Where do we even Start? [DC:REL] and the Hijacking of Religion

My intentions on this blog are to exegete, clarify and test the political theology of Bruno Latour. The positive, logistical formulation of religion as a mode of existence, [REL], must therefore be constantly in view. The point will be to present [REL] —and then, having done so, to put it through the grinder of empirical experience (hopefully with your help) to see whether the new housing Latour proposes for it better reflects the value that needs instituting (‘experience’, ‘value’, ‘instituted’ – these are all terms that will need nudging into a slightly altered lexical position as time goes by).

So that’s the constructive task that lies ahead. And yet, one of the strengths of Latour’s work on religion is that first of all it resources us for (to employ a medical term) a ‘differential’ diagnostic of the situation of contemporary religion. And so, before moving on to [REL] per se, I think it’s worth thinking further about what religion is when it is ‘instituted’ by the Moderns. What have they done to it? Where have they gone wrong? The next few posts will be on this theme.

For Latour, contemporary religious sensibility has been hijacked by the epistemological regime he calls [DC]. The contemporary situation of the religion of the Moderns, then, exists in the following amalgamated form: [DC:REL].

In the Inquiry, [DC] refers metonymically to the ‘double-click’ operation of a mouse button by which the user of a computer is able to generate immediate access to a unit of data. The connotations of this operation within the context of Inquiry are entirely negative: it signifies the promise of access to information without cost, without mediation and without transformation, ‘through simple obvious likeness between the copy and the original’ (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 2005, p.22).[1] As Latour puts it, [DC] ‘wants us to believe that it is feasible to transport, without any deformation whatsoever, some accurate information about states of affairs which are not presently here’ (Latour, ‘Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame‘, 2005, p.32). [DC] therefore describes an epistemological operation that bypasses [NET:PRE] associativity, and therefore ontological pluralism, entirely.

The point here is that Latour simply will not concede that such an operation exists. For him, rationality only arises through logistical operations that partake of the [NET:PRE] crossing. And so the claim made by [DC] to provide absolute referential informational correspondence with reality is nothing but a chimera.

Although [DC] is indeed a chimera, it nevertheless represents the default epistemological operation of those living under the aegis of the Modern constitution. At its most basic level, it is encoded in ordinary language: ‘it is what people have in mind when they ask ‘is this true?’ or ‘does this correspond to a state of affairs?’’ (Latour, ‘Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame‘, 2005, p.32). At a more sophisticated level, it is encoded in the privileged status granted to the institution of Science, understood as that which provides direct access to a world-out-there without the intervention or mediation of component agencies.

And yet, although the assumption of referential informational correspondence is rarely questioned—indeed, it is usually taken as commonsensical—Latour demonstrates how this assumption in fact conceals the complex logistical operation of actor-networks. This is true in the practice of science, whose regime of truth is not secured via referential informational correspondence, but rather by the maintenance of ‘chains of reference’ that have been carefully constructed in laboratory or metrological environments, [REF]. But it is also true for all other regimes of truth. Thus he writes: ‘if you make the absence of any mediation, leap, or hiatus the one and only test of truth, then everyone, scientists, engineers, priests, sages, artists, businessmen, cooks, not to mention politicians, judges, or moralists, you all become manipulators and cheaters, because your hands are dirtied by the operations you have carried out to maintain in working order the networks that give direction to your practices’ (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.94). Within the technical infrastructure of the Inquiry, [DC] therefore represents a kind of ‘quasi-mode’ which Latour sometimes calls the ‘Cartesian evil genius’ on account of the way in which it attempts to short-circuit [NET:PRE] associativity and override all the other modes of existence in a hegemonic fashion.

When [DC] operations are applied to religion the [DC:REL] crossing ensues: this is the locus of the Religion of the Moderns. [DC:REL] can therefore be defined as the process by which [DC] operations hijack religion in order to perpetuate the illusion that religious experience can be attained by referential informational correspondence. In doing so, religion finds itself divorced from its own logistics and confused in its veridiction. Latour describes the outcome of this amalgamation by the word ‘belief’, a word which he wrenches from its positive connotations of ‘faith’ and employs instead to describe a pernicious form of fideism, that is, ‘a demand for access that has been stripped of its practical means of acceding to anything at all’ (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 2005, p.29). Whatever the function of religion is, then, it will not have anything to do with ‘belief’: in fact, ‘belief’ is taken as the polar opposite to [REL].

We’ll need to come on to what [REL] is then, if it is not ‘belief’. But the next post will continue this diagnosis of the Religion of the Moderns by way of preliminary.

[1] It should be noted that Latour has recently suggested that this metaphor is inadequate. This is because the double-click access provided by a computer in fact requires a large number of mediations to be functioning ‘below the bonnet’ in order to achieve the apparent effect of immediate access to information, not least of which is the physical capacity of large server facilities stored underground and away from our sight. In a strange, Anthropocenic twist, these facilities are themselves coming under scrutiny for their huge use of water for cooling. There is no [DC] without huge and hybrid relations of human and nonhuman, it seems!


Are you Saying Something to us, Earth? Translation of Latour’s Piece on ‘Laudato Si’

Stephen Muecke, an experienced translator of the work of Bruno Latour, has done us a useful service with his translation of Latour’s recent opinion piece on the papal encyclical, Laudato Si.

Latour wrote this in French a couple of months ago under the title La grande clameur relayée par le Pape François. It’s a short article and worth a read: in fact, it corresponds to analysis in chapter 8 of Face à Gaïa (2015) on the role and function of this encyclical in the political theology Latour believes is necessary (and indeed inevitable) in the age of the Anthropocene.

I will post some thoughts on the encyclical, and Latour’s use of it, soon: my own feeling is that it does not quite render the service that Latour believes it has. I’m going to withhold that post for now, however, as I’m attending a study-day in Oxford on Saturday where the encyclical will be discussed amongst theologians: I hope that input will enrich my own reflections.

The encyclical itself is well worth an hour of your time.