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.


5 thoughts on “Reprising Latour’s Religion

  1. meh , as Rorty and others have noted we are always-already manipulating (mangling for Pickering) our environs to (what Stengers has noted as) our own interests, not a logic per say as much as a kluged together thru evolution way of being, human-being.
    These sorts of neo-kantian imperatives like Latour is preaching are more prescriptive (wishful/magical thinking even) than descriptive.


    1. Yes, indeed, Latour is absolutely assuming the story told by that ‘counter-history’ of western metaphysics (Whitehead, Tarde, James through to Deleuze, Stengers, Souriau), the one that suggests that meaning arises by the interaction of agents on a plane of immanence according to their own interests (he used to call these interactions ‘épreuves’, which is a brilliant way in French to describe the ‘tests/ trials/ proofs/ ordeals/ labours’, translate it how you like, between agents that generate non-transcendentally-given meaning). This is basic Latour, from ‘Irrédutions’ onwards. So in fact he would definitely sign up to your nice description of hominization as a ‘glued together thru evolution way of being, human-being’.

      I’ve used the word ‘logistics’ to describe that gluing, manipulating, evolving, immanent, compositional process. I intend the word ‘logistics’ to be a contrast with the word ‘logic’ (which I take to connote the arbitrarily-given ‘buckets’ of meaning that Modernity insists on applying everywhere, whether it be ‘Nature’, ‘Culture’, ‘Science’, ‘Law’, ‘Religion’, etc – all capitalised, and which Latour’s corpus has everywhere set out to critique and dismantle). But those are just my terms. I quite like them.

      What I think is novel in Latour vis-a-vis that tradition is his daring attempt to re-structure that logistics into recognisable streams or strata of rationality (the famous ‘modes of existence’) whilst nevertheless claiming that he is not slipping back into a logic. He’s providing a bulwark against that logistics becoming an endless, open-ended flow of interactions without meaning. And yet without re-introducing a Platonic metaphysics or transcendental-given to do so. This is the famous [NET:PRE] justification.

      I’m just a reader like you, but I guess what I’m trying to argue on this blog is that [NET:PRE] is convincing as a metaphysical explanation of a logistics that avoids becoming a logic – or, to put it another way, that [NET:PRE] does manage to be descriptive and not prescriptive. And thus that the modes of existence that follow (REL being the one I’m particularly interested in) are entirely new ways of understanding some of the phenomena of our lives in this world.

      You can see the challenge with REL, though: to describe God without having God over-rule [NET:PRE]… Is Latour having his cake and eating it with this mode? More to follow…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. well not convinced that there are such distinct modes but always interested to see how such framings can be put to use, so far Latour (in the recent post-ANT incarnation) has struck me like a retread of much of the liberal protestant theology that happened in places like Union Seminary in NYC but I like yer characterization of the intents/hopes of project (if not the modalities), looking forward to seeing what you make of it as you go.

    Liked by 1 person

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