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.


7 thoughts on “Latour on Durkheim: Part 1 of 5

  1. how does one decide what’s in or out of a particular mode, say when does a practice one might put in religion become law/governance or vice versa? seems like yet another attempt to find existence cut at the joints (which of course don’t exist).


    1. That’s the big question. Latour has so far focused on ‘crossings’, that is, large areas of veridictional confusion where two modes amalgamate and render each other non-comprehensible. But what the project needs is a multi-colour exploration of creative zones of effervesence where modes cross-pollinate. AIME calls these ‘harmonics’: see here for the quote ‘there are positive situations in which, on the contrary, the modes are similar enough or vibrate to a common rhythm – we speak then of harmonics’. IMO, however, these are under-developed as the work currently stands. I think the Reset Modernity project will be addressing this to some degree.


    2. In my opinion what Latour tries to do is like this:

      if you put instead of people “acts of articulating”. In the moderns these acts tend to be organized in an extreme way and also to be like robots. We think we are very creative, sophisticated etc etc but are we living?

      My guess is that in my tradition’s language what he is trying to do could be described as pointing to the presence of the Holy Spirit everywhere “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.”

      My guess too: The modes in the moderns are flatened , projected on the same space-time, they become spatiotemporal trajectories. But to become sensitive to them means seeing the spatiotemporal continuoum as a useful (at times) costruction. A [TEC] object.

      I do not think it is “another attempt to find existence cut at the joints” because this is a third person perspective while (if I sense it right) here “proper articulation” works both ways: on the one end it “describes” reality (the way a poem describes reality) but also on the other end it structures existence (“personal” existence)


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