Thinking about the French thinking

Dr Sudhir Hazareesingh is a very important mediator of and commentator on French thought for an English audience (this book, for example, is a good start for anyone dipping their toes into the field). In this recent lecture delivered at the LSE, he argues that French ‘progressive’ (his words) thought currently finds itself in a cul-de-sac of moribund ideation and reduced influence on national and global politics.

However, the diagnosis (and therefore also the prognosis) is simplistic. First, he conflates ‘progressive’ with ‘leftish’, and then elevates this fabular entity into the standard-bearer for all ‘legitimate’ or proper’ French philosophy. Second, he defines the power of this entity as generated by its ability to foster grand and unifying narratives that can join up the dots of the complexity of meaning que l’on trouve sur le terrain and unify it towards a progressive end (although he does nod towards acknowledging the corresponding blindness of those within this ideology to assimilating the value of the ‘Other’ in their midst, and the straight line that leads to the appropriation of laïcité by Marine le Pen these days).

Perhaps it was for want of time, but Hazareesingh misses the strand of French thought that is really interesting – and that I and many others would claim represents, in fact, the true inheritance of French intellectual life: namely, the radically immanentist, fecundly pluralist ontologies of Michel Serres, Bruno Latour and (that adopted French intellectual) Peter Sloterdijk. Actually, Hazareesingh slips into precisely the error that Latour diagnoses as symptomatic of the Moderns: his definition of ‘progress’ has its arrow pointing the wrong way! So he ends up describing a politics that can do nothing but oscillate between the two traditional ‘attractors’ and has not yet taken account of the all-important third attractor, the one that changes everything.

So nice intro. Worth a listen. But in 200 years time the histories of French thought will, methinks, be identifying a very different lineage from the one for which Hazareesingh is writing the memento mori here.



Specifying Religion as a Mode of Existence

Continuing the general bent of this blog, which is towards a clarification of Bruno Latour’s concept of religion as a mode of existence [REL].

Having identified the empirical site that ‘gives’ it (amatory speech), the logistics by which it functions (reprise), and the value that it institutes (being brought-into-presence), it is now possible to clarify religion as a mode of existence itself. Finally, then, [REL] is being encountered. As Latour himself puts it, he will attempt ‘with the tiny flame of personal love to rekindle the fires of religion’ (Latour, Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, English edition, p.126).

In shifting up from the empirical site to the mode of existence, a series of ‘specifications’ of the latter can be drawn up. This term is employed within the Inquiry with a nod to its usage in project management, where ‘specifications’ are the calibrations of the project that are agreed by all the stakeholders (cf. Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.182). Religion defined according to its specifications will therefore operate in the midst of the ‘common world’ and will proceed by means of fully diplomatic arrangements. (The contrast is intended, of course, with the epistemological reductionism characteristic of the Modern constitution, which defers from diplomatic procedures. In fact, I feel this is an altogether superior definition of what Latour means by ‘diplomacy’, which is not so much to do with the technical methodology of the platform via which we can contribute, so much it is to do with a gut reaction by which we ‘recognise’ the value that is veridicted by a mode of existence via experience).

As would be expected, the specifications of [REL] are precisely those given by its empirical site.

First, the value it institutes is the same. To undergo an experience of [REL] is to undergo an experience of being brought-into-presence. In the case of the amatory speech, being brought-into-presence was binary and limited (being restricted to the love relationship between two people). In the case of [REL], this value has a much expanded signification. It entails not only being brought close to one other person, but being brought-into-presence within an entire collective (Cf. Inquiry, p.300). Suitably amplified, it might even usher in ‘a virtual people of the saved and the newly close who elude all borders’ (Cf. Inquiry, p.148). Latour describes this collective as ‘a sacred nation’ (Cf. Inquiry, p.161) and frequently conveys its meaning via Pentecost-type imagery (which proliferates throughout his writing on religion and is grabbed from Serres’ Le Parasite).


Second, the mechanism by which [REL] functions is the same. The collective generated by a religious experience is brought-into-being by means of words of reprise. In fact, ‘religion is reprise par excellence, the ceaseless renewal of speech by speech itself’ (Cf. Inquiry, p.306). This means that the experience of [REL] will always be characterised by a rejection of in-form-ational transfer and a celebration of speech that seeks to take up an original utterance in a new way in the present moment.

Colloquium in Montréal

Here’s my proposed abstract for (what promises to be) a very interesting colloquium in Montréal to take place in May this year:

Jusqu’à présent, nombre de critiques ont fait preuve d’une certaine réserve au sujet de la fonction du mode d’existence de la religion—ainsi désigné par l’abréviation [REL]—et que l’on a souvent considéré subordonné à une décision herméneutique préalable de la part de Latour.

Par conséquent, on suppose que la notion de [REL] représente une anomalie dans la structure cohérente de l’Enquête, s’accordant mal à la situation que l’on trouve sur le terrain en Europe. Par contre, il sera montré que si on la comprend comme il faut dans l’ensemble de l’œuvre Latourienne, la notion de [REL] fait preuve d’une cohérence interne. De plus, elle sert à préciser une approche heuristique utile pour aborder le thème de la religion dans l’époque de l’Anthropocène.

La présentation comprendra deux parties. Premièrement, on tracera le portrait de la religion au sens où l’entendent les Modernes. C’est dans cette optique qu’on peut voir que, contrairement à ce que prétendent les Modernes, nous ne nous retrouvons pas dans un jeu à somme nulle entre la religion et d’autres régimes de rationalité qui s’y sont toujours opposés, mais plutôt dans la situation quelque peu paradoxale où la religion se trouve elle-même entravée par une modalité qui lui est imposée de l’extérieur. Deuxièmement, on cherchera à présenter la formulation positive que propose Latour pour comprendre la religion comme phénomène tout à fait nonmoderne, c’est-à-dire [REL], qui possède un régime de rationalité unique en soi et différent de tous les autres modes.