Latour’s core criticism of Durkheim’s sociology of religion has been as follows: ‘gods’ are springing up everywhere. And they are springing up beyond the purview of Durkheim’s own sociological method. It is as if Durkheim’s own statement—‘men know well that they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom’, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p.209—has rebounded with ironic relish upon his own head.
[…] en pratiquant une telle hypothèse, on voit que Durkheim a parfaitement repéré non pas le ‘roc solide’ universel et intemporel du dieu société unique mais un polythéisme pratique bien plus suggestif et intéressant que le cadre immobile qu’il a propose (18).
[…] in pursuing such a hypothesis, what we can see is that Durkheim has perfectly captured not the unique, ‘rock solid’, universal and timeless Dieu-Société, but rather a practical polytheism, one that is much more suggestive and interesting than the fixed framework he did propose. (my translation)
Durkheim’s book therefore has value if we can somehow recalibrate its core intuition that religion is a function of the performance of agents.
In fact, Latour takes this further, and suggests that if we can do away with this nonsense of the Dieu-Société then we can take Durkheim’s book as diagnosing a number of such agencies, or as he will now call them ‘divinities’, each one functioning according to a different mode of existence:
- [POL]: in the book, Durkheim aptly describes the phenomenon of religious oratory, where a single individual is able to harness a large crowd towards some religious end. As a mode of existence, however, we can now see that this is a tantalizing expression of the political circle (p.19).
- [REP]: in the book Durkheim tries to make religious objects obedient to the overweaning ‘naturalised’ order that is given by the Dieu-Société, as if such objects were granted meaning by this metaphysical paymaster. As a mode of existence, however, we can now see that Durkheim’s descriptions of objects in the world are not universal and impersonal, but granted meaning within a complex matrix of lines of force and lineages of reproduction.
- [MET]: contra his commitment to the unilateral agency of the Dieu-Société, what we find in Durkheim are careful descriptions of human subjects welcoming a proliferation of religious agents into their lives with a view to metamorphosis and change (21).
For Latour, then, Durkheim is an ur-identifier of modes of existence, and thus shows himself more sensitive to the situation of pluralisme ontologique (22) than he is usually supposed to be. Modes of existence can be found in the most surprising places!
And so what is the conclusion of Latour’s review of Durkheim’s text? For Latour, the ‘elementary forms of religion’ proposed by Durkheim are an attempt to ignore or bypass the ‘advanced forms’ that theology should be preparing to handle and is able to handle if its regime of truth is correctly understood. It is precisely these ‘formes avancées de la théologie’ (p.21) that Latour himself will be handling in his configuration of religion as [REL].