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.


3 thoughts on “The Characteristics of [REL], 3 of 3

  1. I have a question about [REL]
    In the MOE book [REL] is strongly connected with speach acts that save. If I can use my experience as a guide, words that save are connected to the barer of the message.
    I can see a counterargument. Ican see a person like the architect Alexander claiming ( that a well ordered architectural entity talks a deep message of wholeness (of salvation?) which strongly reminds of becoming a person (for the human who is sensitive to the message). But this the lonely trajectory of lone thinkers and I make the guess (which may be wrong) that it is one thing to experience this “wholeness” alone and is another thing to meet another human being who by his/her “Articulatory moves” (?) resonates with the same intuition (and the more distant the expression seems to be in surface features, the strongest the effect).
    So when it has to do with talk, it seems to me that [REL] comes together with fellow humans who are bearers of the message. It is not only the occasion that makes the same words take a different efficacy. It is also the presence of particular people who bare the message, their way of [REP] in front of us.
    Moreover in my tradition the strongest [REL] messages are nor verbal. They sound to me like touching explosives and in the explosion part of the self blows away but the remains are… These may not be connected with the presence of fellow humans but there is always an issue of fidelity. It is when the one who had the experience stands by his/her fellows that the value of the event can pass through as from a seeve.
    What I mean is that I do not see any human – nonhuman symmetry here


  2. Another issue with which I have a problem in the [REL] acount is how idol-breaking is treated. If we speak in terms of a negotiation this is a kind of proposal that would be too hard to buy for Jews and Christians (I think). To speak in the Christian tradition, it sounds to me like asking to accept that all these saints that were killed for not offering insense to the idols were just “misinformed” and were waiting for us to illumine them and help them clear their sight. (Is this not a little bit too much?)
    It also does not pay attention to the following: The act of idol-braking had a transformatory power because the idol braker was still susceptible to the charms of the idol, to the fear of the consequences of idol breaking (we count it for nothing because others did before us the walk we know walk easily) (see for example the story about Serena

    It is easier to accept an idea from iconoclash (if I got it right) that images can become idols if some kind of flow stops. If then people search salvation from these idols then this is a [REL]igious issue. So it is not a matter of democratic spirit or a sense of human equality that should make us feel morally and logically pressed to say: “How can I destroy the idols of the other if I also accept images?” because images and idols are not the same and because the other can also claim that I treat my images and idols (a claim to which I feal I have to answer).

    Suppose I use an account of image-making from my tradition, actually from a semi -modern source of my tradition (I use here George Kordis who claims that is in similar lines with f.Stamatis Skliris,, Gregore Popescu, Todor Mitrovic, Zenon (
    I read (the translation is mine) “the byzantine icon aims towards making its subject puplable, that is translate it to the sensing of the person who experiences it and that make him/her participant… byzantine painting wants to create, by means of painting, the preconditions so that the viewer experiences union with the subject that is presented… byzantinte painting wants to create a sense of communion between waht is present and what is absent. …. the tradition in byzantine painting is the way that the byzantine painter thinks about the function of the icon realtive to the viewer bu talso relative to the community…the byzantine painter wants to make present the entities that are painted, to bring into the spatiotemporal dimensions of those who are present those that are absent. … the goal was to create through painting a “space” in which the presented entities live but also which is identical with the real spatiotemporality of the viewers. So the viewers are perceived as part of the icon, they are an organic part of the icon”

    I can connect this account with an artifact that mediates a meeting, that we pass through it. There is also connection with stories and dogmas related to what is depicted. One should also consider that the one who comes in front of an icon is usually somebody carrying burdens, somebody who deals with the complexity and burden of life. The icon may mediate sensing the presence of the saint, registering the connection between the saint’s life and the viewer’s life, a referencing of both the viewer and the saint towards the One living God whose friend the saint is, through his /her friendship to Christ, and whose friend or servant the viewer tries to be in the turmoil of life.
    This is not [MET] thow. Not in the sense of being addressed to somebody else and not to me. I am not supposed to somehow steal this knowledge and power (sa far as I understand) which is the sense I get from [MET].
    (like the bull in this frsco
    Trying to steal it would be “black magic” even if it is “for my good, for my empowering” (Like stealing the fruit of knowledge in the garden of Eden)

    Is not also the role of a holy text similar? Maybe for some people even the world can become such a text.


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