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Retheorising Emile Durkheim on society and religion: embodiment, intoxication and collective life

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Abstract

In this paper we argue that Emile Durkheim's sociology contains within it a theory of society and religion as a form of embodied intoxication that is implicit in his writings on effervescent assemblies but has not yet been explicated or developed fully by subsequent commentators. This holds that for social or religious collectivities to exist, the bodies of individuals must be both marked by insignia, customs and techniques that facilitate the possibility of culturally normative patterns of recognition, interaction and action, while also being excited, enthused or intoxicated sufficiently to be inhabited as collective rather than egoistic beings. Our paper begins by investigating the central features of Durkheim's theory – including his interest in the ritual steering of these processes – as developed most fully in his last major study, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. We then develop our own analysis of Durkheim's concern that modernity has stimulated a rise in ‘abnormal’ forms of embodied intoxication that fail to attach individuals to the wider societies in which they live, and demonstrate the utility of our analytical framework by employing it to assess the recent resurgence of charismatic Christian revivalism.

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