States of Devotion: Religion, Neoliberalism, Biopolitics

Through his series Incorruptible Flesh, performance artist Ron Athey continues his career-long engagement with the body as an ecstatic site of devotion, contagion, desire, and pain. Echoing Michelangelo’s Pietà and Brugghen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, the performance allows an intimate “laying on of hands” on a suspended living corpse seeking spiritual apotheosis. Deeply influenced by Pentecostalism, Athey’s work grounds and entangles power, spirit, and prophesy in the ritual intensities of the flesh. Olivia Michiko Gagnon understands Incorruptible Flesh as part of Athey’s larger exploration of “the biopolitically-managed HIV+ body, the penetrated queer body, and the abandoned sick body.” “Ron Athey,” she writes, “finds fleshly avenues for transformation and resistance through acts of wounding, self-obliteration, and radical passivity.” Presented in the multimedio “Darkness Visible,” Athey’s bodily exploration of sex, religion, desire, and the management of life serves as a powerful entry point into the central questions taken up in this issue of emisférica, “States of Devotion.” Drawing on the work of an international, multi-year research group, [1] this issue of emisférica maps the complex and changing intersections of religion and biopolitics, investigating the convergent trajectories of religion, subjectivity, and the State in the wake of neoliberal regimes across the Americas. At a time when citizens have become too expensive for their states, to use Lauren Berlant’s sobering diagnosis, legal frameworks and social policy have increasingly moved towards regimes of governmentality that seek to control and manage bodies without assuming responsibility for them. [2] “The expansion of the neoliberal model and the retraction of protectionist functions of the State,” writes Joanna Jablonska-Bayro in this issue, “have turned vulnerability and uncertainty into a private matter for citizens.” She suggests that the spiritualities that emerge from these circumstances may ultimately serve to perpetuate the very regimes that gave rise to them. As these "neoliberal spiritualities" promise to alleviate a void left by the state, she writes, they produce the properly self-caring subjects within systems of generalized vulnerabilization without revealing or challenging the systemic social conditions that created the need for them in the first place. Lois Ann Lorentzen presents a related case in her study of devotion to the figure of Santa Muerte by migrants crossing the US-Mexico borderlands. Lorentzen demonstrates how the Catholic Church and the State (both the US and Mexican governments) oppose the worship of the Saint as “enemy” to both Church and State, as each seek to control undocumented migrant bodies for their own ends. In contexts like these, religious discourses, practices, and institutions have acquired new modes of agency and taken on new roles as they have been mobilized to fill the vacuum left by a retreating or market-recalibrated State. The contributions in this issue document the empowerment of religious actors across numerous social fields in societies with diverse religious traditions and Church-State formations across the Americas. Melissa Wilcox argues that while we might expect a conflict between the twin neoliberal mandates of privatization and deregulation in the context of religion and an ostensibly secular State, what we find is that these “have instead collaborated to empower an increasingly aggressive tyranny of the religious majority” in the United States. In her contribution to this volume, she reads the activist art of the “Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence”—featured on the cover—as an illuminating counterpoint to to these collusions of normative neoliberalism. From another perspective, Lori Beaman focuses on what she calls the “confessional, panoptic spirituality” of the “new normal”: this “new normal” imagines public space as “post-secular,” while still assuming that Christian religion is required literacy for public discourse, producing an “obligatory religious citizenship.” She affirms that “exemption from the religious becomes, in this regime, impossible.” Newly empowered religious actors, embedded in logics of neoliberalism, may challenge both the primacy of dominant religions and the spiritual geopolitical “balance of power” both nationally and internationally. Manuel A. Vasquez argues that Brazil has become “a key node of religious innovation and production, exporting religious goods to Europe and the United States”—including Pentecostalism and Charismatic Catholicism—“flying in the face of the claims of the secularization paradigm, which predicted that modernization would eventually lead to the demise of religion in the public arena”. His study of these “pneumatic religions” traces an “emerging geo-politics of the spirit” that inverts center-periphery power relations. Pablo Semán, in turn, studies the wide proliferation of “self-help” and “self-improvement” books as a mass spiritual literature in order to understand the relation between mass consumption and the production of religious ideologies. Ultimately, he concludes that such texts—usually marketed and read outside of traditional religious institutions—allow readers to build dense and systematic religious ideas and expectations. Through a different lens, Bronx-based artist Nicolás Dumit Estévez investigates the relationship of the religious and the sacred to broader domains of belonging and identity. His Born Again: A Lebanese-Dominican Dominican York Is Born Again as a Bronxite (2001), a performance in which he is publicly baptized as a “Bronxite” in the Bronx River, and the extended Nocturns, in which he initially interns himself in a Bronx monastery for six days to take part in the nightly adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, at once challenge the separation of religious devotion and extra-religious modes of belonging, and call attention to the spiritual roots of identity. While the impact of religious challenges can be observed across the socio-political field, nowhere have these been more central than in the arena of sexual and reproductive rights, and particularly around the question of abortion. In today’s Chile, Kemy Oyarzún argues, the Church’s opposition to the de-criminalization of abortion has staunchly maintained abortion at “the boundary between nature and culture, between [ostensible] disaster and the immense chasms of inequality, between sexualities and law.” The emergence of claims to religious exemptions and injuries to conscience, examined by Juan Marco Vaggione and Khiara M. Bridges in this issue, have not only transformed the arena of judicial activism in the United States, but are also actively shaping political debates and advocacy strategies across Latin America. These strategies have been fueled, at least in part, by the success of social movements around the issue of marriage equality and other sexual rights across the hemisphere. At the same time, struggles for reproductive rights have either stagnated or suffered setbacks across the region, signaling a neoliberal politics of responsibilization in which the right to the privatized management of well-being offered by the institution of marriage is extended to all citizens, while women’s sexual freedom and their right to control their bodies continue to be punished. Artist Mickey Negrón’s #PonerMickeytarme brings these conflicts over the biopolitical management of the flesh to the public square. Interrupting a 2015 march organized by religious groups in San Juan, Puerto Rico against the implementation of gender studies curriculum in the Island’s public schools, Negrón provocatively engages march participants with his prosthetically exaggerated hips as he covers his body with honey and chicken feathers. The irruption of Negrón’s queer, ritualized body amidst a multitude of fervent believers draws attention to both the carnal stakes of the politics in question, and the capacities for disobedience of the bodies under management. The essays, interviews, and art works contained herein seek to foreground these conflicts and suggest an open-ended and multidisciplinary map for the study of religion and politics in the American hemisphere. 1 The Working Group on Religion and Politics in the Americas (2010-2016) was made possible by a generous grant to the Hemispheric Institute from The Henry Luce Foundation's International Affairs Initiative. 2 Lauren Berlant, "Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness," Supervalent Thought (blog), 2011, accessed January 17, 2017 PDF.