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].



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