Interviews:

Subjects, spirituality, and smoking: An interview with Hubert Knoblauch

posted by John D. Boy

After discussing the general contours of the sociology of religion in Germany today (see part 1), I had a chance to ask Hubert Knoblauch about some of his own research. In recent years, Knoblauch, who works in the phenomenological tradition started by Alfred Schütz, has been preoccupied with spirituality, popular religion, and near-death experiences.

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HK: Now, if you don’t mind, I will commit a crime against my health. [Takes out a pack of cigarettes, lights one up, and begins smoking.] I only smoke once a week—despite the fact that I had been in Nicotine Anonymous when I was living in California. I went to four different groups and even gave up smoking, but I learnt a lot about religion there, too, or better, the instrumentalization of religion as an  American way of systematically applying belief to control one’s life-conduct.

JB: Last year, The Immanent Frame co-produced a sort of compendium on uses of the word spirituality, and one of the contributors wrote about another 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous.

KH: One of the essential points is that spirituality is self-empowerment, as Winfried Gebhardt puts it. It is not self-sacralization in the Durkheimian sense. It is a means to autonomously administer transcendence on a personal level and yet, at the same time, to permit transcendence to happen. That is the point of spirituality. Spirituality is not simply a matter of instrumentalization and subjectivation; rather, the subject accepts an other without it having to be a specific other, a personal other. It doesn’t have to be specific, but it has to be something the self can relate to.

JB: But the self occupies the central point in spirituality?

HK: Heelas uses the term self-religion. But I think this Durkheimian notion that it is about self-sacralization, that the spiritual plays a self-referential role, ultimately misses the essence of the spiritual. The spiritual has to refer to the subject, the subject has to be experienced, it must be in relation. But it retains the character of religiosity because it exceeds the subject and relates to an other. I am not talking about “the Other,” because that insinuates the Levinasian understanding. The other I am referring to must not have a personal structure, it is, in a sense, the anything related to, anything intentionality can refer to, or, what is meant by Luckmann’s notion of transcending.  Even in 12-step programs and in the most abstract esoteric teachings we find something that is experienced as exceeding the subject. That is transcendence in the phenomenological sense. That is why I find the concept of self-religion—which suggests that the self is only concerned with the self—misguided. Again, the point of spirituality is that the subject experiences itself in surpassing itself. That is a trait of religiosity, of transcending. Transcending remains an essential feature of spirituality.

It is not just an instrument of subjectivation, as the Foucauldians believe; it’s not about producing closed selves. Intentionality remains, even when it comes to nothing. In the case of popular forms of spirituality the referent is often empty. One can only suspect that it relates to something. But there has to be a reference to something else (etwas anderes), and that’s what sets spirituality apart. It cannot simply be reduced to consumption or the like.

JB: Perhaps this is a good point to address your book on popular religion. In the book, you argue that spirituality has become the dominant social form of religion.

HK: I argue two things. The first is that religion is becoming popular. That’s actually a general sociological thesis, and I find the concept of the theoretical discussion about the popular very unsatisfying. I’m still working on it, but I think that the concept of the popular refers to a broad phenomenon that we can describe in sociology of knowledge terms as the destructuring of knowledge (Entstrukturierung von Wissen). What we take to be religious changes as religious knowledge becomes universally accessible and ceases to be delimitable. The substantialist understanding that religion in itself can be distinguished is challenged. That’s what the popular refers to.

Boundaries between scientific knowledge and religious knowledge aren’t dissolved, but they are blurred. You can see that very clearly with New Age or creationism. The boundaries between specialized areas of knowledge are cancelled out to the extent that knowledge in these areas no longer needs to be tied to clearly marked experts. This social de-structuring of knowledge is a phenomenon that is not unique to religion. It is taking place in many areas, including the sciences and particularly in the arts since the 1960s. The popular refers to this kind of situation, where in principle all knowledge becomes generally accessible and can be appropriated by—again, in principle—anyone. I have to stress, however, that this understanding of the popular differs from the way it is used in cultural studies. It doesn’t refer to knowledge that is popular in counterdistinction to hegemonic knowledge. The popular encompasses that which was hegemonic. Thus, these days, the Berlin Philharmonic goes pop, as does the pope coming to visit.

JB: So religion becoming popular does not mean it is democratized?

HK: No. Universal accessibility makes it possible that everyone can appropriate knowledge individually and in the manner they see fit. That’s where the term “seeker” used to come in—Winfried Gebhardt speaks of “spiritual ramblers.” It’s an old theme, but the seeker is just a social figure that speaks to our reality in which religious knowledge and religious action orientation are widely accessible and the boundaries of what counts or doesn’t count as religious are no longer clearly marked.

I think all so-called “fundamentalist” movements are counter-movements to this reality. They seek to re-establish boundaries around what is to be understood as religion, to make the distinction from the popular clear. This distinction can remain ambivalent so that groups can respond to the market while declaring, “We are somehow different.” That way groups can attract people while at the same drawing boundaries.

My second argument is that, in popular religion, the subject appears as an actor. So a kind of a double subjectivation does in fact take place. On the one hand, the subject is, as systems theory or discourse theory believes, produced by being addressed through communication, and constructed according to the forms of communication—be it at least the possibility to make choices; on the other hand, the subject is constituted as a resource which makes, at least, a difference in communication by making one’s own experiences (and thus being transcendent to society). The thematic alignment of popular religion with the subject is responsible for the fact that spirituality is becoming the social form of religion. I prefer the notion of subjectivation to individualization because individualization would mean that what is at stake is a person’s uniqueness or, perhaps, isolation. We are dealing with a society that uses subjects as points of contact (Ansprechpartner). Thus, in the case of the eventization of religion, the goal of religious spirituality often is the community itself—or rather, the experience of community. This shift from community to the experience of community, that is, subjectivity. What one desires isn’t community, but the experience of community. This is a development we have been able to observe in the German Church Congresses (Kirchentage) since the 1970s. People don’t attend to be in a community; they go in order to experience community. That’s also what the instrumentalization of religion is based on. Self-governing religion requires the self to govern the connection with the other, and to define and identify itself as subject in connection with the other.

One of the unique characteristics of religious movements is the emphasis on the experience of the self. What phenomenologists have been saying all along is has now become a historical reality. What counts as evidence of the religious—even in traditions that foreground dogma—is now a phenomenon of experience, and this experience doesn’t have to be individual, but in the best case it is authentic, as one’s own experience (which, due to communities and communication, may be and often is quite the same as the experience of others).

JB: It sounds to me like you are describing a historical development. How would you compare today’s religious movements with the revivalist movements of the nineteenth century, for instance? They also placed a strong emphasis on experience.

HK: Yes, but these movements always emerged in areas already marked as religious, so what counts as religious was already unambiguously marked. What sets these current movements apart from others is the becoming-unbounded (Entgrenzung) of religiosity. Spirituality was already a part of these earlier movements. What’s new isn’t religious experience—religious experience has long been a topic—but that the experience itself, the capacity to experience something, has become the criterion for religiosity, rather than religiosity being a given and experience coming second. That’s the difference from Billy Graham, for instance: In his rallies, there were clear prescriptions of what may be experienced as religious. The point of spiritualization is that the criterion for religiosity is your subjective experience. You can experiment with a variety of things—even things that are formally not religious—and then you take your experience of those things, whatever you feel to be transcendence, as the criterion, regardless whether it is marked as religious or not.

I don’t want to exaggerate the rupture. Religious experience is perennial, and subjectivity always plays a role. But the fact that subjectivity becomes the decisive criterion of what is perceived as religious, and isn’t just brought into religion, that is the decisive difference. You don’t have to be integrated into a religious cosmos (Weltbild), you only have to transcend subjectivity. That is what minimally constitutes the religious or the spiritual. You don’t call it religious because it is fixed to a specific religious system of symbols or social structures of specialized religious organizations. Imagine a spiritual Marxist—Marxists of the nineteenth century were religious in the sense that they believed in utopia. (The same argument could be made about nationalists.) But if you were to find that they don’t believe in something—namely utopia—and are therefore religious, but that they want to transcend the totality and experience utopia for the sake of experiencing it, then they would be spiritual in the modern sense, as it were. For this to happen, a subjectivation has to occur that doesn’t need to sacralize the individual, but that relates to the subject. That is a pretty recent development, but it certainly isn’t without precedent. The combination of popularity and subjectivation is certainly unique.

JB: Do you think the subject seeking spiritual experience could eventually become fatigued?

HK: Do you mean, could the wave run its course?

JB: On the one hand, spirituality bears this promise of healing and regeneration, but if subjective experience becomes an end in itself, can that lead to a fatigue of being a subject?

HK: Well, it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The subject doesn’t necessarily expend energy. It is also not a search for meaning. The subject still gets a payoff from religiosity. The question is whether the subject can be placed into this spiritualization on a permanent basis, which raises the question whether there are other orientations the subject could assume. Meaningful orientation towards transcendence (sinnhafte Transzendenzorientierung) is a defining characteristic of human existence. Are there any structures that could enable collective orientations—such as neo-nationalisms, new utopian movements and the like—that could step in? Islamic movements are a good example. In contrast to the global popular Islam described by Olivier Roy, which is also based on subjectivation, could we imagine collectivist movements stepping in to take its place? Structural conditions would have to be fundamentally transformed. My thesis is that these religious movements don’t just function as religious movements, but that you have to view them in the context of a social development in which what we used to call individualization has been furthered into subjectivation. If the structural conditions for this development were to disappear or change—I don’t know whether we have to assume a different orientation in Southeast Asia, China, and elsewhere—then such new orientations are imaginable. But you would have to reconstruct society in order to do that.

For instance, you would have to change the fact that we are called on as decision-makers from the age of nine months onwards. Parents turn toddlers into decision-makers on a lot of questions. We are decision-makers in the market, we are administrators of our entire life, etc. The subject is always the addressee of society. That would have to be reversed.

Some in the spiritual movement are trying just that, and they are trying to create artificial collectivizations in the shape of communities. Some political movements attempt this as well. The internet movement in some sense is a collectivist movement, but it doesn’t seem to create any particularly strong new forms of social structures (aside from “communities” in inverted commas). Be that as it may, basically you would have to change the social-structural preconditions—for instance, liberalism’s market model, or the model on which our systems of communication are based. If the computer people had formed collective groups, and not “personal” computers that address individual users, things would have run a different course, but everything is running in this direction.

I want to elaborate on the background again. What I’m describing is connected to the entire setup. I do not regard it as a development specific to the religious realm. On the contrary: religion is just a part—presumably a fairly advanced part—of a broader social development. In a way, religion forms the vanguard of a development that will eventually affect science as well and that has been going on in the art world for a long time. In art, however, the development has been ambivalent: we have seen the closure of institutions, but this has been happening on the background of a full dissolution of boundaries. Those developments are also parts of a development affecting society as a whole.

JB: If we can no longer clearly distinguish between religious and secular forms of communication or knowledge, does it follow that we have become “postsecular”?

HK: The issue of postsecularity depends on whether we can assume a clear division in the past. I tend to agree, but then I’m not a historian. What I hear from the historians as an objection—Keith Thomas, for example—is that we have reason to doubt the narrative of clear-cut modernization. It may well have been an ideal-typical construction.

My first research project (for my PhD) was on dowsing and the development of occult physics. What’s interesting is that at the same time that religion was losing its power to offer interpretations of natural phenomena, it wasn’t simply replaced by science. Instead, we saw the development of all kinds of hybrid forms—Mesmerism, occult physics, parapsychology—that do not merely blunder through the nineteenth century but immediately arose as mass phenomena. In Germany, Goethe, Hegel and many members of the educated bourgeoisie took an interest. In England and the United States, parapsychology became a popular movement among the working class. There was also the English movement of spiritism, and much more. Like I said, I’m no historian, but I would change the narrative along those lines. These hybrid forms attest to one of the great insights of Berger and Luckmann. They claimed that religious knowledge is not substantially separate from other forms of knowledge. Thus, when authority over religion is lost, others can step in.

Postsecularization insinuates this narrative of a clean break as a matter of fact. I find this doubtful, even if I can’t put it to the test historically. My research on dowsing led me to first doubt Max Weber. It’s the reason I’m not a Weberian, because in his eyes, dowsing would clearly be an act of magic (Zauberwerk). I was conducting ethnographic research, but I also studied the institutional development, and to my surprise I found that, at the same time that theological dissertations on dowsing (which condemned the practice) stopped appearing, physicists started attending to it. The practice spread to the middle class and it urbanized. It did not die out. The practice is modernized along with modernization. I think that’s a development we can observe in a whole host of movements. Psychologism seems to fit the bill, as does Mesmerism and the adoption of its therapeutic techniques. I simply don’t believe the narrative of secularism. I believe it is based on the flawed premise that there are substantial differences between religion and other things.

JB: So, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, we could say that we have never been secular. At least not in a pure form.

HK: Probably not. I find it astonishing—to me, it is one of the greatest puzzles to this day—how the natural sciences were finally able to kick out alchemy and astrology. Particularly the Royal Academy. Apparently they were able, after all, to draw sharp boundaries between the empiricism of empirics and the empiricism of alchemy. I still find that to be a very interesting question because it is the last remnant of a potential substantialism of knowledge.

At the same time we probably have to stress that secularism undoubtedly plays the role of the dominant ideology of modernity juxtaposing “rationality” to the irrational or “religious”. Even if secularization must not have been realized, secularism has been the dominant ideology of modernity and modernization. It is what helped to define rationality. Without this ideology, modernization would not have happened. In a sense, rationality is the faith of modernity, and although—or because—I assume that rationality is not opposed to religion and transcendence, this faith is, I guess, also what I still believe in.

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