Latour on Durkheim: Part 2 of 5

See here for part 1.

Latour’s critique of Durkheim converges upon Durkheim’s sociological method. In the case of the book under review, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), this primarily refers to Durkheim’s use of the ethnographic data he adduces to explain the most primitive religion that was known at the timenamely, the totemic religion of Australian aborigines. For Latour, Durkheim’s handling of this data is faulty. The give-away is that the ‘universal’ explanation of religion that Durkheim derives from this ethnographic data is the same at the beginning as it is at the end of the book. What this reveals is that his empirical data hasn’t had any effect on his conclusions, which are now shown to have been a priori all along.

Malgré l’érudition manifestée tout au long, le lecteur ne peut s’empêcher de remarquer que les grandes thèses qui s’appliquent à toutes les formes de religion, élémentaires ou avancées, ne subissent pas de transformation notable entre le début et la conclusion de l’ouvrage (2).

In spite of the erudition on display throughout, the reader can’t help but notice that the grand theses that are applied to every form of religion, elementary as well as advanced, are not subject to any notable transformation between the beginning and the end of the work. (my translations throughout)

What Durkheim is doing, then, is using a token empiricism to secure a universal conclusion, which is the polar opposite of the working method of ANT.

With this global critique in mind, the first of Latour’s four comments on the book can be appreciated (see parts 3, 4 and 5 for the others): Durkheim is guilty of misconfiguring the nature of the (religious) agency he is dealing with.

Durkheim’s basic line, of course, is that in Elementary Forms he is investigating the social forces and causes that are present in any given social milieu and that lead to the emergence of religious life. The agent he is handling, then, we might call Dieu-Société (7). What Latour shows, however, is that Durkheim presents us with an actor that can have no meaningful actions! What Durkheim does is first to over-animate his actor (by attributing to it the overweaning power to cause every single expression of religion that the world has ever known), and, second, by consequence, to defenestrate his actor (because by endowing it with this power, this super-agent is in fact rendered unattributable as an empirical phenomenon in the world). The claims made on behalf of the actor Dieu-Société are superficially persuasive (hence, the influence of Durkheim’s philosophy of religion on theologians ever since). But when subjected to a basic semiotic reading, this actor is shown to be insufficient to account for diversity of phenomena it is supposed to have produced. And so the question is begged:

De quelles actions est donc capable, dans le récit, l’acteur dont le nom est ‘société’? (4).

In this narrative, then, of what actions is the actor that is called ‘Society’ capable?

The ironies revealed here are legionnot least when we consider that, having mis-figured a chimerical ‘metaphysical paymaster’ into being with one hand, Durkheim then proceeds with the other to con-figure a full blown historical genealogy for that very same entity. That genealogy proceeds something like the following:

  1. In early human societies religion was understood as nothing but a brute, non-comprehended, universal force.
  2. Over time, this force found itself being reconfigured anthropomorphically and mythologically, such that what was once a non-comprehended force increasingly began to be figured in terms of a personal force of one sort or another (cf. monotheist religions, pagan typologies, sophisticated modern spiritualties).
  3. In the latter times, in a more sophisticated way, by dint of scientific method, we are able to recognize these forces as deriving from the ‘collective effervescence’ of society, with the hope that in the future we might enjoy something like une forme paradoxale de religion laïque (4).

An agent equipped with a simple diadic causal motor is supposed to have generated this proliferating range of effects! Really! It is as if Durkheim is sending out an F-16 jet into battle, removing its mounted weapons capability, and then telling a story of its great success in defeating the enemy.

Of course, we can immediately spot the synergy between the Dieu-Société of Durkheim’s text and the Modern category of ‘Society’, as developed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and elsewhere. Neither the Dieu-Société nor ‘Society’ can explain anything: rather, they are that which need to be explained (by means of the careful and labour-intensive analysis of proliferating agencies in the world):

Tout s’éclaire si la société n’est pas ce qui explique, mais ce qu’il convient d’expliquer (18).

Everything becomes clear if we take society not as that which explains, but what has to be explained.

The Durkheimian sociologist of religion, then, is guilty of setting himself up as an arbitrator of privileged access to a metaphysical paymaster that lies behind every expression of religion that has ever been experienced. This is elitist, non-democratic, non-diplomatic behaviour. The Durkheimian sociologist waves before our eyes an object of enquiry that:

[…] ne peut pas être vue directement sinon par le sociologue équipée, grâce à la science, d’une sorte de masque de soudeur qui protègera ses yeux (6).

[…] cannot be seen directly other than by means of a sociology equipped, through science, with a kind of welder’s mask that can protect one’s eyes.

Consider what Durkheim himself says: ‘social action follows ways that are too circuitous and obscure, and employs psychical mechanisms that are too complex to allow the ordinary observer to see whence it comes. As long as scientific analysis does not come to teach it to them, men know well that they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom. So they must invent by themselves the idea of these powers with which they feel themselves in connection, and from that, we are able to catch a glimpse of the way by which they were led to represent them under forms that are really foreign to their nature and to transfigure them by thought’ (Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p.209).


The Durkheimian sociologist is now revealed for what he is—nothing but a Modern critic handling religion. Here is an anti-[REL] analytic. In Sloterdijkian language, these Durkheimian sociologists are philosophers of the classical orb, secure in their esoterism by dint of ensuring the ‘invisibility’ of the knowledge they, and they alone, have access to in their gnostic covens (Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, p.16).

The conclusion? In Durkheimian sociology of religion:

[…] on retrouve là comme dans toute sociologie de la religion l’étonnante attitude qui consiste à expliquer la présence d’êtres inexplicables par l’introduction d’un être encore plus inexplicable (17).

[…] we find in it, just as in all sociology of religion, the surprising attitude by which the presence of inexplicable beings is explained by the introduction of a being that is even more inexplicable.

It is no surprise, then, that Latour will accuse Durkheim of resorting to the most hallowed principles of monotheism, la grande tradition monothéiste (7), in his explanation of religion. What Durkheim does is simply to swap the monotheistic God of traditional religion for a monotheistic Dieu-Sociéténeither of them is capable of accounting for the diversity of religious phenomena in the world. What a tantalizing glimpse this is of Latour’s God, and of the transcendence that will be radically redefined in his worshipful description of that God by means of [REL].


Latour on Durkheim: Part 1 of 5

One aspect of Latour’s modus operandi that is sometimes neglected is the fact that he is a reader of other texts. And indeed over the years he has churned out a number of book reviews.

So how, then, does Latour review books?

It will come as no surprise to note that the reviewing technique of a thinker like Latour operates in the push-and-pull grip of a (creative?) tension. On the one hand, as we would expect, his reviews are disciplined and trenchant, full of citation and faithful to the argumentational structure of the subject-text in hand—in many ways, his book reviews model responsible exegesis (of the sort he politely requests, but does not always receive, for his own writing). And yet, on the other hand, filtered as they are through the matrix of his own forms of intuition, all his book reviews represent quasi-Latourian manifestos in the own right, wrenching the subject-text into an actuality of his choosing, bringing it face-to-face and examining it according to the epistemological and ontological schemata that lies at the heart of his own Weltanschauung. If, like me, you’re interested in that, then Latour’s book reviews will be a resource worth mining.

Naturally these reviews often fly under the radar. Often they’re only in French. And so it’d be good to start the discussion going on one or two of them where we can, particularly for an English-speaking audience.

Latour’s recent review of Durkheim’s classic 1912 text in social theory, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, is one place to start, especially for a blog concerned with the political theology of Latour’s work. You can find it here in French (the review has not yet been translated into English).

It’s no surprise that Latour would have wanted to address Durkheim, and in particular the Durkheimian sociological approach to religion, at some point. After all, the two inhabit a contiguous lexical space (that is to say, they often use theological vocabulary that sounds similar at first glance). Have we not encountered Durkheimian terms such as the following in relation to religion as a mode of existence: empirical grounding, immanent construction, les forces extérieures de religion, and so on…?

Latour’s close reading of Durkheim, however, is primarily critical. In fact, we might even go so far as to say that the Durkheimian approach would represent something like an antonym to the entire structure of Latour’s political theology. The basic point is easy enough to anticipate: as far as Latour is concerned, Durkheim’s desire to uncover the ‘elementary form’ of religion in the world springs the very trap that [NET] has taught us to avoid, namely, the premature unification of the proliferating agencies that actually comprise any regime of truth (in this case, the proliferating agencies of the beings of [REL] that comprise the regime of truth that we can call ‘religion’). In this sense, Latour will be castigating the Durkheimian sociological approach to religion for misconfiguring the very agencies it seeks to catalogue (through empirical data on aboriginal religion, etc) as being constitutive of religion. For Latour, Durkheim’s foundational methodology is stunted and reductive, and therefore it cannot lead him to the phenomenon of religion itself.

And yet, towards the end of the review, Latour begins to creatively re-appropriate the book. This is where things get intriguing. The basic argument will be something like the following: in spite of his own intentions Durkheim offers some footholds for a modal approach to empirical phenomena, and therefore he can even be thought of as prefiguring modes of existence such as [POL], [MET] and [REP], as well as [REL] of course. In fact, in regards to the latter, Latour will even suggest that contrary to his claim to have defined ‘elementary’ forms of religion by means of his sociological method, Durkheim actually ended up defining ‘advanced’ forms of religion, not at all the sort of thing he set out to find (or thought he had find), but nevertheless forms of religion that turn out to be very similar to the ones defined by [REL]:

Je voudrais montrer que si ce livre utilise une forme élémentaire de sociologie, il développe en fait des formes avancées de théologie et qu’on doit lire sous la forme d’une théodicée, ce que Charles Péguy, adversaire décidé de toute théologie sociale, avait parfaitement reconnu. (3)

I would like to show that if it is true that this book employs an elementary form of sociology, it actually develops advanced forms of theology, demanding to be read even as a form of theodicy—something that Charles Péguy, that resolute adversary of all such social-theology, knew perfectly well. (all translations my own)

Of course, the reference to Péguy here is resonant—for Péguy is the thinker of [REL] par excellence.

What this book review provides, then, is a fascinating exploration of some of the ‘blurred edges’ of the intellectual genealogy that Latour claims for his own work. A thinker like Durkheim would routinely be considered outside the world of AIME (for goodness sake, Durkheim was actually engaged in polemics against William James and Gabriel Tarde, both of them bona fide AIME heroes, and Latour himself has even staged a historical reconstruction of a debate contra Durkheim). And yet, it can still be said that Durkheim offers resources. If he is read, somehow, through himself, perhaps in a Deleuzian register of some sort.

In conclusion, what this shows, I think, is that we must think of the historical genealogy of the modes of existence less as a zero-sum game defined by ruptures (this thinker was with us, that thinker was against us, let us mark out our friends from our enemies), and more as a series of flashings and obscurances, sometimes illuminating and sometimes concealing, and often combined in single thinkers or boundaried schools of thought.

I’ll be offering four posts in the following days describing the arguments of the review step-by-step, with English translation. It’ll be intended as a description of the review and a prompt for you to read it for yourself. More to follow.

Publication of Étienne Souriau, ‘The Different Modes of Existence’

I’m pleased to note that my translation (with my colleague, Erik Beranek) of Étienne Souriau’s 1943 book The Different Modes of Existence is now available to purchase. As readers of this blog will know, this book was a crucial influence on Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. It is here available in English for the first time.

You can buy the book from Univocal (in the US) or Amazon (in the UK) – as well as from other academic bookstores and distributors.

Do let me know via this site or directly if you have any comments or feedback on the work: I’d be interested to hear.

Latour on Kant: When did the Modern Constitution Begin?

Here is my own (somewhat perfunctory) translation of a recent article published by Bruno Latour on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its function vis-à-vis the Modern constitution. The article appeared in German (translated from Latour’s original French) in Die Zeit last week under the general title Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen verstandes zu bedienen (‘Have the Courage to Make use of your Own Understanding’). The original French can be found here; the published German article here.

As Latour has stated many times and at various points in his corpus, Kant functions as a seminal, even founding, protagonist in the history of the Modernization Front to which we are still in thrall today—although, as the article makes clear, its hegemony over us may be coming to an end in the era of the Anthropocene. Latour has engaged with Kant at many points in his work: for further reading (or just to begin somewhere) I might suggest chapter 1 of Pandora’s Hope (1999).

Celebrating the anniversary of the birth of a great philosopher is always a nice thing to do. And yet I can’t help but regret that we didn’t celebrate with appropriate funereal pomp the year 2004, as a way of marking the interment of Kantian philosophy after two centuries of over-extended hegemony over us. In fact, the over-long reign of Kantian philosophy over the European mind might be compared to the over-long reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph over the conglomerate of subjects gathered together under Kakania, the Imperial Royal—at least in its portrayal by Robert Musil.[1] That empire was on the one hand solid and powerful enough to give the impression of possessing an architectonic order that was immutable and definitive; but on the other hand it was not supple enough to prevent its own break-up in the end.

The genius of Kant was to have discovered a way of incorporating in one single system the entirety of the various innovations of European thought that had accumulated over the previous two centuries, whilst at the same time definitively precluding any possibility of exhuming the very postulates that had superintended those innovations in the first place. Over the decades that followed, the full extent of this calamity was revealed. In particular, the separation (which once in place became impossible to critique) between the kingdom of necessity and the kingdom of freedom. Morality, objectivity and art would henceforth plough their furrows separately. All the energies of Kant’s successors would be spent finding a way-out of this trap that had been so fiendishly sprung.

What an extraordinary situation! The Kantian Critical Project was the very thing that made critique of the European project itself impossible. Kant was the one who rendered irreversible the bifurcation of nature between a knowing subject and a known object, between laws and facts—and all this right at the very moment where Europeans were about to be thrown headlong into industrial, ecological and political revolutions of various sorts and therefore were most in need of getting back to those aprioris. From that moment on, the definition of Enlightenment provided by Kant served only to obscure the various important questions that were posed by the worldwide expansion of Europe, one after the other.

And yet, two centuries later, by the grace of God, it might be that the violence exerted by climate change will be the thing that will cause us to recapture lost time, to revive critique and to take up once again the question that was rudely interrupted by the Enlightenment! 

Our pious memorial to this great philosophy should be to wish for it the only fate that is appropriate: that it should rest in peace. Requesciat in pace.


[1] Latour has made reference to Musil’s novel in a couple of recent articles, such as this one, p.61—I think he must have read it recently. For some background on the nomenclature of Kakania you might like to refer to this dictionary-type article or this episode of the wonderful Entitled Opinions podcast.


Reprising Latour’s Religion

My previous post set out some of the criteria for the ‘empirical site’ that will fuel Latour’s diagnosis of religion as a mode of existence. You might also like to refer to this post for a critical comparison of Latour’s empiricism with that of Badiou.

But what aspect of the empirical site does Latour intend to shift up to the regime of truth that constitutes [REL]?

The aspect Latour particularly highlights centres on a request for affirmation of love. He depicts a scenario[1] in which one partner within a love relationship asks the other: ‘do you love me?’ (Rejoicing, pp.25-26, and all subsequent references in this post). To this question, the latter replies: ‘yes, but you already know that, I told you so last year’ (Rejoicing, p.25). Evidently, this would not represent an appropriate reply to the original question, which was asking not for a banal repetition of the datum of a previous love experience, but for a verbal, or phatic, actualization of love in the present moment. In fact, the latter’s reply can be readily understood as a [DC] informational reference: it is as if the partner ‘imagines that he had recorded this memorable sentence on a tape recorder and that, as his only answer, he’s just happy to press the replay button to produce the indisputable proof that he truly loves’ (Rejoicing, p.53).[2] By responding in this way, he seeks to fulfil his partner’s request by referring to a past event that he takes to be the complete encapsulation of their love in itself and that he supposes represents without any further modification or alteration an appropriate answer to her question (Rejoicing, p.25). Of course, this response is unsatisfactory. The partner is in fact highly sensitive to the tonality of the words that are uttered. Implicitly she weighs them up, analysing their meaning:

It isn’t the sentence itself that the woman will closely follow, or the resemblance or dissimilitude between the two instances, but the tone, the manner, the way in which he, her lover, will revive that old, worn-out theme. With admirable precision, exact to the second, she will detect if the old refrain has captured the new meaning she was waiting for, if it has renewed in an instant the love that her lover feels for her, or if the weariness and boredom of a liaison long over show through the worn-out vocables. (Rejoicing, p.26)

For the partner, then, amatory speech comports more than merely a vehicle for the transport of information. Her original question was in fact inviting a performance of something in the present: in this case, the bringing-into-presence of two people to each other. As far as she is concerned, the meaning of her question is found not in informational transfer but in relational transformation, in such a way that the response to her question will draw her into relational closer proximity with her lover.

The contrast between these two utterances, or as Latour calls them ‘regimes of enunciation’, can now be brought out in full. On the one hand, the in-form-ational response[3] attempts to secure a value (the bringing-into-presence of two people) by carrying forward the stable form of a previously-declared attribute into the present (the rehearsal of a previous declaration of love). On the other hand, and by way of contrast, a trans-form-ational response attempts to secure that same value by an alternative means: it enacts in the present an entirely new configuration of the previous declaration of love, in such a way the two partners are brought-into-presence precisely by dint of the freshness, the originality and the innovation to which the original utterance is subjected. Measured by that criterion, the in-form-ational response is of course bound to fail. Its logistics are designed for the preservation of form from past to present, and not for its alteration. Indeed, in this empirical context, an in-form-ational utterance will be deemed irrational—if this word is understood in the context of ontological pluralism, that is, as bypassing [NET:PRE] associativity. It will fall flat on the ears of the partner. The trans-form-ational response, by contrast, does not trade at all in the currency of [DC]: in fact, it brings informational ‘disappointment’, that is, ‘zero informational content’ (Rejoicing, p.32). Instead, it brings disturbance to the stable transports of [DC] by means of a ‘twisting’ or ‘alteration’ of the original utterance. Latour’s primary description of this process is ‘reprise’ (Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.306). It is precisely on account of reprise that trans-form-ational amatory speech is able to activate love, that is, to bring-into-presence two individuals.[4] Thus, when reprise is enacted, the love relationship comes alive in the present as if it were new: ‘when they look at each other again, talk to each other again and once again something happens, they find themselves in each other’s presence, and then their love, beyond and between them, gets back its freshness and effectiveness, its force’ (Rejoicing, p.125).

Reprise therefore enacts alteration of the form of the original utterance.

However, this alteration does not render the original utterance less meaningful in the present, but more. This much seems to be indicated by the word itself: for an original utterance to be subject to reprise implies that something that came before is being taken up again and re-appropriated in the present. And Latour argues that this is also attested empirically in the situation of amatory speech: successful communication and activation of a love relationship in the present can only be achieved by recalling or re-activating a shared history of love that came before, to such an extent that Latour even suggests that by means of reprise the lovers end up getting ‘the same’ back again (Rejoicing, p.47). If reprise is to be activated in the present it must be reprising a previous love declaration of some sort. To lose that connection would be to lose reprise altogether. Thus, to use an idiomatic formulation: reprise must be a reprise of something. Reprise must be neither an immediate repetition nor a wholesale betrayal of the original utterance: it sits between the two in an uneasy and never completely secure tension, playing out every time ‘the question of fidelity or treason: faithful or falsified invention, impious reworking or astounding rediscovery’ (‘Biography of an Inquiry’, p.288). As the argument proceeds, and the empirical site is shifted up to the mode of existence, this will provide vital ballast in countering cheap accusations of relativism that have been thrown at [REL] in the critical literature.

In summary, reprise repudiates the procedures of [DC]. When reprise is activated, a value is instituted: the ‘bringing-into-presence’ of two people. Reprise can therefore be understood as a logistics (that is, as a particular configuration of the [NET:PRE] crossing that defines a rationality). Amatory speech provides an empirical demonstration of this movement. Thus, although the language might seem counterintuitive, for Latour it is correct and accurate to describe a love relationship as one that is ‘gripped by a logic of transformation—and yes, it is indeed a logic, and even a mechanics, as lovers themselves know only too well’ (Rejoicing, p.100).


[1]  Descriptions of this scenario occur at various points in Latour’s writing on religion, for a typical version cf. Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech (2013), pp.25–26.

[2]  Latour usually figures the offending partner as the ‘male’ (this practice will be continued here for ease of reference).

[3]  Latour sometimes transcribes this as ‘in-form-ation’ so as to indicate that the lover’s response seeks to preserve a stable ‘form’ of the original utterance through a spatial and temporal shift (the new place and time in which that love needs to be validated), for which cf. Rejoicing, p.25. This is then contrasted with its opposite, which is transcribed as ‘trans-form-ation’.

[4]  The influence of Michel Serres’ concept of ‘translation’ is crucial here. Particularly in his Hermès series and in The Parasite, Serres analyses patterns of communication as equal mixtures of signal and noise, or ‘interference’, produced in the course of transmission. For Serres, can there be no straightforward exchange of messages from one point to another: ‘translation’ is therefore a necessary, and productive, component of all information transmission.