Latour on Durkheim: Part 5 of 5

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].


An Ontology of Instauration

This is a fantastic collection of essays on Étienne Souriau’s concept of instauration—that concept being one of the hypostases of the ontological operation that underlies the whole Latourian cosmos (also known as Being-as-Other).


Well-worth reading alongside the new English publication of The Different Modes of Existence!


A New Political Triangle

An important new text from Bruno Latour on a ‘third way’ (or should it be: a ‘third point’) to advance a political theology in the contemporary moment:

Terroir, Globe, Earth – A New Political Triangle

Formerly, we used to enjoy ‘splendid weather’ or put up with a ‘lousy climate’. But in recent months we’ve found ourselves on the receiving end of some ‘awfully splendid’ weather. What is true of the weather is also true of politics. The present moment is both awful and tremendous: thanks to the concurrence of terrorist actions, the rise of the so-called ‘national’ Front, and the conclusion of COP21, it is possible that we might finally be coming to appreciate where we are and what kind of politics we have to pursue.

Up to now, most of the points of reference for assessing whether one’s position was ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ have been situated along the length of a single, unique vector—either you were lamenting the old terroir or you were committed to globalisation. Between those two extremes there was a continuous line incorporating us all: the only thing that could vary was the position of the cursor. At the forefront of this modernisation front were those advocating ‘progress’—behind them, all those who were backward.

This entailed a contradiction, one that was well-known, depending on whether the vector concerned morality or markets. One could care about the emancipation of morality to the exclusion of economic globalisation (approximately the position of the traditional left); or one could desire the liberalisation of markets and oppose the emancipation of morality (let’s say the position of the moderate right). Alternatively, one could also wish for the joint emancipation of both morality and markets (the frenetic ideal of modernisation espoused by the ‘advanced’ sectors of left and right). Or, finally, one could fight against both.

For all that to function as a frame of reference, the elites themselves also had to believe in the existence of a world, of a globe, that had the potential to become a universally modernised planet, if only they were able to bring it about.

It’s at this point that we have to combine commonplace analysis of the political sphere with that of another sphere entirely: the planet that has made its entrance into politics. The historic importance of COP21 was that it enabled us to become cognisant of an entirely different way of proceeding: this planet Earth does not in any way resemble the globe of globalisation. To put it bluntly: there is no planet corresponding to the Promised Land of globalisation. There has been a signalling error! And so those positions no longer need to take their bearings solely by means of the classical polarisation that ranges from local to global, from national to universal, from identity to the ‘wide open spaces’ of the global market.

This classical politics was able to function only as long as the elites led us to believe that the world towards which we were modernising really existed. However, for thirty years now they have ceased to believe this. Those who recognised this first were not only the ecologists, but also those we call climate-sceptics. Contrary to what we often suppose, their denialism has nothing to do with archaism or with a lack of understanding. In fact, what they’d seen only too well was that if there was no planet corresponding to the world towards which we were supposedly modernising, then we’d have to defend ourselves by shutting ourselves away in a fortress of inequalities. The enormous shift that has seen the richest 10% become the richest 1%, and then 0.1%, cannot be understood until we appreciate that the elites have abandoned all hope of ever sharing their territory with those they had asked to modernise—or perish.

To understand quite how the times have changed, all we have to do is compare the scowl of Donald Trump (‘you’re fired!’) with the Hollywood smile of Ronald Reagan. It is no longer possible to allow ourselves to be hoodwinked as it was in the 1980s: previously optimists, the elites have now become sinister; where previously they led the way, now they have become defensive. If America is to continue to map out our future, the one proposed by the Republican Party, among others, sends chills down the spine.

All the more so as the masses have most certainly understood that, if the elites themselves no longer believe in modernisation, they will have to fall back in double quick time on the crumbs of identity that are still available to them. From Hungary to France, from Italy to England, from Russia to the United States, large numbers of people are acting as if to say: ‘if not the globe, at least let us have our terroirs!’ The white race, pork meat, nation, flag, caliphate, family, it really doesn’t matter what—as long as we’re not left with nothing. Everyone to the lifeboats! Of course, these communities are imaginary; not a patch remains of those former lands, now obliterated by globalisation. But one utopia for another: it is understandable that we should cling to the one that seems the least up-in-the-air.

Here is the turning-point at which we find ourselves, a fatal and decisive moment: is there an alternative definition of what it means to be attached to a ground, other than those provided by the ‘territory-terroir’ or the ‘territory-globe’? Could we postulate a third point that would allow us to redistribute all those positions and avoid the contemporary tragedy of a battle between the utopia provided by modernisation and that provided by national identities?

Such a triangle has not yet been mapped out, I know very well, but to the line that joins the ‘territory-terroir’ to the ‘territory-globe’ it now seems legitimate to add two lines linking those two traditional attractors to a third point, the apex of a triangle: this would be the ‘territory-Earth’ (we might call it the planet, or Gè, or Gaïa—the name matters very little). This is what I’ve called the ‘New Climactic Regime’. It is clear that the planet that was assembled at the astonishing climate conference in Paris has very few traits in common with the space towards which globalisation was supposed to be leading us, which was as undifferentiated as it was boundless. That planet possesses a climate, a ground, boundaries, front-lines, an entire geopolitics, with as little resemblance to the old maps of national identity as it does to the globe of the former world known as ‘natural’.

This third attractor is not opening a ‘third way’ between identity and universality (nor between ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ of course, which are two projects without a ground). But its presence, its weight, its novelty are capable of radically transforming the political spectrum. It requires us to redefine the very soil to which we belong, and to reconfigure who is to be deemed reactionary and who progressive. In any case, if we don’t manage to re-territorialise ourselves on this earth very quickly, unfortunately it’s a war of the terroirs that will soon confront us.

I can’t recall a New Year’s Eve where the weather [temps] has been so ‘awfully fine’, nor a new year that leaves us with as little time [temps] between a decisive presidential election and the urgent requirement to claim back the climate in such a political manner.



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.

Latour on Durkheim: Part 3 of 5

This is the third of five posts on Latour’s review of Durkheim’s 1912 text The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. The original review in French can be found here. You can see the previous posts of this mini-series here and here.

The next critical insight Latour offers in regard to Durkheim’s sociological method, and the philosophy of religion that ensues from it, is quite straightforward. He points out that if Durkheim’s thesis concerning the religious-agency of the Dieu-Société is to hold water, Durkheim will need to posit an account of the human subject that is weak to the same measure as the Dieu-Société is strong. The weakness  of the human subject must correspond to the strength of the Dieu-Société. Latour calls this ‘the psychology of the weak individual’. For Durkheim, the human subject, his being, his identity, almost his very soul, must be understood as donated to him, by dint of his submission to the cult of Society. At best it can therefore be said that the human subject enjoys …

[…] l’âme déversée sur lui par la société (9).

[…] a soul that is discharged upon him by society (perhaps we could translate this in a more dramatic way: ‘a soul that is dumped upon him by society’, the imagery suggesting precipitation dropped from a heavy black cloud).

Without Dieu-Société as identity-provider, the Durkheimian human subject would remain a helpless monad, unable to enter into relations with the Other, and without even the most basic means of offering communication to companions. This is the mandatory situation of the Durkheimian account of hominization.

If left to themselves, individual consciousnesses are closed to each other; they can communicate only by means of signs which express their internal states. If the communication established between them is to become a real communion, that is to say, a fusion of all particular sentiments into one common sentiment, the signs expressing them must themselves be fused into one single and unique resultant. It is the appearance of this that informs individuals that they are in harmony and makes them conscious of their moral unity. It is by uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture in regard to some object that they become and feel themselves to be in unison. (Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p.230).

For Durkheim, the higher achievements of the human spirit such as science and philosophy only become possible as a result of the Dieu-Societé.

To borrow the language of AIME, it is as if Durkheim is here wielding one single mode as that which alone can open up the play of all the others. The consequence, of course, is the hegemony of one mode and a disharmonic in understanding the world.

Against this I would contrast one of my favourite passages in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the conclusion to part II of the book entitled ‘Arranging the Modes of Existence’, and in particular the multimodal account of hominization Latour proposes in the sub-section entitled ‘Another Possible Position for Anthropogenesis’.