Anne Koch: Some Important Conceptual Lines of Discourse Theories in Cultural Studies of Religion

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 As cultural studies, discourse analysis and religious studies are all highly ambiguous terms, used to denote vast fields, I will start by briefly sketching them in the sense in which restricted and contingent way they are used here, before proceeding to discuss the potential of particular facets of discourse theory and methodology for cultural studies.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The term discourse is very often used to denote an object of research (Keller, this volume), but without explaining in which exact meaning of discourse theory the term discourse is used. A first meaning of discourse theory is that it is a perspective, and a bundle of very divergent methods. Introductions to discourse analysis regularly distinguish between descriptive and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 2010: 167), and sometimes come to the irenic solution that all discourse analysis is political inasfar as language itself is always deeply political (e.g. Gee 2014: 9). Descriptive discourse analysis can be narrowly restricted to linguistic aspects, paying much attention to speech, intonation, etc., or can be applied more broadly in pragmatics of language-in-use or even in action theory. Here, following the tradition of Michel Foucault, discourse is understood as a construct consisting of utterances and practices which are institutionally established to different degrees (Foucault 1972). Thinking from the perspective of Foucault in cultural studies means turning all phenomena into practices and investigating these practices with specific questions in mind. This goes beyond approaches that only analyse conversations and speech acts—even if you understand language as a tool or action in the intentional-conventionalist sense proposed by John L. Austin (locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary acts), John Searle and others—since such approaches fail to address culture in its complexity as permanent institutional structures exerting power that becomes relevant for knowledge production. Language-in-use approaches only seldom expand their scope to include the epistemological framework, the episteme, in which the thinkable, imaginable and sayable of a historical time are embedded (see e.g. Keller’s long citation of A. Schütz on the “preconstituted world of scientific contemplation”, this volume).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Religion as the often supposed object of the study of religion requires a second preliminary remark. Today, in the academic and theoretical self-understanding of religious studies, religion is often regarded as a discourse, or as being “discursively constituted”. This implies that a particular interpretation of discourse theory has entered into the constitution of religion as an object. Kocku von Stuckrad expresses this idea when he proposes a “discursive study of religion”. He indicates the difference between the term “religion” (small captials) and the “discourse on religion” by the use of capital letters, “religion”, for the latter, meaning the “societal organization of knowledge about religion” (2014: 14). Discourse theory allows equal treatment of the subject of our investigation and the employed model, making the latter an historical item as well. Both are discourses. This makes plain the universalism of this approach, comparable to transcendental philosophy, but this time applied to empirical culture/s instead of abstract concepts. It is this understanding of discourse analysis as a discursive practice that itself adds meaning to some discourse that von Stuckrad calls its “double-bind” (2013). Through this double-bind, a third order of signification of scientific reflection adds to first order object or emic discourses and second order discourses on religion be it a theological reflexivity or how other societal subsystems reflect on this field.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A sign that discourse analysis or theory would become central to the study of religion is to be seen in the linguistic turn after World War II, which ended the essentialist and phenomenological directedness of the discipline. Jonathan Z. Smith is an exponent of this turn who is mainly interested in discursive norm building through categorisation (“taxonomies”, Smith 1996), as is Hans G. Kippenberg in Germany, who takes Austin’s speech act theory as a point of departure (1983). The sociology of new religious movements was a forerunner in analysing religion in terms of discourse to better understand why beliefs are so diverging within one and the same culture (Hjelm 2016: 20, Barker 2006).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Cultural studies have particular importance for today’s discourse debates, as this conglomerate of academic disciplines reconstructs ‘culture’ an all-encompassing web of shared knowledge, contingent habits and effects, and is thus predestined for studies of the all-embracive concept of discourse. Discourse theory can profit from some offshoots in cultural studies: culture sciences (Kulturwissenschaft) around 1900, the British Birmingham School from the 1950s onwards, and a second wave of culture sciences and respective debates around the crisis of representation with the cultural turn in the 1970s. Today, with cultural studies as the name of book series and academic departments, the traditions have mostly been merged together to form a few eclectic conceptual mixtures. More conservative, and mostly continental, approaches include metaphorology, genealogical formation of concepts, cultural history, école des annales, history of mentality, image studies (Bildwissenschaft), social structure and semantics, memory cultures, and many more. Often neglected in these strands, as well as within sociology, are anthropological debates and postcolonial studies, with their critique of Western modernity and its prioritising of specific forms of knowledge. A bit of all of these shifts, attentions and obsessions with the historicity of language patterns, topics, visual as well as semantic forms interrelated with social structures, is important for today’s thick bundle of discourse theories. Part of the praxeological turn in cultural studies and the analysis of knowledge-power (savoir-pouvoir) are linked to the ideology critique of Birmingham cultural studies, with its Marxist legacy and engagement with race and class, a heritage that some scholars want to keep with critical discourse analysis, and which comes to a head by laying bare hegemony and ideology (religious studies: Titus Hjelm 2016: 21; linguistics: Norman Fairclough, Siegfried Jäger; postcolonial studies: Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe; sociology of knowledge: Rainer Keller). In the cultural studies approach to religion as a discourse, the theoretical strands outlined above are found in attempts at analysis of conversations, textual content analysis, dispositif analysis, anthropology and sociology of knowledge.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Here, their reception in religious studies is discussed in the light of selected concepts that take their systematics from Foucault’s discourse theory. The focus is on basic theoretical considerations, rather than on the details of individual positions and differentiation of methods. It is not possible to give a complete history of the reception of discursive approaches or even only set pieces in the study of religion.

Problem Configuration, Solutions and Unintended Effects

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 An extremely interesting insight from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge for the cultural study of religion is the concept of problem configuration, as it can discover patterns within the religion discourse when applied to it. Problem configurations emerge on the macro level of interaction in institutional fields, and serve as heuristics for underlying challenges to action within historical constellations. Problem configurations prompt reactions to solve a newly perceived reality. This exciting new angle allows us to acknowledge the generic category of religion itself in European discourse as a reaction to such a problem configuration.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 What initial situation makes the introduction of the religion category a meaningful practice? History of religion has been kept apart from political theory—as well as from economics. In separating these societal domains, beginning with early modern times, a generic religion was created according to the interests of an autonomous state. In Timothy Fitzgerald’s words, “the construction of modern discourses on generic religion has been made possible and conceivable by the parallel construction of a number of overlapping discourses on nonreligious/secular science, politics, the nation-state, economics, law, and education” (2007: 7). Fitzgerald criticises that to this day a specific discourse of religion and of religious studies are to blame for a one-sided and inappropriate line of thinking, which he outlines as discourses on barbarity and civility (2007). Religion “is a modern invention which authorizes and naturalizes a form of Euro-American secular rationality” (Fitzgerald 2007: 6). He argues in favour of embedding the religious studies narrative on the academic discipline of religious studies (and the concept of religion) into a history of early modernity in Europe. Similarly, Kocku von Stuckrad paints a picture of intensified debates in the late 19th century on the question of where to draw the line between religion/science/pseudo-science, a process he calls “scientification of religion” that often turned into polemics against magic, astrology, alchemy and others, incorporating at the same time some of their elements in the newly plausibilised sciences (von Stuckrad 2014).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Catherine Bell does something very similar to critical discourse analysis, without citing Foucault or introducing a qualified notion of discourse, and may therefore stand for work in the study of religion that goes in the same direction as discourse analysis, without entering the specific field of discourse debates. She reveals Paradigms behind (and before) the modern concept of religion, a paradigm being a “‘knot’ operative in our discourses” and “a basic tool for advancing knowledge as a social enterprise” (2006, 28). She also calls upon the metaphor of archaeological strata of paradigms (ibid.). Thus, she acknowledges the force of ideas and models and sees them as social action. In contrast to Fitzgerald, she accepts the possibility that the process of the reification of religion and religious identities in religious cultures was not “necessarily a logical or internally directed one” (ibid.). In her own work she uncovers the misleading ideas of smaller models, like the “uniqueness of ritual action, the cosmological medium of the text, our cultural beliefs about beliefs” (2006, 29), the latter including belief in religion’s intrinsic goodness and noblesse. Concerning the level of reflexivity in contemporary theory of religion, she delivers a damning indictment by saying that many variants of the following paradigms are very much alive: Christianity as a prototype, the world religions, religion as opposed to rationality, the cultural necessity of religion (to which for instance the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion are prone), and religion as a Western construct. The latter is of utmost interest here, as it seems to explain what discourse theory on religion is about: deconstructing religion as a Western construct. What is false about this? The consequences of postmodernism are ambivalent. On the one hand, Bell criticises the simplistic relativist assumptions behind this idea, while on the other hand it helps to apply the cultural lens that shapes our view of other religions self-reflexively to our own scholarly understanding of the religion category: it is Christianity as the prototype together with the other paradigms in both cases. Also, the culturalising of religion is a strategy to keep its universal persistence under the conceptual roof of culture. Postcolonial and critical feminist work (like on the category of gender, see Joy, this volume) was very important in helping to explore more premises of the religion category. As a descendent of constructivism, discourse theory has de-ontologising effects (see Jay Johnston, this volume): culture and economic orders are but the most salient plausibility structures, and the ‘place’ of religion is produced in a poststructuralist web of differential signification. Nevertheless, the radical conceptual and historical deconstruction of religion in Jonathan Z. Smith’s famous claim that religion “is theirs [the scholars’ of religion] to define” (1998, 281) does not render redundant studies of the efficacy and institution-building force of the category of religion in history up to the present. But, it decisevely introduces the above mentioned third order level of reflexivity.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 With this requirement of third order reflexivity, contemporary discourses on religion can be approached. An analysis can come up with distinctions of argumentations, different interests, different social groups promoting a goal and with sometimes unanimous settings of framing of what is at stake. As an example may serve the recent “god is back” discourse. Hjelm, for example, critically investigates the secularisation theory, and distinguishes five relevant discourses: the desecularisation debate; the talk of deprivatisation and post-secularity; the effects of ‘welfare utopianism’ on public religion; a discourse in which religion is seen as a social problem or as an expedient; and finally the mediatisation or publicisation of religion (2014). For our purpose, it is interesting to see how he evaluates and relates these discourses: he analyses each of them on its own and distinguishes between public utterances of discourses and social effects that become graspable in terms of membership numbers, dispositions, correlations of religious belonging and income, nationality or professions, in structural change, for example new or altered institutions, and, together with this, new procedures to allocate power or resources. In a particular sense, the discourses are several meaningful layers above, and independent from, structural perseverance or change. They may be hectic, short-term evaporations of utterances without institutional back-up in social groups, a shared interpretation of ‘the situation’ or respective elites for change etc. This is a recurrent pattern in both critical and affirmative use of a variant of discourse analysis: introducing a just temporary and a relevant-real distinction. Discursive practices—even if loud, frequent and performed—need not be reflected in institutional structures and social positions (see Keller, this volume, on dispositif, and Adele Clark’s focus on ‘situation’). Perhaps this distinction is not about an ontology of concepts so much as about the detailed and compartmentalised research practice that examines a multiplicity of discourses at a given moment of cultural negotiations, when the outcome or tendency of formative power is not yet decided and not yet materialised in structures.

Recurrent Discourse Figurations in History of Religion from a European Perspective

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Generally speaking one could say that discourse theory is a perspective for studying the structure of categorical orders, and the particular way in which knowledge is organised, legitimised and used at a specific moment in history and as pattern as well across history. This is often done with a critical impetus in respect of ideology, society and culture. And, in historical terms, it has therefore found a place and confirmation in the time of postcolonialism. But this is not its only use; within the frame of European thought, discourse theory has also proved to be effective and successful in deconstructing premises of Christianity as a prototype of religion beside others (Bell 2006) and premises of first modernity. These two areas of application are interdependent in many ways. In respect of Christianity, interconfessional disputes between Catholic and protestant denominations, as fundamental bifurcations in the discourse within the history of religion in Europe, also became significant for defining the Other during the period of colonial expansion. The example of the discourse on “fetishes” shows how African religious practices are interpreted as paralleling Catholic practices, which are perceived by Protestants as a characteristic form of material culture. In the same way a salvific Christian position is attributed to Native Americans and to Jews in the colonisation of North America. In this sense, discursive patterns are tools for discovering the world. And they are constitutive of worlds in the sense of social constructivism and the new institutional theory. Studies of colonial discourses have revealed a lot about European categorisations and axiomatic worldviews, and have made discourse history the most important tool, in the sense of historising one’s own worldview, linked to a critique of the exercise of power in it.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The cultural study of religion, which will be addressed below, has resulted in countless blended discourses on religion and culture, such as the “origin of religion in Africa” discourse (Atwood 2015), or the “Arian origin”, the “world religions” discourse to keep up universalism in times of pluralism (Masuzawa 2005, Bell 2006), sui generis religion (McCutcheon 1997), “secularisation” discourse, “return of religion”, “good/bad religion”, “high/primitive religion” discourse, and many more. Favoured recurrent discourse ‘figurations’, ‘constellations’, ‘knots’ or ‘strands’ with regard to religion in the context of European history of religion are: confessionalisms (the protestant or Catholic bias or anti-polemics, see for instance Smith 1998, 180-81), the longue durée of the binary code of Orientalism-Occidentalism from 5th century BC, with Herodotus and Alexander the Great, up to Edward Said’s examination of the political Islam discourse in “Western” media (Said 1981, Baker, Gabrielatos, McEnery 2013), and Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory. Further vistas of Central European discourse patterns on religion include dark/light dualism (Huffer 2012: 21), the female savage/rational male, left-handedness/right-handedness (Knott 2005), insider/outsider perspectives, and reading/deciphering the book of nature. Discourse figuration is chosen here to denote heterogeneous theoretical items of more limited scope, like textual pattern (metaphorical line of right/lefthandedness, for example), or of wider impact, often called dispositif. Dispositif has become a significant category and research strand in sociologically oriented discourse analysis, meaning the socio-material infrastructure, distributive networks for circulation of knowledge, and recurrent formalised or everyday ways of knowledge production. A dispositif like the gender dispositif or the world religion dispositif is effective on a meso level of institutions and conventions, and determines shared structures that are not reducible to intentions of individual actors. Dispositifs are domain-specific and compete and interfere with a bunch of others. They therefore also yield unintended (side) effects of social impact. Dispositifs are interpretive categories to gather and bundle empirical data.


13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The previous section deals with the postcolonial critique of sovereignty of definitional power over central categories and orders of knowledge, and of taking advantage of a mighty machinery of science, media, and technology to circulate specific knowledge to remote localities. This brings another essential element of discourse theory into play: power. For Foucault, categorisations of knowledge are so closely linked to power structures, which go far beyond political organisation and permeate the actions and the worldviews of every contemporary, that he speaks of power-knowledge (Foucault 1977). Discourse theory is not only an analytical tool for historians and scholars in the field of cultural studies, but has also affected many of the cultural power positions which have been subjected to such a critical examination. In particular, the old-established Christian organisations have been robbed of some of their emically-ascribed features, such as ethical purity, universalism, justice, an innate religious human nature, etc. Russell T. McCutcheon thoroughly examines the US-American discourse on religion and meticulously lays bare the power interests and mostly political agendas of diverse voices in this orchestra (1997). He reveals a hidden agenda based mostly on Christian interests, in which religion is passed off as morally pure, free of politically compromising practices or corruption, and untouchable for critics.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The field of religious studies has also been severely affected by the distinction or confusion of “insider/religious” and “outsider/academic” perspectives. “Zen studies”, for example, flourished in the US as a reaction to the countercultural attraction to East Asian religious traditions and psychotechniques. It was Bernard Faure in the 1990s who examined this new discourse critically and revealed its South-East Asian romanticism. He explained common practices as a popularised, and in many ways locally adapted, form. Post-2000 “modern yoga studies” underwent a similar development, from Eliade’s universalist résumé to today’s multi-sited ethnographies (Strauss 2002) and reconstructions of multiple influences in a cross-cultural field of modern postural yoga invention (Singleton 2013).

Discipline and Regulation

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Besides power, another concept from the tradition of Foucault has also repeatedly been of importance in cultural and religious studies: discipline and disciplining. The exertion of power has often been considered from the point of view of disciplining bodies. Body politics are a common topic of research by Foucault adepts. Studies by Talal Asad are a good example of this. He early on interpreted a religious system (Islam) as a discourse, in the sense that the heterogeneous traditions of Islam could be understood as a community of people who referred to the Koran as a “certificate of origin” (Asad 1986, see “self-constituting discourses”, Maingueneau, this volume). Asad applied another important theorem of Foucault’s to religion: genealogical work. In Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993), and in several essays on attitudes to the body in the medieval Latin Christian church, he compared the Benedictine and Cistercian orders (for instance in respect of practices relating to food, sexuality and penance, Asad 1983, 1987). For Asad, the advantage of a genealogical approach is that unconscious “formations” can be uncovered, instead of only expressly symbolical and cultural interpretations of the body, or “representations” (1997: 43), – taking advantage of Foucault’s “discursive formations”. Religious subjects are regulated and disciplined via their (material or fleshly) bodies. The medieval subjects submit themselves to a strict code of body discipline that rules their everyday life. The scope of subjective experiencing and the modes of regulation are clearly connected to forms of governance. The medieval monastic world—with all its internal differences between (male and female) monastic orders which Asad points out—is clearly distinct from the early modern world in which subjects submit themselves to a new political order with a secular sovereign. In this form of governance, experiences have a much bigger reflective space and gain significance from their difference.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In place of techniques disciplining the self, increasingly normalising practices occur with modern times. Whereas disciplining is based on more or less clear cut rules and regimes, the procedures and dynamics of normalising are within a range, they are informal and situated. Their regime is specialized and adapted to much wider scopes of free action in individualized modernity. The agency of these two types of change therefore differs, even if they occur simultaneously in different social milieus and spheres. It is an open question in current debates how far the contemporary regime is still normalising, how far it is a regime of control and radical data transparency, or whatever one may see as essential trends in the neoliberal cultural ideology of consumerism with entrepreneurial selves and prosumers who essentially co-align (produce) their consumption products by ways of giving their data in exchange of free use of communication services, spending time on giving feedback to offerers to improve their products, accommodating smartphone surfaces to their needs etc.


17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 “This immediately entails a choice of method that one day I will finally try to come back to at greater length, but I would like to point out straightaway that choosing to talk about or to start out from governmental practice is obviously and explicitly a way of not taking as primary, original and given object, notions such as the sovereign, sovereignty, the people subjects, the state, and civil society, that is to say all those universals employed by sociological analysis, historical analysis and political philosophy in order to account for real governmental practice” (Foucault 2008: 2). This citation mirrors central concerns of Foucault’s main thrust which is still pivotal for many practitioners of discourse analysis: knowledge and truth are the outcome of social production, historical contingency instead of universal principles, a crucial point being how they are regulated and the scholar’s duty to reveal this. The citation also points to a weakness: the lack of elaborated method, a gap that has been filled mainly by sociologists and linguists.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Governance in the field of religion has gained much attention recently (Martikainen 2013, 129-34). In recent work it is mainly conceptually linked to regimes of truth-telling, territory and neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is an important field, defined as practices in Foucault’s late work on governmentality and biopolitics (Foucault 2008), the latter replacing earlier dichotomies of liberation and repression in his studies on sexuality by referring to gradational biopower. Very recently, a closer scrutiny of neoliberal governance has gained ground in the cultural study of religion (e.g. Martikainen, Gauthier 2013). Tuomas Martikainen develops a systematic approach to the “multilevel and pluricentric network governance of religion” (2013: 129) to grasp the many ways of regulating religion besides the church-state-model. Religion and immigration has become a field of related work (e.g. Bradamat/Koenig 2009). A very illuminating example of a discursive approach to religion in this regard is Breda Gray’s Foucault-inspired article on neoliberal governmentality, with a case study of refugee work by churches and religious organisations in Ireland (2013). Competition between religious organisations and secular organisations, and the state as a stakeholder who advertises the tasks, leads to a specific institutionalisation within the field of refugee work. Pastoral power of care is combined with the rationale of technological and calculative governance, like efficiency, targets, benchmarking, performance indicators and an audit culture. Traditionally the pastor is an example, and is distinguished by his/her knowledge of the biographies of those entrusted to his/her care. Pastoral power is a relationship of obedience. Subordination of the entrusted is realised by confession and the examination of consciences, and at the same time has the merit of individualising the cared-for person. Within the process of secularisation, this pastoral care is widened to social governance, notably through social work and psychological professions. Once, a church applies to call for bids in refugee or other social work, it has to adapt to the neoliberal and administrative discourse formation which will seriously change the church’s former procedural rationality, its human capital portfolio and control mechanisms among others. Therefore, the intermingling of religious organizations in highly professionalized and socially differentiated subsystems of societies will have a lasting and unforeseeable effect on the particular religious dispositif.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The governance discourse is regularly accompanied by the question of the possibility of resistance. Is yoga practice or mindfulness an exit from neoliberal governance, or does it stabilise the work force for further exploitation? Foucault pushed this question strongly in the context of his extensive work on the history of sexuality. When are gender regimes a space for free expressivity—if this can be seen to equal freedom with all the problematics of prescribed confessionalism—and when are they spaces of domination? When do religious regimes enter into alliance with psychiatric power, or further discourses and their exerted regimes through institutionalised practices? Saba Mahmood’s adaptation of Foucault’s proof of resistance in discourse shows the agency of Muslim women in Cairo that disrupts the pattern of female subordination to patriarchy with “Western” feminist images of freedom (2005).

What Room is there for Subjectivity in the Discourse?

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Foucault’s conception of the subject is a topic that should not be neglected, and which was controversial from very early on in the reception of Foucault’s ideas. A few remarks are therefore called for on the possible importance today of the subject in the structure which discourse largely is. What is the importance of individuals, the “individual”, late modern subject actors, the self or however human beings are conceived, in discourse theory? Whereas in earlier theory building the cognitive knowing subject was addressed, it is now embedded or even dissolved in a social interaction chart. This interaction may now even include animals, non-human beings, things, a material vitality. In the above-mentioned work on governance, the subject’s self-regulation appears as agency. In recent decades, this regime has been characterised as optimising, privatising, publicising or individualising. Foucault transposes the individual subject to the more general and historical form of subjectivity. Religion is a well-established political technology to regulate subjects by inaugurating a form of subjectivity. One of these forms or regimes of subjectivities is truth-telling. Foucault insists on epistemic games of truth-telling that make possible the renunciation of truth, as in votes or exclamations of feeling and felt bodily experiences. In the same way, Asad investigated how pain is used in asceticism, in order to find out how far the body depends on sensory perceptions. The body is not an obstacle on the way to truth, but is the arena in which the truth can be brought to light (Asad 1983: 311). From medieval torture of the body, to the pressure that is put on penitents with the intention of causing mental pain that will lead to the confession of sins, a bodily sensation (pain) is linked to the revelation of truth (Asad 1983: 321). The habitus of confession “has become an attitude that can have—lets say—simple psychological functions like an improved knowing of oneself, a better composure of oneself, realizing one’s genuine inclinations, the option of leading one’s own life” (Foucault 1977, trans. A.K.). To describe this life of one’s own and this idealisation of authenticity, a history of the contemporary self seems set to become a new discipline to record practices of subjectification and self-relationships. “Self care” and “technologies of the self” are concepts of utmost importance in this vein (Foucault 1988). There is a lacuna in respect of a history, not only of the self, but of self-governance from the 1960s onwards, (Eitler/Elberfeld 2015). Increasing therapeutic cultures which ascribe to subjects a need for therapy form the environment in which the discourse of ‘vulnerable’ or even ‘traumatised’ subjects (Argenti-Pillen 2000) suits the neoliberal supply industry of support for the vulnerable (e.g. migrants, Gray 2013, 71), whether in the form of anti-trauma therapy (for instance the new trends in yoga therapy propagated by Price et al. 2017), or the modernist Buddhist offspring of mindfulness (Samuel 2014). Discourse theory explains how it comes to dispositions in subjects, and which role religions play in connecting affective and ethical dispositions to a more stable formation of a particular historical subjectivity beside others (see for example Mahmood on piety, 2005; Hirschkind on the ethics of soundscapes, 2009).

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Altered personal relationships in family and partnership is but one trigger in the discursive changes and interrelated formation of new spiritualities and religious practices; further factors are economisation, new forms of communication in networks due to globalised digitalisation, transcultural discourses on sustainability and spiritual practice (Strauss, Mandelbaum 2013) that shift and swirl discourses and create new ones.

Questions, Limits and Critique of Discourse Theory

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 What are the limits of discourse analysis? Does this approach have a specific operating range where it is useful, and beyond which it is limited or even unsuitable? Controversies have regularly raged over topics including the scope of action Foucault’s interpretation of culture leaves to agents, the question of non-human agency, the reported negligence of non-discursive practices, the implosion of a ‘specific’ religion category (as of others) and claims that it is inappropriate for material culture and the body.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Discourse theory, like system theory, implies that autonomous subjects are entangled in a structure. Semantic propositions do not equal utterances but account for a figuration that shapes agents and has influenced their world before they act upon it. A discourse is more than language as a tool of extrapolation of the world. In this sense, subjects are subordinated to a structure—the discursive web. At the same time, subjects are of utmost importance in discourse theory. A ‘subjectivity formation’ conceptualises historical conditions of ways of life and the forming and often oppressing forces and makes them describable on a meso level. ‘Subjectivity’ denotes a very important theoretical issue that is not an intentional agent or institution but indicates the scope of action, options, feeling,—in short, the possible being—of subgroups of people at a given time.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In this regard, discourse theory is very close to the field theory of Pierre Bourdieu’s structural sociology, where critical discourse analysis is a permanent battle over enforcement and hegemony, and superior to system theory, where no equivalent conceptual level of subjectivity can be found. The intentionality of actors is limited to the micro level, the further from there and the more institutionalised the interaction the more unintended effects take over and develop their dynamics of anonymised power exertion.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 The recent debate on the categorisation of New Age spirituality can serve to give us some insights into how the limits and strength of discourse theory are currently being discussed. Paul Heelas, for example, opposes Foucauldian interpretations of New Age spiritualties by rooting them in this-worldly “life” (2008). Not very convincingly, he opposes real lived life to the distanced analytical view. Others examine the transfer of so-called psy discourses into the domain of self-help, therapy and personal growth, and suggest that these technologies of the self are the product of a form of neo-liberal governmentality that reduces personal agency and forecloses political critique and social change. But how can we decide whether spiritual practices are disciplinary techniques that simply reproduce dominant (neo-liberal) subject positions or whether they open up a libertine space. And is liberalism the way to escape regulation? An under-theorised concept is that of a normative bias in some strands of critical discourse analysis, which argues that hegemony is always problematic and an unjust (i.e. unequal) exertion of power. Very strong hegemonial relations show that ex-colonial actors do not have complete and equal freedom to act, and that in both Occidentalism and Orientalism self-images are interdependent. The post-colonial bad conscience may add to the endeavour to over-justifiy equality. Social science research is clear on this point; Eileen Barker, for example, points out that there is no way to decide what is better—frequent sexual intercourse or celibacy, or which religious organisation “oversteps the boundaries of permissible behaviour” (2006, 391).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 A recurrent criticism of discourse analysis is that it is logocentric and not able to take in the embodied quality of agents, their being rooted in an artificial material world that affects them, for instance, through affordances. With a view to the work of Asad and others, the contrary seems to be true, that body disciplining and bodies in their materiality have entered the arena of research. At the same time, cognitive and evolutionary approaches were once not as common as they are today. Thus, this criticism of discourse theory neglects the time frame. Indeed, linguistic pragmatics was insufficient to give practice a full meaning in discourse theory, whereas ritual theories explicitly link discourse with materiality (Ioannides 2016) and pay attention to body movement, emplacement, and esthetic delight in text recitation practices (see a pupil of Asad: Hirschkind 2009). Donovan O. Schaefer hints to another important topic that discourse theory often puts last: affects. Schaefer still sees a neglect of affect theory, which is why his book on religious affects is “about the ways that intellectual and political circuits are informed by relationships between bodies that are invisible to discursive analytics” (Schaefer 2016: 10). A question that arises from the same background of evolutionary theory of religion asks whether animals have discourses, as, according to some primatologists (Jane Goodall), they have spirituality as they see proofed in the spontaneous dance in front of a waterfall. Schaefer does not give any reason why a waterfall dance performed by chimpanzees should be religious rather than an expression of aesthetic taste or a theatrical performance or, but the latter would be difficult if not impossible given that chimpanzees do not found theatre companies which brings us to the cultural practice argument. Art, like religion, are discursive items. With the progress of primate research, one indicator of human uniqueness after the other has faded away, such as cognition, language, tool use and sociality. Nevertheless, the ascription of religion is not on the same logical level. One would have to presuppose the category of religion, as it is not inevitable to believe that the exceptional experience of or even better behaviour towards a waterfall is a sui generis emotion (rareness, loud noise, damp air, bright light, fast movement, reflections, etc.). Religion certainly did not fall out of the blue. There has to be some sort of transition, so we might be forced to indicate some pre-forms—lower in complexity?—but even then, a combination, or habituation of contingent forms of living will be necessary to make religion a cultural and not a genetic phenomenon. A cultural point of view will take religion as a cultural phenomenon of a higher order, needing institutions, social ranks, interpretations, misunderstandings and the wish to regulate others and the way the world is represented. This difference to all naturalistic and pre-constructivist (essentialist, McCutcheon 1997), evolutionary, etc., discourses is salient.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 For some time the question of non-discursive practices (like habits, conventions) as the hidden backside of discourses has been discussed and has gained new actuality with studies of the aesthetics of religion (Grieser & Johnston 2017, Koch & Wilkens 2019). A crucial developmental step in cultural studies is taking in embodied cognition. Maybe recent voices on how to deal with material religion and culture, the body and the senses, images, brains and media will have a huge impact in pushing discourse theory a step further towards aesthetics.


28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 This article reviews a small clipping of the high and not yet completely exploited potential of Foucauldian discourse research in cultural studies of religion along the key terms of historical problem configurations and their solutions and unintended effects, discourse formations, power-knowledge, discipline and regulation, governance, and subjectivity. The special perspective discourse theory brings to cultural studies is praxeological, genealogical and juxtaposing across differentiated societal domains. Discourse theory has been developed in a highly multidimensional manner and is especially successful in creating an entire zoo of conceptual items like genres, style, dispositif. Methodologies for collecting research data can entail focus group discussions (Ndaluka 2012), expert interviews, and other sources such as media articles, religious writings and preaching, different types of social events, practices and structures (Fairclough 2010: 164). Thus, it is easy to get lost in nomenclature.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 It becomes apparent that the history of ideas and the history of concepts step back in their role of unifying narratives in lieu of the analysis of discourses, with postcolonial attention being paid to discontinuity, rupture and new items put together from subcurrents of known categorisations (Foucault 1972, 4–6). From the point of view of discourse theory, religious practices interact and overlap with sometimes surprising societal sub fields, social movements and new technologies at any time in history, so that this is not typical of (post-)modernity. A considerable effect of discursive approaches is that they lead the cultural study of religion away from a firm category of religion, and away from the history of ideas, a tendency to unify grand narratives, big social theories and great-man historical reconstructions.


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79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0  

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