The Characteristics of [REL], 3 of 3

The third characteristic of [REL] is hesitation. Hesitation is the reflex of reprise. It resists transcendent closure (‘religion is this or that experience’) and continually refers back to the performance of entities in the common world for its definition (‘this or that experience is religious’).

Latour suggests that hesitation, in the form of doubt, marks the response of the faithful even in light of what appears to be direct address from the Divinity (the paradigmatic instance being the ‘call of the prophet’ narrative forms of the Hebrew Bible): ‘not once, in all the Scriptures, do we find traces of someone who was called who could say that he was sure, really sure, that the beings of the Word were there and that he had really understood what they wanted of him’ (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.310). Except, the same passage goes on, ‘the sinner’, who is thus defined as the one who unflinchingly accepts religious experience as an in-form-ational medium (ibid).[1] In order to dis-amalgamate from [DC], Latour suggests that [REL] will tend towards appropriating and celebrating (what might be called) ‘sticky liturgies’, that is, words from its own tradition that are ‘hard to swallow’, ‘bristling with contradictions’, ‘bizarre’, ‘clumsy’, ‘sticking in our craws’, and so on (Latour, Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, p.100). By means of sticky liturgies, [REL] turns its attention to the logistical procedures of the common world.

In this regard Latour reflects the influence of Michel Serres. For Serres, religion is best understood through its complex etymology derived from relegare (‘to read over again’), religare (‘to attach, bind, tie together’) or religiens (‘care, carefulness’, this word being the antonym of negligens): he suggests that religion inherits from all three roots but particularly the latter. In this way religion is orientated away from the notion of ‘belief’, which both Serres and Latour disdain, and towards the notion of ‘concern’, which they celebrate as orientation towards the secular, the mundane and the worldly.

Bringing these three characteristics together, we might therefore suggest that the most distinctive feature of [REL] is ‘subsistence’ (which can now be contrasted with ‘fundamentalism’ as the basic posture of the Religion of the Moderns). Subsistence is once again demonstrable from the empirical site. In seeking to affirm their love, Latour suggests that both partners understand ‘that their love is either a substance whose attributes serve no purpose, or that [they themselves] are responsible for bringing out its attributes and then, yes, effectively, their love stands underneath—which is precisely what the word ‘sub-stance’ means—all the shows of tenderness and affection’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Amatory speech can be encoded either as ‘substance’, where it lazily leans upon a previous utterance without taking upon itself the work of activating it in the present, or as ‘sub-stance’ (or ‘subsistence’, as Latour more commonly calls it), where it takes responsibility for continually activating its own value in the present moment by means of reprise. The same contrast applies to religion. Unlike the Religion of the Moderns, which operated via a ‘fundamental’ substrate of information, [REL] does not consist in ‘a substance preserved intact over time, like a gold coin forgotten under a mattress that you might come across happily years later’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.126). Instead, [REL] encodes a movement of subsistence: first comes the performance of a religious experience, and only afterwards can this performance be validated (or not) according to the value it has incarnated. It is no exaggeration to say, then, that subsistence reverses the direction of meaning of a religious experience. A religious truth claim is revealed after (not before) its performance:

I begin with the utterance and end with a substance, I start from existence, from its fragile dependence on the right word, and I recapitulate it after that in an essence. First I make the thing exist and only after that do I name it. (Latour, Rejoicing, p.128).

Hence, it is more accurate to think of [REL] as a participial construction (‘religiously’) than as a referential object (‘religion’).

Defining [REL] in terms of subsistence, however, does not imply relativism.

This is because whichever mode is in view—whether this be [REL] or anything else—objectivity is not granted by appeal to a transcendent, unalterable notion of substance, but via the subsistent movements of entities. The telos of Latour’s entire intellectual project is towards the development of a realism without substance. The regime of truth specific to [REL], like that of any other mode, does not lose objectivity when it is validated by means of its performance within the common world. Rather, ‘as soon as we put it [religion] back on its feet, by taking it the right way round, starting from the attributes and going back (or not) to the substance, it becomes accurate again, since it retrieves all its truth values’ (Latour, Rejoicing, p.138). Only when religion trades in the trans-form-ational utterances of subsistence, rather than the in-form-ational utterances of [DC], will it attain to the status of fully rational discourse.


[1]    Latour includes in this condemnation are the official representatives of the institutional Church when they collude with the Religion of the Moderns in seeking to preserve, rather than reprise, doctrine: ‘the people whose job it is to change words so as to keep the meaning, clerics, have preferred piously to preserve the words at the risk of losing their meaning: they’ve left us, the rest of us, we latecomers, ignoramuses, stutterers, equipped with words that have become untruthful for the purposes of recording the real things we hold dear to our hearts’ in Latour, Rejoicing (2013), p.8.


The Characteristics of [REL], 2 of 3

The second consequence of [REL], which evidently follows from the first, is that it will display strong inclusivist tendencies. That is to say, if it functions via reprise, [REL] will be alert to the arrival of new and unexpected entities by which that reprise might be furthered.

Once again this contrasts with the Religion of the Moderns which, as has been demonstrated, is resistant to such admission.[1] [REL] is characterised by its readiness to incorporate any entity whatsoever—whether ‘large’ or ‘small’, ‘real’ or ‘abstract’, ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’, or indeed ‘human’ or ‘divine’—so long as the entity in question justifies itself as an agent of reprise that generates the value that is specific to religious experience.[2] This procedure would apply to an entity provisionally called ‘God’, just as much as it would apply to an entity such as a rosary-bead, an angel or a doctrine. Indeed, it is quite appropriate that the adjectives by which those entities were marked above (‘large’, ‘small’, ‘real’, ‘abstract’, and so on) should be contained within inverted commas because to begin with such descriptions would be to assume that the qualities and attributes of the agents that actually comprise religious experience can be known in advance. This is precisely the interpretative hegemony that is disclaimed throughout Latour’s work: ‘the fact is, we do not know in advance what the world is made of’ (Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, p.10). [REL] might be composed by anything, even though not everything will configure an experience of [REL]. The only condition is that the analyst should act as a diplomat with regard to the empirical situation presented to him/ her:

The analyst […] should not try to be reasonable and impose some predetermined sociology on the sometimes bizarre inter-definition offered by [the actors] studied. The only task of the analyst is to follow the transformations that the actors convened in the stories are undergoing. (Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, p.10)

This is the great innovation that comes from understanding religion as a mode of existence. Religious experience is opened up to a scenography of production that was foreclosed by the premature unification enacted by the Modern constitution. The There is no limit whatsoever to the type or proliferation of beings that can populate this scenography: they might range, for instance, from the regular experience of liturgical worship at a Sunday Mass in a small French village[3] to the ecstatic visions of the Virgin claimed by crowds of pilgrims at the shrine of Medjugorje in Croatia.[4] The entities associated with these experiences might be very different (in the first case, the entities involved are material, habituated and mundane; in the second case, they are immaterial, extraordinary and supernatural). But both are allowed to exert their agency in the common world first in order to ascertain whether or not their agency mediates the value that is specific to [REL]. This criterion was made clear by Latour in private interview to me last year:

What is it that ensures the existence of a reality that you believe in, whether it be God, the Virgin Mary, a Saint, or whatever? Does it not follow a trajectory, does it not perform a movement, just like I have demonstrated above? (transcribed)

What Latour gives us, then, is the apparent paradox of an empirical methodology that liberates the phenomenon of religion for extraordinary metaphysical adventures.


[1]  It is in this sense that Latour describes the Religion of the Moderns as ‘reductionist’: not because it seeks to abolish religion by means of critique (after all, the intentions of the Moderns towards religion are pious), but because it submits it to purification, thereby foreclosing religion’s ability to express itself as a rational experience.

[2]  At many places in Latour’s later work, in particular in the Inquiry, these entities are called simply ‘beings’. Thus, each mode of existence will function by means of ‘beings’ that mediate the logistical configuration that is specific to that mode: for example, ‘the beings of [POL]’, ‘the beings of [ORG]’, ‘the beings of REL’, etc. However, the nomenclature is not always consistent. Other descriptions include ‘words that bear beings’; ‘a species of existent’; and ‘angels’. The idea that the reprise of religion comes through ‘beings’, rather than merely ‘words’, is not difficult to grasp: it would find an echo, for example, in the idea that a love relationship might be activated or reinforced as much through the impartation of a gift as by a spoken declaration per se.

[3]   Cf. Piette, Albert, (1999), La religion de près: l’activité religieuse en train de se faire (Paris: Métailié). 

[4]   Cf. Claverie, Elizabeth, (2003), Les guerres de la vierge: une anthropologie des apparitions (Paris: Éditions Gallimard).

The Characteristics of [REL], 1 of 3

Having shifted up to the mode of existence itself, a general description of [REL] can now be provided. Three characteristics in particular can be noted.

First, religion experienced as [REL] will take the form of progressive composition. This contrasts with the Religion of the Moderns, which (as has been demonstrated in various posts above) is characterised by rigid institutional boundaries. This is not to say that [REL] will be disposed to lose its own demarcation or that it will tend towards becoming less distinct and more relativized over time (after all, Latour has demonstrated that the felicity conditions pertaining to its regime of truth are extremely stringent). But [REL] will be activated as it is reprised by multiple and heterogeneous entities functioning as actor-networks within the framework of the common world. The moment [REL] forecloses this possibility to itself and resolves into a settled and stable composition of some sort, it will calcify into a [DC] operation and regress into the institutional form of the Religion of the Moderns. Thus it will end up decaying like the manna that was hoarded in the desert: its ‘meaning is lost if you stop gathering it, collecting it’ (Latour, Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, p.10).