Rhizomes, Assemblages, & Religious Change
Podcast with Paul-François Tremlett (9 November 2020).
Interviewed by David G. Robertson
Transcribed by Andie Alexander
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/rhizomes-assemblages-and-religious-change
Secularization, Sociology, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Assemblage
David Robertson (DR) 00:02
I’m David Robertson. And today I very pleased to be joined by Paul-François Tremlett, my colleague, and until recently, boss, the university. But we’re not here to talk about my employment record today. Instead, we’re going to be talking about Paul’s new book, Towards a New Theory of Religious and Social Change: Sovereignties and Disruptions, which is published by Bloomsbury. So welcome back to The Religious Studies Project, Paul.
Paul-François Tremlett (PT) 00:32
Very pleased to be here, David. Very pleased indeed.
And we’re very, very pleased to have you. And in some ways, I think this interview will follow on quite nicely from your first one, talking about a [Claude] Lévi-Strauss and engagement with cutting edge and classic social, sociological theories of religion, society and change. In fact, that might be a good place to start the interview. This book really jumps off a discussion on some patterns of models of religious change, if that makes sense. Some different traditions and lineages of models of social change in the study of religion, that we’re probably all pretty familiar with, but maybe you could set out these different traditions and some of the problems with them.
Yeah, love to. So, I was interested in change, we live in a rapidly changing world, and a lot of things going on out there that are quite disturbing, and let’s face it terrifying. So, change is something we’re always trying to understand. And I was also interested, of course, and not just in change on the global scale, but social change in the UK. And then more in discipline-specific how we think about change in religious studies, and the kind of theories that we have been working with and, you know, alongside that, of course, is the tendency to represent religions themselves as rather static monolithic entities, which are as it were immune to change. So, the question of change really became quite important to me. And I was quite dissatisfied with the theories of change that we have. We have the secularization theory thesis, which is a unilinear sort of teleological theory of progress, whereby religion declines as scientific rationalism becomes more pervasive in modernizing societies. And we have the lived religion thesis, which is a very different way of thinking about change. It focuses very much on the way people create religious assemblages, or new forms of religious practice, out of the sort of bric a brac of religion and culture as they find it in their in their ordinary lives. So, secularization thesis is a very sort of macro-theory of change. And there are many, many critiques which we don’t need to go over here. But, and then there’s a lived religion thesis, which is a very sort of micro-ethnographic theory of religious and cultural assembly and change, which is very popular in the discipline at the moment. But again, I felt that there was room to try and think somewhat differently about change. And what I wanted to do was to do something a little bit different. I wanted to be less anthropocentric. I wanted to decenter. I wanted to send to the human subject, I wanted to think about religion without recourse to meaning, without recourse to belief, without recourse to rationality, and I wanted to foreground other entities, so that the account of change that would emerge would be one in which humans and a range of other actors would, would be operating as it were in a flat ontological plane, in which they’re all having a role in how in how religious—religions and societies change together, you know, in a very simple example that we’re all extremely familiar with. You cannot think about the [Protestant] Reformation or maybe you can think about the Reformation without printing, but I would argue that you should not think about the Reformation without thinking about the role of digital technology of printing, which revolutionizes the transmission of information in Europe in the 16th century. And that has a huge role in in the changes that, that we would otherwise pin on [Martin] Luther, [John] Calvin, [Ulrich] Zwingli, and others.
So, in a sense, we’re moving away from a sort of history of great men. But more than that it’s a moving away from a history of religion in which people are the center of the story.
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to see what it would be like to try. But I mean, in a way the book was an experiment, can I write an account in which meaning and belief are not really playing much of a role? And so I wanted to focus much more on technologies, cities, mountains, ghosts—these kinds of entities I wanted to give attention to, rather than, as you say, great men, you know, great man theory, both in our sort of way we write academic histories of our discipline, but also in the way histories have changed or constructed of play, have been given far too much agency. Let’s put it that way.
Yeah, and it’s not only sort of great men, but it’s a little people as well, it’s the—because the lived religion paradigm kind of flips around and does it the other way. So we’re looking at these choices being made by, you know, previously ignored groups, often, it’s often sort of, and groups of women in the periphery and, you know, unofficial forms of religion and these kind of ideas, but they’re all those are all still based in kind of people and their, in some way, rational choice, right? But this model seems to, to completely decenter that into something which is much more about kind of connections and little networks of ideas. Am I understanding?
You are, I mean, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for what the lived religion thesis is trying to do. Because as you say, it’s trying to explore often ignored populations, or, you know, elided populations, and the kind of religious practice that they’ve been, been going about an ordinary life that’s been ignored. Until, you know, just not just not written, you know, it’s not part of the official or orthodox religious and social histories that we’re used to. So lived religion offers a really potent antidote to some of that. But at the same time, it relies on a notion of the subject that is, for me anyway, or at least for this book, to phenomenologically, authentic to heroic to, and at the same time to neoliberal, right, because what neoliberalism is all about, the emphasis is always on that, that heroic, authentic subject content in a process of continuous reinvention and self-invention. The lived religion thesis is really embedded in that. So part of this was also trying to get away from that and to and the way that I chose to, to enact that was through starting to read the works of [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari, which, I suppose was a natural progression for me, given my interest in work of Lévi-Strauss, which is also as it were an anti-humanist approach, in many respects. So I wanted to, and I was also discovering a range of other authors, Jane Bennett, and her work on her interest in vitalism. For example, Manuel de Landa, and a range of other authors who I felt were really offering a new way of thinking about the role of non-human actors in in religious and social lives.
I mean, I’d like to maybe dig a little bit more into, you know, Deleuze and Guattari. Maybe specifically, Jane Bennett’s not a scholar I was familiar with until I read your book. And but maybe before we get there, just before we leave kind of classical theory—there is an interesting, there’s a couple of interesting engagements actually you draw on [Émile] Durkheim quite a lot, which I think is fascinating because he’s one of, he’s the only scholar kind of from that era that I ever sort of use now. And there’s also a lot of the scholars are using terminology that I associate with 19th century anthropology. So, we’re talking about vitalism. We’re talking about animism. We’re talking…
There’s other… Yeah, fetishism? There’s a lot of this terminology coming back. What, what is this playing with? It’s at once a rejection of that kind of Victorian view. But there’s a detournement, as well, if I can use situationist terms?
Well, he would, yes. Okay. Any reference to Guy Debord and the situationists is gratefully received. Because well, he was right, wasn’t he? But back to back to the subject in question. I think it’s really interesting. I think it’s a really interesting turn that’s going on we find, you know, I think it was in a book by [Arjun] Appadurai, where he was, he talked about “methodological fetishism,” Guattari talking about “animus subjectivity,” and a few other instances where this language, as you say, this language of the 19th century, religious studies or anthropology of religion, suddenly finding its way into contemporary theory. And, you know, it’s and of course, it’s also there in the work of Bruno Latour, who says, we have to, you know, sociology has to rethink its approach to the nonhuman it has to accept a certain I think his words or a certain dose? Well, they’re not his words, because he was writing in French for certain days of fetishism. So that there is this appropriation of that terminology of that language, as a means to try and understand again, where we are. I mean, I think it’s worth mentioning David Graeber. He’s also part of this. who, you know, David Graeber, who sadly died recently, he’s also part of this move to explore what we can get out of thinking about objects and thinking and things and re appraising our relationship with materiality, to rethink things like creativity. So yeah, he was also interested in concepts like fetishism and wrote about and wrote about that, and in really interesting ways. So yeah, I think it’s an interesting move. And I think it’s because there’s been, I mean, there are various turns and appropriations going on across different disciplines and disciplinary fields. But I think if we wanted to try and capture that, or summarize it in some way, it will be that we’re decentering. ourselves, the human, from the way we understand the world. That doesn’t mean we replace a metaphysics of the subject with metaphysics or something else. But it does mean we must start to think about other agencies, there was—there used to be something in the 80s when people were interested in chaos theory, you know, a butterfly’s wings flutter in South America, and there’s some other event happened somewhere else. And that was, you know, that that moment where people are starting to think about our old understandings of or our simple understandings of cause and effect are just not sufficient. They’re just not satisfactory. We need to, we need to put complexity first. And understand the causes and effects on multiple can work in ways that are counter intuitive if you know the noise, unidirectional effects, following causes and so forth. And it you know, we need to really be prepared to make our lives more difficult as we try and theorize processes of change and transformation. So, one of the things that another thing that inspired me in this was Lévi-Strauss and his work on myth. Lévi-Strauss places the agency of myth in the myths themselves, and they change. They don’t… Each new version is slightly different from the previous one. And there’s this constant process of iterative change. The problem, if you like, with Lévi-Strauss approach is that he’s tied to a to a particular sort of teleology, which is entropic. So, the myths will eventually just disintegrate and fall apart. I think it’s important to avoid any teleologies, whether they’re imagining progress or decline and to try and think a little bit differently, rather than getting enamored of stories of progress or decline to try and imagine a sort of flat ontology in which there’s that potential for everything to be involved, have agency and be involved in how things are working out how things are going to change, and transform.
It reminds me of [Pierre] Bourdieu. So, the idea of the structuring structure, I think of all of the same kind of I know, he’s a little later than the classical kind of theorists that we’ve mostly been talking about. But in his work, you have this idea where the see that, let’s continue with the idea of myth and from Lévi-Strauss the, this the structure has a certain agency on the agents, but the agents also affect the overall structure. So, both are shaping each other in a kind of dialectic. Now, Durkheim probably also has some degree of that kind of teleological trajectory in his work, but I think it’s it was something that you’ve reminded me of, and I don’t know, if you actually talk about Bourdieu at all, and…
Bourdieu is just, I mean, I know Bourdieu has, quite a lot of currency. And it’s just it never happened to me and Bourdieu never clicked. That’s not to say I don’t recognize he’s made an important contribution to sociology, and, you know, of religion as well. But I think I didn’t talk about Durkheim in responding to your question, even though you’d sort of sent it to him as somebody I should. And Durkheim is a really interesting character. There’s this the person you read about, as an undergraduate, maybe sort of, you know, day one theory of religion course. And he’s often quite conservative there, sort of this sort of positivistic, sociology, social facts, and it’s all about norms and rules. But there’s another Durkheim. There’s the Durkheim of the Elementary Forms. The Durkheim of effervescence, where the end that there’s a sort of risk, there’s a sort of release in the totemic ritual of energy that animates people and things to totemic objects. And that’s, that’s been, that’s been important to a lot of people who are often unremembered in sociology, like [Georges] Bataille, for example, that idea of this… of Durkheim’s idea of the sacred, mobilizing other accounts of the social and in ways of often we often overlook in religious studies. So, Durkheim has a more radical angle that’s quite interesting. And I got I was quite attracted to that.
And for your book, there’s a specific interesting aspect, which is the Durkheim’s theory kind of straddles religion and things that we normally think about as being political, or even completely, you know, like sport and things like that, that are that are just aspects of social life, but much more broadly. And that’s one of the points that you make in the book is that, you know, religious changes is actually an aspect of much larger social dynamics and these broader networks of the social assemblages. I wondered maybe if it’s time that we jump into, maybe a more specific example, a kind of case study from one of the ones in the book and how were these, these ideas that we’ve been exploring how they occurred to you and how they work in practice.
And so, there’s a couple of examples and I’m just going to talk about the example from the Philippines, which is really about cities. So central to Spanish evangelization of the archipelago was the lore of the Indies which mandated the construction of towns and cities and the construction of Manila obviously, across the country, and evangelization would occur from these spaces that would then be linked by an increasingly complex network of roads and other forms of communication. So that that establishment of ecclesiastical and colonial power through city building is, you know, still evident when you go to Filipino towns and cities today, except that the plaza, which is in front of the church, and around which the houses are the most important people were built and where they lived. Those are no longer the centers of any contemporary Filipino towns. Now, the center is somewhere else’s, maybe in the mall, or maybe in a new subdivision that’s being built, or a new gated community, but probably the mall. And that reflects a series of transformations not just in the architecture of towns or town planning, but also it reflects a change in the transmission of religion, the transmission and practice of religion. So if we look at what’s very popular today in the Philippines in is a group is a Catholic charismatic group called El Shaddai. And El Shaddai, became popular in the 90s. And has continued to grow ever since. And what they’ve been very good at is using media, radio, television, social media, they built a megachurch, around 2009, on the outskirts of Manila, Metro Manila. And so, what El Shaddai do is, they have worked, they do a number of things by working, by broadcasting this, the message comes into the home and people heal through the television in their own homes. And in their little chapter groups. They also hold mass rallies, are in the in the main pub, the Luneta, near the Luneta Park in Manila, and now they also have the new megachurch.
The point is, the center of gravity of El Shaddai is completely different to the center of gravity of the traditional Catholic Church, the parish church with its local population, you know, very much grounded in a particular locality. Transmission via the priest is completely blown away by El Shaddai, which is not only connecting people, which is connecting people through all these different forms of media across the archipelago, but also abroad. As many people know, the main or primary export of the Philippines is Filipinos who work abroad in numerous capacities—nurses, carers and so on and so forth. So, these people are also plugged in to these virtual and online networks of El Shaddai worshippers and followers. So, El Shaddai is creating a completely different kind of community, and create and there and thereby creating completely different kind of social and urban spaces. And so, what I do in the book is trying, I’ve given you the beginning and the end, as it were, of the transformation of Filipino sort of urban space. What I try and do in one of the chapters in the book is talk about what I call generative interactivity, where these different spaces are interacting with different forces, and our kaleidoscopically like that—like the turn of the kaleidoscope—changing into new forms, on and on. And so rather than focusing on the leader of El Shaddai, or the prosperity gospel, or these new ideas, or a theological angle through which to plot religious change from a sort of traditional Catholicism to the prosperity gospel, what I’m interested in is rather the material forces through which El Shaddai is embedded in a series of other transformations, such as, for example, new forms of transport and the capital or the building of malls, and so on and so forth. So, it’s really about trying to understand change as a something that’s rhizomatic, as something that’s about us. It’s about understanding change. As an assemblage of forces and elements that are always moving, and it’s through that process of emotion, that new assemblages come into being.
And that focus on constant change is really important, I think, and significant, you give an example earlier in the book, we you mentioned, the growth of you know, how quickly this the Catholic Church declined in 18th century France, and then this growth, this explosion, almost of new forms of church, you know, church of reason, all the rest of them. And as you point out, they were relatively short lived, but it changed the religious field, if you like, the social field, in France permanently after that, and, you know, that constant decentralization of any kind of forward motion narrative or, likewise, any idea of decline? I think it’s very, it’s very powerful.
Yeah, I mean, the example from France is, you know—we all know—we all will know a little bit about 1789, in France and the power of the Catholic Church. And what happens after the revolution are these series of little experiments in other forms of religious performance and religious belonging, that, you know, from [Maximilien] Robespierre, and the cult of reason to [Henri de] Saint-Simone and his religion of Newton and [Auguste] Comte is religion of humanity. Now, none of these things really take hold, although, bizarrely or strangely, Comte had a quite a big influence in Brazil, his border and progress is actually written into the Brazilian national flag. They don’t, they don’t. They don’t obtain any sort of significant gravity of themselves, but they do change the gravity of France. And so French society today, and French Catholicism and the sort of religious topography of France is altered as a result of these, these experiments.
Let’s wrap up then with a look at the three methodological principles that you suggest towards the end of the book, our methodological procedures, rather, which are methodological animism and fetishism, assemblages, and change modeled as flows? How might we put these together? And what might an approach to studying religious change look like?
I think… I mean, you know, it’s there’s a certain sort of egotism in trying to say, this is how everybody should do things from now on. And perhaps, I don’t really mean that. But what I but what I do think we should be doing it is we should be thinking, much we should be looking to dissenter ourselves from the stories we tell. Yeah. And in our in our field of research and teaching, not because we’re not important, but because there are a whole range of other activists out there that are shaping how we feel, how we do things and what happens next. And once you started to decenter us and started to think about these other actions—once you started to think and domestically or fetishisticly, then it’s almost a natural step, to start to imagine assemblages of elements gravitating together forming fields of organizing fields in which life is lived out of multiple scales, and then and that those assemblages are active and transformative. And once we start to get the idea of once we start to get that idea, we can start to imagine change as a constant rather than as something that’s happening suddenly, or incredibly incrementally, we need to imagine it as something that’s always happening and not get. And there is one caveat to that. I think I say objects, plants, things, humans participating across a flat plane of interactions. I mean, there is one caveat to that—the idea of the flat plane of interaction is problematic. It’s problematic, because, of course, there isn’t perfect symmetry between all these different agencies, power and politics are a work and those create asymmetries, we need to take account of those limits of asymmetries and we need to understand them because otherwise, and I, you know, I talk about some of this as well, we can’t understand how the world is gendered, how the world is racialized. You know, these kinds of very, very important and powerful asymmetries need to be addressed. And I would, you know, one of the critiques of a Deleuzian approach is that it doesn’t take sufficient account of these off power. I think one of the things I try and do throughout the book is show that it can, and it does make a useful contribution to that.
I was going to ask, actually, you do—I do remember reading that that aspect about power. But the other side of the coin, the critical project is a focus on language. And I was kind of… when I was reading it at the beginning, you talked about these different models of social change, and there wasn’t really… well, you didn’t mention a sort of, you know, a critical discursive model, perhaps, maybe you just didn’t think it was relevant, and that’s fine. But how does then questions about for instance, are we talking about religious change or social change? If things are largely made of discourse and of language, then how can they be agents? Maybe this is too big a question I just wanted, I just want to, to get some idea of your thinking on this. Because it seems to me that the idea of religion is itself a kind of assemblage growing out of economic and scientific and theological concerns in the mostly in the colonial era. And, you know, and developed later on. And, and so to talk about change of that, in itself, is maybe it’s maybe problematic, or I might just over complicating things here.
No, not at all. I think you’re right, I think the term religion has a gravity, and that gravity has been obtained through some of the processes that you’re alluding to, and for sure, that gravity compels teaching and research to take certain forms. And a lot of what’s been happening over the last 20, 30 years, is his various people, Russell McCutcheon, Talal Asad, numerous others that ought to be mentioned, and I’m not going to for reasons of time and space, you know, trying to deflect that gravity to, you know, move it, shift it to bring new elements to the constellation. Right. So yeah, I completely agree. I mean, I suppose what I would say is, well, maybe what you’re talking about has been done and done in very interesting way by [Michel] Foucault, in the Archaeology, because you’re absolutely right, this… discourses have power, and they have agency, for sure.
It’s yes…, it’s not even necessarily a criticism. It’s where my interest in the sort of critical discourse side of things runs into the kind of network-thinking of Deleuze and Latour and things like that. That is the bit I’ve yet to get my head round is where the two of those things, how they intersect and how they could work together. I do realize the limits of critique and I’m trying to get past that, but that that’s the place where that disjunction is for me.
I think that’s a really… I think the meeting point of Foucault and Deleuze is kind of interesting. There’s Foucault’s forward to capitalism and schizophrenia and there are… Thinking control societies Deleuze engages with Discipline and Punish, although it’s not a very long piece, but he does engage with it in quite a significant way. But it seemed to me that they spent a lot of time not really engaging with each other’s work or talking past each other to some extent. So maybe that work around discourse and, and this sort of Anthropocene you know, anti-humanist, object-centered Latourian stuff, Deleuzian stuff, maybe that that how those intersect and how they work together. That’s a job that no one’s done yet. Maybe. On now, I’m probably exposing myself to “No, I’ve done it” from, from, from, from a corner of the room. In which case I apologize if I’m revealing my ignorance somehow… (laughs)
No, no, well, if you are, I am as well. So, don’t worry a minute. And if you’ve done that work listener, then please do get in touch. Yes, that will be the next episode. I mean, we’re going to have to wrap up now, Paul, and I mean, obviously, we could and probably will talk about this for hours more yet, but I think we’ve done a decent job of outlining where you are. So, thank you again. And any last words or anything you want to plug or anything else?
Yeah, I mean, just thank you very much for having me and stay safe, everybody.
Wise words. Thanks so much, Paul. Thanks, everybody.
Tremlett, Paul-François and David Robertson. 2020. “Rhizomes, Assemblages, & Religious Change”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 9 November 2020. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.2, 9 November 2020. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/rhizomes-assemblages-and-religious-change
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