The Crossed-Out God of Modernity

If you were to ask the ‘man-on-the-street’ for his or her sound-bite understanding of the religious thought of Bruno Latour (Lord, have mercy!), there’s a chance that you’d hear (if nothing else) the phrase ‘the crossed-out God’.

It’s important to understand that this is a description not of the God of [REL], but of the god of the Moderns.

As we know from We Have Never Been Modern, the Modern constitution functions by means of the purification of a properly pluralist ontology into the artificial and non-representative epistemological categories of Nature/ Society. By means of this purification, the Moderns accrue to themselves power vis-à-vis other collectives in the world: this power is rendered by the way they can now leverage the forces of both transcendence and immanence in one and the same movement, even though this movement is in fact mutually and internally contradictory. This subterfuge back-and-forth movement allows the Moderns to evade [NET:PRE] by claiming sometimes that agency is curtailed by forces outside their control (the transcendent lock), whilst at other times that it is generated by their own meaning-making activity (the immanent lock). Latour’s particular contribution, of course, which is in accord with his Nietzschean/ Deleuzian inheritance of ‘epistemologies of force(s)’, is to diagnose this as a ‘political’ tool in the hands of the Moderns: by restricting rational definition to one or other of these locks, the Moderns are simultaneously able to denounce other (entirely legitimate) collective arrangements by which a regime of truth might be conceived to arise. (This denunciation might target human collectives, for which cf. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, or nonhuman collectives, for which cf. Politics of Nature – it really is an all-encompassing power).

To complete the picture, however, another lock must be added. This is provided by the Moderns’ concept of ‘god’. It is no surprise to discover that the divinity of the Moderns is subject to exactly the same manhandling between the poles of transcendence and immanence: sometimes the Moderns situate (H)im according to the transcendent lock, thus vouchsafing their own privileged access to a regime of truth which they claim is guaranteed by (H)is transcendence; at other times they situate (h)im according to the immanent lock, thus preserving their own role as masters and determiners of a regime of truth which they claim is always the result of their own agency and nothing more. The result is a ‘God’ who serves as nothing but a functionary of the Modern constitution, available to the Moderns at any moment of their choosing as a resource to protect their own situation:

His transcendence distanced Him infinitely, so that He disturbed neither the free play of nature nor that of society, but the right was nevertheless reserved to appeal to that transcendence in case of conflict between the laws of Nature and those of Society. (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 1993 [1991], p.33)

Just like the first two locks, this quasi-divinity provides a means by which the Moderns can denounce regimes of truth claimed by other collectives. (I’ve simplified the system of ‘locks’ a little bit here).

Latour describes this divinity of the Moderns by means of the intriguing phrase: ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’. Strangely enough, although he advances this description prominently in We Have Never Been Modern (cf. pp.32–35, 39, 127–128, 138–139, 142), which is an early text dating from 1991, it hardly recurs in his subsequent corpus. Notwithstanding, the concept is highly germane to an understanding of Latour’s positive formulation of [REL] that is to follow.

Three observations about ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ will be ventured here.

First, H/he is a function of the severely truncated epistemology through which the Moderns institute their own religious experience. Situated away from the logistics of [NET:PRE], the crossed-out God cannot be encountered as an entity within the common world. This being the case, whatever the piety of the Moderns (and Latour thinks they really are pious, whatever it might seem), there are quite literally no means by which a truth-claim might be made about this divinity: H/he has been denied the right to exert agency by means of an actor-network and therefore H/he cannot be conceived as an object of veridiction. The divinity of the Moderns, and the huge industry of critique that has followed in H/his wake, is chimerical. And so in making this diagnosis, Latour brilliantly bypasses vast swathes of rationalistic critique of religion. The divinity critiqued by all that has quite literally deconstructed itself. In fact, we might say the majority religion of secular modernity – the Religion of the Moderns, we might say – is characterised by a religious sensibility that has been thwarted by its own religious epistemology:

Moderns [are those who are engaged in] on the one hand a search for a substance and a God not made by human hands, a search they have made the origin of all virtue; and, on the other hand, a practice that obliges them not to take that project into account. (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.275)

By contrast, Latour’s intellectual project requires experience to be open to encounter with a dramatically expanded range of agencies operating outside the locks applied by the Modern constitution. ‘All [entities] ask to exist’, Latour writes, ‘and none is caught in the choice—viewed (by Moderns) as a matter of good sense—between construction and reality’ (On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, p.56). Religious experience is no exception: the specification of divine being to be provided by [REL], whatever this may turn out to be (remember, we haven’t got to that yet), must be justified by the performance of that entity in the common world. The God of [REL] (whose being, to repeat, has not yet been justified) will therefore be open to rational consideration in a way that was foreclosed under the aegis of the Modern constitution.

The second observation concerns the terminology itself: I wonder (and I’d very much like to hear opinions on this if possible) if the very phrase ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ is subtly constructed by Latour in such a way as to undermine itself, thereby pointing forward ultimately to its own negation, the very negation that he thinks has already taken place via its espousal by the Moderns. Unfortunately this subtlety has been somewhat obscured by the standard English translation. The French that lies behind the phrase ‘the crossed-out God, relegated to the side-lines’ is ‘le Dieu barré, hors jeu’. The second part of this phrase (hors jeu) is alluding to the notion of ‘being called offside’ in sporting competition. With this new translation, a crucial nuance to the Religion of the Moderns comes into view: although its divinity is indeed ‘offside’, that is, outside the play of logistics determined by [NET:PRE], this is only because of a law that has been imposed upon the game by the Moderns themselves and which, in theory at least, could be retracted in an alternative epistemological regime. What would result, were this alternative regime somehow to be realised (enter: AIME), would be a God who is brought back onside, in such a way that His impact within the common world could be detected. The capital letters ‘G’ and ‘H’ in that previous sentence would be re-instated as markers of divine being, rather than as markers of the false transcendences imposed by Modernity (just as the capitals are used in ‘Nature’, ‘Society’, ‘Economy’, etc).

If my footballing analogy holds, then, the formula le Dieu barré, hors jeu can be taken as encoding (in a hidden, but nascent, way – like a potential tectonic force) a shift from the logic of Modernity to the logistical operations of ontological pluralism. This is precisely the movement that will be tracked by the regime of truth given by [REL].


Briefly, a third and final observation. In We Have Never Been Modern, a connection is proposed between the concept of le Dieu barré, hors jeu and a particular heritage in Christian theology: Latour suggests that it was in fact ‘a reinterpretation of ancient Christian theological themes [that] made it possible to bring God’s transcendence and his immanence into play simultaneously’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.33). This hint, although it is hardly developed further in that text, points forward to something that will need to be carefully considered, namely, what is the relationship of this bastardised religious expression, both in order and priority, with Christian theology? This is a question that is imposing itself with increasing intensity in Latour’s recent work and that embodies a creative tension upon his understanding of religion as a mode of existence [REL]. it will surely have to be the subject of a great deal of our attention in what is to come …


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