Fundamentalism: Too Close to Home for Comfort?

In various posts below I’ve described how, for Bruno Latour, the religion instantiated within Modernity is upheld at the [DC:REL] crossing. Extending this analysis, it will now be shown that the religious situation in general that results in Modernity (and, indeed, the one that is prevalent in the world of ‘secular modernity’ that we all inhabit) can be called ‘fundamentalism’—however paradoxical this might seem to be in our age of pluralistic toleration.[1]

Latour’s re-allocation and re-appropriation of the febrile and toxic concept of ‘fundamentalism’ is one of the most interesting aspects of his recent work. According to its technical usage within the Inquiry into Modes of Existence, fundamentalism does not indicate a ‘return to the past’, that is, it should not be understood in the narrow sense of adherence to an original movement or tradition. Rather, within the Inquiry, fundamentalism refers to the attempt to stabilise a regime of truth in the public space by means of the logic of [DC]. It does not have creedal definition so much as a performative one: it describes the efforts of the Moderns to base epistemology on a foundation other than the logistics of [NET:PRE]. Thus, fundamentalism should be understood as a recent production, or at least as one that is contemporaneous with the advent of Modernity and le front de modernisation.

The logic of fundamentalism can hitch itself to any regime of truth: law, politics, science, or indeed religion.

What is more surprising, however, is that, when it comes to fundamentalist religion, Latour accuses secular modernity itself of being its generator and sustainer. Once again, this conclusion is warranted by the methodology of the Inquiry. It can be demonstrated in three steps. First, as has already been seen, Latour has demonstrated the way in which the Moderns have encoded religion as referential informational correspondence via the [DC:REL] crossing (albeit they have done so in the spirit of ‘pious’ countermeasure to the perceived encroachment of Science). With this in mind, a second step follows: Latour argues that the Religion of the Moderns is ‘undiplomatic’, that is, it asserts religious truth apart from the negotiated logistical operations of [NET:PRE]. Unmoored in this way, no control whatsoever can be exerted on unilateral religious claims (for more on this, cf. Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, 2013, 2001, p.65). The third step is the inevitable correlate of the second: the Religion of the Moderns is rendered susceptible to vicious feedback cycles initiated by those who wish to usurp its authority in the interest of a particular expression of power or domination.

As far as Latour is concerned, then, fundamentalism is not at all a description of a religious sensibility that has been overcome in Modernity but that threatens to break out primordially in parts of the world awaiting the advent of the Modernization process for themselves; rather, it is a description of the pharmakon that lies at the heart of the very religion that is promoted and justified by the Moderns within secular modernity.[2]

By inscribing fundamentalism in this way, Latour is able to make a controversial connection between violent religious extremism—including the phenomenon of Jihad-inspired terrorism—and secular modernity. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015 Latour argues that the rationality of those criminals is ultimately the same (albeit in mutated form) as the one that is secured by the Modern constitution and espoused by those promoting the Religion of the Moderns:

It comes from those who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough. (op.cit)

The hegemony over the interpretation of religious truth claimed by the Jihadists stems from a disregard of the delicate and dispersed rationality of the modes of existence.


The violence they exert upon the Other is justified by their privileged claim to referential informational correspondence to the command of their ‘God’. Latour’s startling claim is that this informational claim derives from the same amalgamation as that which determines the Religion of the Moderns, namely, [DC:REL]. The skewed and bastardized rationality of the Jihadists is no different in kind from the sanitized and widely-disseminated rationality that is proudly espoused by the Moderns. So, on the one hand, he can propose that the Jihadists, ‘behind their archaic appearance must be understood above all to be fanatical modernizers’. And, on the other hand, he can propose that secular Moderns ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah—the parallel is uncanny—rejecting the efforts of diplomats, want to claim the whole land for themselves’ (‘Thou Shallt not Freeze Frame‘, p.35).

For Latour, a phenomenon like Jihadist religious violence must be appreciated for what it really is: not a return to a pre-modern (pre-Enlightenment) worldview, but the logical instantiation of a Modern one.

You might like to consult as well an earlier post by Philip Conway on Latour’s very interesting and poignant response to the Charlie Hedbo massacres.

[1]   The term ‘absolutism’ is used in a nearly analogous way in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013, English edition), p.94.

[2]  For more on this theme, cf. ‘Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?’, (2004), p.239; An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, (2013), p.260.


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