. (Durkheim 1976: 37)

As if to challenge Marx's claims about the religiousness of social systems, Durkheim differentiated religion from relations of exchange, domination, and valuation in society stemming from structures of power and political economy. In doing so he avoided reference to anything identifiably modern, limiting himself to generic relations between slaves and masters, subjects and kings, soldiers and commandants, the power-seeking and the power-keeping. Interesting in this is the inclusion of gold fetishism, as if to say that while pre-capitalist fetishism may be religious, its capitalist counterpart surely is not.

Durkheim's effort to justify this distinction requires him to reduce all those examples of structurally derived relations of power and alienation to subjective phenomena: ‘if it is sometimes said of a man that he makes a religion of those beings or things …’. The reduction from structural to subjective conceptualizations of value enables Durkheim to disqualify political economy as ‘religious’ for the same reason as he later disqualified magic; magic and commodity fetishism are, notwithstanding their secondary associations with collective supports (e.g., priesthoods or modes of production), fundamentally individual activities. The man who ‘makes a religion’ of gold apparently does so independently of historical circumstances in which gold is revered as an inexplicably valuable object; his fetishism is therefore cognitive in nature, a mental mistake, and is to be distinguished from ‘really religious’ instances in which societies collectively regard beings and objects as inherently valuable.

(p. 222) By assigning metaphorical status to the colloquial ascription of ‘religion’ to class structures and commodity fetishism, Durkheim clings to the code of regarding the products of Western culture, such as capitalism, as just what they claim to be: that is, rational and secular. Excluding the designation ‘religious’ from anything which cannot represent itself in the form of a consciousness, Durkheim effectively foreclosed the possibility of analyzing the religiousness of the cultures, discourses, apparatuses, technologies, rules, and systems that coordinate the conditions in which attributions and perceptions of value take place. Durkheim upholds the supposition rejected by Marx, who recognized religion in objective states of affairs and not just in states of mind.

Among recent theories of discourse and the subject, an alternative to the persistent subjectivism of both essentialism and anti-essentialist constructivism has taken the form of a turn to the exteriority of the subject, conceding that the locus of the self is in something like language or discourse. This axial turn emerged in the twentieth century primarily by way of Freud and Lacan, on the one hand, and Foucault, on the other. It is thus curious that Freud and Foucault continue to be regarded as polarized figureheads for the essentialist-constructivist controversy.

Responding to that situation, Theresa de Lauretis has argued that Freud's ‘stubborn drive’ and Foucault's ‘relations of power’ ‘are not as incompatible or mutually exclusive as they are generally taken to be’ (de Lauretis 1998: 858). In Foucault's depiction of the process of subjectivization, power produces the subject as an effect of discourse ‘without depending even on the mediation of the subject's own representations … [without] having first to be interiorised in people's consciousnesses’ (de Lauretis 1998: 858). Freud's construction of sexualization, meanwhile, relied on a notion of something which is partly innate and partly not. That is, in sexuality there is nothing innate; nothing psychically or biologically predetermines the formation of the subject sexually. But what does preexist the possible articulations of sexual fantasy is the drive (Sexualtrieb). For Freud, the drive exists in the body, but it is to be distinguished from the modes of phantasmatic representation (signs) which are taken up and articulated by the drive as sexuality. ‘And if the drive is not to be equated with sexuality’, de Lauretis continued, ‘even less can it be equated with consciousness’ (1998: 858).

She suggested that Foucault's concept of ‘relations of power’, which took shape in the late 1970s, depicted a notion of power working on and in the body, but independent of consciousness, and in that case must be read in the context of (Lacanian) constructions of the subject constituted ‘in the field of the Other’—that is, through a linguistically organized unconscious. My point is not to agree that Foucault achieved no more than what psychoanalysis had by then already asserted; it is to identify the emergence of models of subjectivation which locate the origin of subjectivity in modes of discourse and representation that exist outside and independent of the subject's ‘imagination’, consciousness, cognition, or whatever other metaphors for the locus of subjectivity one employs. By implication, neither (p. 223) the object ‘religion’ nor the processes of ‘imagining religion’ are adequately viewed as housed within the heads and hearts of folks. Heads and hearts, minds and bodies, fail to exhaust the operation of culture and discourse.

The linguistic turn challenged the model of a connection between individual and society which presupposed mechanical processes between discretely organic entities: on the one hand, individuals, bounded by their bodies, and on the other hand, societies, as mere complexes of individuals. With a theory of signification, what emerged was the possibility of saying, as Foucault did, that ‘something like a language, even if it is not in the form of explicit discourse, even if it has not been deployed for a consciousness, can in general be given to representation’ (Foucault 1970: 361). To the extent that Foucault's history of the human sciences in The Order of Things stemmed from his critique of psychoanalysis, what remains evident is that the error of Freud was not to have posited a behind-the-back determination of the subject by the unconscious; it was his failure to follow through with a conception of the subject and of the unconscious as an effect of language, and therefore to conceive of them as entities whose locus is not in themselves but in something external to them. De Lauretis may be right that Freud did so in his theory of the drive; in another way, this was Lacan's achievement when he redescribed the unconscious as something structured like a language: the subject's locus is in the other, and the locus of the other is in language.

The future study of religion, I argue, will find it increasingly necessary to take seriously the exteriority of religion to the subject in ways that make the ‘imagining religion’ thesis less pertinent than it has been regarded in the past. Such a study may find models in the work of someone like Jacques Derrida, who contributed a number of books and essays on the topic of religion during the last decade and a half of his life. Derrida analyzed television, telecommunication, jet travel, and other components of globalization as instances of what he referred to as the ‘afterlife of religion’ following the so-called ‘death of religion’. His argument, seminal to what has come to be called philosophy's ‘religious turn’, was that religion is hardly dead in the midst of secularization. This is because there is a kind of rebirth, or perhaps intensification, of the religious within the structures of the global engineered by the process of expansionist capital, by the instantaneous proliferation of the word (through communication) and presence (through travel), and by juridical discourses of the global such as human rights (Derrida 1996; 2001). There is not space here fully to explicate Derrida's argument; suffice it to say that in Derrida's view we do not see religion today as much in the beliefs of individuals as in the cultural logics of the late modern world. I suggest that a sociology of religion relevant to the developments of late modernity will be one capable of attending to this model of religion as a state of affairs rather than a state of mind, and that to do so will require the field of study to relinquish long-held predispositions toward ‘reducing’ religion from a perceived objective reality to something merely imagined. The question may instead be: In what ways is the world we inhabit structured religiously even as it clings to the guise of secularization?


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                                                                                    Suggested Reading

                                                                                    Asad, Talal (1993). Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

                                                                                    Lincoln, Bruce (2003). Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                                                                    Mahmood, Saba (2004). Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

                                                                                    Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                                                                    Smith, Jonathan Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                                                                    Also Derrida (2001); McCutcheon (2003); and W. C. Smith (1959). (p. 226)