Latour and the non-space and non-time of Modernity (part 2 of 3)

See my first post above.

Latour’s appropriation of the concept of utopia is quite different.

Latour understands utopia to be a representation of a certain spatial conditioning effect that is imposed upon the human subject by the epistemological regime of Modernity. Unlike the social theorists mentioned in my previous post, then, Latour dismisses the possibility of utopia functioning as a kind of subversive resource by which alternative futures might be mapped and by which constructive political forces might be motivated. On the contrary, he shows how the discourse of utopia, wherever it is found in the contemporary West, refers to a territory that has already been mapped out for its inhabitants and thus contains within itself no internal dynamic for change. The idea of utopia does not facilitate a social imaginary in which a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived might be thought and through which progressive action to achieve it might be unleashed. Instead, it functions to neutralize all thought of an alternative future, thereby de-animating the associative political forces that would be required to bring it about. For Latour, utopia is therefore subservient to the teleology of Modernity, whose end is always to abridge and curtail the generative complexity of the ‘political’ movements of plural actors, in favour of an account of the world that is imposed upon it ‘from above’ .

Latour’s description of utopia in this negative sense develops out of his analysis of globalization, which he interprets as a vehicle for the epistemology of Modernity in general. Latour understands the contemporary phenomenon of globalization as a logic of commerce and exchange that promises a large and unambiguous net gain for everyone. Because globalization allows different kinds of producers and consumers to inter-connect across borders, so the narrative goes, all would ultimately enjoy the benefits of progress and growth that globalized economic and trade networks would facilitate. For Latour, however, that narrative is idealized, its promise of some kind of integrated wealth distribution being ultimately unrealizable. This is because, far from mobilizing associative forces, globalization has in fact already defined territories within which its various stakeholders must operate, thereby foreclosing the possibility that these same stakeholders will define any other future for themselves than the one they are currently experiencing. Globalization thus imposes a utopia upon those who live within its reach, in the negative sense that I have defined above.

In order to illustrate why globalization functions in this way, I will consider some of the expressions of utopia that Latour identifies and describes in our contemporary globalized world.

The first is the utopia of the global elites, the 1% who are able to profit from the wealth generated by globalized networks of capital flow. Whilst their rhetoric has warmly embraced the concept of globalization as an opportunity for the material benefit of the whole, this minority section of society was really leveraging globalization for its own end and had no will to see greater wealth and resource distribution to the majority. For these elites, globalization was a utopia that only they would be inhabiting in the end. The self-interested and exclusionary utopic vision of these global elites was exposed by the global recession of 2008–2009 and by the retrenchment of capital flow that followed, when the myth of the progressive spread of wealth to the whole was suddenly and brutally revealed as hollow. Latour makes this point in a recent article on the future of the European project, where he observes that “si la mondialisation était une utopie—elle était réservée à ceux qui avaient abandonné jusqu’à l’idée de faire monde commun avec les masses” (my translation: “if globalization were a utopia—it was one reserved for those who had abandoned the idea of making a common world with the masses”).

But there is also a second utopia. This is the utopia of the fragmented remainder. After the recession of 2008–2009, having realised that the project of globalization would not be serving their interests in the way that had been rhetorically mooted, those who were not global elites found themselves regressing to an alternative vision of utopia, which would be a space that this time they themselves would occupy and call their own, and in which they would not be beholden to the global elites as previously. This was the utopia of the nation-state, with the protections that are implied by its clearly-defined and firmly-policed borders. As Latour puts it in that same article, the utopias of the fragmented majority are the various spaces of “ceux qui fuient à rebours vers la protection, elle tout à fait imaginaire, assurée par les frontières nationales ou ethniques” (my translation, “those who flee backwards towards the completely imaginary protection offered by national and ethnic borders”). Latour proposes this second utopia as an explanation for the populism that has surfaced in contemporary British (post-Brexit), European and American politics, which is characterised by its promise to uphold the identities of those who are threatened by globalizing trends precisely by returning to or re-instating a narrower definition of what constitutes a valid social community, often couched in terms of nationally- or ethnically-based identity markers and anti-immigration policy platforms.

But in both cases—the minority utopia of the globalizing elites and the populist, border-orientated utopia of the fragmented majority who have been left behind—these utopias symbolize singular, monistic and defensive occupations of a territory, where the impetus to include or to represent the interests of other actors, those who are not yet incorporated into the territory, is diminished and sometimes even halted entirely. In other words, Latour identifies globalization as a generator of utopias that (A) are already fully realized in the present; (B) are premised on a gesture of exclusion of new entrants into the utopian territory that has been established; and therefore (C) cannot be vehicles for the sort of future-orientated, associative politics that is envisaged by the social theorists described above, and that Latour himself encodes in his concept of nonmodernity. In this way, Latour offers a revisionist critique of the contemporary project of globalization.

Latour advances one additional, but very important, point about the utopias that have arisen in the contemporary globalized world: they must actually be understood as non-spaces, in the sense that those who inhabit them find themselves removed and dislocated from the concrete space of this world in which ‘political’ existence can take place. Hence, as Latour puts it in his recent text, to invest in “l’utopie de la Modernization” (whichever version of utopia is in view) means that “l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible” (my translation: “access to the earthly has been made impossible”). When he refers to “le terrestre” (or, in other formulations, to “the Earth” or to that which is “Earthbound”), Latour is describing how the utopias of globalized Modernity cause human beings to be dislocated from their attachments to this world as if they were finding themselves dislocated from physical existence on the planet Earth itself and elevated to a realm located somewhere else. Perhaps this accounts for trends in the genre of ‘utopian’ writing itself, whose internal geography, it seems, has had to become more and more fantastical over time as it has begun to exhaust or exceed the boundaries of this Earth. Whereas for the Renaissance utopias the exoticism of the New World sufficed, the genre has since then found itself increasingly having to explore other or parallel worlds in various modes of avant-garde, symbolic or science-fiction writing.

Utopia must therefore be understood “au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part”. Or, as Latour put it in a lecture delivered in 2009:

For me, the whole history of the Moderns offers up a most radical utopia in the etymological sense: the Moderns have no place, no topos, no locus to sit and stay.

The idea of the planet Earth as the literal, physical site (Latour sometimes refers to the “soil” that lies “under our feet” to render the image as clearly as possible) on which human existence must be elementarily grounded is a hugely powerful one in his recent work. Its opposite or negation, namely, human existence as that which has become displaced or dislocated from its situatedness on Earth, is a good description of Modernity and of the gesture of transcendence that lies at its heart and that functions as its operating principle. This idea has already been encountered in this chapter in the idiom of “le point de vue de Sirius”, which is the cosmo-eccentric vantage-point from which Modernity artificially fixes the movements of actors in the space of the ‘down below’.[10]

This same utopic space, and its implications for what might be called ‘Earthbound’ existence, is also explored by Carl Schmitt, with delicate irony, in the foreword to a book he wrote in the context of the post-war political situation in Europe, published in 1950, entitled The Nomos of the Earth. In this very interesting text, Schmitt provides an idiosyncratic historical analysis of European political order. His argument is that, even though there have evidently been many regional conflicts and wars between European countries, a state of general stability has nevertheless been maintained within the European mainland over many centuries because of a particular spatial configuration that he calls a “nomos”. His argument is that this (relatively) stable order was made possible by the fact that extra-European territory was available in the New World and elsewhere for “discovery, occupation and expansion” by the primary European powers. This provided an ‘outside’ that guaranteed a flow of (relatively) stable political forces ‘inside’ Europe. At the time of writing, however, with evidence of the chaos of post-war disintegration all around him, Schmitt diagnoses this particular spatial ordering as rapidly coming to an end. Pondering the possible shape and form of a new nomos, he ruefully suggests that it would require some “fantastic parallel” to the previous one, such as could only be conceived “if men on their way to the moon discovered a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on Earth”. In other words, Schmitt acknowledges that European political order (and, by implication, the nomos of the entire world) had been premised on a utopic ideology in which a new space, situated somewhere else, always had to be found. Since that new space was no longer available in the twentieth-century (short of rapid progress in technologies by which humans might be able to colonise other planets!), a perpetuation of that same nomos was no longer feasible. Instead, for Schmitt, a process of de-utopianization must take place: “human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now”, he writes in the Foreword, so as to reconceive “the normative order of the earth”.

The analysis, and critique, of utopic space as being, literally, a space of ‘no-where’, is a unifying feature of all Schmitt’s post-war writing. For example, in a 1955 radio broadcast entitled ‘Dialogue on New Space’, Schmitt contrasts two modes of understanding of space that correspond exactly with what I have described above. The first is embodied in dramatic terms by the character of ‘MacFuture’, whose understands the maintenance of post-war global order in terms of American cultural and economic exceptionalism, and the possibility of forms of technological progress that would enable advanced nation-states to move beyond the restrictions imposed upon them by their own boundaries. This character is therefore an advocate for the utopia of globalization. The second understanding of space is voiced in dramatic terms by Schmitt’s own mouthpiece, a character called ‘Altmann’, who advocates instead for an associative mode of politics that takes place in the concrete space of this world, and not in a utopia that abridges or curtails this activity by situating actors in a ‘nowhere’ of transcendence: “the new spaces, out of which this new call comes, must therefore be found upon our Earth, and not outside in the cosmos”, as this character prophetically announces.

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Latour and the non-space and non-time of Modernity (part 1 of 3)

Latour’s diagnosis of Modernity and its spatio-temporal conditioning effect culminates in his description of contemporary Western society as being characterised by ‘utopia’ (the condition of being ‘without space’) and ‘achronia’ (the condition of being ‘without time’).

Building on the work of twentieth-century theorists such as Ernst Bloch, Zygmunt Bauman and Karl Mannheim, the concept of utopia has been positively re-appropriated in recent years, both as a framework for literary and artistic production, and as a tool to relate social theory to social practice and, indeed, praxis. Those working within this trajectory have no interest in utopia understood either as the fortuitous or imagined recovery of a lost earthly paradise or golden age, nor as a future, apocalyptic unveiling and donation of some such space by means of the Providence of God. Rather, they are interested in the idea of utopia as a space that might be achieved by the agency of humanitas and associative politics. In a recent article, Lyman Tower Sargent traces the lineage of this mode of utopic thinking from ancient sources (the Ancient Egyptian Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, Solon, the Lycurgus of Plutarch, the Cryopaedia of Xenophon, Plato’s Republic and Laws), through to the Utopia of Thomas More, from there to Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, the Hartlib Circle, the eighteenth-century novel (Defoe, Swift, Johnson) and nineteenth-century science fiction (Wells, Huxley, Orwell), all the way to the progressive social theorists of the twentieth-century mentioned above. The idea of utopia understood in this way is offered to the contemporary reader as both an aspiration and as an objective to actualize in space and in time. As something that is potentially achievable via the co-operative action of humans, utopia is seized upon by these thinkers as something that can contest the static and calcifying drift that they see as inherent to political, economic and religious ideology and system. The concept of utopia thus becomes a tool by which progressive action in the present moment can be stirred up and energized.

Latour’s appropriation of the concept is quite different. He understands utopia to be a representation of the conditioning effect that is imposed upon the human subject by the epistemological regime of Modernity. Unlike the social theorists mentioned above, then, Latour dismisses the possibility of utopia functioning as a kind of subversive resource by which alternative futures might be mapped, thereby prompting constructive political agencies in the present. On the contrary, he shows how utopic discourse, wherever it is found in the contemporary West, refers to a territory that has already been mapped out for its inhabitants and thus contains within itself no internal dynamic for change. The idea of utopia does not facilitate a social imaginary in which a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived might be thought and through which progressive action to achieve it might be unleashed. Instead, it functions to neutralize all thought of an alternative future, thereby de-animating the associative political forces that might have been mobilized to bring it about. For Latour, utopia is therefore subservient to the teleology of Modernity, whose end is always to abridge and curtail the generative complexity of the ‘political’ movements of plural actors, in favour of an account of the world that is imposed upon the world ‘from above’ .

Is Latour’s “diplomacy” actually “conservative”?

Paradoxically, Bruno Latour’s anti-scientism is accompanied by a conservative regression towards institutional demarcations and by his legitimisation of the hierarchies that are internal to the institutions demarcated in this way.

Simply unmissable analysis from Terence Blake for all those reading Latour in the context of his intellectual milieu.

Gaukroger and the “naturalization of the human”

Stephen Gaukroger’s monumental series on the modern world is a must-read for those interacting with Latour’s concept of Modernity.

In this third volume, published last year, Gaukroger considers the crucial period 1739 (the publication of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature) to 1841 (the publication of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity). He argues that this period saw an abrupt but fundamental shift in the way in which scientific enquiry was conceived, such that science came to be understood as the essential means of explanation of the human condition. The key formula thus becomes “the naturalization of the human”, by which Gaukroger means the constitution in empirical terms of questions about the human realm that had up to that point taken a non-empirical form.

I’ve written a brief review here.

9780198757634

Religion as a Regime of Truth (part 2 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

So religion as a mode of existence is a mediated phenomenon.

But there is also a second aspect to consider. This is Latour’s claim that mediation ‘ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in’. In other words, for Latour, the idea of religion as a materially and historically embedded phenomenon, with its own specific felicity conditions, in no way implies the compromise of its status as objective and real. Hence, his repeated insistence that religion as a mode of existence constitutes a ‘regime of truth’. This countermands the charge of relativism that has been occasionally leveled against him. Martin Holbraad, for example, interprets Latour as seeking to ‘lift the lid on the false dominion of religion as representational discourse’:

Latour’s game is to show that, if you look closely and carefully enough, all that seems like rupture is in fact continuous, so that even terms that seem like digital negations of each other (either man or God, word or world) are really ontological transformations of one another, related on a monistic plane by what French philosophers sometimes call ‘difference’. (Holbraad, 2004, ‘Response to Bruno Latour’s Thou Shall not Freeze-Frame’, p.4).

Holbraad’s critique is mistaken. Latour does not collapse religion into relativism. His claim is quite the opposite. For him, it is precisely because it is grounded in the immanent procedures of ontological pluralism that religion is able to claim for itself the status of rationality. Latour makes this clear in his spiritual autobiography Rejoicing—a book of which he claims without irony that ‘c’est pour moi le livre le plus scientifique que j’ai écrit’ (my trans. ‘for me, it is the most scientific book that I have written’, in Latour, 2008, ‘Pour une Ethnographie des Modernes’, p.7)—where he asserts that ‘the things I’m talking about are not irrational but require all our reason, the sole and only reason we have to survive with’. (Latour, 2012, Rejoicing, p.68). Comparable statements are found elsewhere. Of course, Latour is not absent-mindedly re-inscribing into religious discourse the version of apodictic certainty that is sacred to Modernity. That would be to replicate an epistemology that Latour has already deconstructed as artificial and hegemonic. Rather, what is in view here is a definition of religion as that which is characterised by a universal value, a value that is nevertheless secured by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world. ‘Value’ is a technical term within the Inquiry. It refers to that which is generic, regulative and stable about a mode of existence, that is, everything that qualifies it as a ‘regime of truth’. Latour’s objective is to identify the value that is specific to religion as a mode of existence. It is on this basis that he will ultimately argue for the re-instatement of religion as a public institution, as something ‘capable of producing unity and agreement’ in the world (Rejoicing, p.61).

I began with an apparently incidental statement uttered by Latour in our personal interview. ‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?’ I propose that the originality and provocation of Latour’s work is found right there. Latour describes religion as arising via a local and contingent agency configuration, such that it is dependent on specific felicity conditions. And yet what arises nevertheless constitutes general and universal truth. The combination of these two requires no clever dialectic. Latour’s claim is simply that the value of religion arises through the mechanism of the actors who produce it in the space and time of this world. To put it in his own words, ‘religion is a full-blown mediation, a form of life, with its own form of judgment, its own canon, its own empirical world, its own taste and skills; and yet also where truth and falsity, faithfulness and infidelity are carefully detected, measured, proved, demonstrated, elicited’ (Latour, 1996, ‘How to be Iconophilic about Art, Science and Religion’, p.429).

Religion as Mediated (Part 1 of 2)

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

The first aspect to consider is Latour’s claim that religion is mediated. To be more precise, religion is a materially and historically embedded phenomenon. What does this mean?

Latour is not making a soft claim here about the praxiological forms in which religion is manifest in the world, of the sort that might be amenable to analysis by sociology or anthropology of religion, or of the sort that might be categorisable within a ‘world religions’ paradigm. Rather, what is in view here is the highly idiosyncratic claim that there is no essence of religion that is prior to or detachable from its mediation by material and historical actors in the space and time of this world. As he puts it: ‘religion—again in the tradition which is mine—does not speak of things, but from things’ (Latour, 2005, ‘Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame’, p.28). Hence, for Latour, religion is not a ‘substance’, that is, it does not consist of a content that can be brought to bear upon the world, ‘as if there existed some universal domain, topic, or problem called religion that could allow one to compare divinities, rituals, and beliefs from Papua New Guinea to Mecca, from Easter Island to Vatican City’ (ibid, p.28). To think in these terms would be to posit religion as a Durkheimian ‘social fact’ that exists independently of the ‘social’ performances of actors in the world. It would contravene his definition of rationality as given by ontological pluralism. And it would render religion vulnerable to annexation by Modernity.

Instead of religion as a ‘substance’, Latour proposes a definition of religion as ‘subsistence’. He advances this word as a means of describing how religion is instituted and sustained by the movements of actors within the space and time of this world, in such a way that it makes no movement of deferral to transcendence: ‘there is nothing beneath, nothing behind or above; no transcendence’, as he puts it (Latour, 2013, Inquiry, p.102). What Latour’s work facilitates, then, is a flattening of the epistemological categories of Modernity that have previously circumscribed an understanding of what religion is and must be, and the opening-out of an entirely new, wholly immanent scenography by which religion can be analysed as a mediated phenomenon.

This definition of religion shifts attention away from the ontological status of the actors themselves. What is of interest to Latour is not whether a particular actor is ‘religious’ or not. ‘Sacred’ or ‘profane’, ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, even ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’—ontological categories such as these are all prescribed before the actors who are tagged in this way are allowed to perform. These ontological categories can now be redeemed. Latour is agnostic as to the type of actors that might mediate religion. Sometimes, he refers to them generically as ‘the beings of religion’. At other times, he refers to them as ‘angels’—although it must be borne in mind that his use of this word draws upon a particular heritage it has accrued within recent Continental philosophy, especially in the work of Michel Serres, who adopted it is a trope to describe the priority of circulating reference and mobility (‘angels’) over the postulate of a singular, transcendent being (‘God’). The only question to be asked is whether that actor does indeed mediate the value that is proper to religion when it enters into trials with other actors. ‘Even God has no special privilege’, writes Latour, ‘and is not located in addition to or beyond other beings’ (Latour, Inquiry, p.315). When an actor does function as a mediator in this way, the ‘felicity condition’ of religion is activated.

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in?

In the midst of a discussion on religion during the personal interview I held with Latour in London in October 2014, he offered the following comment:

What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement? Is this not the basis of its rationality?

This comment foregrounds two important aspects of Latour’s understanding of religion. First, religion is a mediated phenomenon. That is, religion is a function of the ‘trajectory’ or ‘movement’ of actors in the space and time of this world. This is what I describe as ‘ontological pluralism’. Second, it is precisely through this mediation that the ‘rationality’ and even the ‘objectivity’ of religion arises.

Thus, Latour claims to describe a form of religion whose reality is grounded in the immanent movements of actors, not in the category of transcendence.This is the basis of his definition of ‘religion as a mode of existence’.

‘What is it that ensures the objective existence of a reality you believe in?’—this becomes the key question to ask of religion.