Latour on Durkheim: Part 4 of 5

This continues the mini-series on Bruno Latour’s analysis of Émile Durkheim’s 1912 text, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.

At this point, the screw begins to turn. Latour observes that periodically in the text of Les formes élémentaires Durkheim seems to renege on his commitment to the unilateral arbitration of the agent: Dieu-Societé. This agent, instead, comes to figuration as something that is dependent on the animation provided to it by humans or human collectives.

Durkheim slips into this alternative register, for example, when he writes about the sacred objects of religion:

Sacred beings exist only when they are represented as such in the mind. When we cease to believe in them, it is as though they did not exist. Even those which have a material form and are given by sensible experience, depend upon the thought of the worshippers who adore them; for the sacred character which makes them objects of the cult is not given by their natural constitution; it is added to them by belief. The kangaroo is only an animal like all others; yet, for the men of the Kangaroo, it contains within it a principle which puts it outside the company of others, and this principle exists only in the minds of those who believe in it […] So here we have another point of view, from which the services of men are necessary to them. (Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p.345).

Durkheim previously stood by his hypothesis that the agent: Dieu-Societé must be understood as the animator of human collectives and their religion. But here is something different. A switch has taken place. Now, Durkheim is apparently suggesting that human collectives must be understood as animators of the sacred. One metaphysical paymaster for another. What was first of all figured as an external agency now turns out to be generated entirely from within:

[…] les forces extérieures de coertion deviennent des forces intérieures de respect et d’approbations (15).

[…] those external forces of coercion have become interior forces of respect and endorsement (my translation).

This movement will be familiar to all readers of Latour’s critique of Modernity. This switching-between-the-two, this exercise of first-one-and-then-the-other, is exactly what he has previously described under the rubric of ‘the power of critique’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.30 ff). It is a tool of Modernity. And for Latour, this is precisely the tool that is wielded by Durkheim at whim throughout Les formes élémentaires. It is what makes Durkheim’s account of religion contradictory.

The irony, of course, is that the Durkheim quotation cited above would seem to be very much in line with a model of [REL], where religion is understood as that which is instaured through the progressive composition of agents—gods and men—where the agency is not decided in advance but justified by what they compose in the common world.

The problem is however that this hint works against the grain of the overarching hypothesis postulated by Durkheim, namely, the the forms of religious life we see all around us are products of the agency of the Dieu-SociétéDurkheim spots [REL] and its outworking in the world, but then sociologizes it out of existence. Or, to put it another way, for Latour, Durkheim is a prophet of [REL] in spite of himself!

Consider, for example, the following quote taken from the pages of Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires, which could have been taken straight out of the pages of Latour’s On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2009):

We must be careful not to believe […] that the cult was founded solely for the benefit of men and that the gods have nothing to do with it: they have no less need of it than their worshippers. Of course men would be unable to live without gods, but, on the other hand, the gods would die if their cult were not rendered. This does not have the sole object of making profane subjects communicate with sacred beings, but it also keeps these latter alive and is perpetually remaking and regenerating them. (Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, p.346)

So Latour has diagnosed a great deal of Durkheimian confusion. But out of this mess something positive arises: the outline of religion as a mode of existence, [REL]. It begins to appear via chiaroscuro against the backdrop of Durkheimian sociology of religion.

What is the prescription for this? First, it will be necessary to break with a historical continuum (rompre la continuité historique) that presupposes a universal and impersonal force (Dieu-Societé) animating all religious experience. For Latour, this is precisely what Durkheim is describing as ‘the elementary forms of religion’ (even though Durkheim would consider his description as a most advanced form of recognition). For Latour,  Judaism and Christianity—at least when they display a pernicious commitment to monotheism (in the Sloterdijkian sense)—provide the most sophisticated versions of such ‘elementary’ forms of religion (p.16).

Second, the constructive move: the philosopher of religion will have to be prepared to work hard to find local factors that constitute local religious experience, acceding to a model that we might call cheiropractic, if this is understood as multi-directional (humans made by God’s hands; God made by human hands; not a Dieu-Societé in sight):

Il faudrait substituer à l’obsession monothéiste les énigmes de l’anthropologie et accepter de comprendre que, non, décidemment, l’humanité ne s’est pas posée toujours et partout ce seul et unique problème de savoir comment nous pouvons élever des autels à des dieux que nous n’aurions pourtant pas fabriqué de nos mains. (p.17)

We will have to substitute for our monotheistic obsession the mysteries of anthropology and accede to the realty that humans have not, no – not one bit, felt themselves confronted by this one, universal problem at all times and in all places: how it is that we can raise altars to gods that we would not first have fabricated with our own hands. (my translation)

The commitment of Durkheimian sociology of religion to the agency of the Dieu-Société is therefore undermined by its own empirical account of religion. Or, to put it another way, Durkheim is more outrageously religious than he ever took himself to be!

To use the language of AIME, it might be the Durkheim represents some kind of amalgamation, out of which true religion, [REL], can be unpicked, if the anthropology is good enough!

The next and final post will show how good anthropology can indeed unpick the Durkheimian mess and leave us with something that might be useful in representing the world we really do inhabit.


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